Somehow Thomas kept his balance, despite the entire room quaking from the closest series of explosions yet. Most of the racks collapsed, and objects were launched across the room. He dodged a jagged chunk of wood, then jumped over a round piece of machinery that spun past him.
Gally, who was at Thomas’s side, tripped and fell; Thomas helped him up. They continued charging. Brenda slipped but caught her balance.
They crashed into the others like the first line of soldiers in an ancient foot battle. Thomas met the Rat Man himself, who was at least half a foot taller than him, wielding his blade; it came down in an arc toward Thomas’s shoulder, but Thomas thrust upward with his stiff cable and connected with the man’s armpit. Janson screamed and dropped his weapon as a stream of blood gushed from the wound; he clamped his other hand over it and backed away, glaring at Thomas with hate-filled eyes.
To his right and left, everyone was fighting. Thomas’s head was full of the sounds of metal against metal, screams and shouts and grunts. Some had matched up two-on-one; Minho ended up fighting a woman who seemed twice as strong as any of the men. Brenda was on the ground, wrestling a skinny man, trying to knock a machete out of his hand. Thomas saw all this with a quick glance but then returned his attention to his own foe.
“I don’t care if I bleed to death,” Janson said with a grimace. “As long as I die after I get you back up there.”
Another explosion jolted the floor beneath him and Thomas stumbled forward, dropping his scavenged weapon and slamming into Janson’s chest. They both crashed to the ground, and Thomas struggled to push off the man with one hand while swinging as hard as he could with the other. He smashed Janson’s left cheek with his balled fist and watched as the Rat Man’s head snapped to the side, blood spraying from his mouth. Thomas reached back to swing again, but the man arched his body violently, throwing him off; he landed on his back.
Before he could move Janson had jumped on top of him and gotten his legs wrapped around his torso, pinning Thomas’s arms with his knees. Thomas squirmed to get loose as the man rained down blows with his fists, punching Thomas’s unprotected face over and over. Pain flooded him. Then adrenaline surged through his body. He wouldn’t die here. He pushed his feet against the floor and thrust his stomach toward the ceiling.
He only rose a few inches off the ground, but it was enough to free his arms from the man’s knees. He blocked the next punch with both of his forearms, then threw both fists up and at Janson’s face, connected. The Rat Man lost his balance; Thomas pushed him off, then kicked him by coiling both legs and slamming the bottoms of his feet into Janson’s side, then again, and again, and again. The man’s body inched away with each kick. But when Thomas next pulled back with his legs, Janson suddenly flipped around and came at him, grabbing Thomas’s feet and throwing them to the side. Then he jumped on top of Thomas yet again.
Thomas went nuts; kicking and punching and squirming to get out from under the man. They rolled, each gaining the advantage for only a split second before toppling over again. Fists flew and feet kicked—bullets of pain riddled Thomas’s body; Janson clawed and bit. They continued to roll, beating each other nearly senseless.
Thomas finally got a good angle to slam his elbow into Janson’s nose; it stunned the man, and both of his hands flew to his face. A burst of energy shot through Thomas; he jumped on top of Janson and put his fingers around the man’s neck, began to squeeze. Janson kicked out, flailed his arms, but Thomas held on with feral rage, clutching, leaning forward with all his weight to crush as he constricted his hands tighter and tighter. He felt things snapping and pulling and breaking. Janson’s eyes bulged; his tongue jutted from his mouth.
Someone swatted him on the head with an open palm; he could tell words were being spoken to him but he didn’t hear them. Minho’s face appeared in front of his. He was yelling something. A bloodlust had completely taken Thomas over. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, focused again on Janson’s face. The man was long gone, still and pale and battered. Thomas looked back at Minho.
“He’s dead!” his friend was yelling. “He’s dead!”
Thomas forced himself to let go, stumbled off of the man, felt Minho lifting him to his feet.
“We put them all out of commission!” Minho shouted in his ear. “We need to go!”
Two explosions rocked both sides of the storage room at the same time and the walls themselves collapsed inward, throwing chunks of brick and cement in all directions. Debris rained down on Thomas and Minho. Dust clouded the air and shadowy figures surrounded Thomas, swaying and falling and getting back up again. Thomas was on his feet, moving, heading in the direction of the maintenance room.
Pieces of the ceiling fell, crashing and exploding. The sounds were awful, deafening. The ground shook violently; bombs continued to detonate over and over, seemingly everywhere at once. Thomas fell; Minho jerked him to his feet. A few seconds later Minho fell; Thomas yanked and dragged until they were both running again. Brenda suddenly appeared in front of Thomas, terror in her eyes. He thought he saw Teresa nearby as well, all of them struggling to keep their balance as they moved forward.
A splintering, shattering noise split the air so loudly that Thomas looked back. His eyes drifted upward, where a massive section of the ceiling had torn loose. He watched, hypnotized, as it fell toward him. Teresa appeared in the corner of his vision, her image barely discernible through the clogged air. Her body slammed into his, shoving him toward the maintenance room. His mind emptied as he stumbled backward and fell, just as the huge piece of the building landed on top of Teresa, pinning her body; only her head and an arm jutted out from under its girth.
“Teresa!” Thomas screamed, an unearthly sound that somehow rose above everything else. He scrambled toward her. Blood streaked her face, and her arm looked crushed.
He shouted her name again, and in his mind he saw Chuck, falling to the ground, covered in blood, and Newt’s bulging eyes. Three of the closest friends he’d ever had. And WICKED had taken them all away from him.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered to her, knowing she couldn’t hear. “I’m so sorry.”
Her mouth moved, working to speak, and he leaned in to make out what she was trying to say.
“Me … too,” she whispered. “I only ever … cared for …”
And then Thomas was being dragged to his feet, yanked away from her. He didn’t have the energy or will to fight it. She was gone. His body ached with pain; his heart stung. Brenda and Minho pulled him up, got his feet under him. The three of them lurched forward, pushed ahead. A fire had started burning in a gaping hole left by an explosion—smoke billowed and churned with the thick dust. Thomas coughed but only heard roaring in his ears.
Another resounding boom shattered the air; Thomas turned his head as he ran to see the back wall of the storage room exploding, falling to the ground in pieces, flames licking through the open spaces. The remainder of the ceiling above it began to collapse, any support now gone. Every last inch of the building was coming down once and for all.
They reached the door to the maintenance room, squeezed inside just in time to see Gally disappear through the Flat Trans. Everyone else was already gone. Thomas stumbled with his friends across the short aisle between the tables. In seconds they’d be dead. The sounds of things crashing and crumbling behind Thomas grew impossibly louder, cracks and creaks and squeals of metal and the hollow roar of flames. All of it rose to an unimaginable pitch; Thomas refused to look, though he sensed it all coming down, as if it were just feet away, its leading edge breathing against his neck. He pushed Brenda through the Trans. The world was collapsing around him and Minho.
Together, they jumped into the icy gray wall.
Thomas could barely breathe. He was coughing, spitting. His heart raced, refused to slow down. He’d landed on the wooden floor of the shed, and now he crawled forward, wanting to get away from the Flat Trans in case any nasty debris came flying through. But he noticed Brenda out of the corner of his eye. She pushed some buttons on a control panel, and then the gray plane winked out of existence, revealing the cedar planks of the shed wall behind it. How did she know how to do that? Thomas wondered.
“You and Minho get out,” she said, an urgency in her voice that Thomas didn’t understand. They were safe now. Weren’t they? “I have to do one last thing.”
Minho had gotten to his feet, and he came over to help Thomas stand. “My shuck brain can’t spend one more second thinking. Just let her do whatever she wants. Come on.”
“Good that,” Thomas said. The two of them then looked at each other for a long moment, catching their breath, somehow reliving in those few seconds all the things they’d gone through, all the death, all the pain. And mixed in there was relief, that maybe—just maybe—it was all over.
But mostly Thomas felt the pain of loss. Watching Teresa die—to save his life—had been almost too much to bear. Now, staring at the person who’d become his true best friend, he had to fight back the tears. In that moment, he swore to never tell Minho about what he’d done to Newt.
“Good that for sure, shuck-face,” Minho finally replied. But his trademark smirk was missing. Instead was a look that said to Thomas he understood. And that they’d both carry the sorrow of their loss for the rest of their lives. Then he turned and walked away.
After a long moment, Thomas followed him.
When he set foot outside, he had to stop and stare. They’d come to a place he’d been told didn’t exist anymore. Lush and green and full of vibrant life. He stood at the top of a hill above a field of tall grass and wildflowers. The two hundred or so people they’d rescued wandered the area, some of them actually running and jumping. To his right the hill descended into a valley of towering trees that seemed to stretched for miles, ending in a wall of rocky mountains that jutted toward the cloudless blue sky. To his left, the grassy field slowly became scrub brush and then sand. And then the ocean, its waves big and dark and white-tipped as they crashed onto a beach.
Paradise. They’d come to paradise. He could only hope that one day his heart would feel the joy of the place.
He heard the door of the shed close then the whoosh of fire behind him. He turned to see Brenda; she gently pushed him a few steps farther away from the structure, which was already engulfed in flames.
“Just making sure?” he asked.
“Just making sure,” she repeated, and gave him a smile so sincere that he relaxed a little, feeling the tiniest bit comforted. “I’m … sorry about Teresa.”
“Thanks.” It was the only word he could find.
She didn’t say anything else, and Thomas figured there wasn’t much she needed to. They walked over and joined the group of people who’d fought the last battle with Janson and the others, everyone scraped and bruised from top to bottom. He met Frypan’s eyes just like he had Minho’s. Then they all faced the shed and watched as it burned to the ground.