Michael was not himself.
He lay on the bed of a stranger, staring up at a ceiling he had seen for the first time just the day before. He’d been disoriented and sick to his stomach all night, catching sleep only in fitful, anxious, nightmare-fueled jags. His life had blown apart; his sanity was slipping away. His very surroundings—the foreign room, the alien bed—were unforgiving reminders of his terrifying new life. Fear sparked through his veins.
And his family. What had happened to his family? He wilted a little more every time he pictured them.
The very first traces of dawn—a gloomy, pale light—made the shuttered blinds of the window glow eerily. The Coffin next to the bed sat silent and dark, as foreboding as a casket dug from a grave. He could almost imagine it: the wood rotting and cracked, human remains spilling out. He didn’t know how to look at the objects around him anymore. Real objects. He didn’t even understand the word real. It was as if all his knowledge of the world had been yanked out from under his feet like a rug.
His brain couldn’t grasp it all.
He almost burst out in a laugh, but it died in his chest.
Michael had only had an actual, physical brain for the last twelve hours. Not even a full day, he realized, and that pit in his stomach doubled in size.
Could it really all be true? Really?
Everything he knew was a result of artificial intelligence. Manufactured data and memories. Programmed technology. A created life. He could go on and on, each description somehow worse than the one before it. There was nothing real about him, and yet now here he was, transported through the VirtNet and the Mortality Doctrine program and turned into an actual human being. A living, breathing organism. A life, stolen. So that he could become something he didn’t even understand. His view of the world had been shattered. Utterly.
Especially because he wasn’t sure if he believed it. For all he knew, he could be in another program, another level of Lifeblood Deep. How could he ever again trust what was real and what was not? The uncertainty would drive him mad.
He rolled over and screamed into his pillow. His head—his stolen, unfamiliar head—ached from the thousands of thoughts that pounded through it, each one fighting for attention. Fighting to be processed and understood. And feeling pain here was no different from feeling it as a Tangent. Which only served to confuse him more. He couldn’t accept that before last night he’d just been a program, a long line of code. It didn’t compute. That did make him laugh, and the pain in his head intensified and spread, slicing down his throat and filling his chest.
He yelled again, which didn’t help, then forced himself to swing his legs off the bed and sit up. His feet touched the cool wooden floor, reminding him once again that he was now in a strange land. Lush carpet had blanketed the apartment he’d always known, which seemed homier, warmer, safe. Not cold and hard. He wanted to talk to Helga, his nanny. He wanted his parents.
And those were the thoughts that almost did him in completely. He’d been avoiding them, pressing them back into that pulsing swirl of thousands of other thoughts, but they weren’t going anywhere. They stood out and demanded attention.
If what Kaine had said was true, they were as synthetic as Michael’s programmed fingernails had been. Even his memories. He would never know which ones had been programmed into his artificial intelligence and which ones he’d actually experienced within the code of Lifeblood Deep. He didn’t even know how long he’d existed—his true age. He could be two months old, or three years, or a hundred.
He imagined his parents and Helga as fake, or gone, or dead, maybe never there in the first place. It just didn’t make sense.
The ache that had crept its way into his chest filled his heart, and grief overtook him. He slumped back onto the bed and rolled over, pushing his face into the pillow. For the first time in his existence, Michael cried as an actual human being. But the tears felt no different than they ever had before.
The moment passed sooner than he’d expected. Just when he thought the despair would swallow him whole, it pulled back, allowed him some respite. Maybe it was the tears. Back in his life as a Tangent, he’d rarely cried. He probably hadn’t since he was a child. He just wasn’t the crying sort, he always said. And now he regretted that, because it sure seemed to ease the pain.
He made another attempt to get out of bed and this time succeeded. Feet planted on that hard, cool floor, emotions in check. It was time to do what he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do the night before: figure out who in the world he’d become. Since no one had come running at his screams, he knew he must be alone.
He walked through the apartment, turning on lights and opening blinds to let in the rays of morning sunshine. He wanted to see every detail of this odd place that had become his home and decide if he could or should keep it that way.
The city outside the windows wasn’t the one he’d looked out on from his old apartment. But at least it was a city, something that brought a little comfort in its familiarity. Buildings stacked next to more buildings, cars making their way down crisscrossing streets, the ever-present smog blurring the view. People bustling below, going about their business. Not a cloud in the wistful, dull blue sky.
Nothing out of the ordinary in the bedrooms. Clothes, furniture, pictures cycling on the WallScreens. Michael stood and stared at the huge one in the master bedroom for a while, watching as various pictures of the family—Mom, Dad, son, daughter—took turns filling the space. He vaguely remembered what he now looked like, and it was beyond unsettling to see that boy in so many situations that had absolutely no meaning to Michael whatsoever: A family portrait in front of a stream lined with huge oak trees, sunshine filling the sky. The kids were young, the boy sitting on his dad’s lap. Another portrait, much more recent, in a studio, mottled gray backdrop. Michael had stared at his new face for a long time in the mirror, and it was eerie to see that same face looking down at him from the wall.
There were other, more casual shots. The boy up to bat at a baseball game. The girl playing with silvery blocks on the floor, smiling up at the photographer. The whole family at a picnic. In a swimming pool. At a restaurant. Playing games.
Michael finally looked away. It hurt to see such a happy family when he might have lost that forever. He sullenly walked to the next room, obviously the girl’s. Her WallScreen didn’t have a single shot of the family, just pictures of her favorite bands and movie stars—Michael knew them all from Lifeblood. There was an old-fashioned frame on the nightstand next to her pink-themed bed, with an actual printed picture inside. The girl and the brother—him—grinning big goofy grins. The girl looked to be about two years older than the boy.