“Because, Thomas, there’s no value in keeping you in the dark,” Rat Man said. “Not anymore.”
Thomas felt a sudden weariness, as if all the strength had seeped out of him, leaving him with nothing. He sank to the floor with a heavy sigh. He shook his head. “I don’t even know what that means.” What was the point of even having a conversation when words couldn’t be trusted?
Rat Man kept talking, but his tone changed; it became less detached and clinical and more professorial. “You are obviously well aware that we have a horrible disease eating the minds of humans worldwide. Everything we’ve done up till now has been calculated for one purpose and one purpose only: to analyze your brain patterns and build a blueprint from them. The goal is to use this blueprint to develop a cure for the Flare. The lives lost, the pain and suffering—you knew the stakes when this began. We all did. It was all done to ensure the survival of the human race. And we’re very close. Very, very close.”
Memories had come back to Thomas on several occasions. The Changing, the dreams he’d had since, fleeting glimpses here and there, like quick lightning strikes in his mind. And right now, listening to the white-suited man talk, it felt as if he were standing on a cliff and all the answers were just about to float up from the depths for him to see in their entirety. The urge to grasp those answers was almost too strong to keep at bay.
But he was still wary. He knew he’d been a part of it all, had helped design the Maze, had taken over after the original Creators died and kept the program going with new recruits. “I remember enough to be ashamed of myself,” he admitted. “But living through this kind of abuse is a lot different than planning it. It’s just not right.”
Rat Man scratched his nose, shifted in his seat. Something Thomas said had gotten to him. “We’ll see what you think at the end of today, Thomas. We shall see. But let me ask you this—are you telling me that the lives of a few aren’t worth losing to save countless more?” Again, the man spoke with passion, leaning forward. “It’s a very old axiom, but do you believe the end can justify the means? When there’s no choice left?”
Thomas only stared. It was a question that had no good response.
The Rat Man might have smiled, but it looked more like he was sneering. “Just remember that at one time you believed it did, Thomas.” He started to collect his papers as if to go but didn’t move. “I’m here to tell you that everything is set and our data is almost complete. We’re on the cusp of something great. Once we have the blueprint, you can go boo-hoo with your friends all you want about how unfair we’ve been.”
Thomas wanted to cut the man with harsh words. But he held back. “How does torturing us lead to this blueprint you’re talking about? What could sending a bunch of unwilling teenagers to terrible places, watching some of them die—what could that possibly have to do with finding a cure for some disease?”
“It has everything in the world to do with it.” Rat Man sighed heavily. “Boy, soon you’ll remember everything, and I have a feeling you’re going to regret a lot. In the meantime, there’s something you need to know—it might even bring you back to your senses.”
“And what’s that?” Thomas really had no idea what the man would say.
His visitor stood up, smoothed the wrinkles out of his pants and adjusted his coat. Then he clasped his hands behind his back. “The Flare virus lives in every part of your body, yet it has no effect on you, nor will it ever. You’re a member of an extremely rare group of people. You’re immune to the Flare.”
Thomas swallowed, speechless.
“On the outside, in the streets, they call people like you Munies,” Rat Man continued. “And they really, really hate you.”
Thomas couldn’t find any words. Despite all the lies he’d been told, he knew that what he’d just heard was the truth. When placed alongside his recent experiences, it just made too much sense. He, and probably the other Gladers and everyone in Group B, was immune to the Flare. Which was why they’d been chosen for the Trials. Everything done to them—every cruel trick played, every deceit, every monster placed in their paths—it all had been part of an elaborate experiment. And somehow it was leading WICKED to a cure.
It all fit together. And more—this revelation pricked his memories. It felt familiar.
“I can see that you believe me,” Rat Man finally said, breaking the long silence. “Once we’d discovered there were people like you—with the virus rooted inside, yet showing no symptoms—we sought out the best and the brightest among you. This is how WICKED was born. Of course, some in your trial group are not immune, and were chosen as control subjects. When running an experiment you need a control group, Thomas. It keeps all the data in context.”
That last part made Thomas’s heart sink. “Who isn’t …” The question wouldn’t come out. He was too scared to hear the answer.
“Who isn’t immune?” Rat Man asked, eyebrows raised. “Oh, I think they should find out before you, don’t you? But first things first. You smell like a week-old corpse—let’s get you to the showers and find some fresh clothes.” With that he picked up his file and turned to the door. He was just about to step out when Thomas’s mind focused.
“Wait!” he shouted.
His visitor looked back at him. “Yes?”
“Back in the Scorch—why did you lie that there’d be a cure at the safe haven?”
Rat Man shrugged. “I don’t think it was a lie at all. By completing the Trials, by arriving at the safe haven, you helped us collect more data. And because of that there will be a cure. Eventually. For everyone.”
“And why are you telling me all this? Why now? Why did you stick me in here for four weeks?” Thomas motioned around the room, at the padded ceiling and walls, at the pathetic toilet in the corner. His sparse memories weren’t solid enough to make any sense of the bizarre things that had been done to him. “Why did you lie to Teresa about me being crazy and violent and keep me in here all this time? What could possibly be the point?”
“Variables,” Rat Man answered. “Everything we’ve done to you has been carefully calculated by our Psychs and doctors. Done to stimulate responses in the killzone, where the Flare does its damage. To study the patterns of different emotions and reactions and thoughts. See how they work within the confines of the virus that’s inside you. We’ve been trying to understand why in you, there’s no debilitating effect. It’s all about the killzone patterns, Thomas. Mapping your cognitive and physiological responses to build a blueprint for the potential cure. It’s about the cure.”
“What is the killzone?” Thomas asked, trying to remember but drawing a blank. “Just tell me that and I’ll go with you.”
“Why, Thomas,” the man replied. “I’m surprised being stung by the Griever didn’t make you recall at least that much. The killzone is your brain. It’s where the virus settles and takes hold. The more infected the killzone, the more paranoid and violent the behavior of the infected. WICKED is using your brain and those of a few others to help us fix the problem. If you recall, our organization states its purpose right in its name: World in Catastrophe, Killzone Experiment Department.” Rat Man looked pleased with himself. Almost happy. “Now come on, let’s get you cleaned up. And just so you know, we’re being watched. Try anything and there’ll be consequences.”
Thomas sat, attempting to process everything he’d just heard. Again, everything rang true, made sense. Fit in with the memories that had come back to him in recent weeks. And yet his distrust of Rat Man and WICKED still sprinkled it all with doubt.
He finally stood, letting his mind work through the new revelations, hoping they’d sort themselves into nice little stacks for later analysis. Without another word, he walked across the room and followed the Rat Man through the door, leaving his white-walled cell behind.
Nothing stood out about the building in which he found himself. A long hallway, a tiled floor, beige walls with framed pictures of nature—waves crashing on a beach, a hummingbird hovering beside a red flower, rain and mist clouding a forest. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. Rat Man led him through several turns and finally stopped at a door. He opened it and gestured for Thomas to go in. It was a large bathroom lined with lockers and showers. And one of the lockers was open to show fresh clothes and a pair of shoes. Even a watch.
“You have about thirty minutes,” Rat Man said. “When you’re done, just sit tight—I’ll come back for you. Then you’ll be reunited with your friends.”
For some reason, at the words friends, Teresa popped into Thomas’s mind. He tried calling out to her again with his thoughts, but there was still nothing. Despite his ever-growing disdain for her, the emptiness of her being gone still floated like an unbreakable bubble within him. She was a link to his past and, he knew without any doubt, had once been his best friend. It was one of the only things in his world that he was sure of, and he had a hard time letting go of that completely.
Rat Man nodded. “See you in a half hour,” he said. Then he pulled the door open and closed it behind him, leaving Thomas alone once more.
Thomas still didn’t have a plan other than finding his friends, but at least he was one step closer to that. And even though he had no idea what to expect, at least he was out of that room. Finally. For now, a hot shower. A chance to scrub himself clean. Nothing had ever sounded so good. Letting his cares slip away for the moment, Thomas took off his nasty clothes and got to work making himself human again.
T-shirt and jeans. Running shoes—just like the ones he’d worn in the Maze. Fresh, soft socks. After washing himself from top to bottom at least five times, he felt reborn. He couldn’t help but think that from here on things would improve. That he was going to take control of his own life now. If only the mirror hadn’t reminded him of his tattoo—the one given to him before the Scorch. It was a permanent symbol of what he’d been through, and he wished he could forget it all.
He stood outside the door to the bathroom, leaning against the wall, arms folded, waiting. He wondered if the Rat Man would come back—or had he left Thomas to wander the place, begin yet another Trial? He’d barely begun the line of thinking before he heard footsteps, then saw the weaselly man’s white form turn the corner.
“Well, aren’t you looking spiffy?” the Rat Man commented, the edges of his mouth crawling up his cheeks in an uncomfortable-looking smile.
Thomas’s mind raced with a hundred sarcastic answers, but he knew he had to play it straight. All that mattered at the moment was gathering as much information as he could and then finding his friends. “I feel fine, actually. So … thanks.” He plastered a casual smile on his own face. “When do I get to see the other Gladers?”