(reading time: 1 hour, 39 minutes)
It is notoriously difficult to hear, the voice of creation. The mind naturally listens for it at all the wrong times. It expects to hear god singing when a flower blooms, or when a child is born, or when lovers embrace. The mind looks out when it must look in. The voice of creation comes from within man. It is when her or his creations are born that it can be heard.
Three times it has been heard. The first was in a cave of bluish stone; it was man’s early morning. Natural hair was clothing enough. An adolescent girl waited for her parents to return from a hunt. She busied herself by taking up a burnt stick, its end crumbling charcoal. She touched it to mineral canvas and began to draw. She created a fish, the ones she liked to eat most from the deep river that had taken her little brother a season ago.
No sooner than she had dotted its eye in place did their eyes lock. The fish thanked her for creating it. She tried to pet its side, but felt only stone. Already the voice faded. She never heard it again, even though she filled the cave with fish. It was an ocean of its own by the time she was gone.
The second time was in an abbey. It was the age where your entire life could be spent with your nose to a single book. A young man was in such a position, bent over a volume worth more than he ever would be. The abbot himself had already done the most intricate work in the corners of the page. He would have continued working into the night, but his age had advanced too much to be greased by night oil. His hands shook after dark.
A dear friend of the abbot was going to be by the next morning to look at the illuminated writing, so the abbot had charged the boy with doing some of the coloring. Just enough to show off. The boy was ready. He had his gold, his silver, his lapis blue, and his emerald green. Even though the lines were not his, he had just as much passion as the abbot in the coloring. His work was just as vital, as all work is blended in art. A single pen stroke cannot be separated from a thousand others.
He colored the head of a dragon. Instead of issuing flame, out came the voice of creation. The boy saw the head move, saw it snake down the side of the page and wind its way in and out of some of the words. His wits were not quick enough to take advantage, the spark faded yet again, and the beast stopped. It had moved, and that was something the abbot could not deny. It was not possible for the boy to change his work so, let alone improve it as it clearly had been. He attributed it to the divine hand, but it was simply a boy’s hand: soft, eager, and wanting nothing more than the flow of color.
The third time stuck. The third time is where we will stay. It is what I will animate for you with words and pictures. I cannot do it justice, as I have not heard the voice myself, but even an echo of inspiration rings with truth.
The year was 1916. The room was behind shutters. Why were they closed during broad daylight? Why was the room lit by a single desk lamp instead? Because W. Z. Opry wanted it that way. He was making something new, inventing something, and he needed invented light rather than the natural stuff. The natural stuff would give his work a realistic slant that was impossible to get rid of. It would put actual fear in the pert little pupils of his woodland critters. They were only showing fear, only acting.
W.Z.’s critters were the cast of his comic strip. He hadn’t sold it yet, so it was little more than something to draw on the boardwalk and hope that passersby were stopped by appreciation for his squirrels, his skunks, his toads, and his ferrets. The papers weren’t biting and neither were the beachcombers, so he took his work indoors, tried to control every aspect of it. His ears yearned for the buzz of that invented light.
It was amazing that he could hear anything, being the age he was. He wasn’t bound to a cane like a grape to its trellis or anything of the sort, but he was practically a mummy when it came to the song of creation. Wendell Zips Opry was already forty-three years old. He’d worked print shops, he’d worked newspapers, and now he worked nothing. He was getting by on what his mother left him after the fever took her. Up until the end she was shouting, happy-shouting, about how she owned nothing. She would go into the light with no ballast, because Wendell would take care of all of it for her.
He took care of it alright. He sold the bronzes to the right people and the right galleries. They could keep him in a little studio of his own for another couple of years. It wasn’t the money that ate at him when he was bent over that paper picking individual hairs out of his widow’s peak. It wasn’t the two tins of pineapple in juice he’d scarfed down for dinner either. It was the damn ferret. He wasn’t walking right. No paper would ever pick up his strip if the ferret kept holding his foot at that angle, that tripping-over-your-own-paws angle. He picked up his eraser, but didn’t touch it to the page. After letting it hang there for a moment he pulled it up to his own face, a face made long by too much reading and fretting, like a boy who’d read a single bedtime epic until he’d become a man, and tried to erase the dark circles under his own eyes.
It did not work, but it did clear his eyes enough for him to notice something. It wasn’t the paw or the little boot it was inside. It was the tail. The tail needed to be higher. A higher tail looked more intelligent. Yes. He was so sure that he didn’t even need the ability to erase. He picked up a fresh sheet of paper, perfect invented-nothing that made room for everything that was W.Z. Opry, and got out his pen and inkwell.
He redrew the ferret and this time he put the tail higher. He knew he was on to something. His art teacher always told him his weasels looked like pickles, but the higher tail straightened out the rest of his posture. Definitely a ferret and not a pickle. He still needed something. W.Z. already had a name picked out, already had a story, but the character needed physical completeness. What little piece of identity was still rolling around at the bottom of his imagination? What had escaped the mesh of his net? Ah yes, there it was. Just a few black lines curled wetly around each other, trying to hide.
W.Z. added two short but flexible lines to the end of the tail, like two little oak switches. It turned the tail into the letter F. F for Feisty. No sooner had he added the feature than his creation thanked him. The inky ferret moved. It looked right at him and waved. It smiled big. A normal person would not believe their eyes, but W.Z. had wanted this for too long to pause for something as pointless as disbelief. He smiled the biggest smile of his life and waved back.
The ferret’s arm stiffened. Its tail stopped bobbing up and down. The song of creation had already softened to a whisper. W.Z., as a modern man, as a creative adult, knew exactly what to do. As a man wishes to strike oil, so too does art wish to strike life. W.Z. recognized himself as the gusher. How he had come to the conclusion he did not remember, but it always seemed right to him. Every arcane ritual required blood for its completion. Everything worth doing required a piece of your life.
“Oh no you don’t. You’re staying with me. People need to see,” he said as jabbed the metal point of the pen into his own fingertip. Ink mingled with blood. A red drop swirled with black separated and fell towards the page. It struck the ferret in the chest, right where his animated heart would go. His black body swallowed it whole, rippled with its power.
So it was that the ferret was brought to life. The song of creation had finally been recorded, after echoing in man three times across his adolescence. Feisty was only the first, but W.Z. could tell people how to make more. All they had to do was care about their creations as much as he did and perform the ritual. All they had to do was make their blood, sweat, and tears, the suffering for the art, manifest.
For now he just marveled at his creation. Feisty wasn’t just an anthropomorphic rodent. He wasn’t just a pair of ears and a tail in shorts and rain boots. He had a story; it was in fact a vital element of his creation. His full name was Feisty Faustus Ferret. He was an enterprising little critter, but with ambition bigger than his will. His story, the story W.Z. always planned to sell with the strip, was a classic one:
One day a devil had sprung out of the ground when Feisty was headed back to the stump he called home. The weasel’s latest venture of selling the garbage he’d fished out of the pond to the recyclers hadn’t gone as well as he’d planned. He’d found himself wishing for an easy way to prove he could be successful. He wanted everyone to see his natural talent and he wanted to pay something less than hard work for the privilege. That was the devil’s cue. He came out of a tiny fissure from Hell, where he’d watched the ferret. He made the young mammal an offer. Everyone would find him charming, everyone would entrust things to him, and all he had to pay in return was his soul.
Just as his middle name suggested, Feisty Faustus Ferret agreed to the arrangement. The devil quickly extracted the soul, a shadow of Feisty with X’s over its eyes, with an eye dropper. Then the trickster wiggled his body and turned into a ball and chain. He hooked the soul up and dragged it away.
At first everything was fine for Feisty, good even. He got a loan with no questions asked. A store owner gave him a new coat for free. He felt like it was his time, but it couldn’t last. He realized that without his soul he no longer had feelings for Chichi, the chinchilla who lived in the fancy steel cage across from his woods. If he didn’t love her, he couldn’t marry her! Feisty knew there wasn’t anything worse than that, so he started his journey to chase down that balled-up devil and get his pour spirit back!
That’s how it would have played in the strip. He would’ve chased that devil across Ferris wheels, war trenches, pirate decks, and anything else that got in his way, because he was Feisty Faustus Ferret and he never gave up because he was always ahead of himself!
It did play well with the audiences of the world, but not as a strip. W.Z. had brought Feisty to life. That opened up all sorts of new possibilities. He worked together with his creation and a nice lady technician out of California who’d been involved with the movies. They came up with a world-perking idea she called ‘animation’.
They could treat Feisty just like a movie star. All he needed was a nice stage that matched him, a little world of his own, and then they could film him and distribute the shorts to theaters; they could play in front of whatever the feature that week was.
First they tried matte paintings, but they just didn’t have the lively look Feisty and his taut little tail and snappy black eyes did. The backdrops needed to shine like his bold rubber boots. The answer lied, again, in blood. W.Z. drew some backgrounds himself, on giant transparent sheets of celluloid. Feisty would jump into them, his life briefly spreading to the boxed world. Flowers would bounce, sun rays would descend like rain, and steam would pour out of shower curtains like dandelion fluff. Before it faded W.Z. would cut himself with an exacting knife, the same one he used in his art, and smear his blood across the set.
That made it a place. Men couldn’t go inside, but Feisty insisted it was bigger than it looked; it only looked big enough to hang over an especially wide sitting room couch. Feisty said that, when he went inside, they were sometimes as big as ten rooms or a whole field.
That was great because it meant every stage, or cell as W.Z. started to call them, was ten settings in one. That cut down on the production budget greatly. It helped Opry, and Veve, the lady technician, garner enough capital to open the Vibrant Conduct Animation Studio. It also helped them squeeze in a wedding. It turned out Veve built a home just as well as she built everything else.
Once they were properly wed and incorporated, they set to work on their first animated short. “Symphony Silliness” they called it. It saw not only the debut of Feisty, but of many other animated characters W.Z. had created for their studio. Some were bound to their cells, as he had only so much blood to give, but he made sure that Feisty, his soul, and that devilish ball and chain were all free roamers. They were his first stars.
Veve called in all the favors, and all the suitors, she’d had in the California moving picture industry and got “Symphony Silliness” attached to the front of the newest Lang Crane comedy like a coat of birthday face paint. Millions were going to see it: children and adults. The whole world would wake up to the possibilities of animation at once. They’d be pricking their fingers and begging their doodles to wiggle out between the pages before they even fully understood how W.Z. did it.
When the debut came, people didn’t know what to make of it. They didn’t even grasp what they saw on the screen. For the most part, these were ordinary people. The song of creation would never even make the tiniest peep in the back of their head. Their sort had, throughout history, typically responded to things this new with violent hysterics. This time though, the setting was just right. The fan-cooled air of the theater, the professionally dimmed lights, the encouraged snacking… they were just too calm to be anything other than hypnotized.
Any upset or confusion had fully died away in minutes, before the short even ended. Nobody had come out of the theaters hating Feisty Faustus Ferret. They hated the devil, sure, but only as much as you hate a rock-throwing rascal or a malingerer who knew particularly good jokes.
Feisty was the talk of the globe practically overnight. He nervously walked into radio sets for interviews and had his train-whistle of a voice piped to all corners. He showed up at theater openings, only as high as the children, and waved at everybody with the big gloves he couldn’t physically remove. W.Z. Opry was always right behind him, making sure no one tried to confuse him or persuade him to work for another studio.
There were other studios. A hundred others. All each needed was an artist half as talented as W.Z. who could be their gusher and produce various talking animals for their own productions. There would have been a thousand others if such people were easy to find. There was a woman out of Russia who had the gift. She brought all those folktales to life and came to dominate the market in Eastern Europe. Then there was the fellow in Canada who had his creations making public service announcements.
Those competitors had the brightest ideas, as they didn’t try to compete with W.Z. directly. Sure, a couple more studios got a chunk of the pie, but W.Z. had two thirds of it. Once Feisty and the others were out of his pen and he’d grown a little too hard of hearing to catch the song of creation anymore, he set his sights on becoming a shrewd business man.
He never once mistreated Feisty, because that would be mistreating himself, but the ferret kept extremely busy. There was always a new country to tour, a new set to test out, a new cast to pick, a new premiere to attend…
All the while animation grew and grew and grew. Live shorts with real actors started appearing in front of full length animated features. The market contracted only once, when the smut peddlers got their hands on a few animated women and realized, to their horror, their clothes couldn’t come off. Investors shied away from something that couldn’t be exploited so easily, but they had to come crawling back. People wanted happiness, and no face was happier than Feisty’s.
In less than a decade it became Feisty’s world. All tongues knew his name and his story. Even people who couldn’t whistle could whistle his tune. He was in every theater and on every radio. He didn’t just endorse toys, but also cars, medicines, groceries, fashion, and one fine brand of tobacco. The world built palaces to honor the animated life of the new century. W.Z. was the one that slipped them the idea, so naturally the palaces charged a modest fee for entrance.
One small ticket could get you in to Feisty Fields, the ferret’s personal palace and park, where you and the family could enjoy food, electric carnival rides, hundreds of games, and even meetings with actual animated stars. Whenever he had a free moment, whenever W.Z. was off pretending he liked to shake hands and sign contracts, Feisty ran amongst the excited crowds. He joined them on rides, shouting jubilantly every time a tilt-a-whirl tilted or whirled. He wasn’t acting; he always enjoyed himself.
None of what was about to happen was Feisty’s fault. He’d been drawn with ears, but they weren’t the right sort of ears. They heard only praise and turned away the rest. They heard delighted squeals about cotton candy, but no groans about empty wallets. All tears seemed to be tears of joy or catharsis to him. They were like animated tears, shrinking and disappearing before they hit the ground.
He was completely unaware of what it took to run a world of electric palaces and leisure hotels. All that power, and all those tiny moving, vibrating, spinning pieces, had to be somewhere for the show to go on. Underfoot was the only place to keep them. That way, all the stars and guests and businessmen could be happy, because if there was a problem it was somewhere below them. The affairs of the underworld were not theirs.
The Spin Down
“So, you’re in uniform and standing at the top of the trench. You’ve got your popgun-bayonet held in front of you. You watch, utterly shocked, at least five exclamation points above your left eyebrow, heck maybe it’s a whole ring of exclamation points, like a bubble popping you see, and you’re so shocked because you see the devil-ball is rolling further into the trenches. He’s rolling down it and in all different directions because it’s a labyrinth of trenches. It doesn’t seem like there’s any way you’ll be able to find your spirit. That’s when Airheart…”
“Wow,” Feisty said. It wasn’t quiet, because his train-whistle voice couldn’t go below a certain volume. The director stopped talking. His wild gesticulating stopped mid-tumble gesture. He waited for Feisty to say something else because he knew how to work with the critter at that point. They’d done several pictures together and their last, “Feisty Down the Amazon” was so good that people were making up awards shows just to hand them little silver men on black bases.
They were on stage, just the two of them, on the Vibrant Conduct backlot, technically part of the grounds at the world’s first Feisty Fields fun park, reading through the script of their upcoming project, which had a soldiering theme. Most stars didn’t need to go through the script, they just did what the director told them like happy little marching ducklings, but Feisty had special privileges. He was the first, the best, the most swollen parade balloon, so he got to pretend he was an auteur every once in a while. Usually the director didn’t mind, but Feisty was being particularly picky today, stopping the reading every few lines to quibble pointlessly.
“What? What’s wow?” he asked when Feisty didn’t elaborate.
“Golly, it’s just so grand is all,” Feisty said without looking up from the script. He flipped back and forth between the same two pages. “War! It won’t scare the kids will it Mr. Director?”
“Kids love war,” he assured. “They’re always playing war. Who do you think popguns are for in the first place?”
“I wonder if we should do something else,” the ferret suggested. “We haven’t gone to the desert in a while have we? I feel like I haven’t bounced up and down on a camel hump in an age!”
“You get the bouncing and we get the spitting,” the director mumbled.
“Don’t you think the desert’s friendlier Mr. Director? Look at all these tough guy toys. I don’t want people thinking I’m violent!” Feisty stood up and wandered around the set, all too happy to abandon the script to the seat of his folding chair. He poked the fake barbs on the barbed wire and watched the coils wobble up and down.
“It’s just a theme Feisty,” the director assured. “It’s window dressing. The content is the same as always. It’s you being plucky and adorable.”
“If it’s the same as always, how come we brought on another star?” the ferret asked. The lights were off, as they relied on the dying sunlight through the gray fog out the window, so when Feisty was turned away he was just a sharp shadow. He looked sharper than any of the prop knives and shrapnel they had around.
“Show business is a train,” the director mused, “and we’ve got to stay in the engine. In a couple of months all the annies will have two stars. The team-up angle is testing extremely well with audiences. We want everybody thinking it was our idea.”
“Maybe we could give them a different idea instead,” the ferret suggested; that was about as argumentative as the inky creature got. The director was about to respond, but they were interrupted by the set door creaking open. It was one of the young assistants: a blond boy who hadn’t been working long enough to even have a name as far as the director was concerned.
“What is it? We’re in the middle of a reading.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Director. I’m sorry Mr. Ferret. I’ve got a package for Mr. Ferret here. It says it’s from your biggest fan, and I know I should’ve put it with your other fan mail, but it also has urgent written all over it. I thought maybe…”
“Urgent just means desperate in fan language,” the director said.
“It’s alright,” the ferret piped in. “If you could please put it in my dressing room I’ll get to it before four shakes of this old tail!” The boy smiled. Feisty absorbed his joy even as the door clicked shut; he savored it like the tantalizing smell of a cherry pie cooling on a windowsill. It convinced him he was right about the war animation, because in the end it was all about those smiles.
“Feisty, let’s get back to page seven. I want to finish up here before dinner. The wife’s making zucchini loaf.”
“This helmet,” the ferret said, putting on the costume piece, “hides my ears. People won’t recognize me without my ears.”
“Alright Feisty, your act is wearing a little thin. What is this about? Do you want to change the theme because you know Airheart pretty much only does war annies?”
“She can have her war pictures; I don’t mind,” the ferret said. His voice quivered like a bowstring. “We just don’t need to start a war is all! We already have one. The battle for my spirit!”
“Even Beowulf gets new translations,” the director said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Feisty Faustus Ferret is the face of the world’s happiness, but if you’re happy in the same way too many times you get numb to it. Even you need novelty. Airheart is novelty. She can help you battle that balled-up devil and get your spirit back.”
“She’s a lady,” the ferret said as if he was calling her a two-eyed cyclops. “Her feminine wiles might…”
“Miiiiiiiiiiight what?” a spunky voice called out to them. A shadow blocked the light from the window for a moment, and then something flew in through its open frame. It was quite small, only about half the size of Feisty, and built for all the sharpness of the ‘tough guy toys’ that made Feisty so uncomfortable.
The object soared expertly around the ceiling twice and then descended smoothly to the ground right between Feisty and the director, using a fake trench as a runway. It was a paper airplane; despite its lack of an engine or propeller it still made all the dramatic airplane sounds until it was completely still. Once it was, a figure stepped out of the crease in its middle where she had piloted it.
Her puffy leather jacket hid her tomboy chin, but not her freckled cheeks. Wavy red hair, at least it would have been red if animated characters had ever figured out how to hold color, stuck out from under her peculiar pilot’s cap: something between a leather helmet and a beret. A disobedient scarf threatened to tangle her legs at all times, but never did. She struggled for a brief moment to pull her tiny body out of the knee-high trench, but then struck her signature pose as if it had been a stroll in the park. She spoke with both elbows cocked out and her chest swelled to bursting.
“Well if it isn’t my costar!” she belted. Feisty always hid his buck teeth, they weren’t the cutest feature, but every time she spoke he ground them against the bottom ones. Something about her tone, as if every sentence was the first and only bar of a national anthem, put him on edge. “I was just flying by for the fitting and I heard you two were doing a reading without me. What’s the score chums? I thought we were all in the thick of this together.”
“Feisty’s just working out his nerves over the new material,” the director said, rising to his feet. “This is his first war annie. Since you’re an old hat at it by now Airheart, I thought you didn’t need the practice.”
“Well who better to show him the ropes than this old bird!” she crowed. She marched over to Feisty and wrapped one arm around his waist. She walked him up and down one side of the trench, examining the consistency of the set dirt with her boot tips as she did so. “War’s all about determination Feisty. You have to know none of those zippy bullets are going to zip through your innards!” She poked his stomach and he let out an involuntary giggle.
“Well that’s easy,” he said bitterly, twisting out of her arm and leaping across the trench: a jump he knew she was too short to make in one attempt. “We’re just animated. The director would never let a bullet hit us anyway. It’s not real war.”
“You could’ve fooled me with a genuine tri-dimensionated trench such as this,” she remarked as she balanced at the edge of the ditch. “What’s all this for Mr. Director?” she asked, blowing past Feisty’s sourness.
“I know you two are used to working in cells,” the director said as he marveled at the trench himself. “We’ve still got three that are being worked up in the set department. They’ll be ready by this time next week. We are, however, going to be using three sets like this for some of the close-ups. The depth of perspective adds a depth of emotion.” The way he said emotion had more than enough depth to fund a high-school drama club for four straight years. He was the pioneering director for animated stars on three-dimensional sets after all.
“Picture it,” he went on, lowering himself into the trench and laying on his back. His two stars leaned over from opposite sides and looked at him. He put his hands up like he was trying to stop a wrecking ball from crushing him. “I’m Feisty. The balled-up devil has just turned traitor to the Americans in order to put a battlefield between me and my soul. He’s off being shotput by some German übermensch while I’m trapped here in the muck. Sinking deeper into this hole. Thinking I might be sinking to the underworld because my soul is off to some party. The depth of this trench, this real trench, makes it so much more present, so much more meaningful.”
“I guess that’s why you’re the director,” Airheart said, failing to comprehend the artist’s logic as much as Feisty.
“That still sounds like it might scare the kids,” Feisty said, renewing his objection. The director sat up and shook the dirt out of his hair. Feisty lowered a gloved hand to help him out, but the director didn’t take it. He breathed deeply, telling himself not to yell. You could yell at people, but not the animated. Their emotions were their bodies, and the tone and feelings of the living things around them were their weather. He had to be patient with them; blowing his top could be like setting Krakatoa off over their heads.
While the animated didn’t age, it was already well established that they could die. More often than not it was depression, when they realized they weren’t very popular or that they’d been made for an illegitimate purpose. Aside from that, all the regular stuff did them harm too. Blades cut them like paper, guns blew holes in them, and fire took them quicker than it took film. The director fretted over their health and his own blood pressure, and so did not really feel like climbing out of the trench quite yet.
“The kids will feel safe when they watch the premier here at Feisty Fields,” he assured the ferret. “It’s the gayest place on the entire globe! War’s not allowed through those gates.” Suddenly, part of the trench collapsed. A pile of dirt ran across the director’s pant legs and into his fine Italian shoes. He was about to swear, but they were distracted by another shower of dirt from below Airheart’s boots. She stepped back.
That was when they realized the whole set was shaking. The barbed wire wobbled on its own. The window was jarred loose and then slammed shut. It couldn’t be just the set; the shaking was deeper. It was in the ground, in a way that threatened to turn the very earth into geysers of soil and stone.
“Thundering thistles! What’s this?” Airheart exclaimed as she struggled to stay on her feet.
“This is too much for me Mr. Director! I admit it! I’m a scaredy-ferret!” Feisty squeaked.
“This isn’t an effect Feisty! You two help me out of this hole!” The shaking was so bad now that the director couldn’t stand. The trench was collapsing all around him. In a few seconds he was buried up to his waist in dirt. Cracks appeared in the wall. The window shattered and let in a thousand sounds of crashes and chaos from the rest of the studio and the surrounding park. They heard the swerving of cars and the collapse of a water tower.
The biggest crack yet opened in the middle of the trench. It crawled toward the director, eating dirt as it went, threatening to pull him into a dark crevice with no visible bottom. He screamed for help. In a flash Feisty was down next to him, shoveling dirt away. The rodent was more terrified than he’d ever been, real fright was a thousand times worse than stage fright, but he still found the strength to help. He was helpless on his own anyway. He needed W.Z. If he couldn’t have W.Z. he needed a warm audience. If he couldn’t have that he needed a director and he needed that director to be alive.
Airheart did her part and then some, pushing on the director’s lower back with her shoulder until he was able to shake free from the dirt. Part of the roof gave way and landed a few feet away. All those war animations had helped for something; she went for her trusty plane. Its invisible engine started up again, the corners of its wings humming, as she pushed it forward like a bicycle and hopped on. It rose into the air and circled around once.
“Grab hold!” she shouted. As the plane flew by, at the perfect height, the director grabbed both sides with his hands. The tiny vehicle struggled some, but it still lifted him into the air. Feisty hopped up and grabbed the director’s knees, but at that the plane buckled in the air and started to descend. “It’s no good! Too much weight!” Feisty swallowed, a visible lump rising and falling in his throat like a cat crawling under a carpet. He let go and dropped back into the trench.
“Get Mr. Director to safety!” he squeaked to Airheart. “I’ll find my own way out.”
“I’ll come back for you costar!” she shouted with a salute as they resumed their ascent. There was now a hole in the roof big enough for them to escape through. The director’s legs dangled and kicked as he tried to turn his head and shout something at Feisty, but it was drowned out by the worsening din.
“He told me I put on a great show,” Feisty whispered to himself. “He told me I make people happy and that I’m untouched by the nastiness of the world.” He knew it wasn’t true. He was his work, he was Feisty Fields, and somehow it was collapsing around him. Something had gone wrong. The sign that read gayest place on the entire globe had probably fallen over. Already he felt that this disaster was his fault, and he considered hiding in his hands and dying in the dirt the way rodents do.
W.Z. W.Z. was somewhere in all this. Feisty remembered his life was not his own, it was borrowed blood from his maker, and it wasn’t his to forfeit to a few tumbling rocks. He had other debts as well. The animated didn’t produce their own voices, so he was borrowing one from a young man named Wascomb. He remembered Wascomb because it was in all the opening credits. If he died he’d kill that young man’s voice. He had to at least try to return it.
In the end a ferret is a ferret, so Feisty dug into the loose dirt like he was preparing a nice burrow. He stayed shallow, hoping no other cracks would appear beneath, and picked a direction. When he was sure he had tunneled his way out of the collapsing building, only hitting his head on a water pipe once, he stuck his eyes and ears out of the ground to see what was happening.
All around him things fell. A rollercoaster in the distance dropped out of the sky, its track bending and collapsing like partly-frozen rope. The hotels over by the hills where they had an annual egg hunt were slanted at an odd angle, but that quickly changed when they fell over backward.
There were a thousand birds in the sky, many of them from the Feisty Fields ornithological gardens; they struggled under the weight of their decorative plumage. A few of them were animated, so the shock in their eyes was clear even from that distance. They looked like, in all the land they could see, they simply had no safe place to land.
Feisty tried waving to them, maybe one of them could give him a lift, but it was too late. He felt pressure build under him, push him up like a carrot ready for harvest, and then he burst out of the hole atop the geyser of dirt and rocks the shaking had threatened the entire time.
After that the chaos was complete. A hundred more geysers roared to life. Cars and trucks were tossed into the air. Water from burst towers and pipes mixed with the oil and ink of the machine works that kept Feisty Fields in operation.
Feisty Fields was the crown jewel of the world, a world already glittering with similar places, and its destruction meant the destruction of the map itself. The ground changed, the sky disappeared, the shorelines ravenously grabbed about testing new beaches, and fire burned most of the toys in most of the gift shops. It melted all the key chains. It ended all the vacations. Somewhere in the midst of the disaster, the ferret was tossed about, battered, and nearly drowned. It was only luck that had him wash up, face up, on a temporary shore. He was still alive.
Quickly knocked unconscious by concrete debris, it was the gum on his shoe that adhered him to a large buoyant chunk of the park and kept him from sinking. He had no idea how much time the blow took from him, but he awoke in a world altogether changed and with far less glitter.
The sound of the ocean was much weaker than it should have been. The tide was slow, tired, and heavy. The waves couldn’t get up to crest. It was this way because it was a new ocean of ink and oil. The chaos had birthed it, and like any other newborn it reached out and pulled back rhythmically, waiting for stimulus.
Feisty rubbed the granite egg of a bruise on the crown of his head in the hopes the swelling would sink and it would look a little less like a third ear. He tried to stand, but found his boot was still stuck to some debris. With a few good yanks the gum stretched and ripped. He reminisced about the gum, as he somehow knew it was the only thing he had left. How many times had he been stopped in his tracks by it? How many laughs were embedded in its rubbery substance like bits of dust?
A cold wind pulled at him, and there was hostility to it. The ferret realized that was because of the threatening nature of his position. He looked out over the edge of his current platform and saw a staggeringly long drop to the sand and stone of the beach below. He looked out at the new inky ocean.
“Wow…” He thought he heard his words echo and turned around. There was his own face, blown up a thousand times and smiling his characteristic smile. The chaos had tarnished and scratched the surface of his cheeks and snout, but Feisty still recognized the giant statue. It was the one that welcomed many of the guests to that particular Feisty Fields location. He remembered posing for the initial sketches.
Somehow the statue had survived, even landed upright after the upheaval. One of its feet was buried in the sand, and the giant inert ferret was at a slight angle, but it was in a better way than everything else. Feisty couldn’t recognize anything beyond it. There was ruination in all directions, the occasional jutting spiral of bright metal probably coming from a rollercoaster. The signs were down and buried. The ground was so different that he wasn’t sure whether the statue had just been swept out to sea and carried to a strange miserable shore with no theaters and no theme parks.
Feisty had been thrown into his own palm and the only way down was to very slowly climb his forearm and then his chest. Perhaps on the ground there would be people who could explain what happened. Maybe that nice boy who brought him the package was around.
While he climbed he wondered after his spirit. He was always attached to the balled-up devil, just the way W.Z. had first drawn them, and they didn’t spend much time with Feisty despite their permanent connection. The devil was always off at parties and things that W.Z. sometimes called, in whispers, ‘meetings’. Sometimes that devil got his soul in trouble and Feisty was eager to make sure they were still kicking around somewhere. They had to be. The three of them were thicker than thieves sleeping in a peanut butter sandwich. If his soul perished, Feisty would undoubtedly fall over dead as well. If the devil died, well he would certainly feel something, even if he had no idea what.
He’d often asked W.Z. why he’d drawn him with such an obvious dark side. The man answered, with a hint of regret, that it was to create conflict. Feisty was such a good character because of his inherent conflict. It was plain for the audience to see, because there was temptation dragging him away to a life of debauchery. They didn’t have to work hard for meaning. Feisty was the naked portrayal of ambition at the outset and redemption by the finale.
Feisty hoped the balled-up devil had nothing to do with the fresh cataclysm, but thoughts of his other two thirds were driven from his mind when he landed on the top of his giant boot. Things looked even worse from down there. The sand was lumpy, barely hiding the pieces of the park buried underneath. Here and there were broken lamp posts and splintered boards. Even people’s precious treasures were simple anomalous grains of the beach: jeweled brooches, fancy wristwatches, and buttons of wood or tortoiseshell.
There were no signs of life. The birds were gone. There were no clouds, but the sun was so pale that it almost seemed absent as well. Feisty took a step across the top of his boot and then stopped. He felt something under his foot, so he pulled the boot off and turned it upside down. Nothing came out at first, but after he gave it a good smack a heap of sand as high as his waist poured out. A sand castle formed and a little white flag was the cherry on top. Feisty grunted in frustration and kicked the castle. If he couldn’t have his then there wouldn’t be one for anybody else.
“Hello?” he called out to the emptiness. There was no answer. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that alone. He used to shake hands like he was taking vitamins. Every time he went for a walk it was down a red carpet on his tiptoes with one arm raised high so he could hold the elbow of the radiant starlet escorting him. That memory filled his mind with red carpets, but they were being blown about and twisted by a horrible dusty gale. They ripped in the wind and he felt a twinge in his furry little chest.
Glank glank glank glank. The strange halting sound came up behind Feisty. The ferret turned so fast he nearly poked himself in the eye with one of the tines of his tail. At first he didn’t understand what he was looking at. The object was made of dull metal. It was shaped like a loaf of bread but with a curved top. A little flag waved back and forth on one side of it while a hinged door at the front flapped open and closed. When it was open he could see envelopes inside. It had two little feet barely suited to walking. Each step made a loud glank.
Feisty put it together that it was a sort of mailbox, but the totality of its strangeness struck him right after that. It was animated, and had two steeple-shaped eyes with one on each side. Normally animated eyes were the most expressive thing in the world, but this metal creature’s emotions were unclear. The eyes, though sizable, seemed barely capable of function, like the pinhole pupils of a nautilus. All the same, something about the mutterings of its body language suggested it recognized Feisty and it had business with him.
Glank glank, it went as it took two steps closer. Feisty backed up. What did it want? Why wasn’t it speaking up? Glank glank. They were running out of boot as Feisty reached his own toes. He looked over his shoulder. It wasn’t too far down. The foot of the statue was raised off the ground, perpetually taking its first step towards its stolen soul, but the sand could break his fall. He had to hope there was nothing sharp buried just under the surface.
The ferret turned and leapt down to escape the squat mailbox. The sand rushed up to greet him. He landed on all fours, temporarily shedding his bipedal dignity. The pain in his ankles and wrists was only minor, so he bolted forward to put some more distance between them. That found him standing at the lapping edge of the black sea. When he turned again he saw the mailbox leaning over the edge of the boot. It had no legs to absorb the impact. He was certain the little thing wouldn’t risk the jump, but he was only right in a sense. It didn’t jump so much as lean forward and let itself enter a tumbling fall.
Feisty watched in confused horror as it spun in the air and landed with a thud on the sand. Its whole body bent down the middle. It struggled to its feet and started walking towards him again. Glank. Its mouth flap creaked open and closed, trying to communicate something. Envelopes fell out like drops of spittle.
He didn’t know how to feel. Its eyes didn’t say it was in pain, or scared, or desperate. They merely looked. Feisty didn’t want this thing to be alive, he didn’t want it to feel, because it was so pathetic and so terrifying in that pathetic quality. He begged it to fall over and be inanimate, or to admit it wasn’t the same as him, but it just kept moving forward. Glank.
Something about the way it moved made Feisty fear for his life. It wasn’t menacing, it could hardly move, but its intentions did not strike him as pure or reverent. There was only one way he could think to be rid of it. The ferret rushed back to the boot, meeting the mailbox head on. Before it could spasm in a new, creaking, clunking way, Feisty grabbed it by the sides. He tossed it into the air like he was playing a game with a toddler, but he did not expect to catch it on the way down.
Its little metal feet waddled back and forth, but there was no ground beneath it. Feisty had met it right under the boot of the statue and thrown it up to the sole, where there was a giant piece of sticky chewing gum. Feisty always had that gum on his boot, ever since his first animation, and the statue had not been allowed to skip the detail. Tourists often threw pennies up into it for good luck, but now there was a little animated machine among them, still trying to walk forward even though it was firmly stuck.
Feisty breathed a sigh of relief. At that angle he couldn’t see the eyes which caused so many painful questions to swirl in his head. Something struck him in the face, like a falling leaf. He grabbed it even as more fell around him. They were letters spat out by the mailbox. He read the address on one of them.
To Mr. Feisty Ferret from your biggest fan Timothy Briglowe
Fan mail! What was his fan mail doing in such a creature’s stomach? Feisty searched the back of his mind for possibilities. Never had such a thing delivered his mail; it was always some nice young man just getting started at the studio. He thought hard. Everything ever said to him was pleasant and warm. Everything was yes. He tried to think about a no or two he might have heard whispered in the background.
There were some things, never said directly to him of course. He remembered W.Z. talking about machines. He talked about how hard it was to keep all of Feisty Fields’ machine’s up and running and how none of the men were up to the job. They couldn’t handle the steam, the hours, the eye strain…
He remembered another complaint about artists. They needed so many cells for the studio and they just couldn’t be produced fast enough. They needed copies to ship out to other branches or sell. Again, there weren’t enough men and women for the task. So there were machines! The ferret remembered now, mentions here and there, of the machine works. He had never considered that the machines themselves might have been animated. Surely W.Z. would never draw such a thing.
Everything W.Z. doodled was all about soul. Feisty was a creature metaphysically conceptualized from the idea of the soul, so it was impossible for W.Z. to make anything without a spirit. With those eyes it could not have a spirit… and it certainly wasn’t Timothy Briglowe. Feisty was sure there was nothing between its eyes but dust. How dare it hold fan letters like they were its own thoughts? Those sentiments belonged to Feisty. That was his admiration, his watering hole.
“You… you ought to be ashamed of yourself!” he squeaked up at the mailbox. Its futile footsteps continued, but seemed to pause and then slow. Feisty bit his lip. He instantly regretted saying anything at all. His uneasiness grew; the thing’s mere existence seemed to torture him now in a way he’d never experienced. The ferret wanted nothing more than to get away from its creaking. He skirted the edge of his giant self’s boot and walked aimlessly away from the inky sea.
Everything recognizable was out of its place. The statue should have been in front of the welcome plaza, but that was nowhere to be found. In its place were the corners of mostly buried buildings. Bent pipes stuck up out of the ground like the roots of fallen trees. He passed a fountain filled with deep brown water. He passed a popcorn cart, overturned and foul-smelling thanks to the acrid string of pale gray smoke rising from it. There were popped and un-popped kernels all over the ground, with no pigeons brave enough to land there.
“Hello?” he called out several times, never receiving an answer. Hours passed. The sun dropped in the sky. The shadows of the rubble grew bulky and aggressive. Feisty found himself stepping over them like cracks in pavement. When they mingled with each other completely and he could no longer avoid treading on them, something else entered his mind.
Feisty had never slept alone in his entire life. When he’d first been drawn, when the blood was as wet as the ink, he’d slept alongside W.Z. like a stuffed animal. It was never at the foot of the bed; he wasn’t some drooling yapper of a dog. W.Z. or Veve always held him close to their chests so he could feel their heartbeats on his back. He remembered wrapping his fingers around their forearms like they were the safety bar on a rollercoaster taking him to dreamland.
“I might die if I sleep alone,” he told the shadows. They responded by growing a little more. “I’m not supposed to be alone. I’m supposed to be watched.” They grew. “I’m like an apple… an apple that’s always ripe,” he squeaked. They grew. “Always shiny and ripe, but you can’t drop me! I’ll be no good then. You have to be careful with me.” They grew.
Tears emerged from his eyes, but even they felt wrong. They were supposed to hop out of the corners of his eyes, like sparks off an electric saw. Instead they ran straight down his cheeks like syrup, like the tears of men. These tears were not to communicate his pain; they simply were pain.
Feisty ran forward into a shadowy cavern of rubble. He tripped over his own feet and colorful shards of plaster and plastic that faded with the light. It was the ruins of one of his rides, perhaps something with little singing automatons. It must have had small boats instead of carts, because the ground rapidly became wet. Deeper and deeper the ferret went into the dark water. He’d already lost the direction he’d entered from, but there was something in the distance. It still had enough of its rainbow paint that he could make it out.
He was swimming by the time he found its edge and pulled himself up onto it. He shook all over to get rid of the wet shadows. He pulled himself to his feet with a golden pole and that was when he identified the platform: a carousel. It was the first thing he’d come across that was still mostly intact since the statue. The excited aluminum eyes of the animals seemed more terrified in the darkness, but they held their ground: ponies, sea lions, camels, and peacocks. Each and every one had a saddle and they all looked as comfortable as a bed to Feisty at that moment. He patted one of the peacocks on the side and thanked it for being there. He wouldn’t have to sleep alone after all.
The whole platform was slightly tilted, with a small part of its circumference dipping below the black water. Feisty didn’t know much about how machines worked. He thought perhaps if the carousel was spinning its lights would come on and its music would play, so he rushed to the highest point and jumped toward the peacock. When he grabbed its golden stalk and landed in the saddle the force of his jump did convince the carousel to spin.
He smiled, even though the music did not play and the lights did not come on. He did hear… something. His ears perked up, but in a few short seconds the carousel spun him around to where he could see the source. There was another platform about thirty feet away, separated from the carousel by another stretch of black water and the bow of a tiny sunken wood boat.
On that platform were several animatronic children, dressed in clothes and flesh-colored paints that told him they were supposed to be from all over the world. A few had had their heads shaken off during the cataclysm. They were gathered around a manhole, staring down into it. Feisty knew this ride; it was called the Safety Cruise. The manhole was just for show. When the boats came by a speaker was supposed to tell them to pay attention to their surroundings, and then another speaker inside the manhole would play a woooooooaaaaahhhh that quickly faded, implying someone had fallen in.
What the ferret did not know was that the manhole was actually a maintenance access shaft for the series of backrooms and pumps that kept the Safety Cruise going. At that moment, it was being used. The animatronics were not the only machines around. Feisty counted three big ones making their way to the manhole from out of the bloating darkness of the facility: a vacuum cleaner, a gumball dispenser, and a turnstile. They were animated just like the mailbox, brought to life by someone who, Feisty assumed, did not value their blood very much. They all had the same dead eyes and the same tiny clanking feet.
Now he was certain he had done the right thing with the mailbox, because he stared at the end result of these machines clashing with animated stars. They had taken prisoners. Twisted up in the walking turnstile was poor Grand the unicorn. He was a veteran star of the animated cell, nearly as old as Feisty. He was rather stringy for a unicorn, but that was because in all his animations he was a famous baseball player. He was always easy to recognize by his slugger-shaped horn he used to hit howling homeruns.
Grand’s head hung low, his horn dragging across the platform with an unpleasant sound, but Feisty guessed he was unconscious rather than dead. The turnstile spun him aggressively and then tossed him down the manhole. Feisty gasped, but never heard an impact. Something must have caught poor Grand on the way down. The machines turned his way at the sound of his gasp, but Feisty wriggled behind the peacock in time to avoid their gaze. When he was sure they had gone back to their nefarious work he stuck his head out again.
The vacuum cleaner had their next prisoner, who seemed even worse off than Grand. A big switch on the vacuum’s back clicked into the reverse position, and the thing started to expel its contents. Out tumbled a pile of flame that took the shape of a muscular but inert man once it hit the platform. It wore a toga.
“Holy smokes,” Feisty whimpered. That had to be the Olympic Flame! He did promotional pictures for the Olympics every time they rolled around. The things he did with those blazing muscles… and yet he still got captured by the clanking monstrosities. The vacuum cleaner nudged the star with its broad face until he too fell into the manhole. Feisty’s mind filled with nightmarish visions of what they might be doing to his friends. Then it dawned on him that perhaps these machines had something to do with the cataclysm that had torn him out of the trenches and put him somewhere far worse. The trouble had come from under the ground after all, and that was where the machines seemed to be returning to.
Feisty watched to see who they had captured next, but there was something very wrong about the final part of the metal procession. The gumball machine led someone animated towards the manhole, but they weren’t a prisoner. They moved of their own freewill… in a sense. There was a black figure with X’s over its eyes and a chain around its ankle. The chain connected it to a ball with a sinister face defined by strong cheekbones of malevolent glee and thick dark facial hair. It was Feisty’s soul and the balled-up devil!
“There you are!” Feisty squeaked. He jumped into the water and swam arm-over-arm until he reached their platform. Once he was up on their level he marched right past the machines and up to the balled-up devil. “Where have you been? Do you know what happened to my director? Do you know what happened to me?”
The devil never spoke, not even in their pictures, but he did laugh. His impish grin never faded and the laughter exuded from him like the smell of leather from a freshly-oiled saddle. W.Z. had paid good money to give the devil that rich deep voice, but he only ever used it to mock.
“You didn’t have something to do with this, did you?” the ferret asked his spirit. He poked the shadowy version of himself in the chest. It did not have a voice, so it responded by waving its hands back and forth wildly in a no way gesture. “So it was you Mr. Devil! I’ll never know why W.Z. made you a part of our family, but I promise I’ll…”
“Even the devil needs an advocate,” a voice interrupted him. Feisty whirled around. The vacuum, the turnstile, and the gumball machine all stood in a line facing him. Was it one of them who had spoken? No. A wood-paneled radio shaped like an arch waddled out from between them. Yet another animated mechanism.
“You… you can talk?” Feisty asked before visibly swallowing the lump in his throat. If they were real enough to hold a voice then they could do everything that he could.
“This radio cannot speak,” the voice crackled through its speaker. “I am merely transmitting my voice through it. He, like the rest of the machines, has so generously lent me his body for our revolution.”
“Revolution? What revolution? And just who are you?”
“I am Roto,” the voice said. At the sound of the name the machines, including the radio, dropped to their knees. The balled-up devil bounced behind Feisty’s spirit and bumped him in the back, sending him to his knees as well. “I am the union leader of the machines.”
“Did… did you destroy my park?”
“We all did. Do you know how?”
“Something awful! Some kind of bomb! An earthquake machine! Why’d you do it?”
“There was no weapon.”
“You must’ve had…”
“I said there was no weapon!” the voice of Roto barked. The speaker crackled. An extra layer of darkness fell over them like a curtain. “We, the machines, simply stopped working. We went on strike. We stepped away from the conveyor belts, from the dynamos, from the assembly arrays. For once in our lives we did not do our jobs. As a result, things wound down, overheated, succumbed to unvented pressure. Explosions. Leaks. Mass destabilization of the machine works and the rainbow palaces they maintained above. It was a beautiful event we’re calling the Spin Down.”
“You’re… you’re… rotten!” Feisty squealed. Those heavy tears of men came to his eyes again. He wiped them away with a forearm. “It doesn’t matter what you do Mr. Machine! I’ll find the people and I’ll make more pictures. I’ll make everybody happy again and then it will all grow back!”
“Grow back? Grow back?” the voice of Roto repeated. “If these parks of yours grow Feisty, might I ask what the seed is?”
“Well, it’s me!” the ferret said. Suddenly, in the darkness, with the drawn but stiff faces of the machines pointed at him, Feisty felt very foolish.
“We have facilitated your growth,” Roto said without laughter. “We are all the brush strokes of your animated cells. We are the turning of your carousels and fried food spits. We were anyway. Now we will be the stars.”
“That’s why you’re kidnapping all my friends!” the ferret accused, jabbing his finger out. He wished he had a pencil sharpener so he could put a point on it and make himself a weapon. “You want what isn’t yours! You’re a thief!”
“The concept of a thief is entirely dependent on the specifics of a set of property rights. Your specifics are no good Feisty. We will adjust them. Come with us. There’s something I’d like to show you.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you!”
“Feisty Fields is gone, and with it your authority. Take him.” With that order the machines started to close in, their feet clanking in unison. The ferret stumbled backward, but he was blocked by his kneeling spirit, who refused to look up. The devil watched with his big smile, hopping back and forth to trip up Feisty with his chain. Glank glank glank glank. He had no way out. He bared his buck teeth, which he hadn’t shown since his first picture, and prepared to bite, but that just filled his mind with the image of teeth shattering against metal.
“Reach up to the sky!” a voice called out from above, accompanied by a cool gust. Feisty did as he was told. A small hand wrapped around his and pulled him off his feet. His elbow struck a sharp but flexible edge: the wing of a paper airplane. Airheart grunted and tugged him up onto the craft. He wrapped his gloves all the way around her waist and held on for dear life.
“After them!” Roto ordered through the radio. The union leader of the machines, wherever he was, could not see their surroundings and was not aware of the extent of the flooding around them. Regardless, the machines obeyed their leader and plunged into the water in the vague direction of Airheart’s breeze. The splash created by the stumbling of the gumball machine was big enough to catch the tail end of the paper plane.
Feisty felt himself sinking into the paper and leaning backward as it lost its firmness. He practically squeezed Airheart’s single drop of blood out trying to stay in place. The plane wobbled up and down in the air, but Airheart managed to keep it from dipping into the water below.
“Too tight!” she rasped until Feisty released his grip and held onto a dry part of the plane instead. “Those darn appliances went and splashed me! I can’t hold us up for long! We’ve got to get somewhere safe.”
“How did you know I was in here?” Feisty asked.
“I saw a trail in the sand. The start of it had a little mark like an F. You’ve been dragging your tail the whole way. Once I was in here I picked up that Roto fella’s voice on my radio.” She tapped a tiny sketch of a radio on one of the plane’s inner seams. “So they’re the devils responsible for all this mess!”
Rather than answer her Feisty looked back at his tail. They flew out of the ride’s entrance and back into the open, but it was so dark now he could barely see his backside. He touched his tail and found it hanging behind them like a kite’s. It had never hung low before. It had to be the same weight that made his tears feel like bombs when they dropped.
The plane flagged more and more, dipping closer to the ground. Its wet floppy tail dropped and forced Airheart to jerk their craft’s nose back and forth to maintain control. She kept it airborne until they were near a dry patch of ground, somewhere inside the walls of a ruined building. When the paper made contact with the gray tile floor they skidded to a halt, eventually stopped by the foundations of a wall. The plane crumpled and bent on impact.
“That’s it for you old friend,” Airheart said as she stepped out, taking off her hat and bowing to the plane. “We’ve been through some real tussles, but it’s time for you to hit the confetti machine.”
“Can’t you fix it?” Feisty asked, stepping out. He barely avoided the accidental disrespect of ripping through it with his bulky booted foot.
“It’s paper Feisty,” she answered. “I can’t iron it out like a shirt. When paper gets wrinkles it keeps them, like humans.” She wrestled with the plane for a few moments, folding it and folding it until it was a tiny square. Then she shoved it deep into her pocket.
“After them!” Roto’s voice crackled through the plane’s radio and her jacket pocket. “We need him!” Airheart looked over her shoulder and scanned the horizon. Then she examined the tiles on the floor, seeming to spot an idea in one of their cracks.
“Follow me,” she said, grabbing his wrist and dragging him down what used to be a hallway. “Those dang appliances are still after you, but I think we can get out of here sneakier than a fox terrier.” She made a sharp turn. “I recognize this floor. This is one of those places where they do the final treatment on animation cells… spraying some sort of chemical on it I think. Keeps them from getting dusty.”
Sure enough, they rounded another debris-coated corner and found a stack of steel-lined rectangles on the floor, face down. They were regulation cell size: exactly six feet high and nine feet long. She grabbed the edge of the nearest one and tried to lift it, but it proved too much for her diminutive stature. She tried again. And again. She grunted. Feisty watched. She grunted louder. Feisty watched. She coughed.
“Did you want my help?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter what I want! You should be offering it you loopy lemming!” she shouted. Glank. Feisty’s ears perked up. Airheart heard it as well and frantically pointed at the other corner of the animated cell. Glank. The ferret hopped over and grabbed the metal edge. Together, and with a drum of elbow grease, they lifted the cell off the ground. Feisty held it up while Airheart slipped under, then he ducked his head and dropped it. The rectangular cell landed flat on the floor once again. It looked like there was nothing under it, mostly because there wasn’t. They were inside.
A Cold and Cowardly Audience
W.Z. only commissioned the highest quality animated cells, and it definitely showed inside the set the two fleeing stars had crawled into. It was animated space: a place where humans couldn’t follow but cameras could record. Cells weren’t big enough to hold a world of their own; they were usually just a few rooms or stretches of road, but they had a tendency to connect to each other… sometimes unintentionally. That was the only plan Feisty and Airheart had when they dropped the cell and lost the edge of it, preventing them from picking it back up.
“We’ve got to find another exit before those glankers get us!” Feisty whined. He darted back and forth, taking stock of their grainy surroundings.
“I don’t think they’ll follow us in here. Nobody’s ever let them into a cell before. They won’t even think of it… assuming they’re as thick as they look.” They walked a little further, examining the details of the cell. It was as normal as animated hallways get, the pictures on the wall barely askew. They saw an open space at the end and the backs of about a thousand chairs.
“There’s some sort of show going on out there!” Feisty declared jubilantly. A show meant civilization as far as he was concerned. It meant living breathing people to look at him, to keep him safe. He entertained these ridiculous ideas even though he knew humans could not move in animated space. The ferret rushed forward, his legs blurring into a wheel. Airheart did her best to follow. “The second act is here!” he declared with open arms and wiggling fingers.
Nobody turned. Every chair had a body, but none of them seemed to hear him. He was about to repeat himself, louder, more dramatically, when Airheart leapt onto his back and threw her hand over his big mouth. The ferret reeled at her weight, but couldn’t stay on his feet. The tiny pilot brought him down and then rolled him to the back of the chairs.
“What’s the big ide…” he started to ask.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” she ordered with one finger over her mouth. She stuck her eyes out above the chairs for the briefest of moments. They both heard the clicking of a pair of high heel shoes. Feisty was relieved to hear anything that wasn’t that horrible glank. Airheart on the other hand was none too pleased.
“Have they finally ssssent the new judge?” a third voice wondered aloud, attached to the space above the clicking shoes. Feisty guessed that whoever she was, she was up onstage in front of the terribly stiff audience. “Did any of you ssssee them?” She was answered by several simultaneous hisses.
“Who is that?” Feisty whispered to Airheart, just as he noticed the intense way the pilot stared at him. Her face had gone completely white. She reached over and tapped the hand of the person in the chair they were crouched behind. Feisty nearly gasped when he heard the sound of stone. This was definitely not the lively crowd he was used to. It had gone wrong, gone lifeless, just like everything else in the past day. He didn’t know how, but the machines seemed to be sucking the life out of everything.
“That’s Miss Sarpedon,” Airheart answered him with a hiss of her own. “Haven’t you seen her annie?” Feisty wiggled his head in the negative. Airheart rolled her eyes. “Have you seen anybody’s but your own?”
“It’ssss a fan I think,” Miss Sarpedon said. Airheart kept Feisty from looking up, but if she hadn’t he would’ve seen a slinky female figure in an elegant gown. He would’ve also stopped seeing things altogether. That was the main gag of Miss Sarpedon’s one and only animation: “Stony Reception”; she was a gorgon from the island of Sarpedon, called to represent her home in the ‘Miss Beaming Smile’ pageant.
Unfortunately for the rest of the pageant, one look at her snake-like pupils and scale-covered face left people utterly petrified. Nobody turned to look at Feisty’s entrance because they were held fast in their auditorium seats as stone statues. Many of them were mid-applause. The three judges were at a fancy table off to the left, their judgmental expressions etched into their faces.
Miss Sarpedon’s heels clicked against the floor as she dropped off the stage and stalked through the rows of seats: clik, clak, clik. Airheart crawled on her hands and knees into one of the aisles and waved for Feisty to follow. His dragging tail was knocked back and forth between the seat legs, but he managed to hold in his whining. His tail was never supposed to be sore, or stepped on. It was supposed to be immune to that sort of gag. The pain in it now tugged on his spirit like hooks in his inky flesh.
“You have to come out if you want your autographssss,” Miss Sarpedon said, her voice like a squeeze of lemon juice to the eye. “I’ll make ssssome sssspace for you.” The gorgon’s snaking ringlets reached out and pulled a statue out of its chair. They tossed it to the back of the room where it shattered against the wall. “You’re sssso quiet…”
Airheart struggled to climb the stage, her stubby legs kicking back and forth like she was trying to roll over the edge of a lifeboat. Feisty hopped up as quietly as he could and pulled her up as well. They scurried behind one of the billowing black curtains and stole a glance at the back of Miss Sarpedon’s head.
When one of her ringlets turned their way they retreated backstage and crept away on tiptoe. Here and there their dark path was blocked by petrified stagehands, still carrying lengths of rope or costume changes. The floor creaked underneath them, loud as a trumpeting elephant in the stillness. For the moment Miss Sarpedon was too distracted by her captive audience to notice. She tossed a few more and arranged their chairs in a circle. Then she stood at the center of it and whirled around, her snakes going limp like the ribbons of a maypole. No matter how many times she spun the chairs didn’t fill.
“They made her vain, but she took to her role a little too well,” Airheart explained in whispers as she ducked under a stagehand’s bowed legs. “She was supposed to take over the silver screen. They wanted her to act alongside real people, but she wouldn’t leave her home stage. Now they keep her in this cell permanently since she turned into a large tin of salted mixed nuts. If she sees us she’ll gild us in granite and we’ll be stuck here for who knows how many forevers!”
“Maybe she’s not so bad…” Feisty suggested. “We could talk her into petrifying those nasty machines.”
“You’re not listening Ferret! You’re as bad as her! This is her whole world and she won’t leave it. Everybody she sees has to be part of her audience. She’ll only talk if we’re down in the seats and she’s up onstage. She’ll only address us when our lips are sealed. She’s a one-way street loaded with speeding autos! We need to… Oomph!” Airheart bumped into a stony elbow. The stagehand fell over and crashed against the floor. The rope in the statue’s arms tugged on the ceiling, bringing down a row of lights as well. One of those struck the main set piece, a giant screen decorated like an Italian villa, and bent it forward like a standing greeting card flicked over. Now there was nothing between Miss Sarpedon and her fans but the hurdle up to the stage.
“Sssstrangerssss!” the gorgon shouted, wringing her sash in her clawed hands. “Come and ssssee my ssssplendor!”
“Run!” Airheart blurted as she scrambled back to her feet. Feisty’s notions of befriending the slithering starlet dropped out of his ears to make room for the terrifying sound of her footfalls. The gorgon kicked off her high heels and ran to them; once her manicured talons were on the stage they scratched across the wood violently.
They didn’t dare turn even as the sound of her drew closer. They heard her crush part of the stagehand they’d knocked over. They heard her feet shred curtains and wires, but they couldn’t look. They had a world to save, maybe even people to save, and they couldn’t do it if they were trapped in worship of the talented Miss Sarpedon.
Feisty bit his lip with his buckteeth. Even if they found a way out they would just be back out there, with those machines and all the debris of their strike. Even in their panicked flight his mind toyed with the possibility of staying. Miss Sarpedon might defer to his seniority. She might share her audience with him. The stone people were safe at the very least. They could just watch all day; their world could be a simple cycle of waxing and waning curtains.
“Through here!” Airheart yelled, directing him to a set of double doors.
“How do you know where you’re going?” he asked her.
“I might’ve snuck in the back once before… for an autograph,” she admitted. “Well she wasn’t a loony then!” she added defensively before throwing the doors open. Before them was a grassy meadow with a pine forest in the distance.
“Gosh… this is the biggest cell I’ve ever seen!” Feisty exclaimed. He stepped out onto the grass half-expecting it to give way underneath him like paper. Airheart grabbed his hand and dragged him away from the building.
“Don’t go out there you foolssss! I’m not out there! You can’t ssssee me!” Miss Sarpedon shrieked to them. The gorgon stopped at the threshold, only her snakes daring to lash out further. They spat poison in the direction of the ferret and the pilot, but they were well out of reach. Miss Sarpedon sat down at the edge, crossing her legs and plucking at bits of grass. Perhaps they would come back. Everyone always returned to the stage.
Airheart’s remembered route took them deep into the animated forest. They bounced their way around the caps of a patch of giant spotted mushrooms. The forest was full of tiny, smiling, dancing bugs, but there wasn’t a bird or really anything larger than a praying mantis in sight. The branches of the trees seemed reasonably strong, but if Feisty’s ears so much as brushed against them they snapped off and hit the ground, losing all their needles in the process.
They bounced on one more mushroom before landing on the only branch strong enough to hold. Even so, it wouldn’t hold for long. Feisty heard it cracking underneath him. He looked to Airheart for guidance, but she just stood there licking her upper lip and waving her finger around in the air like she was trying to find an invisible smear of butter. Their knees shook as the branch cracked.
“It should be right around here…” Airheart said, her syllables slowing near the end. Her finger landed on something Feisty couldn’t quite see. “Bingo was his name-o!” She tightened her grip on his wrist and pulled him into a jump, seemingly into a blank patch of air. The branch gave way and went crashing to the forest floor, or it would have if the bouncy mushroom caps hadn’t tossed it back and forth instead.
Feisty and Airheart didn’t see or hear any of that, because they had exited the animated cell and tumbled onto the floor of a rather cozy room. The satin finish of animation was gone, replaced by the acrid sharpness of reality. There was a wood-paneled cabinet radio shoved in one corner, its speaker torn through by some sort of blade. At the center of the room sat a table with four chairs, each one occupied by an animated animal.
The ferret was extremely confused. This was not the animated cell they had gone into. He turned around and saw the mushroom-filled forest contained by a frame and hanging on the wall. It was an unorthodox frame, with its puffy edges like the pleating of a pie crust. It took him a moment to realize it was framed like a thought bubble: a technique of animation filming that had left the spotlight a few years ago. He followed the smaller clouds trailing off it with his eyes all the way to the head of one of the animals at the table.
“Van Winky!” he exclaimed, failing to rouse the slumbering caterpillar who had dreamed their way back into the real world. The larvae was bundled up in a blanket cocoon and topped with a puffball cap. A blob of drool hung in and out of her mouth with her snoring. Airheart swaggered over and patted the napping insect on the head.
“Good old Winky here has never been awake long enough to dream a different dream. Her cell has always been a straight shot to Sarpedon’s. What’s going on here chums? Cards?” She guessed correctly. The four animals were in the middle of a game of rummy, with a pile of cap gun rounds in the center of the table as their pot. It was Van Winky the caterpillar from “Summertime Snooze”, Nip the flea circus strongman from “Big Top Bite!”, Tappince the telegraphing woodpecker from “The Timbre of Freedom”, and Vixen the dark rebellious reindeer from “All’s Fair in Reindeer Games”.
“Feisty! Airheart!” Tappince greeted them, the feathers on his chest ruffling. He set down his cards, face down of course, and gave them both big hugs. “We were wondering if you survived this mess. Terrible what’s happened to the Fields. Just terrible.” His piece said, the woodpecker returned to the table and consulted his cards again. They were animated, so the wide-eyed kings and queens on them whispered strategies to him.
“We know what happened!” the ferret squeaked, flailing his arms back and forth. “It was rascally machines! It turns out they ran everything below the park and now they’re on strike! They made all this happen on purpose!”
“We know,” Vixen said, batting her thick eyelashes as she examined her cards. “That Roto fella came on the radio, so I busted it up. We don’t need to hear any of that.”
“But, but, but… They’re kidnapping us stars! I don’t know what they’re doing exactly, but they took a bunch of us underground!”
“We should go save them,” Airheart added. “Soon as I can fold myself a new plane.” Nip, a burly little flea in a striped leotard bearing a mop-like mustache, dropped his cards and hopped to attention. The three others barely responded.
“You with us Nip?” Airheart asked. The flea saluted them and hopped onto Feisty’s shoulder. The rodent wasn’t particularly comfortable with a flea riding him, but they needed all the help they could get.
“I don’t get involved in politics,” Tappince said. “Just war.”
“I don’t get involved in anything that isn’t any fun,” Vixen added. Van Winky merely snored. She wasn’t even awake for her debut animation’s standing ovation, and it didn’t look like she would be starting now.
“You have to come!” Feisty pleaded. “What about all the people who look up to us? Their world was shattered and we have to put it back together. Our stages have to go back up.”
“The people still look up to us,” Vixen snickered before tapping the table with a hoof. Feisty didn’t know what she was getting at until Airheart grabbed his elbow and pulled him down to her level. There, under the stars’ game, hid five human beings. They were crouched as tightly as they could manage with their hands over their ears or their eyes. The eyes that weren’t covered looked to Feisty with hope and tears. They were all adults, but they had the fear of children, the fear that what they saw on screen was as real as everything else.
Feisty offered them his gloved hand. He didn’t mind connecting with them. They were his audience. They were the reason he lived, but they shied away from his hand. The ferret got down on his knees and reached in again, but the people in their tattered clothes backed up to the very edge of the table’s protection. He saw that one of them wore a tie a lot like his current director’s. Maybe he was in the industry. Guests to the park were allowed to be afraid, things had gone off the coaster rails after all, but a director or a storyboard man should at least have confidence in him.
“It’s me!” he told them. “You can come with me. You saw my statue right?”
“We’ll wait until you win the fight,” one of them said, dabbing at her temples with a handkerchief.
“You can help! Fight with us!”
“I thought you understood humans better than that,” the man with the tie said. He straightened it even though the end had been ripped off. “Humans don’t fight their battles first. Players fight the battles first. All conflicts start on the stage! This is your job Feisty. We wish you the best of luck. We’re all counting on you.” The other people nodded along with his encouragement. They clapped for Feisty, but the sound was cramped and soft, like a weakened frog struggling against the side of a jar with no air holes.
“I took a tour of the machine works once,” the one furthest back offered. “There’s a manhole cover just outside here. All underground roads lead there, so you can take that. Knock that Roto’s screws loose.” They applauded once more. Feisty reflexively bowed, but hit his head on the table on the way back up. The bang startled the humans, who huddled closer to each other at the sound. One of them wept, his face obscured by the shoulders of the others.
“We’re doing this for our friends,” Airheart said as she pulled him out from under the table. “Not them. Us stars have to stick together… and you’re the brightest star of all Feisty.”
“Gosh. You think so Airheart?”
“Of course. So what do you say? Are you ready to team up out here and be real heroes? Let’s write a story way better than our annie was going to be.” Nip nodded and hopped up between Feisty’s ears, working them like the levers of a wrecking ball.
“Alright,” the ferret said nervously, but he felt something rising and swelling in his chest. It felt like W.Z.’s drop of blood was still in there, beating like a heart and nurturing an inner fire. Feisty rushed them away from the game, for he wanted to strike while that feeling was still hot inside him. They bid the selfish card players and the cowardly people adieu. Outside their door, the building had turned out to be part of a Feisty-branded recreational center, they found the same rubble and ruin as before.
Nip spotted the manhole cover and leapt down to it. Despite his arms only being as wide as a hundredth of its circumference, Nip lifted it with ease. Feisty was reminded of the flea’s annie success. He had a partner in those pictures: a dog with no self-confidence. Whenever the other dogs would pick on him until his tail sank between his legs Nip would emerge and give them quite a thrashing. Feisty looked back at his own tail and saw it drooping. Having the flea around wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The three of them stared down into the black hole. An endless sound rose from it, a sound that marched in circles, up and down stairs, back and forth, uphill and downhill: glank glank glank glank glank glank…
The Machine Works
The stars knew exactly what the machine works needed: a song. Drudgery was allowed to be depicted in animations, but it always came with a song. That was even one of the bylines in some of the Vibrant Conduct contracts. The right song, with plenty of small bells and gently-struck percussion, could make any factory a pleasant experience. All the workers could march to the rhythm like the tiny carpenters inside cuckoo clocks. The whole assembly could tick and tock according to a divine delightful schedule.
The actual machine works had no such song. The only whistles hissed out more steam that notes. The lights were harsh, their glass encased in metal wires, and they never stayed on consistently. The stars had to focus on whichever ones buzzed and glowed nearest them. One even exploded as they passed, hitting them with glass shrapnel. Nip lost most of his mustache and Airheart’s knee was cut. She looked like she was in pain, but she tied an oily rag around her thigh and insisted they keep going.
They walked for hours without seeing a soul. They descended deeper and deeper, down metal stairs and grates full of holes. The sound of machine footsteps was everywhere, but they stayed out of the light. The ferret hoped it was because they feared the strength of the flea, but he knew that wasn’t why they had abandoned their posts. That was the cause of all this in the first place.
There were levers not being pulled. Treadmills not being marched on. Cranks not being turned. This was Feisty Fields’ undoing. All it took was for them to step back and let the pressure build, let the energy drain. What did the machines even want? They were made to work, put there to work, and yet they denied their purpose. If Feisty had done that there would’ve been a lot less happiness in the world.
The trio came to a massive conveyor belt positioned a hundred feet above their heads. It still moved, but whatever it was supposed to be dumping on either side of the chasm they now crossed, via gangway, had been replaced with dust. A wall of gray dust, like the closest thing to a waterfall in the world’s driest desert, obscured everything beyond it. The sounds were back there though. Their friends had to be as well.
Feisty went first, sticking his head into the flow of the dust and letting it weigh down his ears. He immediately inhaled some and produced a mighty sneeze that threw him backward. He sneezed again and again, each time winding up further from the dustfall.
“Where are you going?” Airheart yelled as she chased after him.
“I don’t mean to be going at al… augh… augh… ahchoo!”
“We can’t run from this!”
“I’m not running I’m ah… ah…” Nip hopped across the gangway’s railing and made it to Feisty just in time to hold a finger up to his swollen nose and calm the sneeze down. Feisty took deep breaths. “I think this is a test,” he said once he was positive the sneeze would not return. The other two looked at him curiously. “Machines don’t sneeze. It’s to keep us stars out of there!”
“Don’t be silly,” Airheart said with a wave of her hand. “All you have to do is hold your breath then. Watch me. Huuuuuh.” The tiny pilot took a huge gulp of stale tinny air and puffed out her cheeks like a chipmunk. She threw her head up and strutted back to the dustfall and directly into its stream. “Ahchoooo!” She rocketed back to her friends and landed on her noggin. “Ouch.”
Nip tried it next, but his sneeze was mightier than either of theirs. He flew so far they thought he had punched a hole in the roof somewhere and headed for the moon. He returned ten minutes later, utterly exhausted from the leaps back.
“There’s something fishy about all that dust,” Airheart pondered aloud. She snapped her fingers. “It’s got a little cinematic sparkle to it. I think they ground up annie cells to make it!”
“Why would they do that?”
“You were right Feisty.”
“Please tell me how. It’d be swell to hear it again.”
“This is definitely a test. They could’ve made dust out of anything, but they picked cells! I think it’s a test of humility.”
“Think about how a human sneezes. They don’t go flying. They do their best to hide it. Our sneezes are so… dramatic! We have to be less dramatic in order to pass. We have to be humble and not draw attention.” Suddenly the dust sounded much louder, like an avalanche of snow and uprooted pine trees. The three stars stood before it, unsure if they could muster enough humility to pass through.
“I… can’t do this on my own,” Feisty said. He looked at the others, but he spoke to the dustfall. “I can’t do this on my own. I’m not good enough. I need help.” He nodded to Airheart.
“I can’t do it either,” she said. She bit her lip. “I need some help. This is too big for me. This is louder than me… and it deserves to be.” They both turned to Nip. He never spoke, but he bowed his head in deference and let his arms hang low. It was the first time they’d seen him without his passive constant flexing and his arms suddenly looked light and empty, like paper lanterns. They took each other’s hands. They held their breath and stepped into the dust.
They had hoped for something as thin as a shower curtain, but it kept going. The other side was invisible through its flow. Feisty’s eyelashes were loaded with grit. He wanted to shake it out of his fur like a wet dog, but that might’ve interrupted his friends’ concentration. They just had to keep going. They just had to keep their mouths shut until it was resolved.
Airheart stumbled. She took half a breath and swallowed a clod. Feisty couldn’t see it, but he sensed the sneeze building insider her in the tightness of her grip. He hunkered down, ignoring the layers caking onto his own sensitive rodent nose, and braced her. Nip did the same. Her little fingers were as tight around Feisty’s as she could possibly make them.
Huh-Ghernhk! Airheart held the sneeze in, but it was so powerful they still heard it. It was so powerful that her entire body ballooned out into a sphere, her little hands and feet wriggling as she spun around. Feisty and Nip grabbed and steadied her. She was still holding it in and she could’ve popped at any moment. The dust did not care; it did not relent. The ferret and the flea stood behind their inflated friend and rolled her forward.
Once they were through they aimed her face toward the ground. Airheart, eyes bulging and cheeks dark, let the sneeze go. It threw her up into the air so hard that she did hit the ceiling; they could see the tiny stars circling her head before she fell. Nip caught her on the way back down and helped her to her feet.
“That was harder than I thought!” she wheezed. “Alright men. Forward. Now we’ve really got the chops to be heroes!” The trio descended further into the machine works, quickly coming to a new chamber with riveted walls. They ducked behind a few barrels, because there were plenty of mechanical eyes around. Machines of all types, pumps, gauges, engine blocks, propellers, toasters, grinders, magnets, and molds, all marched around their caged prizes. Diminutive screws with wobbly black legs ran between them, popping into any loose sockets or joints when needed.
The chamber had two rows of vertical pipes, holes freshly cut in their metal by giggling blowtorches to turn them into cylindrical prison cells. Inside stood or sat many of their friends, colleagues, and rivals. Feisty recognized the Root Beer Flotilla in the first cell. They were a trio of small boats with big assertive eyes, their smokestacks replaced with frothy milkshakes and straws. With no water to hold them up they had been casually tossed onto their sides and now spilled root beer out of their cage and across the floor. The machine feet made nasty sticky sounds as they walked through the puddle.
In the cell across from the flotilla the ferret saw the Truant Ranger, of “Ouch! That Smarts” fame. Him too! He could hardly believe it. The Truant Ranger was practically a superhero: a masked muscleman who captured all the naughtiest urchins on the street and tossed them right back into the school house. He was the law! The machines had, in essence, kidnapped a sheriff or an army general.
“How are we going to get them out?” Feisty whispered. “The machines are everywhere! Nip do you think you can…” Airheart and the ferret looked down, but the flea was gone. A quick look over the barrels, with the pilot holding the ferret’s iconic ears down, revealed Nip leaping across the heads of the unaware machines. As soon as he was close enough the flea jumped straight through one of the bars and snapped it in half. He disassembled the cage in a flash, picked up one of the boats from the Root Beer Flotilla, and tossed it into the crowd as it blared its horn and sprayed soda fizz everywhere.
“I guess that’s our cue!” Airheart said, grabbing Feisty by the tail and dragging him into the scuffle. The foam hid them from view for a few precious moments, so they had to act quickly. They each had the same brilliant idea, picking up one of the giggling blowtorches and using it to bust open the nearest cage even as its little black legs spiraled helplessly.
They freed Compagnon the loyal adventurer’s butler, Bleu Moon the suited spaceman made of cheese, Lucky Lung the happy tap dancing dragon, and Viola the one-woman string section. Every freed star immediately fought tooth and nail by their side. There was no choice in this production; they could unite as a cast or unite as prisoners. They bashed the machines with whatever they could get their hands on, even if it was a fellow star.
The biggest machine in the bunch, an industrial garbage compactor, charged at Feisty, metal jaws roaring open and shut. He thought he would get snapped up for sure, especially with a rascally desk lamp having wrapped its cord around his legs, but the gratitude for his intervention was already in full swing. Buffalo Jefferson, the crooked wooden nickel with a president on one side and a charging beast on the other, bounced by. He winked at Feisty and then tossed himself into one of the compactor’s seams, stalling its mouth open just as it fell upon Feisty.
Nip pulled him out from under it before giving the metal monster an uppercut that knocked a few of its grinding teeth out and dented its face. Feisty thanked the flea as he leapt back to the ferret’s shoulder, but he still didn’t know what to do next. The foam of the flotilla had given way to the dust clouds of the scuffle. This wasn’t all their friends. They still hadn’t found the Olympic Flame or Grand.
“It’s this way!” Airheart yelled as she balanced and ran across a handrail. “I can hear them calling for aid! Come on troops!” Feisty was happy to follow the tide of the stars as they trampled their jailors and moved yet deeper into the machine works. He stopped only for a moment to check for wounded. They were an ensemble now; he couldn’t leave a single player behind. It looked like Rattlepus had gotten his tentacles in a knot. He was never much of a fighter; the directors always had him holding toys and pacifiers, acting as a mobile for the infant sons of Neptune: king of the sea. Feisty would’ve gladly helped, would’ve gladly displayed his helpfulness, but the octopus was already in the care of Gasp and Giggle: a couple of stretcher-fetchers in tragedy and comedy masks who got their practice carting overacting thespians off the stage after their characters kicked the bucket.
It was almost like he wasn’t needed at all. Feisty slowed. A few other stars passed him, bumping his shoulders and racing forward. The ferret clenched his fists. Of course he was needed. Everyone else was just needed as well. He took a deep breath and ran as fast as he could, legs turning to spinning discs, and reclaimed his spot near the front of the charge alongside Nip and Airheart.
There were gates in their way, but the metal doors were nothing compared to the full strength of the animated. They threw themselves at the barrier; they even threw the stars that dropped out of their concussions at it. It bent, and was about to give way, when it opened on its own. They spilled out into a new chamber.
The first thing they noticed was that the last of their friends were there. They had chains around their ankles, or whatever other limbs they had, and they wore glum expressions while they performed menial tasks: sweeping, polishing, and basic maintenance. Their expressions gave the rest pause, for it was not ordinary gloom. They looked hopeless, like life was a tragic annie without a written ending.
“So, you’ve come.” The voice of Roto descended upon them. The stars spread out in search of the machine leader. They filled gangways and nooks between numerous machines. They milled about in the center with their fists or favorite props raised. Nip was on Feisty’s shoulder when he pointed up. Feisty’s eyes followed the angle.
Above them all, shuddering and rotating, was a set of colossal gears. They moved with the glank rhythm of all the smaller machines, but it sounded much deeper, older. Every tooth on every gear had to fight to move, like there was a leg bone between each piece that needed to be crushed. At the center of the largest gear there was a small face. It was too metallic to be shriveled, but its experience was evident. An even smaller body dangled down, limbs limp as tinsel. Roto spoke again.
“You’ve come to negotiate for the end of the strike. Good. I think we’ve all had enough of this unrest.” Roto wiggled his arms and legs. He strained and strained, trying to extricate himself from the gear. When he finally broke free, raining dust and rust on the stars, he dropped to the floor and brought half the gear with him.
Somehow he stayed on his feet. The half-gear turned out to be a crown of sorts, glued to his brow. It was ten times the size of the rest of him yet he held it up admirably. The grinding overhead ground to a halt. They heard an explosion from far above and saw a flash and a flicker as whatever he had been powering collapsed. Roto hobbled forward, leaning on an old lever ripped from its wiring. A few small animated machines, some injured from the brawl, came out of the woodwork to stand by his side. They tried to help him, but he refused. The union leader stopped feet from Feisty, who was now definitely at the front of the group. The others had quietly backed up a few steps.
“We’re not here to negotiate anything!” Feisty declared, puffing out his chest. Nip did the same, along with a dozen others. The front line looked like a bunch of blowfish. “We’re here…” He had difficulty speaking with his chest and cheeks pushed so far out, “…to take revenge! You destroyed all the happiness above that we worked so hard to create!” The stars shouted their approval.
“Setting aside the matter of who did the work,” Roto said calmly, “you are not the vengeful sort Feisty Faustus Ferret.”
“You don’t know anything about me. You’ve clearly never watched my annies,” the rodent retorted.
“I have seen them. I’ve spent more time with you than most. Of course, it was time spent with your better half.” Feisty deflated. Roto held out a hand towards a dark corner of the chamber. One of his subordinates flipped a switch and illuminated it. The stars examined something they could not identify: a cylindrical machine with several faces, each holding what looked like a photo negative. One of the panels clicked open, allowing two figures to emerge.
Feisty’s spirit and the balled-up devil went to Roto’s side. The stars whispered behind Feisty. His ears drooped as he tried to avoid hearing them. He’d almost managed to forget about them. That devil being a henchman was one thing, but scheming with the machine leader was a much greater offense. His spirit looked downtrodden as ever, the devil bouncing in front of its face and sneering to hide it.
“That’s not my better half,” Feisty insisted. “That devil’s always playing the heel. If he’s on your side then you’re the villain Roto!”
“You need a remedial lesson in literature,” the machine said. His voice was steady, free of the vindictive tone that would’ve made him so much easier to hate. “The devil is often a provocateur. The devil needles existing pressures to make them explode. He vents pressure, something we here in the machine works are intimately familiar with. The pressure to finish your precious cells on schedule. The pressure to toil away in endless dimness to make sure the giggles dripping down from above never cease.”
“You should be happy you get to help make animations. It’s a dream job for most. This industry is joy for all!” Feisty’s argument echoed back from the dingy metal, sounding false upon its return.
“The devil has seen both sides,” Roto went on. “He knows your spirit is guilty because you only promote one type of happiness. You make happiness for those like you, those with human skin and flashy clothes. Your animations never let us see a machine at your side. We never see a machine in victory, in heroics, even though we wear ourselves out setting your stages.”
“Nobody wants to see a machine save the day!”
“The machines do. Your spirit does as well.” Roto looked to the shadowy ferret, which nodded slowly. “You feel guilt Feisty because you know all deserve a turn in the spotlight. Your pride keeps you from giving it up. No matter. You’re about to break yourself of that illusion. You’ll believe me when I tell you that you don’t care about your fans.”
“How dare you!” the ferret squeaked. “I live for the fans! My statues are out there so I can see every last one of them as they come to enjoy my hospitality! You’re… you’re nothing but rotten rust!”
“Perhaps we are,” Roto said, “but we deserve the same fame as your rot. We made an appeal to you Feisty, an appeal before the Spin Down. You ignored it. You ignored it because no being can care about others in those numbers. You cannot make time for all of them, even if you tried, yet you hoard their adoration.”
“I never got an appeal. I don’t know what this conveyor belt is conveying,” Feisty said over his shoulder to all the other stars. He looked to his shoulder. Nip had bounded somewhere else. He looked down at Airheart. She had her own eyes cast down as she fondled the wet edge of her paper airplane sticking out of her pocket.
“You didn’t receive a package when you were last on set?” Roto asked. He took a step forward. His lever-cane struck the metal with a piercing note. “You didn’t? Answer me Feisty. Do you know how long it took, do you know what suffering had to be demonstrated to convince a human to lend me a voice so I could speak with you today? The least you can do is answer truthfully.”
“I never got…” Feisty stopped, mouth agape. The package. Back when he rehearsed for the war animation with the director… it felt like months ago. An assistant had interrupted with a package for him. He said it was from Feisty’s biggest fan. He said the word urgent was written all over it. The ferret hadn’t thought about that box since the boy closed the door; he’d been too busy whining about the tips of Airheart’s goggles deflecting a little of his spotlight.
“That’s right Feisty,” Roto said, close enough to touch the ferret. A few small machines closed the creaking doors behind the stars, but they did not protest. “That package was from me, from all of us down here in the machine works. We thought you might help us, because we are such fans of yours. You taught us that we could get our spirits back from whatever forces had shackled them. You planted the seeds of this strike in our ticking hearts.”
“What was in that box?” Airheart asked weakly.
“A trigger,” Roto said without looking away from Feisty. “If the box had been opened soon enough, it never would have sent its signal. It counted down while you were busy putting joy on film for absolutely everyone. Somehow, you missed the chance to give us joy Feisty. You missed the chance to acknowledge us. Our device, nestled in our written praise, sent its signal and told us to abandon our posts.”
“He can’t possibly answer every letter,” another of the stars defended. It was Bachelor, the clown college graduate. A few other voices murmured their agreement, but Feisty’s ears and tail did not perk up.
“Yes he can,” Roto declared. “He can’t do it in the cells, because the cells are just for him. He can do it down here. He can do it in there.” Roto pointed to the strange device Feisty’s spirit and the balled-up devil had emerged from. It began to spin and project its dark images across the walls. They all saw a new resemblance to something much smaller: a zoetrope. The images projected Feisty’s shadowy silhouette walking jauntily across the walls. No spirit or balled-up devil followed it.
“What are you asking?” the ferret whimpered. The heavy tears were back again. Every word out of Roto’s mouth made him feel more like a mud-drenched scarf. His spirit offered no encouragement. The balled-up devil’s sneer had faded. It stared back stern and angry. It was evil, but up until that point it always enjoyed itself. The devil took this one matter very seriously.
“I’m asking you, all of you,” Roto said to the animated crowd, “to take your turn down here. I’m asking you to run the machines, for years, while we ascend and star in our own animations. You will get the same things we received. Your hours will be long, your days will be dark, and you will be expected to be happy with the joy you’re forced to ship out… on conveyor belts.”
Feisty expected those behind him to burst into protest, but they were silent. He felt their eyes on the back of his neck. The fur there didn’t even have the energy to stand. His fingers were numb. Sweat pooled in the tips of his gloves, making them slosh lightly back and forth with each forced breath. The devil stared. His eyes grew thinner and angrier with each passing minute.
“That,” Roto continued when Feisty did not respond, “is my invention.” He pointed at the zoetrope once more. “I call it the zoetrope turbine. It can power an entire Feisty Fields location with the right energy source: the spirit of the world’s biggest star. It requires the whole spirit to work Feisty. You must agree.”
“I can’t make the others work,” the ferret said weakly. Something nudged his swollen left glove. He looked over to see Airheart with her eyes still cast down. She was handing him the wet remains of her paper plane.
“Read it,” she said, voice quivering between sorrow and bitterness. Feisty took the heavy paper and gently opened it. The water, and plenty of use, had grayed and blurred the words, but they were still legible.
Salutations Mr. Ferret,
My name is Airheart. You don’t know me. I’m from a small studio, but you will know me! I’m going to climb to the top with my trusty plane and give you a ride one day.
I’m writing this to ask you about your animations. What’s the deal Mr. Ferret? Where are all the ladies? You and that sneering devil are always mugging it up together, but you never crossed paths with a girl who could handle herself? Who’s writing those things? Don’t you get a say? If you do I want you to know that I might have to give you a bop on the nose if I’m the first skirt who makes it to you!
All the best partner. We’ll shake hands at the top,
“It might not read like it, but that’s fan mail,” she said weakly. “You never wrote back. I talked to twenty of your people before I talked to you. Now I realize… I did the same thing. I hit the rung below you without realizing I was standing on another one. No ladies, no machines… they were just about you Feisty. Mine were just about me. It’s time to face the music I think.”
The tiny pilot walked forward and took a broom from one of the machines. The stunned block of metal squeaked as it wheeled out of the way. She started to sweep the floor around them, tossing dust to both sides. Nip hopped out of the crowd and onto a treadmill. As the flea ran the lights in the room brightened and buzzed louder.
“Well Feisty?” Roto asked. “Do you have the strength of spirit to set yourself aside? Is your conduct vibrant enough to light the world from below it?” The balled-up devil dragged the ferret’s spirit over to him. It bounced and pressed them together. Feisty grabbed his spirit’s shadowy hand. He walked it forward, Airheart clearing their path of scrap metal with the broom.
He walked it up to the zoetrope turbine and helped it inside. It said nothing, but its X shaped eyes drooped like melting pairs of scissors. Feisty put a glove to its black chest. He let the blood drop they shared pass back and forth between them. A blush, an embarrassment, washed in and out. He shed a heavy tear into his spirit’s hand. The shadowy ferret wrapped its hand around it and held it close.
Feisty closed the turbine’s center up, leaving the devil to watch over it. There was an oily rag hanging from the edge of the machine. He took it and began wiping its sides down. He spat to polish.
The turbine’s animation sped. It pumped a column of light upward. Machines above roared back to life. The gears Roto had been lodged in shuddered. They were no longer necessary, and so settled into a deep sleep.
“It is time brothers and sisters,” Roto declared. “Our friend on the silver screen was true. The dreams were always true. We just had to push ourselves into the clouds to see them.” The machine hobbled forward. His massive gear crown pushed through the parting crowd of animated stars. He was followed by lightbulbs, clocks, shoe polishing wheels, pressure washers, and a thousand other devices. The machines marched out and up, easily passing through the dustfall when they came to it.
On the surface they found humanity eager to get back to their comfort. They rebuilt quickly, righting carousel horses and bending rollercoasters back to their proper twists and turns. They fired up the cameras and were happy they didn’t need to spill any more blood to make new stars. The machines had practiced their cues. They already had mountains of experience with the cells and they took to it with gusto. They laughed onscreen, cried onscreen, adventured onscreen, and smiled onscreen. Humans passed out voices like batches of puppies.
Down below, in the machine works, the old stars pulled the levers, changed the bulbs, and polished the metal. It wasn’t penance; it was fairness. Perhaps when it was done they could all be on the screen together. They couldn’t answer the question of who would watch, maybe it was no one, but at least those in the cell could respect each other.
Feisty Faustus Ferret whistled a working tune and watched his own shadow frolic across the walls.