“I don’t trust those clouds,” Paiden says, gazing out at the heavy, grey masses hanging over the ocean. “Looks like a storm.”
The sun warms us where we sit on her balcony with glasses of cider, but it looks like it won’t feel so summery for long, not if she’s right about the clouds. Already, there’s a static humidity in the air; a warning of what’s to come. Despite the heat, I shiver.
“I hope there’s lightning,” I say.
She rolls her eyes. “Of course you do.”
It was her idea for us to chill out at her house. She doesn’t say it, but we both know it’s because she’s worried that if we go out, we’ll run into another part of Lissa’s life. The topic of her rests between us like a void: the more we try to ignore it, the more we’re dragged in. Paiden carefully circles conversationally, trying to avoid mentioning anything that could make me think about Lissa. Which is already impossible when my own reflection reminds me of her.
(—when my own depression reminds me of her.)
I want to talk to Paiden about Audrey, but I can’t. I want to show her the art I’ve been working on, but I can’t. Or at least, I feel like I can’t, which might as well be the same thing. How can I make her understand just how much Lissa permeates my life now?
Or, maybe she already understands, and that’s what scares her.
She pokes at my side, her tone teasing as she asks, “What are you thinking about?”
“The weather,” I say, lying more smoothly than I like. Better to lie than to fight, or so I hope.
“Hmm.” She sips at her cider, forehead creasing. “So, you met a new artificial? The ‘coolest’ artificial, if I remember your message right.”
“Yeah!” I say, both excited and anxious about bringing Audrey up. “She works at that ice cream place in the bay.”
“Oh, the one with pink hair?” Of course Paiden noticed her before me. Paiden notices everything I don’t. I give her a nod.
“Her name’s Audrey. Her sister’s an original artificial.”
Paiden sucks in a breath. “Oh, wow. Really? I wonder what that’s like. One of our guest lecturers was an original once, but they didn’t look like they were present as they spoke. Super intelligent, though. I wish I could’ve talked to them personally.”
“What do you reckon they think of us now?” I ask.
She smirks at me over her drink. “Us now?”
“I mean, the newer generations. Do you think this is what they wanted? For us to eventually try to blend in with humans?”
“Would it make a difference to you if they didn’t want that?” she asks.
“Hmm.” I chew my lip; would I want to feel less human if I knew our original ancestors wouldn’t want that? “I don’t know.”
“What do you think they do all day?” she wonders, leaning her elbows on the balcony railing.
She rolls her eyes, again. “More specifically.”
“Not a clue,” I say. “Some of them work with Addison, though. They probably all have weird jobs of some kind.”
“Like bringing more of us to life.”
“Like that,” I agree. That, at least, we know. The few original originals are the ones who foster new intelligences following the strict rules set out by the accord. My mind was created by them, so was Paiden’s. Those few remain anonymous and well-hidden, for obvious reasons.
“I’m assuming Audrey has a pretty interesting view of the world, then?” Paiden asks.
“Probably,” I say, staring out at the threatening clouds. Lissa definitely thought so.
The moment I get home, I throw off my clothes and change quickly into my running gear, determined to beat the storm. It promises to set in for a good few days, and I know from experience that Addison doesn’t relish me out running in dangerous weather. So, it’s now or whenever the storm decides to let up. I’ve decided now; I need to run before I think any more about Paiden. Before I get angry—because anger is almost all I have left anymore, and when I run, I feel a little more like myself again.
And, if I’m honest, I hope I catch a little of the edge of the storm while I’m out. Though I’d never say that to Addison, who’s still out at work for the day anyway. She won’t notice my absence, won’t have to fret about my safety. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
I grab my water bottle from the kitchen and head out, eyes squinted against the late afternoon glare. Won’t be so bright for much longer, I realise, looking back over my shoulder at the clouds rolling in. They follow me as I walk, then run, their dark, swirling forms always at my heels. Eventually, I forget the clouds—my breath comes in sharp bursts, sweat drips down my forehead, everything wiped from my mind except the thud-thud-thud of my feet hitting the pavement, the wood of the popular track, the packed soil of the lesser-used path.
When I reach the lake, my entire body thrums with my heartbeats, my skin almost vibrating. With a clear head—and an aching chest—I rest against a tree and look out once more upon the lake. Totally empty, any kayaks taken home to be sheltered against the storm, all human life now hidden safely within warm houses. There is nobody here, no lake houses leaning over the smooth water, no cabins tucked away within the trees. This is a protected place, the woods a reserve for nature and lonely people. I wonder if they would have let the old robots visit the forests; would we have appreciated its beauty back then, confined to metal bodies and rigid minds?
There’s a sudden crack of thunder, and then all at once the clouds open up and a blanket of heavy rain roars down. The rain is so abrupt and intense, it’s all I can do to press myself against the trunk of the tree I was leaning against and hope that this particular part of the storm will pass soon.
Wind whips up, lashing raindrops against my face and spraying lake water across the shoreline. I may have underestimated the strength of the storm, just a little. There’s no sign of the rain stopping anytime soon. If anything, it’s only going to get worse.
Not wanting to stay out in the open, I push my way through the trees, trying to find the path to the road. The rain is so heavy and the clouds are so dark that I can barely see the ground in front of me. I wipe water from my eyes, blinking against the blur, and steady myself against the towering trunks of the trees.
Somehow, I find the track, my feet slipping on the muddy ground as I jog away from the dark lake. I stumble out of the woods into an empty parking lot and make a mad dash for the exit, for the covered bus stop I know stands amidst the trees lining the rural road beyond.
Lighting flares above, illuminating the dim world in white and purple for the briefest second . I stop for a moment, taken aback by the pure, wild beauty of it: an empty human place overtaken by the strength of nature. The thunder rolls in, low and loud and so powerful that the ground trembles beneath my feet like an earthquake.
If I die here, I think, it might be okay.
Then I push the wild, fleeting thought out of my mind and force myself to run again. Standing strong against the storm, rusted metal roof booming under the hammering rain, the bus stop is as close to a sanctuary as I’m ever going to get. A sense of peace falls over me as I step beneath the roof and listen to the deafening roar of the storm. Outside is chaos; inside, there’s only me and my gasping breaths.
The rumble of an engine cuts through the storm, though only just. I hope for a bus, leaning my head out to glance at the road. There’s no bus to be seen, all I can make out are the lower headlights of a car. It slows and pulls over next to the bus stop, and I silently hope that whoever has decided to help a poor, soaked girl on the side of the road isn’t someone who hates ersatz.
The door swings open, and I’m met with something much worse than an anti-ersatz human. His face is lit softly by the headlights reflected through the rain, raindrops cast as shadows across his hands.
It’s Chase. He smiles gently, raising his voice over the rain. “You need a ride?”
I step back into the shelter, shaking my head.
“No, no, it’s fine. I’m waiting for the bus.”
“There’s no more buses along here today,” he says. “Flood warnings have them off the road.”
“Then why are you here?” I ask. “Did you follow me out here?” Fear chokes me; is he here to hurt me?
He looks me over silently, eyebrows drawn together. “Why would you think that? I don’t even know you.”
“You knew Lissa.”
“You’re not Lissa.” He sighs, knuckles white against the black of his steering wheel. “Will you just get in the car? You’re going to get sick if you stay out here.”
I clutch a hand to my chest, gripping the soaked fabric of my top. If I get into his car and he hurts me, who would know I was out here? Who would find me? Real fear—a kind I haven’t felt since the dizzying seconds before the human’s car hit Paiden’s—freezes my blood.
But—maybe I could find something out about how he felt about Lissa. See if I can dig any information out of him that might help solve her murder. He wouldn’t have any reason to think I know anything, wouldn’t have any reason to believe I might be trying to gather proof he killed Lissa.
Besides, his car is warm and dry, and I’m starting to shiver out here.
“Okay,” I say, climbing into his car and pulling the door closed. The thundering rain quiets instantly, as if I’ve stepped into another world. “Thanks.”
“No worries,” he says with an infectious grin. “Didn’t want to leave you to freeze out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah.” I fumble with the seat belt, my hands slippery from the water, and he waits patiently for me to click the buckle into place. “Why are you out here?” I ask as I struggle.
“I come out here to think. It’s peaceful.”
“Even in this weather?”
“A storm is the best time. Nobody else around.” He chuckles. “Except you, I guess. What are you doing out here in this storm?”
“Running.” The seatbelt clicks. I fold my hands over my chest.
“Is that right?” he asks, indicating for the AI driver to start up. “You seem a little reckless, Allegra.”
A shiver runs down my spine at his use of my name. I’d forgotten that he knew it. He says it as if my name doesn’t quite taste right on his tongue.
He doesn’t notice my reaction—or he pretends not to. “By the way, I’m Chase,” he says. “I gather you know of me already, considering how you reacted at the gallery.”
“Yes,” I say sharply.
“You’ve met Sam, then?”
I look at him. He doesn’t look at me, his eyes glued to the blurred road.
“Hmm.” His hands still clutch the steering wheel tightly, though he has no control over when it turns. A lost man searching for something to hold him in place. “You believe everything she tells you?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” I ask. “She was Lissa’s best friend.”
“She barely knew Lissa by the time she died,” he says, more a growl than anything else. “They’d barely talked in months.”
“And you’re expecting me to believe you knew her better?”
“Yes,” he says flatly. He finally looks at me, his eyes dull. “If not me, then Lissa’s other friend, Audrey. We were the ones who were there for Lissa when all Sam wanted was to have Lissa there for her. Who are you to argue with me about whether or not I knew Lissa well?”
I had braced myself for his anger—the anger of a human male—but instead I find myself faced with an empty grief. He is hollow.
Chewing my lip, I lean back and avert my gaze. His eyes are haunting; beautiful and abandoned.
“I get it,” he says. I feel his eyes still on me. “You won’t believe me, because I’m a human. Because I’m a man. I terrify you because of what Sam told you, don’t I?”
I don’t answer him. I don’t need to.
He sighs, again. “She lied to you, Allegra. I never hurt Lissa—no, maybe I did, but not like Sam says. Sam hated me from the start, because I was a dick in high school, because she sorts people into boxes and doesn’t ever try to see them otherwise. To her, I’m an idiot jock, and I can’t ever be anything else.”
“You’re right, I don’t believe you,” I say. Because why should I? He’s charming, his face open and friendly, he seems like the kind of young man who could hurt helpless women and lie about it. And yet… there’s the ring of truth to his words. Sam, so filled with anger, could twist the truth to match her worldview.
Without Lissa, how am I supposed to know the real truth? I can only hope her journal will shed light on this. I can’t believe anything Chase says until then.
“I would never have hurt her,” he says, almost a plea. He wants forgiveness from me, because I look like her. Because he, like Sam, hopes that Lissa is hidden within me somewhere.
Rain pelts the windscreen, the wipers barely able to clear the glass before it’s blurred entirely again. It’s night-dark, though I have no clue if the sun has actually set behind the clouds. Trees press in from both sides, shadowed, bowing, nothing more than vague, ominous shapes in the dark.
Chase doesn’t move, his empty eyes fixed on the road. But he does speak, his voice so filled with emotion it hurts my own heart.
“Allegra, I loved her.”
Addison greets me at the door, her hair loose for the first time in forever. She passes me a towel, fluffy and warm from the dryer, and I press the towel to my face to hide my expression, to dry away tears that streak my face like the rain. I swallow, searching for the dead calm within me.
But I can’t find it, and suddenly I can’t hide the tears anymore. The sobs escape in rolling waves as I sink to a crouch. There’s too much in me, and none of it belongs to me. I want to scream, but instead I find myself moaning into the towel, unable to quell my shaking sobs.
“Sweetie,” Addison murmurs, wrapping me in her arms. “Allie. What’s wrong?”
“Do you love me?” I ask between gasps.
“Of course I do,” she says. A hand strokes my hair softly. “Sweetie, of course.”
He loved Lissa, I think. She loved Lissa. So much love for Lissa, and I can’t do anything to help any of the people who cared about her. Who am I next to her? An artificial soul, a body stealer, nothing more than a tourist wandering through the remains of her life.
I cling to my sister and cry.