In the middle of the 21st Century, scientists finally discovered a way to create virtual worlds. Similar to virtual reality programs of the late 1990's, virtual worlds were artificially created environments that a person could move through. However, unlike primitive VR, bulky goggles and cumbersome gloves were not needed to interact with the virtual world. By means of a portal, a person could actually physically enter a virtual world.
Naturally, the entertainment industry immediately grabbed at the opportunity. Many virtual worlds were created for people to visit. And the people eat it up. For unlike the regular "earthbound" resorts, virtual worlds offered places that were normally impossible to visit.
Like Dino-World, where people could co-exist with the extinct reptiles. Or Myth-World, where all the creatures from fantasy mingled with the crowds. And there were hundreds more. But by far, the favorite virtual world was 'Toon-World.
'Toon-World was just that -- a world where the rules of cartoon physics were a reality. And people who visited 'Toon-World were as subject to those rules as any of its own inhabitants. People rushed there to experience the feeling of being run over by a steamroller. Or inflated like a balloon. If it could happen in a cartoon, it could happen in 'Toon-World. And just like a cartoon, the effects were only temporary. Thus, no one ever experienced any permanent damage from the trip. Just a great deal of fun.
So, come visit 'Toon-World, and let the fun begin!
I blame those damned brochures. "Come to 'Toon-World!" they proclaim in big letters. "Enjoy the sensation of being flattened by a steamroller! Feel the exhilaration of being blown up like a balloon! If it can happen to a cartoon, it can happen to you at 'Toon-World!" And then they add the part that is an outright lie. "Experience it all in this perfectly SAFE environment!" Safe, my fat fanny!
Every time I hear someone tell me how safe 'Toon-World is, I want to barf. If you think 'Toon-World is safe, let me tell you different. Let me tell you about what happened to my sister, Marie.
Marie loved 'Toon-World. She went there every chance she got. She found the sensations that the world offered to be the most fun she had ever experienced. She was always showing off her pictures of her various escapades there.
"Here's that time I got caught in that canning machine," she'd say, pointing to the picture of a small soup can with her face on the label. "And here's after I went through that Chinese laundry," she'd add, showing off the picture of what looked like a folded up pink towel, with her grinning features at the top.
And there were plenty more pictures. Marie with her head in the shape of a jar. Marie flattened out in the street after being run over by a speeding car. Marie's body looking like an accordion after having an anvil dropped on it. Or like a large plate of spaghetti after being forced through a funnel. Picture after picture showed Marie in some kind of cartoonish situations. And she loved it.
I still remember the day she showed me the picture that made me the most uncomfortable. It showed a large puddle of some kind of pink goo. Floating on top were the two pieces of a black bikini and what looked like two white marbles, but I knew they were really Marie's eyeballs. "What the hell is this?" I asked her in complete horror.
"That's me," Marie told me with a big grin. "I went out by the pool on a really hot day, and I melted. Don't I look great?"
"Great?" I repeated loudly. "Great? You're a freaky puddle, Marie. What's so great about that? How can you say that this isn't dangerous?"
"Because I'm here, Mike," she stated flat out. "Like I've always told you, 'Toon-World is perfectly safe."
Yeah, safe. I wonder if she still feels that way.
Now, Marie had always been more than a little headstrong. In fact, there were times when I believed her insistence on visiting 'Toon-World had more to do with my not liking it than any actual enjoyment she got from the trip. Marie just didn't like being told what to do.
So, I guess it was only a matter of time before she was going to lock horns with Mark Spillman.
Spillman was a third string football player at Marie's college, and as such, believed that he was the king of the world. It didn't matter that he might only get to actually play in one out of five games. He was an athlete, which to Spillman meant that he got whatever he wanted. And what he wanted was Marie.
Who knows what the attraction could have been? Don't get me wrong. Marie was a very pretty young woman. Pushy people, however, just rubbed her the wrong way, and she always made it quite clear that she didn't want to be around them. And they didn't come any pushier than Mark Spillman. From the first time he'd laid eyes on my sister, Spillman just had to make her "his girl". But no matter how many times he'd ask her out, Marie would turn him down. She just wasn't interested, which...unfortunately...just seemed to make Spillman more determined.
And then came the day when he made his tragic mistake. After the one hundredth time of Marie turning him down, Spillman decided to push the issue, and demanded that she go out with him. Well, as you can imagine, this didn't sit well with Marie, and in no uncertain...and very loud...tones, she told him so, drawing a crowd of onlookers, of course. And having had her say, Marie turned to walk away, at which point, Spillman made the aforementioned error.
He grabbed her arm.
Now, to be fair to Spillman, he really didn't have a clue. You see, our father had been a marine for twenty years. And so, he had insisted that Marie and myself learn how to fight. A fact that Spillman learned very quickly, as Marie proceeded to kick his ass. It all happened so fast that no one could really report the exact particulars of it. However, the fact that Spillman was lying daze on the ground, while Marie stormed quickly across the campus, made it pretty clear what had happened.
And like any other college around the country, it didn't take long before even those who hadn't witnessed the incident knew about it. Well, as you can expect, it wasn't long before Spillman was the laughing stock of not only the football team, but also the entire campus. There was nowhere he could go that he wasn't laughed at or made fun of. And it wasn't long before his anger turned to thoughts of revenge. One way or another, he would make Marie pay for his humiliation.
The last time I talked to Marie was just before she left on her latest trip to 'Toon-World. We were sitting in the airport waiting for the flight that would take her to the portal. "The Spillman Incident" (as Marie like to refer to it) was three months in the past, and Marie, like everyone else, had forgotten all about it.
"Are you sure you want to go by yourself?" I asked her. "Why don't you ask Connie or one of your other girlfriends to go with you?"
"I've already told you, Mike," she answered. "With all the classes and outside activities at school lately, I need the time to myself. Believe me, I'm really looking forward to a little quiet time at that ski resort on 'Toon-World."
I know what you're thinking. A ski resort on 'Toon-World? Isn't it like an amusement park or something? I used to think the same thing, but Marie was quick to set me straight. 'Toon-World was just that. A world, complete with cities and countries all its own. Hell, they even have their own amusement park. Marie likes to think of it more as visiting another dimension than entering a computer program. Who knows? Maybe it was.
"But why on 'Toon-World?" I pleaded. "What's wrong with the ski resorts in the real world?"
She gave me that unbelieving laugh of hers. "That's easy. 'Toon-World's safer."
"Hell, yeah," she told me. "Think about it, Mike. If I crack up at a real ski resort, I could wind up in traction. But on 'Toon-World, the worst that could happen to me is that I get wrapped around a tree..." She smiled and added, "…literally."
I wanted to argue with her some more, but just then they announced her flight. She gave me a kiss and gathered her carry-on luggage. As she went through the doorway to head for her shuttle, she turned and gave me a goodbye wave.
That was the last time I saw my sister until the day I was asked to identify her.
The first sign that something had gone wrong came a week later. When I went to pick Marie up at the airport, she wasn't on the shuttle. So, I went to the flight desk and they confirmed that she had been scheduled for the flight, but had not boarded at the 'Toon-World terminal. They put me in touch with their desk at the other end, and from them I received the number for the 'Toon-World administration office. They, in turn, got me in touch with the ski resort on 'Toon-World itself.
"Yes, sir," the person at the resort assured me. "Your sister did check in last week, right on schedule. However, our records indicate that she checked out the next morning."
"The next morning?" I repeated. "Why did she do that?"
"I can't say for sure," I was told. "She dropped her key off in the overnight drop along with a note saying that she had changed her mind and decided to explore a different part of 'Toon-World."
"But where did she go?"
"I have no way of knowing that, sir," the voice said. "All I can tell you is that when we checked out her cabin, all of her belongings were gone. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so we just refunded the rest of the week's rental to your sister's credit card, and rented the cabin out to the next guest. I'm sorry I can't help you beyond that, sir."
I thank him and hung up. Something was wrong. Marie was outgoing and adventurous, but she wasn't flighty. If she had changed her plans, she would have contacted me (or our parents, at least) to let me now about it.
Seeing no other option, I contacted the 'Toon-World police. I told them my story and they assured me that they would look into it. They called me back a couple of times to ask me various details about Marie. Her friends. Her lifestyle. Any enemies she might have. And when I'd ask why they wanted this information, I was always told the same thing. "I'm sorry, sir, but as this is an ongoing investigation, we cannot answer those questions at this time."
Things continued this way for several weeks, with no sign of Marie or an answer to her disappearance. And then, I got the call. A body had been found in the woods near the ski resort, and the police wanted someone to come and tell them if it was Marie. My folks were not up for the trip, so I was elected. For the first time in my life, I was going to visit 'Toon-World.
I don't know what I was expecting. I guess I was looking for it to be more like the old cartoons I'd watched with Marie when we were kids. You know, full of talking animals and stuff. So, it came as a big surprise to find that 'Toon-World looked just like the real world. The welcome area of the portal terminal was basically just like any other airport I'd ever been in, filled with people both coming and going. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad, I thought, as I exited the building to catch a cab to the police station.
That was when the lady fell from the sky.
She landed face down on the sidewalk in front of me with the sound of dough hitting a kitchen counter. Instantly, her body flattened into the concrete. I couldn't believe my eyes, and quickly bent down to help her. "Are you okay?" I asked, lifting her by the shoulders. Her body pulled up from the sidewalk without regaining its natural shape, leaving a lady-shaped indention in the ground.
"Oh, I'm fine," she replied, a smile plastered on her one-dimensional face. "I guess I shouldn't have looked down, huh?" And she laughed.
Before I could say anything else, a man wearing coveralls with 'Toon-World insignia on them came over. "I'll take care of her, sir," he said. I stepped back out of the way and watched as he bent down at the woman's feet. Carefully, he pulled them loose from the pavement and began rolling her up like a piece of paper. Soon, all that remained of the woman was a round tube, which the man stuck up under his arm. With a short salute to me, he turned and headed off with her. And the whole time, the woman continued to laugh.
"Crazy," I said to myself, as they disappeared around the corner. I turned and hailed a cab, figuring the sooner I got this over with and got out of this place, the happier I'd be.
"Thanks for coming so quickly, sir," the police detective said, shaking my hand. "I suppose you'd like to get this over with." I nodded. "Then, if you'll follow me, I'll show you the way to the freezer." He opened a door that read "Stairs", and we headed down.
"We were ready lucky on this one," he explained as we walked. "We really didn't have a clue what had happened to your sister. To tell you the truth, we were pretty sure she had run off with some guy she'd met at that resort. If those hikers hadn't found her, she'd probably still be out there."
I didn't say anything. All I could do was stare straight ahead. At the end of the hallway was a door with the word "Morgue" stenciled on it. I walked as if in a trance. I didn't want to do this, but I had to be sure.
"Sir?" I turned to look at the detective next to me. Only, he wasn't there. I stopped and turned back to see him standing before a tall metal door. "She's in here," he said.
"But, I thought..." I pointed to the door behind me.
He looked confused for a second, then he smiled. "Oh, I see," he said. "No, your sister's not in the morgue, sir." He reached for the handle to the metal door and opened it, releasing a blast of cold air. "When I said we were going to the freezer, I meant it." He motioned for me to enter. Now, it was my turn to be confused. I walked back down the hall and peered into the doorway.
It led into a big walk-in style freezer, and standing in the center was what appeared to be a life-size ice sculpture of a naked woman. "So," the detective asked, coming into the room behind me, "is this your sister?"
I gave him a confused look, then turned back to give the statue a closer look. With a gasp, I realized that it was her. It was Marie. She was standing with her feet apart and her arms out from her sides. Her head was turned slightly downward, as if to look at herself. But her eyes weren't focus on her own body. They were looking at me.
And then, they blinked.
"She's alive?" I blurted out. "How?"
"How is she alive?" the detective asked. He seemed to take my question as confirmation of Marie's identity. "Or how did she get this way?"
"Both, I guess."
"Well, let's take the first one first, then. She's alive because this is 'Toon-World. People get frozen here all the time. Usually, it's in a block of ice, but I've seen this effect before, too. It happens when a person gets wet, then finds themselves in an extremely cold situation. The water on their body freezes and makes them appear to be a statue carved out of ice. Like that cat in the cartoon where the mice ice skate in the kitchen. Ever see that one?" I nodded. "Well, this is just like that. Now, how your sister got in this condition... Well, that's not as easy to answer."
"Because we've got no witnesses," he told me. "That is, none except for her herself. And she's not talking. But we've managed to put together enough evidence to formulate a pretty decent theory. In fact, we've already made an arrest."
"Arrest?" I repeated. "Who?"
"Some guy named Mark Spillman," he told me. "Seems that he and your sister here ran into each other at the resort the day she arrived. Had a big fight at the lodge. The way we figure it, that night, Spillman let himself into your sister's cabin and did this to her."
I looked back at the statue that was my sister. "How could he have done this?" I asked.
"Any number of ways, really. Cut off the heat in the cabin and douse her with water. Open the window while she's in the shower." He shrugged his shoulders. "Hell, maybe he just got himself a freeze gun from one of the local mad scientists and used it on her. This is 'Toon-World, after all."
I nodded. "And after he froze her, he just carried her out into the woods and left her there?"
"Looks that way," he agreed. "And this being the middle of winter, she was stuck. Then, he just cleared out her stuff from the cabin, dropped the key in the night deposit, and everyone thinks that your sister's run off somewhere. Pretty clever, really."
I frowned. "But Marie's alright?" I asked him. "I mean, she can be thawed out of this with no permanent side-effects, right?"
"Sure, no problem," he answered. "But I'm afraid we can't do that."
"You can't?" I shouted. "Why the hell not?"
"Hey, calm down, Mister," the detective said, holding his hands up. "If it was up to me, we'd have this little lady out of that ice already. But it's not."
"Well," I spit out, "who is it up to?"
"The courts, I'm afraid."
"Yeah," he explained. "That Spillman character is pretty smart. He got himself a lawyer right away, and before we had a chance to thaw out your sister, that shyster had gotten her classified as evidence. The local DA fought him, but the judge ruled with Spillman's lawyer."
"What are saying?" I asked. "That Marie has to stay this way until..."
"Until Spillman goes to trial," he finished for me. "I'm afraid so."
I looked into Marie's eyes, which stared back at me with that resigned expression she always got when something wasn’t going her way. "And when will that be?" I asked.
"You'll have to talk to the DA about that one. I'm just a cop, friend."
So, I left Marie there and headed straight to the DAs office. Only, I didn't really get any better answers there. Spillman's lawyer had already filed several appeals that had to dealt with before a date could be set. "Best guess," the DA told me. "Two months."
"And Marie stays frozen until then?"
"Unless you get a better lawyer than Spillman, yes."
That was eight months ago, and Marie is still in that freezer on 'Toon-World. Spillman's lawyer has filed a total of fourteen different briefs that have delayed his trial again and again. They are now telling us that they expect to set the date for sometime in the next three months. But I'm not holding my breath.
So, now you see what the real danger of 'Toon-World is. It isn't the steamrollers…or the anvils…or even the frozen lakes. No, the real danger of 'Toon-World is that their justice system is just as screwed up as ours is. So, I guess it's a good thing that Marie likes it there so much. Because unless something changes, she just might be there forever.