Prologue | THE MADNESS NEVER STOPS
Near Los Angeles Basin, California
Devin raised his right arm and focused directly over his wrist. It took less than a millisecond to calculate the trajectory–he didn't have a built-in computer, but his 220 IQ served him well.
He slowly breathed in and out, getting ready to squeeze the trigger between breaths, between heartbeats. His sensitive nose wrinkled as the ever-present smog that hovered over the Los Angeles Basin filled his lungs. He hated to think what the pollutants were doing to his brain cells but accepted that some things were necessary evils.
His light eyes expertly tracked the objects flying overhead: one, two, three, four, five, six. Seven? There was a small seventh object, unexpected but quickly determined to be unimportant. Actually, all of them were unimportant. All but one. The one in front.
He knew they had raptor vision. He merely had extraordinary eyesight. It was good enough. All the same, the crosshairs in the gun sight attached to his wrist made missing an impossibility. He never missed.
That's why they saved him for extraspecial missions like this one.
Many, many others had already failed at this task. Devin felt utter disdain for them. To kill one bird kid–how hard could it be? They were flesh and blood, ridiculously fragile. It wasn't like bullets bounced off them.
Once more Devin raised his arm and observed his prey, catching her neatly in the crosshairs, as if they could pin her to the sky. The flock flew, perfectly spaced, in a large arc overhead, the one called Maximum in front, flanked by the two large males. Then a smaller female. Then a smaller male, and the smallest female after him.
A little black object, not bird kid shaped, struggled to keep up. Devin couldn't identify it–it hadn't been in his dossier. The closest thing he could imagine was if someone grafted wings onto a small dog or something, as unlikely as that was.
But Max was the only one he was concerned with. It was Max he was supposed to kill, Max whom he kept catching in his sights.
Devin sighed and lowered his arm. This was almost too easy. It wasn't sporting. He loved the chase, the hunt, the split-second intersection of luck and skill that allowed him to exercise his perfection, his inability to miss.
He looked down at what used to be his right hand. One could get used to having no right hand. It was surprisingly easy. And it was so superior to have this lovely weapon instead.
It wasn't as crude as simply having a Glock 18 grafted to the stump of an amputated limb. It was so much more elegant than that, so much more a miracle of design and ingenuity. This weapon was a part of him physically, responsive to his slightest thought, triggered by almost imperceptible nerve firings in the interface between his arm and the weapon.
He was a living work of art. Unlike the bird kids flying in traceable patterns overhead.
Devin had seen the posters, the advertisements. Those naive, do-gooder idiots at the Coalition to Stop the Madness had organized this whole thing, this air show, this demonstration of supposedly "evolved" humans.
Wrong. The bird kids were ill-conceived accidents. He, Devin, was truly an evolved human.
The CSM zealots were wasting their time–and everyone else's. Using the bird kids to promote their own agenda was a typically selfish, shortsighted thing to do. Manipulating and taking advantage of lesser creatures in order to "save" even lesser creatures? It was a joke.
A joke that could not be perpetrated without this flock of examples. And the flock could not survive without its leader.
Once again Devin raised his arm and closed his left eye to focus through the gun sight on his wrist. He angled the Glock a millimeter to the left and smoothly tracked his target as she arced across the sky.
One breath in, one breath out. One heartbeat, two heartbeats, and here we go...
Part One | FREAKS AND M-GEEKS
"AND A-ONE, and a-two–" Nudge said, leaning into a perfect forty-five-degree angle. Her tawny russet wings glowed warmly in the afternoon sunlight.
Behind her, the Gasman made squealing-brakes sounds as he dropped his feet down and slowed drastically. "Hey! Watch gravity in action!" he yelled, folding his wings back to create an unaerodynamic eight-year-old, his blond hair blown straight up by the wind.
I rolled my eyes. "Gazzy, stick to the choreography!" He was sinking fast, and I had to bellow to make sure he heard me. "This is a paying job! Don't blow it!" Okay, they were paying us mostly in doughnuts, but let's not quibble.
Even from this high up, I could hear the exclamations of surprise, the indrawn gasps that told me our captive audience below had noticed one of us dropping like a rock.
I'd give him five seconds, and then I'd swoop down after him. One...two...
I wasn't sure about this whole air-show thing to begin with, but how could I refuse my own mom? After our last "working vacation" in Ant-freaking-arctica, my mom and a bunch of scientists had created an organization called the Coalition to Stop the Madness, or CSM. Basically, they were trying to tell the whole world about the dangers of pollution, greenhouse gases, dependence on foreign oil–you get the picture.
Already, more than a thousand scientists, teachers, senators, and regular people had joined the CSM. One of the teacher-members had come up with the traveling air-show idea to really get the message out. I mean, Blue Angels, Schmue Angels, but flying mutant bird kids? Come on! Who's gonna pass that up?
So here we were, flying perfect formations, doing tricks, air dancing, la la la, the six of us and Total, whose wings by now had pretty much finished developing. He could fly, at least, but he wasn't exactly Baryshnikov. If Baryshnikov had been a small, black, Scottie dog with wings, that is.
By the time I'd counted to four, the Gasman had ended his free fall and was soaring upward again, happiness on his relatively clean face.
Hanging out with the CSM folks had some benefits, chiefly food and decent places to sleep. And, of course, seeing my mom, which I'd never be able to get enough of, after living the first fourteen years of my life not even knowing she existed. (I explained all this in earlier books, if you want to go get caught up.)
"Yo," said Fang, hovering next to me.
My heart gave a little kick as I saw how the sun glinted off his deeply black feathers. Which matched his eyes. And his hair. "You enjoying being a spokesfreak?" I asked him casually, looking away.
One side of his mouth moved: the Fang version of unbridled chortling.
He shrugged. "It's a job."
"Yep. So long as they don't worry about pesky child labor laws," I agreed. We're an odd little band, my fellow flock members and I. Fang, Iggy, and I are all fourteen, give or take. So officially, technically, legally, we're minors. But we've been living on our own for years, and regular child protection laws just don't seem to apply to us. Come to think of it, many regular grown-up laws don't seem to apply to us either.
Nudge is eleven, roughly. The Gasman is eightish. Angel is somewhere in the six range. I don't know how old Total is, and frankly, what with the calculations of dog years into human years, I don't care.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Angel dropped down onto me with all her forty-one pounds of feathery fun.
"Oof! What are you doing, goofball?" I exclaimed, dipping about a foot. Then I heard it: the high-pitched, all-too-familiar whine of a bullet streaking past my ear, close enough to knock some of my hair aside.
In the next second, Total yelped piercingly, spinning in midair, his small black wings flapping frantically. Angel's quick instincts had saved my life. But Total had taken the hit.
Part One | FREAKS AND M-GEEKS
IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE, I rolled a full 360, spinning in the air, swooping to catch Total and also performing evasive maneuvers that, sadly, I've had way too much practice doing.
"Scatter!" I shouted. "Get out of firing range!"
We all peeled away, our wings moving fast and powerfully, gaining altitude like rockets. I heard applause floating up to me–they thought this was part of the act. Then, I looked down at the limp black dog in my arms.
"Total!" I said, holding his chunky little body. "Total!"
He blinked and moaned. "I'm hit, Max. They got me. I guess I'm gonna live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse, huh?"
Okay. In my experience, if you're really hit or seriously hurt, you don't say much. Maybe a few bad words. Maybe grunting sounds. You don't manage pithy quotes.
Quickly I shifted him this way and that, scanning for wounds. He had both ears, and his face was fine. I patted along his wings, which still looked too short to keep him aloft. Bright red blood stained my sleeve, but so far he seemed to be in one unperforated piece.
"Tell Akila," Total gasped, eyelids fluttering, "tell her she's always been the only one." Akila is the Alaskan Malamute Total had fallen for back on the Wendy K., the boat where we lived with a bunch of scientists on our way to Antarctica.
"Shh," I said. "I'm still looking for holes."
"I don't have many regrets," Total rambled weakly. "True, I thought about a career in the theater, once our adventures waned. I know it's just a crazy dream, but I always hoped for just one chance to play the Dane before I died."
"Play the huh?" I said absently, feeling his ribs. Nothing broken. "Is that a game?"
Total moaned and closed his eyes.
Then I found it: the source of the blood, the place where he'd been shot.
"Total?" I said, and got a slight whimper. "You have a boo-boo on your tail."
"What?" He opened his eyes and curled to peer at his short tail. He wagged it experimentally, outrage appearing on his face as he realized a tiny chunk of flesh was missing near the tip. "I'm hit! I'm bleeding! Those scoundrels will pay for this!"
"I think a Band-Aid is probably all you need." I struggled to keep a straight face.
Fang swerved closer to me, big and supremely graceful, like a black panther with wings.
Oh, God. I'm so stupid. Forget I just said that.
"How's he doing?" Fang asked, nodding at Total.
"He needs a Band-Aid," I said. A look passed between me and Fang, full of suppressed humor, relief, understanding, love–
Forget I said that too. I don't know what's wrong with me.
"Got your sniper," Fang went on, pointing downward.
I shifted into battle mode. "One sniper or a whole flotilla of baddies?"
"Only see the one."
I raised an eyebrow. "So, what, we're not worth a whole flotilla anymore?" I looked down at Total. "Wings out, spud. You gotta fly on your own."
Total gathered himself with dignity, extended his wings, and jumped awkwardly out of my arms. He flapped frantically, then with more confidence, and rose to keep up with us.
"What's up?" Iggy had coasted on an updraft for a while, but now he and the others were forming a bird-kid sandwich around me.
"Total's okay," I reported. "One sniper below. Now we gotta go take him out."
Angel's pure-white wing brushed against me. She gave me a sweet smile that melted my heart, and I tried to remember that this kid had many layers, not all of them made of gumdrops and roses.
"Thanks, lamby," I said, and she grinned.
"I felt something bad about to happen," she explained. "Can we go get that guy now?"
"Let's do it," I said, and we angled ourselves downward. Among the many genetic enhancements we sport, the mad scientists who created us had thoughtfully included raptor vision. I raked the land below, almost a mile down, and traced the area where Fang pointed.
I saw him: a lone guy in the window of a building close to the air base. He was tracking us, and we began our evasive actions, dropping suddenly, swerving, angling different ways, trying to be as unpredictable as possible. We're fairly good at being unpredictable.
"Mass zoom?" Fang asked, and I nodded.
"Ig, mass zoom, angle down about thirty-five degrees. Then aim for six o'clock," I instructed. And why was I only giving Iggy instructions? Because Iggy's the only blind one, that's why.
We were moving fast, really fast, dropping at a trajectory that would smash us into the sniper's window in about eight seconds. We'd practiced racing feet-first through open windows a thousand times, one right after the other, bam bam bam. So this was more of a fun challenge than a scary, death-defying act of desperation.
The two things often look very similar in our world.
Seven, six, five, I counted silently.
When I got to four, the window exploded outward, knocking me head over heels.
Part One | FREAKS AND M-GEEKS
THREE DAYS LATER...
Here, in no particular order, is a massively incomplete list of things that make me twitchy:
1) Being indoors, almost anywhere 2) Places with no easy exits 3) People who promise me tons of "benefits" and assume that I don't see right through the crapola to the stark truth that actually they want me to do a bunch of stuff for them 4) Being dressed up
So it won't take a lot of imagination on your part to guess how I reacted to our appointment at a Hollywood talent agency.
"Come in, guys," said the most gorgeous woman I've ever seen. She flashed glowing white teeth and tossed back her perfect, auburn hair as she ushered us through the heavy wooden door. "I'm Sharon. Welcome!"
I could see her trying to avoid looking at our various bruises, scrapes, and cuts. Well, if you're six feet away from a building when it explodes at you, you're gonna get a little banged up. Fact of life.
We were in a big office building in Hollywood. If you've been keeping up with our nutty, action-packed shenanigans, you'll remember how many incredibly bad experiences we've had inside office buildings. They're pretty much my least favorite place to be, right after dungeons and hospitals, but before dog crates and science labs. Call me quirky.
A member of the CSM had a friend who had a friend who had a cousin who was married to someone who knew someone at this huge, important Hollywood talent agency and volunteered us for an interview, without asking us. The CSM thought we spokesbirds were doing a bang-up job of getting their message out. Emphasis on bang, given the suicide sniper. But more on that later.
"Come in! Come in!" A short, balding guy in a flashy suit waved us in, big smile in place. I ratcheted up my DEFCON level to orange. "I'm Steve Blackman."
There were four of them altogether, three guys and Sharon with the great hair. She blinked when Total trotted in after us, a small white bandage still covering the tip of his tail. He'd gotten more mileage out of that weensy flesh wound than I've gotten out of broken ribs.
"Good God," I heard Total mutter as he looked at the woman. "She can't be real."
"Max!" said Steve, holding out his hand. "May I call you Max?"
"No." I frowned and looked at his hand until he pulled it back.
The other two guys introduced themselves, and we just stood there, unsmiling. Actually, Nudge smiled a little. She loves stuff like this. She'd even worn a skirt. Angel was wearing a pink tutu over her jeans. My clothes were at least clean and not blood-spattered, which is about as good as it ever gets with me.
"Well!" said Steve, rubbing his hands together. "Let's sit down and get to know each other, huh? Can we get you something to drink? You kids hungry?"
"We're always hungry," said the Gasman seriously.
Steve looked taken aback. "Ah, yes, of course! Growing kids!" He was trying hard not to look at our wings, with limited success. He reached over and tapped a button on his desk, which was so big you could practically land a chopper on it. "Jeff? How about some drinks and snacks in here? Thanks."
"Please, sit down," Sharon said, with another hair toss. I made a mental note to practice doing that in a mirror the next time I saw one. It seemed a useful skill, right up there with roundhouse kicks.
We sat, making sure no one was in back of us or could sneak up on us. I was wound so tight I was about to break out in hives.
A young guy in a purple-striped shirt came in with a tray of sodas, glasses of ice, and little nibbly things on several plates. "They're tapas," he explained. "This one's calamari, and this one's–"
"Thanks a million, Jeff." Steve cut in with a smile. Jeff straightened and left, closing the door quietly behind him. Then, as we fell on the food like hyenas, Steve turned to us again, looking so dang enthusiastic that I wondered how much coffee he'd had this morning. "So! You kids want to be big stars, eh?"
"God, no!" I said, almost spewing crumbs. "No way!"
Oddly, this seemed to throw a petite wrench into the convo.
Part One | FREAKS AND M-GEEKS
SHARON AND STEVE and the other two agents went silent, looking at us in surprise.
Steve recovered quickly. "Models?" he suggested, his eyes noting that we were all tall and skinny for our age.
I almost snorted Sprite through my nose. "Yeah. 'Wings are being worn wide this year,' " I pretended to quote. " 'With the primary feathers tinted fun shades of pink and green for a party look.' I don't think so." I tried not to notice Nudge's momentary disappointment.
"Actors?" Sharon said.
Total perked up, chewing busily on calamari, which, if you're interested, is Italian for rubber bands.
"Nope." I could see this interview was going south, so I started inhaling food while I could.
"Max, I mean–Max," Steve said, with no idea what else to call me. "You're selling yourself short. You guys could do anything, be anything. You want your own movie? You want flock action figures? You want to be on T-shirts? You name it, kid–I can make it happen."
"I want to be an action figure!" Gazzy said, wolfing down some mini-enchilada thingies.
"Oh, yeah!" Iggy said, holding up his hand for a high five. The Gasman slapped it.
Steve smiled and seemed to relax. "Hey, I didn't catch everyone's names. You, sweetheart," he said to Angel. "What's your name?"
"Isabella von Frankenstein Rothschild," said Angel, absently picking something out of her teeth. She'd lost one of her front ones recently, so her grin had a black hole in it. "You got your shoes on eBay," she told Sharon, whose eyes widened about as far as they could. "But you're right–it doesn't make sense to go retail, not on what Skinflint Steve pays you."
Yep, that's my little mind-readin' darlin'!
There was dead silence for a few moments. Sharon blushed hotly and looked anywhere but at Steve. One of the other agents coughed.
"Ah, huh," Steve said, then turned to Gazzy. "How about you, son? You want to be an action figure, right? What's your name?"
Gazzy nodded eagerly, and I promised myself I'd kick his butt later. "They call me the Sharkalator."
"The Sharkalator," Steve repeated, his enthusiasm waning. What can I say? We have that effect on grown-ups. Even on other kids. Well, okay, on pretty much everyone. We were created to survive, not to be the life of the party.
"I'm Cinnamon," said Nudge, licking her fingers. "Cinnamon Allspice La Fever. This shrimp is awesome."
Steve started to look depressed.
"They call me the White Knight," said Iggy, expertly finding the remaining food on the trays with his sensitive fingers.
"Oh?" Sharon said, trying to salvage the situation. "Why is that?"
Iggy looked in her general direction. He gestured to his pale blond hair, pale skin, unseeing blue eyes. "They're not gonna call me the Black Knight."
Fang had sat silently this whole time, so still that he was practically blending into the modern tufted sofa. He had drunk four Cokes in about four minutes and steadily worked his way through a plate of fried something-orothers. Now he felt all eyes turn to him, and he looked up, the expression on his face making me shiver.
No one looks like Fang–dark and still and dangerous, like he's daring you to set him off. But I'd seen him rocking Angel when she'd hurt herself; I'd seen him smile in his sleep; I'd seen the deep, dark light in his eyes as he leaned over me...
I blinked several times and chugged the rest of my Sprite.
Fang sighed and wiped his fingers on his black jeans. He looked around the whole room, at the four agents, at the younger kids having a ball with this, at Total slurping Fanta out of a bowl, at me, sitting tensely on the edge of my chair.
"My name is Fang," he said, standing up. "And I'm outta here." He walked to the sliding glass doors that led to a landscaped balcony, twenty-two stories above the ground.
I nodded at the flock and reached over to tap the back of Iggy's hand twice. He stood up and followed Fang's almost silent footsteps, weaving unerringly around tables and large potted plants.
Fang slid the door open. It was windy on the balcony, and he raised his face to the sun. I hustled the rest of the flock outside, then turned and waved lamely at the four open-mouthed, big-shot Hollywood agents.
"Thanks," I said, balancing on the balcony edge as my family took off one by one, leaping and unfurling their wings like soft, rough-edged sails, "but no thanks."
Then I threw myself out into the open air, feeling it rush through my hair, my feathers; feeling my wings buoy me up, every stroke lifting me twelve feet higher.
We're just not cut out for all this media circus crap.
But then, you already knew that.
Part One | FREAKS AND M-GEEKS
"ALL I'M SAYING IS, would going on Oprah just once be the end of the entire world?" Nudge crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at me. Since Nudge is about the sweetest, easiest-going recombinant-DNA life-form I've ever known, this was serious.
"No," I said carefully. "But the end of the entire world would be the end of the entire world, and that's what we're still trying to stop." For those of you who are still catching up, I've been told that my mission in life is to save the world. No pressure or anything.
"I want to be an action figure," said Gazzy.
"Guys," I said, rubbing my temples, "remember four days ago? The bullets whizzing past, the sniper, the exploding building?"
"I certainly haven't forgotten." Total huffed, looking at his tail.
My pool of patience, never deep on the best of days, became yet shallower. "My point is," I went on tightly, "that clearly, someone is still after us, still wants us dead. Yes, our air shows for the CSM are big hits; there are people who are sort of accepting us as being...different, but we're still in danger. We'll always be in danger."
"I'm tired of being in danger!" Nudge cried. "I hate this! I just want to–"
She stopped, because there was no point in going on. Trying not to cry, she flopped down on the hotel bed. I sat down next to her and rubbed her back, between her wings.
"We all hate this," I said quietly. "But until someone can prove to me beyond a doubt that we're safe, I have to make decisions that will keep us more or less in one piece. I know it sucks."
"Speaking of things sucking," said Fang, "I say we ditch the air shows completely."
"I like the air shows," said Gazzy. He was lying on the floor, half beneath our coffee table. My mom had gotten him some little Transformer cars, and he was rolling them around, making engine noises. Yes, he could best most grown men in hand-to-hand combat and make an explosive device out of virtually anything, but he was still eight years old. Or so.
I always seemed to forget that.
"I like the air shows too," said Nudge, her tangly hair fanned out around her head. "They make me feel like a famous movie star."
"They're not safe," Fang said flatly.
I was torn. The sniper who had shot at me had turned out to be a new form of cyborg/human–or at least that's what we'd figured after we found part of one arm. Instead of a hand, he'd had an automatic pistol connected directly to his muscles and nerves. It hadn't actually been the building that exploded when we were close–it had been the sniper himself. He'd blown himself up rather than let us catch him or really see him.
That's dedication for ya.
That thing hadn't grafted that gun to his arm by himself. Someone had made him. That someone was still out there and possibly had made more things like him.
On the other hand...the CSM was really counting on us to continue the air shows. These shows were taking place in some of the most polluted cities in the world: Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Beijing. So far they'd been big successes, and the CSM had been able to hand out tons of cards and leaflets educating people about pollution and greenhouse gases.
My mom was a member of the CSM. She'd never want to put us in danger, but...I hated to let her down. She'd saved my life a bunch of times. She was helping the flock any way she could. This was the only thing she'd ever asked me to do. How could I tell her that I wanted to bail?
"Maybe if we just do the air shows but have them way step up security," I said slowly.
"No," said Fang.
Okay. I may be fabulous in a lot of ways, but I know I have a couple tiny flaws. One of them is a really bad knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone tells me no about anything.
You'd think Fang would have picked up on that by now.
I raised my chin and looked him in the eye. The flock, being smarter than the average gang of winged bears, went still.
Slowly, I stood up and walked closer to Fang. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Total slither beneath a bed, saw Gazzy quickly pull Iggy into the boys' room next door.
Until last year, I'd been taller than both Fang and Iggy. They'd not only caught up but had shot several inches past me, which I hated. Now Fang looked down at me, his eyes so dark I couldn't see where his pupils were.
"What?" I asked, deceptively mildly. I saw a flash of pink tutu as Angel and Nudge crawled with quick, silent efficiency into the boys' room.
"The air shows are too dangerous," Fang said equally mildly. I heard the connecting door between the two rooms ease shut with the caution of prey trying hard not to attract its predator.
"I can't let my mom down." This close, I could see his thick eyelashes, the weird glints of gold in his eyes.
He let out a breath slowly and clenched his hands.
"One more show," I offered.
His hands unclenched as he weighed his options. "All right," he said, surprising me. "You're right–we don't want to let the CSM down."
I looked at him in narrow-eyed suspicion, and then it hit me: Dr. Brigid Dwyer, the eighth wonder of the world, was part of the CSM. She'd planned on meeting us in Mexico City, our next show.
That was why Fang had agreed to just one more–so he could get all caught up with his favorite brilliant, underage scientist.
I walked stiffly to the bathroom, locked the door, and turned on the shower as hard as it could go. Then I buried my face in a fluffy towel and shrieked like a banshee.
Excerpted from MAXIMUM RIDE #5: MAX © Copyright 2011 by James Patterson. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown for Young Readers. All rights reserved.