Two eyes. A nose. A thin mouth drawn in a line. Cheekbones. A chin. All vague, but there. A face of shadows looking out at Michael as the light of the pod pulsed and the thrum of a deep heartbeat vibrated around him.
Michael’s chest hurt. His body felt like a block of ice. What was this? Was he confronting the essence of Jackson Porter, whose body—whose life—he’d stolen? He didn’t understand. He didn’t understand any of this. And yet he couldn’t look away.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, as absurd as it seemed. The dark, blurry face dissolved back into indistinct shadows, scattering throughout the inside of the pod.
“I wanted you to see this,” a voice said from behind him.
Michael yelped, so startled he spun around and swung his right arm out, hitting nothing but air. Helga—now in the form he’d known her his whole life, the Helga from home, his nanny who’d been like a second mother—floated a few feet away, with Bryson and Sarah behind her. Michael didn’t know when or how she’d switched her Aura, but he had to admit it calmed him on sight and made him feel a little better.
“What’s going on?” he asked, wanting to take all the frustration and angst that had built up inside him and throw it at someone else. “What’s the point of all this? You’re telling me that Jackson Porter is stored inside this pod? Like some kind of living, breathing data file? What, do I just tap in a password and he slides back into my brain? Is that why you brought me here?”
It came out in a rush, and the hurt look that crossed Helga’s face made him wish he could take it all back.
Almost as quickly as it appeared, it was gone, though, and her no-nonsense, I’m-in-charge face returned.
Sarah flashed away from Helga and to Michael’s side in a blur and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. “Sorry we lost you there for a while,” she said softly. “I just tried to stay close to Helga and figured you’d be with her, too.”
Michael took her hand but didn’t take his eyes off Helga.
“It was really important to me that you come here, Michael,” Helga said. “I know it took a lot of effort and more than a little risk. But this place is real, and it has to be seared inside your mind so you understand what we’re up against and what our purpose is.”
“What are we up against?” Michael said, ashamed that his voice came out a little angry. “What is our purpose?”
“Yeah,” Bryson added, distancing himself from Helga so he could look at her straight on. “Those are some great questions.”
Helga gestured with outstretched arms toward the massive Hive around them. “These pods are filling up at an exponential rate. And honestly, we can’t even tell if it’s all Kaine’s doing at this point. There’s still a lot we need to figure out. But these are people, Michael. People. Stolen from their bodies. And I know we agree on one thing—that’s about the most sacred thing in the universe you can mess with. It’s as bad as what Kaine did to you, playing with your life, your mind, your feelings, like it was all some kind of VirtNet game.”
“I want to help, but how?” Michael snapped, feeling worse by the second. He didn’t understand why, but it felt like his heart was breaking. “Or maybe I should just give up. Jackson can have his stupid body back. I don’t care anymore. How do I do it?”
Helga sighed. “Michael, you’re missing my point completely. I didn’t bring you here to make you feel bad. I’m glad you want to do something about this. It’s about saving these people and stopping it from happening to others. Righting the world—both the real one and the virtual one—before it falls apart beyond repair.”
“Okay,” Michael said. “So we already know we have to stop Kaine, and I want to go back to the Hallowed Ravine. I think we need to go back there to destroy the Mortality Doctrine program. But I don’t see why you had to make me face the kid whose body I stole. If you wanted to make me feel worse, mission accomplished.”
Helga didn’t respond at first. She just looked at him for seconds that felt more like minutes. Finally, she broke the silence. “You disappoint me, Michael. Let’s go back and Lift out.”
She disappeared from the center of the orb before Michael could reply. Which was good, because he had no idea what to say.
The journey out of the Hive wasn’t nearly as bad as the horror they’d experienced to get in. Helga explained that the difference had something to do with using the path that they’d already established. A path that was still painfully fresh to Michael. When Michael finally opened his eyes back in the Coffin, he wanted to cheer despite the embarrassment of how he’d acted at the Hive.
He climbed out of the NerveBox and started pulling his clothes back on, doing his best to avoid eye contact with anyone. Even Sarah, whom he needed but couldn’t quite face yet. He felt stupid and miserable and just wanted to sleep for a few days—maybe weeks.
It took longer for Helga to exit her Coffin, and when she did, Walter practically dragged her away, whispering fiercely into her ear. Michael watched her cross the room to a group huddled around a desk with a NetScreen illuminated at its center. The discussion intensified between the group, and finally Helga looked up at Michael, her face pinched with concern. Something had happened. Something big.
Sarah and Bryson were at Michael’s side.
“What’s going on?” Bryson asked. “She doesn’t look too happy.”
“Were you serious about going back to the Hallowed Ravine?” Sarah added.
Michael shrugged, not in the mood to talk.
Sarah nudged him. “You okay?”
“Don’t worry, man, we’ll figure all this stuff out,” Bryson said. “Hallowed Ravine, whatever you want—but, dude, you look like someone just murdered your cat.”
“That’s how I feel,” Michael managed to say. He knew he shouldn’t take out his misery on his best friends, but he was in the rottenest mood ever.
Bryson opened his mouth to answer but was interrupted by a bang that sent Michael’s heart into his throat. The noise came from the front door—the one through which they’d entered earlier. It was someone pounding on the wood with what sounded like an iron fist. After a dozen hammering bursts, it stopped as abruptly as it had started, and a deep silence settled across the barracks. Anxious glances were exchanged across the room.
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