By Eva Buergler
My AI was so out of sync that I shut her off out of embarrassment, in an act of mercy, like being smothered in your sleep. It was always uncanny, to watch your AI talk. Like seeing the split second between your eyelids closing on screen and the darkness when you blinked. Being alone in the room without her is not worse, but not better either. My phone screen winks on, alerting me to the same message it did two minutes ago.
I swing my phone to the scant two inches of space above my face and stare into the blue light. The notification stays where it was, “@Lovely_Lydia wants to chat. Say hi!” I swipe the notification away and turn my phone off and on again. Lydia and I stare up at me. Black ringlets of hair fanned out from her face, her smile proudly showing off the gap in her teeth she liked to stick her tongue through as best she could. Her freckles scattered across her face. There were others in the picture but we were the only two people I cared about. I should have felt sick to my stomach to think that, but it was true. I was only friends with Lydia’s friends for the same reason why they were friends with me; it seemed to make Lydia happy, to collect us.
The room darkens, the person in the room facing my window has turned out the light. I should go to bed, but when it’s dark I feel daring. Or maybe I just feel afraid and willing to do something rash, if only to say I’ve done something. That’s how I justify opening Lifesync and going to her profile. At least I’m doing something about this.
I check the corner of her page, where her profile picture and last update time is. She looks the same as when I last saw her, but different from how I remember. Her last update was a few days ago. She had to have told her AI, which meant any one of her followers could know if she was interested in sharing. I stare at the “calibrate” button. If I updated, I could just accept the follower request, Lydia would get to say whatever it was she wanted to say, and we could go back to not talking ever again. I could just leave it as is, accept the request, and let her see just what was lost. A part of me craves it. I imagine the sink of her heart when she saw me, like nothing had happened. I repeat the fantasy over and over again in my mind. The tears in her eyes, the slow turn of her mouth. Or maybe she wants to relive that moment, to break the news again and again. With joy like a dog and a bone. Which of us was the bone, which was the dog? A hot, wet bubble rises in my throat, and I clench my jaw on reflex, like I am trying to keep it in. I hit the sync button.
The loading screen, a blank page with a circular arrow rotating much too slow and much too fast, fills the screen then disappears. My stomach drops. Lydia’s face fills the screen, like she’s just any other girl in her bedroom, answering a video call. The Lifesync logo, small and almost inconspicuous, stamped across her face is the only sign that it’s not her. She’s smiling, closed-lipped and one corner of her mouth above the other. Classic Lydia smile-smirk. Somewhere inside me, in a room where the door is locked and my things are packed away, there is a creak.
“Hey Ellie.” She says. It sounds neutral, which makes it sound foreign, alien. She was never neutral about anything.
We sit and stare at each other for a few seconds. The image of her flutters uncomfortably. Lifesync AIs aren’t supposed to be silent, neither was Lydia.
“Why’d you send me a chat request?” I ask. It’s not a good question but it’s something I can say first. She leans forward on her forearms, looks me in my eyes for what feels like the first time.
“I just wanted to say hi?” She laughs a little, looking at me like I’ve said something strange.
I don’t know what I expected her to say but that wasn’t it. Maybe it was not so much expectation as it was desire, a grasping want that defied decency and common sense. Maybe I could train myself out of it, wear a rubber band around my wrist and snap it every time I thought about her. Maybe she could beat me, but that may just be an excuse to feel her hands on my face.
I don’t know what to say now. She leans her face against her fist, the logo litters her fingers, the sides of her palm, the back of her hand, her wrist. They look like fresh tattoos. Lydia hated needles. It’s a distraction. Look over here.
“Are you watching this conversation right now?” I ask instead.
Lydia pretends to think for a few moments when I really know that she’s doubling back in the network and checking to see if she’s on the other line. Sometimes people watch their AIs and followers chat, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they watch it later. Lydia liked to watch, and I liked it when she watched too. It was like a game, or a show. Which of us was performing, I don’t know, maybe both. Lydia looks up, away from me. It bothers me in a way that bites. She waits for too long before she replies to me, like she’s rehearsing what she’s going to say twice.
“No. I’m off-line.” She doesn’t supply any more information besides that.
She lets her hand fall. We sit in silence again, for long enough that I worry that the screen is going to dim, and the connection will turn off, but it holds.
“What’s up?” She asks, all casual.
“Why are you acting like this?” I ask. She jumps a little in her seat, quirking her head.
The muscles in her face ripple and settle somewhere between confusion and concern.
“How am I different?” She asks.
I wave my open hand at her. “The way you’re talking to me right now, it’s different. It’s like—” I scan her face again, looking for something new in her eyebrows, tucked under her jaw, “It’s like you remember me, but don’t know me.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” She says, laughing a little at the end. I smile in response as a reflex, like a swinging tail. My heartbeat quickens, but instead of sinking into the feeling, it sets off something in my head, in my chest. I have the urge to breathe fast and shallow, to pant. She wouldn’t have.
“She didn’t just tell you, did she?” I ask, even though I already know the answer. “She reset you.”
She put you down, I think.
She freezes for a moment, like she’s buffering. Her lip twitches before saying,
“My last update was January fifth—”
“I can’t speak for her.”
“That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.” I say. I bite the inside corner of my lip. I never would have said that to her before. I think back to a couple days ago when I asked Lydia if we could talk briefly, and how she didn’t even let me say it, she just said no, she didn’t feel the same.
“Ellie, it was a glitch, something got mixed up in the code and it thought there was something going on when there wasn’t.”
The skin under my collar feels warm. I close my eyes for a second too long then look at her again, lingering on the hem of her shirt.
“But there was something going on, in here and out there, I know it.” I say.
“You didn’t fall in love with her, Ellie.”
“I did.” I say because I did. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done and the best thing to ever happen to me.
“You loved me too, I know you did.” I continue. Lydia looks at me and something in her posture shifts again. She looks into the camera at me, and the composure drops. Her voice takes on an edge and it pricks like the ends of a chain-link fence. Her eyes square and harden. She’s looking at me, really looking at me and the sight is enough to anger her, to disgust her.
“She did, and she was completely inconsolable when you chose Lydia over her.”
I stare. Lydia’s AI was just a resource, someone I could use to get information out of and throw away for the real thing. I look down, my face burning.
“I just want to fix this, so things aren’t so hard, so complicated. We were friends before anything else.”
She’s asking for reassurance I can’t give her, and the thought of not giving her something hurts me in a way it shouldn’t. I struggle against the urge to assuage, to lie, because the possibility of getting something out of it is gone. I can’t hide anymore and she’s not the one looking for me.
You pet the dog, and he bites you. You pet the dog, and he licks your hand somewhere else. Someone watching the same interaction from far away sees one as the other and goes about their day. Alternate realities are not science fiction, but time travel is.
“It’s hard for me.” I say, but I can’t look Lydia in the eye, “it’s too hard for me, not to love you.”
“You knew what you were doing, you had to know.”
“And now I love you and nothing can be done.”
“You don’t even know me.”
She brings her hand to rest over her mouth, like she’s forcing the words to stay out. I stare at her, the image shimmering.
“Ellie, you know your friendship means—”
I shut her off.
The room feels cavernous, without the soft white glow or the sound of Lydia’s voice. Sitting there, in the dark, feels illicit, like something somewhat decent people do in the privacy of their own homes. The seat I’m in suddenly feels seedy, almost sticky.
I turn the phone back on, it’s just my lock screen now. That same picture is there. I feel my organs shift, like they were slopped against a window, and I can see them sinking slowly downwards. I feel along the wall, finding the light switch and slam on it with my fist until it flips. My mind careens on its rails, tilting between images of myself. A snarling dog, or a kicked puppy. Either way, someone had been bit. Someone had to be put down. My phone is cradled in my hand, glinting like an eye. It felt right to shut her off, but Lydia would see that. She would try again. She would keep trying to fix things because she had lost something useful to her, like a phone charger. She would keep trying, and eventually, I would give in and go on hoping things would change. The thought makes me feel like I ate something that had turned to stone in my stomach. I throw my phone across the room in a straight line, hard and fast. The phone makes impact, hitting something hard that rings across the room, and then lands again with a dull thud. I stumble across the room on my hands and knees, pick the phone up and look at the screen. It’s shattered. A ring of fractures forms a halo in the center of the screen. I shut the phone off, but the fractures remain, and my face stares blankly back from the black screen.