“What is it you have to do?” he forced himself to ask.
“We’ll discuss everything in my office. Our lead team is there.”
The device hidden in his backpack weighed heavily on Thomas’s thoughts. Somehow he had to get it planted as soon as possible and get the clock ticking.
“That’s fine,” he said, “but I really need to use the bathroom first.” It was the simplest idea he could come up with. And the only sure way to get a minute alone.
“There’s one just up ahead,” the Rat Man replied.
They turned a corner and continued down an even duller corridor that led to the men’s room.
“I’ll wait out here,” Janson said with a nod toward the door.
Thomas went inside without saying a word. He pulled the device from his backpack and looked around. There was a wooden cabinet for storing toiletries above the sink, and the top of it had a lip just tall enough that Thomas could slip the gadget in and it would be concealed. He flushed the toilet and then turned on the water at the sink. He activated the device as he’d been taught, wincing at the slight beep that sounded, then reached up and deposited it on top of the cabinet. After shutting off the water, he calmed himself while the hand blower ran its course.
Then he stepped back into the hallway.
“All finished?” Janson asked, annoyingly polite.
“All finished,” Thomas replied.
They continued walking, passing a few crookedly hung portraits of Chancellor Paige just like the ones on the posters in Denver.
“Am I ever going to meet the chancellor?” Thomas finally asked, curious about the woman.
“Chancellor Paige is very busy,” Jansen answered. “You have to remember, Thomas—completing the blueprint and finalizing the cure are only the beginning. We’re still organizing the logistics of getting it out to the masses—most of the team is working hard at it as we speak.”
“What makes you so sure this will work? Why just me?”
Janson glanced at him, flashed his rodentlike smile. “I know, Thomas. I believe it with every ounce of my being. And I promise you’ll get the credit you deserve.”
For some reason Thomas thought of Newt just then. “I don’t want any credit.”
“Here we are,” the man replied, ignoring Thomas.
They’d reached an unmarked door and the Rat Man let him inside. Two people—a man and a woman—sat facing a desk. Thomas didn’t recognize them.
The woman wore a dark pants suit and had long red hair, and thin-framed glasses were perched on her nose. The man was bald, angular and skinny, dressed in green scrubs.
“These are my associates,” Janson said, already moving to sit behind the desk. He motioned for Thomas to take the third seat between his two visitors, which he did. “Dr. Wright”—he pointed at the woman—“is our lead Psych, and Dr. Christensen our lead physician. We have a lot to discuss, so you’ll pardon me if I’m short on introductions.”
“Why am I the Final Candidate?” Thomas asked, cutting to the chase.
Janson gathered himself, needlessly moving things around on his desk before sitting back and folding his hands on his lap. “Excellent question. We had a handful of—pardon the term—subjects slated in the beginning to … compete for this honor. Recently it was narrowed to you and Teresa. But she has a way of following orders that you don’t. Your tendency toward freethinking is what ultimately determined that you are the Final Candidate.”
Played to the end, Thomas thought bitterly. His own attempts to rebel had turned out to be exactly what they wanted. Every ounce of his anger was directed at the man sitting in front of him. At the Rat Man. To Thomas, Janson had come to represent WICKED from top to bottom.
“Let’s just get this over with,” he said. He did his best to hide it, but he could hear the fury in his own voice.
Janson seemed unfazed. “Some patience, please. This won’t take long. Keep in mind that collecting the killzone patterns is a delicate operation. We’re dealing with your mind, and the slightest mishap in what you’re thinking or interpreting or perceiving can render the resultant findings worthless.”
“Yes,” Dr. Wright added, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I know A.D. Janson told you about the importance of coming back, and we’re glad you made the decision.” Her voice was soft and pleasant and somehow exuded intelligence.
Dr. Christensen cleared his throat, then spoke, his voice thin and reedy. Thomas immediately disliked him. “I don’t know how you could’ve made any other decision. The whole world’s on the verge of collapse, and you can help save it.”
“So you say,” Thomas responded.
“Exactly,” Janson said. “So we say. Everything is ready. But there’s still a little more to tell you so you can understand this decision you’ve made.”
“A little more to tell me?” Thomas repeated. “Isn’t the whole point of the Variables that I don’t know everything? Aren’t you going to throw me in a cage with gorillas or something? Maybe make me walk through a field of land mines? Dump me in the ocean, see if I can swim back to shore?”
“Just tell him the rest,” Dr. Christensen answered.
“The rest?” Thomas asked.
“Yes, Thomas,” Janson said through a sigh. “The rest. After all the Trials, after all the studies, after all the patterns that have been collected and scrutinized, after all the Variables we’ve put you and your friends through, it comes down to this.”
Thomas didn’t say anything. He was barely able to breathe because of a strange anticipation, the simultaneous desires to know and not know.
Janson leaned forward, elbows on desk, a grave look shadowing his face. “One final thing.”
“And what’s that?”
“Thomas, we need your brain.”
Thomas’s heartbeat sped up to rattling thumps in his chest. He knew that the man wasn’t testing him. They’d gone as far as they could in analyzing reactions and brain patterns. Now they’d chosen the person best suited to … take apart in their effort to build the cure.
Suddenly, the Right Arm couldn’t get there fast enough.
“My brain?” he forced himself to repeat.
“Yes,” Dr. Christensen answered. “The Final Candidate holds the missing piece to complete the data for the blueprint. But we had no way to tell until we monitored the patterns against the Variables. Vivisection will give us our final data, your systems functioning properly while we do it. Not that you’ll feel any pain—we’ll heavily sedate you until …”
He didn’t need to finish. His words drifted off into silence and the three WICKED scientists awaited Thomas’s response. But he couldn’t speak. He’d faced death countless times over what he could remember of his life, yet he’d always done so in the desperate hope to survive, doing anything in his power to last one more day. But this was different. He didn’t just have to last through some trial until his rescuers came. This was something he wouldn’t come back from. This was the end if they didn’t come.
He had a random, horrible thought: did Teresa know about this?
It surprised him how deeply the idea hurt.
“Thomas?” Janson asked, breaking Thomas’s train of thought. “I know this must come as quite a shock to you. I need you to understand that this is not a test. This is not a Variable and I’m not lying to you. We think we can complete the blueprint for the cure by analyzing your brain tissue and how, combined with the patterns we’ve collected, its physical makeup allows it to resist the Flare virus’s power. The Trials were all created so we wouldn’t have to just cut everyone open. Our whole aim was to save lives, not waste them.”
“We’ve been collecting and analyzing the patterns for years, and you’ve been the strongest by far in your reactions to the Variables,” Dr. Wright continued. “We’ve known for a long time—and it was the highest priority to keep this from the subjects—that in the end we’d have to choose the best candidate for this last procedure.”
Dr. Christensen went on to outline the process while Thomas listened in numb silence. “You have to be alive but not awake. We’ll sedate you and numb the area of the incision, but there aren’t any nerves in the brain so it’s a relatively painless process. Unfortunately, you won’t recover from our neural explorations—the procedure is fatal. But the results will be invaluable.”
“And if it doesn’t work?” Thomas asked. All he could see was Newt’s final moments. What if Thomas could prevent that horrible death for countless others?
The Psych’s eyes flickered with discomfort. “Then we’ll keep … working at it. But we have every confidence—”
Thomas cut her off, unable to help himself. “But you don’t, do you? You’ve been paying people to steal more immune … subjects”—he said the word with vicious spite—“so you can start all over again.”
No one answered at first. Then Janson said, “We will do whatever it takes to find a cure. With as little loss of life as possible. Nothing else needs to be said on the matter.”
“Why are we even talking?” Thomas asked. “Why not just grab me and tie me down, rip my brain out?”
Dr. Christensen answered. “Because you’re our Final Candidate. You were part of the bridge between our founders and the current staff. We’re trying to show you the respect you deserve. It’s our hope that you’ll make the choice yourself.”
“Thomas, do you need a minute?” Dr. Wright asked. “I know this is difficult, and I assure you we don’t take it lightly. What we’re asking for is a huge sacrifice. Will you donate your brain to science? Will you allow us to put the final pieces of the puzzle together? Take another step toward a cure for the good of the human race?”
Thomas didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t believe the turn of events. After everything, could it be true that they only needed one more death?
The Right Arm was coming. Newt’s image seared across his mind.
“I need to be alone,” he finally got out. “Please.” For the first time, a part of him actually wanted to give in, let them do this. Even if there was only a small chance that it would work.
“You’ll be doing the right thing,” Dr. Christensen said. “And don’t worry. You’re not going to feel an ounce of pain.”
Thomas didn’t want to hear another word. “I just need some time alone before all this begins.”
“Fair enough,” Janson said, standing up. “We’ll accompany you to the medical facilities and get you in a private room for a while. Though we need to get things started soon.”
Thomas leaned forward and put his head in his hands, staring at the floor. The plan he’d concocted with the Right Arm suddenly seemed foolish beyond measure. Even if he could escape this group—even if he wanted to now—how would he survive until his friends arrived?