by T. Donia
Number 6 shifted uncomfortably in his favorite chair, trying to read without notable success. He'd had a bad night, plagued by disturbing, half-remembered dreams, and had felt irritable and unable to concentrate all day as a result. To make matters worse, in the midst of his tossing and turning he must have slept on his left wrist; it ached vaguely, although there were no visible signs of injury.
He realized he had just read the same paragraph for the third time without comprehension, and was about to slam the book closed in frustration, when the door to his cottage swung open. A Village warder, decked out in a gaily striped shirt that went badly with the man's bland, somewhat sullen face, entered Number 6's living room without a word. He was carrying a black plastic device that looked something like a handheld scanner. "Status calibration check, Number 6," he said flatly. "Push up your left sleeve, please."
Number 6 gave the warder - Number 240 by his penny-farthing badge - a hostile look without moving from his chair. "What do you want?" he said belligerently.
"Status calibration check," Number 240 repeated in the same inhospitable monotone. He approached Number 6 and looked down at him. "Roll up your left sleeve, please."
"Why don't you go invade someone else's privacy for a while?" Number 6 growled, too annoyed today even to be curious about the Village's latest gadget, clenched in the brutish warder's meaty hand.
Number 240 sighed impatiently. "I can force you, you know," he said.
"I doubt it." Nonetheless, Number 6 gave in, judging a confrontation with the striped-shirted gorilla not worth the effort. He gingerly rolled up the sleeve on his tender left side and held out his arm. Number 240 grasped it roughly, glancing at Number 6 to see if the latter would wince. The Prisoner stared back expressionlessly.
Number 240 thumbed a button on the handheld device. It emitted a low hum, and a light on its shiny black side glowed green. There was a small LCD readout on the flat top of the device, Number 6 saw, which briefly flashed all eights as the power was switched on. He eyed the device warily as Number 240 held it over his exposed wrist, about three inches above the skin.
He felt nothing, other than a bit of soreness from the warder's viselike grip. After a moment, however, Number 6 watched in amazement as a string of numbers and letters seemed to float up out of his wrist and hover there. The string - the first number was 6, the remaining characters were meaningless to him - glowed orange beneath the shadow of the strange device. The effect was not unlike that of ultraviolet scanners used by police to identify invisible codes on stolen merchandise, except this scanner apparently emitted no light beam. Some kind of message simultaneously flashed on the LCD screen, but Number 6 was unable to make it out before Number 240 unceremoniously snapped the device off.
"Very good, Number 6," said the warder. "You're properly encoded."
Number 240 gave him a superior smirk. "Encoded. Your status, in case you're interested, is orange." He turned on his heel and plodded out of the cottage. The door swung noiselessly shut behind him.
Number 6 watched him go, stroking his left wrist thoughtfully. Then he closely examined the skin there. Other than faint, fading red marks from Number 240's tight grip, there was no sign of the bizarre examination that had just been carried out, no trace of the glowing orange characters the device had revealed - or had it projected them? - on his flesh.
Feeling suddenly caged and even more frustrated than previously, he sprang from his chair and crossed the room with long, tense strides. He glided through the open door and into a sparkling, perfect Village day. The sun bathed the cobbles of his little cottage in warm light; a whisper of breeze played with the hanging sign that innocuously announced "6 - Private." All around him smiling, blank-eyed citizens were enjoying yet another beautiful day, strolling the Village's winding streets or talking in small groups. Number 6 ignored them all and headed for the beach.
The tang of salt carried on the wind off the ocean (which ocean? he didn't know; the bracing air held no clues to its identity). Sun-dappled waves danced across the surface of the water to the knife-edge of the horizon and beyond - to a place, he imagined, where the Village was nothing more than an unidentifiable dot on an unexplored coastline. He settled himself at a small table overlooking the Stone Boat and gazed out at the wedge of sandy beach below. As usual on fair days, it was crowded with placid sun-worshipers. Moving among them, conversing briefly with each, were a handful of ubiquitous Village drones.
Number 6 leaned forward slightly, his brows knit in a squint of concentration. The brightly-garbed warders were all carrying an odd plastic device like the one Number 240 had brandished over him. They seemed to be conducting the same little test, the "status calibration check," waving the scannerlike machine over the left wrist of each Village citizen they approached.
Most of the citizens appeared to take this unusual intrusion on their persons in stride; he noticed no physical protests as the drones moved through the throng. He was about to turn his back on the scene - he had come here to forget about his unpleasant encounter with Number 240, not to relive it - when a sudden, violent motion, in stark contrast to the static milling about of the beachgoers, caught his eye.
A lone figure stalked across the sand, angling toward the water. From Number 6's vantage point it was difficult to tell whether the person was male or female. Clearly, however, this person was not a Village "regular." Even at a distance Number 6 could see that the fast-moving figure was dressed in a sophisticated tailored suit, definitely not standard Village costuming. He or she was marching hard but not making much progress. One mystery was soon solved as the Prisoner spotted the reason for the strange, stilted gait: a pair of chic black boots with high, slender heels.
He watched her cross the beach with interest. Short, fair hair blew around her face, which he could not see from his position. She balled her fists repeatedly as she walked; her entire body seemed to be as taut as a piano wire. When her slanting path brought her into proximity with a reclining citizen, she zigzagged furiously around the human obstacle without slowing or looking down.
Deja vu tugged at Number 6's senses, coloring the scene below in disconcerting shades of familiarity. It was like a live replay of a dream that had haunted him since his arrival in the Village. A ghost of a smile played unbidden across his features as he instantly grasped the significance of what he was seeing: The Village had a new resident.
The woman on the beach finally stopped her fruitless charge over the slippery sand when a striped-shirted warder placed himself solidly in her path. They exchanged a few words, hers punctuated with angry gestures that sliced through the air. Then, his limited patience obviously exhausted, the drone literally took matters into his own hands and reached for the woman's left wrist. She protested, but the burly drone simply ignored her struggles and took his reading with the handheld device.
Evidently, however, he didn't like what he saw - or perhaps he didn't see what he expected. In any event, Number 6 watched as the warder tried to detain the newcomer. Their spirited grappling - she lacked her opponent's size and strength, but her movements were more violent, quick, and energetic - attracted remarkably little attention from the crowd on the sand, most of whom didn't even look in their direction.
But someone other than himself was witnessing the scene on the beach, it seemed. The indifference of the citizenry finally shattered as a familiar, chilling sound pierced the air. Heads turned in unison to watch the mysterious Village guardian, Rover, approach seemingly from nowhere. The white orb skimmed over the sand, gliding with otherworldly speed toward the Village warder and his baffled companion.
Number 6 knew what came next; he didn't need to see the spectacle of Rover subduing yet another recalcitrant citizen. Although his stride was purposeful as he left the shore behind him, his path was aimless, preoccupied. Curiosity about the identity of the scrappy new arrival took up only a small corner of his thoughts. Instead the sight of all those Village drones carrying out an organized, mass "status calibration check" - whatever that might be - had inflamed his interest. He saw still more prisoners submitting to the weird scan of their left wrist by stone-faced warders as he walked the streets of the Village. The procedure seemed to do no harm. But there were few coincidences in this candy-colored prison, and he thought it likely that the slight pain in his wrist this morning had something to do with the odd handheld devices and whatever their purpose was.
Asking questions of the Village authorities was the shortest route to obfuscation. Number 6 knew he would have to satisfy his own curiosity on the subject. He determined to get his hands on one of the mysterious scanners, by whatever means necessary.
Almost as an afterthought, he made a mental note to get the story behind the woman on the beach, as well. As often happened in the Village, however, the answer to the smaller mystery fell into his lap first, while the more critical information he sought remained frustratingly elusive.
He slept on the problem of separating a specimen of the scanning device from the grip of a warder. The next morning, over a solitary breakfast, he formulated a plan. It required a trip to the general store and a few other small preparations, and as he emerged from his cottage the prospect of action put a spring in his step.
But a group of burly Village security goons had other plans for Number 6. They fell upon him from behind and quickly immobilized him, although he managed to dislocate the nose of one of them before his arms were pinned. He was half-dragged, half-carried to the Green Dome, where the latest Number 2 was waiting in his chamber.
The goons deposited Number 6 unceremoniously on the floor and withdrew. "Good morning, my dear fellow," Number 2 greeted him. The current Village master was tall and rugged-looking, with a booming voice that filled the high-ceilinged room.
Number 6 ignored him, dusting himself off with exaggerated thoroughness. Only when he had arrayed himself to his satisfaction did he finally look up. "What is it?" he said curtly, not interested in social niceties.
"I thought you and I might have a friendly chat," Number 2 suggested politely.
"Whatever gave you that idea?" Number 6 muttered. He disliked this Number 2 as intensely as all the others, but this man's hale and hearty façade - which masked a heart as deceptive and mercenary as any of his predecessors' - particularly got his guard up. In any event, he had better things to do than exchange barbed comments with the Village's Chief Bureaucrat.
Number 2 leaned back in his spherical command chair, unhurried and seemingly unperturbed by Number 6's surliness. "It may interest you to know," he said serenely, "that despite all your well-documented problems with authority, we remain sincerely interested in helping you adapt to the Village."
"Oh, yes?" Number 6 retorted loudly. "And how do you plan on doing that? More ambushes by your trained monkeys? Further developments in your array of electronic bells and whistles?"
"Oh, that." Number 2 waved a hand in the air. "Your presence here this morning was important, and you do tend to be somewhat erratic in responding to direct invitations. As for the other..." He smiled innocuously. "One has to take advantage of all the technology at one's disposal in order to maintain the community. But that's not what I wanted to speak to you about."
"Then get to the point," Number 6 snapped, more impatient than usual to be away from the Green Dome.
Number 2 looked mildly disappointed in the Prisoner's unwillingness to spar with him. He shrugged and assumed a serious, almost paternal expression. "Very well," he said. "I want to issue a warning to you, Number 6."
"A warning?" he repeated suspiciously.
Number 6 cocked an eyebrow at Number 2. "A head start?" he said dryly.
"A word of advice," Number 2 corrected. "A friendly word of advice."
Number 6 ran his fingers lightly along the shiny console that separated him from the gregarious Number 2. "All right," he said. "Let's hear it."
"As you know, there's a new member of the Village family - "
"As I know?" Number 6 fixed him with a bland stare.
"She spent some time on the beach yesterday, to get acquainted with her new home," Number 2 said offhandedly.
"And she's now acquainted with the state of the art Village medical facilities, I suppose?" Anger like twin blue flames flashed in his eyes, but Number 2 paid it no mind.
"Don't waste your time feeling sympathy for Number 9, my dear chap," said the Village master. "She's not worthy. That's what I wanted to tell you."
His curiosity piqued despite himself, Number 6 met Number 2's sincere, concerned gaze. "Number 9?" he repeated.
"That's right. She arrived yesterday. An impressive young woman, but difficult. Very difficult."
"For you or for me?"
Number 2 leaned forward slightly. "What's difficult for one is difficult for all," he intoned. "She'll be a tough nut to crack, I don't mind telling you. She's willful, stubborn. Independent-minded," he said distastefully.
"So why tell me?"
Number 2 smiled, almost apologetically. "We have reason to believe," he said, "that these very traits might cause you to be somewhat, er, vulnerable to her influence."
The conversation was beginning to seem a bit surreal to Number 6. "I see," he nodded, mystified.
"It would be consistent with her psychological profile to attempt an escape from the Village," Number 2 explained. "She would naturally want to recruit a few allies among her fellow citizens."
"Like me," Number 6 suggested with a smirk.
Number 2 shot him a look of mild irritation. "Like you," he agreed. "This is no joke, Number 6. We're going to be watching Number 9 very closely, and we're not inclined to be as, well, as indulgent with her as we have been with you. Any signs of aberrant behavior will be dealt with harshly. Her accomplices, if any, will not be exempt from punishment, either. Do you understand?"
"Let me see," Number 6 said. "You're worried that she might be a bad influence on me?"
"Exactly. I'm only trying to give you fair warning."
Number 6 was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Number 2 appeared perfectly serious. He supposed it was a blow to his ego to be demoted to the position of second most-threatening inmate in the Village. On the other hand, he was positive there was an ulterior motive lurking somewhere beneath Number 2's expansive display of concern.
But ferreting it out would have to wait. As diverting as Number 2's baffling behavior was, Number 6's mind was already returning impatiently to his plan for acquiring one of the strange calibration devices. He thought briefly of asking Number 2 about them, but decided not to bother. Instead he did his best to look sincere as he said, "Well, it's certainly something to think about."
"We're only looking after your best interests," Number 2 assured him. "Be on your guard around Number 9. She's quite dangerous."
Number 6 retreated from the chamber at last, shooting a last questioning look over his shoulder as Number 2 beamed paternally after him.
As it turned out, he had no chance that day to make preparations for his plan. Rover followed him at a discreet but menacing distance all the way back to his cottage, and for the rest of the day came bobbing into view whenever he stepped out his front door.
It was not an altogether unexpected development. Number 6 had begun to suspect immediately that Number 2's real purpose in warning him away from the new Number 9 was precisely to compel him to her. The Village masters would expect him to act contrary to their advice; Rover's presence presumably was to monitor the speed with which he sought out Number 9. There was of course the possibility that they would also anticipate his understanding of their real intentions, and expect him to confound them accordingly. It was the kind of duplicity at which the architects of the Village excelled, designed to leave him unsure of the motivations behind his own actions.
Whatever their expectations, Number 6 didn't particularly care. Rover's proximity frustrated his plans to acquire a calibration scanner, which was of considerably greater importance to him than the new Village resident. When he did make the acquaintance of Number 9 the following day, it was purely by happenstance and not the result of any conscious effort on his part either to thwart Number 2 or play into his hands.
He came upon her on the small terrace overlooking the beach - at the same table, in fact, from which he had first watched her march angrily across the sand. She had traded in her smart suit for standard-issue Village garb, cheery and shapeless. As she sat facing the nameless ocean, staring out at the distant horizon, she no longer seemed the defiant live wire of two days earlier. The change was subtle: a slope in the shoulders, a stillness that replaced the restless energy she had displayed previously. She seemed to be in a mild state of shock.
Number 6 intended to withdraw and leave her to her reverie, but Number 9 abruptly looked up and saw him there. For a moment her eyes blazed and her body seemed to tense, as if she were preparing to lash out at the intrusion. Then it passed, and she relaxed into a posture of wary expectation, eyeing him speculatively.
"May I sit down?" he asked, gesturing to an empty chair next to her.
"All right," she said neutrally. She was pretty in a sharp, angular way; wide, intelligent eyes helped soften rather severe features. Her age was indeterminate, although Number 6 had the impression she was probably somewhat younger than she looked. She was also more delicately built than she had appeared at a distance. Her forceful rebuff of the Village drone had been skilled theatre; even seated, he towered over her slight frame.
"You're Number 6, aren't you?" she said matter-of-factly.
Even though he refused to wear the hated penny-farthing badge with his number on it, he was never surprised when fellow citizens knew who he was, even on first sight. Given the complexity of the web spun by his captors, it was the least of their parlor tricks. He gave Number 9 a slanted smile. "That is the number by which they choose to call me," he said.
She nodded. "They specifically warned me about you," she said with something like amusement. "They said you were a bad influence."
It was an interesting revelation which added to his information about yesterday's bizarre meeting with Number 2 without increasing his understanding of it at all. "You're American?" he said, changing the subject.
"That's right." She turned in her chair to face him. "Tell me. If we're all here forever - that's what they say, isn't it, in so many words - then what's the harm in using our real names? Why the numbers?"
He regarded her appreciatively. Some of the fire had returned to her eyes, and with it a sense of the individual who still existed within the anonymous jauntiness of the bright Village uniform. The psychological machinations of Number 2 were far from his mind as he said, "Let's get a cup of coffee, shall we?"
They walked to the Village café and chose a table in the shade. When the smiling waiter brought their coffee, Number 6 held out the credit card that tallied his weekly ration of work units. To his surprise the waiter shook his head. "No need for that, sir," he said. "Just push up your left sleeve a bit, if you don't mind."
Number 6 hesitated, but curiosity got the better of him and he did as he was told. To his astonishment the waiter produced a pocket-sized version of the mysterious calibration scanner, which he waved over Number 6's exposed wrist. Once again the inexplicable string of characters seemed to float above his skin, glowing orange as the strange device passed over his wrist. The waiter appeared to be focusing on the digital readout that popped up in response to the scan.
"There you are, Number 6," the man said. "All settled up. Thank you very much."
Number 9 stared darkly after the waiter as he left them to their coffee. "There's no end to the outrages they'll commit here, is there?" she said.
Once again Number 6 was absently rubbing the skin where he had been scanned. "This is a new outrage," he said thoughtfully. "Their latest attempt to reduce us all to walking databases."
"When were you encoded?" she asked.
"Encoded?" He was surprised to hear the strange term again from the new resident.
Number 9 tapped her own wrist. "Encoded with those numbers," she said. "Shortly after I got here, I was accosted by one of their people. He tried to administer something called a 'status calibration check.' He wasn't very happy when he found out I had nothing to check." She paused and looked momentarily disoriented. "I'm not really sure what happened then, but I woke up in the hospital. The doctor - more like a mad scientist if you ask me - told me I had been properly encoded. Whatever that means. Anyway, the next time they scanned me with one of their gadgets I had a set of numbers like yours."
"How did they do it?" Number 6 asked intensely.
"I don't know," she shrugged. "They must have done it while I was asleep. My wrist hurt a little bit afterward. Otherwise, I didn't feel a thing."
On an impulse Number 6 asked, "And what is your status?"
"Blue." For the first time Number 9 smiled, a bit self-consciously. "Is that good?"
"I've no idea," Number 6 said, shaking his head. "You see, I'm orange. A color with special significance in this place." He told her briefly about Rover, the Village watchdog, and the Orange Alerts that invariably preceded its menacing appearance.
Fear and disgust flickered across Number 9's face as she listened. When he had finished her features settled into an expression of deep thought. She looked at him closely. "Can I ask you something?"
He gave her a curt nod, still intent on the unblemished skin on his wrist.
"If you're as dangerous as they say," she said, "how is it that you haven't escaped this place?"
Number 6 deliberately sipped at his coffee. He returned Number 9's frank gaze with a piercing stare. "Questions," he said cryptically, "are a burden to others..."
Number 2 and the Supervisor stood side by side, watching the conversation on the huge video screen in the Control Room. "Is it wise to let them get chummy like this?" asked the slim, bespectacled man who had assisted more than a dozen individuals wearing badge number two.
"Wise?" said the current Village master in his booming voice. "It's exactly what I wanted to happen."
"She's strong," the Supervisor observed. "He seems to bring out the spitfire in her."
"She's not as strong as she thinks she is," Number 2 said dismissively. "Not nearly as strong as he is. But she's proud; she'll try to convince him that she is."
The Supervisor looked puzzled. "What do you hope to gain by throwing them together?"
Number 2 was staring almost dreamily at the screen. "Number 6 has been isolated for far too long. He's a closed system, impregnable to us or anyone else. It's time for him to open up a bit. Just one chink in his armor. I want Number 6 and Number 9 to trust one other, to respect one other, to like one another. To join forces, as it were."
"But won't that just make them stronger?" the Supervisor asked.
"He can't get any stronger!" Number 2 said impatiently. He quickly recovered himself and continued to stare raptly at the oversized images of the two chatting prisoners. "But she...Perhaps in the short run, yes. But eventually she'll shatter. I can shatter her. And when I do, I want him standing close enough to be showered with the fragments. I want him lacerated from head to toe. When that happens, there will be no one to bind up his wounds. No one at all...except us.
"And we will," Number 2 whispered. "For a price."
©1998, Theresa Donia. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
"Status Check" - Part 2
"Status Check" - Part 3