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The Last Doll War

by Wendy N. Wagner

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Narrated by the Tina Connolly

 

B

eneath the rusted hulk of a station wagon, Tabitha crawled toward the body. She had never liked Gordon, but he’d been brave. The last of the brave ones. She pulled herself into the open, unbearably exposed.

Blue animus dripped from the cleft in Gordon’s head, collecting between the broken cobblestones like bits of fallen sky. Or at least like Tabitha’s memories of sky, that strange clean place above the poison clouds. She knelt beside him and touched the edge of his skull with a tentative, graceful fingertip. An idea began to form.

She called over her shoulder: “It’s a clean break, Nathaniel. I’m sure we can glue it.”

Nathaniel, oldest of all the dolls, scrambled from beneath the Buick and squatted beside her. The pink plastic of Gordon’s head held the midday light and seemed to glow, like some opalescent shell. Nathaniel poked at the ugly wound.

Tabitha stayed silent so he could focus on the examination, trying to ignore the whispers rising from the blue puddle beneath her — the sound of everything Gordon had ever known, slipping down into the dirt. Ignoring was second instinct now. She had seen so many bodies in the year since Astaire first led the others away from the Doll-Maker. It was surprising she felt anything for this corpse.

“Maybe we can fix him,” Nathaniel said, peering inside. “The circuits still look good.”

“Gordon’s body looks so healthy. I say we try reanimating him.” She scanned the street, confirming they were still alone, still safe. “We’ve never had a body in such good shape before. This time it might work.”

She didn’t dare meet Nathaniel’s eyes. If he was uncertain, she didn’t want to see it. Instead, she turned to Gordon’s still face. The skin was just plastic again, no longer capable of movement, expression, intelligence. Un-animated.

Tabitha brushed her hands over her cheeks, wondering at their dryness. It never seemed right that she could not cry. The animus inside her remembered tears so well.

Nathaniel cleared his throat. “Okay. It’s worth a try.”

• • •

They half-carried, half-dragged Gordon’s body inside the safe house, and even as they scurried through the propped door, they heard something clatter in the street. The pair launched themselves against the door and slammed home the bolt. For a second, there was quiet.

Tabitha felt her stomach clench with a rush of fear. If she’d had a stomach. It didn’t much matter — that’s how she remembered fear, and that’s how it felt. The bolt looked strong, welded into the frame before the last of the generators failed, but the war had lasted long enough that fear was a reflex action. It was easy to be afraid when she knew Astaire was out there. He was alone now that Gordon had killed the last of his followers, but it didn’t matter. Astaire had started the war. He wouldn’t rest until he finished it.

Above their heads, the doorknob jiggled.

Tabitha gasped. The door shuddered as something slammed against the other side.

Then silence.

Even in the grip of fear, Tabitha couldn’t help marveling at Astaire’s strength. She didn’t know of another doll who could have leaped so high. She and her brother were truly wonders of the Doll-Maker’s craft.

Up on the skylight, rain began to patter, a light but steady shower. The droplets on the glass were a virulent yellow. Tabitha let herself relax. Not even Astaire would go out in the rain. The acids in those drops could eat the plastic right off a doll’s bones.

She stumbled away from the door and tugged Gordon further, out of the dark entryway. A pool of jaundiced light captured by the skylight, easing the general gloom. That wouldn’t last long. Beyond the clouds, afternoon was falling, the long twilight before true dark. Tabitha wondered, not for the first time, what blue sky and sunshine would look like to her real eyes, the glass and circuitry pieces of her own head, eyes that hadn’t even been made before the Change. She pushed the thought aside with hopes for their new project.

“What do you think, Nathaniel?” In the gloom, Gordon looked even worse. The emptiness of his face looked more total than she had expected. He looked … dead.

“I wish we could ask the Doll-Maker what to do,” Nathaniel murmured.

Tabitha pushed back the blond locks that had escaped from her neat chignon and gave him her broadest smile. Your smile could light up anyone’s day. She would never forget those words, the Doll-Maker’s last.

“You’ve fixed so many dolls, Nathaniel. You can glue up a little crack in a head. It’s nothing to a master like you.”

He didn’t answer as he shuffled toward the shelf where he kept his glues and threads and spare parts. The pink spots of bare scalp on the back of his head bobbed as he walked, voiceless reminders of a time long ago, a time before the Doll-Maker’s silence, a time before the war.

• • •

At first, darkness. Darkness and a sense of spinning movement. And then out of darkness, whispers. Brightness. A whirlwind of noise, light, sensation. Then a sudden flash of orientation: head, up; feet, down. The noise, whisper-worked, became sounds, voices, words. When the whispers were done, even the whirling patterns of light made sense, became objects and shapes spinning about her as she moved.

“My dancers! My dearest little dancers!”

The thing on the bed clapped once and giggled. It brought something to its mouth and wrapped strands of hair around its tongue, lapping and tugging in a loving sort of inquiry.

She realized with a sense of dread that what the bed-thing nibbled and licked was another creature, a creature like her, small and blond and blinking. She realized, too, that she was not alone here on the ground, but that someone else held her tightly and spun her across the floor. The effortless sensation of floating in strong arms flooded her insides with a wonderful warmth.

“My Astaire, my Tabitha. I’ve outdone myself this time. Perfect bodies. Perfect movements. Perfect hands!” And the thing on the bed — the man, she realized, her maker — laughed until tears ran down the folds of his fat face. The cracked face of the doll in his grip beamed down at her, too.

Tabitha surveyed herself. Her long legs in their soft pink shoes, her slim arms ending in fingers fully articulated, that bent and stretched like the most expressive of ballerina’s, all these perfect, praiseworthy parts were hers. Were her. She saw the beauty of herself, and something within her, something that whispered to itself, recognized it with a kind of awe.

She turned to smile at the other dancer, a man with the same exquisite arms and legs, slimly toned with the muscles of the strongest dancers, and saw him stare at his hand, opening and closing his fist as if wondering at the strength within. As if ready to crush whatever he could grip.

• • •

She turned away from Nathaniel, needing suddenly the comfort of the Doll-Maker, and she picked her way toward the dimmest corner of the room. She stumbled, losing her way in the shadows and the tangles of cords and old bedding. In the darkness, the sigh of the breathing machine guided Tabitha forward, out of memory and into a darkness punctuated by a thousand smells, like the scents of a dozen old cellars compounded with the rank effluvia of a living body. The whisperers inside Tabitha’s head named each wafting smell putrid; they were overridden by a lifetime spent in wonder beside the dim shape of the bed, absorbing any tiny sound or movement. She had learned to appreciate every scent rising from that bed. They were the perfumes of her maker, and in the absence of light or words, they were the most he could give her.

The breathing machine popped and sighed. Tabitha frowned. She couldn’t remember the last time they had changed the batteries. It had been Gordon who’d gone out, of course, taken days to comb the city for the last batch of precious units. She wondered if she could be brave enough to do the same.

“I wish I had known you better, Doll-Maker,” Tabitha whispered. “I wish you could tell me if it was worth it.”

She stood with her head down, her hands clasped before her. Nathaniel maintained that if they were just patient enough, the Doll-Maker would wake up again and speak. If he did, she would dance for him and make him smile again. And she would ask him for tales of the world before rain, a world before dolls. She strained her ears.

There was only the sound of the machine, raggedly drawing in air and wheezing it back out.

“I got the skull back together.”

Nathaniel sounded grim. He’d encircled himself with tools, an assortment of bottles and scissors and needles and plastic bits. He pushed back a few drooping strands of his hair.

Tabitha studied his work. The gap in Gordon’s head had obviously proved too wide to just glue; there was a strip of blue plastic patching the hole, sewn into place with monofilament. Glue, still damp-looking, reinforced the seams.

“It looks water-tight.” She resisted the urge to explore the patch. She didn’t want to ruin Nathaniel’s hard work.

He frowned. “Sounds like the rain’s stopped.”

Tabitha pulled Gordon’s body to its feet. She slung one of his arms around her shoulder. “Then we’d better hurry. We won’t have much time before it starts up again.”

They had both seen dolls caught in the rain before. Nathaniel gave a little shudder, but he said nothing as he put Gordon’s arm over his own shoulder, and tugged open the lock.

• • •

Their footsteps, and the gentle shush of Gordon’s feet dragging behind them, echoed in the great open space beneath the earth. It was cave-dark here, the only light a turquoise gleaming from the pool ahead. Overlaid with their own sounds were the constant drips and plops from the railings above. Tabitha stopped, staring up into the dimly blue-lit space, as full of wonder as the first time she’d ever seen it.

The place might have started as a meeting hall, its grand expanse comfortable for dozens of humans. To the dolls, the space was much vaster, with a soaring roof as close to sky as anything Tabitha had ever seen. Electric blue outlined the shelves circling the top half of the space. It was something like a library, a library full of flasks instead of books. Many had broken. Many, cracked by time and the shifting of the earth over the years, still drooled thin streams of the glowing liquid. The susurration of a million whispered voices rubbed at Tabitha’s ear drums.

A long pole, broken off from the brass railing that ran around the balcony at the foot of the library’s shelves, hung out over the buckled floor below. The liquid trickled along it, gathering itself into droplets that sparkled sapphire before plunging into the pool that had formed below. The phosphorescence glowed bright enough to highlight the badly patched crack running down Nathaniel’s cheek.

It must have been pleasant here before everything went wrong. Now a moist-looking fungus scribbled itself across the walls, obscuring the signs and notices that must have once had meaning. Tabitha could only make out the occasional word on the plaque beside her, words like “shelter,” “Memory Preservation Project,” “liquid data medium,” and “welcome.” It made no sense to her.

What she understood of this place was its depth underground, its great weight of age. Nathaniel was twenty-five and this place had been old at his creation.  It must be nearly as old as the Doll-Maker himself, who had told them tales of his flight from this place, crawling from its depths naked as a baby thrust from the womb, his skin streaked with blue screaming animus. How he had escaped from the failing stasis chambers was a miracle, a mystery.

Tabitha listened to the endless whispers and breathed in the cool, moist air. There were scents here as rich and fetid as the cloud that hung around the Doll-Maker’s bed. No matter what Astaire said, she could not abandon her faith in this place.

She took Nathaniel’s hand and bowed an obeisance to the silent plastic heads arranged around the pool’s rim. The heads’ shuttered eyes were somber, a reminder of the sanctity of this place. Tabitha wished, for their sake, that Astaire had returned the dead bodies of the dolls who had followed him into heresy and fallen. They still belonged here, at the fount of their animus. How horribly silent their graves must be.

She knelt beside Gordon’s body and removed the syringe from her pocket, remembering. It was Nathaniel who had taken them to the pool on that first world-shaking journey. They would have done anything to save the Doll-Maker, and Nathaniel had the best plan. How many times had he accompanied their maker here to collect animus? How many dolls had he seen awakened by an infusion of that life-giving stuff? His stories gave them all hope.

It had taken the whole team of dolls to set up the breathing machines and the catheters and all the other medical wonders they’d learned about in the ancient books. At first they’d all believed that the animus could help the Doll-Maker, and so every last doll worked together to bring back containers of it. They tried to get it inside him every way a liquid could be forced into a body. They tried many times. She had lost count how many trips she and Astaire had made down into this funereal place to collect the sacred blue liquid.

Yet she didn’t like to touch it. It felt strange on her skin, thicker than water, colder. The whispering was a maddening whirl of voices:

“My daughter. Why hasn’t she called? Oh, God, I hope she made it to the shelter!”

“762 home runs: Barry Bonds. 755: Hank Aarons. 714 runs, Babe Ruth. 660, Willie Mays. Ken Griffey, six … six hundred …”

“Mama said seeing Dr. King was the highlight of her life. Don’t know how many times I heard that story when we were going door-to-door for Obama.”

“Ain’t nobody gonna find out I’m AWOL. I ain’t going out in this shit, get my skin eaten off. I gotta protect my family.”

So many voices in such a tiny amount of liquid. That had always bothered Astaire. How can I be one man if my head is full of this stuff, he’d asked her, more than once. A dozen people in every droplet. Tabitha had never had an answer. She didn’t ask. She just believed.

She wiped her hand on her skirt and tapped the syringe, waiting for the air bubbles to settle out of the liquid. It was a reflex from a time before she’d been made.

It wasn’t easy to sit here, in this dark place. It wasn’t any easier to know they would leave soon, passing out of the cavern filled with these lost voices to walk through the silent, stinking halls leading to the above ground. It was at least half a mile from the surface to the pool, and every foot of it allotted to the stasis chambers.

Some were dark, their contents blessedly invisible. Others, lit like display windows, displayed their residents without shame. After all this time, however long it had been, most of the chambers contained only a slurry of digested goo, but there were others where it was possible to see entire body parts, even the occasional complete cadaver. The worst were the ones that still had faces.

Nathaniel must have shared her discomfort. “We should hurry,” he murmured.

There was no point putting it off any longer. She pushed the syringe through the plastic shell of Gordon’s skull and depressed the plunger. The blue swirled inside the glass tube before it disappeared inside him.

Beside her, the body lay still and silent. The seventeen doll heads looked on without eyes or animating spirit. Nathaniel coiled a strand of hair around his fingertip.

Nothing.

She waited another second before she shook her head. “It didn’t work.” She stared down at the empty eyes, willing them to blink, to move. “I’ll try again.”

“Tabitha….”

She shook her head, blinking hard against tears that ought to be there, and thrust the syringe back in the pool. Blue splattered her arm.

“Maybe I just didn’t get enough.”

Nathaniel tugged the threads of his hair harder, but he said nothing as she injected more liquid through Gordon’s scalp.

Nothing. Her hands shook as she filled the syringe again. “It’s going to work,” she said. “It’s going to work. It just takes more animus. That’s all.”

“Tabitha, stop.”

But she ignored him. She jammed the needle into Gordon’s head a fourth time. Blue ran from the corners of the unblinking eyes.

Nathaniel patted her hand. “Perhaps the circuits were more damaged than I thought.”

“Maybe.” She could not take her eyes from the streaks of sky running down the dead, cold plastic. A part of her wondered if maybe animus wasn’t enough. If Astaire had been right.

“We need to go.” Even as he said it, Nathaniel peered over his shoulder. No matter how much Astaire hated this place, his hatred of the Doll-Maker was too big for them to stay safe anywhere.

She got to her feet. She took Nathaniel’s arm and walked away from the pool, which murmured and whispered and called to her with voices of people dead long ago.

• • •

The door to the house was open.

In the failing light of the end of day, the open doorway was a black mouth gaping at them. They didn’t think. They simply ran inside, Tabitha feeling again that horrible internal gripping she knew as fear.

“Doll-Maker!”

She couldn’t see anything. The skylight was no help this late in the day. She could hear her own fearful gasping, nothing more. “Nathaniel!”

She couldn’t see him either.

There was a painful flare of light, right in her eyes. She didn’t need to ask who had shone it. There had been no lights in this house since the Doll-Maker went silent. Tabitha froze, fear saturating every joint in her body.

“Doll-Maker!” Nathaniel’s voice was anguished. The light whipped around in his direction, and for the first time in years, Tabitha saw her creator as more than a jumble of shadows and tangled cords. She saw the tangled white hair spread across the pillow, the skin clinging to the bones beneath. She saw the foul and oozing sheets, stained and dripping liquids she didn’t want to put name to. She saw the breathing machine, and realized, finally, that it had stopped.

Astaire had won his war.

There was a sudden horrible chopping sound, like an axe splitting wood, and blue light sprayed everything. Nathaniel’s face went with it.

Tabitha screamed.

The light whirled on her this time, and she stumbled backward, catching her feet on something in the darkness and falling onto the floor. He was on her in a second.

“I don’t want to do this.”

“Stop! Astaire! No!” He had her by the neck, but her hand was free. She fumbled around herself.

“They’re all dead. We’re dead. He should have never made us!”

“Astaire, you don’t mean it.” She was stalling. She needed more time. She couldn’t feel anything, no weapon, nothing. And his little hand axe gleamed above her, dripping with animus.

“It won’t be murder, you know.” He shook his head, his beautiful, expressive head. “Because we’re not alive. There’s nothing living about us. Just old dead words. Whispers. Nothing.”

She closed her fingers on something cold.

And she slammed the scissors into her brother’s eye.

He dropped onto her, leaking blue. She felt it soaking into her hair, running down into her vision. The whispers were like screams.

She threw him off her chest and scrubbed the voices from her skin. If she had been made with follicles, her skin would have crawled. The memory of the sensation prickled in her mind.

Tabitha sat in the silence for a long time. The smell of death already saturated the air. There was nothing sacred about it. It simply stank.

She should take the scraps of Nathaniel’s head down to the others. She should take Astaire, too, no matter how much he hated the Memory Preservation Unit and the pool of whispers. But something weighed down her insides, and suddenly she was too worn to do more than bow her head with exhaustion.

Inside her skull, liquid memories sloshed against her circuits. Old dead words in a plastic shell. She stared at her brother’s motionless body, still perfect, still strong, still built for spinning her across a dance floor. She had never felt so alone. Bereft.

If there had ever been a time for tears, it was now.

Up on the darkened skylight, a sound began, a sound she knew. It was the sound she’d been born into, the sound that had ended the world. It was the sound of a rainstorm.

Tabitha got to her feet and smoothed her skirt. The whispers went with her, murmuring their memories of shapes and colors and sounds. It was not enough. It was not her brother and his strong arms, spinning out their purpose. It was only the feeling of tears that could never fall.

She slipped out the open door to dance alone in the rain.

 

 

Wendy N. Wagner grew up next door to a cemetery, which might explain her fascination with the dark and the dead. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the anthologies Rigor Amortis and The Way of the Wizard, and many other publications. She is also an assistant editor of Fantasy Magazine. She lives with her very understanding family in Portland, Oregon, and you can keep up with her exploits at winniewoohoo.com.


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ISSUE #21

September 2011

FICTION

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