The place turned into pandemonium, screams filling the air as everyone fled toward the only exit.
Thomas wished he hadn’t hesitated. He should’ve run when he’d had the chance. A pack of bodies pressed forward, blocking the door. Brenda wouldn’t have been able to come back even if she’d tried. Thomas was stuck at the table, watching in stunned silence as the two men struggled on the floor, punching and grabbing and trying to gain the advantage.
Thomas realized that though it was possible he could get hurt by the fleeing crowd, he really had nothing to worry about. He was immune. The rest of the people in the shop had freaked out knowing the virus was so close. And understandably—odds were at least one of them had caught it. But as long as he could stay out of the way of the commotion, he was probably safe right where he was.
Someone pounded on the window and Thomas turned to see Brenda next to Minho and Jorge on the sidewalk—she was motioning frantically for him to get out. But Thomas wanted to watch what was happening.
Red Shirt had finally pinned the man to the ground. “It’s over! They’re already on their way,” he shouted, again in that creepy mechanized voice.
The infected man stopped struggling, burst into lurching sobs. It was then that Thomas realized the crowd had fully evacuated and the coffee shop was empty except for the two men and Thomas. An eerie silence settled on the place.
Red Shirt glanced at him. “Why’re you still here, kid—got a death wish?” The man didn’t let Thomas answer, though. “If you’re gonna stick around, make yourself useful. Find me the gun.” He turned his attention back to the man he’d restrained.
Thomas felt like he was in a dream. He’d seen a lot of violence, but this was different somehow. He went to fetch the gun from under the counter where it had disappeared. “I’m … I’m immune,” he stammered. He got down on his knees and reached, straining until his fingers found the cool metal. He pulled the gun out and walked over to Red Shirt.
The man didn’t offer any thanks. He took his gun and jumped back to his feet, pointing the weapon at the infected man’s face. “This is bad, really bad. Been happening more and more—you can tell when someone’s drugged out on the Bliss.”
“So it was the Bliss,” Thomas murmured.
“You knew?” Red Shirt asked.
“Well, he’s looked weird ever since I got here.”
“And you didn’t say anything?” The skin around the guard’s mask almost matched the color of his shirt. “What’s wrong with you?”
Thomas was taken aback by Red Shirt’s sudden anger. “I … I’m sorry. I didn’t really know what was going on.”
The infected man had curled up into a ball on the ground and was sobbing. Red Shirt finally stepped away from him and looked sternly at Thomas. “You didn’t know? What kind of … Where are you from?”
Now Thomas really wished he had run. “I’m … my name’s Thomas. I’m nobody. I just …” He searched for something to say—to explain himself. “I’m not from around here. Sorry.”
Red Shirt turned the gun on him. “Sit down. Sit down right there.” He flicked the gun toward a nearby chair.
“Wait! I swear I’m immune!” Thomas’s heart thudded in his chest. “That’s why I—”
“Sit your butt down! Now!”
Thomas’s knees gave out and he plopped into the chair. He glanced toward the door and his chest loosened a bit when he saw Minho standing there, with Brenda and Jorge right behind him. But Thomas didn’t want his friends involved—didn’t want to chance getting them hurt. He quickly shook his head to tell them to stay out of it.
Red Shirt ignored the people in the doorway, concentrating purely on Thomas. “If you’re so sure about being a Munie, then you won’t mind testing to prove it, now, will you?”
“No.” The idea actually relieved him—maybe the man would let him go once he realized he was telling the truth. “Do it, go ahead.”
Red Shirt holstered his gun and stepped up to Thomas. He retrieved his device and leaned forward to put it on Thomas’s face.
“Look into it, eyes open,” the man said. “It’ll only take a few seconds.”
Thomas did as he was told, wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible. He saw the same flash of colorful lights he’d seen at the city gates, felt the same puff of air and prick in his neck.
Red Shirt took the device back, looked at the readings on a small screen. “Well, what do ya know? You’re a damn Munie after all. You care to explain to me how you came to be in Denver and how you don’t know squat about the Bliss or how to spot a user when you see one?”
“I work for WICKED.” It came out before he’d really thought it through. He just wanted to get out of there.
“I believe that crap about as much as I believe this guy’s drug problem has nothing to do with the Flare. You keep your butt glued right there or I’ll start shooting.”
Thomas swallowed. He wasn’t so much scared as he was mad at himself for having gotten into such a ridiculous situation. “Okay,” he said.
But Red Shirt had already turned around. His help had arrived—four people covered from head to toe with a thick green plastic, except for their faces. Their eyes were fitted with big goggles, and beneath those was a mask like the one Red Shirt wore. Images flashed through Thomas’s mind, but the one that stuck was the most complete memory—the time he’d been taken from the Scorch after his bullet wound had gotten infected. Everyone on that Berg had been wearing the same type of gear as these four people.
“What in the world?” one of them said, his voice also mechanized. “You caught two of ’em?”
“Not really,” Red Shirt replied. “Got us a Munie, thinks he wants to sit around and see the show.”
“A Munie?” The other man sounded like he couldn’t believe what he’d heard.
“A Munie. He stayed put when everyone else jackrabbited out of here, claims he wanted to see what happened. To make it worse, he says he suspected our future Crank here was on the Bliss and didn’t tell anyone, just went on drinking his coffee like all was right with the world.”
Everyone looked over at Thomas, but he was speechless. He just shrugged.
Red Shirt stepped back as the four protected workers surrounded the still-sobbing infected man, lying curled up on his side on the ground. One of the newcomers had a thick blue plastic object gripped in both hands. It had an odd nozzle on the end, and the guy was pointing it at the man on the ground as if it were a weapon. Its purpose seemed ominous, and Thomas searched his memory-depleted mind to work out what it could possibly be but came up empty.
“We need you to straighten out your legs, sir,” the lead worker said. “Keep your body still, don’t move, try to relax.”
“I didn’t know!” the man wailed. “How was I supposed to know?”
“You knew!” Red Shirt yelled from the side. “No one takes the Bliss just for kicks.”
“I like the way it feels!” The pleading in the man’s voice made Thomas feel incredibly sorry for him.
“Plenty of cheaper drugs than that. Quit lying and shut your mouth.” Red Shirt waved a hand as if swatting a fly. “Who cares. Bag the sucker.”
Thomas watched as the infected man curled up even tighter, gripping his legs to his chest with both arms. “It’s not fair. I didn’t know! Just kick me out of the city. I swear I’ll never come back. I swear. I swear!” He broke into another agonizing series of lurching sobs.
“Oh, they’ll put you out, all right,” Red Shirt said, glancing over at Thomas for some reason. It looked as if he was smiling behind the mask—his eyes shone with something like glee. “Keep watching, Munie. You’re gonna like this.”
Thomas suddenly hated Red Shirt as much as he’d ever hated anyone. He broke eye contact and returned his focus to the four suited people, now crouching as they inched closer to the poor guy on the floor.
“Straighten out your legs!” one of them repeated. “Or this is gonna hurt something awful. Straighten them. Now!”
“I can’t! Please just let me leave!”
Red Shirt stomped over to the man, pushing one of the workers out of the way, then leaned over and placed the end of his gun against the sick man’s head. “Straighten your legs, or I’ll put a bullet in your brain and make it easier on everybody. Do it!” Thomas couldn’t believe the guard’s complete lack of compassion.
Whimpering, eyes filled with terror, the infected man slowly let go of his legs and extended them, his whole body shaking as he lay flat on the ground. Red Shirt stepped out of the way, sliding his gun back into its holster.
The person with the odd blue object immediately moved so that he stood behind the man’s head, then placed the nozzle so it rested on the crown of his skull, pressing it into his hair.
“Try not to move.” It was a woman, and if anything, her voice, filtered through her mask, sounded even creepier to Thomas than the mens’. “Or you’ll lose something.”
Thomas barely had time to wonder what that meant before she pressed a button and a gel-like substance shot out of the nozzle. It was blue and viscous but moved quickly, spreading over the man’s head, then down around his ears and face. He screamed, but the sound was cut off as the gel washed over his mouth, down to his neck and shoulders. The substance hardened as it moved, freezing into a shell-like coating that Thomas could see through. In a matter of seconds, half the infected man’s body was rigid, wrapped in a tight sheet of the stuff, which seeped into every crevice of his skin and wrinkle of his clothing.
Thomas noticed that Red Shirt was looking at him, and he finally met the guard’s gaze.
“What?” Thomas asked.
“Quite the show, huh?” Red Shirt replied. “Enjoy it while it lasts. When this is over, you’re coming with me.”
Thomas’s heart sank. There was something sadistic in Red Shirt’s eyes, and he looked away, focused back on the infected man just as the blue gel reached his feet and solidified around them. The guy now lay completely motionless, wrapped in the hard, plasticky coating. The woman with the gel gun stood up, and Thomas saw that it was now nothing but an empty bag. She folded it up and stuffed it into a pocket in her green coverall.
“Let’s get him out of here,” she said.
As the four workers reached down and lifted up the infected man, Thomas’s eyes flickered back to Red Shirt, who was watching the others carry off their captive. What in the world had he meant that Thomas would be going with him? Where? Why? If the man hadn’t had a gun, Thomas would have run.
When the others had made their way out the door, Minho appeared again. He was just about to step inside when Red Shirt pulled out his weapon.
“Stop right there!” the man yelled. “Get out!”