The Porcelain Doll
Scattered throughout the devastated regions of the south, pockets of humanity struggled in the grip of new merciless climates, flocking to the high grounds that the rising oceans had not yet drowned. Storms arose seemingly from nowhere, wreaking havoc in the tower towns, those rusted hulks of dead cities where people made homes in the old skyscrapers. The storms followed new chaotic patterns, dispersing as rapidly as they had formed. Ice-plains laced what were once the warmest regions of the earth, killing off the food chain, starving the animals and destroying once fertile farmland.
The numerous tribes had only one hope of survival: cooperation. Their greatest challenge was to overcome the timeless differences that had separated them, those racial, cultural and religious barriers from which wars had sprung, entrenching the minds of humanity further into their separate hemispheres. Their challenge was to work together as a unified society, to brave the effects of centuries of abuse and reckless pursuit of power.
They had not met that challenge.
The drives of greed, the greatest of the seven passions, had proven an insurmountable obstacle. Where tribes had gathered together and negotiated terms of peaceful co-existence, ambitious men had come to divide them. They were clever provocateurs, who encouraged jealousy and suspicion, those vile, crimson emotions from which fear flowed, from which conflict and violence flowed; emotions that burst from the hearts of humanity and spilt like blood over the face of the gasping planet.
This was where Niccolo Prescott made his bid to power.
Born into one of the last of the great families, Prescott had watched his wealth and status disintegrate with the civilized world. He watched clods and parasites rise to power, men with little or no education, and no understanding of the way in which the world really worked. They had pursued futile goals, in his mind: communities based on cooperation, honesty, and a naïve sense of justice. He had done his best to stunt this rising social trend, but eventually he had found himself thrust among these barbarians, forced to struggle alongside people whom he felt should rightly be begging his favor.
Then the Raiders came.
Though their sensibilities were more suited to his, these men were no better than the ideological clods that had ruined his family. Prescott was still cast among the rabble of society. But he had not tolerated that circumstance for long.
He deserved better.
He was better.
His campaign for power was ruthless and violent. It was also short. Had he the men sufficient to the task, the endeavor might have proved successful. But at least he survived.
Now, in exile with the handful of loyalist he had left, Prescott made his camp in the bowels of an ancient building in another of a series of broken cities. Their flight had brought them north, across the frozen hills, headed for a place that they had heard tell of, a place that was warm, where plants and animals thrived, and better yet, where trade and barter could still make a man wealthy.
Yesterday they had chanced upon resources that would sustain them for a long time. The only problem was a tribe of nomads camped in a building next to the bounty.
But that problem would be short lived.
"And what would you with her do then?" Prescott asked distractedly, as he toyed with a small black box. He only did this to keep his mind occupied for there was certainly no way he would be able to repair the object. He had found it in an old museum, and tampered with it for weeks as he and his men traveled along the frozen paths of the world, looking for a new home.
Paul made a blank face for a moment as he considered his response. "Well… I could impress her… tell her about the time I killed those guys up at the silos…or the time I boiled that ol' guy for crossin' the pass without payin' the tax."
The other men were strewn around the room, rolled into their blankets, bracing against the cold that seeped into the room in spite of the fire they had built.
"And you imagine that she'd be impressed with your wanton disregard for life?" Prescott asked, still consumed with his toy.
Paul shrugged. "Well, then I could show her my marks, eh." He rolled up his sleeve and displayed the aged scars for the others to see. They ignored him, having seen the marks numerous times before. Undaunted, the burley man hiked up his coat and displayed the fresher wounds from the skirmish in South City, just months prior.
"There! That'd show 'er I wasn't the messin' type," he said, and laughed. He laughed alone, however, and the laugh died quickly.
"Paul," Prescott said after a moment, "the only way you could successfully bed any woman is to court her in the same manner our earliest ancestors were portrayed as pursuing their mates, and that is to drag her by the hair, kicking and screaming, into your cave. It would seem an appropriate approach considering how poorly removed you are from that primal state, and because you, too, reside in similar accommodations." Prescott's pale, angular face was expressionless as he spoke, giving Paul no indication of his seriousness or levity.
"The truth is, my most incompetent accomplice, you'll probably never see a woman of the type you sweat over in your feverish imaginings. I doubt there are any left." Prescott leaned back and looked the man in the eye. "The world is just too hard on them nowadays. There might be a few well cared for Machine whores, perhaps, hidden away in the secret abodes of those who have managed to escape our detection… but that is another matter."
Paul let his fur down and settled back against the wall. "You guys are a bore," he muttered. He didn't understand half of what Prescott said, and wasn't sure he liked the half he did understand. But the man knew what he was doing, even if he had made some mistakes in South City. Everybody makes mistakes.
One of the others rose, a gaunt man name Kotch, with a scraggly beard and a haggard look. "I don't care about no goddamned women!" he yelled. "When are we gonna waste those roamers and take the supplies?" The others sat up, grumbling in agreement. They were dirty and tired from months of incessant travel, huddled around the fire for warmth. Their eyes burnt on Prescott. He didn't return their gaze.
"Rations are getting' low," said one, a young man who'd joined Prescott's campaign late in the game, only to find himself fleeing for his life when the coup failed. "What're we waitin' for?" asked another, a gruff old Raider who had stolen his fair share of goods from helpless travelers and finally found himself on the run from his own kind. The men started discussing these issues; their voices rose and filled the room as they argued strategies of attack, and what tortures would be suitable for the Roamers once they had been defeated.
Prescott sighed. These are my soldiers, he thought, the rabble of the world. He sighed and placed his useless toy on the ground. Then he kicked it into the fire where it began to sizzle and finally exploded with an electric blue spark. The men were silenced by the sound and turned to watch the old processor melt, leaving only a few strands of blackened fibers that quickly turned to ash.
"Do you know what that was?" Prescott asked. No one spoke. They didn't know what the box was for, but they were sure Prescott was aware of their ignorance. He would tell them anyway; it was his style.
"Well, that useless piece of plastic and fiber used to hold more information than the sum of all of our combined knowledge put together. That is perhaps not a considerable amount, even including my somewhat more substantial resources, but nonetheless, it was a feat of years of development, the end result of centuries of trial and error." Prescott paused to let this point sink in. "Now, however, it is just so much plastic junk. All the data that was compressed into that tiny box has lost its meaning, become irrelevant."
Prescott stood and stretched his thin frame. He needed to bathe. He hated being in this condition. He looked down at the men, hiding the sneer with which he regarded them from behind his gaze. They didn't seem to care what condition they were in or how rank their quarters became with their reek. He cursed himself for challenging the rule of Smith in South City. He cursed himself for enlisting aide from the ragged band of misfits and disgruntled recruits in his ill-fated coup. He dismissed their loyalty. Of course they were loyal. What choice had they?
Prescott continued, his voice rising with his ire. "It is irrelevant because there is no one left, at least no one I know of, who knows how to access its contents. Pitifully, after numerous attempts, I must include myself among the ignorant horde.
"Perhaps this faceless little box had information we could have used. Maybe it would have explained the process by which we might have revived the mechanical brain of the city. Maybe brought it to life. We might have even built our own little kingdom, my loyal troops, my fellow exiles, with the information unrevealed from the pit of that little black box!"
Prescott went into his pack and retrieved another small black box, another he had found in the museum. He unwrapped the find carefully from the protective cloth in which he carried it.
"We do, however, have this," he said, and held the processor up in the wavering firelight. "And its design is more relevant to the task at hand, more relevant to our immediate concerns."
They had chanced upon the old museum just over a month ago, and taken shelter there from a storm. The place had been obviously occupied not too long before they had arrived. Days perhaps. So they'd assumed whatever treasures it might have held had already been found. But he was glad that they had searched anyway, for they'd found a room in the back, a secret room. On the door to the room a glorious battle had been etched, and the words scrawled in the door had immediately caught Prescott's attention. He knew that language.
"Always faithful," he had read aloud, triggering the sequence that unlocked the door and allowed him passage. Inside the chamber he had found the special processor sitting in a casing with instructions for its use.
He had found something else there too, another artifact; one that he wished he'd had in South City.
Now Prescott crossed the dusty, rubble-laden room and knelt before this other, special device. It was seated in a fetal pose against the wall, its head hung between its knees, the simulated musculature of its body, tightly clad in the ragged and torn remnants of a dark uniform.
"Tank," Prescott said gently, as if talking to a child. Tank responded by lifting its head. Its eyes were blank, staring at the empty space before its face. Its hard features expressed nothing. "Set," Prescott ordered. Tank obediently bent its head back, exposing its throat, which only appeared vulnerable. Prescott pressed his hand against Tank's chest and pushed down on the upper ribcage, triggering a process. He then cupped his hand around Tank's lower jaw and pulled up quickly. Tank's inner face was revealed from behind his mask of flesh simulation. The Machine's real face glinted in the firelight; its metal coating reflected back the dance of the flames against the walls.
The men in the room moved back from the sight. When had Prescott learned this trick? The man smiled at their amazed expressions. "Oh, the benefits of literacy, eh?" he laughed. The men didn't understand his statement and he didn't bother to explain. It didn't matter anyway. He turned back to his toy, turning his back on them.
"You may have noticed, my addled entourage, that something is wrong with the weather," Prescott said over his shoulder as he slipped the special processor into an opening in the Smart Soldier's head. When the box was set, the faceplates clicked back into place. Tank's expression was no longer lifeless.
"You may have detected inconsistencies with the patterns of weather at this time and at these times over the preceding years. I do not know the level of your awareness on these matters. But if you have noticed these unfortunate advents, you might have concluded, as I, that perhaps much of what we do now is folly."
He stood above his Machine. "Attention!" he ordered, stepping back as it lifted its mechanical bulk and snapped to its ready position; its arms held firmly at its sides, its muscular chest thrust forward. Its expression was suspicious, now. Dangerous.
"You may have concluded, as I, that there are forces at work that will make all of our efforts of survival and domination vain," Prescott continued, as if talking to himself. He smiled at his new toy. He would have loved the old world, the one that now slumbered all around them, buried beneath layers of ice and rubble. He believed himself a man born too late in the scheme of things.
"But folly has been such an integral part of our shared history that perhaps we are in the process of honoring an old tradition."
Prescott nodded to the wall against which the Machine had been leaning. "Tank! Through!" he commanded suddenly.
The Machine turned quickly and thrust its arm forward. The powerful blow smashed a hole into the brittle material of the wall. Prescott laughed wildly as Tank smashed at the wall again and again, filling the room with powdery debris and the sound of the aged interior of the building breaking under the assault. The men yelled complaints, moving away from the chaos. In moments, Tank was finished, having created a hole large enough for a man to walk through. Prescott's laughter subsided as the Machine stood at attention, awaiting further commands.
"Will you turn that damned thing off?" Paul complained. The others agreed loudly, beating dust and debris off of their hair and clothing. Prescott sighed in satisfaction.
"To answer your questions: When the time is ripe. We take the nomads when the time is ripe and not a moment before. I've learned from my mistakes in South City. Our numbers are close. They have the advantage of two, but those are an old man and a boy. I do not know the strength of the women, but we should not underestimate them."
"And we must consider, however unlikely, the possibility that they have guns." He patted his machine on its massive shoulder. "But then, they don't have Tank, do they?" he said. "And they assume that they are alone out here. So, we have the element of surprise on our side. Perhaps we won't have to kill them all." He turned and winked at the men. "At first."
The men voiced their approval of this plan, and then proceeded to clean up the mess from Tank's display.
Prescott removed the processor from Tank's head and carefully placed the device in his bag. Without it the Machine was docile, running only on its most basic drivers. The ancient Smart Soldier, one of the few left in the world, sat back in a fetal position against the smashed wall. It tucked its head between its knees and waited until it would, again, be called to duty.
Prescott unrolled his bedding. "Perhaps tomorrow night we'll take care of business," he said, remembering the music he had heard dancing on the night. It was going to be interesting to meet the one who played those notes.
"There may even be one there I would be interesting in sparing," he whispered, and bundled tightly in his bag.