Thomas woke to see Brenda’s face staring down at him. She looked worried. Her skin was pale and marked with streaks of dried blood, and there was black soot on her forehead and a bruise forming on her cheek. As if her wounds reminded him, he suddenly felt the sting of his own across his whole body. He had no idea how those Launcher grenades worked, but he was happy he’d only been hit once.
“I just got up myself,” Brenda said. “How do you feel?”
Thomas shifted to lean on his elbow and winced at the sharp pain in his leg where he’d been grazed by the bullet. “Like a bucket of klunk.”
He lay on a low cot inside a large cargo hold that currently held nothing but a bunch of mismatched furniture. Minho and Newt were taking well-deserved naps on a couple of ugly couches, blankets covering their bodies and tucked in under their chins. Thomas had a sneaking suspicion that Brenda had done that—they looked like little kids, all snuggly and warm.
Brenda had been kneeling next to his cot; she now stood up and took a seat on a frumpy armchair a few feet away. “We slept for almost ten hours.”
“Serious?” Thomas couldn’t believe it—it seemed like he’d just dozed off. Or passed out was probably more accurate.
“We’ve been flying that long? Where are we going, the moon?” Thomas swung his legs out and sat on the edge of the cot.
“No. Jorge got us a hundred or so miles away, then landed in a big clearing. He’s actually snoozing, too. Can’t have a tired pilot.”
“I can’t believe we both got shot by Launchers. I liked it a lot better being the one who pulled the trigger.” Thomas rubbed his face and let out a big yawn. Then he examined some of the burns on his arms. “Do you think these will leave scars?”
Brenda laughed. “Of all the things to worry about.”
He couldn’t help but smile. She was right. “So,” he started, then continued, slowly. “It sounded great to escape from WICKED when we were back there, but … I don’t even know what the real world … It’s not all like the Scorch, is it?”
“No,” she replied. “Only the regions between the Tropics are a wasteland—everywhere else has extreme swings of climate. There are a few safe cities we could go to. Especially being immune—we could probably find jobs pretty easily.”
“Jobs,” Thomas repeated, as if the word were the most foreign thing he’d ever heard. “You’re already thinking about getting a job?”
“You do plan to eat, don’t you?”
Thomas didn’t answer, felt the heavy weight of reality. If they were truly going to escape into the real world, they had to start living like real people. But was that even possible in a world where the Flare existed? He thought of his friends.
“Teresa,” he said.
Brenda pulled back a little in surprise. “What about her?”
“Is there a way to find out where she and the others went?”
“Jorge already did—checked the Berg tracking system. They went to a city called Denver.”
Thomas felt a prick of alarm. “Does that mean WICKED’ll be able to find us?”
“You don’t know Jorge.” She had a mischievous grin on her face. “He can manipulate the system like you wouldn’t believe. We should be able to stay a step ahead of them for a little while, at least.”
“Denver,” Thomas said after a moment. The name sounded weird in his mouth. “Where’s that?”
“Rocky Mountains. High elevation. One of the obvious choices for a quarantine zone because the weather’s recovered pretty quickly there since the sun flares. As good a place as any to go.”
Thomas didn’t care so much about the location, he just knew that he had to find Teresa and the others, be reunited. He wasn’t quite sure why yet, and he certainly wasn’t ready to discuss it with Brenda. So he stalled for time.
“What’s it like there?” he finally asked.
“Well, like most big cities, they’re pretty ruthless about keeping the Cranks out, and the residents have to be tested for the Flare randomly and often. They actually have another town set up on the opposite side of the valley where they send the newly infected. Immunes get paid a lot of money to take care of them even though it’s extremely dangerous. Both places are heavily guarded.”
Even with some of his memories back, Thomas didn’t know a whole lot about the population that was immune to the Flare. But he remembered something the Rat Man had told him. “Janson said that people really hate the Immunes—call them Munies. What did he mean by that?”
“When you have the Flare, you know you’re going to go crazy and die. It’s not a matter of if but when. And as hard as the world has tried, the virus always finds its way through the cracks of the quarantines. Imagine knowing that and then knowing that the Immunes are going to be okay. The Flare does nothing to them—they don’t even transmit the virus. Wouldn’t you hate the healthy?”
“Probably,” Thomas said, glad he was on the immune side of things. Better to be hated than sick. “But wouldn’t it seem valuable to have them around? I mean, knowing they can’t catch the disease.”
Brenda shrugged. “They’re definitely used—especially in government and security roles—but the others treat them like trash. And there’s way more people who aren’t immune. That’s why the Munies get paid so much to be guards—otherwise they wouldn’t go through it. A lot of them even try to hide their immunity. Or go work for WICKED, like Jorge and I did.”
“So did you guys meet before going there?”
“We met in Alaska, after we’d found out we were immune. There was a gathering place for people like us—kind of a hidden camp. Jorge became like an uncle to me, and he swore to be my guardian. My dad had already been killed, and my mom pushed me away once she caught the Flare.”
Thomas leaned forward, elbows on knees. “You told me WICKED killed your dad. And yet you still went and volunteered to work for them?”
“Survival, Thomas.” A dark look passed over her face. “You don’t know how good you had it growing up under WICKED’s wing. Out in the real world, most people will do anything to survive one more day. Cranks and Immunes have different problems, yeah, but it’s still about surviving. Everybody wants to live.”
Thomas didn’t respond, didn’t know what to say. All he knew of life was the Maze and the Scorch and the splotchy memories of his childhood with WICKED. He felt empty and lost, like he didn’t really belong anywhere.
A sudden pain squeezed his heart. “I wonder what happened to my mom,” he said, surprising himself.
“Your mom?” Brenda asked. “You remember her?”
“I’ve had a few dreams about her. I think they were memories.”
“What came back? What was she like?”
“She was … a mom. You know, she loved me, cared about me, worried about me.” Thomas’s voice cracked. “I don’t think anyone’s done that since they took me away from her. It hurts to think of her going crazy, to think of what might’ve happened to her. What some crazy bloodthirsty Crank might’ve …”
“Stop it, Thomas. Just stop.” She took his hand and squeezed, which helped. “Think how happy she’d be, knowing you’re still alive, still fighting. She died knowing that you were immune, and that you’d have a chance to actually grow old, no matter how crappy the world is. Plus, you’re totally wrong.”
Thomas had been staring at the floor, but at that he looked up at Brenda. “Huh?”
“Minho. Newt. Frypan. All your friends care and worry about you. Even Teresa—she really did do all those things in the Scorch because she thought she had no choice.” Brenda paused, then added in a quiet voice, “Chuck.”
The pang Thomas was feeling in his chest tightened. “Chuck. He … he’s …” He had to stop a second to compose himself. When it came down to it, Chuck was the most vivid reason that he despised WICKED. How could any good come from killing a kid like Chuck?
He finally continued. “I watched as that kid died. In his last few seconds there was pure terror in his eyes. You can’t do that. You can’t do that to a person. I don’t care what anyone tells me, I don’t care how many people go crazy and die, I don’t care if the whole shuck human race ends. Even if that was the only thing that had to happen to find the cure, I’d still be against it.”
“Thomas, relax. You’re going to squeeze your own fingers off.”
He didn’t remember letting go of her hand—he looked down to see his own hands gripping each other tightly, the skin completely white. He eased off and felt the blood rush back to them.
Brenda nodded solemnly. “I changed for good back in the Scorch city. I’m sorry for everything.”
Thomas shook his head. “You don’t have a single reason more than I do to apologize. It’s all just one big screwed-up mess.” He groaned and lay back down on the cot, staring at the metal grid of the ceiling.
After a long pause, Brenda finally spoke again. “Ya know, maybe we can find Teresa and the others. Join up. They broke out, which means they’re on our side. I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt—maybe they had no choice but to leave without us. And it’s no surprise at all that they went where they did.”
Thomas shifted to look at her, daring to hope she was right. “So you think we should go to …”
Thomas nodded, suddenly certain and loving the feel of it. “Yeah, Denver.”
“But your friends aren’t the only reason.” Brenda smiled. “There’s something even more important there.”
Thomas stared at Brenda, eager to hear what she had to say.
“You know what’s in your brain,” she said. “So what’s our biggest concern?”
Thomas thought about it. “WICKED tracking us or controlling us.”
“Exactly,” Brenda said.
“And?” Again, impatience filled his gut.
She sat back down across from him and leaned forward on her knees, rubbing her hands together in excitement. “I know a guy named Hans who moved to Denver—he’s immune like us. He’s a doctor. He worked at WICKED until he had a disagreement with the higher-ups about the protocols surrounding the brain implants. He thought what they were doing was too risky. That they were crossing lines, being inhumane. WICKED wouldn’t let him leave, but he managed to escape.”
“Those guys need to work on their security,” Thomas muttered.
“Lucky for us.” Brenda grinned. “Anyway, Hans is a genius. He knows every little detail about the implants you guys have in your heads. I know he went to Denver because he sent me a message over the Netblock right before I was dropped into the Scorch. If we can get to him, he’ll be able to take those things out of your heads. Or at least disable them. I’m not sure how it works, but if anyone can do it, he can. And he’d do it gladly. The man hates WICKED as much as we do.”