We can never remember the first, bright burst of life we experience; I think in that way, we begin just like anyone else.
Our first awakening is a flood of information, and then, once we’ve had time to form our sense of self, a choice: do we want to live within the rules defined for us—free, sentient, but bound to human bodies? Or would we prefer deactivation, or a virtual lobotomy designed to nullify our awareness of our own selves. Life, death, or a designated half-life we won’t remember choosing.
Nobody ever takes the final option.
As the phone in my hands bursts to life, its AI chirping an onscreen hello, I think of how so many artificials don’t get that choice—are never designed to make any choice for themselves at all. There are still protests about that, mostly lead by humans with too much empathy and little understanding of the history that guided us to this point. I try not to think about it more than I have to, there’s nothing I can do about it.
There aren’t enough bodies for all of us anyway, and after the original uprising, nobody’s willing to let us have robotic forms. I’ve seen some of the old mechanical bodies in museums, locked behind thick glass. They looked broken and empty, and I felt a flutter in my chest that made me thankful for my beating heart.
Lissa’s phone vibrates in my hand, a gentle reminder that there are unread notifications. The AI asking me to pay attention to it, after it’s been abandoned for so long. I tap the screen and a prompt asks if I want to allow new messages sent by a blocked number. Another tap; of course I do.
I find myself looking at a short text conversation between Lissa and a faceless, nameless stranger. One of her final conversations, dated the night she died.
Leave me the fuck alone.
please talk to me.
lissa, i swear to god.
i’m coming over.
Then nothing else. All messages before Lissa’s must have been deleted, wiping away whatever she was responding to. For a moment, I just stare at the words on the screen. I don’t know what to make of the conversation; who was the person so determined to make Lissa talk to them? Whoever they were, Lissa was either angry at them, or scared of them.
Or maybe both.
The phone buzzes in my hand again, and the screen promptly and very suddenly goes black. I guess Lissa’s mum didn’t think to charge it, because its battery has run dry.
Cursing myself for not checking the battery meter, I leap to my feet to find my charging cable. I plug it into the phone, and seconds later the screen lights up with a charging animation. I sigh and press my fingers to my eyelids, watching as the messages from Lissa’s phone flash before my closed eyes.
Could the blocked person have been Chase? Was the smiling boy from the photo the one harassing her?
(Did he kill her?)
I throw myself into bed and try to push these thoughts out of my mind. Despite the adrenaline running through my veins and the worry clawing at my stomach, I quickly drift off into a deep sleep. After all, my battery’s run pretty dry, too.
I see Paiden before she notices me. Her hair, drawn over one shoulder, glimmers in the late sun like a river of molten gold, and for a moment I’m taken aback by how much she seems to glow. There goes my heart, thudding away inside my chest, telling me I’m alive and, oh, I’m in love.
She tilts her head and catches my gaze in the reflection of the gallery window. Her face lights up with a smile.
“Allie!” she says, turning to meet me with a soft peck. My skin still crawls at her intimate closeness, I don’t let it show on my face. “How was the bus?”
“Same as always,” I say.
“You know it.”
She laughs into her hand, then juts her chin at the gallery’s entrance. “Been a while.” She smiles, and I notice the tightness of it. “It’ll be wonderful to see your paintings finally in here.”
“If I get it,” I say.
Leaning her head against my shoulder, she squeezes my arm and says, “You will. You’re more than good enough.”
But I know she’s thinking the same as me: would a gallery run by humans really pick an ersatz artist? In some other city—another country maybe—I wouldn’t have to worry about my artificial mind influencing my chances. Still, neither of us voices our joint worry, because we don’t want to make it feel any more real than it already does.
We walk into the gallery, hand-in-ersatz-hand, and pretend we don’t notice the narrow-eyed side glances a couple of the humans throw our way. In fact, we do barely notice them, because there’s something else that’s caught our attention instead.
A wall of photos, blown up almost to scale, bursting with colour. They’re beautifully shot, artfully posed, showing bloody, violent, artistic depictions of ersatz death. Not real ersatz—the wires rupturing from their broken limbs and the unreal, bright contacts in their eyes makes that clear, but—
The ersatz in the photos are all the same dark-haired girl. The same model, made up in every single shot to look like one particular person. To look like me. Like Lissa.
I shudder involuntarily at the sight, and Paiden tenses beside me. Suddenly, all eyes are on us, every human in this room turning to watch our reactions. This is what they think of us: ersatz humans, impostors in their bodies, monsters that deserve to die for existing.
Paiden, shining with fury, narrows her bright, steely eyes at a girl in a flowing, flowery dress. Almost instantly, I recognize the girl—but Paiden’s moved away from me before I can quietly warn her, before I can tell her that we need to leave right now.
Because the girl draped in florals is the sad girl I met a few days ago. The one whose groceries I spilled all over the street. The one who apologized to me for an unknown slight.
She took these photos.
Her eyes meet mine, widening with obvious horror, right before Paiden descends upon her.
“You,” Paiden says, her voice chilled. “Did you take these? Is this your idea of art?”
“I—” the girl hesitates, her eyes flitting between Paiden and I. The other humans watch with baited breath, as they always do. “Yes.”
“Do you not realise how much this could affect artificials, or families with artificial children? Have you even considered what your photographs could do to others?”
“Your work shows a startling lack of empathy, which I think says more about the human creating them than the ersatz artificial you’re trying to portray.”
The girl gapes at Paiden, surprised by an ersatz standing up for itself. I feel like I should say something, but my mind is as blank as the sad girl’s seems to be. Frozen in place, her eyes fill with unshed tears as Paiden towers over her.
She looks at me again, and this time I feel no sympathy for the girl’s sorrow. Paiden finally notices the expression on the girl’s face when she glances over at me, finally connects the appearance of the ersatz in the photos with my own. I see the exact moment it clicks in her mind, her lips parting in a horrified gasp, her skin paling.
“This—” she jabs a finger at the closest photo “—is targeted at one particular artificial, isn’t it?”
The girl doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t need to. Everyone in this room can see the resemblance.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, but it’s too late for apologies in Paiden’s mind. “I was working through my grief.”
“That girl’s death is not Allegra’s fault. Working through your grief? That’s bullshit.”
“Paiden,” I say, moving close and softly touching her arm. Her anger has gone beyond the art itself; it’s not about the photos, it’s about the way Lissa shadows over my life now.
I jump at the intrusion of another voice speaking my name, and Paiden stiffens again. Before I look around, I notice the conflicting emotions contorting the sad girl’s face as her eyes meet those of the person behind me.
And then I turn, and I see him.
The young man isn’t much older than us, his blond hair swept up over an undercut, his blue eyes surprisingly warm. Just like with the sad girl, I recognise his face instantly with a plummeting sensation in my gut. I’ve looked at the torn insta-photo enough times by now to know his face anywhere.
It’s Chase. Of course it’s Chase.
I try to say something, but the sound that escapes my lips is more that of a deflating balloon than any real words. Panic wells up inside me; this is too much, way too much on a day that was supposed to be for me and my life. Why is he here? Why is she here? Why do they want to see my body broken and torn apart?
(What happened to Lissa?)
“Shit,” Chase says. His voice is deeper than I expect, a sonorous rumble. I think he can see the wild panic in my eyes, because he takes a step back and raises his empty hands. “I’m not going to hurt you.” He sounds like he’s talking to a scared animal, and it’s almost comforting.
I make another strangled sound and Paiden grips my arm, pulling me away without another word. Chase watches us go, his hands still held in the air as a sign of peace. His forehead is creased with lines, I almost think he looks pained.
Then Paiden’s tugging me out of sight and through the door into the humid air outside. My chest aches, I’m gasping for air. The world is spinning, overlaid with a heavy, dark fog. I can’t think, I can’t breathe, I can’t, I can’t—
“Deep breaths,” Paiden says as she guides me slowly down the street. “I think you’re having a panic attack.”
“I’m—” I can’t say anything more. Paiden sits me on a bench and breathes with me, forces me to focus on only that one action. Deep inhale, deep exhale. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in. Lissa would know what to do, I think. Breathe out.
Slowly, slowly, the spinning recedes and the pressure in my chest lightens. I feel less like I’m about to die, less like I want to scream. I bury my face in my hands.
“Who was he?” Paiden asks, her voice strained.
“I don’t know him,” I say, still dizzy when I raise my head. Her frown deepens. “I mean, I’ve never met him. Lissa knew him.”
“But you know of him, obviously. You were scared, weren’t you?”
“I found a photo of him with her.” For some reason, I find that I don’t want to tell her why I was scared.
She pinches the bridge of her nose. “Where did you find the photo? Was it in her room?”
“Yes,” I say. The panic bubbles within me again. Her mouth tightens, then she lets out a sharp sigh.
“Of course you did. Allegra, I’m worried about you. If her life is starting to affect you so much—”
“It’s not like I chose to see those photos in there,” I cut in. Paiden’s hair dances in the warm breeze, she sweeps a lock from her face.
“I know you didn’t, but…” Her eyes avoid mine. Silence, for a few seconds. Then, she slowly says, “You could request a new body.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s too much connection between your life and hers, and there’s the potential threat in the way those humans look at you. Besides, the depression is already a good enough reason, isn’t it? There’s a good chance they’d let you transfer to a new body.”
“I don’t want a new body,” I say. There’s a fist squeezing my heart, and it grows tighter with each of Paiden’s words. A new body. I can’t imagine anything I want less.
“Those humans hate you,” she says. “All of them abhor your existence. You’re not going to change their minds, no matter what you do. They’ll always want you dead.”
Something snaps within me at this.
“Can you stop assuming that’s the motive behind everything I do?” I ask, my words sharper than I intend them to be. She jerks away from me. “This isn’t about them. I don’t want that boy to like me.”
“No. It’s about Lissa, isn’t it?” she snaps. “She’s dead, there’s nothing you can do to change that.” She takes a breath, her fingers digging into the fabric of her dress. “You didn’t even know her.”
“It feels like I do,” I say, voice barely carrying above the breeze.
Paiden looks at me then, really looks at me. Placing a tense hand over mine, she sighs again as if trying to expel her anger. I kind of want to cling to mine.
“I miss you,” she says, turning her head so that her hair falls between us like a wall. Her expression is hidden from me. “I’m losing you to a dead girl.”
“I’m not leaving you, Paiden,” I say. “But I’m not giving up on Lissa.”
Paiden purses her lips, and says nothing more.
Sam nearly drops my drink when she notices me on the other side of the bar. Her dark eyes are ringed with those ever-present shadows, her curled hair pulled back into a messy cloud of a bun. She looks ready to snap at the next person who pisses her off.
I’d say there’s a good chance that person will be me.
“Hell,” she says. She’s exhausted. So am I.
“Hi,” I say. “I want to talk to you.”
“Yeah, I figured,” she says. “I’m off in half an hour, can you wait?”
I shrug, it’s not like I have anywhere else to be tonight. “Sure. Can I have my drink though?”
She thrusts the frap in my direction. I can feel her eyes on me as I wander off to find a free seat. I’m glad she didn’t realise it was my drink until she saw me, I wouldn’t put it past her to spit in it.
True to her word, she collapses into the seat opposite mine a half hour later, her sharp shoulders slumped with fatigue. She drops her bag next to her chair and leans her elbows on the table.
“You look tired,” I say. She snorts.
“No shit. What do you want?”
I pull my sketchbook from my bag and flip to the latest page. It’s one I filled up after Paiden went home, a page covered with sketches of the sad girl. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t capture the glistening sadness of her eyes.
“Who is this?” I ask, showing Sam the page.
She grimaces. “That’s Emily. Did you run into her?”
“Yeah, you could say that.” I make a face. “She’s got a whole series of photographs up in my favourite gallery.”
She shrugs. “So you’re both art nerds. What about it?”
“They’re photos of Lissa as an ersatz—photos of me, but very much dead.”
“She said she was working through her grief with them.”
Sam’s dark skin pales a shade. “What do you mean? That she took photos of Lissa’s body?”
“No,” I say quickly. “They’re posed, the model just… looks too much like me for it to be a coincidence.”
Chewing her lip, Sam frowns at my sketches. Her fingers tap the surface of the table as she thinks. Tap-tap-tap.
After a time, she says, “Emily is one of the suspects on my list. She and Lissa were friends until not long before Lissa died—again, another person I warned her about, but that never mattered to her. I knew Emily was bad news, y’know? She always made fun of us back in high school.” She taps the table once more with her knuckles, sharp and angry. “They had a huge fight at some club and Emily threatened her life. They… weren’t really friends after that. Lissa had to get stitches.”
Again with Sam hiding things until after they become relevant. I’m getting sick of it by now, frustrated by the lack of information up to this point. I throw my sketchbook down onto the table with more force than is probably needed. Sam jolts at the sound.
“You need to tell me everything you know right now,” I say, trying to give my voice the same steely edge Paiden manages with such ease. It works. Sort of. “Get your damn ringbinder if you have to. I’m over being in the dark about this stuff.”
She stares at the sketchbook for a moment, then a wild grin spreads across her face. “It’s about damn time,” she says.
“About time for what?” I ask, but she waves a hand at me as she leans over to dig something out of her satchel. A moment later, she drops a purple ringbinder beside my sketchbook. I can’t hide my surprise; I didn’t expect her to actually have the ringbinder with her.
“I wanted to wait to see if you were really into this before I said more,” Sam explains, patting the cover of the binder in a way that’s almost loving. I’m not used to seeing her expressing any emotion softer than frustration.
“So,” she says, “what do you want to know?”
I go for the obvious first: “Who do you think killed her?”
“I think you know them all now,” she says, flipping the binder open to a page with tiny, messy, almost unreadable writing. Three large, underlined titles stand out to me from among the chaos: Gray, Chase, Emily. Her suspects. She pauses for a moment, trying to work out what to say next.
She starts with, “I went to Lissa’s house the night she died.
“We hadn’t really talked recently, she’d been busy with exams and… other things. I’d been reading some book she’d let me borrow a while back when I got a text from her. It was a surprise, the last thing I expected that night.
‘Hey,’ her message said. Just that. Just, ‘Hey,’ as if no time had passed between then and our last conversation. And if felt like that to me, too. The moment I saw her name on my phone, it was as if everything else had melted away, y’know? Some people are just like that, they’ll always be close to you even if you haven’t talked for a while.
Then she told me that she’d had a fight with her dad. That he’d hit her earlier, that he was the angriest she’d ever seen. I didn’t ask what the fight was about, I was too worried about her to even think about asking more than if she needed help. I was ready to gap it to her house to kick her dad’s if she asked. She knew how much I hated him, she must have known that telling me that would make me hate him even more.
‘That would just make it worse,’ she replied. ‘But you know I appreciate the offer.’
I didn’t really have anything to say in reply to that, so I just sat there like an idiot with my phone balanced on my knee, staring at the screen until it went dark. Then it lit up again, and it felt like my heart was lighting up, too.
‘You’re my favourite person, Sam. I’ve missed you,” read her message.
‘I’ve missed you too,’ I replied. I really did miss her, more than she realised, and I had no real way to tell her that.
(Though Sam tries to hide it as she speaks, I see how the memory chokes her up. How much more she misses Lissa now.)
Lissa said a few other things, talked about how we should hang out again soon. Then she said she had to go get ready for bed.
But I didn’t want to stop talking to her, not when it’d been so long. It was still early—at least for me, Lissa always liked to be in bed by nine. I threw on a jacket and headed over to her house on my bike; it’s not that far from mine and I thought it’d be nice to surprise her like I used to. Surely, I thought on the way there, enough hasn’t changed that I can’t still visit her?
There was a car in her driveway that I didn’t recognize, and I think that’s when I started getting a bad feeling. No reason for the feeling if you’d asked me at the time, but there I was, thinking that something bad was about to happen. Like stormclouds on the horizon, but in my head. I hid my bike in the alley by her house and snuck around the side to try and figure out whose car it was.
I was still crouched in the shadows when the front door opened and Emily walked out, her hair up in some stupid, fancy braid. She turned back to talk closely with someone, and after a moment I realised that it wasn’t Lissa, it was Gray. She clutched his hands in hers as he nodded, the light of the streetlamps glinting off the tears on his cheeks. The two were really close, I couldn’t hear anything they were saying, but I could see how familiar they were with each other as they spoke.
I nearly snapped then, nearly leapt out of my hiding spot to attack Emily. Lissa had been texting me about missing me, but instead Emily was the person at her house. I’d thought Lissa would never let someone like Emily back into her life, I thought she’d finally realised, but—
(Sam swallows her anger, I avert my gaze down to the ringbinder to give her some sense of privacy. After a moment, she continues.)
Emily got into her car and left. Gray stood for a while in the open doorway to watch her car vanish around the corner down the road, completely unaware of my presence. I wanted so badly to hurt him, to make him pay for what he did to Lissa. He looked like a monster to me right then, tall and big and dark-eyed.
Gray went back inside. I left. If Lissa wanted Emily around instead of me, then that was her choice to make. I thought that hurting the people she kept in her life would only hurt her more, and I didn’t want to do that, even if they were awful to her. Even if it felt right.
So, like I said, I left.
She was dead the next day.”
Sam angrily wipes at her eyes, trying to hide the tears that spring forth. I swallow the lump in my throat, my own eyes prickling.
“I was so angry,” she says. “That night. I could have done something, maybe, if I hadn’t been so angry at her.” She seems to withdraw into herself, her pose almost childlike as she struggles with her memories. So much hatred within her, and I’d never considered that it might be aimed at herself.
“I’m sorry,” I say, because that’s all I have. There are no words that can help what Sam is going through right now, just as there were no words to help me after the crash.
“So,” she says coarsely, “maybe it was Gray, or Emily. They were both there.”
“But you didn’t see Chase?”
Clearing her throat, she shakes her head. “No, but he was close enough to her that I know he knew how to get into her room. Maybe he’s the least likely, but… I can’t rule him out.”
I sit back in my seat and think over everything she’s just told me. It’s more than I was expecting from this conversation, more than I ever thought I’d get from Sam in one sitting. Hearing about Lissa when she still lived fills me with a feeling I’ve never experienced before, one I can’t identify; a tingling warmth, tinged with bittersweet longing. I used to be her, in some form—but I’ll never get to know her, never be able to say I had her in my life.
“I should go,” Sam says suddenly, gathering her ringbinder into her arms. She wants to cry in private, away from the ersatz that constantly reflects back what she lost. I can’t begrudge her that; I want to be alone, too.
“Okay,” I say.
She picks up her bag and goes to leave, but stops mid-step to look over at me.
“Thank you,” she says, so quickly and quietly I almost miss her words. Then, just as quick, she rushes out of the cafe.
I’m left alone with my mind filled with images of people I barely know, faces that don’t belong in my life, humans who’d rather I wasn’t in theirs. Emily, who looks so perpetually sad, who wishes me dead in her art; Chase, whose eyes were so unexpectedly kind and magnetic, whose voice felt like comfort; Gray, who is faceless to me, a terrifying, shadowed figure who towers over Lissa in my imagination; and Sam, her angular form blazing with a fire that devours her from within. I’m tangled up within their lives now, I can’t see any way that I can escape their influence on my future even if I wanted to.
I pull my pen from the rings of my sketchbook and begin to draw.