The following story is a guest submission by Katherine Toran. Katherine is an economics PhD student at the University of Kentucky. She has coauthored eight nonfiction research papers, and writes fiction as a relief from the endless math jargon. At Grinnell College, she wrote articles for the Grinnell magazine The Spectator and Philadelphia’s Friends Journal. She also had her original play “Quench” produced at Grinnell College.
Ho-pun was six years old the day his mother left.
She crouched down in the filthy plastic tent to look him in the eye. “The city is only letting young children in. No refugees taller than a horse’s leg. I thought about keeping you with me, but there’s a nasty cough running through the camp that worries me, and inside those walls there’s plenty of food at least.”
Ho-pun said, “I want to stay with you. I don’t care if I get sick.”
“I haven’t been able to feed myself the past couple days, and I’ll continue to have nothing to eat if I keep feeding you. This is the way it must be, Ho-pun.”
Chastened, he nodded.
“I have something to give you before I go.”
She reached under the folds of her baggy brown shawl, and pulled out a doll.
It was no larger than her hand, with a white china face and shiny black hair similar to Ho-pun’s and his mother’s. Her face was painted with two spots of red color and a wide red grin, and her almond-shaped eyes held a dot of blue. Most peculiarly, this doll was dressed in a suit of metal armor, a curved sword strapped to her waist.
“This doll has protected our family for centuries. Not from famine or poverty, she’s no good at that, but if anyone ever tries to harm you, call her name and she will come to your side.”
Ho-pun turned the tiny doll around his dirt-smeared hands. “It’s a girl’s doll.”
“Yes, it is. Sorry about that.” His mother shrugged expansively. “But you absolutely must take her with you everywhere you go. As long as you do this, she cannot be taken from you by force or accident. Second rule: you must only call her in self-defense. If you try to turn her against enemies who have not struck the first blow, she will never respond to you again. Promise me that you will obey these two rules no matter what.”
Ho-pun nodded. “I promise, mother.”
“Hmm. It seems like magic should always have three rules, doesn’t it? Very well, here’s a third. You must always conduct yourself with honor so that she will be proud to protect you.”
“That’s not a real rule, is it?”
“No, but it’s the most important of all.”
Ho-pun held up the doll, tapping a finger against her hard hollow skin. “What is her name again?”
His mother told him.
The orphanage didn’t have beds, so the children were each given a blanket to lie on the floor. However, there was enough food to go around, even if it was mostly dried rations. The city was magnificent, with its glowing signs and horseless vehicles and tiny hovering drones.
On the fifth day, several pale-skinned boys, natives to the city, cornered Ho-pun and began to mock his clothing, his accent, and most of all, the doll he carried tucked under his arm everywhere he went.
Ho-pun only smiled at them, and when one of them grabbed the doll, he started to laugh.
The three boys began to toss the doll back and forth, but the game of keep-away lost its appeal when the younger boy didn’t even try to get back his doll.
Waving the doll in his face, the first bully threatened, “I’m going to flush this down the toilet.”
“If you want,” Ho-pun said.
Something in his manner was so unlike the other refugee children that the bullies retreated with the doll, casting sneered insults over their shoulders.
That night, Aun-yan, the girl who slept on the floor to his right, said, “I’m sorry about what happened to your doll.”
“Maybe it’s for the best. The others won’t mock you anymore for going to sleep with it.”
“I promised my mother.”
“Adults can be stupid.”
“Not my mother. Unlike other adults, she never tells lies. When the crops failed, she said that we’d be hungry for a while, and when we left home, she told me we’d never come back. But when the men attacked us on the road, she said to close my eyes and when I opened them they’d be gone, and they were. My mother always keeps her promises.”
“She left you here, though.” Aun-yan’s voice held bitterness towards her own parents.
Ho-pun said, “Mother is going to be in much more danger than me from now on, since she’s outside the city, but she still gave me her doll to protect me.”
The next morning, Ho-pun’s doll was sitting beside his pillow, undamaged and smiling. Ho-pun picked her up and went to breakfast.
The next time he walked to school, the bullies took one look at the doll tucked under Ho-pun’s arm and never went near him again.
Ho-pun did well in school. As he was not a citizen, schooling ended for him at fifteen, but he managed to secure a relatively good job at a shop that repaired metal vehicles for the wealthy.
He tried to be the honorable man he’d promised his mother he would be. When another boy from the orphanage cajoled him to steal batteries from the shop to sell, he refused. When Aun-yan injured her arm in her ration-packaging job, he helped her with medical expenses, even though it ate most of his savings and significantly set back his plan.
When the Steel Tribe attacked, Ho-pun was drafted into the army, as were all non-citizens. Although it was far from the first time ravaging nomads had tried to break through the city’s force fields, this time was different; the Steel Tribe had a laser cutter. The city had never faced a serious attacker before and didn’t even have a standing army. The plan to attack the Steel Tribe before they could get close enough to destroy the city’s precious walls relied entirely on non-citizens to fight.
The recruits were terrified. Ho-pun viewed the training as an opportunity; particularly survival training.
They were sent out of the city late at night. The misty air smelled of rain. Each soldier was given night-vision goggles, body armor, a transparent shield, and a laser gun with two spare batteries. Ho-pun had made squad leader, and he placed himself at the front of the group. Around his neck was a doll tied with a string.
The Steel Tribe heard them coming. In the night, a stream of metal bullets rained down.
Ho-pun pulled his shield over his head and cried out the doll’s name.
This time, he did not close his eyes.
The doll broke free of the string and flew into the air, leaving a trail of silver sparks. Silhouetted against the moon, the doll raised her arms, and then exploded in size. The tiny arms became the muscled arms of a warrior woman, the china face took on the color of real flesh, and the silver armor glowed, casting a shield of light over the entire group that blocked all bullets.
The doll drew her sword, and slashed the air.
The resulting shockwave flattened trees and sent trucks of nomads screaming and flying.
Within minutes, it was over. Ho-pun picked his way across the ruins of twisted metal and scattered bodies. The giant canon-shaped device used to cut through city force fields had been cleanly chopped into four pieces. Black smoke rising from the wreckage smelled of gasoline and burned rubber. His fellow troops had long since fled, as had the survivors of the Steel Tribe.
He found his pocket-sized doll lying at the base of the canon. There wasn’t so much as a hair out of place or a scratch on her armor.
Ho-pun knelt down to scoop up the doll. He said, “There are plenty of supplies here, and I think I can repair that tank. Come on, Karma. Let’s go find my mother.”
The doll smiled up at him.