The Mortality Doctrine 01: The Eye of Minds, Page 2James Dashner
Michael knew it’d be in the NewsBops soon. They’d report that he had been with her, and the VNS—VirtNet Security—would probably come and talk to him about it. They definitely would.
Dead. She was dead. As lifeless as the sagging mattress on his bed.
It all hit him then. Hit him like a fastball to the face.
Michael barely made it to the bathroom before throwing up everything in his stomach. And then he collapsed to the floor and pulled himself into a ball. No tears came—he wasn’t the crying sort—but he stayed there for a long time.
Michael knew that most people, when they felt as if the earth itself decided it just didn’t like them anymore, when they felt like they were at the bottom of a dark pit, went to their mom or dad. Maybe a brother, maybe a sister. Those with none of the above might find themselves knocking at the door of an aunt, a grandpa, a third cousin twice removed.
But not Michael. He went to Bryson and Sarah, the two best friends a person could ever ask for. They knew him like no one else, and they didn’t care what he said or did or wore or ate. And he returned the favor whenever they needed him. But there was something very strange about their friendship.
Michael had never met them.
Not literally, anyway. Not yet. They were VirtNet friends through and through, though. He’d gotten to know them first in the beginning levels of Lifeblood, and they’d grown closer and closer the higher up they went. The three of them had joined forces almost from the day they met to move up in the Game of all Games. They were the Terrible Trio, the Trifecta to Dissect-ya, the Burn-and-Pillage-y Trilogy. Their nicknames didn’t make them many friends—they’d been branded cocky by some, idiots by others—but they had fun, so they didn’t care.
The bathroom floor was hard, and Michael couldn’t lie there forever, so he pulled himself together and headed straight for his favorite place on earth to sit.
It was just a normal piece of furniture, but it was the most comfortable thing he’d ever sat on, like sinking into a man-made cloud. He had some thinking to do, and he needed to arrange a meeting with his best friends. He plopped down and looked out the window at the sad gray exterior of the apartment complex across the street. It looked like a dreary rainstorm frozen solid.
The only thing marring the bleakness was a huge sign advertising Lifeblood Deep—bloodred letters on a black plaque, nothing else. As if the game designers were fully aware that the words alone were all they needed. Everyone knew them, and everyone wanted in on the action, wanted to earn the right to go there someday. Michael was like every other player—just one of the herd.
He thought of Gunner Skale, the greatest player in Lifeblood the VirtNet had ever known. But the man had disappeared off the grid recently—rumor had it he’d been swallowed by the Deep itself, lost in the game he’d loved so much. Skale was a legend, and gamer after gamer had gone searching for him in the darkest corners of the Sleep—fruitlessly, as it turned out. At least, so far. Michael wanted nothing more than to reach that kind of level, to become the world’s new Gunner Skale. He just had to do it before the new guy on the scene. This … Kaine.
Michael squeezed his EarCuff—the small piece of metal attached to his earlobe—and his NetScreen and keyboard flashed on before him, hovering in midair. The Bulletin showed him that Bryson was already online and that Sarah had said she’d be back in a few.
Michael’s fingers began to dance across the shining red keys.
Mikethespike: Hey, Bryson, quit gawkin’ at the Gorgozon nests and talk to me. I saw some serious business today.
His friend’s response was almost instant; Bryson spent even more time than Michael online or in the Coffin—and typed like a secretary filled with three cups of coffee.
Brystones: Serious, huh? A Lifeblood cop bust you at the Dunes again? Remember, they only come by every 13 minutes!
Mikethespike: I told you what I was doing. Had to stop that chick from jumping off the bridge. Didn’t go so hot.
Brystones: Why? She nosedive?
Mikethespike: Don’t think I should talk about it here. We need to meet up in the Sleep.
Brystones: Dude, it must’ve been bad. We were just there a few hours ago—can we meet 2morrow?
Mikethespike: Just meet me back at the deli. One hour. Get Sarah there, too. I gotta go shower. I smell like armpits.
Brystones: Glad we’re not meeting in real life, then. Not too fond of the B.O.
Mikethespike: Speaking of that—we need to just do it. Meet for real. You don’t live THAT far away.
Brystones: But the Wake is so boring. What’s the point?
Mikethespike: Because that’s what humans do. They meet each other and shake real hands.
Brystones: I’d rather give you a hug on Mars.
Mikethespike: NO HUGS. See you in an hour. Get Sarah!
Brystones: Will do. Go scrub your nasty pits.
Mikethespike: I said I SMELL like them, not … Never mind. Later.
Michael squeezed his EarCuff and watched the NetScreen and keyboard dissolve like a stiff wind had blown through. Then, after one last glance at the Lifeblood Deep ad—its red-on-black letters like a taunt, names like Gunner Skale and Kaine floating through his head—he headed for the shower.
The VirtNet was a funny thing. It was so real that sometimes Michael wished it wasn’t as high-tech. Like when he was hot and sweaty or when he tripped and stubbed a toe or when a girl smacked him in the face. The Coffin made him feel every last bit of it—the only other option was to adjust for less sensory input, but then why bother playing if you didn’t go all the way?
The same realism that created the pain and discomfort in the Sleep sometimes had a positive side, though. The food. Especially when you’re good enough at coding to take what you want when you’re a little short on cash. Eyes closed to access the raw data, manipulate a few lines of programming, and voilà—a free feast.
Michael sat with Bryson and Sarah at their usual table outside of Dan the Man’s Deli, attacking a huge plate of the Groucho Nachos, while back in the real world the Coffin was feeding them pure, healthy nutrients intravenously. A person couldn’t rely solely on the Coffin’s nutrition function, of course—it wasn’t something meant to sustain human life for months at a time—but it sure was nice during the long sessions. And the best part was that you only got fat in the Sleep if you programmed yourself that way, no matter how much you ate.
Despite the delicious food, their conversation quickly took a depressing turn.
“I read it on the NewsBops as soon as Bryson told me,” Sarah said. Her appearance in the VirtNet was understated—a pretty face, long brown hair, tan skin, almost no makeup. “There’s been a few Core recodings in the last week or so. Gives me the heebie-jeebies. Rumor is that this guy Kaine is somehow trapping people inside the Sleep, not letting them wake up. So some of them kill themselves. Can you believe it? A cyber-terrorist.”
Bryson was nodding. He looked like a damaged football player—big, thick, and everything just a little off-kilter. He always said he was so freaking hot in the real world that he needed an escape from the ladies while hanging in the VirtNet. “Heebie-jeebies?” he repeated. “Our good friend here saw a girl dig into her own skull and pull her Core out, toss it, then jump off a bridge. I guess heebie-jeebies is a start.”
“Fine—I guess I need a stronger word,” she replied. “The point is something’s happening, and a gamer’s being blamed for it. Who ever heard of people hacking into their own systems to commit suicide? VirtNet Security has never had this problem before.”
“Unless VNS has been hiding it,” Bryson added.
“Who would do what she did?” Michael murmured, more to himself than to the others. He knew his stuff, and suicides within the Sleep had always been rare. Real suicides, anyway. “Some people like the rush of offing themselves in th
e Sleep without the real consequences—but I’ve never seen this before. The skill and knowledge to pull it off … I don’t even think I could do it. Now several in a week?”
“And what about this gamer—Kaine?” Bryson asked. “I’ve heard he’s big-time, but how could someone possibly trap others inside the Sleep? It has to be all talk.”
The tables around them had just grown quiet, and the name seemed to echo throughout the room. People stared at Bryson, and Michael understood why. Kaine was becoming infamous, and the name made people pale. Over the last few months, he’d been infiltrating everything from games to private meeting rooms, terrorizing his victims with visions and physically attacking them. Michael hadn’t heard the part about trapping people until Tanya, but the very name Kaine haunted the virtual world, as if he lingered just out of sight no matter where you went. Bryson was all fake bravado.
Michael shrugged off the other customers in the café and focused on his friends. “She kept saying it was Kaine’s fault. That she was trapped by him and couldn’t take it anymore. Something about stealing bodies? And things called KillSims. I’m telling you, even before she started on that Core, I could see it in her eyes that she was dead serious. She definitely ran across him somewhere.”
“We don’t even know much about the guy behind Kaine yet,” Sarah offered. “I’ve read every story on him, and that’s all there are—stories. No one has any scoop on the gamer himself. No pics, no audio or video, nothing. It’s like he’s not real.”
“It’s the VirtNet,” Bryson countered. “Things don’t have to be real to be real. That’s the whole point.”
“No.” Sarah shook her head. “He’s a gamer. A person. Lying in a Coffin. With all that publicity we should know more about him. The media should be all over this guy. The VNS should be able to track him, at least.”
Michael felt like they were getting nowhere. “Hey, back to me, guys. I’m supposed to be traumatized, and you’re supposed to be making me feel better. So far, you suck at it.”
A look of genuine concern crossed Bryson’s face. “No doubt, dude. Sorry, but glad it was you, not me. I know that whole suicide negotiation thing is part of the Lifeblood experience stuff, but who could’ve known yours would be a real one? I probably wouldn’t sleep for a week after seeing something like that.”
“Still sucking,” Michael replied with a halfhearted laugh. In truth, he was better now just being with his friends, but something inside him felt like it was trying to gnaw its way out. Something dark with big teeth that didn’t want him to ignore it.
Sarah leaned over and squeezed his arm. “Neither of us has a clue what it must’ve been like,” she said softly. “And we’d be idiots to pretend. But I’m sorry it happened.”
Michael just blushed and looked at the floor. Thankfully, Bryson brought them back to reality.
“I gotta use the bathroom,” he announced, standing up. A person even did stuff like that inside the Sleep, while your real body took care of business back in the Coffin. Everything was meant to feel real. Everything.
“Charming,” Sarah said through a sigh as she released Michael’s arm and sat back in her chair. “Simply charming.”
They talked for another hour or so, ending with their usual promise to meet in the real world soon. Bryson told them if they didn’t do it by the end of the month, he’d start cutting off a finger every day until it happened. Michael’s, not his own. That got a much-needed laugh.
The three of them said their goodbyes at a Portal, and Michael Lifted back to the Wake, going through the usual routine inside the Coffin until he could get out. As he walked over to the Chair, his gaze naturally landed on the big ad for Lifeblood Deep outside his window, followed by the usual few seconds of coveting and figurative drooling. He almost sat down but changed his mind, knowing he’d never get up, exhausted and sore head to toe. And he hated falling asleep in the Chair—he always woke up with cricks in places humans weren’t meant to have cricks.
He sighed and, trying not to think of the girl named Tanya who’d killed herself right before his eyes, somehow made it over to his bed. Then he collapsed into a long night of dreamless sleep.
Getting himself out of bed the next morning was like breaking out of a cocoon. It took twenty minutes for the smart side of his brain to convince the stupid side that taking a sick day at school wasn’t a good idea. He’d already been out seven times this semester. One or two more and they’d start cracking down.
He’d only gotten more sore in the night from his plummet into the bay with Tanya, and that strange feeling still turned in his stomach. Somehow, though, Michael made it to the breakfast table, where his nanny, Helga, had just placed a plate of eggs and bacon. A nanny, his amazing VirtNet setup, a nice apartment—he had a lot to thank his wealthy parents for. They traveled a lot, and at the moment he couldn’t remember when they’d left or when they were getting back. But they made it up to him with the many things they gave him. Between school, the VirtNet, and Helga, he hardly had time to miss them.
“Good morning, Michael,” Helga said with her slight but still noticeable German accent. “I trust you slept well, yes?”
He grunted, and she smiled. That’s why he loved Helga. She didn’t get all huffy or offended when all you wanted to do was grunt like an animal waking from hibernation. It was no skin off her back.
And her food was delicious. Almost as good as in the VirtNet. Michael finished every morsel of breakfast, then headed out the door to catch the train.
The streets were bustling—suits and skirts and coffee cups as far as the eye could see. There were so many people that Michael could almost swear they were doubling like reproducing cells right before his eyes. Everyone had the usual blank, bored look that Michael knew well. Like him, they’d suffer and slog through their dreary jobs or school until they could get back home and enter the VirtNet once again.
Michael entered the flow, dodging commuters left and right, and made his way down the avenue, then turned right at his usual shortcut—a one-way alley full of trash cans and piles of garbage. He couldn’t understand why the discarded trash never seemed to actually make it into the big metal containers. But on a morning like this, sharing the street with empty chip bags and discarded banana peels beat the heck out of the marching masses.
He was halfway to the other side of the alley when the screech of tires stopped him in his tracks. The surge of an engine reverberated up the street from behind and Michael spun around. The instant he saw the oncoming car—its paint gray and dull, like a dying storm—he knew. He knew that this car had something to do with him and that it wasn’t going to have a happy ending.
He turned and ran, recognizing on some level that whoever was after him had planned to trap him in that alley. The end seemed miles away now; he’d never make it. The sound of the car grew louder as it gained on him, and despite all the strange and crazy things he’d experienced in the Sleep, terror exploded in Michael’s chest. Real terror. And he thought, What a way to end—squashed like a bug in a trash-riddled alley.
He didn’t dare glance behind him, but he could feel the approach of the vehicle. It was close, and he had no chance of outrunning it. He gave up on trying to flee and dove behind the next garbage pile. The car screeched to a halt as he rolled and jumped back to his feet, ready to sprint in the other direction. The rear door of the sedan popped open and out stepped a sharply dressed man with a black ski mask pulled over his head, eyes fixed on Michael through slits in the fabric. Michael froze, just for an instant, but it was long enough. The man tackled him, slamming his body to the ground.
Michael opened his mouth to scream, but a cold hand clamped over his face, silencing him. Panic cut through his body like a hot sword, and adrenaline flooded his system as he twisted and shoved his attacker. But the man was too strong and flipped Michael over onto his stomach, pinning his arms behind him.
“Stop fighting,” the stranger said. “
No one’s gonna hurt you, but we don’t have time to mess around. I need you to get in the car.”
Michael’s face was pressed against the cement. “Oh really? I’ll be perfectly safe? I was just thinking that.”
“Shut your smart-aleck mouth, kid. We just can’t let anybody know who we are. Now get in the car.”
The man got to his feet, dragging Michael up with him.
“Your butt,” the stranger said, pausing for effect. “In the car.”
Michael made one last pathetic attempt to break free, but it was useless. The man’s grip was iron-strong. Michael had no choice but to do what he was told. The fight drained out of him, and he let the man guide him to the backseat of the car, where he squeezed in next to another masked man. The door slammed shut and the car lurched forward, the screech of the tires echoing up the walls of the concrete canyon.
As the car tore out of the alley and onto the main road, Michael’s mind spun—who were these people, and where were they taking him? Another wave of panic washed over him, and he acted. He slammed his elbow into the crotch of the guy to his left, then lunged for the door as the man doubled over in agony, cursing things that would’ve made even Bryson blush. Michael’s fingers had just curled around the door handle when the original thug yanked him backward, his arm encircling Michael’s neck. The man squeezed until Michael was gasping for air.
“Stop it, boy,” he said far too calmly. For some reason those were the last words Michael wanted to hear. Anger surged in his chest, and he struggled to break free from the grip.