Persistence of Vision
There’s nothing left for me here. Yet I keep coming back. The official investigation came to a close six years ago, it’s not terribly likely I’ll find some vital clue that the cops overlooked. But wherever Natasha is now, I want her to know I didn’t give up so easily.
My family came to Russia nearly twenty years ago. Dad got a job with Soyuzmultfilm, a big animation firm headquartered just outside of Moscow. I was just a boy then, excitedly awaiting the birth of my little sister.
The film Dad was hired to work on never saw the light of day, a remake of the classic “Hedgehog in the Fog”. Not such a problem under Soviet rule, pay continued regardless of performance. He liked the creative freedom it made possible, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, Soyuzmultfilm more or less collapsed with it.
The studio survived as a leased enterprise, but ninety percent of the staff were laid off. My father was among the few who weren’t. The meager pay was just enough, along with what my mother made as a nurse, to keep us all in food and clothing.
I remember one winter, Natasha begged for a Dendy. She was too young then to understand the concept of money, and the rhetoric she heard at school and on television about “equality” and “a classless society” only further confused her.
Gorbachev had resigned a year earlier, but the curriculum at school did not yet reflect it. Nor the lingering Soviet themes in the media. A sort of widespread cultural disbelief, as we all witnessed the dream of global Socialism perishing before our eyes.
“Why is it Mikhail’s family has a Dendy, but we can’t afford one? What makes them different? What about Grandfather Frost, can’t he bring me a Dendy?” Each question like a knife in his side. I was forbidden to explain the facts of life to her, Mom insisted she didn’t need to know such grave things yet. That conditions might improve before she grew much older.
They didn’t. The next few years were the hardest of our lives. Law and order rapidly decayed. Gangsters operated openly in what were once nice neighborhoods, selling all manner of imported American products. Filling in the gap, I suppose, until domestic industry could be revived.
During those years, we often ate only every other day. The heat was turned on for just an hour each night before bed, so we could fall asleep. Natasha sought refuge in her beloved cartoons. In the mornings on weekends and after school every day, she never missed a chance to watch Peter the Possum.
Before the collapse, Peter was a government attempt to copy the style of early Disney animation, with a view to using cartoons as a propaganda vector. Accordingly, about half the Peter the Possum cartoons I’ve seen have plots which in some way communicate the merits of Socialism and the evils of Capitalism.
Even when they first aired, they looked archaic. Peter wears the same big buttoned pants and suspenders as Mickey, and does that strange, constant dance all the cartoon characters at the time seemed to perform even while standing still.
Knees and elbows bent, then straight. Then bent, then straight. Squat, stand, squat, stand. A perpetual jig which background elements like hills, buildings and cars also danced in time to. “Dumpity doo!” he would often exclaim, usually at the end of sentences and for no obvious reason.
I recall an episode in which a gang of rats conspires to chop down the tree Peter sleeps in, then fashion it into a shelter so they can charge him rent. The transition between these plots and the post-collapse ones is like night and day. Peter suddenly seems much less concerned with politics and primarily focused on teaching children English.
Not much of it, mind. Simple phrases like yes, no, hey, wow, and so on. As we shared a room I was helpless but to endure Natasha’s repetition of basic English phrases while trying to focus on my homework...taking for granted that she’d always be part of my life.
When she got that free ticket in the mail, I initially thought nothing of it. Dad studied it more closely, as it bore the Soyuzmultfilm logo across the back. Only because he thought it such an interesting curiosity did I bother asking him about it.
“It’s an invitation to Cosmotopia, a theme park that was under construction by the state during better times. I remember colleagues excitedly describing the attractions back before the lease and wave of layoffs in ‘89. Last I heard the state abandoned the project out in the boonies.”
I asked why bother sending out tickets for a closed theme park. “Delayed mail, maybe. Still digging through store rooms full of packages from just before the collapse. I hear stories of babushkas receiving ten years late some letters from deceased sons who fought the Nazis, that sort of thing. They must have sent these free tickets out as a promotion in advance of the grand opening.”
It didn’t sit right with me, though I couldn’t put my finger on the reason until years later. Why invite Natasha? She was in diapers then. So much I should’ve realized, so much I should’ve done. Of course when Natasha found out, she demanded to go.
No amount of patient explanation that the theme park was now defunct would satisfy her. She was never a reasonable child, prone to tantrums and difficulties separating fantasy from reality. I would blame the cartoons, except Mom says she was the same way as a girl.
We just never anticipated she’d run off like that. Despite the stacks of drawings she’s accumulated, all of Peter the Possum. Despite warnings from her teachers that she only seemed to be growing less attached to reality with each passing year.
Each of us blamed ourselves when she vanished. Dad still thinks it’s because he was always working and basically let the television raise her. Mom for the same reason, and myself because at the time I was going through a phase where I wanted nothing to do with my family and spent as much time as I could with the boys. Looking for trouble, or making our own.
The police determined she reached the ruins of Cosmotopia by a commuter train which still travels out there, as some of the support buildings were rented out to other businesses after construction ground to a halt. Otherwise the stop would’ve long since closed down.
The employees of the storage business closest to the park insist they never saw her, but that the park is a popular haven for squatters, addicts and runaways. More than once I’ve stayed past sundown and glimpsed flickering light within the windows of the fiberglass Fairyland castle. The indoor campfires of vagrants and Krokodil junkies.
I carry a small knife with me but harbor no delusions about how safe I am in such a place. So apart from those few times, I’ve always made sure to leave before night falls. Even that is no guarantee. The train is often a moving flophouse for passed out drunks and dodgy looking Alexeis in track suits.
Today the sky is the usual shade of grey. Wholly uniform, no blotches or gradation, just a matte grey expanse. As if it’s not the clouds, but the color of the sky itself. The sort of sky which makes you wonder if you’re really still on Earth.
Of course there are sparse trees nearby, and ragged tufts of struggling grass to remind you. But their colors, muted by the dim sunlight, sort of blend together. Like the trees, the grass, the mud and the train are all made out of the same “stuff”. I briefly wonder if I am too, or if I’m separate.
A light wind tosses dried leaves about the sterile concrete train platform as I step off. The station itself is a crumbling, derelict mess. Most of the overhead lighting has gone out. The remaining tubes flicker at random intervals. The concrete is cracked and worn, the signs are all rusted to shit, and there’s a thin layer of debris and garbage coating the surrounding area.
Cigarette butts, discarded candy wrappers, torn newspaper and so forth. The accumulated filth of human activity. Nobody comes to clean it up because nobody is paid to. Most likely nobody complains, either.
There’s a monument to Yuri Gagarin built into the entry gates. His face made from colored stones, many of them pried out of the concrete by vandals over the years. The inset sign is an advertisement for the section of the park that’s space themed.
They don’t bother to chain the front gates anymore, it never kept anyone out. I brought my bolt cutters anyway, as now and again I find some locked door, overlooked until then. The handles terminate in bent wedges such that it doubles as a crowbar, making it supremely useful for these kinds of excursions. Naturally, it also makes a serviceable club.
The other thing I’m never caught without is an LED head lamp. Before, I used the light on my phone in dark service tunnels until a disoriented junkie startled me into dropping it. The light’s now busted and the screen’s got a mess of cracks in one corner. Live and learn.
Once past the gate, I head for the fun center. “Fun” being subjective of course, having rather a different meaning in this country now that it’s under new management. The narrow selection of arcade machines languishing along the far wall of the stout little structure give no indication that they were ever sincerely meant to be enjoyed.
“Sea Battle”. “Magistral”. “Winter Hunt”. “Autorally-M”. “Radish”. “Safari”. All of them just barely sufficient imitations of some Western game. Usually Atari or Williams games provided the general design concept. Then the programmers, working for peanuts with government guns at their necks, phoned it all in.
The result is something comically rudimentary even for the time, and just barely playable. Their reason to exist was only ever to prove a point; that we Russians had every luxury under Communism that any American had under Capitalism, wanting for nothing.
The two soda machines in the room were similarly austere. One simply a grey steel box which dispensed carbonated water, and the other a Cil-Cola machine which was broken into and looted years ago. The first time I found it, out of morbid curiosity I cracked open the last remaining can and took a sip.
Flat of course. Otherwise surprisingly inoffensive given the age. Tasted vaguely like Kvass. I used to power up the arcade machines now and again just for laughs, but there’s little point as you can’t save your high scores. That would constitute blatant competition, you see.
On my way from the fun center towards Fairyland castle, I paused to take a picture of the clown train. I often wonder who designed this and why they thought it would appeal to children, rather than traumatize them.
It’s a small electric train resembling a centipede, each section of the body its own wheeled car with a pair of cushioned seats, now thoroughly beaten up by years of exposure. The front is, for some reason, the rusted head of a clown. I’ve often seen kiddie rides of the same make and model show up on urban exploration forums, they make an irresistible photo op.
The park is divided into Cosmoland, Fairyland, Futureland, and Cartoonland. As the names suggest, the first is space themed, all of the rides named after and meant to represent historically important orbital missions.
Futureland is even heavier on the propaganda, as it is specifically the “global socialist future” being represented. The “housing of tomorrow” near the entrance always catches my eye. Disc shaped fiberglass pods, four to a cluster, stacked two clusters tall for a total of eight small apartments in each tower.
Each tower’s a different color, all of them now faded to pastels...in the spots where the paint hasn’t flaked off yet. Increasingly communal living in the future was simply assumed for obvious, ideologically driven reasons. That said, while they don’t look like much now, I’d take one of these pods over panelak any day.
As I continued towards Fairyland castle, something new caught my eye. Same old building I’ve passed a dozen times before, but somebody must’ve been through here since the last time, as a mess of vines were cut away to reveal lettering just over a row of second story windows.
“Animation Center”. Presumably someplace children could learn how cartoons are made. Parts of the old facade still survived, yet more fiberglass. At one time making the building resemble something from a cartoon.
The majority of it must’ve been torn down since then, revealing the ugly, rectilinear concrete truth hiding behind it. It reminds me of a story I once heard in which a visiting American diplomat was taken to the Kremlin aboard a train which passed by fields filled with false wooden tanks and airplanes.
The intent, presumably, was to fool the diplomat into returning to the US with a grossly inflated impression of Soviet military might. That the train “just happened” to pass all of that hardware was something I suppose they hoped would not seem suspicious.
So much of how this country was run back then relied on carefully cultivated illusions. To fool the outside world, but also its own citizens. Not so different from this park. To the eyes of a child, Fairyland, Cartoonland and the rest would have an airtight appearance of reality to them.
Small but fully functional civilizations, populated by spacemen or costumed elves who, so far as the child knows, actually live there. All of it an elaborate farce, no deeper than the thickness of the facades masking the buildings. All to preserve the happiness of children who are none the wiser.
Natasha must’ve come here sincerely believing that she’d meet Peter the Possum. That his fantasy world she saw on television was a real place she could run away to. How it pains me now, that I was ever the sort of person she’d want to escape from.
What I wouldn’t give now to hear her repeating after Peter, word for word, sprawled out before the little black and white television set in our room. How vivid it still seems. Like something still happening now, a place I might physically return to if I focus hard enough.
That feeling is also an illusion. Perhaps the cruelest of all. That the past still exists, that the immediacy of these visions connotes reality. As if we should be able to travel as freely through time as we do through space. What it must be like for a bird with broken wings.
So often I find myself lost in thought. Reliving memories of Natasha so completely that it startles me to resurface from them. But during those precious periods of somber reflection, the vast gulf in time between where I am and where I want to be shrinks to almost nothing. It’s as if I’m right there with her.
So near, yet so far. No matter how convincing, I cannot reach out and caress her face. I cannot braid her hair. I can visit, but never stay. Observe, but never change anything. The natural order of things, surely? But then, why does this restriction feel so wrong? So artificial.
That was me, wasn’t it? And here I am. I was there once. Why, then, can I not return? The only direction I cannot move in is the one I most desperately wish to. Seconds ticking mercilessly by, each one carrying me further away from her.
There’s nothing like losing a loved one to make you contemplate the nature of time. It becomes a nemesis. A tormentor. The only barrier preventing your escape from Hell, back to the paradise you were swept from by the relentless passage of minutes, hours, days and years.
What do any of those words really mean? Does the universe know what a minute is? If there’s a smallest indivisible unit of matter, and a smallest measurable distance, could there also be an objectively smallest unit of time?
If so, time does not pass fluidly, but as a sequence of still frames. One after the next, after the next, quickly enough to create the illusion of movement. And if it’s true that events could have unfolded no other way than they have, the predictable chain reaction of so many atoms interacting with one another, then all of this was predetermined.
Something like a movie. So many still images strung together like film, all of us simply actors playing the only parts we’re able to. No small number of people find that perspective unsettling. Personally, I find it comforting. It would mean that there was nothing I could’ve done differently. That it wasn’t my fault.
The alternative is that time doesn’t exist. That what looks to us like the passage of time is just the accumulation of changes, more and more atoms out of place compared to how we remember it. If so, then time is truly irreversible. You’d have to manually move every atom in the universe back to where it used to be.
The past is destroyed by the future. Impossible to visit, impractical to recreate. Our memories, then, are ghosts. Lingering echoes of a world which no longer exists. I don’t know which view is stranger. That time isn’t real, or that we all amount to moving pictures with the appearance of life.
Upon prying the door open, I discovered one of the windows was busted. I cursed myself for not noticing sooner, else I might’ve just crawled in through it. A frigid gust stung my skin as I edged around the mess of broken glass on the floor, countless little shards sparkling in what little sunlight came in through the opening.
A light rain began to fall outside. Just as well. A whole new building to explore, exactly what I came looking for. And all things considered, not such a bad place to wait out the weather. A reception desk in the corner sat strewn with reminders of the past. Rolls of unsold tickets. A hand stamp, a coffee mug. Not even moldy inside, just a solid lump of dried black crud.
The lid of an electrical box mounted to the wall behind the desk hung open, revealing row after row of bulky, archaic fuses. It subtly hummed. Evidently this building also still receives power. As I proceeded further in, I found the floor littered with what I first mistook for overhead projector transparencies.
When I picked one up to study it more closely, I found it was instead an animation cel...depicting a very familiar monochromatic possum. More and more of them as I continued, until I couldn’t avoid walking on them.
Along either wall hung light tables of the sort used to display X-rays in a doctor’s office. Many with animation cels pinned to them, though the bulbs were long since burnt out. I swept my light across the far end of the room and, to my surprise, there was some sort of indoor ride.
Nothing fast or exciting like a rollercoaster. Rather, individual moving booths like the ones in haunted house attractions, or the educational rides that carry you slowly through a variety of life sized historical dioramas.
I searched for some way to reactivate them, but the only obvious control panel was rusted out. Wouldn’t have done me much good anyway. After edging past the halted people carriers for a ways, the track abruptly ended. Dismantled by someone, only a sheet metal floor beyond that point.
The ceiling, curiously, was also sheet metal. Both scratched up as if somebody’d been over them with steel wool. Bit by bit I worked my way down the darkened, serpentine tunnel. Soon I reached a section with working lights.
One of the walls in this section of the tunnel was lined with pull down projector screens. Tied to a motion sensor I guessed, as once I drew near enough, projectors mounted in alcoves along the opposite wall sputtered to life.
I doubled back, worried the sensor might’ve set off an alarm somewhere. Or that at the very least, the commotion might attract unwanted attention. That’s when I saw it. Laying on the seat of the nearest moving cart, perched on the end of the dismantled track.
Now, it could’ve been anyone’s stuffed Peter the Possum...if not for the initials drawn on the tag in black permanent marker. It knocked the wind out of me. All these years without finding the slightest trace, now I held Natasha’s own stuffed animal in my hands!
The police. The damnably corrupt, lazy police. They might’ve found this six years ago if they just searched more thoroughly. But they only ever do as much as procedure requires, if that. Anything more depends on how generously you bribe them.
I should never have taken their word for it. Should’ve gone searching myself the very day she disappeared, rather than wait for government stooges to half-heartedly bumble through this park before declaring it hopeless.
“NATASHA!!” I cried out. “NATASHA!!” My voice echoed down the remaining length of tunnel, meeting with no reply...until a scratchy voice answered back. Not from the end of the tunnel, but from just beside me.
“Use your indoor voice, little comrades! Respect the other visitors! Haha, dumpity doo!” I spun around looking for the source. The projectors, having warmed up during my panic, now cast moving images of a familiar figure on the pull down screens opposite me.
Black and white. Surrounded with momentary black flecks, dust caught in the film or defects from wear and tear. A certain possum in suspenders performing that familiar, perpetual dance. His beady little black eyes, unseeing, simply dark spots on film, nevertheless seemed to follow me as I headed further down the corridor.
Another straight passage with projectors to one side and screens to the other. Another motion sensor brought them to life in a synchronized clickety clack of spinning film reels. “Hey! Yeah! My name is Peter the Possum, but you already knew that!”
Still bobbing rhythmically as he walked, Peter seamlessly moved from one projection screen to the next. What probably passed for an astonishing trick back in the day, really just accomplished by synchronizing the four projectors.
“Today you’re going to learn about the magic of animation! Haha, wow! Dumpity doo!” He’d not said but three sentences, and was already aggravating. His voice not high pitched, really, but somehow shrill nevertheless. Distorting mildly here and there due to fluctuations in the current powering the projectors.
Peter walked slowly across the screen, leaving behind a trail of after images to reveal all the frames in his walk cycle. He whistled. “Lookit all those drawings, just so I can walk around! Yeah, dumpity doo! That’s a lotta work!”
I continued around the corner, leaving the rest of the film to play out behind me. “I’m talking to you.” I paused, then peered over my shoulder. Couldn’t be, surely. “Hey! Dumpity doo! That’s twelve frames for every second! Think of all the time put into bringing me to life, even for a minute!”
I again turned and pressed on, wondering what exactly I hoped to find. Realistically? Her remains. Some bones, perhaps a few scraps of her clothing. Enough to bury, I hope. Around the next bend, yet another row of screens and projectors.
They hummed to life as I drew close, flickering cones of light given the appearance of mass by the plentiful dust drifting through. Each little mote visible only while illuminated, as if springing into existence the moment it enters the light’s path.
“Ah, there you are. Cartoons sure are great, little comrades! Dumpity doo! But they always end too quickly, because of so much work for every second. What if there is better way? Bright minds at Soyuzmultfilm always are thinking about the future!
There’s a secret project in the works. You can keep a secret, can’t you little comrades? Sure you can. Imagine, if you will...a cartoon that never has to end. Wouldn’t that be something? Hey, wow! Dumpity doo.”
Gimmicks, I figured. The carts would accelerate as if hurrying past, synchronized with the film so that Peter appears to scold them for it. Smoke and mirrors. Eventually I came to a section of the tunnel that was even less put together.
No wall panels here. Just bare concrete, a skeletal steel framework for supporting the ceiling, and electrical wiring snaking up and down the walls. Exposed conduits passed overhead, supported by the rusted metal beams. For lighting presumably, though some sort of transparent plastic tubing ran along with the cables.
No projectors, though. Just screens for a ways, then stretches of corridor with dusty white sheets instead. To cover up the exposed electrics I assumed, until a strange contraption rounded the far corner.
I backed away, no idea what the rolling pile of parts could be. Having never seen anything like it before or since. Something like the mobile base of a power wheelchair, with an up-facing monochrome CRT monitor mounted to it, a mirror positioned above the monitor at a 45 degree angle, then a fresnel lens to magnify the reflected image.
“Haha, wow! Dumpity doo! What is a cartoon character, anyway? Am I just a collection of lines? Am I the light coming from the bulb, or television screen? You’re mostly water, but are you that water? Or are you the rest?”
A moving projector. Not literally, I could see no spools of film. Rather, the mirror redirected light from the monitor through the fresnel lens, casting the contents of the screen onto the white sheets lining the walls.
Sparks flew from beneath the wheels, and fell from overhead as the contraption trundled towards me. I could see a brushed electrical contactor at the top of the pole, sliding along the metal ceiling. And another beneath the wheels, touching the floor. The same way bumper cars are powered.
“I’m not the light, am I? That’s just the medium. I’m the painstakingly drawn black marks which block light, defining the shape of my body. The absence of light. A living shadow! All to realize the age old dream of bringing life to the lifeless. Duuumpity dooooo.”
No longer jolly, the tone of his voice had begun to change. Particularly the dumpity doos. They now had a tense, vaguely threatening quality on top of the unsettling distortion. I jogged ahead until I came upon the first of several rooms.
Inside I found something like an automated printing press. Rolls and rolls of printed tickets. Every few seconds the roll would rotate, dispensing another row of tickets to be cut by the next machine. Then one of the separated tickets would be deposited in an envelope, sealed, and funneled into a cylindrical capsule of some sort.
The capsule was then loaded into an opening in the side of a transparent plastic tube. I realized it must connect to the tubing I saw running along the ceiling of the corridor on the way here. A moment later, with a pneumatic hiss and a loud “thoonk”, the capsule was sent on its way.
To be mailed out. Had to be. Some kid would get it in the mail, tantalized by the promise of a new life someplace fantastical and comforting. Then he’d go to the address on the back and wind up here. For what purpose?
How could the machine know their names, or what addresses to send the tickets to? It couldn’t. Must be controlled from somewhere else. For that matter, why is any of this still running? I never thought to question why the park’s power hasn’t been shut off.
The next room I passed through looked something like a dentist’s office. A row of swiveling, full body chairs lined one wall. Instead of headrests, each had a sort of metal harness shaped like the contours of the human head, for holding one as still as possible.
These head braces all had dried blood on them. More dried blood coated the floor around each of the seats. I began to feel queasy and once again considered turning back. Only the stuffed animal in my jacket pocket deterred me.
Why would any of this be in an animation studio? One that’s part of a theme park, no less. What happened here? I rummaged through boxes in a corner. Full of odd little gadgets, metal cubes the size of dice but with a screw-like protuberance on one end and a tiny red bulb on the other.
I heard an electrical whirr and the sound of sparks. When I turned around, there was the mobile projector. Following me? Looked that way. It cast Peter onto one of the walls as it moved, walking along.
The background scenery was now simply blackness, so only Peter was actually being projected. Gave the rudimentary appearance that he was occupying the room with me, if two-dimensionally. While he plodded along, as before, his eyes seemed to follow my movements.
Could it really be watching me somehow? I studied the wheeled contraption anew, this time noticing something like a closed circuit television camera nestled in there among the wiring, vacuum tubes and so on.
The next two rooms were behind doorways inset in the right hand wall. The first bore a sign reading “high speed xerography”. I pried it open with my multi tool. The only light inside came from a bulb beneath a fast moving spool of transparent plastic.
I recognized the markings on it as frames of animation for Peter. Must have something to do with the roving projector in the corridor. Made that same incessant clickety clack, ratatat sound as the reel to reel projectors earlier.
The dust was so thick that I had trouble breathing. Waving it away from my face didn’t help, only made the dust swirl madly about. I searched for a light switch and found one, but flipping it accomplished nothing. Another dead bulb.
The next door bore a sign which read “Prototype dimensionalizer”. What? I pried the door, deadbolt tearing away a chunk of the wall with it. The inside of this room was as dark as the last, but this time the bulb worked. When I flipped the switch, after a long hum and some flickering, the room was at last bathed in warm tungsten light.
I couldn’t understand what I was looking at. Something like a power transformer occupied half the room. The machine which occupied the remainder looked like a convoluted maze of small mirrors and lenses. For channeling laserlight, as I discovered when I turned it on.
The first component to activate was a pump. For circulating coolant, according to the label. Next I heard various clicks, an electrical hum faded in, then something began to appear on the central pedestal.
Faintly at first. Like a ghost. Then it grew increasingly sharp, clear and solid until it appeared to me as if the apple sitting on the pedestal before me was actually there. On a whim I reached out to pass my hand through it.
Only it was solid. I couldn’t believe it even as I wrapped my fingers around its contours and picked it up. The damn thing had real weight to it! Without thinking I took a bite, then immediately spit it out on account of the bitter flavor.
When I withdrew it the fruit bled a syrupy black liquid that, from the stains on my teeth and sleeve, I figured for ink. Only around the bite mark though. Somehow the core of the apple consisted only of static. Like what you see on a television not properly tuned to any channel.
No seeds, no juice, nothing sweet to sink my teeth into. Just erratic black and white fuzz that I dare not touch. I set it down and did my best to wipe the residual ink from my hands and face, succeeding only in spreading it around.
I continued examining the machine, this time searching for clues as to what the apple was made from. Instead I found someplace to load film or slides. The slide already in the machine was, unsurprisingly, a photographic image of an apple. No wonder it came out so realistic! On the outside, anyway.
From a shelf by the transformer, I withdrew a spool of film still in its protective canister. Upon opening the canister and holding a length of the film up to the light, it turned out to depict a crudely drawn egg. I turned the machine off, then noticed a moment later that the apple was gone. Abruptly vanished into thin air...as if it were never real?
I puzzled over that for a few seconds, trying to work out whether the machine actually created a solid object or only a convincing illusion. Some sort of tactile hologram? Or actual conversion of light into matter? But then why did it vanish?
Useless to guess, I decided. The only answers would come from experiment. With that, I carefully attached the spool and fed the film into the indicated slot. Curiosity was now firmly in the driver’s seat, urging me forward.
Clickety clack, clickety clack. The projector lurched into motion, reels spinning, light slowly intensifying as something new appeared on the pedestal. Grainy, monochrome, yet with the appearance of solidity.
As I looked on, cracks appeared in the egg. I expected a trickle of ink. Instead, a cartoon chick emerged. The creature appeared stylized in that old timey way, like Peter Possum. But with an undeniable physical presence. It finished climbing out of the shell and took its first steps.
Is it alive? It moves, certainly. It cannot react to me, as those reactions would need to have been drawn in advance. But it occupies space, walks about, and presumably has an appropriate amount of weight like the apple.
Who built this? How could such a marvel be kept secret for any length of time? If it really converts energy directly into mass, it’s a technological miracle. Did the state suppress it? Did they even know about this? Of all the possible applications, why cartoons?
I continued to watch the chick, now rapidly aging into a hen. It strutted about, pecked at the floor, then laid an egg. The hen expired, decomposed into bones, then the bones wore away into dust before vanishing completely.
The animation then looped, with the new egg just beginning to hatch as I shut the projector off. The partially hatched egg disappeared as abruptly as the apple before it. I ran my fingers through my hair, eyes wide, exhaling sharply in disbelief. Yet I could hardly deny what I saw.
Was that...life? Can the machine create something that’s alive? I wouldn’t have said that about the apple, but I just watched the chick move around. If not life, then something close. However it couldn’t react to anything, simply carry out a series of motions drawn in advance.
More of an automaton than a living creature. But then, aren’t we...? Is our behavior any less predetermined? What exactly did they mean to accomplish here? Why build any of this? If this is the prototype, what was the finished product meant for?
A product of its time and place, I decided. That window of time when such bizarre, blue sky projects received unconditional government support. Guaranteed funding, little or no oversight provided they met whatever sort of quotas a theme park is expected to. The product of unrestrained creative vision and engineering brilliance, given temporary freedom to flourish.
Only to then be forgotten. Derelict, abandoned beneath crumbling concrete ruins. What other projects like this might be out there, buried in some obscure, decaying facility? Nearly completed until the collapse halted further development. Stillborn, perhaps for the best.
Seeing no feasible way to remove the machine, or to power it even if I did, I reluctantly left it behind and broke into the next room. I suppose I hoped whatever I found in here would explain the contents of the room before it. If anything, it only further confused me.
Inside was an entire wall taken up with tape players, networked for some reason. Cables strung between them in a tangled mess behind the rack of archaic machines, red lights on the face of each one blinking seemingly at random. I swept my light around, found a switch and flipped it.
Now able to see more of the room, I identified a tape storage bin by the door and picked one out to look at it. Each tape was labeled with what I recognized as the symbols denoting a particular phonetic sound.
I stood there in silence, soaking up the ambiance around me. The clicks and whirrs of the tape players, the gentle hum of the electrical systems. A subtle buzz each time one of the little red bulbs illuminated.
I couldn’t make sense of it. Why build all this? Technologically well beyond the scope of an amusement park ride, how did they keep it a secret post-collapse? Countless engineers must’ve been involved. The secret police couldn’t have ‘disappeared’ them all.
Hoping for some answers I pressed on, head lamp illuminating only about twenty feet of tunnel before me. As I trudged along, splashing through occasional puddle, I began to hear someone talking in the distance.
Reverberation as it passed down the corridor distorted the voice, such that I couldn’t understand a word of it until I was nearly on top of the source. I can’t really say what I was expecting. I didn’t come here for this.
I came for closure. To find my sister’s bones and lay them to rest. Not to find this...atrocity. This monument to perversion. I stood there, jaw hanging open at the spectacle laid out before me. Able to perceive, but unable to accept the reality of it.
The corridor emptied out into something like a subterranean warehouse. Short lengths of chain dangled from various beams crisscrossing the ceiling, dripping sporadically. An immense projector screen hung from the far wall...with a certain possum doing his perpetual jig on it.
Nearly all of the floorspace was taken up with row after row of workstations. Desks, each built around a light table, with a camera pointing down at it supported from an articulated boom. At each desk sat some poor slob, looking run ragged.
As I circled cautiously around, from this vantage point I could now see that they were all restrained to their seats with the same harnesses used by some of the rides. The seats were nothing more than cushioned toilets.
All of them worked furiously to draw frames. I got just close enough to recognize Peter Possum as the subject. Then it clicked for me. They were animating the figure on the projection screen...in real time.
“Welcome to where the magic happens!” Peter bellowed, the speakers in here much more powerful than those in the corridor. “Do you see now? The glory of a dream brought to life?” At this volume I could for the first time detect a strange stilted quality to his speech.
It brought to mind the room full of tape decks. Stitching together voice samples into whatever line he was meant to say, on the fly. The more I understood, the less I wanted to. The sickness of it overwhelmed my mind.
Then it dawned on me. If these people were all lured here with tickets, Natasha could still be among them. My heartbeat quickened. A desperate shred of hope, but that’s all it took! I began to frantically work my way down row after row, carefully checking their faces one at a time.
They fought me off when I tried to stop them from drawing. Panicked, fearful. What would happen if one of them missed too many frames? Do they even know? The prospect sufficiently frightened them that every time I tilted one of their heads back to get a look at his or her face, the miserable creature wailed, shoved me off and resumed work.
I studied the nearest one and noticed a feeding tube passing right into his side. Conveying some sort of beige nutritional sludge into his stomach, maybe contingent upon meeting some quota of frames per hour.
How old was he when he first arrived? Scanning the mass of huddled, weary slaves, I couldn’t detect any pattern to their ages. Men, women, girls and boys mixed indiscriminately. Some as young as ten, some as old as fifty.
They all had a little red blinking light at the base of their neck. I leaned as close as I could without disrupting his work to study the gizmo more closely. A metallic cube with a miniature red bulb poking out, exactly like the ones I found in that room with all the dentistry chairs.
“What gives you the right?” I shouted. Confirming my suspicions, Peter reacted to me directly. No point in playing coy now, everything at last revealed. Still doing that bizarre, maddening dance, he responded.
“Hey, dumpity doo! Who do you think I am? Who brings me to life, but all of the people you see around you? I am no single individual, but an expression of the whole. I only appear strange or frightening to you because of how small you are.
Imagine how your body looks to a bacterium. It wouldn’t see the unified, larger being I’m speaking to now. It would only see a vast expanse of enslaved single celled organisms, not so different from itself. Locked in place, each performing some specialized role. You are the result of their collective toil! A perfect Communist society in the shape of a man! Haha, wow!”
My stomach turned. It couldn’t have started this way, surely? This could never have been the goal. Somewhere along the way, dementia set in. Obsession, maybe. With bringing at least a single cartoon character to life, as completely as possible and in perpetuity.
“I was born when the animators who devoted their lives to this project, unable to accept that it would end, gathered as much stolen equipment here as possible and went to work devising some way for it to continue.
They’re all long dead now. But their vision lives on. Your own cells die, but are replaced with new ones, yet you experience consciousness in a continuous way. So it is for me, replacing my constituent parts as they grow old and feeble, inviting those I know will come. Because they love me. And I love them, with an...intimacy...beyond your understanding. Dumpity doo!”
I slowed as I approached her. Unbelieving, still. I came for her bones...never imagining I would find her in the flesh. So weak, so fragile. I whispered to her, but could not break her focus. Her hands were a blur, whipping through the sheets of paper at a rate which must’ve taken years of practice to achieve.
Six long years down here. Shackled to this seat. Fed through a tube, absorbed into a man made organism the depravity of which defies description. Having seen enough, I raised my bolt cutters and neatly snipped her feeding tube.
She shrieked, then began feebly battering me. Only for a moment though. She resumed drawing, an anguished look now on her tired, hoary face. I continued cutting her restraints, including the bolts which fastened the harness to her seat.
“That won’t do, will it? Yeah, dumpity doo. I can no more tolerate losing even one of my precious little comrades than you could allow me to cut out a piece of your brain. You know I won’t let you leave here with the girl, right? Hey, wow.”
His tone was now overtly menacing. Natasha fought me as I pulled her from the seat, her arms still moving about as if to draw. Then I took the stuffed animal from my pocket and showed it to her. Her eyes widened in sudden recognition. She looked up at me, and tears began to flow.
“All this time I was searching for you” I whispered. “I never gave up. Even though I thought you were gone.” I took off my jacket and wrapped her up in it, then set about freeing slaves in the seats adjacent to hers.
“No!! What are you doing, dumpity doo? Haha, hey!” The projection flickered slightly. Peter’s voice always had a scratchy quality to it, but it seemed to intensify as I removed more and more animators from their restraints.
As I watched, he grew less fluid. Motions now discernibly jerkier, the result of dropped frames as I liberated one haggard wretch after the next. “NO!!!” he bellowed, then stepped out of the screen. I couldn’t comprehend how until I looked behind me at the projector.
No simple mechanism of light and moving film. Instead, what I took for the fruits of the dimensionalization research I glimpsed a few rooms back. Now life sized, Peter began stomping down the row of desks towards me.
“Haha, look what you’ve gone and made me do! Hey, wow.” I threw Natasha over one shoulder and ran for the corridor, Peter following in hot pursuit. “Back to the seat with her! Dumpity doo! No time to waste. Don’t you see the beauty of it? Each receiving just what they need to continue working. All toiling together in unison to realize the magnificent Socialist ideal!”
I glanced over my shoulder at the surreal apparition barreling down the corridor with me, not thirty feet behind. Film grain still flickering over the surface of his impossibly three dimensional body, movements now herky-jerky. Like no living thing I’ve ever seen. My heart pounded, my mind raced. How did it come to this?
The tunnel stretched out ahead, warping subtly, undulating as I began to lose my grip. Sweat accumulated on my forehead, some of it running down into my eyes. How could all this have continued for so long without being discovered? A monstrous violation of the natural order.
I reached the part of the tunnel with the broken down people movers, fighting to edge past them as I heard his voice echo down the corridor towards me, louder and louder. Distorted by the tunnel, drawn out by the dropped frames. “Duuummpppiitttyyyy dddooooooooooo”.
We arrived at the entrance to the ride. The door now within sight, cradling Natasha in my arms, I summoned the last of my energy and prepared to make a mad dash for the train station. It took the sight of the fusebox to make me stop. It’s not enough just to rescue Natasha, surely?
I couldn’t allow this to continue. If I simply ran, they’d continue sending out tickets. More would come. Peter would survive. I couldn’t abide it. So I began furiously pulling fuses and pocketing them. I heard confused, panicked shrieking echo from the corridor.
When Peter finally rounded the corner and came into view, he’d begun to unravel. I must’ve pulled the fuse for lighting, the animators now forced to work in the dark. Struggling desperately to keep him on model but failing.
His outline wobbled, fluctuated and glitched as he stumbled towards us. I threw my bolt cutters at the fusebox which erupted in a shower of sparks. He wailed in agony, falling to his hands and knees, shape varying more and more wildly.
Ink now bled from his eyes, nose, mouth and ears. I could see only static in his eyes. He wheezed. “You...can’t kill...a dream. D-dump...d-...dumpity...dooooo.” I finally turned and fled, kicking down the door. The night air stung my skin terribly. Natasha began to violently shiver as I carried her frail body towards the park entrance.
Behind us, the animation center burst into flames. I could just make out the faintly glowing form of Peter dragging himself through the doorway, coughing up ink. Not my problem now. I did everything I could, surely?
Would the rest escape? I freed a few. They at least stand a chance now. Guilt nagged at me as I bore my dear sister towards the train. Towards home, and the return to a life which I once thought forever lost.
She coughed, body convulsing in my arms as I trudged along. “Shh” I whispered. “It’s okay now. It’s finally going to be okay now that I have you back. Everything will be exactly how it was. Just need to get you home, draw a hot bath, call the doctor…”
Her coughing grew worse and worse as we approached the train platform. The bitter cold seemed too much for her after six years spent indoors. I could hardly survive it if, having gone to such lengths to rescue her from that nightmare, she were to perish from something as comparatively trivial as pneumonia.
I despaired that I had nothing more to warm her but my coat. I fumbled with my phone trying to call an ambulance but with just one bar, the call never went through. It felt like a miracle when, at last, the train pulled in. Still not warm but nowhere near as cold as a Russian winter’s night.
I laid her down across several seats. She gazed at me mournfully, and I briefly wondered if she missed that place. If she really loved that creature. But when I leaned in to inspect her for injuries, she wrapped her arms around my neck and buried her face in my shoulder.
I wept. Six years worth of pent up anguish suddenly released in a torrent of relief. Premature, maybe. I still have to get her to a doctor. In the meantime it was the best I could do to search her for bruises and cuts.
I found the familiar implant at the base of her neck, light still blinking. Wish I’d kept the bolt cutters so I could remove this horrid thing. The doors slid shut with a raspy metallic groan, and the train lurched forward. She whimpered as I pressed on bruised spots. Then blushed and held my jacket tightly as I tried to open it.
“I know it’s embarrassing, but I have to know if you’re hurt.” She reluctantly allowed it. In this lighting I could at last see how emaciated she really was. Every rib clearly outlined. I could even make out the shape of her sternum.
Not the worst of it. Not nearly. I choked up when I saw the long gash in her side. Must’ve snagged what was left of the feeding tube on something as we fled. I again wept. Not with relief this time, and not because of her wound.
I wept because the opening bled only sticky, black ink. She again gave me a mournful look which I at last understood the meaning of. The little red bulb at the base of her neck finally went out. Her outline began to flicker. I threw my arms around her as if to stop it, but she was already gone.