The Porcelain Doll
Parker stood on a make-shift podium of snow-covered debris, outside the crumbling building where the Machine had shocked him and the others with her performance. "This will not be an easy job," he said.
The Tribe stopped chattering and gave the Chief their undivided attention. Their curiosity had been piqued after hearing the story of the old robot usher, and of Doll's amazing trick. They also noted how strangely the Machine woman was acting now, how it seemed to twitch nervously, as if there was something that it must attend to.
Daniel had strutted like a little rooster, repeating the story again and again, until Rosa and Malin tackled him and tied a rag around his mouth. Ish voiced her concerns when Parker told her about the old machinery dangling above the piano. She had serious reservations about their plan to retrieve the relic. But when Emre' and Mak joined the chorus of support, her imagination had been fired.
"We are going to have to be very careful," Parker continued. "The music box is in a dangerous place and we can't let anyone get hurt. But Nayar has an idea."
Nayar took to the podium, looking as frail as a withered old tree. All the walking and excitement of the last couple of days had had an effect on him and his breath came in gasps that frosted in the air. He gazed nervously at the expectant faces of his new friends, suddenly unsure of his plan. Something might go wrong. That had happened before.
"I think we can build us a ramp," he announced after a moment. He then proceeded to explain his strategy.
Daniel and Malin, the smallest of the tribe, stayed outside with Doll while the others moved into the darkness of the old building. They lit their way with orbs and torches, clearing away debris as they passed, making a path so the music box could be extracted after it had been freed from the stage. The sections of the ceiling that hung low over their heads were torn down or prodded with sticks until they were certain that the material would not fall. The large doors to the auditorium were pulled off their hinges, so they would not close behind the Tribe. Daylight flooded into the theater as the people worked their way into the building.
"That's it," Parker said, pointing to a large black object beneath vines of metal that dangled over the stage. "That's what we've come for."
The Tribe sounded objections. The box was obviously too big to move safely.
"Don't give up before we start," Parker yelled over their complaints. "We'll make a ramp from these," he said, kicking at large wooden panels that lined the floor. "And we can slide it down to the next level and then up between the seats."
A potent silence ensued as the Tribe finally noticed the dead white faces scattered throughout the theater. In his excitement, Parker had forgotten to mention the skeletons. He made an apologetic shrug, "I forgot." he said.
Mak cluck his tongue. "What're you all scared of?" he asked with a disgusted look on his face.
But Ish was not concerned with the remains. "How is this to work?" she asked. "Even if we can get the thing out from under that mess, these seats are too close to move anything between them."
"One thing at a time!" Parker snapped back. He worked his way carefully past the dangling metal beams and underneath the spiraling latticework of ladders and hanging things whose purpose he could not imagine. In a moment he was beside the piano.
"See! It can be done!" he yelled.
"Shhh… Parker!" Emre' hissed. "You'll bring the whole thing down on us."
The young men joined Parker on the stage. Cautiously they began to work the piano towards the edge, stopping at each creaking complaint from the scaffold vine above. The artifact squeaked and moaned as the men struggled, but as they persisted the old casters began to roll. They had worked to piano to a point where the scaffolding cleared, when some of the metal pipes came loose and clattered to the floor around them. They jumped away, but the avalanche never happened. After a lot of clattering and yelling, the place was silent again.
"This is dangerous, Parker!" Otter complained. The other young men of the tribe nodded in agreement. "Why are we doing this, anyway?" he demanded, "For some noise?"
"It's not just noise!" Parker said, loosing his composure. He regained it quickly and gestured to Emre'. "Tell them,'" he said. But Emre just looked away, waving off Parker's plea.
"Otter has a point, Parker," he said.
"I think we can do it," Nayar offered weakly. He was afraid of his plan failing.
Then they were all startled by a strange, cheerful voice. "I'm sorry, all loading vehicles must be parked in the back of the building!"
They turned to see the Usher approaching. Those who had not met the thing gasped at its ruined flesh.
"That's just the old Machine I told you about," Parker said.
"I repeat, For the safety of our patrons and performers alike, management requests that all loading be done at specified docks!" the Usher boomed, pointing towards the darkened area from where it had come.
Nayar had a sudden thought. "The show is done, now, Machine," he said to the Usher. "We came for the piano, but the loadin' dock ain't no good." He pointed to the front of the building. "How do we get out that way?"
The Usher was quiet a moment, its face twisted in a grotesque simulation of introspection. "I will prepare the dance floor," it said finally. "Please clear the premises." They could hear its footfalls as it made its way into the depths of the building.
Parker sighed. "Good try, Nayar," he said, "but that old thing is useless." He moved back into the tangle of hanging tubes. "If we are going to move this thing, we'd better-"
A sudden quake shook the building. The ancient walls grumbled and groaned, clouds of white dust fell from the ceiling. The men leapt from the stage just as the scaffolding began to rain down in a cacophonic din.
"It's coming down! Get out!" Parker yelled, jumping from the stage and dashing up the aisle towards the light from outside. But the others needed no orders, they were already running for their lives as the structure shook and groaned all around them.
Parker reached the door quickly and turned to make sure everyone was out. But Nayar was ambling shakily up an aisle, pulling madly at chairs to keep his balance. Parker started to move back down the aisle, to help the old hermit. But then he saw something that made him freeze. The chairs were sinking into the floor! The old brittle skeletons that were spread about the room seemed to be doing a bizarre dance as they folded and broke under the weight of the collapsing seats.
"Faster! Nayar!" Parker yelled, horrified. "Faster!!"
Nayar's heart raced in terror; he had seen buildings collapse before and the memory forced a scream from him. The sound was deafening but he could hear Parker yelling at him.
From outside, Daniel could see the dilapidated framework of the old building trembling. Material from the broken ceiling was falling and crashing onto the floor. Ish ran from the building and fell to her knees, breathless. Otter came next. Then Tomas and Rennie dashed out into the daylight, Coco, Mak and Emre' quick on their heels.
Where was Parker? Nayar?
As if in answer, the two men erupted from the door, just as the old broken marquee began to grumble and moan. Parker waved them all away, urging them farther from the building, fearful that breaking wood or metal might splinter and send shards into the gawking Tribe. But Nayar could run no further. He fell to the street, wheezing, and covered his head. The others spread out, moving away from the building as a warbling, mechanical groan erupted from its belly. Daniel grabbed Doll's arm and forced her back. He had heard the unmistakable popping of wood and a discordant clanging of metal inside the place and his heart dropped. It must have been the piano.
"I'm sorry, Doll," he yelled over the turmoil.
"I warned you, Parker," Emre' yelled, pacing in quick circles to shake off his fear. "We could have died in there!"
Parker gritted his teeth and was turning to reply when, as suddenly as it had begun, the quaking ended. In moments the echoes of the buildings turmoil faded. Only the sound of a few falling tubes could be heard inside the place. The Tribe was wordless, astonished that the ruin was still standing.
"What the hell was all that?" Otter' asked, his breath still heavy.
Nayar uncovered his head, giggling from the tension. But his nervous laughter stopped when the others did not join in. He was expecting them to start yelling at him at any moment. The failed plan had been his, after all. But he was surprised and relieved when Otter walked over to help him up. He rose, unsteadily, and muttered a weak apology. But the young man didn't seem concerned with laying blame.
They all walked slowly back towards the doorway, expecting to see the halls filled with the shattered remains of the ceiling and walls. But nothing had changed. Then they all saw the wrecked face of the Usher making its way from the shadows into the stark daylight. It smiled a torn greeting, which was more disturbing in the glare of sunlight, and cheerfully addressed the confused people.
"The dance floor has been prepared, sir," it said to Nayar. "Welcome to the Savoy Reconstruction Project's Old Time Dance Night! Come in and experience the glamour and romance of Ballroom Dancing!" Then it bowed low, its arms held out towards the theater, beckoning them to return.
Parker walked cautiously towards the building and then through the door. He navigated carefully to a point where he could see into the auditorium, and gasped when he realized what had happened. Where there had once been declining rows of chairs, now lay a black, flat surface, covered with debris and scattered bones. Faintly outlined in the light of the torches, which now lay burning on the floor, he could see the that the whole room had changed dimensions. The tubes from the fallen scaffolding no longer loomed dangerously above the piano but lay all around the area in a mess. The floor had risen. A path had been cleared.
Parker turned to see the Usher standing close behind him, waiting, it seemed, for his next request. So, it wasn't as useless as it seemed.
"Let's go get this thing," he said to his men. They hesitated, waiting for someone to object. But eventually they all followed their leader into the now quiet Savoy.
Retrieval of the artifact had still been difficult even after the Usher triggered the device that leveled the floor. They had had to clear away all the wreckage of the fallen scaffolding and large metal barrels that had dropped from the ceiling. Fortunately, the piano had suffered nothing more than a few more scratches on its already dented exterior. They rolled it carefully out of the theater-turned-dancehall. Then they slid it onto a sled, hastily constructed from boards that had been broken from the walls. It took all their combined effort, but they managed to slide the artifact over the snows and into the glass doors of their new home.
Amazing them with its strength, the battered Usher had finished the last part of the journey almost by itself, dragging the big box noisily into the lobby of the building they called home. It then suggested that they enjoy the show, and reminded them that the piano was to be returned back to the theatre at the designated time. None of them understood this and Parker said it was best to ignore the Machine's comments. Then they gathered around the piano, watching in fascination as the Machine woman fussed about it.
Doll worked carefully, wiping dust away; cleaning grit from the keys and strings. The piano made sounds as she worked, and the people came closer, drawn by the odd quality of the noise. The Machine said something quickly to Daniel, who seemed uncomfortable with her new willfulness. The boy turned and spoke to Nayar, who pondered the words a minute and then went out to the fallen transport. He returned minutes later with dusty plying tools. Doll examined the tools for a moment, calculating how they should be used. Then she began to tune the instrument.
The sound was like the first breath after a suffocating silence. The ringing of each note, even though muted with age and corrosion, set off sparks inside her brain; lights that illuminated the darkened corners of her recollections. She could never forget, no, but things were often set aside once their relevance had been exhausted. Now her programming was reasserting itself.
She tuned the device quickly as the people in the room gathered around her. Their eyes were curious; expectant. She had seen this look before. She knew they were anxious, but she took her time with the old strings, allowing them to warm in the heat of the building, running her fingers along the old coiled strands to feel for weaknesses or damage. She turned the ancient bolts slowly. Her special ears were programmed to hear when the string tension was becoming dangerous.
Time passed. The people grew restless. They retrieved food and sat to eat, whispering among themselves as they waited for the show to begin.
The Machine finally rose, and turned to face them. Her smile was no longer vacant and her eyes roamed over the faces in the room, acknowledging each of them with an impossibly human gaze. It was the first time most of them had heard her speak.
"Thank you for coming," Doll said, her hands folded against her chest. "I have some special pieces to perform for you tonight."
The Tribe gathered closer, making a tight cluster around the Machine and her strange instrument. Daniel rushed forward, yelling. "No! Sit down! Don't crowd her!"
They regarded him coolly, but Parker called out for them to listen to the boy. "He knows what he is talking about," the man assured them. The group took cross-legged positions on the floor, watching carefully as Doll sat at the keys.
She was quiet a moment, as she decided what piece would be appropriate. After a brief silence she looked up. "I believe I will began with a piece by Frederic Chopin known as Fantaisie Impromptu."
She struck a solitary note. The sound resounded throughout the room. Then she set her hands to the keys and the notes came like falling snow. The music seemed to press into the air of the place, filling every corner with a flood of sound. Within moments, something like magic began to happen in the minds of her audience. Soon it began to happen in their hearts.
Her performance was the result of …
… magic that had been performed on her.
Music was tied inexorably to the state of conscious interface with the world known as sentience.
Were such things possible in artificial intelligence? It had been the dream of science since before the advent of modern robotics to replicate that process known as life. But those indefinable qualities of being: feelings, inspiration and will, were all so vastly removed from the linear rules of binary processing, that they remained ever illusive to the builders of A.I.
The American, like Devimbi before him, had sought to jump that hurdle. He had developed an imprinting process that would create an emotional bond for a human in a Machine. Through this process a virtual heart could be opened in the minds of his devices, bonding them to their owners for all their lives through the simulation of that quality of living things called "love".
Could this be the key to that illusive property called consciousness?
The first time Doll had played after her transformation, the notes had spoken a new language. She had actually stopped playing after only a few bars during that first encounter with this new dimension of feeling.
Devimbi and the American had expressed great excitement when she had stopped and stared at the keys, her eyes wide and uncomprehending.
Then, hesitantly, she set her fingers to the piano again and the men had ceased to exist, along with the rest of the world, as the music took her, filled her, as she now filled the senses of this small huddle of nomads, one of the few remaining in a world once teeming with their kind.
As the intensity of the piece grew, the Tribe was exposed to so vast an expanse of feeling that they had been in constant awe of the simple breadth of the emotion; the harmonics that rolled out around them, the twinkling melody dancing on the sparkling notes, the intricacy of which was barely discernable in the beauty of its design. The very body of sound, the complex combination of overtones that created the sound called "piano", suggested unknown vistas within. It seemed inconceivable to them that simple sound could move them so.
They flew with the music, out over the frozen, barren world, to a warmer time, when the ruined cities had been alive with the pulse of aspirant dreams. Then the music slowed and spoke a melancholy; of a time when recollections were a mixture of both hope and grey foreboding. These were thoughts and feelings impossible to express in the language of daily discourse.
When the music was over, they found themselves sitting, once again, in a tired old building while a flurry of snow fell outside. The spell was over, gone with the sound. But they were changed somehow. They had witnessed a thing revived from a grand history, and it would forever affect them.
The boy began to smack his hands together and the others turned to look at him curiously. Then the old man, Nayar, began to do this also. Daniel stood and beckoned the others to do the same. Parker joined in and soon the entire room was hesitantly applauding, wondering at this ritual.
Doll stood and bowed, then waved an arm to silence them. She was eager to play again.
"Thank you, thank you so much," she said, humbly. "I would like to play for you a very special piece of music, now, one that has a special meaning." She paused then, as if reminiscing. "This is the Largo from Sonata #3 in B minor. Opus 58."
This was her special piece of music. It had also been special to the woman in whose likeness she had been embodied. It was the piece that, in her first incarnation, Doll had played as a daily lament to that woman: Devimbi's fallen love.
For that reason her creators had chosen this soft sonata to be the final test. They had removed all dramatic suggestions from the version programmed in her head, leaving her to decide where to put emphasis; where to soften or strengthen her manipulation of the keys; where the ebb and flow of the tempo would take the melody.
She would be allowed to decide what to 'say' with the music.
And though her first attempts at interpretation had been less than the men had hoped for, she had not disappointed them either. She was, however tentatively, expressing some internal conflict within the parameters of sound. It was the first time in history that a machine had done so.
They would have been encouraged to hear her play this piece now. Something new was in the flow of notes; some un-programmed feeling was being expressed within the framework of the gentle, rolling melody. In over two and a half centuries the piece had changed. Matured. Evolved.
Every other piece in her head was predefined in its execution; variable interpretive parameters had been set for the dramatic articulation of every note in all but this one mourning melody.
The men had intended to program more works for her interpretation, but fate would not have it so. Unforeseen circumstances had stopped the project, devastating events that would become a recurring theme in Doll's long and tremulous life. These were events brought on by passions alien to her, primal passions that drove humankind to build empires from the very flesh of the earth, and then to knock them back to the ground.
As the years passed Doll had performed her task for numerous skeptical collectors and aficionados, and she had left them all wanting more. But soon there had been only empty seats at her performances. Confusion and hushed whispers were all around.
Then, one day her creator had not come for her and she had been forced to flee into the dark tunnels of escape. She had been sitting quietly in the laboratory that day, waiting for the moment when she would be allowed to play again. Then the American had arrived with others, men whose faces she had never seen before. They all had that curious twist of the brow that displayed the excitement called "worry". The men had argued for some time and then whisked her away, out of the stark white laboratory and into a craft that had taken them into the skies.
"It is no longer safe," these new faces had explained as they flew her from the site of her awakening. Then she heard the explosions and saw the fighting below. She had been rescued from that madness, taken to safety and, in time, allowed to play again.
It was all that mattered to her then…
…as it was now.
Her audience was listening raptly to her rendering of the piece. It was spirited in a manner that, though enjoyed, was not fully appreciated by any of them.
The man was not in the room with the others. He listened from a distance, undetected by the entranced Tribe. He was hunkered down into a snow bank in the cold darkness outside. The music was muffled by the glass doors but he was tantalized, amazed by the sound. He didn't hear it quite the same way as those dark figures stretched out along either side of him.
"What is that?" one of the others asked. The man ignored the question. He held up his hand to shush the other, and listened carefully as the music flowed into the night. Eventually the piece was done and the man sighed. He turned to face the one who had spoken.
"How many did you count altogether?" he asked the heavyset, bearded man who knelt in the dark beside him.
The bearded man thought. "Ten and two, Prescott," he responded.
"Did you count the boy?" Prescott asked.
There was a hesitation. "He's just a boy," the other said.
"Not exactly what I asked, is it?"
"No, no. I didn't count the boy," the other said apologetically.
"Ok then, that's thirteen. And how many are women?"
"Only … uh…" the man counted on his fingers. "Four!"
"Well, then, we may still have a sufficient advantage," Prescott said. "Never dismiss any factor in your calculations, Paul. Nothing is insignificant."
"Sorry," Paul said humbly.
"As to your question, that sound was a special language," Prescott said, as he crawled from the snow bank, away from the building. The others followed, moving stealthily through the dark. When he was well away from the glow of the building's lights, Prescott stood and brushed the snow from his heavy jacket.
"It says many things, Paul," he continued, "most, I am sure, beyond your limited comprehension. But the most relevant thing it speaks is nostalgia. It does so quite well, mind you, and I am quite certain that it was no human hand upon those keys, as much as I am certain that the Machine performing those pieces must be among the very few left on the planet." He paused a moment, and his thin face flickered with something the others did not understand.
"But it is nostalgia none the less," he said, grimly, "a preoccupation with things gone by, Paul. Dead things. A preoccupation that we will take advantage of." Prescott's expression brightened and he smiled at his men as he turned to leave. "But not tonight," he said, walking away. His men followed quietly.
"Tonight we rest. We will return at a more appropriate time and…" He stopped and lifted an eyebrow as the sound of the piano came to life again, twinkling from the building and out into the dead streets.
"And the next time we'll bring Tank," he said.
The shadowy figures slipped quietly through the dark, snow covered streets, making their way back to the building in which they camped. It had been a long trek from South City. They were hungry and tired. They needed rest before taking care of any new business.