The name of the town in which these events occur is unimportant; what matters is that it has intersected with the War, and is occasionally subject to rocket attacks. Oddly, nobody seems to know the victims of the attacks actually are; it seems as though the attacks are perfunctory, causing death and property damage just to provide evidence that the War really is taking place. The people of the town are in fact more concerned with the recent brutal, unsolved murder of a 14-year-old girl than they are with the more abstract horrors of the War.
Shortly before midnight, a 22-year-old paramedic named Valentine Bregman arrives at the scene of the latest rocket attack with his partner, Coz. Coz has been taking stimulants to cope with the horrors of his work, and tonight, he crashes after helping Valentine to load an injured young girl in a Faction Paradox mask into their ambulance. Valentine offers to drive the girl back by himself while Coz recovers -- but Valentine in fact has his own plans for the evening, and now that he’s ditched Coz, he can carry them out. However, now he is faced with an ethical dilemma, as the girl in the mask will likely die if he doesn’t get her to hospital straight away. Rationalising that she’ll probably die soon anyway, Valentine sets off on his own mission, leaving her to die in the back of the ambulance. Meanwhile, a restaurant on the edge of the rocket attack explodes, as everyone was too busy putting out the flames in the front to notice that they were spreading in the back room as well.
It’s been established that the War is basically about meaning rather than territory. One of the legendary substances allegedly used in the War is Red Mercury, an illicit substance smuggled out of the former USSR and used to manufacture black-market atomic weapons. In fact, the term was originally used to mean real mercury, which can be used as a trigger in atomic bombs, but nobody can believe that such a dramatic name could be supplied to such an ordinary material; thus, the legend of Red Mercury and the fear that has grown up around it is now more important than the actual substance itself. Red Uranium is even more mythical, but since it’s never been used, it’s unlikely to actually exist, except in its totemic form. If a bomb was actually constructed with Red Uranium, it would deliver such a blow to human culture that even the survivors would effectively just be walking dead. This all relates to Valentine, who has been growing angrier every day that the governments and corporations, who have such an influence over people’s thoughts and beliefs, are doing nothing to make them care about the War. Thus he’s going to do something himself to make people take notice -- even if he has to let the injured girl in the Faction Paradox mask die in the process.
Elsewhere, a young woman named Inangela and her associate, Horror, are visiting an all-nite stopover for supplies before setting off to conduct a ritual that Inangela has designed to awaken the Great Urban Horror, the demonic force that lurks beneath the surface of the ordinary world. As a teenager, she used to tear down Neighbourhood Watch signs to make the world a little less safe; in ritualistic terms, this meant she was removing the warding-glyphs that kept the demons in check, and perhaps this helped the War to make its presence known. Horror, who drifts through life absorbing random cultural influences, thinks that Inangela is full of it, but Inangela knows full well that she’s making up the rituals in her life; to her, the whole point of existence is to make one’s mark on the world by creating new connections between things. What she really wants is to make the world a more interesting place; part of her was excited when the Princess of Wales died, even though the death of such a prominent and pointless celebrity ended up making things much less interesting, as people became afraid of contravening the boundaries of “good taste”.
Less than three weeks ago, there was a particularly huge explosion in a field outside town. Inangela lay in the empty field for 44 hours without eating or sleeping, and thus came up with the form of the ritual she now intends to carry out. She’s already starting to phase out, perhaps as a result of the alcohol, caffeine and chocolate she’s consumed already tonight, or perhaps because the ritual is already affecting her time senses. In the stopover, she seems to see a rerun of The Muppet Show featuring George Orwell as the guest star, and after she and Horror leave the stopover, she phases out and sees a television commercial involving children pursuing a cartoon raccoon to her stash of hidden chocolate bars. For a moment, Inangela mistakes Horror for the raccoon before phasing back into the generally accepted version of reality. A police car then starts to follow their van for no apparent reason, and Inangela orders Horror to outrun it. They do so by driving through a red light, which, as far as Inangela is concerned, means that they’ve committed themselves to carrying out the ritual.
On the other side of town, pop diva Tiffany Korta has just finished a performance in a specially constructed outdoor arena. Tiffany’s Executive has carefully sculpted her image to shape the audience’s response to its iconic traits, and Tiffany understands that her image is more important to the culture than her flesh-and-blood body. In fact, she’s constantly moving from place to place and is usually high on recreational drugs, and she’s beginning to fear that her image has a separate life of its own. At Tiffany’s request, Father Danzael brings all of the footage of her concert to her hotel room, including bootlegs recorded by audience members, so she can watch herself from 22 angles simultaneously -- and while doing so, she catches a glimpse of one of her iterations looking in a different direction from all of the others.
Shaken, Tiffany demands to speak with her Executive, a cabal of hooded figures who wear masks made of bone. The town’s culture sees Faction Paradox as a young, dynamic force that will put an end to the War, and the masks have become such a fashion statement that nobody who sees the masked Executive would ever believe they might be the real Faction. Tiffany tries to explain her concerns, but she isn’t really capable of putting her thoughts into words, and the smooth-talking Chief Executive assures her that none of her other cultural iterations are truly independent of her. She is not entirely convinced, but decides to accept the Executive’s word on this matter, unaware that even some of the Executives are beginning to wonder whether this is the case...
Meanwhile, Inangela and Horror drive out to the edge of town, where Inangela intends to make her first mark on the town. Feral dogs lurk in the shadows as if watching the van, and somehow they appear larger and more dangerous in the darkness. Inangela spray-paints a symbol on a speed camera, like a cross between the infinity symbol and a snake swallowing its own tail, thus beginning the ritual. Satisfied, Inangela orders Horror to drive them to the home of Miss Ruth, the legendary media witch; Inangela intends to warn her that she’s started a ritual to wake up the town. Of course, Inangela doesn’t know that there are other rituals taking place tonight, and there’s no guarantee that hers will be the important one.
Valentine drives the ambulance to a dangerous part of town, where he meets a man in the back of a black limousine. The limousine itself is more like a shrine than a vehicle, and Valentine’s contact is Black -- literally, pitch black, as though he’s been burned by the radiation from the goods he sells. Valentine reluctantly boards the limousine, and as it drives off, the Black Man asks Valentine for an assurance that the material won’t be used in the town where the Black Man does business. Despite his fear that he’ll be tortured to death if he breaks his word, Valentine claims that he won’t be using the material within town limits; this is metaphorically true, as Valentine regards the War as taking place in an entirely different kind of space. Apparently satisfied, the Black Man gives Valentine half a critical mass of Red Uranium -- and, to prove that the merchandise is genuine, the Black Man opens up the cap of the container and reaches in to touch its contents, presumably exposing himself and Valentine to the product’s deadly radiation. He then invites Valentine to do the same, and Valentine, unsure whether to be more terrified of the Red Uranium or the Black Man, prepares to do so. Before he can actually touch the canister’s contents, the limousine stops, and the Black Man opens the door to reveal the chalk outline of a corpse on the street outside; symbolically, he’s taken Valentine to the part of the town that represents Death. The limousine then returns Valentine to the ambulance, shaken by his experiences; even if the material isn’t actually radioactive, the force of its reputation is already eating away at his self-confidence.
In the hotel, Tiffany tries to explain her concerns to one of the hotel’s bellboys. Her physical body is irrelevant, as she knows that it’s constantly changing; it’s the meaning of Tiffany Korta that makes her who she is, and there are so many copies of that information out there that she fears the copies are becoming more complex than her “real” self. In fact, due to her lifestyle of constant travel and cocaine use, she’s beginning to suspect that she is the least complex and important of all her iterations -- and that the Executive planned it this way. When she tells the bellboy that her Executive is really Faction Paradox, he clearly doesn’t believe her, and, trying to be polite, he points out that surely, if people are more than their physical beings, then the “real” Faction Paradox must be more than just a bunch of masked people in a room. Tiffany realises that this is an excellent point -- and that if she wants to know the truth about herself, she’ll have to consult someone other than her Executive. According to legend, there’s a media witch capable of foreseeing one’s entire past, present and future based on the impact one has made in the media -- and Tiffany leaves the hotel to find this woman, believing that she’s the only person who can tell her what part of herself is the most important.
Inangela and Horror visit a tower block that, according to legend, is only inhabited by one resident, Miss Ruth. Miss Ruth has apparently filled up the entire Tower with her collection of videotapes, and her assistant, Jacqueline, has developed the ability to perceive what is on each videotape without having to put it in a player. According to Miss Ruth, the world is the Pit, and the Tower is separate from it; perhaps from within the Tower she can see everything there is to see, and stepping into the Pit would limit her perceptions. Jacqueline ushers the girls into Miss Ruth’s inner sanctum, where a gigantic television screen is playing an old Twilight Zone episode about self-fulfilling prophecies from a TV that can see into the future. Inangela is disoriented by the overwhelming lights and sounds, but Horror seems to like it in here, as if she’s used to being not fully corporeal. Inangela tells Miss Ruth about her ritual, which she claims will change the world, but Miss Ruth doesn’t seem particularly interested. Jacqueline ushers the girls back out, and on the way, they pass Tiffany Korta in the waiting room but fail to recognise her.
Since the War is too big to be stopped, politicians have learned to speak about it in vague, non-committal terms, condemning it without actually promising to do anything about it. There used to be political demonstrations at which people were allowed to speak out against the government; very little was actually accomplished, but at least people could share different ideas. However, after the outbreak of the War, the demonstrations were considered to be in poor taste, and on the last Demonstration Day, police officers monitored the crowd and separated people who seemed to be on the verge of causing a public disturbance. Valentine was mugged a few streets away, but the police were too busy monitoring the “protest” to notice. This was the day he first heard of Faction Paradox -- and now, even though each step made perfect sense at the time, he’s gone from holding a vague desire for a better world to collecting the materials with which to build a homemade atomic bomb. The limousine drops him back off at his ambulance, and Valentine calls his Faction contacts and informs them that he’s ready to proceed -- at which point the girl in the Faction Paradox mask begins to choke...
Tiffany, who has always been sensitive to changes in the media, is unable to look at Miss Ruth’s collection of videotapes; she can sense what’s on them, and there’s too much information here for her to handle. Nevertheless, she follows Jacqueline into Miss Ruth’s inner sanctum, where she finds herself surrounded by videotapes and a light so intense it seems to strip her flesh away. Miss Ruth then orders her to look up and see all of the videotapes at once, and when Tiffany reluctantly does so, they seem to open up and link up with each other, each frame of meaning on each tape interacting with all of the others until the mass meaning looks like a gigantic insect big enough to envelop the world. As Tiffany struggles to understand what she’s seeing, she begins to recognise individual frames as pictures from her concert -- and realises that this gigantic thing is her true self, and that she’s bigger than she ever imagined.
In order for Inangela’s path through the town to form the shape of a pentagram, she’s had to mutilate the town map, but changing the shape of the world through sheer determination is the whole point of her ritual anyway. This means that she and Horror drive past Miss Ruth’s Tower for a second time, and they nearly run into Tiffany as she leaves. Assuming that this is just a girl who looks like the pop star, rather than the pop star herself, Inangela offers her a ride to make up for the near-accident. Tiffany, noting Inangela’s Faction mask and her interest in ritual, asks her for advice on her own initiation; according to Miss Ruth, if she wishes to achieve the full potential she now knows she has, she will have to confront her Executive and cut her last ties to the Pit. Inangela offers Tiffany the town map, and when Tiffany picks a spot at random, it turns out to be the field in which she performed her concert. When Inangela and Horror drop her off there, Inangela realises that this is the same field in which she was inspired to begin her own ritual.
Even though he knows that the girl in the ambulance is still alive, Valentine returns home to build his bomb instead of taking her to the hospital, rationalising that if it wasn’t too late to save her before, it definitely must be now. He turns on the television for comforting background noise while he works, but senses something strange, as if the channel has been changed. George Orwell has appeared on an episode of The Muppet Show, and when Valentine looks out of the window, he sees a white van parked on the sidewalk. Panic-stricken, he picks up the bomb casing and flees, but in the stairwell of his apartment building, he encounters a monstrous, dog-like figure -- the embodiment of a living weapon created for times of War. Valentine escapes from the Dog by leaping over the railing and falling into the lobby, but outside, he runs into a second Dog -- and instinctively protects himself by beating its head in with the bomb casing. He then retreats to the ambulance and assembles the bomb in the back, although this means he’s definitely exposing himself and the dying girl to whatever radiation the Red Uranium may be giving off. He then drives off, narrowly avoiding the van when it abruptly pulls out in front of him. Everything seems to be going according to plan, and Valentine takes some comfort from knowing that his death will be important and iconic. In a way, he’ll be remembered more as a symbol than as a person -- just like Tiffany Korta is, though Valentine is unaware of this connection.
Tiffany finds her Executive waiting for her on stage, while a video of her performance plays silently on the jumbo screen. In a sense, she’s now on trial, and the Executive want her to admit that they are the only ones she can trust to shape her iconic self. However, she refuses to co-operate, and asks them directly whether they are indeed the real Faction Paradox, as they’ve always implied. Rattled, the Chief Executive “suggests” that Tiffany take some time off to work out her personal problems, but Tiffany understands what he’s really saying: the Executive believe that they can control her iconic, cultural self, and that they don’t need her physical being any more. In fact, the Tiffany appearing on the video screen isn’t her at all. To threaten her into compliance, the Executive show her footage of an interview in which she stops giving stock answers about the War and instead starts speaking controversial and shocking opinions, culminating when she suggests that the teenage girl who was recently murdered in town isn’t important in the big scheme of things and that the girl probably deserved it. The Executive could have manufactured this footage via computer simulation, drugs and brainwashing, or possibly just by manipulating Tiffany’s popular image; at the moment, since the footage has not been released, it’s not yet part of her greater cultural potential. But at least the things she’s saying are interesting and new, not just bland and rehashed -- and Tiffany thus chooses to reject the Executive, although she’s aware that they will probably kill her for it.
Elsewhere, Valentine takes Coz’s pills to keep himself alert, and while driving towards the field, he thinks he sees a girl step out in front of the van and swerves to avoid her. She may have been a hallucination, a side-effect of the ongoing rituals, or an image of the future; in any case, when Valentine swerves, he crashes into Inangela and Horror’s van, putting it out of commission. When Inangela crosses to speak to him about the accident, the panic-stricken Valentine accuses her of trying to protect the Ship; surprised, she takes a closer look and sees the empty canister of Red Uranium on the seat beside him. At that moment, Horror points out approaching lights that appear to be helicopters, but both Inangela and Valentine believe that these are no normal helicopters; the forces behind the War are here to stop them from carrying out their rituals. Inangela insists that Valentine help her and Horror to escape, and he can’t think of a good reason not to.
Tiffany’s controversial interview footage has been released, and the public responds with outrage to her insensitivity. Reporters flock towards the arena from all over town, eager to get in on the cultural self-destruction of a celebrity. Someone vandalises a megastore with a Tiffany Korta display in the window, and a young man who looks a little like her from a distance is beaten nearly to death by two angry men. More interview footage is then released, in which Tiffany defends her earlier statements by claiming that there’s nowhere left to go but too far -- and stating that pop celebrities who try to shape the world by spouting off empty opinions should be killed. A fake music video which appears to depict Tiffany gunning down the members of a popular boy band appears in the world media; it’s all happening quickly now, as if something is trying to get out from under the skin of the world. People have joked about killing celebrities for years, and the culture that fed on their weakness is now tapping into their hatred. The reporters at the arena find that some kind of interference is causing their reports to air on rival stations, in some cases even before it’s been transmitted, as if the news is spewing out into the culture at random...
Valentine arrives at the arena, but is startled by the crowds of reporters; now he must decide whether he can bring himself to detonate the bomb with so many people around. Meanwhile, Inangela has been growing worried about the girl in the mask, and is starting to wonder whether her made-up ritual is actually more important than getting the dying girl to the hospital. Suspicious, she opens up the box in the back and discovers that it’s a homemade atomic bomb powered by Red Uranium. She confronts Valentine, who admits that he believes a Ship of War crashed in the field, and that he intends to destroy it; he believes that Ships root themselves into the culture of whatever worlds they intersect, and that damage to the Ship will be felt as a profound cultural event that will finally wake people up to the seriousness of the War. The question is how many of his own people he’s willing to kill to make that point.
After some consideration, Inangela decides that running into Valentine was no coincidence, and agrees to help him. On the other hand, she’s not convinced that the real Faction Paradox would hang out in bars, looking for disgruntled people like Valentine to do their dirty work for them. In any case, she and Horror accompany Valentine into the arena, where they find themselves surrounded by curious reporters. Before Valentine can decide what to do, the searchlights from the helicopters sweep into the area -- and in the confusion and disorientation created by the bright light, they seem to be pulled down through the ground into the Ship that lies beneath the surface of the town.
In the outside world, the deliberately controversial Goth rock star Waco Black tries to match Tiffany’s newfound notoriety by agreeing that some celebrities should be killed; shortly afterwards, he is shot by a member of the “moral majority” whom he’d been trash-talking for years. More “rocket” attacks are lighting up the sky above the town, as if the War-time powers are trying to erase something from history before it runs out of control. A boy is kicked to death by an angry mob for burning his country’s flag as a protest; another boy is shot by police during a raid on a cult who believe this night marks the Ghost Point before the apocalypse. Some people start to perceive secret messages in the television ads with the cartoon raccoon; it’s a very small cult, but it’s enough for some power to channel through. Media-savvy politicians are beginning to realise that pop celebrities are more powerful and dangerous than they’d ever thought, and prepare to pass legislation to curb dangerous ideas. Things seem to be getting wildly out of hand, as if the Tiffany doppelganger the Executive released isn’t under their control after all. Three news helicopters circle the arena, jockeying for the best position -- and elsewhere in town, a splinter faction of a group promoting human rights is raided and its members charged with plotting a nuclear strike on the town...
Entering the Ship means entering a knot of cultural experience and history, where everything happens at once from all the different perspectives that there are. Inangela, primed by her ritual to see nothing but the Ship, is now lost in its endless corridors, unable to find her way through them. She follows the image of a girl who looks like Tiffany Korta, who seems to have the ability to find new angles in the Ship, and who steps out of the Ship entirely, causing the collision between the ambulance and Horror’s van. Horror then contacts Inangela, but this is a somewhat different Horror, a projection from the future; she can only manifest herself in the Ship, where all human experience happens at once and it’s possible to predict what will happen in the future. And according to Horror, the future will be very, very bad unless Inangela stops Valentine. The image of Tiffany reappears and guides Inangela and Horror to the centre of the Ship, but Inangela can’t see the way to get through to him.
Outside, a group of drunken partygoers have just unknowingly made the penultimate mark of Inangela’s interrupted ritual; it’s starting to complete itself now. The Ship is a metaphor for the things that run out of control beneath the human psyche, and it’s nearly been set free. Inangela finally realises that if Valentine sets off a Red Uranium bomb in the heart of human culture, the blow will be so devastating that humanity will never dare to do anything significant ever again for fear of causing another such catastrophe. There is no meaning in the Universe except that which humans create themselves -- and if the bomb goes off, all of humanity’s limitless potential will be wasted for fear of causing a fuss. Inangela thus looks at the Ship from a different angle, trying to see it the way Valentine sees it, and finds her way into the “control room” just in time to stop Valentine from detonating the bomb.
Inangela manages to convince Valentine of the truth, and they flee from the Ship with Horror, who has now reverted to her present self (although, for a moment, she looked like a cartoon raccoon). Unfortunately, in their haste to get clear, they leave the bomb behind in the control room. In the outside world, Tiffany has started to suggest that terrorism can be a good thing if directed against the right targets, and government officials are preparing to impose new security restrictions on “sensitive” information -- but just as it seems that the Ship is finally about to pull itself free, everything goes horribly wrong, as one of the news helicopters is knocked out of the sky by an electromagnetic pulse and crashes into the arena, causing an explosion that sets off Valentine’s bomb.
Loss of life is minimal, limited to the news teams who had gathered in the arena to report on the Tiffany Korta scandal. In the wake of a potential nuclear terrorist attack, Tiffany’s lapse into bad taste is quickly forgotten. The arrest of the so-called “Faction Four” now becomes top news, but on TV, they are revealed to be a shabby group of ordinary, disgruntled people; after their exposure, nobody will ever believe again that Faction Paradox is a grand, dangerous, shadowy conspiracy. The explosion was not actually nuclear, which implies that their arms supplier ripped them off; however, the real power of Red Uranium lies in its public perception, and the effects of the explosion are culturally devastating. Tiffany’s Executive decide to remove their masks, concluding that it’s no longer a good idea to associate themselves with Faction Paradox, who are now regarded as a sad little clique of terrorists rather than an exciting and dangerous organisation.
Inangela’s ritual has failed; humanity’s potential remains dormant, and it’s now even less likely to wake up. The War against the pointless and bland has taken a few casualties, but nothing has really been achieved. Tiffany and the future-Horror (who is indeed an avatar of the cartoon raccoon, an embodiment of the chocolate bar company sent out into the world to conduct market research) are still aboard the Ship, but it isn’t going anywhere now. Valentine is now a wanted man, and the media makes a great deal of the fact that he killed one of his neighbour’s pet dogs while on his dastardly mission. Inangela appears on a speed camera, making the last mark of the ritual, but nobody who sees the image considers it important. After tonight’s “terrorist attack”, it’s become far more likely that pop culture will rein in its “excesses” and that people will self-censor their own feelings and opinions until there’s no significant meaning left in the world. But there is still some hope: the Ship remains dormant beneath the skin of the world, and there is still a small chance that one day it will be woken.