Featured Short Story

Perfect Dolls Story

Perfect Dolls

10 August 2018

This story was shortlisted for [untitled] Issue Eight, a competition by Busybird Publishing.

I couldn't believe that the stealth submarine could venture so deeply: it withstood the pressure using some secret technology.

Being cooped up in the tiny cabin with the captain and the guard was not my idea of fun. The soldiers in black fatigues had said "they" would hurt Amy and Josh if I didn't help them. I still had no idea who "they" were. They all wore black and drifted atop the Atlantic Ocean on a freighter. They had their ears tagged with metal chips, reminding me of tagged bulldogs. Their master, a woman in a sharp, black pantsuit, also had her ear tagged.

Some hours earlier, the submarine along with the soldier, the captain, me and my software had been lowered from the freighter into the ocean. As we descended, the blue of the sky and then the water vanished and were replaced with darkness.

Terrified of dying at the bottom of the ocean in a futuristic tin can, I concentrated on the task at hand. When the soldiers came to my hotel room, I'd given them my object recognition software. The IP belonged to the uni, but legal matters weren't in the forefront of my mind when the soldier showed me live footage of Amy dropping Josh off at school. The soldiers wanted more than my software: they wanted me because of my freakish object recognition skills. Amy once laughed as she told my colleagues: "The thing that shits Hanna is that she's better at identifying objects than her software."

I always wished that my program worked perfectly, better never more so than now. Crammed in the submarine, my eyes were firmly fixed on the laptop screen. My subconscious did its thing while the video played in front of me showing blurry underwater images. My mind drifted off like when I did puzzles. It was weird that I could locate shapes and features best while I daydreamed. The human brain was so inexplicable. I thought about Amy and Josh and hoped that they were safe. I told them that I was called overseas for a workshop, because I needed a lie to explain the trip.


I'd been reluctant to leave Josh with Amy…

A few days earlier we'd been called into the principal's office. Again. Later when we drove home Josh moped in the back seat. A month of detention was the longest he'd ever gotten. Amy high-fived him and congratulated him on his all-time record. I growled that that doing backflips off a school dumpster was dangerous. Amy laughed and said that she'd been telling me for years that we should rent Josh out to the circus - imagine how rich we'd be. I bit back that the worst of it was that Josh had coerced Will into emulating him, and Will broke his wrist. Amy told me not to use big words. Josh smirked. I argued that health and safety rules existed for a reason. Amy called me a German control freak.

I took my eyes off the Sydney traffic to glare back at Josh. It was like looking in a mirror, seeing that young, blond, male version of me. He'd come from my egg and my uterus and yet he had Amy's crazy temperament. How the hell had that happened? Nurture not nature. Amy had another side to her personality - the bouts of depression. When they came, I tried to get her to snap out of it. She'd reply in anguish that she couldn't, it was impossible, it was like someone else was controlling her brain. I worried that she wouldn't be able to look after Josh if the meds failed, which happened occasionally. She always reassured me that she didn't have to be 100% to parent, but I worried anyway. Lord only knows what Josh would get up to if left to his own devices.


Back in the submarine, I took a break from staring at the screen. The blurry, grey underwater images hurt my eyes. The submarine's lights illuminated cliffs, which rose steeply, deep within the Atlantic Ocean.

The soldier in black fatigues ordered me to get back to it. I replied that I'd be useless unless I rested my eyes. He signalled for the captain to stop the sub. The soldier's name tag read "Smith." Very Matrix-y. I wondered what his real name was.


I met Smith aboard the freighter shortly before he forced me into the submarine. He came to my cabin to escort me to the surgery. There I sat in a shiny metal chair looking around. It was full of meds and first aid kits. They even had a steel bed for impromptu operations. I wondered why this secretive company needed an emergency room. Smith guarded me, with his hand resting on the handgun in his holster.

A doctor, who also wore fatigues, entered the clinic with the woman in the black pantsuit. The woman introduced herself as Chrissy Coates. Classy Chrissy Coates, I thought. She simply introduced the doctor as "The Doctor," like in Doctor Who.

Chrissy Coates showed me a digital map of the world that bleeped over a spot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. And then it occurred to me: these nutters are searching for Atlantis. When I questioned the mission, Ms Coates replied matter-of-factly that Atlantis had existed. She wanted Atlantean technology before someone else got it.

The doctor approached me with what looked like an ear-piercing gun. Whoah, whoah, whoah… I jumped out of the chair and backed away from her. She insisted on chipping my ear and I replied that I wasn't a dog. The doctor pointed to the Chrissy Coates, to Smith, and then showed me her own ear. All three of them had been chipped. The doctor said that the frequencies in the chip blocked signals that could interfere with my brain waves. WTF? Chrissy Coates revealed—in a rather snooty English accent—that they dealt in unknown technologies.

"There's a device we're aware of, but haven't been able to locate. It alters people's thoughts," Ms Coates stated.

Right, so the chip is like a tin-foil hat, I thought. These people are nuts. I told Chrissy Coates in no uncertain terms that I didn't want that chip in my ear.

The doctor thought about the chip and mused that the chance of finding this mind-altering device in the Atlantic Ocean was probably unlikely. Furthermore, it probably wouldn't work so deep down.

The soldier, Smith, wasn't convinced. "I don't want to have to put another one down."

"As said before, you shouldn't have done that," Ms Coates snapped.

"We were in a confined space," Smith replied. "I assessed the situation and acted."

"We didn't get what we needed from him," Ms Coates sighed.

I cut in saying that I just wanted to get this ridiculous mission over and done with.


Now as I took a break in the submarine, I glanced at Smith. I asked how he ended up working for the rich, if somewhat misguided, woman who wanted to lay her hands on Atlantean technology. He simply glanced back at me. I asked if he'd really shot a man who lost his mind.

"He was banging his head, literally punching the invading thoughts out," Smith replied.


Smith's look suggested that I should get back to work.

I returned to the laptop screen with the grey underwater images. More blurry images of cliffs… Nothing lived down here in the cold, barren landscape. Well maybe something did, but I would have needed to be a marine biologist to identify it. I watched the live feed for another half an hour, while both my software and my brain processed the blurry images. Life as I knew it didn't live down here, but as I was soon to discover, something existed.

Right angles. A sharp corner. A smooth surface. The edges of the shape were definitely artificial. I paused the feed and skipped back to the frame where I'd spotted the corner poking out from a deep crevice between the cliffs. My software hadn't picked it up. I need to rethink my algorithm for blurry images. I was amazed that I could even think of work during this peculiar mission.

Smith asked the captain to steer the submarine back a few metres.

I wish Amy looked like Chrissy Coates. Where had that thought suddenly come from? Amy was awesome. Plain she might have been, but she made me laugh and she was the light of my life. I'd never cared that she wasn't a knockout.

Life would be so hard if you're unattractive. No one would want you.

I grew edgy, not wanting that voice in my head.

Smith glanced at me skeptically, so I straightened up and focused on the screen while the captain hovered the submarine over the artificial object.

The cube was about half the size of a freight container, and was wedged between two cliffs. We took measurements and more images. It looked like there might be other artificial objects further down, which were impossible to reach because the crevice was too narrow.

The captains said that now that we'd located the device, he'd send the robot sub down to retrieve it.


Back aboard the freighter, classy Chrissy Coates shook my hand and thanked me. She reminded me of the confidentiality documents they'd made me sign. I nodded, baffled by the weirdness of the last few days.

After hours cramped in the sub, I stretched out on the bunkbed in my cabin. I closed my eyes and I began to have strange memories, memories that weren't my own.


I was in a city that floated above the ocean and ice-covered earth.

A holographic screen beamed up to my left. It provided a telescopic view of the earth below, showing forests, which provided occasional green spaces between the ice sheets. Hunter gatherers lived amidst megafauna. Primitives. They choose to stay down there rather than ascend to technological perfection in the skies above. I frowned, hating that voice and the nasty retort.

I looked around me from where I stood in the floating city. Citizens in pristine clothing went about their perfect lives. They were calm, collected, intelligent, beautiful. It was like Star Trek without emotions - and not in the good Spock-y way. Even Spock was conflicted. Up here, everything was perfect and painfully boring.

I returned to the hologram to get a closer look at the megafauna down on earth. Josh would love this. Like any 10-year-old, he was obsessed with dangerous animals; only dinosaurs would have topped megafauna. I used the hologram to watch the humans cornering a mammoth. Something primitive sparked within me: the desire to hunt. Don't be so unrefined, the new voice in my head snapped.

The hologram changed to a mirror. I wouldn't have known that I was looking at me except that the person onscreen mirrored my actions. That person—a man—stared back at me. I was used to seeing a fairly average blond woman, but now a movie star looked back at me. I drew myself away from the reflection and looked down at my body. Up here, in this city that floated above the world, I was indeed a man.

My feet led me away from the hologram and into a corridor. I nodded greetings to other serene passersby. They smiled politely. Beyond their eyes, they were vacant, as if none of them had ever had an original thought.

My feet paused and I turned towards the wall. A serial number came to my mind. A bleep sounded and a gap opened up automatically in the wall. I stepped through. To my horror the hall was filled with more perfect people - but these ones were in stasis. That new voice in my head admired his work - his perfect creations. WTF? He—I—made these robotic humans?

His voice praised himself, these people looked perfect, their minds were clean slates. I walked on. In an adjoining room, four of these stasis dolls lay on metal slabs. Holographic technology beamed memories, thoughts and skills into their brains. They won't know pain. They'll be of service to their communities. We do not battle to survive like the primitives on earth.


Aboard the submarine, I struggled but failed to wake up from the nightmare.


I—he—was outside the hall again, looking at the floating city with its glass apartment blocks. What? No—

A fire broke out in the floating city's power station. It exploded, causing a domino effect, spreading from building to building. Whole sections of the city broke off, plunging into the ice and ocean below.

I rushed back into the hall with my "children." This is impossible! I picked up the closest stasis doll and she leaned against me stiffly as I grunted, carrying her to the life-raft. I sprinted back down the hallway for another child. And, then a third. Then, I felt the heat of the approaching fire.

I stood before the life-raft. As I watched sections of the city plunging into the ocean and being swallowed up by water, I abandoned the idea of joining my children. The primitives cannot open the raft. Although the raft would keep me alive, I didn't have the time to put myself under and I didn't want to be conscious while waiting for someone to find me.

I did what I had to do: I tapped the side of my head and uploaded my memories into the raft. It released from the station and tumbled to the earth below just as the fire reached me. Curse the idiot who caused the explosion.


I finally woke up from the nightmare and was back aboard the freighter. I checked the mirror and fortunately a blond female me stared back.

I left my cabin and beelined for the surgery, where I asked the doctor for an ear chip.

She asked back if I was having unfamiliar memories.

I admitted that I was and described the floating city and the perfect people. The doctor didn't seem surprised at all, but looked concerned. She said that once an Atlantean's memories had been uploaded into your brain, the ear chip was useless. The chip's frequency could only block the upload.

I was growing increasingly desperate to get his narrow-minded voice out of my head. I urged the doctor to help me. I was completely dumbfounded that Atlantis had existed. But the thing that really bothered me was that any advanced society should know that diversity was the key to innovation.

The doctor agreed after I voiced my opinion. She went on to say that the Atlantean focus on the ideal had led to their downfall. Despite all the safeguards, a mistake was made and a power station in the city exploded.

I asked how she knew that.

"Other people's uploaded memories," she told me.

I questioned why she was working with that kook - Chrissy Coates. Surely Ms Coates wanted to emulate Atlantis?

The doctor said that we could learn from past mistakes. And the Atlanteans had many life-saving technologies that we desperately needed now. For one, they knew how to cure cancer.

"Is Coates in it for the money?" I asked. "Or the power?"

The doctor didn't have a response to that.

It took more than 12,000 years for the primitives to discover what we knew so long ago. I clenched my fist again, wanting to be rid of him.

I told the doctor I was getting desperate. I assumed that if she was working with this new/old technology, she had some way of getting that voice out of my head. I argued that my wife suffered from depression and that the meds helped take the edge off the symptoms.

The doctor replied that they hadn't found a cure for the uploads. They didn't even know how the memories were uploaded. She described it as having neither the snake's venom, nor the antidote. Lovely metaphor, totally unhelpful.

The doctor could do with botox, a healthier diet and liposuction.

Fuck it, his voice was driving me insane.

The doctor's only suggestion was wiping my recent memories.

I thought about it, but had the gnawing sense that I should report Chrissie Coates. That woman had to be stopped in her tracks before she controlled the world with dubious technology.


I tried to contain myself as I passed Smith in the corridor on the way to the cabin. But his suspicious glance suggested that he knew that my brain had been hijacked.

In my cabin I scribbled a note. Part of the problem with being so visual was that I tended to forget things unless I wrote them down. Amy called it "Having a senior moment 60 years too soon."


They used a crane to lift the cube aboard the freighter. As expected, it was the only object that they had been able to dislodge from the crevice in the ocean, with the others being unreachable.

The material of the cube was otherworldly. According to the marine scientist, who took some sediment samples, the cube had been down there for thousands of years.

The cube was flawless, flat and impossible to get into. They tried - with drills, welders and laser.


I approached the cube slowly. The techie using the welder waved for me to get back because I wasn't wearing safety goggles. I continued approaching the cube that sat on the deck of the freighter. The techies, soldiers and Smith stepped back.

I glanced at classy Chrissy Coates who indicated that I should proceed.

I stood before the cube. A serial number came to my mind. A bleep sounded and a gap opened up automatically in the wall of the cube. In it stood three perfect dolls in stasis.

Chrissy Coates stepped up to get a better look. She was in awe - she'd heard stories but had never seen one in real life.

She immediately ordered one of the techies to carry out a doll.

The techie approached the room warily. He backed off when I put myself between him and the cube.

His voice in my head declared that he didn't want this primitive anywhere near his children.

I went into maternal mode. Last time that had happened was in the playground with Josh. Some woman had yelled at Josh because he'd helped her toddler onto the swing. I'd put myself between her and Josh and we faced off, each protecting our cub.

Aboard the freighter, I warned the techie to keep away from the stasis people in the cube.

But Ms Coates ordered him to get on with it.

The techie pointed to me and said, "She knows something."

"Leave them alone," I growled, protecting the dolls in stasis.

"Oh for heaven's sake!" Chrissie Coates spat. She pushed me out of the way and entered the cube. She paused admiring the female human doll standing with closed eyes.

"Get away from her!" I launched at Chrissy.

Smith yanked me back out of the cube.

Chrissy waved for the techie to help her carry the doll out of the cube.

"You'll kill her!" I cried desperately, as Smith restrained me.

Everyone onboard looked on with interest as Ms Coates and the techie carried the stiff human form out of the cube. The doll disintegrated as soon as it came into contact with fresh air.

I felt his grief, which would have been the same grief for me if Josh had died.

Chrissy swore. She turned to me and demanded: "How did you know she would die?"

Tell her you're their father. This "Coates" is the highest order ape aboard this crude vessel.

Christ! If I tell Chrissy I have his memories, she'll milk my brain for all it's worth.

"I am their father," I told Ms Coates. Why won't I shut up? I couldn't stop him. "And you want to know what I know."

I glanced at the doctor desperately, and begged her to tranquillise me.

But she was keen to hear more of what he had to say.

"I made them," he said. "Get out of my head," I screamed at him.

"I'll tell you what you need to know," he told Ms Coates.

"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" I yelled. I'd turned into a crazy person, flailing my arms while yelling at the invisible entity in my mind.

I turned to Smith desperate for him to knock me out.

Pity flashed across his face, and he trained his gun on me.

"No!" Ms Coates commanded.


"You're back!" Amy sprinted up to the taxi, and threw her arms around me. "I was so worried when they said you blacked out at the workshop."

"What workshop?" I asked, confused.

"In Spain," Amy frowned. "We Skyped while you were in hospital."

Vague memories came back to me of taking a cab home from the airport. I must have slept in the airplane because my mind was blank. I didn't remember the workshop at all, or the hospital. I told Amy that my memory was getting worse.

She laughed saying that I should check my notes.

I recalled writing something. For some reason I'd tucked the note between the lining and the fabric of my laptop bag. Weird.

Amy smirked when she read the note.

I frowned as I scanned my handwritten scrawl. "Did I mention a report or a Coates when you called me?" I asked Amy.

"Nope. That part makes no sense."

"It's probably not important," I mumbled as I hugged Josh at the front door. He pulled a face.

In the kitchen, I scrunched up the note, and tossed it in the bin. Amy retrieved it and flattened it again.

"What's that?" Josh asked.

"It's proof that Mum's trying to be a better person," Amy replied triumphantly.

I looked at the note again: Tell Amy she's beautiful. Go easy on Josh if he gets another detention. Report Coates.

♦ ♦ ♦