The Porcelain Doll
Daniel wasn't very enthusiastic about retelling the story of the pig. He vaguely remembered some stinking, grunting thing that had shot from the bushes and struck him in the head. But anything more than that would require the type of embellishment that he always suspected the older men of engaging in.
"It was an accident, I think," he had explained numerous times already. But the Tribesmen would hear nothing of it. Their salutations initially confused Daniel, but by the time the night had fallen and the festivities had gotten underway, he was beginning to enjoy the attention. A bottle of a thick, sweet fluid, like Ish had given him in the museum, was passed around, and after a few sips, the men started acting wild. They laughed and yelled and told Daniel stories about their own first kill. The boy wouldn't have believed it possible, but the drunken men were actually louder than during their usual nightly shouting matches.
Emre' and Rennie had a chance to tell their stories, and even Bosche' had his time to share about saving Emre' from the cat. Emre' stepped up and rewarded Bosche' with a warm, drunken kiss that seemed to go on longer than necessary, and everyone laughed when Rennie barked a loud complaint.
But the older men, especially Parker, were, as usual, the center of attention. Tomas and Mak talked about running to the point where they had seen the cat, and then having to jump over the cliff. But Parker had been the one who had actually slain the great beast. Its soft parts were now sizzling on the fire, along with the sweet meat of the pig.
"And then I heard the growl and smelled that nasty breath behind me," Parker said, in between sips of the fermented drink. "When I turned and saw that mouth full of teeth, my balls froze!"
"I hope they thawed," Ish said, and laughter broke out.
Parker had to shush the Tribe to regain their attention. "You'll find out later," he said with a wink.
"Let the boy tell his tale!" Emre' blurted, before Parker had a chance to continue. "We've heard your story enough."
Parker's expression grew serious and there was a sudden tension among the Tribe. But the old Chief finally put up his hands in resignation. "Move on the glory, to sons of old fighters past!" he laughed, tottering a bit in his intoxication. "Come, Daniel, tell us of your kill!"
Daniel moaned and pressed his palms to his face. Not again! "Noooo…" he shouted, his voice muffled behind his hands. But the Tribe hooted and yelled at him.
"C'mon boy!" Mak said, "brave pig killer!" There was more laughter. Then something silenced them.
"Daniel?" Ish beckoned. The boy parted his hands and looked up, hesitantly. Ish nodded toward Malin, who was holding something up in the light of the fire. At first the boy could not make out the shape of the fuzzy bundle in the woman's arms. Then he realized it was a coat and boots.
"For me?" he asked excitedly.
Malin nodded. "Now you don't have to look like a little mouse wrapped in lion's fur," she said. "And I can have my clothes back!"
The Tribe shouted their approval as Daniel stood to take his new clothing. He inspected the furry wardrobe the women had sewn for him, and his face broke into a grateful smile.
"Put them on," Rosa said. But Daniel hesitated, glancing at the Tribe shyly.
"Don't be silly, boy!" Parker said, "We are family! Go on. Put them on." The Tribe hooted encouragement and Daniel slipped out of Malin's oversized things, shivering in the cool night air. In moments he was wearing his warm, new apparel. The Tribe clapped their hands and Ish let him have another sip of the sweet drink.
"Now you tell your tale, right?" Coco suggested.
"I'm tired of that story!" Daniel complained, a bit too seriously. There was greeted with disapproving grunts.
"Maybe he needs more drink?" Otter suggested.
"Maybe he's had too much!" said Emre'.
"Well, tell us something!" Rosa said. "You are one of our heroes today." The others applauded her sentiment.
Daniel scanned their expectant faces. The pig had been an accident, that was all, and he was tired of talking about it. But what else could he share with these people, these Roamers for whom life had been a constant battle since before he was born. He looked away, into the darkness as he thought. He saw another face there, gazing on his with a calm, detached smile.
"OK," Daniel said with a new light in his eyes. "I know a great story for you!"
By the time he was old enough to do his numbers, he could tell anyone her story. He would have welcomed an opportunity to do so, but as far as he could remember there had only been he and Uncle on the quiet grounds of the old museum; just they and Doll.
Uncle had told him it was his job to look after her, to attend to her needs and keep her from danger. He had made Daniel promise, and explained that promises were not to be taken lightly; that this was a "sacred" duty and a promise was "eternal".
Doll had been Uncle's responsibility for longer than Daniel had been alive and the man explained that there had been others before him, numerous people, in whose care Doll had been placed. This duty had been passed along from one party to another for longer than Daniel would understand, Uncle had said, and now it was up to Daniel to see to her safety. So, along with his daily lessons, Daniel had learned how to care for Doll, had learned her past and the specifics of her function.
But as the years passed, Uncle had begun to act strangely. He would talk to invisible people during the dark hours of the night, muttering to himself about places that Daniel had never heard of. Over time Daniel's lessons had stopped. The numbers and letters and words that Uncle had patiently taught him since he was old enough to understand had taken second place to caring for Doll, even when she was in no apparent need of attention.
Even with his limited understanding of the world, Daniel had come to realize that Uncle was not okay, that something was wrong with the man. Eventually, before he had taken ill and fell into a sleep that Daniel had not understood, Uncle had spent every waking moment speaking of Doll, retelling the same stories over and over. Daniel had memorized those tales during the difficult years of Uncle's growing madness.
Was it the attack on the museum that had driven he man to act so? Had it been the savage and incomprehensible destruction of the artifacts and musical instruments which had turned Uncle's hair white and made his gaze distant? Daniel had been too young to understand what had been happening then. He only knew that he had made a promise. So small was he then, that Uncle had had to kneel to confirm the promise with the customary handshake. The boy had not known the gravity of this responsibility and the importance of Doll until years had passed. In that time he had come to take the promise very seriously. He would protect her at all costs.
"She is "special", Uncle had explained. "One of a kind."
"A long time ago she used to be a doll," Daniel started, realizing he wasn't entirely sure where to begin. "I mean a real doll," he said, placing his hands one above the other, to signify something small and fragile. "Made of 'porcelain'," he said, hoping no one would ask what 'porcelain' was, because he wasn't really sure. Uncle had never explained. "And every day she would play in the garden…"
…amid the buzzing and chirping of the other toys. They were all his creations, and he would often come into the garden; or this place that could be known as a garden, to lose himself in the sounds of his devices, and to listen to her, his most treasured creation. His Porcelain Doll.
Her sounds were those that had been loved by another, she in whose memory this room had been constructed. She, who slept eternally beneath the soft earth of this place, beneath the wild flowers, or those devices that could be known as flowers; those devices that would bloom eternally, as unhampered by the seasons as the 'insects' of the garden were unaffected by the hours of the day, and as the Porcelain Doll was unhampered by sleep or hunger or any other factor that would keep her from her function.
She played the same piece, at the same time, every day.
The soft notes melded smoothly into the gentle sounds of the garden, and when her time was finished, the man would rise and leave, outside the level of her awareness or concern.
Even if she had been in possession of those faculties that would have allowed her to sense him, she would not have cared. There was only the music at that time. It had been the cold language of digital encoding; the precise logic of numbers and linear synapse triggers. Even the sound she created was a sensation yet alien to her.
But her creator had been working on her. Developing her. Elaborating her processing and sensory capabilities.
In the passions of his loss and the toll it took on him, Doll came to represent the resurrection of his lost love, and the re-fortressing of his heart against the tide of time and age. He had come to love his device, after a fashion. Or maybe it was his fascination with her that he loved. It consumed him and set him on a quest that would shape the events of the rest of his life.
"The man was called Devimbi, François Devimbi," Daniel continued at a faster pace, becoming quickly accustomed to being the center of attention. "He was a robot builder from a place called 'France', but I don't know where that is." He shrugged an apology for his inability to explain France's whereabouts. "I think it got drowned like New York or Lewisana and Floridia."
"Floridia? Lewisana?" Otter repeated skeptically. "I never heard of these places. You are making this up!"
Daniel raised his chin, feeling confident in his new status, and perhaps the influence of the few swigs of liquor he had been allowed. "This is common history, and I am surprised you don't know about it" he countered, confidently. All the Tribe chuckled, except Otter, who snorted, but sat back down at Emre's insistence.
"Devimbi was a …" how had Uncle put it? "…new-ro-logical developer. That means he built Machine brains."
"I didn't know Machines had brains," Otter blurted. "They sure don't act like it!" The tribe laughed again.
"Of course they have brains!" Daniel said testily. "How do you think they walk and talk?"
"I think Otter was just playing Daniel," Rosa said, gently. The boy looked at her with a curious expression. Did he not understand the humor, she wondered. Had she ever seen him laugh?
"Doll has a special brain," Daniel continued, ignoring the humor he did not seem to comprehend. He began to pace as he spoke, unconsciously mimicking the professorial postures of the man he'd known as Uncle. "Her brain is like no other before …"
…or after her creation.
François Devimbi was the first to develop the programming that would enable his precious creation to know a special language and, perhaps, a special understanding. She was the first of her kind to know this unique quality of being, the first to understand the incalculable essence of the sound called "music". Not just in its coarse, literal manifestation, as all musical simulators were capable of, but in that indefinable expression and function of the mind that had remained elusive to neuro-programmers for so many years:
Before her creation, these factors had been the sole providence of that troubled, sentient species called Humanity. In the restless, chaotic millennia of their histories, humankind's deific ambitions had produced all manner of magic. Barriers had been broken. Discoveries in space-faring technologies and genetic manipulations; in energy production and refinement, had brought society to new technological heights. Human replicating robots, and their thinking devices, had moved into new levels of sophistication. These advancements had changed everything in the known universe.. Except the way men thought.
Machine People, once the symbol of lofty aspirations, had become practical in their design, limited in their functions lest they become too sophisticated for their owners. Created specifically to their individual tasks, they had become the new servant class for those who could afford them, and in the line of social hierarchy, theirs were the menial and laborious duties that had been the sustenance of the struggling and abused working classes for centuries.
Due to this, the complex relationships between the shelves upon which the groundwork of society was built, had shifted. Eventually, these frictions had created fissures in the functional apparatus of the civilized world. The resulting turbulence had brought the progress of the technological world to a halt… and then to complete cessation. It was a quake that spawned wars and starvation.
It was the beginning of the end.
But Doll knew nothing of these events and would not have been concerned about them if she had. She only knew her function, and it was all that mattered.
"It was very difficult for him to get her to work right," Daniel continued, not exactly sure what part of her story to tell first. "When he first built her she played only from programs and data files, just like any other machine would. But then he decided to make her better. Devimbi didn't want her limited to 'pre-conditioned responses'. He wanted to build a machine that had its own…" he paused, trying to remember. "…Interpretive character!" he said, excitedly, when the words came back to him.
Otter stood again, ignoring the irritated looks from those who wanted to let the boy have his moment. "What in hell are you talking about?" he said, in frustration. "What is 'interpretive character'? What does the damned Machine do?"
Daniel's face twisted in an expression of incredulity, and then annoyance, at the question. "She plays the piano!" he replied, as if it should have been obvious to all.
Doll knew the boy was speaking of her. He was explaining her to them. What she did. How she did it. A small part of her unique processor listened and sorted the dialogue into comprehensible parameters. In the rest of her brain an unending processing loop preoccupied every idle data flow. She gazed out past their intrigued faces. Her fingers moved gently under the folds of her white dress, triggering invisible keys. The silence was her torture; this excruciating time away from the instrument that was her only reason for being.
"Piano?" Mak repeated, looking around the group to see if he was alone in his ignorance. But the others seemed to be as confused as the big warrior. They gazed around at each other, hoping someone might understand.
"It's a music box," Ish said, as she eyed the distracted Machine. "I've seen one, but that was a long ago, when I was a girl in the North cities, I think. " Her face twisted in recollection. "They sound like …" She stopped, not having the words to explain.
Parker shifted his weight and cleared his throat to announce an inquiry. "Daniel… what good is a machine that plays a music box?" he asked, after futilely pondering a better way to frame the question.
Emre' chimed in. "Yeah, Machines are for building and digging, right? Carrying packs and things." There were some grunts of agreement to Emre's point, although none of them could imagine the fragile looking Doll performing such duties.
"And there were fighting Machines," Coco added. "There were ones built for killing. They were almost impossible to beat," he said, as if the purveyor of some rare information.
"They did numbers, too!" Malin said. "And humping," she added quickly, beating Otter' to the punch. Mak laughed and made a lurid thrusting gesture with his hefty body. All the men joined in, grunting and twisting their faces in mock ecstasy. Ish smiled, but shushed them when she noticed Daniel's quiet agitation.
Daniel felt a new reservation as he stood before them. When the laughter died down, he opened his mouth to answer, but realized that he didn't really have a response to Parker's question. Uncle had never spoken of such matters. Doll's value was presumed.
Uncle had never lived in this 'other' world; this world that Daniel was only now learning of; this mysterious expanse that he'd seen only through the windows of the museum. He was just learning what kind of world it was and what kind of people populated it. But how would Doll live in a world like this, among people that didn't understand the importance of her function? He eyed them quietly, sensing that her safety depended upon his answer.
He had promised.
He chose his words carefully.
"She is… a treasure," he said, slowly, punctuating each word. Uncle's ceaseless monologues ran through his head. "She is the only Machine to ever have her own sense of… musicality." Uncle's words were coming back to him quickly now. He stepped closer to the Tribe as he spoke. "She is as much a treasure as the music she recreates. There are few in this day and age that will appreciate what that means… but I do! Her creation was the end result of years of toil and striving, and that is why she must be protected at all costs."
They were quiet now, watching him, following his every word carefully. He did not know how odd he was to them, nor how intriguing. He would not yet understand how even those who distrusted his precocious manner and piercing blue eyes, those whose patience was wearing at his assuming tone of voice, were drawn to his words, and drawn to him. And how he was now drawing them to her.
"If you could hear her play you would understand," Daniel said. "You have never heard…
…music like this, it had never been set to open interpretation by neural simulating processors. There were the Machine performers in the malls and entertainment venues, in the public forums where the Unions and business owners had bargained away the protections of human artists. But even at their high level of sophistication, they were glorified automatons, articulating notes in the precise mimicry programmed them.
Doll was different.
François Devimbi had created the most elaborate thinking machines for use by public and private concerns. The results of his works were to be found in everything from lunar construction bots to street level prostitute models. The gamut of society's functional thinking devices used logic and processing protocols that he had either created or influenced. But Doll had been his crowning achievement, and his most personal.
After the passing of his beloved wife, it was in Doll that he had invested all his time and passion, certain that he had inadvertently stumbled on a process that would allow artificial intelligence to begin to reason completely on its own. And he had done this through the language of music; music born of love and loss.
Yet his success had been limited. For years he had struggled in this process and Doll's basic design had been revised time and time again. Her brain was removed from her tiny porcelain form and then reinserted repeatedly as he worked. He had kept her sensory functioning limited at first, to keep irrelevant environmental data from distracting the sensitive interpretive processors in her head.
Intent on being the first to bring artificial intelligence into the realm of sentient processing, he had been forced to create various mock designs as decoys for competitors who tried to mimic his methods. But in the end, it was the works of another that would complete Devimbi's efforts, and bring his Doll to life.
In his graying years, after decades of frustration, François had heard of a man across the risen oceans, an American CEO of one of the largest and most innovative robot builders on the planet. The organization's work was as well known as his own, and they had crossed a crucial barrier in the function of Machine processing.
He had created a robot that knew 'love'.
When Devimbi read this his heart raced. This had to be the missing element, the undefined factor in Doll's maturation! It was the one thing he had not even considered. Emotions!
A communication was sent across the net. Having programming problems of his own, the American had been intrigued with Devimbi's project. Phone calls and arrangements were made, and the man had flown across the risen oceans to see for himself, Devimbi's efforts. They had gone into the garden and listened quietly as she played. Devimbi whispered during the short piece, outlining the subtleties of what was happening, explaining the nuances and the difference between her performance and the automatic renderings of basic performance simulators.
When it was over, the American was excited. Enthralled. A bond of mutual admiration had been built, and the men shared ideas excitedly, unofficially becoming associates in her development.
"You must bring her to America," the man said before he left. "I have an entire network of programmers at my disposal."
Excited for the first time in years, Devimbi had agreed immediately.
Days later, Devimbi came into the garden one last time, to listen to her play. Then he shut the garden down and took her from her podium into the withering world, over the great oceans to America, to what was left of the greatest of her sunken cities.
It was there that, for the first time, Doll would come to know the element for which she had been constructed in its real form. It was there that she would feel the aural embrace and the magic of sound.
The Tribe was silent as Daniel spoke, hanging on his every word. His story took them to a time that they could not have known, a time when Machines were still alive, when the great towers glittered against the night, and flying crafts filled the skies, leaving trails of luminous vapor above the earth and the waters of the great oceans.
But Parker waved his arm, interrupting Daniel's story.
"The rest can wait," he said, "We must clear the hills tomorrow and we have new weight to carry." He nodded to the remains of the pig and the cat.
There was genuine disappointment in the faces of the others. Even Otter, who had been the least receptive to the tale, had become entranced. But they knew Parker was right. There was a long way to go, and a lot of work to do.
Ish grunted as she rose unsteadily. "Yes, we still have to cut and pack this cat. I guess it's not that bad a thing that most of it is too hard to keep." She picked out Otter and Rennie and said, "You two can get to that." The young men grumbled, but obeyed. The rest of them made their way slowly to blankets.
Daniel crawled into his bedding, and leaned on an elbow as he watched the curious partnering process of the Tribe. Mak was taking the first watch. He relaxed his bulk against the base of a large tree, while Ish rolled into Tomas's bedding. Rosa slid into Parker's fur. The two whispered and giggled and the blankets began to move rhythmically in the firelight. Coco spoke softly to Malin who turned away with a flick of her wrist, and sidled up to Emre'. Emre' felt her against him and faced her with a knowing smile. Then the two walked to the edge of the camp, and were soon rolling over each other, under the thick coating of Emre's fur. Coco cast a long glance long at Bosche', who had wrapped himself up in his fur. But the young man only frowned back and covered his head quickly.
Daniel leaned back and pondered this. He gazed at the starry sky, feeling some new anxiety in his heart. After a moment, he called to Doll to lie down beside him. The Machine woman knew what was expected of her and obeyed quietly. Daniel snuggled his back to her, tucked his legs up like a child, and wrapped her arm over his shoulder. He laid his cheek down against her hand and a flicker of memory crossed his mind. When he was small, another gentle arm had embraced him like this. It was soft, like Doll's, and he vaguely remembered a warm kiss on his cheek, long strands of golden hair tickling his face and shoulders, and a gentle voice laughing and singing to him. Then telling him goodbye.
The recollection forced a tear into Daniel's eye, and he pressed tighter against Doll, the only mother he had ever known. He fell to sleep in the Machine's gentle embrace.
The boy has wrapped himself in her arms like he had done when he was small, after the golden haired woman had wandered in from the wastes and left him in the museum with the lonely man he had come to know as Uncle. The boy's cries had filled the museum for hours that night, keeping the man awake.
Uncle had grown angry at first, but then Doll heard him singing and cooing, doing his best to calm the little abandoned child. Eventually the man had brought the child to her and told her to hold him. She had not understood. She had nothing of this in her database. Such things were not among her specified functions. So the man had laid Doll on the blankets that he had set out for the child, and wrapped the boy in her arms. "Stay that way," he had ordered, as he walked back to his own room. The child had struggled and whined at first. But soon he quieted in her gentle grasp. She had watched curiously as the small boy stuck one of his little digits into his mouth and began to suck on it, humming some low whine all the while. Then he fell into a deep sleep.
Doll recalls this night clearly; the first night the boy had dreamt in her arms. She is unable to retreat with him to the place of dreams, so she lays quietly, feeling him breathing against her, just like the first time so long ago, and so many times since.
And just like those other times, she wiped a hand across his sleeping face and felt the wetness under his eyes. She rolled the moisture in her fingers until it was absorbed, wondering from whence it came, and why.