The Fever Code (The Maze Runner #5)(6)

by James Dashner

WICKED. He pondered the word. It had to be…what? Why would someone, a guard, have such a word printed across his very official uniform? It had Thomas at a loss.

The sound of the door opening behind him cut off his train of thought. Thomas turned to see a middle-aged man, his dark hair turning to gray and storm cloud–colored bags underneath his tired brown eyes. Something about him made Thomas think he was younger than he looked, though.

“You must be Thomas,” the man said, trying but failing to sound cheerful. “I’m Kevin Anderson, chancellor of this fine institution.” He smiled, but his eyes stayed dark.

Thomas stood, feeling awkward. “Uh, nice to meet you.” He didn’t know what else to say to the man. Though he’d mostly been treated well the last couple of years, visions of Randall haunted his mind, and there was the loneliness in his heart. He didn’t really know what he was doing standing there, or why he was meeting this man now.

“Come on into my office,” the chancellor said. Stepping to one side, he swept an arm in front of him as if revealing a prize. “Take one of the seats in front of my desk. We have a lot to talk about.”

Thomas looked down and walked into the chancellor’s office, a tiny part of him expecting the man to hurt him as he passed. He went straight for the closest chair and sat down before taking a quick look around. He sat in front of a large desk that looked like wood but most definitely wasn’t, with a few frames scattered along its front edge, the pictures within them facing away from Thomas. He desperately wanted to see what parts of Mr. Anderson’s life were flashing by in that instant. Besides a few gadgets and chairs and a workstation built into the desk, the room was pretty much empty.

The chancellor swooped into the room and took his seat on the other side of the desk. He touched a few things on the workstation’s screen, seemed satisfied about something, then leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers under his chin. A long silence filled the room as the man studied Thomas, making him even more uncomfortable.

“Do you know what today is?” Chancellor Anderson finally asked.

Thomas had tried all morning not to think about it, which had only made the memories of the one good Christmas he’d known all the more crisp in his mind. It filled him with a sadness so sharp that every breath actually hurt like a spiky rock laid atop his chest.

“It’s the beginning of holiday week,” Thomas answered, hoping he could hide just how sad that made him. For a split second, he thought he smelled pine, tasted spicy cider on the back of his tongue.

“That’s right,” the chancellor said, folding his arms as if proud of the answer. “And today’s the best of all, right? Religious or not, everyone celebrates Christmas in one way or another. And hey, let’s face it, who’s been religious the last ten years? Except the Apocalyptics, anyway.”

The man fell silent for a moment, staring into space. Thomas had no idea what point the guy was trying to make, other than to depress the poor kid sitting in front of him.

Anderson suddenly sprang to life again, leaning forward on his desk with hands folded in front of him. “Christmas, Thomas. Family. Food. Warmth. And presents! We can’t forget the presents! What’s the best gift you ever received on Christmas morning?”

Thomas had to look away, trying to shift his eyes in just the right way so no tears tumbled out and trickled down his cheek. He refused to answer such a mean question, whether it had been intended that way or not.

“One time,” Anderson continued, “when I was a little younger than you, I got a bike. Shiny and green. The lights from the tree sparkled in the new paint. Magic, Thomas. That’s pure magic. Nothing like that can ever be duplicated for the rest of your life, especially when you get to be a crotchety old man like me.”

Thomas had recovered himself and looked at the chancellor, trying to throw as much fierceness into his gaze as possible. “My parents are probably dead. And yeah, I did get a bike, but I had to leave it when you took me. I’ll never have another Christmas, thanks to the Flare. Why are we talking about this? Are you trying to rub it in?” The rush of angry words made him feel better.

Anderson’s face had gone pale, any trace of happy Christmas memories wiped clean. He put his hands flat on the desk, and a shadow descended over his eyes.

“Exactly, Thomas,” he said. “That’s exactly what I’m doing. So you’ll understand just how important it is that we do whatever it takes to make WICKED a success. To find a cure for this sickness, no matter the cost. No matter…the cost.”

He sat back in his chair, swiveled a quarter turn, and stared at the wall.

“I want Christmas back.”

223.12.25 | 10:52 a.m.

The silence that stretched out from that moment was a long one, so awkward that Thomas wondered more than once if he should get up and leave. At one point he even worried that maybe Chancellor Anderson had died—that he was sitting frozen in death, eyes open, glazed over.

But the man’s chest rose and fell with each of his breaths as he sat staring, staring at that wall.

Thomas actually found himself feeling sorry for him. And he couldn’t take the stillness anymore.

“I want it back, too,” Thomas said. It was simple, and true—and, he knew, impossible.

It was as if the chancellor had forgotten that Thomas was sitting there. He snapped his head around at the boy’s voice. “I…I’m sorry,” he stammered, adjusting his chair to face the desk again. “What did you say?”

“That I want everything back to normal again, too,” Thomas answered. “The way it was before I even existed. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, is it?”

“But it can, Thomas.” A light had somehow found its way into the man’s eyes. “I know the world is in horrible shape, but if we can find a cure….The weather will normalize eventually—it’s already starting. The Cranks can die off; all of our simulations tell us they’ll wipe each other out. There are plenty of us who are still healthy—who can rebuild our world if we can only ensure that they don’t catch that damn disease.”

He stared at Thomas as if Thomas should know what to say next. He didn’t.

“Do you know what our…institution is called, Thomas?” the chancellor asked.

Thomas shrugged. “Well, you said WICKED a few minutes ago—and those guards had it on their uniforms. Is that really the name of this place?”