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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 6

A man can change. Don't ever let anybody tell you differently. I'm living proof. (Well, more or less.)

I even got a job -- a legitimate job. But that you can't really chalk that up to inner resolve or my own motivation or anything; when the edict came down that all offworlders living on Penardun without a work permit would be indefinitely detained in labour camps I wasn't left with much choice. If my accent and my complexion weren't enough to give me away, the Ilbisoon banner the new laws required I wear around my right bicep surely would. Staying out of the sight of Penardu authorities suddenly became much, much more complex.

So I was lined up to be the junior janitor at a tall office spire in downtown Fingal. The job description wasn't exactly pretty, but it's not like a little work could hurt me. That wasn't the part I was worried about. No, the big step was donning a lar -- an authentic lar, a functional lar. A lar connected to the conscience of a clan.

The Clan of the Ascending Devoted was a humble one in terms of dignity and social standing, but the fastest growing in terms of numbers. Their compassionate policy with regard to people of questionable standing in search of a more solid life meant they attracted many transplanted Ilbisoon. Their reputation for successfully shepherding those people away from anti-code behaviour was a rapidly spreading rumour, and the foundation of many clan-sponsored lobbying initiatives at the Penardun Parliament on the summit of World Hill.

My hands were shaking while I waited my turn.

Interviewed, examined, cross-questioned, quizzed and tested. Counselled, advised, informed. Scored and qualified. Confirmed and, finally, stamped. I looked up. "That's it?"

"Nearly, esteemed. We require your legal name."

"Haven't got one."

"You poor dear. You'll have to make one up, to use from here on in."

"Faeces, I haven't got a clue. Um, excuse my language."

"No matter, esteemed. Do you want to take the forms home and think about it? I can put your application through according to your file number for the time being." The lips of her designer lar drew into an automated smile. She seemed nice. I wondered if she was bending the rules to help me because her heart told her to, or because the whispers behind her lenses did.

Back at home Venus rolled over on the sleeping shelf, chin cupped in one hand as she tabbed through the pages of a book. "This is exciting. Your name could be anything! Anything at all!"

"What's that?" I asked, hanging my old lar on the wall next to the door.

"It's a history of Ilbis. I've been thinking maybe you'd like to be named after a hero of your culture. A patriot? A prophet? A renowned artist?"

"That seems kind of -- I don't know -- grandiose?"

"What about the pioneer period? A settler?"

I shrugged. "Like who?"

"Archmish Sanderstain, perhaps. He was navigator on the generation ship that made first planetfall on Ilbis."

"Archmish? Give me a break."

"Okay, what about Lithloric Waterpipes? He single-handedly organized the irrigation of the Shondar Flats, and built the first large-scale fish farms there almost three hundred years ago."

I nodded, rubbing my chin. "Lithloric's not bad. There's an action hero named Lithloric -- you'd know him if you ever subscribed to any of those old Ilbisoon comic streams. He once took out the Kelp Queen with a single punch to the temple. It was awesome."

She arched an eyebrow. "The Kelp Queen?"

"She was totally evil."

"I see."

So that's what was stamped into my official identification chit: Lithloric I. Waterpipes of Ilbisia, Ilbis. The I was for "Idiot" because, you know, you can't just throw your whole heritage away. Your present's only your present because it's built on your past. Life is cumulative.

And wearing a lar -- actually plugging in? Immediately afterward I felt stupid to have been scared.

I mean, sure, people are in your business. There's no getting around that. But especially at the beginning that saved me from embarassing myself countless times; as I navigated my first few weeks on the job I could always count on the friendly, disembodied whispers in the back of my brain tipping me off to Penardu customs and helping me sound out big words.

"You left your mop back in the alcove."

"You missed a spot, there by the jamb."

"Just step back and keep your head down until the police have secured their target in the van outside. Don't be afraid. You haven't done anything wrong. We're with you."

"Don't forget to lock up the storage closet!"

"You're frustrated. Go outside and feel the sun on your skin. You can spare a moment to feel alive."

And then one day as I was scouring a row of urinals, instead of yellow-streaked porcelain I saw a sidewalk. I blinked, dropped back on my haunches and shook my head. But the sidewalk was still there, bobbing as someone walked along. I realized that my probationary period with the clan had come to an end: I was seeing someone else's stream.

An unconscious part of me steeled when I saw the walker was about to trip over an uneven strip of curb. Instantly, the perspective canted as the walker sidestepped the obstacle. I gasped aloud -- did I do that?

I noticed then that a man was standing beside me in the washroom, one hand hovering uncertainly at his fly as he watched me kneeling in apparent worship before the urinal. He coughed. "Um, are you finished here?"

I hurriedly grabbed my cleaning wand and stood up. "Yes, esteemed! Sorry about that."

He grunted and shuffled up to relieve himself. I was just leaving the washroom as I heard him mutter, "Senseless Ilbisoon mule!"

A voice in my mind: "Don't let it get to you, neighbour."

"Stay silent. A response could cost you your job."

"Chin up, brother."

I spent the rest of the afternoon in a bit of a daze, half-hypnotized by the flurry of images from my clansmen's lives projected into my brain, throttled depending on my level of activity. I could easily ignore what I saw, though I don't know if I can describe how -- there's a kind of "looking away" you can do with the imaginary eyes inside your mind, to keep the foreign streams pushed aside. Doing so came naturally. I never felt bombarded, but I was in awe of the experience.

Most of the scenes presented to me disappeared the moment some part of my mind gave its little lurch of approval or disapproval, while others lingered long enough for me to see the consequences of my opinion. I figured out how to send words without saying anything aloud although, like the stereotype of a subvocal novice, my throat twitched in an unseemly fashion as I did so. "Don't worry," I told one woman after a tearful breakup with her paramour. "You can do better than him."

She replied, "Your accent is very cute."

I got gooseflesh. To cast a vote or mutter a phrase is one thing, but to feel the ghosts behind my eyes speak back gave me a strange but not disquieting thrill. I was not a mere spectator. I was...connected.

My mop forgotten for a spell, I looked out through the lobby windows to the busy street beyond -- so many masked faces, so many conversations, so many messages: and I was part of it. For the first time in my life, I wasn't on the outside looking in at the greater goings on of society's day to day affairs. I was included.

I was a citizen.

"Your supervisor is coming."

I turned to see Mr. Lifeloaf crossing the shining floor. I grabbed my mop. "I'm sorry, esteemed, I was just --"

He held up a meaty hand. "Relax, Lith," he said, his accent the lilting song of Eastern Ilbis. "I'm not here to crack the whip, fellow. Matter of truth, I'm here to let you know what a fine job you've been doing here. The Mrs. Codesmiths are very pleased."

I grinned beneath my mask. "Thanks for troubling to saying so, esteemed."

"Well, I know it isn't always easy for us Ilbies to get a foot in the door. Makes my pride when one of us manages to step up, and I'm happy to lend a hand to a fellow who means well and works hard." He paused, the lenses of his mask reflecting my own. "Where've you been living, if I can ask?"

"My girl and I rent a room," I said, naming the neighbourhood.

He shook his head. "That's a terrible part of town, Lith. Right dangerous for upstanding people."

"I can take care of myself," I assured him, standing tall.

He shifted then and looked away, trying unsuccessfully to hide the smile from his posture. "My wife and I, we have a little place with rooms for let. Down by the quay. It's nothing fancy, but the neighbourhood's safe. Does that hold any interest for you?"

"That's kind of you to mention, esteemed, but I couldn't afford --"

"Stop right there," he said, holding up both hands. "Because you haven't heard everything I've been sent to say yet, fellow. Like I mentioned, the Codesmiths are satisfied, and so am I. That's why you're getting a raise."

"A...raise?"

"It's just a small one, mind, but it's something to show we appreciate the attitude you bring to the job."

I didn't know what to say. I juggled my mop awkwardly so I could extend a hand to shake. "Wow, that's swell! Real swell! Thank you, thank you Mr. Lifeloaf!"

"My pleasure, Lith," he chuckled happily, but his expression changed as a clot of lockstep shadows darkened the lobby's wide windows. I turned to look, though I already knew what was there: a demonstration by the Penardun hardliners -- black uniforms and crimson boots, lares flanked by flares of blade-like wings. One platoon marched by and then another, followed by the Youth Brigade carrying brightly glowing banners between them: PURIFY PENARDUN.

I saw a girl catch sight of my pale fingers on the mop's handle, flit to the Ilbisoon band around my arm. She called to her fellows and pointed. Others strayed, joining her at the glass. They began to bang on the windows, their shouts amplified by their lares into a robotic symphony: "Ilbisoon parasites go home! Ilbisoon parasites go home!"

I looked over at Mr. Lifeloaf nervously. His mouth tightened. "Stand your ground, fellow. That's security glass. Can't touch us. So don't offer them no satisfaction."

I nodded, mask held high, fighting not to flinch.

The Youth Brigade upended a trash bin and smeared garbage on the windows before hurrying on to catch up with their troupe. Horns blared and drums beat. The remains of people's lunches oozed down the glass.

Even though it meant staying late, I opted to wait until the rally was finished before venturing out to wipe everything down.

I loitered in the lobby until the streets cleared, the city tinted purple for the brief moment of twilight before all the lamps came on. I glanced up from the comics playing on my watch as a lone Penardu woman in a fancy suit clicked her heels across the floor. She exchanged pleasantries with the guard, juggled her purse and coat as she fished for her pass, then rushed out to hail a taxicab with a flashing beacon. One swooped down in an instant, and she was gone.

On the floor, under the edge of the security desk, was a pocket-sized leather bag.

I pretended I was buffing the baseboards for an excuse to lean in and pick it up. The guard ignored me, eyes on his watch. I slunk away to a corner and peeled open the bag. Inside was hard currency. It glittered.

I pinched the bag shut and whipped my head up, looking around. An old, familiar feeling of opportunity's knock trickled into me. I began to smile to myself.

And then, just as I was about to slip the little leather bag into my pocket, I heard a tiny voice inside. It was high-pitched and mealy-mouthed -- it was the voice of a very young child.

She said, "That doesn't belong at you."

I froze. For an instant the possibilities raced through my mind: I could lock into absolute privacy mode, spending some off my scarce quota -- I could deny it, who would believe a child? -- I could turn my head, work by feel, and pretend I had complied -- I could ignore it, and do what I needed to do to make a better life for Venus and me...

But instead I dropped the bag on the guard's desk. As I walked away I murmured, "Thanks, kid."

When I got home I couldn't stop talking about all the things I had seen and lives I had touched. My enthusiastic gushing tapered off, however, when the look on Venus' face began to sink in. I paused, then tightened my mouth and put my hand on her shoulder. "I'm being an ass," I concluded lamely.

"No, no," she insisted, taking my hand and squeezing it. "I'm very happy for you. It's just that..."

"You miss it," I finished for her. "Now I'm a part of things, and you're still all alone."

She shook her head and reached out to touch my face. "I'm not really alone."

"Don't be anal. You know what I mean."

She nodded sadly, her hand slipping away. "It's okay, though. I'm okay. I don't have actual envy..."

"Just a reasonable facsimile thereof?"

She almost smiled. "Or unreasonable, as the case may be. How much easier my existence would be had Venus provided a more rational template."

I sniffed. "You're patterned after a person. She wouldn't have been human if she hadn't been irrational. With people, you take the social grooming along with the throwing of faeces -- you can't have one without the other."

She giggled. "I swear never to throw faeces at you."

"That's quite a promise from someone who doesn't move her bowels." I looked over at her sideways. "But seriously, things are going to get better. That's a genuine promise." I grinned. "First of all, we're moving out of this dump. I've made arrangements with my boss to let a room from him and his wife. It's by the quay."

"But how could we ever afford that? You're not getting into --"

"I'm not getting into anything," I said, still grinning. "I got a raise, is all. A legitimate, legal, above-board raise. Because I earned it."

She looked up, beaming. "Oh Idiot, that's wonderful!"

"And that's just the start, Venus, I'm telling you now. In a while I'm going to get an even better job, and earn another raise, and before you know it we'll have enough money to leave this place for keeps."

She furrowed her brow. "Where would we go?"

"Offworld, baby. Out of this whole damn star system. We're going someplace where people don't need masks to be part of things, and where people don't keep you down just because of the way you talk or the colour of your skin." I seized her hand and pulled her off the shelf and into my embrace. "We're going someplace where it doesn't matter what your guts are made of -- where you won't have to hide. Not ever again."

Her eyes swam. We kissed. It was one hell of a dream.

The Lifeloafs' place was quaint and unassuming on the outside -- lines of shrubbery around the landing platforms, a goofy face on the mailbox in the shade of a cherry tree, patio lamps shaped like rabbits with surprised, glowing mouths. Inside was the noise and laughter and bickering of several families packed into close quarters, sharing almost every aspect of their lives elbow to elbow. Venus and I were introduced to each of them in a bewildering rush of lares and handshakes. They were a motley crew; while mostly Ilbisoon some were even from out-of-system.

Mr. Lifeloaf narrated the introductions. "This is Ping from Soshu Star -- he's a waste engineer -- and these are the Prowyards who hail all the way from Ops. That's at Indi, isn't it?"

"Yas, yas! Glad to meet yer, Mr. Lithloric! What a beauty yer, Mrs. Waterpipes!" crooned one of the Prowyards, pumping my hand up and down vigorously.

Engineer Ping bowed his head. "Welcome. We are all friends in this house."

"Now please don't be scandalized," warned Mr. Lifeloaf, "but seeing as we have so many foreign fellows here, we're not so strict as some when it comes to lares. I'm just saying so, Esteemed Mrs. Waterpipes, so you don't find yourself screaming if you come down for a midnight snack and run smack into some oaf's naked face."

Venus blushed. "I think I can handle it, esteemed."

"Attagirl."

On Starday evenings we all had supper together around a long table that ran, when extended, from the diningroom right into the livingroom. Maskless, shameless, like one big weird family. These meals were forums for the enthusiastic exchange of opinions, chaired by the jovial master of the house with a tolerant hand that only went up for silence when tempers threatened to fray.

"They know it!" cried Ike Bolt, bringing his fist down on the table and making everyone's cutlery jump. "They know full well we'd all up and leave if we could. That's why they clamp down on our mobility. If we had the means to get out of this system they'd lose the whole damn labour pool inside of a month."

Ping nodded solemnly. "Economic patch optimization is an excuse. That much is clear. Every day we have fewer rights. Where will it end?"

"I'll tell you," said Mr. Lifeloaf. Everyone turned to look. He cleared his throat and touched his lips with a napkin. "Quarantine."

The word hung in the air. I blinked. "Like, for sick people?"

"Quarantine," he repeated heavily, "for the system. The Panstellars'll shut down the hyperspace gates. We'll be cut off."

Younger Prowyard shook his head fiercely. "All respect, but that's faeces. Yas yas, they'll shurt down the gates against barbarism, but lork around -- does this place seem barbarian to yer? These Penardu live in the lap of luxury!"

"Have you ever read the Panstellar charter, fellow?" asked Mr. Lifeloaf pointedly, brow raised. "Being connected to the rest of the worlds isn't a right, it's a privilege. And that privilege can be hopelessly fouled in a blink, once a people lose sight of the value of human dignity. It's a slippery slope. And let me assure you, young esteemed, what's going on right now in this system isn't the precipice -- no, son, it's well down the way to the sinkhole. Secret police, forced labour camps, disappeared people, corrupted feeds -- that's black, son. Hard black. The devil's black."

"So what's an Ilbie to do?" asked Scarlet, a quiet girl on the mend from a wicked life. "What're we supposed to wish for?"

"We quit it," said Mr. Lifeloaf firmly. "We quit Dzigai, turn our back on this sun. We leave all this mess behind and start a new life somewhere proper. That's what all our savings are towards, aren't they, dear?"

His wife nodded. "We won't budge, though, til every Lifeloaf's got his ticket."

Ike Bolt snorted, shaking his head. "That's all well and good for you, but I've got roots. I'm fourth generation in this system. I'm not about to willingly throw away my own family history, and every tradition and dignity, and all they fought and suffered for. What kind of man would I be?"

"Yer a fool," snapped the Elder Prowyard. "It's just dirt under your boots, a planet. Northing more. The dignity's in yer heart, not in the real estate. You serve yer family best by providing for their future, not derfending their past."

Ike's complexion coloured dangerously, but he leaned back in his chair and kept his lips pressed firmly closed. The salad bowl was passed around. Cutlery clinked, eyes stayed low.

I cleared my throat awkwardly. "We're leaving, too." Everyone turned to me, and I blushed. Venus held my hand under the table.

"Where're you planning to head, fellow?" asked Mr. Lifeloaf.

I shrugged, feeling stupid. "I don't know, actually."

"Well, we're aiming for Tanigretta," he replied, pushing a forkful of food through a pool of sauce. "There's a fair shake of Ilbies there already. Word is there's jobs to be had, schools to be subscribed to, lakes to be fished."

"And no damn lares!" added Elder Prowyard with a wheezing guffaw. Everyone laughed.

Even Ike roused a smile, raising his glass. "Hear, hear!"

We all toasted to that, holding aloft our glasses of water or milk or wine to tap them together and hoot, dreaming of a maskless life...

A summer evening. Music from somebody else's room was murmuring through the old house, wafting into streets just recently swept clean and cool by thunderstorm. The sun returned for sunset, the wet leaves on the cherry tree reflecting a golden sky. Birds flitted, spraying droplets as they shook out their feathers.

"What are you watching?"

"Just the birds, is all."

"There's your gutter accent again."

I smiled. "It can't be chased away altogether, I guess."

Venus was painting. The air was heavy with linseed, which is why I sat by the window. She squinted, her face smeared with cadmium and ochre, standing back from her work with hands on hips and a critical expression. "I'm not sure this is as successful as my previous renderings of this vantage."

I shrugged without looking. "They all look the same, darling. You're nit-picking."

Then I blinked, looking past her. Venus turned, too. There was a tiny face peeking at us from beside the sofa, and for once it wasn't a blandly content hat-stand or grinning umbrella: it was a very small person with bright blue eyes. Those eyes widened when they saw me staring.

"Hello!" said Venus.

The child pinched his little lips together, but said nothing.

"Well, come on, then," continued Venus. "You're watching me paint?"

A nod. At her beckoning the boy stepped out from behind the sofa dragging a short scrap of blanket behind him. He positioned himself at her side and then fixed his eyes on the brushes, as if willing them to act.

"Quiet fellow, eh?" I said. The child ignored me.

Venus resumed painting. The little blue eyes followed her every motion, enraptured. He rested his chin in one chubby little palm. Venus glanced down at him and smiled. "It must be like magic to a child," she mused, "to see images pouring out of someone's hands."

I smirked. "Have you finally found a way to simulate willful ignorance?"

"Maybe I have," she said, eyes twinkling as she looked down at the cherubic little boy again.

Suddenly Mrs. Lifeloaf was at the door. "Oh, Heavens!" she cried. "I'm so sorry, Esteemed Waterpipes! I've told him again and again not to be sneaking around scaring people with his immodesty! Oh, this is shaming. I can't apologize enough. Hector! Get your little naked face over here this instant."

We were quick to assure her the boy had been no trouble. "He was watching me paint," explained Venus, pointing to her easel.

Mrs. Lifeloaf looked, then gasped. "Saints above! What a gift you have, Esteemed Mrs. Waterpipes. A genuine gift, to be sure."

"That's kind of you to say. Please, though, you're in our home: call me Aphrodite."

Mrs. Lifeloaf's eyes did not waver from the canvas. "I could sell these at market, you know. They'd fetch something, that's sure. Gifted -- just gifted."

Venus blushed. "Well, I'm not sure that --"

"That's brilliant," I interrupted, nodding my head. "That's a wonderful idea, Mrs. Lifeloaf. You know we'd be happy to split the money with you. Every little bit counts."

Mrs. Lifeloaf beamed. "I've always loved art," she told us enthusiastically. "I've always looked up to artists. It's a miracle the way people gifted such as yourself can conjure images inside their minds, and then make them real for all to share. Well, not really real, of course -- but real enough to see. You know what I mean, I hope."

We did. And after Mrs. Lifeloaf had scooped up little Hector and carried him upstairs for his bath we peeled through the canvases stored in the closet, putting aside a stack to send to market. I propped one of her cliffside studies up on the bed and stood back, tilting my head at it. "I bet we could ask fifty for this," I guessed.

When she didn't reply I looked away from the painting. Her expression was pinched. "What is it?" I asked.

"We can't sell these," she said flatly.

"What? Why?"

She shook her head, her gaze far away. After a moment she looked up again. "You really are an idiot sometimes, do you know that?" She sniffed and turned back to the stack. "These are all paintings of the vizier's private summer estate. No one knows these cliffs but the vizier, his daughter, and the intelligence and security forces that protect them from the world. We would be fools to imagine images such as these could pass hands without being scanned even once. Every man is just a few degrees separated from any other man in a world of connected lares."

I started to say something, then stopped. I knew she was right. By releasing these paintings to the public we would be drawing a giant arrow on the map of Fingal pointing out our general existence and specific neighbourhood. I sighed.

At the bank there was a special queue for expats. It was always the longest. That Moonday it was especially long and I couldn't figure out why until it was my turn at the kiosk, and the teller pushed my deposit receipt through the slot. I frowned at the little flimsy piece of plastic. "Um, I think there's a mistake here..." I began.

She shook her head irritably. "Don't any of you Ilbisoon bother to keep up with the news?"

"What news?"

"There's no mistake. We've simply applied the alien tax to your transaction, as specified in the new code. All aliens are now subject to special taxation in order to fund the internment camps."

My eyes widened behind my mask. "You're telling me now we have to pay for our fellows to be enslaved?"

The teller's hand hovered over a large red button. "Am I going to have a security situation here...esteemed?"

"What?"

"Calm yourself and step aside for the next person in line. This is your final warning. Threatening a bank official is a crime."

"Threatening -- ? What?"

Three security agents in spiked, thorn-edged lares threw me unceremoniously into the street, then tossed a small red slip of plastic at me. I picked it up and blinked at it, rubbing a bruised arm. It said I had been suspended from engaging in banking transactions at any institution on the planet for fourteen business days.

"Motherfornicators," I muttered, getting sadly to my feet.

Someone in my head whispered, "Watch your mouth, son."

"Faeces!" I screamed in the street, causing several passersby to scatter away from my startling public vitriol. Thus vented, I hung my head and trudged back home. I knew Mr. Lifeloaf was waiting on the rent, and a lump formed in my throat as I turned into the yard and saw him there, pruning the cherry tree.

"Mr. Lifeloaf..." I began sheepishly, mouth dry.

He put aside the shears and smiled. "Why the stooped shoulders, Lith? World got you down?"

"It's this alien tax," I said.

He nodded knowingly. "It's an insult, of course. Another sliver of freedom shaved away for good. But what can we do? We must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's..."

"I've heard that before. It's a poem?"

"No, fellow, that's the Good Book. It contains all the wisdom of every hyper-iteration of the Lord Jesus Christ, from all his incarnations on all the different worlds throughout history. The Lifeloafs are Hyper-Christian through and through, you understand. It's the guidance of the Good Book that keeps us steady."

I swallowed. "Well, steady yourself for this, then. You see, at the bank..."

"What is it, Lith?"

"It's about the rent, esteemed."

"The rent?" He chuckled and put a hand on my shoulder. "Don't you fret, fellow. I've got no problem with a cash payment."

"You don't understand. I don't have cash, esteemed."

"Of course you do! Your lovely Aphrodite paid me already in hard currency."

I blinked. "Pardon?"

A minute later I burst into our room, startling Venus at her easel. "You paid the rent?"

Her cheeks dimpled.

"But how?"

She wordlessly turned her easel around. The painting in progress was a scene I had never seen before -- a plain before the mountains, a cloud-streaked sky, a herd of some beasts scattered across the grasses. I looked up at her and pulled off my lar, mouth agog. "Where is this place?"

"It's nowhere," she said, eyes glinting with mischief. "It's...novel."

"Novel?"

"I invented it," she explained. "There is no such place as this in the world, except for as it exists in this image. It is virtual and actual at the same time, like flip sides of the same coin. It is a depiction of itself, and itself is the depiction." She stood tall, chin high. "I did it by redefining my own understanding of virtuality."

"How?"

"By cultivating a seed of willful ignorance."

I grabbed her and swung her around in the air. We laughed and we kissed. When we'd dropped to the sofa she told me how she had been painting all day, and how Mrs. Lifeloaf had taken two small studies that were nearly dry to the market and sold them for some pretty decent scratch. Mrs. Lifeloaf had returned with a list of names, people interested in commissioning a painting of their own -- portraits, beloved pets, properties and vistas of imagination alike. With the money we stood to earn we could make it offworld after all, alien tax or no alien tax.

"You were right, Idiot," she said. "My instincts -- they are plastic. Well, maybe not properly plastic, but at least elastic. You were right. I can grow. I can change."

I hugged her close. "Don't change too much."

"I can never turn my back entirely on my template," she admitted, "but I can redefine the way I interpret my directives. I can build my own bridges to span the gaps. I can heal the wounds of Venus' death."

"Don't heal everything," I said nervously. "I mean, what about your self-destruct --"

She silenced me with a finger on my lips. "That? That's been operational for months, darling."

"But you haven't --"

"Oh no," she agreed. "I haven't. And I never will. I could never leave you."

Week by week our savings grew, but others were not so fortunate to have found a source of hard currency. Instead, all of their life's value was locked into banking accounts they dared not touch for fear of the transaction levies. "They're forcing us to the margins of society!" cried Ike Bolt at supper. "They're fixing it so that you can't make an honest deal or do honest business anymore. We're being pushed into black markets, and then arrested for participating."

"At least some of us have something to sell," said Scarlet quietly, eyes down.

"It is a means to make normal life impossible," opined Ping. "How can we behave as civilized people when our own money cannot buy us bread?"

"I'll buy you some bread," intoned Mr. Lifeloaf. "My family would rather be slightly hungrier than watch a brother turn criminal. Isn't that right, Lifeloafs?"

His family members arrayed around the long table nodded solemnly. "If we all help each other out, we'll get through this," Mrs. Lifeloaf assured Ping. "Amen," agreed ten-year-old Milliard. Hector put his cereal bowl on his head and clapped.

The Prowyards had disappeared -- whether detained or escaped to greener pastures, we would never know. The silence of the authorities was deafening.

Autumn came. The leaves turned blood-red, the grass straw-yellow, the breeze cold. Venus and I spent our weekends at a crude market stall we shared with a ceramics sculptor, hawking paintings and arranging for portrait sittings. Many of those she painted could not sit, as they had disappeared; their families brought us holographs for her to copy from.

"It's cold," I said, hugging my shoulders. "We should buy sweaters. Fine ones, like those folks over there have."

"That would set our savings back at least a week, Idiot."

I waved her objections off. "What's a week? We're almost there. Either way before winter comes you and I are going to have our tickets in hand. Check my math -- am I wrong?"

She smiled. "You're not wrong. It just feels...indulgent."

I hooked my arm into her elbow and squeezed her against me. "We deserve it. We work hard. There's no good reason why we should shiver ourselves stupid every weekend just to get there one week sooner."

"The cold doesn't actually bother me, you know."

"Then think of it this way: if everyone else out here is freezing their tits off, how's it going to look if you're the only one who doesn't seem to mind? Awful peculiar, if you ask me." I looked at her sideways.

She rolled her eyes, chewed her lip, then nodded. "Alright, then. Let's do it. Let's be the sort of people who can buy sweaters, if only just this once."

I cheered. "To the shops!"

We held hands, swinging them between us as we sallied down the street toward the core. Streams of loose leaves fluttered between the towers and spires, carried by alley-channeled gusts. We gawked at the intricate window displays of colourful scarves and mittens wrapped around mannequins on frictionless skiis. In the square by the front doors we stopped to watch a band play folk songs on traditional Penardu instruments.

And Venus sang with them, weaving a haunting melody around their repetitive chord progressions that, when done, inspired everyone gathered there to applaud and hoot.

"That was beautiful!" said someone in my head.

I took her arm. She turned to me, grinning. "How positively exhilarating! Oh Idiot, I've never felt more alive."

"How did you fit one of your old songs to their tune?" I asked, impressed.

"I didn't," she said primly. "I just...made it up as I went along."

Inside the shop we browsed fancy sweaters elbow to elbow with Penardun's most upstanding citizens, and though the clerk frowned at me and my pale skin he was all too happy to tend to the gracious Venus. We tried on sweater after sweater, twirling before the mirrors. I felt like I had butterflies in my belly, and found myself laughing at anything.

I pulled her close to me and gently knocked my lar against hers, whispering, "I wish I could tear that infernal mask from your face and kiss your naked lips -- right here, right now."

She shushed me as she giggled, pressing herself against me. "You're crazy, but I love you."

My breath caught in my throat. "For real?"

"What could be more real than this?" she asked.

The shop windows shattered with a bang.

I staggered forward and dropped to my knees, my skin stinging from a dozen tiny slices and my lungs blasted empty. People must have screamed but I couldn't hear anything but a whining buzz. I looked up to see row after row of white Ilbisoon bodies leaping over the sills and into the mayhem, their naked faces painted with gay swirls and flowers, their mouths opened to release howls that were mute to me.

But I could read their lips. They cried, "Free your minds!"

They began tearing the lares off the shop patrons all around them. I realized my hearing was slowly returning as a sound like a stuck pig penetrated the buzzing; an elderly lady was squealing in terror as her mask was yanked off by two painted Ilbisoon activists with peace symbols on their fists.

"Free your minds! Free your minds!"

I got to my feet but was knocked down again. I couldn't see Venus. Panicked patrons were scrambling over fallen display cases and sweater racks, cowering under tables or covering their exposed faces with trembling fingers. I managed to pull myself to relative safety on top of a shelving unit, craning my lar wildly back and forth.

Riot police were running into the shop now, jazzers flashing as they pushed the swarm of activists toward the changing rooms. Through the chaos I spotted Venus and immediately leapt from my perch to cross the distance to her.

I was tackled, my mask wrestled off.

I rolled quickly to my feet, facing the panting Ilbisoon guerilla who still held my lar in his rainbow-painted hands. I grabbed it. "Hey man," he said with a smug grin, "free your mind!"

I clubbed him to the ground with my lar, then ran on.

"Idiot!" screeched Venus. I could see her, just an aisle away, twisting in the hands of two Ilbisoon. "Help me!"

I skidded to the end of the aisle and into the arms of two riot police. "Help, help!" I cried. "They have my wife!"

They threw me down and jazzed me repeatedly. And, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised; my skin was white and without a lar to cover it they had no way of knowing I was a legitimate man. At the time, however, there was nothing but the all-encompassing, searing pain of being jazzed. I writhed on the floor, limbs contorted, lungs burning, heart fit to explode.

But. I. Would. Not. Be. Contained.

I rose up. Yes, despite the fire in my nervous system, despite the uniformed police fighting to hold me under their boots, despite everything. I rose up, like a juggernaut, like a phoenix, my eyes wild and a new and startling kind of iron will puppeteering me, driving me to find strength I could not ever have imagined I had inside of me.

My memories are not clear, but there are snippets. I recall pushing many people out of my way, police and activist and patron alike, mowing through them without remorse or hesitation as Venus' cries grew closer. I was hit from behind by batons but it didn't matter. Not one bit.

And then there she was, kicking off one activist as another seized her from behind. He was worming his hand into the seam at the chin of her lar, prying it outward with a grimace.

I wrenched his hand away from her and bit it. He howled and dropped to the ground. I spit the tip of his index finger out of my mouth.

And then I watched helplessly as the second activist jumped on her back and tore her lar free.

Time seemed to slow. The lar flew aside, the inset locking helmet cracking as it bounced clear.

I looked into her eyes and she looked into mine. I saw the horror there.

Network had found her.

Her instincts could not be suppressed. She was, in that split second, every bit the mechanism she always warned that she was. "Don't do it!" I screamed, but it didn't matter. There were no alternatives.

Code was code, and her healed body could not help but obey.

"Idiot..." mewled her ruined face as capsules of corrosive acid throughout her body broke open in rapid sequence. Her clothes smoked and her hair fell out. Her hands, now just metal claws, clanked lifelessly into the pools of sick fluid that had collected beneath her disintegrating body. In less than thirty seconds there was nothing left to recognize.

My soul shredded.

I don't know for sure what happened next, but the court transcripts claim I murdered the activist via a method both bestial and foul. A method best left undescribed.

I was jazzed. I was beaten down by batons. I was kicked and cuffed, hollered at and sealed inside a black bag that brought me a world of sweet, suffocating darkness.

"Kill me," I begged them. "Please kill me!"

But nobody wanted to do me any favours that day.

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