PART 1: NO PARENTS, NO SCHOOL, NO RULES
PART 2: PARADISE OR PRISON?
PART 3: BACK TO SCHOOL (THE NORMAL KIND)
PART 4: THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
PART 5: BACK TO SAVING THE WORLD
For everybody out there who spreads the joy of reading
To the reader:
The idea for Maximum Ride comes from earlier books of mine called When the Wind Blows and The Lake House, which also feature a character named Max who escapes from a quite despicable School. Most of the similarities end there. Max and the other kids in Maximum Ride are not the same Max and kids featured in those two books. Nor do Frannie and Kit play any part in Maximum Ride. I hope you enjoy the ride anyway.
NO PARENTS, NO SCHOOL, NO RULES
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 ch
ip 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?