Idiot's Mask is a science-fiction novella told in seven parts, posted serially by me, your dutiful sentry, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the third installment.
Connected Stories: Simon of Space, The Christmas Robots
At last, the story continues:
The main cottage was quaint. Hand-made furniture, oars mounted over the doors, embroidered scenes from nature yellowing on the walls. There were moth-eaten clothes in the drawers -- gay summer dresses -- some sized for children and some for adults. Outside the front window teetered a bird-feeder on a decaying, leaning pole.
Birds hopped around the feeder, chittering, splashing in rainwater collected around its rim. They didn't look any different from the ones we had on Ilbis -- brown, nervous, faintly mechanical in their staccato motions. The Creator's wind-up toys.
The door of the cottage was a giant yawning mouth. The teeth were lanterns.
Inside, The Glorious Fist manned the breakfast nook. He was surrounded by encrypted squawk boxes, turning the knob slowly from one channel to the next while pressing a small speaker into his ear. He frowned, eyes closed, overlooked by a hanging set of mouldering oven mitts with zany, crooked grins.
Chia tapped me on the shoulder. "You're up, Idiot."
I blinked. "Up for what?"
She handed me a cattle-prod. "Guard duty."
I crossed the dew-damp field. Dzigai was just cresting the mountains, shafts of gold light spilling between the peaks and illuminating the slowly churning banks of fog as they burned off. The air smelled like cold salad.
When I got to the entrance Rex and Weeds pulled the camouflaged outer flap up for me, then stood aside as the inner aperture ground open. I fretted at the edge, wondering why people were always expecting me to crawl into dark holes. "Get moving, Idiot," grunted Rex. I sighed and dropped inside, feeling my way along the antetunnel and then bumping into the guy I was supposed to be relieving, Tober.
He was sitting on a cloth-draped bench in the near end of a small cave. The ceiling was low and damp, every small sound seeming amplified and intimate against it, the rock hugged by a nearly invisible mesh of metallic threads comprising the wireless feed barrier. I squirmed in beside Tober, eyes blinking in the gloom. "Where is she?" I whispered.
He gestured vaguely as he gathered his things. "Behind the screen."
"What's she doing back there?"
"Don't know. Wiping her hole, maybe." He grimaced once as he straightened and then again as he bumped his head on the ceiling. "Faeces."
I leaned aside so Tober could crawl out. He farted in the tunnel, then laughed. I swore after him, chuckling, too. He was always such a card.
When I turned back to the cave I was startled. Like a fop, I gasped.
A girl was squatting there with her back toward me. At my noise she spun on heel, hands flying to cover her face with a neat, symmetrical mask of laced fingers. She glared at me through the gaps, then narrowed her eyes and turned away again, hands returning to the metal washing bucket.
She dried her hands and then proceeded to lay down on a simple cot, all the while keeping her face oriented away from me or expertly shielding it with her interwoven fingers. Her hands moved gracefully from one masking configuration to another as perspective warranted, practised and purposeful.
After a while I couldn't help but ask. "What's with all the fornicated finger tricks?" I didn't want to come on too strong, but I was curious. I tried the sympathetic approach. "I mean, are you ugly or something?"
She was lying on the cot, back toward me. She wore some kind of jogging suit, like maybe they'd grabbed her while she was doing her exercises or something. She was pretty young. Older than me, though. Older than The Glorious Fist. After a moment she sniffed and said, speaking into the cave wall, "Whatever should that have to do with anything?"
I frowned. "...Wherever is what?"
"I really can't understand a word you're saying."
"Same here. Where'd you learn to talk so retarded?"
She didn't reply. Typical Penardu snobbery. Like my words weren't even worthy of her ears or something. I shifted on the bench, then crossed my legs. I checked my watch, but it had lost its charge. "Mung."
"Profanity detracts from your authority."
I was startled again. "Huh?"
"It may seem counter-intuitive to you," she continued, speaking blandly into the wall, "but it's true. You undermine yourself when you swear every other word. You don't sound tough."
I sneered. "Rape yourself, dog. You don't want to know how tough I am."
"Why don't you beat your chest and roar, to see whether I become impressed?"
"Penardu are all the same. Fornicated racists. I'm no animal."
Neither of us said anything for a long while. I was just thinking how blisteringly standoffish she was, when really she ought to be grateful because I was being nice to her and everything. Then I realized that she was sleeping. I looked around a bit, shifting slightly closer. Beside her cot was the washing bucket, and then a few steps away a folding screen set up in front of a second bucket. A few flies were buzzing around the rim of that one. It didn't smell good. But she did.
I shifted again, moving closer to the cot, pebbles skipping from under my haunches. She smelled like flowers and desert mixed together somehow, mellowing over a base of newly dried fear. Her ink black hair was pulled up in a now ragged bun. Around the base of her neck I could see marks left by the locking helmet's clamps. There was an emblem of two pink rabbits on the leg of her pants.
She was just some girl.
It may sound stupid, but it made me feel weird to realize that.
My second shift wasn't so confrontational. I'd remembered to charge up my watch, so I pretty much just sat there reading comic books on it. The girl lay on her cot facing the cave wall, shifting once in a while or getting up to slip behind the screen to pee into the bucket. At noon a couple of ration packets were tossed in, and I crawled around in the antetunnel on my hands and knees to retrieve them. I squinted at the packets as I worked my way back. "Chicken-kelp or probiotic algae mousse?"
When she didn't respond I asked again. Slowly, she rolled over on the cot, her hands coming together to cover her face. "Pardon?"
"Do you want the chicken and kelp or the other one? I don't give a lump because they're both pretty damn tasty."
She hesitated, then turned her face away to free up one hand to stretch out toward me. "Chicken," she said quietly.
When I put it in her hand she flinched as if I were going to hit her or play a trick or something. "I'm not going to hit you," I assured her, shuffling backward to resume my bench. "I'm not allowed."
She sat cross-legged on the cot, facing the wall. I heard her pull the tab, and a few seconds later I could smell the meat and seaweed heating up. I pulled my own tab and sniffed with relish at my steaming algae. I watched her shadow scoop the first morsels into her mouth, then dug into my own. Truthfully, I would've preferred chicken but I wasn't fussy when it came to food. It was sort of nice to eat together, anyway. Like we were on a kind of picnic.
After only a few minutes she put her largely uneaten packet aside. "Are you full?" I asked through my own food.
I repeated myself after I swallowed.
"You can finish it, if you'd like."
"No. I'm good. Are you feeling sick or something?"
"I'm not feeling anything."
"Do you want a nurse?"
"I think there's one in the smaller cottage we can boot up if we have to. It looks kind of fornicated, but Fingers says it works okay."
I shrugged and turned back to my comics. She didn't speak again.
My third shift was weird. When I came down into the pen she was lying on the cot, as usual, but her knees were pulled up to her chest and she was hugging her own shoulders. I think she may have been crying a bit. I didn't know what else to do, so I kept occupied with little games on my watch.
When I looked up again she was sitting on the bed. I was startled because her hands were at her sides, slowly, mechanically clutching and unclutching the blankets. Her dark hair had come loose, hanging from her drooping head and obscuring her face against the light. Something glinted in the dark. I thought it might have been her eye.
I ventured, "Are you looking at me?"
"It just kind of looks like you are."
Silence. I shifted on the bench, then blew my nose.
"How come you're not doing all that covering your face faeces anymore?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Oh," I said, fidgeting a bit. And then, "How come?"
"It's pointless for me to cling to dignity now."
"Because the dead have no reputation to guard."
I furrowed my brow. "You're dying?"
She nodded, her curtain of hair swaying. "Yes."
"You have some kind of fornicated disease or something? Brain virus? Cancer cooties, broken tits, belly worms?"
Her expression twitched in the shadows, then she sniffed. "Are you an idiot?"
I considered this. "Sort of."
She looked up sharply, revealing a swath of her smooth skin and the lashes of one eye. "I'm dying because you're killing me."
"No, no, no," I said quickly, shaking my head. "Nobody's going to kill you. They just say that so that whoever cares about you will do what we want."
"And if they won't?"
I blinked. "But they will. That's why you were chosen. Maybe your family is important or something. I don't know. Is your family important?"
"My father is Supreme Vizier of Colonial Affairs."
"See? There you go. I bet that's a guy who can get faeces done."
She took a long, slow breath. "He won't, though."
"Doesn't he love you?"
"Yes, he does."
"Isn't he going to want you back, all safe and everything?"
"Yes, he would."
"So what are you worried about? He'll meet our demands. He'll do what he's gotta do. You're his kid, right?"
She shrugged strangely. "Well, I was." She shifted on the cot, allowing me to see even more of her face. "I'm left wondering whether death is even something I ought to fear. It's just another feeling, isn't it -- fear? It's just a rush of hormone and a set of reflexes. Mechanical. Stupid. Pointless. A show. But nobody's watching anymore."
"I don't think we're going to kill you. Seriously. That's fornicated. You'd be worth nothing, that way."
"You don't know," she said sadly. "You don't even know who I am. If it comes to killing me, it may be that you would be the one charged to do it."
Before I knew it I'd quickly said, "I wouldn't."
She looked as surprised by this as I felt. "That's kind of you to say," she offered after a pause. "Or cruel. I'm sure I can't decide."
I blinked at her stupidly. She rose from the cot and took a few steps forward, pushing the hair out of her face in order to better scrutinize me. "What're you staring at?" I snapped, feeling awkward.
"You have a kind face," she decided.
"That's just how I look," I argued. "It doesn't have nothing to do with nothing."
She offered me a very brief, wry smile. "You wear a mask then, do you?"
I pressed my lips together grimly. Mumbled: "Fornicate yourself."
She sniffed, held my eye for a moment longer, then retired to the cot and turned away from me once more. I couldn't make heads or tails of anything she was on about. What can I say? Girls are weird. I pretty much never knew what to say to them unless they came to me already impressed -- but this girl didn't even blink twice at how fancy my watch was. Where do you go from there?
She changed after that. Hardened. I never caught her weepy again. She became very, very busy. On my next shift she was using a rag to polish her buckets and sweep the cave floor. On the shift after that she finnagled a kind of cheap comb out of chopstick slivers and a thread from the hem of her sweater, then spent an hour brushing her hair while she quietly counted the strokes. After that she made her request.
"I'd like a sheaf and stylus."
"Huh? What for?"
"It has been my habit to keep a daily journal. I would resume it."
I frowned, glancing around the cave. "What's there to write about in a fornicated place like this? Keep tabs on the mildew?"
"That's hardly the point of such a thing."
"Oh," I said, nodding. "It's the doing, not the stuff. I get it. I used to know this girl who cooked garbage; nobody could eat it, right, but she said pretending at cheffing made her feel good. Because she used to chef like crazy with her mom or something."
She nodded back slowly. "Something like that."
"I thought you thought you wasn't no point in going through the motions. What do you suddenly want to feel normal for? Didn't you already give up?"
She narrowed her eyes and hissed, "I've given up nothing to you. Nothing."
I sat back, holding up my hands for calm. "Okay, okay. I guess I can understand how you feel a bit. I mean, you don't want us to see it all getting to you. It's your way of fighting back. It's like saying we can do this and we can do that to you, but we can't take away who you are." I nodded again and offered a small smile. "I can respect that faeces."
"Respect it? Why?"
"I guess because it's an act of defiance. That's strong."
She looked at me blankly for a moment, brow furrowed. "Defiance?" She shook her head. "Defiance is pointless where there is no object to be attained. No, Idiot -- this is purely a matter of homeostasis."
I blinked, but said nothing.
"Will you ask them?" she prompted. "For my sheaf and stylus?"
I fretted, then affected a sneer. "It's not them," I reminded her. "It's us."
She nodded slowly, eyes on mine. "As you say, esteemed."
I didn't. I almost did, but I didn't. I went to talk to The Glorious Fist about it when he was yelling at Tober not to interrupt him when he was listening to his squawk boxes, so I backed off before either of them even saw me coming. That turned out to have been a really good idea, because it turned out that The Glorious Fist ended up beating the blood right out of Tober. Tober lay around on one of the ratty sofas for a few hours after that, but he never really woke up all the way and nobody was all that surprised when he finally gave it up. Rex and Weeds carried him outside, sofa and all.
On my very last shift of guard duty I brought her a pencil stub and a stack of flat strips of bark. "This is as good as it gets," I said, tossing them at her feet. "Don't blame me if the next guy on duty just takes them away from you again, though."
Her brown eyes tracked me as she stooped to retrieve the items. "You're covering your kindness with coldness. I understand. Thank you."
"You can't make me like you. This was just a choice."
She arched one eyebrow. "Do you feel coerced?"
I shrugged, waved that off. "I feel sorry for you, that's all. I don't care if you think you've got me wrapped around your finger or something. It's not true." I crossed my arms, leaned back. "You're no different than that dog I once found, half-crushed by a garbage scow. Still whining for scraps even though anything that went in just came out again on the sidewalk."
She declined to wince. "Insensibly hungry in the face of death. Is that what I am?" She screwed up her face, then made a strange smile. "If that is what you think, Idiot, I confess you've hit very close to the mark." She cocked her head and said sharply with a wag of her chin, "Tell me: what did you do when you found that dog? Did you find yourself compelled to feed it?"
I shook my head. "Didn't have nothing."
"Did you try to shorten its suffering? To end it decisively?"
I shook my head again. "Wasn't mine to do."
She pursed her lips. "Did you bring it a diary?"
I looked up. "I just sat with it, okay? That's all I did. I just sat with it until it was done being a dog." I looked down again. "Just the same as I'm sitting here with you, til this faeces has run its course."
"I should be honest with you," she said. "I'm starting to suspect that you're not really a fool."
"I'm going to be honest, too," I replied. "I'm starting to suspect this might all go motherfornicated on us."
"You said I shouldn't worry."
"I'm changing my mind. It's taking too long. Something's munged. Everybody's worried."
She swallowed, then nodded. "It is as I knew it would be. There is no help to wish for, is there?"
I shook my head, settling down onto my bench. "Nope," I agreed. "But, like I said -- I'll sit with you. I feel like I kind of have to, in a way. I'm going to sit with you until you're done being a girl."
She hesitated as she looked at me sideways, then she blinked and settled into an anxious smile. "Yes. Of course. Thank you."
I felt weird. I crossed my legs and coughed. I pulled my sleeve back and called up a comic book on my watch, then wiped my nose. Staring at my watch I muttered, "What's your name, anyway?"
"Venus," she said quietly. "What's yours?"
I shrugged, finding my bookmark in the comic. "Never knew."