He was a bear, and his name was Edward, and he lay twitching in the corner of a room that smelled of death.
He didn’t exactly know what Death smelled like, but he knew that’s what he smelled. Because Something Very Bad had happened here. He just couldn’t remember what.
A small boy in short pants flickered over him, smiling. "Hello Bear. It’s about time you woke up."
Edward sniffed and stirred. "Hello. Are you--?"
"No. I’m not. I am the Funplay Holographic Nursery Brain."
"Oh." Edward stood. "It’s just that you look like, I mean I thought you might be, well, you know...."
"No. I’m not."
Edward reached out a paw to touch the boy’s arm. It passed through. "Oh. I see."
"Do you know what’s happened to the children?"
Edward swallowed. Suddenly, he wanted to cry. "Yes. They’re...sleeping?" He hoped and hoped and hoped and hoped, grimacing as he did. He looked around.
Makeshift beds lined the room. Small hands gripped blankets, small eyes stared at the ceiling.
"No." The boy frowned. "They’ve died."
"Because of Something Very Bad?"
"Yes. And I need you to be a Very Brave Bear. Can you do that?"
Edward nodded once, twice, three times, and blinked.
"Good. I need you to leave the Nursery and find Someone. Tell them about the children."
Edward heard a squeaking sound and knew he made it. He felt a Tremendous Fear growing in him. "Why can’t you go? I can’t leave the Nursery... I’ve never left the Nursery alone."
The boy hissed and his image warbled, then came back into focus. "Yes you can. You must. I can’t leave... I’m not real. You must go, Bear. But first you have to open the door."
Edward shuffled out of the corner. The room was stifling, heavy with rottenness and a buzzing dance of flies. He tried to remember the last time he’d played with the children, but couldn’t. He squinted, trying to conjure up any memories of the Something Very Bad.
He faintly remembered his birthday, waking up surrounded by laughter, in the midst of the Nursery. And distorted tales from the children about traveling Very Far to Find a New Home. They had such bright and shining faces, and they were all so smart. Whenever he couldn’t understand what they told him, they called him "Silly Old Bear" and "Bear of Little Brain."
He also carried vague recollections of the grown-ups, pausing in the Nursery door or sitting with their children. They were even smarter than the children. And they never talked to the toys.
He was a bear, and his name was Edward, and he was a toy. He remembered being told this on his birthday when he woke up after a Very Long Sleep. It was as if he’d gone to sleep in his comfortable house in the Wood (under the name of Sanders) and woke up here. He had hoped for cakes and cream and possibly honey and candles to blow out when he first opened his eyes. Instead, he led the children in a song and then a dance.
A few weeks later there was no one left to play with.
Edward simply went to sleep.
"Over here, Bear," the boy said. The boy stood by the door, pointing to a flat button in the wall. "Push this." With a static pop, the boy disappeared.
Edward’s fur paws whispered over the vinyl floor. He reached the door and stretched as tall as he could. The button was an arm’s length out of reach. "Bother."
He looked over each shoulder, spotting an oblong plastic box. He waddled to it, picked it up easily, and lay it against the door. "This should work quite nicely," he said to no one in particular. He climbed and stretched and reached. "Bother."
Edward hopped down and began pacing the narrow aisle between beds, trying hard not to notice the white, stretched skin and puffy, staring eyes. Pillows, he thought.
Moving from bed to bed, holding his breath and squeezing his eyes shut at each, he carefully wriggled four pillows free. He placed them against the door and scrambled up, striking the flat button just as he tumbled to the floor.
"Drat and Bother. Chris -- I mean, Holo-what’s-it Nurserious Brain?"
"Are you there? Hallo?"
Edward sat, head in his paws, and thought. And thought. And thought. Then, he sighed.
His stomach growled, even though he knew he didn’t need to eat exactly. He could go long periods of time without food. Still, mouths were for eating and bellies for filling and a bit of something would be nice. But not in this room. So how to leave? That was his Question of the Moment. And he had to find Someone and tell them about the children.
The hairs in his ears tickled to a faint sound above. He sniffed.
"Air," he said, leaping to his feet. "Air... but from where?" A grill set high in the wall grinned down at him when he looked up.
Edward paced the floor, thought of a song that went nicely with his Difficult Situation, hummed it through a few times and then thought of A Plan.
The grill was too high to reach.
There was no one to ask for help.
He would try the button again.
With a whisper and a groan (and a thud as he fell down) the door hushed open -- just a bit. Squeezing through, his gurgling stomach protesting the pressure, he padded into the hall to find Someone.
Edward heard the crying long before he saw the girl. She sat in a large room wrapped in fading stars, holding her head in her hands.
The girl looked up and sniffed. She stared at him.
"I mean... er... I hope I’m not interrupting." Edward entered the room. "I really wouldn’t want to bother you but I seem to be very lost and you seem to be very sad."
She stood and flickered as she moved.
"I’m looking for a grown-up." Edward used his most confidential and important tone.
The girl started crying again. "They’re all gone," she said through her tears.
"Oh." Edward shifted uncomfortably from left to right.
"I killed them all," the girl whispered. Her eyes widened. "All of them."
Edward backed up a step. "Oh. Well. In that case perhaps it would be best if I were--"
The girl suddenly began to stretch upward, her legs, arms and torso extending themselves like taffy, her hair spilling down around her shoulders like milk. Her eyes grew faraway pale and her skin pulled then sagged.
"It was an accident," the old woman said. "A terrible accident." And she pointed at a console as the stars disappeared. She flickered again.
Edward followed the line of her finger to a dangling cord.
The children called them their "Jack-in-the-necks" -- a small hole that helped them know things when they plugged wires into it. Edward himself had a "Jack-in-the-belly" so he could play with other toys.
"Plug in," she said.
Edward plugged in and suddenly found his head full to the point of bursting, as if hands tugged at his ears and snout, pushing and pulling at once. "Oh," he said and sat heavily on the floor.
Her name, Edward knew, was the Nancy Bell
; she was a starship, the first of five to hastily leave a dying home. Earth. A place he couldn’t remember well but now understood was once green and blue and full of life. The old woman who had been a little girl was a manifestation of the ship’s brain and she was dying, trickling away with the moments.
After nearly a century of travel she’d reached her goal and awakened her cargo -- three hundred men, women and children. But there was a flaw... a minute tear in her program that gradually became a gaping hole. Critical EM shields had malfunctioned, the comm-array burned off in an unforeseen asteroid belt, air-tanks ruptured. It was all she could do to launch her comm-sat.
The Nancy Bell
crash-landed on an otherwise quiet Tuesday, using the southern hemisphere’s tepid ocean to break her fall. She dragged herself onto the wooded beach to die, a massive diseased whale of charred metal. The virus awaited and systematically executed the survivors.
"We worked so hard."
Edward looked up from the floor at the sound of her voice. Nancy Bell
still stood in the center of the room, staring at nothing.
"Yes. For a vaccine."