PROLOGUE | After
IT WAS NIGHT, and Angel was perched on the hot surface of the scorched rock cliff. Her wings were spread out behind her, her ravaged legs swinging into nothingness, her ears straining in the strange new silence.
It seemed wrong, this silence. Shouldn’t there be the din of destruction thundering around her? The crash of buildings sinking into rubble? Inconsolable wails mourning all that was lost? That the world as they’d known it had gone so quietly, slipping into the ether like an old, beaten dog, was disconcerting, to say the least. Wasn’t noise what the apocalypse was supposed to be about?
Where was the chaos?
But there had been chaos, Angel reminded herself. Before. There had been plenty of screaming, fire and brimstone, and panic. She had endured enough panic to last her a lifetime.
Angel hugged her knees to her chest and folded her dingy white wings around herself, cocoon-like. She traced her fingers along her scars and fought back the memories.
Despite the warnings from nature—the earthquakes, the floods—despite all the efforts of science—Angel winced, remembering the scalpels and fluorescent lightbulbs and blindingly white sheets—despite everything, in the end, the earth had been savagely claimed back for nature.
And despite Max’s missions and the flock’s preparations over the years, they still hadn’t been ready.
But then, who could ever really be ready for the end of the world?
You, Angel whispered to herself. You were ready.
Angel squinted into the darkness. She couldn’t see anything from her night perch on the cliff, but even in the light of day, the horizon didn’t look like anything familiar or natural. You didn’t see what was there—you saw the spaces between.
Watching Max fall had felt like that. Angel had imagined her grief as a blackness stretching out before her, the crushing weight of Max’s death a night without stars, without hope, without end. It had terrified her so much more than the idea of Armageddon.
The power inside her was the only thing that scared Angel now. That she had seen how it would happen. That she had known. That she hadn’t told anyone.
Angel tilted her head back to feel the chill of wind rustling her blond curls, now stringy and dirty. She listened in the silence. No whitecoats probing her, taunting her. No voices at all.
It almost felt like she was completely and totally alone. Almost.
Angel thought of the flock. Flying, diving together in one strong V, with Max at its center. She thought of Max holding her hand, calling Angel her baby. She wasn’t a baby anymore.
How many seven-year-olds had seen the world go up in flames?
Angel shut her eyes tight. She waited for the visions she had fought for so many years before coming to accept and even depend on them. But no future appeared before her.
For the first time in her young life, Angel had no idea what would happen next.
BOOK ONE | Before
“IN WORLDVIEW THIS morning, whole villages in the Philippines have been demolished, and hundreds are missing as typhoons triggering massive mudslides continue to wreak havoc.”
I sat at the kitchen counter, staring at the small TV. The news anchor peered out at me with grave accusation. Yep, felt like a Monday.
“On the home front, officials rush to quell pockets of unrest as a subversive new movement takes hold in the cities.” The camera zoomed in on a glassy-eyed fanatic raving about an advanced society and how we must act now to preserve the purity of the planet. He carried a sign that read 99% IS THE FUTURE. I shivered involuntarily. The newscaster raised one perfectly groomed eyebrow and leaned forward. “Just who—or what—is ninety-nine percent?”
The newscaster’s face, frozen in practiced concern, dissolved into static as fuzzy black lines hiccupped across the screen. I frowned and smashed a fist down on top of the set, which only resulted in setting off a series of loud, plaintive beeps. Not that it was a quiet morning to start with.
Behind me in the kitchen, the usual chaos was unraveling. Iggy was slinging waffles at Gazzy and Total, who were trying to catch them in their wide-open mouths, like baby birds. How perfect.
“I can’t find the socks that match this skirt!” Nudge said, holding up some floaty, layer-y clothing situation. A waffle whapped her in the head, and with turbo-charged reflexes, she snatched it out of midair and hurled it back at Iggy as hard as she could. It exploded against his forehead. “Don’t throw waffles at me!” she screeched. “I’m trying to get dressed!”
Gazzy shot a fist into the air, his face twisted into that maniacally guilty grin that only nine-year-old angelic-looking boys seem to be able to master. “Food fi—” he began happily, only to stop at the look in my eyes.
“Try it,” I said with deadly calm. He sat down. “Quit throwing waffles!” I yelled, snatching the syrup bottle away from Iggy, who was aiming it at his open mouth. “Use plates! Use forks!”
“But I don’t have thumbs!” Total said indignantly. “Just because I can talk doesn’t mean I’m human,” he complained. For a small, Scotty-like dog, he had a lot of presence.
“Neither are we. At least not completely.” I unfolded my wings partway. Yes, folks—wings. In case this is your first dip into the deep end of the ol’ freak-of-nature pool, I’ll just put it out there: We fly.
Total rolled his eyes. “Yes, Max, I am aware.” He fluttered his own miniature pair of flappers. Unfortunately, his mate for life, Akila, didn’t have wings, so the non-mutant Samoyed spent most of the year with her one-hundred-percent-human owner. She had a hard time keeping up with us.
I shrugged. “So use a dog bowl, then.” His nose twitched in distaste.
“I can’t find—” Nudge started again, but I held up my hand. She knew I couldn’t answer complicated fashion questions. She whirled and stalked off to the bathroom to begin her twelve-step daily beauty regimen—involving many potions, lotions, and certain buffing techniques. The whole thing made my head hurt, and since Nudge was a naturally gorgeous twelve-year-old, I had no idea why she bothered.
Iggy, who can’t even see the TV anyway due to that tiny hitch of being blind and all, expertly manipulated the complicated wire system inside the set with one hand while the other continued to stir waffle batter. When the image was crystal clear and the monotonous beeping had ceased, he cocked his head, listening to the talking head deliver the morning doom with unbeatable pep.
“A new report has stated that steadily increasing levels of pollution in China have caused the extinction of a record number of plants this year. And could the growing number of meteor showers we’re experiencing require the implementation of asteroid deflection strategies? Dr. Emily Elert has some answers.”
“Lemme guess. The end of the world?” Iggy asked.
I smiled. “Yeah, same old, same old.”
“Next on In the Know, Sharon Shattuck uncovers the truth behind the growing number of enhanced humans among us. Created for the greater good, are these genetic anomalies an advanced race or an unpredictable risk? Heroes of science or botched experiments? And what do we have to fear? Stay tuned to find out!”
My mouth twisted in annoyance. I leaned over and snapped off the TV. It was time to get going, anyway. Why had I agreed to this again?
A lot had changed for us in the past year, but one thing had remained constant, and that was my unyielding loathing for a certain activity that all “normal” kids—those with homes, parents, and a distinct lack of genetic mutations—seemed to engage in.
“Okay, guys, are we ready for school?” I rubbed my hands together, trying to at least give the impression of being mildly enthusiastic.
I studied the faces before me. Nudge’s: excited. Iggy’s: bored. Gazzy’s: mischievous. Total’s: furry.
Someone was missing. Someone whose stupid idea this whole thing was in the first place.
“Present,” a voice said from behind me.
I whirled around and found myself face-to-face with Dylan. Actually, I had to look up slightly, since he was almost six-one to my five-nine. He gave me a slow smile and I wondered, not for the first time, how anyone could manage to look so flawless in general, let alone at buttcrack-of-dawn o’clock in the morning.
“Oh, good, you’re up,” I said, inappropriate thoughts running around my head like squirrels on speed. “About time.” I coughed. “Everyone else is ready. We were about to leave without you.”
“Um, Max?” Dylan said, dipping a waffle into a bowl of syrup. I looked into his Caribbean Sea–colored eyes, trying to ignore the little thrill that went through my body when I thought of the time I woke up next to those bright blues.
“What?” I asked, a little too defensively.
“You’re in your pajamas.”
“WHY ARE WE walking?” Gazzy’s voice was plaintive.
“We’re walking because other kids walk to school,” I said, again, as I’d said every morning that week. “It’s part of the whole being-normal experience.”
Next to me, Dylan smiled. “And I appreciate your sacrifice,” he said.
I tried to ignore his movie-star looks, with approximately zero success. Every once in a while his arm brushed mine, and each time it was like a tiny electric shock. Maybe it was a new trait he was developing, like an electric eel. (Don’t laugh—stranger things have happened. Like when we bird kids developed the ability to breathe underwater.)
“I’m glad we’re going to school,” Nudge said, as she had every morning that week. Was this normalcy—predictable patterns, the certainty of doing the same thing every day? Because if so, normalcy was about to make me freak out and start screaming.
“Me, too,” said Dylan. “Only for me, it’s the first time, of course.”
Dylan’s had a lot of firsts since he joined the flock, but school was something he actually wanted to try. He was kind of weirdly obsessed with learning—especially anything about science. (Which I, of course, thought was totally repulsive. Science = Wackjob Whitecoats in my sad and tragic life story.)
“If it’s your first time in school, it might as well be a schmancy joint like Newton,” Gazzy said, and Dylan smiled.
I had to admit, so far our school week hadn’t been a complete suckfest. Would I rather be home, doing almost anything else? Yes. Of course. I’m not nuts. But when our mysterious billionaire BFF Nino Pierpont, who some might call our “benefactor,” had offered to pay for Newton, here in mountain-licious Oregon, Dylan had made Bambi eyes at me and I had caved.
Beyond the regular guilt trips from Nudge about wanting to lead a “normal” life, I felt kind of… responsible for Dylan. There was so much he didn’t know about surviving. He might’ve looked like the original teenager he was cloned from, and it was true he was a kick-butt fighter, but I had to keep reminding myself that this version had been alive only about two years.
Plus, there was that whole issue of him supposedly being created especially for me. To be my “perfect other half.”
No pressure or anything.
I thought maybe he liked me more than I liked him, but still—once someone has kissed you in the rain on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at sunset, you’re kind of toast.
Anyway, agreeing to go to school with him—just for a while—didn’t seem like that much of a big deal for me. The ratio of my discomfort to his happiness was acceptable. And because he’s, you know, perfect, he fit right in at school and was already super popular. Because I’m, you know, me, I wasn’t exactly super popular. Or popular. Or even noticed that much. Which was the whole point, right? Normalcy.
“Thank you for doing this.” Dylan’s voice was quiet, meant just for me.
I looked up at him, feeling the inevitable flush warming my cheeks. “Let’s see how long I can stomach it.”
He grinned. He didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t all girly-girl and didn’t have the smoothest of social skills. True, I was trying to brush my hair more these days, but I was still predictably clueless about clothes and how regular girls acted. Dylan seemed to accept me for me.
But why was I even thinking about that? Sooner or later, his crush on me would end, right? And we’d go back to being—there’s that word again—normal.
And just like that, my thin facade of agreeableness shattered.
“You know, life’s not about being normal,” I snapped.
Dylan glanced at me, one eyebrow raised.
“It’s about being happy. And right now, what would make me happy is not walking!” And just like that, I took off at a run, then threw myself into the air, snapping my wings out.
I stroked downward powerfully and pushed upward, the familiar rush of exhilaration at taking flight filling me. I knew the other five bird kids—no, four—would be close behind.
I kept forgetting we were only five. There’d always been six of us (plus Total), but my flock had changed a lot recently. First Dylan showed up, then Fang left—don’t get me started about that—and then, not too long ago… something happened. And we were down to five.
But I’m not going to talk about that. I can’t. Not yet.
“Tag!” I felt a rush of wind and Dylan’s hand tapped my foot as he rose strongly above me, his fifteen-foot wings shining in the morning sun.
I blinked at him, breathing in deeply, and the trees shrank below me, along with all those painful memories.
“Come on, slowpoke. You’re it!” Dylan said, surging ahead.
Laughing, I soared after him, feeling a dash of pride. I’d been the one to teach him how to fly, even if he was a wicked-fast learner. The two of us rose and swooped and chased each other until we were a block away from school. At one point I looked over at him, still smiling wide, and something seemed to light up his eyes.
“Normal’s overrated,” he said.
FANG OPENED ONE alert eye to see the early-morning sky lightening on the desert horizon. The slow, even breathing around him told him his gang was still asleep, and Fang felt the familiar weight of anxiety closing in on him snugger than his sleeping bag. They had to get going. He could feel it—the new threat was developing exponentially with every minute.
Get up, his instincts hissed. Go. Now.
But Fang felt the warm body in the sleeping bag next to his stir slightly in her sleep and knew there was something else entirely that was making it difficult to breathe. It was this whole situation. It was her.
He studied her relaxed features: the familiar cheekbones; the strong arch of the brow, making her look surprised in sleep like she never would in daylight; the full mouth he knew so well, the mouth he wanted to kiss, but wouldn’t, not now… She still looked so heart-stoppingly like Max that it made Fang wince.
Fang wriggled up out of the cocoon of his sleeping bag and leaned over her. He reached one tentative hand out and ran his fingers through her short hair. She sighed.
“Time to get up,” he whispered into her ear. “We have to get going.”
“Stay,” the girl murmured dreamily, pulling him back down next to her. She nuzzled into his neck and stretched one smooth arm over him. Fang swallowed. Even through the sleeping bag he could feel the heat coming off her body, sense the outline of her shape. It felt so natural, so familiar.
He felt so guilty.
Fang had never imagined he’d be sleeping next to a different girl, ever, in his life. And here he was, with Maya, of all people—Max’s clone. The cute, short pixie cut she’d gotten two days ago helped. No ratty mane to get tangled when I’m flying, she’d said. But Fang knew she needed it for other reasons, too. She wanted to look different. To distinguish herself from Max.
And she was different. She was tough, but she seemed less angry than Max did, more accepting of her Gen 54 status. She smiled more often, and more easily. It made him feel way disloyal, but in some ways, Maya was just easier to be around than Max was.
Very carefully, with Fanglike stealth, he eased out from under Maya’s arm, lifting it and placing it back on his sleeping bag without waking her. He needed to… not be lying there anymore. He wasn’t comfortable with where his mind—or his heart—was taking him.
One glance showed Fang that the members of his small gang—Maya, Ratchet, Star, and Kate—were all still asleep. He poked at the sleeping bags and shook some shoulders but got little more in response than annoyed grunts and thick snores. These kids were definitely not the light sleepers the flock had been. Fang sighed. First, some fuel.
The previous night’s fire had been banked, and now Fang stirred the embers and added more tinder. Five minutes later he had a nice blaze, and he opened his wings, letting them bask in the heat. On the horizon, the sun was just starting to spill its pink glaze over the mountaintops. He tried to swallow the sense of urgency building within him. They weren’t actually being chased, he reminded himself. He was in charge.
Years on the run had taught Fang how to make almost anything edible, including desert rats, pigeons, cacti, dandelions, and stuff reclaimed from restaurant Dumpsters. But this morning he had better raw materials to work with. He set the collapsible grill over the fire and pulled out a lightweight bowl and the one small frying pan he had in his pack.
Max was… Max. She wasn’t easy, she wasn’t restful, she wasn’t a little dollop of sunshine. But since when did he need a little dollop of sunshine? It wasn’t exactly what a life on the run tended to create. Max was… his soul mate. Wasn’t she? She knew him better than anyone.
He cracked some eggs open a little more forcefully than he needed to and started whisking them in the bowl. He and Max had been through so much together—losses, betrayals, joyous reunions. Life-threatening injuries, gunshots, broken bones. Christmases and birthdays and Max Appreciation Days and Angel’s—
A pain almost physical made Fang pause as he chopped the supermarket ham. Don’t think about that, he told himself.
Anyway. Max. She was so familiar to him. So familiar. Maybe even… too familiar?
No! He couldn’t believe he was thinking that way. She still surprised him, after all. It was just that he hardly knew Maya. He couldn’t predict what she would say or how she would say it. It was all really… new.
He’d thought leaving the flock would simplify things, make things easier. Instead his life was just more complicated, more confusing.
He blinked when Maya’s arms came around his waist. Only years of pseudo-military training had kept him from jumping a foot in the air. How had she snuck up behind him?
“Mmm,” Maya said sleepily, leaning her head against his back. “That smells like heaven. Where’d you learn to cook like that? You’re amazing.”
Fang swallowed again and shrugged. “Just picked it up.”
Maya came to stand next to him, one arm still around his waist. Her hair was just so… cute. He blinked again in surprise. When had he ever thought someone’s hair was cute? Not since… never.
Frowning, he looked down at Maya, who met his frown with a slow smile. She reached up on her tiptoes as he stood, frozen, and kissed his cheek. Her lips were cool and soft.
“Thanks for… breakfast,” she said, and Fang got the feeling that he was caught in an undertow. And he didn’t know if he wanted to get out of it.
Copyright © 2012 by James Patterson