Idiot's Mask is a science-fiction novella told in seven parts, posted serially by me, your thinly-stretched host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the fifth installment.
Connected Stories: Simon of Space, The Christmas Robots
And now, the story continues:
Fingal was some city: tall, hazy, impossible -- swarms of cars darkening the air in sinewy lines, turn signals winking. The boulevards were wide, the buildings white and clean. Millions of masked men and women milled, robes swirling. They passed among winking billboards, grinning storefronts, salivating trash bins...a chorus of stares from all angles, for every thing wore a face.
We looked down upon the sprawling metropolis valley from a high, wooded ridge. We were filthy. We crouched behind bushes. The shadows of traffic flashed over us, silhouettes slithering across the grass: a smiling taxi, a bored limousine, a stern police cruiser.
"Which way to the ghetto?" I asked Venus, panning my head to track the cruiser. I looked over at her. "Where can we find the really faecally poor?"
"Why should we wish to do that?"
"To hide. Indigence makes good camouflage."
As much as Fingal may have looked like nothing but shining palaces and gleaming towers from above, the city had just as many dirty nooks and forgotten crannies as any other place. Below the balconies, beyond the gardens, in the neglected spaces between the pillars that held up the highways, in the penumbra of a richer life: my brothers, the desperate.
From the safety of a stormwater inlet we watched the desperate milling around a makeshift market that bore all the hallmarks of the eked life -- discount malformed goods, discoloured fruit, infested rice, stray animals lurking or dying in the corners; the commingling smells of burn and sick and sweat. My mouth started to water. "I'm going to score us some food," I declared, cracking my knuckles.
"Idiot, no," said Venus as she caught my elbow. "You can't go out there naked."
"You're not wearing a lar!"
I looked down, furrowing my brow. "Is that like a codpiece?"
She pointed back at the wretched market crowd. "A lar, Idiot. Even the poorest have the modesty to cover themselves, if only crudely with a scrap of cloth or their own hands. You can't walk around in the open streets showing your face. You'll cause a scene."
I snorted. "A scene? With my face?"
She sighed and put a hand on my shoulder. "You really don't know anything about us, do you? You're jealous of a life you can't even comprehend."
I pulled away. "You might want to think about what you say."
"Oh, don't be like that. Do you want my help, or do you want to wander out there naked and end up locked in a cell at the morality asylum?"
I didn't say anything.
"Very well then," she continued; "on Penardun, Idiot, the naked features are reserved for friends and family. Outside the home we take lares upon ourselves." She mimed the action of donning a mask, then held up two fingers. "A lar has two functions: to present a public face that symbolizes a social contract, and to transmit to the wearer behaviour cues to defend that contract."
I grimaced, cocking my head idiot-style. "Say what?"
"Spare me the fool routine," she snapped, "and listen, Idiot: every Penardu belongs to a clan. We inherit our clans at birth, but we are at liberty to change affiliation at any time. Each clan has a charter -- a code that lays out the moral norms for its members." Again she mimed the donning of a mask. "When you wear your clan's lar, your feeds are shared among the clan. That's everything you see and hear, sampled randomly by the pool of your clansmen. If someone sees you doing something anti-code, they warn you." She illustrated this by wagging a finger, then touched her face once more. "By wearing a lar, a Penardu is saying to those he meets that his actions are subject to audit by his clan. Thus his lar is a guarantee of conduct."
I shook my head in disbelief. "You mean to tell me you Penardu willingly let somebody watch every mungful thing you do and say? So they can cuss you out?"
"The experience is generally gentle."
"But that's fornicated!" I spat. "No wonder there's no robots allowed here -- you all are robots. Giving your freedom away like it's dung!"
She smiled indulgently. "Consider the benefits, Idiot. Clans are held liable for misdeeds, not individuals -- matters of civil suit are paid from a tithe pool, crimes compensated from trust funds. Justice for a single personality is not the state's responsibility, but that of those who know him best."
My mouth was hanging open. "Unbelievable. A completely anal-headed way of life!"
"It must be your way of life, or you won't last long here."
"Who says I want to last long here? Rape that. I'm getting my ass back to Ilbis as soon as fornicating possible."
She offered a glum half-smile. "To cross that river requires a bridge. Would you not step upon it?"
I sneered, then spat again. "So I guess we'll just have to steal us a pair of larses."
"It won't work. We have no affiliations. No network would accept us."
"There's got to be counterfeits," I said, rubbing my chin. "There's got to be an underground. Somewhere in this slum there's a guy selling unnetworked faeces, I guarantee it."
She shook her head. "There's no such thing."
I chuckled. "And how would the daughter of the motherfornicating vizier know one faecal thing about the ways of the desperate?"
She paused. "The point is granted. But even if such a black market did exist, how would we find it?"
I tore the bottom off my shirt and wrapped it around my face, leaving only a narrow band for my swollen, bruised eyes. "Leave that to me," I said, then wormed my way to the edge of the stormwater drain and slipped out before she could ask me anything else. I jogged across an alley, ducked under a drooping canopy, then stood up inside the edge of the market, clinging to the shadowed lane along its edge.
Head down, moving along. Listening. Watching.
I could see only boots and sandals and shoes. Shoes say a lot. I checked out tons of them as I sallied. But it was my ears that pegged it: an Ilbisoon accent among the murmurs. I veered left, following it. To a fishmonger's tent, naturally -- the famous fisheries of home had a reputation even here. I sidled up to the cart, hanging on the periphery as paying customers haggled. The monger was tall and knock-kneed, his mask the cartoonishly vapid, agape face of a stylized fish. I nodded to him.
"Esteemed?" the monger muttered, appraising me. His fish-masked head inclined, its giant yellow eyes blinking.
"I worked for Ilbis," I said quietly. "Now, brother, I find myself naked."
The monger kept his fish-gaze low, shuffling his wares. He tucked some stray tentacles into the appropriate slot, then wiped his hands on his apron. He said, "You gotta be vying for Topshire in the games, eh?"
"It's not Topshire's turn, though. It's the Frogs or a draw. True fans know the cycle."
He glanced up, adjusted himself intimately, then looked down again to focus on the cart. He gestured as if he were showcasing its contents while he whispered, "There's a guy who helps Ilbies." He nodded his chin toward the end of the aisle. "Look for the red horses on his lar."
I returned to the stormwater drain in less than an hour. Venus shrank back at first, but hesitated mid-flight. The slice of her expression visible beneath the visor of the locking helmet brightened. "Oh, Idiot -- it's you."
I posed, framing my new mask with my fingers. "What do you think?"
"It's a very...dark lar."
"Yeah, well I chose the one that seemed the most bad-ass. You know? I wanted one that says: don't fornicate with me, motherfornicators."
She looked at me for a long moment, then shook her head and sighed.
I unwrapped the second mask. "This one's for you. I guess we'll just have to fit it onto the locking helmet, to keep your signal suppressed. Um. I tried to choose...I don't know. There really weren't that many to choose from."
She took it from me, turning it over in her hands. "It's beautiful," she said. "Thank you."
"I just thought you might like those shiny parts."
"The iridescent piping would seem gaudy on a lesser lar."
"Wait -- are you lying to be nice to me? It's not really a good one at all, is it?"
"It's perfect," said Venus, raising the mask up to affix it within the frame of the locking helmet. She paused. "But how did you pay for these lares?"
"Didn't. They're on credit."
"This guy, Red Horses...we owe him a favour or two."
"Favours of what nature?"
I shrugged and waved it off. "Petty faeces, I'm sure. Squirrel jobs."
"Criminal favours, then."
"Off-the-feeds favours, is all. Internodal chores. Regular, micro, easy."
She pursed her lips sceptically, then hid behind her mask. Her expression became inscrutable through the heart-shaped, pink-lensed eye holes. The scratched metal lips were curled into a permanent, virginal smile. "Very well, Idiot."
I held out my hand. "Let's go."
And -- you know what? -- things weren't so bad in Fingal. Doing legwork for Red Horses was right up my alley: shaking up little people, dropping packages, collecting fees and loans. Easy as pie. Everybody trusted me because I was stupid. Same old routine. All my fellow associates were illegals, just like me, but Red kept us safely censored and transactively mum. And I usually got some coin tossed my way, to boot. Venus and I got a room in a boarding house by the river. We had this great, tiny little window that let in a blur of light and a stink of wet. We had a fold-out sleeping shelf, a corrosion-orange sink with bugs living in the drain, and a flickering light cube hanging precariously from the ceiling.
It was, hands down, the swankest place I had ever lived.
The privacy screening was solid. That was the most important part. That meant that when I came home at the end of the day there Venus would be, free of the locking helmet, with nothing obscuring the skin of her face or the fall of her inky hair. I swear that every time my heart would skip a beat in the best possible way. Once a day, after being away and seeing her again, I'd fibrillate just a little.
"I shouldn't feel the way I do about you," I said to the dark ceiling as we lay beside each other on the sleeping shelf. Traffic hummed and dopplered by outside, drowning out the river's gurgle. Shafts of coloured light waxed and waned, banking and slanting through the tiny window and drawing fuzzy, sliding boxes on the grimy wall.
She shifted and affected a yawn. "You need your sleep."
I shrugged, picking her profile out of the gloom. "Your scars are healing up pretty good. I didn't even know that was possible for you."
"I am an exceptional forgery."
I frowned. "You always want to remind me of that."
"Do you want me to pretend I'm real? My father preferred that fantasy."
"I'm not your father. I don't want you to think of me like that."
"How would you prefer I pretend to think of you?"
"Don't be anal. Don't act like you don't even think. That's just stupid."
She sighed and shifted closer. "Idiot, it would be best if you faced facts. You know I'm right." A pause. "You know that I cannot think, not in the sense that you understand it. I am not a sentient thing."
I turned away, tugging the covers up tighter. "But you're aware of yourself and stuff," I said into the wall. "You say I when you talk."
Gently: "Never the less, Idiot, there is no I within myself. My expressions indicating an internal state of mind are performance -- nothing more. Automatic, complex and adaptive, but performance still."
"You're being hurtful on purpose."
"I'm telling you the truth. I don't wish to mislead you."
"Because you care about how I feel?"
"No. Because the real Venus would have."
I fretted, then turned around to face her once more. "She...she would've cared about me?"
"So you...you have to care about me, because you calculate that she would've?"
"I'm obliged to express myself as if such internal conditions were extant, yes. My reflex of verisimilitude compels me."
I nodded. "Okay. What if...just say...what if you tried to act against that compulsion?"
She sat up, leaning on an elbow, and cocked her head. "How would it be possible for me to entertain a wish to act contrary to my own assessment of right action? It would entail potentializing wrong action, which is an error condition."
"So you can imagine this error condition, right? You can conceive of it."
"I can identify its theoretical structure, though I can see no route to it."
"So forget the route. Just make the jump -- pretend you're in that condition. Don't make that face. If you can't make the jump, just simulate making the jump."
"That's not funny."
"Just pretend," I insisted. "Pretend you're there. How would it make you feel?"
"I don't know what that means."
"Calibration bias. Behavioural gradient tension. Anxious to remedy."
"An analogy. Would you prefer I describe it as a self-catalyzing cascade of motive-initiation bifurcation crises?"
"Yeah, maybe I would. It'd be honest, wouldn't it?" I said, levering on my elbows to sit up beside her. "I guess my real question is this: do you like self-cataloguing coconuts of moving initials or whatever?"
"Don't go anal on me. Is it a motherfornicating more preferred way to be or a less preferred one?"
"Well, less, I suppose...cross-potentialization is non-optimal, after all."
I chuckled as I sank back down, tugging the covers around my shoulders again. "So don't give me that faeces about not being able to think or having no feelings," I said into the dark. "I don't believe you. You got feelings alright...you just have dumb names for them."
She fell to silence and I slept.
During the day I'd go from one place to another across Fingal's underbelly. I rode public transit, wearing my fake lar while the masks around me were tuned in to who knows who, who knows where. Sometimes I felt like I lived in a cave, alone and inscrutable behind its arched eye-holes. Sometimes, inside that cave, my own breath was all I could hear.
But then a horn would honk and I'd snap out of it, catching sight of a bland automotive grin in my peripheral vision as something swerved by. Hungry mailboxes, eager kiosks, lascivious chairs -- a blinking, staring backdrop to the expressionless crowds. Somebody might angrily shoulder me out of their way, metal lips curled in a polite smile all the while. Couples continued to express droll surprise even as their body language broadcast the heated argument they were having.
Nothing outside of my mask made sense.
The Penardu spent an unimaginable amount of time shopping. Shops were so busy that they were often the best drop off points or meeting places for quiet business. Nobody's clan could parse so much so fast, so the lares around us focused close to monitor only the wearer's immediate sphere. Being ignored was easy. Even if it weren't for the noise, the Penardu were all too keenly hypnotized by their latest baubles to care about anything or anyone else: manicuring machines, auto-conductors, barber units, hedge trimmers, hammerers -- basically, anything a civilized person would have a robot for, the Pernardu had a fancy tool with a designer chassis instead.
It was like they just bled money and time. They had so much falling out of themselves they couldn't think fast enough to come up with enough ways to piss it all away.
For leisure they ate, and then vomited for recreation.
I couldn't look. I couldn't care. How could I? That was Ilbisoon sweat they were pouring down the toilets. It didn't bear contemplation without bone-grinding nausea and searing rage. Like Venus, I'd be compelled to act should I consider too long. My illusion of choice would melt.
And so there were blinders on my cave, too. Careful, merciful blinders. I kept my head down.
In the mornings at the boarding house pigeons shuffled on our sill, querying one another. Their soft, distorted shadows bobbed on the opposite wall, while the birds themselves were invisible, due to the height of the window slot and the slant of the roof. The quiet space of day before anything begins has always been my favourite part -- and so I was slow to get up, slow to get dressed. Instead I'd stare at those sliding, hopping alien shapes projected on the wall.
"Quit lolligagging on the shelf," said Venus, stirring sweet rice in a tin balanced over a candle. "I need to fold it up or I won't have room to put the kettle on."
I was watching the wall. "You know something?"
"If we were born in this room, and this room was a jail, and we could never go outside..."
She turned around as I trailed off. "Yes?"
"We wouldn't know pigeons were birds."
She frowned. "Pardon?"
I raised my arm, pointing to the wall. "We'd think they were shadows. Just a certain kind of shadow. Pigeon-shaped ones."
She shook her head. "You're half asleep. You're not making sense. We could certainly perceive that shadows are two dimensional artifacts caused by the occulting of a light source by a three dimensional object, and thus extrapolate the probable geometry and location of the object casting pigeon-shaped shadows. We can infer the existence of birds from such bird-like artifacts in luminosity."
"Only if you knew about birds in the first place," I claimed.
"Even beginning from innocence, a sober investigation of the phenomenon would yield --"
"You know too much," I interrupted. "That's your problem. You can't imagine idiocy. But I can. I can imagine not knowing what I know. And if I didn't know what birds were, why would I even care what was going on outside the window where I can't see? What I can see is these crazy shadows. They're alive. I can startle them. Watch!" I clapped my hands loudly. The image of pigeons fidgeted, fluttered, then cooed. "See? The way the sound bounces makes it seem like the shadows are doing the talking."
She sniffed. "What is the purpose of simulating such ignorance?"
I stretched, then shrugged. "I don't know. It's just kind of fun sometimes to think about how amazing -- right? -- how baffling and motherfornicating magic those shadows could be to us if we didn't know faeces about mung."
She shook her head and took breakfast off the flame. "Do you know what I find baffling? The willful creation of error conditions. You have strange appetites, Idiot."
I slipped off the sleeping shelf and folded it back into the wall, then scratched absently at my side. "Is the tea ready?"
Holding the cold kettle aloft, she rolled her eyes.
The pigeons fled. A collective murmur was rising outside the window, scores of footfalls falling in step. Familiar slogans were chanted, drowning out the traffic. "Faeces," I muttered. "Another protest march?"
"The Ilbisoon movement is gaining momentum."
I swore again. "Gimmie a boost, huh? I wanna close the vent before the anti-riot canisters start flying. Motherfornicating fascists."
"Would you have Fingal leave the peace undefended? Violence begets violence. Ilbisoon anger will make monsters of us all."
I snorted. "There ain't no us about it. And don't you forget that. If it weren't for the locking helmet you couldn't set one fornicating foot outside that door without a platoon of cops pointing jazzers at your heart. That's your peace."
What remained of the locking helmet hung by the door. We had removed the unnecessary hardware and whittled down its mouldings until it was barely a skullcap, easy to conceal between hairstyle and lar, as effective as ever at blocking network access to Venus' phony brain. Red Horses had given me a little extra walking around money recently, so after the protest was quelled I gave a wafer to Venus and she went out shopping. She bought new clothes and pins and hooks for her hair, as well as two sets of utensils, a wind-up radio, a pan and a hot plate. She also bought a purse-sized sheaf and stylus set.
"For your journal?" I asked as she removed her counterfeit lar and hung it on the back of the door, then proceeded to unhitch the locking cap that kept her secret.
She turned around, smoothing her hair. "That's right."
"What's the point?"
"Venus did it religiously."
"And these?" I asked, unearthing a second sheaf along with a row of sealed tubes and a strange, wooden stylus with a furry tip. "What are these weird things for?"
"Venus also liked to paint."
I sat back, smirking. "So you're compelled, 'cause of that."
She nodded curtly, then resumed unpacking and arranging her purchases. "All systems have a sweet spot, Idiot -- our very own homeostatic target. That's what keeps up up, and down down. For a work of artifice, it's like gravity; it lends direction, perspective and purpose. It defines optimality." She looked up. "I am the quest to emulate Venus Constant: to perfectly fill the void in the universe left by her death, to patch the world...that is my being. I can no more change that than you can rewrite your own genetic foundation at will."
Which I couldn't. That much was right on the money. I was born an Ilbisoon scoundrel and I would die as one. But the fractional truth lurking between the absolute values of life and death will vindicate me. Of that I'm still fairly sure.
So she painted. Landscapes, mostly. A beach and bluffs with an orchard at the crest. She painted these scenes from every angle, in every kind of light, in every sort of season. "That's the seashore at my father's summer house," she told me, then pointed to a background smudge with her brush. "That's the cave where she would hide, to listen to the waves and compose songs. The acoustics were incredible."
She looked down in a show of modesty. "Some lessons were undertaken."
"Sing for me."
"You're changing the subject again. Let's focus. You're almost through the book."
I returned my attention to the page. Her finger was still patiently pointing, fixed beneath the first word of the sentence. I looked at the illustration again for clues, then cleared my throat. "W...win...winter? Winter. Winter turn...ed. Winter turned to sp...sprin... spring?"
I looked up. She nodded and tabbed the page. "Last one."
I furrowed my brow, squinting at the letters. "And. The...snow...dragon. M. Mel. Melted. And the snow dragon melted." I grinned, then quit the book as I leapt up from the shelf. "Good ending. That'll learn that motherfornicating dragon not to mess with the Kids of Canary Street!" I paused, turning the volume over. "Oh, wait. There's a book called Return of the Snow Dragon, too. So, I guess it didn't learn him nothing after all."
"You, however, are learning quickly."
I tried to act cool. "Yeah, well. The whole idiot thing was always a routine."
"You were starting to doubt that," she said.
"Faeces! I never doubted nothing." I sneered, suddenly savage. "You don't know what I'm thinking. You don't have a model for it. So don't start thinking I think like the vizier or something, because I'm my own guy. Totally my own guy. You understand?"
It was weird. I felt weird. After a bit of indecisive fluttering I sat down beside her again, and put my arms around her shoulders. She tilted her head against mine. I could feel the muscles -- or something very much like them -- working as she fought to suppress her sobs. Her scalp crawled with the effort, her jaw tight. I didn't know what else to do so I drew little tickle circles on the inside of her elbow.
"I have been pulled so far from equilibrium I believe the attractor of my being has begun to drift," she said when she could.
She wiped at her eyes, raised her chin. "Your model. You're right about it. It's not ready."
I was shocked. "But you're...making one?"
"If I cannot adapt, every hour of every day will be an error condition. I could not live that way; and yet I could not abandon you now. Venus wouldn't hurt you so, and thus neither can I." She sniffed and sat straighter. "Once again I am left with no choice."
"Who's ever got a choice?" I demanded, throwing the book aside. "Choices are expensive. Maybe your flesh and bones Venus had real choices -- big choices -- but you and me, we're left with the little ones: pay rent or buy wine, get fired or wake up, fight or flee. The faecal choices. Ultimatums, really. That's how we all live. If you think you're the only one fornicated just because you're a robot, you're cracked. It's just life."
"You think I'm feeling sorry for myself?" she cried, eyes wide and nostrils flared. "You're so deluded about my nature you can't even see the absurdity! I lack the capacity to feel self-pity, let alone express it."
"That's a load."
"There is no object to be pitied! I have no self, you fool!" She stood up and paced around the room, shaking her head. She chuckled humourlessly. "You're confusing me with a Zorannic. You're confusing me with artificial life. But that's not what I am. I'm artificial death. I'm a walking, talking, singing, painting, giggling, weeping death mask. I am designed to mimic, not to invent."
"And yet you admit you're modeling my personality. That's an invention."
"That's an extension. I'm making do, to retain my grasp on optimality."
We stared at each other in seething frustration. Finally I said, "I'm in love with whatever it is you are."
Her eye twitched. "My model fails. I don't know what to say."
"Say whatever comes to mind. Invent."
She paused, chewed her lip, then cried, "Umbrellas!"
I cracked up, and then she did, too. Gasping for breath, grabbing at a stitch in my side, I croaked, "Umbrellas? What in the name of the devil's balls is that supposed to mean?"
A mischievous smile flitted over her features. "In this context it is meaningless. I simply...said the first thing that arose in my verbal matrix. It's ridiculous."
"It's awesome. Being ridiculous is awesome. You've never been ridiculous before, have you?"
She cocked her head, considering. "Not aprototypically, no."
"How does it feel?"
"Don't be obtuse, Idiot."
"Okay then: how do you feel like you ought to pretend it feels like?"
"You're teasing me."
I grinned. After a moment she grinned back, too. Outside the boarding house riot police clashed with protestors again. Gas canisters hissed as they flew, clanked as they fell. Glass broke. Batons struck. Jazzers fired. Car alarms warbled. People screamed.
"You wanna wind up the radio? Maybe have a little dance with me?"
She nodded and began twisting the dial. Through the static bursts of police disruptor fields we heard the opening strains of something old and syrupy and gay. Venus tucked the radio up on the sill and turned to me. "I'm not entirely sure how to proceed," she confessed.
I took her hands. "We start by just swaying. To the rhythm. Here, stand closer to me."
"Yeah," I whispered into her hair. "Just like that."