Blade (blade_girl) wrote in tinman_fic,
Blade
blade_girl
tinman_fic

fic: The Indirect Life (8/?)

Title: The Indirect Life
Author: blade_girl
Characters: Ambrose/Glitch, appearances by or mentions of Azkadellia and others
Rating: PG-13
Summary: First, he was Ambrose; eventually, he became Glitch. In between, he was simply lost.
Warning: None
Disclaimer: If I owned this franchise, I would have a better car.
Word Count: 6,240

Chapter One - Forgotten
Chapter Two - The Prompt
Chapter Three - Rhapsody of Hope
Chapter Four - Jigsaw (1)
Chapter Five - Jigsaw (2)
Chapter Six - Jigsaw (3)
Chapter Seven - Jigsaw (4)


A/N: Bet you thought I'd given up, didn't you? Sorry for the long pause between chapters. I've been battling supernatural forces bent on keeping me from completing the next chapter. Okay, the forces were natural, but the rest is true.

As usual, my betas, crazymadi and blackletter, deserve prodigious amounts of credit for their invaluable contributions toward improving this chapter. Thanks, you two!


“All I’m saying,” he told the two men riding in the back of the truck with him, “is that science is more powerful than magic.”

He punctuated his pronouncement with a decisive nod and a small smile that said “I know exactly what I’m talking about,” and leaned back as he folded his arms. He had forgotten, of course, that the sides of the truck were mere canvas, so there was an abrupt moment of ohmygodI’mfallingbackward! accompanied by some brief flailing of limbs and an embarrassing overcorrection before he’d righted himself to stability. All in all, he felt he’d handled it rather smoothly.

His companions were both staring at him. The one with the prematurely receding dung-colored hair looked bored half to death (he assumed the man was lacking in mental acuity); the other, a handsome fellow with sandy-blond hair and gray eyes, seemed perplexed and rather fascinated in spite of himself. He could probably be taught at least some rudimentary principles and concepts, so perhaps the effort wasn’t being completely wasted.

NotStupid frowned as he thought the statement over. “Okay, you lost me,” he admitted.

“Gods, will you stop humoring him already?” Stupid groaned, rolling his head around to stretch his thick neck.

“I just wanna know what he means by that.”

“He’s a headcase; he probably doesn’t even know what he means.”

He chuckled indulgently. Yes, the man was definitely not the brightest sun in the sky. Anyone should be able to tell that while he may be a little forgetful and sometimes lost the thread of conversation right in the middle of participating in one, he always knew exactly what he meant when he was able to finish his thought.

“What I mean,” he said, pointedly looking at Stupid for a moment before continuing, “is that you have to be born with the ability to do magic. Whereas anyone…” He paused and glanced at Stupid again briefly. “…anyone with a certain amount of mental resources, at least, can learn to use science to achieve many of the same things magic can accomplish.”

“How does that make science more powerful than magic?” Stupid demanded.

“Thought you weren’t interested,” said NotStupid, raising an eyebrow.

“I just wanna prove he’s full of nonsense so you’ll stop encouraging him to talk us to death!”

He snickered. “I couldn’t talk someone to death! That would be magic. I’m a scientist.”

“Aha!” Stupid exclaimed. “So magic is more powerful.”

With a lengthy sigh of oh-how-the-dense-do-tax-my-patience, he explained. Slowly.

“As I said, you have to be born with magical ability to do magic. Only a handful of people are born with that ability. So that gives a handful of people, individually, a certain amount of power, yes. But since you don’t need to be born with anything but the ability to think and apply certain principles to learn to use science, there are a lot more of us than there are of them.” He again sat back, more carefully this time, and smiled at them.

Stupid rolled his eyes and rubbed his dung-ish hair in apparent frustration. NotStupid simply said, gently, “That’s pretty much exactly what you said before. What I’m not getting is how that makes science more powerful than magic, you see? I mean, a witch can kill with a wave of her hand.”

Snorting, he leaned forward suddenly in his exasperation. The truck at that moment made a slight curve, and he tumbled off the wooden crate he’d been using as a seat. Stupid laughed nastily.

The sides of the truck floor were lined with crates; this truck was clearly meant to haul cargo rather than passengers. He supposed that said a lot about his status, but wondered what it said about his companions. Crawling back toward his seat with as much dignity as possible, he scowled at them both.

Numbers! Don’t you get it? Sheer numbers tell the tale. There are a handful of magical folk against thousands who know how to apply science, or who can be taught to. So yeah, a witch can wave her hand and kill one man, or maybe ten of them at once, but while that’s happening, the rest of us could be using technology to engineer her defeat.”

He had decided that perching on the crates was dangerous, and so he remained on the floor and now leaned back with confidence against the crate he’d formerly sat upon.

“Magic’s great, don’t get me wrong. But given the choice, well…” Confident that he’d made his point, he placed his hands behind his head and waited for it to sink in with his audience.

NotStupid looked thoughtful, but Stupid simply gaped for a moment before beginning to bray like a laughing donkey. “Oh, okay, then I guess we better tell Azkadellia to watch out, huh? ‘Hey Sorceress, look out for all the scientists! They’re gonna come after you with their abacuses and slide rules and you won’t stand a chance!’”

Rolling his eyes, he was all set to supply a stinging retort when NotStupid got up, worked his way toward the front of the truck, and tapped on the back window. “Let’s take a break!” he shouted to the driver.

“Are we there?”

“No, halfwit,” chided Stupid. “Didn’t you hear him say we’re just taking a break?”

The truck had slowed and was pulling over. He waited until it had stopped completely before standing up, in order to avoid another embarrassing tumble. “Where are we going again?”

Stupid sighed. “How many times do we have to tell you? We’re going to Central City.”

He brightened. “Central City! I’ve been there before.”

“No kidding.”

“Really. I…” He paused, frowning. “But I can’t remember what I used to do there, or what the place looks like. Weird, huh?”

NotStupid climbed down out of the truck and waited until he had done the same. He indicated a cluster of trees and brush about forty feet off the road. “You can take care of any business over there, Zip. Don’t go beyond that big tree or we’ll have to chase you down, and when we catch you, it won’t be pleasant.”

He nodded immediately, anxious that there be no unpleasantness. He didn’t know exactly what NotStupid might be threatening, but something told him he wouldn’t want to find out.

NotStupid waved him on, and he took off, reveling in the freedom to move, to run! How long had it been since he’d been able to run? He had no idea how long he’d been in that prison. In fact, he couldn’t really remember much of what had happened while he was there.

He tripped over a root – or maybe his own feet – and went down, planting his face into tall grass and soft dirt and getting a good whiff of earth and growth and just life in general. It was possibly the greatest thing he’d ever smelled, and he found himself rolling around, flattening the weeds and laughing like a child.

“Get up, you idiot!” bellowed Stupid from over by the truck. “Go do your business or get back in the truck. We’re not setting up camp.”

Oh! Right. He was supposed to be relieving himself. He sprang to his feet, waved to the men with guns, and hurried over to the nearest bush. He had learned a long time ago – although he didn’t remember how he’d learned it – that it was dangerous to urinate against trees in the O.Z. They sometimes didn’t react well. Bushes, however, were generally pretty safe.

That led him to study the surrounding flora a bit. Didn’t things used to grow greener? More vibrant and healthy-looking? In fact, he could see several dead and rotting trees in the woods that spread behind where he stood. Had things always been like this? He felt certain they hadn’t.

His botanical reverie was interrupted by Stupid’s voice calling, “Hey! This isn’t a sightseeing tour!” Startled, he turned his head and saw NotStupid walking with Driver around to the other side of the truck while Stupid remained leaning against the cab, watching for his return. Nature having finished calling, he closed his trousers and took a last look around before starting back.

He took his time, wanting to enjoy his last moments of relative freedom. Stupid alternated between watching him with a bored look and glancing over his shoulder as if wondering what NotStupid and Driver were doing on the other side of the truck. Finally, his curiosity must have overwhelmed him, because he started to walk around the cab toward the other side. First, however, he stopped, pointed to his prisoner, pointed to a place on the ground beside the truck, and then held up his gun. The message was fairly clear, and he nodded enthusiastically to show that he’d understood. Stupid nodded once, then headed around to the other side of the truck.

Despite that entire pantomimed exchange, a tingly kind of excitement came over him as he realized that no one was watching him right now. It was the first time since he’d been taken prisoner that he’d been left both unwatched and unconfined. He glanced over his shoulder at the huge expanse of forest behind him. He could take off! He could disappear into that woods, and they would have no idea which way he went. He could be free! Yes! He could be free of jails and jailers and insulting nicknames and people telling him what to do and where to do it and when to stop. He could be free to run whenever he felt like it, to reminisce to his heart’s content and his brain’s capacity, and to make a new life for himself.

Fortunately, before he acted on this impulse, he realized that he had no idea where he was, no food or water, no special skills for surviving alone in the wilderness, and no knowledge of disguising his path so that they couldn’t track and find him. There was one of him (with his half a brain) and three of them (presumably with whole ones), and they carried guns. He’d already been promised “unpleasant” consequences should he choose to do what he was busily fantasizing about doing, and there was little chance that an escape attempt would succeed. So, yeah, it was better to go back to the truck. He started to jog, worried that someone might catch him standing around and guess at his momentary lapse into hypothetical disobedience.

As he approached the truck, he wondered why the longcoats had gathered on the other side of the vehicle. It didn't seem like the smartest course of action for men who were transporting a prisoner. Once he got close to the truck, he could hear what sounded like a low-decibel argument taking place. He slowed his steps and tried to tread more lightly, hoping to hear what was being said without being heard himself.

“... can't really be serious!” Stupid was saying.

“Where’s Zip? Shouldn’t you be watching him?”

“He’s fine, he’s on his way back. Maybe someone should be keeping an eye on you, though, if you’re starting to find him scary.”

“You heard him in there,” NotStupid countered calmly. I can't believe you don't see any danger.”

“Danger! From a zipperhead? The one who's been told twelve times that we're on our way to Central City but still keeps asking where we're going at least once an hour? The guy who doesn't remember his own name? Who barely remembers he was in prison for months?”

“No, I'm talking about the headcase who can talk real persuasively about how enough regular people with science and technology could overthrow someone who has magical powers.”

“He said that?” This voice was less familiar; it must have belonged to Driver.

“He says a lot of things,” Stupid growled. “He also forgets things as quick as he thinks 'em. I bet if you asked him to explain the whole science-beats-magic thing again, he wouldn't even remember the conversation.

Confusion wrinkled his brow as he listened. What exactly was the problem here? Had he said something wrong? NotStupid seemed upset with him, and Driver sounded as though he might be getting concerned, too.

“Maybe he wouldn’t,” said NotStupid. “But like you said, he says a lot of things. How long before this particular lecture turns up again in that carved-up brain of his? And who’s to say he won’t happen to have a sympathetic, impressionable audience the next time?”

He heard Stupid start to scoff, but Driver talked over him. “So what is it you think we should do?”

There was a pause. He held his breath, desperate to hear the answer to this himself.

NotStupid sighed. “I think maybe taking him to Central City is a bad idea.”

“A bad idea.”

“Yeah.”

Stupid laughed his donkey laugh again. “You know what’s a really bad idea? Not carrying out General Lonot’s orders, which, you know what? Came directly from the sorceress!”

“That’s right,” Driver agreed. “We can’t just go countermanding her orders.”

“Not if we don’t want the life sucked out of us.”

A chill caressed his spine at those words and he felt vaguely ill. Angry, too, although he didn’t understand why.

“Look,” NotStupid was saying, “we know for a fact that the resistance still hasn’t been squashed. I’ve personally caught a couple of rebels right in Central City. That just doesn’t seem like the place to drop a guy who might be capable of giving them technical information they could use against us.”

“But like he said,” Driver countered, “the sorceress has ordered it. You heard Lonot – she wants everyone to see the Queen’s most valued advisor and the kingdom’s most brilliant mind reduced to what he is now. It’ll demoralize potential resisters.”

“Or maybe it’ll inspire them. Especially if there’s enough of him left to give them ideas.”

“He’ll be under constant supervision. He won’t get the chance to inspire anyone.”

“It’s a mistake to think we can control everything.”

Stupid snorted. “Don’t you think the sorceress knows what she’s doing?”

“I think maybe she hasn’t heard this guy talk about how science could trump magic. If she had, maybe she’d have decided it wasn’t worth the risk.”

“So what are you saying? We should just execute the guy? Without any orders?”

“Wouldn’t have to be like that. He could’ve just taken off while we made this stop to stretch our legs. We sent him to the bushes to take a leak and he ran off. We chased him, he fell and broke his neck. Or got shot.”

He suddenly found it hard to take air into his lungs, hearing his star pupil speak so calmly, so conversationally, about how to murder him. For a moment, terror warred with indignation as the sheer ingratitude of the man offended his sense of right and wrong. But no! There was no time for that! It would probably be a good idea to run, now, before they realized he was listening. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, he couldn’t seem to move, which is how he came to hear Driver’s response.

“That would be dangerous. Suppose Azkadellia got suspicious? I hear the alchemist is working on a way to use viewers to see people's memories.”

“See people’s memories?” Stupid asked. “How would that work?”

“How should I know? My point is, what if our story doesn’t sound quite right? She might decide to try that on us and find out what really happened!”

“Why would our story sound suspicious? Prisoners try to escape from time to time.”

“Who knows?” Stupid said. “The point is, it could happen, and when she found out what we did – against her specific orders – we’d be in big trouble.”

“You have to assume she understands any risks,” Driver added. “I mean, she’s had him in custody for months. The alchemist would know just exactly how much he has left in his head, and after all – she’s let him live this long.”

“Which never made sense to me,” Stupid grumbled, as though he should have been consulted about it. “Why didn’t they just get rid of him after the extraction?”

“The alchemist wanted to keep him around,” Driver – apparently a fertile source of alchemist gossip – answered, “in case they didn’t get all the information they needed with the first extraction. And now, the sorceress thinks he can be useful as a symbol.”

“Look,” NotStupid interjected, “I understand that parading him around demonstrates her power to degrade even the most powerful, but I still think –”

“No.” Driver sounded resolute. “I’m not going against the sorceress’s express wishes just because you had a conversation with him that bothers you. If Azkadellia doesn’t think he’s a threat, that’s good enough for me.”

“Me, too,” Stupid echoed emphatically.

He held his breath, tensely awaiting NotStupid’s response, which took a while.

“Okay,” NotStupid finally agreed. “I just hope we’re not making a mistake.”

The tension broke, and he sighed as silently as possible.

“It’s never a mistake to do what Azkadellia says,” Stupid said wisely. “I better go see what the idiot’s up to.”

Panic flooded his mind. They couldn’t find him eavesdropping on their conversation! That might confirm NotStupid’s belief that he was some kind of a threat. Arms flailing wildly, he spun around and dashed away as quietly as possible until he was a short distance from the truck. He slowed down and proceeded to stroll aimlessly, staring at some listless wildflowers along the side of the road. He had just bent to pick some when Stupid called to him.

“Hey! Headcase! Break’s over. Get back in the truck.”

“Already?” He was amazed to hear the faint whine of disappointment in his own voice instead of the quavering fear that he was feeling.

“Get over here!” Stupid barked, and he jumped and hurried toward the truck.

“Sor-ry,” he muttered insolently as he stepped around the man with the gun and climbed aboard. Really, he was quite astounded at his ability to mask his terror. Maybe he’d been an actor before they’d taken his brain? Although why they’d want the brain of an actor was puzzling.

He straightened and was starting to move further into the truck when his foot caught on something and he felt flat on his face. Stupid made with the donkey laugh again, and he realized that the dung-headed man had tripped him. “Watch your step,” he cackled, hauling himself into the truck.

A hand was extended to him from above, and he looked up in surprise to see that NotStupid was already on board. Taking the offered hand with some trepidation, he tried not to give any indication that he’d just heard this same guy suggesting they murder him in cold blood and pass it off as an escape attempt.

“Thanks,” he said, and all he could hear in his voice was simple gratitude rather than youwantedtokillme!

Oh yes, he’d definitely been a professional actor previously. No doubt about it.

As they all settled down for the rest of the trip, Stupid grabbed his arm and told him, “Just one thing – no more talk about science. Got it?”

How silly, he thought. What interest could an actor have in talking about science? He started to sit upon a crate, then for some reason decided he’d be more comfortable on the floor. He caught NotStupid looking at him appraisingly and offered what he hoped was a cheerful, non-threatening smile.

“In fact,” said Stupid, sitting down as the truck began to move, “I think maybe you should just keep quiet till we get to Central City.”

Excitement distracted him and his face lit up. “We’re going to Central City?”

Stupid pinched the bridge of his nose as though developing a severe headache. NotStupid merely kept watching him thoughtfully.

* * * * * *

He must have dozed off at some point, lulled by the rocking of the truck as it made its way over the road, because he found himself waking up as it slowed to a stop. “We there?” he yawned.

“Yep, thank the gods,” Stupid said blearily. He seemed to be trying to wake up, himself, rubbing his eyes and face with one hand and stretching.

NotStupid seemed quite wide awake.

He was consumed with the desire to see Central City. (Hey, I remembered!) He could remember having spent time there, but had no specific memories of what it looked like. If he were honest with himself, he’d been harboring a hope that seeing it again would jog something, stimulate some memories of his previous life. He seemed able to remember certain things at certain times, but holding on to them was like trying to grasp a live fish. Maybe if he found himself in a familiar place, those earlier visits would come back to him – and bring with them additional recollections.

He stood up while the truck was stopped and contorted himself in an effort to see through the back window of the cab and on through the windshield. He couldn’t see much but a huge brick wall and a line of longcoats aiming rifles at the truck before Stupid put a hand to his chest and casually pushed him aside. “Sit tight, halfwit,” he said, almost affectionately. “Won’t be long now.”

NotStupid knocked on the back window of the cab. “What’s the hold-up?” he shouted.

Driver yelled back, “They want to inspect the cargo.”

Just then, two longcoats appeared at the open back of the truck, rifles at the ready but not aimed… yet.

“What’s this?” demanded Stupid, affronted.

“Sorry,” said one of the men. “There was a truck stolen yesterday, and we have to inspect all incoming vehicles. There’ve been rumors of rebel activity. You understand.”

“Sure,” NotStupid assured them, silencing Stupid’s protest with a light slap to the shoulder with the back of his hand. “You want us in or out?”

“Out, please.”

“You first, Zip,” NotStupid said, taking him by the arm. He felt a flutter in his stomach as he moved to exit the truck; the men standing there made him very nervous, looking at him as though they had no idea what to expect. He was careful to keep his hands extended so they could see he was unarmed until he got to the edge, at which point one of the longcoats on the ground grabbed his arm and helped him jump down, a little roughly.

He stumbled a step or two, straightened, and found he was looking down the way from which they had come, a brick road that curved into the woods. It seemed familiar, but before he had a chance to remember anything about it, he was shocked by the feeling of hands running up and down his person, patting him down. He gasped and went rigid.

“Just checking for weapons. No need to get excited.” There were snorts and chuckles of snide amusement, and he felt his face reddening with embarrassment. Turning around, he watched these new longcoats talk briefly with the two he’d been traveling with, then climb inside the truck to check the crates.

He moved toward Stupid, who was huffing and posturing in righteous irritation. “Where are we?”

“Central City, and by the suns, I hope that’s the last time I’ll have to answer that question today.”

“Central City,” he breathed. He looked up, took a few steps to the side to see past the truck, and stared at the walls, the gate, and the portion of the skyline visible to him.

He wore a look of happy anticipation until what he was looking at truly sank in.

When he tried to picture what he’d been expecting, he couldn’t. All he knew was that the name “Central City” had conjured up feelings of optimism and excitement; he didn’t remember what it looked like or what he’d done when he was there, but he knew that his memories were good and his expectations positive.

What he was seeing now didn’t fit at all. Before him stood a walled fortress of a place; a dull, bleak city sealed by dull, bleak brick, with men in long coats carrying long guns lining the approach to the arched entrance. Along the top of the wall stood more armed men, ready to fire upon any perceived threat to security.

“This isn’t right,” he whispered.

“How so?” a voice asked quietly at his elbow.

“It’s just…” He was struggling to verbalize the wrongness when he realized it was NotStupid standing beside him, listening carefully. His mouth went suddenly dry. “It… it’s just that I… expected it to be...” Bigger? Smaller? “Louder.” Huh?

NotStupid just kept looking at him calmly, appraisingly, and he had to look away before the urge to confess something overwhelmed him.

“C’mon,” Stupid was bellowing. “Back in the truck. They’ve decided we’re not gonna try to take over the city. We’re going in.”

He knew he should just turn and casually go back to the truck, but instead he felt compelled to look at NotStupid, as though seeking permission. The longcoat simply extended his hand toward the truck and said, “You heard the man, Zip. Back on board.”

Once they were back in the truck, Driver was waved on and they rolled through the large archway and entered the city proper. Unable to see much looking forward through to the windshield, he slid toward the back of the truck to watch the parts of the city as they passed. Again he felt a pang of disappointment as expectations driven by unremembered experiences went unmet.

He had anticipated a thriving, bustling city full of prosperous and busy people. Instead, he saw numerous shops and businesses boarded up or abandoned with broken windows. Gaunt, impoverished-looking people could be seen huddling in unused doorways or standing on corners. Some of them appeared to be trying to beg from the few pedestrians who appeared well-off; those generally seemed fearful of the interaction and hurried past.

Armed longcoats were visible on every block. They seemed to keep the beggars and dispossessed moving; each time he saw a longcoat walking toward the street people, they moved away with as much speed as they could manage. Some of them were limping and many seemed malnourished, so that was often not very fast.

Not all was misery; some of the people on the street seemed happy enough. Those were the ones who were well-dressed, and often they traveled in expensive cars. There were pretty much just three social strata present here: very poor, obviously rich, and longcoats.

“How’s it look?” NotStupid asked.

“Huh?”

“The city. You were so excited to see it again.”

“Oh.” He looked out again as the truck continued to move. The streets looked dirty. The buildings that didn’t appear rundown all seemed to cater to the people who were clearly well-off: nightclubs, expensive restaurants, clothing shops. The whole place seemed to radiate a sense of unvarnished inequality, with armed referees ensuring that all stayed on their assigned sides.

While he may not have remembered the city per se, the idea of Central City had always felt positive in his head; he’d felt that he had been happy during whatever time he’d spent here.

He couldn’t imagine feeling happy in this place.

“It’s not… what I was expecting,” he said, finally answering NotStupid. “I must have been thinking of some other city.”

“Well,” Stupid said in a tone that heralded pontification, “what you’re seeing right now is what happens when a few people decide to stir up trouble and ruin things for the rest. Couple of months ago, we didn’t have to have so many men on the streets, keeping order. But when you got troublemakers who call themselves ‘freedom fighters’ stealing vehicles and blowing up –” A sharp look from NotStupid brought him up short, which Stupid clearly resented, but he obeyed the silent command. “Well, anyway, things’ll get better here once we’ve rooted out the malcontents, you can bet on that.”

But Stupid’s words receded as his attention was claimed by a strange sight. In a large open area – courtyard? Was that the word? – a small crowd had gathered around a man who was picking something up from the ground with a tool and placing it into a canvas bag he had strapped around his neck. He glanced up self-consciously, looking where no one was standing, and made a little wave as though someone had told him to do it. The wave didn’t seem aimed at the spectators. As he watched, the man disappeared and was replaced by a bunch of people who seemed to be working on some kind of factory line! Right there in the middle of the courtyard!

Alarmed, he leaned forward, then dropped onto his hands and knees and crawled toward the opening to keep the scene in sight as the truck slowly continued its progress. No one in the surrounding crowd seemed at all surprised by what had happened. But as he continued to watch, he saw a ragged-looking young man dash across the courtyard, waving his arms, and run right through the factory workers… who promptly disintegrated! The crowd didn’t seem too surprised about this either, and hastily dispersed as two longcoats swooped down on the young man like leather-clad birds of prey and pulled him out of the courtyard.

At which point the factory workers reappeared.

“Watch it, headcase!” Stupid was saying. “You fall out of the truck, you’ll make an awful mess when another car runs over you.”

“What’s up, Zip? Something bothering you?”

He had turned toward his traveling companions, mouth working but not forming words, but finally found his voice. “That! Over there! What’s going on? People are… disappearing and… appearing… and then some guy just… What is that? What are those people watching?”

Stupid was looking at him like he must be having some sort of mental glitch, but NotStupid leaned over to see what he’d been looking at. “Oh, that’s just a news projection.”

“A what?”

“It’s a projected image.”

Something stirred in his depleted brain. “TDESHPTL,” he whispered, wondering what it meant.

“What?”

“What’s it for? Projecting the images, I mean.”

“To spread the news. It gives people information about things that are happening around the O. Z.”

“Oh.” He thought about it. “Well… that’s kinda… cool.” And it was.

But it would have seemed cooler if the crowd hadn’t looked so demoralized as they watched.

A few minutes later, the buildings had become less commercial-looking and he realized that they had entered a residential district. There were fewer people on the street, and none of them were beggars.

A lot of them were longcoats.

The truck pulled over to the curb and stopped. “Out, Zip,” NotStupid said. “This is our stop.”

“Yep,” Stupid echoed, shuffling toward the back and hopping stiffly onto the bricks of the street. He put a hand to his back and stretched. “Thank the gods.”

He followed – hopping out with a little more grace than Stupid – and looked all around the street. Stupid pointed to the building they were parked in front of (he thought maybe the name for it was “townhouse,” but he wasn’t sure) and said, “Welcome home, zipperhead.”

Eyes wide, he stared at the building. It was obviously a home, a very large and beautiful one, but it didn’t look at all familiar. A graceful stone façade presented a set of wide stone steps that led to an entrance with double doors of heavy, dark wood with brass trimmings. Stately columns flanked the steps, which were sheltered by a tasteful dark blue awning. “I… used to live here?”

Stupid stared in surprise. “You did?”

“No,” NotStupid said, “you’ll be living here now. This is your new home.”

He frowned, trying to understand this. He couldn’t. While he had no idea just how long he’d been imprisoned, he knew that it had been a considerable amount of time, certainly since before his brain had been taken. A small, dirty cell was literally all he knew as a home, and for that to change, everything he knew about day-to-day living would have to be scrapped and replaced. He didn’t know how to handle that.

His breath began to come more rapidly and shallowly, and something of his terror must have shown on his face, because NotStupid patted his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be told what to do and how to do it. You’ll adjust. Everybody does.”

Stupid snorted. “You’d think he’d be thrilled to get transferred out of that stinking hole to a place like this.”

Shrugging, NotStupid merely said, “There’s comfort in the familiar.”

One of the doors of the entrance opened and three men hurried out. A large man, tall and flabby with thin, receding dark hair and a huge smile, was the first to approach them. “Hi, Mr. Dunn! Hi, Mr. Barnes! We’re here to unload!”

Who’s Dunn and who’s Barnes? he wondered, looking from one longcoat to the other. It would be funny if Stupid turned out to be Dunn, since he’d always thought that his hair was the color of dung.

“‘Bout time, Happy,” Stupid rebuked, as though he’d been waiting for half an hour. “Well, don’t just stand around – start unloading!”

The man Stupid had called “Happy” laughed and climbed into the truck. Another man followed with less enthusiasm. He was tall too, though not as tall as Happy, and very thin. Sharp, unhappy eyes lived under bushy graying eyebrows, and they cast a strange glance at him (and his zipper) before he climbed into the truck and grabbed a crate.

He looked a lot like the man picking up things and waving in the news projection.

The third man wasn’t wearing a coat, but he was definitely a longcoat. There was something about the way he carried himself. That, and his familiar manner with Stupid and NotStupid. “Kinda late tonight.”

“We made a long stop along the way,” NotStupid responded. “Needed to stretch our legs a bit.”

“Plus, they held us at the gate,” Stupid said, working up some fresh outrage.

Driver had left the cab and came around to the back of the truck. “All trucks were getting stopped. One was stolen yesterday.”

The coatless longcoat nodded. He had lifeless brown hair and quick brown eyes – eyes that had now found the new arrival. “This him?”

Stupid nodded. “That’s our big star.”

“Zip,” said NotStupid, “this is Mr. Calder. He runs this place.”

He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to respond. His instinct was to shake hands during an introduction, but he was pretty sure that wasn’t appropriate here, so he just looked at Mr. Calder and nodded deferentially. He wanted to ask what “this place” actually was and why he was here, but he couldn’t figure out whether that would be considered appropriate, either. So he wound up just standing there, staring at the man and nodding.

Calder frowned. “Can’t he talk?”

Stupid spun around from supervising the unloading. “Oh, are you kidding me?”

NotStupid smirked at him and turned back to Calder. “Let’s take him inside.”

The interior of the house was not what he’d expected. While the façade had spoken of refined taste and wealth, the inside of the house was fairly utilitarian. Or rather, had been made utilitarian. Marble floors and intricately carved woodwork in the foyer spoke of a past spent as an elegant home, but a line of simple iron coat hooks on a plain board screwed into the wall suggested something more like a dormitory.

“This is a halfway house, Zip,” NotStupid was saying.

“Halfway house? Halfway to what?”

NotStupid cocked his head and shrugged with one shoulder. “Good question. A lot depends on you, really. Anyway, this is where you’re going to live during your re-education.”

“Oh.” Naturally, this made no sense to him, but he really wasn’t sure where to start with his questions. Guiltily, he wondered if all of this had been explained to him already and he’d simply not paid attention.

“You see, Zip,” Calder said, “tomorrow you’ll begin to learn a new skill, something to make you productive. Once you’ve completed your training, you’ll be allowed to rejoin society.”

He thought about this. “You’re going to teach me a job?”

“That’s right.”

“And after I learn the new job… what?”

Calder looked at NotStupid, got a short nod, and then answered. “Well, you’ll have a useful skill then, won’t you? So you’ll be able to perform a service and earn your own way.”

He thought about this, running all the information through his mind several times to ensure that he understood. “You mean… I’ll be free?”

Calder frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but NotStupid got there first. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay, Zip?” He clapped him on the shoulder, startling him, and said, “How about we show you where you’re gonna sleep?”

On the way up the stairs, he suddenly thought to ask NotStupid, “Hey, which are you – Mr. Dunn or Mr. Barnes?”

“Barnes. Dunn’s the guy with the brown hair.” Seeing him smile, NotStupid raised an eyebrow. “Something funny?”

He shook his head and mastered the urge to laugh, but then had another thought. “What about the other guy? What’s his name?”

“Who?”

“The guy who drove the truck.”

“Oh. His name’s Rider.”

He couldn’t help himself. He laughed until they got to the top of the stairs.

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