Bryson leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, like he’d just closed a huge business deal. “I do feel sorry for that Jackson Porter kid. That’s gotta suck, to have your brain vacuumed out and replaced with someone else’s. But it’s not your fault. All we can do is try to stop it from happening again. But first things first. We need to find out more about Kaine, about this Doctrine thing, and try to end it. Right?”
“Right,” Michael answered. He liked that. Focus on the future. That was all he could do. Not for the first time since starting his story, he wondered if he should mention Jackson’s girlfriend, Gabriela. But for some reason he just couldn’t bring it up.
“So here’s the big question,” Bryson said. “What do we do next? The Trifecta to Dissect-ya has reunited in all its glory. We’ve got a wild and crazy computer program bent on taking over people’s minds. Oh, and on killing us if we don’t help him.”
“Which,” Sarah added, “is not an option.”
Bryson nodded. “Not an option.”
“I was so focused on finding you guys,” Michael said, “I’m not really sure what to do next. I guess I assumed we’d go to the VNS, but it’s kind of weird that Agent Weber was at the tree house. Why did she run away?”
Sarah let go of Michael’s hand, then leaned forward on her elbows. “Maybe that’s all the more reason why we should go to her. I mean, she did warn us before the flash thingy. It was like she just didn’t want to be discovered.”
“And aren’t they the good guys?” Bryson asked. “They wanted you—us—to find Kaine in the first place.”
It was Michael’s turn to scoff at something his friend had said. “Yeah, and look how good that turned out.”
“Well, you got a body, didn’t you?”
Michael couldn’t tell if he was being serious or making a really bad joke. He didn’t know how to respond. Before his silence could become awkward, though, there was a rattling sound. He looked down to see that the table was trembling. Slightly at first, and then more strongly. The table legs screeched on the pavement below.
Sarah and Bryson had the same look on their faces—wide-eyed, staring at the table as if it had been possessed by a demon. Michael had scooted his chair back and was ready to push himself up and run if he had to. Had Bryson signed up for death by earthquake?
The entire café shook, cups rattling on saucers, utensils falling off tables and scattering across the floor. Dishes broke and shattered, shards of porcelain mixing with the forks and spoons. People were shouting and dashing this way and that, not sure where to go. Michael and his friends stayed put, alternating fearful looks at each other.
The table suddenly bounced, jumping two feet in the air and slamming back down with a loud bang. Sarah screamed and Michael yelped. The table bounced again. Michael finally got out of his chair, swaying with the movement of the world around him. He stumbled over to Sarah and helped her up, clasping her hand tightly; then Bryson was with them. They all linked arms to help with balance. The trembling had increased to all-out shaking, tables hopping, people falling over each other. Windows shattered nearby and sprayed glass on the ground. Panicked screams came from everywhere.
“Let’s get out of here!” Bryson yelled. “I know a back way out. Follow my lead!”
Michael closed his eyes, ready to manipulate the surrounding code. They’d used a Portal to come in, but there was no time for that now, laws or no laws.
A boom like a thousand claps of thunder rocked the air, and Michael opened his eyes to see the pavement crack at his feet. A fierce wind tore at his clothes and hair—its whoosh picked up all sound and seemed to rip it away, drowning out everything else. He turned to look at the café building, but it was no longer there, and his breath and beating heart seemed to stop at the same moment when he saw what had replaced it.
A huge beam of racing purple light had erupted from the ground, a brilliant shaft of pulsing energy several feet wide. Michael threw up his arms to shield his eyes it was so bright, following its length toward the sky like a beacon to the heavens. Tendrils of electricity danced along its edges, crackling and snapping over the roar of the rushing pillar of energy.
“What,” Bryson said, pausing between words. “Is. That.”
Michael had no idea, and his feet felt like they were glued to the floor. He couldn’t move no matter how hard he tried.
It was getting stronger and stronger, ripping at Michael, pulling his body, now forcing him toward the shaft of light, not away from it. It was like they were on a spaceship and a seal on the door had broken: everything was being sucked into a vacuum. A chair flew past him, flipping over and over until it slammed into the side of the beam, where it stuck as if it had been welded there, sliding toward the sky.
Then the floodgates opened. Forks, knives, spoons, broken glass, another chair flew by. A table catapulted past as if thrown by an invisible hand, spinning like a disc until it hit the pillar, then raced upward with all the other debris. Michael and his friends gripped each other tightly, fighting the wind, but they were sliding toward the otherworldly shaft of brilliance.
“I can’t focus!” Sarah yelled. Michael looked at his friend and couldn’t believe what he saw. Her eyes were closed—she was still trying to break out with code.
All three of them lost their balance at the same time, their feet slipping. Michael landed hard; a spike of pain shot through his tailbone. He was sliding feetfirst across the pavement, as if being dragged by ropes tied to his ankles. The beam of light, raging and pulsing and sparkling with electricity, rushed skyward, pulling him like a massive magnet as things flew at it from all directions, obscuring its bright surface.
Heavier objects than Michael had already flown away, and lighter ones still bounced along the ground. It was as if the purple shaft was picking and choosing what it wanted. He scrambled, trying to get any sort of traction he could to stop the slide, but nothing worked. Sarah’s arm slipped out of his, then Bryson’s. They scrambled, clawing at the pavement. Then it all happened at once.
The force ripped their bodies off of the ground completely. Michael, facedown, saw the world drop away beneath him; then he twisted to look in the direction he was headed. Toward the monstrous shaft of raging power. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bryson and Sarah windmilling their arms and kicking their legs as they flew toward the shaft as well. Soon there was nothing but purple light filling his vision, a roar of rushing sound, pinpricks of electricity across his skin.