The Space Between Moments
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Up, down, yes, no.” The pleasant looking woman in the grey wool uniform on the other side of the glass pressed a switch before her. A faint hiss follows as our two chambers are equalized.
“What’s the point of that?” I muttered, mostly to myself. To my surprise, Ken answered. “Toons are constitutionally incapable of giving a totally straight answer to anything. They will always deviate somehow, just to be silly.
The simple “reality check” as we call it serves two purposes. The first being to identify especially realistic toons, and the second being to ensure that both you and everyone in the vessel you’re about to equalize with are operating in the same uncontaminated reality.”
I remarked that he was being unexpectedly candid. “There isn’t much left about toons that’s classified for you now, or you wouldn’t be in here. Besides, there aren’t many uncontaminated humans remaining. We’ve been pooling our knowledge with every other similar agency around the world in hopes that we may still solve it in the eleventh hour. After all, what’s the alternative? Just...live with it?”
He gestured out the window. A mixture of regular cars and cartoon cars sputtered past. An old timey cartoon bus plodded along, the entire structure of it doing a sort of dance where it would extend upwards to one side, then retract down into the center, then extend up to the other side, over and over. Its bulbous white eyes up on the front implying some measure of intelligence, though I’ve never seen one that can speak.
“Well, I dunno. I’ve met an awful lot of people who would be happy to. Granted, it’s mostly gross overweight hairy dudes with anime girlfriends.” Ken grimaced, retracting the window blind all the way. “Does that look fucking normal to you? Can you really live with that?”
Outside, the grassy hills and nearby highway were illuminated by soft, warm rays of morning sunshine...from a cartoon sun. Big ol’ smiley face, big white puffy eyeballs like pillows that the pupils seem to float around on, giving us all a thumbs up.
I returned the thumbs up, and Ken scolded me for it. “How’d that happen anyway?” I inquired. “I heard bits and pieces on the news but never really understood.” He described an experiment in which a payload consisting of a live toon specimen was sent on a close flyby of the sun.
“The hope was to find out whether intense solar radiation might destabilize toon particles. Instead a glitch in the navigational software sent it spiraling into the sun, where some sort of chain reaction occurred.”
Figures. “You’d think they would’ve learned from the purges” I muttered. Ken nodded enthusiastically. “Exactly! Forget all the bad press that goes along with the government rounding up cute, loveable cartoon characters and forcing them into incinerators. All that did was to break them down into toon particles and disperse them throughout the atmosphere.”
He brought up electron microscope imagery of a lone toon particle. Even with the paltry resolution, it was enough to make out the usual big pillowy eyes and stupid grin floating beneath them, not obviously attached to the particle anywhere.
“So how did this start, anyway? Surely I have the clearance to know that now.” He assured me I did, and led me to the next hermetically sealed door. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Up, down, yes, no” the woman on the other side of the glass said, the very picture of calm.
Ken repeated it back word for word. Almost. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Up, down, no, yes.” The uniformed woman immediately tensed up, eyes wide. She flipped up the glass safety covering from a big red switch and her finger hovered over it.
“NO! No, it was a slip of the tongue!” Ken stammered. “Slip of the tongue, that’s all! Just nervous because of the company. Look, I can do it! One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. Up down yes no.”
The woman squinted at him, then folded down some kind of scanning mechanism she peered at Ken through for a minute. She called over someone I guessed was her superior, who peered through the device as well, and the two conferred.
Finally, she pressed the switch to let us through. The green light came on, I heard that subtle hiss, and the door slid open. “...I must’ve said that a billion times since I started here. Of course I would fuck it up right in front of a newbie. Funny, isn’t it?”
Intuiting what would’ve happened had the woman decided to press that glass covered switch after all, I disagreed. “Oh. Well, I’m sincerely sorry about that.” Ken said, sheepishly. “It’s the stress, you know? Of being one of the last clean ones.”
In the next chamber was a decrepit pile of antiquated looking machinery propped up by supports, contained within airtight glass housing. “This is where it all started”, Ken teased. “What? This pile of junk? I don’t understand.”
He flashed a maniacal grin. “Nobody did! When toons began to appear, it shocked the world. That’s pretty low on the list of conceivably possible events. It came out of nowhere, and pretty soon my team discovered the hows and whys of it. All down to this impressive piece of Soviet era engineering.”
A few flipped switches later, the machine came to life. “Used to operate with film. The resulting toons were grainy, black and white, not much to look at. We’ve replaced the film with an ultra high definition transparent digital display. Our computers generate the frames.”
Something didn’t add up. “How were they generated before? There couldn’t have been toons which react to their surroundings, or have conversations with you if their frames were all pre-drawn. I can’t imagine Soviet computers were up to the task of rendering cels at the necessary rate for real time interaction either.”
He pulled up some photos on his tablet of what looked like the interior of a dingy warehouse with row upon row of desks. Each supported an animator’s light table, and the seats all had restraints as if to hold someone in place.
“The same way the Soviets did everything. Slave labor.” I gaped in disbelief, but he solemnly nodded. “It was only because of a fire in the facility that they left it in search of someone who knew how to repair the damaged electrical infrastructure in the building.
When the cops rounded ’em up, they couldn’t get any useful information out of them. Totally indoctrinated. All they cared about was going back to animating. Every last one professed undying love for some hokey old Soviet Mickey Mouse knock-off character they’d spent literal decades animating until the fire put a stop to it.”
It turned my stomach just to think about it. “Of course Russian police discipline being what it is” Ken continued, “the details of the machinery they found in the facility were leaked almost immediately to the press. When it became widely known that there was such a thing as a machine which could bring cartoon characters to life, public demand for it was irresistibly ravenous.”
The machine, warming up until now, finally began displaying a cartoon bunny on a pedestal within the glass enclosure. Sharp, full color and realistic, but sufficiently stylized that I’d never mistake it for the real thing. Its nose twitched.
“Like life extension drugs, it’s one of those things that couldn’t be kept from the public, regardless of the consequences. They would’ve shown up outside with torches and pitchforks. They would’ve torn us apart if we didn’t make it commercially available. Naturally what most people wanted the technology for was...ahem...prurient purposes.”
He showed me some footage of western cartoon styled women with impossible bodily proportions dancing in a strip club alongside obnoxiously bug eyed anime girls with neon hair. “That’s just how it goes, isn’t it? Any time a new technology with limitless potential is discovered, the average Joe’s first question is “Can I fuck it?” Because in this case the answer was yes, there was never any hope of keeping it out of their hands.”
I smirked. Of all the things to use this technology for. “There was initially discussion of granting toons human rights. But the disastrous implications for the economy should they take away badly needed jobs, being able to work tirelessly in good humor without ever needing to eat or take breaks put the kibosh on that idea.
The only way they could be a positive addition to the world, and the only way most could tolerate their integration into society was if they didn’t have any rights. Nobody wanted to compete with toons for work. They wanted to own a toon. Or several. For housework, amusement...gratification…”
How I wished he’d stop reminding me of that particular application. “Of course their legal status as non-persons just made it easier to confiscate them all for ‘humane destruction’ when the effects of toon particles were discovered. I knew at the time there would be repercussions. Just not that they would be so immediate and severe. Nobody did.”
He flipped a switch and an abrupt, blinding electrical arc vaporized the cartoon rabbit. Then a ventilation fan sucked the newly disassociated toon particles into an adjacent storage cylinder. Identical sealed cylinders lined shelves along the wall, several layers deep.
He led me to the next door. This time it was a young man with black hair on the other side of the glass. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Up, down, yes, no.” Ken repeated it word for word. The switch was pressed, the light turned green and a quiet hiss followed.
Once the door opened, Ken led me into the next chamber where a mess of lab equipment was set up. Two of Ken’s colleagues were hard at work, one peering into a microscope while the other studied a display panel on the wall.
“Of course the first thing the government did was confiscate and destroy consumer toon projectors. Much too late by then. Some sort of...critical mass was achieved. An inflection point. Once a toon has existed for long enough, destroying the projector weakens but does not kill it.”
He pointed to a shelf full of colorful plastic gadgets I recognized as the commercially available toon projectors that were all the rage until the ban. Even then, loads of people were so attached to their toons that they wouldn’t give up their projector.
It wasn’t just the attachment you feel for a pet. Toons are intelligent, at least in their own way. They can hold conversations provided there is always a punchline. They can play with you, provided the outcome is in some way humorous. People bonded to their toons the way you would a close friend. If this had gone on any longer, undoubtedly they’d be campaigning for legalized toon marriage.
“That’s when I first began to suspect there was some outside force sustaining them. The projector physicalizes light and shadow, keeps it organized until it’s strong enough to self-sustain. The projector was never an engine of creation, rather it opens a channel of some sort through which an energy we do not yet comprehend can support the toon’s continued existence indefinitely thereafter.”
The researcher nearest me scrutinized diagrams I assumed were related to the prototype projector in the other room. His colleague peered at a monitor which displayed a CGI depiction of a photon alongside a dense academic journal related to the behavior of light.
“The projector must then tap into some physical force or principle related to light, and to time. This insight determined the direction of our research into the nature of time itself. Have you ever wondered whether time passes in a fluid, contiguous manner? Like a river? Or if instead, there is a shortest possible length of time? In which case, it’s more like a sequence of frames.”
I gasped. “Like animation!” He nodded grimly. “We may well be animated creatures ourselves, after a fashion. Naturally occurring ones anyway. Toons operate on the same principles, or rather, the projectors used to instantiate them do. This level of understanding was enough to create our own improved, miniaturized toon projectors for global markets. But it wasn’t enough to truly understand what we were doing, in a deeper sense.”
He took a circular tin from a shelf, opened it and withdrew the spool of film from inside. After unrolling it a little, he held the film up to the light so I could make out the contents. A vintage cartoon, depicting some sort of Disney knockoff character. “Salvaged from the same site as the prototype projector, I take it?” He nodded.
“If each of these frames is a moment in time, the shortest possible, then as you already know, progressing through the frames quickly enough creates the illusion of smooth, contiguous movement. You see, movement and other forms of change are the only objective, reliable definition of the passage of time physics has yet been able to arrive at.”
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully, though in truth I couldn’t fathom where he could be going with any of it. “But what about this?” He pointed, very carefully, at the slim black border between two frames. I confessed that I didn’t understand his meaning. “Don’t you? For there to be indivisibly brief units of time, there must be divisions between them. Like between the frames of this film. If nothing separated them, time would be contiguous.”
I allowed that such a division must exist, else everything would occur at once, but pressed him to explain what any of this had to do with the toon problem. “It has everything to do with the toon problem! Don’t you see? This is it! The fundamental understanding of how toons work that will at last make it possible to destroy them! To restore the world to some semblance of how it was before!”
I pointed out this would leave Earth without a star to orbit. He sheepishly conceded that whatever method of toon annihilation they arrived at would need to be applied in a selective, judicious manner. “As close as possible to how it was, that’s all I’m saying. Everything hinges on understanding that division. What is it? Is it made out of anything? If we could pry two moments apart, what would we find in between them?”
I shrugged. “It all sounds like so much madness to me. But then, the further along mankind’s understanding of physics has gotten, the more bizarre and seemingly impossible it becomes. Quantum mechanics for example. Particles which only have a definite position when observed? I’m sure that baffled and outraged physicists when it was first proposed. I mean, it sounds like…”
He interrupted me with a devilish grin. “Like cartoon logic. Doesn’t it? The coyote who runs off a cliff but does not fall until he realizes it. The physics of the cartoon world. In many ways toons are just macroscopic beings who, unlike us, are governed by the forces which used to apply only to the smallest scales of existence.”
On our way towards the next airlock, I noticed a photograph on the wall depicting a toon janitor cleaning up the area just outside the facility. “You employ toons?” Given the extreme measures they go to in order to exclude toon particles from this lab, it seemed impossibly foolish.
“Used to. Free labor is free labor. Of course they kept trying to get inside, but once you understand toon psychology it isn’t difficult to see it coming. Toons aren’t really conscious, strictly speaking. Their minds work in a very linear, goal oriented fashion. Everything they think, do or say is pursuant to some sort of gag. Humor optimizers, you might say.
Smart enough to do all sorts of useful jobs, but before long we began noticing a pattern to their behavior. They would routinely try to disrupt research in comical ways. Leaving banana peels for us to slip on, spring loaded boxing gloves hidden inside the mailbox, that sort of thing. Never seriously hurt anybody, but it did put a dent in productivity.”
He carefully recited the reality check to the plump young woman in the grey uniform just on the other side of the glass. She toggled the switch and with a hiss, the door opened. What waited on the other side would’ve made me puke had it been actual gore. Instead, all manner of toon limbs, bones and organs floated within sealed vats.
Many of them weren’t even creatures per se, but living objects. Books, hats, clocks and other every day items converted into toon matter. All of them alive, to whatever extent toons are alive, with their own set of eyes and mouths. Some of them partly dissected, their book, hat or clock shaped skeletons showing through the openings.
More distressingly, a few of the tanks held what looked like human remains. Toons, to be sure, but that only became obvious when I got very, very close. The art style was so faultlessly realistic that unless you got close enough to look for individual pores, or the fine hairs which cover human skin, you could easily mistake it for a real person. Except of course that these ones were torn apart, and their organs all had stupid little smiling faces on ’em.
Ken led me to the vat with a brain in it. Naturally the brain had its own puffy white eyeballs and mouth, presumably separate from the ones on the face of the body it was surgically removed from. A little arm appeared briefly for the sole purpose of waving at the two of us, then fused back into the wrinkly grey mass.
“See that bandage?” Ken said. I didn’t until he pointed it out. A little cross shaped bandage with its own eyes and mouth, implying injury. “That appears on any part of a toon that’s been hurt. Obviously sawing open a toon’s skull to get the brain out warranted the appearance of a bandage. But do you know what happens if we try to cut off the bandage?”
I shook my head. “A smaller bandage appears on it.” I stifled a chuckle. Beyond the vats lay a glass chamber occupying the entire other half of the room. I felt the tingle of an electrical field in the air, and heard a low pitched hum. Inside the chamber, an anthropomorphic cartoon cat stood perfectly still as if frozen in place.
A large analog knob dominated the control panel of the console before us, mounted right up against the outer wall of the chamber. “You want to see something cool?” I told him I’ve never been one to say no to that question. He slowly turned the knob.
Within the chamber, the cat character began to move in extreme slow motion. As Ken turned the knob more and more clockwise, the toon’s motion sped up until it looked to be taking place at the same rate as everything outside the chamber. It didn’t escape my notice that the lights flickered mildly during this process, and I wondered at how much power it must be consuming.
Ken next turned the knob counterclockwise. As he did so, the toon slowed down more and more until he was once again frozen in place. “But watch this!” Ken insisted, though I’d said nothing. As he continued turning the knob, the toon began to move...backwards.
The animation sped up until the toon paced around his cell and carried out various other actions at regular speed, but in reverse. Like rewinding a film. The implications struck me at once. “Doesn’t that mean their behavior is predetermined?” Ken returned the dial to the neutral position before answering. “No more or less so than our own.”
But that didn’t seem right. The second time around, potential existed for different conversations. Different interactions. I protested that if he were to rewind the toon a ways, then open the chamber and speak to it, the toon must necessarily do something different from what it did before.
“That doesn’t contradict the notion that its mind proceeds in an ultimately deterministic way, because it can only ever react in a certain predictable way to any given stimuli. Toon psychology operates in predictable pursuit of laughs, just as human psychology is centered around the predictable pursuit of survival and reproduction.”
It still seemed wrong to me, but I wasn’t the fellow in the lab coat, so I didn’t dispute it. “You’re missing the importance of this experiment though” Ken urged. “Though impossible with manual controls, computer control of this chamber makes it possible to halt the animation precisely between two of its frames. To get a brief, but revealing glimpse of what hides in that space.”
Before I could ask what he meant, he performed a quick series of taps to a touchscreen on the console, and the toon inside the chamber convulsed. Not at the joints, but rather, the entire creature warped subtly. What looked very much like static lines and the sort of wavy, corrupted distortion seen on old, degraded video tapes.
“Even with the embarrassment of on-site computing power, the frames are so numerous and densely packed that it takes some time to resolve individual frames, much less the spaces between them. Even when the toon was perfectly still, you were actually looking at the tweened average of many trillions of frames.”
I couldn’t force myself to pay attention to any of it. I was instead transfixed on the spectacle unfolding within the chamber.
The toon continued to deteriorate, skin burning away until it was just static. Like on a television not tuned to any particular channel. “That’s what’s really inside ’em. If they’re expecting to be cut up, you’ll find goofy cartoon organs and whatnot. But that’s for show. It’s to get laughs, of course. If they’re not expecting it, if you can rip them apart like this, that’s what you’ll find inside.”
It wasn’t actually an explanation, in that it didn’t truly explain anything. The more I learned, the more maddening it all became. “What? What do you find inside? What is that stuff? How can it be there?” As I watched, the toon bled some sort of thick black syrup from the edges of the few patches of skin which hadn’t already been incinerated.
“It’s useless to ask “how can it be that way”. Toons are perversions of physics. Walking, talking impossibilities. To strive to understand them in the conventional, logical way is to begin your downward spiral into madness. So all I do is document what I see. That’s pure science, isn’t it? No editorializing. No second guessing. I just record my observations, then devise experiments like this one.”
He seemed proud of it. I suppose he was right to be. Though as I watched the tormented figure inside the chamber, I couldn’t help but feel that a line had been crossed. Long ago, probably. I just never really concerned myself with it because toons aren’t human.
“THERE!” Ken cried. “There it is! Do you see it?” The toon was now wholly disincorporated. Just a fragmented, scattered cloud of static. In its midst, I glimpse something indescribable. Even now, I cannot find the words to make anybody else understand what it was like to directly witness it. Like being shown a square circle.
“What...what is it?” I stammered. Ken must’ve done this countless times, as he appeared wholly unfazed by it. “Nothing. It’s nothing. But not as we conceive of it. Zero is not truly nonexistent or we couldn’t conceive of it, couldn’t talk about it. It is absence. Shadow is the absence of light. Nothingness is the absence of matter, energy, space and time. The shadow of reality.”
I couldn’t stop myself from trying to make sense of what I was seeing, but that only made it worse. How it teemed. How it swirled, and swarmed. That thing which consisted of hollow space. A shape defined by where something is not. Like cutting a hole in a sheet of paper, in the shape of a man.
The shape was certainly not humanoid, but unlike anything I have any basis of comparison for. All I could say for sure was that it is alive, at least in the sense that it moved with apparent intentionality, reacting to our presence in a way which betrayed its awareness of being observed.
“What does it want” I murmured softly. Ken didn’t hide his amusement. “I looked just like you when I saw it the first time. I bet you’ve got a pounding headache too.” In fact I felt one coming on, and only realized my nose was bleeding when the droplet of blood reached my mouth. “What does it want?” I repeated.
Ken became unexpectedly somber. “It wants...acknowledgement. By us. It wants the legitimacy which comes from that, legitimacy it cannot attain any other way. It wants our approval. The easiest way to get that is to make us laugh. They need our participation in order to begin converting our bodies into toon particles, and laughter is usually involuntary.”
My stomach sank. How long has it been? How many years have gone by during which I might’ve laughed at some stupid gag that a toon pulled? They’re just never funny to me. I never went in for that sort of slapstick humor. Otherwise I’d be a toon myself by now.
“We’ve got ’em on the run though.” He turned and cast an accusing glare at the impossible thing inside the time control chamber. “WE KNOW WHAT YOU ARE!” He shouted, startling the nearest lab assistant. “We’ve got ’em figured out, or nearly. It won’t be long now until we can permanently destroy them. That day can’t come soon enough, either.”
The hatred dripping from his voice surprised me. I asked if a toon has ever wronged him, or harmed someone he loved. “You know, I get asked that by everybody who comes through here. That would make sense, wouldn’t it? But it’s simpler than that. Toons don’t belong here. Not in our reality. What they are….What they actually are, inside….is not supposed to be here. It’s supposed to remain forever confined to the space between moments.
It’s our own damned fault it got out. Our bottomless appetite for amusement, for unconditional love, sex, companionship...our laziness. Now they’re everywhere. Every fucking place I look. It makes me sick. All of them vying for human attention, competing to be loved. There’s just not enough to go around. Not even before toons, there wasn’t.”
The sobriety of his spiel moved me. When he put it that way, I too began to wonder what sort of future there could be for authentic human relationships in a world where toons will leap at the chance to gratify any sort of desire we have, the moment we openly express it.
“Doesn’t it just say everything we need to know about them, that they need our permission to exist!?” Ken ranted. “We’re real! We’re genuine living organisms with warmth, weight and presence. What are they? You saw for yourself. The impossible possibility. The vacuum which nature is said to abhor.
So we must have some quality, some energy inherent to legitimate inhabitants of reality. An energy that we give away any time that we love. When we love each other we lose nothing, as we exchange that energy equitably. But to love a toon...it’s like a black hole. The more you laugh, the more you love, the more powerful and permanent it grows. While at the same time you grow weaker, until you become…”
He trailed off, hands trembling. I thought I saw a tear in the corner of his eye. For all his denial earlier, I now felt more certain than ever that he must’ve lost someone important. A toon now, worse than dead in his eyes, as the temptation to embrace the conversion simply to be with her must constantly gnaw at him.
...Or did she leave him for a toon? Oh dear, that must be it. I could imagine no greater indignity. If that’s what happened, no wonder he doesn’t talk about it. No wonder he’d make up some other, superficially convincing reason for his antipathy towards toons.
“There’s just too damn many. Sucking up precious human love. Not like it was in the beginning, when the projector was found. It was perfect and pure then. It was intimate, exclusive...Because there weren’t all these impostors running around. There was only one, beloved by all.”
I nodded along until I realized he’d gone off on a tangent and I didn’t really follow him anymore. When I asked him to clarify, he brushed me off. “Not to worry. Given your background and accomplishments, I feel more certain than ever that we’ll crack this problem. Then the real fun can begin, erasing those frauds, those leeches, from existence. Until there’s only one.”
I scratched my head a bit. “Oh! The sun, of course.” Ken looked confused for a moment. “Oh, yes. The sun. Can’t do without that, can we? Though I haven’t given up hope of converting it back. Hey, wouldn’t that be something? Wow.” He walked me back through two airlocks until we reached the dorms, one of which would be my lodging for the duration of my stay.
“Listen, Ken?” He stopped in place and looked over his shoulder. “You don’t have to lie to me. I’m not so obtuse that I can’t tell something terrible happened to you. If you ever feel like talking about it, I’m sure there’s some liquor stashed away somewhere, we could have a drink together or something.”
He just stood there silently parsing it for a while. “I appreciate the gesture, but at the end of the day my reasons are my own business. These days I live for my work. For a world like the one I used to know. I have no time for, or interest in anything which distracts from that. Until then, I suggest you follow my example and dedicate yourself to the project.”
I apologized, and assured him that I meant to conduct myself as a professional ought to. He smiled. “That’s what I like to hear” he muttered as he walked away. Then faintly, under his breath, “Dumpity doo.”
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