It was a warm day, right for a T-shirt and shorts, deck shoes, no socks and glances at girls in tops that revealed bare shoulders, hips and tummies. I moved slowly through the market, gaze drifting from face to face, noticing complexions from the darkest African to the pale pink descendants of sun-starved Celts. Plenty of tattoos were visible, along with rings and studs on ears, lips and noses, and bracelets around wrists and ankles. Voices spoke in a jumble of accents, from the eastern reaches of the Thames, counties each side of the Pennines, the outskirts of Dublin, the southern half of Nigeria and half the countries of eastern Europe. They competed with music from the cafés, reggae to the left, a French chanteuse to the right. Stallholders offered everything from cut price toothpaste from a Midlands warehouse to embroidered shirts from a Moroccan sweatshop. Every few steps took me past one of the food stalls, teasing my nostrils with odours of slow cooked curry, smoking chorizo, Polish dumplings, Cornish pasties. I felt the sun on my face and sensed a caress in the sights, sounds and smells, taking pleasure in the variety of life around me. Here were people, enjoying their differences in an atmosphere that was simultaneously lazy and frantic. Here was life, humanity at its best, and I felt lucky to be part of it.
I was enjoying it so much that I let my attention drift and almost missed the Rubber Face as it approached. It was male, dressed in jeans and a blue polo shirt tucked into the waist, hiding the fleshy node on the lower spine that they can never remove. He was hiding in plain sight, moving slowly, glancing to the stalls on either side, occasionally stopping to feign interest in something on display. It was the way that he quickened a little by the fruit and veg stall that made me suspicious. He tried to move aside by a step, but a woman with a kid in a pushchair turned into his path and forced him back towards the stall, close to the crate of lemons. I noticed the flicker of panic in his eyes and the way he skipped sideways to find another foot of space. They’re scared of lemons. I allowed him to walk past me, counted to three, then turned and followed. The market crowd provided cover, so I could stay within a few steps without him sensing my presence. It was only when he had turned towards an alley, one of the exits to the street, that his node would have begun to twitch. He turned but I was already too close and with two steps threw my body against his and into the recess of a doorway. I clocked the fear in his eyes and spoke quietly.
“You’re one of them aren’t you.”
“What do you mean?”
“A Rubber Face.”
He stared at me for a moment, then screamed.
“Get away from me! Help!”
“That won’t do you any good.”
I pressed my fingers into his cheeks then up and out towards the eyes and ears. No bone, just the pliable, plasticine flesh that his species could mould to any form. I stretched the contours of his jaw and pushed his eyes into his forehead, and for a second he became something else, a human gone wrong. Then he grabbed my wrists, prised them away and pulled his face back into shape.
“Help! I’m being attacked.”
From the corner of my eye I noticed somebody had stopped to watch. It was clear what the Rubber Face was doing, looking for sympathy, someone to prise us apart.
“What are you doing here?” I growled. “You’re miles from any of the reserved neighbourhoods.”
“It’s got nothing to do with you!”
“It has. It’s got to do with all of us. You’re here when you shouldn’t be.”
A voice came from behind.
“What’s going on?”
I looked around. The Rubber Face’s scream had attracted attention. A young couple, white guy and mixed race woman, had stopped a few feet away. To one side was a man with olive skin and thick black eyebrows, to the other a woman with a shaved head and a tattoo down her left arm.
“He’s a Rubber Face,” I said. “The law says they’re not allowed around here.”
I pulled free my hand and pushed one finger into his face, just deep enough for all to see he was no homo sapien.
“Their disguise,” I said. “It’s common knowledge, they can mould themselves, pretend they’re something that they’re not.”
Then I grabbed his shoulders, spun him around, pushed him against the wall and pulled up the back of his shirt. The node was at the base of his spine. I pressed it, felt the hard flesh, the one part of their body that remained firm
“See, he’s got his little antenna as well. That thing that helps them communicate with each other.”
I placed a finger and thumb on either side, feeling for vibrations. Nothing, he wasn’t in contact with another close by. That meant he had come here alone. I spun him back to face me again. A couple more people had stopped to watch.
“Steady man,” I heard. “They say you can really hurt them if you damage their nodes.”
I ignored it and glared at the Rubber Face.
“What are you doing here? Where’s your area?”
“It’s across the river. It was attacked last night. One of those vigilante groups came through the fence. We had to scatter to save ourselves.”
“That’s what you say.”
It could have been true. I knew people in the Homo Sap movement who wouldn’t wait to catch them outside the controlled neighbourhoods, but believed in going in to spray some juice. ‘Aggressive defence’ they called it.
“It’s true,” he said. “I’m just letting the dust clear. Giving it time for the ET Police to take control. I was going back this evening, when it should be safe again.”
“And what were you going to do until then?”
“Just keep my head down. Stay out of harm’s way.”
“But you came here, where there are a lot of people. Humans, the ones who belong here.”
The Rubber Face shuddered. His lips twisted, eyes bounced against each other; he was struggling to keep his face in human form. Another voice came from behind.
“Alright mate.” It was a young guy with a square haircut and a Biblical beard. “Just call the ET Police. They’ll get him back to his neighbourhood.”
“Or let him go completely.” An old woman, brown skinned with a Pakistani accent. “He’s doing no harm.”
I looked at the other faces. Some looked worried, some angry, at me.
“Of course he’s doing harm,” I said. “Like all of them. Here when they shouldn’t be. No-one invited them, they just came. And they’re breeding already. They want to take over.”
“We don’t want to take over!”
I turned back to Rubber Face. His lips were twitching more violently, his eyes bouncing against each other.
“You know what happened! We were invaded! Most of our race was killed! We had to run to stay alive!”
“Good story,” I said. “But no-one with a brain believes it.”
“We’re refugees! We just want to be safe!”
I heard more voices. “Take it easy!” “Let him go!” “I’m calling the police!” I knew this had to be the moment, otherwise someone was going to get in my way. I shoved a hand into my pocket and pulled out a piece of the lemon. It had been sliced in half and covered in cling film which I ripped off. I held it up to the Rubber Face. He tried to back away, squeezing himself against the wall. His body began to spread and his face contorted, surrendering human form. His eyes dropped to his lip and his mouth twisted in a final scream.
I squirted the lemon into his face. A woman behind me screamed. Everyone knew what would happen. Citric acid causes a lightning reaction in their molecular structure, igniting a fire chain through their body fat and into their organs to burn them from the inside out. The Rubber Face collapsed and screamed once more as his body began to smoke and emit an odour of burning sugar. It took a few seconds for it melt into a puddle of pink sludge. I dropped the squeezed lemon on top of it. Somebody spoke.
I looked around. Now there were about a dozen people staring at me, and by the looks on their faces it could have been any of them who had spoken. Then I noticed the mixed race woman holding up her phone.
“I’ve called the ET Police. They’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“And what are they going to do?”
I knew the law. Anyone could detain a Rubber Face outside of their neighbourhoods then wait for the ET Police to take custody; unless the Rubber Face was a threat, then you could take defensive action. And I knew that every time a genuine human being told them they were under threat the ET Police would believe them. But I didn’t fancy the aggro of one or more of these people telling them it was different.
“I’m going now,” I said.
The young guy with the Biblical beard stepped in front of me.
“Pleased with yourself?” he asked.
“It had to be done.”
“Not it didn’t.”
I heard a woman’s voice: “He was scared.”
An old man’s: “He told you, they’re refugees.”
The Pakistani woman: “That was murder!”
“It wasn’t!” I turned around and saw disgust on every face. “Look at this place! Look at us! We know how to get on with each other. We’re different in our ways, but we’re the same in what’s important. We’re all human. But they’ve come along and God knows what they want to do. They want to make things different, carve out their own places where we’re not allowed to go, then take over so we’re not in charge of our own world! We can’t stand by and let that happen!”
Then another voice, quiet, but heard by everyone.
“That was inhuman.”
“He wasn’t one of us!”
I looked around again, caught the accusations in a dozen pair of eyes, then pushed forward past the guy with the beard. He caught my wrist, gave me a hard eyeball and said: “You’re not one of us.”
I shook him off and slid into a gap in the crowd, then heard another voice.
“You’re not one of us.”
Now there seemed to more people in front of me. I had to twist and squeeze between bodies to get through, eager to break clear of the crowd and out of the market.
“Not one of us.”
“Not one of us.”
“Not one of us.”
Image by Edwin & Kelly Tofslie, CC BY 2.0 through flickr