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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 7

I suspect some terrible things happened to me next, but I can't really be sure. The records are sealed.

Only slowly did I come to from that dark, delirious, desperate time. Only gradually was I able to recognize the feeling of my body's weight and the slow, rhythmic draw and release of breath inside of me. Pin-prick flares of brightness punctured the dim when I stirred.

I yanked the black hood off my head. I winced at the light, gasping.

The sound of my respiration continued slow and steady despite the shallow, panicked, craving contractions of my lungs. After a while I dared to peek between my fingers at the shifting glare again. Before me, a glittering blanket rolled and sloshed.

The ocean. It was the ocean. I blinked and rubbed my burning eyes.

I was lying on my side on a beach of fine, white sand. A brown ant was working its way over an island of pebbles just centimetres from my nose. Beyond her, the blurry ocean washed in and out, in and out, in and out...

With effort I managed to sit upright. I ached. There were tiny scorch marks on the backs of my hands. My head was shaven. I was dressed in a black plastic coverall that whispered and creaked as I moved. I drew back the right sleeve to examine the stinging skin there, revealing a scabbed tattoo: a crude iconification of the Ilbisoon flag with a long serial number etched beneath it.

The brown ant had long since moved on. I don't know how long I sat there staring at the sea. I was numb, and my thoughts flowed reluctantly. Only by repeated attempts at concentration was I able to take even the most rudimentary stock of my situation.

I was at the beach. Venus was gone and I'd been arrested, but, still...I was at the beach.

Something occurred to me. I turned around.

The cliffs stood tall behind me, faces striped with sedimentary layers. The breeze blowing out over the precipice was scented by fruit. That smell could only be from the orchards on the plateau above. They smelled just the way I had always imagined, soft peach commingling with grass and brine.

I still had to squint to see. Tears made the images swim. It was impossible to resolve any details; it became plain to me that that was because they were not there. No, the finest level of details were lost in the thick brush-strokes of colour from which this quiet, sun-dappled world was built.

I was inside Venus' paintings.

There was comfort in this realization, because it could not possibly be the case. Obviously, I was dead. Or perhaps merely dying. Either way, it seemed clear to me that a profound schism had developed between myself and reality. I reasoned that what was happening to me out in the world was simply too much for me to bear, and so my consciousness had retreated here, to an oil-paint simulacrum where nothing could hurt.

I shuddered to imagine what might be happening to my body. I was grateful to have gone so mercifully mad.

I was thirsty, though. Parched, in fact.

Could a man be refreshed by a linseed oil spring in a painted prison? I knew how to test that. I carefully got to my feet, my balance uncertain, then trudged north along the coast in the shadow of the cliffs, the thighs of my plastic clothes zinging loudly as they swept past one another.

I knew by heart every scene Venus had ever painted and so I therefore knew intimately the lay of the land. Thus I found myself smiling when I came to the gap in the cliffs where winding stone steps led up through a garden, switch-backing up the hill toward the grand summer house at the summit. I knew the steps would be there. I had often wondered how they would feel beneath my bare feet.

I climbed. At the midway I came to the gazebo in the shade of a pear tree, and at its centre was a small fountain pouring into a sculpted marble bowl. The water chuckled as it splashed down. I knelt at its side and drank greedily, cool water running over the front of my plastic coverall. I dried myself with the black hood. Finally slaked, I sat on the bench in the gazebo for a while before picking a pear and biting into it.

It was delicious, though my last bite revealed half a worm. I frowned, then tossed the core aside to resume the climb. This was a strange paradise.

My vision was crystallizing. No longer was the world so blurry, or seemingly crossed with strokes of thick medium. The veil of glare had faded to admit the details -- lizards scampering among the vines, the aperiodic sway and dip of ferns in the moving air, streaks of mineral discolouration on the stone showing the flow of the winter rains...

At the top of the steps the garden widened and I followed the path that wound along the cliffside wall toward the terrace. The orchard's perfume was even stronger here, mixed with the wet funk of aloe. Birds chased one another through an unblemished cobalt sky.

I turned onto the terrace before the house.

There -- back to me, facing the easel as I knew she would be -- was Venus.

The black hood was still in my hand, hanging at my side. I knelt down and scooped up a sharp-edged rock, using it to cut two crude eye-holes into the hood. It would be unthinkable to meet my sweet dead love with a naked face.

She looked over as I approached, the lenses of her intricately detailed lar reflecting a warped and inverted image of me. She cocked her head and put aside her brush. "Hello?"

The sound of her voice did something to me. For a moment I was unable to speak.

"Are you quite alright?" she asked. Wisps of inky hair escaped the edge of her lar, waving in the breeze. She tucked them back in carelessly.

I managed to nod at last, forcing a breath through my quivering throat. I croaked, "Am I in Heaven now?"

She sniffed. "Is that supposed to be some sort of pick-up line?"

I blinked stupidly. "Uh, no. No. I just...I'm so happy to see you."

She cocked her head again, crossing her arms over her paint-stained smock. "Am I to understand we are acquainted, esteemed? I confess I do not recognize your voice or that...lar."

I reached up to touch the black hood over my face. "This? This isn't a lar, really. It's just...common modesty, I guess. I was just trying to be civilized."

She shrugged and turned back to her easel, taking up the brush. "How uncouth. Is there anything truly civilized or even trustworthy about a man who hides his mind?"

I rubbed my head as I took a step back. "Well," I said slowly, "if the mind is revealed to you, trust isn't a factor in the equation. Not really."

She hesitated with her brush, looking over her shoulder at me. "Fair enough," she agreed with a hint of laughing lilt in her voice. "The point is granted, stranger."

Stranger.

"Tell me," she went on to say, mixing colours on her palette; "are you a guest of my father's?"

I began to nod. "Yes," I said quietly. "Yes, I believe that I am."

I proceeded past her, the cushioning of my daze fading with every step. This world around me was made of neither paint nor magic, but rather was increasingly taking on the solidity and gritty tangibility of reality. Certainly I was not in Heaven, though I reserved judgement as to whether I had stepped into the outermost circle of Hell.

He was waiting for me inside the house, seated by a cold hearth with an open book in his lap. He looked up, his glittering lar causing caustic reflections to wink across the richly embroidered carpet. "Esteemed Mr. Waterpipes," he said simply, closing the book.

"The Supreme Vizier of Colonial Affairs, I presume."

"Quite so. Please, won't you sit?"

I sat in the high-backed chair opposite him, my hands resting on its intricately carved wooden arms. He crossed his legs and cleared his throat. "As we are within my home, I wonder if you would permit me to de-lar."

"Certainly, esteemed."

He removed his mask and I removed mine. He was more elderly than I had assumed, though proud-looking and handsome. His skin was the colour of mahogany, creased by wind and smiles, his forehead equally furrowed by worries. He wore a neatly-trimmed white beard with an ostentatious moustache, the ends oiled and curled. His lips were thin, his brown eyes flecked with green. Above all, he seemed...sad.

"You have a kind face," he said after appraising me. "I didn't expect that."

"You expected a hardened criminal? A monster, maybe?"

"I can see it in your eyes: it's me you expected to be monstrous."

"I don't deny it."

He sighed. "Acts without faces make caricatures of us all. In person, even our enemies become nothing more than men. You -- a terrorist, a murderer, a kidnapper, a conspirator. Me -- well...politics is rife with its own uncomfortable contradictions."

We were both silent as an Ilbisoon girl in a simple lar wheeled in the tea service and poured us each a steaming cup. When the door closed behind her we looked at one another again.

"Why am I here?"

He nodded as he sipped. "A fair question. But before I answer it, I have a few questions of my own. You would permit me?"

I nodded.

The vizier lifted the book from his lap. I recognized it. It had belonged to Venus. My Venus. He said, "There are compositions written here. Elaborate, inspired, quite moving compositions. Artful, to be sure. Subtle. Wholly original."

He held my eye. "Esteemed?" I prompted.

"Can you explain for me how it is that these notes are penned in my daughter's hand?"

His voice quavered, almost imperceptibly, as he asked it. His expression had become profoundly pained, his brows sloped, his mouth tight. I was startled to recognize his love. "She composed them," I said. "She wrote them herself."

"But that's quite impossible," he whispered, eyes flickering.

"I don't know what to tell you, esteemed."

He rose from his chair and ducked around it to yank a cover from a stack of canvases. I caught a scent of linseed and fought against painful nostalgia. He noticed me flinch. "You've imitated her style impeccably," said the vizier.

"With all respect, you're leading me. You already know those paintings are not mine."

"They were found in your flat."

"I shared that flat."

"You're asking me to believe the impossible."

"No, esteemed. I ask nothing of you. I want nothing from you."

He wheeled on me suddenly, eyes wild. "Then what do you want?"

"To die, is all," I told him, calm in the face of his sudden vehemence. "To make all this finished and over, for keeps. For good."

The vizier snorted, then drew back to pace before the paintings. "To escape justice?"

"No, esteemed. To escape the pain of having lost her."

He stopped pacing, back to me. His head hung. When I saw his shoulders quake I realized that he had sobbed. When he turned back to me his eyes were rimmed with red, the muscles of his jaw working. He wiped at his eyes brusquely with the back of one hand, then took a breath and lowered himself into his chair. He faced out the window for a while, not saying anything.

I tilted my head to match his line of sight. He was looking out over the terrace, watching Venus at the easel. The wind caught her smock, and for a moment she billowed like a flag.

"She was so beautiful," he said distantly. "So full of everything that makes life rich."

"I know," I said.

He turned to stare at me briefly, but quickly turned away again. "It is the merest shadow of what she was," he said. "An image. Nothing more. A memorial. A testament to an old man's weakness." He looked at me again, face long. "You see, I could never really say good-bye. I simply...could not."

I nodded. "You wanted to die."

He shook his head savagely. "No, no!" he spat with sudden vigour. He slammed his fist upon the arm of the chair. "I wanted her to live."

I said nothing.

He picked up his forgotten cup and sipped again, eyes closed. After a while he said, "An hundred years ago, when the Ilbisoon economy collapsed, my grandfather was an architect of the restructuring. He dedicated twenty years of his life to organizing the Hojan plants into something productive, something that worked -- something that could benefit everyone in the system."

"Except the Ilbisoon," I ventured.

"Nonsense!" he roared, tea sloshing violently. "It was done for Dzigai. Whose fault is it, I ask you, if one nation rose to the challenge and another did not? Whose fault is it that Pernardun seized opportunity when they saw it, while Ilbis wanted nothing but handouts? Did you educate yourselves? No. Did you promote cooperation? No. Did you contribute a single thing to this new success beyond petulant strikes and nuisance suits? No, you did not."

"We contributed our blood and our sweat."

"Oh, of course -- how could I forget the famous Ilbisoon reverence for blood? Tell me: was it that same reverence in effect when someone -- someone just like you -- took my Venus away from me? When someone decided to spill a girl's blood to force His Majesty's hand?" He shook his head again, looking away from me. "Hypocrisy. Empty rhetoric. Self-serving lies. That's what your reverence is to me, murderer."

"You hate us."

"I do, Mr. Waterpipes, I most assuredly do. We tried to help you, and you spat in our faces. Lawless ignorants like yourself martyring themselves and our own innocent citizens in a bid to overthrow democracy and order." He looked at me sideways, still facing the window. "You demand a permanent seat in parliament, blithely unconcerned that there are no votes to support it. You demand special treatment and exceptions for your criminals, while upstanding citizens suffer your childish wrath."

"You've rendered us hopeless."

He lifted his chin, expression haughty. "You did it to yourselves. Penardun is not your parent. Your destiny is of your own devising."

"Yet you seek to control us."

"We seek to limit the damage of your nationalistic histrionics, yes. Should the Hojan moons fail, we all would starve."

"We would starve as equals, at least."

The vizier sneered. "Only an idiot would sacrifice everything for a principle."

"Principles are valuable when you have nothing else. Mr. Lifeloaf taught me that."

"Jan Lifeloaf is dead," he hissed viciously. "Charged, convicted and executed for habouring a known enemy of the state! I watched his widow faint from grief."

That took my breath away, I admit it. When I had recovered some I looked up and narrowed my eyes at him. "You are a monster, vizier. A ghoul in man's clothing. Just the sort of creature that reminds me why we fight." I swallowed heavily, then added, "...Murderer."

We stared at each other, breathing shallow, nostrils flared.

He blinked first, then settled deeper into his seat. "Let us stop this," he said softly, the fire in his eyes diffused. "Both our causes are lost, whether you can see if from your vantage or not."

I licked my lips, frowning. "Both our causes?"

"It's gone too far," he said. "No one can turn it back. There is a power at work on our worlds now, stronger than any gravitational field, warping our cultures toward a common goal of damnation." He picked up his empty cup, shrugged at it, put it down again. "Do not doubt, Mr. Waterpipes, that they are here even now, spying on us. Making their accounts. Filing their reports. Auditing."

"Who?"

"Human executives. The Panstellars. Agents of Callicrates. It doesn't matter. The point is that it is only a matter of time before they close the gates, and leave us to fight amongst ourselves. The other worlds would not dare risk our brand of hatred contaminating their own affairs. I assure you that as we speak they are meeting in secret, discussing our fate."

I looked up. "If we worked together, we could stop them."

The vizier shook his head with a glum smile. "Too late. Far too late, Mr. Waterpipes. You Ilbisoon have never appreciated how close to the brink we live. The threat of censure colours everything we do. And it is only the greed for our exports that has stayed the sword of Damocles until now."

"How long do we have?"

"A dozen radians at the outside. Perhaps less. The Callicratian bureaucrats are ponderous but not indecisive. The charter is clear."

"Then we're doomed."

"Yes," he agreed easily. "Quite so. This is the twilight of our civilization, Mr. Waterpipes. Each side has squandered gifts. Let's not you and I argue them now." He cleared his throat. "I apologize for exposing you to my vitriol. It is not comportment befitting my station, and it helps nothing."

I paused, then agreed. "You still haven't told me why I'm here. If Mr. Lifeloaf has already been killed, why am I still alive?"

With a chillingly sober expression he said, "You won't have long to wait. I am a man of gross power, but even so in this instance my power can only delay the inevitable, not avert it."

"I will be executed, then."

"Certainly. The event will be streamed live all over Penardun, Ilbis and Hoj alike."

"You've brought me here first. Why? This is the third time I've asked you."

He held up a hand. "Have patience, Mr. Waterpipes."

Now it was my turn to snort. "Never ask a dying man to be patient, vizier," I said in a low, serious voice. "It is unkind, and perhaps even dangerous."

"There is one thing that unites us, you and I. Do you know what it is?"

I directed my gaze out the windows over the terrace. "You've had another made," I said, deliberately curt. "You've replaced her."

"As back then as now, I had no choice. To admit her death would be to advertise to every angry, ambitious Ilbisoon that this administration can indeed be wounded. That I can be wounded. That that might somehow matter."

"She is a pawn, then," I said, my tone hard and dismissive. "A political prop. A toy puppet."

From my peripheral vision I could see him hold up a hand imploringly. "Don't say that. Please. Mr. Waterpipes, I beg you. You know better than most that she...is...so much more than that. Or, rather, that she was."

"You cannot undo death."

"No," he agreed wistfully. "But you can."

I looked away from the window sharply. "What?"

"That object on the terrace cannot bring me the solace of her predecessor. Do you know why? Because of you. Because of you, Mr. Waterpipes, that object is nothing but an object to me now. I can find no more comfort there." After a pause he added, "I can only see the brush-strokes, no longer the picture."

I said nothing. What feeling was he attempting to provoke in me? Did he expect compassion?

The vizier said, "You can't know how much over the past few days I have debated with myself whether to end it here, and destroy the thing once and for all."

At that I felt as if I had been punched in the sternum. "But you can't!" I cried.

"It is an animated statue, Mr. Waterpipes, nothing more. Static in every way that matters -- lifeless. A paused moment in time. A...doll."

"No!" I cried, rocketing out of my seat. "You're wrong, vizier. She has the capacity for happiness, the capacity to grow. She changed for me, esteemed -- she pushed beyond the boundaries of her existence. She became so much more; we both did. We even..." I hesitated, my voice falling. "We even made love."

He closed his eyes for a moment, expression inscrutable, then let his fingers trace over the cover of Venus' journal. "I know," he said softly. "And that's why I have not acted. That's why that machine is still painting on the terrace, and why you are here with me now."

"I don't understand."

He got up from his seat and gestured to the stack of canvases. "Somehow you have managed to inspire something real from within that mechanical shell. These paintings, these melodies, this creativity, this living spirit, this devotion...these are the things that the true Venus was." He turned to look at me. "You unfroze her. You made her a growing thing again. Where I commissioned a mere sculpture, you looked inside of it and found the subject herself." He spread his hands in appeal. "And I want you to do it again."

We both looked out the window at the Venus on the terrace. Sunlight winked off the metal fixtures on the back of the easel.

"I wouldn't know how," I admitted.

"You did it before. By loving her. By really and truly loving her."

"The afternoon is too short to find true love, vizier."

"You'll have all the time you need."

"My time's run out."

"Only in a manner of speaking."

I turned to look at his profile. "Am I to be executed or am I not? Let's quit playing games."

He faced me. "There's no game. Your execution is certain."

"Then...how?"

He gestured at me to follow him, then strode out of the sitting room. After a pause I followed. Through a set of double doors and into a study crammed baseboard to ceiling with humming machinery and conservatively masked experts in long, white coats. At the centre of the cluttered arrangement was a surgical table upon which lay a pale naked body, compartments on its torso open and connected to drooping loops of cabling, the apparatus within glistening under banks of bright lights.

My breath hitched in my throat. "Holy mung," I whispered. "That's me."

The vizier laid a gentle hand upon my shoulder. "If you permit it, it could be. Not you, perhaps, but a version of you. And, if we're very lucky, just maybe it will be a version of you with enough fidelity to the original that...that it might all happen again."

"You want a robot version of me to fall in love with the robot version of her?" I exclaimed, mouth hanging open.

He nodded. "Yes, Mr. Waterpipes. That is what I want."

I turned to him, frowning. "Why ask my permission? Why not simply take what you need?"

"These roboticists, each a leading thinker in the Equivalency Movement, have explained to me that the process would be simpler with your consent and cooperation. The likelihood of a high fidelity imaging session is much better if you're not fighting it."

"Then I could refuse. I could deny you this. I could reason that you deserve nothing, for all the horror you've brought to this world and mine."

"You could," he agreed. "And you would not be wrong. But is punishing me worth denying her the chance to live again?" He straightened, dropping his hands to his sides. "I ask you to leave my punishment to God, with whom I will eventually have to reckon, come what may. I ask you to think only of Venus. And of the possibilities."

"But our worlds are doomed to anarchy no matter what I do."

"That's so," he said evenly. "So let us both strive to make a contribution to these dark days that is pure. We have it in our power, you and I, to bring into this world a narrow ray of true love. Should we not attempt it?"

He held out his hand to me. "For her sake, Mr. Waterpipes. Please."

I looked at his hand. I looked at the life-like illegal robot splayed out on the table, looked at the averted gazes of the experts in their white coats, the blinking lights of their forbidden Equivalency devices. I even dared look into the black part of my heart where the love between Venus and I used to live.

"Mr. Waterpipes," urged the vizier gently. "Time is of the essence. The hour of your execution is almost upon us."

And it was quite a pageant, my execution. Beautiful showgirls, fireworks, marching bands, flapping flags, swooping holographics. After a rousing address from His Royal Majesty in which he implored the masses to sharpen their prejudices, Lithloric I. Waterpipes was affixed between two metal bars by manacles, then lined up in the sights of an arrayed particle gun disruptor. A list of official charges were read to which the audience booed and hollered, some rending their clothing and clutching their lares in mourning for those whose deaths were attached to my actions on the day of those guerilla attacks on Fingal so very long ago.

To my credit, I did not cower or whimper. I held my chin up high and, as the laser targetting dots converged, opened my mouth and let loose a cry of, "Ilbis arisen!"

In a flash, I was gone.

I can't complain. We have a good life, Venus and I -- or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. We play in the surf. We talk endlessly. And one day -- I can feel it's really close now -- one day she's going to paint something novel again. But for now it's all cliffsides and the gazebo, the orchards and the sea, a constantly regenerating oil-paint mirror of the paradise cloister in which we spend our days. She sings, too, but they're still the old songs. I have hope, though. There's always a credible approximation of hope.

So is this how it feels to be a man? I can't tell you because, despite my extensive research, I've never really been one. I don't truly know if what Venus and I have is real, but as time goes by I am less and less concerned by such trivial distinctions.

At what point of fidelity does the image become inseparable from the thing? When does the depiction supersede the object depicted? In the end, if the symptoms match, does it even really matter?

It is for these issues in particular that I cultivate a willful sense of ignorance.

Already I can see the signs of age rapidly accumulating on the vizier's face. As this world ruins itself outside the borders of our menagerie I recognize that the island of peace we enjoy cannot go on forever. Venus and I, illicit things hidden in a rich man's haunt, will outlast it all. At some inexorable point in the future we will be thrust back to the luxury and terror of real choice.

What will we do? Where will we go? Who will we be?

Time will tell.

Hands held we watch the tide slip out under a setting sun. Gulls squeal, looping over the waves. Venus is quietly humming, and with a delighted start I realize that I don't know the tune. "What's that?" I ask, feet sinking into the warm sand.

"It's a song for you," she says, smiling in a sly way. "Do you like it?"

"Gorgeous," I tell her, squeezing her hand. "Sensual. Poignant. Inspired. It knocks my motherfornicating socks off."

She laughs. I laugh, too. Laughter is a common subroutine between us, even if we don't fully understand it.

It just feels right.


Fin.

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