“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.

Nothing.

Only pain.

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.

3

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.

4

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.

***

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