“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.

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.

4

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.

5

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.

***

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