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Idiot's Mask
A novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7
ALTERNATIVE FORMATS KINDLE E-BOOK | OTHER E-BOOK | PRINTED ANTHOLOGY
Idiot's Mask, a science-fiction story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 4

"Idiot's in love with her!"

I swung my head around to face The Glorious Fist, his eyes narrowing as he took a step toward me. "It's not true," I said quickly. "Seriously, boss. I've got my gap, and I won't cross it. I'm here to do a motherfornicating job, and that's it."

The Glorious Fist did not seem displeased. "You can admit anything to me," he said soothingly, still coming closer. The floorboards creaked beneath his boots. "If you've established a personal connection, it wouldn't be all bad."

"I pity her, esteemed. I mean, I wouldn't waver, though. Not for a vagina. I'm a solid one."

He nodded, almost nose to nose with me. "You are solid. I know you are, boy. If there's one man I can trust in this outfit, you're him, Idiot. But if she has feelings for you, we could use that."

I didn't say anything.

"Confess to me."

I shrugged, looking down. "I've been nice to her, is all. Nothing special. Maybe everybody's the same nice to her as me. Could be. I don't know."

"Has she acknowledged your kindness?" he whispered right over my ear.

I squirmed a bit, watching my shoes. Everyone saw me blush. "Yeah."

"Does she love you?"

I looked back up at him, brow furrowed. "Oh no, esteemed. No way. A girl like that would never..." I cleared my throat and shook my head. "We just talked a bit, starting after she showed me her face."

The others exchanged looks. Chia gaped. "You've actually seen her face?"

"Well, yeah. I thought everybody had."

The Glorious Fist straightened. With a curt nod he barked, "Bring him!"

We emerged through the yawning maw of the cottage. Chia and Rex dogged my heels as we crossed the dark field. I complained but they ignored me. The unseen stalks of grass felt like creepy little tongues lashing against me as I was propelled along. Sunrise was still a while away. The eastern stars were just starting to fade. The world was cold and smelled like dirt.

Under the flap, through the aperture, along the antetunnel: one by one we stood up and filled the prison cell. Chia and Rex shoved me rudely into the corner. "What's your problem, fellators?" I grumbled.

The Glorious Fist peeled off his gloves. "Miss Constant," he said. "It's time we had a talk."

She rose from the cot and faced him, with only a small glance aside at me as her fingers came to her cheeks to hide her features. "You know I am not entrusted with intelligence," she told The Glorious Fist with an attitude both strong and weary at once. "You have nothing to gain by applying pressure."

The Glorious Fist snorted. "Satisfaction, perhaps."

"You may indeed be that manner of monster. The point is granted."

"You should be scared."

"You should be moral. Shall we quibble over one another's deficits?"

"I'm not playing games, little girl."

"Alas, you are."

He struck her down with the back of his hand. She piled into the cot sloppily, her shoulder jamming painfully and her cheek striking the frame with a surprising clang. She was breathing hard, eyes squinched shut and hands pressed against her face as she moaned.

The Glorious Fist rolled up his sleeves. "You're going to tell me why."

She slowly lowered her hands, red from the gash on her cheek. She cocked her head quickly, like a bird, and blinked up at him. "Why what?"

He hit her again, then replied, "Why nobody's looking for you. Not the police, not the secret service, not your family."

She rolled up into a seated position, back against the privacy screen, and wiped the blood away from her lip with a dirt-stained cotton cuff. "That's rather private," she said simply.

"You'll die."

"I am already dead, esteemed. You lack any power to further curse my bane."

I had already looked away. I heard him hit her again. A meaty sound. "Why aren't they looking for you?" he roared. "How can this be ignored?"

"Because it is nothing."

Smack. "This is nothing? I hold the daughter of the vizier!"

"No, esteemed. You merely hold her image."

I looked over. The Glorious Fist was frozen, his hand hanging in mid-air. The others simply looked shocked, staring at him. Gradually, pensively, he relaxed his pose. "This is a trick," he whispered.

"Yes," she agreed.

"They knew our plans from the start!"

"No. You are an incidental victim."

His eyes widened, a new glaze of sweat shining on his forehead. "What does that mean?" He took a step toward her suddenly, but she did not flinch. "What are you talking about?"

"It means your plan was doomed before it was even hatched, because your strategists laboured under a false assumption. It's not your fault, esteemed. You did your part."

He seized her, wrenching her hands away from her face and then yanking her head back by the hair. She grunted, breath hitching, but her eyes never wavered. The Glorious Fist sprayed her features with spittle as he bellowed, "What false assumption?"

"That I am a girl," she rasped.

We all looked back and forth at one another. My ears started to buzz. My body felt light and strange, as if I were in a dream. The Glorious Fist threw his prisoner against the cave wall and she tumbled across the cot, upsetting it. He marched right over to her and hauled her up by the arm, his nails biting into the soft flesh. "Stop fornicating with us!" he bellowed. "Speak now or the next thing you see will be your own tongue, on the floor between your feet!"

She smiled. Her teeth were pink from bloodied lips. "Venus Constant was killed four years ago, esteemed. That is why no one is looking for her."

The gaze of The Glorious Fist lingered over the side of her head where she had struck the cot's frame. He twisted her arm, pulled her closer, then pressed the fingers of his opposite hand into the wound itself. Venus grimaced but did not cry out. The Glorious Fist peeled back a shred of flesh, his pupils dilating as he spotted a wink of metallic reflection beneath. He turned pale. He dropped her arm, then shuffled backward.

"...Boss?"

"Fork-tongued fornicator," he breathed, hands visibly shaking.

"What?" cried Rex. "What's she on about, boss?"

The Glorious Fist turned aside to look at him. "You are a fool," he pronounced carefully. "We all are." He shook his head and rubbed his brow, pacing in a small circle before looking down at the pile of girl lying at his feet. "Tell them plainly what you are, thing."

Venus blinked. "I am a robot, esteemed."

Rex frowned. "Faeces. That's impossible. There ain't no robots allowed on Penardun."

The Glorious Fist chuckled mirthlessly. "How right you are. How right you are, Rex. Which explains it all, doesn't it?"

Rex looked around nervously. "What -- how?"

I looked up sharply. "She's illegal. The vizier would never incriminate himself by reporting her missing."

The Glorious Fist nodded, kneading his sweaty hands together. "It takes an idiot to see the light," he said darkly. "So here we hunker, sitting on silent squawk boxes, guarding a motherfornicating appliance nobody's even missed. We, my friends, are not fighting for the future of Ilbis. We are a joke."

I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh, so I just said nothing.

"A motherfornicating joke!" he roared, punctuated with a savage kick at the girl. She absorbed it without comment, face behind her hands. I felt myself flinch on her behalf.

He didn't stop. He just kept kicking.

"Hey," I stammered. "Don't. Esteemed -- stop! It's not her fault, boss."

I knew I shouldn't have said anything, but I couldn't control my mouth.

The Glorious Fist paused from beating me only when he noticed that the cell itself was quaking. Grains of dust were dancing on every surface, the rock vibrating beneath us. The Glorious Fist straightened, his knuckles dripping with my blood. "What the hell is that?" he hissed. I shrugged.

He dropped me. "Rex!"

Rex had his watch pressed to his ear; his eyes widened. "Fingers reports heavy craft moving in, esteemed!"

Chia gasped. "Sacred faeces -- they found us!"

"What're we gonna do?" cried Rex, the colour draining from his face.

"We're fornicated!" blubbered Chia.

The Glorious Fist grabbed her by the shoulder and propelled her into the antetunnel ahead of him. "Get the guns, you dumb dog, get the guns! Move! Move! Move!" He wheeled around and took hold of Rex, shoving him onward. "Get on the squawk box! Alert command!" Rex tripped and clawed his way into the antetunnel, scampering after Chia through the aperture and out into the shuddering dawn.

The world was roaring now, keening as vessels cut the air. My teeth shook in my head. I cried out when The Glorious Fist took me by the hair, twisting my head to face him. "Kill this thing, Idiot, and I just may let you live," he breathed savagely, then turned on heel and squeezed out of the cell. The aperture ground closed behind him, loose clods of dirt raining from its edges.

The sounds from above ground were truly terrible -- startling sequences of colossal thumps like a scrum of tumbling giants interspersed with the pitter-patter of falling debris. The cave shook, lobes of rock breaking free from the ceiling and cracking against the floor. I squirmed under the cot, my hands laced behind my head and my elbows closed around my nose. Without feeling anything until it was already done, I voided my bladder.

The ventilator telltales went limp. The lamps died. The feed barrier crackled and sparked as it switched over to batteries. A constant wash of sand hissed as it poured down from the fractured cave roof...

And then, after a span of time I couldn't fathom, I became aware that the only sound was my own ragged, rapid breathing. It hitched in my throat, and then I coughed lungfuls of dust until I retched.

The darkness was total. The feed barrier faintly buzzed.

Cautiously I pushed my way out from beneath the cot, releasing a minor landslide of pebble slurry. I crawled over the littered floor with one hand extended before me as a feeler. I felt flesh and reeled back.

"Idiot?"

I swallowed. "...Venus?"

"It's me."

"You're alive!"

"Not technically."

I felt massively relieved. "Great poon! I can't believe it!" And then: "What happened?"

"Father always cleans up after himself," she said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Private forces with annihilators. They'll have scorched the whole site. There should be no evidence for the counter-terrors to find when they get here."

My heart was still hammering in my chest and thumping in my ears. I shook my head. "But there is evidence still. There's you."

"Not for long."

"Huh?"

A pause. Shifting in the silence. A grunt.

"What're you doing, Venus?"

No reply. A frustrated sniff.

"What're you trying to do?"

A sigh. "No function."

"Huh?"

"My auto-termination device...there's no function. I am damaged."

"Auto-termin -- wait. Mother of faeces! You're gonna kill yourself?"

"I must. If I'm found, my father will be punished. I can't let that happen."

"You can't leave me all alone!" I wailed.

I felt her move closer to me. Her arm settled around my shoulder, squeezing me into her gently. I smelled the sweat beneath her chin, felt the tacky spatters of blood drying on her neck. "Oh, Idiot," she whispered soothingly, "you have to make yourself understand. I'm not a person. You are already alone."

Her skin was warm. I could feel her pulse against my cheek. "I'm not," I mumbled. "I don't care what you say: I'm just not."

"Oh Idiot, Idiot..."

We became quiet. In the dark, in the warm, there was no sound but our respiration. She patted my head in slow circles, and I swear I almost fell asleep. But then she shifted. "I need you to do something for me. Before they get here."

I didn't say anything. I didn't want to think about that.

"Idiot?"

I grunted. "How soon will they be here?"

"Any minute now. They'll have monitored the annihilation from orbit. The counter-terrors have been scrambled. They're in the air as we speak."

I shuddered. "They're going to fornicating kill me, aren't they?"

I felt her nod. "You face capital charges, yes."

I took a deep breath. "Mung."

She took up my hand. "They can't find me. They can't. You understand that, don't you?" She paused. "You know what I'm going to ask you."

"No, I don't."

"You do. You know what you have to do now."

I pulled away from her, shaking my head. "I won't do it."

"Please, Idiot. I beg you."

"No!"

"You must destroy me."

"I won't!"

We sat without speaking again. I hugged my own shoulders, rocking slowly back and forth. I heard her breath catch in her throat, betraying a sob. "You've got feelings," I mumbled.

"No," she replied softly. "I don't."

"But you're crying."

"It's just for show. Reflexive. Calculated. A designed response to internal conditions."

"Because you're sad."

"No. Because sadness is appropriate to the situation."

I sniffed miserably. "What's the difference?"

"One signals despair; the other merely projects a simulacrum of despair."

"So a situation makes you feel fake sad, and then you fake express it?"

"Yes."

"How do you know what you feel is fake?"

"Pardon?"

"If nobody ever bothered to tell you that you weren't really real, how would you know? I mean, you don't know what sadness feels like -- so how can you say what you feel isn't it?"

She started to say something, but stopped. She started again, then stopped again. Finally she said, "You have to leave. You have only moments left."

"Yeah," I agreed.

"I can guide you to the exit."

"Can you see in the dark?"

"No, but I have a keen memory and an internal gyroscope. Take my hand."

The aperture controls were dead, so I had to crank it open using the manual winch. Shafts of bronze morning light illuminated the dust hanging in front of our battered faces. "You look like mung," I said, rubbing my bicep.

"So do you." She hovered in the shadows. "Good luck, Idiot."

"I'm not letting you go," I told her.

"I remain a prisoner?"

"Kind of. You are, because you have to be. You can't off yourself and I'm not gonna do it for you, so you're pretty much fornicated. Either you come with me or you become...evidence. Do you have a choice?"

She held my eye, her mouth tight. "I never have."

"So I'm right. Go get the locking helmet, or they'll detect you the motherfornicating second we come out."

"What about you?"

"I'm not tagged."

I hauled myself up out of the hole and beheld annihilation: the area had been razed. In place of cottages and trees and rocks there was simply an expanse of grey material with a polished surface. On its boundaries the trees had no leaves, the bark stripped and the wood sanded to a shine. There were no vapours or odours, no smoke and no sizzle. The entire hill top had been wiped clean, reflections winking with the image of the rising sun, a lake of featureless clay marked irregularly by lines of harder rock.

There were no bodies.

Venus emerged behind me, the heavy helmet causing her to sway. She managed to push the visor up, narrowing her eyes against the light. "Annihilated," she said flatly.

"I can't fornicating believe it. I've...never seen anything like this. Such power."

She was looking past my shoulder, her expression troubled. I turned. In the distance, over the foothills, a swarm of craft silhouetted against a bright bank of cloud, closing fast. I spun back to face her. "Come on," I shouted, taking her hand. "Run!"

We ran.

The long, oblique shadows of the counter-terror vessels flashed over us as we bolted through the bushes, the drone of their engines bouncing from mountain face to mountain face. Giant wasps. Angry, on the hunt. Venus and I splashed through a creek and then stumbled up the side of a ravine, hauling each other by the hand when our footing failed. Woodland creatures fled our path. We burst through a tangle of vines and tumbled out into a grassy field, wind-born seeds roiling up in clouds where we landed.

I took a moment to catch my breath, chest rising and falling as I lay on my back. I slapped at flies flitting around on my slick skin. A jolly, careless fluff of cumulous cloud drifting into view, punctuating the blue sky. Birds wheeled. Grasshoppers chirped.

I sat up, unleashing a renewed bloom of floating seeds. I cocked my head to listen, but I couldn't hear the counter-terror hardware anymore. "We did it," I said huskily. "We're out."

Venus blinked at me, then took a slow look around. "Out?"

"We escaped," I nodded. "Don't you get it, Venus? We're free."

Her face screwed up strangely. She suddenly, startlingly, giggled -- then looked immediately sheepish.

"You can laugh!"

Venus seemed puzzled, her forehead crinkled. "I'm only supposed to laugh in the correct context. Perhaps I have sustained more damage than assessed. Tell me: is there something inherently funny about escaping a threat?"

I shrugged. "Well, it's a motherfornicating relief, that's for sure. I bet you feel it, is all. That's what freedom is: when you feel lighter than air, and like you could run to the horizon without even thinking about it. Because nothing can hold you down."

She considered this. "I've never been free before."

I offered out my hand. She took it. We set out across the clearing. "Enjoy it," I advised her. "Because it never lasts that long, really."

Venus smiled as we drew out of dappled shadow and into the sunshine. "So beautiful," she said wistfully, gaze on the mountains. Birds chased one another through the sky, whirling and diving. The leaves chuckled and winked, tickled by a breeze peppered with fluffy motes. The world smelled like a flower shop: close and moist but alive with a mush of perfumes. "...So very beautiful," she said again.

"Yeah," I agreed. But I wasn't looking around any -- I was just looking at her.

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