Idiot's Mask is a science-fiction novella told in seven parts, posted serially by me, your ragamuffin host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the first installment.
Connected Stories: Simon of Space, The Christmas Robots
And now, the telling begins:
If anyone has the right to tell this story, it's me. It concerns, after all, things that happened to me -- or a thing very much like me -- and so I argue that no one is in a better position to explain it all from my point of view. Or, at least, from a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Parts of the story I don't know at all, but in this respect my diaries have been very helpful. Further gaps I've filled in with assistance from media reports and police files. And where such research has left me wanting, I've gone out on a limb and extrapolated actions and dialogues which I believe to be largely consistent with what I've come to understand about myself.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And to protect me, too. When all is said and done, you might agree that I deserve that much.
Or you might not.
If you're Penardu, you're already three quarters convinced that I'm reprehensible. And why shouldn't you? You've grown up seeing our dirty mugs on the news, rotating sedately in the corner while images of our victims or their ruined possessions flash by: police are on the lookout for an Ilbisoon male, fair complexion, average height, scars and tattoos, gutter accent, the lack of hope poignant in his dull, vacant eyes...
That was me. I don't deny it. I grew up on the low streets of Ilbis, spat into this world by a mother I never knew. I ran with a bunch of kids who'd been abandoned around the same time as I had -- sleeping in pipes, picking pockets, begging for scraps. We each had a specialty. Mine was playing idiot for the tourists.
"This boy can figure any sum in the blink of an eye! Even the thinnest slice of wage will buy you a personal show of his unique talent! Step right up, step right up!"
I can almost smell Ilbis as I recollect it: the fume-orange sky, the stacked decks of sepia cloud, flies buzzing around livestock standing in the shade of an atmospheric processing tower looming over the low, ramshackle horizon of stove pipes and satellite dishes jutting up from a sea of makeshift roofs. Goats snuffed and bleated as rusted-out cars droned overhead.
"Behold the hidden powers of this idiot's rare brain!"
Someone would spill coloured rice on a blanket. I'd roll my eyes and gibber and drool. "Two thousand one hundred and nine blue, one thousand eight hundred twenty-seven red."
Folks would applaud and throw tips in the proffered hat. Few Penardu ever questioned my count, and none would deign ask a robot for verification. If someone seemed too suspicious, we'd just grab our blanket and our rice jar and run away. We laughed as we ran. Stupid marks.
They wore their masks, even on Ilbis. You could never see their faces, but what corners of their skin you might glimpse were untouched by the sun; there was no mistaking the signs of leisure, no confusing them for one of our own. No: the Penardu were as alien to us as giraffes. Another kingdom of creature. A thing very like a man but devoid of suffering. Or so it seemed.
We emptied their purses on the sly. And when there wasn't enough sly to go around we emptied their purses while they bowed before our muzzles or blades or hard, horny fists. Sometimes they would fall completely apart at such treatment, the chins of adult men quivering while they retched and cried and begged for better. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"What's life without fear?"
"I'll give you whatever you want!"
"There's no use in offering what we take freely."
"I'll sabotage my feeds! I'll report nothing! I swear!"
"Your feeds are already blocked. There's nobody in this tiny world but you and us. Help will never come. This ends when we choose, if at all."
Sometimes we worked out some of our personal issues on people like that. Generally, talking to us only made things worse. There's not a syllable a Penardu could utter that would soften the heart of an Ilbisoon -- maybe a long time ago, but not now. It's too late to be sorry. It's been too late for ages.
We'd go home with bloody knuckles and a skip in our steps.
So why did they keep coming back? In a word: business. For a Penardu life is business -- not the doing of actual things, no: for a Penardu business means the lazy and incessant jockeying of nonsensical affairs that results in the perpetual swelling of their lawless accounts and imaginary holdings. Ever since those faecal worms seized control of our Hojan moons and factories we had to split our pennies with them, and every year our slice got slimmer and slimmer. The whole star system had gone all rosy and crotch-itchy with money, but none of it ever seemed to drip down all the way back to Ilbis.
It was called an economic boom. And we were supposed to feel lucky. We were told we'd have a hope of understanding it all if we just had enough brains to stick it out through school.
But only charity schools would let me and my kind over the threshold, and charity schools serve only to prepare you for one of two fates: shipping off to Hoj for a life of labour, or running the low streets for grift and gain. So we did sign up for the charity schools -- again and again -- and then stole away in the night after we'd cleaned out the cupboards. Pretending to be turning over a new leaf was the only way to get close to the nuns' stash, and we were experts at it. Every one of us.
When I was six years old, I could have any mark crying within five minutes. Any mark, no matter how he pegged his savvy. Just a third of the way through my story and I'd hear them sniff, or slip a finger up inside their mask to wipe at a running eye. "And you've no parents at all?"
"What about school?"
"A man at the school put his thing in my bum, so I ran away."
I would end up sitting in their hotel suites, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and sipping lemonade. It tickled them pink if I dropped off for a spontaneous nap after that -- they would tuck a blanket over me and sometimes capture my holograph. Look at me: I'm so peaceful!
All I needed were five seconds.
A briefly turned back, a bathroom break, a head bowed over a dataplate: their attention would snap back at the sound of the closing door, my little footfalls a light tattoo down the corridor and away, arms loaded with whatever I could grab.
Sometimes they would alert hotel security. Their descriptions of me would make the dour agents chortle. "You want us to find a skinny pink boy in rags with matted hair?" They would gesture out into the streets below the lobby's panoramic windows, every corner and stoop jammed with unanchored Ilbisoon ragamuffins just like me. "...Which one?"
When I was older and uglier this kind of trick lost its luck. That's when I graduated to idiot. In time, I really grew into the role. I discovered the careless comfort people felt in the presence of a fool -- the confessions they'd make, the idling ideas they'd let show. It wasn't just marks this worked on, but anyone. To be affable and unthinking made me an easy companion for those who felt easily threatened; they'd work hard to defend their place in my daily idiot's pantomime, to protect me from being stolen away. Their viciousness could always be turned outward, and I could crouch in its shadow.
For a long while I ran with Jick, a girl with burnt ears who taught me how to rotisserie sewer rats with common street side spices. One day she didn't come back to the old warehouse where we squatted, so I started hanging around with Baffa. Baffa was an ace at medical scams, so when we were together I did a lot of seizure work. We preyed on religious ambulances, mainly. The greenest volunteers were always so full of trust. Made it easy.
Then one spring Baffa was clubbed to death by a monk with a wheelchair handle. I got away by the skin of my teeth.
"That was some escape, kid."
"You've got the craft and wile."
"What's it to you, tit?"
"I work for Ilbis."
"Motherfornicator. Take your faecal social work someplace else."
"I'm not a social worker. I'm a member of the army."
"Faeces. We don't have no army."
"Yes, we do. You've heard of us. We are the Font of Righteous Fury."
My head snapped around to face the stranger as he crouched beside me, watching me eat my dumpster treasures in a shaft of dusty light from a hole between corroded rafters. I narrowed my eyes at him, then turned back to my scraps. "Faeces."
He straightened and brushed the pebbles from his slacks. "Craft and wile," he said wistfully, gaze cast out over the squat. Little fires burned in places. Conversations murmured. "That's what Ilbis needs now. The fight for our people's proper place is not a fair one. Penardun has seen to that. But hardship has taught some of us real craft and wile." He looked back at me. "If you ever want to serve a greater purpose, we have a place for you. That means two meals a day and a solid roof over your head -- and a chance to put an end to good Ilbisoon men and women living...like this."
He gestured at the squat but my eyes didn't follow. "Sell it to someone sappier, sphincter sucker. I don't do causes."
"Then you really are an idiot. This is the only cause for an Ilbisoon. Otherwise you consent to it all: the wretchedness, the reputation, the desperation. You legitimize it, and damn the next generation to the same dark."
"Fellate my pony, anus."
"Yes, you're tough. Sure. You have to be. Because you live like an animal." He turned away and began picking his way down through the rubble pile toward the exit. At the ragged gap in the bricks he paused and looked back at me. "But you do have a choice."
Self-satisfied sanctimonious motherfornicating rectal slurry muckwad.
One winter evening me, Belly and Ert were working the tourist bridge by the harbour. Like all of Ilbis, the bridge was once decorated with beautiful stone statues; like all of Ilbis, the statues had been razed by Penardu iconoclasts during the Reform. Now the bridge was edged with only splintered stone shins and cracked feet marking where the proud figures once stood, and inspired.
I was counting rice. "Six thousand nine hundred and two!" Belly was my caregiver, and Ert was nearby acting as our sympathy catalyst by mocking me to the passersby. "Ha, check out the retard!" We seemed in a way to be the only human beings on the bridge because the stream of figures around us were all masked. If you wanted to read their feelings you had to look at how they were standing or how they moved their hands. The only eyes and lips and cheeks belonged to beggars like us.
A cheap security robot stood by a tall lamp at mid-bridge. The Penardu gave it wide berth. People-shaped robots aren't allowed on Penardun. The illusion of life gives their god the willies.
The security robots usually ignored us, so we were used to ignoring them. But I noticed when its head swivelled. A second later a kid, maybe seven, came racing through the crowd with a purse clutched to his chest, knocking people aside, his little face pinched in determination. Penardu yelped as they toppled, feet tangling in their long, stupid dresses. The robot started to move in but before it could a wide-shouldered Penardu grabbed the kid by the arm, causing him to stumble across the stones and then cry out as he was snapped back.
In a flash kid sliced his captor's glove with a blade.
The Penardu reeled back and gasped at the sight of his own blood wetting the fabric around the slice. He clutched at his wrist, looking up as the security robot arrived at his side. "Do you require medical --"
The Penardu shoved the robot back wildly. "Don't let that thing touch me!" he bellowed, then turned back to see the kid struggling in the arms of other Penardu, his blade lost under shuffling feet. "Hold it! I'm messaging the real police."
He meant the Penardun Colonial Guard. The kid knew exactly what that meant, for he immediately redoubled his frenetic attempts to wring free from restraining gloves. Though they were adult men and women and he was a child, they stood no chance; they were fighting for mere justice while he was fighting for his life. He was lithe and experienced, and in a blink he had disappeared between their swirling robes. A cry went up through the crowd as it surged away from the disturbance. "It's loose!"
"Please exit the bridge in an orderly --" began the security robot, cut off to a sputtering buzz as it was knocked aside by a wave of panicked Penardu. Its plastic limbs crunched beneath their boots as they fled the bridge en masse.
"We gotta bail," Belly shouted, pulling on my arm. "We're all gonna get fornicated when the guards get here. Come on, Idiot!"
Suddenly the kid, kicking and thrashing, was hauled into sight again. He was picked up off his feet by multiple hands, the crowd hollering in a blended, inhuman voice. The kid reached out blindly and pulled the mask off one of the nearest Penardu. The man shrieked like a girl, stumbling backward, hands clutched over his features as if the twilight air burned him. The crowd howled in shock and rage.
And then they pitched the kid over the side of the bridge.
A sick cheer rose. Belly's mouth was hanging open, eyes wide. We both gasped as we saw Ert charging into the fray, crying, "You motherless dogs! He was just a kid!" And then, impossibly quickly, Ert was simply swept up into their arms and dumped over the side of the bridge, too.
Before I knew it the beggars all around me where being yanked from their blankets and hefted up over the crowd's shoulders, cast over the side, their screeches drawn out pitiably as they plummeted to the frigid bay below. Even the Penardu ladies who a moment before had been crying and cowering had turned to the task, mechanically selecting their victims and manhandling them to the edge in cooperative clusters. They stomped on fingers that tried to hold dear to the stone.
The Penardu acted as one -- like two dozen appendages swung by a single, invisible puppeteer. In perfect unison they looked to the south.
The bridge shook with marching boots. A wall of colonials forced the mad crowd to flee ahead of their advance, and I could catch glimpses of their terrifying gargoyle masks with hoses for horns and glowing red eyes as I was kicked aside, mashed into the gutter, my jar broken and coloured rice spilling out across the stones.
I knew my arrest was inevitable. I didn't wait to lace my hands behind my head, protecting my face behind converged elbows. I knew those cruel batons all too well, and prepared for my thrashing.
But the colonials seemed to have no interest in restoring order: instead, inexplicably, horribly, illegally -- they picked up where the panicked crowd had left off, grabbing the Ilbisoon beggar children and launching them off the bridge ruthlessly, mechanically, unrepentantly. The screams of the smaller children, in particular, made my heart burn coldly as it hammered in my chest. How could these monsters be called police?
Belly left deep scratches in my arm when she was pulled away. And then three colonials were looming over me, their riot shields speckled red, their eyes aflame. My arms were yanked away from my head and forced down. I stared back at the trio in idiotic horror, crooning and rocking desperately as they leaned in toward me.
I blinked. Why stop now? Why stop at the idiot? How could three colonials have an attack of conscience at exactly the same moment?
One of them growled: "Go."
I don't know how long I ran, but I only stopped when I could do nothing more than stumble and heave. I wandered on without purpose, numb to the low streets around me. Squadrons of security robots marched past me, their metal footfalls echoing off the building fronts. Sirens wailed in the distance. Groups of Ilbisoon toughs armed with whatever they could grab were slinking in the shadows, converging at the bridge. Soon, clouds of black smoke were rising from that quarter of the city.
"They killed children!"
"They will answer for this with blood!"
The low streets raged. Overturned cars burned at many intersections. There was no doubt that every way to the high streets had been cordoned off and so my Ilbisoon brethren were left to vent fury only upon each other, the Penardu oppressors, as always, beyond our feeble reach. Anger overflowed. Gangs of men cornered whimpering women in alleys. Shops were looted, the owners assaulted. Ashes floated from the sky, carried from any of many fires. The curfew lamps were flashing, but nobody paid them any mind.
We were hurting only ourselves. We didn't care. We were responding like a pack of starved dogs.
No wonder they hated us.
I walked all night, and when Dzigai rose and light came again I found myself in the old market plaza, facing the last stall in the fishmonger's row. The smell churned my stomach. The offerings were far from fresh -- some even seemed to writhe with parasitic life beneath their discoloured scales. These fish were not for sale. No: everyone knew that the last stall had a special business. The monger raised his brow at me. "Can I help you, esteemed?"
I swallowed, then nodded. "I want to work for Ilbis."
He unhitched the curtain behind him, revealing a child-sized hole in the plaza's stone wall. He gestured at the hole with his stubbled chin. After giving him a long, appraising look I shouldered past him and got on my hands and knees to shuffle inside.
"Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, kid," he whispered.
I didn't respond. I just crawled through the gap in the wall, darkness engulfing me, leaving behind the reek of spoiled fish -- and my world as I knew it.