“We have a Berg also,” Brenda offered. “Unless Cranks have ripped the thing to shreds. It’s just outside the Denver walls on the northwest side. The pilot is back with our other friends.”
“Where are your Bergs?” Thomas asked.
Vince waved his hand toward the back of the room. “Thataway. Safe and sound enough. Everything’s close. We’d love to have another week or two to prepare, but don’t have much choice. Charlotte’s device is ready. Our first eighty people are ready. We can spend the next day or so letting you and the others share what you know, make final preparations, and then we move. No reason to make it sound any more glamorous. We’ll just go in and do it.”
Hearing him say it like that made it more real for Thomas. “How confident are you?”
“Boy, listen to me,” Vince said, his expression grave. “For years and years all we’ve heard about is the mission of WICKED. How every penny, every man, every woman, every resource—how it all had to be devoted to the cause of finding a cure to the Flare. They told us they’d found Immunes, and if we could just figure out why their brains don’t succumb to the virus, why then the whole world would be saved! While in the meantime, cities crumble; education, security, medicine for every other malady known to man, charity, humanitarian aid—the whole world goes to pot so WICKED can do whatever they want to do.”
“I know,” Thomas said. “I know all too well.”
Vince couldn’t stop talking, spilling thoughts that had obviously churned inside him for years. “We could’ve stopped the spread of the disease a lot better than we’ve been able to cure the disease. But WICKED sucked up all the money and all the best people. Not only that, they gave us false hope, and nobody took the care they should’ve. Thought the magical cure would save them in the end. But if we wait any longer we’ll run out of people to save.”
Vince looked tired now. The room fell silent as he sat and stared at Thomas, waiting for a response. And Thomas couldn’t argue with what the man had said.
Vince finally spoke again. “Our people selling the Immunes could certainly plant the device once they’re inside, but it would be a lot easier if it was in place when we arrive. Having the Immunes will get us into the airspace and permission to land, but …” He raised his eyebrows at Thomas as if he wanted him to state the obvious himself.
Thomas nodded. “That’s where I come in.”
“Yes,” Vince said, smiling. “I believe that’s where you come in.”
A surprising calm settled over Thomas. “You can drop me off a few miles away and let me hike in. I’ll pretend I’ve come back to finish the Trials. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, they’ll welcome me with open arms. Just show me what I need to do to plant the device.”
Another genuine smile crossed Vince’s face. “I’ll have Charlotte do it herself.”
“You can get information and help from my friends—Teresa, Aris, others. Brenda here knows a lot, too.” Thomas’s decision was quick and absolute, but he’d accepted the dangerous task. It was the best chance they had.
“All right, Gally,” Vince said. “What’s next? How are we going to do this?”
Thomas’s old enemy stood up and looked at him. “I’ll get Charlotte to train you on the device. Then we’ll take you to our Berg hangar, fly you close to the WICKED headquarters and drop you off while the rest of us are getting ready with the main assault team. You better be up for some good acting out there—we should wait a couple of hours before we come in with the Immunes or it’ll look suspicious.”
“I’ll be fine.” Thomas made an effort to pull in deep breaths, to calm himself.
“Good. We’ll move Teresa and the others over here when you leave. I hope you don’t mind another little jaunt through the city.”
Charlotte was a quiet, petite woman and she was all business. She explained the disabling device’s functions to Thomas in a curt, efficient manner. It was small enough to fit in the backpack they provided him along with some food and extra clothing for the cold hike he’d have to take. Once the device was planted and activated, it would search for and connect with the signals from each weapon, then scramble its system. It would take about an hour to render all of WICKED’s weapons useless.
Simple enough, Thomas thought. The hard part would be planting the thing when he got in without arousing suspicion.
Gally decided that Lawrence would be the one to take Thomas and the pilot to the abandoned hangar where they kept the Bergs. They’d fly to WICKED’s headquarters straight from there. It meant another van trip through the Crank-infested streets of Denver, but they’d take the most direct route, which was down a major highway, and dawn had arrived. For some reason that made Thomas feel a little better.
Thomas was busying himself helping to gather last-minute supplies for the trip when Brenda appeared. He nodded at her and gave her a small smile.
“You gonna miss me?” Thomas asked. He made it sound like a joke, but he really wanted her to say yes.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t even say that. You sound like you’re giving up already. We’ll all be back together, laughing about the good ol’ days before you know it.”
“I’ve only known you a few weeks.” He smiled again.
“Whatever.” She put her arms around him and spoke into his ear. “I know I was sent into that Scorch city to find you and pretend to be your friend. But I want you to know that you are my friend. You …”
He pulled away so he could see her face again, which was unreadable. “What?”
“Just … don’t let yourself get killed.”
Thomas swallowed, not sure what to say.
“Well?” she said.
“You be careful, too” was all he could get out.
Brenda reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “That’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard you say.” She rolled her eyes again but smiled.
And her smile made everything seem a little brighter to Thomas. “Make sure they don’t screw things up,” he said. “Make sure all the plans make sense.”
“I will. We’ll see you in a day or so.”
“And I won’t get killed if you won’t. I promise.”
Thomas pulled her into one last hug. “Deal.”
The Right Arm gave them a newer van. Lawrence drove and the pilot sat in the passenger seat next to him. She was silent and not very friendly, keeping mostly to herself. Lawrence wasn’t in the greatest of moods, either, probably because he’d gone from being a food distributor in a locked-down facility to serving as designated driver through a city of Cranks. Twice.
The sun had risen, glinting off the buildings of what seemed like an entirely different city from the night before. For some reason the light made the world feel a little safer.
Thomas had been given his pistol back, fully loaded, and he had it stuck in the waist of his jeans. He knew a round of twelve bullets wouldn’t do a whole lot if they got ambushed again, but it went far for his peace of mind.
“Okay, remember the plan,” Lawrence said, finally breaking the silence.
“And what was the plan?” Thomas asked.
“Make it to the hangar without dying.”
It sounded good to Thomas.
They lapsed back into quiet, the only sounds those of the engine and the bumps of the road. Such a moment couldn’t help but force Thomas to think about all the horrible things that could go wrong in the next day or two. He tried hard to shut his mind off, focus on the fallen city passing by outside.
So far he’d only seen a few people here and there, most of them at a distance. He wondered if the majority had stayed up late, scared of what might jump out of the darkness—or whether they had been doing the jumping themselves.
The sun gleamed on the high windows of the skyscrapers—the massively tall buildings seemed to stretch in every direction for eternity. The van drove right through the heart of the city, down a wide road scattered with abandoned cars. Thomas saw a few Cranks hiding in vehicles, peeking out the windows as if they were waiting to spring a trap.
Lawrence turned off after a mile or two, then headed down a long, straight highway that led to one of the gates of the walled city. Barricades edged both sides of the road—probably built in better times to keep the noise of countless cars from disturbing the city residents whose homes were set close to the thoroughfare. It seemed impossible that such a world had ever existed. A world where you weren’t scared for your life every day.
“This’ll take us all the way,” Lawrence said. “The hangar is probably our most protected facility, so all we have to do is make it there. An hour from now we’ll be up in the air, happy and safe.”
“Good that,” Thomas said, though after the night before it sounded far too easy. The pilot remained quiet.
They’d gone about three miles when Lawrence started to slow the vehicle. “What in the world?” he murmured.
Thomas turned his attention back to the road ahead to see what the man was talking about and saw several cars driving in circles.
“I guess I’ll just try to get past them,” Lawrence said, almost talking to himself.
Thomas didn’t respond, knowing that every person in the vehicle understood very well that whatever was going on could only mean trouble.
Lawrence picked up his speed again. “It’ll take us forever to backtrack and try a different way. I’m just going to try to get through.”
“Just don’t do anything stupid,” the pilot snapped. “We certainly won’t get there if we have to walk.”
As they approached, Thomas leaned forward in his seat and strained to see what was going on. A crowd of about twenty people were fighting over a big pile of something he couldn’t quite make out, tossing debris and pushing and shoving, throwing punches. Maybe a hundred feet past them were the cars—swerving and spinning out and crashing into each other. It was a miracle no one on the road had been hit yet.
“What are you planning?” Thomas asked. Lawrence hadn’t slowed one bit, and they were almost there.
“You need to stop!” the pilot shouted.
Lawrence ignored the command. “No. I’m going through.”
“You’ll get us killed!”
“We’ll be fine. Just shut up for a second!”
They neared the group of people, still going at each other and whatever was in that huge pile. Thomas slid over to the side of the van, tried to get a better look. The Cranks were ripping apart huge sacks of garbage—pulling out old packages of food and half-rotten meat and scraps of leftovers—but no one was able to hold one thing in their hand before someone tried to steal it. Punches flew and fingers clawed and scratched. One man had a huge gash under his eye, a smear of blood dripping down his face like red tears.
The van swerved with a screech and Thomas turned his attention ahead. The drivers of the cars—old models, their shells dented, most of the paint gone—had stopped, and three of them were lined up facing the oncoming van. Lawrence didn’t slow down. Instead he turned, heading for the larger gap between the car to the right and the one in the middle. Then in a flash the car on the left bolted forward, turning sharply to try to catch the van before it got by.