Teddy’s pod hurdled down the conveyer belt. The momentum pushed him into the chrome. His nub tail receded into his body. The stuffing churned in his belly. He hooked his paws around the bars. Orbs whizzed by in his peripheral. These were the other pods, micro prison cells just like his own. There were peeps all around. Teddy wondered if the sound was grease on the track until he realized the peeps were coming from inside those pods. He caught glimpses of silhouettes recoiling with hands over their faces. Teddy made the connection. The sound had been screams all along.
The pod dipped. Teddy flew up. His paws shift up the bars. His ears smacked into the roof. His belly rushed into his neck. Further down the line, a blue light began to strobe. Sparks flew through the bars. The bear sucked in his belly so not to singe his fur.
The pod swung back and forth. It jerked hard to the left then to the right. A blue flash revealed the space below. A sprawling cavern of arches and columns. The chain above began to unspool. The pod lowered. The cavern floor came into focus. It was not the image of polished marble tiles that had somehow gotten into the bear’s head. It was a field of metal grates, perforated so things could slip through.
A low rumbling horn shook the cage. Its echo ran the distance of the space and off into the tunnels surrounding it. Teddy’s pod came to an abrupt stop in the center of the cavern. The floor swung out beneath him like a trap door. Teddy held steadfast to the bars.
“Let go.” A voice boomed through the cavern. The voice’s echo had a journey ahead of it.
Teddy relinquished his grip one paw at a time. The fabric that made up his bladder rose as he fell. Teddy crashed into the grates. They dug into his feet, cutting temporary toes. He tumbled end over end and lay sprawled out.
A spotlight flickered on. Its beam was just wide enough to encompass the bear.
“Get up.” The omnipresent voice boomed.
Teddy scrambled to his feet. He spun around to look for the source of the voice. He caught movement out the corner of his eye. Shadows leapt across the arches. They scurried up the massive stone pillars.
Teddy said, “What is this place?” His plush lungs were too tiny to produce an echo.
The shadows danced across the pillars. They gave the illusion of light reflecting off of water. “Questions are unnecessary.” The voice boomed.
With all of the movement around him, Teddy realized the voice was a chorus. It was the whole of the Dark Parliament addressing him at once.
The Parliament continued, “It will learn what it needs to know to carry out its function. Nothing more.”
Shadows trickled from the ceiling. They hugged the pillars with webbed hands and amphibious limbs. The Parliament spoke, “The stuffed bear is an archetype. A symbol of comfort and safety. A mascot for innocence. Made from materials that evoke nurturing instincts in mammals. The stuffed bear archetype is one of companionship.”
Teddy hadn’t the foggiest clue what the Parliament was prattling on about. He was only happy to stretch his legs. He decided to go for a stroll into the dark. The spotlight followed him, as did his pod like prison cell.
The Parliament spoke, “The likeness is that of a larger mammal. One whom legend says a famed American President refused to execute. The stuffed bear archetype is named after this President.”
“Thaddeus?” Teddy whispered to himself.
“Teddy.” The Parliament decreed.
“Teddy.” Teddy repeated. He didn’t like the way it rolled off his tongue, a meager two syllables. It had none of the formal dignity of Thaddeus Von Cuddlesworth the third. “Teddy,” wasn’t a name, it was a branding. Something you called an object to be discarded. Now “Thaddeus” evoked the image of a commanding aristocrat marching into the room with his chin held high.
The Parliament spoke, “The stuffed bear’s visage makes it ideal for recognizance.”
Teddy glanced up to find his pod swinging through the spotlight. He scurried to one end of the cavern. The pod followed. He scurried to the other end. The pod followed. He couldn’t shake it.
The shadows crawled up the arches. They followed his movements from pillar to pillar. They said, “The stuffed bear will gather intelligence on a single subject. Why the subject was chosen and what the intelligence will be used for are not its vocation.”
Teddy waved, “I’m right here. You don’t have to talk about me like I’m not in the –”
Their Parliament boomed, “The scope of the bear’s existence will be limited to its ability to perform its task.”
This new information weighed on Teddy. The chance encounter with Chester Checkers, had lead him to believe life might be filled with whimsy and wonder. The Dark Parliament had reset his expectations. Life was a task to be carried out for reasons unknown. He was a piece on a board waiting to be played, nothing more.
Teddy didn’t think much of the six lights ahead. Their circular positioning had been more interesting than the pillars behind him. So he set them as his destination.
The Parliament boomed, “The stuffed bear is to address its subject and only its subject. Its means of communication will be limited. No one else is to know it posses the ability to speak. They will see the bear as inanimate.”
The lights were getting closer, six blue cubes set the horizon aglow. It occurred to Teddy to inquire, what intelligence they wanted him to collect. He opened his mouth when they cut him off.
The Parliament boomed, “The stuffed bear will keep a record of its subject. It will chronicle any non-reality the subject indulges in. Any outward expression of its imagination. With an emphasis on fear.”
“Fear?” Teddy muttered. “What’s that?”
“Continue on its path.” The Parliament boomed.
Did they mean on Teddy’s path or on fear’s. Their grammar was bewildering. Teddy reckoned they had anticipated which direction he would choose to wander. He wondered if he was capable of making a choice that wasn’t part of their design. He was what they had wanted him to be. Then why would they call him, “Teddy,” when they knew his name was “Thaddeus?”
The circle of light came into focus. The luminescence was coming from somewhere inside the bases of the cubes. The cubes themselves were made of plexiglass and steel. Each had a series of tubes that ran from their backs down into the grating. There was a sudden rush of bubbles. Teddy almost jumped out of his fur. These were water tanks.
Teddy staggered back at the sight of a something in the fluid. He didn’t know how he knew it was human. Nor did he know how he knew it was female, or that it was dead, but Teddy knew.
Her skin was bloated. The husk had gone waxy. Marble vein patterns lead from her throat to her chest. A string of pearls orbited around her neck. Her earrings floated upward. Air pockets had filled her blouse. Lose rings dangled from the exposed musculature and bone where her fingers had been. Swirls of red danced around her. Teddy dare not look at her face.
“Get up.” The Parliament boomed.
Teddy waved a dismissive paw, “I’m good. I’ve got a pretty good view from here, thank you.” He nodded to reinforce his lies.
“It gets up.” The Parliament boomed.
Teddy could see his pod dangling over him. Ready to scoop him up at a moment’s notice. He got back on his feet. He muttered, “You know you make more friends with sugar. If you had just asked nicely–”
“It will look into the creature’s eyes.” The Parliament commanded.
“It will do no such thing.” Teddy muttered to himself.
“It will.” The Parliament boomed.
Teddy watched his pod begin lower. He sighed. The bear did as he was told. The woman’s eyes were wide open. They were milky white orbs in black sunken sockets. Her nose was flat. The skin around one of her nostrils had gone loose, it flapped in the water. The skin of the other was gone entirely. Her complexion showed no sign of life, save for the bruises on her cheeks. She was as white as a ghost. Her jaw had come unhinged. Her mouth hung open. The skin was torn at the corners. Her lips were frayed. Her tongue bobbed inside her mouth, a serpent squirming against the bubbles. Teddy felt the breath seep out of him. He had seen enough. The world was not at all what he had been expecting.
He wobbled forward. His paws fell against the glass. The frequency of bubbles increase at his touch.
Something sharp and thin wrapped around Teddy’s neck. It coiled around his throat. It ripped through his esophagus. He felt water rush into his trachea. It spilled down into his lungs. He grew heavy. The muscles in his face contorted. He grit his puppet teeth. It felt like he was going to burst. The fluid bubbled inside of him. He felt a large hand slide across his forehead. He felt the palm of it push him down deeper. The water boiled. It seared his flesh from the inside out. Teddy went into convulsions. The world went dark around the edges. In his death throes he had one final thought, “Who was going to take care of Isobel when he was gone?”
Teddy stepped back from the glass. He pawed at his neck, apart from being a knotted mess of fur, it was fine. Who the hell was Isobel? He looked back to the figure behind the glass. There was a line across her throat. This was the source of the mist seeping through the water. Teddy wondered if her wound would leak forever. He shook his head and spat through the grate.
“What just happened?” Teddy asked.
“It does not ask questions–” The Parliament began.
“Clearly it does.” Teddy cut the chorus off.
The Parliament whispered among themselves. Perhaps Teddy’s encounter was not supposed to be part of the tour. The Parliament boomed, “Ideas can latch onto other ideas. It’s in their nature.”
Was this body an idea as Teddy had been, or was her demise?
Teddy looked up to find the Dark Parliament had converged. They blot out the pillars around him. Only the light of the water tanks remained.
“It should study these creatures.” They boomed.
Teddy glanced back. He tried to fix his gaze on the green shawl wrapped around her head. He tried to follow the feather patterns bobbing up and down. It was all he could do to avoid looking the poor woman in the eyes.
“Study their expressions.” The Parliament instructed, “They are its baselines. Its reference points for identifying fear. They are all it has to go by, for now.”
Teddy rubbed his button eyes. He was happy to find his fur had clouded his vision.