The cold crept in like a thief in the night.
“Is that you Ian?” Toy Maker called from his workshop. “Close the door!”
Ian walked in quietly and shut the door. The snow that sneaked in with him twirled at his feet before melting on the stone floor. The toy workshop was large but dark, lit only by the two power tables — one was the Toy Maker’s work desk and the other served as a kitchen table. Two circles at the center of each table glowed red-orange, giving the whole space a look of warmth…just not the feel of it. Ian shivered.
Behind one of the glowing tables, there was a wall full of Toy Maker’s newest creations. They were arranged in rows on shelves, organized by species. There were about two hundred on display there, all still gray — the color didn’t come until much later. The maker first sculpted the essence of each figure and then scanned it into the computer. The final details were added virtually and then printed in 3-D. The painting was the last touch.
Ian admired a shelf of warriors. They were lithe and tall, with elongated, almost wasp-like waists. Some had wing appendages sprouting from their necks — not large enough to fly, but surely useful in broad jumps and leaps. The leader was at least a head taller than the others of her tribe. She wore an animal fur around her shoulders like a scarf, just below her slim wings. Her hair was long and wild, sticking out above her head like a halo. She wore only tights and leather boots, wrapped tightly with cords up to her knees. She looked fierce, Ian thought.
The warrior queen moved and flexed her shoulders, releasing tension from her wings. She tapped her long spear into the ground — a stone shelf, for Ian — and looked around at her comrades. There was a dozen in her tribe — all tall and lean, like their queen. It was hard to tell men from women, Ian thought, but he liked all of them. Toy Maker outdid himself in their design. But they were not dressed for this incessant cold. Ian thought he spotted a few of the queen’s comrades shivering discretely, trying to hide their weakness.
Toy Maker finished carving a homunculus from a black stone — the heart of an elder for a new species he was designing. Child-like dwarfs. He was imagining them small but powerful and super maneuverable. Smart too. The maker could always see the end product in his mind’s eye even if the final toys didn’t bear much resemblance to his early visions. At some point in the making process, the toys took over the direction of the design. Each individual creation directed what it ultimately wanted to be. The maker was just there for the ride…after the heart was carved. The heart was everything. It set up the parameters for the capacity for goodness and degree of nobility, as well as bigness of a soul. The maker admired the heart he just made. It came out more exuberant than he expected.
Toy Maker heard a noise from the front of the room. He had forgotten that the boy came for a visit. He always got so wrapped up in the creation; it felt like the rest of the world disappeared around him, narrowing only to the edge point of his carving blade. He just didn’t have attention for anything else. He listened. The boy was talking with someone. He was just a little kid — ten? Maybe a year or two older. Or maybe he was even younger? The maker was never good at guessing kids’ ages. It was a mystery.
Ian lived in the same settlement as the maker, although the maker didn’t really know where. People came to see his work. Many people. Toy Maker hardly ever left his workshop. The energy tables provided most of the nourishment he needed — he was never lavish in his tastes. The only thing he ever sought was colors. Those were hard for Toy Maker. True colors only came out in the light of the sun. Out here, that wasn’t very often. And his eyes were getting old — it was harder to see the true hue as the years rolled by. Ian helped. He had good eyes and a sense of what the toys needed. Perhaps some day the maker would take the boy as his apprentice. Toy Maker tried to remember if this was why the boy came today. Did he call for him? But the answer didn’t come to mind. He stood up and slowly made his way to the wall lined with shelves for displaying his latest creations.
Ian was speaking to one of the new toys. Toy Maker remembered how she insisted that he made her chest as flat as that of a man. Several times, the maker carved breasts, and each time, the toy made him take them off. He figured their kind just didn’t grow feminine curves — the toys always informed him what was right for them. After he finished the original model, it became the archetype for the rest of her tribe. They were still colorless, but that whole wall of toy designs needed their colors found for them. Perhaps, Ian was here to help with that.
“Why do you need to fly, my queen?” the boy was asking.
Toy Maker strained to hear. Sometimes, Ian spoke for both sides of the conversation, his own and the toy’s, but not this time. A movement caught the maker’s eye. The breast-less winged warrior moved. Moved! He rubbed his eyes and leaned in for a closer look, trying not to spook the boy…or the toy. Sure enough, the Queen, as the boy called her, shook her hair and stretched her wings out, her whole demeanor signaling displeasure.
Toys didn’t have a life outside of the one their owners gave them. People used toys to tell their stories, or to defuse arguments, or to entertain each other during the long dark winters. The form of each toy helped individuals express their feelings. The play was the truest form of therapy. But toys didn’t move on their own. They didn’t speak in voices other than that of their owners.
This was wrong. Toy Maker looked at the toy shelf closest to him. The neutral gray figures stood motionless, just like they were supposed to. He looked back at the line of toys that the boy was engaging. There was movement, subtle and small, but movement nonetheless.
“Ian?” the maker called the boy.
The queen and the boy turned in unison. Even colorless, the queen clearly looked directly into Toy Maker’s eyes. He gasped and held onto the wall for support — his legs felt soft like the maker’s clay. The queen cried — Toy Maker heard her clearly this time — and like a swarm of beetles, she and her tribe of toys swirled and leaped off the shelf, spears twirling in the air, hair streaming and whipping behind them, exaggerating their every movement. It was a fearsome sight.
The boy jumped back, away from the wall of toys. Only the queen’s tribe was in motion, the rest of the toy figures stood still or toppled in the air currents created by the swarm. In just moments, the whole row of toys was running on the ground, following the screeching battle cries of their queen.
Toy Maker tried to step back, but found himself unable to move — his legs and arms stopped listening to his brain, frozen in terror and surprise. Toys didn’t move on their own.
The queen led her small force toward the energy table in the middle of the room. Using their spears like vaulting poles, the little warriors jumped, flew, and somersaulted onto the glowing surface. The queen was first and stood defiantly watching Toy Maker cower away from her. When the whole tribe was on the table, she walked them over to the center of one of the energy disks and settled there, her hair like a crown asserting her superiority over space and time. The rest of the toy warriors followed and nestled into a circle around their queen, part in camaraderie, part as a protective shield.
“What was that?” the maker managed.
“They were cold,” Ian said.
“You didn’t give them enough protection from the elements. They are from a hot world, unlike ours,” the boy explained.
“But they are toys. Toys!” the maker repeated for emphasis.
“But they were cold,” the boy said as if it explained everything.
On the energy table, the tribe of toys stilled, looking comfortably warm, the maker observed. “Toys don’t move on their own,” Toy Maker said to the room. He wanted to say that to the queen but didn’t want to add to the dissonance of the situation.
“Toys move. Didn’t you know?” Ian said. The boy didn’t seem a bit surprised or perturbed by the toys’ maneuvers. He came closer to the maker. “Can you show me your new design?”
“They don’t move,” the maker repeated stubbornly.
“Their time is not like our time,” the boy explained. “So we don’t see them move. If we lived in their time frame, we would be able to watch them move and talk all the time. But we live much faster than they do. When we die, they will still be around. I have toys that my great-grandfather used to play with as a child. They still live, while he is dead.”
“It’s not the same,” insisted Toy Maker. “And it doesn’t explain this.” He waved at the table where the queen presided regally over her tribe.
“They were cold,” the boy said again. “They needed to get closer to the energy source.”
“Do you often see my creations move?” Toy Maker decided to change his tactics.
“No. This was the first time,” Ian said. “But the queen explained why they had to do it. Next time, make them extra clothing.”
Toy Maker shook his head and went to sit at his making desk again. In front of him was the little black lump that would someday become a new toy.