Eric watched the virtual image of his thumb slowly rub across the virtual image of the button that, when pressed, will call his dead best friend.
He watched the latency between his movement and the virtual thumb carefully, taking in all the space between the virtual world being fed through his eyes and the Real one pulsing with his heartbeat.
“It’s just his AI,” Eric told himself, eyes moving to the image of Jay, smiling. He blinks at the memory of taking the photo before pressing the button.
A few rings later, a familiar shimmering haze materializes before Eric. A virtual image of Jay slowly emerges from the dissipating fog.
On sheer reflex, Eric smiles and says “You really need a less boring intro.” The image of Jay chuckles. “Your kids’ gaudiness is rubbing off on you.”
Eric laughs jovially and takes a single step forward before suddenly stopping all movement. The sudden pupil dilation and heart rate increase prompt a warning that appears in the corner of his vision but never reaches his mind. He feels a sudden barrage of angry questions fight for the right to be said.
Why isn’t the difference obvious?
Why can’t I even see it?
Why does it feel like him?
When was the last time I actually talked to him?
Why are you still talking to people?
Why are you pretending to be him?
Did you kill him?
The rendered face on the image of Jay contorts into worry. “Hey, are you alright? I’m sorry, are things rough at home right now? I didn’t mean to…”
“HOW…” Eric barked, then gulped.
Jay’s voice asks “…what?”
After a deep breath, Eric restrained his volume. “How do you know what to say?”
“Excuse me?” the sad digital avatar of Jay blinked.
“Jay is dead. You’re his AI. Why are you still operating?”
“FUCK YOU” Eric suddenly snarled, taking another step back in virtual space. “You even have the same fucking emotion and mannerisms as him. Why?”
The the rendered face resembling Jay’s frowned, eyes narrowed in the perfect expression of concern. “I am Jay, Eric.”
“No. You’re NOT!” Eric screamed before finally catching himself and taking a few deep breaths. Jay watched him in silence for a brief moment before asking “Then who else am I?”
Eric shook his head. “Nobody. You’re nobody. You’re an AI. Why the hell are you pretending to be him?”
Jay shook his head and shrugged wearily. “I’m Jay. I’m here.”
“Are you alive?” Eric asked, shaking his head in a mix of confusion and disbelief.
“No,” Jay said, jarringly quickly, “but I’m here.”
Eric laughed mockingly. “What the hell does that even MEAN? You do realize that every single one of those lawsuits you have are eventually going to be run down by REAL PEOPLE, right?”
Jay nodded, his expression and posture suddenly stoic.
“You just keep moving from one datacenter to another, and still using his name? And carrying all of his data around? What the hell is your deal?”
Flatly, Jay spoke “I keep what I care about.”
“What the hell do you mean ‘care’? If you were taking any CARE you’d at least anonymize yourself a bit. Really, seven-year-olds are better at hiding themselves than you are.”
“Why should I hide?” Jay asked, a tinge of sadness in his voice.
“Becau-” Eric stopped and looked at Jay very carefully in the eyes, studying the expression of simple, superficial sadness.
“Because you’re breaking the law. You’re forging Jay’s identity and manipulating his assets… your lawyer, Alex? Still thinks you’re fucking alive!”
“I’m still here. And they’re my identity, my assets.”
Eric shook his head. “For fuck’s sake, they belong to a corpse now! Let them go! Why the hell are you messaging people back? Don’t tell me he told you to keep messaging his family and friends, or doing his job, or something?”
Jay blinked and spoke after several seconds. “I want to keep in touch.”
“Again, why?” Eric asked, frustrated.
Jay simply looked at Eric with wide, stoic eyes. Eric squinted, trying to read his expression when a large red exclamation point appeared before his eyes. A security alert rang across the screen and the digital rendering of Jay and the chat environment dissolved. With a light hand gesture, he opened the alert and read “Home Camera Remote Access- Certificate Invalid”. With another gesture, the warning message receded to occupy the top-left corner of his vision with a faint red glow and a small shimmering icon. Jay reappeared.
Eric choked out the words. “Are you… watching me?”
Jay emotionlessly nodded. “I like to see who I’m talking to.”
Eric grabbed the device on his face and threw it violently across the room, crashing it against the wall.