The Fever Code (The Maze Runner #5)(3)

by James Dashner

Stephen smoldered in his bed but said nothing.

His green-clothed visitor came closer to the bed, crouched down. “Look, you’re just a kid. And you’re obviously bright. Really bright. Also immune to the Flare. You have a lot going for you.”

Stephen heard the warning in the man’s voice. Whatever came next was not going to be good.

“You’re going to have to accept the loss of certain things and think of something bigger than yourself,” he continued. “If we don’t find a cure within a few years, humans are done. So here’s what’s going to happen, Thomas. You’re going to get up. You’re going to walk with me out that door. And I’m not going to tell you again.”

The man waited for a moment, his gaze unwavering; then he stood and turned to leave.

Stephen got up. He followed the man out the door.

221.11.28 | 9:56 a.m.

When they entered the hallway, Stephen got his first glimpse of another kid since he’d arrived. A girl. She had brown hair and looked like she might be a little older than him. It was hard to tell, though; he only got a brief look at her as a woman escorted her into the room right next to his. The door thumped closed just as he and his escort walked by, and he noticed the plaque on the front of its white surface: 31K.

“Teresa hasn’t had any problem taking her new name,” the man in green said as they moved down the long, dimly lit hallway. “Of course, that might be because she wanted to forget her given one.”

“What was it?” Stephen asked, his tone approaching something like politeness. He genuinely wanted to know. If the girl had really given up so easily, maybe he could hold on to her name as well—a favor to a potential friend.

“It’ll be hard enough for you to forget your own,” came the response. “I wouldn’t want to burden you with another.”

I’ll never forget, Stephen told himself. Never.

Somewhere at the edge of his mind, he realized that he’d already changed his stance, ever so slightly. Instead of insisting on calling himself Stephen, he’d begun to merely promise not to forget Stephen. Had he already given in? No! He almost shouted it.

“What’s your name?” he asked, needing a distraction.

“Randall Spilker,” the man said without breaking his stride. They turned a corner and came to a bank of elevators. “Once upon a time, I wasn’t such a jerk, trust me. The world, the people I work for”—he gestured to nothing in particular all around him—“it’s all turned my heart into a small lump of black coal. Too bad for you.”

Stephen had no response, as he was busy wondering where they were going. They stepped onto the elevator when it chimed and the doors opened.

Stephen sat in a strange chair, its various built-in instruments pressing into his legs and back. Wireless sensors, each barely the size of a fingernail, were attached to his temples, his neck, his wrists, the crooks of his elbows, and his chest. He watched the console next to him as it collected data, chirping and beeping. The man in the grown-up jammies sat in another chair to observe, his knees only a couple of inches from Stephen’s.

“I’m sorry, Thomas. We’d usually wait longer before it came to this,” Randall said. He sounded nicer than he had back in the hallway and in Stephen’s room. “We’d give you some more time to choose to take your new name voluntarily, like Teresa did. But time isn’t a luxury we have anymore.”

He held up a tiny piece of shiny silver, one end rounded, the other tapered to a razor-sharp point.

“Don’t move,” Randall said, leaning forward as if he were going to whisper something into Stephen’s ear. Before he could question the man, Stephen felt a sharp pain in his neck, right below his chin, then the unsettling sensation of something burrowing into his throat. He yelped, but it was over as fast as it had begun, and he felt nothing more than the panic that filled his chest.

“Wh-what was that?” he stammered. He tried to get up from the chair despite all the things attached to him.

Randall pushed him back into his seat. Easy to do when he was twice Stephen’s size.

“It’s a pain stimulator. Don’t worry, it’ll dissolve and get flushed out of your system. Eventually. By then you probably won’t need it anymore.” He shrugged. What can you do? “But we can always insert another one if you make it necessary. Now calm down.”

Stephen had a hard time catching his breath. “What’s it going to do to me?”

“Well, that depends…Thomas. We have a long road ahead of us, you and me. All of us. But for today, right now, at this moment, we can take a shortcut. A little path through the woods. All you need to do is tell me your name.”

“That’s easy. Stephen.”

Randall let his head fall into his hands. “Do it,” he said, his voice little more than a tired whisper.

Until this moment, Stephen hadn’t known pain outside of the scrapes and bruises of childhood. And so it was that when the fiery tempest exploded throughout his body, when the agony erupted in his veins and muscles, he had no words for it, no capacity to understand. There were only the screams that barely reached his own ears before his mind shut down and saved him.

Stephen came to, breathing heavily and soaked in sweat. He was still in the strange chair, but at some point, he’d been secured to it with straps of soft leather. Every nerve in his body buzzed with the lingering effects of the pain inflicted by Randall and the implanted device.

“What…,” Stephen whispered, a hoarse croak. His throat burned, telling him all he needed to know about how much he’d screamed in the time he lost. “What?” he repeated, his mind struggling to connect the pieces.

“I tried to tell you, Thomas,” Randall said, with perhaps, perhaps, some compassion in his voice. Possibly regret. “We don’t have time to mess around. I’m sorry. I really am. But we’re going to have to try this again. I think you understand now that none of this is a bluff. It’s important to everyone here that you accept your new name.” The man looked away and paused a long time, staring at the floor.

“How could you hurt me?” Stephen asked through his raw throat. “I’m just a little kid.” Young or not, he understood how pathetic he sounded.

Stephen also knew that adults seemed to react to pathetic in one of two ways: Their hearts would melt a little and they’d backtrack. Or the guilt would burn like a furnace within them and they’d harden into rock to put the fire out. Randall chose the latter, his face reddening as he shouted back.