Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Rule of Thoughts, Page 2

James Dashner

  So what could he do?

  He clicked off the NetScreen and slouched back into the chair. He had to get out of there. He could leave a note with some kind of explanation. It would break his family’s hearts, but at least it would let them know he was alive. He could even keep corresponding with them, keep the deception going. Surely that was better than finding out a computer program had erased the mind of their son and replaced it with another.

  But there was the issue of money.…

  Something banged, hard, against the front door of the apartment, startling him.

  He turned and looked toward the noise.

  Bang. Bang. Bang.

  There it was again. A hard thunk, like wood against metal. Again, then again.

  Michael jumped up from the chair and hurried down the hall, through the kitchen, toward the front door. The pounding happened twice more, as if someone were swinging something large back and—

  With a splintering crash of the framework, the metal door exploded inward. Michael crouched down, throwing his arms up to protect himself as the door slammed to the ground, narrowly missing him. Heart in his throat, he looked up to see who was in the doorway.

  Two men. Both dressed in jeans and drab flannel shirts, they held some sort of old-fashioned wooden battering ram. They were both big, muscular, one with dark hair, the other blond. Neither had shaved for a few days, and intensity strained their expressions. And if Michael wasn’t mistaken, there seemed to be a hint of surprise hidden in there somewhere.

  They dropped the length of wood and stepped toward Michael.

  He shot backward, scrambling across the kitchen until he ran into the counter and lost his footing, dropping to the floor. The two men stopped just a few feet away, looking down at him with twin sneers.

  “Do I even need to ask?” Michael managed to say. He wanted to feel brave—to be brave—but the vulnerability of his human body suddenly hit him. It was something he’d never thought about in Lifeblood Deep. His world could end at any second.

  The two men didn’t answer; they looked at each other with puzzled expressions, so Michael spoke again. “I guess I do,” he murmured. “Who are you?”

  Both of them swung their gazes back to him.

  “We were sent by Kaine,” the dark-haired man said. “A lot has changed in the last day or two. We were sent to … summon you to a meeting. He has big plans for you, son.”

  Michael’s heart sank. He’d hoped for more time. His mind spun with questions, but what came out of his mouth sounded plain stupid.

  “Well, you could’ve just knocked.”

  The men actually helped him to his feet—the blond guy even dusted off Michael’s back. But both remained oddly silent, and the whole situation was beginning to take on an air of absurdity.

  “So,” Michael asked, “are you guys going to tell me anything? Your names, at least?” He felt oddly peaceful as he spoke, as if any immediate danger had been swept away by the man brushing the dirt off his pants.

  The dark-haired man straightened and folded his arms. His face showed no emotion as he spoke. “My name is Kinto,” he said, then nodded toward his partner. “This is Douglas. We were under the impression that you were still inside the Coffin, still undergoing the Doctrine transfer.”

  “Looks like we were … misinformed,” Douglas added in a gravelly voice.

  “Yeah,” Kinto agreed. “Looks that way.”

  Michael was still confused, but less so. At least the men knew about Kaine and the Mortality Doctrine. “So does that mean Kaine’s taken a human body, too? How many Tangents have done the same thing?” His mouth was still open when Kinto held up a hand to silence him.

  “Stop. Talking.” The man’s expression was all business. “If Kaine wants you to know something, he’ll make sure you do.”

  “You’ve been given a gift,” Douglas continued. “Life. For now, just be happy and do what you’re told.”

  “Fine with me,” Michael replied. His insides were a churning storm—lightning, thunder, sleet, strong winds, the whole bit—but he tried to display a sense of calm. He’d had way too many experiences lately that had ended in his being dragged away, and it was something he wanted to avoid if at all possible. He would go with these men until an opportunity to break away presented itself or until he had a revelation about what he should do.

  “Fine with you?” Douglas repeated, obviously surprised at the simple response.

  “Fine with me.” Michael swallowed. He’d just keep his comments to a minimum and go with it until a better plan developed.

  Kinto gestured toward the door. “Then let’s go. I don’t think I need to tell you not to try anything. Douglas will go first, then you, then me. Nice and easy.”

  “Life couldn’t be simpler,” Douglas said gruffly, though he broke his stern act with a smile. “You follow me, Kinto follows you. And all your dreams will come true.”

  The man didn’t wait for a response. He headed for the door and Michael fell in line behind him, with Kinto right on his heels. They went through the shattered doorframe and into the hallway, the apartment building silent except for their footsteps.

  For some reason, Michael thought of Lifeblood Deep, how it had been his life’s goal to make it there someday, and a wave of sadness washed over him. He’d been there the whole time. And now look where he’d ended up. He knew it was ironic, somehow, maybe even profoundly philosophical, but all he could feel was defeat.

  He kept walking.

  Michael and his escorts made their way down the hall to the elevator, out of the building, through the bustling streets, and to the subway. He sat squeezed between the two men as they jostled along underground, and his thoughts kept returning to Jackson Porter. His family. His girlfriend, even. Gabriela.

  What had happened to the consciousness of the boy once known as Jackson? Was that it for him? Had his mind, his personality, been erased? Or was it stored somewhere, somehow? If Michael could be transferred into Jackson’s body, maybe Jackson could be transferred out.

  He kept thinking about how Jackson’s family was basking in the sunshine in Puerto Rico, oblivious that they’d lost a son and a brother. Guilt overwhelmed him. Though it hadn’t been his choice, he’d taken a life, and he wished he could make the loss bearable for them in some way.

  Not a word had been spoken between Michael and the others since they’d left the apartment, unless you counted the grunts the men made when they needed to change direction.

  Michael sat, quiet, as the train pulled into a station and stopped. The doors opened and he watched absently as the passengers crowded in like herded cattle. There were some who smiled or apologized when they bumped into others. Those were few and far between. One woman barely made it through before the doors closed on her, catching the corner of her handbag. She had to yank hard before it came free, allowing the doors to seal shut.

  As Michael observed, his mind started turning. His gaze went from the woman to her purse to the door, and his thoughts picked up speed. What in the world was he going to do? He literally knew no one, had no home, no money, no clothes. No place to start. Did he continue with these people, go to this gathering place, this meeting, find out what Kaine wanted with him? He needed answers from the Tangent, but did he dare let himself be trapped in a situation he couldn’t get out of?

  He missed his family and his friends more than anything. They couldn’t all be fake—he refused to accept that.

  The train continued along the tracks, flashing lights breaking up the darkness of the tunnel. He was surrounded by people—some dozing, some reading, many just blankly staring into space. Kinto and Douglas sat on either side of him, their shoulders pressed against his, their faces as blank as most of the others on the train.

  Michael had a sudden thought: if what Agent Weber from VNS had told him the night before was true, Michael wasn’t alone. Somewhere out there in the big, bad world, he had the two best friends a person could ever ask for. They weren’t Tangents like him—the
y never had been. They were real. Weber had said so.

  Bryson and Sarah.

  Michael then realized he was scared of something: what would his friends think of him? He was a Tangent. Did that change things? He had a sudden and terrible vision of them stumbling backward, running away from him, a freak that had taken the body of a real person. Stolen it.

  But did he actually believe that? Wouldn’t they understand?

  Yes, he decided. Yes, they would.

  The train bounced and creaked, everyone staring down at the floor. Lights flashed and dimmed, then blazed back on. His two escorts said nothing.

  He couldn’t go with them. He just couldn’t. Yes, he needed answers. Yes, he needed to figure out a way to confront Kaine and find out the why of everything. But not this way. Not with the Tangent calling the shots.

  Michael needed Bryson and Sarah. He thanked the stars that he’d seen that poor woman get her handbag caught, because it had sparked an idea.

  He had to stay calm. He stilled his whole body until he sat frozen, like a wax figure, and waited for the right moment. The train began to slow and pulled into the next station. The doors slid open and passengers surged off en masse, plowing into those who wanted on the train. Cattle in, cattle out. Michael watched it all calmly, waiting. Riders found their way to seats until those were full, then packed in, clasping handholds attached to the ceiling and the poles running the length of the car. There was a loud tone and the doors began to close.

  Without warning Michael launched himself out of his seat, knocking people out of the way, and lunged for the disappearing gap between the closing doors. He stumbled over something, recovered, dove for the thin sliver of an opening. His body made it through, but the doors slammed against his right calf, the rubber seals clutching, holding him firmly in place. He crashed to the ground, twisted around to look back. The two men stood just on the other side of the doors, calmly looking down at him through the gap. Their serene expressions actually scared him more than if they’d grown fangs and wings.

  Douglas bent down and grabbed Michael’s foot, pulling him with a shocking amount of strength, while Kinto attempted to force the doors open. They didn’t budge. A blaring bell rang out, followed by a mechanized voice.

  “Please remove all obstructions from the path of the door.”

  Michael gritted his teeth and pulled his trapped leg, kicking the train with the other, trying to squirm his way free. But Douglas held firm on the other side, twisting Michael’s foot painfully. Michael cried out and struggled even harder. A woman on the train screamed. It was a piercing wail that drowned out the alarm—it must have been clear that Douglas wasn’t exactly trying to help Michael.

  Then the train started to move.

  It lurched forward, dragging Michael along the cement floor of the station as he tried to grab anything nearby, but there was only the floor. A second alarm rang out, this one more of a booming, electronic clang that filled the air, and the train stopped. Michael’s leg screamed with pain; the doors pinched in a viselike hold where they had closed around his calf. Douglas continued to twist his foot from inside the train, and the other passengers were realizing that he was hurting Michael—doing more harm than good. There were shouts, and Michael strained to look and saw scuffling; a punch was thrown. Douglas’s head snapped to the left, but his face registered no pain. Michael watched it all in a daze, as if his mind had risen out of his aching body.

  And then someone was pushing his foot instead of pulling on it. A hand gripped the underside of his calf, trying to leverage it at a better angle. Kinto and a burly man were fighting inside the train—they fell to the ground and Douglas released his hold on Michael. He pulled himself up and pushed against the door of the train with his other foot. The alarms clanged and rang at a deafening pitch. Two men in uniform ran toward him, barking orders he couldn’t understand. People on the train were shouting and pointing at him through the windows.

  Finally his leg slipped free from the vise of the two doors and they slammed shut.

  Michael pulled his leg in and rubbed his calf and ankle, watching from the ground as the train lurched into motion again. The alarm cut off and the familiar creaks and groans of transit resumed. He glanced up as the cars disappeared into the tunnel. In the very last one stood Douglas, staring back at him through a grimy, fingerprint-smeared window, ignoring the still-chaotic scene playing out behind him.

  And for the first time, the man looked angry.

  Michael winced and clutched his leg, breaking his gaze with Douglas as he slipped away. The screeching sounds faded into echoes as the train finally vanished into the darkness of the tunnel. There was a scuffle of footsteps and then the two officials were lifting him to his feet. He stepped gingerly on his injured leg and thanked them.

  After a couple of minutes of scolding and reprimanding, they let him go, warning him not to do something so stupid ever again. Neither of them had noticed that he’d actually been escaping a kidnapping or that a couple of stone-cold-expressionless men had been trying to yank him back onto the train. Which was a relief to Michael. He didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself. He dusted off his clothes and tested his leg. It hurt, but it wasn’t broken. He finally limped out of the station and onto the city sidewalks.

  He stopped to take it all in. There were people everywhere, cars everywhere. And the world was full of sound. Horns and engines, talking and shouting and laughing. A hovering cop car zoomed past above him. The brightness of the day blinded him slightly, making everything a sea of blurred movement. He was still shaking from having lost Douglas and Kinto; it would take some time for him to adjust.

  He found a bench and sat down, and not just because his leg ached. The whirlwind of events since he’d read the letters from Gabriela and Jackson Porter’s dad had spared Michael from having to figure out what was going on. Kaine might’ve provided answers, but Michael had no doubts about his decision to run—he needed to stay as far away from Kaine as possible. How could he possibly trust the Tangent?

  Elbows on knees, he dropped his head into his hands and took a deep breath. The reality was, to find Bryson and Sarah—to find his next meal—he’d need something he didn’t have.


  He desperately needed money.

  His stomach rumbled with hunger and he almost laughed. It was funny how his old “fake” life resembled this new one. Unless he wanted to beg or go Dumpster diving, he’d need to figure out a way to fill his coffers with electronic cash. Then he realized the bigger problem: he didn’t have any coffers. The kid known as Michael didn’t exist in this world.

  But Jackson Porter did. And according to the note the Porters had left, they knew he’d need money while they were in Puerto Rico.

  Michael felt another pang of guilt, then reminded himself that Kaine had done this to the boy, not Michael. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to force himself to accept the thought. But he couldn’t. Because he now existed in the real world, a family would never be the same. Maybe he could pretend, make the Porters believe their son was alive, just off to see the world. They’d be sad—not to mention Gabriela—but not utterly devastated.

  He was safe for the short term, anyway, and would just take what money he needed. When the family returned from their vacation and realized he was missing … Well, one day at a time.

  Right then he needed a better place to sit—a little darker, so he could see a NetScreen more clearly—and some time on the VirtNet. He found a relatively clean corner tucked away in an alley with just enough passing traffic to keep the hooligans away, and he sat down on the hard pavement to work. One click of his EarCuff and the glowing green screen that belonged to Jackson Porter flashed to life in front of him.

  Then a cold fear crawled up his spine. What if his coding skills had been as fake as his life in the Sleep? What if the code was somehow different out in the Wake? The real Wake.

  Scarcely able to handle the thought, he got to work, and soon realized his fears were

  He swiped and typed, allowing his mind to take over, and he dug further and further into Jackson’s and his family’s lives, searching the Net for codes and files he’d used or heard about before—password unlockers, false-identity creators, secret sites about the ins and outs of bank cybersecurity. It wasn’t long before he’d created an entirely new human being—new to the virtual world, anyway. He called this new human Michael Peterson.

  Kaine knew his first name, but it was common; there had to be thousands of Michaels out there. Hundreds of thousands. He couldn’t bring himself to use a completely different name—it was all he had left from the life that had been taken. Plus, Kaine probably expected him to change it.

  Luckily for him, the Porters weren’t hurting in the money department. Michael started the process of transferring funds, making all the trails appear as if their sweet boy, Jackson, had actually taken cash credit withdrawals, practically untraceable.

  Things were running more smoothly, more quickly than Michael would’ve hoped, and he was just beginning to feel good about himself when a glitch hit. A diagonal line of bright blue slashed across the NetScreen. It only lasted half a second, but his stomach dropped. The glitch was unmistakable. Somebody was trying to break into his system.

  Another slash. Brighter. Followed by another.

  Michael’s hands flew between the screen and the keyboard, his instincts taking over. He built makeshift firewalls and scrambled his digital signal—Jackson Porter’s digital signal, rather—and coded some other quickie programs to block the intruder. But he could tell from the strength of the pushback coding that whoever it was had massive skills.

  There was no question in Michael’s mind. It was Kaine.

  Michael couldn’t hold him off much longer. The two dull-faced men who’d come to take him away must’ve reported back up the chain of command. Michael was now officially rogue, and Kaine wouldn’t be happy.