A Tale of Two Prisoners

It was another beautiful day in the Village. At least it was before a new arrival made himself known. The old man was trouble. More trouble than he knew. Therefore it was no surprise that he was given Number Two's old number.

Number Two was known as 'Michael' in the waking world. A handsome young man, he was the head of Summakor and oversaw a project to assist the mentally disabled. The project was simple. Transpose the subconscious minds of mentally, socially, and emotionally challenged into the shared dreamworld known as the Village where they are forced to conform and their waking selves in the 'real world' will become happy healthy normal people. Unfortunately none of the subjects volunteered. They were found by paid observers who had been scouring the world for people who fall into the right criteria. Still the results in the real world was impressive. People conformed and got over their emotional hang-ups.

Number Two's 'wife' 313 was perpetually asleep. Someone had to be the primary dreamer that kept the Village going. In the waking world she would be so insane that she couldn't function if her subconscious wasn't in the Village. Quite frankly, she didn't have a life to lose.

The new arrival was a problem. Usually when a new arrival came to the Village, they were saner than they were in the waking world. Oh they still had their problems, but the point was that they were mostly sane, or could fake it, something they couldn't do in the waking world. The new Number Six was the exception.

It seemed the old man suffered from acute paranoia. 'They' were looking for him. 'They' wanted to silence him. 'They' had infiltrated every government in the world, or at least every government that mattered. When the new Number Six was young, he 'knew' something, or was 'somebody' that was very valuable to a lot of people. No doubt the man thought he was a former spy or displaced royalty. Perhaps he was a retired criminal. The ironic thing was that without this crippling paranoia, Michael would have never spotted him. It was his own paranoia that made his delusions come true. Because he thought that somebody was out to get him, somebody went out and got him.

The maddening thing was that the Village was so good for the old man but the old geezer didn't appreciate it. In the waking world, the old man started fitting in at the old folks home and actually socializing. He still distrusted the government(s), but he wasn't so vocal about it. He was calmer and friendlier.

But in the Village, the new Number Six seemed to have it out for Number Two. Number Two really couldn't blame him.

He had felt the same way when he had first arrived. Curtis, the old Number Two, like everyone else had placed the darker side of his personality in the Village. The problem was that Curtis had absolute power and tended to abuse it from time to time. Everyone was afraid of him. Michael, the new Number Two was determined to do better. To let the denizens of the Village enjoy some individuality and some freedom as long as it didn't endanger the Village or their waking selves outside. Then the new Number Six arrived, and it all started to go wrong.

Six demanded to see Number Two. Demanded. Nobody ever did that. They still remembered the old Number Two and were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nobody wanted to be the first one the new Number Two would make an example of. But Six wasn't like that. He wasn't like that at all. He wasn't afraid. Number Six was determined to see Number Two at the first opportunity.

Number Two obliged him. Better to assuage the fears of the new arrivals than be forced to employ the draconian measures of his predecessor. He was better than that. He had to believe that, or he wouldn't have the strength to do the job.

Number Two had a soft spot for the old man. When Two had first arrived (and everybody called him 'Six') he had met an old man called 93 in the desert who was shot by his pursuers. 93 warned him about the Village before he died. Poor old 93 had a British accent and dressed very much the way the new Number Six did now. Beige trousers, black shirt, black blazer with white trim. Even though Six was much taller and leaner, it was like 93 had come back. Two didn't want Six to end up like 93 had. He wanted what was best for Six, what was best for everybody.

"Where am I?" Six demanded.

"In the Village," Number Two responded automatically.

"What do you want?" Six barked.

"Nothing," Two grinned disarmingly. "Nothing. We just want to make you comfortable."

"Send me home," Six suggested. "At home I can make myself quite comfortable."

"You are home," Two smiled condescendingly.

"No," Six sneered. "I'm not. And you know it."

"This is your home," Two assured him, then he looked around self-consciously. "Well, technically, this is my home. But yours is only a few blocks away…"

"Mine is miles away," Six corrected. "What's going on? Why don't I remember most of my own life? I can't remember my name or my own childhood, but I do remember that I don't belong in this place!"

"How do you know you don't belong, here Six?" Two asked him. "At your age, memory can be a funny thing. You aren't getting any younger you know…" Two's voice trailed off. Six's posture and manner was much different than it was in the waking world. In the Village, his posture was erect, not stooped. As a matter of fact, he seemed to have more hair than he did in the waking world, and his skin didn't sag quite as much. "You know, the Village seems to agree with you."

"That I should leave?" Six sneered.

"No, I mean you seem to be healthy as a horse," Two corrected himself.

"A horse with a bit in his mouth?" Six challenged.

"It's just an expression," Two assured him, but his patience was wearing thin. Six's hostility was grating, but what could one expect when one realized that it was people's negative subconscious selves who ended up here? Of course Six was hostile and paranoid. What did Two expect? If Six wasn't suffering from paranoia he wouldn't be here.

"This all seems so familiar," Six said in smug resignation.

"Of course it does," Two nodded in relief. "You've lived here all your life."

"No, I mean being taken against my will to live in an artificial society where your names are taken away to be replaced by numbers," Six clarified as he started pacing. "A place called the Village, where they put people who know too much or too little, people who had information to be protected or extracted. Where they force you to conform. Where the spokesman for the Village masters was known as Number Two. Yes! Number Two! That's it!" Six whirled to face Two. "You! Who are you?"

"The new Number Two," Two emphasized in order to not be confused with his predecessor.

"Who is Number One?" Six asked.

"There is no 'One'," Two clarified. "The leader of the Village is always known as Two. It's a lesson in humility, to remind him to always think of the Village before himself. We all serve society y'know…"

"I don't," Six smiled smugly. It was strange. Six seemed to have a lot more hair now, and his formerly rheumy eyes were clear and blazing. He didn't have as many lines on his face either and his hair had more grey than white. What was happening? Six's voice didn't shake or quaver anymore either. Now his powerful voice conveyed menace. It would have been perfect for a James Bond villain. "I want out of here. I've been a world traveller all my life, I don't plan to stop know. Places to go, things to see."

Two smiled knowingly. Six had changed residences a lot in the waking world. It was one of the reasons the poor man didn't have any friends. He even changed old folk's homes on a regular basis. Last year he lived on a cruise ship. "You have to settle down sometime y'know," Two smiled. "As I said, you aren't getting any younger…" He stopped.

There was no denying it. Six was getting younger, at least in the Village. In the Village, things didn't work the way they did in the waking world. Perception took precedence over physics. It seemed that when people with extraordinarily strong wills enter the Village their physical appearance changed to fit their self-perception. Most people simply imagined themselves as their proper height, weight and age, and didn't change much in the Village. But Six was different. He was actually started aging backwards. It was ironic, but Six's refusal to admit that he was too old was actually making him younger in the Village.

Two was going to have to change his tactics. "Look, Six…"

"Don't call me that!" Six pointed a warning finger at Two. "Don't ever call me that. Just. Don't. Don't ever call me that number again. Call me 'John', or 'Pat,' or even 'Susan', but don't ever call me that number again! Do you hear? Don't call me by that number!"

"Would a different number help?" Two asked as he rolled his eyes. The (formerly) old man didn't like his number? What next? "If you don't like your number we can work something out…"

"I am not a number, I am a person," Six insisted. "I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered! My life is my own." Once again, Six seemed to grow younger and become stronger as the conflict continued. Now he was only half the age that he was when he first arrived.

The old man in the real world had to be over eighty. Number Six was now forty at the most, maybe younger. A tall man of English nationality, Number Six had a long face, fair hair and piercing blue eyes. It was a face that conveyed intelligence. His eyes conveyed hostility. His body conveyed physical strength.

"Look… Six…" Two began in an effort to make him see reason.

"I told you don't call me that!" Six roared. "Call me that again and I won't be responsible for what happens!"

Two backed up. Six was no longer a pitiful old man. He was now physically imposing. "Okay… have it your way…"

"What is my name?" Six seized Two by the lapels of his jacket. "What is my name? You brought me here against my will, taken away my memories and expect me to believe that I've lived here all my life? I've gotten out before and I'll get out again! Then I'll come back here and…" His voice trailed away. "How did they get you?"

"Excuse me?" Two asked as he freed himself and straightened his clothing.

"How did they get to you?" Six repeated. "Who were you before you came here? What did you do?"

"I was just a citizen of the Village before the old Number Two stepped down…"

"Blew himself up," Six corrected. "Is that the only way out of here?"

"So you heard about that," Two sighed. He thought that 313 had made everyone forget. Apparently she missed a few. A few who were willing to talk to a harmless old man. Who was now neither old nor harmless.

"Yes, it's amazing what you can learn when you ask questions," Six smiled smugly. "Who were you before you came to the Village? What is your name?"

"I'm Two…"

"You're acting like it!" Six sneered. "What is your NAME?" he barked like a drill sergeant. "Do you remember it, or did they take that away too?"

"I'm Two," Two insisted.

"Number Two should be flushed down the bog," Six mocked. "If it's brown, flush it down."

"Michael!" Two… no Michael growled. He had had enough. He was the new Number Two damn it!

"So Michael, there is a human being hidden in there after all," Six smiled like a condescending parent. "Tell me Mike, what's it all about? What am I doing here?"

"You're here for your own good," Michael sighed. Perhaps if he told him the truth he would see reason. Anyone whose will was strong enough to change his physical appearance couldn't be coerced. Not without permanent injury.

"I'm sorry, I don't follow," Six smiled as he shook his head.

"You're here to treat your paranoia," Michael explained. "It's killing you."

"I'm an old man," Six shrugged. "Death is inevitable."

"You can't take the strain anymore," Michael continued.

"I've taken it so far," Six assured him. "Besides, I don't see how keeping me a prisoner here is going to help."

"You're free," Michael told him.

"With your help, hopefully," Six smiled.

"No I mean you are actually free," Michael clarified. "Your waking self is still in the old folk's home."

"I just think I'm here when I'm asleep?" Six asked skeptically.

"Look sit down and I'll explain it from the beginning," Michael sighed. "This is going to take a while."

Michael told him. He told him everything. He told him of his job at Summakor, finding appropriate subjects, told him of his resignation, told him how he lived a week in the village while for his waking self it was just one night. He told him of 313's sacrifice, of the good the Village was doing for everyone out in the waking world all of it. This social conditioning, if it worked, could solve so many of society's ills. The real world could be a Utopia if the Village became one.

"That's a fascinating story," Six said as he sipped his tea. "I had a feeling this was an 'In-the-Matrix' kind of thing. The whole place seems like a bad dream. I still have a few questions though? Do you mind?"

"No go ahead," Michael smiled grateful that Six wasn't hostile anymore.

"What about the bomb?" Six asked him.

"The bomb?" Michael gasped.

"Yes," Six smiled with false innocence. "In the real world, you quit your job, meet a mysterious woman who calls herself Lucy, awaken in the morning when a bomb destroys your apartment and then meet this Mister Curtis who gives you your old job back and the keys to the kingdom. Am I missing something here?"

"No that's pretty much how it happened," Michael informed him.

"Ah! Well, if Summakor is as benevolent as you say it is, where did the bomb come from?" Six asked. "Somebody tried to kill either you or Lucy. Either Lucy blew up your apartment to make you believe her story, or someone from Summakor did to get rid of either you or her. Are you following me so far?"

"Yes, I think so," Michael nodded.

"And if placing our subconscious minds in the Village is the panacea it's made out to be, why did Lucy act the way she did back in New York?" Six continued. "Sounds like it doesn't work for everyone."

"It doesn't," Michael agreed, "but we've had so much success…"

"Michael, why would a private company invest so much in social engineering?" Six asked him. "Where's the profit in it? It sounds very expensive but the only way to make it pay off is to misuse it. The people here are test subjects. If it works the company will use it brainwash thousands of people."

"No they won't!" Michael shook his head.

"Of course they will," Six sighed as if talking to a very slow child. "They'll probably think that it's for our own good, but they will be deciding what our own good is. You brought me here. I made a choice to be a cantankerous, paranoid old fool and that wasn't good enough for you. You decided that I should be a sweet, friendly, well-adjusted old softie. Well I don't want to be a sweet, friendly, well-adjusted old softie!" he snarled as his voice regained its old hostility. "I like being paranoid and antisocial! It's what makes me 'me'! People have the right to be misanthropes, or alcoholics, or homosexuals, or whatever society decides it doesn't like at the moment! People have the right to be free! They have the right to fail! To be individuals! And you've taken that away from these people!"

"Now wait a minute!" Michael snarled. "This is for their own good! These people are sick and they need help! Some of them couldn't function without being in the Village! Some of them were dangerous!"

"And some of them just didn't fit in!" Six continued. "Some of them were just antisocial, you stole their dreams and brought them here! You brought them here where they can be molded into what you think are model citizens! Wake up, Two! Summakor tricked you! They gave you the carrot and the stick and you sold out to them! And it only took you one night, too!"

"No!" Michael protested. "I had to think of Sara! I had to think of the others!"

"Sara's in a coma in both this world and the real one!" Six snarled. "She isn't getting anything out of this! Curtis used your nobility to get the better of you, Mike! He tricked you! You're now supporting the very thing you hate! You quit Summakor because things smelled fishy, and now that I've heard the whole story, the whole thing stinks! Summakor has decided that people's rights and people's choices don't matter! Well they do! We have the right to live or die! We have the right to destroy ourselves or fail if that's what we really wish! You can't take that away from us! Forty years ago I was free in my mind but not free physically. Now the reverse is true! I want out of here!"

"All you have to do is die in here," Michael shrugged. "You'll end up back in the waking world with post-traumatic stress disorder if you're not careful."

"Michael, you know I'm right," Six told him. "Curtis may have left you in charge of the company, but who's funneling money into it, hmm? Where is the funding coming from? Social engineering? Just a humane world for social cleansing! You're not that dumb Michael. Somewhere in that thick skull of yours are the remnants of a brain. I suggest you use it."

"Do you just think of yourself?" Michael growled. "We're helping people in here."

"You're not helping Sara," Six countered. "Isn't that what 313 is called on the outside? Sara. You said you found her in a darkened church completely out of her mind because of the abuse she suffered as a child. Yet as 313 she was still in the Village. What does that tell you?"

Michael paled. "That means… that means… it… doesn't work!"

"That's right, it doesn't work," Six nodded. "Curtis knew that. He set everything up to convince you from the outside since he couldn't get to you from the inside. The Village can't even do that. So what's it for?"

"The Village…"

"WHAT'S IT FOR MIKE?" Six boomed, going from friendly to enraged and back again in less than a second. "Tell me, what's it for?" he asked softly. "What's it for?"

"It… it…" Michael stammered. "You're right. It's all about control, isn't it? When we finish testing this on the mentally unfit we'll move on to anyone who disagrees with them."

"We?" Six prodded.

"They," Michael corrected himself. "What have I done?"

"You've put yourself in a position to really do them some damage," Six smirked. "Want to set it right? You know what you have to do."

"But… if I do that… you'll be an old man again," Michael pointed out. "At least here you've got vitality and dignity."

"I'll be alright," Six assured him. "I'm still young at heart, as you can see. My eyes may be failing and I've lost a lot of hair but my ears are still good. To tell you the truth, I get a perverse joy pretending to be deaf. It annoys the hell of out people and gives me a good laugh."

"I'll be taking an awful risk, won't I?" Michael asked him. "The brains behind Summakor, the people who are financing all this, they won't take it lying down will they? I might not live any longer than you."

"Anything worthwhile has risks," Six acknowledged, "The question is, will you choose to take them?"

Summakor's stock failed when its youthful CEO admitted that its technology was fraudulent. Sara woke up and had to be placed in a mental institution. The Federal Bureau of Investigation received a packet of information containing everything that the company had been doing for the last five years. The in the dreamworld, the Village was swallowed up by the desert and lost. And in a nursing home, a paranoid cantankerous old man checked himself out and decided to go on another year long ocean cruise.

While sitting in a lawn chair by the cruise ship's swimming pool, the old man waited for Michael to meet him. But he never did. The old man had changed his name again using one of his old aliases that he hoped nobody remembered, but Michael apparently didn't have any experience in making sure he wasn't found. It was a pity. Michael was once a rebel and he had gotten inside, and was young enough to actually continue the fight that the old man was simply not able to do anymore. Sighing, the old man reflected that every man should be allowed to choose his own destiny, even if that destiny wasn't a pleasant one.

Michael woke up on his couch, feeling disoriented. It was strange. He was packing his bags to get to the airport when he passed out with no warning. The old man had warned him to purchase several tickets to different locations to make it difficult to track him. Groggily, he stumbled to the window to get some fresh air and made a discovery. New York City was gone. In its place was a picturesque seaside town with Mediterranean architecture. No… not a town… it was a Village!

His suspicions were confirmed when he entered a large building topped by a greenish blue dome. Underneath was a large round chamber where almost fifty percent of the room curving wall was taken up by a large television screen. A white sphere before a curving desk with three cordless phones dominated the center of the room.

"All right, where am I?" Michael demanded before he was taken aback by the strange retro-futuristic room.

"In the Village," a reedy British voice replied as the sphere pivoted to reveal that one side had been scooped out to form a chair. Seated in the chair was a tall lanky old man that Michael knew as…

"Curtis," Michael groaned. "I should have known."

"Yes, you should have," Curtis sneered. "You've forced us to open this place up again, just when we didn't think we would need it anymore. Thanks to you, my wife spent almost twenty years in a coma, all for nothing. At least now you'll be safely out of the way so we can start again…"

"Let me out of here!" Michael begged. "It's over, Curtis! It's over!"

"Oh I'm sorry," Curtis shook his head and smiled grimly. "In this place it's not Curtis anymore. Not in this place. In here I'm known as Number Two."

"No!" Michael gasped.

"Oh yes," Curtis nodded seriously. "Thanks to you I'm stuck here as well. But don't worry about me. I've been given a very special project. It seems that a very talented and clever young man needs to see the error of his ways and reenter the fold. I'm to make sure he learns to conform and understand the meaning of loyalty." He growled that last word, his pretense at casual pleasantries slipping.

"I'm getting out here!" Michael shook his head. "You won't keep me here! I'm getting out of here and never coming back!"

"Getting out?" Curtis, no… Number Two shook his head in mock apology. "Haven't you learned anything by now, Six? There is no 'out'. There is only 'in'."

"Don't call me that! I'm not 'Six'!" Michael shouted. "I have a name! I am not a number! I am a free man!"

The only response he got was the old man's mocking laughter.