The doctor nodded. “Get ready to give him a donation,” she instructed me briskly.
Twenty minutes later, I was two pints lighter and dizzy as a dodo bird from it. I shouldn’t have given that much blood, but Fang needed even more, and it was the best I could do. Now he was in surgery.
I made my way down the hall to the waiting room, which was crowded—but not with bird kids.
Quickly I walked the perimeter, in case they were under chairs or something. No flock.
My head swiveled as I checked one hall and then another. I was already weak and kind of nauseated, and the fear of losing my flock made me feel like hurling was seconds away.
“They’re down here.” A short, dark-haired nurse was speaking to me. I locked my gaze on her.
She handed me a small plastic bottle of apple juice and a muffin. “Eat this,” she told me. “It’ll help with the dizziness. Your . . . siblings are in room seven.” She pointed down the hall.
“Thanks,” I muttered, not knowing yet if I meant it.
Room 7 had a solid door, and I opened it without knocking. Four pairs of worried bird-kid eyes looked up at me. Relief—however temporary—made my knees weak.
“You must be Max,” said a voice.
My stomach seized up. Oh, no, I thought, taking in the guy’s dark gray suit, the short, regulation hair, the almost invisible earpiece of his comm system. Eraser? It was getting harder to tell with each new batch. This guy lacked a feral gleam in his eyes—but I wasn’t going to let down my guard.
“Please, sit down,” said another voice.
There were three of them, two men and a woman, looking very governmenty, sitting around a fake-wood conference table.
Iggy, Nudge, Gazzy, and Angel were also sitting there, with plastic cafeteria trays of food in front of them. I realized that none of them had touched their food, despite the fact that they must be starving, and I was so proud of their caution that tears almost started in my eyes.
“Who are you?” I asked. Amazingly, my voice was calm and even. Points to me.
“We’re from the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” one man said, reaching out to hand me his business card. It had a little federal seal and everything. Not that that meant squat. “And we’re on your side. We just became aware that you were having some trouble here, and we came to see if we could help.”
He sounded so sincere.
“How nice of you!” I said, sinking into a chair before I fainted. “But aren’t most people in a hospital, uh, having some trouble? I doubt the FBI comes calling on them. So what do you want with us?”
I saw one agent stifle a grin, and their eyes all met for a second.
The first man, Dean Mickelson according to his card, smiled ruefully. “We know you’ve been through a lot, Max. And we’re sorry that . . . Nick got hurt. You’re in a bad spot here, and we can help.”
I was really tired and needed to think. My flock was watching me, and I could smell their hot breakfasts from where I sat. “Angel,” I said, “give Total some of your food and see if he keels over. If he doesn’t, you all can go ahead and eat.”
As if he knew his name, Total leaped up onto a chair next to Angel and wagged his tail. Angel hesitated—she didn’t want to take a chance.
“Look,” said the female agent. She stood up and took a bite of Angel’s scrambled eggs.
The other two agents followed her lead, sampling the three other trays. Just then there was a tap on the door, and a younger agent handed in a fifth tray, for me. An agent took a bite off my plate, then set the tray on the table. “Okay?” he asked.
We watched the agents with interest, waiting to see if they would suddenly clutch their throats and fall gasping to the floor.
“Okay, dig in, guys,” I said, and the flock fell on their food like, um, Erasers.
Gazzy was done first—he’d practically inhaled his. “Can I have maybe two more trays?” he asked.
Startled, Dean nodded and went to give the order.
“So, how are you here to help us?” I said between bites. “How did you know we were here?”
“We’ll answer all your questions,” said the other guy. “But we need you to answer some questions too. We thought it might be easier if we went one-on-one—less distracting. If you’re done eating, we can move into here.”
He opened a door behind him leading into a larger conference room. Several more agents were milling around, and they stopped talking to look at us.
“You’re not separating us,” I said.
“No, just separate tables,” said the woman. “All in the same room, see?”
I groaned inwardly. When was the last time we had slept? Was it only two days ago we were escaping through the sewer tunnels in New York? Now Fang was under the knife, we were surrounded by God knows who these people really were, and I didn’t see a way out of it. Not without leaving Fang behind. Which I wouldn’t do.
Sighing, I pushed away my empty tray and nodded to the others.
Let the questioning begin.
“And what’s your name, sweetie?”
“Ariel,” said Angel.
“Okay, Ariel. Have you ever heard of anyone named Jeb Batchelder?”
The agent held up a photograph, and Angel looked at it. Jeb’s familiar face looked back at her, and it hurt her heart.
“No,” she said.
“Um, okay . . . can you tell me what your relationship is to Max?”
“She’s my sister. You know, because of the missionaries. Our parents.”
“Okay, I see. And where did you get your dog?”
“I found him in the park.” Angel fidgeted and looked over at Max. She thought, Okay, enough questions. You can go.
The agent sitting across from her paused and looked blankly at the notes she was writing.
“Uh—I guess that’s enough questions,” the agent said, looking confused. “You can go.”
“Thanks,” said Angel, slipping out of her chair. She snapped her fingers for Total, and he trotted after her.
“And how do you spell that?” the agent asked.
“Captain, like the captain of a ship,” the Gasman explained. “And then Terror, you know, T-E-R-O-R.”
“Your name is Captain Terror.”
“That’s right,” the Gasman said, shifting in his chair. He glanced at Max, who was speaking very quietly to her agent. “Are you really FBI?”
The agent smiled briefly. “Yes. How old are you?”
“Eight. How old are you?”
The agent looked startled. “Uh . . . um, you’re kind of tall for an eight-year-old, aren’t you?”
“Uh-huh. We’re all tall. And skinny. And we eat a lot. When we can get it.”
“Yes, I see. Tell me . . . Captain, have you ever seen anything like this?” The agent held up a blurry black-and-white photo of an Eraser, half-morphed.
“Gosh, no,” said the Gasman, opening his blue eyes wide. “What is that?”
The agent seemed at a loss for words.
“And you’re blind?”
“Uh-huh,” Iggy said, trying to sound bored.
“Were you born that way?”
“How did you become blind, uh, Jeff, is it?”
“Yeah, Jeff. Well, I looked directly at the sun, you know, the way they always tell you not to. If only I had listened.”
“And then I had, like, three cheeseburgers, and they were awesome, you know? And those fried pie things? Those apple pies? They’re really great. Have you ever tried them?” Nudge looked hopefully at the woman sitting across from her.
“Uh, I don’t think so. Can you spell your name for me, sweetie?”
“Uh-huh. It’s K-R-Y-S-T-A-L. I like my name. It’s pretty. What’s your name?”
“Sarah. Sarah McCauley.”
“Well, that’s an okay name too. Do you wish it was something different? Like, sometimes I wis
h my name was kind of fancier, you know? Like—Cleopatra. Or Marie-Sophie-Therese. Did you know that the queen of England has, like, six names? Her name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary. Her last name is Windsor. But she’s so famous she just signs her name ‘Elizabeth R,’ and everyone knows who it is. I’d like to be that famous someday. I would just sign ‘Krystal.’”
The agent was silent for a moment, then she seemed to recover herself. “Have you ever heard of a place called the School?” she asked. “We think it’s in California. Have you ever been to California?”
Nudge looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. “California? Like, surfers and movie stars and earthquakes? No. I’d like to go. Is it pretty?” Her large brown eyes looked innocently at the agent.
“You can call me Agent Mickelson,” he told me with a smile. “What about you? Is Max short for something? Maxine?”
“No, Dean. It’s just Max.”
He blinked once, then referred back to his notes. “I see. Now, Max, I think we both know your parents aren’t missionaries.”
I opened my eyes wide. “No? Well, for God’s sake, don’t tell them. They’d be crushed. Thinking they’re doing the Lord’s work and all.”
Dean looked at me, I dunno, as if a hamster had just snarled at him. He tried another tack. “Max, we’re looking for a man named Jeb Batchelder. Do you have any knowledge of his whereabouts?” The agent held up a picture of Jeb, and my heart constricted. For a second I was torn: give that lying, betraying jerk up to the FBI, which would be fun, or keep my mouth shut about anything important, which would be smart.
I shook my head regretfully. “Never seen him.”
“Have you ever been to Colorado?”
I frowned. “Is that one of those square ones, in the middle?”
I saw Dean take a deep breath.
Quickly I glanced around. Angel was on the floor by the door, eating my muffin, sharing it with Total. Iggy’s and Nudge’s agents were conferring, whispering behind some papers, and Iggy and Nudge lounged in their chairs. Nudge was looking around curiously. I hoped she was memorizing escape routes. The Gasman got up, cheerfully said “Bye” to his agent, and went over to Angel.
“Max, we want to help you,” Dean said quietly. “But you’ve got to help us too. Fair is fair.”
I stared at him. That was the funniest thing I’d heard in days.
“You’re kidding, right? Please tell me you have a stronger motive for me than ‘fair is fair.’ Life isn’t fair, Dean.” My voice strengthened, and I leaned forward, closer to the agent’s impassive face. “Nothing is fair, ever. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I need to help you because fair is fair? Try, ‘I need you to help me so I won’t rip out your spine and beat you with it.’ I might respond to that. Maybe.”
Dean’s jaw clenched, and two pink splotches appeared on his cheeks. I got the feeling that he was more mad at himself than at me.
“Max,” he began, his voice tense, but was interrupted.
“Thank you, Dean,” said a woman’s voice. “I’ll take over from here.”
Dean straightened up and smoothed his expression. The new woman gave him a friendly smile and waited.
She was blond—I couldn’t tell how old. She had the sort of professional polish and attitude of a major-network news anchor. She was pretty, actually.
Dean gathered up his files, nodded at me, then went to confer with another agent. The new woman sat down across from me.
“They’re all kind of full of hot air,” she whispered behind her hand.
I was startled into a grin.
She reached her hand across the table for me to shake. “My name is Anne Walker,” she said. “And yes, I’m one of Them. I’m the one they call in when everything goes kablooey.”
“Have things gone kablooey?” I asked politely.
She gave a short laugh. “Uh, yeah,” she said in a “duh” tone of voice. “When we get a call from a hospital saying they’ve got at least two and possibly six previously unknown recombinant DNA life-forms and one of them is gravely injured, then, yes, I think we can safely say that things have gone kablooey with a capital ‘kuh.’”
“Oh,” I said. “Gee, we sound so important.”
One side of her mouth twitched. “Uh-huh. Why the surprise? Hasn’t anyone ever told you you were important?”
Jeb. The one word shocked my senses, and I went into total shutdown so I wouldn’t start bawling like the goofy recombinant life-form that I am. Jeb had made me feel important, once upon a time. He’d made me feel smart, strong, capable, special, important . . . you name it. Lately, though, he mostly made me feel blinding rage and a stomach-clenching sense of betrayal.
“Look,” I said coolly, “we’re in a tough spot here. I know it and you know it. One of my fl—brothers is hurt, and we need help. Just tell me what I have to do so we can get that help, and then we’ll be on our merry way.”
I shot a quick glance at the flock. They were sitting together, eating bagels and watching me. Gazzy cheerfully held up a bagel to show he was saving one for me.
Anne’s sympathetic look set my teeth on edge. She leaned over the table so she wouldn’t be overheard. “Max, I’m not gonna tell you a bunch of crap,” she said, surprising me again. “Like the crap you’re giving us about your parents being missionaries. We both know that isn’t true. And we both know that the FBI isn’t in the business of just helping people out because they’re so wonderful and special. This is the deal: We’ve heard about you. Rumors have been filtering into the intelligence community for years about a hidden lab producing viable recombinant life-forms.
“But it’s never been verified, and people have always dismissed it as urban-legend stuff. Needless to say, the very possibility that it could be true—well, we’ve got people assigned to finding out and cataloguing info, hearsay, or suspicion about you. You and your family.”
Wait till she found out about the Erasers.
Anne took a breath and sat back, keeping her eyes on me. “So you see, we consider you important. We’d like to know everything about you. But more important, if the stories are true, then our entire country’s safety could be at stake—if your so-called family were to get into the wrong hands. You don’t know your own power.”
She let that sink in for a moment, then smiled ruefully. “How about we make a trade? You give us a chance to learn about you—in nonpainful, noninvasive ways—and we’ll give Nick the best medical care available and the rest of you a safe place to stay. You can rest up, eat, Nick can get better, and then you can decide what to do from there.”
I felt like a starving mouse staring at a huge hunk of cheese.
Set right in the middle of an enormous, Max-sized trap.
I put a look of polite disinterest on my face. “And I believe that this is all straight up because . . .”
“It would be great if I could offer you guarantees, Max,” said Anne. “But I can’t—not anything that you would believe. I mean, come on.” She shrugged. “A written contract? My word of honor? A really sincere promise from the head of the FBI?”
We both laughed. Those wacky agents.
“It’s just—you don’t have a lot of choices here, Max. Not right now. I’m sorry.”
I stared at the tabletop and thought. The horrible thing was, she was right. With Fang in such bad shape, she had us over a barrel. The best thing I could do was accept her offer of shelter and care for Fang, bide my time, and work out an escape later. Silently I swore a whole lot. Then I looked up.
“Well, say I accepted. Where’s this safe place you’re dangling in front of me?”
She looked at me. If she was surprised that I was going along with it, she didn’t show it.
“My house,” she said.
Fang came out of surgery almost two hours later. I was waiting outside the OR, wound tighter than a rubber ball.
The doctor I’d talked to came out, still in his green scrubs. I wanted to grab the front
of his shirt, throw him against a wall, get some answers. But I’m trying to outgrow that kind of thing.
“Ah, yes, Max, is it?”
“Yeah. Max it is.” I waited tensely. If the unthinkable had happened, I’d snag the kids and make a run for it.
“Your brother Nick—it was a little dicey for a while. We gave him several units of blood substitute, and it brought his blood pressure up to a safe range.”
My hands were clenching and unclenching. It was all I could do to stand there and focus on the words.
“He didn’t go into cardiac arrest,” the doctor said. “We were able to patch up his side, stop all the hemorrhaging. A main artery had been hit, and one of his . . . air sacs.”
“So what’s he like now?” I forced my breathing to calm, tried to shut down my fight-or-flight response. Which in my case is, you know, literal.
“He’s holding steady,” the doctor said, looking tired and amazed. “If nothing goes wrong, he should be okay. He needs to take it easy for maybe three weeks.”
Which meant probably about six days, given our incredibly fast healing and regenerative strengths.
But jeez. Six days was a long time.
“Can I see him?”
“Not till he comes out of recovery,” the doctor said. “Maybe another forty minutes. Now, I’m hoping you can fill me in on some physiological stuff. I noticed—”
“Thank you, Doctor,” said Anne Walker, coming up behind me.
“I mean, I wanted to know—,” the doctor began, looking at me.
“I’m sorry,” said Anne. “These kids are tired and need to rest. One of my colleagues can answer any questions you might have.”
“Excuse me, but your colleagues don’t know jack about us,” I reminded Anne through clenched teeth.
The doctor looked irritated, but he nodded and went back down the hall.
Anne smiled at me. “We’re trying to keep your existence somewhat quiet,” she said. “Until we’re certain you’re safe. But that’s great news about Nick.”