The Kill Order, Page 2James Dashner
He was breathing heavily from the effort of the hike up the mountain face when he reached the spot where Trina loved to go for escape. Especially in the mornings, when the odds of finding someone else up there were slim. He stopped and looked at her from behind a tree, knowing she’d heard him approach but glad she was pretending she hadn’t.
Man, she was pretty. Leaning back against a huge granite boulder that seemed as if it had been placed there by a decorating giant, she held a thick book in her lap. She turned a page, her green eyes following the words. She was wearing a black T-shirt and a pair of worn jeans, sneakers that looked a hundred years old. Her short blond hair shifted in the wind, and she appeared the very definition of peace and comfort. Like she belonged in the world that had existed before everything was scorched.
Mark had always felt like she was his as a simple matter of the situation. Pretty much everyone else she’d ever known had died; he was a scrap left over for her to take, the alternative to being forever alone. But he gladly played his part, even considered himself lucky—he didn’t know what he’d do without her.
“This book would be so much better if I didn’t have some creepy guy stalking me while I tried to read it. ” Trina spoke without the slightest hint of a smile. She flipped another page and continued to read.
“It’s just me,” he said. Half of what he said around her still came out sounding dumb. He stepped from behind the tree.
She laughed and finally looked up at him. “It’s about time you got here! I was just about ready to start talking to myself—I’ve been reading since before dawn. ”
He walked over and plopped down on the ground beside her. They hugged, tight and warm and full of the promise he’d made upon waking up.
He pulled back and looked at her, not caring about the goofy grin that was most likely plastered across his face. “You know what?”
“What?” she asked.
“Today is going to be a perfect, perfect day. ”
Trina smiled and the waters of the stream continued to rush by, as if his words meant nothing.
“I haven’t had a perfect day since I turned sixteen,” Trina said as she thumbed down the corner of her page and placed the book by her side. “Three days later and you and I were running for our lives through a tunnel that was hotter than the sun. ”
“Good times,” Mark mused as he got more comfortable. He leaned up against the same boulder, crossed his legs in front of him. “Good times. ”
Trina gave him a sideways glance. “My birthday party or the sun flares?”
“Neither. You liked that idiot John Stidham at your party. Remember?”
A guilty look flashed across her face. “Um, yeah. Seems like that was about three thousand years ago. ”
“It took half the world being wiped out for you to finally notice me. ” Mark smiled, but it felt empty. The truth was kind of depressing—even to joke about—and a dark cloud was forming over his head. “Let’s change the subject. ”
“I vote for that. ” She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the stone. “I don’t want to think about that stuff for one more second. ”
Mark nodded even though she couldn’t see. He’d suddenly lost any desire to talk, and his plans for a perfect day washed away with the stream. The memories. They never let him go, not even for a half hour. They always had to rush back in, bringing all the horror.
“You okay?” Trina asked. She reached out and grabbed his hand, but Mark pulled it away, knowing it was all sweaty.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just wish we could go one day without something taking us back. I could be perfectly happy in this place if we could just forget. Things are getting better. We just need to … let it go!” He almost shouted the last part, but he had no idea where his anger was directed. He just hated the things in his head. The images. The sounds. The smells.
“We will, Mark. We will. ” She reached for him again, and this time he took her hand.
“We better get back down there. ” He always did this. When the memories came, he always slipped into business mode. Take care of business and work and stop using your brain. It was the only thing that helped. “I’m sure Alec and Lana have about forty jobs for us. ”
“That have to be done today,” Trina added. “Today! Or the world will end!”
She smiled, and that helped lighten things up. At least a little.
“You can read more of your boring book later. ” He climbed to his feet, pulling her up along with him. Then they set off down the mountain path, heading for the makeshift village they called home.
The smells hit Mark first. It was always that way when going to the Central Shack. Rotting undergrowth, cooking meat, pine sap. All laced with that scent of burning that defined the world after the sun flares. Not unpleasant, really, just haunting.
He and Trina wound their way past the crooked and seemingly slapped-together buildings of the settlement. Most of the buildings on this side of the camp had been put up in the early months, before they’d found people who’d been architects and contractors and put them in charge. Huts made of tree trunks and mud and bristles of pine needles. Empty gaps for windows and oddly shaped doorways. In some spots there were nothing but holes in the ground, the bottom lined with plastic sheets, a few logs lashed together to cover it when the rains came. It was a far cry from the towering skyscrapers and concrete landscape of where he’d grown up.
Alec greeted Mark and Trina with a grunt when they walked through the lopsided doorway in the Central Shack’s log structure. Before they could say hello, Lana came marching briskly up to them. A stout woman with black hair that was always pulled tightly into a bun, she’d been a nurse in the army and was younger than Alec, but older than Mark’s parents—she and Alec had been together when Mark had met them in the tunnels below New York City. Back then, they’d both worked for the defense department. Alec was her boss; they’d been on their way to a meeting of some sort that day. Before everything changed.
“And where have you two been?” Lana asked when she came to a stop just a few inches from Mark’s face. “We were supposed to start at dawn today, head out to the southern valley and scout for another branch location. A few more weeks of this overcrowding and I might get snippy. ”
“Good morning,” Mark said in response. “You seem chipper today. ”
She smiled at that; Mark had known she would. “I do tend to get straight to business sometimes, don’t I? Though I have a lot of wiggle room before I get as grumpy as Alec. ”
“The sarge? Yeah, you’re right. ”
On cue, the old bear grunted.
“Sorry about being late,” Trina said. “I’d make up a great excuse, but honesty’s the best policy. Mark made me go up to the stream and we … you know. ”
It took a lot to surprise Mark these days, even more to make him blush, but Trina had the ability to do both. He stammered as Lana rolled her eyes.
“Oh, spare me. ” Lana waved and added, “Now go grab some breakfast if you haven’t already and let’s get packed and marching. I want to be back within a week. ”
A week out in the wilderness, seeing new things, getting some fresher air … it all sounded great to Mark, lifting his spirits out of the hole into which they’d fallen earlier. He swore to keep his mind on the present while they traveled and just try to enjoy the hike.
“Have you seen Darnell and the Toad?” Trina asked. “What about Misty?”
“The Three Stooges?” Alec asked, followed by a bark of a laugh. The man thought the weirdest things were funny. “At least they remembered the plan. Already eaten, gone to pack. Should be back in a jiffy. ”
Mark and Trina were halfway through their pancakes and deer sausage when they heard the familiar sound of the other three friends they’d picked up in the tunnels of New York.
“Take that off your head!” came a whiny voice, right before a
teenage boy appeared at the door with a pair of underwear pulled over his brown hair like a hat. Darnell. Mark was convinced the kid had never taken a thing seriously in his entire life. Even when the sun had been trying to boil him alive a year past, he seemed to be ready with a joke.
“But I like it!” he was saying as he entered the Shack. “Helps keep my hair in place and protects me from the elements. Two for the price of one!”
A girl walked in after him, tall and thin with long red hair, just a little younger than Mark. They called her Misty, though she’d never told them whether that was her real name. She was looking at Darnell with an expression of half disgust and half amusement. The Toad—short and squat, as his nickname implied—bounded in and pushed his way past her, grabbing for the undies atop Darnell’s head.
“Give me those!” he shouted, leaping as he reached. He was the shortest nineteen-year-old Mark had ever seen, but thick as an oak tree—all muscle and sinew and veins. Which for some reason made the others think it was okay to pick on him, because they all knew he could beat the crap out of them if he really wanted to. But the Toad liked being the center of attention. And Darnell liked being goofy and annoying.
“Why would you even want those nasty things on your head?” Misty asked. “You do realize where that’s been, right? Covering up the Toad’s nether regions?”
“Excellent point,” Darnell replied with his own look of feigned disgust, just as the Toad finally was able to snatch the underwear off of his head. “Very poor judgment on my part. ” Darnell shrugged. “Seemed funny at the time. ”
The Toad was stuffing his recaptured possession into his backpack. “Well, I get the last laugh. I haven’t washed those suckers in at least two weeks. ”
He started up with that laugh, a noise that made Mark think of a dog fighting over a piece of meat. Whenever the Toad let it out, every other person in the room couldn’t help but join in, and the ice officially melted. Mark still couldn’t tell if he was laughing at the subject matter or just at the sounds coming out of the Toad. Either way, such moments were few and far between, and it felt good to laugh, as it did to see Trina’s face light up.
Even Alec and Lana were chuckling, which made Mark think maybe it was going to be a perfect day after all.
But then their laughter was cut off by a strange sound. Something Mark hadn’t heard in over a year, and hadn’t expected to hear ever again.
The sound of engines in the sky.
It was a rumbling, cranking noise that shook the Shack from top to bottom. Puffs of dust shot between the hastily stacked and mortared logs. A coughing roar swept past just overhead. Mark covered his ears until the sound faded enough that the Shack stopped shaking. Alec was already on his feet and heading for the door before anyone else could even process the turn of events. Lana was quickly at his heels, with everyone else following.
No one said a word until they were all outside, the bright morning sun beating down. Mark squinted, hand shielding the glare, as he searched the sky for the source of the noise.
“It’s a Berg,” the Toad announced needlessly. “What the …”
It was the first time Mark had seen one of the enormous airships since the sun flares happened, and the sight of it was jolting. He couldn’t think of any reason a Berg—one that had survived the disaster—would have to come flying through the mountains. But there it was, big and shiny and round, blue thrusters burning hot and loud as it lowered toward the middle of the settlement.
“What’s it doing here?” Trina asked as their little group jogged through the cramped alleys of the village, following the path of the Berg. “They’ve always left supplies in the bigger settlements, like Asheville. ”
“Maybe …,” Misty began. “Maybe they’re rescuing us or something? Taking us somewhere else?”
“No way,” Darnell scoffed. “They would’ve done that a long time ago. ”
Mark didn’t say anything as he ran along at the back of the group, still a bit stunned by the sudden appearance of the huge Berg. The others kept referencing some mysterious they, even though no one knew who they were. There’d been signs and rumors that some kind of central government was organizing itself, but no news that was even close to reliable. And certainly no official contact yet. It was true that supplies and food had been brought to the camps around Asheville, and the people there usually shared with the outlying settlements.
The Berg stopped up ahead, its blue thrusters pointing downward now as it hovered fifty feet or so above the Town Square, a roughly square-shaped area they’d left bare when building the settlement. The group picked up their pace and arrived in the Square to find that a crowd had already gathered, the people gawking up at the flying machine as if it were a mythical beast. With its roar and its dazzling display of blue light, it almost seemed so. Especially after such a long time since they’d seen any signs of advanced technology.
Most of the crowd had gathered in the center of the Square, their faces pictures of expectation and excitement. Like they’d all jumped to the same conclusion as Misty—that the Berg was here for rescue, or at least some spot of good news. Mark was wary, though. After the year he’d just been through, he’d been taught many times over to never get his hopes up.
Trina pulled on his sleeve, then leaned in to talk to him. “What’s it doing? There’s not enough room here for it to land. ”
“I don’t know. There aren’t any markings or anything to say whose Berg it is or where it came from. ”
Alec was close and somehow overheard their conversation over the burning snarl of the thrusters. Probably with his superpowered soldier hearing. “They say the ones that drop off supplies in Asheville have PFC painted in big letters on the side. Post-Flares Coalition. ” He was practically shouting. “Seems strange that this one has nothing on it. ”