Thomas woke with a start. Sweat trickled down his forehead, burning as it rolled into his eyes. He rubbed at his face and yawned tiredly.
Hands clammy, he inhaled shakily and rolled from his hammock. Chuck slept quietly beside him, lips puckered in a sleepy pout. Fondly, Thomas ruffled the kid's hair. He wasn't all that bad, really. Spoke a little much, yeah, but all the kid wanted was a friend.
A whistle brought his attention to the centre of the Glade. Unlike when he woke before and the Glade was just beginning to wake up, the wide expanse of green was completely silent. Boys slept, curled into protective little balls or slung, arms and legs everywhere, in their hammocks.
Another whistle sounded--Minho. He was getting pissed, Thomas guessed. Quickly, he jammed his feet into his boots and took his Runner brace off of the hook. It was getting a little tight, despite it only being a few weeks since Thomas had been awarded a place as a Runner. He glanced down, bewildered at the tightness pulling at his skin.
With the amount of running and manual labour the boys did, it was hardly surprising nearly all of them possessed a large mass of muscle. But to Thomas, who'd always been a bit on the skinny side, it was a shock. Muscle banded across his chest and torso, curling round his biceps and thighs like a protective hug. Blinking, he adjusted the straps of the brace and took off towards the Doors.
The tanned boy glowered as Thomas approached, his arms crossing across his chest.
"Nice of you to finally show up."
"Sorry," Thomas panted, rubbing weakly at the stitch already beginning to appear in the side of his stomach. Oh well. Not much he could do about it. Running through the pain was the best he could do.
Minho rolled his eyes. "At least you showed up. The Doors are just about to open, get rea--Newt?"
Thomas whirled round to find Newt trotting across the Glade, limping slightly. He winced; it was extremely east to forget about Newt's gammy leg. But limping Newt was all Thomas knew--he never knew Newt, the Runner. He could hardly imagine it. Newt was a gangly kid, bound with thin muscles and the pronounced stutter in his walk made others perceive him as a weakling, an easy target.
Newt quickly made them forget they had ever even thought that.
"Newt? What's going on?"
Gasping, Newt stumbled to a halt and placed his hands on his knees, bending his head down. Thomas heard him take a few wheezing breaths before he finally looked back up at them.
"The…the Box came…came up," he panted, eyes shut.
"Yeh, so? It's the right date, we haven't had any this month."
Thomas glanced at Minho. The Runner sounded pissed, probably itching to get out into the Maze, much like Thomas, himself, was. Unlike Minho, though, he'd learned to stay out of serious conversation topics. He was no Keeper, just a regular shank, nothing special. He obeyed and followed through on orders. He didn't make them.
Newt scowled, finally straightening. Grasping at his side, he coughed, "No new Greenie--just this." He tossed a small clear tube towards Minho, who caught it swiftly. "And this."
To Thomas, he passed a yellowed note. He peered down at it, smoothing out the paper. It felt old underneath his rough fingertips, and looked it too. In the centre of the crinkled note, lay a paragraph, all scratched out in the same text type:
The "Glade" you currently survive in has no purpose in this world anymore.
We plan to terminate the programme and remove as many survivors as possible.
However, we cannot take all of you out, as there are far too many. Some of you
will have to be sacrificed for the survival of your fellow "Gladers." Please elect
at least ten "Gladers" to be sent out into the Maze in two days time. If you
do not do so, we have modified the "Grievers" that live in the Maze; they will no
longer wish to merely kill you. They have become much more dangerous than that.
Do not believe that you can hide inside of your "Glade." If you disobey this order, the Doors will remain open and the remodelled "Grievers" will be able to gain access.
At the bottom of the note, the letters W.I.C.K.E.D were printed.
And that was it. Nothing else.
Nausea curled inside of Thomas' stomach.
Newt stared at him, the despair Thomas felt mirrored in his eyes. Nodding, he chewed on his lip and whispered, "I know. Shanks want ten of us to die so they don't have to waste fuel. Shuckin' typical."
He couldn't help it--Thomas' hands gripped at the paper, almost tearing it in half. Newt grabbed it back quickly, rolling his eyes. Minho grunted, unimpressed by the tube of clear liquid, and took the note.
His eyes squinted as he read through the paragraph. Thomas was still too numb to say anything. He watched Minho's eyes scan the words once, twice, three times. A choked noise escaped the boy's throat and he forcefully slapped the note back into Newt's hand.
"Of course," he snarled. "Of course, after two years, the dumb shucks realised 'oh, no, wait--keeping kids imprisoned maybe isn't the way to go.'" He spat a thick wad of gunk onto the ground, anger wiped across his face.
Newt nodded. He rolled the tube in between his palms, head still bobbing. "I know, but at least some of us are getting out, right?"
Both Thomas and Minho just looked at him. He sighed.
"Yknow what I mean. At least some of us can get an actual chance at living outside this hellhole."
"Right, sure, but what shanks are we gonna offer up to be sliced and diced by the new and improved Grievers out there?" Minho growled.
A wave of clarity washed through Thomas' panic stricken body.
"I'll do it."
Newt's eyes nearly fell out of his head while Minho just sniffed, looking away. It felt right to Thomas; just like he'd known he had to be a Runner, he knew that he was going to be one of the ten. And, for some reason, it didn't scare him at all. There was no fist of white hot anxiety clenching his guts, no feeling that his lungs were getting too big for his chest. All he felt was...calmness.
But Minho began shaking his head, waving his hands towards him. "No, just stop it, Thomas. You ain't offering yourself as Griever meat. Stop tryin' to be a hero and just sit on your hindquarters for two seconds."
"Yeah, no, I gotta agree with Minho, Thomas," Newt sighed, rubbing at the back of his neck guiltily. "Your one of our best and strongest Runners. Your unlike any other Glader we've ever came across." He clamped a hand down on Thomas' shoulder. "We need you."
No you don't, Thomas thought, but didn't dare say. He wasn't trying to be a hero, he was just listening to his instincts.
"So we're just gonna send some little kid out there?"
Minho snorted. "'Course not, shuckhead. Man, you are dumb."
"Okay, so definitely not one of the younger shanks," Newt agreed. "Who though?"
"We have to call a Gathering before we can decide anythin'. This is a Glade matter, not something to be discussed between us three," Minho reminded them, eyeing them slyly.
The bluntness of the boy was something that Thomas both admired and feared.
Newt grunted, "Right. We'll hold it once you three come back." He peered apprehensively at the tube in his hand. "Still don't know what this is for."
"A new serum for the updated Grievers?" Thomas suggested. Even as he said it, the two boys started shaking their heads. He sighed, grunting, "It was just a suggestion."
"Guess we'll know if one of us gets stung," Minho grinned, nudging Thomas.
"Oh," Newt snapped his fingers. "Take Isaac today. Needs the practise before crap really hits the fan."
Thomas glanced at Minho. "Isaac?"
The boy groaned. "Today? Newt, are you jokin'? We just got this news and you want us to run around playing teachers with the new Runner?"
"Yes," Newt said, calmly. "I do."
Thomas internally begged Minho to give in. A fight between two Keepers was never a pretty sight, and he's really prefer Minho to be in one whole piece for the following few days. There was no way he could run the Maze alone.
Thankfully, the Keeper of the Runners snarled, "Fine, but if that shuck steps one toe out of line--"
"Then, I give you permission to rip him limb from limb."
Thomas let out a quiet sigh of relief. With the amount of boys living in the Glade, personalities clashing, fists bashing, it was sometimes hard to keep sight of order. It was hardly unsurprising; the constant jostling of testosterone was almost stifling.
However, the Keepers were usually good at reigning the significant population back in. The authority the group held was instantly recognised by any Greenie; Thomas had firsthand experience of that. But if it was the Keepers fighting amongst each other, all hell broke loose. They had no hope when the Keepers began arguing.
All three boys shook hands in agreement and Newt left, only to return moments later with another boy trailing in his wake. Minho elbowed Thomas in the ribs.
"Something about that kid just doesn't say eager, does it?"
"Not quite," Thomas murmured in agreement. He watched as the boy--Isaac, he presumed--came into sight. It wouldn't take a genius to see that the kid was afraid. Pale skinned, eyes darting around nervously, hands wringing each other. He heard Minho snigger once.
Newt gestured towards the shaking boy and grunted, "Isaac, meet Minho and Thomas. Minho, Thomas, meet Isaac."
Minho offered a hand, grinning slyly. Isaac took it nervously, shaking once before letting his hand drop back of his side. Thomas just smiled in a way he hoped was reassuring and nodded.
Slapping him on the back hard enough to startle the boy, Newt said, "Alright, I'll see you shucks later. The Gathering will be arranged for after you return back." After a second, he added, "Good luck."
It wasn't until the three were running through the Maze that Thomas realised Newt's parting words had been the same as the ones on the bottom of the note.