“Look!” someone shouted, but he’d already seen it, his breath catching in his throat. Goose bumps broke out all over him, a creepy fear trickling down his spine like a wet spider.
Directly in front of them, a row of twenty or so darkly tinged windows stretched across the compound horizontally, one after the other. Behind each one, a person—some men, some women, all of them pale and thin—sat observing the Gladers, staring through the glass with squinted eyes. Thomas shuddered, terrified—they all looked like ghosts. Angry, starving, sinister apparitions of people who’d never been happy when alive, much less dead.
But Thomas knew they were not, of course, ghosts. They were the people who’d sent them all to the Glade. The people who’d taken their lives away from them.
Thomas took a step backward, noticing others doing the same. A deathly silence sucked the life out of the air as every last Glader stared at the row of windows, at the row of observers. Thomas watched one of them look down to write something, another reach up and put on a pair of glasses. They all wore black coats over white shirts, a word stitched on their right breast—he couldn’t quite make out what it said. None of them wore any kind of discernible facial expression—they were all sallow and gaunt, miserably sad to look upon.
They continued to stare at the Gladers; a man shook his head, a woman nodded. Another man reached up and scratched his nose—the most human thing Thomas had seen any of them do.
“Who are those people?” Chuck whispered, but his voice echoed throughout the chamber with a raspy edge.
“The Creators,” Minho said; then he spat on the floor. “I’m gonna break your faces!” he screamed, so loudly Thomas almost held his hands over his ears.
“What do we do?” Thomas asked. “What are they waiting on?”
“They’ve probably revved the Grievers back up,” Newt said. “They’re probably coming right—”
A loud, slow beeping sound cut him off, like the warning alarm of a huge truck driving in reverse, but much more powerful. It came from everywhere, booming and echoing throughout the chamber.
“What now?” Chuck asked, not hiding the concern in his voice.
For some reason everyone looked at Thomas; he shrugged in answer—he’d only remembered so much, and now he was just as clueless as anyone else. And scared. He craned his neck as he scanned the place top to bottom, trying to find the source of the beeps. But nothing had changed. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the other Gladers looking in the direction of the doors. He did as well; his heart quickened when he saw that one of the doors was swinging open toward them.
The beeping stopped, and a silence as deep as outer space settled on the chamber. Thomas waited without breathing, braced himself for something horrible to come flying through the door.
Instead, two people walked into the room.
One was a woman. An actual grown-up. She seemed very ordinary, wearing black pants and a button-down white shirt with a logo on the breast—wicked spelled in blue capital letters. Her brown hair was cut at the shoulder, and she had a thin face with dark eyes. As she walked toward the group, she neither smiled nor frowned—it was almost as if she didn’t notice or care they were standing there.
I know her, Thomas thought. But it was a cloudy kind of recollection—he couldn’t remember her name or what she had to do with the Maze, but she seemed familiar. And not just her looks, but the way she walked, her mannerisms—stiff, without a hint of joy. She stopped several feet in front of the Gladers and slowly looked left to right, taking them all in.
The other person, standing next to her, was a boy wearing an overly large sweatshirt, its hood pulled up over his head, concealing his face.
“Welcome back,” the woman finally said. “Over two years, and so few dead. Amazing.”
Thomas felt his mouth drop open—felt anger redden his face.
“Excuse me?” Newt asked.
Her eyes scanned the crowd again before falling on Newt. “Everything has gone according to plan, Mr. Newton. Although we expected a few more of you to give up along the way.”
She glanced over at her companion, then reached out and pulled the hood off the boy. He looked up, his eyes wet with tears. Every Glader in the room sucked in a breath of surprise. Thomas felt his knees buckle.
It was Gally.
Thomas blinked, then rubbed his eyes, like something out of a cartoon. He was consumed with shock and anger.
It was Gally.
“What’s he doing here!” Minho shouted.
“You’re safe now,” the woman responded as if she hadn’t heard him. “Please, be at ease.”
“At ease?” Minho barked. “Who are you, telling us to be at ease? We wanna see the police, the mayor, the president—somebody!” Thomas worried what Minho might do—then again, Thomas kind of wanted him to go punch her in the face.
She narrowed her eyes as she looked at Minho. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, boy. I’d expect more maturity from someone who’s passed the Maze Trials.” Her condescending tone shocked Thomas.
Minho started to retort, but Newt elbowed him in the gut.
“Gally,” Newt said. “What’s going on?”
The dark-haired boy looked at him; his eyes flared for a moment, his head shaking slightly. But he didn’t respond. Something’s off with him, Thomas thought. Worse than before.
The woman nodded as if proud of him. “One day you’ll all be grateful for what we’ve done for you. I can only promise this, and trust your minds to accept it. If you don’t, then the whole thing was a mistake. Dark times, Mr. Newton. Dark times.”
She paused. “There is, of course, one final Variable.” She stepped back.
Thomas focused on Gally. The boy’s whole body trembled, his face pasty white, making his wet, red eyes stand out like bloody splotches on paper. His lips pressed together; the skin around them twitched, as if he were trying to speak but couldn’t.
“Gally?” Thomas asked, trying to suppress the complete hatred he had for him.
Words burst from Gally’s mouth. “They … can control me … I don’t—” His eyes bulged, a hand went to his throat as if he were choking. “I … have … to …” Each word was a croaking cough. Then he stilled, his face calming, his body relaxing.
It was just like Alby in bed, back in the Glade, after he went through the Changing. The same type of thing had happened to him. What did it—
But Thomas didn’t have time to finish his thought. Gally reached behind himself, pulled something long and shiny from his back pocket. The lights of the chamber flashed off the silvery surface—a wicked-looking dagger, gripped tightly in his fingers. With unexpected speed, he reared back and threw the knife at Thomas. As he did so, Thomas heard a shout to his right, sensed movement. Toward him.
The blade windmilled, its every turn visible to Thomas, as if the world had turned to slow motion. As if it did so for the sole purpose of allowing him to feel the terror of seeing such a thing. On the knife came, flipping over and over, straight at him. A strangled cry was forming in his throat; he urged himself to move but he couldn’t.
Then, inexplicably, Chuck was there, diving in front of him. Thomas felt as if his feet had been frozen in blocks of ice; he could only stare at the scene of horror unfolding before him, completely helpless.
With a sickening, wet thunk, the dagger slammed into Chuck’s chest, burying itself to the hilt. The boy screamed, fell to the floor, his body already convulsing. Blood poured from the wound, dark crimson. His legs slapped against the floor, feet kicking aimlessly with onrushing death. Red spit oozed from between his lips. Thomas felt as if the world were collapsing around him, crushing his heart.
He fell to the ground, pulled Chuck’s shaking body into his arms.
“Chuck!” he screamed; his voice felt like acid ripping through his throat. “Chuck!”
The boy shook uncontrollably, blood everywhere, wetting Thomas’s hands. Chuck’s eyes had rolled up in their sockets, dull white orbs. Blood trickled out of his nose and mouth.
“Chuck …,” Thomas said, this time a whisper. There had to be something they could do. They could save him. They—
The boy stopped convulsing, stilled. His eyes slid back into normal position, focused on Thomas, clinging to life. “Thom … mas.” It was one word, barely there.
“Hang on, Chuck,” Thomas said. “Don’t die—fight it. Someone get help!”
Nobody moved, and deep inside, Thomas knew why. Nothing could help now. It was over. Black spots swam before Thomas’s eyes; the room tilted and swayed. No, he thought. Not Chuck. Not Chuck. Anyone but Chuck.
“Thomas,” Chuck whispered. “Find … my mom.” A racking cough burst from his lungs, throwing a spray of blood. “Tell her …”
He didn’t finish. His eyes closed, his body went limp. One last breath wheezed from his mouth.
Thomas stared at him, stared at his friend’s lifeless body.
Something happened within Thomas. It started deep down in his chest, a seed of rage. Of revenge. Of hate. Something dark and terrible. And then it exploded, bursting through his lungs, through his neck, through his arms and legs. Through his mind.
He let go of Chuck, stood up, trembling, turned to face their new visitors.
And then Thomas snapped. He completely and utterly snapped.
He rushed forward, threw himself on Gally, grasping with his fingers like claws. He found the boy’s throat, squeezed, fell to the ground on top of him. He straddled the boy’s torso, gripped him with his legs so he couldn’t escape. Thomas started punching.
He held Gally down with his left hand, pushing down on the boy’s neck, as his right fist rained punches upon Gally’s face, one after another. Down and down and down, slamming his balled knuckles into the boy’s cheek and nose. There was crunching, there was blood, there were horrible screams. Thomas didn’t know which were louder—Gally’s or his own. He beat him—beat him as he released every ounce of rage he’d ever owned.
And then he was being pulled away by Minho and Newt, his arms still flailing even when they only hit air. They dragged him across the floor; he fought them, squirmed, yelled to be left alone. His eyes remained on Gally, lying there, still; Thomas could feel the hatred pouring out, as if a visible line of flame connected them.
And then, just like that, it all vanished. There were only thoughts of Chuck.
He threw off Minho’s and Newt’s grip, ran to the limp, lifeless body of his friend. He grabbed him, pulled him back into his arms, ignoring the blood, ignoring the frozen look of death on the boy’s face.
“No!” Thomas shouted, sadness consuming him. “No!”
Teresa was there, put her hand on his shoulder. He shook it away.
“I promised him!” he screamed, realizing even as he did so that his voice was laced with something wrong. Almost insanity. “I promised I’d save him, take him home! I promised him!”
Teresa didn’t respond, only nodded, her eyes cast to the ground.