The pictures only made Michael feel worse, so he set to rummaging through drawers for any clues as to who these people were. He didn’t find much, though he did figure out that the family name was Porter and the girl’s name was Emileah—strange spelling.
Then he finally found the courage to go back into the boy’s room. His room. With the rumpled bedsheets and the Coffin and the hard, cold floor. And then he saw what he’d been both looking for and dreading: The boy’s name. The boy whose life he’d stolen. It was on a paper birthday card, on top of the dresser.
Scribbled red hearts littered the card itself, hand-drawn and quaint. Sweet. Inside, a message from a girl named Gabriela proclaimed undying love for Jackson and made various physical threats to his nether regions if he let anyone read it. Paired with a smiley face, of course. There was a slightly warped spot at the bottom, as if perhaps a tear had dropped there at the end, right after something about an anniversary. Michael tossed the card, feeling guilty, as if he’d peeked inside a forbidden room.
Michael couldn’t help it. He went back to the master bedroom and watched the WallScreen again. Only, now it had a whole new feeling. For some reason, knowing the boy’s name made everything different. Made Michael stop thinking about himself for a moment. He saw the face and body that were now his, doing so many activities—running, laughing, spraying a hose at his sister, eating. He seemed like one happy dude.
And now he was gone.
His life had been stolen. From a family and a girlfriend.
A life that had a name.
Jackson Porter. Surprisingly, Michael didn’t feel guilt so much as sadness. This hadn’t been his choice, his doing, after all. But the despair of it still swelled within him like nothing he’d ever felt before.
He tore his eyes from the screen and continued searching the apartment.
Michael rifled through drawer after drawer until he decided there wasn’t much more to find. Maybe the answers he needed weren’t in the apartment. It was time to do something that should have been first on his list but was the last thing he wanted to do.
He had to go back online.
Right after he’d woken up in his new body the day before, he’d checked his messages—but only because of the direction from Kaine to do so. He’d logged on to a mostly empty screen, with only the one ominous, life-changing note from Kaine himself, revealing what had happened. However, Michael figured Kaine had only temporarily hijacked Jackson Porter’s online presence for his own use, and that by now it had been restored. All he had to do was squeeze his EarCuff and he could probably find out more than he’d ever want to know about the boy.
For some reason that felt wrong, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Michael had spent a good portion of his life hacking into the VirtNet without the slightest twinge of guilt. But this was different. This didn’t take hacking or coding. This was just a click or swipe away. He’d stolen a human life, and stealing that person’s virtual life as well somehow seemed like too much.
Michael thought it through and realized he had no choice. Jackson Porter—the essence of what made him a person—might be gone forever. If Michael wanted to go forward, he had to accept that. And if Jackson wasn’t gone forever, if there was any possible way of restoring him to his body, Michael would never figure it out unless he jumped back into things.
He found a chair—just a normal, boring chair, not the cloud-soft throne of pure awesomeness he’d once had back in his former life—and sat next to a window, shutting the blinds to ward off some of the brightness. He caught a last glimpse through the slats of a city mad with the day-to-day grind, moving and grooving. In a way he felt envious of those people, completely oblivious that a crazy computer program had the ability to steal their bodies. That anything was wrong in the world at all.
Michael closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them again. He reached up and squeezed his EarCuff. A faint stream of light shot from its surface and created a large viewing screen, hovering a couple of feet in front of him.
It was exactly as he’d guessed. Jackson Porter’s personal online life had been restored from Kaine’s hijacking, icons galore covering the surface of the glowing screen—everything from social dens to games to school materials. Michael was relieved, but he hesitated. He had no idea what to do. Should he pretend to be Jackson? Escape into the world and try to hide from Kaine? Seek out someone from VirtNet Security? He didn’t know where to begin. But whatever he decided, it would require information. A lot of information. And if at all possible, he needed to dig in before someone came home.
Which brought up questions again: Where were Jackson’s parents? Where was his sister? Michael had the sinking thought that somehow Kaine had gotten rid of them, just like he’d sworn he had done to Michael’s own parents.
After quickly scanning several social sites that proved pointless, he found a personal text box and scrolled through its messages. There were several from the girlfriend, Gabriela; three just that morning. Reluctantly, Michael opened the most recent.
Uhhhhh, you slip in the shower and bang your head? Are you sleeping in a puddle of soapy water and drool right now? Of course, you’d be cute and adorable even then. I miss you. Hurry? I’m on my second cup of coffee and there’s a jerk at the next table getting friendly. He sells stocks, or companies, or dead people’s organs, something. Please come save me. You might even get a coffee-flavored kiss.
She attached a pic, a shadowy, blurred image of someone Michael could only assume was Gabriela—dark skin, dark hair, pretty—with pouting lips, her finger tracing an imaginary tear down her cheek. Her brown eyes tilted down in mock sadness. With a heavy heart Michael swiped it closed and continued looking through the text box.
He didn’t have to search long.
Several things fell into place when he found a note from Jackson’s dad, sent just that morning:
Hope all is well, buddy. I’m sure you’re up and at ’em by now, right? Right? RIGHT?
We’re safe and sound. Puerto Rico is beautiful. For the millionth time, we’re sorry you couldn’t come along. But I know you have big things coming up this week, so we’ll be thinking about you.
Keep us in the loop, and be careful when you access our accounts. Make sure you protect our codes! (That was Mom’s input.)