“Gally’s mind couldn’t handle what he’d done,” Brenda said. “He went completely nuts and they had to send him away. I’m sure they figured no one would ever believe his story.”
“So why do you think this can’t be him?” Thomas asked. “Maybe he got better, found his way here.”
Brenda shook her head. “Look, anything’s possible. But I saw the guy—it was like he had the Flare. He was trying to eat chairs and spitting and yelling and ripping his own hair out.”
“I saw him, too,” Jorge added. “He got past the guards one day. He ran through the halls nak*d, screaming at the top of his lungs about beetles in his veins.”
Thomas tried to clear his mind. “I wonder what he means by the Right Arm.”
Jorge answered. “There are rumors about them all over the place. It’s supposed to be an underground group bent on taking down WICKED.”
“Even more reason to do what the note says,” Thomas said.
Brenda’s face showed doubt. “I really think we should find Hans before anything else.”
Thomas held up the piece of paper and shook it. “We’re going to see Gally. We need someone who knows the city.” More than that, though, his gut told him that it was where they should start.
“What if this is some kind of trap?”
“Yeah,” Minho said. “Maybe we should think about this.”
“No.” Thomas shook his head. “We can’t try to outguess them anymore. Sometimes they do things just to make me do the opposite of what they think I think they think I want to do.”
“Huh?” the three of them asked at the same time, confusion transforming their faces.
“From now on I do what feels right,” Thomas explained. “And something tells me we need to go to this place and see Gally—at least to find out if it’s really him. He’s a connection to the Glade, and he has every reason in the world to be on our side.”
The others stared at him with blank faces, as if they were trying to come up with further arguments.
“Good that,” Thomas said. “I’ll take all those looks as yeses. I’m glad to see you all agree with me. Now, how’re we gonna get there?”
Brenda let out an exaggerated sigh. “Ever heard of a cab?”
After a quick meal in the mall, they caught a cab to drive them into the city. When Jorge handed the driver a card to pay with, Thomas worried again about WICKED tracking them. As soon as they got settled in their seats, he asked Jorge about it in a whisper so the driver couldn’t hear.
Jorge only gave him a troubled look.
“You’re worried because Gally knew we were coming, right?” Thomas guessed.
Jorge nodded. “A little. But the way that man introduced himself, I’m just hoping that word of an escape leaked out and this Right Arm group’s been looking for us since. I’ve heard they’re based here.”
“Or maybe it has something to do with Teresa’s group coming here first,” Brenda offered.
Thomas didn’t feel very comforted. “You sure you know what you’re doing?” he asked Jorge.
“We’ll be fine, muchacho. Now that we’re here, WICKED will have a hell of a time catching up to us. It’s easier than you think to blend in, in a city. Just relax.”
Thomas didn’t know if there was much chance of that, but he did lean back in his seat to look out the window.
The ride through Denver completely took his breath away. He remembered the hovering vehicles from his childhood—unmanned, weaponized police vehicles everyone had called cop machines. But so much was like nothing he’d ever seen before—the huge skyscrapers, the brilliant displays of holographic advertising, the countless people—he really had a hard time believing it was real. Some small part of him wondered if his optic nerves were being manipulated by WICKED somehow, if it was all yet another simulation. He wondered if he’d lived in a city like this before, and if he had, how he could possibly have forgotten the splendor of it all.
As they drove through the crowded streets, it occurred to him that maybe the world wasn’t so bad off after all. Here was an entire community, thousands of people going about their everyday lives. But the drive continued, and gradually details he hadn’t noticed began to come into focus. And the longer they drove, the more unsettled Thomas grew. Almost everyone he saw looked uneasy. They all seemed to be avoiding each other—and not just to be polite. They seemed to take obvious measures to stay clear of anyone else. Just like back at the mall, many of them wore masks or held rags that covered their mouth and nose as they walked.
Posters and signs littered the walls of the buildings, most torn or obscured with spray paint. Some warned of the Flare and spelled out precautions; others talked about the dangers of leaving the cities, or what to do if you came across an infected person. A few had terrifying pictures of Cranks way past the Gone. Thomas spotted one poster with a close-up of a tight-faced woman with her hair pulled back, with the slogan CHANCELLOR PAIGE LOVES YOU across the bottom.
Chancellor Paige. Thomas immediately recognized the name. She was the one Brenda had said they could trust—the only one. He turned to ask Brenda about it, but paused. Something told him to wait until they were alone. As they drove, he noticed posters showing her likeness, but most of them were covered with graffiti. It was hard to tell what the woman really looked like beneath the devil horns and silly mustaches.
Some type of security force patrolled every street in great numbers—there were hundreds of them, all wearing red shirts and gas masks, a weapon in one hand and in the other a smaller version of the viral testing device Thomas and his friends had looked into before entering the city. The farther they got from the outside barrier wall, the dirtier the streets became. Trash was everywhere, windows were broken and graffiti decorated almost every wall. And despite the sun glinting off windows high above, a darkness had settled over the place.
The cab turned in to an alley, and Thomas was surprised to see that it was deserted. The cab pulled up and stopped at a cement building that rose at least twenty stories high, and the driver popped Jorge’s card out of the slot and handed it back to him, which Thomas took as his sign to exit the car.
Once they were all out and the cab had driven away, Jorge pointed to the closest staircase. “Number 2792 is right there, on the second floor.”
Minho whistled, then said, “Looks real homey.”
Thomas agreed. The place was far from inviting, and the drab gray bricks covered in graffiti made him nervous. He didn’t want to walk up those steps and find out who was waiting inside.
Brenda gave him a push from behind. “Your idea, you lead.”
He swallowed hard but didn’t say anything, just walked over to the stairs and slowly climbed them, the other three falling in behind. The cracked and warped wooden door of apartment 2792 looked like it had been put there a thousand years ago, only a few scant remnants of faded green paint remaining.
“This is crazy,” Jorge whispered. “This is completely crazy.”
Minho snorted. “Thomas kicked the klunk out of him once, he can do it again.”
“Unless he comes out with guns blazing,” Jorge countered.
“Would you guys shut up?” Thomas said—his nerves were shot. Without another word he reached out and knocked on the door. A few agonizing seconds later it opened.
Thomas could tell immediately that the black-haired kid who answered was Gally from the Glade. No doubt about it. But his face was badly scarred, covered in raised lines like thin white slugs. His right eye looked permanently swollen, and his nose, which had been big and slightly deformed before the Chuck incident, was markedly crooked.
“Glad you came,” Gally said in his raspy voice. “Because the end of the world is upon us.”
Gally stepped back and opened the door wider. “Come in.”
Thomas felt a rush of guilt at seeing what he’d done to Gally. He had no idea how to act or what to say. He just nodded and forced himself to enter the apartment.
It was a dark but tidy room with no furniture, and it smelled like bacon. A yellow blanket had been hung over the large window, giving the place an eerie glow.
“Have a seat,” Gally said.
All Thomas could think of was finding out how the Right Arm had known he was in Denver and what they wanted, but instinct told him he had to play by their rules before he could get answers. They sat down on the bare floor, he and his friends in a line with Gally facing them like a judge. Gally’s face looked awful in the dim light, and his swollen right eye was bloodshot.
“You know Minho,” Thomas said awkwardly. Minho and Gally gave each other a curt nod. “This is Brenda and Jorge. They’re from WICKED but—”
“I know who they are,” Gally interrupted. He didn’t sound mad, just kind of numb. “Those shucks at WICKED gave me my past back. Without asking, I might add.” His gaze focused on Minho. “Hey, you were real nice to me in our last Gathering. Thanks for that.” The sarcasm was thick.
Thomas shrank at the memory—Minho throwing Gally to the floor, threatening him. He’d forgotten about it.
“I’d had a bad day,” Minho responded, his expression making it impossible to tell if he was serious or even the tiniest bit sorry.
“Yeah, well,” Gally said. “Let bygones be bygones, right?” His snicker made it clear he meant anything but.
Minho might not have had regrets, but Thomas did. “I’m sorry about what I did, Gally.” He held the other boy’s gaze with his own as he said it. He wanted Gally to believe him, to know that he understood that WICKED was their shared enemy.
“You’re sorry? I killed Chuck. He’s dead. Because of me.”
Hearing him say that brought Thomas no relief, only sadness.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Brenda said, her tone soothing.
“That’s a bunch of klunk,” Gally said stiffly. “If I had any kind of guts I could’ve stopped them from controlling me. But I let them do it to me ’cause I thought I’d be killing Thomas, not Chuck. Not in a million years would I have let myself murder that poor kid.”
“How generous of you,” Minho said.
“So you wanted me dead?” Thomas asked, surprised at the boy’s honesty.
Gally scoffed. “Don’t get all whiny on me. I hated you more than I’d ever hated anybody in my life. But what happened in the past doesn’t matter one lick anymore. We need to talk about the future. About the end of the world.”
“Wait a second there, muchacho,” Jorge said. “First off, you’re going to tell us every little thing that’s happened since you got shipped out of WICKED till you ended up sitting right where you’re sitting.”
“I wanna know how you knew we were coming,” Minho added. “And when. And who was that weird dude who delivered the message to us?”
Gally snickered again, which actually made his face look even scarier. “I guess being with WICKED doesn’t exactly fill someone with trust, now, does it.”