Prologue | CATCHING BIRD FREAKS: HAZARDOUS DUTY AT BEST
Windsor State Forest, Massachusetts
The soldiers' armor made an odd hissing noise. But besides the slight sound of metal plates sliding smoothly, flawlessly over one another, the troop was unnaturally quiet as it moved through the woods, getting closer to the prey.
The faintest of beeps caused the team leader to glance down at his wrist screen. Large red letters scrolled across it: ATTACK IN 12 SECONDS . . . 11 . . . 10 . . .
The team leader tapped a button, and the screen's image changed: a tall, thin girl with dirt smears on her face and a tangle of brown hair, glaring out at him. TARGET 1 was superimposed on her face.
. . . 9 . . . 8 . . .
His wrist screen beeped again, and the image changed to that of a dark- haired, dark- eyed, scowling boy. TARGET 2.
And so on, the image changing every half second, ending finally with a portrait of a small, scruffy black dog looking at the camera in surprise.
The team leader didn't understand why Target 7 was an animal. He didn't need to understand. All he needed to know was that these targets were slated for capture.
. . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .
The leader emitted a whistle pitched so high that only his team members could hear it. He motioned toward the small run- down cabin they had surrounded in the woods.
Synchronized perfectly, as only machines can be, the eight team members shouldered eight portable rocket launchers and aimed them straight at the cabin. With a whoosh, eight large nets made of woven Kevlar strands shot out from the cannons and unfolded with geometric precision in midair, encasing the cabin almost entirely.
The team leader smiled in triumph.
"THE PREY HAVE BEEN CAPTURED, SIR," the team leader said in a monotone. Pride was not tolerated in this organization.
"Why do you say that?" the Uber- Director asked in a silky tone.
"The cabin has been secured."
"No. Not quite," said the Uber- Director, who was little more than a human head attached by means of an artificial spinal column to a series of Plexiglas boxes. The bioengine that controlled the airflow over his vocal cords allowed him to sigh, and he did. "The chimney. The skylight."
The team leader frowned. "The chimney would be impossible to climb," he said, accessing his internal encyclopedia. Photographs of the prey scrolled quickly across the team leader's screen. Suddenly an important detail caught his attention, and he froze.
In the corner of one of the photographs, a large feathered wing was visible. The team leader tracked it, zooming in on just that section of the image. The wing appeared to be attached to the prey.
The prey could fly.
He had left routes of escape open.
He had failed!
The Uber- Director closed his eyes, sending a thought signal to the nanoprocessors implanted in his brain. He opened his eyes in time to see the team leader and his troop vaporize with a crackling, sparking fizzle. All that was left of them was a nose- wrinkling odor of charred flesh and machine oil.
Part One | ANOTHER PART OF THE BIG PICTURE
A DIFFERENT FOREST. Not telling you where.
Okay, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that funerals suck. Even if you didn't know the person, it's still totally sad. When you did know the person, well, let's just say it's much worse than broken ribs. And when you just found out that the person was your biological half brother, right before he died, it adds a whole new level of pain.
Ari. My half brother. We shared the same "father," Jeb Batchelder, and you can believe those quotes around "father."
I'd first known Ari as a cute little kid who used to follow me around the School, the horrible prison–science facility where I grew up. Then we'd escaped from the School, with Jeb's help, and to tell you the truth, I hadn't given Ari another thought.
Then he'd turned up Eraserfied, a grotesque half human, half wolf, his seven- year- old emotions all askew inside his chemically enhanced, genetically modified brain. He'd been turned into a monster, and they'd sent him after us, with various unpredictable, gruesome results.
Then there had been that fight in the subway tunnels beneath Manhattan. I'd whacked Ari's head a certain way, his neck had cracked against the platform's edge . . . and suddenly he'd been dead. For a while, anyway.
Back when I thought I had killed him, all sorts of sticky emotions gummed up my brain. Guilt, shock, regret . . . but also relief. When he was alive, he kept trying to kill us– the flock, I mean. Me and my merry band of mutant bird kids. So if he was dead, that was one less enemy gunning for my family.
All the same, I felt horrible that I had killed someone, even by accident. I'm just tenderhearted that way, I guess. It's hard enough being a homeless fourteen- year- old with, yeah, wings, without having a bunch of damp emotions floating all over the place.
Now Ari was dead for real. I hadn't killed him this time, though.
"I need a tissue." Total, our dog, sniffled, nuzzling around my ankles like I had one in my sneakers.
Speaking of damp emotions.
Nudge pressed closer to me and took my hand. Her other hand was over her mouth. Her big brown eyes were full of tears.
None of us are big criers, not even six- year- old Angel, or the Gasman, who's still only eight. Nudge is eleven, and Iggy, Fang, and I are fourteen. Technically, we're all still children.
But it takes a lot, and I mean a whole lot, to make any of us cry. We've had bones broken without crying about it. Today, though, it was like another flood was coming, and Noah was building an ark. My throat hurt so much from holding back tears that it felt as though I'd swallowed a fist of clay.
Angel stepped forward and gently tossed a handful of dirt onto the plain wooden box at the bottom of the big hole. A hole it had taken all of us three hours to dig.
"Bye, Ari," she said. "I didn't know you for very long, and I didn't like you for a lot of it. But I liked you at the end. You helped us. You saved us. I'll miss you. And I didn't mind your fangs or anything." Her little voice choked, and she turned to bury her face against my chest.
I stroked her hair and swallowed hard.
The Gasman was next. He too sprinkled dirt on the coffin. "I'm sorry about what they did to you," he said quietly. His spiky blond hair caught a shaft of sunlight and seemed to light up this little glen. "It wasn't your fault."
I snuck a quick glance over at Jeb. His jaw was clenched, his eyes full of pain. His only son lay in a box in the ground. He had helped put him there.
Bravely, Nudge stepped closer to the grave and tossed some dirt onto it. She tried to speak but started crying. I drew her to me and held her close.
I looked at Iggy. As if sensing it, he raised his hand and dropped it. "I don't have anything to say." His voice was gruff.
Next it was Fang's turn, but he waved me to go. Total had collapsed in sobs on my shoes, so I gently disengaged him and stepped over to the grave. I had two hothouse lilies, and I let them float onto the coffin of my half brother.
As the flock leader, I was supposed to come up with a speech. There was no way to sum up what I was feeling. I had killed Ari once, then watched him die again as he saved my life. I'd known him when he was a cute little kid, and I'd known him as a hulking Eraser. I had fought him almost to death, and I had ended up choosing him over the best friend I'd ever had. I'd hated everything about him, then found out we shared half of our human DNA.
I had no words for this, and I'm a word queen. I've talked my way out of more tight spots than a leopard has, but this? A funeral for a sad, doomed seven- year- old? I had nothing.
Fang came up behind me and touched my back. I looked at him, at his dark eyes that gave away nothing. He nodded and sort of patted my hair, then moved forward and dropped some dirt onto the coffin.
"Well, Ari, I'm sorry that it's ended like this," he said so quietly I could hardly hear him, even with my raptor super- hearing. "You were a decent little kid, and then you were a total nightmare. I didn't trust you–until the very end. I didn't know you much, didn't care to." Fang stopped and brushed some overlong hair out of his eyes. "Right now, that feels like the biggest tragedy of all."
Okay, that so did me in. Mr. Rock being all emotional? Expressing feelings? Tears spilled down my cheeks, and I covered my mouth with my hand, trying not to make a sound. Nudge put her arm around me, feeling my shoulders shaking, and Angel held me tight. Then everyone was holding me, total flock hug, and I put my head on Fang's shoulder and cried.
THERE'S NO REST for the wicked. But you knew that.
As soon as the sobfest was over and Ari was buried, Jeb said, "We need to go." His face was pale and unhappy. "Dr. Martinez and I talked to you about this trip to Washington. We think it's crucial that you guys attend this meeting." He sighed, not looking at Ari's grave.
"Why is this important, again?" I asked, trying to turn my back on feeling sad. Not so easy. "You said something about government, blah blah blah?"
Jeb began to head out of the woods. With me in the lead and Fang taking up the rear, we followed him cautiously.
"After everything that happened in Germany," Jeb said, "we were contacted by some very important higher- ups in the government. People who understand, who are on our side."
I felt like saying, "What's this 'our side,' kemosabe?" but didn't.
"They're eager to meet with you," he went on. "Frankly, these would be important and valuable allies --- people who could actually offer you protection and resources. But they're very hands-on–they need to see the miracle kids with their own eyes." He turned back and gave us a rueful smile.
"If by 'miracle kids' you mean innocent test- tube babies whose DNA was forcibly unraveled and merged with two percent avian genes, yeah, I guess that would be us," I said. "Because it's a miracle that we're not complete nut jobs and mutant disasters."
Jeb winced and gave a brief nod, accepting his role in our short, hard lives. "Well, as I said, they're eager to see you. And your mom–Dr. Martinez–and I really recommend you go." We came to the edge of the woods, and there was a small landing strip, scraped into the forest like a wound. A sleek private jet waited there, two armed Secret Service agents standing at the entry stairs.
I halted about ten yards away, doing a quick recon. Force of habit. No one started shooting at us. No hordes of Erasers or Flyboys swarmed out of the woods.
"I don't know," I said, looking at the jet. "It feels weird that no one's throwing a black hood over my head."
Fang smirked next to me.
Jeb had walked on ahead, and now he turned. "Max, we talked about this. This jet will actually get you to Washington faster than you can fly yourselves."
Are we junior pilots? you ask. Why, no. If there are a couple of new readers out there, welcome! That mutant thing I mentioned? We're 98 percent human, 2 percent bird. We have wings; we fly. Keep reading. You'll get it all soon.
"Yeah," I said, still feeling doubtful. Mostly I just wanted to turn, run, and throw myself into the air. That sweet rush of freedom, feeling my powerful wings lift me off the ground . . .
Instead, Jeb wanted to pack me into a little jet, like a sardine. A sullen, feathery sardine.
"Max," Jeb said more softly, and I automatically went on guard. "Don't you trust me?"
Six pairs of flock eyes turned toward him. Seven, if you counted Total.
I mentally reviewed possible responses:
1) Sardonic laughter (always good) 2) Rolled eyes and snort of disbelief 3) Sarcastic "You have got to be kidding me."
Any of those responses would have been fine. But lately I had grown up a bit. A little heartbreak, a little fighting to the death, finding out who my real parents were --- it all aged a girl.
So instead I looked at Jeb and said evenly, "No. But I trust my mother, and she apparently trusts you. So, little tin-can jet it is."
I walked steadily toward the plane, seeing the glimpse of pain and regret in Jeb's eyes. Would I ever be able to forgive him for all the heinous things he had done to me, to the flock? He'd had his reasons; he'd thought he was helping, thought it was for the greater good, thought it would help me in my mission.
Well, la-di-dah for him. I don't forgive that easy.
And I never, ever forget.
THE JET DIDN'T HAVE normal rows of seats. It looked more like a living room inside, with couches and easy chairs and coffee tables. There were more Secret Service agents here, and to tell you the truth, they gave me the creeps–even though I knew they were the same people who sometimes protected the president. But there's something about plain black suits, sunglasses, and little headsets that just automatically makes me twitchy.
Combine that with the inevitable heart- pounding claustrophobia that came from being enclosed in a small space, and I was basically ready to shred anyone who talked to me.
On the other hand, if anything dicey happened to the plane, I knew six flying kids who would come out okay.
I did a quick 360 of the plane's interior. Angel and Total were curled up on a small couch, asleep. The Gasman and Fang were playing poker, using pennies as chips. Iggy was sprawled in a lounger, listening to the iPod my mom had given him.
"I'm Kevin Okun, your steward. Would you like a soda?" A very handsome man holding drinks stopped by my chair.
Don't mind if I do, Kevin Okun. "Uh, a Diet Coke? One that hasn't been opened yet." Can't be too careful.
He handed me a sealed can and a plastic cup of ice. Across from me, Nudge sat up eagerly. "Do you have Barq's? It's root beer. I had it in New Orleans, and it's fabulous."
"I'm sorry --- no Barq's," said Kevin Okun, our steward.
"Okay," said Nudge, disappointed. "Do you have any Jolt?"
"Well, that has a lot of caffeine," he said.
I looked at Nudge. "Yeah, because after everything we've been through, we're worried about your caffeine intake."
She grinned, her smooth tan face lighting up.
The steward put the drink on the little table between me and Nudge.
"Thank you," Nudge said. The steward headed back to the galley, and Nudge reached for the can.
When her hand was still a couple of inches away, the can slid toward her fingers, and she grabbed it.
Instantly we looked at each other.
"The plane tilted," she said.
"Yeah, of course," I agreed. "But . . . just to see, just for our own amusement, let's . . ." I took the can away from her and put it back on the table. I reached for it. It stayed put.
Nudge reached for it.
It slid toward her.
Our eyes wide, we stared at each other.
"The plane tilted again," Nudge said.
"Hm," I said. I took the can away and had her come at it from a different angle. The can slid toward her.
"I'm magnetic," she whispered, half awed and half horrified.
"I hope you don't start sticking to fridges and stuff," I said in disbelief.
Fang dropped down next to me, and the Gasman joined us, squishing in next to Nudge.
"What's going on?" Fang asked.
"I'm Magnet Girl!" Nudge said, already coming to terms with her new skill.
Eyebrows raised, Fang picked up a metal pen and held it against Nudge's arm. He let go, and it dropped to the floor.
Nudge frowned. Then she reached down for the pen, and it flew into her hand from a few inches away.
Gazzy gave a low whistle. "You're kind of magnetic. Cool!"
"No, that's not it," said Fang quietly. "It's that you can attractmetal --- maybe only when you want to."
Well. The rest of the flight zipped by as we played with Nudge's bizarre newfound ability. When we got close to DC, Jeb came over to give us a ten- minute heads- up. One glance at our faces and his eyes narrowed.
"What's going on?" It was the same dad- like, no-nonsense tone that he had used years ago, when it was just us and him in our secret house in the Colorado mountains. He'd made that exact face the day he found the frogs in the toilet. I remembered it so clearly, but it seemed like three lifetimes ago.
Before I could say, "Nothing," Nudge blurted, "I can make metal come to me!"
Jeb sat down, and Nudge demonstrated.
"I don't know why you can do that," he said slowly. "As far as I know, it was never programmed in." He looked around at all of us. "It's possible . . . It's possible that maybe you guys are starting to mutate on your own."
You are reading Fang's Blog. Welcome! You are visitor number: 4,792
Whatever the tally counter at the top tells you, your number is actually way higher than that. Our counter thing broke, and we finally got it working again. But it started again at zero. Anyway, thanks for checking in.
We're all okay, but we just buried a friend. I know some of you out there have lost someone close to you, and now I get a little bit of what it's like. The guy who died–I knew him for a long time, but not that well, and for the past six months, I've hated his guts. Then I suddenly didn't. Then he died.
For me what was harder than losing him was watching what it did to people around me. The one thing I really can't stand is when Max and the others are in pain or upset. Not upset like in angry or teed off, 'cause God knows if that got to me I'd be totally out of luck. But upset like in crying, sadness, regret–all that stuff. I hate it. It kills me. I know what it takes to make these kids cry, to make Max cry, and I hate that they had to go through that.
But enough of all that emo stuff. The end result is: We're all good. We're all alive. I'm glad about that, about the six of us. They're who matter to me. Even when Max is being a pigheaded, stubborn idiot dictator, she's still the one I want by my side. Though I can feel myself getting ulcers and gray hairs from dealing with her.
Anyway! We're on our way to a hush-hush meeting with some top- secret bigwigs, ooh. Yep, fighting to the death one day, drinking frosty little drinks on a private jet the next. It's enough to make anyone schizo.