The room was almost in darkness, the only glimmer of light coming from a single candle flame that flickered madly as the door closed. The key turning in the old-fashioned lock sounded loud, its finality making him turn in shock as he listened to eerie, receding footsteps that echoed distantly through the empty theatre. Leaning back on the door he took a deep breath, fighting belatedly recognised fear - and anticipation.

Nothing was as he expected. Even the dark added to this unaccustomed sense of confusion. He was prepared for light, great expanses of it that would illuminate the corners of this room along with the shadowy interior of his soul. This darkness was alien. Strange. Almost enough to make him turn tail and run, back to the safety and comfort of the Centre, of other numbers, of the normality he had known all his life. But the door was locked, and there was his pride to be considered - and his dreams.

He shivered; the temperature less than his body was accustomed to. Not much so, but enough. Another difference, another strangeness.

He tried to peer across the room, but the flame cast hardly any light at all and it was impossible to make anything out apart from darkly shadowed, improbable shapes.

Perhaps this was an error; perhaps there were no answers here after all.

Panic nibbled at the edges of his thoughts, and he cursed this violation of his equilibrium. He knew a Number shouldn't be this easily disturbed - none of the others would be. And all because he'd put himself in the hands of a Name. Where was his arrogance, his authority? There was nothing to be afraid of here.

All the bravado wasn't convincing, and frowning, M-6251 tried to stay calm. If only there was a real light; neon, halogen, sodium, quartz, mercury, anything but this antiquated candle.

Then in the stillness he caught the simple line of a profile, and the flashing brilliance of candle-light on gold.

Startled by the realisation that he wasn't alone M-6251 exclaimed softly. But there was no reaction, the other man remaining quiet, seated apparently at floor level, lounging against the wall.

Relief that he wasn't alone was almost outbalanced by the surge of trepidation; though perhaps the two weighed equally - balanced across the narrow edge of his need.

Licking dry lips he took a pace forward then stopped, unsure of what to do or say in this outlandish situation. "Good evening," he tried the simple greeting; there was no call to forget the basics of courtesy. Even though this was a name.

There was no answer, but the singular profile shifted, acknowledging the presence of another. Then there was a blurring movement and pale fingers reached, and brought from the darkness a crystal glass of liquid. It was sipped slowly, then returned to the shadows. A cigarette - already lit - was next; its tendril of smoke coiling thick as silk against the candle's flame.

His skin itched beneath the smooth synthetic of his suit. The itch as much under the skin as over; the weight of clothing an almost unbearable burden.

To quieten himself, he looked away from the cigarette's hypnotic glow as it slowly arced from the sensual mouth to rest on a dark clad knee.

The darkness was becoming less opaque as his eyes adjusted. He could make out furnishings memory registered as Baroque, bohemian, sensual. Soft velvets and satins. Everything an illusion as in daylight it would surely be tawdry, unkempt. Mirrors reflected the haphazard scattering of possessions, their images distorted by age and disintegrating silvering. Strange objects. Books. A wig on its stand. Clothing draped from every hook and edge. And swirling through it all the dull brightness of old gold; in each garment, in the cases of cosmetics, and in the fire-fly catch of light on a chain as the magician breathed in deep the fragrant smoke.

He was very beautiful.

M-6251 dared hardly believe this was real, that he had actually succeeded. Without the stage disguise the magician was far younger than expected - but no less fascinating. His hair was wild, curling in disorder around high cheekbones. Most of the vivid make-up had been removed, but kohl still rimmed his slanted eyes, touching them with the darkness of a mystery that wasn't wholly mortal.

He swallowed hard and took a step forward; unused to having to ask, knowing that if he wasn't careful this would be as close to the enigma in himself as he would ever get. Truly humbling though it was to have to beg from a Name, it was why he was here. And there had never been any doubt that begging would be called for, this Name would require nothing less. Demands here would be worth less than nothing.

If he could beg.

A moment of doubt shivered through bone and nerve. But recriminations were useless, the choice had been made the instant the magician had appeared on stage; alluring, elusive, chimerical.

Whether the light had grown stronger or not, he no longer had to fight against the gloom. But the greater illumination didn't really help, because all it clarified was a naked torso lounging indolently on cushions and long supple limbs that curled gracefully across the floor. The body strangely familiar even wihtout the distancing footlights.

Surely he would say something soon.

It was too much, and regardless of whatever strange protocol these people required he couldn't be silent any longer, "Did you receive the payment?"

The man laughed; the sound as deep and warm as a moment of waking. "Oh yeah, I got the payment." He filled his lungs with smoke then flicked the butt away into a dark corner. "Though exactly what you expect for it I'm not quite sure. Apart from sex that is."

"To understand myself."

"Is that a possibility?"

"It has to be."

"You Numbers are so damned sure of yourselves," he shook his head, the flame catching high-lights of gold and amber in the ragged mane.

The Number could not resist the reply, "And you are not?"

The smile eased the tension, "Yeah, I suppose I am." Zax stretched luxuriously on the cushions, arching his ribs off the velvet before settling again with a small sigh. "Well, what am I supposed to call you? A number is hardly suitable in this sort of situation, is it?"

"I don't know, I've never done this sort of thing before."

"Trust me. I've never found numbers very romantic."

To be called by a name would be demeaning; but that was part of why he was here. "

"Well I do, and it won't. What'll it be?"

"I don't know." He felt panic again. How do you choose a name when a number is what defines your being? What were names, anyway?

"I could call you Beautiful, but that might give you ideas above your station. Or maybe Darkeyes." He was leaning forward, suddenly intent, "or Irish; you could look it, pale skin and dark hair. And I thought all you Numbers were blond; or are you a throwback?"

"Some of us are dark. Not many." In fact there were no dark haired children growing up in the Centre, not any more. Another experiment that hadn't worked out as planned.

"It doesn't go as well with the air of superiority as that ice blond you lot usually go in for. So, a name for a Number." He scratched his chest where the vee of hair narrowed, making his guest swallow hard, and went on casually, "while I'm thinking, you can at least tell me why only I would do."

It was difficult to answer, truth was a reluctant commodity; but here nothing less would serve, "I don't really know, but what I do know is that I saw you on stage and wanted you. Really wanted you."

"So why didn't you just take me? Your goons would have held me down, I'm sure they've had enough practise," he spoke with gentle mockery. "You could've given them a turn when you were finished; I'm sure that would've been good for a few favours."

"That wasn't what I...needed."

"And so you do this with every Name you take a fancy to?"

"No! I've never done this before. I've never...haven't..."

"...wanted a name. God, you Numbers are so screwed up. Didn't it occur to you to try a brothel? It would have been cheaper - even if illegal."

"Yes, but it didn't work." The remembered humiliation scalded. Why was it so wrong for Names and Numbers to touch? This night had cost as much in bribes to the police as it had in barter for services about to be rendered. "It has to be you."

"You hope."

"I know," the words came out with such intensity that he shocked himself.

The magician fingered the medallion that hung from his neck, then with a single movement slipped it over his head, tossing it into the shadows. "Well, lets hope you covered you tracks well enough; or we'll both be for it. Where as they'll probably only slap your wrist, I dread to think what they'd do to me."


"It's all right. I've taken worse risks." Without warning, and without perceptible effort, he was standing up, "I'm going to call you Philip, and you are allowed to all me Zax, you know."

"Zax..." The name tasted strange, awkward in his mouth even though he'd seen it on the play-bill that had attracted him to the theatre in the first place; the name intriguing even though it wasn't the featured attraction.

"I've never seen a Number tongue-tied before."

Confused, the un-numbered Number, whose name was now Philip shook his head. The magician was very close; close enough for the smell of soap and smoke to catch in his throat.

That this was against all the rules of society was an added spice. A Number rebelling, perhaps the first, the idea skidded across random thoughts as his mind fought the attraction of the supple body. But wicked eyes were daring him, and a finger reached up to touch the tag-release on his suit. Desire was suddenly stronger than any other reality, and with a groan that ripped him apart, Philip stretched out and pulled the strength and tantalising power of the other man towards him.

He had never kissed before. Not ever. He'd seen the act on video, and once watched two Name whores in an embrace. But the thought that one day it would be something he'd do, had never occurred. And the thought that he might want it, need it, actively seek the experience was impossible. Yet here he was, pressing his lips to another's.

And it was electricity running through his blood. A direct line to his sexuality, his penis stirring and filling at the eroticism of the contact.

Philip sighed into the kiss, holding the naked shoulders close, pressing his need into the warmth of muscle and skin. Zax felt amazing in his arms, alive, sparking with life and energy - everything his stage persona had promised.

And then with subtle insistence, a warm tongue insinuated itself into his mouth. Philip gasped, and Zax grunted as the sound opened up new territory for his exploration. His arms went around the solid body, smoothing and reaching, wanting flesh, but defeated by the jump-suit. He made a sound of frustration and pulled back. "How d'you get this damn thing off," he was tugging at what should have been a zip, but nothing was happening. "Bloody thing..."

"Wait," Philip regained his balance, and in three quick movements was naked.

This time the sound in the deep chest was closer to a growl, "Lie down."

The command was imperative because Philip's knees were almost gone. He took the two steps to the cushions, and fell back with a sigh.

He moved to cover the blatant nudity of his arousal, but a narrow hand stopped him, "Don't. You are really very beautiful; especially this." Zax ran one finger slowly up the cock's length where it reared proud above the taut abdomen. Long and sleek, it was a perfect as the body it belonged to, the dark vein pulsing enticingly beneath his finger.

Philip reached out to where Zax crouched half in light, half in shadow and touched his cheek, cupping the irregularity that made the quixotic features into the exotic. Was this part of the attraction? This difference that seemed to set the magician apart from not just Numbers, but other Names as well. Whatever the reason, it was enough to make him forget that this was an arranged transaction; that Zax was whoring for the price of some electrical components, several boxes of food and some precision tools. Hardly giving himself away, but M-6251 would have offered even more if he'd had to.

Obedient to the slight pressure of a hand on his chest, Philip leant back.

Zax asked - mirroring his thoughts, "Are you sure you're a Number at all? Not that I've talked to many, but they can't be like this."

"Incubated and bred. I'm no Name."

"No," a puzzled frown drew arching brows together. "But you're different." The thought was disturbing, illuminating his own need along with his companions, and pushing it away Zax bent his spine and took the seeping cock-head into his mouth.

Almost screaming at the suddenness of what he'd wanted for so long, Philip arched against the violence of sensation, reaching with both hands to touch the wild hair, stunned beyond thought, pressing the tight warmth around his flesh, seeking depth, constriction, until he could feel the throat muscles swallowing around him, obliterating sight and hearing, leaving only a line of scorching need that seared through his veins and turned his flesh inside out as orgasm hit with all the violence of a laser blast.

He was still shuddering when a remembrance of reality returned, and he unknotted his cramped fingers. Licking sweat from his lip he looked across in confusion at where the magician was kneeling back, wiping his eyes, breath coming in deep gulps as he tried to restore the balance of oxygen in starving lungs.

For the first time, M-6251 felt dismay for his actions. It confused him; shamed him. Hesitantly, he pressed his hand to a satin covered knee where it rested between his thighs, "I...I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

"Don't..." Zax shook his head, "don't worry; I'm not exactly... a novice, and I wouldn't have done it if I didn't enjoy it." He took a deep breath and then he was smiling; reflex tears dried and forgotten. "Your cock's too beautiful to resist; tastes good too." He licked his lips, then smoothly stood up and with a twist of fastenings his trousers fell to pool darkly at his feet, leaving him naked. He grinned, flaunting the curve of flesh that arrowed from his groin. "Got to give value for money, haven't I?" And he curled gracefully into unexpecting arms.

Philip was still breathing unevenly, his face abstracted, and tucked against him Zax realised the awkward body was chill to his touch. Pulling a loose cover over them both, he said, "I suppose it feels cold here after the Centre."

The blanket was welcome, "A bit, thanks." Philip enfolded the lightly fleshed Name in his arms, and felt so fierce a sense of belonging that it was shocking. Breathing in the strange scents that lingered in hair and on skin, he spoke the thought that hovered in his mind. "Did you put a spell on me?"

"What?" Zax lifted his head and grinned, the flashing moment of humour lighting his intent face. "What makes you think that?"

"Because from the moment I saw you I was lost." Philip ran his hands over warm skin, delighting in its texture. "If you hadn't agreed to tonight I might even have resorted to having the Task Force take you. Though you'd never have stayed willingly if I'd forced you, would you?"

"No." Zax, twisted slightly so he could see into the dark eyes. The candle was reflected in the blue depths, and with it a faint image of himself. "But I didn't put a spell on you either. The act is all illusion you know. I'm not really a Magician." He licked at a silver trickle of sweat, tasting the almost hairless skin. "Did you think I could disappear at will?"

"Not really, but I had to invent some reason for this mad attraction," and he smiled. "I'm a Number and this is highly irregular - in case you hadn't noticed."

"Yeah, it had occurred to me. Incidentally, how old are you?"

The odd question was so surprising that Philip answered it without a thought, "Twenty-eight years, five months and three days - do you want to know more accurately than that?"

"No." Zax shook his head, pressed his hand to the soft skin of Philip's belly, and shrugged. "You seem younger, I dunno, most Numbers come across as if they're ancient."

"And you?"

"I'm not sure, around about the same as far as I know."

"As far as you know?" Philip started with surprise.

"Nobody ever seemed to think telling me when I was born was important. Is it?"

"I suppose not. But it just seems strange..."

"Are all Numbers as interested in us as you are?"

"Not in the same way; but some of them like to watch videos of the theatre."

Hiding the spring of tension, Zax asked smoothly, "Did you mention to any of the others that you thought my box of tricks might be for real?"

"No, I didn't. It's not the sort of thing self respecting Numbers go about saying - especially if they've become enamoured of a harlequin like you."

"A harlequin, I like that," he relaxed again with a sigh.

"Mmm, it's the make-up you wear."

"I'll have to change it," he said, almost teasing, but for all their intimacy still unsure of how far this strange Number would let him go.

"Please don''s fascinating; like you." Philip stroked the shaven chin with his thumb, seeing the diamond shapes that would be painted there for the evening performance.

"Flatterer." Zax turned his attention to a nipple, nibbling gently until it lifted to meet his lips.

Philip groaned, "I never dreamt such sensuality existed," he was near to purring under the expert touch.

"More fool the Numbers then." Zax's head shot up as a question occurred to him. "Hadn't you ever kissed before?"


"Bloody hell!"

"Numbers, I'll have you know, are above such mundane things as copulation; coupling for us is a matter of sensitivity, a meeting of soul and mind rather than flesh. When procreation is achieved by scientists, there is no need for anything else." He ruined the solemn explanation with a rather loud snort of distaste.

"God, how boring. No wonder you fancied a bit of the other," Zax said, and returned to his task. After a while another thought came to him, though he almost didn't ask it as it seemed so far fetched. "Do you mean that you don't...that you have never had sex?"

"I've never made love, no." The whore didn't count because he hadn't been able to perform, anyway.

"You mean," Zax propped himself on one elbow and frowned, almost dumbfounded, "not ever?"


"Don't you even wank?" He paused for an answer but from the confusion on Philip's face it was clear he didn't understand. "You know; wank, beat the meat, masturbate...pleasure yourself with your hand."

"Oh, yes, I have done that." In secret.

"Thank goodness for that." A world without sex was almost impossible for the magician to imagine. He lay back with a sigh. "Out of curiosity, did you enjoy the kiss?"

"I think you know I did."

"How about a repeat performance?"

There was no need for an answer for Philip had drawn the succulent mouth to him and was kissing it as if to the manner born. Twenty-eight years of need and unspecified longing poured into one intimate action.

It also had the effect of arousing his flesh once more - a fact that didn't escape Zax's attention. He was about to point this out when Philip spoke, "Why did you agree to this?"

The question took Zax by surprise, because the simple answer was obvious - bribery; the Number had provided him with enough barter to get a room of his own, maybe enough to perfect some of his ideas for the act. About to reply with just that answer he caught the look on his guests face and stopped. Honesty was very rarely the best policy, but perhaps just this once... "I liked the look of you."

"Thanks," Philip's reply was laconic.

"No, it's true!" He pushed himself back up on one elbow, and glared. "When you came to that performance you sat in the third row of the stalls, and you pretended you weren't a Number. You sat through the entire performance as if you'd never seen live theatre and gasped at all the tricks as if you thought they were real." Zax smiled placed his hand on the flat belly. "You were gorgeous then and you are gorgeous now." He shrugged. "Or perhaps I was just fed up with fucking the dance troupe."

"Were you?"

"Yes," he gave in and smiled, "but only after I realised I had a chance of getting you."

"I used to watch the recordings of your show that the Task Force brought in to examine for evidence of dissidence. I suppose I stole them, but Bruce never used to mind. I plotted for over a month to get to that performance," he laughed bitterly, "and you Names think we're so privileged."

"Not every Number would consider a visit to a second rate theatre a privilege; I expect most of them don't even know it goes on."

"You'd be surprised. And it causes more than a little interest."



"Because it's not healthy for you lot to pay us too much attention; we tend to end up disappearing into that prison under the Centre."

"Rubbish! There's no such place."

"Mmm, lets not argue about it, but try not to mention me to your fellows, okay?"

"Okay." Though M-4327 would be curious, he wouldn't be so rude as to pry where he wasn't wanted. Besides, these days he was so wound up in his experiments that he probably wouldn't even notice M-6251's absence at all.

"Are you always this serious?"

"Didn't realise I was."

"Sort of melancholy," fingers were exploring further down, tickling gently at lightly furred balls.

Philip wriggled and spread his thighs to admit the questing hand. "You seem to be curing me quite nicely," he sighed. Serious was about the last thing he felt. Content, happy even, liberated, certainly aroused again.

Philip decided that he liked the strange light cast by the candle. He'd only ever read about the effect before and no description came even close to this mellow, beautiful light. The man who had been his obsession still had his head propped on one hand. The aura that clung to his stage presence still there, still sparkling in the glimmering light.

"Do you think I'm mad," Philip asked.

"No more than any other Number...don't bristle like that! You should see yourselves from our point of view."

"I don't think I want to."

"No, let's not try putting our world to rights, lets fuck."

"Yes." Philip's cock throbbed at the strange word; he knew its meaning, but had rarely heard it used, and never in conjunction with himself. "I want you."

"I'd never have guessed."

Philip laughed, and Zax saw that there was more than beauty in the perfectly proportioned face. There was character, warmth, and more humanity, more truth, than could be seen in many Names, let alone Numbers. "Why are you like this? You should have walked in here, taken what you wanted and gone." He spoke softly, gently questioning.

"No. That was never my intention; I've never understood why Names are treated the way they are; as if they aren't human."


"You mean mutations?"

"Amongst other things."

"At least you enjoy yourselves."

Zax thought of the hunger, the continual search for shelter from the seasonal storms that could sear the skin from your face, the fight against the worst of the police and their elite Task Force, and the daily struggle to survive. Perhaps it wasn't to be wondered at that Names took pleasure where they could. But he only smiled; these things were beyond the understanding of someone who lived in the safety of the Centre. Philip probably had a guard of Taskers ready to escort him home once he'd finished slumming.

He settled with an answer that wasn't really an answer, "Yeah, at least we enjoy ourselves."

"Where did you get that from?" Philip was staring at a cigarette that had appeared out of nowhere into Zax's hand.

Zax stared at it too. He shrugged and took a deep drag on the smoke, the tip glowing brightly in the half-light.

"More magic?"

"If you like." Zax twisted and stubbed out the butt in a saucer next to the candle. "It's a stupid habit anyway; I keep trying to give it up."

"I like the smell."

"Do you?" Zax turned back into the warm embrace, and slid one leg between Philip's.


"What else do you like?"

"That. Don't stop..."

"I wasn't going to."

Despite their difference, they meshed like the finest machinery. The slide of skin across skin a delight that had them both sighing, speaking soft agreement, interwoven.

The blanket slid to the floor, and Philip used superior weight to gain the advantage until he was looking down into the hazy eyes that he couldn't quite describe with a colour. Holding the wrists tight he bent to tug at a hard nipple.

Zax groaned behind closed lips, and reached up to touch the cap of short hair that followed the shape of Philip's skull. "You're a fast learner, aren't you?" Then gasped as the teeth pulled.

"Sorry, did I hurt..."

" I make quite a lot of noise when I'm enjoying myself."

"Ah, that's all right then." He went back to his task. After a moment he knelt back on his heels and stared.

"Philip, what's the matter?"

"I'm looking at you; at this."

Zax hissed as a very light finger touched the tip of his cock. "Yes."

"I did nothing to make it like this; I didn't even have to."

"Oh, yes you did. You touch me beautifully; I don't need more than that just to get a hard on."

Philip swallowed hard; the arcing flesh was so perfect; like yet unlike his own.

"Do you like it?" Zax sprawled out and watched with delight this inspection of his body.

"Yes." Philip shook himself and extended his gaze to encompass the whole body. "All of it."

"Well, tonight all of it is yours." Zax spoke very softly, meaning every word; their true relationship forgotten in pleasure and unexpected understanding. "Come here."

Philip went wondering into the reaching arms, "I'm here."

"Mmm, I can tell." He was charmed by the innocence that left the Number so vulnerable. When he'd agreed to the proposition, this delight was the last sensation he'd expected to feel. If he'd agreed because of the profit in it for himself, he'd also agreed to an expected night of degradation and maybe even pain. It had made him very defensive, even to the point of making sure a friend knew what was going on. While Zax had foreseen a possible need for justice that had guarded his actions, nothing had warned him to guard his feelings.

They kissed again, swamped in sensation. It was all very simple; there was no need for elaborations when the feelings were so fresh. Philip touched every inch of the lithe body, tasting each scent and texture with all his senses reeling. Even though he'd come once that night, he was close again.

Zax, the expert, understood. He also understood that Philip would need more than basic simplicity. After all, this was his first time, and Zax had every intention of making it memorable. He let go of warmth long enough to reach for the cream he used to remove the make-up Philip found so entrancing.

Turning back he looked into wide blue eyes and saw the shock of realisation hit. Zax smiled, "It is what you wanted; what you paid for."

"I know."

"Then don't look as if I've just sentenced you to a fate worse than death; what's the problem."

Philip dragged his eyes from the offered cream and found Zax smiling at him. "What if I can't..." he whispered, "I don't know how." His eyes were wide, begging.


Philip started to laugh, but the nervous sound was cut short when Zax kissed him. After a moment, Zax said, "Trust me."

The first touch of Zax-warmed cream made him whimper. When the slender body turned and was splayed for his delight Philip almost came. Gathering control, he remembered everything the videos had ever taught him, and following murmured instructions, he positioned himself between the pale thighs and rested a hand on a generously curved buttock.

"Go on, it'll be fine. Look, I'm as aroused as you." Zax raised his hips and pulled Philip's hand down to grasp his cock. "Ah, yes that's good." He bucked at the light touch. "Now feel where you want to go; put you finger inside me if you want - I won't break."

Philip moved to explore the heavy sac that swung between braced thighs; intent and absorbed he finally touched the tight circle of muscle that would enable their joining. Pushing his middle finger inside, his own flesh swelled at the lush groan of delight that came from Zax's mouth. It made him hungry for all the forbidden things, and moving close he slid his finger out, and took hold of his own cock.

The sensation was unlike anything he'd ever experienced. Pushing deep inside, goaded by a husky voice that demanded so much, he moved and found a rhythm. Searching he found Zax's penis and held it; making a tunnel of his hand that Zax could fuck. They were both talking, moaning, incoherently trying to vocalise need as they sweated into each other. Philip pushed deeper, the pleasure almost pain as his flesh drew tight, and he lost himself in their union until it all became too much, and with a shout he pulsed seed into the heat and constriction, tears spilling from his eyes as he realised that Zax too was coming; heat overflowing his hand as wave after wave of release shook them both to the core.

Unmeasurable time later Philip woke up. Zax was still curled around him, and as if perfectly in tune, his eyes flickered open.

They smiled. The candle had guttered, but grey light filtered through a boarded up window. It was morning. Time to return to the Centre. Philip sighed.

"What's the matter?"

"I've got to go."

"Will you be back?" Zax traced his finger over a smooth arm and tried not to want too much.

"Yes. As soon as I can; though I don't know when that will be."

Zax thought, then said hesitantly, "There won't be a charge, next time, if that helps."

Philip kissed him, then said, "Thank you." The barter was no problem, but Zax's words were a gift; the gift of himself. "Thank you for everything."

"No, don't. I should give you back the food and the rest of it anyway, because..."

"No! Take it all as my gift to you. Besides," he grinned, breaking the tension, "I might get hungry next time."

"Mmm, got to keep your strength up; I might need it."

Philip dragged himself away and stood up. From where he sprawled under the blanket Zax admired the movement of muscle under well-fed skin. He thought about trying to persuade the Number to stay, but caught the words before they left his tongue. Instead he started to smoke the cigarette that appeared in his hand.

"I wish I knew how you did that."

"Ah! It's a mystery." He watched the strong body disappear into the white coveralls that were marked with Philip's number. Though I might tell you one day.

Dressed, there was no excuse to linger, but Philip wanted to stay, to try and explain, but it was all to difficult. "I'll be off then."

Zax stood up and came to stand so they were almost touching. "Something to remember me by," and bringing his hands forward held them out to Philip.

For a moment there was silence, then a whispered, "Thank you, it's beautiful," and M-6251 took the flower from the cupped hands, and kissed it's petals.

"It's a rose. I think it used to mean all sorts of things when given like this."

"I'll find out exactly what, not that it matters; whatever it means, I'll treasure it." Philip tucked it carefully into a pocket and took Zax into his arms. "I don't want to go, but I have to. You do understand?"

"Of course, don't be daft." He kissed the smooth cheek that contrasted with the stubble of his own, and deliberately stepped away. "Go on then, or your minders will start to get worried."

"I'm going. I'll write to let you know when I can come back."

"I'll look forward to it, now off you go."

"I'm going," he was laughing as Zax pushed him towards the door. Forgetting that it was locked he turned the handle, and was surprised when it opened. "Even more magic!" Someone must have opened it in the night, but it amused him to think otherwise.

"Shazam!" Zax gave an ornate bow that was spoiled not one iota by his nudity. "Go on, before I cast a spell to keep you here forever."

"Wishful thinking." Philip hesitated, still loath to leave this warmth and contentment. The Centre would be a very cold place to return to. "Goodbye." Regret laced his voice.

"No, not goodbye, just - see you later."

"See you later."

They smiled, and after a moment, Philip closed the door.

The letter arrived at the theatre the next day. Not even bothering to remove his make-up Zax found a corner and sat down to read, it said;


Can I really love you after so short an acquaintance? Logic tells me I must be mad, but then I don't really care if I am - or even if it makes me any less a Number to admit so.

I'll be able to get away tomorrow, I'll meet you after the evening performance.

The rose is next to my heart,



There was no one to share his happiness with; the rest of the troupe would think him truly crazed if he told them. Falling in live with a Number was a mild eccentricity, but him falling in love with you? Impossible.

So he held the knowledge tightly to himself, and gave no reason for the joy that seemed to illuminate him from within. He worked, played, and behaved almost as normal; even managing to counter the ribald comments about his nocturnal activity.

Happiness though, was short lived. On the fourth occasion they should have met, Philip didn't turn up. There were to be no more letters, no communication at all.

Zax refused to speculate on what had happened; his first and strongest belief was that the Number had grown bored with the game and returned to life amongst his peers. The second possibility that he'd been found out and stopped - or even disciplined - Zax found almost more difficult to conceive; Philip alive was ridiculously better to believe in than Philip dead or worse.

On the occasions he found himself wondering about the prison - and its inmates - he ruthlessly chastised himself.

The goods he had bartered his love with were very useful; he found a small, run-down theatre, chased out the squatters and most of the rats and set about establishing his name.

He had sex only with women, though after a while even that involved too much emotion and he began to experiment with automata.

One night, a long time following the episode with Philip, after two exhausting performances to audiences who understood nothing of what they saw, Zax found he couldn't sleep. Taking out the tools he hadn't been able to bring himself to barter, he began to create another creature that just might fill the empty space where his heart should be. Hours later, eyes closing with fatigue, he eventually fell into bed.

Waking late and still drained, he went to the blanket covered shape with a sense that this was right; that this would be the one - though he could remember almost nothing of his night's work.

The face that stared sightlessly back made him cry out. White, sick to his stomach Zax stared in disbelief at the perfectly remembered features that even now made him weak with longing. It was too much.

He smashed the machine in to a thousand pieces. He was crying, tears soaking into the beard he'd grown so he'd no longer resemble the innocent he had once been. Cursing himself he was almost insane. It took far too long for all vestige of humanity to be struck from the mechanical; Zax was too skilled, too adept for his own good.

Finally he stood back, wild eyed, breathing in great gulps that still didn't seem to fill his lungs, and looked down. The room was a mass of broken, smashed components. He let the stick fall from numbed fingers.

About to turn, ice chilled his skin. The destruction had saved the most detailed part of the model; hopelessly blue eyes stared up at him.

They made a loud cracking noise as he ground them between his heel and the floorboard, though the sound couldn't quite disguise the sob that broke harshly from his lips.

-- THE END --

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