Drama Sad Science Fiction

Derek had never been in a waiting room like the one at Beyond Chat’s research and training facility. Projected simulations of lush green rainforests interspersed with cascading waterfalls and trickling streams made it impossible to identify physical boundaries. Birds of all shapes and sizes undulated between the ceiling and the floor. The glittery slipstreams left behind in their flightpath were the only evidence of their true nature. Derek looked up in wonder as they danced gently in the air in time with the soft pipe music that echoed into every visible space. Although, despite the intentions of the whole façade to create a sense of peace and tranquillity, Derek felt anything but peaceful.

He was not sure why he decided to do this. So many AI human avatars were glitchy and fell short of imitating the real thing. In Derek’s mind, they had always been for the unfortunate and lonely ones who lacked the social skills to make real human connections. Which was never Derek’s problem; he was well known for his gregariousness. Anytime a friend, family member or colleague suggested a physical or virtual catch-up, he always had to look a few weeks ahead into his calendar to find a rare free spot. Which suited him fine, more so lately, given the growing emptiness he had felt since the passing of his sister, Erica.

Erica and Derek had a close relationship as siblings. They may not have spoken daily when she was alive, given that they lived on opposite sides of the country and both led busy lives. However, they maintained a close and nurturing connection that they both lent on during times of crisis. Derek remembered calling his sister for encouragement the night he came out to his parents as queer. Something that should not have been so hard in this decade, but society had been pulling backwards on equality, given the world was almost entirely comprised of hard-right conservative leaders.

“You are a wonderful soul, and you know our parents will be fine. They were born in the late 1990s and grew up in the progressive era.” She had said to him with a smile and hug. She was also there for Derek when recovering from his first broken heart. Something they had both done for each other during their young adult years and before Derek moved away. Anytime one of them ended a relationship they would immediately be at the local pub for a drinking session and a bitch about everything wrong with men.  Now Erica was gone. She vanished suddenly and with no warnings whilst Derek had been travelling overseas.

Whilst distracting, Derek’s usual busy schedule lacked the satisfaction it once did. Although, it did keep him occupied. In those occasional moments when he was alone, his thoughts were dark and terrifying. He needed noise and company to keep the ugly shadow and reminder of Erica’s unfair death at such a young age at bay.

He feels a slight tingle, indicating an incoming transmission so he taps his hand on the small silver apple symbol moulded into his temple to answer. His friend Samuel fills his field of vision just enough so that he can still take in the serene surroundings of the waiting room. Anyone observing Derek can see the white light on the side of his head, indicating he was engaged in a direct neural connection. This was once called a “phone call” and required a physical device to be carried around to receive.

“So, you’re going to give it a go?” Samuel asked. His dark brown eyes were wide open in excitement. Derek could tell that he was bouncing on the spot by the way his thick, jet-black hair was wobbling. Samuel had always been fascinated by the rapid advancements in the type of AI that Derek was about to experiment with. A virtual background made it appear that Samuel was on a beach somewhere, but Derek knew he was just in his home office and taking a break to see if he had already completed his Beyond Chat experience.

“I am here, Samuel, but I am not expecting much,” Derek replied with a sigh. Whilst he did not fully believe that he would get any fulfilment from this experience, something tempted him to try, like a tiny monster living inside his body that had tied his heart up in string and was pulling it ever tighter.

“I can’t believe they think they can make a video avatar that simulates a real human. Even one that has…” Samuel trailed off, realising what he was about to say.

“One that has died, yes,” Derek replied. He had been getting fed up with everyone tiptoeing around the topic. Erica had died, and it was OK to talk about it. Why should it not be? To him, talking about her was the best way to preserve her memory. Unless, of course, Beyond Chat could fulfil their promise of creating an AI avatar that spoke and acted just like her.

“Have you told your parents you are doing this?” Samuel asked.

“Are you kidding?” Derek said with a sharp rise in his tone. “This would not be healthy for them at all.”

“And you think it is going to be healthy for you?” Samuel’s question stunned Derek into silence. It was the first time he had stopped to think about the repercussions if the avatar truly did believably recreate his sister.

“I don’t know, Sam. But I have got to try. I don’t know why.”

“Well, call me if you need to when you’re done, mate. Love you.”

Samuel’s face vanished and left behind a momentary distortion in Derek’s field of vision as his mind readjusted to reality. As the room became clear again, he snapped his head back in shock, not having realised that an employee of the centre had approached him.

“Hi Derek, I’m Margot, one of the controllers here at Beyond Chat. Shall we begin?”

She towered over Derek. Even when he stood up, his eyeline only met her neck. He tilted his head upwards to see someone probably only in their mid-twenties. Although, who could tell how old anyone was anymore? She had hair the colour of fire that hung gently around her shoulders and aqua-blue eyes that were clearly not from nature. She wore a white lab coat, a universal staple of someone working in any science over the ages.

Derek looked back at her and nodded, so she led him through a stone path that had magically created a gap in the virtual forest.

“You are quite lucky, Derek,” she said calmly as they emerged into an ordinary hallway. “Your sister was extremely active in the metaverse and donated much of her data to research.”

“And that means?” Derek asked coyly.

“We require a baseline of available data from a deceased host to create an interactive avatar. Erica not only met those criteria, but she also exceeded them.”

Derek took comfort in remembering how active his sister’s was in meta. Whether it was virtual arts and crafts or mothers’ groups, she was always engaged and well-loved by all who met her. She gave a lot to the physical world but more so to the metaverse, where she always felt more herself.

“So, I should expect this to be quite realistic?” Derek asked.

Margot stopped dead in her tracks and pivoted back to Derek, causing her coat to swirl like a ballerina’s dress. She looked into his eyes and said, “Derek, we are quite excited about Erica’s potential.”

Derek thought it was strange that she was referring to an AI avatar like it was a person. He looked up at her face and asked, “Why?”

“We have had a breakthrough with our learning algorithm, and Erica had enough publicly available personal data to create a special avatar.” Margot pauses, clasping her hands excitedly, forgetting she was talking about someone’s dead relative. “We think she is self-aware.”

Derek looked at the floor as though the oversized grey tiles would help him process what he had just heard. Until now, Beyond Chat had only ever offered people the opportunity to have an old-style video phone call with the deceased. It was using whatever information was available about the subject online to create a chat algorithm that would respond in ways that were hopefully like the person being imitated. From what Derek knew, they could only draw on experiences and memories documented online and could not perform outside those boundaries. Was he being told that this was no longer the case?

They approached a plain beige door that had to be opened by hand like something from the Stone Age. Margot stood between Derek and the entrance to the next room and made a focused effort to centre herself. As if she suddenly realised that some decorum might be needed to prepare Derek for what was about to come next.

“Derek, you are about to see a full three-dimensional hologram of Erica,” she said softly, searching his face for understanding. “When you applied for a video, we soon realised she was the perfect candidate for our new algorithm. That is why we asked you to come to this specific facility and not one of the main centres in the city.”

“So, she will be in the room with me?” Derek asked, feeling a lump get jammed in his throat. “How realistic will it be?”

“Most people have not been able to tell our holograms apart from real people,” Margot replied with a soft smile, lightly placing a hand on Derek’s shoulder. “Also, the new algorithm is brilliant. It truly believes it is Erica, and we have been training it for some time since she consented to experiment on her data before she died. The avatar you are about to meet does not know it is an avatar. You are about to meet Erica.”

Derek struggled to comprehend what he was being told. How could he be about to meet Erica? She had died, and that was all there was to it. How could a computer believe that it was her? It was all supposed to be advanced coding to simulate her memories, appearance, voice, and some responses. He felt a heat rising in his body and his heart began to race. His vision of Margot started to blur right before she grabbed his other shoulder to bring him back into the world.

“Derek, are you ready?”

He permitted himself to cool off and took a deep breath. “Yes.”

Derek entered a room that was devoid of any light, natural or otherwise. It was so plain and angular that he might as well have been inside a shoebox. He looked around for any sign of what he should do, and suddenly, the room was flushed with a rainbow of colours that surrounded everything. The colours morphed into various shapes and forms that became increasingly familiar to Derek. What was once nothing had now become a long counter with several waist-height stools lined up against it. Derek’s jaw hung open in the realisation that he was standing in the pub he used to visit with Erica. As he took in his new surroundings, it became clear that this was where they used to go to drown their sorrows after one of them had their heart broken. Some faint white noise resembling human chatter made it seem like other people were around, even though it was just him. That was until someone came walking through the heavy wooden doors that served as the entrance.

Derek stared in disbelief at the figure that stood in front of him. He forgot that he was standing before a hologram and took in Erica's beauty; it was her. She came closer, and Derek could see she still matched his height as he stared her right into her natural blue eyes. He could not help but reach out and touch her long brown hair to see if it still felt like silk; it did. Her face, colonised by freckles, scrunched up as he did this, and she took a slight step backwards.

“Um, what are you doing weirdo?” Erica said in her slightly husky voice. “Getting your heart stomped on again really got you this time, or are you finally admitting that you have a hair fetish?” Derek stood still like a deer in headlights, unsure what to say. She was even wearing one of her trademark floral dresses, and then it hit him that he could smell her sweet perfume.

Erica shoved past Derek and made her way toward the bar. There is a slight glitch in the fabric of the simulation as two drinks zap into existence in the same technicolour display as before. She pounds her first aggressively on the stool next to her to demand that Derek join her for a drink.

“What happened this time, oh brother of mine?” She asks. “Should I have ordered this wine or should I have gone for a bottle.”

“I, um. I don’t know,” Derek stutters in reply.

“That bad, hey. OK, I will order some shots.”

Derek tries to lean into the experience and begins downing drink after drink. He tells Erica he doesn’t want to talk about whatever breakup she believes he just had and instead asks her how she has been. She starts talking about some new group she joined in the metaverse and laughs about her experience with a hungover waiter. He can remember her talking about all these events in messages while he was travelling—the things she was doing just before she died.

Derek stands up so fast that he sends his stool catapulting across the room. Erica stares at him in shock, and asks if he needs to slow down on the booze.

“This is not what I wanted,” he shouts at the ceiling. “I didn’t want to talk to her about this.”

“Little brother, what is going on?” Erica asks, appearing genuinely concerned.

“What did you want to talk to her about Derek?” Margot’s voice echoed through an invisible speaker.

Derek catches his breath and says, “I just wanted to say goodbye.”

“You can do that now if you wish.” Margot’s disembodied voice replies.

“Not like this. I was too far away when she had the accident. When they knew she wasn’t going to make it. I just wanted to return to see her in the hospital and say goodbye.”

Everything explodes into a kaleidoscope of colours again and slowly reforms into a dimly lit space with a single bed and equipment that occasionally beeps. It dawns on Derek quickly that he is in a hospital, and Erica is in bed.

The walk to the bedside seems to Derek like it takes forever. One foot goes before the other until he looks down on the now-sleeping Erica, who has tubes protruding from her neck and head like something from an old science fiction movie. She seems so peaceful to Derek, who feared she would have been unrecognisable after the accident.

Derek places the back of his hand on her cheeks and recalls it quickly in surprise that she feels warm. Not just warm, she feels alive even though this was the moment she was close to death and was waiting for her brother to come and say farewell.

Erica gradually opens her eyes and turns towards Derek carefully so as not to tangle herself. A smile brightens up her pale face, and she urges him to come closer so she can speak to him. Derek angles his ear within a direct path of her mouth, and she uses all her strength to whisper, “You made it, little brother.”

“I was always going to make it, big sister,” he says as he finds her hands and clamps it tight with his own. “I would rather be here getting drunk at the pub with you.”

Erica laughs and winces at the same time. Derek does not know if she is feeling pain, but the reaction still prompts the formation of tears in the corner of his eyes.

“Do you remember what you said when I called you from the airport when I was leaving for Europe?” Ryan asks with a brave smile.

“What’s that little brother?”

“You said you were so proud of me for everything I have achieved. I want you to know that it has been burned into my brain since that day. More importantly, I want you to know that I am so very proud of you, big sister.” Tears are flowing freely, and Derek moves to try not to cry all over the bed.

“You’re proud of me?” Erica asks, barely unable to control the grin on her face.

“So proud. You are an amazing woman, a fantastic mother, and the world’s most incredible sister. How could I not be proud?

Derek feels the grip from Erica’s hand loosen, and he can see something in her eyes that says she is getting further away. He pulls himself upright, clears the tears from his face and gives her hair a gentle brush with his hand. Erica fades, and the room melts into its original empty state.

“Goodbye, big sister. I love you.”

October 25, 2023 01:57

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Rachel Norum
11:33 Oct 29, 2023

Great story! I wanted more!


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Graham Kinross
10:48 Nov 02, 2023

Excellent. Sequel please.


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David Sweet
03:24 Oct 29, 2023

Powerful stuff! I liked the way this seemed plausible with building an avatar from Meta data. It's scary how much of our lives are out there on the Internet to the point where some individuals lives could be re-created to some degree. However, as your character quickly realized, it was no substitute for the actual person. Heart-wrenching with interesting future implications. Thanks for sharing this story!


David Willett
01:33 Oct 30, 2023

Thank you for the feedback. I'm quite proud of this story.


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Shirley Medhurst
00:02 Oct 31, 2023

Really chilling concept, the idea of AI becoming so advanced… Your writing brings such disturbing possibilities alive! Well done! (Just one grammatical point… I’m wondering why you change from past to present tense part way through???)


David Willett
19:17 Oct 31, 2023

Thanks for the feedback. Tense slippage is a blind spot of mine that I'm trying to improve.


Shirley Medhurst
20:44 Oct 31, 2023



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