Sweeping, swooping, soaring, air-current thrill rides --- there's nothing better. For miles around, we were the only things in the infinite, wide-open, clear blue sky. You want an adrenaline rush? Try tucking your wings in, dive-bombing for about a mile straight down, then whoosh! Wings out, grab an air current like a pit bull, and hang on for the ride of your life. God, nothing is better, more fun, more exciting.
Okay, we were mutant freaks, we were on the lam, but man, flying --- well, there's a reason people always dream about it.
"Oh, my gosh!" the Gasman said excitedly. He pointed. "A UFO!"
I silently counted to ten. There was nothing where the Gasman had pointed. As usual. "That was funny the first fifty times, Gazzy," I said. "It's getting old."
He cackled, several wingspans away from me. There's nothing like an eight-year-old's sense of humor.
"Max? How long till we get to DC?" asked Nudge, pulling up closer to me. She looked tired --- we'd had one long, ugly day. Well, another long, ugly day in a whole series of long, ugly days. If I ever actually had a good, easy day, I'd probably freak out.
"Another hour? Hour and a half?" I guessed.
Nudge didn't say anything. I cast a quick glance at the rest of my flock. Fang, Iggy, and I were holding steady, but we had mucho de stamina. I mean, the younger set also had stamina, especially compared to dinky little nonmutant humans. But even they gave out eventually.
Here's the deal --- for anybody new on this trip. There are six of us: Angel, who's six; Gasman, age eight; Iggy, who's fourteen, and blind; Nudge, eleven; Fang and me (Max), we're fourteen too. We escaped from the lab where we were raised, were given wings and other assorted powers. They want us back --- badly. But we're not going back. Ever.
I shifted Total to my other arm, glad he didn't weigh more than twenty pounds. He roused slightly, then draped himself across my arm and went back to sleep, the wind whistling through his black fur. Did I want a dog? No. Did I need a dog? Also no. We were six kids running for our lives, not knowing where our next meal was coming from. Could we afford to feed a dog? Wait for it --- no.
"You okay?" Fang cruised up alongside me. His wings were dark and almost silent, like Fang himself.
"In what way?" I asked. I mean, there was the headache issue, the chip issue, the Voice-in-my-head-constantly issue, my healing bullet wound. . . . "Can you be more specific?"
My breath froze in my throat. Only Fang could cut right to the heart of the matter like that. Only Fang knew me that well, and went that far.
When we'd been escaping from the Institute, in New York, Erasers and whitecoats had shown up, of course. God forbid we should make a clean getaway. Erasers, if you don't know already, are wolflike creatures who have been chasing us constantly since we escaped from the lab, or School as we call it. One of the Erasers had been Ari. We'd fought, as we'd fought before, and then suddenly, with no warning, I was sitting on his chest, staring at his lifeless eyes, his broken neck bent at an awkward angle.
That was twenty-four hours ago.
"It was you or him," Fang said calmly. "I'm glad you picked you."
I let out a deep breath. Erasers simpled everything up: They had no qualms about killing, so you had to lose your squeamishness about it too. But Ari had been different. I'd recognized him, remembered him as a little kid back at the School. I knew him.
Plus, there was that last, awful bellow from Ari's father, Jeb, echoing after me again and again as I flew through the tunnels:
"You killed your own brother!"
Of course, Jeb was a lying, cheating manipulator, so he might have just been yanking my chain. But his anguish after he'd discovered his dead son had sounded real.
And even though I loathed and despised Jeb, I still felt as though I had an anvil on my chest.
You had to do it, Max. You're still working toward the greater good. And nothing can interfere with that. Nothing can interfere with your mission to save the world.
I took another deep breath through clenched jaws. Geez, Voice. Next you'll be telling me that to make an omelet, I have to break a few eggs.
I sighed. Yes, I have a Voice inside my head, I mean, another one besides my own. I'm pretty sure that if you look up the word nuts in the dictionary, you'll find my picture. Just another fun feature of my mutant-bird-kid-freak package.
"Do you want me to take him?" Angel asked, gesturing toward the dog in my arms.
"No, that's okay," I said. Total weighed almost half of what Angel weighed --- I didn't know how she'd carried him as far as she had. "I know," I said, brightening. "Fang will take him."
I gave my wings an extra beat and surged up over Fang, our wings sweeping in rhythm. "Here," I said, lowering Total. "Have a dog." Vaguely Scottie-ish in size and looks, Total wiggled a bit, then quickly settled into Fang's arms. He gave Fang a little lick, and I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from snickering at Fang's expression.
I sped up a bit, flying out in front of the flock, feeling an excitement overshadowing my fatigue and the dark weight of what had happened. We were headed to new territory --- and we might even find our parents this time. We had escaped the Erasers and the whitecoats --- our former "keepers" --- again. We were all together and no one was badly wounded. For this brief moment, I felt free and strong, as if I was starting fresh, all over again. We would find our parents --- I could feel it.
I was feeling . . . I paused, trying to name this sensation.
I felt kind of optimistic. Despite everything.
Optimism is overrated, Max, said the Voice. It's better to face reality head-on.
I wondered if the Voice could see me rolling my eyes, from the inside.
It had gotten dark hours ago. He should have heard by now. The fearsome Eraser paced around the small clearing, and then suddenly the static in his ear made him wince. He pressed the earpiece of his receiver and listened.
What he heard made him smile, despite feeling like crap, despite having a rage so fierce it felt as if it were going to burn him up from the inside out.
One of his men saw the expression on his face and motioned the others to be quiet. He nodded, said "Got it" into his mouthpiece, and tapped off his transmitter.
He looked over at his troop. "We got our coordinates," he said. He tried to resist rubbing his hands together in glee but couldn't. "They're headed south-southwest and passed Philadelphia thirty minutes ago. The Director was right --- they're going to Washington DC."
"How solid is this info?" one of his Erasers asked.
"From the horse's mouth," he said, starting to check his equipment. He rolled his shoulders, grimacing, then popped a pain pill.
"Which horse?" asked another Eraser, standing up and fastening a night-vision monocle over one eye.
"Let's just say it's insider information," the leader of the Erasers said, hearing the joy in his own voice. He felt his heart speed up with anticipation, his fingers itching to close around a skinny bird-kid neck. Then he started to morph, watching his hands.
The frail human skin was soon covered with tough fur; ragged claws erupted from his fingertips. Morphing had hurt at first --- his lupine DNA wasn't seamlessly grafted into his stem cells, like the other Erasers'. So there were some kinks to be worked out, a rough, painful transition period he'd had to go through.
But he wasn't complaining. It would all be worth it the moment he got his claws on Max and choked the life right out of her. He imagined the look of surprise on her face, how she would struggle. Then he'd watch the light slowly fade out of her beautiful brown eyes. She wouldn't think she was so hot then. Wouldn't look down on him or, worse, ignore him. Just because he wasn't a mutant freak like them, he'd been nothing to her. All she cared about was the flock this and the flock that. That was all his father, Jeb, cared about too.
Once Max was dead, that would all change.
And he, Ari, would be the number-one son. He'd come back from the dead for it.
By dusk we'd crossed over a chunk of Pennsylvania, and a thin spit of ocean twined below us, between New Jersey and Delaware. "Look at this, kids, we're learning geography!" Fang called out with mock excitement. Since we'd never been to school, most of what we'd learned was from television or the Internet. And, these days, from the little know-it-all Voice in my head.
Soon we'd be over Washington DC. Which was pretty much where my plan stopped. For tonight, all I was worried about was food and a place to sleep. Tomorrow I would have time to study the info we'd gotten from the Institute. I'd been so thrilled when we'd hacked into the Institute's computers. Pages of information about our actual parents had scrolled across the screen. I'd managed to print out a bunch of it before we'd been interrupted.
Who knew --- by this time tomorrow we might be on someone's doorstep, about to come face-to-face with the parents who had lost us so long ago. It sent shivers down my spine.
I was tired. We were all tired. So when I did an automatic 360 and saw a weird dark cloud heading toward us, my groan was deep and sincere.
"Fang! What's that? Behind us, at ten o'clock."
He frowned, checking it out. "Too fast for a storm cloud. Too small, too quiet for choppers. Not birds --- too lumpy." He looked at me. "I give up. What is it?"
"Trouble," I said grimly. "Angel! Get out of the way. Guys, heads up! We've got company!"
We swung around to face whatever was coming. Fast!
"Flying monkeys?" The Gasman called out a guess. "Like The Wizard of Oz?"
It dawned on me then. "No," I said tersely. "Worse. Flying Erasers."
Yep. Flying Erasers. These Erasers had wings, which was a new and revolting development on the Eraser front. Half- wolf, half-human, and now half-avian? That couldn't be a happy mix. And they were headed our way at about eighty miles an hour.
"Erasers, version 6.5," Fang said.
Split up, Max. Think 3-D, said my Voice.
"Split up!" I ordered. "Nudge! Gazzy! Nine o'clock! Angel, up top. Move it! Iggy and Fang, flank me from below! Fang, ditch the dog!"
"Nooo, Fang!" screeched Angel.
The Erasers slowed as we fanned out, their huge, heavy-looking wings backbeating the air. It was almost pitch-black now, with no moon and no city lights below. I was still able to see their teeth, their pointed fangs, their smiles of excitement. They were on a hunt --- it was party time!
Here we go, I thought, feeling adrenaline speeding up my heart. I launched myself at the biggest one, swinging my feet under me to smash against his chest. He rolled back but righted himself and came at me again, claws slashing the air.
I bobbed, feeling his paws whip right past my face. I turned sharply just in time to have a hard, hairy fist crash into my head.
I dropped ten feet quickly, then surged back up on the offensive.
In my peripheral vision, I saw Fang clap both hands hard against an Eraser's furry ears. The Eraser screamed, holding his head, and started to lose altitude. Fang had Total in his backpack. He rolled out of harm's way, and I took his place, catching another Eraser in the mouth with a hard side kick.
I grabbed one of his arms, twisting it violently in back of him. It was harder in the air, but then I heard a loud pop.
The Eraser screamed and dropped, careening downward until he caught himself and flew clumsily away, one arm dangling.
Above me an Eraser lashed out at Nudge, but she dodged out of the way.
Max? Size isn't everything, said the Voice.
I got it! The Erasers were bigger and heavier, their wings almost twice as long as ours. But in the air, those were liabilities.
Panting, I ducked as an Eraser swung a black-booted foot at my side, catching me in the ribs but not too hard.
I zipped in and dealt out some powerful punches of my own, knocking his head sideways, then I flitted out of reach.
Compared to the Erasers, we were nimble little stinging wasps, and they were clunky, slow, awkward flying cows.
Two Erasers ganged up on me, but I shot straight up like an arrow, just in time for them to smash into each other.
I laughed as I saw Gazzy roll completely over like a fighter plane, smacking an Eraser in the jaw on the turn. The Eraser swung a hard punch, landing it on Gazzy's thigh, and Gazzy winced, then launched a side kick at the Eraser's hand, which snapped back.
How many of them were there? I couldn't tell ---
everything was happening at once. Ten?
Nudge, my Voice said, and then I heard Nudge cry out.
An Eraser had her tight in his arms, his fangs moving toward her neck. His teeth were just starting to scrape her skin when I dropped on him from above. I wrapped one arm around his neck and yanked hard, hearing him gag and choke. Grabbing my wrist with my other hand, I yanked harder until he let Nudge drop away from him.
"Scat!" I told her, and, coughing, she swooped away from the fight. My Eraser was still struggling but starting to weaken. "You better get your guys out of here," I snarled into his ear. "We're kicking your hairy butts."
"You're gonna fall now," I heard Angel say in a normal voice. I swung my head to see her gravely watching an Eraser who looked confused, paralyzed. Angel shifted her gaze to the dark water below. Fear entered the Eraser's eyes, and his wings folded. He dropped like a rock.
"You're getting scary, you know that?" I said to Angel, not really kidding. I mean, making an Eraser drop right out of the sky just by telling him to --- jeez.
And Iggy, said the Voice. I veered off to help Iggy, who was in tight hand-to-hand with an Eraser.
"Ig!" I called, as he grabbed the Eraser's shirt.
"Max, get out of here!" Iggy yelled, and released the shirt, letting himself fall quickly out of reach.
I had time to think Uh-oh, and then the small explosive Iggy had stuck down the Eraser's shirt detonated, leaving an ugly gaping hole in his chest. Shrieking, the Eraser plummeted heavily downward.
And how did Iggy manage to stash his seemingly endless supply of explosives on his person without my even having a clue? Got me.
"You . . . are . . . a . . . fridge . . . with wings," Fang ground out, punching an Eraser hard with every word. "We're . . . freaking . . . ballet . . . dancers."
Take a deep breath, Max, said my Voice, and I obeyed without question.
At that moment, I felt a blow to my back, between my wings, that knocked the wind out of me. I rolled, belly-up, using the oxygen I'd just gotten, trying to suck in more air.
Whirling, I snapped both feet out in a hard kick into the Eraser's face, then froze in shock. Ari!
He wheeled backward and I floundered away, wheezing and hoping I wouldn't pass out. Ari! But he was dead --- I'd killed him. Hadn't I?
Ari lunged at Fang, just as I yelled "Fang!" Ari managed to take a swipe at Fang's side, shredding his jacket.
Drawing back, gasping, I took stock of the situation. The few remaining Erasers were falling back, retreating. Below, I saw a white splash as an Eraser hit the ocean. That had to hurt.
Now it was just Ari against us. He looked around, then fell back as well, closer to his squad.
The six of us slowly regrouped as Ari began to fly clumsily away, his enormous wings working hard to keep his heavy body aloft. His squad surrounded him, a bunch of huge, hairy crows gone wrong.
"We'll be back!" he snarled.
It was really Ari's voice.
"Boy, you just can't kill people like you used to," said Fang.
We hovered in place for several minutes, waiting to see if there would be a second attack. For the moment, we seemed in the clear, and I took the time to catalogue our injuries. Fang was flying awkwardly, his arm pressed against his side.
"I'm fine," he said curtly, noticing me watching him.
"Angel? Gazzy? Nudge? Report," I said.
"Leg hurts, but I'm okay," said the Gasman.
"I'm fine," said Angel. "And so are Total and Celeste." Celeste was the small angel-dressed stuffed bear Angel had --- well, let's say --- been given at a toy store in New York.
"I'm okay," said Nudge, but she sounded whipped.
"My nose," said Iggy, pressing it hard to stop the bleeding. "But no biggie."
"Okay, then," I said. "We're almost to DC, and it should be easy to get lost in another big city. We good to go?"
Everyone nodded, and we swung in a tight, graceful arc to return to our flight path.
"So . . . what was with the flying Erasers?" Iggy said a few minutes later.
"I'm guessing a new prototype," I said. "But, man, they're failures. They were having a hard time flying and fighting at the same time."
"Like they'd just learned to fly, you know?" said Nudge. "I mean, compared to hawks, we look clumsy. But compared to those Erasers, we're, like, poetry in motion."
I smiled at Nudge's description, silently checking out my own aches and pains.
"They were bad fliers," Angel chimed in. "And in their minds, they weren't all Kill the mutants, like they usually are. They were like, Remember to flap!"
I laughed at her imitation of a deep, growly Eraser voice. "Did you pick up on anything else, Angel?" I asked.
"You mean besides dead Ari showing up?" Gazzy said, sounding bummed.
"Yeah," I said. Just then I caught a warm updraft and coasted for a minute, enjoying a feeling of pure bliss.
"Well, none of them really felt familiar," said Angel, thinking.
Having a six-year-old mind reader came in handy. Sometimes I wished Angel's mind reads were a little more specific, or that they'd come when we wanted. Then maybe she'd be able to warn us that an Eraser was about to drop in and say hi. But sometimes she just gave me the willies. Angel was starting to control people with her mind --- not just Erasers --- and I wasn't sure when she was crossing the line into, say, witchcraft, for instance.
A while later, I realized that Fang wasn't beside me and I looked around to see him below, maybe twenty feet back. He'd been silent, not unusual for him, but now I could see that his flying was ragged and off-balance. His face seemed paler, and his lips were pressed tightly together.
I dropped back and swooped down next to him.
"What's going on?" I said in my no-nonsense tone. It had never worked on him before, but a girl had to keep trying.
"Nothing," he said, but that one word was tight and strained. Which meant he was lying through his teeth.
"Fang --- ," I began, and then saw that the arm pressed against his side was dark and wet. Blood. "Your arm!"
"'S not my arm," he muttered. Then his eyes fluttered shut and he started to lose altitude fast.
"Iggy!" I yelled, as cold panic ripped right through me. Not Fang. Please let Fang be okay. "Over here!"
Then Iggy and I flew beneath Fang, supporting him. I felt Fang's dead weight on me, saw his closed eyes, and suddenly I felt as if I couldn't breathe.
"Let's land, see what's wrong!" I told Iggy, and he nodded.
We flew hard toward the narrow, rocky shore edging the black ocean. Iggy and I landed awkwardly, Fang limp between us. The younger kids scurried over to help us carry him to a flattish, sandier place.
Stop the bleeding, said the Voice.
"What's the matter with him?" Nudge asked, dropping to her knees next to Fang.
Checking him out, I saw that Fang's shirt and jacket were soaked with blood, the dark fabric gleaming wetly. I tried to keep my face calm.
"Let's just see what we're dealing with here," I said steadily, and quickly unbuttoned Fang's shirt.
Now I saw that the shirt was shredded, and beneath it, so was Fang. Ari had managed to do this . . . obscenity.
Nudge drew in a quick gasp when she saw the damage, and I looked up. "Nudge, you and Gazzy and Angel rip up a shirt or something. Make strips for bandages."
Nudge just stared at Fang.
"Nudge!" I said more firmly, and she snapped out of it.
"Uh, yeah. Come on, guys. I have an extra shirt here . . . an' I got a knife. . . ."
The three younger kids moved away while Iggy's sensitive hands brushed Fang's skin like butterflies.
"This feels real bad. Real bad," Iggy said in low voice. "How much blood has he lost?"
"A lot," I said grimly. Even his jeans were soaked with it.
"Jus' a scratch," Fang said fuzzily, his eyelids fluttering.
"Shhh!" I hissed at him. "You should have told us you were hurt!"
Stop the bleeding, the Voice said again.
"How?" I cried in frustration.
"How what?" Iggy asked, and I shook my head impatiently.
Put pressure on it, said the Voice. Press the cloth over it and lean on the wounds with both hands. Elevate his feet, Max.
"Iggy," I said, "lift Fang's feet. Guys, you got those strips ready?"
The Gasman handed me a bunch, and I quickly folded them into a pad. Placing it over the gaping slices in Fang's stomach was like putting my finger in a dike to stop a flood, but it was all I had, so I did it. I pressed both my hands over the pad, trying to keep a steady pressure on it.
Under Fang's side, the sand was turning dark with his blood.
"Someone's coming," said Angel.
Erasers? I looked up to see a man jogging along the shore. It was almost dawn, and seagulls were starting to wheel and cry above the water.
The man slowed to a walk when he saw us. He seemed ordinary, but looks could be deceiving, and usually were.
"Kids, you okay?" he called. "What are you doing out here so early?" He frowned when he saw Fang, then looked scared when he figured out what all the dark wet stuff was.
Before I could say anything, he'd whipped out his cell phone and called 911.
Excerpted from MAXIMUM RIDE: School's Out - Forever © Copyright 2011 by James Patterson. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown Young Readers, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved