Captain Forrest cooked the fish in the boat’s small galley. We were sitting on deck chairs under the stars; there had been no sunset, just a dissolve from blue sky to black. The deck itself was suffused with a warm glow that seemed to have no source, and did not outshine the starlight, but which allowed me to see as if we were sitting in a well-lit room.
Forrest shook his head. “So the world survived the turn of the millennium. Never thought we’d make it.”
“Yeah,” I said, around a mouthful of bluefish.
“You’re the first real person I’ve talked to since the rest of my team was killed,” said Forrest. “I didn’t age. I had no idea it had been so long.”
“I’m sorry,” I flailed inwardly, “Um, you look awesome for someone in his mid-sixties.”
“If it’s still the year when you left. Maybe I’m seventy by now. And you passed through a border zone – you might have been in there a day, or a week, or a year. Or a century. Are you sure you haven’t lost track too?”
It took me by surprise. Could I be racing into the future without knowing it? If I ever got back, would I recognize it? I had an image of Lily married, with kids. Grandkids, even. And I would never have the chance to ask her out.
Hell with that.
“You must have tried to get back to the real world before,” I said.
“Remember the Second Noble Truth: desire is the source of all suffering.”
I blinked. “You’re a Buddhist? And you’re in the army?”
Forrest sighed. “So, the grand experiment was a failure.”
“You lost me.”
He smiled sadly. “You think a U.S. Army soldier can’t be a Buddhist. If that’s what people from your time believe, I can only assume the principles of the Subliminal Warfare Project never really caught on, and the U.S. Army is still on its endless death trip.”
“I can tell you I’ve never heard of subliminal warfare,” I said. “Advertising, yes. Warfare, no.”
He nodded. “If they believed we were all dead, I’m sure they terminated the project and classified everything.” He leaned back in the chair, and watched the stars. “See, we weren’t like other military units. The big difference was in how we were supposed to fight. What was that phrase they came up with? New Age, that’s it. We were supposed to be a New Age unit.”
“Hippie soldiers?” I was starting to wonder if Forrest was just another bizarre construct of the dream world.
“Not quite peace and love, no. But the goal was to create a force that could fight without bloodshed, to win over the hearts and minds of the enemy without violence.
“We were supposed to be psychological warriors. We were trained so that everything about us – how we traveled, how we looked, how we spoke - would communicate an irresistible impression of, and I quote, ‘overwhelming force held in check by benevolent intent.’
“We studied Eastern philosophies, and used experimental drugs to achieve higher states of consciousness. It was all supposed to put us in the right frame of mind to resonate with the enemy’s own thoughts. The idea was that we would create this net impression that would go straight to the target’s hindbrain, so they’d be laying down their weapons without a shot fired.”
I snorted. “Using the alien technology from Area 51, I bet.”
“Oh, they declassified that?”
“What?” My eyes opened wide.
“A hippie soldier with a sense of humor, even.”
“Yeah, I know how it sounds. But the results of the initial experiments were encouraging. We went through a lot of goats, though.” His face darkened. “But then Robert Black joined the project.”
“Who?” I asked.
“I don’t know for sure. CIA probably. Maybe DIA, or NSA, or some other kind of spook. Anyway, Black suddenly gets sent down from stratospheric levels to take over the project, and brings a whole team of doctors with him. And he says to us, why worry about trying to make an impression on the mind of the enemy, when we can get you in there directly?”
“You got it. That’s when the whole thing went to hell. Half of my team disappeared in the third test.”
“What do you mean, disappeared?” I’d been half-hoping that this was all a delusion and that I was just unconscious, and would eventually wake up assuring people that no, really, I could hear everything they said to me while I was out. Of course, listening to someone I met in a delusion wouldn’t really resolve that question, but not for the first time I felt sick at the thought that this might all be real.
“Just what I said, poof, gone. But it was when they reappeared that all sorts of strange shit went down. They showed up four or five times a day, mostly during the night, and that’s when the fun started.” Forrest shrugged. “The docs eventually realized that the timing of the appearances corresponded to the average length and timing of REM sleep.”
“So all we need to do to get home is go to sleep?” I shook my head. “I’ve slept several times since I’ve been here, and I’m still here. All I had were weird dreams.”
“No. The real world is our dream world. What you dream actually happens back there.”
Except for a feeling of immense relief, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that I’d been able to sleep again since I came here. There had been too much else to think about. Now I tried to remember the things I had dreamed about since I arrived here, and felt a growing horror. I couldn’t remember much; compared to the startling clarity of Visulex experiences, my recent dreams had been vague, disturbing blurs that quickly evaporated when I awoke. What had I done? God, had anyone been hurt?
[Go to Chapter 9.4]
[Go to Chapter 9.4]