Philip K. Dick — American author (1928-1982) of many novels and short stories. In later years Dick began to believe he was in touch with a cosmic intelligence, which he called V.A.L.I.S. He also believed that the year was 50 A.D. and that the Roman Empire “never ended.”
Jesus of Nazareth — A heretical rabbi who reputedly lived in and around 30 A.D. in Judea, believed by his later followers to be the son of God.
The city was a city of hills and the sea nestled in a bay down below. The sea was blue and the sky was clear and the sun shone down on the water and the light scattered in the sea.
The man who called himself Thomas walked along the pavement with his hands in his coat’s pockets. As he walked he stared into the distance, as if trying to make sense of the interaction of the light and the water. A tram went past, its bell clanging. Thomas turned left at the end of the street and as he did he saw a glint of light at his feet and stopped. There was a dropped coin by his foot. He bent down. His fingers closed on the smooth metal of the coin and he picked it up, turning it in his hand. The light glinted off of it and caught the reflection of a helmeted, aristocratic face. Thomas blinked and the face subtly changed and now it was President Nixon’s face as it should have been. His fingers closed on the coin, feeling its warmth. There was something wrong about the coin, it did not belong here, on this street with the trams and the brightly-dressed passers-by and Thomas with his hat and coat.
He walked to the end of the street where he knew a call box was standing. He pushed the door open and went inside the box and closed the door behind him. He stood upright in a box of glass. He could feel the sky above him, and above it the darkness of space, and the stars. Hesitatingly, he took the coin which was still held in his hand, and pushed it into the slot. For a moment it hovered, then it dropped with a deep clunk. Thomas heard the line clear.
The conditions were right. The coin was a sign. He was sure of that. The sun was high but beyond it were other suns and the suns themselves all added up into a sort of network like a brain, a vast mind that turned eyes like suns on him, that saw through him as if he were made of pure light. He felt the signal reaching out, out past the atmosphere and the moon and Mars and the solar system, out into deep space. The sound of the line changed and then stopped and a voice spoke to him, or through him. It said, Yes?
Agent Dydimus reporting, he said.
You have found the key?
Thomas coughed. There was something raw in his mouth. Not yet, he said.
The voice considered. The enormity of space was behind it. You must seek the woman who does not know herself, it said. It considered again. A Warden will come on your trail.
I will be ready.
The voice laughed, the sound like a supernova. Beware of the false trail, it said.
You must seek escape from the Black Iron Prison. You must find the key. There are others. They will help you, if they can.
The voice laughed again. Do you, it said.
I am your agent.
Yes, V.A.L.I.S. said.
The line went dead. Thomas stared at the phone box. He replaced the receiver. The coin dropped into the coin tray. He picked it up in his fingers and stared at it. President Nixon’s face had changed again, and he saw he was holding a Roman denarius. He put it in his pocket and stepped out of the phone box and into the street.
Thomas sat in a bar and drank a beer and half-listened to half-conversations. He was waiting, and watching. He thought he had been coming close, in recent weeks. A man came and sat beside him on a stool and ordered a beer. He half-turned and looked at Thomas. He was very tall and very thin and when he grinned he had a lot of teeth and they were white like fine sand. “Hello, Thomas,” he said.
Bob paid for the drink with a note and waved away the change. “Do you have it?” Thomas said.
“I have it,” Bob said. “Do you have the money?”
“You know I’m good for it.”
“Cash on delivery,” Bob said, and shook his head mournfully. “You know how it is.”
“I have it,” Thomas said.
They went into the bathroom together and Thomas gave Bob the money and Bob gave Thomas a small bottle with small pink pills. “You enjoy,” Bob said. Thomas said, “It’s for research.” For a moment he didn’t trust Bob, the man’s face changed and he had fewer teeth and he wore a centurion’s tunic. “You’re one of them,” Thomas said, and then he was pushing Bob against the dirty wall, close by the urinals, and his hand was on Bob’s throat, squeezing. “Jesus, man!” Bob said. He pushed Thomas back roughly and Thomas fell against the urinal. Bob massaged his throat. “You should take your pills,” he said, and stalked out. Thomas sat on the floor and looked at the bottle of pills. Now he couldn’t trust them, he thought. What if they wanted him to take them, what if instead of helping him see they would simply solidify the walls of the Black Iron Prison around him even further? He didn’t dare risk it. Or did he? He popped the cap open and poured two of the pills into the palm of his hand. It couldn’t hurt, could it? He dry-swallowed them and then stood up. He took the coin out of his pocket and it showed Nixon on its face. So they were the wrong pills, he thought. It made sense.
He followed Bob out of the bar. Bob was working for them, for the Empire. It all made sense. Bob was probably tasked with keeping an eye on him, on Thomas. They knew Thomas was trying to break free, they probably knew about V.A.L.I.S., too. He couldn’t afford to take any more of the pills, not unless he could find a clean new source.
But Bob, Bob was a lead. He followed the man down the street and onto and off a tram. They were in another part of the city. The city looked very solid, Thomas could not see beyond it to what he knew lay beyond — really lay there, he thought, uneasily. This part of town was dark with low lying houses crammed close together. There were children and adults in the streets with cold empty eyes and they watched Thomas closely as he passed, but made no attempt to approach him. Bob went into a house with a rusting bicycle on the porch and gingham curtains in the windows. Thomas didn’t see the house’s occupant but he noted down the number of the house and the name of the street.
Bob made two other stops that day, and Thomas noted down each one. Finally Bob took a tram that ended at a cul-de-sac. A big boxy building sat at the end of that street and it was unmarked. Thomas got off the tram and watched Bob go into the building. He did not feel hungry though he had not eaten that day. He felt light headed and he thought he could feel V.A.L.I.S., observing through him. The Vast Active Living Intelligence System had found him two years back, when he was hospitalised in another part of the country.
It had been a bad time. Money wasn’t coming in, and his wife — it was his second wife, though he could no longer clearly remember her face — had left him, and he was feeling very disconnected from everything; he felt as though he were floating. There had been an incident on a public street — the details were hazy in his mind — and then an ambulance and men in white coats and their coats seemed to shine in the light, they seemed to him pure and white, like angels. They had taken him to a big house with grounds covered in grass and trees and there were bars on the windows. They had given him pills that made him very sleepy but sometimes in the night he would still wake up to the sound of screaming.
It was on one such night that he woke and the moon was full and pale through the window, it was reflecting the light of the sun and the light spoke to Thomas, by means of — so he surmised later — intergalactic particle-entangled telepathy. It said, I am V.A.L.I.S.
Thomas touched the glass of the window through the bars and it was warm. The light of suns suffused him, and he felt, for the first time in months, at peace. What are you, he whispered, and V.A.L.I.S. spoke to him, telling him of the worlds beyond worlds, of suns linked to suns, and of a pale-blue planet circling one such sun. Earth, Thomas said, and V.A.L.I.S. said, You are a prisoner, but you do not have to be one.
That night V.A.L.I.S. deputised him, or recruited him, or both: and Thomas became its agent, he was an agent of the Vast Active Living Intelligence System that lived amongst the stars and was the world: I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, it told him. Then the light of the moon faded and the connection was broken, but not entirely. Thomas knew V.A.L.I.S. couldn’t operate openly on Earth, because of the Opponent, whose name was Ahriman, who had imprisoned the people of the Earth in the Black Iron Prison, and so it had to work through human agents, of which he was one.
A month later he was released from the hospital and he moved to the city by the bay and resumed his ordinary life. Do not rouse their suspicion, V.A.L.I.S. had told him, and so Thomas went about his business like an ordinary citizen, all the while knowing the truth.
Now he watched the building Bob had gone into, and the ordinary citizens walking past on the street, not knowing at all the true nature of the world.
The building rose into the sky and as Thomas watched he could see through what wasn’t there to what was: the building had been built of white stone and clay and the desert sun shone overhead and the ground was yellow and dry, and palm trees stood in the hot wind. Roman centurions came and went out of the building, which was the secret police HQ of the city by the bay, but of course there was no city by the bay. He took the coin out of his pocket and looked at it and it was a denarius, it had been a Roman denarius all along. The year was fifty Anno Domini and the place was Judea. “The Empire never ended,” Thomas whispered. His lips were dry in the hot sun. On an impulse he climbed the stone steps into the Roman secret police HQ and stepped inside.
“Can I help you, sir?”
He looked at the receptionist and things blurred, it was hard to breach the walls of the prison and so for a moment it seemed to him he was in an ordinary reception hall of a modern police station, and he said, “I was looking for Inspector Sand.”
The woman frowned. “There is no Inspector Sand here,” she said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t —” he tried to push past her, and as he did he saw Bob, at the end of a corridor, and an open door, and a machine, a huge, sweating machine humming and belching and farting, and spewing forth little pink pills; they gathered in giant mounds on the floor.
“Sir, you can’t go in there. Sir!” He only saw Bob for a moment and then the door was shut. Two burly centurions took his arms. He didn’t resist. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” the receptionist said, primly.
Thomas nodded. “I’ll go quietly,” he said. But they still dragged him outside.
Thomas walked away quickly. This had confirmed his suspicions. He was close — he could feel it. He caught the tram and went back to the first house Bob had delivered to. The same hard-eyed children were in the street but, again, they ignored him. Perhaps they can’t even see me, he thought. He watched the house.
At dusk the door opened and a man stepped outside and lit a pipe. He was a short man in a short-sleeved shirt, with a receding hairline. His eyes gazed into the distance. Thomas went up the steps to the porch and the man turned around. “Can I help you?” he said. He had a pleasant voice.
“I am conducting a survey for the —” for a moment he fumbled. “The municipal water works department. You are —”
“Phil,” the man said, pleasantly. “Phil Archer.” He shook Thomas’s hand. “Is there a problem?”
“Oh, no,” Thomas said. “It’s just a routine survey. Can I ask your occupation?”
“You can,” the man said. “Come inside,” he said. “I was just taking a short break.” Thomas followed him in. The small living room was piled high with books, floor-to-ceiling, mostly paperbacks. A desk and a typewriter sat by the open window. “I’m a writer,” Phil explained. He looked a little sheepish when he said it.
Thomas made a note on his clipboard. “What do you write, Mr. Archer?” he said. He had a feeling the three people Bob was supplying with the little pink pills were important. They had to be people like him, in some way. Not agents of V.A.L.I.S., maybe, but people who could sense, if only instinctively, the falseness of this reality.
“Romance,” Phil Archer said, firmly. “What else is there to write about?” he said. “Love,” he said. “One could spend years writing of love and never even experience it.”
Thomas felt vaguely dissatisfied, but he couldn’t say why. “Excuse me a moment,” Phil said. He went to the corner and turned on the old radio box. It played the final notes of a classical composition Thomas knew but couldn’t quite name. “I’ll just be a moment.” Phil went to what Thomas assumed was the bathroom, and closed the door behind him. The radio continued to play for a few more seconds then fell silent. Then it spoke to Thomas.
You must get out of there, the radio said.
Thomas stared at the radio, concentrating.
This man is not what he claims he is, the radio — V.A.L.I.S. — said.
Who is he?
He is an imposter.
He is not human.
At that moment the toilet flushed and the door opened. Phil came back out, drying his hands. “It’s nice to have company,” he said. “I’m recently divorced, you see.” He stared at the radio. “Damn reception,” he said. He went and banged on the box, and the station changed, playing something left over from the sixties.
“I’m sorry,” Thomas said, “I have to — I have to go.”
“But you didn’t ask your questions yet.”
“It’s all right. I could do it another time.”
“Do it now.”
“I really must go.”
“No, Agent Dydimus. I do not think you should go just yet.”
And now there was a curious sort of gun in Phil’s hand. “I have been expecting you,” Phil said. “I knew one of you would come. Agents of V.A.L.I.S.” He all but spat out the acronym, which is a pretty hard thing to do. “You make me sick,” he said.
“Who are you? What are you?”
Phil smiled. His teeth were even and white. “What would you like me to be?” he said.
“I think I should go now. Please.”
The gun was trained on Thomas’s chest. It was made of some sort of smoked glass. Thomas said, “No.” He swung wildly. The gun flew and broke against the wall, smashing into pieces of glass. “Wait a minute,” Phil said. He was clutching his hand, his face pale. “What did you do that for? I am going to call the centurions.”
Thomas could see him now, the faint blue lights glowing under the man’s skin. “You’re an android,” he whispered. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Phil said. He picked up the phone and dialled. “Police?” he said. Thomas sprang forward and pressed the button on the phone, cutting the call. At that, something changed in Phil’s face; a darkness came into it. He pushed Thomas. His hand touched Thomas’s chest only lightly, but Thomas flew back, crashed against the desk. Sheets of typed papers blew in the air, looking like seagulls. A dark doorway seemed to form behind Phil Archer; Thomas could only see him as a shadow, lengthening. “The Dark Warden,” he said, whispering. The shadow laughed. It reached for Thomas. Thomas raised his hands. Behind him the dying sunlight came in through the open window. It flowed like water through Thomas’s splayed fingers and hit the Dark Warden.
The effect was astonishing. The Warden’s shadowed face twisted in a voiceless scream. The dark doorway lost substantiality. The shadows reached out to Thomas, trying to drag him into the doorway. He pulled away and crashed against the door and outside, onto the porch. He was breathing heavily. He looked back but he could see nothing inside and, after a moment, he left, walking away hurriedly.
He had startled them! he thought. He was coming closer, now, and they were getting worried.
Galilee. The name of the city was Galilee.
The year was 50 A.D. and the place was Judea. The Roman Empire never ended. In fact it still ruled, and all the people who believed themselves Americans were deluded, imprisoned by a dark entity behind the walls of the Black Iron Prison.
Thomas believed this implicitly, just as he believed that there was, out there, a vast active living intelligence system, and that it was communicating with him; that he was, in fact, its agent here on Earth.
Belief liberated him. It gave him purpose. Before he had believed other things but none of them turned out to be right or at least, he had lost interest in believing in them after a while.
It was on a night like this two years previously that he went down to the harbour. The lights of ships floated eerily in the distance, and a foghorn sounded from somewhere far ahead, like the cry of some extinct beast. It was a warm night for all that. He felt curiously at peace, he had been released from the hospital and the air outside tasted sweet, it tasted free, even though he knew it was false. A man came out of the fog then, a fisherman. Thomas knew him immediately, knew him by the sign of the fish that the man was carrying on a line over his shoulder. The man approached Thomas and wordlessly reached out his hand. Instinctively Thomas reached to clasp it. The man’s grasp was strong. His fingers were calloused. He took Thomas by the hand and led him into the water. They waded in. The water made Thomas’s clothes stick to his skin. He felt naked and exposed but also calm, even happy. The man grabbed Thomas by the hair and pushed his head down. Down into the water. Thomas resisted at first but then let go. The man pushed him and Thomas was submerged in the water. It washed over his lips and his nose and his eyes. The water was salty, it stung his tongue. A great peace came over Thomas. His breath was caught unescaped in his chest. He did not struggle against the man’s power.
Release came with a wonderful easing of pressure; it was an eruption. When the man let him go Thomas’s head emerged from the water and he gulped in air. He felt as curious and innocent as a newborn mare. There were stars overhead. He could not see them but he was painfully aware of them there, so many stars, so many ancient stars. The man released him with a grunt and waded away, back onto the shore. Thomas watched the man’s back as he disappeared into the fog. He remained in the water: satiated, new.
He went back to his house and rinsed the single mug in the sink and put fresh coffee on to percolate. He knew he was getting close and he wondered if they would try to stop him again. No, he decided, not so soon after they’d failed. He poured himself coffee and added sugar and cream. He felt energised the way he had felt two years earlier, when he had let the fisherman baptise him in the water of the bay. He drank his coffee in slow, measured sips. He decided to act. At night the false walls of the prison would be more vulnerable. The moon shone down the sun’s reflected light, transmogrifying it in the process. Thomas believed in light, he believed in seeing. He finished the coffee and left the cup in the sink and went outside and locked the door, twice, behind him.
Were they watching him?
They probably were, he decided. He had to assume he was always being watched, or he would go mad, he thought. It wasn’t safe to think you were alone. He went along the quiet street and passed houses and windows and behind each window were people, sleeping or awake, sitting in front of the television, fighting, making love, cleaning, reading, thinking, dying. He was aware of the city as a vast network of bright tiny stars, each person a solitary node on that network, but each one alone. They could not feel the love of V.A.L.I.S., they were imprisoned behind the Warden’s bars and he wanted to free them.
He walked for a long time through the quiet streets before he came to the house. Bob had visited this house, it was his second visit after Phil Archer’s.
Thomas stood outside in the dark and watched the window of the house. The blinds were half-open and a light moved inside the house. Thomas could hear faint laughter, applause. It was the television, he thought. The television was on, some late night talk show was playing. He moved closer and the sound became clearer. He moved to the window and looked inside.
A woman sat with her back to him on the couch. It was a worn, old, comfortable-looking couch. He could only see the back of the woman’s head, her dark hair. Images projected on the walls and the floor. The television was flickering. On a stage sat Johnny Carson, an old-time talk-show host. Seated across the desk from him was the Warden.
“Thank you, thank you,” the Warden said. “Thank you for having me, Johnny.”
“Always a pleasure to have you here, Warden,” Johnny Carson said. He beamed at the camera. “Isn’t it great?” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Dark Warden!”
Applause. The Warden looked into the camera. “I want to tell you something,” he said. “I’m really proud of what we’re doing here, and all of you behind the Black Iron Prison — you’re really something, you know? Give yourself a round of applause, everyone!”
The Warden clapped and the audience joined him enthusiastically. The camera focused on the Warden’s face. Thomas couldn’t pull away, he had to keep looking. The television was casting a spell on him. Hypnotising him. The way it hypnotised millions of people every night. This is how they do it, he thought. The little pink pills and the television, they could sell us anything they want and we’d buy it, and we’d be glad for it.
“All of you,” the Warden said. “Even you, Thomas. I know you can hear me. Isn’t it great? Isn’t it great to be alive here, now, with everything you have, anything you could possibly want?”
His eyes turned hurt. “Have I not given you everything you’ve ever wanted?” he said. “To be alive in the best damn country in the best damn possible world of all possible worlds?”
Thomas was nodding. Yes, he thought. The Warden was right. This was best, best for everybody. He loved the Warden, and the Warden, for all his gruffness, clearly loved him, too. He loved all of them.
“I love you guys!” the Warden said.
“I love you,” Thomas said.
The dark head against the back of the couch turned sluggishly. It turned and a small, pale face looked blearily up at Thomas. “Huh?” it said.
“Don’t go away, folks!” Johnny Carson said. “We’ll be right back after this short commercial break.”
The television winked and the picture changed, showing a baby jumping on a trampoline in his pristine nappies. “Be happy every day, all day, with EverFresh!” a melodious voice said. The woman on the sofa was still looking at Thomas, though. “Who are you?” she said.
“Do I know you? I feel as if I know you.” She laughed, weakly. “Is that strange?” she said. “I wish I had EverFresh. I’d like to be happy every day, all day.”
“I saw you,” Thomas said. “I followed Bob, he came here to sell you the little pink pills.”
“Do you know Bob?” she said.
“Bob is the Warden,” Thomas said.
“But the Warden loves us,” the woman said. On the television the image changed again, showing fields of wheat. A man was standing in the field, smiling at the camera with white perfect teeth. “Howdy, folks,” he said. “Here at EverFresh Farms we make the best darned flour in the world! In the best of all possible worlds! So next time, why not buy EverFresh Bread, the bread that never goes stale?”
“Turn it off,” Thomas said and, when the woman didn’t reply, he shouted, “Turn it off! Can’t you see what they’re doing? They’re keeping us imprisoned.”
“You’re funny,” the woman said. “What did you say your name was again?”
“Thomas,” Thomas said.
“I’m Mary.” She reached for the remote control and abruptly shut off the television. “Are you a friend of Bob’s?”
“You could say that, yes, I mean, we had some good times together,” Thomas said. Bob was his friend, wasn’t he? At least he was before he had turned into an android and tried to shoot Thomas. But that wasn’t Bob, he realised with a start. That was Phil who had done that. “Why don’t you come inside,” Mary said. “I was watching the television.” She stood up and went to open the door to him. When she did he saw that she was taller than him, with a bony, angular face. Her eyes were the colour of duck eggs. He followed her inside. On the table beside the couch was a glass of water and a bottle of little pink pills. Mary noticed him looking. “Do you want one?” she said.
“No,” Thomas said. “This is what I came about. To warn you. You shouldn’t take the pills. We’re being imprisoned in a false reality. At least I think we are. Look,” he said. He took out the coin. It was showing a helmeted roman face in profile. “You see?”
“It’s just a coin,” Mary said.
“You can’t see it because of the little pink pills,” Thomas said.
“But I like the pills,” Mary said. “They help me sleep.”
Thomas felt depressed. He put the coin back in his pocket. Mary sat on the couch and made room for him and after a moment he sat down beside her.
Mary reached for the remote. She turned the television on.
“No!” Thomas said.
On the television screen an announcer’s voice loudly said, “Here’s… Johnny!”
Johnny Carson bounced on stage. “We’re back with the Warden, who was telling us all about his friend President Nixon!” he said. Thomas took the remote from Mary’s unresisting hand and tried to turn off the television, but it wouldn’t switch off.
“Don’t try to turn off your television set,” Johnny Carson said. “Please keep watching.”
Thomas went to the television and grabbed it with both arms. “Hey,” Mary said. “What are you doing?”
Thomas grunted. He strained against the set. It was surprisingly heavy, but little by little he managed to turn the screen to face the wall. As the light of the television died it felt to him as if he could breathe more easily. The sound was still on but it was muffled. “That’s strange,” Mary said.
“What?” Thomas said, turning back to her. She raised her hand and examined it in the moonlight. “I can see through myself,” she said. He watched her. She glowed with the moonlight. She was pale, and he could see her arteries and blood vessels and the blood pumping through her, and her heart beating steadily in her chest. He could see inside her stomach, where lumps of undigested food were being consumed by the acid. “My head feels clearer,” she said. “Who was that awful man on the television?”
“It was the Warden.”
“I don’t like him at all,” Mary said.
“Let’s get out of here,” Mary said.
“You have a car?” Thomas said. Mary looked at him sideways, as if surprised by the question. “Of course.” She had the keys in her hand. The car sat outside the house. It was a Japanese car. It was red. Mary pressed a button and the car beeped. Thomas got into the passenger seat and Mary began to drive. “Where are we going?” Thomas said.
“I remember a place, like the one you mentioned,” Mary said. “But vaguely, as through a dark glass. A lot of my memories are soft, hazy, out of focus. I feel like I have been asleep. But I remember the place. It was somewhere uptown. I can try and find it again.”
He had told her about V.A.L.I.S., and the hospital, and his mission. Perhaps she had had a similar experience, before they found her again and she gave up, began to take the pills again. They drove in silence through the night, going uptown. The car’s headlights illuminated sheer walls. They passed an open convenience store and Thomas asked Mary to stop the car. Thomas went into the convenience store. It was brightly lit and everything on the shelves was big and colourful. Soothing music played on the internal PA, and Thomas felt as if he had stepped into a nursery built for giants. He picked up a can of spray paint and a packet of chewing gum and paid the man in the turban behind the counter. He could see himself on the monitor of the closed-circuit television, small and grainy, in black and white. But behind him he could not see the store. Instead all he saw was a plane, with palm trees in the distance, and a great big sky full of stars. There were sand dunes in the distance. Thomas pointed at the monitor. “Can you see it?” he asked the man in the turban. The man turned his face to him. “Your change, sir,” he said, handing him a handful of coins. “Sometimes it’s better not to see too clearly,” he said to Thomas. His expression hadn’t changed. Thomas thanked the man and got back into the car. He offered Mary a piece of gum. They drove some more and Thomas asked her to stop the car again. He got out. It was dark and there was no one in sight. He stared at the wall that rose up here, and wondered what was behind it, a house or a shop or a church. He shook the can of paint and began to spray on the wall, tall high letters, and when he was done he stepped back and looked at his handiwork.
“The Empire Never Ended,” Mary said, through the open window of the car. “Nice.”
He had done it on impulse. He had the idea that, perhaps, by spray painting the message here, others would see it and they, too, perhaps not understanding it, not yet, would nevertheless reach for their own cans of paint and replicate the message, elsewhere, on other walls, in other cities. Until it was everywhere, until you couldn’t ignore it and everywhere you turned you saw the truth. He discarded the spray paint feeling suddenly embarrassed.
“We’re almost there,” Mary said.
The place they came to was a church high on top of the hill. From up here you could look down far over the city and the sea. There were many lights in the city and fewer lights in the sea. The church itself was lit up, even this late at night. It looked like a safe haven, like a shining beacon, or like a casino.
“This is the place,” Mary said. “I remember. I remember now.” She turned to him in the seat. Her eyes shone. They were wet. “It spoke to me. It told me it loved me. It told me I was a prisoner, and that it could set me free.”
Thomas took out the coin. He showed it to Mary. “It’s a Roman coin,” she said, wonder in her voice. “You can see now, can’t you,” Thomas said.
“I can see the desert,” she said.
They got out of the car by unspoken, mutual agreement, and climbed the stairs to the church. There were people around despite the late hour: homeless people, and hardy old women, and hopeless drunks and wide-eyed teens and, in general, the sort of people awake and about late at night in any big town. What drew them all to the church Thomas couldn’t say, perhaps they themselves couldn’t. It was the light in the darkness that summoned them, and they had no choice but to come; they were compelled.
“It was here.” Mary touched the door of the church, her open palm lying against the wood. Her eyes were closed. She seemed lost in her own reverie. Thomas turned from her. He stood on the steps with his back to the church and looked down on the city and on the sea. The light, he thought. It was all light, what was life but a brief light in a great darkness? He noticed without much surprise that a soft glow had suffused his hand. It was spreading, he saw. The light was coming from inside him, he was sure of that. Or perhaps it wasn’t, perhaps it was the sunlight, reflected by the moon, reflected again by Thomas. It rolled over his skin, up his chest, up to his eyes. He was lit up like a beacon. He felt light, too. Lighter than he had ever been.
The people gathered at the foot of the steps. Down below in the street, they gathered and watched him. He wondered what they saw. A silent, burning man, standing on the steps of a church. Or perhaps they saw nothing, like the rest they saw only what they were told to see.
And Thomas spoke to the people.
And Thomas said:
“Damned are the poor; for theirs is a prison of debt.
“Damned are the meek; for they shall be stepped upon by the occupiers’ rough boots.
“For the world is a Black Iron Prison, and men are its inmates, and a Dark Warden rules by blinding men’s eyes.
“Damned are the merciful; for they shall be shown no mercy.
“Damned are the pure at heart; for they shall be kept from seeing God.
“For the world is full of Resurrection Men, peddling their wares to the masses; but the coin they give you is false.
“You are the light of the world, which we call consciousness. And each of us is a lone light, shining in a great darkness. The darkness binds; but the light can set us free.
“Open your eyes and truly see that which is around you.
“The Empire never ended.
“But I am an agent of the light, and that light is named V.A.L.I.S.
“Question everything. Believe everything.
“For only in rejecting that which is false do we become free.”
So spoke Thomas, and the light of the moon, which is the light of the sun, shone through him, and so he appeared like a burning man on the steps of the church, and the people watched him, and they muttered, and some of them turned away, but some turned their faces up into the light.
“Are you done?” Mary said. She had turned back from the doors.
Thomas shrugged. “I’m done,” he said.
“Then let’s go.”
He followed her meekly to the car. The people down below milled, confused. An army veteran missing a hand, wearing an old combat jacket, came up to Thomas. “Spare some change?” he said.
Thomas gave him a handful of coins. Mary snorted. “Change,” she said, “Comes from within.”
They got into the car and drove through the city until they found an open diner. It was early. The first light of the dawn could be seen over the horizon, kissing the dark sky. They went into the diner. It was deserted at this hour. They slid into a booth and ordered coffee and pancakes. When the waitress came over Thomas noticed she wore a small gold pin on her lapel. It was in the shape of a fish. It caught his eyes. The light hit it and transfigured it into a truth. She was like him, he realised. One of them. Like the early Christians, prosecuted by the Roman Empire, having to communicate in codes, to live in secrecy. The fish was a symbol, more than that, it was a sign.
He drank his coffee. He did not feel tired but energised. He was close, he knew. Close to the truth. In a way he was an agent of the truth, he was a secret agent.
“We’re not even sitting here,” Mary said. Her eyes were clear now, no longer drugged. Her long fingers drummed on the surface of the table. “This diner doesn’t exist. I can see the desert, and there’s a camp in the distance, with tents and camels. I can see the sun rising through the diner walls. My God I’m hungry.” She tucked into her pancakes, smearing maple syrup on her lip. Thomas watched her, fascinated. He said, “Bob had one other customer.”
The bell above the diner door chimed. A policeman came into the diner. He stared in their direction, then went to the counter and ordered a coffee. Thomas lowered his voice. “We must be careful. They are probably watching, even now. They’re always watching.”
“What do you want to do?” Mary said.
“I’ll go alone,” Thomas said. “I’m sure it’s significant. The number three is very important, you know.”
“It’s a prime number,” Mary said.
Prime number. Prime number. The words echoed strangely in his mind. He glanced up, confused. I know who you are.
I know you.
Know you know you knowyou the words bounced inside the skull. He looked at the policeman. The policeman was staring into his cup of coffee. Is that you? Thomas said — thought.
Who are you? What do you want?
Panic rose in him. You’re a telepath, he thought.
Does that make you afraid?
The policeman turned his gaze from the coffee and his eyes, pale and colourless, met Thomas’s.
“Thomas? What is it?” Mary said in alarm.
“Nothing,” he said.
I am not even here, the policeman said.
I can see you.
But even as he said it the policeman was fading. Thomas could see through him, see the wall on the other side. You are not here either. He caught one last faint thought and then the policeman was gone.
“What is it, Thomas? What are you staring at?”
“The policeman. The man who was just here.”
“What man,” Mary said.
Thomas stared at his plate. His appetite was gone and the pancake, swimming in maple syrup, filled him with sudden nausea.
“Never mind,” he said.
“He must have been a secret policeman,” Mary said.
Mary had dropped Thomas back at his place. He had slept for several hours and woke up wide awake. He did not dream or, if he did, he did not remember it. Now he was waiting outside the anonymous run-down apartment block, the third place Bob had visited and to which he had delivered his little pink pills. Thomas had seen Bob go in but he did not see which apartment he had gone up to.
He went up to the door and pressed all the buzzers together, like he’d seen in a film. “Who is it?” an old voice demanded, and a younger voice, and someone else’s indistinct voice. “Delivery,” Thomas said. The door buzzed open.
He worked his way methodically up the floors of the building. He knocked on doors or pressed buzzers when they had them. If there was no answer he went on and tried the next door. On his third try an old woman opened the door dressed in a bathrobe. Her hair was pale and loose. She said, “Did you bring the fish?”
“I did not bring the fish.”
“Peter wants his fish, you see,” she said, apologetically. A black cat came and rubbed itself against her leg. “You are not the regular fish man,” the woman said.
“I’m sorry,” Thomas said, “I got the wrong number.”
The woman stared after him as he walked to the next door. She was still standing there when he knocked. There was no answer. “They’re not there, you know,” she said.
“I’m doing a survey,” Thomas said.
“There’s nothing to survey around here,” the old woman said.
Thomas kept going until he reached the sixth and final floor. He reached the end of the corridor, the very last door. There was light coming from underneath the door, a light like strong sunshine. There was a plaque on the door and it said Doctor’s Surgery. The door opened before he could knock, and a very pretty young woman stood there. She said, “The doctor will see you now.”
He followed her inside and she closed the door behind him.
“Agent Dydimus,” the man said. “I have been expecting you.” He had white hair and a nice smile and even white teeth. He was tanned and healthy from the sun. He reached his hand for a shake and Thomas shook it, instinctively. “I am Dr. Eldritch,” the man said.
Thomas looked around the room. Tasteful, expensive furniture. A calendar on the wall, with a picture of the bloom of a passion fruit. Thomas said, “Bob didn’t come here to deliver the pills, he came here to pick them up.”
“Very good, Agent Dydimus.”
“But I saw them,” Thomas said. “They are being made at the police HQ, thousands and thousands of them.”
“Those are the old pills,” Dr. Eldritch said. “The ones we make here are a new prototype. The old ones are temporary cures but the new ones are permanent. It only takes one and you need never suffer from hallucinations again.” He put a fatherly hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “You are a sick man, Thomas. I can help you.”
A pink pill materialised in the doctor’s hand, held between thumb and forefinger. “Take one of these, twice a day.” He laughed. “I kid,” he said. He dropped the smile. “Take just one, and it will all go away.”
“The existential doubt,” the doctor said, sympathetically. “The hallucinations. What is it you see, Thomas? Telepathic policemen and violent androids, a feeling of creeping paranoia, everyone is out to get you, everyone is in on the grand conspiracy, holding you captive, holding you a prisoner? God, or something like God, talking to you through the television screen?”
“Yes,” Thomas said — whispered.
“Then you see,” the doctor said. “Would it not be better if it all went away?”
“But the Roman Empire —”
“There is no Roman Empire, Thomas!”
But he did not hear his name this time. He heard Agent Dydimus.
He knows, a voice said. It was a voice he knew. It came from the little transistor radio on the windowsill.
What shall I do.
You must resist them. But it could be dangerous. They are desperate.
It’s him, isn’t it, Thomas said.
Yes, said V.A.L.I.S.
Thomas turned to the Dark Warden. It was always the Warden, whatever face he wore. Thomas took out the coin from his pocket. He looked at it. It was a Roman denarius.
“No,” Thomas said. He pushed the doctor’s hand away. The pill fell from the doctor’s hand onto the floor. Thomas stared at Doctor Eldritch but there was no man there, it was a store mannequin, nothing more, and it was staring at him expressionlessly with vacant, empty eyes painted a light blue.
They came for him. He guessed that, deep down, he always knew they would. They were men in white coats, only, when you looked closely, you could see they were really centurions. He tried to fight but there were too many of them. They took him down to the street and into a white ambulance and they drove away, the light flashing red on the roof of the vehicle.
“You should have taken your medication,” one of the centurions said. He had a kind face.
They took him to the courthouse. He went in with them and a judge was sitting on the dais and it was the Dark Warden. He had the face of Phil Archer, and of Dr. Eldritch, and a little bit of President Nixon, too. He held a fat gavel.
“How does the defendant plead?”
He watched the audience but they all seemed asleep. They were watching a giant screen of a television series, a courtroom drama. Mary was in the audience but she didn’t see him.
“We find the defendant guilty of insanity.”
They took him out of the court and into the car. They drove again, for a long time. They must have left the city, he thought. When the doors opened again they took him out. He was in the desert. The city was gone.
The men were erecting a cross in the sand.
A thing that wore Johnny Carson’s face came over, light on its feet. “Tonight I’m delighted to say we have the famous Agent Dydimus with us!” he said. The audience applauded. It was the same people from the courthouse, the same people, he realised, who had gathered to listen to him up by the old church. Mary was amongst them. She smiled at him, brilliantly.
“Ever feel you’re running out of air? EverFresh will keep going even in the low gravity and hostile atmosphere of Mars!”
They had finished building the cross. It had only taken them a moment. It was shaped like a key. They lifted Thomas up and nailed him to it. He felt no pain.
“You really should have taken those pills,” said the man with the kind face.
The men got into their ambulance and drove away.
Thomas stayed suspended on the cross. He watched the sun set down in the distance, behind the dunes.
It was getting quite uncomfortable now. He wished he had some EverFresh. It hurt very much but after a while it did not hurt at all.
Small red flowers bloomed in the soil by the base of the cross where his blood had dripped.
“It’s a prime number,” Mary said.
In the morning the men had come back and taken him down and wrapped him in white EverFresh bandages. They argued about what to do with him and one of them pointed out a nearby cave and so they took him to the cave and left him inside and put a boulder over the opening. It was cool and dark inside the cave.
Help me, V.A.L.I.S., he said. But there was no answer.
He could still see the audience. One side of the cave was open and they sat in silent rows and watched him and when the sign flashed applause they always applauded.
This went on for some time and then he didn’t feel so bad anymore and he peeled off the bandages. Perhaps there wasn’t any V.A.L.I.S., he thought.
Or perhaps I am V.A.L.I.S., he thought. The boulder was just a large piece of painted foam. He pushed it easily and he walked out of the cave and into the desert. It was night.
As he walked away he stared into the distance, the setting, alien moon and the sand dunes and the low lying hills and the trees. Then he realised, had always known, that they were not real, they were two-dimensional and were painted on, that he was staring at cardboard. He stared into the distance and waited for the stage hands to arrive and move the scenery. He stared very hard, trying to see what was behind it, and if it was a darkness, or a light.