When he was in school, he often got himself and his friends into trouble by laughing in class. Joviality was not an acceptable character trait for young men, the headmaster informed him. It would not be tolerated. If he could not learn to contain himself, stricter measures would be taken. So he learned first to hide his laughter, letting it loose only in private and then whooping in uncontrolled gasps until he couldn't for the life of him remember what had been so funny in the first place.
Later on in life, when the throes of teen rebellion caught him up and sent him butting heads with schoolmasters and friends alike, he learned the value of saving a laugh until it would do the most damage. He aimed his laughter at the most serious looks of his teachers, or vulnerable moments of his peers. That was when to laugh. When it would render the other party speechless with impotence. It was an important tool, and until he left school he used it with all the precision of a surgeon's scalpel.
It was the laughter that got him noticed later on. A friend of his father's offered him a job after University, and he accepted, not knowing what that job would entail. He laughed when he found out just how sensitive the position was. He laughed again when he realized how deep he'd gotten into secrets and spies and the war behind the war. He laughed until he cried, because by the time he figured out just how far in he'd gotten, laughing was the only thing he could do, really.
He thought about resigning. He thought about defecting. He thought about just walking away and trying to find a place where no one would ever find him. But he didn't act. He did his job and he did it well and he hated himself for it most of the time. It wasn't easy, knowing the things he knew. It wasn't simple. And his old schoolmasters had been right about one thing: He hadn't known nearly as much as he'd thought he had. The world was a far more dangerous place than he'd ever realized.
So when he found something he wasn't supposed to find, and learned more than he'd been meant to learn, he knew it would catch up with him eventually. Someone would want to know what he knew, or make certain he never told anyone else.
He'd expected that they would simply kill him. His superiors weren't known for their mercy. For two weeks he continued to go to work in the morning, ignore the horrible things he knew, then go home at night, expecting a bullet through his head before he woke.
When he found himself in the Village, he laughed for a solid hour.
In The Village
The man called Number 2 called him Number 5. He'd had the fifth office down the hall at work, and been fifth in his class at school, and the more he thought the more fives he found. It made him chuckle every time Number 2 called him up to the Green Dome and addressed him by number. He smirked to himself while he pinned on his badge in the morning. And it tickled him to see the sign outside his home, reading "5 - Private" in friendly white lettering on bright blue.
"Number 5!" said the voice on the phone when he picked it up one morning. It was Number 2. He was new. A new Number 2. The last one hadn't liked being laughed at, which had been a jolly bit of fun until he'd snapped.
He didn't know the new one well enough yet to know how he'd react. So he tried it. He laughed.
"Number 5?" the new Number 2 asked, a slight edge of uncertainty in his voice. That was promising. "This is Number 5, yes?"
"Of course it is!" he laughed. "Who else would be here! The maid?"
"Ah! Yes! Well. This is Number 2. Come up to the Green Dome."
And before he could laugh or chuckle or even smile, Number 2 was gone. Curious. So he left his home, putting on his coat and nodding to his neighbor. This new Number 2 seemed a different creature entirely. He would have to be dealt with carefully indeed.
At the Green Dome, the butler let him inside, then disappeared off to wherever the butler usually spent his time, leaving Number 5 to make his own way into Number 2's cavernous office. There was no one inside it. Or there didn't seem to be at first. The center chair was lowered into the floor and none of the others were raised. There was no breakfast on the table, the screens were dark and the phones were silent. Number 5 paced around the room, circling first in one direction, then back around in the other. When no one came to meet him he went to the panel of buttons and tried pushing a few, to no avail. He flipped a switch he'd been certain would lower one of the screens, but the screen stayed where it was, rolled up at the ceiling.
When he'd come to the conclusion that it was all a prank designed to push his buttons, he walked up to the door to leave. But it didn't open.
"Fine!" he shouted to the closed door. Then he turned to face the room. "Fine! This is all quite childish, you know!" And to punctuate that he laughed. He laughed hard and long, making sure to laugh in every direction, so wherever they were watching from, they'd see him. He laughed until he realized he could hear someone else laughing too. He faltered a little, turning to see if someone had come through the door, but no. The door was closed. The center chair, however, was rising up out of the floor. The laughter seemed to be coming from the chair, but it turned as he circled it, turning around to keep its back to him.
He was just starting to get angry when the chair turned towards him, revealing a quivering white blob. Rover. It was laughing at him. He froze where he stood and stared as it laughed harder, shaking in the chair until he thought it might pop out. He had to fight the strongest urge to grab a hold of Rover and drag it out of the chair by force. It was the thought of how the thing would feel in his hands that stopped him. But Rover was still shaking, and the laughter seemed to be coming from everywhere now, echoing around the room and up in the ceiling of the dome to surround him. He spun around, determined to find a way out, but there were no open doors, no exits, no one and nothing and no help to be found. Just the laughter and Rover.
Now Rover followed him, the chair turning towards him as he paced the room. He could block this out. The laughter was nothing. Just an acoustic trick of the domed ceiling and sloped walls. It was a recording, being played in through the speakers he was sure the room contained. It couldn't possibly be Rover laughing.
He kept his eyes on the floor in front of him, avoiding looking over at Rover as much as he could. But it was nearly impossible. It was always there, just at the edge of his vision, the quivering catching his eye every time he made the mistake of looking up from the floor. So he moved faster, changing directions and kicking the door as he passed it, then changing directions again. Rover followed every move from the center chair and the laughter grew louder and louder. Number 5 stopped short and raced around, trying to get behind the chair, but it moved as fast as he could, almost anticipating his movements.
"Stop!" he ordered, and was answered with the addition of a higher pitched laugh. "STOP!" he repeated, rushing the chair and screaming it inches from Rover's surface. And it stopped.
He stared at Rover, which was now still as a statue. They faced off, though Rover didn't have a face, until it started again. Louder this time. So loud he couldn't hear himself think. So he did the only thing he could do. He laughed. He laughed along with Rover, like it was a challenge. He laughed and coughed and laughed more as the room seemed to shake and vibrate around him. He laughed until he couldn't breathe, and he just kept laughing more even as he grew lightheaded and faint.
The last thing he recalled before he passed out was the realization that he would do anything to make it all stop.
The New Number 2
"You know, you could take my position some day, if you play it right."
Number 5 looked across the table at his opponent. They'd been playing chess, but it was a boring game, neither of them willing to venture much or expose themselves to any risk. "Your position?" he asked, moving one of his bishops. "Where do they get new Number 2s, anyhow? You've been here some time, but you're not the only one I've known."
"Oh, certainly not!" Number 2 said, laughing. Number 5 liked that. The last Number 2 had been a little on the dour side, and he'd ended up spending more time down at the Old People's Home, getting to know some of them and playing a good deal of pinochle just to have a laugh now and again.
"You weren't here before," Number 5 pointed out while Number 2 considered the board, finally moving a pawn forward.
"Oh, I was," Number 2 told him. "I was and then I wasn't, but you never really leave. Be well aware of that, Number 5. No matter what happens, you never really leave. They might send you on assignment to another location, or put you to work in the complex under the dome, or they might just set you up as they have, with a nice home out of the way and the assurance that no one will bother you so long as you behave. But you never really leave. I spent a year here, before."
Number 5 frowned. Before what, was the question. But Number 2 didn't seem to want to elaborate on it any more. He looked over his options, but the board seemed set for a stalemate. He took Number 2's pawn with one of his knights and sat back. "So, I could be Number 2 some day? Why on Earth would I want that?"
"Ah-ha! The challenge, my boy," Number 2 said. "You've been here what? Five years now? You're a trusted member of the community now! Really, you're as much a man of the organization as I am. I know they've been sending you reports to review, information on some of the other Village residents, yes? That's a sure sign they're grooming you for the position. There's always someone new who won't become part of the community. Someone who rebels."
Number 5 nodded. He'd played that role for a time, taking delight in snapping two Number 2s like twigs. Until he'd snapped under the strain himself. But there was always another rebel in the wings, ready to be the most outspoken in the Village. A steady thread of unrest would always be present, but it was the ones like himself who were dangerous. And valuable. A challenge would be nice.
"That might be very interesting," he agreed as Number 2 took his knight. Another survey of the board revealed that despite the moves they'd been making, not much at all had changed. They were still deadlocked, moving inexorably towards a point where they'd do nothing but chase each other's kings around the board indefinitely. After careful consideration, he knocked his king over. "But for now, the game is yours."
Two months later, Number 6 arrived in the Village and Number 5 found himself moved to the underground facility. He was given files and access to the cameras and told to observe. A new Number 2 arrived, then was replaced, and then the call came in.
"Number 5," said the voice on the other end. "Prepare a plan. Number 6 is proving obstinate in the extreme. You are to submit your plans and an itinerary of the necessary preparations in a week's time. You are the new Number 2."
They didn't call it failure. No one actually said the word to him or wrote it in any of the files. Number 6 was one of the toughest nuts they'd ever tried to crack, or so said the other former Number 2s when he joined them for dinner his first night out of the Green Dome. The party kept growing, with a new former Number 2 every few weeks or months. There were twelve of them by now, with another expected within the week, if the current Number 2's plan went as it was meant to.
"He'll break eventually," one of them said with a decisive nod. Number 5 wasn't that fond of him. He was one of the humorless ones and Number 5 marveled that he'd lasted as long as he had.
"Of course he'll break," Number 5 cut in, making sure to say it with a chuckle that would get right under the other man's skin, prickling at him for the rest of the evening. "He'll break and then where will we be? We can't just glue the man back together after. All the kings horses couldn't, and neither could we, even if we were all the king's men. I said it before and I'll say it again: We need him whole. As undamaged as possible."
"It might not be possible at all," another one of his fellows pointed out. "Look at what he did to the last Number 2. Broke him entirely. You know they shipped him off for psychiatric evaluation?"
"Did that myself," Number 5 told them all, eliciting more than a couple of uncomfortable looks from the others. "In the end, you know, it's going to come down to one of us, or him. They can't just keep retiring us or they'll have to give us our own building."
No one seemed to want to consider that. Number 6 was taking much longer to deal with than anyone had anticipated, with every plan ending in the unspoken failure. At least, Number 5 thought, he hadn't gone out like the last one, completely broken for a second time. But Number 6 could have brought him to that point if he'd set his mind to it. He felt sure of that. Number 6 had the potential to be one of the best in the Village. One of the best in the whole organization, if only he would see what was best for him.
Around Number 5, the conversation had turned to various Village events and people and old plans long in the past. He picked up his drink and left the table, disinterested in what they had to say about the Village theatrical production of As You Like It. It was the same way the conversation drifted every week, with no plans for the future, as if they'd all decided this was all the chance they would ever get.
"Bored, Number 5?" asked a voice from behind him. He turned to see Number 58. She was one of the youngest of their number, and hadn't so much failed as stepped down, having assisted one of the others with his own plan for Number 6 before turning her attentions towards other projects. "They do seem a dull bunch at times, don't they?"
"Not dull so much as..." He paused, then laughed. "Yes! Dull! Dull as dishwater, my dear. Utterly uninteresting. Now, tell me, you grew up here, yes?"
She sipped her drink and nodded. He hadn't known that for a fact, but now he filed it away in his mental catalogue of tidbits about the others.
"Another question, if you will," he said, waiting for her to nod again before continuing. "Do they ever send us back in for another whack?"
"At the same subject?" she asked. "Not that I've seen, but there's a first time for everything. Why? Do you have an idea?"
Inside, the conversation had degraded into a discussion of Shakespearean quotations. "Why yes," he said. "I believe I just might."
The doors in London didn't open on their own for him, and there was a distinct lack of pennyfarthing bicycles and people in colorful capes. No one called him Number 2 or Number 5 or Number anything at all. Rover didn't roar from afar as it hunted down a stray Villager, nor did it laugh at him from the Green Dome. And still, he couldn't quite shake the feeling that the Village hadn't been destroyed after all. The countdown on the rocket Number 6 had launched hadn't been the Village's death knell. The Village had simply grown larger, expanding its borders with the release of all the people who had lived there.
Where had they all gone? Evacuation plans had always been somewhat vague. Every so often he'd be walking down the street and see someone he thought he recognized. A number would flash into his head for a split second, then be gone as suddenly as it appeared. A girl on the street would be carrying a striped umbrella and he'd find himself expecting a badge to identify her. A bit of music would filter out of a shop and he'd expect it to be followed by a familiar voice wishing him a good morning and informing him of the day's events.
The other Number 2 had been right. You never really left the Village. You couldn't. Physically, yes, but mentally? Never.
One morning, after he was sure he'd seen Number 48 dancing down the sidewalk, he found himself saluting the man at the counter in the tobacconist's.
"Be seeing you." It was out of his mouth before he could stop himself. He covered with a practiced grin and a hearty laugh as he turned to go, and then there was Number 6 walking by the shop. Except Number 6 had a name now and might not take kindly to a reminder of the Village, and he found that for the life of him he couldn't remember the man's name, if he'd ever known it at all. They'd avoided even writing names down in the files in the Village. Names were a barrier. Before he could gather himself enough to go out and meet the man, the former Number 6 had gone.
So the former Number 2 made his way home, a little unnerved and a little amused. To think, the man could still unsettle him, even this long out of the Village and away from it all. He shifted the bag from the tobacconist from one hand to the other, then fished his keys out of his coat pocket. Five steps from his door, it opened on its own.
He couldn't help it. He froze where he was, staring at the open door while all of the possible reasons went through his head. Of course, the only reason that made any sense was the one he feared the most. He wondered who would be inside, waiting. Would it be the butler? The supervisor? One of the many former Number 2s? A new Number 2? Or perhaps a lone Rover, escaped from the Village like himself.
The thought of Rover, outside of the Village and lost like a stray dog brought a smile to his lips and let him move his legs again, propelling him forward into the house. He chuckled as he went through the door. Whoever was inside, he would meet them laughing.