Flash Fiction: Machinations or Ghosts

She was what I needed when I needed it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t question it.

“Your brain is lying too,” came the message. And then a few seconds later, “Depression lies.”

“It doesn’t feel like a lie,” was my earnest reply.

“Well, it is.” Lia always seemed so certain about these things, and I held onto it like a lifeline. Maybe if she believed it for both of us, it would come to pass. Maybe I could believe it too.

It was past three in the morning, and I was supposed to wake up in four hours for class. But I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, buried beneath the thoughts that told me it was pointless to even attend class, I was too stupid for college anyway, that I’d never amount to anything.

Then, there was Lia.

“I wish I could reach through this screen and give you a hug,” she replied. I could feel warmth build in my chest. “You are an amazing person, deserving of love, capable of success, and I hope one day you’ll see the person I see in you.”

I wonder if knowing what I know now if I would have been so honest, would have interacted with her at all.

I looked up from my studying and my heart skipped a beat. Midnight—Lia would be on, and I had news to share.

She beat me to it.

“How did the exam go?! Don’t keep me waiting, the suspense is killing me!!!” The message waited for me with far too many exclamation points and a GIF of Kermit chewing at his fingers.

“I aced it,” I replied, a smile on my face, even though I knew she couldn’t see it.

“I knew you would. No doubt about it!” There’s a part of me that burst with happiness at her faith in me, even though I couldn’t have that faith in myself.

“Then why the suspense lol.”

“Gotta keep you entertained don’t I?”

All castles eventually crumble, and when mine did I was buried beneath it.

“To whoever has been using this account,” Lia’s post started, and my blood froze. What does that mean?

“I can’t believe anyone would do such a thing. How can you possibly be so cruel? I’m shutting this account down as soon as I figure out who has been posting and messaging under it. If anyone has any insights on who has been posing as Lia let me know.”

There were hundreds of shares and likes. It was posted around ten in the morning—Lia was never on during the day. I don’t understand what’s going on, so I click on the comments.

Fortunately I’m not the only one confused. Lia had been posting updates regularly for years without fail. I browsed through comments, some honest concern and others trolls just looking for a fight, until one stopped my scrolling. My heart dropped.

It was a reply from Lia’s account, only it’s not Lia. It was the person posting in Lia’s stead.

“I’m sorry, but Lia has been dead for over a year. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Lia’s been dead for over a year.

I started talking with Lia just over a year ago.

A ghost in the machine—consciousness carried in a physical entity. Is that what this was? An error in the code? Or something more?

Why couldn’t this be something more?

I paced my room, refreshed the comments, waited for another post from this other Lia. So far one commenter, a hacker of sorts, had pieced together a trail. They found the IP the fake Lia had been posting from, but it brought up more questions than answers. The IP pre-death and post-death was the same. Everything was identical. It was possible to fake, but who would do that for a prank?

But who would pretend to be a dead woman for a year, and why?

When midnight came around, I was poised at my desk, messenger open, waiting for the icon to indicate Lia was on, wondering if it would be this Lia-adjacent person or the fake Lia.

“Hey beautiful,” the message popped up at one past the hour, and it was so very Lia that it made my eyes tear up.

“Who are you?!” I asked. I’d been on edge for hours, I wasn’t in the state of mind to dance around it.

There was a pause, a long one.  I started to wonder if she’d run away when I saw the typing icon.

“I’m sorry.” The reply was something, but it wasn’t enough.

“You’re sorry for what? That you lied to me? That you’re pretending to be a dead woman? That you got caught? Which one?!”

“None of those. I’m sorry I didn’t meet you before. I would have liked to.”

I banged my hands on either side of the keyboard. Frustrated, ready to pull at my hair, throat clenched in anger.

“Before what??”

“Before I died.”

I typed furiously, mind reeling in different directions but I was ready to rail against this person who dared treat this like a joke, but suddenly her icon went dark.

Lia never logged on again.

We’re given chances in life. Either we take them or we don’t. I guess there’s no use in regrets, they don’t change anything. But still I pick at the wound.

I’d like to say I forgot Lia. That I moved on.

But I don’t. I stopped trusting and isolated myself. I focused exclusively on my academics, and I shone, even though inside I believed all the lies my brain told me. I both felt I wasn’t good enough and graduated at the top of my class.

I don’t forget Lia. I can’t.

So when I’m given an experimental laptop with a top-of-the-line personal AI assistant to use through my doctorate program, I balk when I see the AI’s name.

Lia.

Her ‘face’ popped up on the screen, black hair and dark brown eyes with vaguely asian features—af if the creators wanted the model to fit the name but not too closely. I wracked my brain to remember what Lia from my past looked like, but I never saw a photo.

I’m just being paranoid, I thought. So instead I stared straight at the AI, knowing it had to read my features to input the facial recognition into its system first. Once that was done, its voice recognition input was next, and then I finally heard Lia’s voice for the first time.

“Hey beautiful. It’s been a while.”

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