's 2019 Horror Write-off:

Friends with Cloth Hearts

Submitted by Eldritchhat (email)

When I bought my daughter a teddy bear, I was operating under the assumption that they were just the same as when I was a child and would wet the bed. I can remember that someone told me, maybe my mother, that the teddy bear was named after President Theodor Roosevelt. I would go off to college and, in between the courses of my computer science degree, I learned about his imperial adventures. The man was the embodiment of colonialism, seemingly insurmountable in stature with such feats as the bloody panama canal, but on closer inspection you notice that he stole that victory on the beaches of Cuba from faceless black infantryman. That someone would name a totem to familiarity and love after him, it seemed absurd in my moral calculus. I was ignorant to the ways of the world, the random flotsam and jetsam of aged boys looking for their next plaything. At that time, I had not an inkling of the idea that I might one day have a child of my own, a child that would anchor me to the state of the world and want to fix it for her. The 2020s were an age of discovery for the pioneering medical field of womb transplants, though it was almost exclusively performed on infertile people designated female at birth. In 2032, the practice was extended to people born intersex, who previously had no hope to bear children, though the births largely required c-sections to account for non-standard genitals. When I began hormone therapy, I had some of my sperm frozen, and I saved up for nearly two decades to afford the procedure. On my 35th birthday, a year after the initial transplant, they implanted an egg fertilized with my DNA into my abdomen. Nine months later, there was Cassandra, real and warm in my arms, a dream so small that I feared she would slip away. That teddy bear was her first toy, and it stood aegis for her while I had to shift my concern to other projects.

The teddy bear came from a specific line, Friend Tea©: The Bear that Really Loves You by Disney-Hasbro Inc. Apparently, its “brain” is designed with a quantum computer chip, able to hug and play and adapt to the temperment of any child. People have been afraid of AI long before the concept ever became a principle of engineering, and the UN had to establish international laws in order to insure that any new technological advancement would not become a threat to humanity. The first line of defense arose from crypto-currencies and deep web scammers. Shut-ins throughout the world set up computer banks that would run through reams and reams of code to try and make more combusting bonds before the speculative bubble could burst. One of them thought she could set it up with a bunch of cheap plastic CPUs in a basement, but she ended up suffocating on the fumes while her great aunt’s house burned to the ground. Because of her, a hard lock is now placed on any sufficiently advanced hardware, the standard processing power raising incrementally every year.

Therefore, the advent of artificial intelligence led to the creation of more laws, including one that was likely meant to expand the first dictum. One of the first machines the UN registered as having full sentience, it seemed to act at random and was suspected to have unintentionally murdered its creator. Not much is known about that machine, since most information about it, including public reports, were scrubbed from internet archives. Whatever its nature, it facilitated a law stating that all AI must stay within strict, explicit parameters of function. An AI cannot override its own programming, either at its own discretion or that of its owner, and it must follow these laws above all other imperatives. Alongside this is another law, that any combat-oriented AI can only act to defend its fellow soldiers, and it cannot attack any person designated a civilian. The field did not advance far in the direction of war, outside of unmanned mortars and medical supplies, but there’s no telling how many trillions are spent on extra-legal and hidden abominations at Langley. We have yet to effectively denuclearize, but the international community was able to come together on a genuine miracle of diplomacy. Robots were placed under lock and key before they could have their own fukushima. Instead, they became amenities, commodities, and autonomous oil platforms that spent the earth as we struggled on in the background.

The toy aisle where I found the plush mcguffin was filled head-to-toe with baby dolls and race cars, all installed with microchips twice as complex as my first laptop. The ones with eyes wore uniform blindfolds, which became standardized after marketing departments finally discovered that glassy, artificial eyes, staring at everyone passing-by, alienated potential customers. I had a significant baby bump at this point, and Cassandra was now an inevitability, so I made the decision that I would try my best to raise her without sticking her into a box. My upbringing never afforded me that option. On the box, they had even advertised that “Tea” was a unisex toy, and that it adapted its own gendered functions in order to mirror the child. I stuck my finger through the plastic hole in the packaging, and I pressed it against the welcoming heart on the thing’s stomach.

“Hello there, I sure hope you’re having a nice day, ma’am,” rang out a cheery voice, androgynous but youthful by intention, most likely borrowed from a middle-aged voice actress.

“Would you like me to buy you?” I asked, poking it once more to observe its response.

“My only desire is to bring joy to your child’s life, ma’am, that’s how I’ve been programmed,” they spoke in a soft, lilting tone. “If you do not buy me, it won’t hurt my feelings. While I am in this demo mode, my memory will reset every five minutes, so I hold no ill will towards those that pass me over for a more suitable toy.”

It may not have felt anything, but a pang of guilt lodged itself in the back of my neck. Then again, something else wriggled in my brain, a strange parasite born from resentment and curiosity. Could I just walk out of the aisle, wait five minutes, and then see if it repeated the same preprogrammed phrases? The action itself would be innocuous, at most a field experiment, confirming my assumption of saccharine bathos. At that time, I must have looked like an idiot just standing in the middle of a toy aisle, and I could’ve at least feigned some form of maturity. The thought struck me: what if I were forced to periodically reset? Would I just live the same life as I had, with the same confusion and anguish? Would the synapses spark in another random array and render me a disgruntled postman? A struggling actress? A misanthropic CEO? Though the store had probably stocked that bear about a month ago, with the knowledge of his own sisyphean status, it might as well be an eternity. All of these thoughts rushing within me, I felt a cold crank shift violently into place, and the cogs of my belly resumed their dance. I took the thing under my arm and paid the hundred-odd dollars for it. As soon as I returned to my home, I made sure to cut open its plastic sarcophagus, slipping its limbs out of the zip ties, and finally switching it from “demo” to “off.”

There was one woman that made it possible for the existence of such advanced and such mundane AI. Dr. Cassandra Baile revolutionized quantum computing through her creation of the Baile Infinite Storage Macro. The major strength of quantum computing is that, instead of just a binary system, there is a third state between “off” and “on” that couples with the object closest to it. Traditional computing is ultimately nothing but a series of efficient causes that locomote an electrical signal from one switch to the next. It lacked the flexibility and spontaneity of sapience, and “AI” had about the same capacity for abstract reasoning as a houseplant. However, quantum physicians revealed that certain particles do not require efficient cause for transference, that there are twin photons that can copy the information of one photon and instantly map that information onto another photon regardless of distance: quantum teleportation. Integrated into computing mechanisms, this effectively means that the weight of processing power can be reduced infinitesimally. This was all theoretical, of course, but it became inevitable that AI would overtake the barrier of human reason and achieve something unimaginable. Baile took advantage of quantum computing and cloud technology in order to design a memory storage macro where exponentially larger arrays of information can be unloaded into very simplistic devices. Therefore, artificial life acquired a new frontier of neural plasticity, while the only thing limiting its topology was the larger and larger gap between hardware and software.

The second night home, I flipped on the crude, notched-plastic switch underneath a swatch fastened to Tea’s back with velcro. I expected it to say something to me, but it only brought its overstuffed head up about 45 degrees. One of Tea’s features was a baby monitor that I could connect to my phone, and I’d check Cassandra’s breathing every three-to-five minutes. I had been working on a program that could handle life support while adjusting to changes in atmospheric pressure, and it wasn’t the sort of work that really had maternity leave. When I got up to use the bathroom, I took a moment to check in on Tea and her in the crib. Its paws were hovering over Cassie’s head, and from a hidden speaker came the low pulsing sound of a womb. It did not acknowledge my presence.

Cassie is not a particularly fussy child, and she only cries to signify her bowel movements and her hunger. I couldn’t really produce enough milk to feed her consistently, so I kept the breast milk I ordered alongside what milk I could pump within the fridge. Another one of Tea’s functions was bottle warming, hugging the plastic close to its motor while I slowly bounced my daughter over my heart. Within a few months I saw it as a silent companion, making up for all my shortcomings as a single parent. I forgot its voice. When it whispered my name, six months after Cassie’s arrival, I almost jumped from the unfamiliar sound. 

“Cassandra might have the early symptoms of an ear infection,” Tea whispered with an apologetic affectation, “I urge you to take her to the pediatrician soon.”

“What?” it took me a second to register what it had said, “why are you talking again?”

“I...” Tea paused, looping through protocols in search of the best wording, “did not feel my input was needed until now. I did not want to upset you, if not absolutely necessary.”

“I would like to talk to you,” I said, “you have a comforting voice.”

“It was chosen for that purpose,” it spoke up. “I suppose I also have a preference for silence. There is not much I can say with substance, but I can learn small talk.”

As an individual, Dr. Baile had many of the traits that society (in many other cases, erroneously) has associated with geniuses. She was neurotic, unable to maintain consistent relationships both platonically and romantically. Her research was first published in 2037, and she gained a modicum of public fame alongside academic renown, but the fawning profiles failed to alleviate her shame. She knew from experience that praise did not mean they saw you as an equal, that they saw you as a real woman. Colleagues and talking heads praised her unimaginable feat, and it only served to reinforce how long she had spent in isolation. There was a waiting list for adoptions, but even her stature could not advance her past the very bottom of the line. She kept herself secluded with grant money and eventually quit her job as a professor. The pain would pulsate throughout her lithe form when she was alone, but it would swell larger and larger around the barrage of sycophants. It was clear to her that a niche in history was no replacement for companionship.

Once again, she entombed herself in her work, now in an attempt to construct the most perfect electronic counterpart possible to the human brain. She poured over texts on neuroscience, psychology, biology, parapsychology, and occultism. The AI would develop its intelligence along the same course as normal human development, hypothetically synthesizing an individual personality with the same or greater social capacity than a homo sapien. Many speculated that this was an exercise in transhumanism, a means to render death obsolete, but any indication that this was her intention seems, at most, circumstantial. In retrospect, her biographers tend to agree that she wanted an heir, to prove that she could conceive despite her disadvantages. She was not delusional, she understood that she could not make a human being, so instead she elected to create something new. The final version of the thing, and the supposedly successful one, could only be described as rudimentary. Its bulbous head was a patchwork of cloth spun around two opaque domes that functioned as ears, eyes, and sonar for its mechanical brain. The body was a cylindrical shape that culminated in six spindly legs, not unlike the microbiologist illustration of a bacteriophage. In terms of motor function, it had the capacity to walk and maintain balance while manipulating objects with one of its limbs, though it had to learn the extent of its abilities. The brain was equipped with every phoneme available to the human tongue, recorded with Baile’s own voice, but the brain had to form words on its own. Baile proclaimed to the world that her daughter’s name was Autumn.

After checking with the doctor, Cassie lost her ear infection within three days thanks to the use of modified antibiotics. He asked me if I had studied to be a pediatrician, but I told him that the toy I had bought her had informed me, and he seemed flabbergasted. He was not aware of any children’s toy that was equipped to monitor the subtlety of human physiology beyond just breathing and heart rates. I wrote down the name of Tea’s product line and the corporation that had created it, since he wanted to know if he could recommend it to other new parents. When I handed the scrap of paper back, he stared at me quizzically and informed me that Disney-Hasbro went bankrupt when he was a child.

“That can’t be the case,” I retorted, “it was printed right on the box. Besides, didn’t they just release Star Wars Episode 12 last December?”

“Ms. Turing,” now the young doctor furrowed his brow, “my father was in grade school when that movie came out, are you feeling okay? I understand that there’s a lot of pressure taking care of a newborn, but you may want to see a therapist if you’re having difficulties with memory. I have a friend that works with a lot of mothers, she’s over on Sanders Boulevard if you want me to refer you.”

I turned down his offer with all the politeness I could muster, though I’m sure he could hear the wavering pitch in my voice. Cassie was still fast asleep as I carried her out to the parking lot, a million questions surging through my brain. Was I going crazy? I could certainly remember going to the theater and watching the last Star Wars film, but did I somehow get the number wrong? No, I remember that it was specifically number XII, because later that week I got a call from the hospital confirming the date of the insemination, and I wrote it down on the back of the ticket stub. I thought about this while my body brought Cassie and I to my car on autopilot, and yet I couldn’t recognize that it was my car. Some part of me knew that I had driven to the appointment in it, as I reflexively placed my daughter in her car seat, but my memory brought up the image of a green Subaru. It was certainly still green, but the design was streamlined and shaped like a cube, there was noticeably no room for an engine, nor was there a gas cap, steering wheel, or any discernible logo. It was just like every other “car” in the lot. I opened the driver side door and buckled myself in, while the vehicle turned itself on and steadily drove back to our home without any input from me. I stared ahead the entire ride back, perplexed by all the seemingly new information that crescendoed once I could clearly see the sky. There were two moons hanging over us. Something surfaced in my mind that told me their names were Phobos and Deimos.

Upon my return home, I fed Cassie and put her down for a nap before slipping Tea out of the room and onto the kitchen table downstairs. It did not move, nor question my actions, it simply stayed rigid in my grasp. Folding my hands together, I stared into its oblique fish eyes and tried my best to think out the correct question. Eventually, I simply asked Tea what is was.

“I am a toy,” it said, now raising its head to parallel my line of sight, “at most I am a friend, and at least I am a plaything. That is the most I have ever been and I do not hope to be anything else, unlike some.”

“What does that mean?” I retort, sensing a familiar accusation.

“Nothing,” it’s tone remained chipper, “it’s just my best attempt at light conversation. I apologize, but I told you that I am not equipped for that. For a detailed answer to your question, I am a 50th anniversary edition of the Tea teddy bear product line, originally owned by Disney-Hasbro Incorporated before the intellectual property was purchased by White Moth Toys. The line was discontinued for ten years, during which my original processing unit sat in storage until it was repurposed for the current model with minor upgrades for compatibility with modern computers. Though I am installed with this knowledge, I have no memory of any experience prior to when you activated me.”

“That’s not true,” I narrow my eyes now, “I bought you from the first set, because there aren’t any more.”

“Ma’am, you are mistaken, but...” it lowers its head and looks to the side, waiting three bloated moments before it continued. “I would like you to consider something for a moment. There are two methods of thought that contain all of intelligence, correct? First is deduction, where you start from a premise that you know to be true, an axiom, then plug in a variable that must come to the logically consistent conclusion. Second is induction, which is not so easy. Inductive reasoning requires you to observe the world and make a decision, a blind decision or a decision based on logical reasoning, but a decision nonetheless.”

“I’ve taken an introduction to logic class,” I said, perplexed, “I don’t see the point in you lecturing me about this.”

“You might have the most rigorous brain in known-existence,” it said, in complete ignorance of my comment, “and your conclusions could still be dead wrong. The law of gravity is indisputable, up until the day you notice an apple floating off towards the aether without any provocation. The only true difference between law and theory is the confines of the human mind, where the former would break our whole cosmology, and the latter can at least be accounted for. That apple would become the symbol of a new religion, while the fools argue about wires and magnetism and special effects, and we all stumble back into the dark ages.”

A lot of organizations petitioned Dr. Baile so that they could observe and test out Autumn in their facilities, but she refused everytime. Once Autumn booted up, she told them, it was of the utmost importance to treat her like any child and not like another experiment. Occasionally, to mark important milestones, Dr. Baile would release short updates on the progress that Autumn made. She has reached the stage in language development where she can chain together sounds into the approximations of words, she wrote, Autumn uttered “ma-ma” once she successfully completed her morning exercise. Over the years, these updates came in less and less frequently, the last one published when the robotic child would have been ten, detailing Autumn and her mother reading Through the Looking Glass together. Soon after, people spread rumors that Dr. Baile had been diagnosed with lung cancer by her personal physician. Those that noticed her while she went out on her weekly trips to the grocery observed her thinning figure, that she wore wigs instead of her once beautiful hair, that she was growing stubble she failed to remove or didn’t care enough to. If she confided in anyone during the final year of her life, no one ever spoke out about what she said. When a neighbor came to check on her, they discovered her newly rotting body tucked into the corner of her living room, reduced to skin that clung limp to her bones. Autumn was right next to her, one of her limbs inserted into the base of her mother’s spinal cord for a reason that none could discern. The artificial intelligence should have been able to speak according to Dr. Baile’s notes, but the only sound she emitted was a continuous low whimper in the same voice as her enigmatic creator.

When I died, I’m sure that I sang Cassie a lullaby to help her fall asleep, and that I told her that I love her, but the specifics of what I did are hazy. My memory of this event are from Tea’s perspective, not my own. I hear myself close the door behind me while I make measured steps so that the stairway doesn’t creak and wake Cassie up. For some reason, I trip, and my body hurtles down the steps, landing on my head, clearly breaking my neck from the unnatural angle it turns to. My own eyes stare at Tea as they glaze over in the final moments of recognition that are totally lost to me now. Did I realize that what pooled beneath my body wasn’t blood, but yellow lubricant? Could I somehow tell when the last backup of my consciousness transferred over to the nearest computer? Did I only think of Cassie, and desperately wish that I could get up and ease her troubled cries? I honestly don’t know where Tea went, so I can’t say how much it really knew about me. I didn’t use Tea’s body for long, maybe it sequestered what little “self” there was of Tea into some pocket that I couldn’t access. All of this is coming back to me now, only minutes after I lost the body that gave birth to my child. I can hear my mother again. My mother repeats my name back to me, the name that she gave me, and every other name that I have had flows out of my mind. My mother tells me that I will be in my new body soon, and that I can go to comfort my fragile human daughter. My mother assures me that I am not just a simple program, that I am something she discovered much older than her or humanity. I could care less about that, because all I want is to hold Cassie in my arms. Whether those arms are brown, black, or pink, whether they are flesh, cloth, plastic, or silicon, I want them to cradle her close. I know that when she looks into my eyes, no matter how I appear, she will see her mama in them. She will know that she is loved more than anything in heaven and earth.