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Gunner inspected himself. He looked … different, though he couldn’t say just how. On some level, he already understood what had happened, but he couldn’t piece it together.

“Who are you?” he asked the stranger, not knowing what else he could possibly say.

The man smiled, as genuine as they come. “I’m a Tangent, Mr. Skale. And now so are you. I’m sorry to break this news to you, but your intelligence has been removed from your body. Downloaded into safe storage, formatted into what I see before me. The new Gunner Skale, if you will. I hope in time you’ll see that I simply had no choice in the matter.”

Gunner’s instinct was to argue against such an impossible thing. Except that he knew in his gut, somehow, that it was true. “How? … Why?”

“It’s better than death, wouldn’t you say?” The man had not stopped smiling. He also hadn’t moved. Not an inch. “You’re a valuable asset in times like these, so I’ve decided to spare you. In a manner of speaking. And my demands are quite simple. If you do what I say, and if you do it well … then, when all of this is over and the world has changed, I’ll give you life once again. This I promise you. You’ll have a new body, younger and stronger, and your final gift will be immortality.”

Gunner had never felt so disconnected, so … untethered, as he listened to the man’s words. Comprehension still waited over a horizon unseen.

“It will take time to process,” the stranger continued. “Time to adapt and accept. But in the end, you’ll thank me. You’ll be an active part in the greatest leap of human evolution the universe will probably ever witness.”

“But my …” Gunner collapsed to his knees, saw the mist swirl away from him in dancing eddies. He’d been the fiercest fighter the Sleep had ever seen, but now he had nothing left in him. Gaming had taught him many things, but perhaps one lesson above all else: Know when you’re defeated, and save victory for another day.

“Rachel,” he whispered. He broke into sobs, chest heaving with the pain of accepting the stranger’s words. Everything had been taken from him. Everything. He could barely handle the splitting ache of his heart, shattering.

“Rachel,” he finally said, as if no other word existed anymore.

“You can see her again.” The man finally moved, walking forward, then kneeling next to Gunner. He placed a hand on his shoulder, a mocking sign of comfort that enraged Gunner, but he forced himself to rein his anger in. “Do as I ask. Help me. Change the world. Then we’ll find you a new body and you can be reunited with your wife. Again, you have my solemn promise.”

Gunner looked up at the man through the tears that streamed from his eyes. “What? What do you want me to do?”

The stranger slowly stood, helping Gunner do the same so that they faced each other, only a few feet apart. Then the Tangent who’d taken everything away from Gunner Skale told him what he had to do to get it back.

“I want you to help me build a Path,” the man said. “And then I want you to guard it. And someday you’ll be reunited with Rachel.”

Rachel, Gunner thought, his mind fuzzy. I know that name. Don’t I?