The Kill Order (maze runner prequel), Page 2James Dashner
“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.”
Mark shrugged back at him, not sure Alec’s information really meant anything. He realized he was sort of in a daze. He looked back up, wondered who could possibly be inside the vessel and what their purpose might be. Trina squeezed his hand and he squeezed hers back. They were both sweating.
“Maybe it’s God inside,” the Toad said in a high-pitched voice-it always came out that way when he shouted. “Come to say he’s sorry for all the sun flare business.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Mark noticed Darnell taking in a breath, his mouth opening, probably to say something smart and funny back at the Toad. But the action was cut off by a loud wrenching sound from above, followed by the groan and squeal of hydraulics. Mark watched in fascination as a large, square-shaped hatch on the bottom of the Berg began to open, pivoting on hinges to lower like a ramp. It was dark inside, and little wisps of mist came swirling out as the gap grew wider.
Gasps and shouts rippled throughout the crowd; hands raised and fingers pointed upward. Mark tore his gaze from the Berg for a moment to take everything in, struck by the sense of awe surrounding him. They’d become a desperate, desperate people, living each day with the weighty feeling that the next one could be their last. And here they all were, looking toward the sky as if the Toad’s joke had been more than that. There was a longing in many of the eyes he saw, like people truly thought they were being saved by some divine power. It made Mark feel a little sick.
A fresh wave of gasps spilled through the Square, and Mark snapped his head to look up again. Five people had emerged from the darkness of the Berg, dressed in outfits that sent a chill racing down Mark’s spinal cord. Green and rubbery and bulky-one-piece suits that covered the strangers from head to toe. The suits had clear visors in the headpiece through which the wearers could see, but the glare and distance made it impossible for Mark to make out their faces. They stepped carefully in big black boots pulled up over the green material until the five of them lined the outer edge of the lowered hatch door, their tense body language showing the effort it took to maintain balance.
Each of them held a black tube in their hands as if it were a gun.
But the tubes didn’t look like any guns Mark had ever seen. They were thin and long, with an attachment at the end that made them resemble plumbing parts someone had ripped out of an industrial pump. And once the strangers settled into their positions, they held up the tubelike things and aimed them directly at the people below.
Mark realized that Alec was screaming at the top of his lungs, pushing and shoving people to move them away. Everything around them was erupting in chaos-shouts and panic-yet Mark had fallen into a trance, watching the strangers with their odd outfits and their menacing weapons come out of the Berg as everyone else in the crowd finally woke up to the fact that these people weren’t there to save anyone. What had happened to the Mark who could act fast? Who had survived the year of hell after the flares ravaged the earth?
He was still frozen, watching, as the first shot was fired from above. A blur of movement, a quick flash of something dark and small and fast bursting from one of those tubes. Mark’s eyes followed the trajectory. He heard a sickening thunk, his head twisting to the side just in time to see that Darnell had a five-inch-long dart sticking out of his shoulder, its thin metal shaft planted deep within the muscle. Blood trickled down from the wound. The boy made a strange grunt as he collapsed to the ground.
That finally snapped Mark out of it.
Screams tore through the air as panicked people fled in every direction. Mark bent down, grabbing Darnell by hooking his elbows under the boy’s arms. The sound of flying darts cutting through the air to his left and right, finding targets, urged him to hurry, erasing any other thoughts from his mind.
Mark pulled on Darnell, dragging his body along the ground. Trina had fallen but Lana was there, helping her up. Both of them ran over to help, each grabbing one of Darnell’s feet. With synchronized grunts they hefted him up and moved away from the Square, away from the open space. It was a miracle no one else in their little group had been struck by a dart.
Swish, swish, swish. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Screams and bodies falling.
The projectiles kept coming, landing all around them, and Mark and Trina and Lana shuffled as quickly as they could, awkwardly carrying Darnell between them. They passed behind a group of trees-Mark heard a few hard thunks as darts buried themselves in the branches and trunks-then they were in the open again. They hurried across a small clearing and into an alley between several haphazardly built log cabins. There were people everywhere, knocking frantically on doors, jumping through open windows.
Then Mark heard the roar of the thrusters and a warm wind blew across his face. The roar grew louder, the wind stronger. He looked up, following the noise, to see that the Berg had shifted position, pursuing the fleeing crowds. He saw the Toad and Misty. They were urging people to hurry, their shouts lost in the Berg’s blast.
Mark didn’t know what to do. Finding shelter was the best bet, but there were too many people trying to do the same thing and joining the chaos with Darnell in tow would only get them trampled. The Berg stopped again, and once more the strangers in their odd suits lifted their weapons and opened fire.
Swish, swish, swish. Thunk, thunk, thunk.
A dart grazed Mark’s shirt and hit the ground; someone stepped on it, driving it deeper. Another dart hit home in the neck of a man just as he was running past-he screamed and dove forward as blood spurted from the wound. When he landed, he lay still and three people tripped over him. Mark only realized that he’d stopped, appalled by what was happening around him, when Lana yelled at him to keep
The shooters above them had obviously improved their aim. The darts were hitting people left and right and the air was filled with screams of pain and terror. Mark felt utterly helpless-there was no way to shield himself from the barrage. All he could do was lamely try to outrun a flying machine, an impossible task.
Where was Alec? The tough guy with all the battle instincts? Where had he run off to?
Mark kept moving, yanking Darnell’s body along, forcing Trina and Lana to match his speed. The Toad and Misty ran alongside them, trying to help without getting in the way. Darts continued to rain down from above, more screams, more falling bodies. Mark turned a corner and lurched down the alley that led back to the Shack, sticking close to the building on his right for a partial shield. Not as many people had come this way, and there were fewer darts to dodge.
The little group hobbled as fast as they could with their unconscious friend. The structures were built practically on top of each other in this section of the settlement, and there was no room to cut through and escape into the surrounding woods of the mountains.
“We’re almost to the Shack!” Trina yelled. “Hurry, before the Berg is back on top of us!”
Mark twisted his body around so that he was facing front, gripping Darnell by his shirt behind him. Shuffling backward had strained his leg muscles to the max, and they burned with heat and were beginning to cramp. There was nothing in their way now to slow them down, so Mark sped up, Lana and Trina keeping pace, each holding one of Darnell’s legs. The Toad and Misty squeezed in and each grabbed an arm, taking some of the load. They slipped through the narrow paths and alleys, over jutting roots and hard-packed dirt, turning left and then right and then left again. The roar of the Berg was coming from their right, muted by the dwellings and rows of trees in between.