I didn't recognise the insignia on the man's uniform. He was so high up that his rank didn't officially exist, that he didn't officially exist.
"The key, Michael. I need to know where you hid the key."
"I don't know. Don't remember. It was so long ago. Why does it matter? The war's over now. The Unit is gone. The Citadel is gone. Why does the key still matter?"
"You don't need to know why, Michael. You really don't need to know."
He stressed the word 'really', stressed it in such a way that a shiver went all the way through me.
"So much happened that day," I said, "So many people died. I saw some of them, beside me, watched them take a bullet and curl up in throes of agony. I remember every bloody second of every bloody death, but I don't remember what I did with the fuckin' key."
"Dr Grayson is here to help you," was all he said in reply, gesturing to a white haired man in a white coat. "He's going to hypnotise you, help you to remember."
I said nothing, just sat and watched as the old man started to sway his watch back and forth across my line of vision. "You are feeling sleepy, Michael," he said. "I want you to relax and step back into that day. The day you were given the key."
I was feeling sleepy. The watch was making me confused and dizzy. I closed my eyes to regain control of my senses. When I opened them I was back in the Unit.
I realised that Colonel Throwback was in front of me and clicked my heels as I straightened to attention and saluted. He waved aside my formalities.
"No time for that, soldier. The Citadel is nearly taken. When they capture me, which they will, they will do anything to get this key."
The key was on a chain round his neck. As he spoke he removed it and handed it to me.
"The enemy are pretty ruthless," he said, "and will torture me in ways I simply can't imagine. I just know it won't be pleasant."
He paused to sigh. At this point our hands touched, the key passed from his to mine. I felt it cold and metallic in my palm and did all I could to stave off panic.
"I'd like to think I could withstand the pain, hide the key someplace and keep it a secret. But that level of pain, nothing can prepare you for it. The key isn't safe if I know where it is, or if I know to whom I've given it. Don't ever tell me your name soldier."
With that he turned and walked off. Walked off with an assured step, even though he knew his fate: death in the most painful way imaginable. No, not even imaginable, torture so perverse no human mind could even conceive of it. Yet I could even perceive a spring in his step. They would win the day, would win the battle, would win total control over every cell in his body, but the key was safe.
Safe in my hand!
I turned and fled. I knew exactly where to hide it. At one point as I was running, a sergeant ordered me to stop, but I ran straight past. "Errand for the Colonel, Sir," I shouted. I got a kick from this, from ignoring authority, something I'd not dared to do in the two years I'd been in the Unit.
The canteen was empty of all life, everyone else was busy fighting. I walked up to the Coca Cola machine in the corner. I put the key to my lips, a goodbye kiss, and inserted it into the coin slot. I heard it rattle down to the money tray below.
Panic froze me. Christ, I'm stupid, I should've checked there was no-one watching. I turned around, nothing, nobody. I was all alone. I realised what had made the noise, the machine had released a can of Coke. I took it out of the dispensing tray and placed it in the internal pocket of my uniform, for later.
I left the canteen and returned to the front line, 477 men lost their lives that day and I saw many of them die. Again. I watched them all die again, knew when each death was going to happen and there was nothing I could do to save any of them.
Eventually we had lost and the few of us that survived waited to be captured.
I remembered the can of Coke in my pocket and took it out, if I didn't drink it now it would be confiscated, so I might as well enjoy it.
I clicked the can open and took a big swig. I remembered that this was when we were captured, that the can would be knocked out of my hand as I digested the first mouthful, that I wouldn't taste Coke again for three years, until we were finally rescued half-starved from their shitty prison. So I savoured the mouthful, every nuance of flavour, the gas, the energy, the sugar.
When the mouthful was gone I took another swig. Maybe I'd misremembered, it must have been the second mouthful.
When I'd finished the can I turned and looked round. No sign of the enemy. My comrades were gone too. I was alone in the Citadel. The fighting had stopped, there was no noise at all, just the sound of my own breathing.
Of course, it was just a dream. Dreams don't follow what happened in real life. I could just wake up, I knew where the key was now.
"Wake up," I told myself, "Wake up."
I was still in the Citadel, surrounded by the smell of war, if not the sight nor sound of it.
"Wake up, wake up." I pinched myself as hard as I could, but nothing. I was still there.
I was shell-shocked, confounded. I staggered around the Citadel, searching for signs of life, but found only death, the bodies of the dead were still there, just not those of the living. Eventually I found myself back in the canteen.
The key. If I found the key maybe it would take me back, remove me from my dream.
Standing well back, I pointed my gun at the Coca Cola machine and shot up the lock. Fragments of glass spewed everywhere, I sustained a few minor cuts, nothing serious.
I pulled out the Coca Cola cashbox. Nothing. The key wasn't there. I took out every coin and examined it in turn, twenty-five pounds and 50 pence, but no key.
I searched the mechanism, stripped it down, until there was a mess of metal on the floor. But no key.
"Wake up," I shouted to myself, "Wake up." I was desperate now, without the key there was simply no way for the dream to end, I was stuck there.
I lost some time, minutes, hours passed and I did nothing. Then I noticed the other machine on the other side of the canteen. Salvation, no, shit, it was Pepsi. The key was in a Coke machine. Fuckin' Pepsi.
I tried it anyway, I had nothing to lose. Shot it up like the other one. Checked the cashbox. Ninety-five pounds. Is Pepsi really that much more popular than Cola? Maybe it was just emptied at a different time.
There was a metal tube that connected the coin slot to the cashbox. Might as well check it I suppose, I thought, even if it was the wrong machine, you never know your luck in a dream.
I fisted my hand as tight as it would go and pushed it as far as I could reach. There was something there. Something metal, might just be a coin but it was definitely something.
Desperation clenched my hand tighter and pushed my arm further. I touched it, felt it, pushed it, felt it free itself from wherever it was entangled, heard it tumble to the floor. When I picked it up and examined it there was no doubting. It was the key.
I wake up. Here, present tense, now. The man with the insignia is looking at me. Dr Grayson is looking at me.
"I have the key," I say, "it's in my right hand."
I unclench my hand to reveal it. Dr Grayson reaches to retrieve it.
"The only thing is," I tell her, "is that it's the Pepsi key. There was no Coca Cola key."
"That's all right," she says, taking it from me. For Dr Grayson is now a woman, young and beautiful, Christ, very beautiful, especially if you've not seen a woman in three years. Our hands touch as the key passes from my hand to hers. Her touch is tender and warm.
I sit back in the seat, gasping for breath, sweating. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, searching my subconscious.
Dr Grayson and the man with the insignia stand up, thank me for my help and leave, mission accomplished.
I remain seated, exhaustion overwhelms me.
I know that if I go to sleep now I will return to the dream, forever. There will be no way back.
But still, I can't find the energy to stand, the energy to fight. I feel my eyelids drooping, I am going, I am feeling very sleepy. If only I had a can of caffeine-rich Coca Cola to keep me awake. Christ, even a Pepsi. Even a fuckin' Pepsi would save me.