Teresa looked at her best friend and wondered what it would be like to forget him.
It seemed impossible, though she’d now seen the Swipe implanted in dozens of boys before Thomas. Sandy brown hair, penetrating eyes and a constant look of contemplation—how could this kid ever be unfamiliar to her? How could they be in the same room and not joke about some smell or make fun of some clueless slouch nearby? How could she ever stand in front of him and not leap at the chance to communicate telepathically?
And yet, only a day away.
For her. For Thomas, it was a matter of minutes. He lay on the operating table, his eyes closed, chest rising and falling with soft, even breaths. Already dressed in the requisite shorts-and-T-shirt uniform of the Glade, he looked like a snapshot of the past—some ordinary boy taking an ordinary nap after a long day at an ordinary school, before sun flares and disease made the world anything but ordinary. Before death and destruction made it necessary to steal children—along with their memories—and send them to a place as terrifying as the Maze. Before human brains were known as the killzone and needed to be watched and studied. All in the name of science and medicine.
A doctor and a nurse had been prepping Thomas and now lowered the mask onto his face. There were clicks and hisses and beeps; Teresa watched as metal and wires and plastic tubes slithered across his skin and into the canals of Thomas’s ears, saw his hands twitch reflexively at his sides. He probably felt pain on some level despite the drugs, but he’d never remember it. The machine began its work, plucking images from Thomas’s memory. Erasing his mom and his dad and his life. Erasing her.
Some small part of her knew it should make her angry. Make her scream and yell and refuse to help for one more second. But the greater part was as solid as the rock of the cliffs outside. Yes, the greater part within her was entrenched in certainty so deeply that she knew she’d feel it even after tomorrow, when the same thing would be done to her. She and Thomas were proving their conviction by submitting to what had been asked of the others. And if they died, so be it. WICKED would find the cure, millions would be saved, and life on earth would someday get back to normal. Teresa knew this in her core, as much as she knew that humans grow old and leaves fall from trees in autumn.
Thomas sucked in a hitching breath, then made a little moaning sound, shifted his body. Teresa thought for a horrifying second that he might wake up, hysterical from the agony—things were inside his head doing who knew what to his brain. But he stilled and resumed the soft and easy breathing. The clicks and hisses continued, her best friend’s memories fading like echoes.
They’d said their official goodbyes, and the words See you tomorrow still rang in her head. For some reason that had really struck her when Thomas said it, made what he was about to do all the more surreal and sad. They would see each other tomorrow, although she’d be in a coma and he wouldn’t have the slightest idea who she was—other than an itch in his mind that maybe she looked familiar. Tomorrow. After all they’d been through—all the fear and training and planning—it was all coming to a head. What had been done to Alby and Newt and Minho and all the rest would be done to them. There was no turning back.
But the calmness was like a drug inside her. She was at peace, these soothing feelings keeping the terror of things like Grievers and Cranks at bay. WICKED had no choice. She and Thomas—they had no choice. How could she shrink at sacrificing a few to save the many? How could anyone? She didn’t have time for pity or sadness or wishes. It was what it was; what was done was done; what would be … would be.
There was no turning back. She and Thomas had helped construct the Maze; at the same time she’d exerted a lot of effort to build a wall holding back her emotions.
Her thoughts faded then, seemed to float in suspended animation as she waited for the procedure on Thomas to be complete. When it finally was, the doctor pushed several buttons on his screen and the beeps and hisses and clicks sped up. Thomas’s body twitched a little as the tubes and wires snaked away from their intrusive positions and back into his mask. He grew still again and the mask powered down, all sound and movement ceasing. The nurse leaned forward and lifted it off Thomas’s face. His skin was red and marked with lines where it had rested. Eyes still closed.
For a brief moment, Teresa’s wall holding back the sadness began to crumble. If Thomas woke up right then, he wouldn’t remember her. She felt the dread—almost like panic—of knowing that they’d meet soon in the Glade and not know each other. It was a crushing thought that reminded her vividly of why she’d built the wall in the first place. Like a mason slamming a brick into hardening mortar, she sealed the breach. Sealed it solid and thick.
There was no turning back.
Two men from the security team came in to help move Thomas. They lifted him off the bed, hoisted him as if he were stuffed with straw. One had the unconscious boy by the arms, the other by the feet, and they placed him on a gurney. Without so much as a glance toward Teresa, they headed for the door of the operating room. Everyone knew where he was being taken. The doctor and the nurse went about the business of cleaning up—their job was done. Teresa nodded at them even though they weren’t looking, then followed the men into the hallway.
She could barely look at Thomas as they made the long journey through the corridors and elevators of WICKED headquarters. Her wall had weakened again. Thomas was so pale, and his face was covered with beads of sweat. As if he were conscious on some level, fighting the drugs, aware that terrible things awaited him on the horizon. It hurt her heart to see it. And it scared her to know that she was next. Her stupid wall. What did it matter? It would be taken from her along with all the memories anyway.
They reached the basement level below the Maze structure, walked through the warehouse with its rows and shelves of supplies for the Gladers. It was dark and cool down there, and Teresa felt goose bumps break out along her arms. She shivered and rubbed them down. Thomas bounced and jostled on the gurney as it hit cracks in the concrete floor, still a look of dread trying to break through the calm exterior of his sleeping face.
They reached the shaft of the lift, where the large metal cube rested.
It was only a couple of stories below the Glade proper, but the Glade occupants were manipulated into thinking the trip up was an impossibly long and arduous journey. It was all meant to stimulate an array of emotions and brain patterns, from confusion to disorientation to outright terror. A perfect start for those mapping Thomas’s killzone. Teresa knew that she’d be taking the trip herself tomorrow, with a note gripped in her hands. But at least she’d be in a comatose state, spared of that half hour in the moving darkness. Thomas would wake up in the Box, completely alone.
The two men wheeled Thomas next to the Box. There was a horrible screech of metal against cement as one of them dragged a large stepladder to the side of the cube. A few moments of awkwardness as they climbed those steps together while holding Thomas again. Teresa could’ve helped but refused, stubborn enough to stand there and watch, to shore up the cracks in her wall as much as she could.
With a few grunts and curses, the men got Thomas to the edge at the top. His body was positioned in a way that his closed eyes faced Teresa one last time. Even though she knew he wouldn’t hear it, she reached out and spoke to him inside her mind.
We’re doing the right thing, Thomas. See you on the other side.
The men leaned over and lowered Thomas by the arms as far as they could; they dropped him the rest of the way. Teresa heard the thump of his body crumpling onto the cold steel of the floor inside. Her best friend.
She turned around and walked away. From behind her came the distinct sound of metal sliding against metal, then a loud, echoing boom as the doors of the Box slammed shut. Sealing Thomas’s fate, whatever it might be.
THIRTEEN YEARS EARLIER
Mark shivered with cold, something he hadn’t done in a long time.
He’d just woken up, the first traces of dawn leaking through the cracks of the stacked logs that made up the wall of his small hut. He almost never used his blanket. He was proud of it—it was made from the hide of a giant elk he’d killed himself just two months prior—but when he did use it, it was for the comfort of the blanket itself, not so much for warmth. They lived in a world ravaged by heat, after all. But maybe this was a sign of change; he actually felt a little chilled by the morning air seeping through those same cracks as the light. He pulled the furry hide up to his chin and turned to lie on his back, belting out a yawn for the ages.