Every morning when he wakes up, he hears the sounds of London outside his window, the whoosh of cars, the screech of brakes, the honking of horns. His alarm clock makes an obnoxious beeping noise. None of it sounds at all like a human voice on a radio broadcast, none of it sounds at all like marching band music.

It doesn't save him. Every morning when he wakes up, he thinks he's back in the Village. Or that he might be. And he bolts upright in sudden fear, and looks around himself to reassure himself. He's filled his bedroom with news magazines, so he can glance and immediately know he's not there anymore. He has access to news. There's a map of the world hanging on the wall over his bed, and posters of the beautiful places he'd considered visiting after his resignation and in the end never did. He's allowed access to the entire world. He's not in a cage anymore.

The problem is that he doesn't believe it.

He walks the streets of London during the day, aimlessly, living off his savings because of course he doesn't have a job, he resigned from his job and he'd had ideas about what he'd do instead but all his ideas have been shattered by losing a year and a half from his life. Often, he catches sight of someone out of the corner of his eye, someone he's sure he recognizes, and for a moment, he's certain this is all another mind game, that he's back in the Village and his entire escape was a sham, just like all the other sham escapes they perpetrated on him. This is ridiculous, he tries to tell himself; even if there are other prisoners here in London, well, what of it? All the prisoners fled, in the end, when the missile was launched. Surely some of them ended up in London. It doesn't mean that he never left.

But that's exactly what he thinks. Secretly, he's convinced that his escape never really happened, that he never really got away. It makes it impossible to pick up with his life, to resume any kind of normalcy.

When he first escaped, he made contact with Janet as quickly as he could. The results were... less than pleasant. His fault, perhaps. She found the fact that he'd been in a different body the last time he'd talked to her problematic, and she made demands, in response, that he couldn't meet. Perhaps he should have lied. All she wanted was assurance that he wouldn't leave again, that mysterious strangers who claimed to be him in a different body wouldn't show up on her doorstep again, that things would be normal. Safe. In retrospect, he's convinced that the thing he should have done was to lie to her, but he couldn't do it, and he couldn't feel safe with her anyway. The Village had subverted many of his friends - in fact every one of his old friends that he'd met in the Village had turned out to be working for the Village's masters - and he'd seen them subvert other people's husbands, wives, fiances, lovers. To be completely honest, he thinks maybe the reason he didn't lie to reassure Janet is because he didn't want to marry her anymore... he still loves her, as an abstract concept, but he doesn't trust her, because he cannot trust anyone. Becausehe loves her, he cannot trust her. And he can't build a normal, stable life, and share a home, with someone he doesn't trust.

Unfortunately, that now encompasses the entire human race. So he'll probably live alone for the rest of his life, but honestly he's used to it.

He considers packing up, leaving London, going into hiding. His instincts scream at him that he's too exposed, that they can easily get to him if he remains at his old home. Logic tells him that while this is true, it's irrelevant, because there's nowhere to hide. His entire network is compromised. He has many, many contacts who could sell him false identification, but any of them could be working for the mysterious masters of the Village. What should he do, hide in the woods? There are places in the world where a man can disappear, still, where false papers can be had from street vendors or where no papers were needed in the first place, but those all tend to be places where an Englishman would, at the least, not blend into the crowd.

The truth is, he believes that either they can find him wherever he goes, and thus fleeing and going into hiding will simply demonstrate to them that he's afraid, without actually giving him any safety... or else, this is all another mind game and he never got away in the first place, in which case there's hardly a point to running. So he remains here. Here, at least, he knows the rhythms of the place well enough to sense when anything is off-center, or at least he thinks that should be the case, although his overreactions tell him that his judgement is impaired.

Whenever he hears a marching band, he startles, almost panics, before he can get control again. When he hears pleasant female voices on public announcement systems, he jumps and looks around himself wildly. When he wakes in the morning he is always convinced he's still in the Village. Plainly he is not recovering entirely from this. If he were still a field agent and he still had handlers he trusted, they'd probably retire him for a few months or a year, get him into therapy, have him do desk work until he can get the panic reactions under control. But there is no one looking out for him except himself, and no one he'd trust to do it if there were. He can't go to therapy, obviously. He has to try to work through this on his own.

So he spends his days walking around London, drinking in the city, reminding himself that he's free. He feeds pigeons. He buys food from street vendors, and eats it in the park as he watches the people rushing by. So many people, such a wide variety, all wearing completely different clothing. Nothing like the Village. It soothes him, even if sometimes he thinks he recognizes one of them.

And then he's approached by one he certainly recognizes.

He sees Number Two - the last Number Two, the one who died trying to break him and came back to life, the one who accompanied him in his escape - approaching him, across the park, for an entire minute before the man arrives. Several responses occur to him, including both the flight and the fight that his suddenly pounding heart and the adrenaline racing through his bloodstream suggest, but he chooses to wait, to pretend that he hasn't seen, to continue tossing bread to pigeons until Number Two is in front of him.

"Well!" Two says jovially. "This isa surprise. What a remarkable coincidence, running into you here!"

He smiles, tight-lipped. "Is it?"

Some of the false heartiness disappears from Two's manner, and his face grows serious. "If you're asking if anyone sent me here to seek you out, or told me to make contact with you, then no, they didn't. But I admit I saw you a few days ago, and thought perhaps you might be staying around here."

"And you decided to seek me out of your own free will. No hidden agendas, no secret puppet masters pulling your strings."

"Who knows how well they may have hidden the strings, now?" Two says. He sits down on the park bench, next to him. "I'm not aware of any strings, but you know as well as I do it's the ones you can't see that you need to be worried about."


"I do admit, it's embarrassing... I was fully briefed before I was first introduced to you, but for the life of me I can't remember your name."

"That makes us even. I never knew yours."

"Well, then, you can call me Lawrence," Two says.

"Is that your real name?"

"First, last or middle?"


"What makes a name real, in the end?" Lawrence asks. "It's simply a moniker we use for the rest of the world to address us, isn't it? A label, by any other name. If my name were Rose, would I smell sweet?"

"Probably not," he says. "You can call me John."

"Oh, that's awfully generic. Could you make it any more clear that you're using an alias?"

He smirks very slightly. John is in fact his real first name, but this isn't the first time he's encountered this reaction. "What does it matter? If a name is just the label we choose for the rest of the world to call us by, then you choose Lawrence, and I choose John. At least they're names, and not numbers."

"There's a certain simplicity to numbers."

"There's a certain simplicity to being lobotomized, also, but I wouldn't recommend it."

Lawrence laughs, his big, hearty, jovial laugh. "Very true, S- John. So. Have you gone back?"

"Why would I?"

"You took notes on the way the butler drove us, the entire way to London. I saw you writing down the names of the street signs we passed, noting the route. Why do that if you weren't planning to go back?"

"I had some fantasy, when we first escaped, of bringing the Village's masters to some sort of justice," he admits. "But once I was back in London, I realized how little point there would be to trying."

"I think you should go back. You'd find it instructive."

"I've been back after I thought I had won free entirely too many times to voluntarily inflict it on myself."

"Were you? Did you?"

"You ought to know. You orchestrated one of the circumstances."

Lawrence nods. "I did, yes. Or so we think, the both of us."

"So we think?"

"Have you ever thought about the absurdity of the Village?"

He didn't find it absurd at all. Maybe at the very beginning, but it quickly proved itself too deadly to be absurd. "In what way?"

"Roaring balloons that seem almost sentient, used as guard dogs. People dying and being returned to life... sometimes with completely different personalities. Such as Number Forty-Eight... surely you noticed how very much unlike he seemed to the first time you met him?"

"The first time I met him, I was in a town in the American West, and he was a psychotic, mute gunman. The second time I met him, he was a psychiatrist on a team charged with breaking me, and he murdered his partner on the team just as he'd murdered her in the West scenario. The third time I met him, he was a young rebel. Which one was supposed to be the correct personality?"

"Did you hear what you just said? An imaginary construct of the American West, broadcast into your brain. And everyone in the Village disappearing for months, only to return as soon as you thought you were free. And computers that can teach any subject but can't handle the question why?' And body-switching devices.Did it ever strike you that the whole thing was not just ridiculous but impossible?"

"They briefed you on all that? Or were you involved?"

"I was briefed. And there were other absurdities you know nothing of. The things they did to me, for instance. Things they did to others, that you never saw, but I did, or I was told of them. It's all quite impossible, really."

"Obviously not, since it happened."

"Did it?"

His eyes narrow. "You're suggesting that we never escaped."

"In a sense, but not the sense I think you mean." Lawrence leans toward him, half whispering, the picture of a conspirator. "The fundamental truth of all men is that we can never escape our own minds."

Lawrence's closeness is making him profoundly uncomfortable. He never much liked people to be overly close, before the Village... he didn't even like touching people, unless he trusted them completely. Now he trusts no one, he touches no one if he can help it, and he has to fight to keep from recoiling away from Lawrence. At the same time, completely inappropriate emotional reactions surge through him - a desire to please this man, to make him proud, feelings of anger and rejection that are entirely out of proportion to who Lawrence was to him. In a moment of horror, he realizes he can no longer remember his father's face - that when he tries to remember his father, it's Lawrence's face he sees. Apparently, he never actually recovered completely from Degree Absolute, either.

He hides it. He was an excellent agent before he resigned, in part because he's very, very good at hiding his own weaknesses. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Go back. I think you'll find it very instructive."

"So they can snatch me back? No thank you."

Lawrence laughs derisively, and inside he cringes, the tiny part of him that's still a little boy recoiling from a father's scorn. Logically this reaction makes no sense; he's an adult, Lawrence is not actually his father. At least he doesn't think Lawrence is his father. The man doesn't seem enough older than him to be, though since he can't remember what his father really looked like anymore, now he isn't certain. But no, it makes no sense, that would be too much of a coincidence, and it's too obviously an aftereffect of Degree Absolute. "If you thought they couldn't snatch you back from anywhere you went, whenever they chose, you wouldn't still be living here in London, walking around in parks in broad daylight... or else you'd be hopelessly nave, and that, I don't think you ever were. No, S- John. You know as well as I do that you believe that if they want you, they'll take you. So does it do you any harm to go back?"

"What am I expected to see?"

"You'll see it when you see it," Lawrence says, and stands up. "This has been a pleasant chat, but I don't think we'll meet again. Goodbye, Six."

"I am not a number," he says, automatically.

Lawrence chuckles. "But are you a free man?" he asks, and leaves.

It's several days before he does as Lawrence suggested, and takes a drive, retracing the route they took when they escaped from the Village. He expects the place might be a bombed out ruin, after that missile took off and everyone fled. Or it might be a ghost town. Or he might not be able to get anywhere near it, since logically, a prison one cannot escape is not something one should easily be able to enter from the outside, either.

What he finds is that there is no Village.

No bombed out ruin. No evidence of a missile at all, actually. There's a town there, but it's not the Village, it's larger than the Village and more cosmopolitan... a beach resort, as the Village pretended to be, but the people all wear different clothing and the buildings are all of different shapes and varieties and the vehicles on the streets are cars, not glorified golf carts. There's no public PA. He buys a map of London in the tourist welcome center.

There is no Village there. There never was a Village there.

Either he is wrong about the directions - but he was so careful, he recorded every turn and every street sign, he remembers how careful he was in watching the road and writing everything down - or the masters of the Village were able to build an entirely new town in the place where the Village had been, in the space of months, and populate it with people who were either dupes or willing to lie and claim it had been there all along - or none of what was happening to him was real, and this lack of Village meant nothing because he was still in the Village, unconscious, having false experiences beamed into his head... or there never was a Village in the first place.

He tries to reject the last conclusion. If he made up the entire Village, if it was the paranoid delusion of a madman, then how could he have met Lawrence? How could another man have shared his insanity so completely? But then, what if Lawrence hadn't been real either? Really, he saw the man die, and then come back from the dead. It's all completely implausible, isn't it?

And if he's mad, if the whole thing is paranoid schizophrenia, then he can never escape the Village, because he can never escape his own mind. He thinks of the faceless men in the audience shouting "I, I, I," every time he used the word "I" as he spoke to them. Was that a signal?

When he finally unmasked Number One, Number One was a madman, and Number One was himself.

Abruptly, he is sickeningly sure of it. The clues seem to point that way. His mind must have told him, somehow, when he finally saw Number One, but he didn't understand. Of course the mysterious master of the Village was himself, and a madman, if in fact he had invented the entire Village because he was mad. The stress he was feeling when he was still an agent, the things he'd done that haunted him to the point where he felt he had to resign... they must have snapped him. Did his resignation even happen? Has any of this ever happened? If he can't trust his memories and he can't trust his perceptions, then what is real?

Reluctantly, but certain that he will never function in reality again if he doesn't get clear answers to the question of his own sanity, he makes an appointment with a psychiatrist.

It is a mistake.

He chooses a psychiatrist who isn't even in London, a psychiatrist in Birmingham actually, by numbering the psychiatrists in the phone book and then rolling dice to randomly choose a psychiatrist. When he lands on psychiatrist number 6, he does it again, with two dice this time, and this time ends up with number eleven. Good enough.

The man listens patiently to his story. He tells it carefully, with as little emotion as he can, trying as he speaks to justify the things that happened. He talks about what life was like as an agent - not any classified details, but the general paranoia and the heightened care any agent takes in observing his surroundings. He then tells the story of the Village, minus some of the most ludicrous elements, but with enough of the elements that make no sense for the psychiatrist to fairly assess whether any of this could have been real or not.

The psychiatrist writes things down, and listens, and then tells him, very gravely, that he is in fact seriously ill, that he is entirely too ill to care for himself, and that it's necessary for him to stay in a sanitarium overnight for observation. The psychiatrist recommends Thorazine. He remembers the drugged, broken people in the Village, in some of the re-education centers, and he declines. The psychiatrist tells him that he is too ill to be given a choice, and then two burly orderlies come in to subdue him.

They're not used to dealing with former secret agents, though. It's a near thing, but he escapes, and gets to his rented car before they can stop him, and drives off frantically. Some distance away, he pulls into the car rental agency, drops the keys in the drop box and drives away in his own car. The psychiatrist had a false identity for him; he's changed cars; it is awfully unlikely that pursuit will continue, that anyone will capture him and commit him to an asylum. But his heart pounds frantically with terror, because he just almost surrendered himself back into captivity. Because he has come to mistrust himself and his own memories and perceptions so much, he just very nearly willingly put himself back in a prison.

Out on the back roads, driving through wide open fields where he'd be able to see any observer for miles away, he pulls over to the side of the road and leans his head on the steering wheel, breathing hard and raggedly. He almost wants to cry. He hasn't cried since he was six. (Since he was Six?)

They broke him.

The knowledge horrifies him, but he can't escape it and he doesn't know how to fix it. In the Village, he trusted only himself. Now he can't trust himself either, and he's drowning, lost in a world where either he's a madman or everyone really is out to get him, or both, and if he can't trust himself then there is nothing, nothing in the entire world that he can anchor himself to. He resisted as long and as hard as he did because he knew who he was and what he wanted from his life, and what he wanted was to be free. But now, ostensibly, he isfree... and now he doesn't know what he wants, and he doesn't know who he is. His memories might never have happened. He might be entirely insane.

Freedom was a concrete goal to want, something physical he could pursue. What he wants now is to know who he can trust... but with no one he can trust to get the information from, he sees no way to get that. And he knows, deep in his heart, he knows that if they take him now and they promise him certainty, promise him people that he can trust within parameters, promise him that the things that are happening to him are in fact actually happening, that he will do anything for them. If they can just make it stop. If they can just make reality stabilize again.

He starts to laugh, because he's a middle-aged British man and a hardened secret agent and it would really be completely ridiculous if he cried, at his age.

After a time, he starts the car again. There has to be a way out. There has to be something he can do, someone or something he can find to believe in. Even with his belief in himself crashing all around him and the desperation he feels, he doesn't wantto surrender. They did this to him. He doesn't want to reward them by letting them know how well it worked. Assuming they even exist and it's not something he did to himself.

It could be both, of course. The Village could have driven him mad. Or perhaps the things he remembers happening in the Village really did happen, but he's mad nowand the reality he sees isn't what's really there. Or then there's his old friend, the possibility that has plagued him since his escape, that in fact he still is in the Village and everything since then has been a sham.

No man is an island. He's an agent, or he was; he is used to being alone, to mistrusting most people, to maintaining a certain level of caution and even paranoia in all of his relationships. But in the Village, everyonebetrayed him, and every time he thought he could trust he was wrong, and after Lawrence's suggestion and what he found afterward, now he cannot even trust himself, and to be fair he knew all along that he couldn't because he knew all along that nothing about his escape was necessarily real. Except that now there's also the possibility that he can't even trust that the Village was real. And even he cannot live this way. No one can live this way. If he can't trust himself, he's done. If he can't trust another person ever again, his life will be meaningless, and eventually, the pointlessness and emptiness of it all will destroy him.

For the first time, he seriously considers ending it. Drive the car off a bridge, let it all stop. Or find out that this isn't real, after all, and let the scenario end like it had in Harmony when he was shot, and woke up to the Village after he died. But if he does it, they'll know they've beaten him. In Harmony, he was murdered. It wasn't suicide. It wasn't evidence that he'd been broken.

He's not going to do that. Even if they win, he's not going to let them know that they did.

Back in London, he wanders through the park again, thinking about what he can do to save his own sanity.

This is not his strong point. He's used to relying on himself for everything. He's always been a rock, unbreakable. It's never been an issue he's needed to concern himself with. But if he's in such dire straits that he's actually considering suicide, then he needs to focus on saving himself, whatever that may entail.

The wild story he told the children in the Village about the woman who loved to kill people hadn't been true, of course, but some parts of it had... including the part where he'd drunk a dozen shots of different kinds of alcohol in rapid succession in order to make himself vomit after he'd thought he might be poisoned. He understands the principle of doing what he needs to do to preserve his own life or health. But he's not used to the threat being as metaphysical as what he faces now. Even with all of the insane things the Village put him through, the fact that he had always had something tangible to fight back against, and a concrete goal to achieve, had protected him. It's now, when he's supposedly done fighting, that he's flailing wildly, lost.

What does he need?

He makes a list, in his head. He needs to know whether the Village ever actually existed or not. That may not be possible. Even if he finds someone else who claims that the Village existed, how would he know if they were lying or not? He can't have certainty about that. So he has to let that go.

What if it doesn't matter whether the Village existed or not? What if he just assumes, it probably did, but if it didn't it doesn't matter because at least he's not delusional right now, and if he can't tell he's delusional then does that actually affect his life any? Then at least he can move forward. If he's insane, there's nothing he can do about it. The same is true if this is a fiction, if this is like the unreal world of Harmony or the dreams they imposed on him to find out which of his contacts he'd been planning to betray secrets to, since they never seemed capable of understanding that betraying secrets had never been the point. He hasn't found a weak point in the frame, as he did that time. He can't break himself out of it. But it's as real as his real life ever was, so it doesn't really matter, does it? Let him proceed on the assumption that all of this is real, and the worst that could happen is that he'll turn out to be wrong. Whereas if he assumes none of it is real... nothing awaits him that way but madness.

So. Let that go.

He needs to know they are not coming for him. He needs to know he won't wake up and find himself back in the Village. Those aren't things he can have either. He has no choice - he has to live his life as if it's really his life, as if he won't wake up and find himself back in the Village, and while he needs to exercise proper caution it's not as if he ever expected that even retirement would be safe. He was an agent. He knew, when he resigned, that he wouldn't get to have an idyllically quiet, safe, normal life, most likely. He hadn't expected the Village, but he hadn't expected safety, either. So really, believing that the Village could snatch him back at any moment isn't any different from what he knew to expect when he resigned. He can't have safety, but he gave up any hope of that when he began his career and he knew it at the time. So he lets that go.

He needs someone he can trust. Someone who's real, within the parameters of this reality. Obviously, if he's delusional or if this is a construct being beamed into his mind, then no one is real, but if this is reality then people that are actually in it can still lie to him and betray him, and that's what he fears. As an agent, he expected a lot of that... but not allof it. No one he ever trusted in the Village turned out to be on his side, and many of the people he trusted before he went to the Village have turned out to have been in on it.

He passes by a playground in the park. Children run about, shrieking and tagging each other in whatever obscure childish game they're playing. For a few moments he watches them. They have such trust in the world, he thinks. Adults tell them things, and they are certain those things are true, because adults they trusted told them. They need a baseline, they need to trust in the adults who teach them because they have no information of their own to tell them what might be true or false. Lawrence tried to turn him into a child and pretend to be his father, his teacher, every adult he ever trusted, in order to use that against him. He'd resisted, then, as he'd grown back into an "adult" and his memories had returned.

Children do that too, he thinks... they grow up, they acquire knowledge from many sources, and they use that to triangulate, to decide what of the many pieces of information they've been raised with they would continue to believe. But until that time, they're - pure. Innocent. Not in the sense of being good and kind; they can be monstrous creatures, he knows. But they trust, and when they attempt to deceive, they can easily be seen through, because they really don't know how to deceive very well.

He draws a deep breath, slowly. He needs human contact. He needs someone that he can trust won't be playing him, lying to him, trying to subvert him. And any child who's capable of being that deceptive won't seem very much like a child at all, and in fact, probably wouldn't be a child at all... an adult body-swapped into a child, maybe, but he likes to think he's intelligent enough to see through something like that.

He can't trust any adults. Anyone, man or woman, can be subverted, and the closer he lets them get, the greater the chance that his enemies willsubvert them. No matter how much someone seems sincere, there's no way to control for the possibility that they're a very good actor. He knew this before the Village. Every agent knows it. Every agent lives it.

But children are terribleactors.

If he's insane, it won't help. He can imagine a child as easily as he can imagine the entire Village. If he's living in a constructed reality, it won't help. But there's nothing he can do about it if either of those things are true, and if he has another human being to interact with on a frequent basis, he can use that person's reactions to try to logic-check his own perception of reality... because he doubts that he can really create something as complex as another human being, even a young one, in his head. If he's insane and inventing all this in his head, then the things other people do, even when he has frequent contact with them, will be completely predictable. If someone is orchestrating this, there will be patterns that recur. Real people will be more chaotic.

So. He needs a new profession anyway. He can't live off his savings forever. He has no particular vocation for working with children he's never been overly interested in them, before - so he has never considered the possibility of becoming a schoolteacher, or camp counselor, or whatever other kinds of jobs people do that bring them in contact with children. But children are people, and if he cannot make a connection to another person ever again he will be destroyed, and he can't trust adults. Children are bad liars, and when they do lie, it's transparently self-serving... at least, all his lies were, when he was a child, and so were the lies his friends told. If he works with children, he will be guaranteed contact with people who can't possibly be playing him, or at least, playing him at the level he expects from minions of the Village... children are quite capable of toadying up because they want a treat, but not really of playing long-term mind games on adults.

And at this point, it hardly matters if the plan will work or not. It's more important that he havea plan, that he have a direction he can go in that seems like it might be productive, than what the plan actually is. Perhaps it's utter nonsense to think that he can replace the hole in his life left by his inability to trust anyone at all, including the reality his own senses perceive, by teaching or caring for children. It's not as if he's ever been overly fond of them, although he did rather enjoy telling them stories, in the Village. But it doesn't even matter if it will work or not, so long as it's a plan and so long as he has the power to carry it out. As long as he has a means to fight back, as long as he has a plan, they haven't broken him yet.

With purpose in his stride, he leaves the park. He has research to do, things to put into motion, but he knows what he's doing again.

Written for Yuletide 2010, for LouderAndLouder.