Dimly, I heard Angel screaming and Nudge crying.
Get up! I told myself, trying to suck in air. Get up!
As weird mutant kids, we’re much, much stronger than regular grown-up humans. But Erasers aren’t regular grown-up humans, and they outnumbered us as well. We were dog meat. I struggled to my hands and knees, trying not to retch.
I staggered to my feet, bloodlust in my eyes, ready to kill. Two Erasers held Nudge’s hands and feet. They swung her hard, and she went sailing, hitting her head against a tree. I heard a small pained cry, and then she lay crumpled among the pine needles.
With a hoarse, blood-muffled shout, I ran up and clapped my cupped palms around an Eraser’s furry ears. He shrieked as his eardrums popped, and he fell to his knees.
“Max!” Angel screamed, high-pitched and terrified, and I spun around. An Eraser had her by the arms, and I raced forward, jumping over Iggy, who now lay unconscious. Two Erasers fell on me, knocking me down, one pressing a heavy knee into my chest. I wheezed and struggled, and one of them cuffed my face hard, his ragged claws digging deep welts in my cheek.
Dizzily, I fell back, the two Erasers pinning me, and with uncomprehending horror I saw three other Erasers stuffing Angel, my baby, into a rough sack. She was crying and screaming, and one of them hit her.
Frantically struggling, I tried to scream but could make only a hoarse, choked cry. “Get off me, you stupid, freaking-” I choked, but I was slammed back again.
An Eraser leaned over me, smiling horribly.
“Max,” he said, and my stomach clenched-did I know him? “Good to see you again,” he went on conversationally. “You look like crap. You always acted so much better than everyone else, so this cheers me up.”
“Who are you?” I gasped, feeling cold at the center of my being.
The Eraser grinned, his long, sharp teeth barely fitting in his jaw. “You don’t recognize me? I guess I’ve grown some.”
My eyes went wide with sudden, horrified recognition.
“Ari,” I whispered, and he laughed like a mad person. Then he stood up. I saw his huge, black boot come at my head, felt my head jerk to one side, and everything went black.
My last thought was disbelief: Ari was Jeb’s son. They’d made him into an Eraser. He was seven years old.
“Max?” The Gasman’s voice was very young and very scared.
I heard a horrible, low moan, then realized it had come from me.
The Gasman and Fang were leaning over me, concerned expressions on their bruised, bloodied faces.
“I’m okay,” I croaked, having no idea if I was or not. Memory came rushing back, and I tried to sit up. “Where’s Angel?” My voice was strained.
Fang’s dark eyes met mine. “She’s gone. They took her.”
I thought I might faint again. I remembered being nine years old, looking out the wired-glass lab window, watching the Erasers in the semidarkness. The whitecoats had released chimpanzees onto the School grounds and let newly made Erasers loose after them. Teaching them how to hunt.
The sounds of the chimpanzees screeching in terror and pain still echoed in my mind.
That was who had Angel now.
Rage overwhelmed me-why couldn’t they have taken me instead? Why take a tiny kid? Maybe I would have had a chance-maybe.
Shakily, I got to my feet. My head was spinning, and I had to lean against Fang, hating my weakness. “We’ve got to get her,” I said urgently, trying to stay upright. “We’ve got to get her before they-” Horror-filled images flashed through my mind-Angel being chased, being hurt, being killed. I gulped, shutting them down.
“Check in, guys-are you up for a chase?” I examined the four of them. They looked like they’d been stuffed into a blender set on “chop.”
“Yes,” Nudge said in a tear-choked voice.
“I’m up,” said Iggy, a split lip making his voice thick.
The Gasman nodded solemnly at me.
To my horror, hot tears momentarily blurred my vision. I wiped them away with the back of one hand and called on fury to keep me going.
Just then Iggy cocked his head slightly. It was a clue for me to start listening intently. Then I heard it too: a faint engine noise.
“There!” Iggy said, pointing.
The five of us ran stiffly and clumsily toward the sound. A hundred yards through the woods brought us to a sharp drop-off maybe fifty feet above an old, unused logging road.
Then I saw it: a black Humvee, dull with dust and mud, bumping roughly over the unpaved road. My heart pounded. I knew, just knew, that my little one, my Angel, was inside. And she was on her way to a place where death came as a blessing.
It wasn’t going to happen, not while I was breathing.
“Let’s get her!” I cried, then backed up about ten feet. The others scurried out of my way as I ran to the edge and simply jumped out into space.
I started to fall toward the road.
Then I unfurled my wings, fast, catching the wind.
And I began to fly.
You see, that nightmare I had is actually hard to tell apart from my real life. My friends and I really did used to live at a stinking cesspool of evil called the School. We were created by scientists, whitecoats, who grafted avian DNA onto our human genes. Jeb had been a whitecoat, but he’d felt sorry for us, cared about us, and kidnapped us away from there.
We were bird kids, a flock of six. And the Erasers wanted to kill us. Now they had six-year-old Angel.
I gave a strong push down and then up, feeling my shoulder muscles working to move my thirteen-foot wingspan.
I banked sharply, heading after the Humvee. A quick glance back revealed that Nudge had jumped out after me, then Iggy, the Gasman, and Fang. In tight formation, we swerved down toward the car. Fang snatched a dead branch off a tree. He dropped straight down and smashed it against the Humvee’s front windshield.
The vehicle swerved, a window rolled down. A gun barrel poked out. Around me, trees started popping with bullets. The smell of hot metal and gun smoke filled the air. I looped back into the tree line, still tracking the car. Fang smashed the windshield again. Bullets spit from several windows. Fang wisely surged away.
“Angel!” I screamed. “We’re here! We’re coming for you!”
“Up ahead,” called Fang, and I saw a clearing maybe two hundred yards away. Through the trees, I could barely see the greenish outline of a chopper. The Humvee was bouncing heavily over the rutted road. I met Fang’s eyes, and he nodded. Our chance was when they moved Angel from the car to the chopper.
It all happened so fast, though. The Humvee braked awkwardly, sliding in the mud. The door burst open, and an Eraser sprang out. Fang dropped on him, then recoiled with a yell, his arm dripping blood. The Eraser sped toward the chopper, throwing himself through the open hatch. A second Eraser, showing his huge yellow canine teeth, leaped from the car and hurled something into the air. Shouting, Nudge grabbed Iggy’s hand and they pulled backward fast as a grenade exploded in front of them, spewing chunks of metal and tree bark everywhere.
The chopper’s rotor was picking up speed, and I shot out from behind the trees. They were not going to get my baby. They were not taking her back to that place.
Ari jumped out of the car, carrying the sack with Angel in it.
I tore toward the chopper, fear and desperate anger making my blood sing. Ari threw Angel’s sack through the open door. He jumped in behind, an incredible athlete himself.
With a furious roar, I sprang up and caught hold of the chopper’s landing skid just as it took off. The metal was hot from the sun and too wide to hold. I hooked one arm over it, trying to steady myself.
The massive downdraft from the rotors almost snapped my wings in half. I pulled them in, and the Erasers laughed, pointing at me as they closed the glass hatch. Ari was right there. He picked up a rifle and aimed it at me.
“Let me tell you a secret, old pal, old chap,” Ari yelled at me. “You’ve got it all wrong. We’re the good guys!”
“Angel,” I whispered, near tears. Ari’s claw tightened on the trigger. He would do it. And dead, I would be no use to anybody.
My heart breaking, I let go, falling fast, just as I saw a small, tousled blond head shake itself free of the sack.
My baby, flying away toward her death.
And, trust me on this, things much worse than death.
We all have great vision-raptor vision. So we had the excruciating pain of watching the helicopter take Angel away for much longer than the average person. My throat closed with a sob. Angel, whom I had cared for since she was a baby with goofy chicken wings. I felt like they had chopped my own right wing off, leaving a ragged, gaping wound.
“They have my sister!” the Gasman howled, throwing himself down. He always tried so hard to be a tough guy, but he was only eight, and he’d just seen his sister kidnapped by the hounds of hell. He pounded the dirt with his fists, and Fang knelt next to him, one arm tenderly around his shoulder.
“Max, what are we gonna do?” Nudge’s eyes were swimming with tears. She was bruised and bloody, her fists clenching and unclenching anxiously. “They have Angel.”
Suddenly I knew I was going to implode. Without a word, I pushed off from the ground, wings out, taking off as fast as I could.
I flew out of sight, out of the others’ hearing. Ahead was a huge Douglas fir, and I landed ungracefully on one of its upper branches, maybe 175 feet in the air, scrabbling to catch hold because I’d overshot. Gasping, I clung to the limb.
Okay, Max, think. Think! Fix this! Figure something out.
My brain was flooded with too much thought, emotion, confusion, rage, pain. I needed to get a grip.
But I couldn’t get a grip.
It was like I had just lost my little sister.
And like I had lost my little girl.
“Oh, God, Angel, Angel, Angel!”
Yelling as loud as I could, I made fists and punched the chunky bark of the fir tree hard, over and over, until finally actual pain seeped into my seared consciousness. I stared at my knuckles, saw the blood, the missing skin, the splinters.
The physical pain hurt much less than the mental kind.
My Angel, my baby, had been snatched away. She was with bloodthirsty man-wolf mutants eager for her blood who would turn her over to despicable lab geeks who wanted to take her apart. Literally.
Then I was crying, clinging to the tree as if it were a lifeboat from the Titanic, and I sobbed and sobbed until I thought I’d make myself sick. Gradually, the sobs slowed to shudders, and I wiped my face on my shirt, leaving streaks of blood.
I sat in the tree until my breathing calmed and my brain seemed to be hitting on most cylinders again. My hands were killing me, though. Note to self: Stop punching inanimate objects.
Okay. It was time to go down and be strong, to get everyone together, to come up with Plan B.
And one other thing-Ari’s last words were still screaming in my brain: We’re the good guys.
I don’t even remember flying home. I felt heartbroken and numb, and when we walked into the kitchen, the first thing I saw was Angel’s breakfast plate on the table.
Iggy howled and swept his hand across the kitchen counter, catapulting a mug through the air. It hit Fang in the side of the head.
“Watch it, idiot!” he yelled at Iggy furiously. Then he realized what he’d said, clenched his teeth, and rolled his eyes at me in frustration.
Tears were streaming down my cheeks, their salt stinging where the Eraser had raked me with his claws. Moving automatically, I got the first aid kit and started cleaning the Gasman’s scrapes and cuts. I looked around. Nudge’s cheek was bleeding; some shrapnel had burned her as it flew past. For once she wasn’t talking-she was curled on the couch, crying.
The Gasman glanced up at me.
How’d you let this happen, Max?
I was asking myself the same question.
True, I’m the leader, I’m Max the Invincible-but I’m also just a fourteen-year-old kid. And every once in a while, like when I realize all over again that Jeb is gone forever, that we’re on our own, that the others depend on me and I can’t let them down, well, that’s when it all gets to me. Suddenly, I’m a little kid again, wishing Jeb were back-or even, hey, wishing I was normal! Or had parents!
“You watch it!” Iggy shouted at Fang. “What happened? I mean, you guys can see, can’t you? Why couldn’t you get Angel?”
“They had a chopper!” the Gasman yelled, squirming out of my reach. “And guns! We’re not bulletproof!”
“Guys! Guys!” I yelled. “We’re all upset. But we’re not the enemy! They’re the enemy.”
I stuck the last Band-Aid on the Gasman and started pacing. “Just-be quiet for a minute so I can think,” I added more calmly. It wasn’t their fault our rescue mission had been such a total ditcher. It wasn’t their fault Angel was gone.
It was their fault that the kitchen looked like it belonged to a family of hygiene-challenged jackals, but I would deal with that later. Whenever that kind of thing became important again. If ever.
Iggy moved to the couch and almost sat on Nudge. She scooted to one side, and when he sat down, she put her head on his shoulder. He stroked her hair.
“Take deep breaths,” the Gasman advised me, looking concerned. I almost burst into tears again. I had let his sister get kidnapped, failed to save her, and he was worried about me.
Fang was darkly silent. His eyes watched me as he opened a can of ravioli and picked up a fork with a heavily bandaged hand.
“You know, if they just wanted to kill her, or kill all of us, they could have,” Nudge said shakily. “They had guns. They wanted Angel alive for some reason. And they didn’t care if we were alive or not. I mean, they didn’t go out of their way to make sure we were dead, is what I’m saying. So that makes me think we have time to go after Angel again.”
“But they were in a chopper,” said the Gasman. “They’re way gone. They could be anywhere.” His lower lip trembled, and he clenched his jaw. “Like, China or something.”
I went over and ruffled his already ruffled blond hair. “I don’t think they took her to China, Gazzy.”
“We know where they took her.” Fang’s calm words fell like stones. He scraped the bottom of the can with his fork.
“Where’s that?” Iggy asked, raising his head, his blind eyes bloodshot with unshed tears.
“The School,” Fang and I said at the same time.
Well, as you can imagine, that went over like a ton of freaking bricks.
Nudge gasped, her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide.