The Porcelain Doll
The winds had been reduced a low hum, muffled by the thick walls of their sanctuary. The men had found the body of the one called "Uncle", and had taken it into the snows. The reek of it was passing as the aroma of burning fat filled the air. Ish had pulled a great black cooking bowl from her pack, and a small fire was crackling in the animal fat smeared on its lip. The warmth of the small flame grew as the Tribe huddled quietly, shedding the exertion of their journey. Later they would explore the place. Perhaps valuable artifacts: lights, batteries, even weapons might be found in its darkened halls. But for now it was enough to retreat from the cold, to gather around the warmth of the flame, and be quiet together.
The silent woman had not moved from her chair. She showed no reluctance to their occupation, just a smile, disturbing in its unguarded curiosity. Her crystal blue eyes were odd, childlike; as intense on them as theirs on her.
Malin finished tying her back long black hair, wrapped herself in her blanket, and huddled close to the fire. "And what about her?" she asked, eyeing the woman suspiciously. "She shows no hunger."
The Tribe offered muted sounds of acknowledgement, but no one answered. Malin's eyes turned to Parker, who only shrugged and continued to gnaw a stick of dried meat. "She's not dangerous," he said, nonchalantly, when Malin's gaze lingered. "Leave her be."
Emre' rose and opened a blanket he had pulled from his pack. "She's lame or slow or something," he said, not caring that the woman would hear. "She just smiles that stupid smile." He slipped out of his fur pants and under a blanket of animal hide, and started humming a song under his breath. He was hoping to catch Rosa's ear, and then her eye. But she was with Ish, hovering over the boy, who was bundled tightly in a blanket. She hummed as she ran her fingers through the sleeping child's hair.
Mak toyed nervously with the black whiskers that formed his goatee. He had taken a place on the far side of the fire, away from the woman, and would not get any closer until she was explained. ""Lock her in one of the other rooms, that's what I say," he grumbled. "Maybe then I can get some sleep." He grunted a low verse, and made a warding gesture, placing his hand, palm out, to his chest and then opening it to the floor. With this he hoped to catch, and let fall, the dark spirit of the woman's presence.
Otter was oiling his skin, flexing his rippled body, and unabashedly admiring himself in the light of the flame. He noticed Mak's gesture and snickered. "Yes, Mak," he said, "She's come to take you into The Pit where she will hump you for all eternity. Be very afraid."
The Tribe burst into laughter and Mak glared at them. "Don't make fun of what you don't understand," he warned over the sound of their teasing.
Rennie and Bosche were huddled under a blanket, already on the verge of sleep, when the laughter awoke them. Bosche stretched a yawn and eyed the woman a moment before he spoke. "She doesn't look a Roamer to me," he said, "maybe a southerner. She has that look, right? Like she has been inside too long." He elbowed Rennie for confirmation, but Rennie only groaned a sleepy complaint, and covered his head with the blanket.
Coco rose and walked to the sled, where he opened the salt pack. "She just been out here too long, eh?" he said, dismissively as he pulled a jerky stick from the pack. He bit into it and mumbled through a mouthful of meat. "People loose their brain in the wastes, you know."
"Easy on that, Coco," Parker warned. "We've still got the Highland to pass." Coco shrugged this off as he rejoined the huddle. Emre' jumped from his blanket and tapped the smaller man on the head. "I suppose you don't hear well?" he asked in a challenging voice.
There was a tense silence as Coco turned to stare up at the younger man. But he only winked at Tomas. "Can you believe this boy?" he laughed. "Thinks he's already Chief."
Tomas nodded to acknowledge Coco, but decided to stay out of this particular confrontation. He had been keeping his eyes on the strange woman as he pondered the future of the Tribe. He knew this matter between Coco and Emre' was more than the innocent scuffle it seemed. They had a long way to go and little arguments could blossom into vendettas. He had seen it before. A romp might be necessary. He glanced at Parker, who he thought should order the two into the snow now, to fight it out. But the man seemed preoccupied and Tomas kept his tongue.
"It was my spear killed this one, I recall," Coco pointed out, waving the meat over his head as he dismissed Emre's premature attempt at being in charge.
"It was all our spears took it down, and it is all our food," Emre' snapped, his chest and ire rising together. But he was silenced by a strong look from Parker. The man's eyes said, 'let it go'.
Rosa looked up from her place by the boy. "I think we should see to her," she said, "find out what is her problem. We cannot have a mad woman on the ice. She will die."
"Who said anything about taking her with us?" Emre' asked quickly, irritated by the suggestion.
"I think she would come in handy," Otter suggested with a lascivious wink and a thrust of his hips. "At least she knows how to keep her mouth."
"Which is something you could learn," Malin responded quickly. Otter hooted a laugh.
Rennie finally uncovered his head and joined the debate. "She might be sick, you know? We should sit her somewhere else." Mak grunted a quick second to Rennie's logic.
"She shows no sickness," Parker said, dismissively.
Ish had been listening quietly while she saw to the sleeping child. She'd given him fluids, wrapped him tightly in a fur and discarded his dirty clothing, which had reeked of sweat and death. When he awoke he could be clothed in some of Malin's things. She was the smallest among them and her clothing would do until they had time to weave something special. For now what he needed was sleep and warmth. Later he would be hungry.
Ish stood, satisfied that, for the time being, the child was OK. She stepped away from the huddled Tribe, who followed her with their eyes. She fixed them with an impatient look, and then turned her attention to the silent woman, who returned her curious gaze. Ish pondered this blank stare for moments. She quickly understood.
"You think she has lost her mind, eh Coco'?" she asked, putting her hands on her weighty hips. But Coco was busy chewing and ignored the question.
"Or maybe she is a devil, right Mak?" Ish continued, amusing herself with the notion.
"She should be dead, like the old man." Mak said in his defense.
Emre' sat back on his bedding. "She just sits there. She says nothing," he pointed out. "There is something not right, that is sure."
Ish scratched her head, as if perplexed by the addled reasoning of children. "Sometimes I think you men come from another world," she said, in mock disgust. "You cannot see what is at your nose. She is frozen but does not shiver. She looks fed when there is no food. She is alive when she should be dead."
Ish approached the woman and reached out to feel her face. She pinched the flesh and felt the smoothness of her cheek. The smiling woman made no move to stop this inspection. "Stand!" Ish commanded, and The Tribe watched in amazement as the quiet woman stood obediently. Ish continued her inspection, feeling the woman's frame, running her hands over the trim white cloth of her dress to feel the body beneath. "Very good" she said, impressed with the attention to detail. It was even warm to the touch. Then she noticed the men's raised eyebrows and knowing smiles. She sighed and shook her head.
"You humping-mad fools," she scolded with a hearty laugh. "Can't you see she's Machine?"
They rise now, their fears set aside and interests renewed. It is time for the inspections, the pinching, the poking and prodding. The big woman squeezes her face and pulls at the flesh of her arms while the others tug at her hair and poke fingers in her ears. One of the younger men lifts her dress to inspect beneath her clothing. But a small woman tackles him to the dusty floor. She makes the laughing sounds as she punches and scolds him.
Doll tolerates this all with her usual detachment. She is not afraid. Their inspections do not cause her pain and this attention is not new to her. She has seen it time and time again, for longer than anyone here would realize… or perhaps believe.
Finally the large man bids the others away and they obey, moving back to their blankets as the big woman speaks. Her words are sorted and deciphered. An inquiry is being made. Doll registers the question but before she responds the large man speaks.
"The boy called her Doll," Parker said, rolling a finger across the Machine woman's lips. It did not shy from the touch, only smiled its lazy smile as it gazed back at him.
Ish glanced wryly at Parker. "You are just like the youngsters!" she whispered playfully. "Always humping on the mind."
"No, no," Parker said, "it is just that she is so real to touch. We thought she was… well, something else."
Ish clucked her tongue. "What? A demon? A spirit?" she asked. "Parker, you are too old for that silliness."
"Shut up, woman," Parker replied, sternly.
Ish's raised a challenging brow. "Oh yes?" she said. "You are posing for the men, now? You think we are back in South City?"
But Parker was already laughing at himself, waving off the confrontation. "I have never seen one like this before, " he said seriously. "No damage. No rust. What is it made of?"
Ish shrugged. The science that had created this Machine was long dead. There were few of her kind left in the world and they could not be duplicated anymore, perhaps never again. "You know," she said, with a realization in her eyes, "there should be a good battery inside her, Parker. Maybe something we can use."
Parker rubbed his chin as he considered this. "Not a good idea," he said with a glance over his shoulder. "The boy said it was special to him. I think he would not be happy if he should wake and find it broken."
Ish sighed, as if this would be of little concern to her, but she pushed the subject no further. "Sit there, Machine," she said, gesturing to the corner of the room, "and wait for your master to wake. We will find out more about you then."
Doll walked obediently to the place where the woman pointed and folded herself into the corner where she sat soundlessly as the Tribe prepared for the night.
Meat and drink were rationed out. Blankets were unfurled and spread on the floor. Sleeping arrangements were negotiated and those who had coupled crawled into blankets together. Tomas sat by the door for the first watch and the Tribe settled for the night, taking refuge from the concerns of the day and those that would follow in the morrow.
Outside the wind began to howl. But the sound soon faded in their ears, and was lost in sleep.
She listens to the wailing of the world outside as the people around her fall into their dreams. One of them, the tall man with the long hair on his face, sits alone in the corner, watching over the others. In time he is replaced by another, one of the younger men, who sits quietly, glancing at her occasionally. Her sensory triggers have been reactivated by their presence, and she will not retreat, again, into that state in which they found her. Under the folds of her clothing her fingers do an automatic dance as, in her mind, the signature codes of an ancient language are revived.
Across the room, in a bundle of furry coats near the big woman's bedding, the boy frets and grumbles in an uneasy slumber.
Daniel awoke to the sound of someone screaming. It was a terrified, wavering voice, fearful and desperate. His own.
The horrible dream that had spawned his scream vanished instantly, but traces of its violence, savage and red, followed him into consciousness. They faded quickly, mercifully, but were replaced by a thought even more terrifying: He had no idea where he was.
He lay still for a time, listening to the wind whistling outside, feeling the dizzying heat of his fever in his skull and the tickle of fur against his skin. This was not his blanket. It smelled of sweat and the faint trace of whatever animal it had been cut from. He raised his head, slowly, trying to discern what was revealed in the faint light around him. This was the main study, he realized, and remembered that Uncle had been sleeping here, in his sickness. He had been waiting for Uncle to wake when the storm had come and trapped him inside. He'd wanted to forage in the ruins for something to eat but he could not leave. Then…
An image flashed into Daniel's mind, the memory of a giant of a man, dark and travel worn, wrapped in the fur of a great Bear. The man had come into the study, and he had not been alone.
Where was Doll?
Daniel tried to rise, but his head spun madly, and he fell back into the bedding. He tried to call her name, but pain flared in his throat and he could utter no more than a squeak. What if they had taken her? He had promised Uncle, promised that he would watch over her, and a promise was a sacred thing! That's what Uncle had told him.
He struggled again to rise and fulfill his promise. But there was suddenly a face beside him, illuminated in the dim light. Daniel grunted and fell back into the blanket. The face hovered over him now. It was oval, with dark flesh and broad, flat features. Its eyes were black orbs that seemed to look right into him.
"Shhhh… don't be afraid," said the face. "I will not hurt you. No one will." The voice was deep, the accent was thick and round, and the words were rhythmic and musical. Daniel had never heard such a voice before. But then again, he had heard so few voices over the course of his short life. A smile grew on the face. "You are safe, little one," it said, and Daniel felt his forehead wrapped in a warm dry palm. "See, you are getting better already. You just need sleep. And washing!" The chuckled and then disappeared from his sight. But it came back quickly, saying "Open up."
Daniel did not understand this. His expression twisted in hesitant confusion. "Open your mouth, little one," the face said more sternly.
"My name is, Daniel," he corrected gruffly, his throat burning with the effort.
"Ok, Daniel," the face replied. "Open your mouth, now." Daniel reluctantly complied. When he tasted the sweet juice that was squeezed over his tongue, he was glad he did.
"I am called Ish," the face said, as Daniel savored the mad rush of flavor. It filled his senses and made his head swoon deliciously. "You are with the Tribe now, Daniel," said the face called Ish, "and we will see to your needs till you are strong."
"Tribe." Daniel echoed the word thoughtfully, "You are roamers?" he asked. Uncle had said he should not trust roamers. But if they were going to hurt him, wouldn't they have done so already?
"Yes, we roam, Daniel," Ish replied, "The man you saw, that was Parker. He is our leader. And Emre' was there too." The face called Ish turned to retrieve something, and then came back. "And Tomas and Mak were with them.." Ish squeezed more of the sweet, strong fluid into Daniel's mouth. "And there is Rosa and Malin. They will be glad to meet you. And Coco and Otter… here drink…" She filled his mouth again, "…and Bosche' and Rennie, who are well past their bloom, but not really much older than-"
"Where is Doll?" Daniel interrupted, before Ish could fill his mouth again.
"Your Machine is fine, don't worry about it," Ish replied quickly.
So they knew. Daniel sighed. He hoped they hadn't tried to take parts from her. Uncle always said roamers were scavengers, and the worst people that Doll could encounter. But something in Ish's voice calmed him. His head was getting light and he was beginning to feel warm and comfortable. "And Uncle?" he asked after swallowing another mouthful. "Is he still sleeping?"
Ish was quiet for a moment, and her eyes expressed some introspection that Daniel could not read. "We can talk about your Uncle under the sun. You sleep more, now," she said.
"He is not mine. He is just Uncle," Daniel corrected her.
Ish smiled. "OK. He is just Uncle," she said. "And you are just a sick boy who needs to sleep"
Daniel was feeling sweetly dizzy. He gazed thoughtfully at Ish, wondering what kind of person was behind those strange, dark features. "You're a 'woe-man' aren't you?" he asked, sleepily. Uncle had explained the 'woman' to him a long time ago.
Ish laughed, again, at this strange child. The ferment was taking effect. His eyes rolled and his lids were heavy. He would not wake them with screams again. "Yes, Daniel, I am a 'woe-man'," she replied softly, as he drifted off.
"Doll is like a woe-man," Daniel whispered as he fell into dreams again. These new dreams, however, came like clouds, in calm shades of blue and amber, flowing gently through the view of his mind's eye. He did not wake himself, or the others, again.
The sun broke the horizon, a cold silver orb behind a bank of grim clouds. Its light cast a pale glow through the dirty windows of the museum. Emre' watched the silvery beams move into the room as he devoured some dried berries, a privilege of taking the late watch. The winds had died during the night and the silence outside lifted his spirits. Soon they could be on their way.
He chewed slowly, coursing the trails with his mind, calculating time and distance, supplies and dangers. He wanted out of this dark, stinking place. Even without the reek of death, there was a dank finality to the dusty shelves and time-stained windows. This place was death itself, the grave of a forgotten history.
Emre' noticed that the sunlight was illuminating the Machine woman's face. He watched her head move slightly so her gaze was set into the beam of light. Was she "eating from the sun", as the boy had claimed? Emre felt a chill at the sight. It was hard to believe she was not human.
The others were finally awakening, moaning and stretching in their furs. Beside the place where Parker and Ish lay together, a small form was wrapped tightly. Emre' shook his head at the sight.
"How can we tend to this boy?" he pondered aloud, not directing this question at anyone in particular. "We only have enough meat for the pass and the hills."
Parker sat up in his blankets, and stretched his muscular body. "How will we feed the boy? Is that what you mean to say, Emre'?" he asked. "You are not thinking we should leave him to die, are you? I know you are not saying that."
Emre' shrugged and started to reply. But then he caught Ish's glare and looked away. He had made a mistake by speaking his thoughts aloud.
"I remember another boy we found, Emre'," Ish said coolly from where she lay beside Parker. "He was a skinny little brat who would never shut up and never listen and he ate everything we had." She hoisted her weighty frame up on her elbows and yawned. "I remember him sneaking into the salt pack more than once, and I remember smacking his little behind, too."
Tomas sat up in his bedding, yawning, and stretching his long thin arms toward the ceiling. "Oh yeah, that boy," he laughed, joining in on the tease. "I remember him too. I had to slap his ass a few times myself."
"But we did not think of leaving him to the cold," Ish continued, seriously. "Is that what you would say we do now?"
"No!" Emre' barked. He shoved his fur aside and stood. "I am just saying that…"he stammered a moment, "…that we will have to change some things. That is all. If we are going to make it across the hills, we have to do things differently."
"Well, thank you for letting us know what we already knew," Parker said.
"Let him have Emre's portions," Mak suggested from where he lay, bundled up like a bear.
"Let him earn his own," Emre' snapped back, "just like I did, and Otter and Rennie."
Bosche made an audible 'harrumph' from beneath his blankets.
"And Bosche' too," Emre' added, diplomatically.
"Don't bring me into this fight," Otter warned from across the room. He jumped quickly from his blankets, bouncing on his toes and stretching his trim, muscular body. "The road waits. Boy or no boy, let's go before the storms realizes it didn't kill us and comes back for another try."
"Don't you ever get tired of the road?" Malin complained as she rose from her bedding beside where Emre' sat.
"The boy is too sick for the path right now," Ish said.
"Too sick?" Emre' sighed. "We cannot wait here. We have too far to…"
"Shhh," Rosa hissed, as she sat up in the blanket beside Coco, who was still sleeping soundly. "We do not need to talk about him that way," she said, brushing her fiery mane from her face. She slipped quickly from the blankets and into her thick clothing. "We found him, and he is now our responsibility. Right, Ish?"
Ish raised an eyebrow to acknowledge this. "That is the way we do things," she confirmed.
"And what of food?" Emre' asked. "This meat will only last through the Highlands. If we leave now, we can ration until we find a hunt. But if we wait, we run the risk of…"
"Be quiet, Emre'," Parker ordered. He set impatient eyes on the younger man. "The boy cannot travel yet, and we will not leave him to starve. We will wait until he is ready and then continue our way to the Basin."
Emre's mouth hung open, on the verge of another complaint, but Parker's stern expression put a close to the debate. He pursued the matter no further.
Otter's shoulders slumped and he sighed dramatically. But he did not argue. There were muffled sounds of dismay from beneath the blanket where Bosche' and Rennie lay, but neither of the young men would dare raise their voice against Parker. Tomas and Mak knew better than to make a challenge. The Chief had spoken, and Emre' had conceded. Unless there was a direct challenge from Ish, the matter was decided.
"We will eat lightly," Parker said over the silence. "Until we find good hunting ground."
No one spoke the doubts that harbored in their minds. What if the boy was sick for days? Weeks? And when was the last time any of them had seen good hunting ground? Not since they'd left the south, for sure. Snow laden fields; silent forests where big cats roamed seeking anything they could kill; barren and poisoned wastes, lined with the remains of a distant, incomprehensible past. That was all they had seen in weeks.
"This is why the others left, Parker," Emre' said, in a sober voice. A potent silence followed his words.
"The others left because they wanted something that is gone, Emre," Parker said softly, but his face displayed his anger. "They left because they thought there was some place in the world where they could hide from what is happening all around."
Coco had awakened to hear Parker's last comment. He sat up and waved his arms to draw attention. "South City, right?" he said with a waking yawn. "We should have stayed there! There was game and shelter and-"
"And pirates and cats and damned fools that ran the place!" Parker interrupted. "Is that what you want, Coco? To live by the rule of idiots and thieves?" Coco closed his mouth, realizing he must have missed part of the conversation.
Parker stood, not bothering to cover his massive frame. The scars of old battles laced his arms and legs like veins. They were the symbols of his office, carved into the very flesh of his body. "You want to live like a coward," he continued, "on your knees like a dog, fighting every day just to keep your catch, to keep your women from the raiders? Then go! Because that is all that is left to the South. Fights and more fights! The Basin is where we will find all we need! Not in the South where the people still hold onto old dreams."
Rosa stood angrily, and faced Parker. "Shhh…" she scolded, holding a finger to her lips. "Take your fight outside. The boy needs his rest," she said. Only the women could tame Parker's anger when it grew this hot.
But Emre' was undaunted by Parker's outburst, and continued in a whisper. "Nobody has met anyone who has been to the Basin in years, Parker. It is probably dead by now, frozen over like the rest of the world."
Ish rejoined the debate. "It is there, Emre'," she said, calmly, her face displaying a confidence born of all her years on the path. "I have seen it. I was just a girl, yes, but I have seen it." She stretched before she continued, and her face grew dreamy with a recollection.
"I have seen fields of trees that stretch across the horizon. I have seen the old towers brought to life. I have seen people living in them and even making the old wagons move over the ground." She sat up tall and her gaze fell on them, one by one, as she spoke. "There were music boxes and big lights that lit the towns at night, and people gathered together to learn letters and numbers; to talk of the future and the past. There were storytellers and dramatics, and they made the moving pictures work again."
She gestured to Doll, who was sitting quietly against the wall, staring into a sunbeam." There were even Machine people, like her," she said, "though not so well cared for, I would say." She was quiet a moment, reading their faces, before she continued.
"We could have hid in South City, yes, and maybe we could have fought off the pirates for a time. But you know Parker is right. In the end, we would have spent all our time fighting with them, or running from them. And what about the cats? And the Bears? How long could we compete with those monsters for the hunt?"
Ish's words were having an effect. The Tribes' doubts were fading quickly and their faith in the trek renewed.
"In time the South City will fall to the freeze," she said. "The Basin is where we will be able to build a new home. We will have opportunity there. A future."
No one spoke. Ish was right, they knew. The south only looked good now because of their weary months on the path. When they thought about it, the difficulty of life there was refreshed in their minds. But they could not forget that it had been warmer. And they had not been alone.
"It's too soon in the day for this," Rosa complained, opening up the salt pack and retrieving the morning's portions. "Let's eat now. We can fight later."
"Rats, Parker," Tomas said, unexpectedly. "Maybe some squirrels, if we can catch them? Is that the hunting you mean?"
There was another silence. A challenge from Emre' was to be expected, even Coco's comments were predictable. But Tomas was the second senior man, and Parker did not know how to react to his words. After an uncomfortable moment, he simply brushed them off, and slid back into his blanket.
"Squirrels must be good," Otter suggested, trying to break the tension. "So hard to catch, right? Like a good woman."
Malin rose quickly, from her fur, and whipped her arm in an arc. Something flew from her hand, across the room, and hit Otter in the face. The boot thudded loudly against his head and fell to the floor. he Tribe erupted into laughter.
"We'll see what you say when you sleep alone, again, tomorrow, " Malin said. Otter quickly decided it was best to keep his tongue
"I, for one, am glad the boy must rest," Malin said as she rose to retrieve her boot. "It will be nice to get away from the path. At least for a day."
"Eat now," Rosa called. They all moved quickly beside the bowl, where she rationed out appropriate portions of sizzling meat and meal. The Tribe scooped up with their portions with their fingers, savoring each mouthful. The helpings were smaller than usual, but no one complained. They had a new member, a little one. The young were rare and precious. The sacrifices made for their well-being were necessary.
"Maybe there is something we can use here," Coco said in between mouthfuls. "It's a big place." The others acknowledged this without breaking from their meal.
"The boy should know his way around," Ish suggested, "but he won't be much of a guide now."
Emre' turned and yelled, "How about you Machine?" Do you know this place?" But the Machine woman only tilted her head curiously and smiled. "Yeah, I thought so," Emre' laughed.
"She must be for the humping," Otter suggested through a mouth full of food. "Too stupid for anything else." The men laughed and the women threw scraps of bone at him.
"You would think that, since that's all you think about anyway!" scolded Malin.
"Just look at her," Otter replied, seriously. "What else would she be for? Lifting? Digging?"
"But if humping is her job, then the boy would have no use for her," Rosa said.
"Yet," Malin added, with a wink.
"I could give it a try," smiled Mak, raising his eyebrows lasciviously. The women moaned at the thought and berated the big warrior.
"Doing a Machine?" Malin sneered, her face pinched in disgust. "That's nasty."
"Well, she must be good," Otter suggested. "It killed the old man." Their laughter diffused the tension of their argument and they finished their morning meal peacefully.
She listens as they joke about her, though the meaning of their words often escapes her. The sound of their laughter is an incomprehensible cackling against her aural device. She is consumed in her own mental procedures, and only the smallest portion of her processing is devoted to interpreting their words. Her preoccupation is a process that was started long ago, a process that consumes her and, even through this depth of time, has yet to be resolved.
The day grew into tedium as they waited for the boy to wake. Ish saw to his needs, washing him and rubbing him in oils. She fed him drink and healing herbs. He swallowed automatically, grumbling in his slumber.
At midday, the men decided to search the place, to see if anything of value could be found in its decrepit halls. They coursed through the dark passageways and searched large empty rooms, lighting their way with a small orb that Parker held, and then a flame that Bosche carried when the orb's battery dried up.
In every room they found the wreckage of years strewn about the floor. Old computing machines and small fragile things were crushed underfoot as they passed. Many of the rooms seemed to have been broken into. Windows had been smashed and large unidentifiable objects lay in disarray, damaged beyond recognition.
In one room, huge soot covered windows allowed intermittent blades of light to slip in and Parker placed the orb in the sun, to let it charge. Coco noticed a pile of painted cloth amassed on the floor in the center of the room. He picked one up. There were images on the cloth, faces and strangely shaped people, rendered in flaking, faded paint.
"Hey Parker!" Emre' said, laughing. "This looks like you!" Parker strolled to see what was so amusing. But he was stilled by something in the painting, and did not laugh. It was faded, like the rest, and dust and cobwebs lined its frame. But the canvas was still intact and, on the face of it, there could be seen a solitary man, dressed in only a loincloth and brandishing a long spear at his side. His face was as dark as the deep earth, as dark as Parker's own, and he stood before a misty ocean. The cracked and flaking paint made the waves appear to froth right out of the picture. Though the man's face could not be seen clearly, there was something lonely in his features. His gaze was set out over the watery horizon as if he sought something ever elusive.
Emre laughed again, and punched Parker on the shoulder. But the man had become silent, withdrawn, his face set in some unreadable emotion. After a moment he looked away. "There is nothing here," he said solemnly, and walked off, leaving Emre' to regard the antique once more, trying to see what had caused such a reaction. He could not. So he followed the others out of the room, leaving the ruined works of art to fade into dust.
Further into the dark past of this place they came upon what appeared to be a supply room. Inside there was a pile of mechanical debris wound in a web of wires that ran like veins through the mess.
"Machine people," Emre' whispered. These were not the remains of humans. They had never had been living things, yet there was something disturbing in the sight of their smashed limbs and bodies; something troubling in the lifeless gazes of the old and broken mechanical faces that bore human expressions of helplessness and confusion. Their bodies were torn and savaged where holes had been punched and parts ripped from them.
"Raiders," Parker said.
The men started kicking through the wreckage, searching for anything that might still be useful. But there was nothing found, except brittle, lifeless, simulated flesh.
"This is a waste of time," Mak said. "Let's go back."
The others seemed to agree with this and started making for the hallway. But Emre' stopped them.
"Parker! Mak!" he yelled from a dark corner of the room.
Parker started to order Emre' to come, but then remembered that it was his explorations that had found this shelter. He followed the young man's beckon and found him standing in the dark rear of the room. "What now?" he asked.
Emre' had found another door. Engraved in its corroded silvery surface was an elaborate design. Armies were depicted, throngs of fighting men dressed in tight uniforms and strange bulky helmets, carrying rifles tipped with savage looking spears. The soldiers were headed into battle as flying craft moved through the silvery metal sky. Explosions were coarsely outlined behind the fighting men, many of whom had been rendered in the throes of death.
Emre' struggled with the words scripted beneath the engraving. "Sim.. simper... fideee…" But, once again, the words made no sense. "It is more nonsense writing, Parker."
Parker nodded. "Well, Let's see what's inside," he suggested. But there was no knob or handle to grasp, or even a keyhole to jiggle. The door seemed like it could lead to a room that might hold something valuable, so they went to work on it with all their might. They grunted and pushed and smashed against it, swearing in frustration when it would not budge. Even Mak's massive weight seemed to have no effect.
"This is pointless," Parker realized, after their struggle had raised a sweat. So they returned, empty handed, to the large hall where they had made camp. There they resigned themselves to waiting for the boy to awaken. Then they could get back on the path.
The sound of laughter tugged at the edge of his slumber. It was an odd sound. One he'd not heard in a long time, and never in such abandon. Slowly, his senses awakened. Uncle's bad smell was gone now. The room was filled with the scent of sweat, and musky, wet furs; of smoke and burning oils, and ...
Daniel rose quickly. His head spun from the effort, but the aroma of meat made his stomach twist and moan.
Across the room, gathered in a circle around a flame burning at the edge of a bowl that sizzled with the sound of burning meat, sat the man who had come into the study. There were others with him, ones Daniel had not seen before. And women! Women were with them! Daniel remembered one of them, the big dark one. He remembered that she'd come to him in the night, and given him something to drink. But he had thought that was just a dream.
The strange, road-worn people talked amongst themselves, laughing and making exaggerated gestures at one another as they spoke. Daniel dared not even breathe. He had never been so close to Roamers. Uncle had warned him about their kind.
And where was Doll?
"Maybe we could sell her at one of the tower towns, right?" Coco suggested. "I am sure we could get something good for her."
"Tower towns!" Emre' scoffed. "Raiders run them all. They'd just kill us, take her and our women."
"I ain't afraid of no dung-biting pirates!" Otter trumpeted, holding his chin high.
"That's cause you never had to fight no damn pirates, boy," Mak grumbled.
"Did too!" Bosche blurted, coming to Otter's defense. "I saw him fight back in South City. Three of 'em. By himself! He was making a trade for fur when…" The young man was silenced by an impatient glance from Otter, who knew what was coming.
But Otter's warning came too late. Mak grunted and tossed off his fur, revealing his hefty, tattooed frame. The others moaned and placed their heads in their hands.
"Thanks, Bosche" Rennie said and fell back, covering his eyes.
"Here we go again," Emre' sighed.
"Got any of these?" Mak laughed, running his finger along one of the savage scars that lined his heavy torso. The old wound was punctuated by the line of a tattoo that went on to form the face of a dragon on his chest. "Or any of these?" he inquired, turning to display older scars, the stories of which they'd all heard numerous times.
"No," Otter admitted casually. "Because I never get hit." All of them laughed but Mak, who only grumbled, and flexed a few more poses before he sat back down.
"Then in the Basin," Coco said, ignoring Mak and going back to his idea. "We could trade her for something there, right?"
Ish waved the thought off. "We won't need anything in the Basin. We should just take her battery now and keep it, in case we find a wagon or something."
Rosa glanced across the room and cleared her throat. "Maybe we won't talk about this right now" she said cryptically. The others followed her gaze. A little blonde head was peeking out from the gathering of furs in the corner. The boy's eyes scanned them suspiciously.
They stared back at the boy, and there was a silence for moments wherein only the portion of food they'd left him could be heard sizzling in the bowl.
Who were they, Daniel wondered, these strange and ragged looking people? One was dark, another light; one fat, another thin; so different from each other, they were, yet somehow the same. What had brought them here and what would they do with him?
And who was he, they all wondered, this tangled matt of blonde hair that peeked from the bundle of furs, this pale little man who had fearlessly attacked the biggest among them to defend his Machine?
"Boy!" Parker said enthusiastically, breaking the silence. "You are back from your dreams! Come here! Eat with us." But the boy didn't move. When he finally opened his mouth to speak, only a gruff little bark erupted. The Tribe laughed as the boy grimaced and cleared his throat.
"My name is Daniel," he said.
Parker looked at the Tribe, each in turn, his eyes widening as he looked back at the boy. Daniel felt a moment's hesitation as he absorbed the big man's unreadable expression. Then Parker broke out in laughter, slapping his hands against his legs. The others did the same and Daniel looked on, puzzled at the strength of their humor. Uncle had never laughed like that, and Doll, not at all.
"Yes, you told me your name yesterday!" Parker said as the laughter subsided. "And I am Parker, remember?" He patted a bundle of fur next to him. "Come. Sit. Eat."
"Where's Doll?" Daniel asked, his eyes darting through the room suspiciously.
The nomads didn't speak but their heads turned in unison towards the dark corner of the room where the Machine sat quietly. Daniel followed their gaze and made out the folds of a white dress in the gloom.
"Doll!" he called, and struggled to rise. But his head spun with the effort, and he fell back into the blankets.
"Easy, little one," Rosa said, rising and moving quickly to the boy's side. "You have been sick." She helped the boy up and wrapped his thin frame in a blanket.
"I am Daniel, not little one," he corrected Rosa as she assisted him across the room. Rosa didn't respond to the boy's challenge, but she fixed Ish with a knowing glance. The men snickered but were shushed by Ish. There had apparently been no women around to teach him his propers.
He would learn.
Doll stood and smiled as they approached. Daniel spoke soft words that The Tribe could not make out as he inspected her, feeling her arms and legs and torso, running his hands over hers to look for cracks in the flesh or damage to the fingers. He glanced over his shoulder at the people who were now gathering around him, watching his actions curiously. Then he reached up and moved his hands along the Machine's hairline. The robot bent slightly to allow this inspection.
"She's ok," Daniel said with a satisfied sigh. Then he turned to face the silent onlookers. "I appreciate your good treatment of her," he said. No one responded. The woman with the fiery hair made a face that Daniel could not read.
"Your Machine. She is very… nice! So real!" Rosa said, conversationally. "She is special to you?"
"Doll is special to everybody," he replied quickly. The woman's expression was hesitant, but her voice was soft. The huge men, however, were even more intimidating while standing, and Daniel was put off for a moment. But Uncle had taught him about the danger of fear. He wet his lips nervously as he gazed on his captors. "You have to be careful with her," he said finally when he had regained his nerve. The men exchanged unreadable glances.
What kind of boy was this, they thought, this little pale thing who addressed the hunters of the Tribe as if talking to a gathering of children.
Daniel was encouraged by their silence, and thrust a finger to the air to punctuate his words. "She has a rare and specialized function, and it is impossible to replace her," he explained, pushing up his chin to hide his intimidation.
The large men whispered to one another. Then one of them stepped from the group. The others parted to let him pass, curious smiles on their faces. Daniel watched the man cautiously. His near naked body was tight and muscled. His face was light like Daniel's, but long dark hair ran down over his shoulders and back. He stepped slowly towards Daniel, crouching low, his face set in a menacing grimace.
"BOO!" Otter yelled, suddenly, sending the boy reeling backwards, landing his weight against the Machine and knocking her into a sitting position on the floor. The Tribe broke into laughter. Daniel looked up, perplexed.
"Otter! Leave him alone!" Rosa scolded, punching the laughing man away and helping Daniel to his feet.
"I just want to see if his pouch is as big as his mouth," Otter said. He returned to his bedding and tossed himself into his furs.
But Emre' was suddenly serious. "We've no time for playing with children," he said. "He can walk now. We can leave in the morning."
"There is time yet," Ish replied. "We can let the boy rest for another day.
Emre' rounded on her. "And what of the storm?" he asked quickly. "What if we get stuck in this place?"
"The storm is passed, Emre,'" Parker said. But Emre' wasn't listening.
"This is crazy. You are leading us to nowhere. To death! You are old and stu…" he stopped. He had gone too far. Parker's face grew grim. Tomas moved quickly in between the two as the rest of the Tribe stepped away.
"This will do nothing to solve our problems!" Tomas said, pressing his palms out towards the men on either side of him. Parker stopped and regarded Tomas quietly. There was an uncomfortable silence as the two gazed at each other.
'Not now,' Tomas mouthed silently to Parker.
"Where is Uncle?" Daniel asked in the midst of the confrontation. All eyes were on the boy again. Did he not know?
Rosa posed a silent question to Ish. The woman shrugged back.
"Your Uncle is in the shadows, now," Ish responded simply.
"Shadows?" Daniel pondered the word. "Where is that?"
"Your Uncle is dead, " Emre' said flatly, and laid back into his bedding.
Rosa threw up her arms and hissed at Emre'. She moved to embrace the boy, but he wriggled out of her grasp, confused at her actions.
"Where is he?" Daniel commanded, his small face pinched in suspicion and anger. "What did you do with Uncle?"
"Your Uncle is gone now," Rosa explained softly, disturbed by the boy's lack of understanding.
"He is off to the Shadows, boy," Ish added quickly. "He sleeps there now."
"Don't call me that!" Daniel yelled. Who did these Roamers think they were? "You can't come in here and change everything! Our things are ok the way they are!" he bellowed, frustrated at the curious frowns he was receiving. "I want to see Uncle now!" he commanded. "Where is 'the shadows'? Take me there!"
Emre' snickered. "Stay with us and you'll get there soon enough," he said, and immediately felt Parker's eyes on him. He returned the glare for a moment before turning away.
"Ignore him, Daniel," Ish said, waving Emre off. She went to the boy's side and glared at the men until they walked away. She winked at Rosa and Malin and the women went to prepare for the night.
When the others were occupied elsewhere, Ish knelt beside Daniel and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. "Did you have anyone else here with you?" she asked.
"Just Uncle… and Doll," the boy replied, twisting in the big woman's embrace. He wasn't comfortable so close, but afraid to tell her so.
"All this time of your life? Just you and your Uncle and the Machine?"
Daniel nodded slowly. Was there something wrong?
Ish understood now, and continued slowly. "Daniel, your Uncle is…"
"Why is he my Uncle?" Daniel barked. "He is just Uncle."
"He is of your blood, right? Of your family?" Ish asked. But the boy just screwed up his face. Did he even know what family was?
"Daniel, did your … did Uncle tell you of 'dying'? Of The Shadows?" she asked. The boy shook his head. "Daniel," she continued slowly, "Uncle was not sleeping. He is… no more. He is over, Daniel. Dead. When people are dead, they leave their body behind like an old set of boots they've outgrown, and they fly to the Shadows to stay for the rest of time."
Daniel squinted as he digested the woman's words. They were absurd, weren't they? Why hadn't Uncle told him of this 'dying'?
"He's not coming back?" he asked, cautiously.
The big woman shook her head, waiting for the inevitable reaction.
Ish smiled gently and shook her head again. "But he will be OK in the Shadows. It is safe there and he can rest for all of time," she said.
Daniel stared blankly at Ish. Uncle was gone? He had ended? This thought shifted uncomfortably in his head. Slowly, an unfamiliar pain welled up from his chest and began to consume him from inside. He pulled away from Ish and sat on the floor next to Doll. Uncle was gone? What now about Doll? What now about him? He grasped Doll's arm tightly against his chest and folded his head down. Then the tears began to flow. They continued for some time, as Daniel finally understood that things had changed completely, more than he'd ever imagined possible.
The boy is making the crying sounds, again. The sounds he had made when he'd been small, clinging to her dress, his arms reaching up at her. To Doll it is only moments ago. The passage of years means nothing to her. She does not measure them as those around her do, those whose lives are regulated by their numbers. She feels the boy's warmth against her, feels him cradling her arm and his small body rocking as his emotions release. Doll listens to the soft sounds, not understanding their meaning. She is now, as she was ever, uncomprehending of their purpose.
Her fingers flutter in an automatic response to this confusion.
The next morning arrived without their notice. So used to the sun's rays awakening them, the Tribe had slept on, in the dark of the ancient museum. Rennie had been responsible for the final watch, but in the warmth of the room the young man had succumbed to sleep long before the sun rose. Parker was not very understanding when he finally awoke, and Rennie would have to gain his trust before he would, again, be handed the responsibilities of the watch and the benefits they entitled.
The meal was prepared and the Tribe ate quietly, watching their newest member quickly devour his ration. Ish slowed him a few times and the boy responded with an agitated expression before complying with her command.
Their initial curiosity about Doll was now replaced with anxious glances at Daniel. There was nothing they could do until the boy was ready to travel. It would do no good to save him from starvation only to risk loosing him to the cold.
As the day passed, there were some earnest attempts at banter and Otter played the clown more than once to try and keep the conversation going. But it was usually silence that took precedence, broken occasionally by a gust of wind against the windows or a tiny cough from Daniel.
Besides Ish and Rosa, who would occasionally attempt to comfort him, no one said anything to the boy. Their resentments with Parker's decision remained unspoken, tucked away with the fatigue of weary days on the path. Some of them were comforted by the little time they had to rest, although all were concerned about the road ahead.
"Hey boy, what is this place?" Otter asked when another tense silence had taken the room, and his provoking was doing no good.
Daniel lifted his face from behind the blanket where Ish had wrapped him tightly. His eyes were red but the tears had finally stopped. He tried to put Uncle out of his mind and focus on Otter's question. "This is the Hall of Antiquity," he replied slowly.
"And what is that?" asked Malin. Daniel stared at her for moments before he answered.
"It's a place where precious things are stored and cared for," he explained, repeating what he'd been taught by Uncle so long ago.
Coco snorted, "So why didn't you store any food then? That is precious things, right?"
"Coco!" Rosa said shushing the man. Coco looked away.
"He is only playing," said Tomas. "The boy knows that."
"He is not familiar with strangers, Tomas," Rosa suggested.
"We did store adequate food supplies," Daniel explained, "we used to get them from the old places in the city, but they ran out and then Uncle and me went to find more. But he got sick and… " He stopped and cleared his throat, but said no more.
Emre' chimed in, changing the subject. "There is a room in the back of the building," he said. "We cannot open it. What is there?"
Daniel was quiet as his mind went back to the issue of what Ish had said about Uncle. "I don't know what's there," he replied, finally. "You have to know the code to get in," he explained. "It's some words Uncle never told me."
"Those words written on the door?" Emre' asked.
"What do the words on the door mean?" Parker inquired.
The boy thought hard. What had Uncle said? It was so long ago he could barely remember. "I think they mean 'always fighting'," he explained.
By the time afternoon arrived, Daniel was beginning to feel stronger. This seemed to break the tension between the Roamers, and by the time the boy was feeling well enough to walk on his own, laughter was breaking out among them as they spoke of things unfamiliar to Daniel. The boy watched their interactions carefully; entranced by their rough behavior, the way they challenged and teased one another.
The man called Emre' fell into a yelling match with the one called Coco, and at the insistence of Parker the two were obliged to go into the snow outside and settle their differences. Ish told Daniel to stay where he was, to keep warm so he could get better. So he could not see outside as the men struggled with one another. But through the door, he heard the exchange of heated words, words he had never heard before. Then he heard scuffling, and the taunts and laughter of the men. When the nomads came back inside, the two men were sweaty, scratched and bruised. But they were grinning and clinging to one another other around the shoulders. They sat heavily onto the floor and the women called Rosa and Malin began to rub their backs and tend to the wounds they had caused each other.
Songs broke out after the fight, and soon it seemed that the men's differences had been completely forgotten.
As the night fell, Daniel's fear faded and he sat among the men of the Tribe, pondering their laughter and challenging, the way they kicked and punched each other as they spoke. Such odd behavior. Why the hitting and yelling? Were their ears bad? And what was so funny?
Their stories were filled with resurrected cities of great towers, like the ones in the pictures the raiders had ruined, and the empty ones he had seen when Uncle had taken him scavenging so long ago. But the towers these men spoke of were alive, filled with people, their animals and their things. They spoke of dense forests where large scary beasts roamed freely, eating everything they could find. "Especially children!" Otter pointed out loudly, fixing Daniel with a potent gaze. But they all laughed at this and Rosa scolded him again.
They spoke of places where the water had frozen solid and covered the horizon like glass, so that the sun shone off the ice, sparkling like a rainbow. They spoke strange, unbelievable tales of hunting huge cats and bears, and fighting other nomads and raiders.
Daniel noticed the way the women shook their heads and rolled their eyes as the men grew louder and louder, seeming to compete with one another about who would be next to speak. The younger men, the quiet thoughtful one called Rennie and the thin, worried looking one called Bosche' were constantly frustrated in this competition and sat with their heads in their hands, frowning at their older counterparts. The women joined in, too, jeering and challenging the men's improbable stories.
In time Daniel closed his eyes and let his mind drift, afloat on the sounds of the laughing, teasing people. Their voices comforted him. Their presence made him feel safe, secure, like he had felt when Uncle had been here. He rolled tightly into his fur and for the first time in his short life was lulled to sleep by the calming sounds of family.
The morning came quickly. They rose as one and began to prepare for the path. The boy was ready. It was time. As they packed, the Machine woman watched them with her usual detached curiosity. Parker noticed the Machine's stare and wondered how it would fare on the arduous journey. Would its frame give out, its legs collapse? It did look rather frail. But it was the boy's Machine and they would not discard it. It would have to travel as long as it could.
When Daniel awoke he saw the Tribe's belongings tightly packed and piled in the center of the room. He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
"Time to wake, little one," Ish said sharply, as she packed the sled. "There is nothing left for you here." The woman turned and called out. "Malin, dress this boy!"
Daniel didn't have time to correct Ish about his name before she dashed off to see to other things. Malin came to him with a bundle of clothing in her arms.
"Well, let's see what fits," she said, and yanked him from his bedding. She was not as gentle as Rosa or Ish and Daniel's complaints did little to affect her disposition.
In a short time, Daniel was draped in thick cloth. His head was wrapped tightly and he was standing in boots too big for his feet. Malin had stuffed tufts of fur into the footwear so it would conform to his size. He felt like he was being crammed into a huge bag made of fur. Malin stood back and appraised him. She crossed her arms and let out a little breathy sigh. "That'll have to do, for now," she said.
Otter and Bosche' passed by, and stopped to look Daniel over. Smirks formed at the corners of their mouths and Malin sneered. "Don't say a word," she warned them.
"What?" Daniel asked, feeling suddenly awkward under the men's gaze.
"Nothing! Nothing, little man," Otter said with a shrug. "You look fine! Just fine." The two walked away, snickers trailing behind them.
"My name is not little man!" Daniel called after them. He looked at Malin with an angry question in his eyes.
"Don't worry about those fools, Daniel," she said, leaning over to tighten the straps around his waist. "You'll be warm and dry and that is all that is important for now."
Parker was suddenly, moving among the Tribe. The man was a giant, dressed in the thick coats in which Daniel had first seen him. He patted each person on the shoulder and said something quietly before passing on to the next. Finally he came to stand by Malin, dwarfing her. He rubbed her shoulder and said her name. She gazed up at him. Parker said nothing more, but Daniel sensed some communication between them, something in Parker's eyes that he could not interpret. The two locked gazes a moment longer, and then Parker turned to him.
The big man put his hands on his hips and scrutinized Daniel. He knelt and tugged at the boy's makeshift travel-wear, grunting in satisfaction. When he was finished with his inspection, he placed his large hands on Daniel's shoulders and caught the boy's eyes. Parker's authority shone clear in that gaze and, in that instant, Daniel understood the dynamics of the man's relationship with the others. He was to them as Uncle had been to him. Daniel felt for the first time that he was now part of something bigger then he, that he was becoming one of them.
The Chief leaned close to the Tribe's newest member and spoke softly. "You will travel under the care of Rosa and Malin. They will prepare your portions and, over the days, make a cloak and boots more… suitable for you." A touch of humor came into Parker's eyes as he said this. But the look was gone quickly, replaced by a stern expression.
"Our way is not an easy one, boy. You are young and unprepared for the path but we can wait no longer. There will be moments when you will cry from weariness and I know you will always think of your home. But you have been left in our care, and we roam. So must you."
Daniel thought about reminding the man of his name. Uncle had told him to never let anyone speak to him like a child. But he immediately knew this was not the time for such corrections. As if to confirm this thought, Parker squeezed his shoulder tightly. Daniel listened obediently.
"You will do as you are told, and I will not tolerate any argument from you. Never again remind me of your name, boy, and I will not hear you debate this with the others. It is our way, Daniel. You are young and you cannot just demand respect. Like us, you will earn it or it will not be given." Parker let the words sink in. Then he rose.
"Your Machine will continue with us for as long as it can, or as long as you want her," he said. "Since it is yours we will not damage it or try to take parts. But you will be expected to tend to it, and if it should fail along the path, or slow us, it will be left behind."
Then the man walked away quickly, issuing commands and moving the packs out the door.
Daniel was dumbstruck by Parker's words. The magnitude of what was happening finally hit him. He had never been farther then the old rusted towers at the base of the hills, and it had only taken he and Uncle half a day to travel that far. Now he was about to embark on a venture that would last longer than he could imagine.
"Doll!" He called, snapping out of his worries and to his duty. Doll was still sitting patiently in the corner where Ish had ordered her days ago. Daniel knew she would sit there until her power set to stand-by and rendered her unconscious. Left on her own, Doll would just sit there and eventually deteriorate in the harsh weather. He could not let that happen. Parker's assignment had been unnecessary, for Daniel had promised long ago that he would never abandon her.
"We have to leave, Doll," Daniel said, surprised by the sudden emotion in his voice. "You have to get up now," he commanded, and took her by the arm.
The Machine woman rose gracefully at Daniel's beckon. Its calm expression gave no indication that it understood the gravity of what was occurring.
"Things have changed now, Doll," Daniel said as he fought back a tear. "Things have changed… forever."
Outside, the morning sun had finally begun to warm the ground. The snow from the storm was melting away slowly. But if another storm was coming, none could tell. Such was the chaos of the weather.
The Tribe was ready to go, waiting only for Parker, Ish and Tomas, who were speaking quietly at the edge of the enclosure. After a moment, Ish came to Daniel who stood with to his Machine.
"There is something we must do, now," she said, and took his hand. She gestured for the others to follow and led them to a mound of frozen earth.
"Uncle has moved on, Daniel, and so must you," Ish said. "It is time for you to say goodbye and take your place with us."
Daniel was perplexed by this idea. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"Tell us about him, and then let him be forgotten." Ish said.
Daniel was confused as the Tribe gathered around him, watching with solemn eyes. They were anxious to leave but knew the importance of this moment. "He cannot wait forever," Otter joked, but Ish shushed him. This was not the time of place for jokes.
"Remember him, Daniel," Rosa explained. "Tell us what he meant to you."
After a hesitation, Daniel stepped forward and eyed the silent mound. Uncle slept there? They wanted him to say things that he remembered about Uncle? He did not understand this. He became lost in conflicting and unfamiliar emotions as he thought back, back to the time when life had been simple, when life had been certain and predictable. He thought about the reading and writing lessons he had been given, until the time Uncle had started pacing the grounds, reciting, to no one, strange speeches that would last into the deep hours. He remembered the times before the wild men had come and destroyed the place, and how Uncle had cared for him and taught him to hunt and to wash and cook.
The words finally came. "Uncle told me how to do everything I know, and..." Daniel stopped, looking up to Ish to see if this was the right thing to say. But there was no confirmation in the woman's eyes. Only patience. He continued.
"And… he showed me the places to get food and how to take care of Doll and the museum and how the seasons changed. He taught me the letters and the words and how to read the words…" he stopped again. This was not what he should be saying. Somehow he knew that. He paused, reflecting on his life. Then the strange emotions welled in him again and his words came quickly and painfully.
"Uncle was my friend and I didn't know how to do things when you are not around." Tears formed in his eyes and flowed over his face, "You were always with me and always took care of me and Doll and … I'll always want to see your face and talk with you again."
He stopped then, and wiped the wetness from his face. He didn't know why, but he wanted to keep this feeling secret from the others. He did not want them looking on him when the tears came. Uncle had called them the 'baby talk' and had insisted that the time for baby talk in the world was over.
The tears subsided and, when Daniel looked up again, the Tribe was smiling warmly, and nodding their heads.
"It is time," Parker said.
And with that statement the Tribe unceremoniously began their trek. They passed through the enclosure and hoisted up their packs. Otter and Bosche wrapped slings around their shoulders. It was their turn to pull the sleds. In minutes they were out on the path, headed up the hillside towards the cluster of buildings they had seen before the boomer had hit, before Emre' had found the museum and the boy.
As they began their slow climb, Daniel stopped and looked back at the museum one last time. Something he had never felt before played inside his mind and his heart. As he gazed back at the quiet buildings, a final tear broke and rolled over his face.
"Goodbye," he whispered. The sound was lost on the chilled breeze. He turned and caught up with his new family.
For Doll there is only the eternal moment. It spans the length of her accessible recollection and she does not presume what lies beyond. It is not her concern.
Outside of the moment, there is only a need that drives her, an implanted passion that would never let her sleep, even if so human an escape, and its resultant dreams, were part of her programming.
They are not.
Nor is finality.
She has seen a thousand 'goodbyes' and each have meant the same. The restless, moving people that surrounded her and cleared her path through the world, would pass on, and new faces, bearing the same coded signals, those beyond her understanding, would take their place. The journey would continue.
Now she is saying goodbye again, though still not understanding its substance. She was here, and now she will be elsewhere. That is all.
It means nothing to her that thirty long years have passed in the ancient and abused Hall of Antiquities, which was her home, and home to the man who watched over her. He had come into her life, like those before him, and has passed like them too. The boy who came to live with them, just a fraction of time ago in the scheme of things, has grown and now this responsibility has been passed on to him. But Doll knows no sense of appreciation, nor feels gratitude in her heart.
She has none.
So goodbye does not, cannot affect her.
As the museum slowly diminishes behind them, its old and crumbling walls fading in the gathering haze of distance, its labyrinth of forgotten histories and mysteries doomed to dust and withering, her only thought is, as always, of her own want and wanting.