“I’m so tired, all day, every day. I could sleep for a week and still need more. It’s as endless as the night sky, and about as bright. Everyone’s always like, ‘Wow, you look so tired!’ Yes, well, I sure feel tired, too. Even moreso now.
Today was the day: I got my results from school. Guess what? I failed! I completely blew my chance at getting into biomed next year. Completely knocked myself off of my future path in one fell swoop. All at once the ground is falling from beneath my feet, and I—
I don’t know what to do anymore. What do I do with myself now? This is everything I’ve been working towards, and I couldn’t even do it. I couldn’t do it!
On the way home I bought a bottle of rum from the store. Don’t judge me—what else do I have going for me now, anyway? I won’t drink much, I know I’m already spiralling. I’ll be good, I’m even going to Chase’s later, and he’ll cheer me up and make sure I don’t accidentally hurt myself. So much for Sam saying he’s a terrible influence, at least he tries to help me. What does she do? If I tell her about failing my classes, she’ll just rub it in my face, maybe start another fight with me. I don’t have anyone left to turn to except Chase and Audrey, not even my parents. It feels so long since Grey was Dad and we could actually talk about things that made me sad. Now, I’m just scared of him.
So, I don’t know, I’ll tell him later. Next week, when I’m feeling better, maybe. If I ever feel better again.
What do I do now? Where do I go? How do I fix this? I know I can fix this, if only someone would tell me how.”
This is the end of Lissa’s final audio recording. The end of my tenuous connection with the person who gave me her body. I set down my pencil, feeling only empty. Lissa fought so hard to be the best she could be and instead I’m here, staring at my half-finished sketches, wondering if I should give up on my pitch for the gallery. Wanting to give up, because it’s so hard to finish even something basic. (Wanting to give up on Lissa, too.)
The bus judders over a curb, and I fumble to catch my phone before it falls to the ground and tears my earbuds from my ears. When I look at the screen, there’s a message from Paiden, asking if I’m free today.
With a sigh, I turn the screen off and lean my head back against the headrest. I’ll reply later, I tell myself. When I have more energy to face it. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to Paiden, but I don’t particularly want to tell her why I’m not free today: because I’m meeting up with Sam to tail Grey. To see if we can find any secrets. My gut tells me we’re getting close to something, and I hope for all our sake’s that something is the killer.
I need to be better. I think this, repeatedly, as I stare aimlessly at my scribbled art. I wasn’t created for this, I was built to be something more than I am now. Everyone expects it, humans and artificials alike. I have to prove that I deserve to exist; if only for Lissa.
Hair exploding from beneath a beanie, Sam waits for me. She sprawls across a public bench across the road from Grey’s work like a dark predator.
“Took you long enough,” she says.
I flash my phone at her, the time shown in big, blocky numbers. “I’m only a minute late,” I say. “Didn’t think you were the type to be strict about time.”
“You know me.” She shrugs, sliding her feet down to the ground to let me sit with her. “Always looking for something to hate you for.”
I laugh, only a little bitter. “That much I can tell. How long have you been here?”
“Long enough.” Her eyes dart back to the entrance of the building across the street. “You really think he did it? Grey?”
“Hell, I don’t know. You’ve known the man longer than I have. In fact, I haven’t even met him yet, but everyone tells me I shouldn’t”
“Yeah,” Sam says, mouth twisting with a wry grin. “You really shouldn’t. He maybe killed Lissa, but he’d absolutely kill you. Nobody would doubt that for a second.”
“Well, we better not get caught then, huh?” Sam snorts at me, pulls at the edge of her beanie. “Do you think Emily was telling the truth?” I ask. “You know, about them just being, I don’t know, friends?”
“Hell if I know,” Sam says. She looks at me without turning her head, her eyes narrow. “She’s evil, I’m sure of it. Maybe it was, like, revenge for thinking Lissa stole Chase from her. She seduced Grey, or something. Though, the more I think about it, the less I believe it.”
She sighs. “Yeah. You know? Grey may be awful but I doubt he’d be able to hide something like that for long. Emily, too. She’s so messed up, I don’t think she wants to lie anymore.”
“So, just a weird friendship.”
“Real weird,” Sam mutters. “I couldn’t ever get Grey to like me. Don’t know how Emily managed it.”
“She is a lot less, uh, outwardly angry than you. You sort of wear it on your sleeve, as it were,” I say. Sam shoots me a sharp glare, and I gesture at her. “See? That’s exactly what I mean!”
“Ugh.” She pulls her beanie over her eyes as she groans. “Fine. Maybe you’re right.”
“And maybe you’re—Grey!”
She yanks her beanie from her head and glares at me. “What did you call me—”
“No!” I grab her arm and point across the street, where a man who looks just a little too much like Lissa—her dark eyes, her inky hair—pauses to shrug off a light jacket. “It’s actually Grey!”
“Oh, shit!” Sam cries, hurriedly donning her beanie once more. I don’t think it disguises her as much as she hopes, but it does at least hide about a third of her hair. I pull the scarf wrapped around my head closer to my face. If Grey looks across at us now, I have little faith that our makeshift disguises will save us.
Grey, taller and broader than even my nightmares imagined, swings his head our way. We hunch together, pulling our respective disguises further over our faces to hide us from his gaze.
“Remind me again why we thought this was a good idea?” I hiss. Sam snorts near my ear, still loud even when she’s trying to be quiet.
“This was your idea,” she says. “You tell me.”
His eyes pass over us, he folds his jacket over his arm and walks off down the street. I breathe a sigh of relief, just as Sam leaps from the bench, pulling me with her as she waves down an auto-taxi. She points at Grey’s car pulling out into the street ahead of us as we fall into the back seat of the taxi.
“Follow that car!” she cries. The taxi remains stubbornly still.
“Which car, please?” it asks.
I slap her hand out of my way. “You can’t just point at a car, it can’t see where you’re pointing. The black station wagon. Follow that, please.”
“Yes. Of course,” the taxi chirps. Its soft, electric motor propels it forward, right as Grey’s car is about to disappear around a corner. Huffing at either me or the taxi—or more likely, both of us—Sam leans forward, hands gripping the sides of the front seats.
“What now?” she asks, wide eyes locked on Grey’s car. “Now that this dumb AI is actually doing what we need. What if Grey just goes home?”
I swallow down angry words in defense of the taxi. “I, uh, didn’t think that far ahead,” I admit, wryly honest. “Maybe he heads home, maybe he doesn’t. Guess we’ll find out.”
Sam looks around at me, her nose wrinkled. “You didn’t think that far ahead? Are you kidding me? Don’t—”
“No,” I say, exhausted before she’s even asked her question. “We don’t all plan every future step, Sam. I’m not exactly an analytical person, if you hadn’t noticed that already. I’m winging this just as much as you.”
She hmphs. “Why do this, then?”
“Do you mean this whole thing in general, or just following Grey?”
“Following Grey, obviously,” she says.
I take a moment to answer. “He’s sort of like the missing link—for me, at least. Like a black hole in what I know and understand about Lissa. If we can find anything from this—” I pause, take a breath. “Besides, you agreed to come along. Why?”
She shrugs so slightly I almost miss the rise and fall of her sharp shoulders. “Dunno.”
“You don’t know why you agreed?” I ask. She squirms at my tone, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt as she avoids my eyes.
“Seemed smart when you said it, yeah? I thought you had some genius robot plan.”
I watch her face, notice how her eyes flit down to her hands and back up to watch the lumpy black car before us. With her lips pursed so tightly together, she almost looks as if—
As if she’s not saying everything. But I can’t imagine what she would have to hide from me at this point, after she’s been so open with me. Unless she’s simply tense from being so close to Grey, a man she hates—possibly more than even me. What else could it be? I almost open my mouth to ask her what’s wrong, when she suddenly points ahead once more.
“Look! Maybe you were right.
“He’s not heading towards Lissa’s—” she coughs “—I mean, back to his house. He’s going somewhere else. That’s his way home,” she says, pointing at a lane branching off from the main road. “Wherever he’s going, it’s not there.”
“Well then,” I say, grinning at my partner-in-almost-crime, “guess we’re on a real investigation now.”
Her face lights up so much that I worry she might be about to explode. She spends the rest of the trip with wide eyes focused on Grey, her fingers digging into the seat fabric. With her body so tightly wound and her eyes near-black, she reminds me of a predator cat hunting its prey.
“This is it,” she says, as the auto-taxi pulls to a stop a block down from where Grey parks his own car.
“Where are we?” I ask, but she’s already kicked the door open and leapt out onto the footpath. Hot air swirls into the car as I follow her into the late summer afternoon. I feel as if I might melt in my clothes, and as the taxi leaves, I mourn the lost aircon.
“Look, he’s going in there,” Sam says, pointing out a three-story brick building with wide steps made of stone, steps that Grey climbs to the entrance. “It looks pretty normal, wherever this is.”
We creep closer to the building, which glows a warm gold in the light. A large bulletin board fills part of one wall, and as we approach notices become clear to us. Ballet for teens, or French Lessons Wednesday, or Do You Need A Babysitter? Great! I need Money!
“A community hall?” Sam asks, running her fingers along the glass covering the notices.
“Not much of a hall. But yeah, I’d say it’s some community place,” I say. “See anything on tonight that Grey could be at?”
She scans the board, tapping her fingers against the glass. “Not that I can see.”
“Damn.” I laugh. “Should’ve known it couldn’t be that easy.”
“Maybe it’s murder class, they wouldn’t put up signs for that,” Sam says, smirking my way.
She slaps my shoulder as she walks away from the board towards Grey’s car. “C’mon, Ersatz, time to do some investigating.”
I follow her, turning to gesture back at the building. “Aren’t we going to head inside and find out where he is?”
“Oh, you are. I’m breaking into his car.”
“Sam!” I grab her arm to pull her to a stop, my voice squeaking. “We can’t break into his car.”
“Why not? We already broke into his house,” she says, grinning at me.
“It’s not that different. Besides, you won’t be the criminal this time. All you have to do is go inside and see what you can find.”
“I’m surprised you’re giving me the easier task,” I say, after a moment.
“Do you know how to break into a car?” She watches me shake my head, her smirky smile still curving her lips. “Yeah, I thought not. Go, do your thing.”
“Fine,” I say. I reluctantly release her arm, and she shakes herself off as she turns back to the car. “Don’t get caught, Sam.”
“You too, Ersatz.”
I bristle at her refusal to use my name as I turn away, knowing this isn’t the time for another fight. My phone vibrates in my pocket, but the thought of dealing with whatever message I’ve gotten makes my head ache. Later, I tell myself. I’ll reply later.
Inside the building I find myself in a foyer of sorts, filled with cupboards and covered in art that was either done by talented toddlers, or novice adults. A paper sign hanging on one of the walls reads, in scribbled sharpie, Artificials Welcome. I can’t help but smile at the sight of the sign, at the thought of the well-meaning human who so desperately wanted us to know.
There’s nobody else here, in the entrance. Up the stairs I can hear the sound of drums, and down the corridor before me is the whispering of muffled voices. I decide to explore the ground level first, and head off towards the whispers with soft footsteps. This building feels warm, despite the cool, air conditioned temperature. Cosy and homely in a very human way. Artificials may be welcome here in theory, but I think most of us would know the moment we stepped foot in the door that this is a human place.
The whispers grow louder, becoming actual voices as I approach a wooden door with a frosted-glass window. I stand to the side of the door, not wanting to be seen as a living shape through the glass, and read the paper sign stuck to the outside of the door.
Well, that could certainly be where Grey is. If he had the self-awareness to attend a class like this. Through the door I hear a woman’s voice, low and calm in a motherly way. One of the facilitators, probably. Then, I hear a response, muffled so much that I can’t hear the words—
But the voice, somehow I know it’s him. Even through the door I can hear how hoarse he is, how coarse his words must be. It’s Grey, asking a question of some kind. The woman gives a short reply, then a chair scrapes against the ground and footsteps approach the door from the other side. A shadow fills the window, fractured into a thousand tiny pieces.
My breath catches. I nearly freeze with panic, my heart racing in my chest. Instead, I force myself forward, darting past the door and down the hall. I throw myself through the bathroom door and into one of the two tiny stalls, locking the flimsy door behind me. Sitting on the closed toilet seat, I close my eyes and try to calm my breathing. My fingertips tingle as they press against my face.
The door opens again, and heavy footsteps fill the room. I pull my feet up and quiet my breath as much as humanly possible. The man coughs, then walks in front of the stalls and stops. I lean slightly to peer out of the crack in the stall door.
It’s Grey, tall and terrifying. His dark hair curls messily, his hands clutch the edge of the bench so tightly his knuckles are white. Slowly, quietly, I lean away, worried he’ll catch a glimpse of my eyes in the mirror.
“Fuck,” he says to himself. His voice shakes with—anger? Sadness? Fear? He doesn’t say anything else, just stands and struggles to keep his breath under control while I do the same. Then, quietly, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
There’s a squeak as he turns on a tap, then the splash of water. He turns the tap off again, and leaves the room. The door swishes closed behind him, and the room goes dead silent. It takes a long time for me to feel safe enough to get to my feet again, my legs wobble beneath me as I make my way back into the hallway.
I look back at the toilet door. Unisex, of course, I think. When I glance down the hallway, it’s empty once more. Grey has either gone back into his class, or left entirely. I swallow, feeling the lump in my throat, and when I try to take a step forward, I instead sprint. Fear propels me, a panic so intense I can barely think.
I stumble out into the hot outside, the world spinning around me. Sam looks up at me from where she waits at the bottom of the stairs, her eyebrows flying up in shock.
“Allegra, you look—”
I choke something out, my stomach churning. Sam rushes towards me as I sway, and I take a step down towards her. My foot gives out, the horizon tilts. Everything blurs, something cracks, and the world goes black.
<— Chapter Ten | | Chapter Twelve —>