Idiot's Mask is a science-fiction novella told in seven parts, posted serially by me, your rebel host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the second installment.
Connected Stories: Simon of Space, The Christmas Robots
And now, the story continues:
The best part of being a revolutionary was riding on trucks.
There was Ilbisia as the city had always been, a patchwork of stains with flows of ants between islands of junk, and there we were: riding above it, the greasy clouds parting at our prow, the cool wind ruffling our shampooed hair as if we were famous actors or gods. I could look down and see a hundred kids that I had been just like, only months before.
The trucks were not specially marked, but everyone knew they were ours. They knew our fake garbage lorries and cargo haulers, our phony security transports and taxicabs-never-for-hire. We would hang off the sides and wink when we swooped low, letting the common Ilbisoon bask for a moment in being close to the cause. Solemnly, they would wink back.
When trouble came we could rely on the fact that nobody ever seemed quite able to remember our faces, or recall the license strings on our vehicles. Robot details chased us into blind alleys only to find nothing but sad little markets, its patrons swearing up and down it had been quiet all morning -- while we hid beneath their stalls. When we didn't have alibis, alibis sublimated from the thin air and we'd find ourselves supported by a whole residential block of Ilbisoon who turned out to have seen us at key, innocent points throughout the day.
Those folks would get a special little wave of the fingers the next time our trucks went by. One of us would point -- to a recycling hub or a gutter. They'd look where we'd pointed, and find a stash of stolen colonial rations or contraband to share amongst themselves. Loyalty to the Font was always rewarded.
And we were rewarded, too. It wasn't just the walking around money, either, or the allowances for clothing and trinkets. No: it came from the people themselves whose attention and respect were happily offered in exchange for rubbing elbows with someone connected. Girls were giddy in our company, batting their lashes as they hung off enthusiastically embellished tellings of our derring-do against Penardun. Even an idiot like me made friends this way -- I'd just wait until everyone else more desirable had paired themselves up and left the bar, then see which poor darling too fat or too sallow or too scarred or too shy remained. The last girl standing often wasn't a pretty sight, but odds were she was sweeter than her friends.
She might work up the nerve to stammer, "So, um...do you work for Ilbis, too?"
I'd nod and wave her over with an easy smile. "What're you drinking there, lips?"
And what did I have to do to earn this king's treatment of pocket money and willing castoffs? The truth is: not much. That was our big secret. Sometimes I'd be asked to loiter in idiot-mode near someplace where I could eavesdrop on a couple of colonials; sometimes I carried messages from one drop point to another, or ferried a basket of reward to some particular apartment. Simple stuff. But it was explained to me and my peers that our principal duty was to remind the common Ilbisoon of our presence, and thereby inspire in them hope that a solution was in the works. Our job was to make it look like being a member of the army was as glamorous as it was noble.
"You must be very brave," the last girl in the bar would probably observe.
"I just do my part. It's a motherfornicating ugly job, but somebody's gotta step up. Somebody's gotta have the testicles to say, 'No more, Penardun. No more.'"
"Do you ever worry about losing your life?"
"I don't think about what they might take away from me. Taking is all they do. No, sunshine, I just try to think about what I'm taking away from them. That's the kind of giving I can do until it hurts. And then some."
She would sigh and look away. "I wish I had something to contribute."
I'd put my arm around her, steer her chin back toward me. Tenderly: "We've each got a part to play. We each give what we have to give. For some it's more, for some it's less." A pause, a slight smile. "Your hair sure smells nice."
"Oh yes. It does. It really, really does."
My contact was a freckled twenty-year-old from down south who called himself The Glorious Fist. All of our contacts in the army had names like that -- The Fateful Equalizer, The Blade of Justice, The Storm of Recompense. Anyway, The Glorious Fist would meet me or me and another guy or two in one of our pre-arranged spots, and he'd pass us a package or whisper a code word to be transmitted or just load our pockets with wage. One day he did none of those things. Instead, he said, "You've proven your craft and wile. You've earned my trust. I respect you, Idiot."
Praise was rare. I was taken aback. "Thanks, esteemed."
"That is why I've recommended you. I've been told to choose only the best of the cell." He raised a brow significantly. "We're being called in on a major operation."
I swallowed, then strove to stand straighter. "Esteemed!"
He paced the abandoned warehouse floor, leather gloved hands clasped behind his back. "This is our big chance, Idiot. For you and me both. We're going to be mixing wile with the big boys. This is our opportunity to show them our craft. To make an impression. And when I move up I'll be taking you along." He paused, casting his gaze aimlessly over the pigeon excrement streaks running from the broken windows. "This is our chance to get out of this faecal place once and for all."
I blinked. "Esteemed, where would we go?"
He turned back to face me, his mouth tight and serious but his eyes betraying a twinkle. "Offworld," he pronounced carefully. "To Penardun itself."
"You're fornicating with me."
He shook his head, holding my eye. "I would never lie to one of my men, boy."
I won't go into the details of interplanetary travel. It may seem like a thrilling sort of thing at first blush, but the reality utterly fellates. Especially if you happen to be travelling illegally. Suffice it to say that getting to that little blue twinkle in the night sky -- so bright and close, chasing the sun down each night -- was tedious and uncomfortable beyond description. Three hundred hours in a cargo capsule smaller than a coffin was just one leg of the journey.
Along the way our unit lost a couple of guys to hypothermia, and one to hyperthermia; one to asphyxia, one to dehydration. One was simply never found. I forgot her face pretty quickly.
I recall desperately eating my own frozen bile. That was a highlight.
But it all seemed worth it on that first amazing morning as my comrades and I rode together in a big red truck, skimming the rooftops and skirting the belfries as we soared over the outskirts of Fingal itself, Penardun's proud capital. Like seemingly every mechanical thing on the planet, our truck's front was emblazoned with a garish, stylized face -- gritted teeth and giant eyes framed by whirls of colour. We sailed over cars, trolleys and even buildings with faces on them, unseeing eyes inset with cold, sparkling stones...
The sky was a bold dome of winning ribbon blue, broken up only here and there by archipelagos of cloud shining clean and brazen white. Higher up, contrails crisscrossed in fading, smeared out lines.
It was so warm -- even the wind was warm! From Penardun, Dzigai seemed like a whole different star. A star of summers.
I hung my long face out into the breeze, watching the suburbs scroll beneath us with my eyes wide. Scores of Penardu sallied to and fro, masks glinting in the sun, their long robes flapping at their heels as they bought bread or hurried to work, cleaned up after their pets or bumped into old friends. It was just a normal morning. They had no idea.
I heard the guys laughing behind me. "Check out Idiot with his head out the window -- he looks like a dog!"
"Come on, you mungful anuses," I shot back. "This is awesome! We're riding a motherfornicating fire truck!"
They guffawed. The Glorious Fist shook his head, then watched for my reaction as he clanged the bell. I whooped for joy and grinned. Everybody always loved to make me laugh.
The spires of the city core were blue and hazy in the distance. A white fog seemed to bloom out of one of the tallest, and then it started to lean. A few seconds later a sound like thunder cracked, but there was no weather to speak of. More clouds of dust were rising from other quarters of the city. After a heartbeat the wind carried their reports, too. I swung my head back inside the cab wildly, shouting, "Buildings are falling down!"
The Glorious Fist glanced up from his watch, then nodded. "You bet your ass they are."
It was time for our part. We pulled on firefighter coats that had a fluorescent yellow stripe across the back, and each took a helmet from a locker half-obscured by swaying coils of heavy hose. We lowered our visors and strapped into our harnesses. The truck dove, the pilot making every move according to his clock. The Glorious Fist hovered over him, swaying from a grab bar. We careened down over the high streets where people were running to and fro, shouting into their watches or pointing at the columns of smoke now rising above the skyline. A squadron of police cruisers sped by, the last cars sweeping aside to allow our truck a clear way through. The Glorious Fist grinned.
"Twelve seconds, esteemed."
We swooped into a narrow corridor between two towers, our sirens echoing off the glass and steel faces. We were jerked violently against our harnesses as the pilot brought the truck to a roaring stop beside a garden terrace high above the grassy streets. A platoon of hose-horned colonials moved quickly to meet us, efficiently carrying two long bags between them. The bags were squirming.
The side hatch of the fire truck rumbled aside and the gangway hit the terrace with a bang. One of the apparent colonials ran up and inside, addressing The Glorious Fist with a thick Ilbisoon accent: "All checks, no marks. Smooth as grease."
"And the locking helmets?"
"In place and secure."
"Go now, brother. Power to Ilbis!"
"Power to Ilbis!"
The phony colonials disappeared back inside the tower. The two long, writhing bags were dumped at my feet and then my mates jumped over to button up the hatch even as the pilot peeled us away and into the air with a stomach-swinging lurch. Splashes of sunlight clocked around the cabin. I clutched to my harnesses, mouth pinched shut.
The bags rolled, bumping heavily against the bulkhead. One of them moaned.
"Secure that faeces!" barked The Glorious Fist.
The fire truck climbed, engines keening. Towers flashed past outside, then a wall of rolling black smoke. We passed through it and found ourselves in a swarm of other emergency vehicles settling next to one of the blast sites, the monstrous faces painted on their prows looming toward our windscreen, unblinking through the fumes and ash. The navigation display before the pilot turned red and began to flash. "Faeces!" he cried. "We're on coordinated control!"
"Fly us out!" bellowed The Glorious Fist as the truck pitched, swooping lower in queue between a brace of ambulances. Down below people were stumbling over a field of broken glass, carrying or dragging those injured worse than themselves. Some of them left crimson trails.
The pilot smacked the controls in frustration. "I can't!"
The Glorious Fist spun on us. "Prepare to fend off!"
The truck bobbed to a stop. The pilot tore open the access panel beneath the controls and started jimmying with the connections, his hands slick with sweat. The side door rumbled open admitting smoke and a smell like a barbecue gone wrong. People were screaming. I found myself face to face with a real firefighter, his mask blistered and blackened. "My leg," he wheezed through the grille, "I need a medkit --"
I stumbled backward. "What do I do?"
"Hit him, Idiot!"
The pilot jumped up as the navigation controls turned green. The injured firefighter had grabbed my shoulder and was leaning into me, smoke still rising from his wounded leg. We both fell into the bulkhead as the pilot yanked back on the stick.
"Idiot!" thundered The Glorious Fist.
I threw the firefighter off of me. He hit the threshold but caught a grab bar, his legs dangling out of the truck's open side as we rapidly rose. I picked up a toolbox and bashed at his hands until he had to let go. I looked away when he fell.
The Glorious Fist dogged the hatch, breathing hard. He looked over at me. "Good man."
I nodded, pressing my hands together so they wouldn't shake.
The truck flew on. The pilot killed the sirens after a while, taking us in low over tree-studded exurban manor houses and gleaming pleasure domes as we put more and more distance between ourselves and the mayhem in Fingal's core. It had all happened so fast, and was now so far away. Was it even real? It seemed less so as the pilot piped in some pop music over the speakers -- a catchy tune about forbidden love at a masquerade. The drumming was really impressive.
The Glorious Fist withdrew a fancy-looking box from his inside pocket, then popped it open and offered it to each of us. "You want a cigar, Idiot? You deserve it."
I hesitated, frowning. "What do I do with it?"
"You smoke it, boy."
"It kind of looks like a long, skinny turd."
"Tastes better, though."
I shrugged. "Okay."
And then it wasn't too hard to put all the screaming and fire behind me. I puffed experimentally on my cigar and bopped to the tunes. Once again the day was nothing but sunshine and a gleaming red fire truck, mussing the treetops as we soared, smoking and laughing and telling each other dirty jokes. The long bags had stopped moving, so they became just like another piece of furniture.
The afternoon aged. Mountains rose up before us, their summits snowy but the lower altitudes lush with mossy tracts of wild trees and bush. We listened to the music very loud. For a while a flock of birds rode along behind us in our wake, honking and flapping. I really got a kick out of that, and honked right back at them. Everybody roared.
The Glorious Fist checked his watch often. "We should be touching down in fifteen."
The pilot nodded, fidgeting with the navigation arc. "Fifteen," he confirmed.
He deftly landed us in a small field of long grass beside a cluster of ramshackle wooden cottages. The sun was starting to sink behind the treeline, casting long, purple shadows. The peaks around us glowed gold. The engine spun down, leaving a great, heavy silence. Crickets chirped. My buddies Rex and Weeds grunted as they hefted the two long bags out of the hold.
I hopped off the truck beside them, the grass stalks tickling my hands. "It's really pretty here."
Suddenly there was a commotion. One of the bags was on the ground and then a figure was rising from it, battering desperately at whatever hands touched him. He wore a private security uniform and his head was encased in a metal helmet, an opaque visor before his face. He struck out blindly, falling over himself. His flailing arm caught me in the face and I staggered over sideways into the grass. Five guys jumped on his back a second later.
The Glorious Fist shook his head. "I told you," he called in a crisp, cold voice, "that any trouble you give me would come back to you. You should've listened."
A muffled grunt from within the helmet: "You have no idea what you've done, you Ilbisoon bastards."
"Oh, I think you'll find we know precisely what we're doing."
Surprisingly, the man laughed. "You're fornicated! Every one of you! You're already fornicated and you don't even know it!"
"No," replied The Glorious Fist with a careless lilt. "Not so long as we have her, we're not. And we got her. We took her from right under your nose."
"You took nothing!"
The Glorious Fist rolled his eyes and looked up to the men restraining the security agent, then down again. "Esteemed, I don't like your attitude. It's bad for morale. I run a tight ship. Can't make exceptions. So let me explain this to you just one more time: the crucible in which your head is contained has not one, but two, functions." He paced through the tall grass, idling picking the heads off some blades. He turned to face his prisoner again. "Yes, of course, it's a feed-block. Naturally, you had to be isolated from the grid." The Glorious Fist knelt down in the grass, squatting between the held man and the second long bag. "It is also an instrument of persuasion." He blew the bits of grass clear from his palms, then straightened. "There are nine different nozzles within your helmet, designed for the strategic release of concentrated acid focused on particular parts of your face and head."
"You've already failed. Nothing you can do changes that."
"You may be missing the point, esteemed. She is necessary to our plans; you are not. Thus, in order to impress her with the seriousness of this situation, I think I want to open all your nozzles at once. Because I think the noise you'll make will be...educational for her."
The second long bag was breathing, its sides moving slightly as it lay in the grass. The pace of that breathing accelerated after a sharp intake of breath.
"Yes," said the Glorious Fist, turning in that direction. "I know you're listening, Esteemed Constant. I know you'll be able to hear everything. I hope for your sake that you take it to heart."
The security agent bucked briefly, then sagged. "Fornicate yourself," he hissed.
The Glorious Fist snorted. "Why fornicate myself when we can all take turns fornicating her?"
Instead of making him furious this comment only made the bound agent chuckle mirthlessly again. "You, Ilbisoon scab, are going to feel like an idiot when you finally recognize the truth."
The Glorious Fist beetled his brow, eyes narrowed. "Enough," he snapped. "Open the spigots. Melt his motherfornicating face off."
And that's what happened. I looked away when yellow smoke started curling out of the helmet's seams. I had already jammed my fingers into my ears because the sounds the man made were definitely the worst part. He flopped around on the ground until all sorts of weird liquid started spilling out near the chin, and then he just lay still and kind of twitched a bit. The smell made me throw up. A couple of other guys threw up, too.
The second long bag was quietly sobbing.
"Get a hold of yourselves, you fops!" growled The Glorious Fist. He pointed at a bunch of us with a quivering finger. "Burial detail!" Then he turned to the rest. "Get her into the pen." Then he turned to me. "Clean up that locking helmet. We might need it for somebody else. Get every last bit of crud out, got that, Idiot?"
I nodded, feeling my stomach roll over queasily. "Yes, esteemed."
The sun set. The air turned cold. We each hopped to our jobs.