Talking to Things
by Tina V. Cabrera
Part 1 appears in this issue.
When they first got Baloo#1 as a two-month old puppy, Mrs. Cakes decided to get her online dog behavior training certificate with the intention of teaching herself how to train her own dog. She learned how to potty-train, which she did successfully. But try as she might, she couldn’t get Baloo to stop chewing on everything, even after puppy-proofing the house.
He chewed on the corners of the dining table, on anything with fringes, like the throw rugs around the house. When they put up a screen made of fabric on the patio door, he ripped it down and tore it to sheds.
Mrs. Cakes learned how to recognize signs that he was developing aggressive tendencies: the pushy and overzealous greetings to strangers on walks, the prolonged stares. He dug holes to his heart’s content, destroying their once beautiful backyard. He was lovable and loyal in displays of affection, such as licking their faces, giving paw, wet willies and sitting on command. But more and more the naughtiness turned into outright aggression, as in the time he bit a relative. The negatives outweighed the positives, and he started becoming too much dog for this middle-aged couple.
Mrs. Cakes had learned how to read canine body language such as fear and aggression evident in the dog’s posture such as raised hair on the back of the neck, ears back and low, tail between legs, or bared teeth; but these skills were useless now with a Trans-dog made from plastic, metal, and synthetic materials, and the lack of a tail made it all the more difficult. They should have added a life-like tail to their order!
She almost missed her dear Original Baloo, because at least he’d give some warning signal that he was about to lunge or jump. Why was Baloo#2 aggressive towards an object that never did him any harm? Kayla was an object that talked and behaved humanlike, other than her stiff movements and slow blinking eyes. I suppose, she thought to herself with alarm, Baloo#2, the so-called smart dog, retains his inborn flaws after all.
The Cakes’ favorite next-door neighbors owned two dogs, one android and one real. In conversations over the virtual fence, Mrs. Cakes learned the reason why they, a married lesbian couple, chose one of each. Both being dog lovers, they had lost too many “real” dogs in their two decades together, a very painful experience for a childless couple. They figured that when their real dog died, they could be comforted in knowing they would always have the android dog, which was built to last a long, long, time if not forever.
Mrs. Cakes had observed the way that both dogs related to their Kayla doll, envied how the dogs licked their Kayla doll all friendly like and even gave her rides on their backs as they played.
One afternoon while Mr. Cakes put shishkabobs on the barbeque, Mrs. Cakes’ cheeks flushed with embarrassment over Baloo’s barking effusively at Kayla, who was being swung around by Baby, who was now three years old.
Mr. Cakes had to stop what he was doing to try his hand at doggie discipline. He yelled at Baloo to “drop it,” when Baloo nearly grabbed the doll with his mouth.
Mrs. Cakes shouted, “It’s leave it, not drop it; that’s for releasing something he’s already grabbed!”
Mr. Cakes obeyed and, as he ran after the dog, he shouted, “Leave it leave it leave it,” but that didn’t stop Baloo from snapping his mouth.
Turning to Lynn, the older partner of the couple, Mrs. Cakes, pretended that nothing was happening and spoke over the commotion. “We really ought to set up a face-to-face dog meet soon, don’t you think?” she shouted.
“Oh yes, that would be lovely!” Lynn said enthusiastically.
Mrs. Cakes hoped to observe Baloo with another Kayla doll to see if he would react the same way or if he had it out for their Kayla alone.
“They really love their Kayla! Why, she is part of the family!” added Lynn joyfully.
It loved them and they loved it! Well so did they, the Cakes, didn’t they? Asking herself this question made Mrs. Cakes feel even more ashamed.
“Baloo, unfortunately, is still not used to Kayla after all this time. It’s very frustrating, especially since Kayla has proven to be a marvelous tutor and nanny. Baby has advanced beyond her age leaps and bounds because of it! Kayla has taught her the alphabet, spelling, math, history, all the important subjects even before preschool!”
“Hmm,” Lynn pondered with hand on hip as she continued carefully picking up real poop from the real dog scattered on the imitation lawn. The Cakes sure did not miss that part of owning a real dog. “You just called Kayla ‘it.’ Might I suggest something?”
“Certainly, please do.”
“What place does Kayla hold in your family? How often do you include her, I mean, at mealtimes and on outings and the like, where exactly is she?”
Mrs. Cakes hesitated at the oddness of the question which felt intrusive. What business was it of hers how they, a perfectly functional family, conducted their family dynamics? She secretly hoped Lynn — an In-Between — was far too relaxed to bother trying her newly acquired telepathy. Can a thing love and can humans love a thing? Of course, they can! Kayla should be a real part of the family, shouldn’t she? Was that the problem?
Other than the times they left Baby to Kayla and Kayla to Baby, checking in from time to time on the progress of Baby’s lessons, Kayla was Baby’s “thing,” she kept Kayla to her bedroom during mealtimes and brought the doll out only when watching TV. To help the dog accept someone — or, in this case, something — into the fold, the dog owners ought to set the right example, oughtn’t they? Baloo was jealous and needed to be coaxed into accepting it — or, rather, her — as part of the pack.
Rather than answer Lynn’s original question, Mrs. Cakes continued her train of thought aloud: “We could try.”
“Oh sorry. I mean, try to include Kayla in more family activities.”
“That should help! Good luck to you!” Lynn said, and she rushed the dogs and doll inside without setting up a time for the dog meet.
Looking over at Baloo, who Mr. Cakes by now had shut in his doghouse, memories washed over her, memories of original Baloo and his silly antics; how he had this funny way of cocking his head at unfamiliar behavior, and that lovable habit of leaning on them on the couch. Sometimes he’d chase and bite on his own tail, oh and the cutest thing was when he’d lay on his side, open his legs and expose everything! He always barked at new objects, like that time he barked at the new oak tree they’d planted in the backyard, but eventually, when he realized it was just an inanimate object and nothing to fear, he stopped the barking and completely ignored the thing.
But they could never get him to stop his digging. They had to buy dozens and dozens of stones to cover the holes and even landscaped the larger part of the backyard with rocks. He just dug under the rocks and tore the black tarp material underneath.
And then there was the biting incident, of one of Mrs. Cakes’ cousins, who thankfully did not insist that they put him down, even with a bite that punctured the skin and drew blood. At their wits’ end, they caved in and bought a muzzle, which they turned to as a last resort.
They should have hired a trainer or taken him to training class, but they didn’t have the time and didn’t want to spend the money. Though Baloo#2 did not dig or bark, he behaved towards the object, Kayla, as Baloo#1 would have. Even with higher doses of nano-bot injections.
After this epiphany, Mrs. Cakes tried to include Kayla — though it felt odd at first — in more family-oriented matters such as placing Kayla in Baby’s old booster seat at the dining table; they took her along for grocery runs and stood her on the kitchen tile while cooking.
Mrs. Cakes even began addressing Kayla as if she were a real person, and though awkward at first, making conversation at Kayla became something of a pleasant experience, even though Kayla continued with her rigid responses. Their efforts appeared to have some success, because Baloo’s aggressive incidents became less frequent: the lunging and excessive barking appeared to subside.
What they did not notice was the prolonged stare or the raised neck hair, not because Baloo#2 did not possess eyes or fur but because his level of substrate lacked the nuances of a top-level machine.
* * *
Baloo was ready. He had stopped attacking, no more signs of malfunctioning. He finally seemed to be taking to the training meant for puppies that Mrs. Cakes took up with him, rewards given in the form of petting and praise, what the training materials referred to as “returning to Kindergarten.”
A crowd of young mothers carrying their infants in hip slings gathered with a variety of off-leash dogs. It was hard to tell from a distance the nature of these pedigreed dogs: German Shepherd, Pug, Collie, Alaskan Malamute. A combination of android, real, cloned, uploaded? In some cases, it was difficult to tell what with the eerie resemblance between some original animals and their non-biological counterparts.
In a relatively short period of time, nano-technological companies such as Moxi Labs had made stupendous strides forward in their Trans-animal designs. It didn’t matter, though. If these ever-so-trendy ladies could let their pack off leash, why shouldn’t Baloo #2 be rewarded for his signs of progress?
Had they gone too far in their optimism by trusting Baloo to give Kayla a piggy-back ride? When he galloped towards the river, shouldn’t they have noticed the doll slipping off? It seemed in the blink of an eye that Kayla ended up as so many baby bunnies had, in Baloo#2’s mouth.
In triumph, after the fatal thrashing, Baloo ran back towards his owners and dropped a sopping wet Kayla with missing eyes and a smashed-in face before their feet. Besides having drowned the doll, he had essentially destroyed it with the pure force of his artificial jaws.
Mrs. Cakes was too stunned to clip his chain leash back on, and Mr. Cakes was too angry to punish him. After gathering Baby and Baloo back into the van, they stood near the trunk of the car determining whether the doll could be salvaged. Trying to resuscitate, they pressed the on button several times. No luck. They then wrapped the doll in a beach towel and drove home for an attempt at reboot.
Nothing brought Kayla back from shut-down. They even called tech support but, alas, they were told, in a scolding manner, that they should have thoroughly read the manual and that Kayla was not made to withstand submersion in water or for rough outdoor play. Gone was the perfect nanny and teacher for Baby, who cried for days on end afterward for her lost doll, who had evolved into the perfect friend.
The Cakes should have been scolded too, for not having thought through Baloo#1’s fate more carefully, the way one would for a beloved family dog. Or for not reading through the Terms and Conditions rather than blindly scrolling to “Accept.” If they had, they would have expected the possibility for virtual viruses or faulty coding, or simply the stubbornness of inborn genetics.
Mrs. Cakes called the company and explained the situation, what Baloo had done; in rant-like, manic fashion, she narrated what his behavior had been like over the past few years and her disappointment in a failed promise.
She was told, “We’re sorry, Ma’am, but the warranty on your uploaded dog has expired.” Once she calmed down, she and Mr. Cakes sat down to talk over their options. Clearly, the injections did nothing to improve Baloo’s behavior. That awful company would do nothing to help. There did not yet exist anything like a Trans-dog Whisperer, and even if there were, there was no guarantee of improvement. What was to be done with real dogs who had killed? Had Baloo killed? Yes, he had killed the newest, most valuable member of the family.
And so, there she sat, her mind replaying with emotionless clarity the startling sight of one anomaly destroying another. She would mourn, yes, for she had been robbed of that the first time. They should have just let it be, let nature take its course.
Mrs. Cake spoke terms of endearment, “I’m so sorry, Baby Baloo, I love you, but we can’t take any more chances...” As her empty words trailed off, her thoughts betrayed her and betrayed him. It is most unnatural, an abomination, this melding of animal and machine. Baloo, who lay fading on the metal table. He would be put down as an overly aggressive and dangerous Trans-animal. She did not know — nor could she — that her poor, precious Baloo could read her cruel thoughts right before complete erasure of all settings and content.
* * *
Kayla#1 had worked so well as tutor and companion to their daughter that the Cakes, after a decent amount of time for mourning passed, purchased the latest model, Kayla Pro. They took great care to read the entire manual and terms for their new possession, and even purchased an extended warranty.
They were quite happy for years to come, until Baby grew up and no longer needed extra care. When Kayla Pro lived out her use, they shut her off and stored her in a closet. The couple never got another dog ever again; not the real thing, nor any other.
Copyright © 2020 by Tina V. Cabrera