A dystopian civilization in the throes of extinction. A government poisoning its own citizens through the drinking water. Military police raiding private residences. The end of civil liberties. The creation of a Church-State. Mind control.

The contents of some conspiracy theorist's personal manifesto? The plot of a rote first-person shooter? The results of a quick jaunt through Snopes.com? Actually, it's all part of the elaborate (and somewhat terrifying) concept behind Nine Inch Nails' upcoming Year Zero album (due April 17), details of which are currently being disseminated through a series of increasingly spooky — and downright odd — Web sites.

Strangely enough, the story actually began on the back of a T-shirt sold on NIN's current European tour. Dates and cities are listed, with certain letters highlighted. When those letters were arranged, they spelled out the phrase "I am trying to believe," which most saw as just another statement of shattered hope from NIN mastermind Trent Reznor ... that was, until one particularly, uh, "enterprising" individual decided to Google the phrase.

What was revealed was a rather unsettling site (IAmTryingToBelieve.com) dedicated to information on "Parepin," a drug allegedly added to the water supply by the federal government at some unknown date to protect citizens from bioterror attacks. While all appears to be normal, the author of the site — who is not identified — paints a different picture, referring to Parepin as "bioterrorism" being waged on U.S. citizens without their knowledge, designed to placate them.

But in some cases, the opposite occurs. Dosage is not controlled and, according to the site, the more water that unknowing citizens drink, the harsher the side effects.

"Parepin affects brain chemistry — specifically dopamines. Dopaminergic overactivity is linked to schizophrenia. Parepin dosage is not controlled. It's just in the water. The more water you drink, the more Parepin you ingest," the author states. "Parepin may make some people more susceptible to visions and hypnagogic hallucinations (those very vivid dreams you have when you think you are awake.)"

The site also makes mention of citizens witnessing something called "The Presence," which is shown in a series of blurry photographs as what appears to be a giant hand descending from the heavens.

"I used to dismiss conspiracy theories about the Administration's 'real reason' for adding Parepin to our water," the author writes. "Now, I'm not so sure."

Hidden on the site is an e-mail address to contact the author, yet all correspondence to the address is answered with the following auto response, which indicates that he or she has changed (or, possibly, was forced to change) their opinion:

"Thank you for your interest. It is now clear to me that Parepin is a completely safe and effective agent developed to protect us from bio-terrorism. The Administration is acting purely in the best interests of its citizens; to suggest otherwise was irresponsible and I deeply regret it. I'm drinking the water. So should you."

And things only grow more confusing — and unnerving — from there. Members on a NIN fan site, EchoingtheSound.org, soon began to uncover even more sites, all seemingly unrelated upon first glance. But through careful — and some may say obsessive — examination they all began to tie together, creating a rather Orwellian picture of the United States circa the year 2022.

AnotherVersionOfTheTruth.com is, on the surface, a site created by "the U.S. Bureau of Morality," featuring a fluttering flag superimposed over a rippling cornfield and emblazoned with the motto "Zero Tolerance. Zero Fear." But if users click and drag their mouse across the image, what is revealed is a black-and-white photo of a bombed-out wasteland. Visitors are then taken to a secret "messageboard" with topics like "End of the World?" and "Cops Murder Muslim Kid."

On the board, members — or perhaps government agents — discuss Parepin and the Presence (sample entry: "Was it an angel? Devil? Alien? God? I don't know. It was a Presence,") the rise of a new drug called Opal — which, we're told, was created by the U.S. Government after global warming destroyed coca leaves in South America — and a secret-police raid on a Muslim home in Saginaw, Michigan.

Several audio samples are also available on the site, including one taken from the cell phone of a girl in the Michigan home, and an "angry sniper" who opens fire (what he calls an act of "violent resistance") during a baseball game.

The messageboard also contains a link to BeTheHammer.org, the site belonging the "angry sniper," and makes mention of "Consolidated Mail Systems," both of which are important clues to advancing the story.

On BeTheHammer, the sniper says he worked for the secret police, raiding homes of Muslim-Americans, torturing and in some cases murdering them. He also makes mention of time spent in the 105th Airborne Crusaders.

And, of course, a quick Google search of "105th Airborne Crusaders" turns up a site dedicated to a special-forces group formed "as part of our nation's swift answer to the atrocities in Los Angeles," and made up of "men and women who kept a personal relationship with our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ and allowed the Holy Ghost to guide their rifles true." According to posts from former members of the 105th, the Crusaders launched campaigns in Iran (even mentioning the detonation of a nuclear device in Tehran), Yemen, Chad, Turkey, Syria and the Kashmir Region.

There are also mentions on that site of a New Evangelical Church, which donated land to the 105th. Somehow — and we're not entirely sure how — this led NIN fans to the discovery of another site, ChurchOfPlano.com, run by a fictitious New Evangelical outfit that practices "Neighborhood Cleansing" and holds sermons about the Presence.

And finally, as if all of that wasn't mind-bending enough, a Google search of Consolidated Mail Systems turns up a purported e-mail in-box owned by someone with the handle "NoOneImportant," which contains a police-manual definition of Opal that suggests it causes users to suffer the same hallucinations as those who ingest too much Parepin.

Are we to believe, then, that in the future the government has really been drugging its citizens? Will we engage in a Holy War with Muslim nations? Will secret police groups creep in the shadows at night? We're led to believe that the answer to all of these questions is "Yes."

And it all brings up a couple of new questions: Just who is behind all these Web-related shenanigans in the first place? And what do they have to do with Nine Inch Nails?

Well, in relation to the former: all of the sites are registered through Domains by Proxy, an Arizona-based company that protects the identities of site owners (when reached for comment, a spokesperson for DBP would not reveal exactly who registered any of the sites as it would "violate the terms of service provided by the company.") But according to reports published on the Web site of the U.K.'s Digit magazine and elsewhere, the sites are part of an alternate reality game, created by 42 Entertainment, a marketing company responsible for one of the most famously ambitious ARGs in history: "I Love Bees," an effort that combined Web sites, banks of public telephones and vials of honey sent through the mail to create, well, "buzz" for the fall 2004 release of "Halo 2" (see " Want To Live Like Neo? Alternate Reality Games Might Be Your White Rabbit").

When contacted by MTV News, a spokesperson for 42 had no comment on the company's involvement with NIN.

And about the latter: When the band's label, Interscope Records, was contacted they too had no comment, though they did release a statement by Reznor which seemed to put the whole project — and the concept behind Year Zero — into focus.

"This record began as an experiment with noise on a laptop in a bus on tour somewhere. That sound led to a daydream about the end of the world. That daydream stuck with me and over time revealed itself to be much more," Reznor said in the statement. "I believe sometimes you have a choice in what inspiration you choose to follow and other times you really don't. This record is the latter. Once I tuned into it, everything fell into place ... as if it were meant to be. ... The record turned out to be more than a just a record in scale, as you will see over time.

"Part one is Year Zero. Concept record. Sixteen tracks. What's it about? Well, it takes place about 15 years in the future. Things are not good. If you imagine a world where greed and power continue to run their likely course, you'll have an idea of the backdrop," he continued. "The world has reached the breaking point — politically, spiritually and ecologically. Written from various perspectives of people in this world, Year Zero examines various viewpoints set against an impending moment of truth."