My eyes fly open. I am not where I should be.
White light flashes overhead, stars flicker and flare in the darkness that rings my vision. People in white and blue yell soundlessly around me, their voices drowned out by the ringing in my ears. Panic surges through me first. Then comes the pain.
Utter, blinding agony burns through my body, except for where it doesn’t: dark patches, like voids, that scare me more than what hurts. Places I can’t feel anymore, where parts of me are missing.
I don’t look down at myself—can’t look down, even if I wanted to. Bile rises in my throat, tears burn my eyes, and my head—oh, god, my head—feels as if it’s splitting apart. My heart hammers against my ribcage, struggling against the inevitable.
I’m dying. I feel my body giving up around me, the heaviness tugging at my mind. The doctors seem less frantic now, having realized the same thing as me. They are waiting, their too-bright eyes darting off to the side.
If I close my eyes, I can remember fragments of where I should be: a scorching car, wind lashing my face, Paiden laughing as her soft hands caress the steering wheel, her hair lit by summer sunlight—
I gasp, choke, gripped by panic once more at the thought of Paiden. A nurse leans close as I try to form the sounds that make up Paiden’s name. It’s almost impossible for me, but she seems to understand. Through the cacophony in my mind, I hear the nurse’s words.
“She’s going to be fine.”
I blink in response, it’s all the thanks I can give. The nurse raises her hand to show me a hypodermic needle filled with a clear liquid, her eyebrows drawn together apologetically. There’s no need for words, I understand instantly. My breath quickens. No, I don’t want to lose this, I scream in my head. Don’t let me lose this.
All I can manage is a weak moan. I can’t fight this.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse says, though I barely hear her. “This won’t hurt at all. I’ll see you on the other side.”
I don’t even feel the needle pierce my skin.
Soft. Warm. Dark.
Awareness comes to me slowly. I am wrapped in clouds, but my head swims in thick fog, like tar. Sticky. Heavy. Dark.
I want to fall back into the velvet blackness, where the world of the living doesn’t exist. It’s so cozy there. Can’t the real world wait?
But no, it can’t. Piece by piece, I become aware of my measured breaths, my fingertips against smooth sheets, the white light pressing down against my eyelids. As I find my body again, the memories find me as well. Paiden’s laugh, the crease between the nurse’s eyebrows, my own fear. I remember all of this, but I can’t remember why I was so scared; I knew I would be fine, even if my body wasn’t. And here I am now, alive and safe. Inhuman, because of the fact.
I take the plunge. I open my eyes.
Paiden is the first thing I see, her blonde hair pulled back into a long braid, her eyelashes dark and thick with mascara. Her eyes are as bright as the sun itself. In this too-white hospital room, she in her yellow dress seems the only real colour.
“Good morning,” she says, voice cracked with exhaustion. There are no signs of damage on her, no cuts or bruises to speak of, though the concealer beneath her eyes can’t entirely hide the shadows. She is older than me in more ways than one, and her maturity is settled upon her shoulders like a familiar weight. My girlfriend, I think. At my awakening, she reaches a hand out to cup my face, a known comfort for us both.
I recoil. I can’t help it, something in my stomach twists at her touch. She jerks back, an apology already on her lips—but why should she be sorry, when it’s my body that refused her touch just now? I think of her soft skin, the light, downy hair on her arms, and it’s almost as if my own skin becomes ice. I look into her eyes, and the warmth I had so taken for granted is no longer within my chest. I suddenly feel as if I have lost more than just a body.
I am empty. I have died, and returned without a heart.
“I’m sorry,” I say, gazing instead at the outside world through a wide window. “I’m just tired.”
She clears her throat. “Yeah, it can take a while to get used to a new body.” A breathy laugh, deeper than you’d expect. “Not that I’d know personally. It’s what they told me.”
Outside, a breeze stirs sunlit leaves. Inside, it is almost too awkward for me to speak to my girlfriend. I should be happy to see her, and I suppose I am, in the quiet way I feel when I flip open the cover of a favourite book. There’s no strength to the feeling, none of the visceral fire I’m so used to.
“Allegra,” she breathes, a pleading note in her voice. I have avoided her face too long, and we both know it. “Are you mad at me?”
Startled, I turn back to her. “Mad? Why would I be mad?”
“Because I was driving when we were hit…” her voice fades out. Her hand twitches, halted in its attempt to hold mine.
“You weren’t driving, though,” I say. “The car was.”
“But I was still in the driver’s seat, I should have been able to do something—”
“I don’t blame you for anything. You shouldn’t, either.”
“Easy for you to say, you didn’t get your girlfriend killed.”
“I’m not sure I got the easy part of this,” I say, unable to keep the frustration from clipping my words. I am tired and upset, and her self-pity is only grating my nerves when we should be holding each other, happy we’re both alive and together.
Her heavy eyelashes shadow her eyes as she bows her head. “You’re right. I’m sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. I’m going to leave you to rest more, okay?”
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll talk to you soon?”
“Of course.” She stands and hesitates, back half-bent towards me, paused in the trajectory of a kiss. But I can’t force myself towards her, and she straightens. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” My stomach churns.
Lauren’s dulled, natural eyes scan her pad, then dart back to me. Her smile is too wide and cheery to be entirely real. Why a human would have her job is already beyond me, but how she maintains her constant perkiness is a mystery even the greatest artificial minds can’t solve. I once asked her why she decided on this career. She told me that there was nothing more exciting than working with people who could live a thousand lives.
Then, she winked at me conspiratorially, and said, “Besides, if you all start another uprising, I’d rather be a human you like.”
Always the optimist.
“Looks to me like you’ve integrated perfectly with your new body,” she says, nearly bouncing with delight. “How wonderful!”
“I don’t feel like myself,” I say. I’m shocked at how angry I sound, like a sulking teenager. She smacks her lips.
“Yes, yes. That’s completely normal. Though you’ve still got your mind, this is a different brain to what you’re used to. And—” she lowers her voice and perches upon the foot of my bed “—as you know, your body’s previous host was depressed. There are many things we can cure, but depression isn’t one of them.”
Depressed. That’s definitely what she was. They tell me the poor thing was found by her father, having killed herself. I can’t imagine the pain that must have brought her to that point, nor the pain her parents must now feel. Did she hope, as a donor, that her body would find a better, happier life?
I wish I could promise her that. Donors are rare right now, she was the only one to match me at the time of my death. Now I might—I refuse to believe in the absolute—have depression, and an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. In a perfect world, these things might be screened more thoroughly, or even have cures of a kind. But I guess in a perfect world, she would still be alive, and I would be without a body.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” Lauren says. “Well, not lucky. But it’s not like any natural mind could come back from what you went through.”
“Right,” I say. My head is heavy. “Lucky me.”
She leaves not long after, but her floral scent lingers in the room, as does her impression upon my bed sheets. I stare at the ceiling and wonder when my sister will visit. If she will visit. For her, what I’m going through is barely consequential. Swapping bodies, in her mind, is like buying a new car: annoying, but sometimes necessary. She’ll be busy working away, storing data as if she were really a computer and had never been presented the chance to be something else. I can see her in my head, her fingernails clacking against the keyboard at a mile an hour, her attention focused only on the words of old files from before the Accord. Or perhaps during, or even after.
For a moment, I find myself hating her. Another moment later, I’m too exhausted to even be angry. She is what she is, it’s hardly her fault I’ve tried to be otherwise.
Movement catches my eyes from the open doorway that leads into the hall, and in a moment of hopeful stupidity, I think she might finally have come to see me.
Instead, I find a young woman framed by the light of the hallway, her eyes dark and intense. I search her face, and though my heart skips ever-so-slightly at the sight of her, there’s not even a spark of recognition in my mind. A complete stranger. Her chin juts forward as she stares at me.
“Hello?” I ask. “Do I know you?”
She glowers for a few seconds more. I almost think she’s about to leap at me with a knife when she turns and vanishes beyond the doorway without a single word.
I guess I wasn’t who she was looking for.
The drive home is spent largely in silence, heavy as the summer stormclouds that hang threateningly over the town. Rain spatters against the windscreen, the wipers sweeping back and forth hypnotically. My sister, Addison, is focused on her pad; the car can handle the road itself. I can’t calm the anxiety that filled my stomach the moment the engines started, but at least Addison doesn’t notice the way I flinch at every bump in the road.
The car that crashed into Paiden and I as we drove wasn’t driven by itself, but by a man who later informed the reporters that the incident was the fault of artificial intelligence—our fault, in other words. Because our car couldn’t save both of our bodies, because in his mind, a human can do no wrong when ersatz are involved. Nevermind that he pulled out of an intersection without looking, nevermind that if I’d been human, he would have destroyed me entirely.
It’s not manslaughter when it’s only a body. I am, as everyone likes to remind me, still alive after all.
His poor car, who could only watch the horror unfold, trapped by her programming and unable to do anything to stop it because of his stubbornness. I can only hope she wasn’t destroyed in the crash.
Sighing, Addison lowers her pad. She inhales in that way that tells me she’s about to speak. I drag my thoughts away from the crash.
“How is your new body?” she asks.
“It feels wrong,” I reply, deciding on the truth. Addison’s current body isn’t her first, and if anyone can give me advice, I want it to be her.
“You’re still getting used to the transfer,” she says. “You’ll feel normal soon enough.”
“Okay,” I say, disappointed that her answer is nothing new. I can’t entirely believe that everything will be fine, though I can’t tell if that’s really me talking, or the depression I’ve apparently inherited. Maybe she’s right, and after a good night’s sleep in my own bed I’ll start feeling more like myself.
I hope she’s right.
“I can make you a booking for a therapist when we get home, if you’d like. It might help you deal with, uh, your new problems,” she says. A lump rises in my throat at the thought of sitting in a chilled room, my mind picked apart by a therapist. The last thing I want is to talk to a stranger about this. I don’t even want to talk to my girlfriend about it.
“No, it’s fine,” I say, maybe a little too quickly. Addison nods curtly and, upon deciding there’s nothing more to say, returns to her pad until we pull into our garage. As soon as I can, I slink away to my room to hide with a plastic container of cold leftovers. I kick my door closed and place the container on my desk, turning to face the wall-length mirror that makes up my closet door.
A few years back I bleached my hair and dyed it a soft blue, and for a whole week after I felt a pang of shock every time I caught my reflection. As if there was an imposter in my reflection’s place.
Standing here now, staring at a stranger’s body in my mirror, feels much worse. As if I’m only an audience member watching somebody else’s life. I could almost believe that I’m playing a hyperreal VR game, except for the lack of a heavy headset. I can’t avoid the fact that this is real life.
This body is shorter than I’m used to, a little rounder too. Her hips—wait, no, my hips—curve out further than before, and I can’t help the sway in my step. My new hair is dark as ink, and it tumbles just as thick over my shoulders, down to my elbows. When I lean close to the mirror I can see a hint of freckles dusting my nose. My bright eyes shine back at me from eyelids soaked with sleepless shadows.
Lifting my shirt, I find a thin, white line bisecting my torso. Where they cut the dead girl open and pieced her back together for me. There’s cream in my bag meant for clearing the scars, but the effort of it is too much for me tonight.
Besides, I kind of like the scar. It reminds me that this body was not always mine.