“Right now.” Rat Man was all business again. He nodded back toward the way he’d come and gestured for Thomas to follow him. “All of you went through different types of tests for Phase Three of the Trials. We’d hoped to have the killzone patterns mapped out by the end of the second phase, but we had to improvise in order to push further. Like I said, though, we’re very close. You’ll all be full partners in the study now, helping us fine-tune and dig deeper until we solve this puzzle.”
Thomas squinted. He guessed his Phase Three had been the white room—but what about the others? As much as he’d hated his trial, he could only imagine how much worse WICKED could have made it. He almost hoped he never found out what they had devised for his friends.
Finally Rat Man arrived at a door. He opened it without hesitating and stepped through.
They entered a small auditorium and relief washed over Thomas. Sitting scattered among a dozen or so rows of seats were his friends, safe and healthy-looking. The Gladers and girls of Group B. Minho. Frypan. Newt. Aris. Sonya. Harriet. Everyone seemed happy—talking, smiling and laughing—though maybe they were faking, to some extent. Thomas assumed they’d also been told things were almost over, but he doubted anyone believed it. He certainly didn’t. Not yet.
He looked around the room for Jorge and Brenda—he really wanted to see Brenda. He’d been anxious about her ever since she’d vanished after the Berg picked them up, worried that WICKED had sent her and Jorge back to the Scorch like they’d threatened to—but there was no sign of either one. Before he could ask Rat Man about them, however, a voice broke through the din, and Thomas couldn’t stop a smile from spreading across his face.
“Well, I’ve been shucked and gone to heaven. It’s Thomas!” Minho called out. His announcement was followed by hoots and cheers and catcalls. A swell of relief mixed with the worry clawing in Thomas’s stomach and he continued to search the faces in the room. Too overcome to speak, he just kept grinning until his eyes found Teresa.
She’d stood up, turned from her chair on the end of the row to face him. Black hair, clean and brushed and shiny, draped over her shoulders and framed her pale face. Her red lips parted into a huge smile, lighting up her features, making her blue eyes glow. Thomas almost went to her but stopped himself, his mind clouded with vivid memories of what she’d done to him, of what she’d said about WICKED being good even after everything that had happened.
Can you hear me? he called out with his mind, just to see if their ability had come back.
But she didn’t respond, and he still didn’t feel her presence inside him. They just stood there, staring at each other, eyes locked for what seemed like a minute but could only have been a few seconds. And then Minho and Newt were by his side, slapping him on the back, shaking his hand, pulling him into the room.
“Well, at least you didn’t bloody roll over and die, Tommy,” Newt said, squeezing his hand tightly. His tone sounded grumpier than usual, especially considering they hadn’t seen each other in weeks, but he was in one piece. Which was something to be thankful for.
Minho had a smirk on his face, but a hard glint in his eyes showed that he’d been through an awful time. That he wasn’t quite himself yet, just trying his hardest to act like it. “The mighty Gladers, back together again. Good to see ya alive, shuck-face—I’ve imagined you dead in about a hundred different ways. I bet you cried every night, missing me.”
“Yeah,” Thomas muttered, thrilled to see everybody but still struggling to find words. He broke away from the reunion and made his way to Teresa. He had an overwhelming urge to face her and come to some kind of peace until he could decide what to do. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she replied. “You okay?”
Thomas nodded. “I guess. Kind of a rough few weeks. Could—” He stopped himself. He’d almost asked if she’d been able to hear him trying to reach out to her with his mind, but he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing he’d done it.
“I tried, Tom. Every day I tried to talk to you. They cut us off, but I think it’s all been worth it.” She reached out and took his hand, which set off a chorus of mocking jabs from the Gladers.
Thomas quickly pulled his hand from her grasp, felt his face flush red. For some reason, her words had made him suddenly angry, but the others mistook his action for mere embarrassment.
“Awwww,” Minho said. “That’s almost as sweet as that time she slammed the end of a spear into your shuck face.”
“True love indeed.” This from Frypan, followed by his deep bellow of a laugh. “I’d hate to see what happens when these two have their first real fight.”
Thomas didn’t care what they thought, but he was determined to show Teresa that she couldn’t get away with everything she’d done to him. Whatever trust they’d shared before the trials—whatever relationship they’d had—meant nothing now. He might find a sort of peace with her, but he resolved right then and there that he would only trust Minho and Newt. No one else.
He was just about to respond when Rat Man came marching down the aisle clapping his hands. “Everybody take a seat. We’ve got a few things to cover before we remove the Swipe.”
He’d said it so casually, Thomas almost didn’t catch it. The words registered—remove the Swipe—and he froze.
The room stilled and the Rat Man stepped up onto the stage at the front of the room and approached the lectern. He gripped the edges and repeated the same forced smile from earlier, then spoke. “That’s right, ladies and gents. You’re about to get all your memories back. Every last one of them.”
Thomas was stunned. Mind spinning, he went to sit by Minho.
After struggling for so long to remember his life, his family and childhood—even what he’d done the day before he woke up in the Maze—the idea of having it all back was almost too much to comprehend. But as it sank in, he realized that something had shifted. Remembering everything didn’t sound good anymore. And his gut confirmed what he’d been feeling since the Rat Man had said it was all over—it just seemed too easy.
Rat Man cleared his throat. “As you were informed in your one-on-ones, the Trials as you’ve known them are over. Once your memories are restored, I think you’ll believe me and we can move on. You’ve all been briefed on the Flare and the reasons for the Trials. We are extremely close to completing our blueprint of the killzone. The things we need—to further refine what we have—will be better served by your full cooperation and unaltered minds. So, congratulations.”
“I ought to come up there and break your shuck nose,” Minho said. His voice was terrifyingly calm considering the threat in his words. “I’m sick of you acting like everything is peachy—like more than half of our friends didn’t die.”
“I’d love to see that rat nose smashed!” Newt snapped.
The anger in his voice startled Thomas, and he had to wonder what awful thing Newt had been through during Phase Three.
Rat Man rolled his eyes and sighed. “First of all, each of you has been warned of the consequences should you try to harm me. And rest assured, you’re all still being watched. Second, I’m sorry for those you’ve lost—but in the end it’ll have been worth it. What concerns me, though, is that it seems that nothing I say is going to wake you people up to the stakes here. We’re talking about the survival of the human race.”
Minho sucked in a breath as if to begin a rant, but he stopped short, closed his mouth.
Thomas knew that no matter how sincere Rat Man sounded, it had to be a trick. Everything was a trick. Yet nothing good could come of their fighting him at this point—with words or with fists. The thing they needed most for the time being was patience.
“Let’s all just slim it,” Thomas spoke evenly. “Let’s hear him out.”
Frypan spoke up just as Rat Man was about to continue. “Why should we trust you people to … What was it called? The Swipe? After everything you’ve done to us, to our friends—you want to remove the Swipe? I don’t think so. I’d rather stay stupid about my past, thank you very kindly.”
“WICKED is good,” Teresa said out of the blue, as if talking to herself.
“What?” Frypan asked. Everyone turned to look at her.
“WICKED is good,” she repeated, much louder, turning in her seat to meet the others’ gazes. “Of all the things I could’ve written on my arm when I first woke up from my coma, I chose those three words. I keep thinking about it, and there has to be a reason for that. I say we just shut up and do what the man says. We can only understand this with our memories back.”
“I agree!” Aris shouted, much louder than seemed necessary.
Thomas was quiet as the room broke into arguments. Mostly between the Gladers, who sided with Frypan, and the members of Group B, who sided with Teresa. There couldn’t possibly be a worse time for a battle of wills.
“Silence!” Rat Man roared, pounding his fist on the lectern. He waited for everyone to quiet down before he continued. “Look, no one’s going to blame you for the mistrust you feel. You’ve been pushed to your physical limits, watched people die, experienced terror in its purest form. But I promise you, when all is said and done, none of you will look back—”
“What if we don’t want to?” Frypan called out. “What if we don’t want our memories back?”
Thomas turned to look at his friend, relieved. It was exactly what he’d been thinking himself.
Rat Man sighed. “Is it because you really have no interest in remembering, or is it because you don’t trust us?”
“Oh, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t trust you,” Frypan replied.
“Don’t you realize by now that if we wanted to do something to harm you, we’d just do it?” The man looked down at the lectern, then back up again. “If you don’t want to remove the Swipe, don’t do it. You can stand by and watch the others.”
A choice or a bluff? Thomas couldn’t tell by the man’s tone but nonetheless was surprised by his response.
Again the room was silent, and before anyone else could speak, Rat Man had stepped away off the stage and was walking toward the door at the back of the room. When he reached it, he turned to face them again. “You really want to spend the rest of your lives having no memory of your parents? Your family and friends? You really want to lose the chance to hold on to at least the few good memories you may have had before all this began? Fine with me. But you might never have this opportunity again.”
Thomas considered his decision. It was true that he longed to remember his family. He’d thought about it so many times. But he did know WICKED. And he wasn’t going to let himself fall into another trap. He’d fight to the death before letting those people tinker with his brain again. How could he believe any memory they replaced anyway?