The Porcelain Doll
The dawn struggled over the stubborn cloudbanks and hills, to finally alight on the quiet city. The stark light of its stare was interrupted occasionally by a wisp of cloud, but soon warmth ensued, slowly thawing the layer of snow that had fallen during the night.
Nayar was the first up. Ordinarily the Tribe would already be packed and on the road, but they lay abed, relishing in the simple comfort of warmth and sleeping surfaces that weren't covered in dirt, or ice.
Nayar went out to rummage up a quick breakfast for his new friends. There was plenty of food left. These coptes had been designed to store enough for entire towns. But he had a lot of new mouths to feed. He surveyed the stacks of containers. They'd be alright for a while yet, months at least. Maybe as long as a year, if they rationed right. But eventually he'd have to look around for more.
And if there were no more?
In his long years of solitude, longevity had never been an issue. He had lived only to survive until the next day. He had never imagined leaving this place, so making future plans had not seemed important. But with the arrival of the Roamers, everything had changed. He had found out that he was not alone and now that thought brought another grateful tear to his eye. Being with the others filled him with a new, indescribable excitement.
But there was a part of his mind that still harbored doubts. How did he know he could trust these people? For now, while there was no lack of supplies, it was no matter. Would they change, though, when supplies dwindled? The idea troubled him.
But he had seen something in Parker's eyes, something that said the man had seen enough fighting, enough cruelty. He was a good man, Nayer could tell. But what would he think if he knew about…
Nayar quickly shrugged the thought off, and went back to stuffing his pack with protein bars and mineral sticks.
"That was a long time ago. I ain't like that no more," he said to the crisp air. "I ain't like that," he repeated slower, feeling stronger at hearing the words resound against the aeroplane's metal walls.
As he walked back to the building, a thought came back to him. It was something he recalled seeing long ago, when the group he traveled with had first found the abandoned city. He went to find the boy.
Daniel sat up with a frown, his face lined with creases from his blankets. "What?" he groaned, perturbed by being broken from his dreaming.
I was thinkin' bout that story you told last night, Daniel," Nayar said. "And I think I know where there might be one of them ol' pianos your Machine lady plays."
Daniel was instantly alert. "Where?" he asked, jumping from his bedding and slipping into his pants.
Nayar started to answer, but noticed that Doll was looking directly at him. The strange new intensity of her stare made him pause. There was something behind that gaze, something that sent a shiver up his back.
Some of the Tribe were sitting up now. They were still groggy after their feast from the night before, but excited by the prospect of actually hearing the Machine woman do whatever it was she did.
"Where!" Daniel asked again, irritated by Nayar's silence.
Nayar turned to Daniel and winked a furry eyebrow. "Let's eat. Then I'll show ya."
As they moved through the ruins of the city, the wind hissed through the broken windows of empty buildings and whipped up snow devils, spiraling frosty ghosts that ran up the dead streets and dispersed into nothing. Nayar walked with Daniel in front of a small search team consisting of Parker, Mak, Emre' and Bosche'. There could be dangers in the city, so the men had decided to go along with Daniel and Nayar while the others relaxed in their new warm dwelling. Bosche' had decided to tag along at the last minute, but primarily out of curiosity.
Doll walked quietly beside the men, her face fixed in some new expression, one that even Daniel could not read. Her white dress, faded and dirty from their travels, left soft trails in the snow behind her.
Nayar stopped often to scratch his head, trying to summon his memories. It had been a long time, a decade perhaps, since he had seen the place. At the time it had meant nothing to him, so he had not made a mental note of its location. He led the group through the dead thoroughfares, assuring them about his recollections with much more confidence than he felt.
They did, eventually, find the building he remembered. By that time the sun was mid-sky. It had taken hours of searching, and the trek though the maze of empty towers had been a haunting experience for them all. As the men stood before the crumbled building, Emre' laughed and pointed towards a familiar large structure near a broken roadway.
It was the building they were now calling home.
It was less than a few blocks away.
They had traveled in a huge circle.
The old hermit turned red with embarrassment, apologizing profusely for leading the group around in this way. "It's been so dang long since I seen it," he explained, "and my memory ain't what it used to be." But the men didn't let their feelings reach their faces and Daniel was too excited to care.
Nestled between two of the empty towers, the building was a squat two stories high and covered by a layer of ancient debris. It looked more like an insignificant pile of snow-covered rubble than a place where a rare artifact might be found, but Nayar insisted that it was indeed such a place.
"This building is a lot older than my place... uh, our place,' he said. "Probly goes back to before the Machine people." He glanced at Doll when he said this, but the Machine was consumed with something else, and did not acknowledge him.
Parker scanned the ruins cautiously. Could anything inside still be intact? "How do you know the piano is in there?" he asked.
Nayar shrugged and said, "Well, I aint' sure, but…" He pointed to a deteriorated chunk of material that lay crumbled at the front of the old building. It had once been a marquee. Corroded lettering was stuck to its broken surface. Parker looked at the thing for a moment and then his face pinched in embarrassment. Nayar quickly realized what the expression meant.
Daniel innocently came to Parker's rescue. "Sa-voy Re-con… Reconstruction?"
"What does it mean?" Mak asked.
"Don't know," Nayar said, "but the part that ain't messed up says 'live entertainment'. Should be some kind 'a music stuff in there, eh?"
Most of the men grunted in agreement with the old hermit's simple logic. But Emre' wasn't so excited about this venture.
"This place looks pretty broken up, Parker," he said cautiously.
Parker quickly conceded Emre's point. But he was curious about Doll. As tedious as Daniel's stories had become, they'd sparked the man's imagination.
"If it gets dangerous, we will leave," he assured Emre'.
The men scoured the building for entry, kicking away rubble that might have lain undisturbed for a century or more. It took them some time to find an entrance and when they did, piles of trash and snow had to be cleared away. Doll stood patiently in the snow-laden street, fingers dancing at her sides, as the men heaved the wreckage away from the entrance. Daniel stood by her side, once again recalling the violence the crazy men had done to the museum, and thinking he might understand why this one was so damaged.
"I don't like this," Parker grumbled. The opening they'd found was facing the street, set back under an overhang that bore the large withered sign. "We've seen other places like this. They fall sometimes."
"Well, why don't we check it?" Emre' suggested.
The men went about trying to get the large marquee to fall. They threw large rocks at it, beat it with long metal poles that had fallen from the body of the building. They even hoisted Mak onto the top of the thing and had him jump up and down to check its foundations. But even Mak's weight could not bring it down.
"It looks safe enough," Parker said finally. Then he turned to Daniel. "But you stay out here, Daniel, with your-"
"No!" the boy shouted. "I want to see!" he said. Parker was about to scold this insubordination when Bosche' stepped forward. "I'll stay outside," he offered, and grasped the Machine woman by the hand. She did not protest. "I hate these dark places," Bosche explained.
Parker eyed Daniel for a moment, his expression stern. But Daniel just stared back, undaunted. The Chief sighed, and decided he could handle it later. He nodded, and turned back to the ruin.
"Let's see what's inside," he said.
They slid beneath the canopy, stopping at a dark, broken doorway that no man had crossed for longer than any of them had been alive. It spread the length of the crumbled building and was surround by a barricade of broken glass. The doors that had once held this glass were now just rusted metal frames. The men peered into the darkness ahead.
There was a sudden commotion from behind and they turned to see Bosche' struggling with the Machine woman.
"No, Doll. You wait out here," Daniel yelled. To their surprise the Machine continued to resist, gazing around curiously, as if it recognized this place.
Had she been in this building before? The shape was triggering multiple responses in the deep recesses of her digital recollections. No. Not this place. But there were so many like it. The history of such places played inside her brain as the nomad boy pulled her away. His actions created a new, cold feeling inside her.
"What is wrong with it?" Emre' asked when Bosche' had finally managed to pull Doll back onto the street. Daniel could not explain. He'd never seen her act like this. The men shrugged off the strange confrontation with the Machine, and went back to the task at hand.
Parker pushed on the mangled metal doorframe and the others followed him into the musty corridors of the past.
The place was dead. The air hung thick and strange acrid smells rose from the black interior. The walls were swollen, as though a force had smashed them from the outside, and water from snow melt had eroded large holes in the body of the building.
"I can't believe it's still standing," Parker whispered, as if speaking loudly might cause something to fall. "We'll need light."
Emre' and Mak quickly produced small orbs. Parker snatched Emre's and clicked it on. "Hold onto yours, Mak," he said, and rolled the other into the room. In the dark hallway beyond, they could see the remains of what might have once been plush carpeting. Broken picture frames clung to the warped walls, and elaborate lighting fixtures, ruined and missing sections, hung from the bowed ceiling.
"This is not good, Parker," Emre' said. The ceiling was damaged and looked ready to fall. But Parker could see the metal skeleton of the building holding firmly above its water-damaged flesh.
"I think we'll be ok," he said, hesitantly. Nayar grunted an agreement, and the men worked their way slowly into the grand hallway, past the ancient wreckage into the sagging and ruined interior.
There were pictures on the walls, torn and dusty in their ruined frames. Daniel took in the images as he trailed behind the men. Elegantly dressed men and women were depicted smiling as they clasped one another, frozen in the midst of an intimate moment. One woman, with bizarre curls on her head and a dress that seemed to sparkle like stars, held her face high and her mouth was opened wide, as if she were in pain. Daniel realized that the woman was supposed to be singing and that the others must be dancing. He wondered what kind of things had gone on here.
Nayar seemed to read his mind. He whispered, so not to disturb the silent ghost of the place. "This was a 'theater', Daniel, a place where people did music and dancin'. They used all kinds of musical things, like those pianos that your Machine lady plays. Or so I been told."
They heard Bosche' swearing in the street outside, and shared a laugh. But then a soft, breathy sound, like a sigh, made them all turn. Doll was standing in the hall, her hands clasped together over her chest. Silhouetted in the cold light from the doorway, she looked fragile in a way that Daniel had never seen.
"Was that the Machine?" Emre' asked, surprised. He had never heard it make a sound before. No one had.
Bosche' stepped up to the entrance behind Doll. "She pushed me down!" he yelled, angrily. His face reddened when the men laughed.
"Doll, go back outside," Daniel ordered. But to all their amazement the Machine only made a disappointed face, and would not move.
"Go ahead, Doll," Daniel repeated. "We'll get the piano for you!" he added, cheerfully. Finally the Machine woman took a hesitant step backwards and then slowly turned and retreated into the grey daylight. They could see her just outside the entrance, pacing back and forth. Bosche' watched her anxiously.
"Will she stay now?" Parker asked. He was about to send the boy out to watch her. Daniel sensed this.
"Yes," he answered, quickly. "I'm sure of it." It took a moment before Parker accepted this.
They came to a place where large, two-sectional doors lined the wall. Parker lit another orb and carefully opened one of the doors. He tossed the light inside and watched it roll down the declining floor. The searchers emitted sounds of awe.
The proportions of the room were massive. Rows of empty seats filled the place, interrupting the glow from the orb, casting great shadows against the walls where they could see complex designs carved into the material. A large, dusty ornament hung over the empty room, twinkling in the faint shifting light of the orb. Elaborate designs were painted on the wide ceiling.
"This is where people put on the shows," Nayar explained. He turned to smile at Daniel who was still staring in awe at the large empty theatre. "Nothing bad about your lady, but I mean real people like us, ya know."
"I know about that kind of show," Daniel replied evenly, although he had never imagined what a theater looked like. Uncle had told him about the grand past of the theater, about the performers and musicians that Machines, like Doll, had been designed to replicate. But by the time he had been old enough to understand such things, the museum had been looted and he had never seen any pictures of such places.
At a grunt from Parker, they continued making their way into the ancient concert hall. The dark expanse around them seemed filled with an inert force, the ghosts of dead encores.
There was a sudden rush of activity among the men ahead, and Daniel found himself grasped quickly by Mak, who was rushing back up the incline towards the big doors.
"What happened?" he asked urgently as he was carried away.
"Relax, Mak," Parker called. Daniel thought he heard a chuckle in the man's voice. Mak stopped running and turned. But he would not go back down the aisle. Daniel struggled free from Mak's grip, wondering what it was that had scared the big warrior. He could hear the others whispering and Emre' began laughing out loud, but was quickly shushed by Parker.
"Come back, you big fool," Parker scolded. "They can't hurt you."
Mak hesitated for a moment longer. Then, with a sigh of resignation, he headed back down into the room. Daniel followed and was shocked to see a group of white faces with giant toothy smiles and huge empty sockets for eyes. There must have been a dozen of them sitting in the center of a row of chairs. As he looked around the place he noticed more of the strange masks, spread throughout the theater, and wondered why he hadn't noticed them before.
Nayar clucked his tongue. "You see a lot of 'em 'round these old buildin's," he said dismissively. "Lotta folk just up and died where they was sittin' I guess."
"What are they?" Daniel asked.
"They used to be people," Parker said softly. "A long time ago."
Nayar looked at Daniel, confused. "Ain't you never seen a skelton, boy?" he asked.
"Don't ask," Emre' muttered.
Daniel studied the bones closest to them. So this is what had scared Mak? "They're in the Shadows now, huh?" he asked Parker. The man patted Daniel on the shoulder. "Yeah, they're gone for the long sleep." He said.
"They should not be here like that," Mak grumbled. "It is a bad omen."
Emre' shook his head. "Even the boy knows they are harmless," he said, and turned to continue the search.
"Maybe we should have brought in Bosche', instead?" Parker teased. Mak shot him a sour glance. But his face softened into embarrassment, and he made no more fuss about the bones.
"This must be the stage," Nayar whispered when they had reached the bottom of the declining aisle. They crawled onto the large, upraised area and moved across the dusty, rubble-laden floor. Parker retrieved the light and held it out to the darkness beyond.
The orb lit a jumble of ruin. There were wires and shattered machinery that hung in large coils from the ceiling. Huge rolls of frayed cable were connected to large oblong tubes with shattered glass at either side. All of it was covered with dust and white powder that must have fallen from the rotting material of the ceiling.
"We can go no further," Parker said. Daniel's heart dropped, but he knew the man was right. The pile of debris looked impassable.
"Lookie there!" Nayar blurted, gesturing to a dark point beyond the wreckage.
They all followed the old man's gesture and saw the vague outline of something in the shadows beyond the wreckage. Parker stepped cautiously towards it, and when his light fell on the shadows Daniel's breath caught in his chest. He knew that shape. It was the same shape as the thing that had been destroyed so many years ago. He let out an involuntary cry of joy.
"That's it!" he said excitedly, jumping and gesturing at the thing trapped in the ruination before them.
Parker cupped the orb in his palm, so the light was focused in one direction. What he saw was an aged, dusty oblong box. Its surface was black, and covered in dust and soot. The thing looked as though it might weigh a ton. "So, that's a piano?" he said.
Nayar walked up beside Parker and glanced a perplexed expression at the man. "It's big, eh?" he said, cryptically.
Parker nodded. How would they ever get the thing out of this mess? It certainly wouldn't be safe to bring the others into this deteriorated building. He didn't want to disappoint the boy, or his Machine, but this situation was obviously too dangerous. He turned to face Daniel with a look of apology in his eyes.
"But, we're so close!" Daniel objected before Parker had a chance to voice the words that were obvious in his expression.
"Daniel," Parker started in a conciliatory tone, "I am sure there are other places where we can-"
Emre' suddenly interrupted them, rushing to the foot of the stage, waving a signal to silence the others. "What's that," he whispered urgently, crouching low and gesturing for them all to hunker down. They followed suit, although they had not heard anything. There was only silence, broken by the raspy sound of old Nayar's breathing on the stage.
Mak snorted and started to chide Emre' for his overactive imagination. But Parker stopped him with an urgent wave of his arm. He'd heard it too. Then they all did.
At first it was just a faint noise, like water dripping somewhere deep in the theater. But in moments the sounds grew louder, morphing into loud, flat thuds that echoed in the ancient belly of the building.
"Footsteps!" Mak whispered.
Something had been disturbed.
For the first time since the battle with the cat, Daniel saw Parker in defense mode. He dimmed the light of the orb and jumped gracefully off of the stage. His hands moved rapidly as he signaled silent commands to the others. Emre' and Mak moved as if they had rehearsed this maneuver, slipping into an empty row of chairs, their hands moving quickly into their coats. He knew what they would withdraw. Just before Parker clicked off the orb, Daniel saw a glint of metal in the man's hand. Then it was just the blackness, penetrated only by a faint trickle of light from beyond the theater doors, and the sound of something approaching from the unknown bowels of the place.
Slowly, the steps moved into the darkness of the hall that ran along the edge of the theater. The sound changed to sucking, wet noises as whoever, or whatever, was coming, moved onto the soggy, ruined carpet.
Mak clutched his blade. This could not be a natural creature. It must have been hiding here for longer then he could imagine. But then again, he had been fooled before. He fought against the superstitions that plagued his mind and waited for the moment of revelation. Emre' didn't care what it was that came for them, only that he was prepared for the challenge, which meant being still in body and mind. His breath was calm. His mind settled. He was ready for anything. Parker crouched near the edge of an aisle, peeking around an empty seat. In a moment he would be able to see what approached, silhouetted in the trickle of light from beyond the main doors. He raised his blade as the thing moved along the wall.
Nayar cursed himself as he lay in the darkness on the stage, trying to quell his ragged breathing. He fought the impulse to flee, closing his eyes and forcing himself to stay quiet. It had been years since he had said a prayer, but now his thoughts fell back on the words he had been taught as a child. Silently, his lips moved in recitation of a verse, and …
The footsteps stopped.
Parker swore under his breath, wondering how the old fool had managed to stay alive so long.
Nayar pinched his nose tightly, to keep from sneezing again. But his hand was covered with dust from the stage, and …
Daniel waved his arm, angrily, in Nayar's direction. It was a futile gesture in the dark, and much too late. The invisible stranger was on the move again, and now its footfalls were now headed for the stage where Daniel and Nayar lay hiding.
Parker heard the change of direction and prepared to make his move, fearful that it could be some mechanical sentry, perhaps a discarded Smart Soldier, protecting its territory. He rose silently, his blade on hand, cocked over his shoulder for the strike.
A voice broke though the darkness.
"I'm sorry, but at this time the theater is closed and I'll have to ask you to leave. Let me thank you for attending our show," The voice boomed in exaggerated cheer, then continued in an informative tone. "There are refreshments and restrooms in the lobby! Please enjoy a buttery 'Pop-n-Hot' popcorn bucket and a nice cold Medi-fresh Cola on your way out! That's Medi-fresh, the taste treat that's good for you too! Goodnight!"
No one moved.
"I said goodnight," the voice repeated cheerfully. "And thank you once again! The theater is closed at this time and-" the thing was interrupted by a sudden flash of light that erupted from behind a row of seats.
On Parker's signal, the men, and gasped at what was illuminated in the silver glow.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we are closed. I want to thank you for coming to our show. There are refreshments in the lobby," the thing said. It went on to suggest that Parker avail himself of a variety of "refreshing taste treats", the rotting remains of which had probably withered to dust long before any of them had been born. Its 'skin' was pale and ragged, hanging from its face in thin, brittle layers. The dark colors of its uniform were coated with a powdery white substance, and torn, revealing worn flesh and bits of metal infrastructure. Its arms lay limp at its side as it advised them again that they should go about their business, assuring them that the Savoy had been happy for their patronage.
Emre' let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. "It's a damned Machine," he pointed out unnecessarily. Mak stood, shaking his head, hands on his weighty hips. "That's twice these things have fooled me," he grunted in disgust.
Parker rolled his eyes and sheathed his blade. "Damn to you, Machine!" he yelled in frustration.
"Thank you, sir!" the ruined face responded, a smile in its voice that its lips could no longer convey. "I hope you enjoyed the show, but I'll have to ask you to leave now!"
Daniel was grimacing at the grotesque face of the Machine when he heard a wheezing sound behind him. The boy turned quickly to see Nayar, eyes closed, face red, clutching his stomach and rolling back and forth in the dust of the old stage. Daniel had heard such sounds before. Uncle had made those sounds, just before he…
"Nayar?" Daniel said urgently. "Parker! Something is wrong with Nayar!" But the boy was shocked to see Parker laughing, and Emre' and Mak sheathing their weapons, plopping down into broken seats, their faces twisted in laughter. The sound echoed throughout the large room. None of it made sense to Daniel. He shook his head, perplexed by the behavior of the men.
"Hey, Danny!" Nayar yelled, and Daniel turned with an irritated expression on his face.
"The show is over now, son," the old man said. "You'll have… you'll have to go now!" He broke into another bout of wheezing laughter.
Daniel stared, uncomprehending. The show was over? What was that supposed to mean? Then something occurred to him. It was rather odd, wasn't it…a bit of a strange situation? They had thought something was coming to kill them; had been scared to the point of hiding in the dark. But when the thing finally arrived it had only been…
Something bubbly happened in Daniel's stomach. It was followed by a strange noise that erupted from his throat and nose, surprising him. It happened again, a moment later, and then he began to snicker. Before he had a chance to comprehend what was happening he was overcome by the sensation.
Parker's laughter had finally subsided when he looked on the stage to see Daniel rolling alongside the old man, their faces red and hands clutching their stomachs. "Well, look at that," he said to himself. Then he began to laugh again.
"We have to go now! The show is over!" Daniel bellowed, sounding more like a boy than any of them had ever heard.
The Usher had been awaiting the show-time call for longer than the combined histories of the men in the room. It had sat in the darkness, with the calm patience of an immortal, waiting for the call to duty. Its functions had set to standby, so its batteries would not have to be recharged. Sounds of activity in the theater would ordinarily wake it, but it had been long since it sensed anything but the occasional crash of something falling as the building slowly deteriorated. Upon each investigation, the old Machine had only found a new pile of debris beneath the place where some piece of machinery or ornament had once hung from the ceiling, or protruded from the warped walls. So it had gone back to sit… and wait.
Once the Usher had heard laughter. It was an unordinary sound, mean and spiteful. It had gone to investigate, and then found itself set upon by men with angry eyes and thin, emaciated bodies. The usually patient Machine had been forced to usher the intruders from the premises and, typically with such manner of customers, they hadn't been too receptive to this idea. But The Usher had been designed to handle such situations. It was well equipped for the challenge.
When the job was done, the Machine had returned to its place, sitting in dark, awaiting the audience.
And now they had arrived.
But the lights were down and the performers gone.
Apparently the show was already over.
"How long you been here?" Nayar asked the Usher. The robot's broken face reacted in exaggerated expressions of pondering. Its brittle 'skin' made a rubbery stretching sound as it put its hand to its chin in a simulated gesture of recollection. Its chipped blue eyes stared blankly into space.
"The restrooms could be closed for cleaning, sir," it said finally. "Let me check with maintenance." The Usher stood very still, its gaze distant. Daniel groaned at the torn face of the Machine, but Parker and the others exchanged amused glances. The last robot they had seen had been in much better shape.
The Machine finally raised its deteriorating head. "I'm sorry, sir, I can't seem to raise the maintenance crew at this time. Perhaps you would like to enjoy some refreshments while you wait? The 'Pop-n-Hot' corporation is a proud sponsor of the Savoy! Please help yourself to a hot and buttery bucket of old style popcorn!"
"This is no good," Parker said. "This thing is a mess."
"What's a 'Savoy'?" Daniel asked. Then he winced and stepped back as the Usher turned its ruined face in his direction.
"Welcome to the Savoy!" it bellowed, dramatically, through peeling lips. "Come in and see the golden age of theater recreated in magical precision! Tonight the cast of the Savoy is proud to present an award winning stage adaptation of the 21st century classic, Supertoys!"
"Useless," Parker repeated. "We have to go."
"Please, Parker!" Daniel said, and deployed the pained expression. "We came all this way. At least we can try."
Parker looked away from the boy's imploring eyes and cast a glance at Mak and Emre'. The two men shrugged to let him know it was his call.
Parker climbed back up onto the stage and Emre' climb up quickly behind him. Ignoring the old usher's complaints, the men worked their way slowly, carefully past the wreckage of ancient stage equipment and scaffolding to the place where the relic sat. They fell into the task with all their might, tugging and pushing on the heavy music box while the rotting wooden floor squeaked and moaned under the pressure of their efforts.
But a groan from the hanging array of scaffolding made them jump away and one of the loose tubes fell from the vine and struck the piano, producing a discordant note that rang through the auditorium...
… into the hall, and out into the daylight beyond, where it echoed through the street and into her ears. Doll stopped pacing and stared at the door. Had the others seen her face at that moment, they would not have known her. That sound called to her heart from across an expanse of time that would drive any mortal mad to know. As would her longing.
The Usher had been preparing to take far more extreme measures to clear the auditorium when it heard the discordant notes ring out. "Please take your seats," it announced. "The show is about to begin. Doors will close in five minutes,"
Parker swore as he and Emre' carefully worked their way back to the lip of the stage.
"Dang thing still works, I guess," Nayar said.
Parker nodded and jumped down from the stage. "Yes, it works," he agreed. "But we'll never get it out of this place. I can't risk anyone getting hurt." He turned to Daniel. "Sorry, boy", he said.
Daniel grabbed Parker's coat, pleading. "But, there's got to be a way. Maybe we can take all that junk down and-"
"Forget it," Emre' snapped, jumping down from the stage and heading up the aisle. "This is ridiculous," he yelled over his shoulder. "All this work for a stupid Machine!"
"And you're so smart because you can read some old signs?" Daniel snapped back. "Doll's smarter than you will ever be!" Emre' turned and advanced on the boy, his arm raised to punish this insubordination. But Mak quickly stepped between them. "Check yourself," he barked at Emre'. The two exchanged glares.
"Stop it!" Parker yelled. This endeavor was building tensions and he had to put and end to it. He turned to the boy. "Daniel, this will not work. Emre' is right." But he stopped short when the doors behind them suddenly opened. They all looked up the aisle to see Doll standing there, her lean frame silhouetted gracefully in the stark light from outside. After a silent moment, the Machine woman walked quietly into the theater.
"No, Doll!" Daniel ordered. "Go wait outside!" he yelled at her, waving his arms as if to ward her off. But she did not obey.
Doll walked calmly down the aisle, towards Parker and Emre', who stood aside to let her pass. The Machine woman had always done what the boy had told her and they were fascinated by her willfulness. They watched curiously, noting the way the Machine wrung its hands, as if it was nervous.
"Doll, go back! It's dangerous in here!" Daniel yelled, but Doll continued steadily toward the stage. Daniel approached her, to make her obey. But she evaded him by sliding down one of the rows of chairs. The boy pursued the errant Machine as it rushed away from the light of the orb and into the darkness at the side of the theatre.
"Daniel, be careful over there!" Nayar yelled. Parker started to pursue the pair, but then he saw Doll reemerge from the darkness, onto the stage where she walked cautiously towards the wreckage where the piano sat. Daniel rushed onto the stage after her.
"Hey, there was steps over there," the boy said. "We could have …" but he quickly turned his attention back to his misbehaving Machine. She was moving into the debris, past the wreckage on the stage, making her way towards the piano.
Parker ran back towards the stage when the boy tried to retrieve his errant Machine underneath the dangling metal tubing. "Don't go back there, boy!" he commanded.
Nayar rushed down to the lip of the stage, alarmed. "Don't, Daniel!" he yelled. "You'll get hurt!"
"She'll get broken!" Daniel replied angrily. But then he stopped and scanned the loose scaffolding that hung above the stage. The men were right. "Doll!" he yelled. "Come here, now!"
Then he fell silent and they were all transfixed by a sudden wash of sound as Doll placed her fingers against the dusty keys.
The piano was old. It must have been a long time since it was last tuned. The notes were muffled by the dust and garbage that covered it. But even in its discord, the sound filled her.
Some of the strings were broken. Doll heard the absence of notes within the chords and her mind adjusted for them, instantly reframing the tones at octaves or spelling the intervals in alternate harmonies. An electronic sensation of joy and meaning filled the place where her heart would have been were she flesh and blood. Her fingers danced across the playing field, igniting a fire of impassioned notes.
The sound brought on memories that fired her emotional triggers. She recalled opening her eyes on that fateful day when she had first become acquainted with the mystery of sight; of color and form. The poetry of symmetry was something that she had suddenly been able to process in this new body. And she recalled the man, Francis, and the wetness on his face when she had first opened her eyes on him. It was his tears that had greeted her into the world of sensation.
The music had taken on a new quality then, one that sent thrills into her brain. It had become more than numbers, something vibrant, and filled with new, incomprehensible meaning.
This meaning burned within her now as she played for this small, ragged audience. The Machine that passion had wrought now brought to life the music of the lost age of its birth.
Nobody spoke while Doll played. It was a language of such complex beauty that they all had become lost in its interpretation, and dared not make a sound. Daniel realized that Uncle's stories could never have prepared him for this moment. Doll was transformed before his eyes and ears. Her face was alive, her expression that of fire and anger as the music first tore into the room; followed by an inexplicable longing that played across her brow as the notes changed in tempo and tone. She closed her eyes and her fingers moved with impossible grace and speed over the old keys. Her precision was programmed and had not waned in the decades away from her device. She held her head back so that her long, black hair danced around her frame. Her mouth opened as if she was about to scream, but the only sounds were the notes that were drawn into the world by her manipulation of the keys. Only minutes had passed, but to her small audience it seemed as if Doll had made time stand still.
They did not know it was a 'crescendo' that rose from the keys at last; such language and understanding of music was rare if not lost altogether in this dying world. Her fingers spanned the length of the keyboard and a flock of arpeggios escaped at their beckon, free at last after centuries of dusty hibernation.
When, at last, the final chord was struck, it hung in the air for what seemed minutes. Doll sat at the piano expressionless, until the last reverberation dispersed into the fabric of the building. Then she stood and slowly made her way through the shaking scaffolds to the edge of the stage.
The men were shocked again, this time by the strength of her voice, which rang clear as a bell in the room. It was the sound of a woman who had passed into the Shadows centuries before.
"That was Etude number 4, opus 10 by Frederic Chopin," Doll announced smiling. Hands folded against her chest, she began to bow, as if to a large gathering of applauding fans. But her audience was still quiet, staring spellbound.
"Well, that was something new," Emre' conceded softly.
"Angel," Mak whispered in reverence.
Daniel didn't know what to say. He realized that he had never really known her at all.
"Thank you for attending tonight's performance!" the Usher said, breaking the spell that Doll had cast on the room. "Please help yourself to a nice buttery Pop-n-Hot on the way out."
Parker ignored the broken Usher and stepped towards the stage. He regarded Doll seriously as she continued bowing to an invisible audience. Something in the wash of sound had moved him in a way he could not express. He turned to see the boy beaming with pride.
"I told you!" Daniel said, his hands on his hips and a smug smile on his face.
Parker could only laugh. "Yes, you did, Daniel" he conceded. Then he looked back at the piano playing Machine woman. She was now looking back at him, and Parker would swear that her eyes were alive in a way he had not seen before.
"Ok, Doll," he said. "You win. I guess we'll have to find a way now."