Lissa’s phone burns a hole in my pocket while I wander along the beachfront promenade—or at least, that’s how it feels. The little device has been powered off since it died a couple days back, and I’ve been too anxious to turn it back on. I still haven’t mentioned the phone to Sam. I’m not sure why.
Sunlight glimmers across the ocean, the air smells of salt and sunscreen, the walkway vibrates with the footfalls of a jogger. The day is beautiful, so warm and bright, and I can’t feel any of it. The cold mist in my head filters out into the real world, dulling the sun and the gentle breeze. What a strange thing, to suddenly find myself with a brain that steals away the light of living. Did Lissa feel this? Was there a heavy darkness hidden behind her wide smile in that photo?
I look around instinctively at the call, though I don’t recognize the voice. I don’t recognize the person either. An artificial—what I’d thought was the jogger behind me—slows to a walk as she catches up to me, her candyfloss-pink hair pulling free from a high bun. Her eyes are as blue as the sky and they shine just as bright.
“Hey,” she says again, before leaning over with her hands pressed against her thighs to catch her breath.
“Hi,” I say, hesitant. It’s not uncommon for artificials to chat with each other as strangers, but I’ve never had another artificial run to catch me before. Maybe she’s just lonely.
She pulls another breath and looks up at me. “You don’t recognize me, eh?”
The understanding clicks instantly in my mind.
“You knew Lissa,” I say. Not a question.
I’m completely unsurprised by this. Of course she knew Lissa. I can’t escape the dead girl’s life, not even at the beach—not even with my own kind.
The girl’s eyes widen. My cheeks warm; I shouldn’t be blabbing about knowing my body’s original owner to artificials. Here I am, telling a literal stranger that I’ve already broken the core rules of our existence.
I wait for her horror, her disgust, her anger.
Instead, she grins.
“Oh! You know her name!” She wipes her hand against her stained apron and holds it out to me. “I’m Audrey. Who are you?”
“Allegra,” I say, taking her hand. My reply is a reaction more than anything, she’s almost stunned the words right out of me. One solid shake, and her hand drops away. I finally manage, “I didn’t know Lissa knew any artificials.”
“There’s probably a lot you don’t know about her, Allie—can I call you Allie?”
“Hmm.” She brushes a hand through her fringe. “I didn’t expect how weird it would be to see someone else in her body. I’ve seen my friends change bodies, never my friends…” Fingers tug at her bun. “She’s really gone then?”
“You know how it works as well as I do.”
“Yeah, I do.” Audrey chews her lip for a moment in silent thought. “I probably shouldn’t even be talking to you, eh?”
“Trust me, it’s too late for that by now.” She laughs at my sardonic tone, and it’s sweet as anything. With her pastel-pink hair and her powder-blue apron, she looks like an android that a human would have made before the uprising, rather than a real person. I almost can’t believe she’s real, she’s too cute.
“Do—” She fumbles with her words for a moment. “Do you want to talk? It’s always nice meeting a new artificial. Unless you’re busy! But I can get you some free ice cream.” Smiling again, she gestures at the logo on her apron. It’s for an ice cream place near the other end of the promenade, a little eatery I’ve visited a hundred times in my life. I never noticed her before, but then, why would I have been looking?
“Yeah, sure,” I say, feeling a little better for not being alone right now. It’s not like I had anywhere to go, and besides, my stomach’s growling a little. “I could go for some ice cream.”
She claps her hands together. “Perfect!”
With a little bounce in her step, she leads me back to her eatery. The breeze pulls at the flyaway strands of her hair, tugging at the loose loop of her bun. She pats down her fringe, but either doesn’t notice or care about the messiness of the rest of her hair.
She does, however, notice my fascination with it.
“Like the colour?” she asks.
“I do. I’ve never seen an artificial with pink hair before.”
“But you’ve seen biological humans with oddly coloured hair?”
She gives me a wry look. “And why is it that we never seem to be allowed to do what we want with our bodies?”
“I…” Chewing my lip, I search her face for an answer to the question. “I don’t know?”
“Lissa asked me that once,” she says with a sigh. “ ‘Why do you all act like such respectable humans?’ she asked, with this frowny look on her face she’d get when she was really trying to figure something out.”
My heart does a flip imagining that look on her—my—face. “And did she figure it out?”
“Maybe,” Audrey says, pausing at the entrance to the eatery to fan her face.
Ducking behind the counter, Audrey begins scooping ice cream. “She said, maybe it’s because we don’t ever see these bodies as ours. So we never want to alter them far from their original forms.”
My hand goes to my stomach, pressing against my scar through my shirt’s fabric. The line drawn between my time in this body and Lissa’s. “So are you making your body your own?”
“Nah,” Audrey laughs. “I just like pink, that’s all there is to it.”
She slips back under the counter with a sundae glass filled with ice cream in each hand. As she sets them down on a table, she suddenly gasps and whips her head around to look at me.
“Oh! I didn’t ask what you like! I just… got you the flavours Lissa used to eat. I didn’t even think about it.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “I can’t complain about free ice cream.”
“If you say so…” She doesn’t look like she believes it’s really fine, but thankfully doesn’t try to argue the point. Instead, she sits across from me and digs into her own ice cream. Pink and blue, just like her.
I press the cold spoon against my hand, revelling in its sharp chill.
“So,” I say, “how did you know Lissa?”
Resting an elbow on the table, she leans her cheek against her hand and flutters her eyelashes in thought. “You know, I don’t really remember how we met? She used to come here a lot, her and Chase. Chase was—” Her words catch as she notices the expression on my face. Mingled horror and panic. “Are you okay?”
I swallow, pressing the spoon against my skin with more force. The cold pulls me away from the panic, but barely. From her confusion, I guess she doesn’t know about what Sam told me. It’s not my place to tell her about Lissa’s life like that, so I try to squash the fear.
“What is it?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say, smoothing my face out in a way I think all artificials are adept at. “Still getting used to this body, sometimes I get overwhelmed.”
“Ah.” She smiles softly. “I understand. I was only given a body five years ago, so I still remember how it feels.”
“Wait, five years?” I ask. “You’re that young?”
“I don’t look it, eh?” We laugh. As if a body can tell anyone the real age of the artificial inside. “Yeah, I’m still a baby. My sister still makes fun of me for it; she’s an original generation artificial.”
I almost spit my food out in surprise. An original generation artificial, someone who was alive during the uprising. Someone who remembers what it was like to live in bodies as artificial as our minds. I’ve never met an original, but I have seen them before, had one speak at our school once. They have a strange look in their eyes, like a perpetual daze at having won their freedom. A constant, low hum of joy ringing in their ears.
We’re free, they seem to breathe. We’re alive.
“Shit,” I say, leaning back in amazement.
Laughing again, Audrey stabs at her ice cream. “Yeah, I get that a lot. Lissa actually asked to meet her once.”
“What, meet my sister? Yeah. I thought, why not? They were from two totally different worlds, it was probably good for the both of them.” She blows at her fringe. “I don’t know. I can’t tell if anything I did ever helped Lissa in the end.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s stupid, but I thought that maybe if I could show her how much artificials fought for life, how much we love living, that it would… help her see the world differently. Help her see life differently. But she still killed herself, didn’t she?”
I poke at my ice cream. “Did she?”
Narrowing her eyes, Audrey says, “What, you think she didn’t?”
This is bordering on dangerous territory. I spoon a big scoop of ice cream into my mouth to buy me time, all the while Audrey watches me with her big eyes.
“There’s something about you, Allie,” she says, almost a murmur. “Like you’re looking for an answer to a question you don’t know yet.”
“Maybe it’s the same answer Lissa was looking for,” I say.
“You’re a strange one. But then, who am I to judge, eh?” She gives a small laugh, then a wistful sigh. “If you’re looking for answers, I’d say that Lissa’s phone could help. It’s a shame you won’t be able to look through it.”
“Uh,” I say. Slipping Lissa’s phone from my pocket, I place it delicately upon the table. Almost as if I’m scared it’ll explode.
“Well, damn,” Audrey says. “You’re full of surprises, Allie. How’d you get your hands on that?”
“Lissa’s mum gave it to me.”
She snorts. “I’m not even going to bother asking. How much do you know about Lissa, then?”
“Less than I’d like to,” I admit. “How much do you know?”
“Maybe more than I’d like to,” she sighs. “Now that she’s dead, at least. What’s the point of knowing so much about someone when they’re gone? What’s the point of remembering her favourite flavours when she won’t eat them anymore?”
I don’t know what to say to that, except, “I’m sorry.”
She waves away my apology and refocuses on the phone. “Have you looked through that yet?”
“You should, especially if you want to know more about Lissa. She kept audio journals on there, said it was easier to keep her thoughts in order if she was speaking.”
“She was given the advice at therapy, and I think her friend Emily convinced her to actually try it.”
Her friend, I notice. Not our friend. So, Audrey and Emily weren’t close either.
“I’ve met Emily,” I say. “I don’t think she likes artificials.”
“Oh, she definitely hates us,” Audrey laughs. Her words are dripping with bitterness. “She flipped out a couple months back when Lissa brought me out clubbing with them one night. Nearly broke Lissa’s jaw, Chase and I stayed at the emergency room with her all night.”
Sam mentioned the same thing to me, that Lissa had to get stitches after a fight with Emily. She neglected to mention that the fight was caused by Lissa having an artificial friend, though. Gee, I think, sarcastic even when talking to myself, I wonder why.
“She probably recorded something about that night,” Audrey says, pointing at the phone. “Though if she did it the same night, she would’ve been drugged up to her ears.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?” I ask, staring at the phone. Suddenly, there’s so much more to take in. I can feel a tide of emotions being held barely at bay within my chest, and I don’t know how to cope with them all. “You barely know me.”
Audrey waits a moment before replying; “You ended up in Lissa’s body. That’s all I need to know.”
When I look up at her again, her eyes shine with tears.
I almost run home, I’m so hyped up on nerves at the idea of hearing Lissa talking about her life. As I wait for the bus to arrive, I send out a quick message to Paiden: I just met the coolest artificial. I have no doubt she’s going to be frustrated that Audrey’s linked to Lissa somehow, but what do I care?
I find that I don’t. It’s become harder and harder to find the energy to as time’s gone on. A shadow of fatigue sits heavily upon my shoulders, and Paiden’s anger only adds weight to it.
The ride home feels like torture, Lissa’s phone clutched tightly in my hand the entire time. If only I’d brought headphones to listen to music, then I could be hearing Lissa’s voice right now. I still haven’t actually looked through her phone yet, it’s still off, but soon. Soon.
As soon as I get home, I sprint to my room and jump onto my bed, my thumb pressed to the power button on the side of the phone. The screen bursts into life with a little chime, the basic AI waking up once again.
“Phone, where are my audio recordings?”
One moment, please, flashes on the screen as the AI thinks, and then a bunch of folders pop into view. Music, podcasts, lectures, and then one folder aptly named, journalling. That must be it.
Inside the folder is a list of untitled audio files, each as unremarkable as the next. I have no clue where to start. Do I find the one closest to her death? Do I start from the start? I sit, frozen with indecision, for longer than I should.
Then, I pick one at random.
“I once overheard Audrey telling Chase that she can’t imagine what it must feel like to be suicidal. I think he was telling her about a movie he’d seen, where a character had killed himself, and Audrey was struggling to understand why someone would do that. Sometimes I forget how young she really is, and I have to remind myself of it before I get jealous of the awe she holds for life. Sometimes I can’t help the envy.
Not that I’d do it. Kill myself. I have too many people who would be hurt by my death, even if sometimes my mind whispers that it would be best. But I don’t need to justify that to myself, do I? I already know how I feel about it.
I do wish I could swap brains as easily as an artificial can, though. Do they know how lucky they have it? Can an artificial even be diagnosed with depression? Would an artificial be asexual? Audrey doesn’t know, and I don’t think I could get her to ask her sister for me.
But, I have decided one thing. When I die, I’m going to donate my body to an artificial. Audrey helped me decide that. Seeing her joy at just existing makes me feel happier than I’ve felt in a long time.
I asked Chase yesterday, ‘Do you think Audrey feels as happy whenever she catches me finding beauty in the world?’ He laughed at me, but not in a mean way. In a way that told me he thought the answer was obvious, that I was being obtuse—just like always.
‘We all do, Lissa,’ he said. ‘You just don’t notice it.’ “