Book One | MEETING DOCTOR GOD
I'M A GIRL OF EXTREMES. When I love something, I'm like a puppy dog (without all the licking). When I'm cranky, I'm a wasp (like, a whole hive of 'em). And when I'm angry, I'm a mother bear with a predator after her cubs: dangerous.
I say this because lately my life seemed to be all about extremes. Like right now, for instance. I was soaring twenty thousand feet in the air with the five people I loved most in the world—and no, we weren't on a plane, hang-gliding, or hot air ballooning. We preferred to use good old-fashioned wings. The technology's been around for eons.
If you've ever dreamed you could fly, I can confirm that it's all that and better. Even if you're desperately flying through a subway tunnel to save your life, it's still off the charts. But today, flying over Africa...it was as good as it ever gets. Maybe the best part was that for the first time in a dog's age, we weren't on the run from madmen. We were on a mission—to do good.
"Max!" Iggy called over to me. "Why did they name themselves Chad? I mean, Chad. It's like naming a whole country Biff or Trey. I don't get it."
"Ig, don't be ignorant," I scoffed. "It's not like all the people there named themselves."
"Why not? We named ourselves," Nudge noted, as if I needed to be reminded that we were raised in a lab under the supervision of science geeks.
"Only 'cause we're special." I gestured to her twelve-foot wingspan. "Hey, check that out!" I pointed to a Martian-like rock formation in the distance.
Fang turned his head and gave me one of his classic half smiles—you know, like the kind of smile Mona Lisa would have had if she were a guy. A teenage guy with longish scruffy hair, dark eyes, and a leather jacket. Mmmmm.
The whole trip had been as exhilarating as one of Fang's killer smiles. Even the hundreds of miles of shifting, mysterious desert dunes had been amazing. We're world travelers and all—we've lived in wilds as extreme as Death Valley and Antarctica—but there was something downright otherworldly about what I'd seen below as we crossed over—oh, crap, I'd forgotten the names of all of the different countries.
"Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Chad together are about sixty-eight percent desert," Angel recited, reading my mind. Literally. She's powerful like that.
"Whatever. It's too much freaking desert," Angel's brother, Gazzy, complained. "I wouldn't mind seeing a few cows chomping away on some grass right about now."
"A-plus-plus on the geography quiz, Angel. Gazzy, Iggy, extra credit when you check your attitudes at the door." Even without parents, somehow I'd picked up the language. Seems to work when you're the leader. "Listen, I know some of you are a little cranky from the long flight, but this is our chance to finally help people. Real people," I emphasized, as if we'd grown up in a plastic bubble or something. Well, we kind of had. Do dog crates in labs count?
"Real people," Fang clarified. "As in, not just a bunch of wack-job scientists."
"Yup. Did it ever occur to you guys," I continued grandly, "that when we were told we had to save the world, it might have actually meant saving people—like, one at a time? Sending a message around the world about people in need is great and all, but actually feeding people, giving people medical help and stuff? We've never done that before. I mean, this could be it, guys. Our destiny."
"Max is right," Angel agreed, in a very un-Angel-like manner. We didn't see eye-to-eye on much these days.
"Word on the street is that you have to save the world, Max," Iggy reminded me. "The rest of us? Not so much."
Twit. Always trying to take the easy way out.
Not Fang, though. "Hey, Max, wherever you go to save the world—I will follow..." He did the killer half-smile thing. "Mother Teresa."
My stomach flip-flopped as if I'd folded my wings and plunged into free fall. Hello, Max the Puppy.
I had exactly five seconds to enjoy sainthood before I caught sight of three black dots in the distance—and they appeared to be moving straight toward us.
Looked like Mama Bear's cubs were in danger. And you know what that meant:
Bye-bye, Saint Max. Time to be a hellion again.
"INCOMING!" I SHOUTED to my flock. "Down, down, down!"
Fast-moving objects directed at the flock usually belong to one of three categories: bullets, mutant beings with a taste for bird kid, or vehicles hired by an evil megalomaniac wanting to kidnap us and use our powers. Which might explain why I was working on the assumption that the three black dots meant one thing and one thing only: imminent death.
"Max! Relax!" Fang managed to stop me before I could execute my dive. "I think those are the CSM cargo planes."
It was the Coalition to Stop the Madness (CSM), the activist group my nonwinged mom was involved with, that had asked us to go on this humanitarian relief mission to Chad and to help publicize the work they were doing there. And what with our previous adventures helping them combat global warming and ocean pollution, we were slowly being turned from feral, scavenging outlaws on the lam into Robin Hoody do-gooders. Meanwhile, I was still supposed to save the world at some point. My calendar was full, full, full.
So full that I'd forgotten this was the part of the journey where we were supposed to meet up with the CSM planes so we could be guided into the refugee camp.
I gave Fang a thank-you-for-saving-me-from-myself look. When his eyes met mine, I shivered down to my sneakered toes.
Gazzy called over to me, "I can't see anything!"
"I can't see anything either!" Iggy complained.
"I'm rolling my eyes, Ig." I had to tell him that because he couldn't see me do it, what with his blindness and all.
"No, there's, like, dust clouds below," Gazzy clarified.
I glanced down, and sure enough—the blurry endlessness of sand was even more blurry.
"Not dust devils," Fang said. His dark feathers were covered with a layer of dust, and grit was caked around his eyes and mouth.
"No." I peered downward again.
Just then Angel said, "Uh-oh," which is always enough to make my blood run cold. In the next second, I focused sharply on a few dark specks at the front of the dust clouds. One of the dark specks raised a tiny dark toothpick.
This time I knew for sure that I wasn't overreacting. "Guns!" I shouted. "They've got guns!"
"QUICK! UP!" FANG SHOUTED, just as the first bullets strafed the air around me with ominous hisses.
I angled myself upward, only to see the shiny silver underbelly of one of the CSM planes, now flying right above us. It was pressing downward—the rough landing strip was maybe a quarter mile away.
"Drop back!" I yelled. We all went vertical as the planes continued to come down practically on our heads. To escape from the bullets, we'd had to fly up right under them. The engines were way too close—the noise was deafening.
"Watch it!" I yelled, as one plane's landing gear almost hit Iggy. "Drop down! Drop down!" Bullets are bad, but getting smushed by landing gear, toasted by jet engine exhaust, or sucked into the front of an engine were all much less fixable.
I could now make out the sun-browned faces of the men on...oh, geez, were those camels? The men continued to aim their rifles at us, and I felt a bullet actually whiz by my hair. In about half a second, my brain processed the following thoughts lightning fast:
1) A bullet hitting the fuel tank on a plane: not a good situation.
2) Slowing down not good: slow + bird kids = drop like rocks.
3) Speeding up not good: fast bird kids + faster planes = getting flattened.
4) The only choice was to go on the offensive.
Fortunately, I'm very comfortable with being offensive—at least on the not-infrequent occasions when someone's trying to gun down my flock.
"Dive!" I shouted. "Knock 'em down!"
I tucked my wings flat against my back and began to race groundward like a rocket. At this speed, these shooters would need radar and a heat tracer to land a bullet on me. I could actually see the whites of their eyes now, which were widening in surprise.
"Hai-yah!" I screamed—just for fun, really—as I swung my feet down and came to a screeching halt by smashing my heels right into a rider's back. He flew off the camel, rifle pinwheeling through the air, and felt the joy of being airborne himself for about three seconds before he landed right in front of his pal's camel.
"Get the rest!" I ordered the flock. "Free the beasts!"
There were about ten of these armed riders—no match for six hot, angry bird kids. We were used to dodging bullets; these guys were not used to aiming at fast-moving flying mutants. And the bonuses of being aloft are infinite: Snatching a rifle from the grip of a maniacal shooter isn't as hard as you might think when you're coming from above and behind.
Iggy flew in sideways and smacked one guy right off his camel, and Gazzy folded his wings around another's face, causing him to panic and fall. I grabbed a gun and used it like a baseball bat, neatly clipping one guy in the gut, knocking him right off his ride. Unfortunately, I didn't rise in time.
Which meant that for the first time in bird kid history, I got plowed into by a panicky galloping camel—with no sense of humor. Its head hit me in the stomach, and I flipped over its neck, landing hard on the saddle.
"Awesome move, Max!" I heard Nudge call from somewhere behind me. Wasn't she busy helping to take these guys out?
My Indiana Jones moment lasted about a second before I was lurched off the beast. Just as my feet hit the sand, I managed to grab a rein and hang on for dear life.
My wings were useless—there was no room to stretch them out—and my ankles were literally sanded raw before I was able to pull myself up hand over hand and eventually clamber back onto the saddle.
"Whoa, Nelly!" I croaked, gagging on dust. I gripped the saddle with my knees and pulled back on the reins.
This camel did not speak English, apparently. It stretched its neck and ran faster.
"Up and away, Max!" Fang yelled.
I dropped the reins, popped to my feet on top the saddle, and jumped hard, snapping out my wings. And just like that, I became lighter than air, stronger than steel...and faster than a speeding camel.
I watched it race off, terrified, toward the nearest village. Someone was about to inherit a traumatized camel.
This mission was off to a good start.
"OKAY, FLOCK," I SAID, finishing wrapping up my bleeding ankles. "So who's ready to start saving the world, one person at a time? Say aye!"
"Aye!" Nudge cheered and took a last swig of water. Just twenty minutes earlier we'd landed in front of the astonished locals. The others, still worn out from the camel crusade, chimed in a little more sluggishly. Except Fang, who gave me a strong and silent thumbs-up.
Patrick Rooney III, our CSM contact, led us to our assigned area. I hadn't seen a refugee camp before. It was basically acres and acres of tattered tents and mud huts. Two larger tents were being set up for donated medical supplies and food. Nudge and Iggy were set to unpacking crates and sorting materials, Fang to helping set up medical exam stations, which were basically plastic crates with curtains around them.
Gazzy and Angel were, essentially, the entertainment—their pale blond hair and blue eyes were causing a commotion among the refugee kids. Not to mention the wings. Some of the youngest kids were running around, their arms outstretched and flapping, their smiles huge with delight.
Not that there was much to be delighted about. The six of us, the flock, had seen some hard times. We'd eaten out of Dumpsters and trapped small mammals for dinner. I'd eaten my share of rat-b-cue. But these people had nothing. I mean, really nothing. Most were skinnier than us lean'n'-mean bird kids.
"People are going to be coming through here, getting vaccinated against hep B, tetanus, mumps, whatever," the nurse, a guy named Roger, explained. "The grown-ups may be suspicious and unsure; a lot of the kids will be crying."
Okay. I could handle that. I knew being Mother Teresa wasn't gonna be easy.
"Here are some sacks of rice—they weigh sixty pounds each, so get someone to help you move them." That wouldn't be necessary—one of the few advantages to being genetically engineered in a lab. "The adults each get two cups of raw rice." He handed me a measuring cup. "Give the kids these fruit roll-ups. They've never seen them before, so you might have to explain that they're food. Do you speak French?"
"Nooo." Just another one of those pesky gaps in my education. "I don't speak African either."
Roger smiled. "There are thousands of dialects in Africa—Chad alone has two hundred distinct linguistic groups. But Arabic and French are the official languages of Chad—France used to own Chad."
I frowned. "Own it? They're not even connected."
"The way England used to own America," Roger explained.
"Oh." I felt really dumb, which is not a common feeling for me, I assure you.
A few minutes later, Fang was by my side, and we were handing out two cups of raw rice per person. It was all I could do not to just give them everything I could get my hands on. Fang and I kept meeting eyes.
"It reminds me of—so long ago—before Jeb sprung us out of the dog crates..." My throat caught, and Fang nodded. He knew it was a painful memory.
But it wasn't the memory that was getting me. It was seeing so many people looking like...like they were still waiting to be let out of their dog crates. Despite everything we'd been through—some of it the stuff of nightmares—we were still way better off than the people here.
I was a little dazed by the time Angel strode up to us, leading a small girl by the hand.
"Hi," said Angel, her face still caked with dust and grit. Her blond curly hair stood out around her head like a halo—which was a bit misleading in her case. "This is Jeanne. Jeanne, this is Max and Fang."
Angel had that look that made me brace myself and prepare to explain that we could not adopt this sweet little girl. We'd already adopted two dogs (Total and Akila, now back in the States with my mom, Dr. Valencia Martinez, in Arizona). But this Jeanne was so adorable, I was almost afraid I'd just say what the hey.
Jeanne smiled. "Merci pour tout les aides."
"Uh, okay," I said. Jeanne came and gave me a hug, her thin arms wrapping around me. She patted my shoulder, her small hand rough against the back of my neck. Then she hugged Angel the same way.
"Jeanne has gifts," Angel said seriously. "Kind of like us. She's very special. Let's show Max, Jeanne."
Jeanne smiled shyly and held out her hand, palm up, as if she were waiting for us to put something in it. Another hungry child, desperate for food.
Angel pulled an arrowhead-shaped rock from the pocket of her cargo shorts. It was so sharp it looked like the tip of a spear.
"Angel, what the—?" "Just watch, Max," she said, as she started to drag the rock's point across the heel of Jeanne's open hand. And blood began to flow.
"STOP!" I SCREAMED. Lightning fast, I swept the sharp rock right out of Angel's grasp, and it went spinning off into the dust. "Have you completely lost your mind, Angel?"
"It's okay, Max," Angel assured me, and Jeanne nodded. "Oui, oui."
I dropped to my knees and examined Jeanne's hand while she sucked a finger on her other. She had a thin puncture at least an inch long. "Wait here. I'm gonna run to get a first aid kit," I said breathlessly.
Jeanne grabbed my arm with her nonbloody hand. "Non, non," she said. "Voici." She pointed to her oozing wound.
"I know, I know. I'm so sorry, Jeanne!" I babbled. "Please forgive Angel. She's a little...unbalanced. I'll fix you up right now. You'll be fine, I promise."
"Yes, she will," Angel said calmly. How badly was I going to kick her butt later?
Jeanne placed the finger she'd been sucking on at one end of the incision and started pressing it.
"Jeepers, don't touch that!" I said. "We need to keep the wound clean—keep it from getting infected." I looked around. "Someone here who speaks French! Tell her not to—"
I broke off as I witnessed something unlike anything I'd seen before. And I'd seen a lot of weird stuff—including brains-on-a-stick (check out book three if you're curious). Most of the weird stuff I'd seen had been nightmarish. But this was...something beautiful. Breathtaking. Miraculous.
As Jeanne ran her finger slowly along the bloody slash, pressing as she went, it closed up right before my eyes. She had healed herself.
"ALL RIGHT, any second now..." The words were clipped, his accent thick. Mr. Chu leaned over his assistant's shoulder, impatiently looking at a blank computer screen. And then, right on time, the screen flickered and split to show two charts, side by side. Points started blinking faintly, and small words began running along different lines: heart rate, temperature, blood oxygen saturation level, and so on.
His assistant peered at the charts for a moment, then typed "Maximum" on one side and "Angel" on the other. Mr. Chu became lost in reviewing the biological data streaming in from the microscopic monitors.
"Mr. Chu? You have a visitor, sir." Another assistant stood in the trailer doorway, one hand on his weapon, as required.
Mr. Chu went down the short, narrow hall to the small receiving room. A young girl in a yellow dress stood there, twisting one of her thin braids between nervous fingers.
"Hello, Jeanne," said Mr. Chu, smiling. Jeanne managed a tiny smile back. "You were successful in your mission," said Mr. Chu, motioning to an assistant.
"Les filles oiseaux sont trés belles," Jeanne said sweetly.
"Here is your reward," said Mr. Chu, taking a lollipop from his assistant and giving it to Jeanne. Her eyes widened, and she eagerly ripped the wrapper off and stuck the candy in her mouth. Her eyes closed in rapture.
Mr. Chu nodded again, and his assistant quickly swabbed Jeanne's upper arm with an alcohol wipe. The whole length of her arm was lined with dots, marking the sites of hundreds of needle insertions. And here was a new one, as the assistant injected the contents of a hypodermic needle into Jeanne's almost nonexistent muscle. It was the first of a dozen injections to come in the next twenty-four hours.
Jeanne had learned to put up with all of the drugs—the pills, the drips, the shots. Without them, the side effects of being a self-healer were much, much worse. The treatments were a small price to pay for such rewards, after all.
Jeanne's closed eyelids flickered a tiny bit as the needle went in, but she swirled the lollipop in her mouth and didn't say a word.
Excerpted from MAXIMUM RIDE #6: FANG © Copyright 2011 by James Patterson. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.