Michael spoke against the wind, to a girl named Tanya.
“I know it’s water down there, but it might as well be concrete. You’ll be flat as a pancake the second you hit.”
Not the most comforting choice of words when talking to someone who wanted to end her life, but it was certainly the truth. Tanya had just climbed over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, cars zooming by on the road, and was leaning back toward the open air, her twitchy hands holding on to a pole wet with mist. Even if somehow Michael could talk her out of jumping, those slippery fingers might get the job done anyway. And then it’d be lights-out. He pictured some poor sap of a fisherman thinking he’d finally caught the big one, only to reel in a nasty surprise.
“Stop joking,” the trembling girl responded. “It’s not a game—not anymore.” Michael was inside the VirtNet—the Sleep, to people who went in as often as he did. He was used to seeing scared people there. A lot of them. Yet underneath the fear was usually the knowing. Knowing deep down that no matter what was happening in the Sleep, it wasn’t real.
Not with Tanya. Tanya was different. At least, her Aura, her computer-simulated counterpart, was. Her Aura had this bat-crazy look of pure terror on her face, and it suddenly gave Michael chills—made him feel like he was the one hovering over that long drop to death. And Michael wasn’t a big fan of death, fake or not.
“It is a game, and you know it,” he said louder than he’d wanted to—he didn’t want to startle her. But a cold wind had sprung up, and it seemed to grab his words and whisk them down to the bay. “Get back over here and let’s talk. We’ll both get our Experience Points, and we can go explore the city, get to know each other. Find some crazies to spy on. Maybe even hack some free food from the shops. It’ll be good times. And when we’re done, we’ll find you a Portal, and you can Lift back home. Take a break from the game for a while.”
“This has nothing to do with Lifeblood!” Tanya screamed at him. The wind pulled at her clothes, and her dark hair fanned out behind her like laundry on a line. “Just go away and leave me alone. I don’t want your pretty-boy face to be the last thing I see.”
Michael thought of Lifeblood Deep, the next level, the goal of all goals. Where everything was a thousand times more real, more advanced, more intense. He was three years away from earning his way inside. Maybe two. But right then he needed to talk this dopey girl out of jumping to her date with the fishes or he’d be sent back to the Suburbs for a week, making Lifeblood Deep that much further away.
“Okay, look . . .” He was trying to choose his words carefully, but he’d already made a pretty big mistake and knew it. Going out of character and using the game itself as a reason for her to stop what she was doing meant he’d be docked points big-time. And it was all about the points. But this girl was legitimately starting to scare him. It was that face—pale and sunken, as if she’d already died.
“Just go away!” she yelled. “You don’t get it. I’m trapped here. Portals or no Portals. I’m trapped! He won’t let me Lift!”
Michael wanted to scream right back at her—she was talking nonsense. A dark part of him wanted to say forget it, tell her she was a loser, let her nosedive. She was being so stubborn—it wasn’t like any of it was really happening. It’s just a game. He had to remind himself of that all the time.
But he couldn’t mess this up. He needed the points. “All right. Listen.” He took a step back, held his hands up like he was trying to calm a scared animal. “We just met—give it some time. I promise I won’t do anything nutty. You wanna jump, I’ll let you jump. But at least talk to me. Tell me why.”
Tears lined her cheeks; her eyes had gone red and puffy. “Just go away. Please.” Her voice had taken on the softness of defeat. “I’m not messing around here. I’m done with this—all of this!”
“Done? Okay, that’s fine to be done. But you don’t have to screw it up for me, too, right?” Michael figured maybe it was okay to talk about the game after all, since she was using it as her reason to end it—to check out of the Virtual-Flesh-and-Bones Hotel and never come back. “Seriously. Walk back to the Portal with me, Lift yourself, do it the right way. You’re done with the game, you’re safe, I get my points. Ain’t that the happiest ending you ever heard of?”
“I hate you,” she spat. Literally. A spray of misty saliva. “I don’t even know you and I hate you. This has nothing to do with Lifeblood!”
“Then tell me what it does have to do with.” He said it kindly, trying to keep his composure. “You’ve got all day to jump. Just give me a few minutes. Talk to me, Tanya.”
She buried her head in the crook of her right arm. “I just can’t do it anymore.” She whimpered and her shoulders shook, making Michael worry about her grip again. “I can’t.”
Some people are just weak, he thought, though he wasn’t stupid enough to say it.
Lifeblood was by far the most popular game in the VirtNet. Yeah, you could go off to some nasty battlefield in the Civil War or fight dragons with a magic sword, fly spaceships, explore the freaky love shacks. But that stuff got old quick. In the end, nothing was more fascinating than bare-bones, dirt-in-your-face, gritty, get-me-out-of-here real life. Nothing. And there were some, like Tanya, who obviously couldn’t handle it. Michael sure could. He’d risen up its ranks almost as quickly as legendary gamer Gunner Skale.
“Come on, Tanya,” he said. “How can it hurt to talk to me? And if you’re going to quit, why would you want to end your last game by killing yourself so violently?”
Her head snapped up and she looked at him with eyes so hard he shivered again.
“Kaine’s haunted me for the last time,” she said. “He can’t just trap me here and use me for an experiment—sic the KillSims on me. I’m gonna rip my Core out.”
Those last words changed everything. Michael watched in horror as Tanya tightened her grip on the pole with one hand, then reached up with the other and started digging into her own flesh.
Michael forgot the game, forgot the points. The situation had gone from annoying to actual life-and-death. In all his years of playing, he’d never seen someone code out their Core, destroying the barrier device within the Coffin that kept the virtual world and the real world separate in their mind.
“Stop that!” he yelled, one foot already on the railing. “Stop!”
He jumped down onto the catwalk on the outer edge of the bridge and froze. He was just a few feet from her now, and he wanted to avoid any quick movements that might cause her to panic. Holding his hands out, he took a small step toward her.
“Don’t do that,” Michael said as softly as he could in the biting wind.
Tanya kept digging into her right temple. She’d peeled back pieces of her skin; a stream of blood from the wound quickly covered her hands and the side of her face in red gore. A look of terrifying calmness had come over her, as if she had no concept of what she was doing to herself, though Michael knew well enough that she was busy hacking the code.
“Stop coding for one second!” Michael shouted. “Would you just talk about this before you rip your freaking Core out? You know what that means.”
“Why do you care so much?” she responded, so quietly that Michael had to read her lips to understand. But at least she’d stopped digging.
Michael just stared. Because she had stopped digging and was now reaching inside the torn mass of flesh with her thumb and forefinger. “You just want your Experience Points,” she said. Slowly, she pulled out a small metallic chip slick with blood.
“I’ll forfeit my points,” Michael said, trying to hide his fear and disgust. “I swear. You can’t mess around anymore, Tanya. Code that thing back in and come talk to me. It’s not too late.”
She held up the visual manifestation of the Core, gazed at it with fascination. “Don’t you see the irony in all this?” she asked. “If it weren’t for my coding skills, I probably wouldn’t even know who Kaine was. About his KillSims and his plans for me. But I’m good at it, and because of that . . . monster, I just programmed the Core right out of my own head.”
“Not your real head. It’s still just a simulation, Tanya. It’s not too late.” Michael couldn’t remember a time in his entire life when he’d felt that ill.
She looked at him so sharply that he took a step backward. “I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take . . . him anymore. He can’t use me if I’m dead. I’m done.”
She curled the Core onto her thumb, then flicked it toward Michael. It flew over his shoulder—he saw flashes of sunlight glint off it as it spun through the air, almost like it was winking at him, saying, Hey, buddy, you suck at suicide negotiations. It landed with a plink somewhere out in the traffic, where it would be crushed in seconds.
He couldn’t believe what he was witnessing. Someone so sophisticated at manipulating code that she could destroy her Core—the device that essentially protected players’ brains while they were in the Sleep. Without your Core, your brain wouldn’t be able to filter the stimulation of the VirtNet properly. If your Core died in the Sleep, you’d die in the Wake. He didn’t know anyone who’d seen this before. Two hours earlier he’d been eating stolen bleu chips at the Dan the Man Deli with his best friends. All he wanted now was to be back there, eating turkey on rye, enduring Bryson’s jokes about old ladies’ underwear and listening to Sarah tell him how awful his latest Sleep haircut was.
“If Kaine comes for you,” Tanya said, “tell him that I won in the end. Tell him how brave I was. He can trap people here and steal all the bodies he wants. But not mine.”
Michael was done talking. He couldn’t take one more word out of this girl’s blood-smeared mouth. As quickly as anything he’d ever done in his life, as any character in any game, he jumped toward the pole she clung to.
She screamed, momentarily frozen by his sudden action, but then she let go, actually pushed herself away from the bridge. Michael grabbed for the railing to his left with one hand and reached for her with the other but missed both. His feet hit something solid, then slipped. Arms flailing, he felt nothing but air, and he fell, almost in sync with her.
An incredible shriek escaped his mouth, something he would’ve been embarrassed about if his only companion wasn’t about to lose her life. With her Core coded out, her death would be real.
Michael and Tanya fell toward the harsh gray waters of the bay. Wind tore at their clothes, and Michael’s heart felt like it was creeping along the inside of his chest, up his throat. He screamed again. On some level he knew he would hit the water, feel the pain; then he’d be Lifted and wake up back home, safe and sound in his Coffin. But the VirtNet’s power was feigned reality, and right now the reality was terror.
Somehow Michael’s and Tanya’s Auras found each other on that long fall, chest to chest, like tandem skydivers. As the churning surface below rushed toward them, they wrapped their arms around each other, pulling closer together. Michael wanted to scream again but clamped his jaw shut when he saw the complete calmness on her face.
Her eyes bored into Michael’s, searched him, and found him, and he broke somewhere on the inside.
They hit the water as hard as he thought they would. Hard as concrete. Hard as death.
The moment of pain was short but intense. Everywhere, all at once, bursting and exploding through Michael’s every nerve. He didn’t even have time to make a sound before it ended; neither did Tanya, because he heard nothing but the distinct and horrific crash of hitting the water’s surface. And then it all dissipated and his mind went blank.
Michael was alive, back in the NerveBox—what most people called the Coffin—Lifted from the Sleep.
The same couldn’t be said for the girl. A wave of sadness, then disbelief, hit him. With his own eyes, he’d seen her change her code, rip the Core from her virtual fresh, then toss it away like nothing more than a crumb. When it ended for her, it ended for real, and being a part of it made Michael’s insides feel twisted up. He’d never witnessed anything like it.
He blinked a few times, waiting for the unlinking process to be complete. Never before had he been so relieved to be done with the VirtNet, done with a game, ready to get out of his box and breathe in the polluted air of the real world.
A blue light came on, revealing the door of the Coffin just a few inches from his face. The LiquiGels and AirPuffs had already receded, leaving the only part Michael truly hated, no matter how many times he did it—which was way more than he could count. Thin, icy strands of NerveWire pulled out of his neck and back and arms, slithering like snakes along his skin until they disappeared into their little hidey-holes, where they’d be disinfected and stored for his next game. His parents were amazed that he voluntarily let those things burrow into his body so often, and he couldn’t blame them. There was something downright creepy about it.
A loud click was followed by a mechanical clank and then a whooshing gust of air. The door of the Coffin began to rise, swinging up and away on its hinges like Dracula’s very own resting place. Michael almost laughed at the thought. Being a vicious bloodsucking vampire loved by the ladies was only one of a billion things a person could do inside the Sleep. Only one of a billion.
He stood up carefully—he always felt a little woozy after being Lifted, especially when he’d been gone for a few hours—naked and covered in sweat. Clothing ruined the sensory stimulation of the NerveBox.
Michael stepped over the lip of the box, thankful for the soft carpet under his toes—it made him feel grounded, back in reality. He grabbed the pair of boxers he’d left on the floor, put them on. He figured a decent person probably would’ve opted for some pants and a T-shirt as well, but he wasn’t feeling so decent at the moment. All he’d been asked to do by the Lifeblood game was talk a girl out of suicide for Experience Points, and not only had he failed, he’d helped drive her to do it for real. For real, for real.
Tanya—wherever her body might be—was dead. She’d ripped out her Core before dying, a feat of programming, protected by passwords, that she only could’ve done to herself. Faking a Core removal wasn’t possible in the VirtNet. It was too dangerous. Otherwise, you’d never know if someone was faking, and people would do it left and right for kicks or to get reactions. No, she’d changed her code, removed the safety barrier in her mind that separated the virtual and the real, and fried the actual implant back home, and she’d done it with purpose. Tanya, the pretty girl with the sad eyes and the delusions that she was being haunted. Dead.
Michael knew it’d be in the NewsBops soon. They’d report that he had been with her, and the VNS—VirtNet Security—would probably come and talk to him about it. They definitely would.
Dead. She was dead. As lifeless as the sagging mattress on his bed.
It all hit him then. Hit him like a fastball to the face.
Michael barely made it to the bathroom before throwing up everything in his stomach. And then he collapsed to the floor and pulled himself into a ball. No tears came—he wasn’t the crying sort—but he stayed there for a long time.
Excerpt copyright © 2013 by James Dashner. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.