The Porcelain Doll
Forty days after the Tribe left the museum, they chanced upon the crumbling remains of a great city. The mountainous path on which they been traveling spiraled down into jutting foothills and the city spread out beyond, a cluster of silent grey monoliths veined by broken roads and highways. The mummified towers that had once been shining symbols of man's achievements, now served as gravestones to reckless ambitions. The faces of the old building were worn with time and decrepitude, and dark foreboding hung over the place like a fog.
Parker, Emre' and Ish stood apart from the rest, and spoke for some time, deciding what to do. There were dangers in such places.
Mak grumbled about restless spirits that hid in the darkness of silent towers, waiting for people to awaken them so they could rise and wreak havoc on the world. Otter teased him and whispered to the others, who chuckled under their breath. But Mak insisted that the tales had merit.
Parker had other concerns. The cities had poison places. There was sufficient snow on the hills to assure the streams would be safe for water, but in the old places there could be areas where even camping might invite death.
Emre' pointed out that the remains of the hunt were starting to get low and there was at least the possibility of finding food in the ruins. He also reminded them that hoarders were known to have kept hidden treasures in the old towers. There could be useful artifacts hidden within one of them. Weapons, maybe. The leaders talked it over. Emre' and Tomas knew how to read most of the 'danger' signs, and the boy also knew many words, so at least they could avoid toxics.
Finally, Parker made his decisions and the Tribe began to make their way down into the foothills, and onto the broken roads that led into the dead place.
They passed low, squat buildings, and groups of silent houses that were clustered alongside the road, or beneath it when the highway rose over another. But these places were grim and haunted looking, and the reek of toxins was on them. With unspoken unanimity the Tribe decided to move on.
As they neared the first of the great towers, a chilled breeze kicked up the refuse of centuries. Parker felt that chill in his heart. He stopped the procession. The snow was light here, and it would be hard to see the prints of any other's passage. He knew other Roamers might make a home in the old towers, so it was possible that they were not alone.
"Stay close," Parker said, withdrawing his blade. The others followed his lead, pulling weapons from their sheaths. Daniel was surprised to see the women slip savage looking blades from beneath their coats. Uncle had told him that women were weak and had to be protected. This was another area where Uncle's lessons had not been entirely accurate.
They moved cautiously through the grey stillness, feeling as if silent eyes were on them. Another gust of wind rushed through the empty streets, the breath of invisible specters whispering of a time gone by.
They passed the hulks of dead wagons that lay along the side of the road. These crafts that had, at one time, moved quickly over the ground and through the air, were now strewn about in rusted disarray. The place was littered with ruined and unrecognizable machinery, and everywhere there were giant signs filled with enormous smiling faces peeking through the grime of centuries. The faces were surrounded by unintelligible symbols. They said "Eat" and "Drink" and "limited offer" and they lined all the paths of the dead city. The nomads passed in silence, the dust of civilization crumbling beneath their feet.
Emre' stopped at the front of the procession, and pointed over the edge of the road. "Is that what I think?" he asked excitedly.
Near one of the large towers, in the midst of a cluster of ruined wagons and debris, lay a large metallic object that looked like it may have once glittered in the sunlight. Wires protruded along the length of its smashed and rusted flank and, from atop its head, warped metal rods hung over its body and dug into the ground. At the rear of the craft, a crimson cross peeked through the rust of a fin.
Ish cried out. She hadn't seen one of the rescue ships since her childhood. "It'll have rations, Parker!" she said.
But Parker was already on his way. "To each his own," he laughed, jumping over the railing and waving for the others to follow. Emre' dropped his pack and was fast on the men's heels, laughing when overtook him. The challenge brought a surge of energy to Parker, and he pushed himself harder, catching to the younger man and playfully knocking him over as he raced by. The rest of the travel weary Tribe followed, looking like a stampede of wooly plains beasts in their thick furs as they ran down the snowy slope towards the old aeroplane,
True to his promise, Daniel walked slowly beside Doll. She could not run. She had not been designed for such activities. Only Rennie and Bosche' slowed to wait for the pair.
Parker arrived first with Emre right behind. The men stood a moment laughing and catching their breath. Then they peeked through one of the dirty windows. Their jaws dropped.
"Do you see?" Emre' whispered, reverently.
"Yes, I see," Parker whispered back.
Huge plastic cartons lined the inside of the craft. A few were broken open, their contents lay in piles on the floor.
"Synthetics," the men said in unison. They did due diligence, circling the craft, checking to see if anyone might have already tagged it as property. But they could see no marks except ancient symbols, unintelligible through the dirt and rust.
The cargo door slid open with much more ease than they'd anticipated. They jumped into the craft, laughing like children, and began to sift through the boxes.
"What is it?" Parker asked, grasping a handful of hand sized packets. Emre' struggled with the writing on one of the plastic wrappers. "Uh, vi-ta-man for-ti-fy-ed… forti…" he shook his head. "It's food!" he laughed.
The others were arriving, taking turns scolding the men for acting like hoarders. But when they saw the magnitude of the find, their recriminations were put aside and they began sifting through the boxes.
Tomas hesitated in the doorway. He didn't like the abandon in which the others were stuffing their mouths. He turned to scan the silent tower that loomed beside the craft. "Someone must know about this," he muttered. "They could be watching us."
Rennie and Bosche' arrived next. They had waited as long as they could for the boy and his Machine, but the pair was taking too long and they didn't want to miss anything. The couple ignored Tomas' complaints and forced their way past him, jumping into the fray.
"I saw no tracks," Mak assured Tomas as he stuffed one of the synthetic food bars into his mouth. He immediately spat it out. "Akkk! It's rotted!"
Emre' swallowed a mouthful and shook his head. "Synthetics can't rot," he said, and glanced at the green wrapper in Mak's hand. "Oh, that's spin-ach. Try this one." He tossed a bar at the man. "Maraconi and Chess. Pretty good."
But Tomas was not satisfied with Maks' flippant response. "No tracks means nothing," he said. "This snow is fresh. Tracks were probably covered."
Ish relaxed against a stack of rations and peeled back the wrapping on a golden colored bar. "This thing has been here since before we were born," she said. "If anyone knew about it, it would be empty by now."
Tomas started to reply when Otter jumped at him, brandishing handfuls of the small plastic wrappers. "Chocolate, Tomas! Chocolate!" he said, holding them to the man's face. "Shut up and eat!" The old tracker grumbled for a moment. Then shoved his way past Parker. "Well, leave some for me, damn it." he said.
Daniel finally caught up, and saw the feeding frenzy going on inside. He led Doll to the corroded remains of the landing gear and sat her down. "Stay here," he ordered. Then he raced inside, using some new, colorful words he had learned from the Tribe, to express his feelings about their impatience.
It was only Doll who would notice the shadowy figure that emerged slowly from the old tower.
She watches a figure take shape in of the shadows of the building. It is a man. His body is thin and bent, clothed in the tattered remnants of a form-fitting suit. His face is creased from age, and covered in a tangle of mottled grey hair. His eyes are suspicious, wary as he gazes on her. He stops at a short distance, and waves his hands.
Is this a greeting? A warning? Doll does not know. She does not respond.
The old man wasn't sure if she was real or the traces of a dream that had followed him into the waking world. Such things had appeared before. Like the laughing little girl called Madeline, who used to follow from his dreams and inhabit the corner of his vision all day; or the amorphous shape he called Dark Horse, that would hover over his building from time to time. He hadn't seen either of them in a while. But there were still the ghost voices. They would probably haunt him forever.
He closed his eyes and shook his head, to clear his senses. But the beautiful apparition was still there, looking lonely and lost. Slowly the idea came that she could be … real? His heart raced. He stepped out of the shadows and waved his lanky arms. She did not return the gesture. "Hallo!" he called, displaying a smile that was only partially toothed. But his smile faltered when the woman continued to ignore him.
The hermit sighed. So she was not real after all. But he quickly shrugged it off. He could use the company either way. He stepped towards her slowly, so not to scare her off.
"You a friend of Madeline?" he asked conversationally when he was within earshot, surprised that she had not already vanished. "Got plenty good eatin inside my trailer there. Synthetics, ya know. Last forever." He didn't really know what else to say, and wasn't sure how long it would be before she faded back into the realm of dreams.
"Bunch'a old famine relief copters was stashed up here. Guvvament hoarders tried to hide 'em but, uh, well, I guess we fount em." He cackled a dry laugh and then noticed that the apparition wasn't looking at him. Her eyes gazed up at the space above his head. The man turned to see if another dream creature, perhaps the Dark Horse, was hovering behind him. But there was nothing.
"Seems we're all alone," he said, wiping his tangled hair out of his face. This one did not seem as intent on leaving as the others. Maybe she might stick around long enough for a little…. fun. "That sure is a pretty dress," he said, slyly, siding up to her. "But, uh, ain't you just a little cold out here?" But as he moved closer the thought came to him that something was not quite right. He reached out and pressed a finger tentatively against her arm. He snapped it back.
"My oh my," he whispered. "You're…"
A small figure flew out of the copter, screaming and swinging his little fists. The hermit yelped and jumped away, warding off the tiny blows.
"Get away from her!" Daniel yelled, his face red, his breath misting in the cold. "She's not for that! She not for that!!"
"Hold on, there!" the hermit yelled, pushing at the small frenzied thing. He caught the boy's flailing wrists and realized this was not nightmare. "You're real!" he said in disbelief. "Damn the devil! You're-"
But the boy suddenly relented, and the old man went stiff when a black-faced giant exited the craft, his eyes hard and scrutinizing. Another was behind him, a thick-bodied man with tight, Asian eyes. Their clothing was dirty and road worn, fashioned from the skins of dead animals.
"Awww shit," the hermit muttered, feeling his stomach twist. These were roamers. Warriors.
And so must have been those who followed, the tall one with the long beard, his eyes bright and watchful; the beautiful, fair-skinned woman with the wild red hair, her chin raised and proud; the muscular, young, dark man with the angry eyes, looking as if he was ready for a fight; and a dark, heavy woman with the broad face and knowing gaze. Then came younger ones, fair, with the smoothness of childhood still in their faces. But the hardness of life on the road shone clear in their eyes. These were people who had seen much of the dying world and were ready, at any moment, to meet its challenges. The biggest of them held his hands out from his sides to show that they were empty. The others formed a line behind him, their hands hidden in the folds of their coats. The old hermit understood this. There was a silent exchange as he measured the situation. Only the boy's excited breath could be heard as he defensively embraced the strange, beautiful woman.
After a tense moment, Parker walked forward and held his hands out, palms skyward. It was a sign of friendship. There were too few of them left to fight amongst each other anymore.
The old man sighed relief and held his own hands to the sky. The others nodded and released the handles of their blades.
"We are the Tribe," the huge man said. "I am Parker, and we bear no evil." He gestured to the fallen aircraft. "We didn't know this was yours."
But the hermit didn't seem to care about their trespass. He moved forward slowly, holding a trembling hand out before him. Parker accepted the old hand and felt the gnarled fingers clasp his tightly. A grin broke on the hermit's face, accentuated by a dry, cackling laugh.
"Call me Nayar," the hermit said in a rusty voice, and his face suddenly twisted in an uncontrollable swell of emotion. "It's so …. it's so good to see other folk," he said, struggling to keep his composure. "I thought you was a dream. Though it was only me out here! That was the only one."
Parker reached out and pulled the frail old man close, patting him on the back as the emotional moment passed. He looked over his shoulder and winked at the Tribe. They nodded silent chuckles.
Nayar finally pulled away, and wiped the tears from his eyes. He gestured to the building behind him. "Well, c'mon now," he said. "I got heat goin' inside. Got night lights and everything!" He did a strange little jiggling dance, beckoning them to follow. "You folks grab some more'a them food bars and come on inside! It's cold out here!"
By the time the sun fell, they were all camped warmly inside the old tower, amid the wreckage of ancient office furniture and equipment. Freed from their heavy coats, the road-worn people were scattered around the large room, lain atop the surface of desks or relaxing in the deteriorating cushions of old office couches.
The building's mechanical heart was still beating somewhere in the complex machinery of its aged body. The Tribe could hear huge mechanisms whirr into activity, pumping heat into the room, and then stopping once the desired temperature was achieved. The aged solar cells were still working, rejuvenating in the light of day. But the world was covered in a constant haze, and the batteries were old. They would never work as well, or provide as much energy, as they'd originally been designed. No one knew how long the power would last and, when it did fail, there was no one left who could revive it.
Outside, the snow was beginning to fall. Nayar explained that it fell almost every night but melted quickly on those days when the sun broke through the haze. The Tribe explained that this was not uncommon, that it was happening everywhere as the climates lost their continuity and fell into chaos.
The women sat among themselves, taking this time away from the attentions of the men to groom each other and discuss the various matters of their concern. Their soft voices and laughter danced on the air of the room. Rennie and Bosche' whispered softly between one another while Otter, Coco and Tomas laid back to watch the snow fall outside. Quietly they gazed out of the huge plate windows, wondering how much of their journey was yet before them.
Parker, Emre and Mak sat under the solitary light, talking with Nayar in the faded yellow glow. The old man was eager to hear about the world outside, but he seemed distracted by the women's laughter. It had been so long since he had been in the company of a female. Parker noticed Nayar's distraction, how his gaze always drifted back to the women. But he knew the old man had no more than a slim chance of having anything more than a conversation with any of them. It was not really his age, or even his strange, gnarled appearance, that would be their concern. It was because he was not one of them.
"Here, old man," Parker said holding out a cup of red pulpy fluid. "Share a drink with us." Nayar took the cup and smelled it hesitantly. Then he handed it back to Parker.
"That's nice of ya, but I better not," he said. A dark look fell across his features. But he quickly brightened. "Why don't you folks tell me what's of the world! Where ya from? How'd ya get here?"
"We walked," Emre' replied. "How'd you get here?" There was tension in his voice. Suspicion. He'd see the shadow flash across the old hermit's face. But it was gone before it could be interpreted.
Nayar rolled his matted beard in his fingers, thinking. "Well, I been here for longer than I can remember, really," he said with a nervous laugh. "We was crossin' over them mountains and fount this place and… I guess it's a good a home as any. Got everything ya need. Got sun batteries somewhere inside. Still workin', as you can tell. Got the old tanker outside with lots 'a food. Don't taste all that great but it'll keep ya goin!" Nayar cackled and jumped up. He executed a quick little turn, apparently to exemplify his health. The men glanced a snicker at each other as the old man sat back down.
"And there's another one wrecked up in the hills! I ain't cracked it open yet, but I'm pretty sure it's got good stuff in it too. Maybe you folk can help me get inside."
Emre' cleared his throat and set a hard gaze on the old man. "We?" he asked. Nayar looked back at him, blank-faced. "You said 'we' were crossing the mountains," Emre' explained. "Where are the rest?"
"Oh, yeah," Nayar repled, with his strange cackling laugh. "Well, they went on up over the hills a long time ago. Didn't like it here, I guess."
"Why not?" Emre shot back. "Got everything you need, right?" The sarcasm in his voice was a bit too obvious. Parker sighed, but let the conversation take its course.
"Well, uh, I can't really say why they moved on," Nayar said, thoughtfully, scratching his head as if befuddled by the point. "I liked it here, and that's why I stayed."
"Maybe that's why they left," Emre' suggested.
Nayar kept his empty smile for a moment. "What did I say to upset you young'un?" he asked, apologetically. "I didn't mean to, whatever it was."
Parker chuckled to break the tension. There were better ways of doing things. "Don't feel bad, Nayar. We've been on the road a long time." He fixed his gaze on Emre', who looked away. "And we need a little rest," he said.
Nayar looked genuinely displeased. "Ok, I unnerstand. I just wanted to hear 'bout the world outside, that's all. Gets a little lonely out here, ya know?"
Parker smiled, and nodded across the darkened room to where Daniel was sitting quietly with Doll. "The boy might have a story or two for you," he said, and cast a cryptic glance at the other men. They smiled knowing agreements.
"Oh yeah?" Nayar asked.
"Oh yeah" Mak laughed, rising and stretching his hefty frame. "He's got plenty of stories."
Nayar sensed the humor in the men's voices, but didn't get the joke. "Well, I can talk to the boy a bit, I guess," he said as the men moved away.
The first night Daniel shared Doll's history with the members of his new family, he had decided to be her spokesperson. At every opportunity he would regale the Tribe with tales from her grand past. Before their eyes, the slight, shy boy had morphed into an assertive orator. It seemed to them that Daniel had been unaware of how much information he was privy to. He would finish one story and quickly start on another, as if it was an afterthought. He would often digress, to elaborate some peripheral note, and then embark on such a winding narrative that he never quite made it back to the main story. They had listened raptly; had questioned him, challened the claims that they could not accept. But in the end it was only his young voice that would be heard around the fire.
But that arrangement did not last. The boy's well eventually ran dry, and the once fascinated nomads grew weary of his ceaseless monologs. In time, the old stories took precedent as Parker or Mak regained the floor and the challenges and yelling ensued. Daniel retreated to the sidelines then, sitting by Doll and waiting for another moment in the firelight. But they were rare.
"Hey ya boy," Nayar said as he plopped down beside Daniel. "How ya doin? Nice here, innit? Better than sleepin' out in the cold, I bet."
"My name is Daniel, not 'boy'," he corrected the old man. Some of the men across the room chuckled, and Daniel made a derisive snort in their direction.
"Ok. Daniel it is," Nayar conceded. "Sooo… I hear you got yourself a real nice Machine here."
The boy raised a suspicious brow at the man. "Her name is Doll," he explained after a moment.
Nayar nodded, thinking he had perhaps struck out again. But Daniel's mood changed when he realized that he was talking to someone who had not heard any of his stories. "And she's older than anyone in this room," he said, quickly.
Nayar, anxious to converse, explained that he wasn't really sure how old he was but he'd lived here for decades. Maybe. "It's hard to keep track of time now'a days," he chuckled. "The weather's always the same and I'm gettin' on in years." Daniel acknowledged the old man's comments, but the moment an opportunity presented itself he went back to his tale.
"She was named that because of how she was built," Daniel said. Rennie and Bosche' were seated nearby. They groaned as Daniel began his story, and moved to other parts of the large lobby. Daniel did not seem offended, or to even notice their departure.
"You see, when she was first built she was actually a little white doll about this big." He held his hands a couple of feet apart. "And she was a novelty," he explained, although he wasn't sure at all what a novelty was.
Nayar looked the Machine over. He had seen a few like her before, but they had been torn and wrecked, talking nonsense as their ancient programming malfunctioned.
"Well, she ain't no little doll nomore. Ain't too white either," the old man said with a snicker.
Daniel held up his hands for patience. "I will explain. See, she's one of a kind."
Nayar interrupted him. "We use'ta have some Machines when I was a boy. Folks kilt 'em and tried to use the batteries to run other stuff. But that didn't work. Sumthin about the polarity… or parity or sumthin."
Daniel fixed the man with a sour look. Nayar had to laugh. He was glad to have people around again, especially a youngster. Little ones were rare now.
"Ok, boy," he chuckled, relaxing on an elbow, "Tell your story."
So Daniel did tell his tales. In a short time Nayar was following every word, carefully, as the boy explained the Machine's function and her special programming.
"You, see, it was the 'Sho-pan' that made her different," Daniel said.
Nayar squinted a shaggy grey brow, "The what, boy?"
"The 'Sho-pan'," Daniel repeated. "It's music from a long time ago. Even before the robots. It was made for piano, and it was hard music, not just because there was a lot of notes, any robot can play a fast notes if they get programmed for it. But it was the dynamics that made it hard for the Machines to play Sho-pan music." Daniel hoped the old man wouldn't request a definition of 'dynamics', it was another one of Uncle's words he'd never really understood.
Nayar just nodded his head as if he understood completely. He was sure that eventually he would.
"Doll doesn't play from programs, like other Machines. She has…" Daniel hesitated. He knew the proper phrase, 'variable interpretive inflections', but he was hesitant about using another of Uncle's phrases, lest the old man ask for an explanation. "She makes stuff up like you or me would, " he said instead.
Nayar hummed at this thought. "Well, Danny-"
"Daniel," the boy corrected, stiffly.
"Right, right. Daniel. Well, I don't really play nuthin'. I had a gittar and a little drummin' machine a few years back. But the battries ran down. Ya ever hear one of those?"
Daniel rolled his eyes. Nayar tolerated the boy's rudeness with gentle humor. It was good to hear a little one's voice again, but he was starting to understand why the others had left.
Daniel continued. "What I mean is that people react to music on a level that Machines can't… except Doll. She can actually hear music the same way we do. She can feel it!"
Nayar wasn't too sure about this difference. He scratched his head to show his lack of understanding.
Daniel sighed. "See, there was a man who built a robot that had emotions," he said.
Nayar nodded quickly. "Yeah, the little baby robots. I heard 'bout them a long time ago."
"Well, they weren't babies," Daniel corrected. "The first ones with emotions were built like children, but they built old people too."
"Old people, huh? Like me?" Nayar chuckled.
Daniel missed the humor. "No… younger than you, but close." He said, shaking his head.
Nayar laughed again. Daniel pondered the man's reaction for a moment. Then he gave up and continued.
"So Devimbi went to meet the American, and they started working together. The American wanted to start all over… from the beginning, see? But Devimbi said no, because he had put too much time into Doll already, and didn't want to start again..."
…so the men came to a compromise.
Her small body was much too limiting for the extensive changes they needed to make. But this form had come to represent something very special to her creator, and he had been unwilling to begin the entire process from scratch.
"But this is the best way," the American insisted. "There have been so many advancements since this simulator's design, all of the synapse triggers and neural feedback filters you've used are obsolete! Not to mention the size aspect! Making her mobile will be impossible in that little frame."
But Devimbi remained adamant. In as much as what the Porcelain Doll represented, he had come to love her; to see her as more than just a clever trick. To start over, creating a brand new set of neural-simulators with a brand new face would be the same as abandoning her. He would never do that.
This had been the first disagreement the men had encountered in their new relationship. But it had not lasted long. The American found an answer, one that had been right in front of them all along.
When he told Devimbi of his idea, the man had not reacted. He stood quietly, thinking, gazing out of the great windows of the American's laboratory, into a grey downpour of rain.
Believing that he had hurt Devimbi's feelings, the American started to apologize for making the suggestion. But Devimbi suddenly turned and smiled. A tear had formed in his eye.
"Yes," he said, " Yes, we can do that."
"They copied her body from a woman that Devimbi knew," Daniel explained.
"So, that's when she turned all big and brown," Nayar chuckled. Daniel nodded.
"She was made to look like Devimbi's wife," he explained.
Nayar looked appraisingly at the quiet Machine. Doll noticed the man's gaze, and stared back. After a moment, a serene smile broke on her face. "Divmeebee was a lucky man," The hermit said.
"Devimbi!" Daniel corrected him quickly. "And I wouldn't call him lucky because his woman was gone away, see? That's why they made Doll look like her. She was…"
With a start Daniel realized the part Uncle had omitted from the story. "She was dead," he said pensively, finally understanding the meaning of the garden where Doll was supposed to have played. "They must have put her in the ground there," he whispered to himself, remembering the way the Tribe had sent Uncle to the Shadows.
Nayar sighed and shook his head, confused by the boy's sudden introspective mood. Weren't kids supposed to be more fun? Especially boys? As he remembered, they liked to throw stuff, tackle each other and break things. This boy was more serious than the grim adults he traveled with.
"Danny… uh, Daniel…" he said, "it's late. That's a damn good story, but I think I'll get me some shut eye. We'll talk in the mornin', Okee?"
Lost in his thoughts, Daniel acknowledged the man's words with a wave of his hand. The men across the room snickered as Nayar excused himself and raced to the storage room where he slept.
As the boy shares her story with their new host, Doll recalls images from centuries before. But her awakening into the realm of cognizance is as far removed from her mind as the first moments of life are removed from the memories of the humans around her.
Suddenly she was.
It is that simple.
As time flowed by, fragments of its passage remained, eternally juxtaposed against each new moment.
When the strange new person walks away, and the boy snuggles close to her, closing his eyes for the night, she recalls the excitement and revelry that surrounded her so long ago; the lights at the foot of the stage and the dark space beyond, from where the sound of applause rose in waves. They loved her.
Her creators had come to the podium then, to explain her, to detail the special nature of her performance to the crowd of collectors and designers, traders and lovers of music. But they had not only come to adore her. They made futile bids for her possession, and tried vainly to acquire the secrets of her design.
But there was only one thing that she needed, one thing that made her more than a distracted observer in this incomprehensible world of shifting forms and faces.
Centuries beyond the time of these memories, sitting in the darkness of an abandoned sky scraper in the company of nomads, with a sleeping boy in her arms, Doll recalls the flood of sound that birthed her, and the sounds that she, subsequently, birthed into the world.
No one hears her sigh.