Julie woke up to the sound of three women conversing, or rather arguing in hushed tones. The sensation was an unpleasant crescendo of unwanted noise bringing her to the waking world, as though a housemate had risen early to have a spirited morning chat with uninvited guests. With her regained senses also came the stark realization that she was no longer encased in shiny rubber. In fact, she was quite naked, and the vulnerability she felt now was far from the pleasant security she had come to know. She was on the floor, and she felt cold. Even her hair was starting to grow back in a shadowy brunette outline, giving a bristly texture. Julie wanted nothing more than to slip back into sleep and wake up in her quarters, freed from this terrible nightmare. Alas, reality impelled her to acknowledge the situation and react accordingly. So many human instincts and limitations were reactivating, and a lethargic Julie opened her eyes.
Three women were holding heated palaver in a corridor of the facility. The lights were still off, but the trio had prepared sources of illumination. One had a chest mounted flashlight, another was a camera-woman whose lens likely had night vision, and the third was using her cell phone as a "torch." All three women looked to be in their late twenties to mid-thirties.
"Haven't you seen enough? This place is a horror show." A bold and contemptuous woman spoke. She was slender and dressed fashionably, but with an eye for utility. Soft and fitted cargo pants, a sleeveless puce-colored top, and a few pieces of jewelry. Her vanity and grooming could not be denied, for she knew that she was attractive, but that was eclipsed by a larger driving purpose. She had brown eyes and dyed plum hair that was in a bobbing style that framed her face, but it was more vogue than the cosmetic rubber serving dolls; this woman did not have bangs. Her lips were full, and her expression riddled with determination, anger, and conviction. Whatever she was doing, it was out of deeply held principle. She wore a flashlight on her chest. Julie admired her dominant presence.
"Oh please. Are you scared of the dark all of a sudden? You’re just making this worse. And it could have been a quick, polite visit." A second woman spoke - the one holding the cell phone. Her hair was blonde and shoulder-length, and it seemed to be prepared for an interview. She was dressed in a blazer and pencil skirt, much like a news broadcaster. In fact, Julie found her voice to be familiar, but could not place it. The professional suit was well-tailored and of a matte silvery gray with an elegant white blouse. She wore high heels that were modern, practical, and prevalent in the fashion world, or so Julie presumed. This newswoman wore an expression of desperate optimism even as the brunette antagonized her. Her youthful, azure eyes held an innocent hope that everything would somehow work out for the best as long as everyone was civilized and orderly. One might speculate that she considered herself a pillar of societal stability. This woman’s appearance pleased Julie the most.
“Hey, she’s waking up,” the third woman said flatly. She was holding a moderately sized camera, portable but high quality. Her skin was brown and her hair short and unkempt. She was wearing black shorts and an old brown T shirt. She was curvaceous in the hips, and seemed decently muscled and athletic. Fashion trends did not move the needle for this one; getting the job done with minimal nonsense was her mission. The camera-woman would have seemed diffident or apathetic to a casual observer, but she had in fact cultivated a demeanor of professional stoicism. Julie enjoyed her quiet and dutiful bearing; it reminded her of herself. Moreover, it reminded her of those industrious marionettes that kept the facility in working order.
All three ladies turned to look at the unclothed Julie, who was pulling herself to a sitting position. The brunette woman grew irritated and rubbed her forehead in frustration. Julie noticed that she kept glancing at a bag which was strapped about her shoulder.
"Great," she said sardonically. "I shouldn't have wasted so much time trying to talk sense into you. Now she's going to be a problem. I'm getting out of here. Come on, Kelly."
Kelly was evidently the camera-woman's name. Wordlessly, she began to follow.
"Regina, how could you leave this poor girl like that? For all your talk of human rights violations, you seem totally fine with abandoning her,” said the hopeful blue-eyed woman.
Regina, the fierce-eyed woman turned from her exit to confront the blonde woman who provoked her with those words. "Listen, Brenda: she is compromised. There is nothing we can do for her. Once I expose this company, maybe then she can be freed, but for now-"
Regina's scolding was interrupted by the now standing Julie. “I’m right here, and I can hear you. My name is Julie.”
The blonde woman named ‘Brenda’ grinned at what she took as a small victory. “You see? She’s fine. We don’t need to be skulking about like criminals. Julie, dear, which way to your superiors? I think we can sort this all out.”
Julie replied while an exasperated Regina scanned her surroundings for an escape route: “they...used to be everywhere. Always watching and protecting us. It’s so cold...what happened?” Julie sullenly asked, realizing that no Master was nearby to guide her. The sanctuary of the Marionetics compound had been drastically changed, and it seemed that not a single rubberized humanoid was to be seen. Julie was confused and frightened at this sudden change, and it was all she could do not to cry. She began to shiver.
“Oh, no! Let me help you, honey.” Brenda removed her blazer coat and draped it over Julie’s shoulders. The gesture was appreciated, and Julie felt a surge of warmth at the display of human kindness. She thought of what a wonderful rubberized servant Brenda would make, and how that compassion could be amplified and put to use. Wait, no - she shook her head and refocused. Of course, now she recognized this newswoman: it was Brenda McLean from QNN news! She wasn’t particularly starstruck, but she was a well-known anchor. What was she doing here? Julie smiled knowingly at her and said “thank you. You’re very nice.” Brenda saw the look of recognition in Julie’s eyes, and it made her glad. Brenda’s warm demeanor made the moment much less awkward for Julie.
Regina was already halfway down a nearby corridor with Kelly, moving at a hurried pace. “Hey, wait up!” called Brenda as she pulled Julie by the arm to follow. Regina and Kelly gave an admonishing shush and Brenda reluctantly complied. Julie did not know where they were going - she did not know, nor care to know of any exits to this place. As she followed Regina, who seemed to be some kind of crusading activist by her mannerisms, Julie began to experience pangs of responsibility, curiosity, and...guilt? A panic stirred within her, and she wondered if she had lost connection to her Masters and fellow dolls forever. Until she knew more, she would opt help these intruders.
Regina led the group through darkened aisles and passages, all seeming to lead nowhere. The facility was labyrinthine and unfamiliar, even to Julie. All the while, the itinerant leader was glancing fastidiously at her bag and occasionally back to Julie. They were moving quickly, and as stamina reserved depleted, the time for a rest came. Regina, Brenda, Kelly, and Julie all found an alcove off to the side of a hallway and took a moment to sit or lean against a wall.
“Damn,” Regina muttered in a huff. “What’s with this place? I tried retracing my steps, but everything is suddenly different. I don’t know how much time we have left.”
“What are you on about?” asked Brenda, growing impatient. “Do you know something we don’t?”
“I know a hell of a lot more than you, Ms. McLean,” Regina said with growing truculence. “As a journalist who actually cares about the real story, I ought to!”
Brenda gasped with incredulity. “Excuse me, but I was all set to interview these ‘Marionetics’ people and get the story through legitimate channels. You might find my approach a little easier than...whatever nonsense you pulled to break into here!”
“You didn’t have to tail me, you know,” Regina said. “You could have just gone to your new overlords and taken whatever story they wanted to feed you.”
Kelly was inching her way into the chamber in which they stood, camera forward. She had spotted something. Julie observed curiously.
“Classic Regina: always with the conspiracy theories. No wonder you lost your job. Why are we traipsing around in the dark like this? Was this your plan?” Brenda inquired with antipathy.
“I called in a favor from a very tech-savvy friend, okay? This blackout probably saved your life, you know,” Regina retorted as she began to follow Kelly. “But then again, who knows? You might fit in pretty well here.” Julie smiled a bit at the thought of Brenda ‘fitting in.’
“Check it out,” Kelly said as she turned the camera towards a glistening, cocooned figure in the wall of the room. It had a feminine shape and was in a deep slumber, fully outlined in a second layer of clear latex over her original shiny black coating. She was breathing through a tube connected with cables to the ceiling. Julie was pleased to see this woman in a state of such bliss and safety, even as it filled her with envy.
“Take a good look, Brenda. This is what they do to you. We’re just commodities to them,” Regina stated staunchly. Brenda was bewildered and simply gazed at the encased woman.
“She’s happy in there,” Julie interjected.
Regina turned to Julie and Kelly aligned the camera towards her, red “recording” light active.
“You weren’t asked,” Regina said with calm condescension. “Be quiet and let us work.” Julie would have been wounded by the harsh tone with which this journalist woman spoke, but she instead found herself filled with respect and comfort at her admonishing command. She began to imagine Regina rubberized, dressed in black and red and in uniform, enforcing Marionetics’ policies and ensuring the safety and rubberization for all under her jurisdiction. Oh what a beautiful security doll she would be…
“And stop gawking at me like that!” Regina added. She suddenly seemed nervous, but her forbidding abjuration promptly removed Julie from her perverse trance. She felt embarrassed at her loss of focus, but at least these thoughts were keeping her warm. The blazer only provided so much in the way of heat.
As this was happening, Brenda had approached the unknown woman trapped in her glossy insulation. She apprehensively ran her hand over the rubbery substance, and the woman made a contented moan and writhed sensually. Brenda would never have dared admit it, but she enjoyed doing that. The newswoman gasped as Regina and Kelly turned around, startled.
“Don’t touch them!” Regina spat. Gathering herself, Regina regained her composure, glanced at her bag, sighed, and looked at the women around her. “Come on, we have to keep moving. Kelly, did you get the footage?” With a nod, Kelly resumed following Regina in her egress. Brenda trotted after, and Julie calmly walked behind all of them.
“Now hold on a minute!” Brenda spoke to the omitting ears of Regina and Kelly. “Maybe you ought to answer some questions. What do you know about this place? And why are you so obsessed with whatever you’ve got in the bag?”
“It’s a container filled with whatever substance Marionetics used to ensnare Julie. I followed the story of her disappearance and did some detective work. I injected her with a heavy dose of muscle relaxers - or so I was told by my contact. Whatever the case, it sloughed off her…’membrane’ and put her to sleep. I’m bringing this back to my contact so we can figure out what this company is doing to people. Julie was taken, along with dozens of others, and I seem to be one of the only people who actually gives a damn about it.” When asked for the truth, Regina’s response tended to be an effusion of more information than was expected.
Upon hearing this, Julie’s human anxieties flared and it was as though the weight of what was done to her was dropped from a skyscraper onto her heart. Her vacant tone vanished and took on a worried, fretful quality: “you...came looking for me?” Regina’s pace slowed as she sighed with resignation.
“Julie, do you know how many friends and family have been worried sick about you? You had a job, friends, loved ones - a life!” Regina was trying in vain not to blurt out this upsetting news, and she took no joy in seeing Julie’s reaction. “You had to have known that people cared.”
Julie could only stammer quietly as horribly familiar feelings cascaded through her. She was missed - of course she was. Wasn’t it obvious that something like this would happen? She thought of the torment she must have caused by her disappearance. Even little grievances like food left to rot in a refrigerator and unpaid bills displayed vividly in her mind. She effectively abandoned her responsibilities with reckless abandon. She felt immature and foolish; like she was malingering from life itself. But maybe this wasn’t her fault. She tried to remember if she resisted her rubbery captors at all, even with merely a defiant word or two. No, she went willingly. It all felt too good. And that just made it worse. She agonized over having chosen some euphoric, contrived existence over being an adult woman. Intrusive thoughts were shouting invectives into the poisoned echo chamber of her mind, proclaiming her weakness. Tears that she hadn’t known in many months came to her eyes, and her lips tightened with the distress of it all.
Regina ceased her stride for a moment to offer some unexpected compassion to Julie. She awkwardly placed a hand on Julie’s shoulder and spoke sympathetically, with no hint of her usual fervor: “Hey, I know you were taken here against your will. No one is blaming you for this, and I didn’t mean to be so callous.” Brenda scoffed at that and Regina gave a baleful, sideways glance. “But,” Regina continued, “we have to get out of here. The power will return at some point. If you’re really ready to come back to the world and let everyone know you’re still alive, then come with me.”
Julie sniffled as she made an admirable effort to be resilient. “Okay...yes. I’ll come with you. I’m so sorry.” She barely knew why she was saying these things. Some unnamable obligation or dread seemed to be forcing the words from her mouth. Everything felt wrong, and it was as though she had failed in some egregious way. Maybe it was time to make a triumphant comeback to the world of flesh and blood as strong and independent modern woman. Julie wiped a tear and struggled to form a smile, to no avail.
Regina began to look hopeful. Maybe her mission would be a success after all, she thought. It was looking as though Julie might actually be redeemable. Her moment of succor came to an abrupt end as the sound of clacking footsteps could be heard down a nearby corridor. Brenda McLean said it first: “let’s go!” And they stalked off, surreptitiously and swiftly as they could. Their egress was harried all the more by sights of women suspended in chrysalises, incubation tubes, and vacuum-sealed panels clinging to walls, all of them breathing through tubes connected to rubbery masks. It made the place seem like a living maze that had maliciously ensnared the fleeing women, and was conspiring to place them in a state of polished paralysis like the others. The Marionetics facility was asleep, but alive and dreaming, instilling perverse dreams into its captives as the idle machinery continued to hum quietly.
After fleeing their pursuer and the steps could no longer be heard, the group found themselves next to a narrow hallway branched off from a furnished suite. Julie knew where they were: they were nearing a control console room, and it wasn’t far from the main entrance. But how did she know that? Latex doll Julie hadn’t worked in those areas. She shared this unbidden knowledge with the group as though she had simply remembered it. Indeed, it seemed they were all following Julie’s lead, for none of them wished to admit that they were lost. They stopped in the furnished room before proceeding. As expected, every couch, chair, and other soft surface was rubberized, luxurious, and inviting. Brenda, who had been uncharacteristically taciturn since the encounter with the cocooned woman, took the liberty of sitting down on a couch to catch her breath. Her hands were already idly touching the fabric, though her pensive expression belied her burgeoning curiosity.
"I guess this is where I would have sat for the interview," Brenda mused wistfully.
"Yeah, and now you know the truth about these abducting creeps.," Regina said flatly.
"Not really," Brenda replied. "This all raises more questions than it answers. Julie, dear?" Brenda turned to the former rubber doll. “How did you feel when you were…’employed’ by Marionetics?”
“Brenda, what are you doing?” Regina arched a brow.
“Journalism. Let her answer, please.” Brenda’s calmness was a little chilling. Kelly turned the camera to frame Julie and her interviewer, reacting on professional instinct.
"It was really nice. Everything made sense, and ran on a schedule. I felt useful and valued. I was in a near constant state of bliss," Julie recounted, trying in vain not to sound like she missed it.
"I imagine opium dens have similar accounts," Regina added sardonically, tapping her foot.
"That shiny second skin, what was that like?" Brenda continued, undaunted.
"Tight at first, but then it just feels like a shelter that you never want to leave." Julie tittered softly, "and I suppose we never did." Her smile was making a comeback.
"That's not real life, Julie. You were a slave. A tool. No thoughts or aspirations of your own. Is that how you want to live?" Regina interrogated. Julie didn't answer, for she knew she didn't have a satisfactory response.
"Can we leave this nefarious corporate hellhole, now? Let's get to that control room." Regina was impatient as ever, and rightly so. She was starting to wonder if she and Kelly were the only sane women left in the building.
Brenda smiled and nodded at Julie. “Thank you, Julie. I think we got an important piece of the story. I’ll have more questions for you if we manage to leave; you can come straight to the studio and we’ll take care of you. We’ll help Regina break this story to the world,” she concluded in a tone both helpful and passively jabbing at Regina.
Regina’s eye rolling may as well have been audible. Julie began to feel hopeful. She also was admiring Kelly as she walked away,Regina in tow. Such a gorgeous figure. How lovely she and her scrutinizing camera would look rubberized and put to use in surveillance or espionage. There was nothing to interrupt her wandering imagination this time, though she maintained her stride and followed the women. Lastly, Brenda stood up from the couch, stealing one last brush of the rubber furniture with her hand as she rose, ready to resume the journey. She did not notice the prowling, liquid rubber hands that prowled from within the couch’s cushioning, searching for the curious hand that was affectionately caressing their oubliette.
With Regina taking the helm, she hurriedly walked towards the alleged control room of which Julie spoke. In her haste, she failed to notice the stolid rubber woman with whom she collided. Regina gasped as she tripped and clumsily returned to equilibrium. A glistening, jovial woman’s face looked onward at Regina from beneath a transparent latex hood. Wryly grimacing, Regina tried to ignore the doll and continue forward, but it seemed the aisle was lined with similar woman standing upright, motionless in some halcyon torpor. There were five of them, all awake and breathing, yet non-reactive to the interlopers. Each of them was in a cocoon dress with arms bound and waists cinched, and they were standing adjacent to open doors on either side of the hall. Regina had to elbow her way past them. Kelly raised her camera above her head, trying to avoid scraping these unsullied, beautiful obstacles. Her hips brushed the dolls and they adjusted to face her. “This keeps getting weirder,” Kelly assessed, still sounding aloof in spite of her nervous, sweaty brow. Brenda was less shy with the constrained women, looking them directly in the eye with fascination and an underlying prurience. She wanted to caress them and hear their contented murmurs, but she restrained eager hands and shook her head, as if remembering something she had neglected. Brenda, for all the glamour of a mainstream newscaster, was a conventional woman with conventional fears and fetters. Julie was last in line, but tried to be circumspect as her companions. She also tried to feel sorry for the still, rubberized women with whom she once shared kinship. She tried to tell herself that they were victims of some hegemonic entity that was subverting human society, but it was only Regina’s voice that she heard saying such things, not her own. Her revolutionary virtues and promulgations seemed to only sap Julie’s energy.
As Julie passed between the cluster of dolls, she could not help suspiring as their faces and bodies actively rubbed against her, as if preparing to welcome her back into the fold. The wet crinkling of the latex filled the eerie silence of the hallway. Julie wanted nothing more at that moment than to reciprocate their sentiments and allow the Masters to take each one of them back for processing and polishing. But the lingering anxiety of human affairs took hold once again and she pressed forward.
The control panel was located on a spacious balcony chamber that overlooked a warehouse filled with crates and other containers. It certainly didn’t seem like an exit area, but Julie knew that it was. The convoluted control panel of the station was dimly lit, presumably powered by a backup generator. Julie’s rescuers began to fiddle with the myriad buttons and screens of which the console was composed. Their eagerness to leave was all too apparent as freedom seemed so near, yet for all their ardor, the technology did not yield. Julie discreetly stepped forward, an astute smile gracing her lips. The system recognized her, as she knew it would. Certain “instincts” were taking hold, and she welcomed this surge of proficiency. A grid formed across multiple screens to display an interactive map. As Julie’s rescuers looked at her with anticipation, tension, and growing panic, she knew exactly what to do. They had little choice but to place their trust in her. None of them could have known at the time, but somewhere in the Marionetics compound, an unknown figure making clacking boot-falls was headed in their direction.