“Slow down there, fishhead,” Minho yelped. “Save some for later.”
Thomas stopped drinking, sucked in a big satisfied breath, then burped. He took a bite of his apple, feeling surprisingly refreshed. For some reason, his thoughts turned back to the day Minho and Alby had gone to look at the dead Griever—when everything had gone to klunk. “You never really told me what happened to Alby that day—why he was in such bad shape. Obviously the Griever woke up, but what happened?”
Minho had already put his backpack on. He looked ready to go. “Well, shuck thing wasn’t dead. Alby poked at it with his foot like an idiot and that bad boy suddenly sprang to life, spikes flaring, its fat body rollin’ all over him. Something was wrong with it, though—didn’t really attack like usual. It seemed like it was mostly just trying to get out of there, and poor Alby was in the way.”
“So it ran away from you guys?” From what Thomas had seen only a few nights before, he couldn’t imagine it.
Minho shrugged. “Yeah, I guess—maybe it needed to get recharged or something. I don’t know.”
“What could’ve been wrong with it? Did you see an injury or anything?” Thomas didn’t know what kind of answer he was searching for, but he was sure there had to be a clue or lesson to learn from what happened.
Minho thought for a minute. “No. Shuck thing just looked dead—like a wax statue. Then boom, it was back to life.”
Thomas’s mind was churning, trying to get somewhere, only he didn’t know where or which direction to even start in. “I just wonder where it went. Where they always go. Don’t you?” He was quiet for a second, then, “Haven’t you ever thought of following them?”
“Man, you do have a death wish, don’t you? Come on, we gotta go.” And with that Minho turned and started running.
As Thomas followed, he struggled to figure out what was tickling the back of his mind. Something about that Griever being dead and then not dead, something about where it had gone once it sprang to life …
Frustrated, he put it aside and sprinted to catch up.
Thomas ran right behind Minho for two more hours, sprinkled with little breaks that seemed to get shorter every time. Good shape or not, Thomas was feeling the pain.
Finally, Minho stopped and pulled off his backpack once more. They sat on the ground, leaning against the soft ivy as they ate lunch, neither one of them talking much. Thomas relished every bite of his sandwich and veggies, eating as slowly as possible. He knew Minho would make them get up and go once the food disappeared, so he took his time.
“Anything different today?” Thomas asked, curious.
Minho reached down and patted his backpack, where his notes rested. “Just the usual wall movements. Nothing to get your skinny butt excited about.”
Thomas took a long swig of water, looking up at the ivy-covered wall opposite them. He caught a flash of silver and red, something he’d seen more than once that day.
“What’s the deal with those beetle blades?” he asked. They seemed to be everywhere. Then Thomas remembered what he’d seen in the Maze—so much had happened he hadn’t had the chance to mention it. “And why do they have the word wicked written on their backs?”
“Never been able to catch one.” Minho finished up his meal and put his lunch box away. “And we don’t know what that word means—probably just something to scare us. But they have to be spies. For them. Only thing we can reckon.”
“Who is them, anyway?” Thomas asked, ready for more answers. He hated the people behind the Maze. “Anybody have a clue?”
“We don’t know jack about the stupid Creators.” Minho’s face reddened as he squeezed his hands together like he was choking someone. “Can’t wait to rip their—”
But before the Keeper could finish, Thomas was on his feet and across the corridor. “What’s that?” he interrupted, heading for a dull glimmer of gray he’d just noticed behind the ivy on the wall, about head high.
“Oh, yeah, that,” Minho said, his voice completely indifferent.
Thomas reached in and pulled apart the curtains of ivy, then stared blankly at a square of metal riveted to the stone with words stamped across it in big capital letters. He put his hand out to run his fingers across them, as if he didn’t believe his eyes.
WORLD IN CATASTROPHE:
KILLZONE EXPERIMENT DEPARTMENT
He read the words aloud, then looked back at Minho. “What’s this?” It gave him a chill—it had to have something to do with the Creators.
“I don’t know, shank. They’re all over the place, like freaking labels for the nice pretty Maze they built. I quit bothering to look at ’em a long time ago.”
Thomas turned back to stare at the sign, trying to suppress the feeling of doom that had risen inside him. “Not much here that sounds very good. Catastrophe. Killzone. Experiment. Real nice.”
“Yeah, real nice, Greenie. Let’s go.”
Reluctantly, Thomas let the vines fall back into place and swung his backpack over his shoulders. And off they went, those six words burning holes in his mind.
An hour after lunch, Minho stopped at the end of a long corridor. It was straight, the walls, solid, with no hallways branching off.
“The last dead end,” he said to Thomas. “Time to go back.”
Thomas sucked in a deep breath, trying not to think about only being halfway done for the day. “Nothing new?”
“Just the usual changes to the way we got here—day’s half over,” Minho replied as he looked at his watch emotionlessly. “Gotta go back.” Without waiting for a response, the Keeper turned and set off at a run in the direction from which they’d just come.
Thomas followed, frustrated that they couldn’t take time to examine the walls, explore a little. He finally pulled in stride with Minho. “But—”
“Just shut it, dude. Remember what I said earlier—can’t take any chances. Plus, think about it. You really think there’s an exit anywhere? A secret trapdoor or something?”
“I don’t know … maybe. Why do you ask it that way?”
Minho shook his head, spat a big wad of something nasty to his left. “There’s no exit. It’s just more of the same. A wall is a wall is a wall. Solid.”
Thomas felt the heavy truth of it, but pushed back anyway. “How do you know?”
“Because people willing to send Grievers after us aren’t gonna give us an easy way out.”
This made Thomas doubt the whole point of what they were doing. “Then why even bother coming out here?”
Minho looked over at him. “Why bother? Because it’s here—gotta be a reason. But if you think we’re gonna find a nice little gate that leads to Happy Town, you’re smokin’ cow klunk.”
Thomas looked straight ahead, feeling so hopeless he almost slowed to a stop. “This sucks.”
“Smartest thing you’ve said yet, Greenie.”
Minho blew out a big puff of air and kept running, and Thomas did the only thing he knew to do. He followed.
The rest of the day was a blur of exhaustion to Thomas. He and Minho made it back to the Glade, went to the Map Room, wrote up the day’s Maze route, compared it to the previous day’s. Then there were the walls closing and dinner. Chuck tried talking to him several times, but all Thomas could do was nod and shake his head, only half hearing, he was so tired.
Before twilight faded to blackness, he was already in his new favorite spot in the forest corner, curled up against the ivy, wondering if he could ever run again. Wondering how he could possibly do the same thing tomorrow. Especially when it seemed so pointless. Being a Runner had lost its glamour. After one day.
Every ounce of the noble courage he’d felt, the will to make a difference, the promise to himself to reunite Chuck with his family—it all vanished into an exhausted fog of hopeless, wretched weariness.
He was somewhere very close to sleep when a voice spoke in his head, a pretty, feminine voice that sounded as if it came from a fairy goddess trapped in his skull. The next morning, when everything started going crazy, he’d wonder if the voice had been real or part of a dream. But he heard it all the same, and remembered every word:
Tom, I just triggered the Ending.
Thomas awoke to a weak, lifeless light. His first thought was that he must’ve gotten up earlier than usual, that dawn was still an hour away. But then he heard the shouts. And then he looked up, through the leafy canopy of branches.
The sky was a dull slab of gray—not the natural pale light of morning.
He jumped to his feet, put his hand on the wall to steady himself as he craned his neck to gawk toward the heavens. There was no blue, no black, no stars, no purplish fan of a creeping dawn. The sky, every last inch of it, was slate gray. Colorless and dead.
He looked down at his watch—it was a full hour past his mandatory waking time. The brilliance of the sun should’ve awakened him—had done so easily since he’d arrived at the Glade. But not today.
He glanced upward again, half expecting it to have changed back to normal. But it was all gray. Not cloudy, not twilight, not the early minutes of dawn. Just gray.
The sun had disappeared.
Thomas found most of the Gladers standing near the entrance to the Box, pointing at the dead sky, everyone talking at once. Based on the time, breakfast should’ve already been served, people should be working. But there was something about the largest object in the solar system vanishing that tended to disrupt normal schedules.
In truth, as Thomas silently watched the commotion, he didn’t feel nearly as panicked or frightened as his instincts told him he ought to be. And it surprised him that so many of the others looked like lost chicks thrown from the coop. It was, in fact, ridiculous.
The sun obviously had not disappeared—that wasn’t possible.
Though that was what it seemed like—signs of the ball of furious fire nowhere to be seen, the slanting shadows of morning absent. But he and all the Gladers were far too rational and intelligent to conclude such a thing. No, there had to be a scientifically acceptable reason for what they were witnessing. And whatever it was, to Thomas it meant one thing: the fact they could no longer see the sun probably meant they’d never been able to in the first place. A sun couldn’t just disappear. Their sky had to have been—and still was—fabricated. Artificial.
In other words, the sun that had shone down on these people for two years, providing heat and life to everything, was not the sun at all. Somehow, it had been fake. Everything about this place was fake.
Thomas didn’t know what that meant, didn’t know how it was possible. But he knew it to be true—it was the only explanation his rational mind could accept. And it was obvious from the other Gladers’ reactions that none of them had figured this out until now.
Chuck found him, and the look of fear on the boy’s face pinched Thomas’s heart.
“What do you think happened?” Chuck said, a pitiful tremor in his voice, his eyes glued to the sky. Thomas thought his neck must hurt something awful. “Looks like a big gray ceiling—close enough you could almost touch it.”