The Game of Lives, Page 3James Dashner
Walter started getting busy on the Coffins. He worked down the line, moving from one to the next, tapping screens and pressing buttons. One by one the hinged doors swung open, and Michael felt that familiar rush of adrenaline. That excitement that came right before Sinking into the Sleep. It never got old. Even after everything he’d gone through.
Stripped to his boxers, he was the first to step inside a machine. Just as he sat down in his Box, Helga shot him a huge smile.
“Walter is going to work his magic with the settings,” Helga said as she lowered herself into the Coffin right next to Michael. “He’ll take us where we need to start, and then we’ll have to do some serious code maneuvering once we’re in.”
Michael gave Helga a big smile back. He really liked the sound of that.
The Coffin door swung shut, clicked, and hissed as it sealed tight. Then came the NerveWires, snaking across Michael’s body and nestling into the familiar places, pricking him as they broke his skin. The LiquiGels calibrated hot, then cold; then came the cool whoosh of the AirPuffs, and he let out a relaxing breath into the hum of machinery working around him. It seemed like an eternity since he’d done this.
He closed his eyes as the system initiated fully and plunged him into the VirtNet.
Michael stood next to Bryson, Sarah, and Helga on a huge expanse of hard white sand, stretching in all directions as far as the eye could see. The outline of a mountain range in the distance laid a hazy smudge against the horizon. Shimmering heat danced along the sand as the sun beat down from a brilliant blue sky. And it was hot—a dry heat that made Michael’s throat feel layered in dust.
“Salt flats,” Helga announced. “Patterned after the famous site on the western side of Utah. A lot of land speed records were broken there. You can imagine the ridiculous stunts that take place here in the virtual version. It’s very popular with the VirtCar enthusiasts. Speeds over a thousand miles per hour, usually ending up in death and a heap of broken metal and glass. The things people do for kicks.”
“That’s cool and all,” Bryson said, “but what does this have to do with the Hive?”
“We’re admiring the landscape,” Helga answered. “Try to stop and smell the roses every now and then.”
Michael turned, taking in the hot, dusty scene. He reveled in this new perspective on the world and its virtual counterpart. He was still trying to understand the human body and its senses and what it meant to have a real body compared to a programmed one. On the surface, everything at the salt flats seemed real enough, but he could almost taste the fabrication, like that waxy texture of cheap cake.
“We’re not in the Deep, are we?” he asked, interrupting Bryson muttering about roses and salt.
“No, we’re not,” Helga answered. “The Hive is actually nowhere near the Deep or any of the programs that have achieved that status. Very purposefully. It’s separate in every way from most of the VirtNet—as quantum level as you get within the programming. We’re not in the Hive yet, though. To get where we want to go, it’s going to take some work, and it might not be what you’d call…pleasant.”
“Why do we keep hearing that?” Sarah asked. “People are always telling us, ‘What you’re about to do is not going to be very pleasant.’ ”
Michael couldn’t agree more. The Squeezing they’d gone through to get into Lifeblood Deep—or what they’d been told was Lifeblood Deep—had been one of the worst experiences of his life.
“I know you guys have heard of Squeezing, right?” Helga asked.
Michael almost laughed out loud. Bryson actually did.
Helga nodded. “I’ll take that as a yes. Well, what we’re about to do is worse.”
“Worse?” Sarah repeated.
“Yes. Instead of being Squeezed, you’re going to be…annihilated. Completely destroyed, then put back together again on the other side. Walter will turn your pain levels down all the way to minimum, but you’re still going to feel it. And trust me, it won’t be pleasant.”
Michael sighed. “Do we really have to do this?”
“Yes,” Helga replied gravely. “You need to see the Hive. It’s very important to me that you see it and understand it. Everything we do to counter Kaine depends on the Hive. It grows each and every day. Ironically, we wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for Kaine himself.”
Michael and his friends exchanged a look. No words needed for Michael to know they felt the same way he did—terrified and full of questions. The feeling was far too familiar.
“Now,” Helga pronounced. “Join hands. We’ll form a circle.”
The friends all took a step toward each other and clasped hands. Michael stood across from Sarah, holding her gaze. Despite everything that was at stake, one thing sat like a pit in his stomach: He couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever Helga was about to show them, it would mean that he and Sarah could never be what he had always wished they could be. Some possible future that he’d held far back in his consciousness since the day he’d met his friend was about to be taken away from him. A heavy sadness weighed on him as they stood there with the hot breeze rustling their clothes, the sun baking their virtual skin.
“Close your eyes,” Helga instructed. “Access the code. Stay close. Then follow my lead.”
She paused, then added:
“No matter how much it hurts.”
A KNOCK AT THE DOOR
They floated in a blackness like space, but instead of stars, fragments of code swirled around them, lit up in brilliant light, a whirlpool of information that never ceased revolving. Michael had never seen code like this—so congested, so…tight. Helga had to have figured out where one of the data hubs resided; that was the only explanation. No wonder she’d taken them to the salt flats. It was probably one of the only locations in the Net with enough space for a hub this size. This was how they’d get where they needed to go.
“It helps to translate everything to visual mode,” Helga said. “Gather everything you see even remotely related to the quantum digits I’m about to uplink to you. When you collect it, put it all together, build it up around us. Envelop us. And then we’re going to smash it to bits.”
Bryson smiled his mischievous smile.
“Sounds like fun,” Sarah said.
“It’s not,” Helga replied. Then she reached out with virtual hands and started manipulating the code. Numbers and letters transformed into building blocks, pipes, sheets of thick plastic-like matter, glass panes, cut lumber. They swirled and twisted and flipped, connecting to each other in perfect geometric fashion to create a device that fascinated the eye. Michael watched carefully as she did it. He uploaded the digits she’d just sent him, then began the same process, transforming the code into a visual manifestation of the quantum path she’d set up. It was all new to him, but he had enough experience to catch on quickly.
Bryson and Sarah mimicked Michael, and quickly they had objects orbiting them, growing and connecting, then expanding. Bigger and bigger and more and more complex the structures grew, until Helga suddenly stopped her construction and fused what she’d been building to Michael’s, doubling its size, then to Sarah’s and Bryson’s.
The group worked together on the same structure until it was large enough that they floated within it. It resembled an enormous sphere, almost solid, so that it was smooth on the inside and they could no longer see its outer surface. Above their heads was an open space, and as they continued to work, they released new threads up and out. Michael imagined them completing the outside of the structure, making it larger by the minute. The whole thing was unlike anything he’d ever done, but he understood the theory. Kind of. They were creating a visual representation of quantum code that Helga said would transport them to a normally inaccessible place within the Sleep.
What Michael couldn’t work out was how it was going to be so painful to make the journey.
They kept at it for what felt like ano
ther hour, transforming the code, following the odd path that Helga laid out, manifesting it in an ever-expanding, massive structure around them.
“We’re almost there,” Helga finally announced. She was concentrating so fiercely that it looked comical. “You have to stay with me now, and do exactly as I do. And don’t stop working until I tell you.”
Michael followed Helga’s instructions, building and building, letting her take away his creations. Up the hole they flew, then disappeared in different directions. The curved shell surrounding them shone with a bluish glow.
“Okay,” Helga said after a long period of silence and heavy work. “Stop. Now, here’s the access code to what we just built.” She blinked her eyes hard and sent it over. Michael caught it with a thought.
“Release yourself into the structure,” Helga commanded. “I know you’ve never done anything like this before, but remember, right now you’re nothing but a string of data; you’re not your physical self. You have to let any concept of having a body go. Then use the access code and flow into the structure. I’ll go first and you can follow me. Initiating. Now.”
It wasn’t easy. It was weird. Really weird. Every other interface Michael had ever used within the Sleep ignored the literal code of the user himself. You didn’t have to think about it. In other words, within the VirtNet, you felt as real as it was possible to feel. But now Helga was essentially breaking herself down into a long series of numbers and letters, then transmitting it into the gigantic visual structure they’d just built. Not letting himself take the time to think it through, Michael did the same thing. It was so foreign, so against every instinct he’d ever had in the Net, it was like stepping into an alien world. But he did it before they left him behind.
He immediately lost all sense of direction or time or matter. There was nothing. He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t feel. A pressure began to push on him from all sides, and suddenly up was down and down was up and the universe had turned inside out.
“We’re in,” Helga said. He couldn’t see her, but he understood the message loud and clear.
“Where are we?” he heard Bryson ask.
“We’re on the quantum path to the Hive,” Helga explained. “Actually, we are the quantum path. But we can’t access it this way. This is where we pull it all apart. We have to destroy it and us. Completely. And when it puts itself back together, we’ll be truly inside. It’ll take us along.”
Michael tried to speak but realized he didn’t know how to do it in this strange place. He was utterly lost. Yet his friends seemed to have no problem.
“How do we destroy it?” Sarah asked. “What do we do?”
“Just pull,” Helga instructed. “Like this.”
A sudden wind hit Michael with a fierce bite, and a horrendous roar ripped into his unstable mind. The odd world in which he floated shook violently. Space seemed to both shudder and expand, then contract, then expand again. Everything erupted around him.
And then there was pain. Pain so terrible that he would’ve thought it impossible if it weren’t tearing him apart.
Michael didn’t understand what was happening to him. He couldn’t see shapes, but the pain that tore through him appeared as color—the deep ache of blue mixed with a sheer orange that was complete agony, then escalated to a bloody red that was almost unbearable. He screamed without screaming, spun within this world of madness, and reached out with arms he didn’t have, utterly lost and confused.
“Michael!” someone yelled. The voice was unidentifiable, but it manifested as another stab of pain. He could barely form coherent thoughts, much less call out to someone. How were Sarah and Bryson faring well enough to form a word?
He focused on Helga. On what she’d said. Reach out and destroy. He would do anything to make this stop, but how? He tried. He focused on imagining his body again and pictured himself as a giant. He motioned with arms he couldn’t feel, kicked with legs miles away.
He’d thought he was one of the best coders ever. But this made no sense to him.
He was lost.
Instead of fighting, he embraced the pain and tried to sweep himself away into the black oblivion. But he was still there, the agony stretching out before him, forever.
Suddenly Michael noticed that something felt different. There was still pain, but could it be…receding?
Then, in a flash, it ended. The agony stopped abruptly, like an anesthetic hitting his bloodstream. He was instantly pain-free, the bliss of it euphoric.
He opened his eyes. His virtual eyes. Then realized, with a shock, that he had eyes again.
His body—his Aura—was intact once more. He looked down at himself, touched his arms and legs, patted his chest. He was completely injury-free—it was crazy, but nothing even hurt. Finally, he looked to see where he was.
He still floated in darkness, but everything around him had changed. An endless purple sky filled with what looked like planets floating in the distance behind him. A bright, shining wall of orange light pulsed before him. Michael craned his neck and looked up, then down. The orange wall stretched in both directions as far as he could see. And as his eyes adjusted to the brilliant light, he could see that it wasn’t just a flat wall. It was broken into a repeating pattern of thousands of pods. A figure flashed in one pod and he squinted to better make it out, then realized the pods were full of dark shapes. Like ghostly fish, they swam one to a pod.
This was the Hive? He stretched his arms out, maneuvering himself in a circle to confirm what he’d already suspected.
He was alone.
He turned back toward the wall of orange pods. The pulsing light hummed rhythmically, he realized, almost like a heartbeat. It vibrated through his bones and filled his body. He wanted to get closer, to see what those shapes could be. He worked his arms and legs through space. In places like this in the Net, he’d always been able to maneuver from one location to another as if he were swimming, but no amount of flapping his arms or kicking his legs would move him more than what he’d already mastered—spinning in place. He stopped, intently studying the structure in front of him. There was a flash of movement, and suddenly his nose was almost touching the orange glow. He’d moved instantly—somehow he’d done it with his mind.
He looked back toward the vast purple sky, then sent out a quick thought and the world bent as he was catapulted miles away from the thrumming orange light. He turned back, shot to the next place his eyes met. For a moment the exhilaration of this instantaneous travel, this moving with his mind, made him forget the reason he was there. He focused more intently, concentrating on where he wanted to be, and with a snap, once again he was floating just outside the massive, never-ending wall of brilliant orange pods.
He thought himself closer, now in complete control. His body moved slowly forward until a pod was just a few inches from his face. Those same shadows he’d noticed before, starker now, slithered behind the filmy surface. He leaned in, following the forms, but the moment he caught one with his gaze it would move away, slipping just out of sight.
He wondered what it was like on the other side of the wall.
The thought barely formed before he shifted once again, this time blinded for an instant by a moment of complete darkness. Then he was exactly where he wanted to be—on the other side of the wall. And things were different there.
From this vantage Michael saw that the Hive was actually an enormous sphere, and that he was now on the inside of it. Surrounded by countless pods, almost like a honeycomb, glowing, pulsing, humming.
From within the sphere, the individual pods were flat on this side. They almost looked like one of those old computers he’d heard about with a glassy screen called a monitor. The moment he thought it, he was there, nose to the surface of the “glass,” gazing in. Printed digitally on it was a name.
EDGAR THOMAS FINCH
He reached out and touched the letters—the
entire screen flashed red, once, and then the name reappeared. He did it again and the same thing happened. Silently he concentrated on sending a command to the screen to reveal more information, but nothing happened. There was just the name, the orange light of its pod broken up only by those shifty shadows swimming in the murkiness behind it.
He quickly moved from unit to unit. Each pod had a name, none of them familiar.
That was when he realized he wanted to see it for himself. He had to see it.
Jackson Porter, he thought. Take me to the pod of Jackson Porter.
His ears popped with the sudden movement and the Hive instantaneously shifted around him. With of a blur of orange, his mind tilted, his stomach pitched. Then all became still and there it was, just a few feet in front of him, the letters spelling out a name that made his chest tight.
JACKSON BLAYNE PORTER
Michael drifted closer, reached out, and lightly touched the surface of the screen that revealed the name. The name of the person from whom he’d taken everything. The screen flashed red just like the one before it, then went back to normal. It was probably some kind of signal showing that he didn’t have authority to access information on whatever lay inside that pod.
What did lie inside the pod? Michael didn’t understand just how real the Hive might be. Was it a literal place? Or something more symbolic? He moved himself to the right of the screen and leaned in as close to the bright orange surface as he dared. Shadows shifted inside, swirling, growing, and shrinking. Michael stared, mesmerized—it felt as if he was on the cusp of understanding the afterlife, the spirit world, some supernatural thing he could never truly fathom before.
The shadows suddenly coalesced into one large spot, right in front of Michael, just inches from his face. The orange light pulsed around the spot—it was an oval and almost a foot in height, positioned vertically. Darker shadows formed within shadows. Michael gasped and almost hurtled himself away from it, terrified, shivering in virtual chills.