The empty lot to their right contained the scattered remains of an old brick building, weeds filling every square inch. A large section of wall stood right in the middle, and as they passed, Thomas noticed movement on the far side of it. He stopped, and instinctively put a hand out to halt Minho as well. He shushed him before he could ask what was going on.
Brenda and Jorge noticed and froze in place. Thomas pointed at what he’d seen, then tried to get a better look.
A shirtless man had his back to them, and he was hunched over something, digging with his hands like he’d lost something in the mud and was trying to find it. Oddly shaped scratches covered his shoulders, and there was a long scab crossing the middle of his spine. His movements were jerky and … desperate, Thomas thought. His elbows kept popping back like he’d torn something loose from the ground. The tall weeds prevented Thomas from seeing the focus of the man’s frantic attention.
Brenda whispered from behind. “Let’s keep moving.”
“That guy’s sick,” Minho whispered back. “How’s he loose like this?”
Thomas had no idea. “Let’s just go.”
The group started walking again, but Thomas couldn’t tear his eyes away from the disturbing scene. What was that guy doing?
When they reached the end of the block, Thomas stopped, as did the others. It was clearly bothering everyone as much as it was him—they all wanted to get one last look.
Without warning, the man sprang up and turned toward them; blood covered his mouth and nose. Thomas flinched and stumbled back into Minho. The man bared his teeth in a nasty grin, then held up bloody hands as if to show them off. Thomas was just about to yell at him when the guy bent back over and returned to his business. Thankfully they couldn’t see exactly what that business was.
“This would be a good time to go,” Brenda said.
Icy fingers crawled along Thomas’s back and shoulders—he couldn’t have agreed more. They all turned and ran, and they’d gone two blocks before they slowed to a walk again.
It took another half hour before they found a cab, but they were finally on their way. Thomas wanted to talk about what they’d seen in the empty lot, but he couldn’t put it into words. It had sickened him through and through.
Minho was the first to speak about it. “That guy was eating a person. I just know it.”
“Maybe …,” Brenda began. “Maybe it was just a stray dog.” Her tone made Thomas think she didn’t believe it for one second. “Not like that’d be okay, either.”
Minho scoffed. “I’m pretty sure that’s not something you’re supposed to see during a nice leisurely stroll through a quarantined city in the middle of the day. I believe Gally. I think this place is crawling with Cranks, and soon the whole city’s gonna start killing each other.”
No one responded. They stayed silent the rest of the way to the airport.
It didn’t take long to get through security and back outside the massive walls surrounding the city. If anything, the staff they encountered seemed thrilled that they were leaving.
The Berg was right where they’d left it, waiting like the abandoned shell of a giant insect on the hot and steamy concrete. Nothing stirred around it.
“Hurry up and open it,” Minho said.
Jorge didn’t seem fazed by the curt command; he pulled his small control pad out of his pocket and pressed some buttons. The ramp of the cargo door slowly pivoted down, hinges squealing, until its edge landed on the ground with a grating scrape. Thomas had hoped to see Newt come running down that ramp, a big smile on his face, glad to see them.
But nothing moved inside or out, and his heart sank.
Minho obviously felt the same way. “Something’s wrong.” He sprinted to the door and ran up the ramp before Thomas had a chance to react.
“We better get in there,” Brenda said. “What if Newt’s turned dangerous?”
Thomas hated the sound of the question but knew she was right. Without responding, he ran after Minho, entering the dark and stifling Berg. All the systems had been shut down at some point: no air-conditioning, no lights, nothing.
Jorge followed right at Thomas’s heels. “Let me power her up or we’ll all sweat till we’re nothing but a pile of bones and skin.” He moved off in the direction of the cockpit.
Brenda stood next to Thomas, both of them peering into the gloom of the ship, the only light coming from the few scattered portholes. They could hear Minho calling Newt’s name somewhere deep in the ship, but the infected boy wasn’t responding. A cavity seemed to open within Thomas, widening and sucking the hope out of him.
“I’ll go to the left,” he said, pointing toward the small hallway to the common area. “Why don’t you follow Jorge and search up there. This isn’t good—he would’ve been here to welcome us if everything was okay.”
“Not to mention the lights and air would be on.” She gave Thomas a grim look, then headed off.
Thomas went down the hallway to the main room. Minho sat on one of the couches, looking at a piece of paper, his face as stony as Thomas had ever seen it. The hollowness inside him grew even more, and his last ounce of hope faded.
“Hey,” he said. “What is it?”
Minho didn’t answer. He just kept staring at the paper.
Minho glanced up at him. “Come see for yourself.” He held up the paper in one hand while he slouched back on the couch, seeming on the verge of tears. “He’s gone.”
Thomas walked over and took the paper from him, then flipped it over. Scribbled in black marker, it said:
They got inside somehow. They’re taking me to live with the other Cranks.
It’s for the best. Thanks for being my friends.
“Newt,” Thomas whispered. His friend’s name hung in the air like a pronouncement of death.
Soon they were all sitting together. The goal was to talk over what should come next, but the reality was they had nothing to say. The group of four just stared at the floor and said nothing. For some reason, Thomas couldn’t get Janson out of his head. Could going back really be a way to save Newt? Every part of him rebelled against the idea of returning to WICKED, but if he did go back, and was able to complete the testing …
Minho broke the sullen silence.
“I want you three to listen to me.” He took a moment to look at each one of them, then continued. “Ever since we broke out of WICKED, I’ve basically gone along with whatever you slintheads ended up saying we should do. And I haven’t complained. Much.” He gave Thomas a wry grin. “But right here, right now, I’m making a decision and you’re going to do what I say. And if anyone pushes back, to hell with you.”
Thomas knew what his friend wanted, and he was glad for it.
“I know we have bigger goals in mind,” Minho continued. “We need to connect with the Right Arm, figure out what to do about WICKED—all that save-the-world klunk. But first we’re going to find Newt. This isn’t open for discussion. The four of us—all of us—are flying to wherever we need to go, and we’re getting Newt out of there.”
“They call it the Crank Palace,” Brenda said. Thomas turned to her and she was staring off into space. “It has to be what he was talking about. Some of those Red Shirts probably broke into the Berg, found Newt and saw that he was infected. Let him leave us a note. I don’t have any doubt that’s what happened.”
“Sounds fancy,” Minho said. “You’ve been there?”
“No. Every major city has a Crank Palace—a place where they send the infected and try to make it bearable for them until they reach the Gone. I don’t know what they do to them then, but it’s not a pretty place to be, no matter who you are, so I can only imagine. Immunes run things there, and get paid a lot for it because a non-Immune would never risk catching the Flare. If you want to go, we should think long and hard about it first. We’re completely out of ammunition, so we’ll be unarmed.”
Despite the ominous description, Minho had a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “Long and hard thinking done. You know where the closest one is?”
“Yeah,” Jorge answered. “We passed over it on the way here. It’s just on the far side of this valley, right up against the mountains to the west.”
Minho clapped his hands once. “Then that’s where we’re going. Jorge, get this piece of klunk up in the sky.”
Thomas expected at least a little argument or resistance. But none came.
“I’ll be glad for a little adventure, muchacho,” Jorge said, standing up. “We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Jorge was true to his word on the timing. He landed the Berg in a clearing along the beginnings of a forest that stretched up the surprisingly green mountainside. About half of the trees were dead, but the other half looked as if they’d just begun to recover from years of massive heat spells. It made Thomas sad to think that the world would probably recover from the sun flares just fine someday, only to find itself uninhabited.
He stepped off the cargo ramp and took a good look at the wall surrounding what had to be the Crank Palace just a few hundred feet away. It was made of thick planks of wood. The closest gate was just beginning to open, and two people appeared, both of them holding huge Launchers. They looked exhausted, but wearily they took a defensive stance and aimed their weapons—they’d obviously heard or seen the Berg’s approach.
“Not a good start,” Jorge said.
One of the guards shouted something, but Thomas couldn’t hear what he’d said. “Let’s just go over there, talk to them. They must be immune if they have those Launchers.”
“Unless the Cranks took over,” offered Minho, but then he looked at Thomas with an odd grin. “Either way, we’re going in, and we’re not leaving without Newt.”
The group held their heads up high and slowly walked to the gate, making sure not to do anything that would cause alarm. The last thing Thomas wanted was to be shot by a Launcher grenade again. As they got closer, he saw that the two guards looked worse up close. They were filthy, sweaty and covered in bruises and scratches.
They stopped at the gate and one of the guards stepped forward.
“Who the hell are you people?” he asked. He had black hair and a mustache and was taller than his partner by a few good inches. “You don’t look much like the science goons that come in sometimes.”
Jorge did the talking, just as he had at the airport when they’d arrived in Denver. “You wouldn’t have known we were coming, muchacho. We’re from WICKED, and one of our guys got captured and taken here by mistake. We’ll be picking him up.”
Thomas was surprised. What Jorge had said was technically the truth, when he thought about it.
The guard didn’t seem too impressed. “You think I give a crap about you and your fancy WICKED jobs? You’re not the first uppity-up to drop in here and act like you own the place. You wanna come hang out with Cranks? Be my guest. Especially after what’s been going on lately.” He stepped to the side and made an exaggerated sweeping gesture of welcome. “Enjoy your stay at the Crank Palace. No refunds or exchanges if you lose an arm or eyeball.”