The Inevitable Dollhouse Approach
Summary: Sometimes O2STK needs to resort to drastic measures to fill the role of Middleman.
Rating: PG (maybe 13 for human trafficking, but no sex or violence)
Disclaimer: All ideas belong to the incomparable Javi or the occasionally-amazing Joss. Don't sue me, 'cause I'd have to sell plasma just to cover your filing costs.
Author's Note: Crossover with Dollhouse, but you shouldn't need to be familiar with that series to understand this fic (major points all explained). This bears no canonical relationship to the episode of Dollhouse where an oddly familiar-looking customer tried to hunt Echo down like a wild animal. In fact, it might be best to pretend that ep never happened while reading this, otherwise some odd mental images might intrude. (Oh, yes, and I know that I'm violating Dollhouse naming protocol. Don't care.)
If you've never seen Dollhouse, the basic premise is that the Dollhouse is a human trafficking ring that imprints a specific personality and set of memories onto a man or woman (an Active or "Doll") to make them exactly what the customer wants or needs them to be.
After I made a crack about the Middleman being too good to be true while discussing him in relationship to the series Dollhouse, Dustdaughter from Livejournal said the fateful words "that would make a good fic" which led to this. Enjoy.
The Inevitable Dollhouse Approach
"Absolutely not, Ida!" the Middleman snapped, shaking his head violently. "I like this Wendy Watson. I think she has the potential to go far in this job."
"She's a slacker. The Dollhouse could provide you with a model Middleman's apprentice in every important respect."
"It's human trafficking!" He shook his head. "No. This is the sort of organization that we should be working to bring down, not providing with business."
"And our bosses have pretty specifically indicated that we are not to go after them," Ida answered, giving him The Look.
He sighed and returned to his desk. "I don't see why."
"You questioning the Higher Ups?" Ida challenged.
"No, of course not. Just…"
"Drop it," Ida advised. "If you don't want to get your next apprentice from them, then just pretend you never heard they existed. It'll be easier."
He grimaced, but shrugged. They were fighting the Good Fight. Sometimes you just had to concede the fact that sometimes the Powers That Be were privy to information that you didn't have access to and that, therefore, their decisions were to be given the benefit of the doubt.
"I don't like that Wendy Watson," Ida told him.
"And I don't care," he answered, ignoring her incredulous look. He stood up to her so seldom. "I think I'm going to tap her," he declared, biting back a smile at her disgusted look.
He loved Ida dearly, he did, but she could be so fun to bait. She grimaced at him and went back to her Mahjong. Leaving him to muse on what made this Dollhouse so damned untouchable…
"My employers understand that they will be permanently depriving you of an asset," Ida told Ms. DeWitt. "And, they are, of course, willing to compensate you accordingly." She slid a piece of paper with a figure written on it across the desk. "Obviously, they're fairly desperate to replace their operative. Yesterday."
Ms. DeWitt raised an eyebrow at the figure on the paper. "Cash upfront?"
"Unmarked bills in the denomination of your choice. But we will require your very finest."
"For this amount, he's yours." She rose, gesturing for Ida to follow her. "This way."
Ida followed her, curiously watching numerous attractive young men and women wandering aimlessly around the compound.
"Self-awareness?" she inquired.
"Rudimentary. They are, in essence, blank slates, to be imprinted with the information and experiences of our choice."
"And the process is permanent?"
"Until we chose to reverse it, yes. Topher can acquaint you with the technical details."
Ida nodded sharply. "I'll require a full report on the process before we decide. I need to be satisfied that the personality imprinted is both permanent and over-arching. He's useless to us if the imprint falls away."
"That's not happened once to date," DeWitt assured Ida. "This way."
Ida followed her up a flight of stairs and into a small lab. A bed dominated the center, a man in his mid-thirties but with a boyish appearance lying there with his eyes shut, twitching occasionally as shimmering light engulfed his head. Two other men stood watch: a younger one, and an older one who watched the process with a concerned frown.
"This is the deprogramming?" Ida asked.
"It's called a wipe, but yes." DeWitt nodded. "This is where we remove the previous set of memories. Physically, Clarence is our very best."
Ida had to grant that he was an impressive physical specimen. A little older than she would have hoped for, but his brawn should make up for that. A quick scan told her that his concentration of muscle-fibers was well-above average. He could probably have snapped DeWitt in half if he cared to and not really exerted himself at the task.
He stopped twitching abruptly, raising both hands to his face with a quiet moan. Rubbing his mouth and then his forehead, he looked around with a bemused expression. Everything about him oozed boyish innocence and boundless curiosity.
"Did I fall asleep?" he asked, looking up at the older man.
"David, his handler," DeWitt murmured to Ida.
David grasped the younger man's hand lightly, giving him a reassuring look. "You had a little nap," he agreed. "How are you feeling?"
"My head hurts a little." He sounded uncertain as he stated this.
"Do you remember falling and hitting it?"
"Did I fall?" Clarence asked, staring up at David with wide, curious eyes.
"Yeah. Why don't we bring you down to see Doctor Saunders, okay?"
Clarence nodded and placidly followed David from the lab.
"No free will at all?" Ida asked, walking to the door and watching him go.
This one might actually prove superior to all his predecessors if the Dollhouse's claims were even half-true. It was certainly faster than training a new Middleman and Apprentice, something she had no time for given the present state of world affairs. O2STK was struggling to keep up until Peter could be replaced. The time involved in training a new Middleman would have been prohibitive.
"No free will in this state. An argument could be made that they have free will once they're activated, but even that's debatable since their decisions are determined by the mindset and experiences we've decide they have."
Ida nodded. "I want a full briefing on what's involved in one of these imprints. Physically, he seems good, but I'm going to want some assurances that the personality we want him to have is going to hold in the long-term."
DeWitt nodded. "See to it, Topher. Any information the lady requires. Will you need his handler?"
"No." Ida shook his head. "I'll take over in that capacity once I've been fully briefed on the process and what cues to look for from the Active. Completely severing ties with his old life is preferable to the chance that he'll spontaneously remember what he is."
"Then I'll leave Topher to brief you on the imprint process. You can iron out what you want from your Active with him. Personal history, habits, mannerisms, medical details, name… We can make him exactly what you require."
"For the amount we're willing to pay, I should certainly hope so."
"I'll clear the details with my superior. How quickly do you require him?"
"The sooner, the better," Ida answered. "But take as much time as you need to make it stick. There is no margin for error here."
"Understood. Good day."
Ida watched her go, then turned to Topher. "Tell me everything," she directed.
Ida spent days observing Clarence. He was placid, willing to be dominated. But there was something about him, like maybe some little spark of individuality was shining through. After he was introduced to Ida, he always had a smile for her, while he usually just had a blank look for people other than his handler. He answered her verbal abuse with a doofy grin or a shy smile.
And he was eager to please. Ida put him through his paces, testing him physically and intellectually. He was a bright boy. Mid-thirties or not, she could not think of him as anything but a little boy. He was certainly no man.
He was a complete innocent without an original thought in his head, but he took a shine to Ida and decided that it was important to please her. So he eagerly did everything she asked, willingly took her tests, looked embarrassed when he didn't know the correct answers. And Ida would pat his head and soothe him because it would not do to alienate him now. She needed him to bond to her the way he had previously been bonded to his handler, a man since reassigned.
She spent every day at the Dollhouse, scrutinizing Clarence for his suitability, drilling exactly what she wanted into Topher, and just watching the Doll. One night, for no reason she could have named, she found herself standing over his glass-enclosed bed.
"Problem?" David, the boy's former handler, asked, approaching her.
Ida shook her head faintly. "Kid has the potential to do a lot of good. I just wonder what he would want." Stupid consideration, but still very there.
"Actives live to serve. He wants what you decide he wants."
She stared down at Clarence's sleeping face, even more childlike in repose.
"He'll be happy. That's the important thing to remember," David told her.
"Will you miss him?" Ida wondered.
"Well, sure. I've been handling him since he first came. He was like fifteen. Two decades, we've been together. It's a long time. You'll take care of him, right?"
"His new personality isn't designed to need taking care of. He'll be fine."
"All that matters," David sighed, nodding.
"We're imprinting the new personality in the morning. Will you be there?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it. Just keep an eye on him, that's all I ask."
"I'll protect him," she promised. "That's part of my job-description."
"Good luck. Make him feel loved."
"I'm sorry, but that's not a part of my programming."
"Ah." He nodded. "Well, good luck, anyway."
"Thanks," she answered. "I'm probably going to need it."
She scowled up at Wendy over her Mahjong tiles. "What?"
"I was in the archives, and I came across this reference to a place called the Dollhouse…"
"O2STK says to leave them the hell alone."
"I'll just bet they do," Wendy answered, looking troubled. "Does the Boss know?"
Not bad for a pot-smoking slacker…
"No, he doesn't and if you tell him, I'll break your scrawny little neck, fleshbag."
Wendy hesitated. "He's happy like he is, right? I mean, he doesn't need to know that he was programmed to be that way?"
"Experience is experience, kid," Ida answered, shaking her head. "Does it really matter where it came from?"
"I just can't see how you did that to him."
"Look around you," Ida suggested. "A Middleman was needed. I did what had to be done."
"He was practically a child."
"He was a blank slate when a blank slate was needed. Honestly, I would replace you with a Doll in a heartbeat."
"I'll just bet you would," Wendy agreed, dropping the folder on the desk. "You do realize the risk?"
"I'm not an idiot," Ida answered shortly.
"Really? 'Cause you do a damned convincing impersonation at times!"
Wendy turned and stalked from the main office, brushing the Middleman off when he ran into her in the hall. He, predictably, followed.
"Dubbie! Did I do something to upset you?"
"Aw, hell no, Boss!"
She shook her head violently, watching him for some sign that the man she had thought she knew was just a composite. But the way he grinned back at her made her remember just how human, and humane, she had always considered him. And, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his programming, absolutely unique in human experience.
"Come on," he directed. "Day's almost over. I'll buy you a glass of wine before you head home."
"And milk for you?"
"Grows strong bodies," he pointed out, grinning even before she could begin to express anything resembling disdain. He knew how she felt, and it amused him greatly. "Come on, Dubbie."
She followed him, actually feeling rather good about it. Whatever he had been designed to be, he was his own man now. And that man was a dear, good friend.
"My treat, Boss," she told him as they walked from the HQ.
"What's the occasion?" he wanted to know, slinging an arm around her shoulder.
"No occasion," she answered, leaning into him. "Just feel like appreciating my boss for what he is today."
He made a perplexed sound at that, but followed her from the HQ, eventually whistling to himself as they walked to the corner tavern.
Once there, everyone greeted the Middleman by 'name', and Wendy decided that maybe it was not so important where he came from. What mattered was the man he had become. A good man.