“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.
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