Shortly after the war, the United States unanimously passed a law banning ventriloquists from practicing their trade within its borders. Dummies were burned in massive piles. Theaters that opposed the ban were, at best, boycotted; at worst, they were torn brick from brick. The ventriloquists themselves were lynched by mobs of all races that later formed the first groups of the Civil Rights Movement. Those that survived went into hiding, or applied for amnesty in more ventriloquist-friendly countries. The citizens rejoiced.
It wasn’t that the general public didn’t enjoy ventriloquist acts, for they were actually the most popular form of entertainment of the age, besides film and radio and the assault of minorities; they just weren’t too keen on the ventriloquists themselves. They were strange, smelled of turpentine and their mothers’ basements, and were often just covers for crafty pedophiles, anyway. The public wanted ventriloquist acts without any involvement from actual ventriloquists. And Hermes Laboratories provided.
When the company, best known for producing top-notch fighter jets and helping to build the atomic bomb, trotted out its prototype Dowdy model for the press and the scientific community to bear witness to, both had to bite their cheeks to keep from laughing. Why would anyone in their right mind invest in such an abomination, such a horror, such a crime against art and humanity itself? Those scientists had lost their damn minds.
The wretched thing, this thing they called Dowdy Dan, looked like something crawled from the depths of a child’s nightmare—namely because it had been, as the head scientist at Hermes Labs had gone to work and drawn the schematics only hours after comforting his youngest daughter after a particularly horrific ventriloquist-induced bad dream. It was carved out of wood so inexpertly that it could have only been done by an expert, and its jointed arms and odd movements only acted to emphasize its lack of humanity. It moved like a marionette that, despite having had its strings cut, still moves in its old manner out of some kind of muscle memory. Its mouth, like a nutcracker’s, moved in time to a list of pre-programmed music and sound clips, but otherwise was incapable of vocalization. Its face was horrifically ugly despite the painted smile, and the meager cloths used to cover its nonexistent shame only reiterated its lowly position. But, behind the soulless, unblinking depths of its painted eyes was the most complex piece of machinery invented in decades; a true example of artificial intelligence that had never been seen, would never been seen again, and, if its creators had known of its true might, would have never been made in the first place. Time, funds, and manpower enough to create a small, stable European nation had gone into the little monster. And they laughed.
When the finished product was released, Hermes Labs stock jumped so high, even the lowliest janitor at the compound became fabulously wealthy. The press and scientific community were still biting their cheeks, but no longer was there laughter behind it.
The world of ventriloquism, which up until that point had been a mainly stagnant community of tradition and history, changed forever. Years of practice and training under a mentor gave way to the bachelor’s degrees in computer science needed to program the new machines. This meant that the majority of them moved out of their parents’ houses, took a shower, and finally went to college, solving yet another problem of society. A few hardy stalwarts remained stuck in their ways, and a small minority of these died of neglect, hunger, or tuberculosis, but nothing is perfect.
At about the same time as the Dowdies’ release onto the market, Hermes Labs used its new-found wealth and prestige to begin a new project. They realized that the Dowdies, innovative and historically significant as they were, catered to a very specific market, and that the American and foreign bourgeoisie wouldn’t be entertained by the bumblings of an ugly wooden midget for very long. The idea for their second prototype, the Darling model, came from the same scientist and his daughter. After putting her to sleep, he had become intrigued by the fairy princess music box on her nightstand. They had bought it as a birthday gift many years ago, but he had never really noticed how strikingly beautiful the darling little figure was. If only it were a bit… bigger.
The Darlings were the polar opposites of their Dowdy cousins: Beautiful, lithe, graceful things with fey-like features and real human hair on their heads, as opposed to straw and synthetic fibers. They were as varnished and smooth as the Dowdies were rough and amateur, as tall and gazelle-like as they were short and squat. Their mouths were hardly more than painted lines on their elegant faces, but it didn’t matter. Darlings were not destined for vaudeville; they were made for dance.
Even before its release, every major ballet troupe in the world had at least one Darling on pre-order. Some planned the creation of entire Darling shows for special occasions. Foreign aristocrats bought one or two for private use, and popular rumor said the sheik of Araby had bought an especially lifelike one for a use so private no one dared mention it in mixed company. A few ex-ventriloquists traded in their Dowdies and thus lifted themselves to a higher social level where people would stop throwing rotten cabbages at them on the streets. A few just plain threw theirs away. What use was a Dowdy when the Darlings were there?
The first Darling murder happened just outside Birmingham, when the star of the Alabama Ballet, Dixie Darling, was reduced to a pile of matchsticks by a local farmer’s wood chipper. The farmer was arrested and convicted of the crime (bumped down from murder to destruction of property despite mass protests around the state), but was released following appeal due to physical evidence– namely that there was none– and his watertight alibi with the local church group. In fact, the only physical evidence found at the scene were the fingerprints of a local ex-ventriloquist on his abandoned Dowdy Delilah; but, despite mass cries to have the villain lynched, his alibi was just as solid as the farmer’s. He had just taken a job with the aforementioned Ballet, and had been planning Dixie’s new routine with the director on the night of her disappearance. The only time he had even been near the farm was when he had thrown his old Dowdy out the car window as he sped by.
What the scientists, the general public, and, least of all, the Darlings would never know was just how great the difference in internal processing was between the two models. The Darlings’ pathways were broad and straight, allowing them to learn a wide variety of skills and adjust to new locations and masters easily, a necessary ability in a profession where trading and loans were common; the Dowdies’ were thin and snaked in swirling patterns. Dowdies couldn’t adjust. Dowdies wouldn’t adjust. For Dowdies, a life without a master was simply not one worth living. Self-immolation was popular, as it generally is with wood-based sentient lifeforms, but not all of them took that path. Some could see the forest for the trees: Why was Master gone? Darlings. How to get Master back? Get rid of Darlings. Increased processing power meant an increased ability to think. To plan. To act.
The scientists had purposefully programmed the Darlings to trust unconditionally, to prevent rebellion and make training easier. What they hadn’t expected was just how far this trust would go. Darlings would trust just about anyone. Their master. An acting ventriloquist. A Dowdy with a cup of gasoline and a match.
Bio: Morgan Dreiss is an amorphous being of pure light and energy. They think it’s a little weird to talk about themselves in the third person, but consider first person to be a too personal. They have also never been published before, so perhaps they should keep their opinions to themselves.