by T. Donia
Number 6 was in no hurry to take the pretty new arrival into his confidence.
Even though their first meeting had been innocent enough, he sensed the invisible hand of Number 2 trying to push them together. He had no particular objection to spending time with Number 9 - she was refreshingly free of the dispirited complacency that afflicted most of their fellow citizens - but he resented being manipulated. Pending further insight into what exactly Number 2 had to gain from their congress, he maintained an aloof distance from her.
Instead he turned his attention to the mysterious "encoding" campaign the Village had embarked upon. It turned out to be easier than expected to obtain one of the warders' scanning devices, although it did him little good once he got his hands on it.
He was roaming a remote stretch of coastline at the edge of the Village's visual surveillance range. The day was sunny but unseasonably cool; he had the rocky strip of beach to himself, which was the way he preferred it. Never entirely comfortable in the company of his fellow citizens, just lately his uneasiness was amplified by his knowledge of the new invisible database, which he considered an electronic yoke linking him against his will to the group identity of the Village. The less he saw of other prisoners, the freer he felt - at least in his mind - from his captors' systematic assaults on his individuality.
But even on the seemingly deserted beach Number 6 knew better than to believe he was truly alone. As he paced the sand just above the lapping waves of low tide, he listened carefully for the eerie, susurrating wail that heralded the approach of Rover, the ever-vigilant Village watchdog. For the first time in several days, the enigmatic guardian had failed to appear at his door this morning; apparently Number 2 had grown bored with its unbroken, uneventful surveillance and called Rover off. This walk on the beach was a test; if he could complete a full circuit of the coastline without raising an Orange Alert, perhaps he could finally get on with his plan.
At length Number 6's keen ears did pick up a strange sound - not the otherworldly wail of Rover, but voices rising and falling in a singsong cadence. He turned to face the dense stand of trees that lined this part of the beach. Off to the right, deep in the greenery and partially obscured by a rocky outcropping curving upland from the shore, he detected fleeting motion. He moved, quickly and in silence, in the direction of the voices and the half-seen movement.
The voices grew louder as he approached, but he didn't glimpse their source until he was nearly on top of them. In the shelter of the wall of rock five male figures crouched, all dressed in bright Village clothes. Four of them seemed to have cornered the fifth, who was backed up against the rough outcropping, his eyes darting rapidly among the others. Number 6 recognized him: It was Number 240, the warder who had administered his status calibration check. His tormentors were chanting in low, ominous tones. Their words were indecipherable; after a moment Number 6 realized they weren't English, or any language he immediately recognized. Occasionally one of the four punctuated the strange litany with a menacing gesture, like the stroke of a sword in pantomime, causing Number 240 to flinch in silent terror.
Number 6 stayed carefully hidden in the dense foliage, watching the bizarre ritual from as close as he dared. None of the men was armed, but one assumed everyone in the Village to be dangerous. The chanting four moved slowly closer to Number 240, whose once-sullen features were transformed by fear and panic. When they were within arm's length of him, he abruptly dropped to his knees and cried out hoarsely, "I submit!"
In an instant the other Villagers' voices reached an unintelligible crescendo. They closed in around the kneeling figure and made a final slashing gesture in unison, then fell silent. As if on cue, Number 240 fell forward, apparently unconscious. Number 6 started but remained frozen in place. From his vantage point he observed the four tormentors lift Number 240's limp body and hoist it over their shoulders, like pallbearers conveying a casket. Without another word they carried him away, passing within a few feet of Number 6, who managed to keep out of sight until they had moved beyond him.
His first instinct was to follow them. The image of the strange display - some kind of trial? he wondered - burned in his mind, both defying and demanding logical explanation. While he waited for the Villagers to gain a safe distance ahead of him, he looked again toward the shelf of rock where the ritual had taken place. A familiar shape caught his eye. He squinted at it incredulously, then moved quickly to snatch up the object, all thoughts of pursuit forgotten.
Number 240's calibration scanner had fallen unnoticed from his belt during his ordeal. Number 6 held it tightly in his hand, as if to confirm its hard plastic reality. The device was switched off, its displays blank and dark. He placed his thumb over the power button, but a highly sensitive inner voice spoke a warning in his brain. He was outside the perimeter of Village security, or close to it; if Rover hadn't already been dispatched to retrieve him, it soon would be. Determined not to sacrifice his find, Number 6 tucked it carefully into his blazer and headed serenely up the coast, back toward the Village.
There was nowhere he could go that wasn't within the sweeping gaze of Number 2's electronic eyes. But even the Village's complex network of cameras and human Observers couldn't watch everybody all the time. Number 6 had become more adept than most at finding holes in the surveillance net. Still carrying the scanner close to his body, he spent the afternoon making himself visible to his fellow citizens: tea at the café, a game of chess with one of the Village seniors, an hour of reading on the terrace of his own cottage. He saluted all he met, uttering a polite "Be seeing you" that was certain to be noticed and remembered by the neighbors of the normally taciturn Number 6.
When he was sure he had become safely ubiquitous, he slipped down a little-used path that ran behind the Town Hall. Within a minute he was in a secluded wooded area that was, at least to the extent such a thing was possible in the Village, isolated from the view of human or camera. He pulled out the calibration scanner and switched it on. The device vibrated lightly in his hand. Its array of diodes lit up one by one, while the LCD panel flashed all eights, then displayed an expectantly blinking cursor.
The glow of multicolored lights was reflected in the pale irises of Number 6's eyes. Now that he had the scanner in his possession, he could only stare, unsure what to do with it. He thought about his status calibration check - his status was orange, Number 240 had told him - and about ordering coffee at the café, where the waiter had apparently accessed his credit account using a similar, smaller device. How were the data encoded? What other information could the scanner reveal about him to its user?
Number 6 rolled up his left sleeve. With the scanner in his right hand, he held it over his left wrist. Nothing happened. For the first time he realized none of the controls on the device were marked. He squinted at the row of recessed buttons on its side, trying to intuit the correct sequence to activate a scan. One of the buttons was ringed with red. Number 6 hesitated with his thumb poised above it, then pressed down decisively.
The noise seemed to come from everywhere: a discordant staccato at deafening volume. It seemed to drain the strength from Number 6, driving him to his knees even as its painful reverberations threatened to burst his eardrums. Gradually the featureless wall of sound resolved into intelligible words, a repetitive drone of uninflected syllables:
UNAUTHORIZED USER TERMINATE ACCESS UNAUTHORIZED USER TERMINATE ACCESS UNAUTHORIZED
As consciousness left him, Number 6 failed to notice he still held tightly to the scanner, or the unpleasant smell that rose from the flesh of his palm against the screeching wedge of plastic.
"You very nearly lost the use of your hand, you know."
Number 2's voice was the soul of concern as he slowly paced the length of Number 6's hospital bed. The Prisoner eyed him warily but made no response.
"You've been in and out of consciousness for almost 48 hours. The nurses...they couldn't find a vein that would take an IV drip. Even semi-comatose, you continue to resist us. You're an extraordinary man, Number 6." There was genuine amusement in Number 2's rumbling laugh. "In any event, if you feel somewhat weak, that's the reason. You're a bit malnourished at the moment."
Beneath the thick swath of bandages Number 6's hand itched terribly, but he felt no pain. There were other ways to administer drugs besides intravenous drip, after all. His tongue felt sluggish as he asked, "What happened?"
"You don't remember?" Number 2's drawn expression indicated disappointment. "We don't know, my dear chap. We found you laid out in your home, your hand badly burned."
Number 6 regarded the Chief Bureaucrat with suspicion. "No one was watching?" he said acidly.
"You're not as interesting to us as you think you are," Number 2 shrugged. He stood over Number 6, a peculiar half-smile on his chiseled face. "You really don't know how it could have happened?"
Number 6 shook his head. Other than his own name and the nightmarish certainty of his predicament here in the Village, he seemed unable to exert order or control over his memory. His thoughts were chaos, their meanings slippery and ephemeral. Amnesia resulting from trauma? Or just more chemically-induced disorientation? He realized it didn't make any difference.
"Well, no matter," Number 2 said briskly, echoing his thoughts. "The doctors say there's no permanent damage to the hand. In fact, they're releasing you later today." He took up his command staff, leaning against the bed. "Say, when you're out, why don't you stop by my office? I'd like to show you something." He saluted Number 6 and strode from the room, humming as he went.
He was still humming a few hours later when the silver double doors to his inner chamber slid open noiselessly. Glancing up from a stack of paperwork, he assumed a welcoming expression. "Number 6!" he said in a booming voice. "Come in! You're getting your color back already, I see."
Number 6 approached slowly, holding his bandaged right hand somewhat awkwardly away from his body. "What did you want to see me about?" he said, his voice a low growl.
"Irascible as ever. You must be feeling better." Number 2 came around the side of his command console. "Come on, there's something I want you to see."
A door Number 6 had never noticed before opened in the corner of the room. They descended a spiral staircase, then followed a short, wide corridor to an unmarked door. The room they entered was unfurnished except for a white table with two chairs on one side. On the other side, seated on a tall stool, was Number 9. Lying on the table was a calibration scanner.
Number 2 motioned Number 6 to the chair next to him, then turned to the young woman. "You two have met?" he said pleasantly.
When both Village residents remained silent, he continued: "Number 9, you were found to have this official-issue scanning device in your possession. Where did you get it?"
Number 9 regarded him with narrowed, hate-filled eyes and said nothing. Number 6 stared at the black scanner on the table. Something was wrong with it. It didn't lay flat, as if the plastic had somehow warped...or melted. He found the sight disturbing, although he couldn't quite understand why.
"My dear, this is a very serious charge," Number 2 was saying. "Your silence is as liable to damn you as any information you might voluntarily offer."
"Is that your idea of democracy?" Number 9 asked in a quiet, tense voice.
Number 2 waved a hand dismissively. "As an accused criminal you're hardly in a position to debate the elements of a democratic society. Still," he added with a sigh, "if you insist on being considered innocent until proven guilty, fine. Allow me to present the prosecution's arguments.
"First, we discovered this device" - he gestured toward the scanner - "in your home. Do you deny it?"
"That the decorated prison cell you've stuck me in is home?" Number 9 said bitterly. "That's a point of semantics, not law."
"Uncooperative witness," Number 2 said in an aside to Number 6, who declined to comment. To Number 9 he continued, "I'll take that as your agreement with my point. Second point: A routine check of Village staff turned up no evidence of a missing device. All staff members assigned to a calibration scanner have accounted for their devices. There were no discrepancies."
"Number 240," Number 6 muttered absently.
"I beg your pardon?" Number 2 turned to him, eyebrows raised in question.
"The scanner belongs to Number 240," Number 6 repeated. The words tumbled out seemingly of their own accord, as if some subconscious memory had triggered them. While he couldn't account for his knowledge of the number, it had the ring of familiarity, like a lone missing piece to a long-assembled puzzle.
Number 2 looked at him speculatively, then flipped open a panel set flush into the surface of the table. He pulled out a cordless phone and punched a button. "Supervisor," he said with authority. "What can you pull up for me on Village citizen Number two-four-zero?...That's right....Oh, yes? Well, check anyway, please....I see....No, that won't be necessary. Thank you." He replaced the phone, suppressing a smile.
"There is no Number 240 in the Village, Number 6," he said patiently. "Why would you think there was?"
The dull, sullen face of the warder who had conducted Number 6's status calibration check floated to the surface of his memory. The warder's number, he was certain, had been 240. He had seen him on another occasion, as well. Hadn't he? Number 6 was sure of it, but that memory drifted away as he tried to pin it down. He gave Number 2 a carefully blank look, displaying no trace of his inner confusion. "Sorry to interrupt," he said blandly.
"Wait a minute," Number 9 chimed in. Her flat American voice was tinged with urgency. "You're talking about a device that isn't missing, belonging to a man who doesn't exist? If all I've stolen is a figment of somebody's imagination, how can you accuse me of theft?"
"Nobody's accusing you of theft, my dear," said Number 2, his voice deceptively gentle. "We're accusing you of piracy and unlawful possession. The device we found in your home is of unknown origin. Therefore, you must have manufactured it somehow."
Number 9 made a sound of disbelief in her throat. "Manufactured? I never saw one of those things until two weeks ago. How could I possibly have manufactured one? And why?"
Number 2 reached across the table and picked up the scanner. "This is a very serious offense," he explained, ignoring her questions. "It carries quite severe penalties, with good reason. The Village database is vast and extremely comprehensive. It contains all the most private details of our citizens' lives. That's why access to the information must be strictly controlled. No one may use a scanner without proper authorization." He glanced at Number 6, who was listening intently.
"Every scanner contains a self-authorization function. You presumably incorporated the same feature into this model; the software won't work without it. Each time the device is turned on, the user must scan his own biolink first." Here Number 2 tapped his left wrist. "Every scanner is programmed to recognize only one authorized user. If the initial scan does not match the encoding programmed into it, an alarm is activated to alert the authorities of the violation and...deter the violator."
Number 6 experienced a flash of understanding that was almost visceral in its force. He stared wide-eyed at the misshapen device in Number 2's hand - so innocuous in its powered-down mode. His injured hand began to itch furiously as he remembered the searing heat that had engulfed the scanner when he had held it: hot enough to burn flesh, hot enough to warp its own plastic casing. In his mind he heard once again the strident alarm the thing emitted, tuned to a frequency that was not merely piercing but physically debilitating. His eyes darted to Number 2, whose face revealed nothing of the insidious dishonesty of his words, or their malevolent significance.
Number 9's eyes widened as Number 2 slid the scanner across the table at her. "Now, my dear," he said paternally, "I'm going to give you an opportunity to come clean. You'll see that the prosecution's arguments are quite valid. Pick up the scanner, Number 9. When the device recognizes your encoding sequence, I will be proven right and your guilt assured. That's fair, isn't it?"
The last vestiges of drug-induced disorientation fell away from Number 6's senses as he observed the scene before him. He knew precisely what would happen when Number 9 attempted to scan herself. He wondered what the effects of the "deterrent" would be on an individual of her slight build. The reluctant doubt on Number 9's face as she reached for the scanner spurred him to action.
"This is absurd!" he shouted, leaping to his feet. "You're using tactics that went out of style with the Salem witch hunts! If she's innocent, she's likely to be killed."
Number 2 endured the outburst calmly. After a moment's reflection, he shrugged and said, "You may be right, Number 6. But what choice do we have? It's Number 9's word against the Village. The scanner itself provides a foolproof means of establishing its rightful possessor." He gave Number 6 a penetrating, meaningful look. "In the absence of compelling proof of her innocence, I don't see what else we can do."
The two men faced each other in tense silence. Number 9 looked from one to the other, anger and bewilderment fighting for supremacy on her face. "I'm sure the subtext of this dramatic scene is fascinating," she said curtly, "but frankly I'm not interested. If it's proof of my innocence you want, I'm happy to provide it. I don't need a champion," she added, directly to Number 6.
Number 2 held up a hand to silence her. "Do you have something to say, Number 6?" he asked.
The Prisoner grabbed the scanner with his undamaged hand. "If you want me to say I stole it," he said, "all right. I stole it."
"You stole it?" Number 2 chuckled. "My dear fellow, we've already established that it wasn't stolen at all. You manufactured it, you mean."
"No," said Number 6. "I didn't. I'm not going to confess to a crime I didn't commit."
Number 2 looked pained. "And yet now you've brought the taint of suspicion on yourself. Very gallant, but really not very well thought out. Well, we can soon sort this out. You'll just have to scan yourself, Number 6."
"That won't be necessary," Number 6 said grimly.
"It certainly won't." Number 9 reached over the table and plucked the calibration scanner from his hand. "Look, Number 6, I don't know why you're doing this, but I've already told you it isn't necessary. I can prove my own innocence."
"It won't be necessary," Number 6 repeated in a loud, firm voice, "because I've already done it." With a savage motion he tore at the mass of bandages on his right hand and held his mutilated palm out for Number 9's inspection. Her face paled at the sight of his burned flesh, blistered and in some places blackened by the unauthorized scan he had performed on himself.
Number 2 smiled faintly, unperturbed by the grisly sight. "You certainly appear innocent of the charge of pirating official equipment, Number 6," he said gravely. "Now, however, a different scenario suggests itself. You did indeed steal this device...from Number 9, who manufactured it." He retrieved the scanner from Number 6's grip. "My original offer to you to answer to this charge still stands, Number 9. Take the scanner, please."
Having seen firsthand the perverse liberties the Village leader took with the concept of justice, however, Number 9's attitude had altered dramatically. "You're insane," she gasped. "You can't ask me to disfigure myself just to clear my name. I won't do it."
To the surprise of both prisoners, Number 2 nodded and set the device on the table. "Perhaps you're right," he agreed. "Perhaps justice can best be served in some other manner, at some other time. You're free to go, Number 9."
She hesitated, as if mistrusting her own ears. Her eyes flicked briefly toward Number 6, then to the door. Without a word she left the room.
Number 6's hand throbbed with pain. He salvaged what he could of the torn bandages, laying them carefully over the tender flesh. "What was that about?" he asked with quiet fury.
Number 2 smiled and said nothing. He watched Number 6 struggle with the ruined dressing. "For goodness' sake, get that hand taken care of," he said at last. He stepped past the Prisoner to the door. "Be seeing you."
The room assigned to her was a remarkably faithful reproduction of her living room at home. Its utter alienness was therefore doubly disconcerting to her. Still, that sense of detachment from her surroundings made it easier to face Number 2, who sat comfortably on one of the overstuffed chairs in front of the fireplace. She never would have allowed such a reprehensible individual into what she persisted in thinking of as her "real" home.
"I hope my staged demonstration reinforced my warning to you about Number 6," the Village master said, sipping tea she had made at his request.
Number 9 appeared relaxed, seated on the sofa with her legs curled beneath her. In truth, it was a posture she habitually assumed when anxiety threatened to get the better of her. Fortunately, Number 2 didn't know that. Or did he? Number 9 was beginning to the appreciate that the Village possessed intelligence-gathering capabilities that rivaled those of her former employer.
"You mean," she said, her voice betraying turbulent emotions, "the entire scene was scripted?"
"No, of course not," Number 2 said. "We simply provided the setting, and Number 6 played the role he is accustomed to playing. There is, thankfully, a somewhat predictable nature lurking beneath his volatility."
"But you didn't know for sure that he would stick his neck out to keep me from...from frying my hand on that damned scanner of yours."
"No," Number 2 admitted thoughtfully, "not as such. But the action was entirely consistent with his psychological profile."
Number 9 pressed her point. "You relied on the consistency of a man you describe as your most unpredictable citizen?"
"He gives us little else to rely on, my dear."
"But what if he had acted...unpredictably?"
Number 2 frowned. "Yes?"
"If he hadn't stopped me," said Number 9, "would you have allowed me to scan myself to prove my innocence?"
"Oh, that." Number 2 leaned forward in his chair. His rugged features loomed before her like the face of a dangerous cliff. "My dear," he said softly, "I have a job to do. Some of my predecessors have chosen to disguise the fact that the Village's larger mission sometimes requires Machiavellian action on our part. I've never seen the point in doing so." He paused to sip his tea. "There are very few stupid people in the Village, you know. Stupid people by definition don't know very much, and we are, after all, in the information business."
"That's a very flattering way of saying you would have tortured me just to prove a point," Number 9 said.
"If you like," Number 2 conceded. "But Number 6 would have done no less if it had suited his purposes. And that was the point I was trying to prove. He's not the sort of person you want to place your trust in. Do you understand?"
"I think I do," she said coldly.
It didn't take her long to find Number 6's cottage after her visitor left. She found him at home, at rest but not relaxed, his burned hand freshly re-bandaged.
"I'm confused," she said without preliminaries, "and you're the only one who can help me sort things out."
"Really?" he said, his bland tone unreadable. "What makes you think that?"
"May I sit down?" He gestured her indifferently toward a seat. "First of all, I want to thank you. You prevented me from doing something...well, very unpleasant. I'm not sure I understand why - " She trailed off, shaking her head. "My stubbornness nearly got the best of me, and you could have let it, but you didn't. Thank you."
"Always glad to lend a hand." It could have been a joke, except for the guarded, humorless tone of his voice.
"Did it hurt?" Number 9 blurted out curiously.
"What, this?" Number 6 held up his injured hand. "I don't actually remember. It looks like the sort of thing that would, doesn't it?"
She regarded him thoughtfully. "What were you doing with one of those devices?" she asked.
"I thought you weren't supposed to talk to me," he said, ignoring her question. "I'm dangerous."
"That's certainly what Number 2 wants me to believe. The entire bizarre scene with the scanner was staged to prove his point. Or so he says."
"And you doubt Number 2's word?" Number 6's tone was a parody of shock. In truth, he had already lost interest in this afternoon's show trial. He was tired and in pain and, for the moment, totally drained of outrage. But he found himself admiring the petite American's tenacity. The smile that traced his features was fleeting but genuine.
Number 9 failed to respond to his attempt at levity. "I wouldn't believe him if he said the Earth was round," she said bitterly.
"That wouldn't do you much good," Number 6 responded sardonically, "if it turned out he was really trying to convince you it was flat."
"A dog chases its tail because it doesn't know any better. That's why dogs are so amenable to being led on a leash." Number 6 waved away her confusion with his good hand. "No matter. Tell me, what do you think our friend Number 2 was really up to today?"
Number 9's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed. "Well..." she said uncertainly, "I mean, obviously he...you..." She stopped, took a deep breath and started over. "Obviously, he was using me to get you to implicate yourself in the theft of the scanner."
Number 6 had so seldom laughed since arriving in the Village that his reaction caught him off guard. He smothered the sound as the bemused expression on Number 9's face deepened. "Number 2 knew perfectly well that I took the scanner," he assured her. "Don't shed any guilty tears on my account."
At that Number 9 shot him an indignant look. "I didn't say anything about tears," she retorted. "But how do you know? How can you be sure?"
He was glad to see some of her spark return. He decided he rather liked the newest Village resident. "Number 2 said I was found, unconscious, here," he explained, gesturing to indicate his cottage. "He should have been more careful."
Abruptly Number 6 stood and crossed the room, coming to a halt before the television monitor on the wall. "If I had been at home when this little accident occurred," he continued, staring into the silent eye of the darkened screen, "there would have been no question of what happened." He turned to face Number 9. "But there are places one can go when one doesn't wish to be a cooperative citizen. Come on, I'll show you." He motioned her toward the door. Number 9 looked dubious but obediently preceded him out the front door.
Outside, twilight was deepening into darkness. Number 6 quickly took the lead and guided Number 9 along the quiet Village streets. Presently they arrived at the small clearing where he had tried to use the calibration scanner on himself.
A nearly full moon gilded the lush greenery with pale light. Number 9 seemed relieved and happy to find this small part of the Village untouched by the invasive technology of their captors. At Number 6's urging she stepped inside the rough circle of trees that would shield them completely from the view of the nearest path.
Her smile vanished as she realized they were not alone in the clearing. Number 6 followed her frozen gaze downward. A figure lay prone on the grass, face down and motionless. He knelt beside the colorfully dressed body, trying and failing to rouse it. After a moment he rolled the inert form onto its back. The wide, terrified eyes of Number 240 stared sightlessly up at him.
Number 9 crept forward until she could read the penny-farthing badge still pinned to the warder's striped shirt. "Two-forty," she whispered. She looked hard at Number 6. "Did you kill him?"
Number 6 got to his feet, picking stray blades of grass from the mass of bandages on his hand. "Kill a man who doesn't exist?" he said casually.
From a distance they heard the clarion call of the Village public address system. "Curfew in fifteen minutes," chirped the ever-cheerful announcer. "Almost time to say goodnight to another perfect day."
As Number 9 listened dumbly to the cloying announcement, Number 6 turned her gently but firmly away from the silent figure of the late security drone. "Let's go. Wouldn't want to ruin a perfect day," he said with quiet irony.
She didn't resist, but threw a final glance over her shoulder as they walked away from the clearing. "But what about him?" she asked.
"Somewhere there's a grave with his number on it," he replied. "They will see he makes his way into it."
Morning found Number 2 in his command chair before sunrise. His booming voice echoed off the walls of the chamber and was recorded by unseen devices that efficiently digitized and categorized his dictated notes.
"Operation Status Check is proceeding according to expectations," he said between sips of tea. "Phase 1 is effectively completed. With the data encoding of all Village citizens, the necessary infrastructure now exists to implement Phase 2. As an aside, I offer my personal congratulations to our superiors, who incorporated the very practical mechanism of the pan-Village database into the project. Any means of cutting down on paperwork is always appreciated."
Number 2 consulted a small notebook before continuing. "Preliminary testing of the Phase 2 device has gone quite well. Of the three subjects implanted with the device at the time of encoding, we have already liquidated Number 240. This of course was necessary to test the efficacy of the technology at lethal setting. His demise was arranged to appear as the result of an unrelated disciplinary matter. In a nod to efficiency, I was able to use this liquidation to aid in the progress of what I am calling Phase 2a."
The Chief Bureaucrat paused to refill his teacup. He reflected on the last sentence of his dictation. Phase 2a was not altogether popular among his superiors, he knew. Strictly speaking, it was not even an authorized addition to the operation he was charged with carrying out. It showed initiative on his part, and in the Village that could be dangerous.
But it was worth the risk, he told himself, rubbing the line of his square jaw thoughtfully. If his plan succeeded, he would have achieved what none of his predecessors had ever been able to do. Some sort of reward would be in order, surely. That, he thought, made the risk worthwhile.
It wouldn't hurt to reinforce his own cause while he was about it, he decided. He cleared his throat and resumed his report: "Number 6 and Number 9 continue to carry Phase 2 devices without their knowledge and without physical side effects associated with implantation. A nonlethal test of the device has been performed on Number 6, with desirable results. As I have stated in previous reports, further applications of physical stimulus, combined with an engineered state of emotional helplessness, should produce in this particularly recalcitrant subject a state of subjugation that will be far more useful to our long-term goals than any of the primitive attempts at controlling him that have been made in the past."
The last words had barely passed his lips when the double doors to the chamber slid quietly open. Number 110, a sharp-eyed young warder currently assigned as Number 2's chief aide, entered with quick, leggy strides. She waited expectantly for the Village Master to invite her to speak.
"Good morning, Number 110. What is it?"
"Good morning, sir." Her voice was firm, businesslike. "There's a message for you from Number 1. I didn't wish to disturb you while you were making a report."
Number 2, somewhat irritated at her presumption, said, "You should have interrupted, Number 110. What is the message?"
"Number 1 wishes to know why you haven't liquidated Number 9 yet."
"Ah." Was the timing of the question coincidental, he wondered, or did his recorded words play to an unseen audience in an unknown place, the moment he dictated them? No matter. Number 2 stood and stretched his limbs while he mentally composed a reply.
"Our records show she wasn't scheduled for long-term accommodation," Number 110 added with the barest hint of disapproval.
Number 2 stifled an urge to upbraid the young woman for her insubordination. When he spoke his voice was smooth and reasonable. "As you know, 110, Number 9 has an important role to play in our current operation. Maintaining her here in the Village for a while longer will pay us back with interest in the long run. Perhaps you would be so good as to pass on that information to Number 1...as my representative."
He was gratified by the brief flash of fear in her eyes. He couldn't have his own aide using him as a stepping-stone for her career ambitions, after all. Let her toady up to Number 1 on her own time. "That will be all, Number 110," he said brusquely.
Number 2 barely noticed her march-step retreat from the chamber. So his superiors were beginning to apply pressure? He knew better than to believe he could prevail in a confrontation on the matter. Such beliefs by his predecessors had left a fair number of ex-colleagues in their wake.
Yet he felt in his bones that Number 9 was the key to achieving victory over the maddening enigma that was Number 6. There was no question in his mind of terminating Phase 2a. He had his own career ambitions to think about. He would simply have to step up the pace of the experiment.
Number 2 reached for the telephone on his console. "Supervisor? I want constant visual surveillance of Number 9, starting now. It's time to test the third Phase 2 device."
"Status Check" Part 1 "Status Check" Part 3