Michael grimaced and swore under his breath. He spun around and started walking, briskly, his mind suddenly empty of all solutions.
She caught up and grabbed him by the shirt, forcing him to turn and face her once again. He stopped and stared, sure that he’d gone totally pale.
“What’s wrong with you?” the girl asked, her expression somewhere between confusion and anger. “Jax. You look like a … like a zombie. Tell me what’s going on right now. I haven’t heard from you in two days!”
Michael’s mouth moved, twitching more than anything. No words came out.
Gabriela let go of his shirt and stepped back. Now she only looked hurt. “What happened to us hanging out while your parents were gone? Time of our lives! And now you can’t even reply to my messages? Can’t call me? What’s …” Her words faded out and she furrowed her brow. “Jax. Seriously. What’s wrong? Did something happen?”
“Um,” Michael managed to say. “Uh, look, um, Gabriela …” With every syllable that came out, she looked more perplexed. If he’d doubted at all before, he now knew—there was no way he could fake being Jackson Porter. “Look, things have changed. I couldn’t explain it in a million years. I’m sorry. Really. Bye.”
Michael turned and started pushing past people, dodging shoppers, then broke into a run. He ran and ran and ran through the city, and he didn’t look back, not once, scared she’d be on his tail, not until he found another alley far away, sure that he’d left her behind. She’d never even called after him. She might not even have tried, too baffled to speak.
But he was alone.
Gasping for every breath, he sank to the ground and huddled in a hidden corner, aching for what he’d done to that poor girl, a girl he didn’t even know.
But Sarah … Sarah he did know.
He had to find her.
Twenty hours later, Michael was on a train, a real train—one of the sleek BulletStreams that traveled almost two hundred miles an hour. He’d never ridden on such a thing in his virtual life as a Tangent, which made him think of something he couldn’t believe he’d never realized before: he’d never gone anywhere with his family during all those years. Not any significant distance, anyway. And it had never seemed strange to him. It was just life. You worked or went to school, you longed for the next time you could slip into your Coffin and leave the world behind. That had seemed normal to Michael, and he suspected it wasn’t true at all. At least, not for everyone.
In some ways, even though he had no justification, he was offended by how manipulated his life had been. But wasn’t that the very definition of being a program? He didn’t know why; it just ticked him off. All of it. And now he was flesh and blood. He wasn’t sure when it had started or when it would end, but he knew that, slowly but surely, he was transforming, taking ownership of his … “self.” The insecurity of being artificial had started to fall away, and he didn’t know how he felt about that. It came with an arrogance he didn’t like. Or understand.
And part of the problem was that he couldn’t stop thinking about Gabriela. He felt something for her that he shouldn’t, as if feelings really did reside in the heart. Which, in Michael’s case, still belonged to Jackson Porter.
Maybe he just felt guilty about hurting the girl’s feelings so terribly. Sighing, he leaned his head against the window next to his seat and stared out at the landscape as it flashed by. He was moving so fast it was almost impossible to discern one place from the next. He’d passed a blur of city buildings, a blur of farmland, a blur of forest. Now it was an endless sea of houses and apartment complexes, streaming by in streaks of color.
It had been a busy day. He’d rested far better than he’d expected the night before, sleeping in the same dark alley where he’d ended up after fleeing from Gabriela. But he woke up feeling fresh and nervously excited about getting on with his new life, especially by finding Sarah. And then the day had unfolded in a flurry of errands to prepare for his trip.
He’d written a short note to Jackson Porter’s family and dropped it off at their apartment, unable to think of a better way to do it than the old-school method of pen and paper. He had to hope his handwriting hadn’t changed when he took over Jackson’s body and that Kaine didn’t have more people watching the house. The message was brief to lessen the risk of saying something that didn’t sound like their boy, simply telling them that he had things he wanted to see in the world, things he wanted to do. That he was sorry for taking so much money but he wanted them to know he’d be okay. That maybe he’d come back someday.
Blah, blah, blah.
It was, of course, ridiculous. They’d call the police and come looking for him, no matter what he wrote. But at least they’d know he was alive. After seeing the broken door, their minds would no doubt go wild with awful possibilities of where he might be.
He signed the letter, saying he loved them. Which almost made him choke up, because it felt as if he were saying it to the parents he’d known in Lifeblood Deep. The ones who still felt like his parents. Whom he’d never see again.
After showering and eating, he’d packed a suitcase he found in Jackson’s closet, then stood for a moment in the hallway outside the apartment. The apartment that should’ve felt like home but didn’t. As for the broken door, he didn’t know what to do, so he propped it up against the wall. Who knew what they’d think. Feeling a sadness that just confused him even more, he walked away.
The first thing he’d done after that was go to a bank station. He needed to make sure that what he’d done on Jackson’s NetScreen had worked. He breathed a great sigh of relief when the account of one Michael Peterson appeared, filled with plenty of money. From there Michael went to a Net store and bought one of the finest EarCuffs on the market, then had the old one destroyed and the new one installed. He arranged his travel and booked a hotel in a town near Sarah’s, and now here he was, on a train, heading toward the girl who’d become one of his two best friends. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been melting in a pool of lava. Hopefully she’d fared better in real life.
The dizzying view rushing by outside the window was starting to make him queasy. He shifted and scanned the other passengers sitting around him. The seats of the train alternated direction so that groups of people could face each other and chat during the trip. His gaze fell on a woman about five rows away, whose eyes met his for the briefest of moments. She quickly—too quickly—looked down and studied something intently on her NetScreen.