“Close your eyes,” Helga instructed. “Access the code. Stay close. Then follow my lead.”

She paused, then added:

“No matter how much it hurts.”

CHAPTER 3

A KNOCK AT THE DOOR

1

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 another 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.

2

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.

***

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