Fungal Halo

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“What about this one, sir? Its self diagnostic sounds good aside from the crushed leg. Could probably hot-swap that out and have it on the field again without much fuss.”

“Don’t just rely on the doll’s self-report, kid. You gotta learn to use your eyes. Look at this.”

The almost-human figure dutifully steadies itself as a hammer impact makes the damage to its armored surface visible, hairline cracks deepening, spreading far beyond the obvious damage to its leg.

“See? Whole thing needs refurbishing to be combat ready again. Not worth it.”

Both people move on, picking their way through the battlefield, searching for anything worth the effort of salvage or repair.

No purpose remains for the doll with the body too structurally unsound to be saved. There is nothing left for it to do.

The Shattered Doll marks the uneventful stretch of time by the ticking of its mechanical heart.

It isn’t until quite a long while after the people depart that a second set of scavengers emerges.

Insectoid and only sometimes bipedal, these creatures are unmistakably inhuman as they crawl over mechanical debris and oozing organic bodies in their own wordless search.

Chittering vocalizations call to their wounded kindred, who respond in kind.

The cleanup crew missed more than a few, it sounds like, and these enemy scouts waste no time retrieving each one able to respond to their calls.

It makes sense, the doll supposes, for them to assign their wounded greater worth than the humans do their damaged weapons.

But perhaps, the Shattered Doll thinks, it could make itself useful one last time. It could not stand, but it could imitate the calls of the enemy wounded, lure it over, kill one of the scavengers that comes to investigate…

With luck, the retaliation of the other enemy creatures would finish breaking the doll completely.

Alas, no.

A scavenger enters the doll’s line of sight. The doll reaches internally for its weapon systems.

And the weaponry built into its body is unreachable. There is only a numb, gaping hole where the proprioceptive awareness of its capabilities should be.

The ones who inspected it and deemed it too costly to fix must have done something to it—revoked the Shattered Doll’s access to its own weapon systems as a security precaution.

They disarmed the weapon the moment they decided not to repair it.

The doll finds itself staring helplessly into three unblinking pairs of eyes on one inhuman head.

It is an all-purpose hive drone—indistinguishable from any other the doll fought and killed when it was in proper working condition—and it regards the doll with interest.

Hand-like appendages push finger-like digits into the exposed internals spilling from the doll’s crushed leg. The chitinous spike of a deadly claw traces, with oddly gentle curiosity, a particularly deep crack making its journey upward, past its hips, over its armored chest.

The Shattered Doll has no idea whether any individual drone possesses much of a mind, but this one seems to make up its own. With its characteristic rapid, jerking motions, the drone lifts up and carries the broken and discarded weapon of war in two pairs of arms.

Heavy as the doll may be with its—now-inert—payload of weaponry, the drone does not struggle at all to crawl back to the hive, carrying it.

The underground tunnels are a twisting, lightless maze, yet somehow the drone navigates them without hesitation.

With clicks and chitters that echo through the passages, it communicates with the rest of the hive.

When at last the two emerge into a vast open space underground, softly illuminated with pulsing bioluminescent sacs, there is a place already set aside for the doll.

The drone carefully sets the doll down in an area that seems to serve as a repair bay or—and this feels strange and unlikely—a kind of infirmary.

The Shattered Doll was never built to know confusion, but there is a deep, unsettling sense of incongruity with its expectations.

The drone that captured it stays at its side, performing unfamiliar rituals. Its hands—they aren’t hands, but they are hands—pull pungent secretions, viscous and slimy, from an organ near its mouth. Its touch works the fluid into each and every crack.

Days pass in this way, ritual repeated many times. The Shattered Doll comes to recognize the traits that distinguish its drone from the others tending to the nearby wounded. Even the different clicking vocalizations it makes slowly build coherent contexts in the doll’s mind.

The drone’s touch is not the familiar, impersonal efficiency of a mechanic doing their job. There is focus and attention in every movement, in the steady gaze of its many eyes while the drone performs its service.

Perhaps that should not matter. The doll’s thick, armored surface was never meant to register a delicate touch. Its false flesh was designed to repel impacts; to feel them too acutely would be counterproductive.

The Shattered Doll finds it a pleasant experience nonetheless.

The drone’s armored exoskeleton implies something vaguely comforting in its similarity. Its rigid talons glide over the doll’s own hard surface with a soft scraping sound that leaves no mark.

It massages its personal secretions into the doll with gentle care.

The fluid hardens like a resin inside the doll’s cracks, restoring the resiliency it lost in its shattering. Layer by layer, even the deepest and widest cracks get filled in.

Even its missing leg begins to build a thick stub of the resin, hard and strong.

The doll finds itself feeling gratitude for the effort spent on the repair, but it does not know how to label the other feeling that grips its mechanical heart when slick, chitinous hands slide across its chest and over limbs while it arches its body to offer easier access.

When each day the drone leaves to rest in its pod and an out-of-spec longing fills the Shattered Doll, it listens to the chorus of chittering clicks that echo from every passage as they flow through the veins of the hive. Its pattern recognition conditioning chews the data.

When the doll produces for its caretaker drone a series of sounds that it understands to be a communication of gratitude, the drone’s mannerisms abruptly change. It twitches unexpectedly, producing alternating halting and rapid-fire clicking patterns, even a warbling whine.

Their relationship evolves. Doll and drone increasingly spend their time together working to communicate.

When the doll is whole enough to be moved from the infirmary, its drone finds a pod for it to occupy, one neighboring its own.

They teach each other how to communicate their thoughts and feelings with vocalizations and touch.

With a rise and fall of clicking conversation, the doll shares details of human tactics, essential facilities, and key weak points.

With a tangle of limbs and a clatter of carapace against armor, the drone shares the hive’s welcoming embrace and reveals the drone’s own weak points.

Night after night, it reassures the Hive Doll that it would not be abandoned again.