“You too, Minho,” Brenda added. “Got it? Jorge created fake documents for all of us, and he lies like a master thief.”
“No kidding,” Minho muttered.
Jorge and Brenda headed toward the doors with Minho close behind. Thomas hesitated. He looked up at the wall—it reminded him of the Maze, and a quick flash of the horrible memories of that place went through his mind, particularly the night when he’d tied Alby in the thick ivy and hidden from the Grievers. He was thankful that these walls were bare.
The walk to the exit seemed to take forever, the huge wall and doors growing taller and taller as the group approached them. When they finally made it to the foot of the immense doors, an electronic buzz sounded from somewhere, followed by a female voice.
“State your names and your business.”
Jorge answered very loudly. “I’m Jorge Gallaraga, and these are my associates, Brenda Despain, Thomas Murphy and Minho Park. We’re here for some information gathering and field testing. I’m a certified Berg pilot. I have all the necessary paperwork with me, but you can check it out.” He pulled a few data cards from his back pocket and held them up to a camera in the wall.
“Hold, please,” the voice directed. Thomas was sweating—he was sure the lady would sound an alarm any second now. Guards would come rushing out. They’d send him back to WICKED, to the white room, or worse.
He waited, mind racing, for what felt like several minutes before a series of clicks rattled the air, followed by a loud thunk. Then one of the iron doors swung outward, its hinges squealing. Thomas peered through the widening crack and was relieved to see that the narrow alley on the other side was empty. At the end stood another huge wall with another set of doors. Those doors looked more modern, though, and several screens and panels were set into the cement to their right.
“Come on,” Jorge said. He walked through the open door as if he did it every day. Thomas, Minho and Brenda followed Jorge down the alley to the outer wall, where he stopped. The screens and panels Thomas had seen from the other side were complex up close. Jorge pressed a button on the largest and began to enter their fake names and identification numbers. He typed in a few other pieces of information, then fed their data cards into a large slot.
The group waited quietly as a few minutes passed, Thomas’s anxiety growing with every second. He tried not to show it, but he suddenly felt like this had been a huge mistake. They should’ve gone somewhere else less secure, or tried to break in to the city somehow. These people were going to see right through them. Maybe WICKED had already sent out calls to be on the lookout for fugitives.
Slim it, Thomas, he told himself, and for half a second he worried he’d said it out loud.
The lady’s voice came back. “Papers are in order. Please move to the viral testing station.”
Jorge stepped to the right and a panel on the wall opened. Thomas watched as a mechanical arm came out of it. It was a strange device with what looked like eye sockets. Jorge leaned forward and pressed his face to the machine. As soon as his eyes were lined up to the sockets a small wire snaked out and pricked his neck. There were several hisses and clicks; then the wire retracted back into the device and Jorge stepped away.
The entire panel rotated back into the wall and the device Jorge had used disappeared, replaced by a new one that looked just like it.
“Next,” the lady announced.
Brenda exchanged an uneasy glance with Thomas, then stepped up to the machine and leaned into it. The wire pricked her neck, the device hissed and clicked and it was over. She moved away, taking a very noticeable breath of relief.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve used one of those,” she whispered to Thomas. “They make me nervous, like I’m suddenly not gonna be immune anymore.”
Once again the lady said, “Next.”
Minho went through the procedure. Finally it was Thomas’s turn.
He walked over to the testing panel as it rotated again, and as soon as the new apparatus appeared and locked into place, he leaned forward and placed his eyes where they were supposed to go. He braced himself for the pain of the wire, but he hardly noticed the prick on his neck before it was gone. All he saw inside the machine were a few flashes of light and color. He felt a puff of air that made him squeeze his eyes shut; when he opened them again everything was dark.
After a few seconds, he stepped back and waited for whatever was supposed to happen next.
The lady finally spoke again. “You’ve all been cleared of VCT and confirmed immune. You do realize that the opportunities for your kind are vast here in Denver. But don’t advertise it too much out on the streets. Everyone here is healthy and virus-free, but there are many who still don’t take kindly to Immunes.”
“We’re here for a few simple tasks and then we’ll be heading out again. Probably in a week or so,” Jorge said. “Hopefully we can keep our little secret a … secret.”
“What’s VCT?” Thomas whispered to Minho.
“You think I know?”
“Viral Contagion Threat,” Brenda answered before Thomas could ask her. “But keep it down. Anyone who doesn’t know that will seem suspicious here.”
Thomas opened his mouth to say something but was startled by a loud beep as the doors began to slide open. Another hallway was revealed, its walls made of metal. There was another set of closed doors at the end of it. Thomas wondered just how long this would go on.
“Enter the detector one at a time, please,” the woman directed. Her voice seemed to follow them to this third hallway. “Mr. Gallaraga first.”
Jorge entered the small space and the doors slid shut behind him.
“What’s the detector?” Thomas asked.
“It detects stuff,” Brenda replied curtly.
Thomas wrinkled his face at her. Faster than he expected, an alarm buzzed again and the doors opened. Jorge was no longer there.
“Ms. Despain is next,” their now-bored-sounding announcer said.
Brenda nodded at Thomas and entered the detector. A minute or so later and it was Minho’s turn.
Minho looked at Thomas, a serious expression on his face. “If I don’t see you on the other side,” he said in a sappy voice, “remember that I love you.” Snickering at Thomas’s eye roll, he went through the doors and they closed.
Soon the lady called for Thomas to enter.
He stepped inside and the doors closed behind him. A rush of air hit him as several low beeps sounded; then the doors in front of him slid open and there were people everywhere. His heartbeat picked up, but he spotted his waiting friends and relaxed. He was struck by all the activity around him as he joined them. A bustling crowd of men and women—many of whom clutched rags to their mouths—filled a huge atrium topped with a glass ceiling far above, letting in loads of sunshine. Through one corner he could see the tops of several skyscrapers—though these looked nothing like the ones they’d come across in the Scorch. They were brilliant in the sunlight. Thomas was so stunned by everything there was to look at, he almost forgot how nervous he’d been only a moment before.
“Wasn’t so bad, was it, muchacho?” Jorge asked.
“I kinda liked it,” Minho said.
Thomas was utterly wowed; he couldn’t stop craning his neck to take in the large building they’d entered. “What is this place?” he finally got out. “Who are all these people?” He looked to his three partners, waiting for an answer—Jorge and Brenda looked embarrassed to be with him. But Brenda’s expression changed abruptly, melting into something like sadness.
“I keep forgetting that you’ve lost your memories,” she murmured, then opened her arms to gesture around herself. “It’s called a mall—basically it runs along the entire wall surrounding the city. It’s mainly shops and businesses.”
“I’ve just never seen so many …” His voice trailed off. A man in a dark blue jacket was approaching them, his gaze set on Thomas. And he didn’t look very happy.
“Hey,” Thomas whispered, nodding toward the stranger.
The man reached them before anyone could respond. He gave the group a curt nod and announced, “We know some people escaped from WICKED. And judging by the Berg you came in on, I’m guessing you’re a part of that group. I highly recommend you accept the advice I’m about to give you. You have nothing to be afraid of—we’re only asking for help and you’ll be protected when you arrive.”
He handed Thomas a slip of paper, spun on his heel and walked off without another word.
“What in the world was that all about?” Minho asked. “What does it say?”
Thomas looked down and read it. “It says, ‘You need to come meet me immediately—I’m with a group called the Right Arm. Corner of Kenwood and Brookshire, Apartment 2792.’ ”
A lump formed in Thomas’s throat when he saw the signature at the bottom of the slip of paper. He looked up at Minho, sure his face had gone pale. “It’s from Gally.”
It turned out that Thomas didn’t need to do any explaining. Brenda and Jorge had started working for WICKED in plenty of time to know who Gally was, how he’d been an outcast of sorts in the Glade, how he and Thomas had become bitter rivals because of Gally’s memories from the Changing. But all Thomas could think of was the angry boy throwing the knife that killed Chuck, that made the boy bleed to death on the ground as Thomas held him.
Then he had lost it—had beaten Gally until he thought he’d killed him. A surprising amount of relief filled him when he realized that maybe he hadn’t—if this note was really from Gally. As much as he’d hated the guy, Thomas didn’t want to be a murderer.
“It can’t possibly be him,” Brenda said.
“Why not?” Thomas asked; the relief began to wash away. “What happened to him after we were taken away? Did he …”
“Die? No. He spent a week or so in the infirmary, recovering from a broken cheekbone. But that was nothing compared to the psychological damage. They used him to kill Chuck because the Psychs thought the patterns would be valuable. It was all planned. They forced Chuck to move in front of you.”
Any anger Thomas had felt toward Gally shifted to WICKED, feeding his ever-growing hatred for the organization. The guy had been a complete slinthead, but if what Brenda said was true, he was only WICKED’s instrument. It made Thomas even angrier at them to hear that it wasn’t a mistake that Chuck had been killed instead of him.
Brenda continued. “I heard that one of the Psychs designed the interaction to be a Variable not just for you and the Gladers who witnessed it, but … but also for Chuck during his last few moments.”
For one short but frightening instant, Thomas thought rage would overcome him—that he’d grab some random stranger from the crowd and beat the klunk out of him like he’d beaten Gally.
He sucked in a breath and ran a shaking hand through his hair. “Nothing surprises me anymore,” he forced out through clenched teeth.