The Porcelain Doll
The wind howled into the night. The sky that loomed above was as dark as Doll recollections of her years in exile. So many indecipherable faces, those in the concert halls and sheltered rooms that marked the rapidly changing landscapes of her flight, were all were part of the data stream that coursed through her digital memory. She had taken them for granted, those humans that sheltered her during the early years. It was their duty to watch over her and she had known no other life. When she played, it was not for them. It was for herself. She knew they were there, she knew they listened and she acknowledged their appreciation, as was her programming. But outside of the obligations of these acknowledgements, she had been alone with the sound; as she was now.
Her hands moved gracefully over the keys. The keys held the secret to the puzzle that she sought to untangle. They were the symbols of the code that ever eluded her.
Mak and Tomas lay on the floor near the piano, staring up at the ceiling as they absorbed the sound. The mournful melody unraveled slowly, the intricate harmonic intervals reflecting the gray drama of the wind outside.
"What do you make of all this?" Mak asked Tomas softly. Though neither had said a word about the incident between Parker and Emre', Tomas knew of what his old friend spoke. It had been sitting between them like a silent pest for hours.
Tomas lifted his head to check if anyone was within earshot. "It's a mess," he whispered, lying back down. "The boy wants to make a challenge. Now's not a good time. He's too young, yet."
"Smart, though, and brave," Mak responded. "And he can read! He'll make a good chief in time."
"Would you follow him?"
Mak wasn't ready for the question. He mulled it over. "No," he said finally. "He's good, yeah, strong and smart, all that. But not yet. Maybe someday, if I last that long."
"And what if he makes his bid on the road?" Tomas asked.
Mak laughed. "So? Parker will pound him into the ice. He's not that good."
"Ok, so he looses," Tomas said. "What if he leaves then, and takes Otter, Rennie and little Bosche? They'll follow him, you know. And what about the women? They don't need old bears like us around."
Mak thought about this. This wasn't the right time for such matters. Things were getting complicated. "It was much simpler in the South," he grumbled. "Maybe the kid was right, maybe we should have stayed." Tomas nodded sympathetically. He didn't agree, but he understood the sentiment.
He noticed Coco, lying quietly near the door to the outside. He knew the man did not want to side with anyone. Tomas turned his gaze to the corner of the room where the young men were huddled together. Emre' was speaking softly to them, casting unreadable glances in Parker's direction. Otter's face was anxious, resentful. Bosche' and Rennie seemed to gaze on Emre' with a reverence they had once held only for Parker. This was not good.
Tomas leaned back and let his mind relax on the notes flowing from the piano. "Just be prepared for anything," he said.
Nayar sat alone, in a corner of the lobby. A dark melancholy had fallen on him, one that was only partially due to the somber tones that Doll played. He had been obliged to stay behind while the men had gone in search of food. He had been sure that they would find something hidden beneath the wreckage of the old towers. But in their hours of searching they only found empty cargo runners and husks of burnt out grocery stores.
He long would the food last? Three or four months? With all these people it was hard to tell. Maybe the nomad's woman was right, and they should pack up and head for the Basin. They certainly had few other options. But as far as Nayar knew, the place was just a fantasy shared around the campfires of lonely wanderers. And even if it was true that she had been there in her youth, a lot could have happen in that time. It could very well be was abandoned like the rest of the cities.
As the mournful music filled the room, Nayar's mind fretted on the possibilities. He glanced Parker, whose face was grim. Did the man know what he was doing?
Parker didn't really want to hear this music. It was too close to the feeling in his heart. He could not afford to let the Tribe get too comfortable here, but neither could he rely on the seasons to clear the mountain passes of snow and ice. As if all this uncertainty was not enough to contend with, Emre' was becoming more and more agitated, repeatedly challenging his decisions. He had noticed the glares that the young man had been casting his way. But he did not return them. Emre' was going to make a bid for leadership, that much was clear. Parker only hoped he would wait until they were all safe and warm in the Basin.
He gazed over the room, at the huddles of people who had chosen him to lead them. He worried about their future. The sound of the Machine's playing resonated uncomfortably with his own dark thoughts. Why couldn't that damn thing play something to lift this dark spirit from the room?
Rosa ignored Daniel's complaints as she tugged through the tangles in his long blonde hair.
"You have not taken good care of yourself," she said. "If you had combed, as I showed you, this would not have to happen."
Daniel grimaced as another mat of hair was combed through. "Owww!!" he complained. He considered attempting a quick flight, but Ish was sitting nearby and he decided against it, knowing she could move very fast for such a big person.
Malin was across the room, attempting to get Otter's attention. But Otter and the other young men were talking seriously about something, and after a few moments of being ignored, she came to sit with Rosa and Daniel.
"This is getting boring," she said. "Hiding in this building all day, waiting for something to happen. We should be on our way." Rosa was about to respond when Parker's voice rose above the music.
"Stop that!" Parker yelled. All eyes were quickly on the man. He was on his feet, shifting his weight to and fro, his face twisted in some unrecognizable emotion. He raced to the center of the room and pounded the piano with an open palm. "Stop that, now!' he yelled.
Doll's recitation instantly ceased and the Machine looked at Parker in confusion.
Emre' stood quickly, eyeing Parker with, suspicious eyes. The other young men watched the situation carefully, wondering what was happening.
"What is wrong with you?" Ish called, concern written on her face. Parker waved a hand to silence her intrusion.
"Daniel, tell her to play happy now!" he said in a tone both commanding and desperate. He strode in a quick circle, hand to his head as if he was uncertain how to continue. "We don't need this lonely music! Make her play happy sounds!"
Daniel looked at Parker perplexed, but said nothing. Malin scooted away quickly. She had never seen the Chief so agitated. Rosa stood, her own temper growing.
"You're not helping things acting this way!" she yelled.
Parker ignored the challenge. "Tell her, Daniel!" he said.
Daniel brushed Rosa's hands away and rose. "Doll plays what she wants," he snapped.
"No! Not tonight!" Parker shouted and turned to the piano. "Play something happy now, Machine."
Doll's hands were frozen above the keys. She didn't understand what the man wanted to hear.
"Is there a particular piece you would like, sir?" she asked.
"Make us smile!" Parker yelled. "Make us look to tomorrow with hope. Not this… this music for tears! This is music for the dead!"
Daniel slipped in-between Parker and Doll. "Don't yell at her!" he roared. "She can hear you just fine without yelling!"
Parker regarded Daniel with agitated indecision. It was useless arguing with this boy. He knew nothing of what was happening around them now. Parker stepped away from the piano and began to clap his hands together; the hollow sound filled the room. Mak and Tomas sat up and Coco rose to his feet. They were worried now.
Parker's face was drawn, his eyes intense, his gruff voice loud and wavering. He chanted the warrior's song he had learned as a child, the one he had sung over his father's grave. It was a heroic melody, a song of strength and triumph.
Doll did not know this piece. She listened carefully and tried to isolate the tonal structure, but the man's voice was wavering all over the scale. She sat at the piano with her hands upraised, ready to play the moment she could isolate the primary pitch.
Parker moved among the hesitant Tribe, bellowing the simple lyric. He wanted them to sing with him. He wanted to forget the darkness in his heart, to forget the impending doom he saw ahead.
Ish eyed him cautiously as he wound through the simple rhyme again. Then she began mouthing the words too. Hesitantly, the tribe members started to keep the beat. The older men knew the tune well and joined in, not wanting Parker to look the fool. Emre' and the others waited a few verses and then reluctantly sang along. But their eyes were still cautious on their Chief as he paced the room.
Daniel didn't know what was wrong with Parker, but at least the man had stopped yelling at Doll. The Tribe's voices were filling the room. The chant was building to a discordant intensity. Nayar had never heard this song before, but the tune seemed simple enough. He hummed along and, after a moment, tried to sing. But he didn't know the words, so he clapped his hands in time with the staccato syllables.
The room was soon filled with their unified voices. Slowly the darkness that lain on their hearts lifted, letting a new light take it's place. After a few more verses they were laughing at each other, and those who had been hesitant to join were now smiling and singing aloud, just as Parker had desired.
Their concerns and conflicts had been temporarily forgotten.
But the forgotten world was about to come crashing in.
The sound from the building warbled into the darkness. It was the sound of merriment and tenuous laughter.
It was the sound of distraction.
"Now," Prescott said.
There was a hushed whisper of boots sliding over snow banks, towards the building where the unsuspecting Tribe struggled to maintain an uneasy merriment.
Parker stopped singing, his mouth frozen between words. There was a man standing in the doorway. He was grim and thick-muscled, his clothing, ragged and torn. He was obviously not dressed for the cold, but he showed no discomfort with the snow gathered on his shoulders and in his hair. His face was set in a look of pure animal aggression, his eyes calculating and sharp. The man scanned the room quickly. Then he moved inside.
Parker reacted too slowly. " RAIDER!" he yelled as a body flew through the room, heaved like a spear by the impossibly strong man. Mak and Tomas unsheathed their blades. Decades of life on the wastes had armed them with a inner sense for trouble. But the singing had let down their guard.
"Coco!" Mak yelled, jumping away from the madman who had just thrown his friend across the room like a child's doll. Coco's body crashed to the floor in front of Parker, who had to side step to avoid behind hit. The man's head was gushing red from a wound lined with protruding bone. Parker ran to his side, to move him to safety.
Emre' rolled away from the attack, reaching for his weapon. The other young men were up quickly, but not quickly enough. As Rennie unsheathed his machete', the intruder stepped forward and fired a savage kick. The strike broke ribs that tore into the youth's lungs, sending him into spasms.
Bosche' screamed as his lover fell to the floor, blood seeping from his mouth. A rage descended on his heart, one he had never felt before. He snatched up his weapon and attacked, joining Otter and Emre' who were already slashing at the invader. Tomas and Mak quickly joined the fray. But their numbers did not intimidate the Machine; it had no life to loose. It flew back at them, and their blades tore at its flesh to no avail.
Parker rose from Coco's side, his heart burning. His friend's life had been snuffed out in an instant. He saw Ish and Rosa pulling Rennie's writhing body away from the fight and realized that this was no man they were up against. He drew his weapon and raced to help his men who were already hacking at the intruder, their blades slicing through its false flesh.
"Go for the eyes!" Parker screamed, as he maneuvered himself in a position to slash at the back of the Machine's head. He felt the blade strike against the soldier's metal skull. The thing was surprised by his attack and emitted a feral roar as it threw its bulk around, sending the men flying in all directions. But they were instantly up, flailing at the intruder.
Daniel had seen such violence before, and the memory would never leave him. He grabbed Doll and pulled her away from the room, knowing she would not flee on her own. He raced towards the dark interior of the building, past the old useless elevators and down an unlit hallway.
Ish and Rosa pulled Rennie into a corner, away from the battle. Malin screamed his name, and ran to him, but Ish pulled her away.
"Machines do not attack on their own!" she yelled and ran to retrieve a blade from her coat. The other women understood and grasped their own weapons. They formed a semi-circle around Rennie, who was crying out in agony.
"Daniel!" Ish yelled, without taking her eyes off the fight. But Daniel did not reply. She turned quickly to see the boy already leading the Machine woman away. "Good boy," she said to herself. Then she turned to wait for who or whatever might come through the door next. The women of the Tribe were ready to make their stand. It would not be the first time they had been forced to rise to the challenge. Others had been surprised in the past.
The Smart Soldier was strong and felt no pain, only digital codes of alert, which would not cause it to loose focus. But now it was being overpowered, slashed and ripped by blades and clubs that came from all directions. In spite of its strength, these were too many challenges at once.
That was when the others rushed in, the ones the soldier had been sent to make way for. The nomads were forced to redirect their attacks, and in moments the room was filled with fighting and screaming. Blades slashed. Blood flowed. The women rushed into the fight and hacked into the intruders. They knew what their fate would be if the men failed… as well as the fate of the boy. They would die before they let that happen.
Their women's determination made them formidable foes and the men who stormed into the room found themselves quickly backing away as the women joined the fray.
The Smart Soldier made its way through the room, moving among the combatants, assisting those whose faces it had stored as 'friend'. Its strike could be a deathblow. When the Tribesmen saw it coming, they retreated from battle, fleeing towards the back of the building.
"Run" Parker yelled at Malin, when he saw the Machine moving towards where she and Rosa were clashing blades with a burley intruder. But Parker's attention was drawn by a haggard looking man who lunged at him with a nail imbedded club. He sidestepped with a speed that surprised his attacker, and thrust his blade into the man's midriff. The man let out a low grunt and fell to the floor, his face already twisting in the throes of death.
Two more invaders were on Parker instantly. He cried out as he slashed at them, jumping away from their blades at the last moment, twisting as he parried, and then slashing at them again. The men backed away to reset their attack.
Then Parker saw Malin's lifeless body on the floor at the foot of the soldier. Fire filled his veins. He rushed at his attackers, taking them by surprise. He had done battle with the greatest predators of the forest and these travel weary Raiders were no match for him. One was dead before he hit the ground; the other backed away, screaming, blood flowing from a gash that ran the length of his heavy coat.
Parker knew his own flesh had been torn, but he ignored the pain. Blade held high, voice raised in a battle cry, he rushed at the Smart Soldier.
The metal monster heaved a deadly blow in Parker's direction, but the man dodged easily, thrusting his body down and kicking out with all his force at the Machine's legs. The Machine lost its balance and thudded to the floor. Parker moved quickly, kicking at the Machine's head, feeling his boot smack against its strong metallic jaw.
But the Machine was up too fast, its heavy fists flailing the air as it regained balance. Parker rose too, narrowly avoiding a massive fist that whooshed through the space where his head had been a moment before. He raced away from the Machine, retreating to a safe distance. Then he saw young Rennie lying on the floor, still in the throes of death. He cried out in frustration, and started towards the young Tribesman, to retrieve him. But he quickly understood that it was too late. He had to think of the living. He swore and retreated into the halls to make his stand.
"Keep them from getting into the back of the building!" Prescott called. He appraised his surroundings as he made his way into the room, brandishing a razor edged machete'.
"A little dusty, but it'll do," he said. He stopped to inspect the piano. "Steinman?" he said and clucked his tongue. "It's a damn knockoff." He heard someone moaning nearby. He walked casually to where a nomad lay writhing on the floor, and thrust his blade into the young man's chest, ending his life brutally and quick. He noticed another nomad a few feet away. The small man's head bore an impressive wound. Prescott hummed in appreciation of Tank's special abilities.
Then he saw the girl. Her dead eyes stared up into nothing, a halo of blood pooled around her fine black hair. "Don't kill the women, you morons!" he yelled angrily. He scanned the room and counted his own losses. Just two. They were ahead. It should be over soon.
"And don't damage my pianist, either!" Prescott called as his men raced after the retreating nomads. He strode casually into the darkness of the hall that led into the darkened body of the building. He felt along the walls as he went, sure that there was something the ignorant nomads had probably not been aware of. In moments he found what he was looking for. He opened the panel.
Daniel took refuge with Doll in the broken body of a desk that lay in a room deep down winding halls of the building. Outside the room he could hear the sound of metal on metal and anguished screams. The darkness was their only shield here. It would take some time for the men to find them, but he was sure they eventually would.
"Stay here, Doll," he whispered. Then he began moving through the room, searching for a door, a window, any exit that might lead to a hiding place.
But he was blinded by a sudden flash of florescent white.
The lights had come on.
The Tribesmen turned from the fight and fled up the hallway, smashing through doors to find shelter until their eyes could adjust to the unexpected flood of light. They weren't worried about the men, they could have handled them easily, it was the only Machine that had not been rendered sightless and it took this advantage to rush Tribe. But when the fleeing people broke off in different directions, the Machine had to decide which to follow. It was not programmed to make such decisions. It hesitated for just long enough for the Tribe the get their bearings. But then they found themselves at a thick glass barrier, beyond which snow could be seen falling outside.
They were trapped!
They beat at the glass with their fists and weapons, but it would not break. There was no place left to run. They turned to see the Machine moving slowly towards them, flanked by a line sneering raiders.
Parker was breathless and bloody. The fighting had taken a tool on him. But he decided that the triumphant look on the invader's faces was premature. He jumped with amazing speed into the group of thugs, slashing his blade though the air. The Raiders were surprised by the attack, unprepared for the blade that whistled into their line. One of them fell back with a scream, a deep gash across his face filling with red.
Parker fell back into a defensive stance. When he saw the Smart Soldier turn its eyes on him, he knew he had been targeted. This would surely be his last stand. But he welcomed it. If he could distract the Machine long enough for his men to defeat the intruders, just maybe they could escape.
The Tribe didn't wait for the raiders to move; they took the offense, slashing and thrusting their weapons with renewed fervor. The invaders moved back, surprised by the intensity of the attack. They had expected surrender, had expected Tank to put the fear of death in them. But these nomads would not be cowed.
The Machine suddenly aborted is move on Parker and turned its attention back to the group, processing which was friend or foe. But Parker caught its attention.
"Come on, Machine! I got a thing for you here!" he challenged, grabbing his crotch in a ritual gesture of insult.
But the Machine required no insult to provoke it. It understood that the large man had acted with initiative, that it had commanded the others. It was obviously a leader and must be dealt with. The Smart Solider gritted its teeth in a simulated snarl, and began its assault.
Daniel heard the whisper of the door opening. The sounds of battle grow louder for that moment and then faded as the door was closed. Could it be Malin? Rosa? Or maybe Nayar was sneaking away from the fight. He pressed back into the improvised sanctuary, pulling Doll back with him. His heart raced and it seemed that he was breathing too loud. Sitting quietly beside him, it seemed that Doll was as calm as ever. But Daniel was wrong about that.
She knew the sounds of battle. The fighting noises had always preceded her flight and meant that she would be away from her music. She resigned herself to this; sad in her own way, and felt the boy's protective embrace pulling her back into the wooden hiding place he had found.
A man walked into Daniel's view. He was thin and pale, wrapped in a ragged black coat. But his expression was sharp, and his eyes displayed a calculating dark intelligence. He gazed down on the hunkering pair and smiled. His lips were thin slices of a sneer, stretched across his pallid, angular face.
"Ahhh, so here you are, boy," Prescott said. "I had a feeling you might still be about." His eyes focused on Doll and his brows lifted. "And this must be our amazing relic. Our pianist? Very good work," he said with an appreciative nod. He felt a welcomed stirring at the site of the Machine's golden brown skin and the fine black hair that cascaded neatly down her sides. So what if it was only simulated? The human women had obviously not faired, so well, the ravages of the worsening world.
The sound of fighting had moved far down the hallway. This was good. He had some time. He sheathed his weapon. "Get up, machine," he said. "Come here and let me see you."
Daniel could tell what the man was thinking. "She's not for that!" he yelled, breaking his fearful silence. The sound of his own voice emboldened him. "Get away!" he yelled louder, misreading the thin man's silence as intimidation. "Parker!" he called out. "Help!"
Prescott shook his head, chuckling. "I think your friends are rather preoccupied at the moment, boy." Then he knelt and his smile chilled Daniel's heart. "And I don't think they'll be available to assist you when this business is finished. Just pray my hearty fools don't kill all the women in the passion of the fight, or they might be inclined to put you to work in their stead." Then he reached out and grabbed Doll by the shoulder "Now, give her to me!" he commanded, and yanked her from their hiding place in one strong tug.
"No!" Daniel screamed. He jumped at the man, flailing his small fists, batting the air wildly as he tried to protect Doll. But a sudden shock against the side of his head sent him sprawling across the floor. He felt searing pain, saw flashess of light against the insides of his eyelids. Then there was darkness.
Prescott sighed and sheathed his weapon again. He had only hit the brat with the butt, but perhaps killing him would have been more merciful. There was no telling what the brutes would do with him. But that oversight could be corrected later. For now, he had other concerns.
"Well, I guess it's just the two of us," he whispered, as he eyed the shapely replicant. "I have a feeling your designer had more than music in mind, eh?" He stepped close to the Machine, rolling the back of his hand across her cheek. "How very convincing," he whispered, as his hands moved over her. "I wonder how… accurate you are," he said, touching her in places she had not been designed to use, feeling the smooth, perfectly simulated contours of feminine softness beneath her gown. "Ahhh, yesss," he cooed. "I think we have a little time before the boys finish up. Do you …take requests?"
Doll did not flinch from the man's probing, though he would be wrong to think she did not understand what was occurring. She was not unfamiliar with such attentions, and she had seen the look in his eyes before.
Uncle was a lonely man in those grey years before Daniel had been abandoned so his mother could chase whatever shabby dreams were left in the dying world. All he had then was Doll; this special device that he had promised to care for. He had done so dutifully even as his friends died or left as the world fell into ruin all around.
But there was one night when he had forsaken his duty. He came to her, his heart yearning for comfort in his solitude. And something else inside him burned. They who had left her had explained she was not designed for those purposes. He had assured them that such a thing would never even cross his mind. But that had been before was nothing left to live for.
He had taken her from her piano and laid her gently on blankets he had prepared for their union. Doll had not understood this behavior. She had stared uncomprehending at the ceiling as the man removed her clothing. This did not alarm her, for it had been done before; by technicians, by those who cared for her and who prepared her for performances.
But she realized soon enough that this man's attentions were different. His hands roamed over her body in ways she had never experienced. But his attempts were futile, for, although she was capable of feeling his caresses, she could not respond in the fashion he desired. The man had finally understood this, and understood why.
His apologies had been ardent and profuse as he dressed her and brushed her hair back into place. He had continued apologizing on through the night, trying to explain his actions as she sat staring, unable to comprehend his inner turmoil.
There was no apology in this man's eyes. He did not move gently upon her, as the man called 'Uncle' had. He pushed her down to the floor, one hand tugging at her dress and the other on the belt of his thick pants. There was a savage desperation in his eyes.
"Now let's see if you have any practical use, Machine," he said. "Let's see if we can make some real music!"
His pants were quickly down. He ripped at the clothing under Doll's dress and tugged at the thin cloth that covered her torso. He wanted to be quick, before the men finished and came looking for him. His breath rushed as he positioned himself above her, marveling at the realism of her body, the softness of her flesh against his and the warmth that emanated from her. He reached down and spread the Machine legs, feeling for the area of his concern.
"What?" Prescott yelled. He pushed up to his knees and examined the Machine, a mixture of disbelief and frustration contorting his features. "Well, I think they forgot something, didn't they?"
He rose and snapped his pants closed. "Well, what the hell good are you?" he roared at Doll who watched him calmly. Her detachment only served to anger him more. "Even a cheap street model comes properly equipped! You don't even have the parts that make you worth anything!"
But he fell quiet then, and his face grew pensive as he reflected on his actions.
"Oh yeah, the piano playing thing," he said, tweaking his chin. Then his face morphed back into the uglier, and more accurate expression of his soul. His foot struck out, catching Doll on the shoulder and sending her sprawling across the room.
"We're in a frozen wasteland! Can you explain to me what use is a Machine that plays the fucking piano?" He kicked at her again, hitting her face and knocking her head against the floor.
The shock of the man's strikes astounded her. The data stimulated by the attack streamed into her head, warning her to flee, warning that this was danger. But her creators had been too focused on her primary function, and the standard self-defense procedures had not been an immediate concern.
So, she sat and watched with an expression of amazement on her face, as the man struck her again and again, sending bright flashes of warning into her brain.
It was a warning to which she could not react.
Prescott finally relented and started pacing the room, his mind racing. "Here I am, trapped in a frozen world at the end of fucking history with a machine that plays piano?" He was talking to himself now, and to the faceless fates that were responsible for his imprisonment in this hell.
It was all falling apart. First it was the ill-fated coup and the loss of most of his men, then his exile to the barren wastes. Sure there was heat in this building, and when the night was through, he would control what food supplies were left in the tanker. But what happened when the supplies diminished?
He had realized long ago that the journey to the Basin was a fantasy. The mountain passes would be filled with ice. The brutes were obviously too stupid to realize what was going on.
"Hell, I can't even get a decent piece of ass!!" he yelled, slipping his machete' from its sheath and turning his attention to the cowering Machine.
"And I hate Chopin!" he hissed, raising his weapon for the final stroke.
The door burst open. Prescott turned quickly to see one of the nomads. It was the heavy, black woman from the fight in the main room, and she had come prepared. Her hunting blade was almost as big as a small sword, and already smeared with the blood of his men. Prescott's smile spread quickly and his eyes rolled down her frame in feigned appraisal.
"Well, hello," he said, composing himself to better mock the savage. "It's good to see Tank and the guys have left something to look forward to. I assume that, unlike this toy bitch, you have all the necessary accoutrements?" He kicked Doll again, and turned to face Ish. He raised his eyebrows at the look of anger in her eyes. "Oh, and may I say how lovely you look tonight?"
Ish shrieked, and jumped into the room, Malin's dead eyes burning in her mind. Their blades struck, clashing sharply in the dead air. Prescott parried her strike smoothly and laughed as he danced out of her range. Ish jumped at the man, swinging quickly, but Prescott dodged again, sending her off balance.
Then she saw Daniel lying still on the floor. She hesitated for the barest instant, only to hear Prescott moving at her. She dodged just as …
… the Smart Soldier's fist smashed into the wall above his head. Parker rolled across the large hallway, feeling the floor thud in his wake. The machine stomped its foot, trying to pin him. But he was too fast. The nomadic life kept you fit, or it killed you.
He rolled to his feet just in time to jump away again as the Machine threw a deadly punch that whistled through the space above him. He dashed to the end of the hall, out of breath, exhausted from dodging the Machine's fists. He knew he couldn't avoid them much longer.
There were bodies on the floor, but Parker couldn't tell whose. He only hoped that all the intruders were already here. If the others managed to escape this fight, only to have to face more men, it would be over. He would have died in vain.
The Machine was coming for him again. Parker didn't know if he could escape. Even a big cat got tired after a while, but this thing just kept coming. It stopped just outside striking distance, calculating an attack. Then it struck. Parker moved towards the blow, ducking and slipping beneath it. He dodged to the side and jumped into a roll.
But he wasn't fast enough.
The soldier's foot lashed out and caught Parker in the ribcage. The man's breath woofed out of him; sharp pain flared in his side and he curled into a ball on the floor. He lay there, wounded and unable to move.
It was over.
He closed his eyes and prepared for the final, crushing blow.
"This behavior will not be tolerated! Cease and desist or I will be forced to eject you all from the premises!"
The voice was unnaturally loud, as if amplified. Alerted by the sound, the fighters pulled away from each other and turned defensively to its source. The nomads already knew what made that sound and were surprised only by its presence. But the Raiders were shocked and confused at the sight that greeted them.
He had helped the movers with the piano. He didn't know why they were moving it to this place nor did he understand why they didn't have the appropriate vehicle for such a task. But it was not his place to ask, only to serve. He had dragged the makeshift sled almost by himself, over the snow, up a slow incline, and into the warm lobby of this new building. He had waited until the performance was over. But apparently the men hadn't needed him further. So he walked into an empty room and set himself to standby so that his batteries would not run down. He sat there in the darkness, awaiting the call of the show.
Eventually sounds had woken him, but not the ones he had expected.
"What the hell is that?" one of the intruders said, at the sight of the torn-faced machine.
"This is your last warning. I insist that you leave the premises immediately," the Usher commanded.
Tank turned away from the damaged nomad, to seek out the new threat. In its days as an actual soldier, before its use as a mechanical thug, it had fought alongside human men. It had been designed to seek out other Machine soldiers and neutralize them. When it heard the mechanical voice boom out across the battle site, it turned to face a new and unexpected combatant. It assessed the threat quickly.
Then it attacked.
The usher was designed to make his patrons comfortable. Their dancing or viewing pleasure was his only concern. So when he saw the large angry looking man running at him, it understood that these were simple hooligans, out to cause trouble. He had been programmed to deal with such matters.
Tank swung a deadly blow at the new threat, a blow that would have knocked the other Machine's head from its shoulders, had it connected at the right moment. But the Usher simply moved forward, quickly wrapping its arms tightly around Tank, and lifting the Machine off its feet.
"You have been warned!" the Usher said. Then it began to carry the struggling soldier towards the front lobby. Tank beat at the Usher's back, delivering blows that would have killed a man. But the strong service Machine ignored the savage beating, and commanded the soldier to cease its disruptive behavior or the authorities would be summoned.
The combatants watched in amazed silence as Tank was carried off by the smaller Machine. The realization of what had happened seemed to charge the air and when the Raiders turned to face the Tribe again, there was no confidence in their eyes.
"Fight!" Emre' commanded, thrusting a blow at the now uncertain men, injuring one of them as the battle resumed. He knew the Usher wouldn't last long under that kind of abuse. They would have to beat these intruders back before the Usher collapsed and the soldier returned. The invaders fell back as the Tribe lashed out.
Emre' stepped away, trying to move to Parker's side. But one of the Raiders followed him. The burley man's club was swinging as he came. Emre' fought angrily, a new hope driving him on. He deflected the man's strikes, screaming as he thrust his blade at the man's chest. The attacker gasped, clutching at his wound, and fled.
Emre' fell to his knees. "Parker! Are you alright?" he said. But the man didn't answer. He was reaching down to pull the fallen Chief away from the battle, when he saw the glint of a blade from the corner of his eye. He dodged and rolled, only to see it slicing down…
…at her, again. But Ish surprised Prescott by moving towards his strike, a trick that she had learned from her father when she was a child. Prescott's blade overshot her and he jumped back, narrowly avoiding her knife. The man stood back against the wall, his breath rapid and brow flowing with sweat. Ish sneered at him and jabbed her knife through the air, but did not approach. The two stared at one another for an immeasurable moment.
"You're not bad, for a girl," Prescott said, feigning a calm he didn't feel. Where in the hell were his men? It should be over by now! Tank should have made the job easy.
"But, however valiant I may find your effort," he continued, hoping to hear the sound of his men's feet in the hall. "I do think you would be better off conceding. Your men can't win this one. You might as well look out for your own future, eh? We could use a few good women," he said with a wink. "Hell, we might even find a use for you."
Ish lunged at him, but he sidestepped her attack easily and slashed back, opening a tear in her coat and her flesh. Ish yelped and jumped back, cradling her injured arm.
"Stings a bit, eh?" Prescott laughed. He donned an apologetic smile, and approached her. "Well, I tried to be nice about this but-"
Then he was interrupted by a sound, far down the hallway. An unnaturally loud and cheerful voice was bellowing about ejecting someone from the premises. What was going on out there? Prescott tried not to let his surprise reach his face, but Ish wasn't fooled by his pose. She made her own pose, pretending the pain was not excruciating.
"Oh yeah…" she said, forcing a smile. "I guess you didn't know we have a toy of our own." She laughed, and struck. Prescott dodged the blow easily, rolling along the wall and jumping onto a desk. Paul had not mentioned any other Machines. He had to get out there and see what was going on.
"Well, Tank is not exactly a toy, my dear, as your men will find out, and I have had enough of this distraction." He feigned a strike and jumped high over her, landing smoothly across the room and racing towards the door. But something caught his leg. Prescott screamed and slashed down quickly, rending a muffled cry from whatever had stopped him.
It was the boy!
"Damn you, brat!" he yelled, raising his blade again. But he was stopped in mid-strike by a pain like electric fire that burned into his side and through his body. He turned to see the nomad woman snarling at him, and his blood streaming down the shaft of the blade she had planted in his side.
"Ohhh…" he moaned, his voice quivering as his body started to convulse, "how unladylike."
Emre' twisted out of range of a strike, and lunged into a counterattack. But his blade sliced through nothing. The man was no longer there. He was already fleeing with the few cohorts he had left. Mak, Tomas, Otter and Rosa were still fighting, cutting into their numbers. Young Bosche was among them too. He had taken a few wounds, seemed undaunted by the pain. His youthful features were twisted in rage as he made his mark.
The attackers were retreating. They had depended too much on the strength of their Machine, and hadn't planned a strategic attack. With their weapon out of the fight, they were faced with nomads who proved to be tougher than they had expected. Emre' joined his family, fighting hard and driving another intruder down the hall. He had a chance to glance at the bodies on the floor. Five he counted. He knew at least two were Tribesmen. Including Parker, that would make three.
But his attention was drawn back to the fight as a burly, bearded man lunged at him in a desperate attack. Emre' dodged and swung at counter strike at the zenith of the man's swing. His blade cut into the raider's fur, and the man stepped back, letting his arm fall weakly to his side.
They stood that way for moments, staring at one another, their breath ragged and chests heaving. Emre' could hear the sounds of metal against metal, of yelling and cries of pain. But the sounds were diminishing. Cold air filled the hall as the lobby door was opened in another invaders' retreat. The he noticed a trickle run out of the raider's sleeve, over his hand, and drip onto the floor.
"Prescott's an ass," The man said. Emre' prepared to fight, wondering if this was some maneuver to catch him off guard. But the Raider didn't move to attack.
"And I'm a bigger ass for following him." The man continued, panting out the words. "We never stood a chance against Smith. We never should'a even tried." The man's gaze roamed over the bodies on the floor and then back up to Emre', who thought he saw the slightest hint of an apology there. Then the man dropped his weapon. It clunked to the floor. Emre' saw blood on the blade and wondered to which of his family it belonged. The raider began to walk away. He strode casually down the hall towards the place where his fellows were losing their own fights. Emre' watched the man's retreat for a moment, making sure it was real. Then he rushed back to Parker's side.
"Parker!" he said. The man did not answer. He lay still, clutching his chest, his face calm, as if in sleep. "Oh damn! Parker! Don't die! We need you!" Still the man did not move. "Parker," he repeated desperately, but to no avail.
Paul walked slowly through the hallway, ignoring the sounds of his mates being defeated in the lobby. It was over. Without the Soldier, the nomads had wound up being too much of a challenge. Another of Prescott's follies, another among the many he had been led into after siding with man.
"Paul!" came a desperate, wavering voice.
Paul turned to see the man himself, wobbling out of a room, clutching his side. His coat was bloodstained, his face paler than usual. For the first time Paul could remember, the man was scared.
Prescott gasped as he stumbled an escape. "Help!" he moaned, gesturing at the doorway behind him. "She… got me… I can't… " Paul saw the husky woman that walked out of the room after Prescott, a bloodied blade held out before her.
Ish was about to finish the Raider Chief when she saw a weary man standing, unarmed, in the hall. He looked disconnected from the world around him, as if he had just happened to be strolling by and had nothing to do with the violence that was occurring. His face was expressionless, unreadable. But Ish thought she might understand something about the vacant look in his eyes.
Paul turned his gaze to Prescott. "Gimme your blade, I'll take care of it," he said. Prescott held the weapon up and Paul snatched it away. The injured man moved to hide defensively behind him.
Paul eyed the big woman and his face twisted into a snarl. If he had stayed with Smith's crew, he would still be sitting pretty in South City. There would be meat and beer. There would be girls. That's how a pirate was supposed to live, not trapped in a wasteland, running raids on Roamers with nothing but a tanker of old rations.
Ish gasped as Paul turned and thrust the blade into Prescott's chest. In spite of all her years in the wild places of the world, she was unprepared for the wet sound of the weapon ripping through the man's flesh and tearing into his muscle.
Prescott uttered a low gasp of shock and pain. This couldn't be happening to him. Not to him! His eyes opened wide in an agony that was unfairly brief. Then he slumped forward, his weight falling on the blade. Paul let go of the machete' handle, and Prescott fell with it, hitting the floor in a limp heap. Then he continued his dazed stroll to the exit, out the door, and into the cold of the night and oblivion beyond.
Ish watched the man retreat and then gazed at the lifeless body of the Raider Chief. It was over, she realized. Then she remembered Daniel and dashed back into the room.
"Boy! Boy!" she said leaning over him and cupping his small head in her hands. There was a dark bruise that covered the side of his face and he bled from a gash that ran the length of his forearm. "Boy, answer me! Can you hear me?" She ran her hands over his small frame, looking for other wounds, looking for blood. Then the boy muttered something.
He was alive!
"What did you say?" Ish asked. She leaned forward and pressed her face close to the boy's mouth. He whispered hoarsely in her ear.
"I said, my nameis Daniel, damn you!"
Ish had never been so happy to be corrected. She hugged his frail body tightly. After a moment his arms reached up and returned her embrace. Memories flooded into her mind at the feel of his small grasp; painful images of markers in the snow where tiny lifeless bodies had been set to rest forever. She thrust the memories away, and rocked the man-child in her arms.
"Ok. You are right," she said, letting her tears flow, surprised at the depth of her connection to the boy. "You are Daniel, from now on."
The Tribesmen chased the raiders out into the howling night. The men had been much less a threat than they had looked when they'd come bursting into the lobby. It must have been the hunger from their travel, the weariness of being on the open plains for so long. The nomads had long been used to living on the barest essentials. The plains were their way of life.
Without their Machine, the raiders had lost their courage, and men who made their way in the world by stealing and plundering from the weak, couldn't have much courage to begin with.
In the silver glow of the moon, the Tribesmen saw the two Machines, lying in the snow. They were still locked together in the Usher's metallic embrace, and the soldier was still beating at the back of its head. The service Machine was smashed and broken. It sizzled and popped as electric sparks issued from the smashed canopy of its skull. Yet, it continued its mechanical monologue, warning the fleeing intruders that they were in violation of the law and needed to be expelled from the premises. Its arms still grasped the Smart Soldier tightly and the thing struggled to no avail.
Mak stepped toward the trapped soldier. The Machine detected his presence and struck out at him. But Mak stepped out of the Machine's range and turned to the others, those who were left of the Tribe, those whose loved ones had perished at the hands of this ill-begotten device.
They quickly formed a circle around Mak. As one, they descended on the Machine, before it had a chance to free itself. Tank lashed out defensively, but the nomads dodged the blows, striking the helpless Smart Soldier repeatedly. In moments their clubs and blades were breaking into its flesh, smashing through its metal infrastructure and making contact with its life simulating mechanisms.
The tool had no life to loose, but in its own fashion it felt the agony of defeat. Its angry cries filled the night as the nomads took their revenge. Flashes of electric fire cast silhouettes of the tribe's assault against the building. The smell of ozone filled the air and was lost quickly on the wind.
Soon there was silence, broken only by the howl of a weary world struggling to regain its breath.
Nayar listened to the destruction of the thing that he had seen had rush into the building before he'd made his escape. He hugged his knees, rocking back and forth in the dark of the small hiding space that he had found, set off from the edge of the lobby. The fighting had gone on right next to where he had huddled, undetected.
Tears filled his eyes. They wouldn't understand. He knew they wouldn't. Not these people whose women fought as hard as the men, these people whose everyday existence had been a gamble with life. They wouldn't understand his fear.
How could he face them now?