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SHE CAN SMELL the sickness everywhere. Her nostrils are not duped by the desperate odor of antiseptic; there is a peculiar stench to sickness that nothing will conceal, a stench mixed in with the thick, glossy utility paint which, through years of overpainted overpainting, has built into layer upon layer of ingrained despair. From these hopeless strata sickness leaks into the air. There is no concealing the smell of a hospital, it squeezes out of the floor tiles every time a trolley rolls over them, and under the slightest pressure of a nurse’s footstep.

As she sits in the chair by the bed she breathes in the sickness and is surprised to find how cold it is. It is not the cold of the snow falling outside the window, the snow that softens and conceals the outlines of the Royal Victoria Hospital like white antiseptic. It is the cold which encircles death, the cold of the boy on the bed, which draws the living heat out of her, cold and sickness.

She does not know what the machines are for. The doctors have explained, more than once, but there must be more to her son’s life than the white lines on the oscilloscope. A person’s life is not measured by lines, for if that is all a life is, which are the lines for love, and the lines for devotion? which is the pulsebeat of happiness, or the steady drone of pain? She does not want to see those lines. Catherine Semple is a God-fearing woman who has heard the steady drone of pain more than anyone should have to in any lifetime, but she will not hear it whisper any blasphemous rumors. Joy and pain she accepts from the fingers of the same God; she may question, but she never backbites. Her son lies in a coma, head shaved, wires trickling current into his brain, tubes down his nose, throat, arms, thighs. He has not moved for sixteen hours, no sign of life save the white measurements of the machines. But Catherine Semple will sit by that bed until she sees. At about midnight a nurse will bring coffee and some new used women’s magazines; Nurse Hannon, the kindly, scared one from County Monaghan. By that time anything might have happened.

* * * *

“Major Tom, Major Tom,” booms out the huge voice of Captain Zarkon. “Major Tom to fighter bay, Major Tom to fighter bay. Zygon battlefleet on long-range sensors, repeat, Zygon battlefleet on long-range sensors. Go get ‘em, Tom, you’re the Empire’s last hope.” And down in the hangar bay under dome under dome under dome (the high curved roof of the bay, the plasmoglass blister of the ship, the decaled bubble of your helmet) you scrunch down in the rear astrogator’s seat of the X15 Astrofighter and mouth the fabulous words, “You’re the Empire’s last hope.” Of course, you are not the Major Tom whose name thunders round the immense fighter bay, you are Thomas junior, the kid, less than fifty percent of the Galaxy’s most famed (and feared, all the way from Centralis to Alphazar Three) fighting duo, but it is nice to sit there and close your eyes and think they are talking about you.

Here he comes, Major Tom; the last Great Starfighter, Space Ace, Astroblaster, Valiant Defender, thrice decorated by the Emperor Geoffrey himself with the Galaxian Medal and Bar, striding across the hangar deck magnificent in tight-fitting iridescent combat-suit, and, cradled beneath his arm, the helmet with the famous Flash of Lightning logo and the name “Major Tom” stenciled in bold black letters. The canopy rises to admit him and the hero snakily wiggles into the forward command seat.

“Hi, Wee Tom.”

“Hi, Big Tom.”

Space-armored technicians are running ponderously to cover as the fighter deck is evacuated. The canopy seals, internal pressurization takes over and makes your ears pop, despite the gum you are looping around your back molars; the space door irises open and your fighter moves onto the launch catapult. What is beyond the space door? Vacuum, stars, Zygons. Not necessarily in that order. Tactical display lights blink green, little animated Imperial Astrofighters flash on half a dozen computer screens. You park your gum in the corner of the weapons-status display board.

“Primary ignition sequence?”


“Energy banks at full charge?”


“All thrust and maneuvering systems, astrogational and communications channels check?”

“All channels open, all systems go.”

“Okay, Wee Tom. Let’s go get ‘em. We’re the Empire’s last hope.”

A blast of acceleration stuffs your teeth down your throat, flattens your eyeballs to fifty-cent pieces, and grips the back of your neck with an irresistible iron hand as the catapult seizes Astrofighter Orange Leader and shies it at the space door. The wind whistles out of you; everything goes red as the space door hurtles up at you. Then you are through, and, before the redness has faded from your eyes and the air filled your lungs once more, Major Tom has looped your X15 up and over the semi-eclipsed bulk of the miles-and-miles-and-miles-long Excalibur, throneship of Geoffrey I, Emperor of Space, Lord of the Shogon Marches, Defender of Altair, Liege of the Orion Arm, Master of the Dark Nebula.

“Astrogation check.”

“Enemy force targeted in Sector Green Fourteen Delta J. Accelerating to attack speed …”

“Good work, Wee Tom. Orange Leader to Force Orange, sign in.”

One by one they climb away from Excalibur, the valiant pilots of Force Orange: Big Ian, The Prince, John-Paul (J.P. to his comrades only), Captain “Kit” Carson, Black Morrisey— nicknames known and respected (and, in some piaces, dreaded) right across the sparkling spiral of the Galaxy. Such is these men’s fame that it brings a lump to your throat to see the starlight catch on their polished wing-fairings and transform their battlescarred fighters into chariots of fire.

“Force Orange reported in, Orange One through Orange Five, Orange Leader,” you say.

“Okay,” says Major Tom with that tight resoluteness in his voice you love to hear so much. He waggles his fighter’s wings in the attack signal and Force Orange closes up behind him.

“Let’s go get ‘em. We’ve got a job to do.”


YES, THE ORIGINAL diagnosis was leukemia, but, as the disease was not responding to conventional treatment, Dr. Blair classified it as a psychologically dependent case … No, sorry, not psychosomatic, psychologically dependent is Dr. Montgomery’s expression, the one Dr. Blair would like used. Put simply, the conventional chemotherapy was ineffective as long as the psychological block to its effectiveness remained. Yes, the leukemia has gone into complete remission. How long ago? About twelve days.

Gentleman at the back … sir … This is the thirty-eighth day of the coma, counting from the time when the growth of the cancer was first arrested, as opposed to the complete remission. The patient had been in the orthohealing state for some twenty-six days prior to that while the chemotherapy was administered and found to be effective … Yes sir, the chemotherapy was effective only while the patient was in the orthohealing state. It was discontinued after thirty days.

Gentleman from the Irish News … The boy is perfectly healthy—now, don’t quote me on this, this is strictly off the record, but there is no medical reason why Thomas Semple shouldn’t take up his bed and walk … right out of this hospital. Our only conclusion is that there is some psychological imbalance that is keeping him, or, more correctly, making him keep himself, in Montgomery/Blair suspension.

Sir, by the door … No, the project will not now be discontinued; it has been found to be medically very effective and the psychological bases of the process have been demonstrated to be valid. International medical interest in the process is high. I might add that more than one university across the water, as well as those here in Ireland, have sent representatives to observe the development of the case and there is widescale commercial interest in the computer-assisted technology for the sensory-deprivation dream-simulation systems. In fact, Dr. Montgomery is attending an international conference in The Hague at which he is delivering his paper on the principles of orthohealing … Yes sir, I can confirm that Dr. Montgomery is returning early from the conference, and I wish I knew where you get your information from, because I only found out this morning; but this is not due to any deterioration in Thomas Semple’s condition. He is stable, but comatose in the orthohealing state. Okay? Next question.

Sir, from the Guardian, isn’t it? May I have your question … Yes, Mrs. Semple is in attendance by the bedside; we have a room set aside for her on the hospital premises; she is able to see her son at any time and spends most of her time in the ward with him. She will permit photographs, but under no circumstances will consent to be interviewed, so don’t bother wasting your time trying … Yes, it was her idea, but we agree with her decision totally. I’m sure you must all appreciate, gentlemen, the strain she is under after the tragic death of her husband, her only child developing leukemia, and now the baffling nature of this coma. Next question. I.R.N?

We have no evidence to cause us to believe that he has drifted away from the programmed orthohealing dream. This would be most unlikely as the dream was designed specifically with his ideal fantasies in mind. We believe that he is still living out this Star Wars fantasy, what we call the “Space Raiders” simulation program. To explain a little, we have over a dozen dream archetypes specifically engineered for typical psychological profiles. Thomas Semple junior’s is a kind of wish-fulfillment arcade game, Space Invaders with an infinite number of credits, if you’ll pardon me stretching the analogy. The cancerous cells are represented as alien invaders to be destroyed; he himself is cast in the role of Luke Skywalker, the hero. I believe it was the gentleman from the Irish Times who coined the expression, “Luke Skywalker Case,” wasn’t it?

Okay … any further questions? No? Good. There’s a pile of press releases by the door; if you could pick one up as you leave it’d make it worth the trouble of having them duplicated. Afraid you won’t find anything in them you haven’t heard from me. Thank you, gentlemen, for being so patient and for coming on such a foul day. Thank you all, good morning.

* * * *

(Shuttle flight BA 4503, London Heathrow to Belfast: after the coffee, before the drinks.)

MRS. MACNEILL: I couldn’t help noticing your briefcase, are you a doctor, Mr. Montgomery?

DR. MONTGOMERY: Well, a doctor, yes, but not an M.D., I’m afraid. Doctor of psychology.

MRS. MACNEILL: Oh, have to be careful what I say, then.

DR. MONTGOMERY: Ah, they all say that. Don’t worry, I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m a research psychologist, clinical psychology. I’m attached to the R.V.H. team working on orthohealing, you know, that Luke Skywalker thing?

MRS. MACNEILL: I’ve heard about that, it was on News at Ten, wasn’t it, and it was on Tomorrow’s World a couple of weeks back. That’s the thing about getting people to dream themselves into getting better, isn’t it?

DR. MONTGOMERY: That’s it in a nutshell, Mrs….

MRS. MACNEILL: Oh, sorry, there’s me rabbiting on and never thought to tell you my name. Mrs. MacNeill. Violet MacNeill, of Thirty-two Beechmount Park, Finaghy.

DR. MONTGOMERY: Well, you’ve already guessed who I am, Mrs. MacNeill. Might I ask what takes you over the water?

MRS. MACNEILL: Ach, I was seeing my son, that’s Michael, he’s teaching in Dortmund, in Germany, and he’s always inviting me to come over and see him, so I thought, well, now I’ve got the money, I might as well, because it could be the last time I’ll see him. DR. MONTGOMERY; Oh? How so? Is he moving even further afield?

MRS. MACNEILL: Oh no. But you could say I am. (Laughs, coughs.) You see, Dr. Montgomery, I haven’t got long. I’m a person who believes in calling a spade a spade. I’m dying. It’s this cancer thing, you know? You can’t even talk about it these days, people don’t like you to mention the word when they’re around, but I don’t care, I believe in calling a spade a spade, that’s what I say. I tell who I like because it won’t go away if you don’t talk about it, it’s stupid to try to hide from it, don’t you think? You’re a medical man, you should know.

DR. MONTGOMERY: Psychological, Mrs. MacNeill.

MRS. MACNEILL: You see? The very man to talk to. The trained ear. They picked it up about eight months ago, stomach cancer, well on its way, and they said I only had about a year at the most. I reckon on longer than that, but I’m under no illusions it’ll get better. My daughter, Christine, she wanted to put me in that hospice, you know, the place for the terminally ill, but I said away out of that, all you do there is sit around all day and think about dying and they call that a positive attitude. “Dying with dignity,” they say, but if you ask me, I say you live a bit less and die a little bit more every day until finally no one can tell the difference. Me, I intend to keep on living until the moment I drop. Away out of your hospices, I says to Christine, rather than waste good money on that abattoir, give it me in my hand and I’ll spend it doing all the things I’ve always wanted to do and never had the time for. And do you know what, Dr. Montgomery, she gave it me and I took a bit out of my savings and I’ve been having the time of my life.

DR. MONTGOMERY: Now, that’s what I call a positive attitude, Mrs. MacNeill.

MRS. MACNEILL: You see? That’s the difference between a medical man; ach, I know you’re a psychologist, but you boys with letters after your name are all the same to me, and an ordinary man. You can talk about these things, you can come out and say, “That’s what I call a positive attitude, Violet MacNeill,” while anyone else would only have thought that and been afraid to say it in case they offended me or something. But I wouldn’t mind, wouldn’t mind a bit, what offends me is people not saying what’s on their minds. But I tell you this, there’s just one thing bothers me and won’t give my head peace.

DR. MONTGOMERY: What’s that?

MRS. MACNEILL: It’s not me, nothing to do with me, why, I’m having the best time, I’ve been to Majorca on one of those winter breaks, and to London to see the shows, you know, that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber thing, and I’ve a cousin in Toronto to see, and I have to get to Paris, I’ve always wanted to see Paris, in the spring, like that song, “I Love Paris in the Springtime,” I’d love it any time of year, I’ve got to hang on till I’ve seen Paris. And then there was this joyride to Germany. Which brings me back to what I was talking to you about, don’t I ramble on something dreadful? It’s the kids I worry about, Michael and Christine and wee Richard, I say wee, but he’s a full-time R.U.C. man; it’s them worries me. Now, I don’t care much for dying, but it has to happen and at least I’m not bothering to let it ruin my life, but I worry about what I’m leaving behind. Will the kids ever forgive me?

DR. MONTGOMERY: That’s a very good question, Mrs. MacNeill. Do you feel guilty about dying?

MRS. MACNEILL: See? Asked like a true psychologist. It’s all right, never worry, dear. In a way, it’s stupid to feel guilty about dying; I mean to say, I’m not going to care, am I? But then again, I do feel bad in a sort of way because it’s like I’m betraying them. I’m like the top layer between them and their own ends, and when I’m gone they move up and become the top layer. Do you understand that?

DR. MONTGOMERY: I do. Would you care for a drink? Trolley’s coming up the aisle.

MRS. MACNEILL: Oh, please. Gin and bitter lemon for me. Should cut it out, but I reckon when you add up the harm it does and the good, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Now, what was I saying? Oh yes, do you think children ever forgive their parents for dying? When you’re wee, your parents are like God; I remember mine, God love ‘em, they could do nothing wrong, they were as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar and always would be, but they both died in the bombing in ‘41 and, do you know, Doctor, but I don’t know if I ever forgave them? They’d built my life, they’d given me everything, and then it was as if they’d abandoned me, and I’m wondering if my Michael and Christine and wee Richard will think the same about me. Will they think I’ve betrayed them, or will I have given them that kick up the backside into being mature? What do you think, Dr. Montgomery? Do children ever forgive their parents for being human?

DR. MONTGOMERY: Mrs. MacNeill, I don’t know. I just don’t know.

(The drinks trolley arrives at seats 28C and D at the same instant as the Boeing 757 makes the subtle change of altitude that marks the commencement of its descent to snowbound Northern Ireland.)

* * * *

SHE HAD WISHED upon a star, the star around which her son orbits, a shooting star, fast and low and bright, diving down behind Divis Mountain. When you wish upon a star, doesn’t matter who you are, everything your heart desires will come to you: a cricket had sung that to her once upon a rainy Saturday afternoon in the sixties somewhen, but what if that star is a satellite or an Army helicopter, does that invalidate the wish, does that fold the heart’s desire back on itself and leave it staring at its reflection in the night-mirrored window? The night outside fills the reflection’s cheeks with shadows, and, in the desperate warmth of the hospital room heavy with the scent of sickness, she hugs herself and knows that she is the reflection and it the object. Every night the hollows fill up again with shadows from the shadowland outside where Army Saracens roar through the night and joyriders hot-wire Fords to cruise the wee small hours away round the neat gravel paths of the City Cemetery or stake their lives running the checkpoints manned by weary police reservists watching from the backs of steel-gray Landrovers with loaded rifles.

Stick them in neutral; he’d told her that once. We do that sometimes, stick the Landrovers in neutral and cruise for a couple of hundred yards, then shove them into second, and when they backfire it sounds like gunshots. Gets them ringing up the station: shots heard, Tennant Street, 1:15 A.M. Some of them make it sound like Custer’s Last Stand, he’d said. It had made her laugh, once. Last Stand in Shadowland.

Somewhere in the room is the soul of a twelve-year-old boy, somewhere among the piles of junk Dr. Montgomery had suggested might trigger some response from him. Sometimes she thinks she sees it, like an imp, or like one of the brownies her mother had convinced her had lived behind the dresser in the farmhouse’s kitchen: an imp, darting from under his American football helmet to hide behind his U2 poster, concealed like a lost chord in the strings of his guitar or looping endlessly through his computer like the ghost of an abandoned program. There are his favorite U2 albums, and the cassettes specially recorded for him by John Cleese to try and raise a smile on his face; there is the photograph of Horace, half-collie, half-greyhound, wall-eyed and wild-willed; there is the photograph of Tom senior.

Tom senior, who knew all about backfiring police Landrovers, and the room at the station with the ghettoblaster turned up loud outside it where they took the skinheads, and the twelve different routes to work each day: Tom, who had always been just Dad to him. No, the soul of a twelve-year-old boy, whatever its color, whatever its shape, is not something that can be captured by computer-assisted machinery or lured back to ground and trapped like a limed songbird by a junk-shop of emotional relics, not when it is out there in the night flying loops around Andromeda.

* * * *

As many as the stars in the sky or snowflakes in a blizzard or grains of sand upon a beach, that is how many the Zygon fleet is; wave upon wave of fighters and destroyers and scouts and cruisers and battleships and dreadnoughts and mobile battlestations and there at the heart of it, like the black aniseed at the center of a gobstopper, the Zygon flagship. The enemy is so huge that it takes your breath away and there is a beat of fear in your heart, for the Imperial throneship Excalibur is but one ship and Major Tom is but one man. Major Tom points his fighter’s nose dead into the densest part of the pack and leads Force Orange into the attack.

Is he totally without fear? you ask yourself, sweating under your helmet as the sudden acceleration pushes you deep into your padded seat, stamps all over your ribs, and stands forward on its head to become up.

“Where do they all come from?” you whisper to give your fear a name you can hold it by.

Major Tom hears you, for privacy is not a thing a fighting team with a Galaxy-wide reputation can be bothered with, and answers, “Survivors of the Empire’s destruction of their capital world, Carcinoma. Must have got the Zygon Prime Intelligence off before we blasted Carcinoma, and now they’re here, grouping for another murderous attack on the peaceful planets of the Empire. And we’ve got to stop them before they destroy the entire universe. A battlefleet could fight for a hundred years and still be no nearer the flagship of the Prime Intelligence, but a small force of two-man fighters might, just might, be able to slip past their defenses and attack the flagship with pulsar torpedoes.” And now he says into the relay channels you have opened for him,

“Orange Leader to Orange One through Five, accelerate to combat speed. Let’s go get ‘em, boys. The destiny of the Empire is ours today.”

How you wish you could make up lines like that, words to inspire men and send them into battle, words that wave the star-spangled banner of the Galactic Empire, words that make the hair prickle under your helmet and proud tears leak from the corners of rough-tough space-marine eyes. You think it might not be such a terrible thing to die with words like that ringing in your ears.

Your targeting computer has located the cluster of Zygon dreadnoughts and fighters protecting the flagship of the Prime Intelligence. The first photon blasts from the battleships’ long-range zappers rock your X15 as the enemy fighters peel out of formation to intercept. Opaque spots appear on your visor to screen out the searing light of the photon blasts.

“Orange Leader to Force Orange,” says Major Tom, “I’m going in.”

“Tactical computer available,” you say.

“Forget it, son, Major Tom does his own shooting.” Your thumbs twitch on imaginary triggers as Major Tom locks a Zygon fighter in his sights and blasts it with his laser-zappers. The black alien spacecraft unfolds into a beautiful blossom of white flame. Already Major Tom has another in his sights. Swooping up, up, and away from the nuclear fireball, he rolls the X15 and downs another. And another, and another, and another …

On your tactical display a green grid-square flashes red.

“Big Tom, one on your tail.”

“I mark him. Orange Leader to Orange Two, Big Ian, I’ve a bogie on my tail. I’m going in for the big one, the flagship.” He throws the astrofighter into a rapid series of bounce-about evasive maneuvers. A sudden flare of fusion-light throws your shadow before you onto the astrogational equipment as the Zygon pursuit ship explodes in a billion billion sparkling fragments. Orange Two thunders in to parallel your course. The daring star-pilots exchange greeting signals, and Orange Two rolls effortlessly away into a billion billion cubic light-years of space. Ahead, the Zygon flagship is sowing fighters like demon seed and now its heavy-duty laser turrets are swinging to bear on you. Photon blasts fill the air like thistledown on a summer’s day.

“Hold on to your seat, kid, this calls for some tight flying,” shouts the voice of Major Tom in your helmet-radio earphones, and he twists, turns, spins, loops, somersaults, and handstands the X15 past the crisscrossing Zygon fighters and the laserfire of the Flagship. The immense metal bulk of the enemy ship swells up before you, so close that you can see the space-armored crews at their batteries.

“Arm pulsar torpedoes’ smart systems.”

Click switch, press button; green lights reflect in your visor.

“Pulsar torpedoes armed.” The infinitesimal white X15 Astrofighter hurtles over a crazy metal landscape bursting with laserfire. Before you loom the engine ports, ponderous as mountain ranges, vulnerable as free-range eggs. Your mouth is dry, your hands are wet, your eyeballs as desiccated as two round pebbles. Red lights …

“Squadron coming in behind us, fast.” The metal landscape blurs beneath you; this alien vessel is so huge …

“Damn. Orange Leader to Force Orange, what happened to the cover? Mark three bogies on my tail, take care of ‘em, I’m going for the engine ducts … five”—the iron mountains open like jaws—“four”—on your rear screen, three evil black Zygon pursuit ships slip into tight cover—“three”—you veer down a sudden valley in the huge geography of the flagship’s drive section—“two”—ahead is the white doomsday glow of the stardrives—“one … Fire.” Orange Leader climbs away from the engine pods. The pursuit ships come after you, never seeing the tiny blob of light detach itself from your fighter at count zero and steer itself down the engine tubes into the miles-distant bowels of the enemy flagship. Major Tom loops twelve thousand miles high above the doomed starship and declares, “Detonation!”

At first there is nothing, as if it has taken time for Major Tom’s voice to travel across space and the torpedo to hear him, but then, as if by his express command, the Zygon flagship silently expands into a rainbow of glowing particles. The afterblast paints the cockpit pink, a beautiful bathroom pink. The glow takes a long time to fade, a man-made nova.

“Yahoo!” you shout. “Yahoo! We got him!”

“We sure did,” says Major Tom. “Son, we sure did.”

“What now?” you ask. “Take care of those pursuit ships and then back to Excalibur?”

“Not yet,” says Major Tom and there is a strange note in his voice that reminds you of something you have purposefully forgotten. “We’re pressing on, continuing the attack on our own, because there’s a planet out there beyond the lines of Zygon ships, a planet hidden for a million years away from Galactic knowledge, and we, and we alone, must go there to destroy Zygon power forever.”


[THIS IS] THE concept of the “Mind Box,” the baggage of beliefs and values which determine the individual’s response to the events of his life. Research into depression has shown the relationship between psychosomatic symptoms and the state of the individual’s “Mind Box.” Dr. Montgomery hypothesized in his doctoral thesis that this Mind Box concept might account for many of the more severe medical cases which are never diagnosed as psychosomatic but which otherwise have no medical reason for their lack of response to conventional treatment.

[The concept of] “deep dreaming” [was developed] from Luzerski and Baum’s work on lucid dreams, dreams in which the dreamer exerts conscious control over the content of his dream. It is a highly refined version of Luzerski and Baum’s dream techniques whereby an individual enters a state of interactive dreaming through a hypnotically and chemically induced process and effects the necessary repairs to his damaged Mind Box, thus relieving the psychological pressures that have led to his deteriorating medical condition. It could be said that he literally dreams himself into a state of self-healing. Dr. Blair has related this effect to the Nobel Prize–winning Stoppard/Lowe theories of molecular iso-informational fields: zones of order generated by individual protein molecules which stabilize genetic material against interference and mutation from electromagnetic and gravitic fields. He argues the analogy of deep dreaming, returning the body’s iso-informational fields to a state of biological and psychological metastasis, or harmony, which renders the patient—at the cellular level, at least—responsive to conventional treatment.

Thomas Semple, Jr., is the process’s pilot case. The patient, a twelve-year-old boy, contracted leukemia shortly after the death of his father, a police sergeant. He was admitted to hospital but did not respond to conventional chemotherapy.

… Doctors Montgomery and Blair have created a deep-dream scenario for young Thomas analogous to the computer games of which he is very fond. In this dream simulation he plays the hero of a space-war arcade game shooting down invaders which are representations of the cancerous cells within him. He spends fifteen hours per day in this deep-dream suspension, during which normal chemotherapy is administered. His dream state is constantly monitored by state-of-the-art computer technology which also maintains his illusion of deep dreaming by direct stimulation (in sensory deprivation) of the neurons, both chemically and electrically …

… [D]uring his waking periods he talks constantly about how exciting he finds his space-war dream and Doctors Montgomery and Blair are confident that their first case using this orthohealing process will be a complete success.

* * * *

(The front seat of a Vauxhall Cavalier, somewhere on the motorway between Belfast Airport and the Royal Victoria Hospital.)

DR. MONTGOMERY: How was the press conference, then?

MACKENZIE: Don’t ask. DR.MONTGOMERY:That bad? Oh come on, things haven’t gotten any worse, the kid’s stable, there’s no cause for media panic, is there? Never was.

MACKENZIE:If you really want to know, they’re trying a human-interest angle on the mother— you know, tragically widowed policeman’s wife, her son struck down by you-know-what, can’t mention cancer in the tabloids, hurts circulation; well, now, to compound her suffering, this ancy-fancy untested medical experiment goes sour on her. That’s what they were trying to get me to say at the press conference. Never again. Do your own next time.

DR. MONTGOMERY:Bastards. I take it you didn’t … say anything, that is …

MACKENZIE:Not a word.

DR. MONTGOMERY:Good girl yourself. Which papers?

MACKENZIE:As I said, tabloids: Mirror, Sun, Star, Mail, Express.


MACKENZIE:Mrs. Semple’s keeping them all at bay at the moment, but it’s only a question of how long it is before some hack cons his way past the ward sister and waves a checkbook under her nose.

DR. MONTGOMERY:Damn. Why all the sudden interest?

MACKENZIE:Don’t know. Some local must have picked up on the story and now the crusaders are waiting to take you apart the moment you get back there, Saladin. Gave me a rough enough time of it.

DR. MONTGOMERY:And drag the hospital’s name through the mire. You didn’t, ah—

MACKENZIE:Let them know that I was in charge of simulation software and the computer

DR. MONTGOMERY:systems? Think I’m stupid? Not a breath. Thank God. (Looks at the snow and is silent for a while.) Roz, tell me, do you think children ever forgive their parents for dying?

MACKENZIE:Wouldn’t know. Mine are both disgustingly healthy. Better shape than I am.

DR. MONTGOMERY:You tell me what you think of this, then. I’ll review some facts about the case and you say what you think. One: Thomas Semple junior’s leukemia is cured but he still remains in the orthohealing coma which cured him. We assume he’s still deep dreaming because there’s been no change in his vital signs between the two situations.

MACKENZIE:Fair enough assumption. Two.

DR. MONTGOMERY:Two: In such a state of lucid dreaming, he can be anything he wants to be, anytime, anywhere—subjectively speaking, he exists in his own private universe where everything is exactly as he wishes it to be.

MACKENZIE:Within the program parameters.

DR. MONTGOMERY:Well, that’s your field of competence, not mine. Three: His father, a sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was killed before his eyes by a bomb planted under his car.

MACKENZIE:Deduced by yourself to be the neuropsychological basis of the leukemia.

DR. MONTGOMERY:And his lack of response to conventional therapy, yes. Hell, twelve-year-olds shouldn’t have death wishes, should they?

MACKENZIE:You were the one thought it was displaced punishment behavior.

DR. MONTGOMERY:Every other Tuesday I think the moon is made of green cheese and life is not a futile, worthless waste of time and energy after all. Listen to this: I think we have given Thomas Semple junior the perfect environment to re-create his father. Now he doesn’t have to die to join him, he has him all the time, all to himself, in that dream world of his. The kid can’t face a world where his father was blown to bits by an I.N.L.A. bomb, he can’t face the reality of his father’s death—and now he doesn’t have to, when he can be with his father, his perfect, idealized father, forever, in the deep-dream state.

MACKENZIE:That’s spooky.

DR. MONTGOMERY:That’s it. What do you think?

MACKENZIE:Did you think all this up on the plane over?

DR. MONTGOMERY:I got into conversation with the woman next to me—talk about strange bedfellows, airline booking computers have it down to a fine art—she had cancer, one of those six-months-to-live cases, and she was a talker, as they often are, it makes it easier for them if they can talk about it; well, anyway, in the middle of this conversation she mentioned that she feared her children would never forgive her for dying and leaving them alone in the world. Paranoid maybe, but it started me thinking.

MACKENZIE:It fits. It all fits beautifully.

DR. MONTGOMERY:Doesn’t it? I reckon if we go through the printouts on the dream monitors we’ll find Thomas Semple senior in there as large as life and twice as handsome, because his son cannot forgive him for being fallible, and mortal, and human, and so is driving him to prove his … godhead, I suppose, over and over and over again.

MACKENZIE:And what then? You going to exorcise his ghost?


(Overhead gantries bearing signs reading M1, City Center, M5, Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey, Bangor, Lisburn, appear above the car. MacKenzie slides the Vauxhall Cavalier into the lane marked City Center.)

* * * *

SHE WISHES THEY would go. She resents their noisy feet, their busy bustle, their muted conversation over rustling sheets of computer printout, their polite-polite “Mrs. Semple, excuse me buts” and “Mrs. Semple, do you know ifs” and “Mrs. Semple, could you tell us whethers.” What are they doing that is so important that they must stamp around in their noisy shoes and remind her of the world beyond the swinging ward doors? She does not like them near her son, though the man is the doctor who invented the process and the woman is the one who developed the computers to which her son is wired from’ skull eyes ears throat. It worries her to see their hands near the machines; she fears that they might press buttons and throw switches and she would never know why they had done so. She hates not understanding, and there is so much she does not understand.

They are talking now, excited about something on a computer screen. She can see what it is that has excited them, though she cannot understand why. Who is this Major Tom? The empty coincidence of names does not fool her. Major Tom, Major Tom … she remembers a song she had once heard about Major Tom, the spaceman who never came down. Wasn’t that it, Major Tom, the spaceman, still orbiting round and round and round the world in his tin can? She never knew Major Tom. But she knew Sergeant Tom, Sergeant Tom tall and lovely in his bottle-green uniform, Sergeant Tom photographed in his swimming trunks on a Spanish beach, brown and smiling with that little Tom Selleck mustache, Sergeant Tom sitting at the breakfast table in shirtsleeves, shoulder holster, and police boots waiting for the phone call which would tell him today’s safe pickup point, Sergeant Tom putting on his jacket, kissing her on the lips and telling Wee Tom to have a good day at school and take care with his head-sums. Sergeant Tom walking out to the Ford Sierra, Sergeant Tom turning the key in the ignition—

“Mrs. Semple, Mrs. Semple.”

Faces loom before her, changing size and distance as her eyes roll into focus.

“Yes, Dr. Montgomery?”

“We’d like your permission to try something we think will bring your son out of his coma.”

“What is it you want to do?” The weariness in her voice surprises her.

“Adapt the program parameters slightly. Ms. MacKenzie wants to inject new material into the dream simulation.”

“You’ve tried that before. You tried switching off the machines altogether.”

“I know, Mrs. Semple. It didn’t work.” The young doctor (how can anyone so young have the experience to mold people’s lives?) completes her thoughts for her. He is clever, but naive. She envies him that. “Thomas merely maintained the dream coma by exercise of his own imagination. No, what we want to do is inject something into the dream so unacceptable that his only escape is to come out of the deep-dream coma.”

“And what is that something?”

“I’d rather not say at the moment, Mrs. Semple, in case it doesn’t work.”

“And if it doesn’t work?”

“Then you and he are no worse off than you are now.”

“And if it succeeds?”

“Do I really need to answer that question, Mrs. Semple?”

“Of course not. All right then. You have my permission, and my blessing.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Semple. Okay, Roz.”

What long fingers the girl has! She cannot get over those long, slender fingers as she types on the computer keypad. They are more like tentacles than fingers. Her attention is torn between those dancing fingers and the words that float up on the green screen.


At the peak of the entry, when the X15 bucked and bounced like a bad dream from which you couldn’t waken, and every bolt and rivet shuddered and your teeth shook loose in your head, the deflector shields glowed a violent blue and the fighter’s ionization trail plumed out behind you like a shooting star on an autumn night. There had been a moment (just a moment) when the fear had won, when your trust in Major Tom’s skill had not been its equal and you had seen your ship burst open like an egg and you hurled screaming and burning into three hundred miles of sky. The shriek had built in your chest and rattled the bars of your teeth and your brain had pounded pounded pounded against the dome of your helmet. Then you had come out and the air was smooth and the deflectors glowed a dull cherry red and your trusty fighter was dipping down through miles of airspace to the carpet of woolen piled clouds.

Now there is fear again, not the fear of disintegration in the ionosphere, for that is only death and to die is to leave the self and join the others, but the fear of what waits for you below the cloud cover, for that is more terrible than death, for it denies the others and leaves you alone with only yourself.

“Big Tom, we must go back! Excalibur has been calling and calling; Captain Zarkon, even the Emperor Geoffrey himself, have been ordering you to turn back. It’s too dangerous, you are forbidden to go any further alone!”

Major Tom says nothing but thrusts your X15 Astrofighter lower, lower, lower. Clouds shred like tissue paper on your wingtips, the fog swirls and thins patchily, then you are but of the cloud-base and below you is the surface. The Montgomery/Blair engines thunder as Major Tom throttles back; he is coming in for a landing and your stomach, now gripped firmly by six billion billion billion tons’ worth of gravity, is doing flipflops, a sicky-lurchy feeling that overcomes you as he throws the X15 into a left-hand bank.

The ground is tip-of-the-nose close beyond the canopy, a forbidden planet standing on edge in midbank: red-brick neo-Georgian bungalows in fifteen hundred square feet of white-chained garden, trailers in the drive, boats and hatchbacks parked outside, rosebeds flowering, children on BMXs stopping, pointing, gaping.

“Commence landing sequence.”

You do not want to. You cannot go down there. To go down there is dying and worse. A billion billion billion miles away Excalibur, the Imperial throneship, hangs poised on the lip of jumpspace but its stupendous bulk is as insubstantial as a cloud compared to the painful truth of this place, so pin-sharp that you can even read the street name: Clifton Road. Suddenly you are no longer Wee Major Tom, half of the greatest fighting team the Galaxy has ever known. Suddenly you are a small boy who is twelve years old and more frightened than he has ever been before.

“Commence landing sequence,” orders Major Tom.

“No!” you wail, wanting beyond want to hear the words which will make it all right, the words which will make men glad to die in the hollowness of space. “I want to go back! Take me back!”

“Commence landing sequence,” says Major Tom, and there is nothing in his voice but determination and command.

“Landing sequence initiated,” you sob, touching heavy fingers to cold control panels. Landing shocks slide from their fairings and lock with a thump. The engine noise rises to a scream. Major Tom brings the X15 Astrofighter in low above the rooftops like Santa Claus on his sled and stops it dead in the air over the turning circle at the end of the street. Housewives’ morning coffees grow cold as their imbibers stand in their picture windows, babies in arms, to view the spectacle of the Astrofighter touching down. Whipped into tiny tornadoes, dust eddies chase down the street away from the downdraft. There is a gentle touch, as soft as a mother’s finger upon a nightmaresnared cheek: touchdown.

“Power down,” says Major Tom, but before the noise of the engines has whispered away to nothing his canopy is open, his harness unbuckled, and he is running down the street to a house with number thirty-two on the gatepost and a lovely tan-and-white hearth-rug dog lying on the front step. Behind that picture window, too, there is a woman, with a coffee cup in one hand and the head of a small boy of about twelve under the other.

Then the world folds up on itself like one of those origami fortune-tellers you used to make in school. Major Tom’s tight shiny uniform rips and shreds as he runs and the wind whips the scraps away to reveal a new uniform beneath, dark green with silver buttons. An X15 Astrofighter lifts into the air above Clifton Road on a pillar of light, canopy open, and climbs away into forever. Your uniform is gone, and the gentle pressure on your head is not the pressure of a helmet but the pressure of a small, slender hand and you realize that you are the boy in the picture window as the X15 dwindles into a shining dot and winks out. You are held, you are trapped under the gentle hand, marooned on the Planet of Nightmares.

Now Major Tom is at the car and he waves at you and all you can do is wave back at him, for the words you want to shout, the warnings you want to scream, rattle round and round and round in your head like pebbles in a wave and will not be cast out.

Now he has the door open. Now he is in the car. Door shut, belt on, key in the ignition—

This time you know the blast for what it is. This time you are prepared and can appreciate its every vital moment in dreadful action-replay.

The ball of light fills the interior of the Ford Sierra. An instant after, still twilit by the killing light, the roof swells up like a balloon and the doors bulge on their hinges. Another instant later the windows shatter into white sugar and then the picture window before you flies into shards, a gale of whirling knives carried on a white wind that blasts you from your feet and blows you across the room in a whirling jumble of glass and smashes you into the sofa. The skin of the car disintegrates and the pieces take flight. The hood follows through the window to join you on the sofa. The roof has blown clean away and is flying up to heaven, up to join God. The car roars into flames and within, behind the flames, a black puppet thing gibbers and dances for a few endless moments before it falls into crisp black ashes.

A red rain has spattered the wallpaper. There is not a window intact on Clifton Road. Your mother is lying at a crazy angle against the door, her dressing gown hitched around her waist. Out in the drive the pyre roars and trickles of burning fuel melt the tarmac. Smoke plumes into the sky, black oily smoke, and there at the place where your eyes are drawn, the place where the smoke can no longer be seen, there is a bird-bright white dot: an Imperial X15 Astrofighter coming in from space, and now you know that it must happen all over again, the landing, the running Major Tom, the strange transformations, the man in the green uniform stepping into his car, the explosion, the burning, the Astrofighter coming in for a landing, the changes, the blast, the burning, the Astrofighter, the blast, the burning, the landing, the blast, the burning, landing blast burning, blast burning blast burning blast burning, over and over and over.

“Major Tom!” you cry, “Major Tom, don’t leave me! Daddy! Daddy!”

* * * *

When the alarms had sounded, when the flashing lights had thrown their thin red flickering shadows across the floor, she had said to herself, He’s dead, they have lost him, and though the world had ended she could not bear any hatred in her heart for those who had killed her son. They had acted in good faith. She had consented. All responsibility was hers. She could forgive them, but never herself. God might forgive Catherine Semple, but she never would.

Gone, she thought, and had risen from her chair to leave. Empty coffee cups and women’s magazines covered the table. She would slip away quietly while the alarms were still ringing and the lights still flashing. Nurses’ running footsteps had come chasing down the corridors, but at the door the sudden, terrifying quiet had stopped her like ice in the heart. Then, after the storm had come, the still, small voice, pitifully frail and poignant.

“Major Tom! Major Tom! Don’t leave me! Daddy! Daddy!”

“I won’t,” she had whispered. “I won’t leave you,” and everything had stopped then. It was as if the whole city had fallen silent to hear the cries of the new nativity, and then with a shudder the world had restarted. Lines had danced and chased across the oscilloscopes, rubber bladders had breathed their ersatz breaths, valves had hissed, and the electronic blip of the pulsebeat had counted out time. But even she had known the difference. The red lights which had been red so long she could not remember them being any other color were now defiantly green, and though she could not read the traces she had known that they were the normal signs of a twelve-year-old boy waking gently from a troubled, healthy sleep. She could feel the warmth from his bed upon her skin and smell the smell that was not the reek of sickness but the smell of sickness purged, disease healed.

She remembers all this, she remembers the nurses, she remembers the handshakes and the hugs and the hankies, she remembers Dr. Montgomery’s lips moving, but the words escape her, for time has been jumbled up and nurses, reporters, doctors, photographers, are all stacked next to each other without meaningful order, like a box of antique photographs found in an attic. She remembers flashguns and journalists, video cameramen trailing leads and sound engineers, television news reporters; she remembers their questions but none of her answers.

Now she sits by the bedside. There is a cold cup of coffee on the arm which the friendly nurse from County Monaghan had brought her. Dr. Montgomery and the MacKenzie woman, the one with the look of computers behind her eyes, answer questions. She does not pretend to understand what they have done but she knows what it might have been. Ignored for a while she can sit and watch her son watch her back. Unseen by any cameras, eyes meet and smile. There has been pain, there will be pain again, but here, now, there is goodness.

Outside it seems to have stopped snowing, but by the cast of the darkening sky she knows that it will not be for long. The lights of an Army Lynx helicopter pass high over West Belfast, and if she squeezes her eyes half shut she can make herself believe that they are not the lights of a helicopter at all but the rocket trail of Major Tom, flying home from Andromeda.

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