Not much was said, and Thomas just did as he was told, went where he was supposed to go. They boarded the Berg, and he followed as they walked through it and did an inspection. But he never said a word. The pilot went to fire up the big ship, Lawrence disappeared somewhere, and Thomas found a couch in the common room. He lay down and stared at the metal grid of the ceiling.
Since he’d killed Newt, he hadn’t thought once about what he had set out to do. Free of WICKED, finally, and here he was voluntarily going back.
He didn’t care anymore. Whatever happened, happened. He knew that for the rest of his life he’d be haunted by what he’d seen. Chuck gasping for air while he bled to death, and now Newt screaming at him with raw, terrifying madness. And that last moment of sanity, eyes begging for mercy.
Thomas closed his own, and the images were still there. It took a long time for him to fall asleep.
Lawrence woke him up. “Hey, rise and shine, boy. We’ll be there in a few minutes. We’re dropping your butt, then getting the hell out of there. No offense.”
“None taken.” Thomas groaned and swung his legs off the couch. “How far will I have to walk to get there?”
“A few miles. Don’t worry, I don’t think you’ll have too many Cranks to deal with—it’s gotten cold in the wilderness. Might see a few angry moose, though. Wolves might try to eat your legs off. Nothing much.”
Thomas looked at the man, expecting a big grin, but he was busy in the corner, putting things in order.
“A coat and your backpack are waiting for you at the cargo door,” Lawrence said as he moved a small piece of equipment onto a shelf. “You’ve got food and water. We want to make sure you have a nice, enjoyable hike—relish the joys of nature and all that.” Still no smile.
“Thanks,” Thomas muttered. He was trying so hard not to slide back into the dark pit of sadness in which he’d fallen asleep. He still couldn’t get Chuck and Newt off his mind.
Lawrence stopped what he was doing and turned to him. “I’m only going to ask you this once.”
“You sure about this? Everything I know about these people is rotten. They kidnap, torture, murder—do anything to get what they want. Seems crazy to let you waltz in there all by yourself.”
For some reason Thomas wasn’t scared anymore. “I’ll be fine. Just make sure you come back.”
Lawrence shook his head. “You’re either the bravest kid I ever met or plain crazy. Anyway, go get yourself a shower and fresh clothes—gotta be some in the lockers.”
Thomas didn’t know how he looked at that moment, but he imagined something like a pale and lifeless zombie with dead eyes. “Okay,” he said, and headed off to try to wash some of the horror away.
The Berg pitched and Thomas held on to a bar in the wall as the ship lowered to the ground. The ramp door started cranking open with the squeal of hinges while they were still a hundred feet up, and cool air blasted inside. The sound of the thrusters burning roared louder. Thomas could see that they were above a small clearing in a large forest of snow-dusted pine trees—so many that the Berg wouldn’t be able to land. Thomas would have to jump.
The ship descended and Thomas steadied himself.
“Good luck, boy,” Lawrence said, nodding toward the ground when they got close. “I’d tell you to be careful, but you’re not an idiot, so I won’t.”
Thomas gave him a smile, hoping for one in return. He felt like he needed it, but got nothing. “Okay, then. I’ll get the device planted as soon as I get in. I’m sure everything will go down with no problems. Right?”
“I’ll have little lizards flying out my nostrils if we have no problems,” Lawrence replied, but there was kindness in his voice. “Now get. Once you’re out there, go that way.” He pointed to the left, toward the edge of the forest.
Thomas pulled on a coat, slipped his arms through the straps of the backpack, then carefully walked down the big metal slab of the cargo door and crouched on its edge. It was only about four feet to the snow-covered ground, but he’d still have to be careful. He jumped and landed in a soft spot—a fresh snowdrift. All the while, his insides were numb.
He’d killed Newt.
He’d shot his own friend in the head.
The clearing was scattered with trunks of trees felled long ago. The tall, thick pines of the forest surrounded Thomas, reaching up to the sky like a wall of majestic towers. He shielded his eyes from the fierce wind as the Berg boosted its thrusters and rose into the air, and he watched as it vanished into the southwestern sky.
The air was crisp and cool and the forest felt fresh, like he was standing in a brand-new world—a place untouched by disease. He was sure that not many people got to see anything like this today, and he felt lucky.
He tightened up his backpack and set out in the direction Lawrence had indicated, determined to make it there as quickly as possible. The less time he had to dwell on what he’d done to Newt, the better. And he knew that being alone out there in the wild would only give him too much time. He took the last few steps out of the snowy clearing and entered the darkness of the thick pines. He allowed their pleasantly overwhelming scent to wash over him and he did his best to shut down his mind again and stop thinking altogether.
He did pretty well, concentrating on his path, the sights and sounds of birds and squirrels and insects, the wonderful smells. His senses weren’t used to such things, since he’d spent most of the life he remembered inside. Not to mention the Maze and the Scorch. As he hiked through the woods, he found it hard to believe that such a different place—the Scorch—could exist on the same planet. His mind wandered. He wondered what life would be like for all these animals if humans really did go away for good.
He’d walked for over an hour when he finally reached the edge of the woods and a wide swatch of barren, rocky earth. Islands of dark brown dirt, devoid of vegetation, dappled the treeless expanse where the snow had been blown away by the wind. Craggy stones of all sizes dotted the land, which sloped toward a sudden drop-off—a huge cliff. Beyond that lay the ocean, its deep blue ending on the horizon, where in a sharp line it changed to the light blue of the brilliant sky. And resting on the edge of the cliff, about a mile ahead of him, was WICKED’s headquarters.
The complex was enormous, made up of wide, unadorned interconnected buildings; the walls were peppered with narrow slits in the white cement, allowing for an occasional window. One rounded building rose up amid the others like a tower. The fierce weather of the region, mixed with the moisture from the sea, had taken its toll on the facades of the buildings—cracks spiderwebbed the exteriors of the complex—but they looked like structures that would exist there forever, unyielding to whatever man or weather threw at it. It called to mind a barely held memory of something from storybooks—some sort of haunted asylum. It was the perfect place to house the organization trying to prevent the world from becoming just such a madhouse. A long, narrow road led away from the complex, disappearing into the forest.
Thomas set out across the rock-strewn section of earth. An almost disturbing quiet settled over the land. The only thing he could hear besides the thump of his footsteps and his own breathing was the sound of distant waves breaking on the bottom of the cliff, and even that was faint. He was certain that the people at WICKED had spotted him by now—the security was surely thorough and tight.
A scuttling sound, like clicks of metal against stone, made him stop and look to his right. As if summoned by the thought of security, a beetle blade stood perched on a boulder, its red eye gleaming in Thomas’s direction.
He remembered how it had felt the first time he’d seen one of them inside the Glade, just before it scurried away and into the small woods there. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
He waved at the beetle blade, and then he kept walking. In ten minutes he’d be knocking on the door of WICKED, asking, for the first time, to be let in. Not out.
He made his way down the last section of the slope and stepped onto an icy sidewalk that encircled the campus. It looked like there’d once been an effort to make the grounds a little prettier than the barren land around it, but the bushes and flowers and trees had long succumbed to winter, and the patches of gray dirt he could see amid the snow bore only weeds. Thomas walked along the paved lane, wondering why no one had come to greet him yet. Maybe the Rat Man was inside, watching, guessing that Thomas had finally come over to their side.
Two more beetle blades captured his attention, both roaming the snow-covered weeds of the flower beds, scanning left and right with their red beams as they scuttled along. Thomas looked up at the closest set of windows but saw only darkness—the glass was heavily tinted. A rumble coming from behind made him turn to look. A storm was moving in, its clouds dark and heavy, but it was still a few miles distant. As he watched, several bolts of lightning zigzagged across the grayness, and it took him back to the Scorch, to that awful rain of lightning that had met them as they approached the city. He could only hope the weather wasn’t so bad this far north.
He resumed his path along the sidewalk and slowed as he approached the front entrance. A large set of glass doors awaited him, and a sudden, almost painful surge of memory pounded inside his skull. The escape from the Maze, the flight through the corridors of WICKED, coming out these doors into the pouring rain. He looked to his right into a small parking lot, where an old bus squatted next to a row of cars. It had to be the same one that had run over that poor Flare-infested woman, then whisked them away to those dorms, where their minds were played with and a Flat Trans eventually took them to the Scorch.
And now, after all he’d been through, he stood at WICKED’s threshold, there by his own choice. He reached out and knocked on the cold, dark glass in front of him. He could see nothing on the other side.
Almost immediately, a series of locks disengaged, one after the other; then one of the doors swung out. Janson—who’d always be the Rat Man to Thomas—extended a hand.
“Welcome back, Thomas,” he said. “No one believed me, but I’ve been saying all along that you’d return. I’m glad you made the right choice.”
“Let’s just get on with it,” Thomas said. He’d do this—he’d play the part—but he didn’t have to be nice about it.
“Sounds like an excellent idea.” Janson stepped back and bowed slightly. “After you.”
With a chill along his spine to match the frosty weather outside, Thomas walked past the Rat Man and entered WICKED’s headquarters.
Thomas stepped into a wide lobby with a few couches and chairs, fronted by a large, empty desk. It was different from the ones he’d seen the last time he was there. The furniture was colorful and bright, but it did nothing to perk up the dreary feel of the place.
“I thought we’d spend a few minutes in my office,” Janson said, and pointed down the hallway that branched off to the right off the lobby. They started walking that way. “We’re terribly sorry about what happened in Denver. A shame to lose a city with such potential. All the more reason we need to get this done and get it done quickly.”