My alarm shocks me awake with fire in my chest, the echoes of a dream filled with anger lingering upon my eyelashes. I swipe a finger against my phone, sweeping the alarm away, and stare up at my ceiling with sleep-blurry vision.
Pressing the palms of my hands against my eyes, I remember the words Paiden spoke to me in my dream, stolen from my real life: “The humans aren’t going to accept you anymore.” At the time, I let the jab roll off of me. In my dream I was furious, lit ablaze by my anger at her and the presumption that everything I do is to become more human.
(But it is, isn’t it?)
Whether my anger is real, or just the remnants of my dream doesn’t matter. My phone’s already in my hands and I’m halfway through typing out a naive, pissed-off rebuttal message to Paiden when it vibrates, Unknown Caller flashing up in front of my words.
Unknown? It can only be Sam. For one, two heartbeats, I consider tossing my phone across my room and leaving Sam to my voicemail. I could switch numbers, change my bus route, spend the rest of my life avoiding her so I don’t have to think about any of this ever again.
My thumb hits answer. I hold the phone up to my ear.
“Yeah?” I croak, the word barely audible. I clear my throat and try again. “Hello?”
“Didn’t think you’d actually answer.” Sam’s rough voice is unmistakable, the derision colouring her words already far more familiar than I’d like.
“Neither did I.”
Her bark of a laugh crackles over the line. “Guess we’re on the same page then.”
“What do you want?” I ask, rubbing my free hand over my closed eyes.
“I thought I’d made that pretty clear.”
“No, I—” I groan, though it comes out as more of a frustrated gurgle. For a moment, there’s pure silence between us. Not even a breath on her end, then;
“She used to make that exact sound,” Sam says, her words so soft I barely catch them. A sharp inhale. “What do you want to know?”
“Why can’t you break into her house? What do you need me for?”
“I’ve always been told to never trust a bot that asks ‘why’,” Sam says.
“I’m not a bot.” Ugh. “Look, if you’re going to be—”
“No, no. Okay.” She grumbles something under her breath that sounds awfully like sensitive ersatz, except ruder. “You’re in her body, right? So if you look around her room, maybe you’ll, you know, remember something. Maybe it’ll trigger something that can help me.”
“That’s not—” I can’t help but laugh. Classic human ignorance. “We don’t have our body’s memories stored anywhere. They’re totally wiped. Me seeing her room isn’t going to spark anything useful.”
“But you remember her depression,” she argues. I don’t bother asking how she knows I’m struggling with Lissa’s illness, because of course she’s recognized it in me; Sam wasn’t lying when she said she knows my body better than I.
“That’s not memories, not really. It’s chemical, part of how her—my brain is built.”
“You remember how to walk.”
“That’s…” A sigh. It’s too early for this. “That’s a different part of memory. I know it’s a common misconception that a body’s memories are never really gone, but they are. There’s nothing left of Lissa’s memories or personality.”
“But…” She hesitates, her voice sticking like a broken bot. “Didn’t you recognize me?”
I wish I couldn’t hear the hope in her words, or that I didn’t understand the real question she’s asking: didn’t Lissa love her so much she couldn’t possibly forget Sam’s face, even in death?
Like I said, that’s not how it works.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but no. I remembered you from the hospital. There was no recognition before that.”
“Well,” Sam says after a long moment. “That’s shit.”
“So I guess you don’t really want my help after all?” I ask, half hopeful, half scared of suddenly losing my new purpose.
“No,” she says. “I need you.”
Those three words, spat out by someone who hates me to my human-made core, are all I need. What does Paiden know? This girl needs me. That’s more than I’ve ever had.
“Even if you can’t remember things—which, you know, I don’t really believe—you’ve got an ersatz brain. You’ll probably pick up things I can’t, right?”
“Uh, maybe.” I’m not entirely sure what she means by ersatz brain, but I imagine it’s her believing more half-truths about us. We’re more perceptive and have better memory to a point, but our brains are still organic, still human. Now we’re mostly biological, the speeds our ancestors thought at aren’t achievable for us anymore. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.
“Besides, if I get caught breaking into her house I’m gonna be in some real deep shit. If that happens, there’s no way I’ll be able to keep doing this. You’re an ersatz, they’d go way easier on you than on me.”
I think of the man that crashed his car into Paiden’s, the man who barely got a slap on the wrist for destroying my body. Things didn’t exactly go easier for me then.
“So I’m your meat shield.”
“Yeah. So what? Nobody’s going to get caught. I know her parents’ routine, they’ll both be busy at work when you’re there. Plus, I know how to get in without breaking anything. You’ll be in and out before anyone knows better.” She sounds so sure of herself, so much so that I almost forget my doubts. This was something she planned for herself before I came along, there’s no way she’d have put herself in any real danger.
“Okay, if you say so,” I say, not entirely feeling as if it’s me saying the words. “When are you wanting to do this?”
I nearly choke on my own surprised breath. “Today? Are you kidding?” I can’t believe her—except actually, I can.
“I don’t want to wait. What does it matter to you? You got something better to do with yourself?”
My mind conjures up an image of Paiden’s disapproving face; her eyes narrowed, her dark brows knitted together, her lips pursed together in a pout that warns of a cold rebuke. I hear her words again, feel the fire ignited by my dream. I’ve been filled with nothing but emptiness for the last weeks, this heated anger is something new, something alive. It makes me want to get out of bed for once, reminds me of the sharpness of emotion. How could I have forgotten so quickly?
“Yeah, fine. Today, then.” This is the first time I’ve made a decision based on spite; it tastes sweet, almost human.
“I’ll text you where to meet,” she says. I can’t tell if she sounds angry or excited, and I’m not sure I want to know which is the truth. “See you later, ersatz.”
“Bye, human,” I say, but the low, long tone of being hung up on pulsates in my ear before I’ve finished speaking. It doesn’t matter, human isn’t much of an insult. They chose that name for themselves, nobody gave it to them.
I don’t expect my sister to call out to me before I can leave the house, and yet;
Looking up from my half-tied shoelaces, I find her standing at the lounge doorway, her arms at her side like she doesn’t know what to do with them. Like a robot.
“How are you doing?” She looks as uncomfortable as I feel at being asked the question. Her eyes barely flicker from my face as she awaits my reply.
“I’m fine,” I say, ducking my face down ostensibly to finish tying my shoes, but also to hide my expression from her analysing gaze. I don’t want her to know how much that simple question affects me.
“I don’t think you are,” she says. “Paiden’s worried about you.”
Of course. Paiden. To think Addison noticed my dark mood without someone else pointing it out to her. I guess Paiden wasn’t as okay with our conversation yesterday as she let me think if she’s calling up my sister. Addison seems to notice how I’ve reacted to her words—and I’d hope she would, since I’ve suddenly frozen. She clears her throat.
“Do you want to go to therapy? Lauren suggested it might help, given your body’s—” she pauses, struggling to find a word that doesn’t scare her “—condition.”
“No, I don’t need it,” I say, before quickly standing and pulling the front door open. “I’ve got to go. I’ll see you later.”
“Oh,” Addison says, her tone almost sad. “Okay. Let’s have dinner together tonight?”
“Sure,” I say. I give her a quick wave and a fake smile before ducking outside, shutting the door behind me. With a sigh that empties my whole body, I lower my sunglasses over my eyes and step into the blazing sunlight. The walk to the bus, the ride to Lissa’s neighbourhood, every leg of the journey I find myself not thinking about Lissa, or Sam, or Paiden. My mind can’t stop wondering about dinner with Addison. My sister, or whatever equates a sister for someone like me. Except we’ve never really acted familial, though not for lack of trying. After ten years or so, her inability to let go of her innate artificiality and my desire to escape it kind of drove us apart. Some days I really envy Paiden’s relationship with her fathers; I’ve always stared out at happy families through bus windows and felt a deep-seated pang within my chest.
Dinner. It’ll be nice. I hope.
The bus lets me off near a small park with grass trimmed so neat I find it hard to believe the stuff isn’t artificial. Bees zip through the air from flower to blooming flower, the blossoms filling the air with conflicting, sweet scents. White houses press in against the park from three sides, their boundaries marked by sharp-edged hedges, and a neat, little playground with extra padding sits on the opposite corner to the bus stop. Spinning in slow circles on a swing is Sam, her angular shoulders stiffening as she notices my approach.
She slides from the swing and steps up to me, her fingers pulling at the scarf I’ve wrapped around my head to hide my face as much as I can.
“You look like some try-hard celebrity like that,” she says, nose crinkling.
“Would you rather I prance around Lissa’s old neighbourhood more obviously?”
Snorting, she drops her hand. “I guess I should give you credit for thinking about that. I like your glasses.”
“Thanks,” I say, cautious at her compliment.
“They’re good for hiding your ersatz eyes.” There it is. I knew better than to think she’d be nice to me. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
“Is there anything in particular I should be looking for?” I ask, stepping quickly to walk beside her. “A murder weapon, perhaps?”
“What? The pills?” She hmmms. “Maybe, but I don’t think you’ll find those in her room.”
“Why wouldn’t they be in her room?”
“Because they weren’t hers,” she says, her tone of voice clearly saying, obviously. “Just look for anything out of place, I guess. You’re good at that stuff, right?”
I swat at a fly buzzing near my face. “What stuff?”
“Like analysis? I don’t know!” Swerving to face me, she jabs a finger into my chest. “I’m not sure I’d be able to find anything more than you, okay, ersatz? I haven’t been in her room for a few months at least, so I know about as much as you when it comes to this.”
This is beginning to feel like an exponentially more terrible idea as we get closer to actually acting on it. But Sam is here in front of me, her distress flaring out from beneath her frustration. Backing out doesn’t seem like the easiest option open to me right now.
“You’re sure her parents aren’t home?” I ask.
“I’m positive. I wouldn’t risk you running into her dad. Guy’s got… issues.” She makes a face, her mouth tight from remembering something. I find myself not wanting to ask what she means by issues.
She gestures at me to follow her and ducks down a small walkway that leads into blissful shade. Sunlit leaves rustle softly overhead as Sam ducks through an opening in a hedge. I glance around quickly, then follow her through. Twigs grasp at my clothes and my hair, something scratches my face lightly.
On the other side is a slightly overgrown lawn curving around the side of another white house, one that boasts of enough money to afford a kitchen with island benches. Not that I can see the kitchen, but it just feels like one of those houses. Sam leads me around to the back, where a large tree butts up against part of the house.
She points up at a window just above the tree and my stomach sinks. I’ve seen enough shows to know what she’s thinking.
I ask the question so she doesn’t have to. “You want me to climb up there, don’t you?”
“Lissa’s window latch has been broken for years, but she never told her parents so she could get back in when she forgot her keys. It’s the only way in.”
I groan. “Really?”
“Yeah, she forgot her keys all the time,” she says. I roll my eyes.
“I mean, you’re really serious?”
“Oh.” She pulls at a hair-tie on her wrist. “Yes.”
“This is a terrible idea,” I say, glancing at her sideways. She shrugs, her eyes on the window.
“It’s the best idea I’ve got.” Wiping sweat from her brow, she laughs. “Besides, you agreed to it.”
“I’m beginning to regret that.”
Really, the solution being something so terribly stereotypical makes the decision to grip the tree trunk and pull myself into its branches so much easier. It’s a fantasy, a dream, right? How on Earth can this be real? I allow myself to disconnect just a little from the rough bark beneath my hands and my heart thd-thd-thding against my ribs. As if it’s not me doing this, but someone else.
“Don’t fall,” Sam whisper-calls. I can’t tell if she’s being sincere, but I seriously doubt it.
The branches of the tree are well-spaced for climbing and I scale it fast, though looking down makes the world spin. I wonder how much it would hurt to fall; would it kill me?
Don’t, I think, jerking my mind away from that thought spiral. I’d probably just break a leg anyway.
Sam’s right about the latch, it flips open easily when I tug the window. Good thing nobody ever tried to break into this place, I guess. The window slides up and clicks into place, lace curtains fluttering in the sudden breeze. I slip through, pushing through the curtains into a dead girl’s room.
I set my sunglasses on my forehead and look around. It’s nothing special; a cute room, albeit messy, with fairy lights hung over a bed made so neatly it must’ve been done by a parent. What young adult tucks sheets? Only artificial ones. There’s a dresser topped with photo frames and a pile of books, a desk with medical notebooks stacked neatly beside open notepads, an empty laundry hamper, a wire bookcase filled haphazardly with more books upon which an insta-film camera hangs from its strap, and a closet door unable to close because of the jacket hung over its corner.
I move to the desk, which seems like the smartest place to start given the likelihood of her own writing being there. Which it is: the open notebooks are filled with looping handwriting marked with highlighter and sticky-notes. I pick up the top book and flip through, but it’s all medical stuff, probably notes taken from her textbooks. A med student then, I assume.
One that dates her notes, in fact. The last entry is from exam time—a period of time I remember well thanks to Paiden’s frantic, middle-of-the-night phone calls panicking about failure. The page after that is torn out, but her bin is empty. Probably last-minute exam prep she didn’t need once it was done.
I move on, searching through her desk drawers for anything. A bunch of pens branded with our city’s biggest university, a phone charger but no phone, and—
The bottle rolls to the front of the drawer and slams against the wood heavily, drink sloshing around inside.
“Rum?” I mutter to myself, raising the bottle to inspect it. I unscrew the lid and take a sniff. Definitely rum, two-thirds empty. Not promising for Sam if Lissa was secretly hoarding alcohol, given its assistance in her death. Then again, one bottle isn’t really proof of hoarding.
Another empty bottle, hidden beneath her bed, adds to the total. Did nobody clean her room when she died? I realise with a shock that I don’t know the appropriate steps to take with someone’s space when they die, it’s never something I’ve had to think about. Perhaps leaving things as they are is a coping mechanism for human parents.
I place the empty bottle back under the bed and move around the bed to the closet. The jacket on the door is a floral letterman-type thing, kind of retro, with big pockets and elbow patches. I reach into the pockets out of curiosity—it’s not often you see any that big on feminine clothing. Humans can make sentient AI, but apparently they still can’t put decent pockets on half their clothes. My fingers brush something crumpled, and I grasp at it, wondering if it’ll be the torn page from the notebook.
Two balled halves of a square insta-photo fall into my palm. I smooth them out and hold them together. A familiar face stares out at me from the photo: my own face, though worn differently to what I see in the mirror. Lissa grinning widely for a selfie, a tall, blond boy smiling at her side, his arm around her shoulders. The photo’s been torn between the two of them, splitting their photographic lives apart forever. Whoever he is, he must’ve done something to piss Lissa off.
I slip the photo pieces into my shorts’ flimsy excuse for a pocket right as my phone vibrates on the desk. As I walk over to it, I see the screen lit up with a call from Sam.
I’m reaching for the phone when I hear the footsteps, the creak of the floorboards outside Lissa’s room. Holding my breath, I freeze, praying desperately that whoever’s out there won’t open the door. I remember the way Sam said issues and a cold burst of fear runs through my veins. I know what human men can do when they’re angry—all artificials do. It’s our history.
My phone stills as the call ends and a message flashes up on the screen: I was wrong. Get out.
There’s no more movement from outside the door, so I grab my phone and quickly move to the window. I swing a leg over the sill and—
The door opens. Someone gasps loudly, glass smashes against the floor behind me.
I close my eyes and inhale, waiting for the heavy footsteps, for furious human hands to slam into me and tear me apart.
But they don’t come. All I can hear are shaky breaths, almost echoing my own.
Opening my eyes to the sunlight outside, I bring my leg back down to the ground and slowly turn around, my hands in the air. A human stares at me with wide eyes, tears streaming down their face, a shattered glass at their feet.
Not Lissa’s father, but her mother. A short woman with dark, curling hair so similar to mine it’s almost like looking in a mirror. She chokes back a sob as our eyes meet, as she takes in my face and understands that she’s not just imagining her dead daughter standing before her.
“I’m not her,” I say, choking on the words.
She doesn’t seem to register what I say, because before I know it she’s sweeping me up in her arms and pulling me into a tight embrace. I’m so caught by surprise that I instinctively wrap my arms around her back.
For a long moment, I let her pretend I am her daughter returned to her.
(And for just a moment, I pretend I am, too.)