The Marionette – by QDesjardin
n. A puppet worked from above by strings attached to its limbs. Originally 'Little Mary' in French, for the first marionette created was the Virgin Mary.
In the not too distant future, there is a lone inventor who once cared for his young daughter, Rieke – her fair yellow hair and charming yet dainty face made all who saw her fall under a spell of adoration. But an accident took away her life; her doll fell down from the apartment window, onto the road, and when she hastened to retrieve it, she collided with a car, and there she lay, lifelessly still on the street, with the blood pouring from her lips and nostrils.
The doctors have tried everything they could to keep her alive, but only in a comatose state, with very little chance of awakening from her deep slumber. Thoughts of pulling away his daughter's life support come to him – to allow her to rest in heaven, instead of remaining deprived, but the inventor shut away those notions, and put his daughter's belongings into storage – dust may gather upon them, but it is his hope that one day, he will get to see Rieke frolick about again, balleting from room to room in her lively manner.
As time passes, the inventor's productivity grinds to a halt; he could not help himself from weeping whilst he puts together the delicate parts on his workbench, for the investors who have paid him a fortune to deliver the gidgets they want.
His sadness does not go unnoticed. One of the major companies, Cybertronics, offers him an opportunity to mend his aching heart – there is a growing need from the wealthy families to have children to tend for, but a viral outbreak has rendered them irrevocably sterile; no matter how much the couples have tried, they could not conceive a child. And the solution would be to craft for them an artifical one, to entrust their hearts with.
This artificial child, besides fulfilling the need to love (and be loved in return), must also be distinguished from other children – the experience of caring for it must not be irritating, as when one deals with naughty children, or a strain, as when one has to spend extra groceries to keep a child fed and healthy.
Besides those requests, the inventor is free to come up with a prototype of his own imaginings, so he pours all his energies into coming up with a plausible design of the child. He pours through books and online articles about artificial beings, like the Jewish golems, the Mechanical Turk (chess-playing machine, actually a hoax) – staying up days and nights, with thoughts of Rieke always on his shoulders.
The pages of his sketchbooks become filled with varying designs and outlines for the being of the child. How will it feel, how will it think – how will it keep itself going, and if it could be allowed to grow old, and expire.. those sorts of considerations that cannot be left out of the equation. And above all, if it could be loved in turn by a real person, as a person instead of a novel toy.
Months later, he comes up with an actual build; the delicately-assembled modules of the child, the head, the torso, arms and legs, with the exterior having life-like skin, and its face resembling his daughter's. Its positronic brain will allow it to learn and feel experience, as a person would, more than the limited intelligences of conventional computing.
The inventor names her Rieke also. How beautiful she seems, as a still being, and how more beautiful will she blossom to become, when he breathes life and has her animate. The desire of Man, mirroring that of God, to have another being in your image, yet have their own volition.
The first family to be blessed with a manmade child – the Herzogs, they have been chosen out of many thousands, not in the least because of their strignant loyalty towards the company, but also because their case is freshly tragic; their 11-year old boy, Werner, has remained in cryo-stasis for two years, being taken by a mysterious disease, and it would be painful for them to repeat raising another child up to that age, having poured all their love into petite Werner.
Perhaps they could do with her. A private test without public fanfare, for she would be the first of a new kind; the public beta for these artificial children (with press releases) will come once Rieke can get along with her new home.
"I hope you can be happy," the inventor whispers into Rieke's ear. "You'll love them, and they'll love you in return – my daughter. That is the greatest thing anyone will ever know. It is no fantasy, it is no careless product of wild imaginings."
The parents, Martin and Lena, they've been interviewed about the prospect of taking care of their new marionette – they'll be making history, don't forget – and it seems like they'll have little problem taking care of Rieke. There's no sign of martial discord, they are forthcoming for all the questions asked; they've raised Werner lovingly, and they seem more than willing to help Rieke grow into a goodly adult.
When the technicians ship her over to their home in the suburbs, they unbox and unwrap her from the cushioned box, where she's dressed in an innoceously white tutu, her eyes resting asleep. Standing her up on the hardwood floor, they push specific points on her body, on her legs and neck in a specific order, and the sleeping beauty awakens.
"Ha..llo?" Her soprano voice wavers, but it's cute enough that it completes the impression of the ideal daughter. She todders around, taking her surroundings in, finding that she's with four other people, the technicians she recognises already. "Who are you?" she asks the couple.
"What – she doesn't know who we are already?" Lena asks. "This is outrageous!"
"Well.." The technicians know they'll encounter some incredulity from the family, and one of them is holding Rieke's shoulders in reassurance. "We haven't pre-programmed her to love you specifically, but she does know how to love, once you'll get to know each other. It's the philosophy behind her design, built to resemble a natural person from the ground up. That includes relationship-wise; once you connect with her over time, the feelings are much more richer, as opposed to having us tell her she's supposed to love you."
"It's nice to meet you Rieke-" Martin shakes her hand. "How do you do?"
"I'm doing fine, thank you for asking." She does a polite curtsy. "What's your name?"
"Martin Herzog, and this is my wife Lena. We'll be your new parents.. Rieke. Rieke Herzog. I like the sound of your name."
"If you have any concerns or questions," the technicians go, "don't hesitate to call us. We'll be providing you with Rieke's legal documentation shortly, the ownership rights, insurance policies, and you'll just have to sign the papers.."
"She looks so real..!" Lena's mouth is agape, her hands fuming as a tear comes out of her eye. "I cannot.. I can't accept this! It's no replacement for loving your own child!"
"Please calm down! I thought you were-"
Martin and Lena are in the privacy of their bedroom, while Rieke is left alone, exploring the house for herself.
"She may be artificial, her insides circuitry and metal, but she's still a young girl!" Martin tells her. "She needs our love all the same." He goes over to Lena's side to console her. "Look hun, if.. it doesn't work out for the both of us, we could return her back to the company, there'll be no charge. Oki? Listen, you were so unhappy without Martin, and this is our chance to rediscover that light in our lives again. I thought you were looking forward to her."
Down by the winding staircase, Rieke finds portraits of the family – the little boy, sitting on Lena's lap, smiling; Martin and Lena, holding hands in their wedding dresses; the boy, their son, older now, looking through a camera on the football field.. and one where they're all skiing down the slopes of a snowy mountain.
Her eyes linger on the portraits; it seems like such a happy family, but she's also shy that she'd be able to rejoice in the same happiness.
Lena is huddled over the stairs, looking down at her. She's anxious about all the revealing details of family life, being scanned and processed for Rieke to use; it's as uncomfortable as having a stranger going through her things, and yet it would be so impolite to tell Rieke to go away – get out of the house, out of my mind!
"Let's go to her," Martin says, smiling, and he leads his wife down to Rieke, where he taps her shoulder, finding her face with an awestruck expression.
"You have such a happy family," Rieke goes. "What is your son's name?"
"I saw him getting older – how old is he now?"
"If he were here now, he'd be 13. For two years, he's been sleeping in hibernation, so he's still 11-years old."
"Why isn't he here? Where is he?"
"At the hospital. The doctors say he is sick with a virus, and they're still looking for a treatment."
"I hope Werner gets well soon," Rieke goes. "He is so cute, and I'd love to meet him."
The household doesn't have girl's clothing, but luckily Rieke has come along with her own wardrobe, helpfully packed by the company. Some nice dainty dresses, in pink, blue and green; a set of bunny pajamas (including slippers); and jeans with sweaters, when it gets colder.
One of the first things Martin does, after having her dressed up for the rainy Spring, is take her out to the neighbourhood for a walk. It's just freshly rained, and a rainbow gleams over the houses, under the rays of the mid-afternoon sunlight, and the air is alight with that crisp freshness.
Rieke notices the waters, carrying the fallen leaves down the curb like a petite river, into the drainage – while Martin is pointing out the homes of the neighbours: there's Annie, there lives the Zabels who believe in the Holy Christ, and by that home there, new families move in and out on a monthly basis (apparently it's haunted).
A few neighbours notice the girl, walking alongside Martin. ("It's my niece," he explains.)
And when they pass by the house with the pink flamingos, Rieke is enthralled by their appearance so much that she finds herself moving to touch them, "Ooooh," only to find that it's just still ornaments.
For dinner, it is awkward with Rieke sitting by, watching Martin and Lena munch on hungrily the sauerkraut porridge – herself, she has no bowl of food (she doesn't eat), but she finds it amusing to watch them dip their spoons into the soup – so much so, that she picks up a spoon of her own, and makes airplane noises as she flies the spoon by her face.
Their mouths are gaping open, in amusement; and then Rieke bursts into uncontrollable laughter, because for some reason they look funny, and they are laughing along with her in a release of the whole day's tension.
At night, she is tucked into bed in Werner's room, the walls aglow with blue stars and violet nebulae that would soothe the eyes in dreamy ambiance.
"Do you sleep, mein Fraulein?" Lena asks, while Martin is taking a nightly shower.
"I can lay still, and not make a single peep. But I'll always be awake enough, in case troubles happen."
"Huh, that's pretty nifty. I mean, do you ever dream?"
"I mull over the day's experiences."
"Oh. I suppose that's close enough. Anyways.. well, good night!"
Lena shuts the door behind her, not looking back at Rieke as the longings flood her heart – when was the last time she tucked her actual son in that same bed? He's old enough to do so himself, but on the times when he caught the cold.. or..
It was in the backyard, and Werner was making paper airplanes to fly by the gardens. It seemed like just any other ideal summer day, and Lena was on the porch, sewing patches into his pants, when what she saw would send a chilling numbness through her limbs. She saw him freeze, mid-pose, just as he was about to fly another airplane, and then as he tumbled to the grass, in pain, she heard his groan.
As she'd waited for the ambulance to arrive, she put the blankets over him in bed – his skin felt cool to the touch, and the look in his eyes seemed that he was fading away into a mist. And when the doctors told her that he was amidst other child victims of a new and unprecedented illness, she cried inconsolably for days; even having to take leave from her workplace, just to grieve.
At the very least, her son is still alive, but the result is still the same – she's without her Werner, just except that there's the faintest hope of ever having him in her arms again. And that hope grows torturous as the days pass by.
How can this artificial thing even hope to mend her heart?
The next day, when Martin leaves for work, Lena is doing the household chores – vacumning each of the rooms, getting the laundry into the cleaning machine; Rieke follows her around, observing her going through the motions, wondering why Lena seems to be perpetually frowning when it seems like such a cheerful day.
"Don't you ever stop?" Lena throws her arms to her sides.
"You've been following me around, like you've got nothing to do on your own. Why? I have to put away my son's coats.."
A beat – Lena has an idea. "Hmm.. do you want me to show you some of Werner's games?" She leads Rieke to the living room, where the curved surface of the TV seems to complement the outside scenery through the window, and she opens the cabinet where the old SBOX console rests, the dust gathered on its casing.
Rieke marvels at the images when the TV is turned on – the crisp, hyperreal colours of people, they are playing basketball (Sports Channel). Lena switches the channel input to INPUT2, and as the SBOX console boots up, the Microsoft logo cleanly splashes over the blackness, before it loads up the game disc that's been inside – Eternum Souls, that game where Lena always sees Werner grunting about in his seat, in the steampunk Victorian atmosphere.
"Ermm," Rieke goes, as she is handed the two-pronged controller. She gets herself accustomed to moving the control sticks around, navigating the menu, and then she makes a new save game, where it's a cutscene introducing the perils of a doomed Scottish country, and it is up to her character to escape to the Unforsaken Realms.
"I don't really know how to play the game," Lena goes. "I just know Werner used to talk about it with his friends over the phone, and he'd get so excited.." She sighs.
It's a tough game to play; the dark hues of the environment along with the menacing monsters Rieke encounters in the lighthouse tower make her feel excitablely uneasy – there's the first boss fight which feels so unfair, until she realises she's not meant to fight him yet (after dying 30 times). The vibrancy of the game's sound, pouring through the wallspeakers, it has her so involved in the game's reality.
Then in the background, she hears someone sniffling.
Rieke puts the controller down on the table, and in the kitchen, she finds Lena, crying into her arms, a bottle of wine upon the dinner table, with a glass that is dripping with the alcoholic drink.
"Are you hurting Lena..?" Rieke asks, softly approaching her.
"No, no Rieke, I didn't hurt myself, please don't worry-"
".. in here?"
And Lena glances up – Rieke is notioning at her own chest, her eyes reflecting sadness. "You must have been so lonely, without Werner. He made you so very happy, just to see him everyday, and I don't know how long a time two years would feel, but it must feel like a long time ago. Two years, without seeing his smile, without ever having the chance to hold him.. it must hurt so much.. "
For some reason, it touches a place deep in Lena, and she's clutching her own aching chest, a new kind of welling sadness she is feeling. "I miss him.. and I don't know what to do.. I try to make myself forget about him so it wouldn't hurt, but I always keep expecting him to come in through the doors, like nothing's happened."
"I may not know much," Rieke goes, touching her shoulder, "but I remember, from somewhere, that love is the greatest thing you'll ever know. To love someone, and be loved in return. And if I could do something for you, I'll love Werner too, as a sister to a brother. So much that it will make him better, and.. he'll come home. I will promise."
How a heart can be touched, by a being comprised by silicon and wiring – Lena realises.
".. thank you, Rieke."