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art by Richard Gagnon

My Mask, Humanity

D. Thomas Minton resides with his wife and daughter on a little speck of land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and numerous other publications. This is his second story for DSF. His idle ramblings hold court at dthomasminton.com and would appreciate your visit.

*** Editor's Warning: Some adult situations and actions in the story that follows ***
My mistress calls me her mimic. It's as good a name as any, and I have had more names than I can clearly remember. Each has left a trace in my genetic structure, and, in a sense, I am all of those names and none. I am, however, whatever name I need to be at a given time, and today I need to be Cillian Truffant.
Unfortunately, this name is already owned by another man. Not unfortunate for me, mind you, but unfortunate for him.
From my position above the wide arcade in Titan's Huygens City, I study Truffant as he moves through the crowd below. The bob of his head when he apologizes for bumping an old woman carrying a large bag. The way he angles his body to slip though a gaggle of youths who dropped unexpectedly to the tiles around him from the second level. His smile as he passes through the steam wafting from an open air noodle shop. Truffant has a lopsided grin, boyish almost, even though his hair is tinged with gray, and he has witnessed more violence and hardship than anyone, even in these difficult times.
I move along the railing, from support to support, watching from behind the face-shroud I wear to cover my primed skin. The crowd on the upper level parts before me, because I look like a diseased man on Hajj. I bow meekly to acknowledge their pitying faces, but also to hide what I am and what I am not. As quickly as the crowd passes me, I am forgotten.
Truffant stops to look at a new shirt. As he rubs the fabric between his thumb and index finger, my fingers do the same motion. He is meticulous in his inspection; his eyebrows rise when he finds a loose thread.
My brows arch in the same way. Once. Twice. A third time, when I finally get it right.
He leaves the shirt and moves on.
For a man who survives by seeing, Truffant is oblivious. Like the others, he shops for trinkets while my mistress burns the domes of Ganymede. It is as if through the mundane, they cope with the horrific inevitable.
I come to a marked drop area and step off the edge. As I float downward in Titan's low gee, Truffant stops to buy fried dough from a pretty woman in a skintight dress. I lose sight of him as I land within the arcade's shifting crowd. Moving quickly, I locate Truffant again. He takes the fried dough, and in three bites it is gone. One finger at a time, he licks the powdered sugar from the tips, his eyes closed as he savors the sweet. His mannerisms are distinct but simple.
It will be easy to be Cillian Truffant.
I slip through the crowd and bump him, making it look an accident. As I do so, the needle in my right hand removes a micro-plug of tissue from his thigh.
"Your pardon," I say, bowing so he cannot see my face. The needle is sharp, and in his distraction he did not feel it take a sample of his cells. I am gone into the crowd before he even notices he has been jostled.
I inject Truffant's DNA into multiple places on my face and body. The engineered lentiviruses placed within me by my mistress will attack it and absorb it, incorporating it into their RNA structure. Then it will be carried into my primed cells and reverse-transcribed into my own genome. My cells will translate the information that is Truffant and restructure my flesh to match his. The process will take several painful days. I embrace the pain. It is a small reminder that some part of me may still be human.
My mistress plucks the neurons that control my vision and my hearing, and she appears in the small room with me. Her skin is smooth as milk; her hair, inky lines scratched by an artists' repidograph. She has black eyes, iridescent as the wings of midnight beetles. She is not human, but I do not know what she is. With slender fingers she touches my cheek, a cold caress that shocks me like static electricity.
A smile slices open her face, and in her mouth I see the web of souls she controls. Like me, humanity serves her, willing or not, except out here, among Saturn's moons, where the remnants resist.
"Do not underestimate Marcus," she says. Her fingers rake furrows through my skin, but only in my mind. She plucks the neurons for pain as delicately as a harpist. "Once he dies, the resistance will collapse." The pain becomes pleasure, and although I wish I could remain standing, I fall to my knees.
Marcus hides somewhere among the rings of Saturn or its inner moonlets, a million possible places from which he coordinates the final resistance. Her web of spies, both flesh and nanite, have learned that Truffant will secretly meet and interview him, but I will see that it does not go as planned. When I find Timothy Marcus, I am to kill him and deliver humanity to my mistress. Souls in her mouth like grains of sugar.
Each morning I look in the mirror and my face has changed. My nose grows longer and wider. The hue of my eyes lightens to that of Neptune, blue and bottomless. My skin loses its newborn pink; it toughens and darkens. I have had so many faces I no longer remember my own.
In the mirror, I practice the boyish grin. "I am Cillian Truffant," I say in mock greeting. Once my vocal cords settle into their proper shape and position, the timbre of my voice is perfect.
From his dossier, I know Truffant's history better than my own. Orphaned at a young age, he did not weep at his mother's funeral. He slipped free of Europa, before my mistress could secure its orbital space, but his reports tight-beamed to the outer moons established his credentials as a field journalist of considerable acumen. His marriage to Susee, a reporter of equal skill, was a casualty of morality; she needed to do more than talk about the resistance. He still loves her. I know this because her picture is the only one on his stylus pad.
My mistress comes to me as I lay naked on my bed, fantasizing about Susee. Her nails, cold and sharp, press into my ribs.
"It is time," she coos to me, like my fantasy lover. She strums my nerves. My eyes roll back into my head, and I ejaculate in a spasm of pleasure.
Ashamed, I pull on pants and shirt and look in the mirror. My face is still flushed.
My mistress stands behind me, glowing like a specter in the shadow of my room. In her eyes I see the reflection of what I will be if I succeed. In her smile I see what will befall me if I fail. Both are terrible to behold.
"I am Cillian Truffant," I say, but when I blink, I am alone again.
Today Truffant is meeting Mitchell, who will take him to Marcus. I get to Truffant's favorite caf, early and slip into the toilet. Truffant will visit here before he orders, because he always does.
Within a few minutes, Truffant enters. For a moment he is confused as he stares into his own eyes. "Who--"
In that moment, I break his neck.
I drag his still twitching body into the stall, prop him on the toilet, and latch the door. I inject him with a tissue lysing microbe. While I wait, I hastily strip off his shirt and slit his pants up both sides. By the time I finish removing his clothes, his body has begun to bloat. With my knife, I puncture one of his buttocks and a slurry of organics runs into the toilet. The body sags as the digested organs and bone drain. I fold the loose skin into the bowl and wait until the microbes partially digest it before flushing the whole mess down into Titan's sewer system.
Now I am the only Cillian Truffant.
Mitchell is late. While I wait, I retrieve Susee's picture from the dossier in my neural cache. She is tall with cafe-au-lait skin and her head shaved to fine stubble that on most women would make their face bulbous and bug-eyed, but makes her look like a new age Zulu warrioress. I close my eyes and imagine how her powerful hands would feel on my back. My breathing deepens. Somewhere in my past life, I had someone like Susee.
"It's good to see you, Cillian."
"I've missed you," I whisper back to her.
"Beg pardon?"
I snap my eyes open, but Susee does not disappear. She sits in the chair across from me.
"Marcus sent me," she says.
I blink several times, but she still does not vanish. She is as striking as her picture.
"You look good," she says. She touches the graying hair near my left temple. Her wrist smells faintly of musk.
"And you," I say. We sit in awkward silence. She studies her fingers. I stare at the curve of her cheeks.
As if an alarm has gone off, her head snaps up. She looks around seemingly expecting an attack, but only a fool would do so. Susee has killed more people than even me. She would do anything for the resistance, and I suspect she has. "We should go."
"Where?" I ask. I do not expect her to answer, certainly not in such a public place, but I must ask anyways.
Susee levels her gaze. "Even if I knew, I couldn't tell you."
I cock my head to one side and arch my left eyebrow. "You don't know?"
She graces me with her little half-smile. "Marcus doesn't tell me everything. It's safer that way. In case I am captured." She grabs my hand and pulls me from my chair. "It's now or never, Cillian."
The elevator shoots us up through Titan's dense orange clouds to the orbital docking hub. There we squirm through a boarding umbilicus to a cramped, windowless cabin that smells of sweat and oxides. Loose dandruff and other biological flock swirl around us as we strap into the two acceleration chairs.
The gel-pad cools my damp shirt. I shiver.
In other incarnations, I vaguely recall liking the tug of zero gee on my stomach. That was lives away, however--splinters of lost memory slipped under neural skin. Now I only really know Truffant's unease, born from several close calls in space and reported stories of freeze-dried bodies vented into vacuum.
Susee finishes entering her fragment of the coordinates to Marcus' location into the ship's navigation. Someone has already entered the other piece, she explains. "Here we go," she says.
A loud clang vibrates through the hull as docking booms disengage. Susee's hand dangles next to mine, but before I can take it, my organs slide back against my spinal column as our engines flare, and we accelerate away from the docking hub.
I grit my teeth.
Susee squeezes my hand. Hers is warm, unlike mine, which is clammy cold. I squeeze her fingers. Gradually the pressure eases as we settle into a one-gee acceleration. Susee releases her shoulder straps and lets her head lull easily against its pad. She takes a deep breath and exhales it loudly. "I never should have left," she says.
I look at my hands and realize that at one time they had explored the arc of her breasts, the folds of her body. For a moment I am jarred out of being Cillian Truffant because I realize that these are not real memories, only information extrapolated from the dossier I have studied. Or perhaps they are real, but lost to me, except as a mask for my mistress' masquerade.
Jealousy for what Cillian Truffant had stabs at me.
I struggle to be Truffant again. "I wish--"
"It wasn't you--"
We speak at the same time and fall silent together.
She left me to follow Marcus into this futile fight against my mistress. She had been covering Marcus' emerging movement for the Jovian news bureau and had allowed her objectivity to be compromised. Instead of reporting the news, she became part of it. After Callisto fell, she joined Marcus in his struggle. Appalled, I did not follow her, something I have always regretted.
The ship shudders as secondary jets fire. In my stomach I feel the ship change trajectory. I wonder how long it will take to get to our destination. Instead, I ask, "Why?"
"I couldn't just watch it, anymore. This is a fight for our lives, Cillian. It's a fight for the human race. I won't be enslaved."
A hollowness opens in my gut like a black hole. All her efforts, yet Titan will still fall. If only...
When I say nothing, she kneels beside my chair and leans in close. Her lips are soft and warm. Her fingers are gentle against my skin. I am breathless.
I pull away. "I--" My thoughts spin. I can barely think.
She frowns at me. "I'm sorry. I thought--" She covers her face with her hands and mumbles something. I realize she is cursing herself. "I thought there might be a chance...."
I realize that I do not know how to react. I did not expect her to be here, so I am unprepared. I wonder what we have shared in the past, those intimate moments that aren't captured on video. While I can feel them around me like golden eggs, I can never open them.
I see the lingering residual of those moments in the sadness that pulls at the corner of her eyes. I hear it in the tone of her voice. The memories are heavy, but I sense she would never give them away for anything.
I want them. Yet I know I can never have them or anything like them. My mistress would never allow it, and while I was once human, I am no longer certain if I still am. Oh, but to be human again.
"It doesn't matter, Cillian. Not anymore. Did you know Marcus asked for you, specifically? He thinks you are the only one who can save us."
Marcus' hideout is claustrophobic. I don't remember being claustrophobic. For some reason I cannot recall if Truffant is, but then I realize that if I feel claustrophobic, then Truffant is.
Susee leads me quietly through an underbelly of dimly lit accessways lined with exposed conduits, wiring, switches, and ragged insulation. The cold shadows smell of ozone.
This is the resistance.
When I finally set eyes on Marcus, I think that I have been tricked. The hunched, husk of man before me looks nothing like the man in my dossier or the subversive videos that urge his followers into action. His skin has lost its luster, like old leather, and I wonder what sort of radiation damage he has sustained. Clumps of hair float around the small room like ejecta from a collapsing star.
Yet, when Marcus looks up from tapping on his stylus pad, the fire in his eyes is unmistakably that of the man who has held my mistress at bay. He motions me toward the only other seat.
I wrap my feet around the stool legs and settle against the padding. It is odd to sit in near zero gee, but planet-bound conventions die hard. I reach to activate the recording device on my shirt collar, but Marcus raises a hand consumed with open ulcers.
"Okay, no video." I am mesmerized by the shell of humanity sitting opposite me. If my mistress had known Marcus's condition, she would not have sent me. I should feel cheated, I think, but I feel sadness instead.
"I am not what you expected," Marcus says without preamble. A smile, ugly and twisted, cuts his face in two like it is a piece of dehydrated meat. "I have worked hard to keep a good public image, but there are limits to how many times I can recycle images into something new."
As he speaks his voice grows weaker until it is barely audible when he stops.
"You're dying." It is as if my words are necessary to make what I see real.
"I will die soon, but the resistance must not. That is why you are here."
Yet, Marcus is the resistance. Without him the moons of Saturn, the last vestige of humanity, will fall into my mistress' dominion.
"Will it matter?" I wonder whose question that is.
"Probably not. We cannot fight against it. I watched Europa crumble, and nothing I could do stopped Callisto from following. I know it is only a matter of time before it takes Titan. You look surprised, but you know as well as me that this is true. How do we fight an enemy that we only know through the information that it allows us to have? We do not understand it because it is not human."
"And what is human?" I am startled at the sound of my voice.
"Surely, you can remember."
I draw back suddenly and hit the wall behind me.
Marcus' eyes lock with mine, and in them I see what it is to be human again, to be free to love something with a power that transcends flesh, and that can sustain even in death and beyond.
Marcus pushes his stylus pad across the space between us. It spins slowly as it traces a gentle arc into my hands. The pad is filled with video feeds, recently recorded personal interviews I have never seen before, documents he has written, contact names. Everything I would need to be Timothy Marcus.
"Who do you think leaked the information to your mistress to bring you here? A gamble, yes, but what do we have to lose? I am dead, one way or the other. Susee was against this idea, but she will help you disable your neural cache and free you from it."
Susee floats, wedged in the narrow hatchway. She does not look at me, and that sadness I saw earlier is still there. I wonder whom she mourns. I know it is not me, but I wish it was.
"It is useless to resist," I whisper.
"Climbing from the primordial seas was useless. Riding into the vacuum of space was useless. We do what is useless because we are human."
Because we are human....
I study the way Marcus sits, his shoulders back. Even hunched and twisted, they suggest strength and conviction. His rheumy eyes are steady and his gaze penetrating. He absently rubs at his left index finger, and my hand begins to do the same.
It will be easy to be Timothy Marcus, but if humanity is to survive, I know I need to be more than what I currently am. I want to be more. I can be more.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 28th, 2012

Author Comments

I've long been interested in what it means to be who we are. This story is an attempt to continue that exploration.

- D. Thomas Minton
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