The Maze Runner by James Dashner has become a huge publishing sensation, and now it’s making waves at the movies. But Dashner has already moved on to his next series, the Mortality Doctrine trilogy. Here’s an exclusive excerpt from the final novel, The Game of Lives.
In The Game of Lives, the virtual reality VirtNet has turned deadly, and now every time Michael sinks into virtual reality, he risks his life. And the evil Kaine is close to his aim of blurring the line between the virtual and the real forever.
“It is me,” Helga whispered in his ear, patting him on the back. “I promise you. We’re going to get through the madness together.”
It had been a long time since Michael had felt anything like this—and it all crashed down on him at once. Happiness, sadness, nostalgia. He cried into his nanny’s shoulder as he remembered the parents he’d lost, the home he’d lost, the life he’d lost. He had his two best friends, but Helga was the only link to the world he’d known without them. And he’d been sure she was gone forever.
There were questions, yes. Concerns. But in that moment all he could feel was the sweet, burning warmth in his chest.
Finally, Helga gently took him by his shoulders and held him away from her. He was relieved to see that she had shed a tear or two as well.
“I might’ve convinced you,” she said through a weak smile, “but not them.” She nodded toward the others.
Totally embarrassed, Michael composed himself, wiped the tears from his cheeks. Then he turned to face his friends. “It’s her,” he said with all the force he could muster after making such a scene. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I know it’s her.”
Surprisingly, it was Sarah who showed the most doubt. “Well, you’re going to have to figure out a way to explain it, Michael. We can’t just hand our lives over to this lady. What she did . . . stealing a body . . . it’s no better than what Kaine’s doing.”
The last word had barely come out of her mouth before the rest of the group erupted into chatter, talking on top of talking, until Michael shouted for them to shut up.
“Listen to me!” he said, looking straight at his friends and Sarah’s parents. “You don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a Tangent. We might be a bunch of code to you guys, but I can’t accept that. There’s more to us. I know it. I’m a person, I have a mind, I can think for myself, and I don’t care what anyone else says. I mean, I could just as easily be programmed as Helga. At some point you have to go with your heart! My parents were real, as far as I’m concerned, until Kaine wiped them out. And Helga . . . she’s like a grandma to me. This is Helga. I know it.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“Close your eyes,” Helga instructed. “Access the code. Stay close. Then follow my lead.”
She paused, then added:
“No matter how much it hurts.”
Catch James Dashner on Tour starting on Tuesday November 17, with dates in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Dallas, Minneapolis, New York City, Princeton and Atlanta!