Frypan frowned and thumped down the ball of dough he had been kneading.
“What now…” he muttered, as he watched his two best fishers come arguing up the trail to the kitchens.
He passed the back of his hand wearily across his brow, aware he was probably leaving a streak of flour across his forehead, but not caring overly. He was also aware it probably wasn’t the only one.
“This better be good,” he warned, the minute they were in earshot. “I got twenty-four more loaves to go before the wake-up, and if Aris doesn’t make with the firewood a lot quicker than he has been the last few mornings there won’t be any breakfast at all.”
Frypan cast a meaningful look over at his helpers. Sure enough, Clarisse had given up kneading her own set of loaves in favour of stopping to watch the conversation play out and Omar had paused, knife in mid-air, over a pile of potato peelings that wasn’t getting any higher. At his sharp look, they dropped their gazes and got hastily back to work. He turned back toward his delinquent fishers.
“I need you two out on the water with the rest of the crew, and back here with your quota of fish for supper, by afternoon. Not running around here waking up every shank in camp!”
The pair exchanged a look. Glader slang still tended to strike the other haven-dwellers as funny or strange, but this time neither of them laughed.
“Sorry Fry, but—“ Daryl began.
“Yeah, sorry Boss,” Quentin cut across him, “but that’s just it. We were out on the water, but then we saw—
“A boat,” Daryl jumped in again, “we saw a boat.”
“Daryl thinks it was a boat, but—“
“It was a boat. What else could it have been?”
“What kind of boat is shaped like that?”
“It was moving against the tide!”
“Would you two slintheads shut up for just one second and tell me what is going on?!” Frypan shouted.
Thomas had had this dream before.
Although knowing it was a dream didn’t make it any easier to wake up, somehow. These were the dreams that never seemed to let him go. The kind that felt so vivid, so real, it left his head throbbing when he finally woke; his gut churning, and his clothes damp and cold with sweat.
The kind he was sure weren’t dreams at all, but memories. Breaking through the walls in his mind.
And this one wasn’t new.
He is back at WCKD, sitting at his terminal, glued to the image playing out on the panel in front of him. Teresa is there. Thomas can feel her eyes on him, the way he always can when he knows she’s watching him, but right now he can’t look away from what he’s seeing. Even in sleep, Thomas can feel the start of a cold sweat, knowing what comes next.
In the dream, he leans closer to the panel, searching for some clue of what it is Newt is after. The Gladers have tried it before, a few times now, and there’s just no point climbing the ivy. It rarely goes all the way to the top, and where it does, there’s no where to go from on top of the wall.
Even in the dream, the Thomas watching the screen knows this isn’t anything like an innocent diversion, just something to stave off the boredom of countless afternoons without purpose in the Glade. Newt has been climbing steadily for some time now. He pauses – to catch his breath, and look up at what the dreaming Thomas knows now was never the sky.
The Glade sun is starting to angle lower, the light in the maze growing more golden-orange by the moment. The doors will close soon. The walls Newt clings so precariously to will shift and move. With a mighty rumbling of ground and a terrible grinding of gears, dark will fall in the maze, where no Glader has yet to survive the night. This climb, whatever else it might be, is no game.
Newt drops his head in exhaustion, gathering his strength, and continues making his way up the wall. Thomas can feel his body twist in his sleep, his hands curled in fists, but the dream – the memory – plays on.
By the time Newt nears the top Thomas can see his breathing is ragged, his hands raw from desperately gripping the tough vines. It’s a struggle to make it over the edge to the top, and Newt nearly doesn’t make it. Twice he tries to hoist himself up and over the edge, and he looks almost ready to give up, letting his body sag down into the ivy leaves and looking down at the drop below him.
It’s dizzying, and Thomas sees Newt squeeze his eyes shut, steeling himself one last time before he finally heaves himself up and over the edge to the top of the wall.
Thomas catches Teresa’s eye in the dream, just as a seasick wave of nerves seizes his stomach, but their eyes only meet for a second. They are both watching Newt on the screen now.
Newt is standing on top of the wall, as if dazed to have actually made it. He stares down at his hands a moment, at what the ivy has done to his palms. Then he squeezes them tight, presses his face into his fists, and Thomas wants to call out to him, tell him to stop whatever mad thing he is up to.
“Newt.“ It comes out as nothing more than a whisper in front of Thomas’s screen.
There’s blood streaking Newt’s cheeks and forehead when he finally brings his hands away. He steps forward to the edge of the wall, and Thomas feels the nausea push painfully through him again. What is he doing?
Newt steps forward far enough the toes of his sneakers point off the edge of the wall and into empty space. Thomas watches as he stands there, tipping dangerously forward, staring morosely down to the floor of the maze, storeys below.
By this point in the dream, Thomas’s breath has stopped. Any second Newt could fall – or worse.
He never sees. By now, Thomas’s head is pounding, his heart racing, and the image of Newt changes to the one he only wishes could be a forgotten memory.
Newt’s eyes are black as the night sky behind him. Dark, sickening veins are spidered across his friend’s face and skin. Thomas tries to move, to twist away, but Newt is straddling him, pinning him with an unnatural strength, just like he had done on that night – the night that always finally succeeds in waking him – and Newt raises the knife in his hands…
Something hit Thomas in the shoulder, just as the blade was coming down.
A second blow landed and Thomas groaned, blinking as his eyes finally seemed able to come open.
“Rise and shine, Greenie.”
Gally’s was just about the last face Thomas wanted to see whenever he woke up like this, but even through the dull throbbing still fogging up his head, and the receding images left by the dream, Thomas could see that something was wrong.
The thing Gally had been poking at his shoulder with, seemed to be the butt of a rifle.
“Hey, sleeping beauty. What’re you waiting for, a kiss?” Minho remarked from beside him.
He was securing a vicious-looking knife to his belt as he spoke, while Frypan looked on from behind them, his flour-streaked features holding a look of concern. But it was what Minho said next that had Thomas fully awake and moving in an instant.
“Up and at ’em, dude. We got incoming.”
It took less time than Thomas would have expected to muster a scouting party. Once he was up, the boys wasted no time in finding Vince, who had them armed, briefed – although there really wasn’t much information to go on – and marching off over the grass in what felt to Thomas like less than ten minutes.
Vince led them away from camp and up into the hills at a pace. Jorge and Brenda were there, right on his heels, clutching their sidearms and looking almost eager, as if itching for some action in what Thomas could admit had been a rather quiet existence so far on the island.
Nobody spoke as they made their way. Thomas kept up, flanked by Minho and Frypan, silently feeling the unfamiliar weight of the handgun Vince had outfitted him with at his hip, and nursing a vague nervousness in his gut he hadn’t felt in a long time. Gally and his shotgun brought up the rear.
Vince gestured for them to draw up behind the cover of the rocks that lined the top of the cliff’s face. From there they could look down and get a full view of the area where Frypan indicated his fishing crew had reported something headed for the island, without being seen.
Thomas dropped to a knee next to Brenda, who was crouched behind a mossy boulder. She turned to look at him, her eyes bright with adrenaline. She was like a picture of the day they met, suddenly. He had forgotten she used to look like this.
Thomas offered a small smile that he hoped looked calm and composed. He didn’t know what they were going to find, but hopefully all of this turned out to be overkill – for what so far was one sighting of one boat, that Daryl and Quentin couldn’t even agree was a boat in the first place.
They waited as the rest of the group crowded up behind them, then Vince gave them a nod. Thomas looked to meet Brenda’s eyes again, but she was already moving slowly into position to peer around the edge of the rock in front of them. Thomas carefully followed suit.
Sure enough, a boat had landed on the shore. If you could call it a boat.
The strange craft appeared to have started out as a life raft from an old ship, just like the ones Thomas had seen around the shipyard where Vince had brought them all once, so they could make the passage to their new home. The raft was rigged up with an outboard motor and a makeshift lean-to made of scavenged timber, in an attempt to provide some protection from the elements. Thomas could see the canvas roof flapping slightly in the breeze. It was almost more like a water-going tent than anything else. No wonder Quentin and Daryl couldn’t agree on what they had seen.
Whoever was captaining the ramshackle craft didn’t seem to have made much of a secret of their landing either. As the group watched, still crouched behind the rocks and listening to each other catch their breath after their swift hike, somebody rounded the far side of the raft.
It looked like a man, slim and dressed from head to toe against the elements in rugged, weathered looking clothing. His head was covered by a battered-looking hat, and he bent to take up a rope tied to the nose of the vessel in both gloved hands. Thomas watched as the man straightened up with the rope over his shoulder, setting his whole weight against it as he dragged his launch far enough ashore to beach it securely.
There was something about this stranger. Something about his posture and the thin-limbed movements that sent strange a chill of warning washing down Thomas’s spine.
It appeared the man was alone, but until they could get a look inside the boat and its tattered shelter, there was no way to be sure. As if echoing his thoughts, Vince spoke up.
“Okay. It looks like our visitor isn’t going to be too much for a small group of us to handle. But I still want us to stay alert. We have no idea what we’re dealing with. Who that is, whether there’s more coming, and what it is that they want with our beach.”
Thomas got to his feet as the team shuffled around Vince, ready to take orders.
“Immunes only, with me,” he began, pragmatically.
“Brenda, you’re the eyes.” Brenda nodded avidly, putting out a hand for the walkie-talkie he was passing her. “Take the walkie, and you can wait up here. Things get hairy down there, or you see anything else on the horizon that ain’t no seagull, you radio back to camp for backup. Don’t come down, you got me? Not until you’re coming with the whole cavalry. You’ll do more good getting the others here than putting yourself in harm’s way.”
“Sure thing,” she agreed, stowing her sidearm and taking the radio from Vince with a look in her eye Thomas knew full well meant she could be trusted to go along with the plan – until she didn’t feel like it.
Thomas grinned knowingly at her from behind Vince’s back. He took in her responding smirk and shoved down his feeling of nagging nerves. He was still hopeful it really was just the one guy down there and she wouldn’t need to break rank and come running to their rescue, anyway.
“Jorge my man,” Vince said next, “I’m gonna need you to leg it back to camp. Round up the usual suspects and the rest of the weapons – and I know this is the challenge, but try and keep a low profile. If you get any questions, go ahead and squash the rumours though. We wanna avoid a panic. Tell ’em exactly what we saw – looks like one lonely guy just trying to survive on a dinghy, shouldn’t be much of a threat. …But wait for the all clear from Brenda, just in case.”
Jorge took the radio he was offered gamely, but his eyes were on Brenda, waiting.
“I’m good,” she reassured him, with a smile that looked like she was trying hard not to roll her eyes. “You go.”
“Okay.” Jorge patted her indulgently on the side of the neck, before turning to Vince. “You got it, hermano,” he agreed.
Then he wished them all good luck and turned and headed back the way they had come at a jog.
“The rest of you with me,” Vince finished, but they were already lining up, ready to follow along behind him.
Thomas reached out to squeeze Brenda’s arm before they moved off, and heard the rest of the guys behind him bumping her fist and murmuring quiet biddings of luck and that she be safe as they passed her. Then Vince and the boys threaded their way along the top of the cliffs, toward the pathway down to the beach.
The morning sun was starting to climb into the sky. Thomas took in the feel of it on his shoulders, the cry of the gulls overhead, and tried to collect his thoughts as they made their descent. When they reached the beach they would come out of the cover of the rocks, and the new arrival on the shore would see them coming.
That would be it, the moment of truth. They would know soon enough then what this was – whether it was some kind of trap, maybe with more boats like this one on the way, or other occupants of the craft already hiding out in the rocks to surround them. Or maybe it was just some poor sap trying to find somewhere safe from the horrors of what they used to refer to as ‘The Scorch’. An actual survivor.
But then there was the worst case, and the reason Vince had insisted only immunes go down to the beach. Maybe they were about to encounter somebody who was sick, and not in their right mind. A Crank, Thomas thought – realizing he hadn’t used the word in what felt like ages – the one thing they couldn’t allow to pass their shores.
Thomas could only imagine what might have happened to the world outside of their safe haven in the time they’d been here. The times he had spent in The Scorch had been brief but brutal, and these days, they were times he put a lot of energy into trying to forget.
Thomas shoved the morbid thoughts away, reminded himself that they had no reason to suspect any of that, not yet. He could see the boys walking next to him seemed to be having similar thoughts, though. Minho and Frypan had drawn their handguns, while Gally and Vince had never lowered their rifles yet at all.
They came out into the open. The sand squashing under their boots slowed their progress a little, but still they came forward as a group and without hesitation. Thomas gripped the handle of his weapon tightly, and breathed in the sea air, ready.
The man on the beach hadn’t noticed them quite yet. He was busy bent over the side of his raft, unloading various items onto the sand. Apparently he had plans to stay.
Again, something about watching the stranger at work struck Thomas strangely, but he didn’t have much time to wonder what it was.
Just then, the man seemed to catch sight of their small party on the approach. He straightened up from his task, putting one hand to his back and raising the other to shade his eyes from the sun, in a pose so familiar it made Thomas’s insides give a painful twist.
“What the…” Frypan said quietly from beside him, as if he had had the same thought that was threatening at the corners of Thomas’s mind, and squeezing at his heart.
It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. Thomas’s mind swam, as the newcomer swept the ratty hat off his head, waving it in the air in a show of friendly greeting and letting the sun light up a slightly longish shock of hair in a distinctive shade of strawberry-gold.
Minho had already moved past them and ahead of Vince. He charged forward a few quick paces for a better look before coming to a dead stop.
“Shuck me,” Thomas heard him curse. Just as Gally stumbled to a stop behind them, spraying the backs of their boots in a brief shower of sand with a quiet “Holy shit.”
There was no mistaking it anymore, as the newcomer started toward them, lowering the hand shading his gaze and finally affording them a full view of his face.
It was Newt.