War Without Tears

By Andrew Wade 2007 and for all eternity or till someone pays me enough

If looks could kill they probably will, in games without frontiers, war without tears
-Peter Gabriel

"The fourth world war was fought in the country of the soul."
-Michael Moorcock



CHAPTER ONE
DEAD MEN TALK


Phil Chandler was fucked. He'd finally been caught and for his many drug infractions had been sent to the National Psychonautics Administration as a draftee.

His experience with various types of hallucinogen made him the perfect operative, his new bosses said, and while this was true, and it was nice, he supposed, that he had finally found something that he was good at, it was also true that hanging out in dead people's brains mining them for information really sucked.

There were whole worlds inside the frozen cerebellums of the departed, but they were dissolving, disintegrating, and as often as not the decay took valuable information with it before he could get to the data. It didn’t quite take you with it but it did leave one vulnerable to major depressions, for life, to the point where one had to take a lot of time off and be pretty much permanently stoned on antidepressants. Then again, a lot of psychonauts ended up putting a gun to their own head, so "for life" wasn't a particularly meaningful phrase here.

At this moment Phil was waiting to be plunged deep into the mind of former weapons expert and suspected traitor J. Philip Moon. Apparently he’d seen something just before he’d croaked which made his brain valuable to the authorities, and so his head had been duly dissected and the grey matter within preserved in a half-alive state until such time as someone like Phil could get to him.

Phil particularly, because by now he was among the best they had, what with the suicide rate being so high and everything. And this case was important - something very weird was going on in the Isranian desert, and the NPA needed to know what.

He sat back in the Chair, surrounded by banks of computers and machines, tended to by technicians who adjusted the straps and the chair until they were ready. Then the electrodes came down and the last thing he saw, as usual, was the techie bending over him with the needle about to plunge into his flesh…

The drugs they fed you both switched off your body sense and wiped your memory retroactively - not too retroactively, otherwise you wouldn’t know what you were doing in the first place, just long enough that you only ever saw the needle coming towards you, never felt its’ touch or the cold, hard, junkie-precision pain of the shot. For some reason this left him feeling cheated. Injections were supposed to hurt.

Out of the blankness roared enormous shapes, colours, Jungian mandalas, hypnogogic hallucinations and visual-cortex ghosts. Then he was inside the mind of J. Philip Moon.

Phil was surrounded by the classic symbolism and phantasmagoria of a dream. He was in a public square with a pavement café at the side and a clock tower at the end. The numerals on the clock were Greek letters. Phil glanced at his own watch - it was 12.30 - and sat down at the café, then checked his watch again. It was 3.30.

“Reality testing has failed.”, he said aloud, for the benefit of the techies. “The eagle has landed.”

Suddenly the urban rush hour began, and without knowing exactly what was happening Phil wasn’t surprised when a huge crowd of faceless individuals filled up the vast sidewalk (not a square, then. Interesting.) and a clockwork waiter approached. Of course; all waiters and cooks and bar staff were made of clockwork; it freed up more real people for the crowd where they’d be better employed.

Phil sipped a coffee that had somehow arrived and waited for his sense of taste to adjust to the awful pseudo-“Irish Coffee” flavouring they’d dumped in his drink. Finally he began to enjoy it.

It’s not my god-damn job to enjoy myself, he thought. I should be getting a move on. And yet, he still felt the urge to relax, go with the trip, watch the tide of faceless busy people ripple and struggle its' way into eternity.

With great difficulty Phil shook the feeling off and started to climb to his feet. Only then did he become increasingly aware of a disturbance in the crowd.

It was a man, a real man, fighting his way through the anonymous mass of figures.

So Moon would be coming to him after all, thought Phil. Sweet. Moon did not seem to be having an easy time of it, though. Maybe I should go and help.

Fuck it, thought Phil. Let him come to me. It's his brain, after all.

The (presumably) Moon-figure battled his way towards the cafe, but it soon became apparent that he was not going to make it. The faceless, anonymous crowd was swallowing him up, absorbing him, he was sinking beneath their shoulders maybe never to emerge again...

Phil jumped up and rushed the crowd, bodysurfing his way towards the floundering weapons expert. "I'm here to help!" he yelled as he waded through and over the packed bodies. Moon sank then bobbed back up, then sank again, bobbed, and finally handed Phil a card. The owner of the hand then stood up somehow, straightened its tie, and faced him. Although "faced" was not really the correct term.

Phil let the wierd zombies carry him back to the cafe and sat down. "Another coffee", he ordered as he examined the card. It read:


A WORLD OF WONDER

AT

LOONIES' MOON!


There was an address in small type, but it was blurred beyond comprehension. As he looked at it, vainly trying to decypher some kind of detail the ink smeared and ran, going further and further into unreadability until it was no more than a black smudge.
Phil drank his coffee.

The sun seemed to be going down although it had been noon (or 3.30?) a moment ago. On the opposite horizon the moon rose, bone-white and fat. A full moon. Loonie's moon.

He turned to speak to the waiter, but the automaton was way ahead of him. "Zizzzzz waaaaaaaayyyy, ziiiiirrrr", it whirred and showed him into the cafe.

Inside the building he found a massive chamber with banks of computers, dials, needles, switches- and in the centre of it all, a great ladder leading up into the nose of a ballistic missile of some sort - no, it was too big for that, he realised as his sense of scale adjusted - he was looking at the crew compartment of an authentic, old time crewed space vehicle, white and clean and huge. In fact most of its' bulk seemed to be hidden; as he gazed at the machine he saw the massive white tube going down into a vast silo beneath his feet.

Phil looked down at himself to find that he was suddenly wearing a space suit, complete with gauntlets, backpack and air supply.

The clockwork waiter handed him a helmet, a weird, three hundred and sixty degree vision-allowing fishbowl straight out of 1950s' science fiction. He screwed the thing on and allowed the man-machine to usher him not towards the stairs but into a small lift.

The droid waved as he ascended and Phil waved back. Then he was in the crew compartment, and soon after that he was in space. No blast-off and no transition. Just in space

*****


The journey to the Moon didn't take long - time was pretty fluid inside a dying, dreaming brain anyway - and soon enough the Moon was expanding visibly until eventually the ship - complete with rocket boosters - touched down on the surface of Loonie's Moon.

Phil got in the lift and punched for the ground floor.

On the lunar surface he found the debris of one of the original moonshots, as Moon had no doubt imagined it; a neatly parked Lunar Rover, some footprints, the bottom half of a lunar lander and an American flag surrounded by more footprints, all utterly still in the vaccum of space.

On his way to check out the Rover Phil tripped on something. It was a piece of heavy stone. Clutching a booted foot, he bent over and inspected the bastard thing.
It was a stone tablet, a monument of some kind that read:


Here man completed his first explorations of the moon.
December 1972, A.D.

( OBSCURED BY DUST )
(SQUIGGLE) (SQUIGGLE) (SQUIGGLE)
Astronaut Astronaut Astronaut

( OBSCURED BY DUST )

(SQUIGGLE)
Richard M. Nixon
President of the United States.


Despite himself he smiled and wiped the dust off the obscured parts of the plaque. It read:

The Full Moon pub is NOW SERVING DRINKS.

Phil hesitated, then wiped off the bits below the astronauts signatures, where their names should have been. Instead the text read:

Why not POP IN FOR A PINT?

Great. Another fucking pointless clue, and how was he supposed to get to this fucking place? Phil trudged towards the lunar rover and tried to start it up, but it was useless - after all those years the batteries were flatter than the old 2-D moonshot footage. Wearily, he headed back to the lift.

Inside Phil pressed the button that would take him back up to the cabin and was momentarily surprised to find that the lift was in fact going down, not up.

The door slid open and he found himself in an old-fashioned, spit-and-sawdust pub of the sort that in the real world had been long been abolished by corporate chic and authoritarianism. Phil guessed that he was now back in Moons' past, revisiting one of the scientists' old haunts.

He stepped out of the lift and found himself surrounded by what he at first thought were people wearing fancy dress, until he realised how old Moon was. He must have been in his '20s before the POWND* had hit, in a world where you could still smoke, drink serious amounts of alcohol, and have your own life without being subject to endless loyalty tests and hassle... Phil's suspicions were confirmed by the predominance of leather 'n' lace, corsets and various people smoking what would now be illegal tobacco cigarettes.

(*POWND = Peak Oil, War, Natural Disaster)

Phil cracked open his helmet and headed for the toilet to change.

Stepping back into the club his ears were assaulted by a barrage of sound as the band went into their act.

Fuck it, thought Phil. I suppose I'm here to enjoy myself, after all.. so I might as well. He went to the cigarette machine and pulled a packet out then bought a drink at the bar.

On the stage a drummer, lead vocalist / synth player and guitarist combo did their stuff as the kids went crazy. Straining to hear the lyrics, Phil picked out odd words at random:

"Wardance, wardance, watch me do the wardance....
......Wardance, wardance, travelling in the darkness as you fantasise.

He watched the maniacally dancing young people in front of the stage. Was one of them Moon? Was Moon watching him, right now? The versimilitude of the place was such that it was hard not to imagine that had simply travelled back in time to some eternal 2000 AD of the soul, where the drinks are affordable, the band plays forever and you danced away your life in the ballrooms, not of Mars, but the Moon...

The band went into their next number. It sounded like:

I who have held many names since the dawn of all things dark...

(at this point the lyrics became indistinct, muffled, then suddenly faded back again)

......Should I tell you where you're going and where you'll breathe your laaaaaast?


Hmm. Interesting. Phil hung around for the next tune. It went:


On wings of war and death / She's come to claim her prize ...
Beserker fury falls /on those who heed her call...

Lady of the battlefield / Queen of the warrior band
Bright hair and blood-red hand / She is the Morrigan.

This sounded more like a direct communication to him; weapons of war were Moon's field, after all. What he had found out there? Assuming he wasn't being completely paranoid, Moon, or at least Moon's mind was trying to tell him something.

Phil shuddered at the next verse:


And the rivers of blood / Run through her hands
She is / The Morrigan


It repeated like that over and over, like a jammed chip, until he couldn't handle it any more. Phil walked out into the night.


Moon had been a weapons expert, one of the scientists sent to the various Isranian Desert Zones to verify co-operation with the peace treaties that stopped another war and therefore, another disastrous era of the POWND. He'd died in what his superiors had called "suspicious circumstances", a supposed suicide committed after his latest expedition into the inspection zone, but before he could submit a report.


All of Moon's written notes, his portable computer and his phone, had been destroyed.
Put together, this had added up to a case for Phil, but he was only now beginning to realise something that had been nagging at the back of his mind for some time now; namely, that J. Philip Moon was holding something back.


He'd been inside dead and dying minds before, and however badly damaged, he'd always managed to get through to some kind of avatar of the orginal person. He should have been able to talk to the guy by now, even if he hadn't met him; one time the subject had manifested himself as a static-filled voice on a ham radio set, but at least they'd tried to get through. This just wasn't happening with Moon; in fact if anything he was trying to stop his memories leaking the info out subconsciously... which would explain the near-inaudible lyrics and final, crashed memory-chip skipping of the last song. Which was still repeating itsself in the distance.


The fucker was holding out on him. Keeping him in this olde-worlde, pre-POWND timewarp until his brain finally decayed into random static leaving Phil - and the authorities - nothing to go on.


Had Moon gone over to the enemy? Or did he just not want to see another war? What was his motivation?


The song finally unstuck itsself and came to an end, so Phil went back in to the club. The audience were cheering and the lead singer spoke into her mike:

"Thank you. Okay. Let's get on with it."

More cheering.

"Okay. We're going to be busy for a minute."


Something was wrong. The singer's voice seemed to be changing into something completely different. The quality was going completely, beginning to sound more like something old, impossibly old and distant, a rip from a far off comm-link recorded on equally ancient, creaking iron oxide tape. A tape that had travelled to the stars...

The vocalist spoke again, and it was definitely completely different now – a different person, different era; a clipped male voice, competent, technocratic, efficient, full of the ghosts of jet fighters and flight decks, missions at dawn and years of practice for this one moment:


"Master arm on. Take care of the descent vent."

Phil looked back to the audience and found that all of a sudden the place was completely empty. No audience, no patrons, no bartender... He looked up again only to see that the musicians themselves had been replaced by a dusty sound stage; the wall had been painted black with a crescent Earth in the centre; where there had been musical instruments and microphones there were only a few abandoned cameras, lights, and, centre stage, a solitary flag surrounded by dusty footprints.


He looked again at the crescent Earth. There was a spot of light in the middle of the dark side, in fact a very bright spot of light. He squinted and the light resolved into a sylized blue star. The same star he'd seen in countless news broadcasts, historical documentaries and religious iconography, just like the crescent planet he was looking at... a pastiche of the moon-and-star logo of the Isranian flag.

The cozy pub around him vanished, the sound-stage illusion replaced by the real thing – Correction: the "real" thing. He was still no nearer the real world than he'd been before. Phil went to wipe his brow and the knuckles of his gloved hand bumped against his helmet.


He looked down at his his space suited body, then around at the empty stage set, the peculiar sham-symbolic Earthrise, the abandoned space junk, and looked for his ship. It had completely vanished.

The ground beneath Phil's feet shuddered, then shook with a mighty spasm that brought him to his knees. As the Moonquake went on he noticed the American flag topple over, raising a small plume of dust, then the lights, camera equipment, science experiments....

"Moon! Stop this!" Phil shouted at the trembling regolith. "You've got to give me something, you bastard! They won't let me out of here until I..." his voice broke and he slipped and fell on his arse. Phil felt like crying.


The shaking stopped and the landscape changed again. First the craters smoothed over into yellow sand, then the mountains gave way to dunes. The horizon seemed to shift, and the cresent Earth flew through its' phases on the spot before becoming full and igniting into a blazing desert sun. Phil looked away, and as he reached to cover his eyes found that his space suit had gone. He was back on Earth.

Better still, he was in the desert where Moon had gone missing previous to his "suicide". Great. He'd be along soon, then Phil would get the info out of the guy and then finally, he could go home.

As he stood up and dusted himself off he could already see a figure heading his way.
It was indeed Moon, as in life (or at least as in his ID card) wearing a white lab coat over an old-fashioned business suit complete with waistcoat, woolen tie, and even - he looked down - plus-fours. As he approached, the scientist gave Phil a cheery wave, grinned, and called out "Hello there!".

It looked like he was ready to talk turkey. Moons' choice of clothing said a lot about what was going down, in Phils' opinion- that he was concentrating on retaining his own sense of identity, desperately trying to keep the final dissolution at bay - perhaps there was no secret, hidden conspiracy-style agenda, maybe all that had been happening was that the guy was merely trying to keep his crazy fucked up brain together that little bit longer. It wasn't unknown.

He approached Moon with his hand out. "Hi", said Phil.

Moon took out a pistol and pointed it at him just as a small army appeared, climbing over the dunes, yomping along the sandbars, and completely encircled him. They got close enough that he could recognize their features; and that was when Phil realised that the weapons expert was going to resist after all, in fact that the chances were good that he would never get out of this place alive, because they were all exact clones of the grinning, lab coat-wearing J. Philip Moon in front of him. The only difference was that most of them were wearing battle fatigues with Isranian insignia on them and hefting a variet of automatic rifles, pistols and even belt-fed machine guns; the rest, who had retained the upper-class, English scientist drag, toted hunting rifles, shotguns and other, curiouser implements, ray guns and boxes with lethal-looking antennae on them, products either of some advanced weapons lab or his own whacky imagination, or possibly even both.


The Moons hefted their weapons, aimed, and fired.


****


There was no blackout; reality simply jump-cut away and Phil was suddenly in a military prison, a holding cell of some sort.

The door banged open and one of the Isranian-Army Moons from before stalked in, sporting a Saddam Hussein moustache and officers' stripes. He barked towards the door in some foreign language and was followed in by a cowering subordinate (who was also Moon) and a doctor in medical whites - a Scientist-Moon.

Finally the jerk decided to talk to Phil (after the requisite pacing up and down and a couple of slaps to the face).


The officer leaned up close and said, in accented English: "So this is how you abuse our hospitality, eh?" Phil caught a whiff of cheap cologne before the inevitable backhander.
"You have committed one of the most henious of crimes", he continued as he resumed pacing, his voice having more of the quality of a recording than actual speech.

"What's that then?" asked Phil.

"You have..." a burst of audio static obscured the words. "...and for this you must pay. You can not..." more static, then the Saddam-Moon, as Phil was starting to think of him, barked some more orders through the cell door. A pair of burly thugs (who of course were also somehow Moon) came in and bundled him out of the cell.

Phil was dragged through a series of dusty corridors, seemingly for hours. The maze of walls seemed to go on forever, and he was finally on the brink of sleep when without warning he was shown into... a childs' bedroom. Someone whispered something in his ear then he was somehow flying through the air backwards. He landed on some kind of bed with enough force that he was laid out flat by the landing. He sat up straight away only to be punched on the nose.

Stars and red mist obscured his vision. When he could see again there was just one man in front of him, a superhuman figure towering above, omnipotent and granite faced and utterly, uttlerly evil - like God, only evil - and also impassive and so... bloody... tall.
Oh no, thought Phil. Not this again. For fucks' sake.

The Father-Moon bent down to slap him, then grabbed his jaw and clacked his teeth together like a castanet, making Phil bite his tongue. Then he reached out, grabbed a wire coathanger and slapped him with it.

He'd seen this all before, of course. Everyone seemed to have this archetype kicking around inside them; it was getting kind of depressing. No-one had deliberately tried to torture him with it before, though.

As Phil sat bemused and bleeding, the Father-Moon spat recriminations and ugly, near-incomprehensible insults at him, occasionally stopping to poke him with the coat hanger. At first Phil tried to reason with the monster; slowly but surely he realised that it did no good and shut up.

After a while Phil began to space out. This just couldn't be happening. It wasn't happening, he was trapped in the bad childhood memories of some nut who just happened to be holding on to some extremely valuable classified information; a loony who was using his own memories to torture him, keeping him distracted from the need to retrieve the information.

Or was he? Now Phil came to think about it, this place was looking less and less like a child's bedroom and more and more like... an advanced medical centre of some sort. For a moment he thought he was coming out of the trance and sat up; then he recognised the Saddam-Moon, Scientist-Moons and Thug-Moons crowded around him, grinning and laughing, and then he knew that he was totally screwed.

Moon had got his torment at the hands of the Isranians and his childhood all mixed up; most likely this in itself was the most valuable information that Moon had - the existence of some kind of secret brainwashing lab, totally illegal and evil as hell. Christ, maybe they were even implanting memories into Moon, certainly they seemed to be provoking seriously stimulated recall of some kind. Was this why he had committed suicide?

I'll never get this sorted out, thought Phil as the thugs restrained him so that a Scientist-Moon could inject more drugs into his veins. Did the childhood come first, or the experiments? Come to that, are these all Moon's memories - or mine?

The Father-Moon reappeared, only to stalk out of the room with some awful parting shot on his lips, finally leaving Phil in some kind of peace and quiet.


After a while he noticed a sound in the corner of the room. He looked around, trying to locate the source, and then it came again. Phil squinted, and saw a child curled in the corner, crying its' eyes out. Poor Moon.

He went to the kid, hoping to comfort him somehow, whatever part of Moon's original personality he represented - and as he did so the child-Moon looked up and glared into his eyes with an expression of pure, unadulterated hatred.

There was nothing behind those eyes. They were as vacant as the eyes of a corpse, as empty as the space between galaxies. As he fell into those green, blank eyes Phil saw one last phantasmagoria; all of the Moons he had met, gazing out at him with the vast contempt of the void.

The whole of the Moon , Phil thought - and was consumed.


***


After some unknowable period of time Phil came to. He was in the Psychonautics Administration once more, sitting in the Chair. To provide a simple reality-test for psychonauts, the NPA had installed a light switch set into the armrest on the Chair. He flicked it on and off a couple of times - it worked. Reality testing OK. He was home.
Phil blinked and turned his head - it was like working a camera, or swivelling the turret of a tank. He felt nothing.

In the debriefing room, he dutifully tried to fake some emotions for the psych boys. It didn't work out.

"Moon was experimented on by the Isranians. They had him on some trumped-up criminal charge, I think. He was forced to participate in... some kind of psych-program, similar to our own but cruder.

Brainwashing. I have visual snapshots in the memory shunt - can you take it from there?"
The psych-boys asked him how he felt. Phil was confused for a moment, then replied "terrible" without much feeling.

They wrote Some flattening of affect, otherwise normal on his release papers.


****


Given a month to recover, Phil sat in his flat and took his medication. It helped him sleep but at the same time gave him terrible nightmares in which Moon tormented him with a wire coathanger, or sat talking at him in a monotone voice, staring out at him with those emptied-out eyes.

On the second week he was summoned to help out with paperwork in the back office. "We've had a lot of trouble with staff going off sick, stress, depression, that sort of thing", the suit said. "As a fully-qualified psychonaut you have a high enough security clearance to make up the admin shortfall temporarily. You'll be paid well, of course."

Making up the admin shortfall involved staring into a computer screen all day correcting reports, entering figures onto a spreadsheet and transcribing the quasi-legible written notes the psych-boys had taken from other subjects.

This boring and crappy work got a lot harder when he started to see images from his dreams in the VDU. At first they were just flickers of memory, but they soon became larger fragments of sheer horror, then entire films... and like his dreams, they were all about Moon.

One day something clicked into place in his head and Phil knew what was happening. He reached for the phone. No answer. He checked his mobile. Instead of the regular service provider's logo and wallpaper the screen displayed a snowy video still of Moon's face, his mouth open, his eyes, as ever, vacant. Phil threw the device away.


He went for a walk around the building to clear his head and see if he could get to talk to someone. As he walked he realised that things had definitely changed in the place. Phones rang off the hook unanswered, employees stared into space or at those endless atrocity films of Moon's that rolled across the screens, while printers churned ream after ream of overprinted, garbled nonsense and video frames from Moon's dreams.
Security measures weren't being followed at all; armed guards sat around listlessly or played Russian roulette with their service pistols. Electronic locks were jammed open everywhere.

The Psychonautics Administration building was a ghost town, and the people in it were the ghosts. As he woke from his long trance, Phil started to panic. He ran down the corridors and stairs, through the lobby, past suicided guards and out on to the street. Maybe he could flag down a cop or something, get to a phone, raise the alarm - and stopped dead in front of an anonymous white truck parked at the kerb. It was being loaded up by glassy-eyed workmen -loaded with on-site backups, servers, and classified paper files.

He turned - and a hawk-faced man with cruel eyes stepped out of the drivers' seat and walked towards him, a jet injector dangling from one hand. Phil went limp as the Isranian used it on him. His hands were very soft.




CHAPTER TWO
THE COMING OF THE GREY MAN

As Phil lay slumped on the pavement he remained dimly aware of the blue-collar spies that had helped load up the truck driving away, and then lights and uniformed people scampering around. The world began to come back.

They stretchered him out of there and put him up in a top-secret psychiatric facility, along with the other survivors - apparently a lot of people had been killed by post-hypnotic suggestion, grand mal epilepsy induced by the flickering vidcreens, and mysterious heart attacks.

The spooks and psych-boys debriefed him extensively.

He told the spooks all about the memetic virus that had downlinked into his brain via poor old Moon, the slow spread of the illness through the Agency's IT systems and the inevitable blossoming of payload as more and more workers, security staff and psychonauts went off sick.

They rewarded him with nice drugs which gave him happy thoughts, enough to conquer the awful depression that had been the signature of the virus. Slowly he got better.


***


"There's someone here to see you, Phil." said an attendant.

He came out of his current antipsychotic-induced trance like a man climbing a mountain, with great effort and satisfaction at the enormous heights reached. The cheerfully-clothed psych-ward attendant looked down at him with something vaguely resembling compassion. What was the word? Oh yeah - pity. Phil blinked and when he opened his eyes, she had been replaced by a government agent in a grey suit.

"Hello, Mr. Chandler." If voices were colours, mused Phil, this guys' could have been grey as well. He had as much human warmth as an answering machine.
"My friends call me Phil".

The man feigned familiarity. "All right then - Phil", he smiled.

"I said my friends call me Phil. You get to use my last name".

"Alright, Mr. Chandler. If that's the way you want it." The suit became officious once more. Thank fuck for that.. It proved that the guy wasn't an intelligence officer, anyway. Intelligence officers wore black and spoke respectfully, or threateningly... but never condascendingly. That particular quirk seemed a vice particular to the lower orders in the hierarchy - the ones who carried PDAs and Parker pens, not jet-hypos and guns. If they were going to kill him, they wouldn't have sent this asshole. So he could relax - probably.

"I am here to inform you that certain obligations of yours have not yet lapsed", droned the grey man, "and that following the attack by agents of the Isranian regime, the National Psychonautics Administration has been absorbed into the Inner Space Agency." He produced a bundle of official documents. They too, were grey.

Shafted again , thought Phil, and let out a deep sigh. Along with most of the operatives that had survived the enemy action Phil had been admitted to this, the Sunny Climes Mental Hospital, where he had enjoyed several months of drug induced stupour, computer games and free meals. But now the good times were over; as he recalled he still had a fair bit of punishment left to go. And he had nowhere else to go anyway - by the end of his sentence he'd probably be begging the bastards to keep him on.

The suit gave Phil some forms to sign and a map, ID card and Agency debit card. "Just cabfare, we don't want you turning up drunk, do we?" he simpered.
"No, we don't", replied Phil. "Gimme."

"Well then, I'll be off now." Phil blinked - and the grey suited man was gone. He supposed he was still a little fucked up; he tried to hang on to the feeling but was soon distracted by the meal bell.

After dinner Phil waited for the dope to kick in (it was usually administered with the food), but remained frustratingly sober. Looking around the common room he could see several other patients looking surprised, alert and obviously unhappy with it. He considered talking to them for a moment before remembering the omnipresent surveillance that was mandatory in these places, even in the toilets.

Eventually he gave into temptation and spoke to his fellow loonies anyway, but they were all so grumpy and florid off-meds as to make any conversation pointless, so he settled down with a comic book instead.


***


Forty-odd hours later he was being waved off in a taxicab to resume his life of fear and drudgery. As the car idled at a set of traffic lights he discreetly tried the door, only to be met by the pointless clicking on the latch against the central locking mechanism. Of course. Well, at least he'd tried, thought Phil. OK, so I'll just escape between this so-called "cab" and the building. Piece of cake.

As the "cab" - obviously an unmarked police car - pulled up at the ISA building he handed the driver his "debit card" and waited for the doors to unlock. Looking out of the window he saw a pair of armed guards heading towards him; they opened the passenger door in the manner of hotel doormen at which point Phil jumped out and legged it.

He got right to the end of the street before he spotted the police cordon; in fact he nearly ran right into it. Flak-jacketed cops were checking the IDs of all pedestrians; he wondered for a moment why he hadn't spotted them on the way in.

No time for that shit. Phil ducked into a souvenir shop and browsed the junk within, waiting for something to happen.

It didn't, and he was getting bored and wondering where he was going to get any money or a place to sleep, so he just left the place and trudged up to the Inner Space Agency building after all. He'd made his point.

The guards were polite enough not to mention his crap escape attempt as they searched him and handed him yet another security pass; listlessly he consulted his map and headed for the briefing room.

A little over twenty minutes later Phil pushed open a cheap Formica door and entered a large-ish, windowless room filled with plastic chairs on which sat his fellow victims, all of whom had also been dragooned into this rapidly escalating and, to him, utterly pointless psychic war. A security guard took a good look at his ID card and security pass before making him pass his thumb and retina over the requisite electronic scanners. The equipment bleeped and he was nodded on through.

Phil sat down in the centre of the square of plastic chairs among a crowd of slightly more disreputable looking people than was average even for the psychonautics corps - a big, middle aged guy wearing a stained T-shirt proclaiming a list of Gary Numan concerts he'd probably been to and a plainly deranged young woman straight out of the old
Scary Mary cartoons were his immediate neighbours; he made cursory eye-contact with them and nodded hellos before withdrawing into his customary self-centred daze.

Shortly a gang of sweaty executive types walked in through a second door and took up positions in front of the whiteboard. Their leader, a heavy guy whose name badge read HAMPTON cleared his throat and began to speak.

"Greetings psychopaths", he said, then corrected himself. "Er, psychonauts. You have been brought here on a matter of urgent national security. Following the uh, attack on our predecessor organisation it behooves me to say that this meeting is taking place under conditions of utmost security."

My arse, thought Phil. A slide appeared on the whiteboard; knotted flags and the letters USUKM, in capitals.

"To this end, it is my duty to inform you that you have all been inducted, upon entry to this building, into the YouSuck Military, that's You Ess, You Kay, Emm, pronounced YouSuck'em."

A ripple of alarm and discontent went through the room. Beside him the Numanoid clutched his soft drink can and muttered "bastards!" repeatedly while on his other side the crazy girl gazed into space and let out a daft giggle, the obviously busted wiring practically protruding from her head. Phil looked towards the lectern again, stiffening with horror and rage.

If this bastard thought he could get away with this thanks to a crap acronym joke he had another think coming. This was Phil Chandler they were messing with now, after all. He would resist. He would organise solidarity among his fellow draftees. He would fight the system. He would... ah, fuck it. He sat back and waited for the rest of the bullshit.


"Er... you will however not be required to wear a uniform. You have also been promoted to the rank of Corporal, which at the standard Rear Echelon Pay Scale amounts to... ah... $40,000 You Ess a year." Another murmur of discontent. After all, if they wanted to be paid in play money they'd fucking well have stayed in the loonie bin.

"This will of course also be payable in hard currency. Er, that would be, ah, ten Troy Ounces of gold per month." As he began to step back from the mike, Hampton grinned smugly at the waves of mollified relief the flowed through the room. He approached the mic stand again and everyone automatically tensed up for the next bombshell.

"And now allow me to introduce your new commanding officer, General Alison Fontayne." He smiled again and gestured at the business-suited officer as if expecting a round of applause, then backed away and took his seat.

Fontayne was the complete opposite of Hampton, as if he'd been placed in a cloning machine gone horribly right - she was smart, brisk, businesslike and projected an aura of ruthless efficiency. Phil wasn't sure which one he disliked more.


"Thank you, Mr. Hampton." Fontayne spoke in a clipped Scottish accent - So where the fuck are the Americans, then? he wondered. Not that it was important, he supposed - probably the gnomic little bastard is from State or the CIA, and will strangle us all as soon as we've done our jobs. Semper Fido and all that.

"We are now in a position to strike back at the enemy", Fontayne was saying, "and pay those Isranian bastards back for their cowardly attack on the Psychonautics Administration. The Inner Space Agency, in the hands of YouSuck" (she had caught the pronunciation bug off Hampton, it seemed), "-will be fashioned into a professional and highly efficient fighting force. Take heart, people - your sacrifices have not been in vain. I know that many of you have suffered dearly at the hands of the terrorists, that all of you have had to undergo psychiatric treatment as a result of the..."
Blah, blah, blah.


Phil tuned out. It would take a while for these morons to twig that the patriotism-and-vengance card wasn't really worth playing to this particular crowd; it made no difference whether they were fighting for the greater glory of this YouSuck thing or the Senate and People of Rome, considering most of them never had any choice in the matter in the first place.

We're just meat to them, after all, thought Phil. Damaged, messed up people with a talent for on-the-fly psychology as a direct result of that damage - but the nut-hatches and council flats of YouSuck had plenty more talent. All they had was experience; that and the fact that they already knew the score operationally. He wasn't stupid - he could see how the bribery angle worked, as did the panopticon surveillance and control of the society he lived in - one step out of line and he'd be starving to death on the streets if he was lucky, but if he did as he was told then he could have a whole - how many ounces of gold? Enough to make it worth not answering back, anyhow.

The troop rallying, go-get-em boys speech having rattled and droned to its inevitable conclusion, Fontayne finally handed over to the next dickhead. Maybe now they'd finally get down to business, Phil hoped.

It turned out to be two dickheads, who introduced themselves as a pair of weapons techs from "a classified research centre in the States" - the gnomic guy and his understudy, an overweight, punky looking woman whose hate-filled eyes glared out from beneath an explosion of brightly coloured metallic hair. The dorksome duo spent a couple of minutes setting up their hardware and in the ensuing break Phil took the opportunity to get to know his new comrades.

"What do you think so far?" he asked the Numanoid.

"We're completely fucked", he said cheerfully, and turned to look Phil in the eye. "I'm Cliff - Cliff Johnson. Sorry, I didn't catch your name?" he almost yelled as he stuck a pudgy arm out.
That's because I didn't tell you, Phil thought irritably as he introduced himself. The man had a fair grip on him, spoke like a foghorn and had the manners of a football hooligan, but he seemed genuine enough.

“These bastards are gonna flash-fry our frontal lobes for starters. Probably have us remote-operating Predator drones and ground robots; there's not much left of an Isranian village when these fuckers are finished with it. CUNTS!" Johnson glared at the stage furiously, as if his own sense of outrage could annihilate their superiors where they stood.

"Th-they can't force us to do something like that, could they?"

"I'm sorry?" Johnson's head twitched around and Phil followed his gaze until his eyes alighted on the casualty-person on his right.

"I'm terribly sorry", she said in a broken sounding, little-girl voice, "I'm Augusta." They all shook hands formally and resumed the conversation.

"I mean, we can res-res- resist if they try to make us do anything unethical or wrong, can't we? I mean, we don't
have to... they can't just..."

Johnson opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted by the P.A. system which began to explain that their attention was required once more, so he amended whatever his original reply would have been to a simple "We'll see" and turned his face to the impromptu stage.

There was another short wait while the weapon-techs put the finishing touches to their demo, then the lights went down. The senior tech took to the podium, flanked by his permanently pissed-off looking assistant.

"Greetings. I am..." he said, then three things happened more or less simultaneously.

1) The lights went completely out - the room was plunged into total darkness, apart from the screens and pilot lights of the computers, which

2) strobed in the same bright, colourful, epilepsy-inducing pattern for the duration of the blackout, while

3) a strange, multi-tonal electronic noise, a loud, gunshot-like BANG, and a strangled human cry sounded within a second of each other.

The room erupted. People ran for the locked exits while the guards swept the room with the muzzles of their guns. The panicked rabble began to trample one other as they dashed from one locked door to the next, and someone would have been shot had the lights not come back on at full brightness.

Phil looked around in shock. The crowd of freaks had actually done two things; half of them (whom he had imagined as being slightly more well-adjusted or at least high-functioning) had run for the doors all at once, while the other half (those he had pegged as U.D's - Undesirable Downers) were still seated, obviously either hoping to ride out the chaos or just resigned to their fate. He was surprised at first to see Cliff Johnson among the latter group but on catching the cynical expression on his face and observing the results of the stampede realised that he wasn't a Downer after all- just smart.

Stampede victims lay around the floor, blood leaking onto the grey carpet tiles. As they came to their senses people began to make room for them and bend down in a vague attempt to help. A rapid sense-impression before he noticed the next thing; most of the victims were shuddering and twitching in the throes of massive epileptic fits.

Phil looked up at the podium, realising he was now close enough to read the name badges of the participants without squinting. The gnomic, wise looking guy was dead - very dead indeed. The others had all vanished, with the exception of the metallic-haired woman.

Metal-Hair held the trigger for a bomb in one hand and a gun in the other.

She was pointing the gun at her own head, apparently locked on the horns of a terrible dilemma, struggling with the twin urges to trigger the bomb - or shoot herself and save everyone else in the room.

The woman - HOPE, VIOLET according to her name-badge - opened her eyes and stared out at him with an intensity of vacant hatred he had only seen once before - in the face of J. Philip Moon.

He heard Hope grinding her molars together, reached out towards her - and then she blew her own brains out.

***

"Wake up, Phil. Wake up." A gentle tap on the cheek. He looked up to see the same tableau of confusion and failure, the almost-bombed conference room with its' armed guards, crazed audience and missing speakers - apart from the ones that were dead, of course. Augusta bent over him, flanked by Johnson and someone else - hopefully someone with medical training, thought Phil, as he took in the state of some of the other poor bastards lying on the floor.

Abruptly the environment changed - and he was in a hospital, the comforting feel of clean sheets and a competent, solid nurse telling a professional looking doctor that he was coming round. Machines beeped and wheezed; he looked over at an EEG just in time to spot his own name scribbled out in trailing phosphor dots.

Instantly he was back in the conference room. Things seemed to have calmed down a bit here, people were calmer and more organized. Somewhere the authorities must be working out what the hell had happened and were making plans to do something about it, but for now he was happy that the panic was over. There was a shift and

now both realities were overlaid, the hospital scene
and the conference room, both universes somehow overprinted on top of one another, like double vision or an old-time photographic mix-up.

"This is great", said a voice - there was a flash of colour and shape, desert sands and a sterile room in a concrete bunker, and then - Phil blinked and there was nothing. Not even time....


***


Phil was in the hospital. A real one, not a wish-fullfilment fantasy - a busy ward with messed up patients trying an overworked doctor's patience and harrassed nurses doing their best to dispense medication and comfort.

He slumped back in his bed and waited for the bad news.

The military doctors told him he'd been in the radius of effect of a new Isranian weapon. The Q-Bomb affected microtubule structures in the brain in a similar way that electromagnetic pulses affected electronic equipment.

"The device inhibits wavefunction collapse in the neocortex, the part of the brain where you 'observe' reality. As a result you saw several overlapping realities at the same time; eventually your concious mind was overloaded and you were unable to function."

"How the hell did this happen? We were sec-checked to shit in there..."

"It appears that one of the staff at the meeting had been, uh, compromised. I can't talk about this any more right now due to security considerations. You'll be debriefed shortly... mainly for therapeutic purposes. We know what went on in there, Mr. Chandler. I'm sorry."

A shudder of impatience and anger shot through Phil. "Screw that - What are we doing about it?"

The doctor unfolded a TV set and switched it on. Bright pixels crawled along the screen; he recognised the ident of rolling news footage and the dark, deadly shapes of stealth aircraft on a bombing run.

"The bombing began five hours ago. As soon as we were sure."


CHAPTER THREE
AFTERMATH


The shrink looked him over carefully as he sat down.

"It says here that you were affected by the Q-bomb incident as well as the attack on the Psychonautics Administration. Would you like to tell me about that?"

"I don't know if we're cleared to talk about this stuff", he said, reluctant to talk.

In reply the shrink reached into her suit, brought out a wallet, rifled through that and then flipped an ID card accross the room at him. He caught the card in mid-air. Triple star security rating.

"Do you mind if I..."

"Sure, no problem."

He felt in his own pocket and got out his microcomputer. There was a slot for bank cards; he shoved the shrinks' ID in there and waited for the authentication program to pop up. Apparently it was real... but you could never be too careful. He pressed a button and the thing dialled out to a secure website. Sure enough, there it was... a limited personell file and security rating officially authenticated by the GCHQ-NSA computers in Cheltenham and San Antonio. She was for real, all right. Phil breathed a sigh of relief.

"Can I have that back now?" asked the shrink, an amused look on her face.

"Sure", said Phil, ejecting the card from his machine and at his... interrogator? Confessor? She put the card away and pocketed her wallet.

"So- the attacks. What happened?"

"Do I have to talk about it?" asked Phil.

"Only if you want to."

Phil wasn't in the mood for this. "Can we take it as read that I don't?"

"Of course. Talk about anything you want", said the shrink. "It's YouSuck's dime."

"It's just that... you already have all the information you need, and I have a few questions of my own. I just haven't been able to get any answers, amusingly enough because no-one's got a high enough security rating." He looked up. "Ironic really, considering how totally we've been compromised, that security should be a consideration at all. Does it even matter anymore?"

"That's up to you." said the psych girl. "As for questions... fire away."

Phil took a deep breath. "What the hell happened?"

"You and your comrades were attacked with a disorienting weapon known as a 'Q-bomb'. That's what happened."

"But- but the bomb didn't go off!"

"Violet Hope would probably wish it hadn't. But it did."

"But I
saw it! She had the detonator in one hand and a gun in the other. She shot herself rather than let off the bomb, she's a hero!"

"She was brainwashed into detonating a suicide bomb by person or persons unknown. It's a classic Isranian Modus Operendi."

"You're not listening to me. It was obvious she'd been brainwashed. She was about to press the button - but then something happened. Some part of her... came back." He looked her in the eyes. "I know what I saw, Doctor. She shot herself rather than let off the bomb."

The shrink met his gaze. "Mr. Chandler. The bomb went off...."

"-It didn't!" yelled Phil.

"You're not letting me finish. What you saw was one of the
effects of the bomb."

"How do you work that out then?"

"You yourself say that Hope was in a hopeless position. She had what the Russians call a Siberian Dillema - in her case either shoot herself and die, or let off the bomb and kill everyone else as well as herself. A choice between two different outcomes... and she could only make one of them real. Does that remind you of anything?"

"The doctors said that the bomb..."

"As I said, the bomb is primarily a psychological weapon; a disorientation device. Put simply, it messes with your head. The explosive charge is traumatic enough, but its' main effect is that it sets off a shower of exotic particles- the fundamental building blocks of matter and energy: gluons, quarks, neutrinos, stuff like that. These particles shoot out of the explosion and hit people just like the nails or shrapnel in a conventional bomb, only in this case forming a region not unlike the electrical fields created when a pulse of radiation is unleashed. Matter coheres into a temporary Bose-Einstein condensate, forming a region of space where exotic microscopic physical laws abruptly scale up to macroscopic levels... stop me if I'm getting too technical."

"Go on..."

"When the brain is exposed to this short-lived field, it interacts with these exotic particles, and people...
see things. You saw things - overlapping sensoria, superfluous realities. The bomb inhibits your ability to collapse quantum waveforms- to distinguish between this possible outcome and that one. Haven't you ever read any bad science fiction?"

"I'm a mental patient. I practically live on the stuff."

"Well, then you'll be familiar with the type of bad science fiction novel where the protagonist is projected into an alternate universe... a universe where various world-changing events never happened or where major historical figures never existed and so forth. You know the kind of thing I mean?"

"Only too well. That's the problem - I'm having trouble believing this shit."

The shrink raised her hand. "In a moment. In the case of this weapon, rather than you being projected into some other universe,
the universe is projected onto you... in that your sensory system is able to perceive, for short and random amounts of time, the divergent continua. So Hope detonates the bomb and yet you see her not detonate the bomb. Did you see anything else?"

"Yes..." He wasn't sure whether he should mention the desert scene. For a variety of reasons.

"I saw a hospital. But it wasn't the same..."

"Yes, that makes sense. In the other continuum you would have been evacuated and given a medical checkup. Continue."

"When I saw... well, I'm not sure what I saw now. But the higher ranking officers had all left the room. We were... there was a stampede and I'm not sure what I was seeing. It's all confused in my head. But I didn't see any signs of an explosion."

"Hmmmm. Interesting." The shrink looked at her watch. "That's all we have time for today. Please come back next week."

***

Following the bombing, the USUKian psychonautics establishment had been gutted. Its surviving active-service personnel was pensioned off and the organisation subsumed into the Central Intelligence Agency.

Phil was totally fucked up. His brain had been comprehensively trashed by the psychic attacks he had endured; unable to dream, dependant on psychiatric drugs and almost completely friendless, he had fallen into a kind of relaxed despair, a half-life of fatigue and desperation.

Worse still was the war with Isrania. Unable to hold its own in the shadow battlefield of psychic warfare, USUK had lashed out with horrible desperation. Although he avoided the news, Phil couldn't avoid the blood-spattered front pages of the daily papers, or the folorn looking young people in uniform making their way to local military bases to be mobilised, or worse still, the injured and the refugees. Whenever he saw a soldier or someone he even thought looked Middle Eastern he found himself avoiding their eyes, looking away as one did with beggars. Often they were beggars.

Still, the war ground on without him - until one day, he bumped into Johnson.

His sometime comrade was in a terrible state. He looked like he had been living in a trash can; straggly hair, stinking, ragged clothes and bad breath. But his eyes still shone with a kind of sanity.

"Still living in the flat", said Johnson. "Saw you with your girl, so I avoided you." He winked obscenely, then launched into a tirade against neighbours, drug dealers, immigrants and "those fuckers at the ISA".

Phil took him for a coffee; Johnson was even further down the road of mental disintigration than he was. “The worst thing is getting help”, he said. “It's like Catch-22- if you've got it together to ask for it, you're obviously too sane to get it.” he sat back, apparently satisfied with his decision.

“I'm going to just let things fall apart. I'm gonna go out into the country and live in my tent. Not so many people out there, not so many voices.”

Phil looked at his friends' face, at the unspoken words. They both knew he was looking into his own future.


***

By the time he got home, Phil was about ready to see the shrink all over again. The process that had claimed Johnson had already started its insidious work on him; the constant parade of miserable, fucked-up people across his field of vision, combined with the occasional spot of extreme cruelty committed on a hapless stranger had made the streets a psychological warzone, doubly so for one trained for emotional sensitivity such as himself.

In his flat, Phil sat down and stared into space.

Soon he began to notice the now-familiar sensations of unreality, the essential unfamiliarity of the room, the shifting of planes and objects into a completely alien space. A home, for sure, certainly no soulless concrete box, but the home of someone utterly alien to him nonetheless. A strange place, yet one he dwelt in for much of the time. As he began to feel the sense of being about to step into another world, Phil abruptly got up and fetched his Equipment from its' special hiding place. Returning to his seat, he got out a case of sterile, government-issue cutting instruments, selected a piece, and began to use it on himself until the urge went away.

As he sat relishing the sting of the cuts and licking his wounds clean his percept-system began to slowly re-align itsself with reality. Phil sat and watched with relief as the world came flooding back in; he even put on some music and sang along with the lyrics.

He could breathe again.

******


Some days later the experience began to repeat itsself. Shit, he thought, not again. Second time in three days. Not good. Not good at all.


As he sat there with his Equipment out, gazing out at the strangeness and wondering what to do he looked down at his arm and began to move the razor, which sat frozen in his hand.


The balcony door opened.


Phil nearly severed an artery as a man entered the room. This was, of course, impossible. He was ten floors above ground level.


It's happened , he told himself. I've finally gone insane.


"Thank God I finally got through to you!" exclaimed the stranger.


"And what can I do for you?" asked Phil.


"You can lay off that shit for a start", replied the intruder. "It won't help you now - not that it ever did. As you're no doubt starting to realise, you've finally stepped through the Door. That's right, Phil, congratulations - you are now able to act within the psychosphere without the need of drugs or intermediary equipment. Of any kind."


Phil couldn't be bothered to argue with the guy. For a start, he probably didn't even exist, secondly, non-SH'ers always got it wrong anyway and couldn't be educated otherwise, and lastly the stranger looked like the sort of pedantic little geek who would be quite happy to just sit there and toss logically correct but utterly unrealistic counter-arguments back at him for hours on end.


That's what you get when a whole generations' social skills comes from internet talk boards, he told himself unhappily. Communication has become an excuse to indulge in miserable pedantry. Well, I ain't giving him the satisfaction. Maybe if I can get him to fuck off and hallucinate a hot chick or something instead, he mused.


Aloud, Phil said "OK- so what do you want?"


"I want you to end the war." replied his hallucination.


"Oh, really. What a surprise. And how, pray tell, would you have me accomplish that?"


The stranger raised a hand. "All in good time. First there are some facts that you need to know. Things that ought to... motivate you."


"Go on then, Mister Hallucination. Tell me your poxy revelations of a cosmic nature", Phil giggled. "Going completely batshit sounds like a laugh."


The stranger looked hurt. "Mr. Chandler, my name is Felix Rey and I'm a real person, not an hallucination. In fact, I'm as real as you are."


Phil wasn't impressed. "You look like a cheap computer repairman."


"I am a cheap computer repairman. Very reasonable rates." Rey brightened up. "Anyway, first I need to tell you about Hope. Not the emotion, the person whose, er- suicide you witnessed."


A wave of sickness washed over the former psychonaut as the image of the shooting that was indelibly marked in his brain flared up. "Woah.”


“It's vitally important. She-”


“Woah there, tiger. I don't want to know. Please. Just..." he curled up into a ball on the sofa. "I don't want to know, I don't want to know, I don't want to know..."


"Really?" asked Rey. "Not even about why they insist on calling it- what's the term- 'homicide bombing'?"


Phil just stared into space. He hadn't been expecting this.


Rey went on, "The authorities want you to believe in a convoluted conspiracy theory, that the dead woman was part of a complicated plot involving Isrania, brainwashing, exotic new weapons... bullshit. Like the line about her having other friends on the inside, which is supposedly the reason you're being kept incommunicado from your former collegues, the reason, in fact, for the effective disbanding of the Psychonautics Admin / Inner Space agency.” He glared around him with contempt. “What a load of crap."


On hearing this Phil came out of his self-induced trance. Whatever he was, this fucker was no hallucination. He was willing to bet that the geek was an Isranian agent; he'd probably picked the lock on the front door and hid out on the balcony for hours, waiting for the opportune moment to walk in.


Phil made a mental note as to where his gun was. And I thought they only let me keep it so I could top myself, he thought as the asshole went on: "So when the official story is an obvious lie, you have to ask yourself; Cui Bono?"


"Uh-huh..." He remembered now. The gun was in the bureau. He could probably get to it in time.


"Oh, come on. It's trivially obvious; you were betrayed by your own government, not any weird conspiracy involving this Hope person..." Phil nodded as if in agreement, got up and went over to the computer table.


"But - why would they possibly do such a thing? They lost some of their best people in the... it just doesn't make sense..." Keep him talking...


"It's called a 'causus belli'. They needed the war to keep their economic system going. A cold war was just about keeping orders ticking over, but the military Keynsians at the economics ministries and central banks wanted to give the economy a proper kick up the arse."


"I see", said Phil, discreetly casting about among the kipple and trash of the desk for his gun.


"The workers at AeroLandSpaceCorp are working around the clock now, building endless units of the new generation of war machines. Morrigans, I think they're called; all that fabulous hardware that gives our boys that killer edge." Rey sighed. "Of course, the enemy have to substitute with their superior manpower; the situation isn't ideal for them, but it still works."


"What?" Phil paused in his hunt for the firearm. "The massacres..."


"From the point of view of industrial warfare, the massacres are just... raids on enemy production plants. After all, what is the product of an Isranian village but flesh-and-blood warriors, rather than war robots; walking bombs rather than flying ones?"


"Interesting theory you've got there..." muttered Phil.


"And for our part, we never seem to manage to hold on to captured territory for very long; we don't do 'conquering' anymore, just...'pacification' and 'security sweeps', all those nice little buzzwords that keep a person from wondering what the hell's actually happening out there. I mean, you can conceive of someone being killed in a battle, but can you really imagine anyone being killed in a 'police action'?" Rey cleared his throat. "The whole way that warfare's described is a fairly unsubtle semantic fog, a manipulation of language itsself done to keep you from even imagining what sorts of stuff might be going on out there."


"One more thing”, asked Phil, his hand resting on the drawer that contained his Service pistol.


"Shoot", said the intruder.


I will, thought Phil. "If that's their plan, and they've got it all sown up so well, OK, I'm prepared to take that on faith for now. So who the hell are you? Isranian intelligence?


The geek laughed in his face. "Hardly. The Zio-Islamic Republic of Isrania are even more committed to the doctrine of perpetual war than 'we' are. Their angle is that they have to govern a fractured, broken down society that's falling apart; the original pacts that created their hybrid nation are starting to wear dangerously thin- old hatreds are coming to the surface and central control is threatened. Their Supreme Spiritual Command Council need this war too- to stay in power."


"How the hell's that supposed to work? War with the West is destroying them; we're massacring them for Christ's sakes!"


"Fortunately for them, the Peace that made Isrania possible didn't involve abandoning religious law, only modifying it so that they - Shias, Sunnis, Jews, Kurds - weren't at each other's throats the whole time. If you recall the first peace conference - they decided they were sick of ganging up on each other and ganged up with each other - very modern, very European. But Isrania still has the old medieval laws on the books, especially the ones having to do with sexual and reproductive rights; legal rape, polygamy, and so forth. The end result of which is that our friends have quite a population problem. Had, I mean.”


Phil felt sick to his stomach; he retched and tasted bile.


"Hey, don't be like that. Turning problems into solutions is just what modern politicians are all about. We made too many cars, so we turned the factories over to building tanks instead. They had too many kids, so they got them all killed in a fruitless war. Think of it as a form of retroactive abortion."


A globule of bile, complete with a chunk of something vile hiccuped into his mouth. Phil spat in disgust as Rey droned on:


"That's just the way the system works. Like them Aztec priests - tearing people's hearts out to make sure the sun came up in the morning; men of power have always treated people like cattle. Just look at the history books... if you can find them. Are you alright?"


"I'm OK. Just ... not ... feeling great. So... who are you? Who sent you?"


The intruder raised his eyebrows. "Oh, I represent... an interested but non-aligned member of the power structure." He smiled, showing teeth."We're not utopians, not by any means, but we do have one unique selling point.We stand to gain, both personally and collectively, from peace, and we enjoy a fair amount of power. Mainly technological power; but we are also growing strong in numbers as the war grinds on."


"So you say", said Phil. He was feeling light-headed."So...what's next? Some brainwashing? Spot of kidnapping?"


"Whatever makes you think that?" asked the intruder, mild-mannered as ever.


"I just feel... drunk. Sick. Because of what you told me. You've... definitely done something. HA!" Phil's hand finally got the bureau drawer open and fumbled out the gun. Just holding it gave Phil a new lease on life. He pointed it at Rey, who put his hands up with a shocked grimace.


"Mr. Chandler, I strongly advise you against pulling that trigger."


"Don't move a fuckin' inch. You're under arrest for... bad stuff... probably. I am an agent of the USUKian military and I will shoot you if you resist."


"You really think I'm an Isranian? That's insane. I don't even-"


"You sure ain't one of us, buddy. Now shut the fuck up." He fished his phone out and thumbed the number for the emergency services.


The handset squirmed and slithered; Phil stared at the thing in his hand and dropped it. The former telephone hit the floor with a squelch and flopped around, dying.


"No, don't-" the rep pleaded as Phil fired the gun.


The hammer hit the bolt. The bolt hit the shell's cap. Gunpowder detonated and flowers bloomed from the barrel. There was a tiny sound as the spent cartridge hit the floor.


Phil was fucked.


The traitor, rep, alien, agent – whatever he was- crossed his arms and treated Phil to a cat-like, contemptuous gaze.


"You see", he said as Phil put the gun to his head, "I told you not to do it. Now look what's happened." He sighed as Phil pulled the trigger once more, causing another horticultural explosion.


The geek pushed the bunch of flowers out of his face. "I told you that you didn't want to do that." He stood over Phil, who was lying on the floor gibbering. "I told you that you didn't need any of that bulky equiment to do what you do. I told you not to shoot me."


Rey leaned down into Phil's field of vision: "Don't you get it? You're already in the psychosphere."


******


Phil woke with a start. He was surrounded by razor blades and his arm had the words FELIX REY scratched into it. The wounds itched. He stood up unsteadily and his Service pistol clattered to the floor.


Two spent cartridges glittered among the ruins of his life.


I've finally gone insane , he thought as he cleared away the crap and safely disposed of his blades.


Wonder if anyone heard the gunshots? he pondered. Probably not -there was a shanty town nearby and the poor bastards often came to his block to score drugs and kill each other. Nobody gave a toss about Phil or the other marginals that lived around here; the attempt to turn the decaying former council estate into a Yuppy paradise had failed miserably and the place had reverted to government ownership, the checkpoints unstaffed and the tenants, fucked-up cases and unemployables like himself, allowed to moulder unmolested. So nobody came round to check on him; nobody even hassled him about the noise - after all, they might get shot next.


Phil sighed, the feeling of abandonment sinking further into his chest as the night wore on. If only someone would come round, he thought. Hell, I even miss my hallucinations.


******


The following day a letter from the government hit the mat.


"Re-gen project... employment assessment... we all have a duty to work... "


Phil checked the time and date he was supposed to show up. It was today. Right now, in fact.


Five minutes later, Phil found himself gasping his lungs out in the dole office. The place had a new (and totally bogus, as usual) theme this time around.


RE-GEN, spouted the ads. Come and get involved in our exciting scheme to bring new life into our city.


Underneath, in smaller type, he could just about read the disclaimer: '


All placements are compulsory. There is no second option.


After the standard long and miserable wait he was hauled up in front of a DepWork gimp.


"Aw, come on", Phil told the suit, "This is a mistake."


"No mistake, sir", chirped the little idiot. "You've been claiming benefits for several months or even years now, and we've only just caught up with you. We'll put a stop to your little game!"


"I have been engaged in important, secret work, you idiot! The benefits payments were just a cover! A cover!"


"Now come on, Mr. Chandler. You can't get fool me with that mental illness line of yours, you know. You got here, didn't you? So you can bloody well do your Work Duty. It's just not good enough, sitting around in your flat self-harming and listening to Emily Autumn. It's downright unhealthy."


Phil spaced out. Did I just hallucinate that comment?


"...and we must all pull our weight! So let's see what assignments the Re-Gen computers have lined up for you."


At least the guy didn't try to rub it in; the problem with that was that he had to spend twenty minutes trying to tell Phil how great the scheme was.


"And so you see", the suit droned on, "Re-Gen offers incredible, amazing offers for the applicant. So much so, in fact, that it was awarded Best Scheme Of The Year for three years running..."


Phil was getting so bored and the moron was gibbering on so much that he decided that he might as well listen to some of the drivel that was coming out of his mouth.


"...Re-Gen offers great pay and a gradual, gentle regime of reintroduction to the workplace. You will have an interesting job and meet fun people, but that's not all. There's a large competition bonus for every task completed on schedule-"


Phil did a double take.


"...bonus of a thousand per task. All yours, if you'll just sign here, Mr. Chandler."

The twit plonked down a much abused DepWork-issue biro. It had the slogan Working together for a better way of life printed on the side.


Phil was flabbergasted "...Did you just say... A thousand...?"


"That's right." grinned the suit.


"...How long?"


"Couple of hours work a day. Goes on as long as you want it to. First completion bonus after one month, then at bi-monthly intervals."


"Wow!"


"We are here to serve you, Mr. Chandler."


Phil grabbed the biro. After he had finished signing away all his human rights, the bastard turned off the brainwashing device behind the desk and the tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear field around him abruptly collapsed. Phil flopped around, disoriented by the reality editing job the field had done on his brain, then slowly came back to himself.


"There's nothing you can do about it, so you might as well just get used to it", gloated the dole fucker. "Your assignment is to shovel shit until your arms drop off or you find something better to do, like become a prostitute or something, I don't care. Here is your informational pamphlet; your wages will amount to 50 pence an hour and the cost of your shovel will be deducted from this. Have a nice day." he grinned as Phil was hustled off by security.


******


Phil trudged back from his first day's RE-GEN placement. The toxic sludge had come up over the top of his boots and now squelched underfoot. His hands were covered in minor lacerations where sharp edges had cut him; no doubt they'd get infected soon There was no health and safety, and management routinely abused their charges as "workshy scum"; worst of all, his co-workers were morons who lapped this shit up. One of them had actually boasted to him that he had never been in a union in his life, and told him that he regarded all safety precautions and occupational health laws as a communist plot.


Phil was fucked.


Skirting the edge of the shanty district, he was unsurprised to find a trio of slum-dwellers in his path. Here it comes, he thought miserably, and made to turn out his pockets.


"It's him", whispered one of them in hushed tones.


"Wow..." mumbled the second one.


"Can I... touch you?" asked the third.


This was indeed a new hustle on him. Best not talk to them; don't get involved in a conversation. Phil hunched himself up and walked past, avoiding eye contact.


"There he goes!"


"Our hero!"


"Go get 'em, Phil!"


He broke into a run and didn't stop until he was in range of his blocks' security cameras. What the fuck was all that about?


Guess I'll be joining the poor fuckers soon enough, he told himself as he sat down on the sofa, ready for a good nights' madness. The Bad Thoughts should be coming in thick and fast any minute now....


They didn’t, and neither did his customary sense of unreality. Phil thought about sleeping, but found himself strangely wired. Too many things had been happening lately. The bizarre incursion of Felix Rey and whatever inner universe he represented, the hassle from the government, RE-GEN, and now this odd hero-worship from a bunch of strangers who would normally be kicking him to death. It didn’t fit the pattern of his life, it all seemed a little too convenient, almost contrived...


Before he knew it Phil was opening the window and yelling into the evening sky: Rey! You BASTARD!!”


“You don’t have to shout” called a voice behind him.


Rey was sprawled on the sofa, his feet up and a smug expression on his face. Phil knocked his feet off their coffee table perch; they fell to the floor with a satisfying thud and the illusory person they belonged to raised one perfect eyebrow.


“What have you done to me, you asshole?” demanded Phil.


“Nothing...” said Rey, smiling sweetly.


Phil shot him a warning look. “Rey...”


The revolutionary type, or enemy agent, or whatever the fuck he was, raised his hands in supplication. “OK, OK. I may have just... altered the records just a little bit. Caused you to lose your written-off, deserving burned-out-mentalist status for a short time and replaced it with a lowlife-scumbag-advisory.”


Why?


“I didn’t mean to cause you any harm.”


Phil didn't believe a word of it. “The hell you say.”


“I just wanted you to see what it was like... for a lot of other people. People in much the same boat as you, but who have been... fucked over. For example; did you know that the largest single demographic in the shanties are not criminals as the media would have you believe, but actually war veterans and their families?”


“...No, I didn’t.” That took the wind out of Phil’s sails.


“And that Re-Gen crew you were working with- slow, weren’t they?”


Phil snorted. “I’ll say. Couldn’t find their asses with both hands and a map.”


“Indeed. That’ll probably be because they’re related to old-time industrial workers, who have been irrevocably contaminated by prolonged exposure to toxic waste, radiation, and other bad things.”


“So?”


“Our society eats the weak, Phil, literally eats them alive. You might want to think about that.”


Fadeout. To black.


******


This time, Phil came to in a snowdrift of newspapers.


“ Christ, I’m really getting nuts”, he said aloud. Wonder what my brain's trying to tell me here? Maybe just that I should tidy up...


Presently, a letter from ReGen hit the mat explaining that there had been a mix-up and that he was not, as it turned out, entitled to attend the fabulous once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was ReGen. Not “no longer required” but “no longer entitled”.He liked that.


******


"OK, Rey, you fucking prick. What do you want from me?" It was night, and Phil had spent the day doing nothing much, as was his wont, and now he was drunk.


"Well, Rey, if you won't come along, I can't give you this beer." This complete mental breakdown he was having was going pretty well, he had to admit. Was it possible to use reverse psychology on an imaginary friend? He might as well...


"Come on out - or the pretty boy gets it!" Suddenly Phil had his gun in his hand pointing at his own head. His finger tensed on the trigger. What the fuck?


It was like watching from a great distance; his finger squeezed the trigger, which creaked and eventually snapped as the gun began to fire.


Phil opened his eyes. Rey was sitting on the sofa, smugly grinning up at him.


"So you've finally decided to join us, eh, Phil?" he smiled.


"Apparently so. Am I dead, then?" He looked around for his own corpse, expecting to see the pathetic diorama of suicide; was almost dissapointed to find that nothing had happened.


"I... can't say no more about it. The important thing is that you've come on board. You've accepted the new reality. Long live the new flesh and all that, eh Phil?"


"Whatever. So what's my first assignment?"


Rey began to speak.


******


He sat before the shrink in his usual chair, wondering how he was going to explain this to her. Finally he decided on the direct approach.


"I'm... having some... unusual experiences, Doc."


"Uh huh." The psychiatrist raised an eyebrow.


"Hallucinations, waking dreams. Very powerful ones: I spent most of last week being hassled by one of them. At one point I was seconded to a labour gang, then the order was rescinded. It seems to be some weird manifestation of my own conscience; God knows what it actually means but right now I just want it to stop. Can you help?"


"What is the nature of the hallucinations?"


"What do you mean?"


"What's their... feel?"


"Well. According to the primary hallucination, or multiple personality, or whatever, I still have access to the psychosphere. I'm somehow responsible for the way the world is, and it- my hallucination- has a special mission for me."


"What's that?"


"I don't know. I mean, I keep blacking out, even during the... episodes."


"Hmmm."


"I think it has something to do with national security. Just so that you know."


"Apart from the fact that you couldn't endanger national security if you tried, what else do you have for me?"


"What are you talking about?"


"Can I talk to this... persona? Can I talk to Rey? Bring him forth."


Suddenly Phil was standing on a blackened plain. It was night and a thunderstorm was in progress; the thunder modulated itsself in an odd way, and it was a moment before he realised what was happening. A Voice was booming down at him; a voice consisting of thunderbolts and windstorms. A Voice straight out of the Old Testament.


"You fucked up, Phil, you have let me down!!! You have just made a big mistake!!!" boomed the Voice.


"Who... are you?"


"YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHO I AM! AND YOU HAVE SEVERELY DISSAPOINTED ME!!"


"I'm sorry!" whined Phil. "Please don't kill me!"


"Not kill you? NOT KILL YOU??" The sky crackled with laughter, crazed and all-powerful.


"YOU'LL DIE A THOUSAND TIMES BEFORE I KILL YOU, BOY!" The laughter went on and on, until it was indistinguishable from the thunder and lightning.


Now I know what it wants, thought Phil as he cowered beneath the sheets of rain.


And with that, he was returned to the shrinks' office. Some time had passed; the shrink was gazing at him expectantly, as if waiting for him to say something.


Phil obliged the nice doctor. "I think I know what it wants now. The thing inside my head."


"What do you think it wants, Phil?" she asked earnestly.


"It wants me to kill myself."


The shrink nodded. "Have you been speaking with Him?" asked Phil.


She nodded again. "I have indeed."


"Me too. It - He - appeared as an old-time God. I'm convinced He wants me to off myself."


"What did He say?" asked the psychiatrist.


"Just that It was disappointed. And that I would die a thousand times before It killed me." He shivered.


"Nothing definite about suicide then."


"No - but you see, that's the way He works. He wants me to die, and he's got the perfect murder weapon. My own gun."


"I concur. But - you're not supposed to keep your service weapon, you know."


"I do know. But I did, anyway. I tried to use it on His minion when he came to get me, to... recruit me. Or just fuck with my head. A fat lot of good it did me."


"Mmm-hm. Do you think you could hand it in? Your gun?"


"No."


The shrink smiled, an evil smile, utterly without compassion or humour.


"Atta-boy", said the Shrink-Moon.


******


Back home, Phil sat at his favourite typewriter. He knew he had to try this, even if it felt stupid.


He typed:


PLEASE SEND HELP

TRAPPED IN PSYCHOSPHERE

MOON DYING OR DEAD

I AM NEXT

PLEASE HELP!!!


"So when did you realise that I was Moon?"

Phil looked up at Rey's smug face. "Just an inkling I had.. So, are you going to kill me? Or did you want me to do that?"


The rebel scientist smiled. "You've got a couple of things wrong there. First up, you're not still in the psychosphere. This is the real world, all right. Secondly, I'm not Moon. I never was Moon."


"Even-"


"Yes, even then. You don't know what it took to get an agent into the Psychonautics corps; and a dead agent...? But I volunteered. For the glory of God and the might of Isrania. And now you..."


"But you can't be active anymore.Your brain must have been destroyed by now! And why are you telling me all this crap? It's not even like there's anything I can do, I don't have any clearance, I can't -go... anywhere..."


Rey smiled.


"Oh. I see. The shrink."


The agent kept smiling. "The shrink's office is as close to the psychonautics establishment as you can get. The entire building should be affected by the blast."


"So that's why you're trying to gee me up to commit suicide; you want me to go in there with one of those... reality bombs. This is what you did to Violet Hope, isn't it?”


Moon just grinned.


“But why the hell would I want to do something like that?"


"We offered Hope a deal; the same deal I'm offering you now." said Moon.


"Which is?"


"If you use a Q-bomb on the psychonautics administration building (or whatever its' called this week) there's a good chance that you'll retroactively undo a lot of this time-line. You'll maybe be able to stop the collapse of the psychonautics corps, stop Hope detonating the bomb, stop the war - stop this whole reality excursion. Reflect on that while you're playing with your razorblades; the fate of a planet lies in your hands, not just your own selfish hide."


Phil snorted. "Bullshit. Why are you telling me this crap? That would hardly work out in your interest..."


Rey cocked his head. "We all want to stop the war... and before it even started! Not only need no more lives be lost, but those already dead would be... unkilled. Think about it."


"I doubt it. You yourself said that Isrania needed the war. Why, have your bosses at the Spiritual Command Council changed their minds? Not glorious enough for them? Or is it just not working out the way they thought it would?"


But Rey just stood there, smiling away at him, and then Phil noticed that he was slowly fading away, his image disappearing bit by bit, like a holographic image with the power cutting out.


He shivered then, at the total control over reality which Moon seemed to excercise.


A note of begging crept into his voice. "Do I have any hope at all?" he asked.


"NONE." came a Voice, and Phil knew that he was doomed.


******


It wasn't much of a choice. Do nothing, and go insane, or do something, and probably die. Phil took a deep breath before summoning Moon, or Rey or whatever he was, once more.


"So where's this bomb then?"


The illusion came into sharp focus; became real so flawlessly that Phil nearly lost heart then and there. "You'll do it?"


"Just show it to me."


The avatar produced an MP3 player. It had a big, red PLAY button on it. Phil grabbed the device and turned it over in his hands, checking its many features and buttons and toggles. "Locked?"


"Yes, there is a safety, disguised as the anti-jog feature-"


"So all I have to do is undo that catch, then press this button... and it'll all be over?" Phil unlocked the bomb, noticing how nervous Rey was becoming.


"Yes, that's right. Please don't-"


"Alan's Snackbar, motherfucker", said Phil, and hit PLAY.


The universe vanished in a blaze of light.


******


Deep inside the vaults of the Psychonautics institute is a cryogenic containment facility. Within it lie the stored, semi-living brains of the undead.


One of them just went flatline.


******


CHAPTER FOUR
DEBRIEF


The debrief staff were pleased. "Using the bomb to kill Moon was a stroke of genius, by the way."

"I know. I knew that if I was still in the psychosphere, as seemed likely, destroying the 'psychonautics facility' would trash my own minds loyalty to the outfit for good. I'd be one of them; the breakdown of my mental resistance complete, they'd then let me loose on the world- a reliable agent / convert to their cause." Phil bridled; for once he didn't have to fake it. 'Nobody pushes me around in my own head."


Another staffer put a hand on his shoulder. "Excellent work, Operative Chandler."


"Thanks. So the whole war never happened; we kept the peace..."


The debriefer chuckled. "Not yet it hasn't."


He noticed the halo effect of the video screen behind her head framing an explosion of metallic hair. A sharklike grin and eyes that hated everything that lived. "Oh... shit."


"Your report has convinced some people pretty high up", continued Hope, "and it's been decided that we've been pussyfooting around these camel-fellating fucks long enough. We dive at dawn, so to speak." She checked her wristwatch. "In fact, the missiles are flying right now. Do you want to watch?"


***


Phil lives in the Happy Dreams Hospice for the Very Confused. He sits in his chair and waits.


Once in a while a nice young doctor wipes the spittle from his chin. Sometimes the doctor has metal hair and smiles patiently.


In his head, Phil is still fighting the war. He isn't losing, but he never quite manages to win.


the end!


HOME


free hit counter