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Crank Palace, Page 2

James Dashner

The rumbling sound of engines finally, mercifully, ripped him from these increasingly depressing thoughts. Three trucks had appeared around the corner of a street that led away from the city, although calling them trucks was like calling a tiger a cat. The things were massive, 40 or 50 feet long and half that in height and width, heavily armored, windows tinted black with steel bars reinforcing them against attacks. The tires alone were taller than Newt himself, and he could only stare, wondering in awe what he might be about to witness firsthand.

  A horn sounded from all three vehicles at once, a thunderous noise that made his eardrums rattle in their cages. It was the sound he’d heard earlier from inside the Berg. Some of the surrounding Cranks ran at the sight of the monsters-on-wheels, still smart enough to know that danger had arrived from the horizon. But most of them were oblivious, looking on much as Newt did, as curious as a newborn baby seeing lights and hearing voices for the first time. He had the advantage of distance and plenty of hordes between him and the new arrivals. Feeling safe in the most unsafe of places, Newt watched things unfold—though he did unzip his backpack and place one hand on the cool metal surface of the stolen Launcher.

  The trucks came to a stop, the blasting noise of their horns ceasing like a shattered echo. Men and women piled out of the cabins, dressed to the hilt in black and gray, some with red shirts pulled over their torso, chests armored, heads covered with helmets as shiny as dark glass, all of them holding long-shafted weapons that made Newt’s Launcher look like a toy gun. At least a dozen of these soldiers began firing indiscriminately, their aim fastened on anyone who moved. Newt didn’t know a single thing about the weapons they used, but flashes of light shot from their barrels with a noise that reminded him of Frypan—when he’d bang a heavy stick against a warped piece of metal they’d found somewhere in the nether parts of the Glade. To tell people his latest and greatest meal was ready to be devoured. It made a vibrating whomp sound that made his very bones tremble.

  They weren’t killing the Cranks. Just stunning them, temporarily causing paralysis. Many of them still shouted or wailed after they’d fallen to the ground, and continued to do so as the soldiers dragged them with the least amount of tenderness possible toward the huge doors at the back of the trucks. Someone had opened them while Newt observed the onslaught, and beyond those doors was a cavernous holding cell for the captives. The soldiers must’ve eaten a lot of meat and drank a lot of milk because they picked up the limp bodies of the Cranks and tossed them inside the darkness as if they were no more than small bales of hay.

  “What the hell are you doing?”

  A voice, a tight strum of words, came from right behind Newt’s ear, and he yelped so loud that he just knew the soldiers would stop everything they were doing and charge after him. He spun around to see a woman crouched next to him, shielded by the fallen pole, a small child in her arms. A boy, maybe three years old.

  Newt’s heart had jolted at her voice, the first time he’d been startled since coming outside, despite all the horrors developing around him. He couldn’t find words to respond.

  “You need to run,” she said. “They’re doing a full sweep of the whole damn place today. You been asleep or what?”

  Newt shook his head, wondering why this lady bothered with him if she felt it so important to get out of there. He searched for something to say and found it in the haze that filled his mind lately.

  “Where are they taking them? I think I saw a place from the Ber—I mean, I’ve heard of a place where they keep Cranks. Where Cranks live. Is that it?”

  She shouted to be heard over the commotion. “Maybe. Probably. They call it the Crank Palace.” The lady had dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes. She looked as rough as Newt felt, but at least those eyes had sanity with a dash of kindness thrown in. The little boy was as scared as any human Newt had ever seen, eyes cinched tight and his arms wrapped around his mum’s neck like twisted bars of steel. “Apparently there are people who’re immune to the Flare”—Newt bristled at that word, immune, bristled hard, but kept silent as she went on—”people who are kind enough or stupid enough or just paid a crap-ton money enough to kinda take care of them at the Palace until they’re... you know. Un-take-care-able anymore. Although I heard the place is getting full and they might be giving up on that whole idea. Wouldn’t surprise me one damn bit if this roundup ends at the Flare pits.”

  She said the last two words as if it were something anyone with half a brain knew all about, an image that seemed appropriate for their new world.

  “Flare pits?” he asked.

  “What do you think the constant smoke on the east side of the city is?” Her response said it all, though Newt hadn’t noticed such a thing. “Now, are you coming with us or not?”

  “I’m coming with you,” he said, each word popping from his mouth without any consideration.

  “Good. The rest of my family is dead and I could use the help.”

  Even through the shock of her words, he recognized the self-serving motive in coming to him; otherwise he would’ve suspected a trap. He started to ask a question—he didn’t know exactly what yet, something about who she was and where they were going—but she’d already turned around and sprinted in a direction away from where the soldiers were still tossing lifeless but living bodies into the hold of the trucks. The wails and cries of anguish were like a field of dying children.

  Newt threw his backpack onto his shoulders, cinched the straps, felt the dig of the Launcher against his spine, then took off after this new friend of his and the little one clutched to her chest.

  Chapter Three

  The woman had more energy than a Runner from the Maze, and those guys ran the corridors, blades, and slot canyons of that beast all day long, day-in and day-out. Newt had gotten out of shape at some point, sucking air until it felt like someone had stolen all the oxygen from Denver with a magical net. His buggin’ limp didn’t help matters. They’d gone at least a mile before he finally found out her name.

  “Keisha,” she said as they stopped for a breath inside an old wreck of a neighborhood, right under the skeletal, long-dead branches of a maple tree, almost no other person in sight. Newt felt a little better when she doubled over, chest heaving, to put the toddler down so she could rest. Human, after all. “My kid’s name is Dante. You might’ve noticed he doesn’t talk a whole lot—well, that’s just the way it is. Not a thing I can do about it, is there? And yes we named him that because of the epic poem.”

  What epic poem? Newt wanted to ask. He had no idea what she was talking about, though he had a sense of memory knocking on his brain from the other side of a hidden door. Maybe he’d known before the Swipe. He tried not to wonder what might be wrong with her kid that he didn’t speak. Traumatized? Impaired, somehow? Maybe just shy? He wanted to know their stories but wasn’t sure he had the right.

  “The poem about the nine circles of Hell?” she prodded, mistaking his internal thoughts and musings. “Didn’t read too many books in your neck of the woods growing up, huh? Shame. You missed out big time on that one. It’s a doozy.”

  Newt was certain he’d read books, as certain as he knew he’d eaten food and guzzled water before they’d taken his memory. But he didn’t remember any of the stories, and the thought filled him with a heavy sadness.

  “Why did you name your kid after Hell?” he asked, really just trying to lighten the mood.

  Keisha plopped onto her butt and gave little Dante a kiss. Newt had expected the boy to be a brat, cry his lungs out in a place like this. But so far he hadn’t made a peep.

  “We didn’t name him after Hell, you moron,” Keisha responded, somehow saying it kindly. “We named him after the guy who defined Hell. Who embraced it and made it his own.”

  Newt nodded, lips pursed, trying to show he’d been impressed without having to lie and say it out loud.

  “Corny, I know,” Keisha replied after seeing his expression. “We might’ve been drunk.”

  Newt knelt next to them, still
trying to take in deep breaths without making it too obvious that he needed it so desperately. “Sounds about right. Drunk and corny’s the way to go these days.” He reached out and gently pinched Dante’s cheek, tried to give the kid a smile. To his astonishment, the boy smiled back, showing a mouthful of tiny teeth that gleamed in the afternoon light.

  “Ah, he likes you,” Keisha said. “Ain’t that the cutest thing. Congrats, you’re his new papa.”

  Newt had been squatting, but that comment made him fall backward onto his rear end.

  Keisha laughed, a sound as good as birdsong. “Relax, dumbass. You don’t look like dad material and it was just a joke. Doesn’t matter. We’ll all be Looney Tunes crazy in a month anyway.”

  Newt smiled, hoping it didn’t look as forced as it felt. Leaves scattered across the pavement of the street as a breeze picked up, making the branches above them go clackety-clack as they banged against each other. He could hear voices and shouts in the distance, seeming to ride on that breeze, but not close enough to panic. They were safe enough for a few minutes, anyway.

  He got up his nerve and asked the question that had been on his mind. “You said your family was dead. What did you mean? Did you lose a lot of people?”

  “That I did, my fine-haired friend.” Keisha had a unique way of saying light-hearted things very sadly. “My hubby. Two sisters. A brother. My old man. Uncles. Aunts. Cousins. And my other... my other…” Here she lost any pretense that the world was still a place where you called people your fine-haired friend. Her face collapsed into despair, head literally dropping toward the ground along with it, and tears dropped from her eyes onto the cracked pavement of the sidewalk. Though silent, her shoulders shook with a hitched sob.

  “You don’t have to say,” Newt said. It was as obvious as the sun being hot and the moon being white. She’d lost one of her children. Poor Dante had not been an only child. “I’m... I’m really sorry I asked.” I’m such a turd, he chided himself. He’d literally known this woman for all of an hour at most.

  She sniffed hard, then brought her head back up to look at him, wiping away the tears that had managed to stick to her cheeks. “No, it’s okay.” She said these words in a distant monotone, somehow wistful and haunted at once. “Just do me a favor. Don’t ever ask me—never, ever—how I lost them all. No matter how long we survive or if I know you one day or one month. Never ask. Please.” Her eyes, glistening wet, finally met his, the saddest eyes he’d seen since Chuck gave him one last look right outside the Maze.

  “Yeah, I promise,” he said. “I swear. We don’t need to talk about that stuff. I shouldn’t have started it.”

  Keisha shook her head. “No, stop being a worry-wart. Just as long as you don’t ask me... you know. We’ll be good.”

  Newt nodded, selfishly wishing he could vanish into thin air and end this awkward, horrible conversation. He gazed down at Dante, who was sitting still and quiet, looking at his mom as if he wondered what was wrong with her. Maybe he wasn’t old enough to remember all the bad things that had happened to those who shared his blood.

  “What’s your plan, anyway?” Keisha asked after a minute or so of silence. “You don’t have to tell me your story or anything—fair’s fair—but what were you doing lying there like a spent popsicle stick, just waiting for those A-holes to come get you?”

  “I...” Newt had absolutely no idea what to say. “I found out recently that I’ve got the bloody Flare and I couldn’t stand the thought of my friends seeing me degenerate into a raving lunatic. Or take the chance that I might hurt them. So I left. Didn’t even say goodbye. Well I left a note tellin’ them I was gonna go live with the infected—that Crank Palace, I guess, the one you told me about. Oh, and I left another note asking my best friend to kill me if he ever saw me going completely bonkers and—”

  He cut off when he realized she was staring at him with giant eyes, no trace of tears left to shine against the fading sunlight.

  “Too much?” he asked.

  She gave a slow nod. “Too much. I don’t even know where to begin. Do I need to be worried, here? You’re not gonna try to eat my arm, are you? Or my kid?” She coughed out a fake laugh that made him cringe.

  “Sorry. I just... I don’t know. I’m not in a good way, I guess.”

  “Yeah, none of us are. But... what the hell. So many questions. I mean, first off, your friends didn’t catch the Flare from you? What, did you escape from inside Denver or something?”

  He shook his head. “No, no, it’s a long story.” He wasn’t ready to tell anyone anything about all the crap he’d been through and that he’d cruelly been thrown in with a bunch of people who were immune to the virus. What would be the point? He and all these people would be dead or past the Gone soon enough.

  “Okay,” Keisha said slowly, acting now as if she humored the tall tales of a child. She must’ve had plenty of practice with such a thing. “Then let’s fish another fry—”

  “Fish another what?”

  Her face scowled in rebuke. “You’re gonna have to get used to my humor, young man.”

  He almost protested again—she couldn’t be more than 10 years older than him—but he fell silent when her scowl deepened even further.

  “Now listen to me and listen to me well. What in the hell and what on God’s green Earth were you going on about when you said you want to go live with the infected, live at the Crank Palace? I know we’re heading toward crazy, now, but we don’t seem too ready to get off the train just yet. Or at least I thought so, anyway. But if you’re gonna sit here and yap about wanting to go to that place, then you were crazy long before you got the Flare. Don’t come at me again with something so stupid.”

  She probably would’ve kept on going but now it was her turn to stutter to a stop when she saw his wide eyes.

  “What?” she asked. “You don’t believe me?”

  Newt stumbled through a few words of nonsense before he got out anything coherent. “Mainly I just wanted to leave my friends behind before I went off the rails. But maybe it’s the best place to go. Be with the other sorry saps who’re infected. For one thing, maybe they have food and shelter, there, everybody’s in the same boat.” Newt didn’t believe a single word coming out of his own mouth. “What else am I gonna do? Go settle on a farm and raise cattle for the jerks in Denver?”

  “Raise cattle for the...” Keisha’s words trailed into silence as she shook her head in wonder at the apparent stupidity of his full statement. “Look, I’m just gonna have to treat you like my third child, okay? Deal? I don’t have time for this nonsense talk. Now, let’s get up and go. The sweeps will probably go all night ’till they can’t find another soul to toss into those trucks. They don’t like dirty rats like us getting too close to their precious city.”

  She stood up, helped little Dante stand as well, holding him by the hand. Newt got to his feet, neither in the mood nor having any basis to argue with her anyway. Didn’t matter. He was away from Tommy and the others and that had been the main goal all along. Who cared what happened to him now.

  Keisha pointed in the direction of the sun, now sinking with earnest toward the horizon, which was hidden by houses and trees and distant mountains in the gaps. “From what I hear we just have to make it a few more miles and we can probably find a house to sleep in. Hopefully some food. Most of the crazies end up congregating like ants around the city so we should be safer the farther out we—”

  An electronic charging sound cut her off, a sound way too similar to the charge of a Launcher, which filled Newt with instant dread. He spun around to see three red-shirted soldiers standing there, all of them pointing the barrels of those unwieldy weapons at Newt and his new friend. The blue glow of the guns was bright even in the light of day.

  “I need those hands up in the air,” one of the soldiers said, the voice coming through a speaker in the helmet. A woman by the sound of it. “You look like decent people, but we need to at least test you and see if—”

Don’t bother,” Keisha said. “We’ve got the damn Flare and you know it. Just let us go. Please? I’ve got a kid for heaven’s sake. We promise we’ll just keep walking the other direction—won’t bother a soul. We’ll never come near the city again. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”

  “You know we can’t do that,” the woman replied. “You came too close and you should know better. We want these streets empty.”

  Keisha made some kind of angry noise that Newt had never heard expelled from a human before, not even a Crank. Something from deep within her chest, like a growl. “Didn’t you hear what I just said? We’re gonna keep walking away from the city. You’ll never see us again.”

  “If that’s the case then you won’t mind us giving you a lift, will you?” The soldier hefted her weapon to make a point, stepped closer, the barrel now aiming squarely at Keisha’s head. “Ya know, this thing will knock you out no matter where it strikes, but shots to the head are especially bad. You’ll be puking and seeing double for a week. Now come along nice and easy, got it?”

  Keisha nodded. “Oh, I got it.”

  The next two seconds happened so quickly and yet so slowly that Newt felt as if he’d been transplanted to a dream, where nothing made sense. Keisha had pulled out an old-school revolver from seemingly nowhere, as though it had materialized through a magic spell. Even as her arm jerked up, even as it let out the pop-pop of two shots, the soldier who’d been talking ignited her weapon, firing that strange flash of lightning along with its thwack of thumped air, an almost silent thunderbolt that was felt more than heard. Blue energy arced across Keisha’s face and she screamed a bloody shriek of murder and pain. Her body collapsed to the ground, arms and legs shaking with spasms. Little Dante was less than a foot from her, and for the first time since they’d met, he began to wail like the child that he was. The combined sounds of their anguish—mother and son—were enough to ignite a cauldron of rage inside Newt, coursing through his veins like flooded pipes.