The Game of Lives
Pub: November 17, 2015
Delacorte Press Books for Young ReadersPre-Order
From James Dashner, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Maze Runner series, comes The Game of Lives, the final book in the Mortality Doctrine series, an edge-of-your-seat cyber-adventure trilogy that includes The Eye of Minds and The Rule of Thoughts.
Michael welcomed sleep. The small bumps of the road and the hum of tires on asphalt relaxed him for the first time in days, and his eyes grew heavy. He was an expert at dealing with reality—or unreality—but after what he’d been through lately, if he could pass a little time unconscious, he would be eternally grateful. There had been a lot to digest. Any opportunity to escape the world and its many ills, he’d take it. Though, fat chance he’d be slipping inside a Coffin anytime soon.
Michael’s head bobbed. He caught himself and sank back into the seat. He knew he was dreaming, because he was no longer sitting in Sarah’s dad’s car. He was at his kitchen counter before it all began, where his nanny, Helga, had served him breakfast hundreds, if not thousands, of times. He thought about the man who’d visited him in prison, his strange speech about dreams within dreams, how the looping logic applied to the VirtNet as well. Things that could drive you crazy if you thought about them too much.
“These are some good waffles,” Michael said. He was surprised at how real they tasted. Warm, buttery goodness. He swallowed a bite and smiled.
And then Helga was there! Sweet, stern Helga. She gave him a look as she put some dishes away. It was a look Michael had seen many times over the years. A look that said he’d better not be trying to pull a fast one on her. One he normally got when he faked a cough to miss school or lied about his homework.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “This is a dream. I can have as much as I want!” He smiled and took another bite, chewed and swallowed. “I guess Gabby’s still missing, haven’t heard anything from her. It sure is nice to be back with Sarah and Bryson, though. The Terrible Trio, live and still kickin’. Even if we are crammed into a backseat. Anyway. Who would’ve thought my life could get so weird, huh? Crazy stuff.”
Helga nodded, smiled, bent over the dishwasher; the room filled with the clank of glass against porcelain.
Michael frowned, It seemed as if Helga didn’t care one whit. “Maybe you don’t know everything. Just trust me, it was bad.” He recalled it all. Blowing up the VNS systems. Sarah’s parents rescuing him and his friends from jail, telling them about Helga and other Tangents. Helga. If only this dream were real.
His nanny gave him a guilty shrug, barely pausing in her work. The rattle of dishes, the thumps of cabinet doors closing. Michael knew it was too good to be true that he could just sit there and enjoy his dream. There wasn’t a place in the universe where he could run to escape his thoughts. He stabbed a last few bites of waffle and filled his mouth, relishing the real maple syrup. He tried to hold on to it, sensing that the dream was about to end.
And Helga had yet to say a single word to him.
“I guess you can’t talk to me in my dreams, can you?” Michael said. “You know, Kaine told me he’d killed you, killed my parents, too.” Picturing his mom and dad sent a deep ache through his dream heart. “Maybe you escaped somehow? I don’t know. Either way, can’t you at least live on in my head? Maybe that’s too much like—”
Helga turned, her face all sharp angles in the light of the kitchen. “The Hallowed Ravine, boy. You know that’s where you have to go. Back to the Hallowed Ravine. End it where it started.”
Michael started to reply, had just opened his mouth to speak, when the jolt of a pothole cut him off and his eyes were suddenly wide open.
Chapter 1 Nice Place in the Country
When Michael woke up, he had the not-so-pleasant sensation of bile rising in his throat. Not the happiest way to greet the conscious world.
He sucked in a slow breath, wishing he’d taken something for motion sickness. Sarah’s dad seemed to think he was a NASCAR driver, and the road wasn’t cooperating. Gerard the Gear Hound, the country’s next great racecar superstar, on the world’s twistiest, most torn-up track.
As they wound their way through the tight curves of the north Georgia mountains, Michael leaned into each turn with his entire body, as if that would somehow keep the car on the road. Lush foliage and tree trunks overgrown with kudzu formed a great tunnel through a cave of green, sparkles of sunlight winking between leaves as they passed.
“You’re sure she said Helga?” Michael asked once again, his dream fresh in his mind. Back to the Hallowed Ravine. That was what she’d said. Which meant, logically, that his own mind was telling him the same thing. They had to go back to the place where it had all started if they wanted to end it. Which seemed reasonable enough.
Gerard, clutching the steering wheel as if he feared it might try to spin away from him, sighed at Michael’s question. His wife, Nancy, shifted in the passenger seat to face Michael.
“Yes,” she said with a kind smile, then turned toward the front again. It was as though Michael had asked the question for the first time, though in fact, it was probably the fifth or sixth.
Michael sat in the middle of the backseat, Bryson to his left, Sarah to his right. No one had spoken much since their initial reunion. Between being chased down and imprisoned and then rescued, it had been a long several days, and everyone seemed dazed. Michael himself didn’t know what to think. Sarah’s parents had been kidnapped, then rescued by a group of mystery people. Those same mystery people had directed Gerard and Nancy to pick up their daughter and her friends and take them to an address in the Appalachian Mountains.
But there’d also been something about Tangents. And a woman named Helga.
This Helga couldn’t possibly be his nanny, Michael thought for the hundredth time. Could it? He’d always thought of his Helga as the only Helga, but maybe the world had more Helgas than he realized. Maybe it was just brimming with them. Still, his Helga was gone—wasn’t she? As far as he knew, she was a Tangent that had been decommissioned by Kaine, just like his parents. At the very least he’d hastened their Decay. Real or not, their deaths had emptied his soul, and not much had filled it since.
Sarah nudged him with her elbow, then awkwardly fell into him, her whole body pressing against his as Gerard whipped around yet another curve. The tires squealed and a flock of birds exploded from the foliage at the side of the road, screeching as they flew away.
“You okay, there?” she asked, righting herself. “You don’t seem very chipper for someone who just got broken out of jail.”
Michael shrugged. “I guess I’m still trying to put it all together.”
“Thanks for the message you sent me,” she whispered. While separated, both Michael and Sarah had hacked through the prison firewall systems to send notes to each other. “It helped a lot.”
Michael nodded, gave a half smile. A horrible image formed in his mind—Sarah dying beside the lava pits, her last struggle for breath before exiting Kaine’s Path in the deepest folds of the VirtNet. Michael had dragged her into all of this. And her parents. And Bryson. It had broken his heart to see her in so much pain, and he couldn’t stop wondering what horrible thing was next.
Bryson leaned forward to look at both of them. “Hey, no one sent me a message. That’s not cool.”
“Sorry,” Michael said. “I know how much you love your naps—I didn’t want to interrupt.”
As if to rub it in, Sarah clicked her EarCuff, illuminating her NetScreen. Michael’s message, We will win, hovered before them. A thrill of happiness warmed his chest when he saw that she’d saved it. He smiled, more than a little embarrassed.
“Real sweet.” Bryson leaned back, eyeing Michael. “I’m pretty sure I haven’t slept in, oh, about three weeks—which I blame you for, by the way.”
“Blame accepted.” Michael knew his friend was joking—mostly—but he still felt bad. Bryson might never have said something so simple and yet so perfectly true.
The nausea from the roller-coaster driving suddenly shot up a few notches. “Oh, man,” Michael groaned. “Sir? Uh . . . Gerard? Could we pull over a second? I’m not feeling so hot.”
“Turn toward Bryson,” Sarah said, inching away from Michael. She rolled down the window. “Does that help?”
But her dad had braked suddenly, making Michael’s stomach whirl a little faster, and was pulling into a little patch of dirt on the side of the narrow road.
“Here you go, son,” the man announced. He seemed familiar enough with the maneuver that Michael felt sure it wasn’t the first time he’d driven someone to the brink of losing their lunch. “But hurry—we’re already late.”
Sarah’s mom smacked her husband on the arm lightly. “Have a heart, honey. For heaven’s sake. No one likes to throw up.”
Michael was already climbing over Sarah. He opened the door and jumped out of the car before she could complain. His horrible prison breakfast was coming up, and there was no stopping it now. He found the closest bush and gave it a very unpleasant surprise.
“Ah, man, I think you got some on your shirt,” Bryson said a few minutes later. They were back on the road, and Gerard had resumed practicing his racing skills.
Michael smiled—he didn’t care. He felt so much better that the world had brightened and cleared.
“I’m glad that makes you so happy,” Bryson muttered, then patted his friend on the shoulder. “Actually, thanks for not spewing it all over me.”
“You’re very welcome,” Michael replied.
“You feel better?” Sarah asked.
“Tons.” Michael folded his arms and shifted his legs to get more comfortable. “I guess I’m feeling better about everything. I mean, I’m not sure what happened back in Atlanta, but it’s something that we’re all still alive, right? Plus, being out of jail is way better than being in jail.”
And I have a plan, he thought. It was the first time in ages he’d had one, and it felt good. He would go to the Hallowed Ravine, back to where this all started. He just had to find the right time to tell his friends about it.
“Dude,” Bryson said, “you’re a glass-half-full kind of guy. I like it.”
Sarah smiled and covertly grabbed Michael’s hand, slipping her fingers through his. The world brightened even more. And we need to make sure Gabby’s okay, he thought. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been unconscious—hit in the head—and it was Michael’s fault for dragging her into the whole mess. He didn’t want to pull her in any deeper, but he needed to make sure she was all right.
“We’re almost there,” Gerard called back to them, slowing as he glanced at the map on his wife’s NetScreen. “Uh . . . I think.”
Butterflies filled Michael’s stomach. Still holding Sarah’s hand, he leaned forward, peering through the windshield as they continued tunneling through the leafy forest. He had absolutely no idea what to expect—where they were going or why—but his excitement built in leaps and bounds as he watched the road ahead. It made him think of the Path, and with a jolt of anxiety he wondered if he was in the real world, in the Wake, or somewhere in a box, connected to wires and uploaded to the VirtNet. He’d been fooled so many times and in so many ways, he’d never be certain again.
He thought about the stranger at the prison again, and the things he’d talked about. Something about waking up over and over again, within layers upon layers of VirtNet levels. Like a dream within a dream. That really creeped him out.
The road pitched steeply downward and Michael shook the memory out of his head. He’d get dizzy again if he kept it up. He focused on the world—real or virtual—as it was, around him.
Outside, the trees had thinned to reveal a wide valley nestled between two heavily forested mountains. Clouds covered the sun, casting the day back into gloom, as if to make up for the shade they’d lost.
“Is that where we’re going?” Bryson asked. Releasing his seat belt, he scooted as close to Gerard as he could, gripping the headrest in front of him. “That place looks a thousand years old.”
“That’s gotta be it,” Nancy answered. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything else around.”
Michael stared. Below, scattered among the trees of the valley floor, were several long, low buildings that reminded him of battered shipping crates. They looked like military barracks from one of those ancient war movies set in a jungle somewhere. The roofs had holes torn in them. Some were patched; most were gaping wide, though, and open to the elements. Kudzu and ivy blanketed sections of the buildings, so certain parts resembled neglected topiaries in the garden of a forgotten giant.
“Man,” Bryson moaned. “I was kind of hoping for something more along the lines of a Marriott. At least the prison had working toilets.”
“Snakes,” Sarah whispered, as if in a trance. “I bet that place is full of snakes.”
Michael refused to let his newfound enthusiasm be dimmed. His curiosity more than made up for the dilapidated appearance of . . . whatever the place was. “You haven’t been here before, right?” he asked Gerard, then tried a new tack. “Where’d you meet Helga and the others? How’d you know where to find us, how to get here?”
Nancy turned to face him. “Not a lot to tell, I’m afraid. My guess is you three probably know more than we do. These . . . Tangents—that’s what they called themselves—barged in to that horrible warehouse our kidnappers took us to, released us, gave us this car, gave us instructions. Everything happened in a whirlwind. We didn’t have much choice but to trust them. I mean, look, it meant getting to you kids and getting out of there. And most importantly, they’ve offered us protection.”
Michael could’ve responded in a lot of ways. Trusting others was something he’d never find easy again. At the moment, he was just thinking about staying alive, and he had to admit that this did seem to be their best option.
Plus, there was Helga. He had to meet this Helga.
The road leveled out, cutting off their view, and suddenly they were pulling into the overgrown complex. A dozen or so beat-up cars were parked under the shade of several big trees. They looked so old that if it weren’t for the lack of kudzu on their surfaces, Michael might’ve thought they’d been there as long as the buildings themselves.
Gerard had barely pulled to a stop when a tall woman appeared at a door of one of the buildings. She wore dusty jeans, boots, and a black sweatshirt, and her sandy blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She walked confidently toward them, her face twisted into a scowl. Everything about her seemed to say Get the hell out of my way.
“That’s her,” Gerard whispered as he rolled down the window.
Michael didn’t recognize her, and his heart fell even though he had no reason to know what Helga looked like in the Wake.
She leaned in the driver’s-side window, resting on her forearms, and peered at each of the car’s occupants. She nodded back toward the building from which she’d come.
“Let’s get you inside,” she said, without the German accent Michael realized he’d been expecting, “before the world falls apart.”
Then she turned and headed back toward the barracks.
“Today, dude, today!” It was a bad time for Bryson to take a year and a half to get out of the car. Michael had never been so impatient in his life. He had to find out the truth about this Helga and the people she was with. Maybe they could help him get back to the Hallowed Ravine.
“I’m going, man. Chill!” Bryson responded. But he still hadn’t moved. He gave Michael a hard look. “Are we sure about this?”
“Yes,” Michael and Sarah answered at the same time. Sarah’s parents were already out of the car, closing their doors.
“Would you go so far as to say . . . you’re sure as heckfire?” Bryson pressed. “My grandma used to say that. If you say you’re sure as heckfire, then I’m in.”
Michael willed himself to calm down. “Yes. I’m sure as heckfire.”
“Okay, then.” Bryson climbed out of the backseat, Michael half pushing his friend to get him out faster. Sarah got out on the other side, and the group followed her dad up a trampled path of weeds to the door, which stood ajar. Gerard didn’t hesitate. He walked right in, and Michael and the others followed.
The tall woman who’d greeted them was waiting, but that wasn’t what got Michael’s attention.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he was shocked by what he saw. It was as if he’d stepped into a completely different world. The beat-up, weathered building housed a technological wonderland. Low-glare LED lights lined the ceiling, illuminating the green haze of dozens of NetScreens. A row of blue Coffins lined one wall; a row of desks lined another, men and women working furiously at them. Fresh lumber had been used to reinforce the walls and ceiling, and Michael noticed that they’d used some sort of plastic to patch the holes in the roof.
Their host’s voice cut through Michael’s daze, breaking the silence. “We had to find a location that was remote—”
“Mission accomplished,” Bryson muttered.
“—and yet had a power source and access to the satellite VirtNet feeds. This is an old training facility for army tech warriors, abandoned a decade ago due to budget cuts. Turns out it works perfectly for our needs. Took a couple of weeks to set up, but here we are. Already down to business.”
Michael had a million questions, but one stood out above all others.
He faced the tall woman and took a step nearer, looking into her eyes carefully. “Gerard said you told him your name was Helga. And that you’re a Tangent. Does . . .” He had no idea how to phrase what he wanted to ask.
Michael was surprised to see tears glistening in her eyes, blurring the reflections of the lights in the room. “Yes,” she said. Then she wrapped her arms around him, pulling him into a fierce hug. “So you must be Michael, then. My boy.”
Michael’s eyes widened and it took him a moment to return the embrace. “You’re . . . Helga? Really? But how?” She’d quickly accepted him in his new body, but he didn’t know if he could accept her in return.
She pulled away, her eyes fierce despite being wet. “There’s a lot to tell. A lot to catch up on. But the quick and dirty is that we’ve been on Kaine’s tail since before you crossed paths with him. We stole the Mortality Doctrine program from him. Copied a version of it, anyway. We had to do it, Michael. We had to come here into the real world if we ever wanted to save the virtual one. And the real one, for that matter.”
The nauseous feeling washed over Michael again. “Wait . . . how did you choose which bodies to steal?” He took a step backward. “How can you justify that? You . . . How do I even know you’re really Helga? How can I trust any of you? At all?”
The woman who claimed to be his old nanny smiled kindly. “Good questions, all,” she said “And I’ll answer each and every one. I think it’ll be easy enough to prove who I am. I’ll answer something only you know. . . .”
She paused, looking over Michael’s group. It was obvious they were as concerned as he was. They’d committed themselves to stopping this sort of thing. And yet their rescuers were no better than Kaine, apparently.
“We haven’t . . . killed anyone,” the woman finally clarified. Her stance had grown stiff again, her expression no longer tender. But Michael could see a deep sadness in those eyes. “Not the true death, anyway.”
“The true death?” Sarah repeated, shooting a wary look at Michael. He suddenly felt as if the ground below him was melting.
“Please,” the woman said, clearly frustrated by the turn in her audience’s attitude. “Let’s just sit down and talk it all through, okay? Please.” She motioned toward a circle of chairs set up near the glowing Coffins.
Michael looked at Bryson and Sarah and shrugged, then started for the chairs, the words true death ringing in his ears.