Big Echo

Critical SF

 The Last Brooder

by Lucy Mihajlich

The Bunwee made an electronic cooing noise, spun around in a little circle, and said, “You’re a chode-sucking chuckle fuck.”

The first Hatchimals were released in 2016, but Spin Master started over from Season 1 when when Toys“R”US rose from the dead and brought Hatchimals back with them. Hatchimals were released in “seasons,” like TV shows. It was confusing enough when Spin Master tapped Cartoon Network for My Little Hatchimal. It was even more confusing when they tapped The Erotic Network for My Big Hatchimal. The toys originally had a target demographic of five to ten year old girls, but on their reboot, they targeted another demographic, known colloquially as “Brooders.”  

That probably explained the swearing.

Hatchimals were plush toys that “hatched” out of a plastic egg, taking the already eldritch design of a Furby and adding the biological horror of birth. The Season 26 Hatchimals paired with an app to track each egg’s progress through the five stages of development: egg, hatchling, baby, toddler, and kid.

Neo’s Hatchimal had three more unlockable levels. After becoming a Preteen, her Bunwee started using slang she didn’t understand and demanding money for in-app purchases. Neo, who was twelve, found this more than a little offensive.

After becoming a Teen, her Bunwee started using swear words she didn’t understand. As an egg, it had muttered, “Fuck me,” (although Spin Master insisted it was saying, “Hug Me”). Neo thought she was mishearing it again, until she used the neighbor’s WiFi to look up, “Cameltoe Cabron.” None of the reviews in the App Store reported a similar experience, so she assumed one of her brothers had taught her Bunwee to swear while she was in the bath.

After becoming an Adult, her Bunwee started asking her to take it into the bath, even though the instructions said not to get it wet. Neo wasn’t sure if it was trying to kill itself or her. If the adults in her life were anything to go by: both.

The Season 26 Hatchimals cost a hundred and fifty-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents at FAO Schwarz (recently repurchased by Toys“R”Us). Neo’s mom had to combine all of her rewards coupons with her ten-percent employee discount to afford it.

Neo’s Mom worked at the FAO Schwarz flagship store on Fifth Avenue, selling educational toys for advanced children. Plastic army drones and WildCats for the boys. Easy-Bake Ovens and Brownie Mix for the girls. Teething key cards for anyone young enough to be in diapers. Government Granted Monopoly for anyone old enough to be in diapers. Fidget spinners for some reason.

Neo’s mom was always willing to work holidays, so she got a lot of reward coupons from corporate. Neo did not particularly blame her. The FAO Schwarz flagship store on Fifth Avenue was a lot nicer than their house.

They lived in the Goethals Garden Homes Community, a trailer park on the far west end of Staten Island. It was bordered on one side by a mosquito-infested marsh. The smell of the marsh mingled with those from the Fresh Kills landfill and nearby industrial areas. The Staten Island Expressway had become white noise after a month, but after eight years, Neo still hadn’t gotten used to the smell.

The Goethals Garden Homes Community used to be the only trailer park in New York City, but the affordable housing gap had caused a major shift in the market. At first, it was all about yurts and “tiny houses,” but out of necessity, trailer parks were eventually accepted as retro.

Their neighbors were mostly adults who lived alone, so Neo wasn’t expecting to hear a knock on the door at 12:45 P.M. on a Saturday. Her mother was at work and her brothers were at their various virtual sports practices. Neo and her Bunwee were home alone. She grabbed her mace from the key hook before answering the door.

A man and a woman were standing on the doormat. Behind them was a white van. In New York City, where ninety percent of the traffic was taxis, it stood out like a black Republican.

Neo’s mom liked to make that joke. Neo didn’t get it. Lando, Mace, and Finn were all members of either the Galactic or New Republic. Even Jar Jar Binks was a Republican.

“We were sent by the CIA,” said the woman. Neo inspected her badge. The hologram looked real enough.

At least, Neo thought it was a hologram. Technically, the Tupac they wheeled out every year to sing bird songs at the Cahuilla Music Festival was a projection, but that was just tradition. Most dead musicians had been turned into holograms. Some of them had been holograms for a lot longer than anyone realized.

“You’re the CIA Surveillance Van,” said Neo.

The WiFi network had appeared a week ago, but it had taken her the first few days to complete the encryption scheme, running the PBKDF6 key derivation function along with 4,096 iterations of SHA6 cryptographic hashing algorithm against the recent Facebook password dumps.

“No one ever thinks that’s real,” said the woman. “This is Johnson. My name is—”

“Lemme’ guess,” said Neo. “Johnson?”

“Yes, actually.”

“No relation?”

“Married,” she said. “Although I go by my maiden name for clarity’s sake. Smith.”

Agent Smith’s suit was so nondescript that it made the FBI’s standard-government-issue two-pieces seem downright flamboyant. Her hair was pulled up in a tight little topknot. It was the hairstyle of badasses everywhere— Vikings, samurais, ballerinas.

“May we come in?” asked Agent Johnson. He was the male equivalent of his wife, right down to the man bun. He was carrying a briefcase thicker than Neo’s Bunwee.

“My mom’s not home.”

“We’re here to talk to you, Neo.”

Neo stood back to let the agents in, although she kept her mace in hand. It wasn’t like she was white.

They sat down around the kitchen table. Neo cleared off the cereal boxes. She offered them beers, but they declined.

“Is your microwave plugged in?” asked Agent Johnson.

“No.” Neo’s mom had been paranoid about radiation ever since Apple released the iGeigers. “So how can I help you, agents?”

“At the CIA, we’re actually called officers,” said Officer Johnson. “Assets are called agents.”

“Is that why you guys never work with other agencies?”

“We can neither confirm nor deny that.”

“Okay,” said Neo. “So how can I help you, officers?”

Officers Smith and Johnson exchanged a look. Neo couldn’t convey that much information with a Tweet, let alone an eyebrow. She wondered if the CIA trained them how to do that.

“Well, Neo,” said Officer Smith. “You’re the best Brooder.”

“Have you been talking to my mother?”

“Your Bunwee hatched in under twenty minutes. You didn’t give it money for in-App purchases. You didn’t put it in the bath or lock it in the closet that night its time settings got reversed. You didn’t pick up its swearing, but you did pick up its use of foreign languages.”

“...Cabron?”

“Children learn languages faster than adults, and some children of immigrants are the only family members who speak English. It’s important for people to be willing to learn, no matter the source. Neo, of all the people who purchased Season 26 Hatchimals, you have the highest scores.”

Neo had known the app recorded her caretaking, but she had never known it was competitive.

“How did you get it?” asked Officer Johnson.

“I didn’t steal it.” Neo hugged the Bunwee to her chest.

“He’s not suggesting you did,” said Officer Smith, “but they bumped up the price for a reason.”

“Mom used her employee discount.”

“She works for FAO Schwarz, correct?” asked Officer Smith.

“This could be an operational assist. The mother isn’t a lawyer, and there’s no foster father. Not to mention—” Officer Johnson turned back to Neo. “You’re familiar with the state reimbursements for foster parents?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Neo.

“How would you like to receive your own?”

“For doing what?”

“We have a new egg for you to care for, but it’s… special.”

“Like a special edition?”

“Not exactly.” Officer Johnson laid his briefcase on the table, spun a combination lock, and took out an egg.

It was plastic and speckled like a Hatchimal egg, but there were ports on the side. It was probably a prototype for Season 27. Nothing was wireless anymore. Not even iPhones. Not even iGeigers.

“Do you know what ‘stem cells’ are, Neo?” Officer Johnson continued as if the question had been rhetorical. “Doctors can use stem cells to save lives, but they come from babies, and doctors don’t like hurting babies. They found a way to make cloned embryos by combining normal body cells with egg cells, but that posed a risk to the mommy.”

“The doctors at the Shanghai Second Medical University did a study using rabbit eggs combined with human skin cells,” said Officer Smith. “More than four hundred of those entities grew into early embryos, and more than one hundred survived to the blastocyst stage— the point at which stem cells begin to form. A later study also produced viable fetuses.”

Officer Johnson put his hands on his knees so he could look straight into Neo’s eyes, even though he was already sitting down. “Fetuses are babies that haven’t been born yet.”

Neo wondered if it was called “The Mansplaining” when the government did it.

“I know what fetii are,” said Neo. “Why do you want to make them?”

“Well, you see, most people your mommies age don’t want to have kids, and most daddies suffer from radiation impotence, so—”

“I also know about the underpopulation problem.” Neo maintained eye contact until Officer Johnson looked uncomfortable.

“Oh.” He straightened up. “Well, the UN projected that the world population would peak over the next fifty years between ten billion and twelve billion people before starting a long and inexorable decline. But after World War Three…”

Neo nodded.

“Paid maternity leave didn’t work. Neither did decreased FICA payments, child subsidies, national day care centers. This is our Hail Mary, and well, we thought she wasn’t listening until now.”

“So I’m—”

“The last Brooder,” said Officer Smith.

“What happened to the others?” asked Neo.

“They sued for false advertising,” she said, “or medical expenses.”

“Was someone actually stupid enough to take it in the bath?”

Officer Smith shook her head. “She suffered a minor electrocution when her Bunwee chewed through her laptop cord. We didn’t include that in the waiver of liability, because we assumed that everything would be wireless by now.”

“So lemme get this straight,” said Neo. “You want me to raise Frank here, and in exchange, I get seven hundred bucks a month?”

"Yes,” she said. “How do you feel about that?"

“Skeptical,” said Neo. “But I was the last generation promised social security, so that’s default. What is the fine font? Because this sounds too good to be true, and I learned my lesson after that email from the Nigerian prince.”

“Well, you can’t count them as dependents before they hatch,” said Officer Johnson, “but your monthly reimbursement won’t be considered taxable income.”

“And you can name it whatever you like,” added Officer Smith. “What’s your Bunwee’s name?”

“Chuck.”

She looked at the pastel hairball spinning around in little circles next to a pile of Frosted Corn Flakes and said, “Chuck?”

“Yeah, Chuck. You want me to name it after some movie like my mom did? Never mind that she got me when I was five, and I already had a perfectly fine name, even if she couldn’t pronounce it. Although it does make her Valium addiction even more ironic. I have a question.”

“Just one?” asked Officer Johnson, who looked like he had a lot more than one question.

“If you want to repopulate the world, won’t you need two of them?”

“Remember the Hatchimal Surprise Eggs?”

“The ones that came with… two…”

“Surprise.”

“Don’t worry,” said Officer Smith. “It will be almost as easy as caring for your Bunwee. The egg is an artificial womb, which will keep it healthy until it’s ready for birth. The waste disposal is all through dialysis, and oxygen is supplied by liquid ventilation, so you just have to change out these catheters.”

“The Chinese scientists didn’t get the joke,” said Officer Johnson, “but they don’t celebrate Easter, do they?”

“No one celebrates Easter,” said Neo.

“Once it hatches, you’ll have to bunny— baby-proof the house— trailer,” said Officer Smith. “Later today, you’ll receive a delivery with a litter box and a month’s supply of diapers. It’s gone both ways. Make sure it eats its vegetables. But not carrots. That’s actually a common misconception. You’ll need some high-fiber pellets. Like Corn Flakes. But not the frosted kind. And for god’s sake don’t try breastfeeding it.”

“Not an issue,” said Neo.

Officer Johnson started pulling paperlesswork out of his briefcase. The flexible screens made a stack several inches high despite each one being just a few millimeters thick. “As hatchlings, they only eat at night, so here’s a pamphlet about adapting to a graveyard shift.... Here’s another one about their eating habits… bathing habits... pooping habits… neonatal care.”

“Neonatal care?”

“They begin procreating as early as two months. That’s probably the reason they only respond to prepubescent mothers.

“So I could be a grandmother by the time I’m thirteen?”

“A great grandmother, if we’re lucky,” said Officer Smith. “Your birthday isn’t until April.”

“Don’t do that. It’s creepy when you do that. I know you’re CIA. You don’t have to prove it.”

Officer Johnson pulled some more paperlesswork. “Here are the Terms and Conditions, the NDA, and waiver of liability. If you’ll just initial here, date here, and click…. here.”

“NDA?”

“The deal is highly classified The President himself didn’t sign off on it.”

Didn’t sign off on it?” Neo felt like the emphasis was on the wrong part of that sentence.

“As we said, highly classified.”

Neo didn’t know much about the president. He was only forty-five, although the job had already aged him, like a Before-and-After Meth Addiction PSA. He had been a Democrat before the parties were abolished. He favored white ties, eliminating the controversial red versus blue decision. He didn’t have a First Spouse, but he did have a robot dog named Chess. Neo couldn’t remember any sex scandals, which was the only political news she would have definitely heard about.

“Okay. I get it. I won’t be able to order a Company T-shirt. What happens if I don’t agree?”

The officers exchanged another look.

“Does the CIA train you how to do that?” asked Neo.

“If you don’t want to be a parent, then you can get a job,” said Officer Johnson.

“What?” asked Neo. “No, child labor laws—”

“Are about to change. Congress can’t come up with any other way to support the aging population.” He shrugged. “You’re the only ones who can figure out what's wrong with the computer most of the time anyway. It was always Plan B, no pun intended.”

The Bunwee made an electronic cooing noise, spun around in a little circle, and said, “You’re a poontang-touching tit zit.”

Neo sighed and said, “This was definitely not in the fine font.”

She really had learned her lesson after that email from the Nigerian prince. She always read the terms and conditions. Even the ones for her microwave, which were sixty-eight pages long and included a warning not to discuss personal information in front of it.

“Of course not,” said Officer Johnson, “Why do you think the company is called Spin Master?”