Return to Short Stories

The Gunship In His Head

John Guerro threw himself into a crater, flattening himself against the mud and trying to ignore the dead bodies around him. A thin rain fell upon the scene, cooling his back and trickling down the muddy slope to pool by his feet, red and brown combined.

Pulse rifles shrieked to his left, followed by a muffled whomp that signified the end of a bunker. John ignored it. A familiar whine sounded below the weapon fire, deep but slightly irregular. He slung his rifle behind him, its reassuring weight pressing into his back, and grabbed his binoculars.

The air was hazy from the weapon discharge, static drawing dust and dirt into the air. He switched to a thermal display, scanning across the crumbling buildings of the city outskirts. At first he didn't see it. Then, pressing its way through the rubble - had it been a school or a library? It was so hard to tell - came the gunship.

It was close, he realised - far closer than he had expected. Its hover drive was straining, the rain disrupting the ion generators. But it slid forward, barely swaying as it traversed brick and metal and flesh.

John dropped back into the crater. At that range he would be seen - there was no doubt about it. He stowed the binoculars, listening to the whine of the gunship as it came nearer. It had reached level ground and was gaining speed.

His heart pounded while his brain cycled through his military training. He found himself staring across the hole at a dead body. The dead man looked back at him, eyes rolling upwards slightly, mouth agape as if about to interject. The uniform of the man was a deep blue - a commando of the Aquarius system. Where the fabric ended at his neck, the skin exploded in reds and blacks.

John reached across and sunk two fingers into the man's throat. He drew up a thick crimson liquid, not quite on the point of congealing, and smeared it across his own face. His fingers went back again, mixed it with some mud this time, blotching it across his cheek and neck. He pressed the other side of his face deep into the mud, eyes closed, reaching round for his rifle and forcing that into the mud beside him, concealing its outline. He shut his eyes only lightly, forcing himself not to screw up his face as he wanted to, but instead playing the dead man as the whining of the gunship approached. Somewhere above it came the rapid thump wheee of the anti-personnel cannons.

John forced himself still, holding his breath as the hairs on his head and hands stood on end. His face was pressed further into the dirt, then his neck, then his shoulders as the gunship passed just overhead. His mind tried to count it out for him, one metre, two metres, with twenty to follow, but all he could think about was the smell of the dead man's blood and the oozing of the soft mud as he was pressed down, accompanied by the regular chatter of the guns - thump wheee screaming thump wheee screaming.

John sat up in bed suddenly. The room was dark and terrifying. "Lights," he croaked, and then clearing his throat he tried again, "Lights!"

The lights came on, soft, natural light panels in the ceiling. The darkness vanished, trailed into the distance cries of men and engines alike. He reached for his face and was surprised when his hand came away dry - there was no slimy smoothness, no warm stickiness. His skin felt oddly cold.

Beside him in the bed his wife, Joanna, stirred. She rolled over, looked at John's back sat up in bed, and blinked. The clock on the wall said it was three in the morning. She squinted at it against the light.

"John?" she said. There was no answer. She sat up. "What is it, honey?"

John stirred out of his reverie. He looked sideways at her over his shoulder, not meeting her eyes. "It's... It's nothing. Really."

"You had that dream again," she said.

"I..." John stopped. He turned to the small bedside table and shakily picked up the glass of water, spilling some of it onto the alarm clock. He struggled to reach for a tissue as the water ran across the black plastic and down the display, forming streaks against the red numbers.

Joanna placed her hand against his, taking the tissue from him. "Here, let me deal with that." She dabbed at the clock quickly.

John gulped the water, spilling it down his chest in his haste. Joanna took the empty glass from him and placed it on the table.

"Same dream, huh?" She looked at him, large brown eyes two wells of concern. John glanced at her then looked away again, shaking his head.

"No. It was different. A city somewhere - Richtus, maybe."

"From the news report? Toran against Aquarius for the mineral rights?"


Joanna frowned. "Damn the news reports - it's not right they should show that stuff." Her voice was quiet, but firm. "We're a peaceful race - it's not right to be seeing that rubbish. What, we won't have our own fights so we need to watch everybody else's?"


"I know, I know, I get worked up." She quieted her voice, reaching up and laying one palm on his cheek. He flinched involuntarily. "I just worry about you. These dreams you've been having, they're disturbing."

"It's nothing," he said, taking her other hand, "Nothing but bad dreams. I'm fine." He forced a weak smile, not managing to make it convincing.

Joanna stared at him for a moment, then drew him down onto the bed. They looked at each other for a moment. "You're the most sensitive man I know, John. Almost too sensitive. What they show on the news these days... it's too graphic. It's not good for you - for any of us."

"We need the news," said John, but he couldn't sound convinced.

Joanna smiled at him, sadly but full of love. "I know honey, but... but promise me you won't watch any more reports about the wars. Not until it's all died down a bit."

"I promise," he said, then turned over.

"Lights," said Joanna, and as the room went dark again she lay her hand on her husband's shoulder. "Gregory too," she added, "these news reports can't be good for a boy."

No, thought John, not good for anyone. He lay awake after that, too scared to sleep.

The next morning John came down for breakfast late. The day had got off to a bright start, with a cloudless sky and brilliant sunshine. The nightmare of the previous night faded away slowly as John entered the kitchen, the images of mud and rain fading in the brilliant light of day. Joanna had switched one entire wall of ViewPlastic into transparent mode, and as she cooked breakfast she was bathed in light. It was reassuring. She smiled as John entered the kitchen and blew him a kiss.

"Hey Dad," said Gregory, sitting at the table. He barely looked up as his father entered, so engrossed was he in the latest comic book. John looked over his shoulder, scanning across the pages to identify which comic it was. Something fairly harmless, he decided - certainly no guns and no deaths. He ruffled his son's hair. "Hey, sport."

"How're you feeling?" said Joanna, flipping hash browns in the pan.

John looked away, and waved across the garden to the Piersons next door. They waved back through their own ViewPlastic wall.

"Your paper's on the table," said Joanna. She fixed John with a friendly but serious stare. "If you must read it, remember what I said."

John patted her shoulder on the way past, stopping to kiss her neck, and then sat at the table. He unfolded the paper and scanned the headlines. "Eden celebrates its 954th year of peace," proclaimed the text, followed by, "Still the only civilised place to live." It was true, thought John. He'd lived on Eden his whole life, as had his parents, and their parents, and so on back through the generations. Despite being one of the outer colonies, Eden maintained a steady calm while the other planets settled petty disputes with each other using decades of artillery fire. Eden refused to enter war with anyone else; the planet didn't even have an army. As a consequence, they had neither suffered nor inflicted the normal wartime devastation that plagued other nations. They had resources aplenty and the advanced technology afforded by a peaceful nation with time to research.

John flipped open the newspaper and skipped across the stories inside. There was the usual array of business news and social commentary ("No apples in Eden") and two stories about the Ganymede-Mars conflict. John ignored the stories, turning the pages quickly, and then turning them again when he encountered new photos of the devastation left by the Toran raids against Roma. He shuddered as he caught a quick glimpse of the pictures regardless. The dreams had started after the initial news reports had come in, showing the devastation on Roma. He didn't need more images - he could quite well picture the burning towers of green and gold reaching out of the thick green vegetation. To this moment it was still the most unsettling of the dreams - a vast, silent battlefield between the trees, with the barely audible choking of the victims of the gas attacks. John shook the memory away, cursing the news and willing the images to just fade away.

They didn't.

John folded the paper carefully, then as his hands trembled he slowly squeezed it into a ball. He stood up and threw the wad of paper into the bin, walking to his wife as he did so.

"Hey, nice shot, Dad," said Gregory, turning from the bin to his father. John smiled weakly. He placed one hand on his wife's shoulder. "I'm not feeling so good, darling. I think I need some air. I'm going to walk to work."

Joanna looked at him, concerned. "Hey - these are nearly ready."

"I know. I just need to clear my head a bit. Can you take Gregory to school?"

Joanna nodded. "Sure. Hey... maybe you should stay home today? It's our son's big day on Friday - we don't want you missing it because you worked when you should have been resting up."

John swallowed dryly. True, it would soon be Gregory's Welcoming. It would be a proud moment. He had to be there to see his son off, with all the other proud parents, for the weeklong ceremony marking their welcome to the community as adults. The ceremony itself was a private moment, just for the children and the planet elders. John dimly recalled his own being full of group oaths and private pledges, all stuff that he had forgotten soon after like most people, but which still held a certain emotional value. It was one of life's landmarks.

John kept the thought in his head, clinging to it to erase the burning green towers as he fetched his jacket and hat. As it was a nice day, he chose something lightweight - just enough to keep the sun off. Then he opened the front door and walked to the road.

The journey to work was nice enough, the roads being wide and cream coloured, with tall trees at intervals to provide a splash of colour against the backdrop of white houses. He worried for a moment that the trees would remind him of Roma again, but it never happened - although reminiscent of everywhere, Eden somehow maintained a look all its own. A cool breeze followed John as he walked, and he felt his spirit lighten finally after the night before.

A blue bus with a gold stripe floated past him, marking the start of the city proper. The first of the tower blocks rose up from the horizon, cream and beige, like vertical extensions of the roads. ViewPlastic panels showed scenes of office workers arriving and settling in for the day. As the city centre opened up around John, he drew comfort from the regularity of the buildings with their dependable brightness.

He stopped for moment to read the front cover of a magazine in a shop window. "Peace Projected for Eden in the New Millennium," it proclaimed. John read the features, list bending down to tie his shoelace as he did so.

A sound came, low and ominous, and John froze. He waited, barely hearing it, but with each passing moment it became clearer.

There was a muffled thumping noise and an irregular whine.

John stood up slowly, laces dropping from his fingers. He looked out across the crowds, the people dropping into slow motion around him. The noise was approaching, the whine building in his ears slowly. He looked towards the corner ahead, where the road disappeared behind a building, and knew that was where it was coming from.

He took a few impossibly slow steps forward, knowing the characteristic thumping from night after night, feeling the whine pressing him down into mud that wasn't there. The fear was still there, real as it had been in the dream, but the military training was missing. He froze, unable to help himself, as he saw the very edge of the gunship appear from behind the building. They were caught off guard, he knew, all the people - they hadn't seen it coming. Only a few turned in the direction of the noise, but they were too close, much too close. He wanted to scream, or shout a warning, but the noise of the gunship was too loud. He couldn't think past it, couldn't ignore the ominous screeching, couldn't do anything but wait for everyone to die again as...

... as the bus cleared the building, thundering and crying its way over the junction. John blinked, coming round again in time to see the bus disappearing behind the next building, electric arcs leaping across the drive bay from the blown regulator. He had seen it before, had watched buses limp home after sudden systems failures, had heard the noises every time. He trembled.

The gunship in his mind thundered by more slowly, but ebbed away gradually. John, suddenly breathless, starting pushing his way through the crowds, half reassured by the contact he felt, half tallying the dead and wounded. He moved faster, suddenly desperate to reach the sanctity of the office, away from sudden closeness of the streets. He pushed through another crowd, following a group of people across the road, too late. He was halfway across when he realised his mistake.

The devil is in the detail, John thought, a phrase his mother had been fond of. He stumbled then, tripping over the partially tied shoelace, powerless to stop himself from being anywhere but the middle of the road. A bus came towards him - a city bus, clean and shiny, and even as John fell he saw the panic in the driver's face, heard the screech of brakes and rubber as the bus swerved, and saw the bright blue of the panelling rise up and tower above him.

The deep blue glass of the pyramid towered above him and John pressed himself against it for support. It had been a hard slog across the charcoal-grey sands of planet Onyx, but now they were finally in the capital city. A klaxon sounded somewhere - their intrusion had not gone unnoticed. But it was of no matter anymore. This close, their actions would be decisive, however they panned out.

John gestured with three fingers and a squad of men ran across the ashen ground from a blue-glass storage bunker to the opposite edge of the pyramid. Controlled bursts of pulse rifle fire neutralised the first of the enemy guard, carefully avoiding the pyramids, in case any fire should be reflected off the smooth surface. The world was a majestic array of structures, all formed from the blue glass produced by heating the grey rocks. It was unique in its kind, both architecturally and in the difficulty it posed to energy weapons.

John checked his watch. In a few short moments reinforcements would arrive, dropped like missiles from the orbiting transport vessels. It was time to move. He ran along the glass, carefully laying down suppressing fire against the opposite buildings, stopping before he reached the entrance. He reached to his belt, grasped a grenade and primed it. Then with a deep breath, he leaned to the open doorway and cast the grenade inside.

A short burst of gunfire came back at him through the doorway, just missing his retreating arm. Problem solved, he thought, hearing the grenade bounce. Even before it came to rest, the enemy soldiers were up and shouting, diving for cover even though they knew it was too late.

John counted to three and then all noise seemed to stop. An unnatural sucking sound came from inside the building, then there was a pause. John's heart beat faster with anticipation. Then, suddenly, he heard the cracking - one brief fraction of a second it came, and delicate patterns suddenly traced across the glass. It was almost pretty, a rare moment of beauty, and then the glass was dragged inwards. The four walls of the pyramid vanished as shards of glass collapsed upon the imploding grenade.

A stillness followed. The soldiers inside didn't even have time to scream. John scanned across the surrounding buildings, checking for snipers, then stepped through the now-empty frame behind him into the building.

It was a mess. Faint streaks of blood ran across the floor towards the point where the grenade had landed. Sections of flesh and fabric lay scatted, sliced apart by the in rushing glass. A few last pieces of blue glass crunched under foot as John looked around.

The second squad approached, sweeping the area for survivors as John did. None were expected. The squad leader nodded as neared John.

"This is Unit Zero to Command One. Primary objective secured."

The squad leader took out a flare gun and fired it into the sky. John followed the smoky trail of the flare as it went, before it exploded into brilliant white light.

John opened his eyes into hospital brightness. He sat up slowly and a nurse came rushing over.

"Hey," she said, "Take it easy." She arranged the bed to help prop him up. "Do you know where you are?"

The flare faded from John's mind. "Hospital."

The nurse nodded. "This is Jensen Hospital. You had a fall. Almost made the news." John tried to smile but failed.

A doctor at a nearby bed noticed them and came over. "Hey, hey, our stuntman is awake." The nurse smiled and walked off as the doctor continued, "A man tripped over in the road, was narrowly missed by a bus, was brought in unconscious but miraculously unharmed. I'd say there'd never been a better time to be here." He paused, watching for John's reaction. When there was none, he asked, "What happened?"

John looked at him, but couldn't find the words. His mouth froze open, all rational thought expired.

The doctor sat on the edge of the bed. He spoke softly, "Listen, the way I hear it, several people told the ambulance crew that you pushed past them, rushed out into the road and collapsed. Do you want to tell me what that was about?"

John looked away, rubbing his hands across his face. It didn't provide any relief. Eventually, he looked at the doctor again, and just said, "Dreams."


"Yeah. I've been having these dreams... It was always at night before, but today, in the street, I sort of half had one."

"What sort of dreams?" said the doctor, picking up the patient notes from the end of John's bed and making notes on them.

John gestured helplessly, struggling for words. "Terrible dreams." He ran his hand through his hair. "I'm a soldier of some sort. I'm not sure quite what we're doing. But the people..." His breathing suddenly became shallow. "So many people died. I've seen them all die. Young, old, hundreds of them."

The doctor stopped taking notes and gazed cautiously at John. "That's not possible. You can't possibly know what it's like to be in an army. Eden hasn't had an army for..." He gestured expansively, then carried on. "It's been a long time, anyway. This is how we prosper. We never attack, nor do we need to defend. We're out of the loop, so to speak."

"I know, but still, I have the dreams. It's like being there."

"Being where?"

"I don't know. Different places. Richtus. Toran. I came back from a business trip a couple of months ago, you know when they were reporting the atrocities on Gamma 9? First story I saw in the papers. I couldn't sleep that night."

The doctor waved him into silence. "I'm just wondering, John, would you say you're under a lot of stress?"

"Well, I wouldn't say so. I mean, there have been business trips, and it's my boy's Welcoming coming up, but..."

"Ah." The doctor rested his hands on the notes in his lap. "Let me tell you something about the human mind, John. It always demands a certain balance. If life is perfect, then the mind will give perfection back to the world - it will be perfect in response. However, if the mind is stressed - say you've been running a lot of business trips and you've got a big family event coming up - it can get overwhelmed. The mind demands balance with the world and it does this by projecting itself into power plays against the world."

"You mean I dream about the army as a way of getting back at the world?" asked John.

The doctor looked non-committal. "More, it's a way for the mind to feel like it is exerting some control over its world which it otherwise wouldn't have. I doubt you would miss your son's Welcoming," John nodded quickly, "so given the mind can't change that, it fabricates something it can."

The doctor paused, suddenly weary. "In a way we bring it on ourselves. We live in a perfect world of peace and happiness, and then we inject into it stories of distant conflicts. The news stories look like decisive action, but really we're too removed from the events - the idea is traumatic to us on many levels."

"You sound like my wife," said John. The doctor laughed.

"Well, she may have a point then. These sorts of dreams and visions occur reasonably often in people, especially of your age. We call the condition Determined Adopted Remote Trauma. Or DART, for short."

John suddenly felt his world drop away from him. "I've heard of that. Isn't it usually... fatal?"

The doctor smiled slightly. "Not really. There have been some cases of severe subjects suffering breakdowns, but generally it is quickly treatable. The media blows it out of proportion." The doctor stood up. "Even so, I'm going to prescribe you some tablets to take which should stop the dreams within a day. Take it easy and you'll be just fine." Then as he replaced the notes at the end of the bed, he added, "No more business trips for a while, eh?"

"What about my son's Welcoming? Can I still go to that?"

"When is it?"


The doctor nodded thoughtfully. "It shouldn't be a problem. Come back and see me on Thursday and we'll see how you're doing." The doctor gave a cheery smile then and left. John sank back into the enveloping pillows, trying not to imagine them as mud.

John called Joanna from the hospital to get a lift, collecting the prescription on the way. The small brown bottle he received contained dull brown pills. He took the first in the car as they drove home, the taste bitter and foul in his mouth as he watched the brightness of the city go past.

They pulled up on the driveway and sat in silence a moment, then Joanna got out and walked round the car. She opened the door for John. He pulled himself out, somewhat slowly and headed towards the house, leaving Joanna to shut the car door and run after him. She caught him by the elbow and walked beside him, leading him up the stairs and opening the front door. As she stood there, holding the door open for him, John said, "I'm not crippled, you know?"

John closed his eyes, immediately regretful. "I... I'm sorry. It's just been a bit... weird..."

"Oh, John, I was so worried," she threw her arms around him. "When you phoned from the hospital, I..."

"I know. I know."

They stood on the steps, silent in each other's arms. A breeze blew coolly past them.

Finally John said, "I'm not going to work tomorrow. I'll take a few days off. Get some rest, like you said - at least until Gregory's gone to his Welcoming."

Joanna drew back, her eyes glistening as she stared at John. "Are you going to be able to attend? You know he wants you there. I want you there."

John nodded. "And I want to be there. I definitely will. The pills will help." He pulled Joanna close. "The pills will help."

The pills didn't help.

Two days later, he awoke in such a state, Joanna was standing by the door. The lights were on already. John pressed his hand to the back of his head. The pain was gone, fading with the jungles of Roma. He was pretty sure there had been an explosion, and something had struck his head. He thought of green vines reaching away from him into the night sky.

He flexed his hand and it was stiff. He had been holding the rifle, in the dream. Holding it tightly. The recalled the smell of the pulse discharge as the gun shook in his hands and, one by one, men in the uniform exploded in clouds of red.

Joanna looked across at him. "You shouted," she said, her voice calm despite the panic on her face.

John just looked at her. "It was awful."

They stayed silent for a moment, staring at each other across the gulf of the bedroom, until they heard a knock on the door and a young voice say, "Dad? Mum?"

"Everything's alright sweety, you go back to bed," said Joanna.

Gregory continued, "I heard a noise."

"Don't worry, it was just... just us laughing." Joanna kept staring at John.

"I'll put him back to bed," said John, starting to get up.

"No, it's okay, I'm already up," said Joanna. "You rest."

She opened the door and left, quietly padding down the corridor.

John sunk back onto the bed, feeling nothing like sleeping anymore.

"So how have the pills worked out for you?" said the doctor. He sat at his desk opposite John, fingers steepled, his face wearing an expression of intense consideration.

John shook his head. His nights had been sleepless. He hadn't dared walk outside in case he encountered the damaged bus again. He was scared. He played with his wedding ring nervously, not daring let go in case his hands shook too much.

"So they've not helped," said the doctor.

"No. If anything it's getting worse."

The doctor paused. "What about stress? Been doing anything you shouldn't recently?"

"I've been at home the whole time. I didn't go back to work."

"I see."

The doctor drummed his fingers a moment, then finally retrieved a form from a drawer and started filling it in. His pen scratched slightly on the page. "I'm afraid, Mr. Guerro, that I'm going to have to send you for an immediate consultation with a specialist."

John noticed the sudden formality. "What sort of specialist?"

"He specialises in DART and other similar conditions. He can help you better than I can at this stage. I'm afraid you'll be required to stay a few days, starting from tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" John placed a hand on the desk. "But Gregory's doing his Welcoming tomorrow."

The doctor stopped writing. "I know, and I'm very sorry it has to be this way. But really, it's best we get you to see him as quick as possible."

John sat back, despondent. "I see."

The doctor signed his name and handed the form to John. "Take that with you - the address is at the bottom."

"Is there no other way? Some other medication maybe, or..."

"I'm sorry, Mr Guerro," Again the formality. "If there was some other way, believe me, I would offer it to you. But there really is nothing else I can do." He got up, offering his hand to John. "I hope everything works out for you."

John slowly got to his feet and shook hands. He looked the doctor in the eye. "Do you have children, Doctor?"

The doctor shook his head. "No. I can't quite bring myself to. It wouldn't seem right while I'm a doctor. But then, that applies to so many things."

There were tears when John got home, though whether they were mostly his or Joanna's or Gregory's, he couldn't say.

"But just one more day," pleased Gregory. He and John sat at opposite ends of his bed.

John shook his head. "I wish I could. But the doctor insisted I see the specialist as soon as possible."

"But you don't look sick."

John tapped the side of his head. "That's because it's all in here." He kept his gaze high, never looking down from Gregory's face. The carpet in the room was a deep red with orange patterning. It made John think of fire at the best of times, but now it gave him the impression of burning. If he saw it, his mind swirled with it, the bitter taste of the incendiary in the air, the smell of burning flesh. There were screams somewhere far away that echoed every time Gregory spoke.

"I'll miss you," said Gregory.

"And I'll miss you. But it'll only be for a short while. I'll probably be out before you."

Gregory sniffed. "Really?"


They remained in silence for a moment, then John got up and moved towards the door. He stopped with his hand on the frame. "Make your mother proud tomorrow, sport."

"I'll make you proud, Dad."

When night came, John stayed awake. He didn't dare sleep in case he made noise and woke up Gregory and Joanna. He sat in quiet contemplation, reading and re-reading the same page of a book until morning. When the first light filtered through, he put the book down, with no better idea what it said than before.

They all made their preparations for the day, both John and Gregory packing, John deferring his departure until the very last moment. Finally, Joanna bundled Gregory into the car and hugged John goodbye. "Call me when you can," she whispered, then drove to the Welcoming.

John watched them go, then struggled his bags into a taxi to the clinic. The taxi driver said nothing - he knew the address, and knew better than to ask.

The building was huge - a converted warehouse from a forgotten industry, tall but low. John noted it was otherwise very neutral - there was nothing to allow comparison to any other nation. It seemed, in that respect, well chosen.

The taxi stopped and unloaded John, and was on its way again as John stepped inside. The interior was clinical simplicity - all stainless steel and white tiles, even in the reception area. John approached the desk and passed his form from the doctor through a gap in the glass front.

The receptionist read all the details, made a few notes of her own, then gestured down the hall. "Mr. Guerro, we've been expecting you. You can leave all your bags here. Please go to room twelve, down the end, first left, straight ahead."

"Thanks," said John, leaving his bags in a heap in front of the reception. As he walked to the room, his feet clacked lightly on the tiles. The interior of the building was more blandly functional than the exterior; it could have been anywhere. John walked slowly, suddenly intimidated by the silence of the place.

At room twelve, he knocked on the door and waited. An orderly dressed in white opened the door and showed him inside.

The room was far bigger than he expected, and completely unlike the rest of the building. The room showed its origins, with a rusting metal floor and metal girders running across the ceiling. The walls were dark stone and brick. The only break in the darkness was a few small lights in the ceiling and the white shirts of orderlies who were stationed in the corners.

The orderly who had seen John inside showed him to a simple chair in the middle of the room, facing another chair. He gestured for John to sit, then took up position in the corner.

John sat and waited, staring at the chair opposite. They were both of the same design - a simple metal frame, painted white, with no arms. John wondered for a moment if perhaps this was some sort of test. But then a side door opened and a man bustled inside, dressed in a navy business suit. Four more orderlies followed him, closing the door after them.

"Mr. Guerro," said the man, "So sorry to keep you waiting. My name's Doctor Stubbs." He carried a set of notes with him, on top of which was the form John had handed over earlier. "Please, don't get up," he said, and sat opposite John. He studied the notes for a moment, glanced up briefly at John, then returned to the notes. Finally he set the notes on the floor next to him and leaned on his knees. "So, John. This meeting's about honesty. Is that alright with you?"

"I guess so."

"Good. Tell me, John, do you know why Eden doesn't have an army?"

John started, taken aback. "What?"

Stubbs smiled. "Do you know why Eden doesn't have an army? Oh, come now, you must have considered it at some point. Everyone around us has an army. Other worlds, they're fighting all the time. Why don't we have an army?"

John thought for a moment. "Well, we have all the resources we need. We don't have any reason to fight any body else."

"What about if they attack us?"

"Well, we can give them what they want. The peaceful solution."

"Poppycock!" said Stubbs, making a small, excited gesture before returning to lean on his arms. "What do you do when they want land? Or people? What then?"

"Well, I don't..."

Stubbs waved him into silence and picked up the notes. "How many business trips have you done this year, John?"

John shrugged. "About twenty."

"Twenty three exactly," said Stubbs. "And do you know where they were to?"

"Well, there was Allied Mining, the Energy Commission, ..."

"... And others and others and others." interrupted Stubbs. He put the notes back down again. "Of the twenty three business trips you did, fifteen were orchestrated by us."

John was dumbfounded. "Which ones?"

"The big ones. The odd ones. Do you remember the conference on global dynamic energy arrays?"


"No you don't. You remember what we want you to remember."

"I don't understand."

Stubbs got up and paced behind the chair.

"You agree that Eden is a 'nice place to live'? And this is in no small part due to abhorrence of violence and war?"


"It's only fair that you know that Eden actually has the biggest army, navy and what-have-you of all the worlds in this area. A four billion strong army, in fact."

John opened his mouth, but couldn't get as far as making a sound. He just looked at Stubbs, aghast.

"That's right, John. We have serious might behind us. And you know who the army is? It's you. All of you. Everyone on this planet, going about their daily business. Except, we borrow them periodically."

"You borrow them?" said John. "How? Four billion people..."

"Not all at once. We only need a few. A few thousand perhaps. Maybe a few hundred thousand. Believe me, there are ways and means to hide people for a few days while we use them."

"But we'd know. I would know."

"Yes, John, indeed you do." Stubbs returned to his chair and looked earnestly at John. "We can arrange meetings, John. We can squirrel you off to conferences in other countries for a few weeks. Most of what we do is social engineering - you advertise the right things in the right places, approach the right people, and get them to arrange the trips for you. Your own boss asks you to attend a meeting, so it never looks suspicious. And he doesn't even know he's in on it."

"And, what, we fight?"

"You fight, you kill, you protect Eden's way of life. Then we reset your memory, let you have a few days of real conference so you have something to take home with you, and leave you be. What, you think all our resources occur naturally? We ran out of oil years ago."

"But we're a peaceful nation. We don't fight."

"Exactly. We formed this community on those very principles - but in order to have that level of civilisation, one has to be prepared to fight for it."

"But it's all a lie! We're no better than any other nation."

"But don't you think that's a lie worth fighting for? Our gentleness is what makes us great. We are the last civilised nation."

John stopped to think. The dreams - so very real and vivid. "The dreams - they really happened didn't they?"

Stubbs nodded. "There's the funny thing, really. As the human brain gets older, it develops this awkward lack of control over its memory. Things you should remember, you forget. Things you should forget, you remember. It's a pain, really, that no matter how skilled we are at manipulating memories, sometimes the brain will rebel against us. There are drugs, of course, which can reinforce the memory block - they work in about ninety-five percent of cases."

"They didn't work on me."

Stubbs shurgged. "I'm sorry, John."

John looked around the room. The orderlies guarded all the exits. "I don't understand though. How can I be in the army? I have no training."

"We start them young, John."

"The Welcoming?" Stubbs nodded. "You train our own children to fight?"

"The training occurs at intervals. They spend so much time at school. No-one misses a few lessons. The first sessions are really to establish the memory blocking techniques that we'll use later."

"Oh my god..." John stared at the chair in front of him. His heart beat fast. He took a deep breath, tried to focus his thoughts around it all. It couldn't be... And yet...

Gregory was there now, he thought.

John jumped up and ran straight for the door. He was fast, but even as he lunged for the door handle, two orderlies grabbed him back. Soon there were four of them, each holding one limb, dragging him back to the centre of the room. He struggled still, kicked and punched as best he could, but it was no use. He thought of his dreams, tried what he saw there. He didn't get free.

Stubbs reached into a pocket and pulled out a loaded syringe. He carefully removed the end cap and squeezed out the air, then looked at John.

"I know what you're thinking John. I can see it in your eyes. You're thinking, where's all my military training when I need it? It's the damnedest thing, though - how hard it is to recall that information when you really need it. Of course we take no chances anyway." He gestured at the orderlies. "I'm sorry, John, you sounded like a good person. I felt you were really owed an explanation. But in the five percent of cases where the drugs don't work, DART can have some serious effects. It's not fatal - we try to be humane about it - but it can cause some serious nervous damage."

John screamed and shouted as Stubbs moved closer. One of the orderlies covered John's mouth to silence him.

Stubbs held John's head and placed the syringe against his neck. The needle just penetrated the skin. "After this you'll have one more night of dreams, then it'll all be over. There won't be much of anything coherent after that." Stubbs depressed the plunger, slowly forcing the liquid out. "I promise you it's completely painless. We aren't monsters, after all."

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