He looked up at the guard with the gun and realized he was staring, too. But then the man met his gaze.

“What did you do?” he asked, more nervous than angry. “What was that thing?”

“Honestly?” Michael responded. “I have no idea. Someone who gets paid a lot more than you do told me to put it there and press a few buttons. So I did.”

The man had no chance to respond. A riot of sounds suddenly filled the air. Then sparks erupted from the device. The pulsing hum stopped, only to be replaced by what sounded like great sheets of metal warping.

“What’s going on?” the man shouted, fear lighting up his face, which now glistened with sweat.

Michael was scared himself. All he could do was shrug.

“Get up top,” the guard ordered, then started climbing the ladder.

Michael reached for the next rung above him, and as soon as he clasped it, everything began to shake. The sounds got louder.

Michael climbed as the entire building shook violently. The blue sea of lights scattered among Kaine’s Core programming flared and flashed, popping and exploding, and sheets of circuits began to break off the walls and fall, rattling off other parts of the core as they plummeted. The heat rose quickly, scorching Michael as he clambered up the ladder.

He pulled himself up onto the catwalk behind the guard to see Bryson and Sarah, hands cuffed behind their backs, being herded toward the exit. The structure swayed back and forth as the world quaked and every person with a free hand held on to something for support. Flames licked up from below as the core collapsed in on itself. The noise was unbearable.

The man who’d come after Michael had his gun in Michael’s face. He shouted, “We get out of this building, and then we deal with you! Now go! I’ll be right behind you the whole way!”

Michael nodded. Agent Weber would Lift them out of Lifeblood Deep. She would.

And so he went. Around the catwalk, stumbling and lurching. He held on to the rail like the other guards, though hot, furious air blew up from the crumbling center of the room. Sweat soaked his whole body, and he kept moving, the guard pressing the gun into his back, pushing him.

He made it to the door. Exited into the hallway.

Something exploded behind them, a quick ripping of sound and air. The building heaved.

Michael ran down the hallway, around a corner. He tripped, caught his balance, ran to the stairwell, to his friends and the other guards.

Down they went, leaping from step to step.

Another explosion.

The building jolted.

Michael fell.

Got back up.

He was at the landing of the second floor. Down more stairs. They reached the first floor, stumbled into the hallway. Around yet another corner. They were going in a different direction this time, heading for the front door instead of the back. Several explosions tore through the air. Michael and everyone else fell down. Got back up. Dust choked them. They kept moving, made it to the exit, out into the sun and the streets.

Other men and women with weapons waited outside. Beyond them, crowds of people had gathered to watch the commotion. Fire trucks lined the streets, and cop cars, both wheeled and hovering, sat abandoned, their lights flashing.

Michael’s mind spun and his muscles burned. He could barely see, sweat blurring his vision on top of the sudden brightness. Now that they were out of the building, the man who’d pushed him along grabbed him roughly and dragged him farther away, to an area where others were taking Bryson and Sarah. To a big black truck, whose doors two men had just opened.

“Weber,” Michael breathed, stumbling along, barely able to keep his feet under him. “Weber.” He swiveled his head, searching for a Portal, wondering if he could make a break for it. Something wasn’t right. He hadn’t thought this far ahead, but things were supposed to go down differently.

Plant and trigger the Lance. Get Lifted.

Suddenly, like a waking dream, Gabby appeared. She was in the crowd, pushing past people, running toward Michael. He stared at her. He didn’t understand.

“Jax!” she screamed, her face lit with terror, sprinting straight at him. Two cops chased her. “Michael!”

“Gabby?” he whispered, barely hearing it himself. What the hell was going on?

“It’s not real!” she yelled, just as one of the cops grabbed her arm. “I mean, it is real! They tricked you! I should never have helped—” The other cop slugged her in the head with his nightstick and she collapsed to the ground.

Unable to form words, Michael screamed, a bloodcurdling sound that pierced his own ears. It came from everywhere inside him, a banshee cry born of confusion and pain. He was pushed ahead, and he lost sight of Gabby.

They were throwing his friends into the back of the truck. Panic surged inside Michael. No, no, no. Everything was so wrong.

“Gabby!” he yelled.

He jerked his body, twisting away from his captor, trying to see Gabby. The man lost his grip and Michael staggered, turned, started running. Toward Gabby.



Throngs of people surrounded her. If he could just get that far. Find her, help her, get lost in the crowd.

A woman stepped in front of him, dressed in all-black battle gear. She had a nightstick, too, and she swung the long, thin club directly at Michael’s face. It connected with his forehead, a crushing blow that made the world erupt into bright lights and pain. He fell to the ground, crumpling in a heap, the back of his head slamming into the concrete.

The sky and the tops of buildings swirled above him. He almost lost consciousness but held on, forcing himself to stay connected. His strength was gone. Gone.

“Gabby,” he whispered. “Weber. Where are you?”

And then he was being lifted into the air. Carried to the truck. Thrown inside.

They slammed the door closed, a long screech followed by a thunderous, echoing boom, leaving him and his friends in darkness.

Michael closed his eyes.

Chapter 21: Criminal

Michael floated in and out of consciousness. He woke up when they moved him, saw flashes of lights and faces, the blur of movement. His head hurt, a raw ache that reminded him far too much of the Decay. Of all that had been. Of Kaine. Nausea overwhelmed him.

He slept.

“Hey,” someone whispered. “Michael. You okay?”

Sarah. It was Sarah. He blinked a few times, opened his eyes fully. She was staring down at him. He was on his back, lying on something very hard. His head felt better, and the wooziness had subsided. With a groan he moved to get up, and she helped him. His heart sank when he saw where they were.