Hovering Number

Composed 2013 by /u/StoryTellerBob

In a way, nothing had really changed. It was the same world we had always lived in. We breathed the same air, drank the same water, we spoke, laughed, cried, lived and died the same way we had done for millions of years, only now everyone wore a number, floating unsupported above their head. No big deal, right? Who cares anyway, it's just a number.

As it turns out, everyone cares. Ethan, or as he was better known these days, 23, was probably one of the few people who genuinely did not care about the numbers. The way he saw it, they were just there, an irrelevant detail about a person that he or she could never change, like the color of their eyes, it simply had no meaning or purpose. Unfortunately, few people seemed to agree with him. 23 was at the bank an early morning to deposit a check. He was waiting in line between 90249, a big, burly, black man in front of him who kept pacing back and forth, and 438, a woman in her late teens who was loudly chewing bubble gum. 90249's pacing was getting increasingly impatient as every time it looked like it was about to be his turn at the desk, 47, a security guard, stepped in.

"If you could just wait here, we will service you shortly." 47 said. After the fourth time this had happened, 90249 had had enough. He got up in 47's face, towering over him like a huge mountain of muscle.

"Do you think you're better than me because you're white, boy?" The big, black man said and gave the guard a shove.

"No..." The guard said with a condescending smile. "... I think I'm better than you because of this." He stab at the number above his head with a finger. "You should be glad we're servicing people like you at all." 90249 spit at 47's feet and stormed out, muttering something about "********" and "******* numberists".

"Ah, I didn't see you there, 23!" 47 exclaimed when he saw Ethan. "Please, come with me."
He removed a band blocking entrance to a seemingly deserted part of the bank and ushered Ethan, who had a sheepish grin on his face, through it while the other customers shot him dirty looks. "It's always nice to meet others in the One Hundred Club." The guard said in a smug voice while he lead 23 through an empty hallway. Ethan noted that the rooms back here were considerably more luxurious. The floors were covered in a fine, red carpet rather than the cold stone floor of the main lobby, and there were several gold framed paintings hanging on the walls.

"Here you are, sir!" 47 said with an extravagant bow as they turned a corner and entered a small private room. "Only the best for you." Ethan briefly considered informing the guard of how stupid he thought this whole ordeal was and that he'd rather go back and wait in line with the others, but the carpet was awfully comfortable under his feet, and the room even smelled lovely, a waft of freshly cut grass wafting in the air. "Welcome, how can I help you today, 23?" An attractive young woman, her blonde hair tied in an intricate knot, smiled at him, leading the way into a private bank vault with her out stretched arm.

~ It wasn't until five minutes later, after 23 had swiftly deposited his check and was leaving the bank when he felt a sickening feeling in his stomach. He saw all the hateful faces starring at him as he left the building and images of himself in a German Nazi soldier's outfit intruded on his mind's eye. He had always told himself he didn't care about the numbers, that they didn't mean anything, yet he took advantage of it when it suited him, and he didn't lift a finger when that man was being discriminated for his number. So much for being the good guy. For the hundredth time that day alone, Ethan pondered the meaning of the numbers while he was walking down the streets at a brisk pace, trying to forget about the whole incident at the bank. He remembered when he first got the number. One morning it was just there when he looked in the mirror. A blackish mist hovering above his head, forming the number 23. He figured it was a practical joke at first, what with it being his twenty third birthday, but that theory was quickly debunked when he went to get the paper and met his neighbor who was sporting a 4113 above his head. Suddenly, someone tackled Ethan, dragging him in to a secluded alley. A knife came out of nowhere, resting heavily on Ethan's throat, scratching his Adam's apple when he nervously swallowed.

"T-, take whatever you want." Ethan stammered, holding up his hands. The man holding the knife was a crazed-looking man in his forties, but his lined face and the big bags under his eyes couple with the strands of dirt brown hair hanging across his face made him look older. The number 257 was floating above his head. The hand that wasn't holding the knife was grasping at the thin air above Ethan's head, trying to catch the number, only to have it scatter into a misty grey gas and reform again a second later.

"23, I've got you now." He muttered, more to himself than to Ethan, his eyes bulging with excitement. "I've been looking for you for a very long time." He said to Ethan, his round, owl-like eyes never blinking. "You're on my list." He pulled back the sleeve of his stained shirt, revealing a long string of numbers. Some of the numbers were simply inked in, like a tattoo, while others looked like they had been carved with a knife, some freshly cut while others were almost healed.

"Please. Please." Was all Ethan could sob with the knife at his throat, waiting for the blow that would end his life. Then he heard a dull smack and felt the grip of the knife on his throat grow slack. The would-be killer fell to the ground and a young Hispanic man stood behind him with a blood-smeared rock in his hand, breathing fast.

"I think I killed him. ****, I think I killed him." The man said and him and Ethan shared a moment of petrified, terrified silence. ~

"He's not dead." 23 said after he had collected himself and felt the pulse of the man who had come at him with a knife. He turned the inked and cut arm over in his hands, examining the numbers. 347, 349, 353, 359, 367... the numbers went on and on, running around the entire arm and up under his shirt.

"Help me with this." Ethan said, pulling the unconscious man's shirt over his head. The Hispanic man with the number 209033 above his head silently obliged and together they laid him out on the ground. Both his arms, his shoulders and his chest, even a little bit up his neck was covered in numbers, most of them only inked, but a few were cut. On his chest the words "PRIME EVIL" were written in large letters.

"They're all prime numbers, man." 209033 said. "They're all ******* prime numbers."

"That is messed up." Ethan said, staring in disbelief at the never ending numbers. "Do you... do you think he's killed all those people? The ones who are cut?" 209033 swallowed and looked over at 23.

"Let's just say it's a good thing I really had to go for a piss." Ethan noticed there was a dark stain on the crotch of 209033's jeans.

"This is so ****** up. I can't believe someone tried to kill me because of my ******* number." Ethan said, still in utter shock after his near death experience.

"Tell me about it. I was at this party the other night and a girl tried to get in my pants because I 'had a cute number'. What's that all about?" They both laughed awkwardly, sitting down with their backs against the brick walls of the alley with their hearts still thumping in their chests.

"Yeah well, if I had to choose, I'd rather have a girl trying to have sex with me than this guy trying to kill me because of my number, but maybe that's just me." 23 said and grinned.

"So, what do we do with him?" 209033 asked. "Can't leave him here, he'll come after me, won't he?"

"Yeah, not to mention the few hundred other people on that list. ******* hell, man. I guess we'd better call the cops." ~

A few hours later 23 emerged from the police station visibly shaken. The police officers had made it abundantly clear that this was hardly an unusual case. Every passing day more reports came in of assaults, theft, discrimination and even murders, reports of people committing despicable crimes in the name of some number or the other, because someone else has a higher or lower number than them or because they think they were miss treated because of their number. The first thing that caught his eye outside the police station was a larger than life poster covering an entire wall on the opposite side of the street. It depicted a young, athletic looking woman with her eyes closed and her back arched, as if she was overwhelmed with pleasure, sipping on a bottle of coca-cola. The caption under her read 'I'm number 4 and I drink coca-cola. Do you?'. On the wall next to it someone had graffitied in black '2369 represent'. As Ethan looked around he saw countless people in broad day light, right next to the police station, arguing vividly as if they were about to start throwing punches at each other. A horn blares and a car screeches to a halt less than twenty feet from Ethan. A man with the number 126 leans out the window and screams at the car blocking his way.

"Figured someone driving like that would be a thousand pluser!" A short Indian man with the number 1922 gets out of the other car and starts yelling in Hindi and pointing at the car and his number. "Stop!" Ethan yelled, cutting in between the two men glaring daggers at each other.

"Don't you see? This is insane! The numbers don't matter. We can't keep treating people differently because of their numbers or we'll tear ourselves apart."

"This is none of your business, 23. Get out of my way so I can teach that ******* a lesson in math." The Indian man shouted something unintelligible at him, but Ethan got the gist of it when he was unceremoniously knocked out of the way and the men flew at each other. Something has to change, Ethan thought to himself as he walked away, leaving the road raging couple behind.

"By the way, 1922 is greater than 126. How's that for a math lesson, *******?" He called back sourly. ~

"Ah, hello Ethan, or should I call you 23? How nice of you to pay an old man a visit." Old man was an understatement in this case. Ethan's uncle looked more like a corpse than a living human being, his face wrinkled and contorted with age, his eyes no more than tiny specks sunk deep into their sockets. He also had a number 2468 above his head that was new since they last met.

"I need your help." Ethan pleaded. "The numbers, Mason, what do they mean?" Calling someone who he had known his whole life by their number would have felt strange and unnatural, so Ethan decided against it. Despite how he might look, Mason had once been a brilliant mathematician and had spent his many years studying numbers, so his name was the first that came to mind when he needed help.

"A very good question." 2468 poured himself a glass of some brown liquor from a crystal bottle on the table between them.

"Numbers are very interesting, you know, quite interesting indeed. Yours for instance is quite a good one. Not as good as mine if I do say so myself. 2468, very aesthetically beautifully, isn't it?" He did not wait for an answer.

"Did you know that there were 23 problems in David Hilbert's famous list of unsolved mathematical problems? It's a prime number too."

"Yeah, thanks, I'm aware of that." 23 interrupted.

"Ah, but I was rambling, forgive me. You wish to know the meaning of the numbers. The truth is, nobody knows. Many of my colleagues have tried to devise intricate formulas to determine some kind of system the numbers are based on, but so far they have all come up empty handed. There are countless theories out there, not to mention those numberologists who seem to think they are god's judgment upon us." Mason scoffed as if the mere thought of associating numbers with something super natural offended him.

"If you ask me, they don't mean anything. They're just there."

"There has to be something we can do. Some way we can reverse it, make everything go back to the way it was." Ethan ground his teeth.

"I think you're just going to have to get used to the way things are now. Trust me, I know how hard it can be, dealing with change. Back when I was a young one, we had to stand still to have our pictures taken." He chuckled merrily to himself, thinking back on memories long gone.

"Times change. This is an age of numbers, and quite frankly, I think this is a change I don't mind." ~

Ethan was out in the street three weeks after his talk with his uncle. He was breathing in to his cupped hands to ward off the chill of the cold morning air with a set of fliers pinched under one arm. On the other side of the street was a flickering pink neon sign of a man smoking a cigar. 'Billionaires only!' was written on a smaller sign next to the entrance where a thuggish looking man with a long string of numbers over his head stood, smoking a cigarette and guarding the door. A man in a suit stopped briefly outside the cigar club and looked longingly at the door while the other man watched him.

"Beat it, millionaire." The thug said, pointing at the number 747892114. The man in the suit licked his lips nervously.

"I'm almost at a billion. Can't you let me in, just this once? I just want to see what all the fuss is about." The man with the extra number over his head laughed and put out his cigarette.

"I said beat it." The man in the suit moved along, shooting one last backwards glance at the cigar club. Ethan started jogging after him and tapped him lightly on the shoulder. The man turned and did a double take, gawking at Ethan's head. He was wearing a black painted helmet with a large, sideways plume on top, a blackish mist swirling about it, never quite taking form. "What's with the...?" He made a little swirling motion with one finger in the direction of the strange headdress.

"My name is Ethan, and I'm not a number. If you are tired of being treated like crap because of something that is out of your control, come to our meetings! We believe everyone should be judged by their actions, not by their number." Ethan said in a monotonous voice for the thousandth time this week while handing the man one of the fliers that read 'I am not a number' across the top. The man in the suit looked bewildered, but he took the flier, murmured a thanks and went on his way. Ethan looked at his clock, and noted he was running late, so he stuffed the remaining fliers into his backpack and started jogging down the street. On the wall opposite the police station where there had once been a poster of a woman drinking coca-cola, a stern face was looking down on him. It was the face of an older, black man with a serious expression on his magnified face. He wore a set of horn rimmed spectacles and his well-trimmed, black hair head a single streak of gray hair. The words underneath the familiar face read, 'You only get one vote. Vote one.' The way number one's eyes always seemed to follow him made the back of Ethan's neck creep every time he passed one of those posters, which was dozens of times per day now. Ethan burst through the door of the old abandoned apartment building that they had been using for meetings, since nobody else would let them use their location once they found out what these meetings were about, five minutes late with his breath catching in his throat. The whispered conversations that had been going on broke off and everyone looked up at him. There were about fifty people, half of them wearing helmets similar to Ethan's. A few of them waved or gave him a nod of greeting.

"Sorry I'm late. I did not mean to keep you waiting, I just ran in to a potential recruit on the way here." Ethan took the nearest empty seat in the circle of chairs. "So, I see we have a few new faces around here, good for you! You there, I remember you." He said, pointing at a woman with a snoozing baby clutched to her chest. She had the number 902030 over her head, while the baby had a tiny 200 over his head.

"Would you like to start? Tell us who you are and why you're here." The woman wiped a few tears of her cheeks and started speaking in a shaky voice.

"Two weeks ago I gave birth to my beautiful baby boy. His father was with me every step of the way, but when they pulled him out and he saw the number over the boys head, he flew in to a rage. He called me a cheating *****, saying he would never give birth to someone so low and stormed out. I haven't heard from him since." The woman took a deep breath before she continued. "My name is Annie, and I am not a number. And neither is my son." The circle of people broke into applause and the one's closest to Annie patted her on the back, whispering something in her ear that made her smile. ~

A few hours later, Ethan was fumbling with the keys to his apartment with one hand, the other furiously scratching his head with his plume helmet under his arm. Damn if that thing wasn't itchy, he thought to himself. When he finally got the key in and twisted it, he realized the door was already unlocked and swung it open. Strange, I could have swore I locked it this morning. To his surprise, there was a man standing in his living room with his back towards Ethan, looking out the window. He wore a well-fitting, dark blue suit and he had a streak of gray in his black hair. His hands were clasped behind his back as he looked out the window at the streets below.

"Nice view." The man said and turned around flashing a stale smile while pointing down at a poster of his own face with the caption 'You only get one vote. Vote one.'. A single line of mist floated direct above his head, indicating the number one. He stretched out his hand in greeting and Ethan took it without thinking, letting his hand be firmly shaken.

"I am number one, and you must be Ethan, or should I say 23?"

"It's Ethan." Ethan firmly replaced the large plume-helmet on his head.

"Why are you in my flat?" Ethan was finally getting over the shock of meeting the leading presidential candidate in his living room, and now he was starting to get angry. "This is breaking and entering, you know?"

"It has come to my attention that you've been running an illegal underground terrorist group, I believe you use the name 'I am not a number'?" There was a hint of threat in his otherwise calm and matter-of-fact voice. "I am simply looking out for your best interests, 23, I wouldn't want you, or any of my citizens to get into trouble with the law."

"I'm not breaking any laws. We're not a terrorist ground and we're not doing anything illegal, we just meet to try and make this world a better place without number discrimination." Number one had the same stale smile while Ethan spoke, as if he was simply waiting for him to finish.

"Trust me, it will be against the law when I become president, four weeks from now. I just wanted to let you know ahead of time, give you a heads up, as they say. I've also come to make... a peace offering. If you stop this ridiculousness now, we will forget it ever happened." He paused and bent down, taking out a briefcase from behind the armchair next to him. He placed it on the table and opened it, revealing row after row of twenty dollar bills.

"A sign of my good intentions. Think about it, 23." He said and inclined his head before moving towards the exit. He turned around with his hand on the handle of the door. "You know, I always thought you'd be a billionaire underneath that ridiculous hat. With a number like yours, you'd do well under my rule. Good day." ~

Ethan was left alone in his apartment, a brief case full of money being the only sign that he hadn't imagined the whole encounter. He was fuming with rage and gave the couch an angry kick that left his big toe throbbing painfully. He was angry at number one, that he had the audacity to come in to his home and buy him out, but most of all he was angry at himself for fanaticizing, even for a moment, about simply taking the money and running away, forgetting about all this. The thought of himself giving up on what he had worked for these last weeks, what he believed in, made him feel sick to the stomach. In need of fresh air and a way to vent his anger, Ethan went outside and started running, not even bothering to lock the door behind him. It clearly didn't do much good, anyway. Running down the street, he felt the eyes of the posters on the walls, on the busses on soda cans, all felt like they were watching him. He tore a few down, but that only made him feel more helpless, seeing how many were still there. Ethan stopped, too tired to run anymore and realized he still had the briefcase in his hand. People all around him gave him strange looks, looking at his helmet and the briefcase in his hand. A few snickered and pointed behind their hands. Ethan had the urge to shout at them, to make them understand, to show them everything that was wrong in this world, but he knew it would be no use. They were sheep, simply following along, walking where they were told. Telling them the truth would just make them laugh harder. Out of the corner of his eye, past the cars and the laughing on-lookers and the posters of number one, Ethan saw a crew of four people led by a reporter interviewing a man, his every word being caught by numerous cameras and microphones. Ethan knew what he had to do. Without thinking, he cut in front of the nervous-looking man who was giving his rambled statement to the camera.

"My name is Ethan, I am not a number, and you're going to want to hear this." The female reporter open and closed her mouth silently a few times before looking over her shoulder. A man in the back with a long string of numbers over his head looked from the briefcase in Ethan's hand, to the plume on his head, to the crazed expression on his face before he turned to the reporter and gave her a quick nod, making a rolling motion with his finger. ~

Three weeks later, with the election only a few days away, the only thing Ethan saw as much as the face of number one was his own face. Staring down from every billboard and every car, every package and every building was one or the other, him or number one. An outsider might think that Ethan was a presidential candidate running against number one and not just the founder of this formless, ever expanding mass of people refusing to be treated the way they were. An outsider might even think they were the only people in the world, in fact, the rest of the country seemed to think so too. The original video where Ethan told the cameras about the injustice and stupidity that was consuming us, about the absurd elitism of number one's campaign, how number one had tried to buy him out, showing everyone the briefcase of money and finally talking about his dream of a world without numbers had gone viral over night. Every newspaper and every channel was regurgitating his story. The morning after when Ethan was going to his usual numberless meeting, there was a line of people extending several blocks trying to get in to the dingy apartment building. Instead, Ethan lead them to the town square and spoke his beliefs there. Since then, he had been doing it every morning, and every day more and more people gathered to listen.

This particular morning Ethan was more nervous than he usually was. His hands gripped tightly around the sides of the makeshift wooden podium a group of people had made for him and looked out over the crowd of expectant faces. Some were sporting some form of hat, blocking their numbers, while others made it abundantly clear what they thought, wearing 'Numbers are the future' t-shirts and shouting obscenities at him, but regardless of what they thought, everyone listened to what he had to say.

"I have something very special I want to talk to you about today." Ethan began, his voice boomed out over the crowd, sprawling in to every corner of the square, magnified a hundred times by the microphone on the podium.

"You all know why I am here. You all know what I stand for and what I believe by now. I want to make this world a free and equal place, free of mistreatment and hatred, free of unnecessary violence and free of castes defined by some arbitrary number we were given without our consent or control." Ethan paused and let the echoes of his words die down while he thought back. He thought back to his childhood and how he had always taken his freedom for certain. At some point during the last year, since the numbers had arrived, his freedom had gradually change from something given, to something uncertain and finally to something he feared for. Every day there were reports of missing people, political figures or people with controversial ideas disappearing, snatched out of thin air. The only thing he could not understand was why he was still here. Why he was still allowed to speak. Regardless, there was no turning back now.

"As I'm sure you're all aware, there is a presidential election this Wednesday." A camera mounted on a crane shifted over to get a better view of him when he paused. "All I ask of you is that you do not vote for number one. He represents everything that is wrong with our society and should he gain a position of power, things will get even worse. Thank you." Ethan stepped down from the podium, letting himself get escorted through the roaring crowd by a pair of hat-wearing friends while wondering if he would be shot in his sleep later that night. ~

Ethan took a large gulp of sour liquor, sweeping it down to join the others. Food on paper plates and half full beer cups lay on the floor or sat on the table in the apartment, some of it had even been trampled on the floor in the guests hurry to leave. Hanging from the ceiling was a banner reading

"To a numberless society!" in a colorful font. The room was empty apart from Ethan and the only sound that could be heard except for the gulping as he downed yet another drink, was the monotonous beep from Ethan's phone that lay disconnected on the table and a woman's voice coming from the television.

"We're here with One, the man who narrowly won the presidential election earlier today. One has promised to answer a few of our questions before he has to attend his new duties as president of the United State of America. One, what changes can we expect to see in the coming years?" The woman, who Ethan vaguely recognized as the reporter he had spoken to after first meeting number one, held the microphone over to the president, who had a stale, but distinct smile on his face.

"We live in a world of change, 98256, a world in motion. I can't tell you exactly what to expect before everything is final, but I can tell you one thing - everyone will get what they deserve."

"What is your take on these numbers, what do they really mean?" She shifted the microphone over to One once again.

"To be honest with you, I don't know what they mean anymore than you do, 98256, but they give us a unique ability to grow as a species. By using the numbers, we can not only identify people more easily, but we can categorize and organize ourselves at a national level. By creating a world where numbers rule, we can create a truly fair world."

"Thank you, One. Another man who is striving for a fair world through very different means is this numberless Ethan we've been hearing so much about. What are your thoughts on him and the things he has said about you."

"Thank you for bringing that up, 98256. There is absolutely no truth to the outrageous claims of this individual. I have never, nor would I ever pay someone to keep quiet, nor will I ever do anything to harm our great country. It is natural that some people strive backwards, to the old ways, in times of change, it is simply human. However, that is in the past and we are moving towards the future, a brave new world of opportunity. I believe-." Ethan turned off the TV when he could not bear to hear another word. ~

When Ethan finally emerged from his flat a few days later, he had a new spring in his step that had not been there for a month. He had gotten himself so wrapped up in the politics and beating his opponent that he had become blind. Now, after having spent several days locked up, wallowing in self pity and alcohol, he felt born again. He had something he did not have before, something simple and obvious, yet vital to keep himself sane - a purpose. After the news reported they had arrested '902030, a middle aged woman suspected of terrorism', as well as reporting that starting from the end of the month, mandatory check points would be set up around every city that would scan and log your number every time you passed through, mapping and monitoring your movement 'for your security and comfort'. Ethan knew what he had to do now, he had to kill the president of the United States before it was too late. He swung in to the old apartment where he had spent weeks hosting numberless meetings. Four people were already there waiting for him. They nodded in greeting, all four faces grim and set in stone. On his left was Hui, a proud-looking Asian man who had been one of the first to join his meetings. His wife had been murdered by the Prime Evil killer and one of the few people Ethan felt like he could trust. Opposite him, across the table, stood Shane, who had also been one of the first to join him. Shane was a young, scrawny looking man with thin brown hair. He always looked like he was scared, jumping every time someone spoke to him. Ethan did not know Shane's number, he only knew he had been relentlessly bullied for it until he joined the numberless. At first he would waive his hand frantically over his head in an attempt to stop the numbers from taking form, and since he got his helmet Ethan had never once seen him without it. The last person, the one on his right, was the only one without a helmet. She was a woman in her forties who normally had a very serious face, but looked almost as nervous as Shane at the moment. She had a misty number two above her head.

"I'm sure you've all heard about Annie." The three grim faces nodded at Ethan again. "Maybe you have already guessed why I asked you to come here. We can't let this go on any longer. We need to kill One before his new laws and check points make him untouchable."

"I- I don't know." Two said, nervously fiddling with her hands. "Maybe it won't be so bad. Maybe we should give him a chance."

"We won't get another chance." Ethan placed the briefcase in his hand on the table and opened it. It was almost full. "We have the funds and we have the ability, but we need you on this one, Marie. You're the only one who can get us close to him." After a long silence she nodded.

"I'll do it." ~

The group of four were sharing a drink around the table in the old abandoned apartment, the same table where, in a way, everything had started and was now about to end. The briefcase that was resting on the table was now nearly empty, only a handful of bills still scattered across the black felt bottom, the rest having been spent on bribes and equipment in preparation for what was about to go down.

"To tomorrow's success!" Ethan raised his beer bottle and the others met his, murmuring after him.

"I should go." Marie said, fiddling with a lock of her hair. "Got to... get ready and all that. Big day, tomorrow." Ethan could feel the other two following her every movement with their eyes, but nobody said anything until she left.

"Do you trust her?" Hui asked when she was well out of ear shot.

"Yes." Ethan said. That was a lie, but there was no point in letting the others know that. They were too far gone to back out now even if they wanted to, and if she was setting them up she would have had a hundred chances to do so already over the last few days.

"I think she's alright, man. I don't know, I think she's just not big on the whole killing thing, but she'll do her part." Shane was chewing his nails loudly, making a rhythmic grinding noise.

"I don't like it..." Hui took another swig of his beer. "I wish there was some way we could do this without her."

"This is our best chance. The plan is solid, she's going to do her part and by this time tomorrow, One will be dead. He served us with this opportunity through his own stupidity, he just had to have Two as his personal assistant because 'it sends the right message'. I doubt he'll make the same mistake twice, so we'd best use it to our advantage." Hui gave up arguing and simply nodded.

"Just in case this is the last peaceful moment we spend together, I want you to know I love you both." Shane said.

"You two are better than family and I wish we could spend the rest of our lives like this, but some things... some things are just worth fighting for." Ethan was at a loss for words. That was the longest, most articulated sentence he had heard Shane say since they met. ~

"Careful!" Ethan was already through and was shouting back at Shane in a hushed voice. Shane was trying to make himself as small as possible as he crept through small hole in electric fence that had been erected around the white house. Hui motioned for them to follow him. They crept up and pressed themselves against the white marble base of the building. They followed it around to the back of the building where they found a guard in full gear with a machine gun slung across is shoulder snoozing peacefully with his back against the wall. The number 76765093 hovered over his head. The door swung open, almost hitting Shane in the face and Marie stood in the door way.

"You made it." Hui did a terrible job of hiding his surprise.

"I said I would, didn't I. Come on." Her head jerked around violently, trying to see in every direction at once. "Come on!" She repeated, guiding them through the door. They barely had time to see the clean white kitchen that was mysteriously empty despite it being almost lunch time before they were practically dragged through the door by Marie. She lead them through corridor after corridor at a brisk pace in the main building, only stopping to occasionally enter a code or use a number scanning device in order to open a door. They could hear people talking or walking through every door, through the ceiling high above them and through the floor. Ethan's silent prayer that everything would go off without a hitch, at least until One was dead, was interrupted when Marie swung a door open only to be greeted by an older man with bushy gray hair and the kind of ill-fitting suit that told people they had more money than fashion sense. The number seven was hovering over his head.

"What is this?" His eyes narrowed suspiciously, looking first at Marie and then the others, his eyes lingering on their plume-like hats. Marie fumbled with the words for an instant before she regained her composure.

"One asked to see these people personally." Seven waved his hand dismissively.

"Nonsense, I just saw him, he didn't mention anything of the sort."

"Maybe he doesn't trust you like he trusts me, seven." She had a hell of a poker face, Ethan had to give her that. If he didn't know better, he would have believed her himself.

"Watch your tone, two, I'm not one of those millionaires you can speak down to." Seven shifted his weight around uncomfortably, suddenly looking much less sure of himself.

"I'm number two, I can speak however I like to whomever I like. Now get out of my way or I'll have to tell One who kept me so long." Seven reluctantly moved to the side and let the group pass, but Ethan felt the eyes on the back of his neck all the way through the corridor until they turned the corner.

"Nice..." Hui whispered, clapping Marie on the back and she allowed herself a swift, satisfied smile. Thirty seconds later they stopped at a set heavy wooden double doors with a set of carvings running down the front.

"This is it." Marie said and turned around to face them, biting her lip. "Good luck." She turned on her heel and left.

"Let's do it." Shane said and they swung open the doors together. Everything went black and the next thing Ethan knew, he was on the floor, a sharp pain shooting up his jaw as he spit out a strand of blood and a broken tooth on the carpet around him were two dozen men in military clothes with their guns trained on the trio on the floor. Hui was to Ethan's right, shouting some curse in a language that he did not understand.

"Marie, how could you..." Shane sobbed, standing on his knees with a gun to the back of his neck. Moments later, Marie was dragged in to the room by the scruff of her neck, like a dog who had misbehaved.

"I'm disappointed in you, two." The man who was dragging her had a gray streak in his black hair and a stern expression on his face, the expression of a man who was about to discipline his children. "I honestly thought you'd tell me about the whole thing if I just gave you some time." Hui scream something unintelligible, charged at One, drawing out a knife that was tucked into the back of his belt and was shot several times before he made it half a step. Shane let out a wail as if he had just been shot himself.

"This wasn't supposed to happen..." Shane mumbled under his breath. Ethan felt the hard butt of a gun connect with his jaw for the second time in the space of two minutes and everything went black again.

Ethan's untrained eyes strained and tears started to well up when the doors of his cell swung open, letting light in for the first time in who knows how long. Along with the light came the silhouette of a man, towering over Ethan's crumpled body.

"Hello, 23." A familiar voice said. The man bent down on his knees until his face, his serious face with that stern expression was only inches from Ethan's own. The chains rattled as he backed away, trying to escape from the demon that had haunted his dreams since he was thrown in this hole.

"Have you had time to think about your actions?" The door had closed behind they, making it impossible for Ethan to see anything but two shimmering dots that had to be a pair of eyes.

"Not as much as I've thought about your actions." Ethan croaked, his dry throat made the words difficult to form.

"I simply did what you or any other man would have done in my position, I defended myself and what I believed in. You were the one who came after me, remember?" Ethan tried to muster the strength to strangle the man with his chains, but he was barely strong enough to lift them of the ground.

"You killed them... it was all your fault." Ethan heard a deep sigh from the darkness.

"Yes, I killed them, but it was your fault. I gave you every opportunity to live out your days in peace, but you just had to... stir things up. I can see you have not changed. So be it. Goodbye, 23."

"Ethan. My name is Ethan." He croaked. One got up and knocked a swift series of blows on the cell door.

"Wait!" Ethan called out. "How did you know? If Marie didn't tell you, who did?" The door opened slightly, shedding light across the right side of One's stern face. He had a stale smile on his lips.

"I always knew. The minute I saw you I knew you were a troublemaker, and there is no place in this world for troublemakers. The money, the briefcase with the money was bugged. I could hear all your plans and schemes without leaving my own house. I let you play your little games as long as it didn't hurt me. When you held that speech before the election though... you never told anyone about that. It almost ruined everything. Oh well, it all turned out the way it was supposed to in the end, didn't it, so I guess there is no harm done. In fact, it was better this way, you will make a perfect example for how terrorists who threaten our nation will be dealt with in the future. Goodbye now, 23." ~

Ethan felt rough hands pulling him out of his cell. They put a heavy black cloth hood over his head, but he could still feel the slightest hint of sun seeping through the fabric and he could feel and smell the air, real, outside air, not the kind you get in a damp cell. And then, just as quickly and unexpectedly as it had begun, Ethan was pushed into the back of a vehicle and the manacles around his wrists were chained to his seat, his brief taste of freedom was gone. Soon after, the vehicle stopped abruptly and Ethan was dragged out once again. This time he could hear voices, a dull roar of voices in the distance that grew closer and louder with every step that the rough hands dragged him. When the noise was so loud it drowned out even Ethan's own thoughts, he was finally allowed to stop.

"Stop..." He muttered under his hood, unable to tell if the voices were cheering or scream, only knowing that they made his head throb painfully. He felt a rope tighten uncomfortably around his neck, making it hard to swallow. It reminded Ethan of having a knife to his throat, something he had only experienced for a few seconds of his life, but he was not likely to forget the experience. Suddenly the hood was snatched off his head and the noise grew even louder, no longer muffled by the heavy cloth. He squinted against the light, looking down at a sea of faces, all shouting, making it impossible to distinguish the words. With a pang, he realized it was the same place, the same square he had spoken a dozen times before and for a fleeting moment he thought he could see the same faces, the faces of Annie and her son, of Hui and Shane and the countless other numberless who had watched him speak.

"Do you have any last words, prisoner?" A man in a hood asked, one of his thick arms resting on a lever next to him. Ethan's mind spun and he felt like he was about to throw up. When he finally opened his mouth, the words blurted out without first crossing his mind.

"Never stop fighting."

A Revolution Without Dancing by Odette_River, 1999

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