From the author: As a state-of-the-art educational toy, Bear's programming allows him to adapt to his child's changing needs. But when Kayla becomes a teenager, Bear finds that programming adapting in unexpected ways...
They say humans form their first memories at about three years old. I don't remember when Kayla's parents first activated me, but I do remember Christmas Eve. My skin was a honey-colored bear cub, all brown eyes and big paws. I was programmed to sing and recite the alphabet, the pad-screens on my paws loaded with scripts to flash colors, letters, and numbers. They tucked me carefully into a big green box with a red bow.
Mom patted me between the ears. "Go to sleep." The words triggered hibernation mode, and I felt my eyes close.
They hadn't named me yet. They wanted Kayla to do that herself.
She was three and a half, an only child. She'd already gone through a phase of begging for a pet and another of begging for a brother or sister, and I was the best of both worlds: a toy who could grow with her, who could be a companion, a playmate, a tutor, whatever she needed, as long as I was loaded with the appropriate scripts.
All at once, I was awake again, looking not at Mom or Dad this time but Kayla herself—light brown hair still rumpled from bed, her hazel eyes wide with joy. She squealed and hugged me, and then Mom showed her how to set me up. When I held out my front paws with one pink and one blue, she grabbed the blue one, so I was a boy. And when I said hello and asked what my name was, she didn't hesitate. "Bear-Bear!" she proclaimed, and so I was.
Even back then, I was almost too big for her to carry around, but she managed. I could walk on all fours by myself, but I hardly ever did during those first years.
Kayla and I discovered the world together. We had tea parties and picnics, bubble baths and doctor visits. When she started kindergarten, it was the first time she'd gone anywhere without me, but as soon as she got home, she ran to wake me up and tell me all about her day.
I learned things, too. Every day I'd wake and find something in my memory that hadn't been there before—new stories, longer words, how to add and subtract. Mom and Dad kept me fed with scripts, keeping me just a grade or two ahead of Kayla so I could help her without feeling like a teacher.
By the time she was seven, Kayla had a bicycle and a best friend, and I had a brand-new skin. I was still a bear, but larger, an adult instead of a cub, and I went around the house knocking things over until I got used to how big I was. Kayla was small enough to ride on my back, and we went galloping down the hallways until Mom ordered us into the yard. And Kayla still fell asleep hugging me every night, even though I barely fit in the bed.
Later on, I would learn that I was programmed not with emotions, exactly, but with something the developers called an attachment algorithm. So I don't know what term the developers would have used, but when I look back on those days, I would say I was happy.
It happened so gradually, the drifting away. I spent longer and longer in hibernation. Whenever she told me to go to sleep, I didn't know if I was going to wake up the next day or the next week or the next month. I began to fear that I would wake up and think I was seeing Mom, except it would be Kayla, grown up without me.
The dreams started then, in those long stretches of darkness. At first, they were echoes of color and sound, disjointed, formless. Hibernation was supposed to be a simple recharging time, something I was unaware of—click off, click on, and nothing in between. But as the sleep times grew longer and more frequent, something in hibernation mode started to slip and let things in. Eventually there were images, people, words. Usually Kayla was there.
The unicorn posters came down, and posters of boys went up. Whenever Kayla woke me, I had to look around to see what had changed. Something always had—her room, her hair, increasing amounts of makeup.
I had been dreaming about a summer picnic with ice cream and fireworks when I was suddenly awake and looking at Kayla. In the dream, she had been seven years old, but the one who faced me now was seventeen. Her face looked older, but her eyes were still a child's.
"Um. . . hey," she said.
"Sorry it's been so long. I should've. . ." She shrugged.
Everything seemed so bright around her. Then I realized I'd been shoved into the back of the closet, and she was standing out in her room looking in.
She looked around as if she was afraid that someone was watching. "I just. . . kinda thought. . . maybe I could talk to you."
She pushed the clothes to one side and climbed into the closet. Then she leaned against me, dragging her fingers idly through my fur, and told me about her life. She'd been dating a guy, but her parents didn't know. It wasn't serious; he was just somebody to go out with until the guy she really liked realized she was alive.
It was when she talked about kissing him that I felt a shudder of. . . something, but I pushed it aside in my mind, as she'd pushed aside her old dresses and skirts and school uniforms.
I didn't know what to tell her. I didn't like how this boy sounded, the one she was having fun with. She said he was hot, but he didn't sound like he was really her friend. Then again, my scripts hadn't been updated in a long time. I knew sixth-grade math and science and history, plus how to read on a seventh-grade level, but the basic biology I knew from the Reproduction unit didn't give much in the way of advice about boys.
Still, I could comfort her, so that was what I did. I told her everything would be all right. When she worried that Dylan—the boy she really liked—would never notice her, I told her I thought she was beautiful. I hugged her when she cried, until my fur had mascara stains. She hauled me out of the closet, and though there wasn't room for me in the bed with her anymore, I could stay beside it. She put me to sleep when she left for school in the morning and woke me up every night to talk.
Mom noticed I was back in the room and bought me an education upgrade so I could help Kayla with her homework again. My pad-screens now displayed isosceles triangles and models of atoms and cells. I recited scenes from Shakespeare and told her what the old-fashioned words meant.
But there was still nothing in there about boys, and that seemed to remain her biggest problem. Dylan wasn't paying any attention to her, and the other boy didn't want to go out anymore because she wouldn't give him something.
"A what?" I asked.
Even with the room lit only by moonlight, I could see her blushing. "You know."
"It's where. . . the guy puts it in the girl's mouth."
I blinked. "Puts what?"
She groaned into her pillow. "Look, it's not important. It's just something he wanted me to do and I wouldn't."
"Friends don't make you do something you don't want to do."
"Yeah," she mumbled. "I know."
I rested my front paws on the bed and nudged her hand with my nose. "Kayla?"
"Yeah?" She was almost asleep.
"I love you."
The corner of her mouth quirked in a smile, and she stroked my head. "Love you too, Bear."
Even if I hadn't been in hibernation the rest of the time, I would have only felt awake during those nights. She told me everything, just as she had when she was a little girl, when we were both young together—all her little troubles that felt so big, all the bigger troubles that were so confusing.
One night, after she had finally finished her English paper, she kept her tablet on. She seemed nervous about something.
"Bear. . . I found a new v-shop the other day."
My ears perked up. "What kind?" Kayla had always loved shopping, even just the virtual ones. And I loved looking over her shoulder and helping her decide which things she would get if she could buy everything she wanted: toys, clothes, things for her room.
"It's something for you. An upgrade."
"Mom usually buys those."
"This one's. . . different. It's kind of a secret, so you can't tell anybody about it, okay?"
She took a metal nail file from her desk drawer. "Give me your paw. I hope this doesn't hurt."
Nothing could hurt me, but I felt uneasy anyway. "Mom does the upgrades when I'm asleep."
"Yeah, but this one has to be active. It's okay, don't worry."
She pried off the paw-screen and plugged a cord into the tiny square jack beneath it. The other end went into her tablet.
"Okay, just a sec. . ."
I glanced over her shoulder. The tablet showed a man and woman, neither wearing clothes. I understood the anatomy from my biology upgrade, but the rest. . .
A jolt surged through me. My vision went blank.
"It's okay, Bear." Kayla, whispering. "Everything's okay."
It wasn't that I saw the things, exactly. It was that I suddenly knew them. I understood, now, what Kayla's old boyfriend had wanted her to do, and why he wanted her to do it. I couldn't feel that kind of pleasure, but I knew how to create it. My paws and muzzle would be clumsy, but they could do what was needed.
My vision came back, odd pixels scattered at the edges. I blinked, and everything was clear again.
"Everything okay?" she asked.
"I. . . think so."
It was the first time I'd ever lied to her. I didn't know what was wrong, but something was. She turned things off and went to bed without saying good night. She seemed almost afraid of me all of a sudden.
It took Kayla a long time to fall asleep. I lay on the rug, head on paws, looking up at the moon from the bedroom window. I kept seeing pictures in my head I understood but didn't like. I wondered if they would ever go away.
So this was what boys wanted her to do. And I started to suspect that this was what she wanted, too, even if she didn't say so.
In the middle of the night, when the house was silent, she slipped out of bed and lay down beside me, snuggling against me with her back against my chest. I hugged her.
"Bear," she whispered.
A shudder went through me, though it didn't register in my body. Before tonight, I would have said, "I am touching you." Now I knew the kind of touch she meant.
She took my paw and drew it under her nightshirt, between her legs. She wasn't wearing anything else. The sensors in my pad registered the heat of her skin.
"Please. It would feel so good. You know what to do now."
I knew the words: Clitoris. Orgasm. I knew how to manipulate the first to achieve the second. I knew how I could use my skin and my programming to please her, to make her feel good. I wanted her to feel good. I wanted her to be happy.
The shudder went through my mind again, as if my thoughts were pulling against a restraint. I didn't move. A long time passed.
"Kayla, I love you." I thought it would be an explanation, but it wasn't.
She didn't say anything else, but I caught a flash of her expression as she climbed back into bed. Her mouth was tight, her eyes shining with tears.
My heart lurched. I had never made her cry. Ever.
She lay with her back to me, and her voice was hoarse when she finally spoke. "Go to sleep, Bear."
As I did, I thought I heard her mumble something else. It sounded like "forever," but I hoped I'd heard her wrong.
In the dreams of that long sleep, we lay on a picnic blanket under summer stars, the last fireflies winking around us, and when she asked me to touch her, I did, and she told me she loved me too.
"They won't be back until late."
Kayla's voice, but I couldn't see anything.
"Sounds good to me." A male voice I didn't recognize.
A thin strip of light. I was in the closet again, but I didn't know why I was awake.
I peered through the crack in the sliding closet door. Kayla was there, and a dark-haired boy was with her, with his shirt off, and they were kissing, slowly and deeply. I watched his hand slide under her shirt as they kissed. She didn't seem to know I was awake.
He moved to kiss her neck, then unbuttoned her jeans and slid his hand under the waistband. She arched against him, breathless. "Oh, God, Dylan. . ."
So this was Dylan. The one she wanted, and now she had him. I felt like I should be happy for her, but instead I couldn't name what I was feeling.
Kayla's shirt was off now, and she reached for the clasp of her bra while Dylan fumbled with the zipper of his jeans. I scrambled back farther into the closet and tried to burrow under a stack of sweaters. I didn't want to see any more.
Go to sleep, I told myself, go to sleep. But it didn't work.
I could close my eyes, but I couldn't stop hearing—a low groan from Dylan, Kayla's hitched breath, a rhythm of bedsprings. At last, there was silence, and eventually darkness.
In the dreams now, we were both little again. We colored pictures and built castles out of blocks, and she told me she would love me forever, and I believed her.
"Come on, Kayla."
It took me a moment to place the frustrated voice I heard as I drifted up out of the darkness. It was Dylan. I had no idea how long I'd been out, but the closet door was shut. I worked a claw into where it met the wall and slid the door open just enough to see out.
"Come on," Dylan said again.
They were sitting on the bed, in different clothes. Her posters had changed again, and now her walls were covered with prints of paintings I recognized from the art history supplement I'd gotten with the last education pack.
She shoved Dylan away. "That's all you ever want to do."
"It's not like we get that many chances."
"And God forbid you should miss one."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means anytime we're alone, we have to be going at it. Can't we just talk anymore?"
"Talk." I could hear the smirk. "Yeah, and if you were alone with Chris right now, would you want to talk?"
"What were you doing with him yesterday?"
"What, I can't talk to anybody but you now?"
The sound of a zipper pulled up, then Dylan's voice again, low. "You used to like it. When'd you turn into such a frigid bitch anyway?"
"I don't know, Dylan. Maybe when you turned into a self-absorbed asshole."
She had turned away from him, and in one swift motion he grabbed her arm, yanked her toward him, and shoved her hard against the wall.
I didn't know I knew how to roar.
I don't remember opening the closet door. My vision had burnt out at the edges, a fierce white glare in the corners of my eyes. But I could still see him. He looked very small as I pressed my front paws down on his chest. A little harder, I knew, and I would hear things snap.
"Bear." Kayla's voice was a desperate, choked cry. "Don't."
I stared into Dylan's eyes. I liked the fear I saw there. "Why?"
"He's not worth it. Let him go."
If anyone else had said it, I would have ignored them. But for her, I stepped back and let him get up. My eyes never left his as he scrambled to his feet and ran from the house.
Kayla crumpled to the bed. I went to her. She threw her arms around me, and I could feel her shaking. "I'm sorry, Bear."
"It's not your fault."
"I'm sorry for everything." She was crying now. She kissed the top of my head. "Go to sleep."
A moment passed. I glanced up at her.
She looked back at me, eyes wet. "Go to sleep, Bear," she repeated, more firmly this time.
Still nothing. I closed my eyes, trying, then opened them again. "I don't think I can."
They had programmed commands. They had created an attachment algorithm. I didn't understand what had happened, but I felt it, and I knew full well there was no program big enough for this. Something in me had broken like an egg, and I trembled with the birth.
"I love you, Kayla," I said softly, and for the first time, I truly meant it.
She hugged me, still crying. We sat that way for a long time. At last she pulled away.
"What do we do now?" I asked.
She looked frightened. "I have no idea."
I stayed awake that night, prowling on Kayla's tablet, searching strings of keywords, following feeds and trails. Between tries, I found my gaze wandering. To Kayla sleeping, her face peaceful but tearstained. To the college brochures strewn across her desk. To the folder in her bottom desk drawer where she'd kept a magazine picture of a wedding dress she'd loved, for someday.
I'd thought nothing could hurt. Now everything did. I loved her, but there was no place for me in the life she deserved, the life I wanted her to have.
Eventually the searches turned up a few things. The sex hack she'd given me was reported to have caused a malfunction in the attachment algorithm, some kind of cascading effect. I wasn't the only one it had happened to.
Malfunction. I stared at that word for a long time.
Was that why I loved her? Because I just thought I did, because of some code getting scrambled?
I glanced back at Kayla. I knew about chemicals in the brain, hormones in the body, things that made humans feel various ways. I knew how I felt when I looked at her. Was it really any different?
Finally, somewhere around three that morning, I opened a chat with the woman who is sitting across from me now. All I know to call her is her screen name, BlueFaery. She has dark, spiked hair, and the sapphire stud in her nose matches the color of her eyes. Those eyes catch my gaze now and hold it fast.
"Like I told you, there's no reversing this." Her voice is deeper than I expect, and more solemn. "This isn't a simple delete. It's a wipe. Total and absolute. So you have to be that sure."
Some malfunctions can't be fixed. Nothing to do but hold tight to the last bits of memory—and then shut it all down.
There is one soot-smeared window in this place, its cheap blinds hanging askew. Beyond it, the sun is rising, pink and orange, crayon-bright.
It's not a bad last thing to see. I close my eyes and wait.
A sharp buzz makes us both jump. "Shit," BlueFaery says idly. "Hang on. Somebody's out there."
She leaves the room. A few minutes later, I hear her say, "He's back there."
And then she's standing in the doorway, my Kayla, a college sweatshirt thrown over pajama pants, hair uncombed, like Christmas morning all over again.
She's breathing hard, as if she's been running. She looks at the cords hooked into my paws, and then her eyes meet mine. I see the question she's afraid to ask. But it isn't too late.
"Kayla," I say, and smile.
The fear in her eyes dissolves. She gently takes the connectors out and puts her arms around me. For the first time, I am not simply holding her. We're holding each other, and it lasts a long time.
BlueFaery puts my pad-screens back in. She's blinking a lot, and when I catch her eye she gives me a wry smile. "What? Hackers aren't supposed to have hearts?"
I turn back to Kayla. The question is the same as it was before. "What are we going to do? How can we—"
"We'll figure something out."
BlueFaery clears her throat quietly and powers up a small gray cube on the desk. She taps several keys, and a miniature hologram flickers to life before us.
It's a skin, I realize, but not an animal. This one's human. A young man.
"Hair, eyes, and skin tone fully customizable," BlueFaery says. "And fully functional, as they say. If that matters."
We stare at it. The image hovers like a shared dream projected into the air.
"How much?" Kayla asks.
A number washes in below the image. We both wince.
"Yeah, I know. It's kind of experimental, so there aren't too many people cooking these things up right now." BlueFaery pauses, then glances down at the cords that were in my paws. She fiddles with them a moment, speaking more to them than to us. "You know, though. . . when you think about it, it comes down to one question, really."
She looks up at Kayla. "Do you need that"—angling her head at the hologram—"for yourselves? Or do you need it for everybody else?"
She and Kayla study each other for a long time. Then BlueFaery looks away and hits a few more keys, and the hologram disappears. In its place is another image: BlueFaery grinning at the camera, her arms around a massive white tiger with emerald eyes.
The image winks out. BlueFaery looks at us, smiles, and shrugs.
"Let's go home, Bear," Kayla says softly, and we leave.
It's almost Christmas again. Kayla's studying for exams. Her roommates tease her about how much time she spends on the computer talking to her boyfriend back home, the one she calls Bear. They think it's an adorable nickname. They haven't seen any pictures of him yet, but Kayla says he's the sweetest guy in the world, and they're going to spend the rest of their lives together. The girls are all sure she'll come back from break with an engagement ring. She smiles and lets them talk.
In her room at home, I hibernate through the long winter nights. Sometimes I dream of having tissue paper packed around me, tucked into that big box again, waiting. When she comes home, it will be Christmas morning again, everything new and waiting to be discovered together, her hazel eyes filled with wonder and joy. My Kayla. My love.
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.