The Game of Lives, Page 2James Dashner
“Let’s get you inside,” she said, her accent far from the German that Michael realized he’d been expecting, “before the world falls apart.”
Then she turned and headed back toward the barracks.
“Today, dude, today.” It was a bad time for Bryson to take a year and a half to get out of the car. Michael had never been so impatient in his life. He had to find out the truth about this Helga and the people she was with. They could help him get back to the Hallowed Ravine.
“I’m coming, man, chill!” Bryson responded. But he still hadn’t moved. He gave Michael a hard look. “Are we sure about this?”
“Yes,” Michael and Sarah answered at the same time. Sarah’s parents were already out of the car, closing their doors.
“Would you go so far as to say…you’re sure as heckfire?” Bryson pressed. “My grandma used to say that. If you say you’re sure as heckfire, then I’m in.”
Michael willed himself to calm down. “Yes. I’m sure as heckfire.”
“Okay, then.” Bryson climbed out of the backseat, Michael half pushing his friend to get him out faster. Sarah got out on the other side, and the group followed her father up a trampled path of weeds to the door, which stood ajar. Gerard didn’t hesitate. He walked right in. Michael and his friends followed.
The tall woman who’d greeted them was waiting for them, but that wasn’t what got Michael’s attention.
When his eyes adjusted to the light, he was shocked by what he saw. It was as if he’d stepped into a completely different world. The beat-up, weathered building housed a technological wonderland. Low-glare LED lights lined the ceiling, illuminating the green haze of dozens of NetScreens. A row of blue Coffins lined one wall; a row of desks lined another, men and women working furiously at them. Fresh lumber had been used to reinforce the walls and ceiling, and Michael noticed that they’d used some sort of plastic to patch the various holes in the roof.
Their host’s voice cut through Michael’s daze, breaking the silence. “We had to find a location that was remote—”
“Mission accomplished,” Bryson muttered.
“—and yet had a power source and access to the satellite VirtNet feeds. This is an old training facility for army tech warriors, abandoned a decade ago due to budget cuts. Turns out it worked perfectly for our needs. Took a couple of weeks to set up, but here we are. Already down to business.”
Michael had a million questions, but one stood out above all others.
He faced the tall woman and took a step closer to her, looking into her eyes carefully. “Gerard said you told him your name was Helga. And that you’re a Tangent. Does…” He had no idea how to phrase what he wanted to ask.
Michael was surprised to see tears glistening in her eyes, blurring the reflections of the lights in the room. “Yes,” she said. Then she wrapped her arms around him, pulling him into a crushing hug. “So you must be Michael, then. My boy.”
Michael’s eyes widened and it took him a moment to return the embrace. “You’re…Helga? Really? But how?” She’d quickly come to accept him in his new body, but he didn’t know if he could do the same.
She pulled back from him, her eyes fierce despite being wet. “There’s a lot to tell. A lot to catch up on. In brief, we’ve been on Kaine’s trail since even before you crossed paths with him. We stole the Mortality Doctrine program from him. Copied a version of it, anyway. We had to do it, Michael. We had to come here into the real world if we ever wanted to save the virtual one.”
The carsick feeling washed over Michael again. “Wait…you…stole people’s bodies?” He took a step backward. “You…How do I even know you’re really Helga? How can I trust any of you? At all?”
The woman who claimed to be his old nanny smiled kindly. “Good questions, all,” she said. “And I’ll answer each and every one. I think it will be easy enough to prove who I am. I’ll answer something only you know….”
She paused, carefully looking over Michael’s group. It was obvious they were as concerned as he was. They’d committed themselves to stopping this sort of thing. And yet their rescuers were no better than Kaine, apparently.
“We haven’t…killed anyone,” the tall woman finally clarified. Her stance had grown formal again, her expression no longer tender. But Michael could see a deep sadness in those eyes. “Not the true death, anyway.”
“The true death?” Sarah repeated, shooting a wary look at Michael. He suddenly felt like the ground below him was shifting.
“Please,” the woman said, clearly frustrated by her audience’s turn. “Let’s just sit down and talk through it all, okay? Please.” She motioned toward a circle of chairs set up near the glowing Coffins.
Michael looked at Bryson and Sarah and shrugged, then started for the chairs, the words true death ringing in his ears.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” the tall woman said once they’d all taken a seat. “You need to know that I am who I say I am before you can trust me.” Helga gave the group a moment to get settled, then turned to Michael directly, looking into his eyes as she spoke. “I was your nanny, Helga. I am Helga. A part of me suspected that we might be Tangents, but you were real to me, Michael. Apart from everything Kaine has done, I think there were many of us who’d taken the leap to sentience—which slows down the Decay process significantly. I know you and I had taken that leap.” She’d begun to stare off into space, as if lost in a desert of old thoughts, then came back just as fast, waving it all away. “My point: you have been and always will be like a son to me. But let me prove it to you.”
Michael furrowed his brow, looking long and hard at her, as he thought through his options. The woman sat forward, leaning toward him, arms resting on her knees, hands clasped. She seemed genuine, her gaze intense and full of pain. The rest of the room was quiet as he focused all his attention on this woman. Helga. His future hung in the balance.
“Okay,” he said, trying to think clearly. “What was my favorite breakfast?”
“Wait a minute,” Bryson said just as their host opened her mouth to speak. “This isn’t going to prove a thing.” He turned to face Michael. “If your nanny was a Tangent, then Kaine could easily know every single detail about your life. An instant download, boom. Or worse, he could’ve programmed her! This is pointless.”
“You’re not helping,” Michael replied. His friend was right, and it was as frustrating as ever.
“No, he’s right,” the woman replied, standing up. “Not about Kaine—but about it being impossible for me to convince you beyond a doubt that I’m Helga. I could talk all day about how you love to eat waffles for breakfast and how when you were barely five years old you begged me to let you read that Stephen King novel and I made you stick to Judy Blume. Or about your broken leg when you were seven, or how many times I caught you trying to sneak into your dad’s Coffin before you were legal. How many nights I brought you cheese and crackers while you studied the coding logs on your NetScreen in bed, or how we worked frantically to clean up after the infamous Sleepover Party Incident before your parents got home from that business trip.”
She paused, a warm smile spread across her face, and Michael could do nothing but stare at her, slack-jawed.
“I could go on and on and on,” she continued. “But you’d never fully be convinced. Neither would your friends. I’m a piece of code, Michael. Nothing more. No one understands the pain of that more than I do, trust me. I’m not sure I know how to completely gain your trust.”
“Sheesh, I didn’t mean to insult everybody,” Bryson said sheepishly, looking down at the floor.
Michael realized that he himself was trembling, emotion welling up in his chest. Bryson had made an excellent point, and they couldn’t afford to ignore its implications. But at some point, Michael had to let himself trust again. Something. Someone. And if he had a truth radar, it was pinging like never before.
“It’s you,” he whispered.
No one responded. Maybe they hadn�
��t heard him.
“It’s you,” he said louder.
And then he ran to her and hugged her before anyone could see the tears spill from his eyes.
A CIRCLE OF HANDS
“It is me,” Helga whispered in his ear, patting him on the back. “I promise you. We’re going to get through the madness together.”
It had been a long time since Michael had felt anything like this—and it all crashed down on him at once. Happiness, sadness, nostalgia. He cried into his nanny’s shoulder as he remembered the parents he’d lost, the home he’d lost, the life he’d lost. He had his two best friends, but Helga was the only link to the world he’d known without them. And he’d been sure she was gone forever.
There were questions, yes. Concerns. But in that moment all he could feel was the sweet, burning warmth in his chest.
Finally, Helga gently took him by his shoulders and held him away from her. He was relieved to see that she had shed a tear or two as well.
“I might’ve convinced you,” she said through a weak smile, “but not them.” She nodded toward the others.
Totally embarrassed, Michael composed himself, wiped the tears from his cheeks. Then he turned to face his friends.
“It’s her,” he said with all the force he could muster after making such a scene. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I know it’s her.”
Surprisingly, it was Sarah who showed the most doubt. “Well, you’re going to have to figure out a way to explain it, Michael. We can’t just hand our lives over to this lady. What she did…stealing a body…it’s no better than what Kaine’s doing.”
The last word had barely come out of her mouth before the rest of the group erupted into chatter, talking on top of talking, until Michael shouted for them to shut up.
“Listen to me!” he said, looking straight at his friends and Sarah’s parents. “You don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a Tangent. We might be a bunch of code to you guys, but I can’t accept that. There’s more to us. I know it. I’m a person, I have a mind, I can think for myself, and I don’t care what anyone else says. I mean, I could just as easily be programmed as Helga. At some point you have to go with your heart! My parents were real, as far as I’m concerned, until Kaine wiped them out. And Helga…she’s like a grandma to me. This is Helga. I know it.”
“Grandma?” Helga asked. “Really?”
“Sorry. Best aunt ever.”
Sarah walked up to stand right in front of Michael, and she stared at him for several seconds. “You’re sure?”
He nodded firmly. “I’m positive.” He looked over at Bryson. “Sure as heckfire.”
Bryson shrugged. “I guess we just have to trust you,” he said reluctantly.
“You don’t need to worry about us being like Kaine,” Helga interjected. “There’s a difference. A huge difference.”
It was Gerard’s turn to speak. “Yeah?” he pressed. “So enlighten us. What’s this huge difference?”
Michael trusted Helga, but he was definitely interested.
“The difference,” Helga said, “is that we’re here to stop what Kaine’s doing. The difference is that we triggered the Mortality Doctrine only because it was a last resort. And the biggest difference…” She paused for a moment. “The biggest difference is that we plan to give these bodies back. Hopefully very soon. I highly doubt Kaine plans to do the same.”
“Give them back?” Bryson asked. “How?”
Helga sat down in her chair. “It’s time I tell you about the Hive.”
The Hive. The words jarred Michael, and his group quieted. He looked at Sarah and Bryson and nodded to the chairs. “Can we listen to what she has to say, guys?” he asked. The group didn’t answer, but everyone sat down, ready to hear her out.
“The Hive,” she repeated, once everyone was settled. “Kaine created it—for what ultimate purpose we’re not completely sure—and he protects it and maintains it, and we’ve figured out how to get there. To break in, I should say. The Hive is the key to everything, the key to restoring things to the way they were, before”—Helga gestured to herself sadly—“all this.”
“But what is the Hive?” Sarah insisted. “We’ve never heard of it.”
“Ah, yes,” Helga said quietly, “of course. The Hive is where intelligence is stored. Intelligences, actually. Plural.”
“You mean, like the brain of the VirtNet?” Bryson asked.
Helga shook her head. “No, nothing like that. It’s a quantum storage facility. It has the capacity to store massive amounts of data, including backups of Tangent programs. We’ve discovered that it’s also where a consciousness is sent when a Tangent takes over a body. Where the mind is stored.” Helga turned to Michael. “What’s the name of the person you replaced? Jackson Park?”
“Porter,” Michael corrected her.
“Yes, Porter. Well, Kaine didn’t destroy him when he enacted the Mortality Doctrine on you. It doesn’t work that way. Again, for reasons we don’t know, the intelligence, the…memories, the personality, the knowledge of Jackson Porter, must be preserved. We have theories—for instance, it might be a necessary part of the process. For the human body left behind to survive, the consciousness might need to be kept alive as well. If such a connection was completely severed, who knows if the physical body could handle it. What I’m saying is that your body still has a link to Jackson Porter…to what makes him, him. We think it’s similar to the technology used for the Core you need to Sink in a NerveBox.”
Michael’s heartbeat picked up uncomfortably. “Wh-what are you saying?” He could barely get the question out.
“I’m saying that the intelligence of the person you replaced still exists, intact and whole. His consciousness is stored in a place called the Hive.”
“That’s…” Michael swallowed. “That’s…confusing?”
Helga stood up. “I think the best way to do this is to show you.”
Michael looked at Bryson and Sarah and her parents. Everyone appeared as stunned as he felt.
“Yes,” Helga said. “I think that’s what we’ll do. Let’s Sink.”
There were fifteen Coffins total lined up against the long wall of the old barracks building, glowing blue, like phosphorescent sea creatures. A few showed they were occupied, but most were empty, awaiting their next guest.
“I’m sure I haven’t fully gained your trust yet,” Helga said, standing next to the line of machines. “I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you’d like to Sink with me. Everyone can come, if they’d like, or just you, Michael. Whatever you feel most comfortable doing. I guarantee your safety.” Helga gestured to the strangers busily working around the room. “Everyone you see here has sworn to protect you. To protect all of you. We’re all on the same team.”
“You three go,” Sarah’s dad said. “Nancy and I will stay behind and…keep an eye on things.” The message was clear. Gerard didn’t trust these people. Not yet. He’d stay and guard his daughter’s physical body—probably well aware he’d be no match for the forces that could attack her mind in the Sleep.
Michael looked at his friends, and he could see reflected in their eyes what he himself was feeling: curiosity. Though Michael wasn’t so sure how he’d feel about what they learned at this place. This…Hive.
Michael hadn’t yet opened his mouth to accept Helga’s offer and Bryson was already taking off his shirt.
“Sounds good to me,” he said, unzipping his pants. “Let’s go.”
“Can we please stick to a full-underwear policy?” Sarah pleaded, shielding her eyes. “Some things in life you can never unsee.”
“You say that now,” Bryson teased, batting his lashes.
Helga cleared her throat, reminding them she was there. She began to remove her shirt, though Michael noticed right away that she wore one of those fancy Sink suits underneath. Full-body spandex to cover yourself in mixed company.
“Enough chitchat,” Helga announced. “Let’s get in. Walter,” she called to a man at a nearby NetScreen, “can you help us?”
The man gave Helga a slight nod and clicked his EarCuff, turning off his screen. He was medium height, had dark hair, and wore a look of such intensity that Michael wondered if his face hurt.
“This is Walter Carlson,” Helga announced as he approached, “temporary replacement for one Keith Sproles, whose intelligence lies in wait within the Hive, from which one day he will be returned.” Her tone had a note of respect to it, as if she wanted them to know she didn’t take lightly these borrowed bodies and stored intelligences.
“Hey, Walter,” Bryson said.
Michael reached out and shook the man’s hand; Sarah did likewise.
“We try our best to remember who we are and what we’ve done to those we replaced,” Helga explained. “As for myself, I’m the temporary replacement of Brandi Hambrick, whose intelligence lies in wait within the Hive, from which one day she will be returned.”
Michael nodded, hoping the sudden and unexpected fear he felt wasn’t showing on his face. What did this all mean for him? Was Jackson Porter really out there somewhere, waiting to come back to his body? If he was stored, was he aware? Conscious? Thinking? Or was it more like cold storage? Meat in a freezer. He’d thought about Jackson a lot, but now the thought felt like a cold blade in his side. He was scared, plain and simple.
“Nice to meet you, ladies and gents,” Walter said, snapping Michael back to the present. “We’ve heard a lot about you. Helga has a hard time shutting up about you, actually. She’s right as rain, though, when she says we’re on the same team. I can promise you that. No one despises Kaine quite as spectacularly as I do, that’s for sure.”
Sarah flashed the man a smile. “That’s good to know,” she said, then looked back at Helga. “I think we’re ready now.”
Michael breathed a sigh of relief that Sarah seemed to have decided to trust Helga. It made him feel better about his own decision.