“They’re right,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to tell us what’s going on. Especially if you want our help.”
“Your help?” Gally asked. “I don’t know if I’d put it that way. But I’m sure we have the same goals.”
“Listen,” Thomas said. “We need a reason to trust you. Just talk.”
After a long pause, Gally began. “The guy who gave you the note is named Richard. He’s a member of a group called the Right Arm. They have people in every city and town left on this crappy planet. Their whole mission is to bring down our old friends—to use WICKED’s money and influence for things that actually matter—but they don’t have the resources to disrupt an organization so huge and powerful. They want to act, but they’re still missing some information.”
“We’ve heard of them,” Brenda said. “But how’d you get involved?”
“They have a couple of spies in the main complex at WICKED, and they got to me, explained how if I faked going crazy, I’d be sent away. I would’ve done anything to get out of that place. Anyway, the Right Arm wanted an insider who knew about how the building functions, the security systems, that kind of klunk. So they attacked my escort car and took me. Brought me here. As for how I knew you were coming, we got an anonymous message over the Netblock. I assumed you guys sent it.”
Thomas looked to Brenda for an explanation, but all he got from her was a shrug.
“So it wasn’t you,” Gally said. “Then maybe it was someone at headquarters sending out an alert, trying to set up bounty hunters or whatever. Point is, once we knew about it, from there it was just a matter of hacking into the airport system to see where a Berg had shown up.”
“And you brought us here to talk about taking down WICKED?” Thomas asked. Even the remote possibility of such a thing filled him with hope.
Gally nodded slowly and deliberately before he spoke. “You make it sound so easy. But yeah, that’s about the gist of it. We’ve got two big problems on our hands, though.”
Brenda was clearly impatient. “What? Just let it out.”
“Slim it, girl.”
“What problems?” Thomas pushed.
Gally shot Brenda a glare, then looked back at Thomas. “First of all, word is that the Flare is running rampant through this whole shuck city and that all kinds of corruption is going on to hide it because the ones who are sick are government bigwigs. They’re hiding the virus with the Bliss—it slows down the Flare so people who have it can blend in with everyone else, but the virus keeps spreading. My guess is it’s the same all over the world. There’s just no way to keep that beast out.”
Thomas felt a fear in his gut. The idea of a world overwhelmed by hordes of Cranks was terrifying. He couldn’t imagine how truly awful things could get—being immune wouldn’t amount to much when that happened.
“What’s the other problem?” Minho asked. “As if that one wasn’t bad enough.”
“People like us.”
“People like us?” Brenda repeated, a confused look on her face. “You mean Immunes?”
“Yeah.” Gally leaned forward. “They’re disappearing. Being kidnapped or running away, vanishing into thin air—no one knows. A little birdie told me that they’re being gathered and sold to WICKED so they can continue the Trials. Start all over if they have to. Whether that’s true or not, the population of immune people in this city and others has been halved in the last six months, and most of them are disappearing without a trace. It’s causing a lot of headaches. The city needs them more than people even realize.”
Thomas’s anxiety went up a notch. “Don’t most people hate the Munies—isn’t that what they call us? Maybe they’re being killed or something.” He hated the other possibility that was occurring to him: that WICKED might be kidnapping them and putting them through exactly what he’d been through.
“I doubt that,” Gally said. “My little birdie is a reliable source, and this reeks of WICKED to the core. These problems make a bad combination. The Flare is all over the city even though the government claims it’s not. And the Immunes are disappearing. Whatever’s happening, there isn’t gonna be anyone left in Denver. Who knows about other cities.”
“So what does this have to do with us?” Jorge asked.
Gally looked surprised. “What, you don’t care that civilization is about to come to an end? The cities are crumbling. Pretty soon it’s just going to be a world of psychos who want to eat you for supper.”
“Of course we care,” Thomas answered. “But what do you want us to do about it?”
“Hey, all I know is that WICKED has one directive—to find a cure. And it’s pretty obvious that’s never gonna happen. If we had their money, their resources, we could use it to really help. To protect the healthy. I thought you’d want that.”
Thomas did, of course. Desperately.
Gally shrugged when no one responded. “We don’t have much to lose. We might as well try something.”
“Gally,” Thomas said, “do you know anything about Teresa and a bunch of other people who also escaped today?”
Gally nodded. “Yeah, we found them, too—gave them the same message I’m giving you. Who did you think my little birdie was?”
“Teresa,” Thomas whispered. A flash of hope sparked within him—she must have remembered all that stuff about WICKED when they’d removed the Swipe. Could the operation have made her change her tune? Was her insistence that “WICKED is good” finally a thing of the past?
“That’s right. She said she couldn’t agree with them starting the cycle all over again. Said something about hoping to find you, too. But there’s one more thing.”
Thomas groaned. “That doesn’t sound so good.”
Gally shrugged. “Never does these days. One of our people out looking for your group came across a strange rumor. Said it was somehow related to all these people escaping from the WICKED headquarters. I’m not sure if they could track you or not, but it looks like they probably could’ve guessed you’d come to Denver anyway.”
“Why?” Thomas asked. “What’s the rumor?”
“There’s a huge bounty out for a guy named Hans who used to work there, lives here now. WICKED thinks you came here for him, and they want him dead.”
Brenda stood up. “We’re leaving. Now. Come on.”
Jorge and Minho got to their feet, and as Thomas joined them, he knew Brenda had been right earlier. Finding Hans had to be priority one now. He had to get the tracking device out of his head and, if they were after Hans, they had to get to him first. “Gally, do you swear everything you told us is true?”
“Every bit.” The Glader hadn’t moved from his position on the floor. “The Right Arm wants to take action. They’re planning something even as we speak. They need information about WICKED, though, and who better to help us than you? If we can get Teresa and the others, too, that’d be even better. We need every warm body we can get.”
Thomas decided to trust Gally. Maybe they’d never liked each other, but they had the same enemy, which put them on the same team. “What do we do if we want in?” he finally asked. “Do we come back here? Go somewhere else?”
Gally smiled. “Come back here. Any time before nine or so in the morning, for another week. I should be around. I don’t think we’ll make any moves before then.”
“Moves?” Thomas was itching with curiosity.
“I’ve told you enough. You want more, you come back. I’ll be here.”
Thomas nodded, then held out a hand. Gally shook it.
“I don’t blame you for anything,” Thomas said. “You saw what I’d done for WICKED when you went through the Changing. I wouldn’t have trusted me, either. And I know you didn’t want to kill Chuck. Just don’t plan on hugs every time I see you.”
“The feeling’s mutual.”
Brenda was already at the door waiting for him when he turned to go. Before Thomas left, though, Gally squeezed his elbow. “Time’s running out. But we can do something.”
“We’ll be back,” Thomas said, then followed his friends. Fear of the unknown no longer controlled him. Hope had found its way in and taken hold.
They didn’t find Hans until the next day.
Jorge got them into a cheap motel after they’d purchased some clothes and food, and Thomas and Minho used the room’s computer to search the Netblock while Jorge and Brenda made dozens of calls to people Thomas had never heard of. After hours of work, they finally found an address through someone Jorge called “a friend of a friend of an enemy’s enemy.” By that time it was late and they all crashed for the night; Thomas and Minho were stuck sleeping on the floor while the other two got the twin beds.
The next morning they showered, ate, and put on their new clothes. Then they got a cab and went straight to the place they’d been told Hans lived—an apartment building in only slightly better shape than Gally’s. They climbed to the fourth floor and knocked on a gray metal door. The lady who answered kept saying she’d never heard of any Hans, but Jorge kept pushing. Then a gray-haired man with a wide jaw peeked over the woman’s shoulder.
“Let them in,” he said in a gravelly voice.
A minute or so later, Thomas and his three friends were sitting around a rickety table in the kitchen, all their focus on the gruffly distant man named Hans.
“It’s good to see you’re okay, Brenda,” he said. “You, too, Jorge. But I’m not in the mood to catch up. Why don’t you just tell me what you want.”
“I think you know the main reason we’re here,” Brenda replied, then nodded toward Thomas and Minho. “But we also just heard that WICKED has put a bounty on your head. We need to hurry and do this, and then you need to get out of here.”
Hans seemed to shrug off that last part, looking at his two potential customers. “You’ve still got the implants, do ya?”
Thomas nodded, nervous but determined to get this over with. “I only want the controlling device out. I don’t want my memories back. And I want to know how this operation works first.”
Hans wrinkled his face in disgust. “What kind of nonsense is this? Who’s this weak-kneed coward you brought to my place, Brenda?”
“I’m not a coward,” Thomas said before she could respond. “I’ve just had too many people in my head.”
Hans threw up his hands, then slapped the table. “Who said I’d do anything to your head? Who said I liked you enough for that?”
“Are there any nice people in Denver?” Minho muttered.
“You folks are about three seconds from being thrown out of my apartment.”
“Everyone just shut up for a second!” Brenda shouted. She leaned toward Hans and spoke in a quieter voice. “Listen, this is important. Thomas is important, and WICKED will do just about anything to get their hands on him. We can’t risk them getting close enough to start controlling him or Minho.”