Thomas hugged Chuck to his chest, squeezed him as tightly as possible, as if that could somehow bring him back, or show thanks for saving his life, for being his friend when no one else would.
Thomas cried, wept like he’d never wept before. His great, racking sobs echoed through the chamber like the sounds of tortured pain.
He finally pulled it all back into his heart, sucking in the painful tide of his misery. In the Glade, Chuck had become a symbol for him—a beacon that somehow they could make everything right again in the world. Sleep in beds. Get kissed goodnight. Have bacon and eggs for breakfast, go to a real school. Be happy.
But now Chuck was gone. And his limp body, to which Thomas still clung, seemed a cold talisman—that not only would those dreams of a hopeful future never come to pass, but that life had never been that way in the first place. That even in escape, dreary days lay ahead. A life of sorrow.
His returning memories were sketchy at best. But not much good floated in the muck.
Thomas reeled in the pain, locked it somewhere deep inside him. He did it for Teresa. For Newt and Minho. Whatever darkness awaited them, they’d be together, and that was all that mattered right then.
He let go of Chuck, slumped backward, trying not to look at the boy’s shirt, black with blood. He wiped the tears from his cheeks, rubbed his eyes, thinking he should be embarrassed but not feeling that way. Finally, he looked up. Looked up at Teresa and her enormous blue eyes, heavy with sadness—just as much for him as for Chuck, he was sure of it.
She reached down, grabbed his hand, helped him stand. Once he was up, she didn’t let go, and neither did he. He squeezed, tried to say what he felt by doing so. No one else said a word, most of them staring at Chuck’s body without expression, as if they’d moved far beyond feeling. No one looked at Gally, breathing but still.
The woman from WICKED broke the silence.
“All things happen for a purpose,” she said, any sign of malice now gone from her voice. “You must understand this.”
Thomas looked at her, threw all his compressed hatred into the glare. But he did nothing.
Teresa placed her other hand on his arm, gripped his bicep. What now? she asked.
I don’t know, he replied. I can’t—
His sentence was cut short by a sudden series of shouts and commotion outside the entrance through which the woman had come. She visibly panicked, the blood draining from her face as she turned toward the door. Thomas followed her gaze.
Several men and women dressed in grimy jeans and soaking-wet coats burst through the entrance with guns raised, yelling and screaming words over each other. It was impossible to understand what they were saying. Their guns—some were rifles, other pistols—looked … archaic, rustic. Almost like toys abandoned in the woods for years, recently discovered by the next generation of kids ready to play war.
Thomas stared in shock as two of the newcomers tackled the WICKED woman to the floor. Then one stepped back and drew up his gun, aimed.
No way, Thomas thought. No—
Flashes lit the air as several shots exploded from the gun, slamming into the woman’s body. She was dead, a bloody mess.
Thomas took several steps backward, almost stumbled.
A man walked up to the Gladers as the others in his group spread out around them, sweeping their guns left and right as they shot at the observation windows, shattering them. Thomas heard screams, saw blood, looked away, focused on the man who approached them. He had dark hair, his face young but full of wrinkles around the eyes, as if he’d spent each day of his life worrying about how to make it to the next.
“We don’t have time to explain,” the man said, his voice as strained as his face. “Just follow me and run like your life depends on it. Because it does.”
With that the man made a few motions to his companions, then turned and ran out the big glass doors, his gun held rigidly before him. Gunfire and cries of agony still rattled the chamber, but Thomas did his best to ignore them and follow instructions.
“Go!” one of the rescuers—that was the only way Thomas could think of them—screamed from behind.
After the briefest hesitation, the Gladers followed, almost stomping each other in their rush to get out of the chamber, as far away from the Grievers and the Maze as possible. Thomas, his hand still gripping Teresa’s, ran with them, bunched up in the back of the group. They had no choice but to leave Chuck’s body behind.
Thomas felt no emotion—he was completely numb. He ran down a long hallway, into a dimly lit tunnel. Up a winding flight of stairs. Everything was dark, smelled like electronics. Down another hallway. Up more stairs. More hallways. Thomas wanted to ache for Chuck, get excited about their escape, rejoice that Teresa was there with him. But he’d seen too much. There was only emptiness now. A void. He kept going.
On they ran, some of the men and women leading from ahead, some yelling encouragement from behind.
They reached another set of glass doors and went through them into a massive downpour of rain, falling from a black sky. Nothing was visible but dull sparkles flashing off the pounding sheets of water.
The leader didn’t stop moving until they reached a huge bus, its sides dented and scarred, most of the windows webbed with cracks. Rain sluiced down it all, making Thomas imagine a huge beast cresting out of the ocean.
“Get on!” the man screamed. “Hurry!”
They did, forming into a tight pack behind the door as they entered, one by one. It seemed to take forever, Gladers pushing and scrambling their way up the three stairs and into the seats.
Thomas was at the back, Teresa right in front of him. Thomas looked up into the sky, felt the water beat against his face—it was warm, almost hot, had a weird thickness to it. Oddly, it helped break him out of his funk, snap him to attention. Maybe it was just the ferocity of the deluge. He focused on the bus, on Teresa, on escape.
They were almost to the door when a hand suddenly slammed against his shoulder, gripping his shirt. He cried out as someone jerked him backward, ripping his hand out of Teresa’s—he saw her spin around just in time to watch as he slammed into the ground, throwing up a spray of water. A bolt of pain shot down his spine as a woman’s head appeared two inches above him, upside down, blocking out Teresa.
Greasy hair hung down, touching Thomas, framing a face hidden in shadow. A horrible smell filled his nostrils, like eggs and milk gone rotten. The woman pulled back enough for someone’s flashlight to reveal her features—pale, wrinkly skin covered in horrible sores, oozing with pus. Sheer terror filled Thomas, froze him.
“Gonna save us all!” the hideous woman said, spit flying out of her mouth, spraying Thomas. “Gonna save us from the Flare!” She laughed, not much more than a hacking cough.
The woman yelped when one of the rescuers grabbed her with both hands and yanked her off of Thomas, who recovered his wits and scrambled to his feet. He backed into Teresa, staring as the man dragged the woman away, her legs kicking out weakly, her eyes on Thomas. She pointed at him, called out, “Don’t believe a word they tell ya! Gonna save us from the Flare, ya are!”
When the man was several yards from the bus, he tossed the woman to the ground. “Stay put or I’ll shoot you dead!” he yelled at her; then he turned to Thomas. “Get on the bus!”
Thomas, so terrified by the ordeal that his body shook, turned and followed Teresa up the stairs and into the aisle of the bus. Wide eyes watched him as they walked all the way to the back seat and plopped down; they huddled together. Black water washed down the windows outside. The rain drummed on the roof, heavy; thunder shook the skies above them.
What was that? Teresa said in his mind.
Thomas couldn’t answer, just shook his head. Thoughts of Chuck flooded him again, replacing the crazy woman, deadening his heart. He just didn’t care, didn’t feel any relief at escaping the Maze. Chuck…
One of the rescuers, a woman, sat across from Thomas and Teresa; the leader who’d spoken to them earlier climbed onto the bus and took a seat at the wheel, cranked up the engine. The bus started rolling forward.
Just as it did, Thomas saw a flash of movement outside the window. The sore-riddled woman had gotten to her feet, was sprinting toward the front of the bus, waving her arms wildly, screaming something drowned out by the sounds of the storm. Her eyes were lit with lunacy or terror—Thomas couldn’t tell which.
He leaned toward the glass of the window as she disappeared from his view up ahead.
“Wait!” Thomas shrieked, but no one heard him. Or if they did, they didn’t care.
The driver gunned the engine—the bus lurched as it slammed into the woman’s body. A thump almost jolted Thomas out of his seat as the front wheels ran over her, quickly followed by a second thump—the back wheels. Thomas looked at Teresa, saw the sickened look on her face that surely mirrored his own.
Without a word, the driver kept his foot on the gas and the bus plowed forward, driving off into the rain-swept night.
The next hour or so was a blur of sights and sounds for Thomas.
The driver drove at reckless speeds, through towns and cities, the heavy rain obscuring most of the view. Lights and buildings were warped and watery, like something out of a drug-induced hallucination. At one point people outside rushed the bus, their clothes ratty, hair matted to their heads, strange sores like those Thomas had seen on the woman covering their terrified faces. They pounded on the sides of the vehicle as if they wanted to get on, wanted to escape whatever horrible lives they were living.
The bus never slowed. Teresa remained silent next to Thomas.
He finally got up enough nerve to speak to the woman sitting across the aisle.
“What’s going on?” he asked, not sure how else to pose it.
The woman looked over at him. Wet, black hair hung in strings around her face. Dark eyes full of sorrow. “That’s a very long story.” The woman’s voice came out much kinder than Thomas had expected, giving him hope that she truly was a friend—that all of their rescuers were friends. Despite the fact that they’d run over a woman in cold blood.
“Please,” Teresa said. “Please tell us something.”
The woman looked back and forth between Thomas and Teresa, then let out a sigh. “It’ll take a while before you get your memories back, if ever—we’re not scientists, we have no idea what they did to you, or how they did it.”
Thomas’s heart dropped at the thought of maybe having lost his memory forever, but he pressed on. “Who are they?” he asked.
“It started with the sun flares,” the woman said, her gaze growing distant.
“What—” Teresa began, but Thomas shushed her.
Just let her talk, he said to her mind. She looks like she will.
The woman almost seemed in a trance as she spoke, never taking her eyes off an indistinct spot in the distance. “The sun flares couldn’t have been predicted. Sun flares are normal, but these were unprecedented, massive, spiking higher and higher—and once they were noticed, it was only minutes before their heat slammed into Earth. First our satellites were burned out, and thousands died instantly, millions within days, countless miles became wastelands. Then came the sickness.”