It was an incisive sunny morning, but a little chill was coming off the water, and the comfortable old people on the verandah, stout old people with soft-skinned wary faces and soft-skinned careful hands and a certain sameness of physical attitude, sat wrapped against the weather in their colorful, striped capes. They were drinking tea. Two chess games were taking place in one corner of the verandah, one between an old man and an old woman precisely like the rest except that their hands were moving, and one between two younger men.
One of the men was very young, curly-haired, with a reserved appearance. He moved the pieces reservedly too, though with some speed. The other man had something of the air of a frustrated actor. Tall and well-proportioned, his handsome Irish face just beginning to break down with age, he alternated between a great stillness and quick furious actions -- a tension in the jaw, a marble-hardness in the bright mobile blue eyes, bitterness, energy, a repertoire of efficient well-trained motions which he was suffering to suppress. He wore no badge. His companion did; his number was 143.
In a dry, deep cigarette voice, the badgeless man finally addressed the other: “Mate in five.”
“I see,” said 143. He spoke like a psychiatrist receiving a patient's news of relapse – genuinely regretful, but calm enough, almost reassuring.
“Are you going to resign?”
“I don't suppose it matters,” said 143. With a casual motion he flicked over his king. There was something white at its base, a tiny square of paper, and the badgeless man took up the wooden piece smoothly, rolling it over in his hands, an expression of practiced, sardonic annoyance on his face; when he tapped the king back onto the board, both expression and paper were gone.
“You come here,” he said, staccato, “rather often. Tell me, am I such a superb student of chess that my play continues to fascinate you day after day?”
“It's unique play,” said 143. “Very rigorous, very challenging. You had me a move earlier, I believe.”
“Yes. I wondered if perhaps you don't care to say your number?”
“'He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do,'” said the badgeless man rather irritably, and then added, “John 6:6. I believe I did not yet have you, though perhaps you thought so. You're not much of a player yourself. I don't think that the game particularly holds your interest.”
“Not on its own,” said 143, and hesitated, sucking in breath, before cautiously adding, “I am interested in it as a method of illuminating character...”
“I think mine's quite illuminated enough,” said the man known as 6, standing abruptly and giving a tight smile and salute. “Be seeing you.”
He went home; put on a track jacket; ran and exercised; reentered his home; ate breakfast neatly from two cans; went back out, past the rows of citizens lined up on the terraces and in the coffee shop and outside the pub, at the bandstand, on the beach, all enervated by sun and sand and starch, exhausted by the thousandth or ten-thousandth morning of an endless holiday. The band chanted past and his tennis-shod feet padded away from them, through the grassy square.
There was something familiar about the air of the Village, something familiar about the taste of it as he sucked it belligerently in; something about the angle of the bright white light – he had traveled all his adult life and yet he could never place it. It was a series of airy scents, an incoherent montage, a touch of the Mediterranean on the breeze in the morning, a faint desert desiccation moving over the mountains at noon. At times he thought it was a mental landscape only, something he created by himself in some small antiseptic room (and if so, when had it started? The work, the bank, the war?) -- but he knew too much about actual madness to imagine that it would be so consistent.
The bit of paper he'd retrieved from the king's base still stuck in his pocket. He thumbed it without removing it. Instinct told him to have no part of 143's plot, whatever it was. The man was an amateur chess player. He was an amateur spy. A professional doctor, certainly, and one whose patients spoke rather more warmly of him than one would expect meeting him off-duty -- but if he was approaching a potential collaborator in this fashion, he could only be a warder, a plant. No one got here by being a complete fool, and one would have to be either a warder or a fool to make such a point of speaking so often to “number 6,” even if only to play chess, before approaching him for something which could not possibly be helped by Town Hall's knowing they knew each other.
But because it did not do to turn down information, he read the note on the beach, disguising it beneath a folded Tally-Ho.
Friend. Help. Graveyard. Noon.
The graveyard was not far away; nor was noon. It was, of course, unwise to meet there, even more dramatic than the chess tables – he compromised by approaching casually, strolling, along the very edge of the beach furthest from the rows of stones. 143 fell into step beside him, smiling a little, having at least the sanity to keep his voice low and to let his companion dictate the direction and pace.
“Do you know,” he said in a harsh whisper, “of course, this isn't the real graveyard.”
“No, this isn't really where the dead go. Bury them in the sand! Have you ever thought of that? It's nonsense.”
143 hesitated, then hurried ahead. “I can show you where the dead really go.”
“And I have something else to show you, number 6.”
“Are you number 2?”
143 laughed, genuinely, loudly, almost with relief. “Number 2! Eliminating the impossible, I suppose. No, I owe you a serious answer to what, around here, may sometimes be a serious question. I am who I say I am. Do you – my name --”
“I won't ask yours if you won't ask mine. Such conversations have never ended well for me here.”
“You mean Alison?”
“Do you mean the former number 24? What were you going to show me? The afterlife. What else?”
“A certain experiment,” said 143, and led him to the staircase that traveled up the cliff face and into the forest, with its light sprinkling of woods and its moving sculptures, cheap-looking and imposing and toylike. He was taking him along a highly specific path, through the areas they both knew were the cameras' blind spots, and at last they ducked into a ravine, where 143 triumphantly pulled aside a light covering of fallen branches to reveal a small, disused-looking section of tunnel.
“My laboratory,” he said, gesturing him in. “My real one; you're the second person to see it. It cuts off thirty feet in; can't say why it's here, but it was obviously never finished. Look at the sand on the floor! And this is what I have to show you.”
They halted before a table covered untidily in old glassware and neat, calligraphic notes; everything on the table was labelled, from the glassware itself (BEAKER 1) to the small jars of chemicals that lined its back. There was a small cage beneath the bench, and 143 stooped to remove something from it and place it in his hand, looking up at him expectantly. “See this?”
“You've forgotten to feed it,” he said, turning over the curled dead mouse with his forefinger – a pathetic crumpled thing, lighter than life and with an artificial-looking covering of disarranged gray fluff.
“Dead, correct?” said 143.
143 took the mouse away and, taking care to keep it in full view at all times, took up a small syringe from the workbench and very gently, very slowly, injected a small amount of fluid into the mouse's spine.
He saw it seize almost immediately; writhe in 143's hand – then it wriggled loose and dropped to the floor, and by reflex he found himself scooping it up instead. The mouse moved rapidly; running in panicked circles. Its feet were hot in his hands and as he lifted it higher it bit him deep, drawing blood. He threw it back into its cage and shut the gate firmly, pressing a handkerchief to the hurt and looking back down at 143.
“Not dead,” said 143, smiling broadly.
“Merely in a deep hibernation, a sleep indistinguishable from death to any but the most exacting medical examination. A great breakthrough. And I need your help, number 6, if you're willing to submit to the same treatment.”
“It ended poorly for Juliet,” he said, staring at the mouse, which was sniffling at the bars of its cage now, padding at them frantically with a sensitive pink forepaw. The bite continued to ooze into the handkerchief.
“But unlike Romeo, I shall be present and fully aware of what's happening. Unlike Juliet, you will wake up eventually whether or not I administer the second injection.”
“Juliet did wake on her own.”
“Listen. The Village dead are taken away by helicopter after curfew, attended by a doctor – sometimes me; tomorrow night would be my scheduled night. They are taken to the mainland for cremation.”
“Number 2 doesn't like it.”
“Which number 2? Yesterday's or today's?”
143 looked increasingly pleading. “He doesn't like people leaving so much behind after they're gone. He prefers them to disappear, to be forgotten. The headstone on the beach is taken away after a while and replaced with another. There's no more than twenty headstones. Have you counted? Have you seen?”
“Why attended by a doctor?”
“I don't know,” said 143. “I need you, number 6. I've been watching you for a long time. I voted for you in the election – and didn't lose faith like some afterwards. We can escape once we're there – there'll only be the pilot and another guard, and the place is in a town with an airport -- but only with real help. I'm not a spy, I'm not a secret agent; I'm just a physician. I know you're antisocial, but even you have to acknowledge that societies are founded on cooperation – between people of different skills.”
“Skills?” He felt a tight, incredulous smile. “Your skill of being able to inject me with an untested drug? My skill of being inflammable?”
“Inject me with it,” said 143 without hesitation. “Give me the drug and the antidote. I'll be in your power while you do it. Do it now; I'm ready.”
“And if this isn't the same one you'd be putting into me?”
“Look, number 6 – can you think of any reason why I would want to kill you?”
“Just because I can't think of one doesn't mean you haven't got one. How did you get here? What did you do? Who did you know? What government, what man?”
“Hired,” said 143; he was sweating.
“Hired? Simply hired? Tempted with offers of research without restraint?” He rolled the R's hard; 143's face stiffened and he fell back as if physically pushed.
“Yes,” he said. “I don't care about you. Have I any motivation to make you talk? Do I care who you are and what you've done – any more than you care it of me? They don't even want you to talk with chemical aid; that would be cheating.”
“How would you know?”
“I've worked with you before,” snapped 143, his soothing warm anxiety disappearing for a moment; that made things feel a touch more reasonable, and he nodded, asked for the syringes, performed the test.
143 accepted the injection and lay back; soon he stiffened and lay still, a brief spasm passing over his face. He bent; took his pulse, checked his breathing, nothing – or rather, some movement, but nothing that he recognized as breath or life. He slipped off 143's glasses and held them to the open mouth. A fog – but a very light fog, and only after half a minute had passed.
“I don't trust you,” he told the apparent corpse. “Can you hear me?”
Silence. His hand already held the other syringe, and with an efficient movement he pushed it into the thick vein of 143's arm. The seizure, the heat -- and then normalcy, though he lay as if exhausted.
“How was it?”
“I felt everything,” said 143 in a quiet voice. “Are you in?”
“No. Good luck.”
He woke the next morning feverish and aching. He could not move his joints without pain, and when he raised his bitten hand he could see that it looked especially bad, reddened, with radiating puffy lines extending from the wound. He remained in bed throughout the morning – he had no choice – and at eleven received a visit from a physician (102; a replacement, new to town) and two orderlies (210 and one whose badge stayed just out of his vision). They lifted him and placed him on the cold, scratchy, sickly cloth of the stretcher, covered him warmly – he was shaking with chill; even having his face and neck exposed to the outside air hurt him – and carried him off to hospital.
“How did you know I was ill?” he asked 210, feeling drunk.
“There's a motion detector in the lamp over your bed,” said the attendant, and then bent to hear his faint reply:
“Motion detector in the lamp above the bed. Above the bed, in the lamp, a motion detector.”
He continued to repeat these words with some pleasure until he blacked out. When he next became aware of himself, he was in a white single room under a red blanket and there was a brownish dimness and 143 was bending over him, rubbing a cotton ball full of alcohol on his arm – he could smell the stuff strongly – he felt, if possible, worse, and he could see the infection had crept further along his arm, that the joint of his elbow was swollen grotesquely. They had taken his pajama top away and wrapped him in a loose gray gown.
“Deliberate,” he said, needing to communicate despite the cameras, looking for the right word, the subtle word; he flexed the swollen hand and felt a gratifying pain. “The bite. By hook or by crook?”
“Everything we do here, we do with care,” said 143 neutrally. He was calm. “This should help you out. I'm sorry – about the sting.”
He began to laugh, a cackling, feverish laugh that went on as long as he liked. He was still laughing when 143 left, and he carried on doing it, though rather more weakly, more gutturally, after he'd gone. A slight soothing to the pain – and then the pain was gone entirely, and his eyes closed. He could not move, and he saw, not a profound blackness, but the bloody brown of a sudden bright light through closed lids.
The movement in the dark was peculiar. He saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing, but there was a certain sense nonetheless of rushing air, of rocking, of changes in orientation and heading, as if he were a ship in a dark sea beneath an empty sky – not black, still not black, but gray and dim and unreal. Thick things and softness, softness, endless give, no strength, no chatter, no fashion, no sleep.
Consciousness again. He was in a tiny dark room, curled to fit, still dressed for the hospital. A faint line of light showed beneath the door, illuminating a smooth white painted surface. The pain and swelling were still with him; his forehead was still hot, though he felt lucid. The door was locked.
With bare feet, he swept the floor from end to end; nothing. The ceiling just made contact with his cautious head, as if it had been measured for him; when he extended his arms he felt that his palms made contact with the walls in an unusually comfortable way. Outside he heard only the distant white hum of a machine.
He stood back, balanced himself, took a strong breath, and kicked out the door. The wood around the lock splintered easily and the door drifted open, revealing a white hall.
He stepped into the hall. It seemed infinite. It stretched on, white and blaringly lit from no obvious source, square and eggshell-warm to the touch, in both directions to the vanishing point – interrupted only occasionally by other doors, other white doors. He walked along the hallway, then ran, then walked again; then he stopped, reached for a door at random and wrenched it open --
A skull looked back at him; a badly decayed body in an attitude of repose. He slammed the door shut, opened another. This time it contained a badly decayed body in an attitude of supplication, the fingerbones broken, and he shut this one too, no more or less gently, and continued down the hall.
Eventually he reached a long line of people, people in hospital clothes like him, or nude, or in uniforms or suits, mostly elderly people, all visibly injured or ill – a fantastic gallery of illness, of breakage, the hot red of blood, the yellow of gangrene, the blue of advanced age. They stood as if standing were neither painful nor desirable. They stared straight ahead and answered no query. He stumbled forward past the line of grotesques, feeling a heartlike throb in his swollen arm, sensing somehow that it was in tune with some beat that rang out too deep to hear, a beat that throbbed in them as well. Forward, forward – there must have been a hundred of them. Scars, bulges, blood, bone, veins, swollen ankles, swollen eyes. Then, without warning, the front of the line. There was a white cube of a room, a white desk, a sharp-faced elderly man seated, dressed in an ordinary gray suit with a stylish narrow red tie. The woman at the front of the line had not entered.
“Ah,” he said, and stood up, beckoning him closer. “Sit.”
“I prefer to stand.”
“Stand,” said the other man, in the same companionable tone.
“Another very impressive set,” he told him. “I congratulate you. What is it? Have you a questionnaire for me? Favorite color, favorite food, religion, why did I resign?”
“Nothing of the sort,” said the man, sitting down again himself. “An accounting of your deeds, that's all.”
“I am not dead,” he said peevishly, “and this isn't the afterlife.”
“What tells you that?”
“I have certain private opinions on the matter.”
“And you have a right to them,” said the man.
“For what deeds do you wish me to account?”
“Here,” the man replied, passing over a sort of pilot's helmet, with attached goggles.
“An accounting of your deeds,” said the man again, a bit impatiently. “Put it on.”
He hesitated, then did so.
Afterward he could never quite describe what he'd seen; like many things he'd seen in the Village, it was stolen from him, a rough chunk ripped from his memory. There was an intense sense of deja vu; a powerful nausea, images of infancy, of childhood – he could not tell whose – of young manhood, a woman's eyes lifting to his, a glimpse of an elderly face. A park, a car, a gun, a cliff, a heap of stones. They passed quickly, hypnotically, and there was something almost pathetic about the effort to sum up a life, a generic life, in a series of images -- except that something in them caught at him, something – the connections – it appealed to him like nostalgia; it sickened him like nostalgic regret. The images were moving faster now, becoming blurrier, less recognizable as his or not-his, more universal. He thought that there was something behind them, growing animated, a consistent shape, found in the curve of a forehead, the windshield of a car, the shaggy exterior of a willow in spring – that shape recurred, it began to resolve into a single image, to animate, to form a human face --
He tore off the helmet, tore it with such anger and pain that he disregarded the infection in his arm and felt himself breaking into a hot sweat, clutching it and then letting go as if his own hand had burnt him. He felt the breath running hard in his own belly, and he looked at the man, his head lolling forward. Impassive face back, a little disapproving.
“Two minutes thirty-five,” said the man. “Two minutes thirty-five.”
He wanted to know the explanation, wanted further details on the thing and its meaning, but curiosity would be fatal. Instead he flung the helmet down, rose from the chair and ran away back down the hall. Nobody stopped him. This time he was facing those in the line, and he focused on each face in turn, instants like the images he'd seen, flashing bright one-two-three, eyes-nose-mouth, ears-cheek-shoulder.
He ran for a long time; he exceeded his endurance and slowed and stopped, leaning against the wall. There was a sound in his ears which might have been the shattering of glass or the tolling of bells.
He lay for a long time, insensible but conscious, and then became aware of a lessening of pain; he stood again and walked further down the hall. It ended in blankness, but there was a door next to the end which was different from the rest, a door with a frosted glass top, and the handle turned easily and quietly.
A quiet room; the sound of a machine. Dimness. Through a high rectangular window you could see two crematories, their doors closed, flames visible through two small further windows high on their fronts. 143 was standing on the other side of the room. There was a door behind him; there was a door to the left.
“Well, 6,” he said. “Are you finally coming?”
He glanced behind him; the door was still there, and when he snapped it open, there was a line of white. He closed it again.
“No,” he said.
“But you can't stay here,” said 143 reasonably. “You've got to help me or we'll both be taken back.”
He stepped forward, pushed 143 aside and opened the door that had been behind him. Blackness. Warmth. Nothing.
“You can't go that way,” said 143.
“Watch me,” he said, and plunged into the void. It felt like heavy cloth. It was heavy cloth. He fought his way along it some twenty feet to the left and emerged in the half-finished tunnel; he could hear the mouse running on its wheel, and he went outside, into the damnably sweet ambiguous air, to find himself an antibiotic.
“Sloppy,” said 2. He was a laconic bald man; he had always been a laconic bald man. 143 bowed his head and acknowledged it.
“I'm sorry, sir. I counted on his curiosity; I counted on his empathy. He seems to lack those virtues.”
“Or perhaps he's had them beaten out of him,” said 2, “by inconsistency, by simple abuse, by incompetence – incompetence all round. Your plan was interesting. I would have liked to see what he'd do with the dilemma of the two guards. I confess I don't fully see how it would have led to a confession.”
“Friendship,” said 143. “He would have grown to like me, to trust me--”
“Oh, they've tried friendship. Do you think they haven't?”
“It would have helped if I could have had access to the complete files, sir.”
“It would have helped. Well, yes, it might have helped. Would money have helped? Access to trained animals of a higher order? A poor plan is a poor plan. A sentimental plan is always poor. A self-interested plan is always bad. Sit down, 143. It's painful to watch you pace like this. No, not there.”
143 sat down in a smaller bubble chair, one of those that had risen from the floor; 2, locking eyes with him, pressed a control with the tip of his shooting stick. The chair began to sink.
“Don't get up,” said 2 harshly, and 143, who had been tensed in panic, shrank back. “Good. People have been hurt trying to get up as it moves. The machinery is merciless, you know, even though the human organism isn't.”
“Thank you, 143. Good night.”