a lovely story by by TL - reprinted with permission.
by Tam Lin
It was the music that woke Erica up.
The tune was halting and disjointed, like a music box winding down, but it was there, a pretty jingling melody that roused her from her slumber and let her know that everything was not all right. When she opened her eyes she stared up into darkness, and she felt hard ground under her, and her bare arms and legs were freezing cold.
She sat up. She was not in bed, not in her home, not anywhere that she recognized at all. She was in a bare, open space, like a warehouse or a storage cell. It was dark except for the flickering halo of a single light bulb. She was dressed only in her favorite powder blue nightgown, which she hugged around herself now.
Where was she? How did she get here? She saw nothing that provided a clue, and other than the distant music (echoing from somewhere in the darkness), she heard nothing either. "Hello?" she said, and was startled by how loud her voice sounded. She did not speak again. Somehow it didn't seem safe.
She stood. Cold air stung her bare legs. Her poor little feet had to walk on the cement floor with no protection. She felt exposed, so she ran to the nearest wall. This put her in the shadows, but at least there was something at her back now. The walls were cheap sheet metal, and they popped when she put pressure on them. Despite the flimsy material, she could find no weak spot, and no opening.
Erica followed the wall, reasoning that there must be a door or a window somewhere, and it must be nearby because how big could this place be? She tried very hard not to think about the fact that if she was here then someone must have brought her here, someone who might still be here, who might even be watching her now. Yes, she tried very hard not to think about those things. Just figure this out, she thought, and figure a way out. Worry about the rest later.
She walked toward the music. It was fainter now, the notes stretched out, like a recording on old tape. The light behind her was fading as she got further away, but a new one appeared in front of her, the dim flicker of a dying bulb. How big was this place, she wondered, if she could just barely see the spot she'd woken up in but still had not found an exit? She walked toward the light up ahead. Her tiny feet padded on the cold, hard floor.
What she found set against the wall looked at first like a phone booth. It was a glass case, eight feet high, sealed on all sides, with no visible door or latch. She peered inside and almost screamed. Someone was trapped in there! But she felt foolish when soon as she took a second look; it wasn't a person at all, it was a life-size puppet, a marionette of sorts. She saw the limbs hanging limply, the head tilted to one side, the dangling strings attached to the apparatus in the ceiling of the booth.
She looked closer; it was no wonder she'd been fooled at first, the puppet being so lifelike. It was the full-size facsimile of a naked woman, a beautiful woman about Erica’s age, with pale skin and bright red hair and striking green eyes. It was perfect in every detail, down the birthmark on the arm and the slightly-chewed look of the fingernails. Her nude body was sleek and petite, with small, perfect breasts crowned by rosy nipples. The face, slack and expressionless, eyes half-lidded, looked for all the world like the face of a real woman. Only the strange, artificial smoothness of the skin, the way it reflected the light like polished wood or plastic, revealed that it was a simulacrum.
That and the fact that it was hanging from wires in a glass box, of course.
Erica inspected the apparatus the puppet was housed in; there was a mechanism on the side, an enormous windup crank like the sort you find on toys. Erica realized that the music had stopped and, curious, she seized the windup key in both hands and twisted it. She was so intent on the strange device that she forgot all about finding the way out, even forgot to be frightened. She wound the key up, and then she stood back to see what happened.
The music played again, faster and with better tempo this time. It really is a music box, she thought. The lights overhead flickered and turned up brighter, and the marionette started to move. The metal arms in the booth turned and her strings became taut, and then she began to dance. Guided by the wires, the puppet spun and twirled and moved with a grace and ease that amazed Erica. It was beautiful to watch, its motions plainly mechanical but at the same time seeming so natural.
The woman (puppet, Erica reminded herself) danced until the key wound down, and then the music stopped, the light dimmed, and she hung limp and lifeless again. Erica realized she'd been holding her breath and let it all out in a whoosh. She giggled a little, and thought about winding the key up again, but then remembered she had more important things to do, like finding a way out of here.
She kept walking on through the warehouse, and soon she found more glass booths with more puppets insides. Each of them was a lifelike model of a nude woman, and each hung silent and motionless on her strings, waiting for the key to turn and allow her a few seconds of mobility, a fleeting minute to dance and sway and seem alive. Erica couldn't help but be distracted by the beautiful marionettes; so much skill and craftsmanship must have gone into making them look real. They were true works of art.
It was hard to say how long she had been walking when she came to the dead end. She'd walked the entire length of this space, from one end to the other, but found no door or window of any kind. The eleven puppets, with their lights and music boxes, were the only adornment. She looked at the ceiling but saw only blackness. There must be a way out? How on earth had she gotten in?
Erica sat cross-legged on the cold floor and hugged her nightie to herself. The cold air caused her nipples to poke out through the fabric. She looked at the puppet in the nearest box, a blond with butterfly tattoos on her wrists. Even the tattoos looked detailed enough to be the real thing, though they were stenciled onto the plastic-like flesh of the doll. The marionette's blue eyes were half-closed, her ruby red lips slightly parted, her face soulless and lifeless.
"So how did you get in here?" Erica said out loud. The puppet gave no reply. Erica laughed a little. It echoed.
She saw something now that she hadn't noticed before; there was another booth, just like the others, with a windup crank and dangling strings and apparatus inside, but the case was empty; it housed no doll. She bit her lip, thinking.
"Hmm," she said to the lifeless blond marionette. "There's one extra. You don't suppose that's for me, do you?"
The doll said nothing, but Erica heard a breathless, raspy voice just behind her:
"Yes. It is."
She didn't know whether to pass out or scream and run. She didn't have the chance to do either, as strong hands (covered in thick rubber work gloves) clapped over her mouth and pinioned her wrists behind her back. She struggled, but strong, thick arms wrapped around her and hauled her off the ground. Her naked legs and bare feet kicked, helpless, in the air.
She thrashed her head from side to side, but it was no use. Her captor held her still, and that's when she saw it; the mouth of the blond doll in the glass box twitched, and moved, and formed words, though Erica could not hear them through the thick panes of glass:
But Erica couldn't even help herself. Her kidnapper dragged her away, through the hidden tunnel entrance she had overlooked. He brought her to a room full of machinery and piled junk, and a great hot furnace that belched out steam and fire. The unseen assailant took her to the work table and, though she fought as hard as she could, strapped her to it.
He spun the table around and pushed her upright so that she could see him for the first time. He was a tall man, and muscular, dressed in a leather work apron. A gas mask covered his face, obscuring his eyes behind black lenses and disguising his voice as the dry rasp she'd heard. She tugged at the leather bonds secured to her wrists and ankles, but it was no good.
"Don't struggle," said the masked man. "You'll hurt yourself."
"Let me go!"
"But I went through so much trouble getting you here," he said. The hellish glow of the furnace reflected in the lenses of his mask.
"Let me go, you sick fuck!" she screamed.
"Careful, or I'll wash your mouth out with soap." He took off one glove, revealing a hard, calloused hand. He touched the side of her face, and she tried to bite him. He ignored her, running his hands through her curly hair.
"So beautiful," he said. "So alive. Do you like my collection, Erica? I wanted you to see it. I've worked hard on it."
Erica whimpered. "What did you do to those women?"
"I made them perfect," he said. "I made them art. But that's nothing compared to what I'm going to do to you."
Her pulse quickened and her throat closed up. "What do you mean?"
"I've seen so many beautiful things, but none as beautiful as you. You're going to be my masterpiece. You'll be perfect forever." He was nodding his head up and down, in time to some unheard tune. Erica gaped, eyes wide.
"No!" she said. "No, you can't, you can't!"
But he wasn't listening. He wheeled a table over, and pulled the cloth off of it, revealing an assortment of strange tools; things that cut and things that drilled, and things attached to tubes and clamps, and bottles full of strange fluids; oils and varnishes and polishes.
"I've practiced for this my entire life," said the man, picking up something that was sharp and barbed. "All I needed was the perfect subject. And then I found you. I found you, Erica; my muse, my angel, my diamond in the rough."
Erica started to cry. The furnace fires burned hotter and brighter.
"It'll be okay," he said, stepping up to her, tools in each hand. She heard the whine of the surgical saw. "It'll be okay."
It was the music that woke Erica up.
She tried to open her eyes. The light was dim, but there was a glare of some kind. It was hard to see anything. She heard the music though, each perfect, beautiful note. It seemed to flow through her, touching her body all over. She wanted to dance to that song, that perfect beautiful song, forever. And then she realized that she was dancing.
She saw her arms and legs moving, and saw the gleam of the silver wires. She felt herself swaying back and forth, and realized that the glare she saw came off of the glass around her. She was in the box.
Somehow, this didn't frighten her. It didn't even particularly bother her. Maybe it was the music that comforted her, that music that seemed so much a part of her now. And it really was a part of her, she realized, because it was part of the machine, and now so was she. And as the key turned and the clockwork slowly unwound, she danced, and danced, and danced, her naked body, now perfect and preserved, dancing with the subtlety and grace of an angel.
Through the glass she made out the figure of the man in the mask, watching her. He had his stiff, naked cock in his hand, and he was stroking it. Before she would have been repulsed by this, but now it seemed right, somehow. Yes, it was right that her owner should take pleasure in watching her. It was good to please someone; to be beautiful; to be admired and loved.
The song was ending and she felt herself winding down. The wires stopped moving, and so did she. The lights flickered and went out-
And came on again. And she was dancing again, and her owner was watching her still, but something seemed different now. He had moved, faster than she could see, and his clothes had changed. Time had gone by, she realized, days probably, and she hadn't been conscious of it. She was aware only of what went on when the crank was wound, and the music was playing, and she was turned on. And that's when she realized that she really was going to dance to this song forever, because for her there would never be anything else.
Around her, one by one, the other girls in the other boxes came to life. They all danced together, and the Puppetmaster watched them, all of them, his masterpieces, complete at last. And he smiled.