But grown-ups are the ones destroying the world, the Voice said. Think about it.
“Look who’s come to the seashore.”
The low voice, smooth and full of menace, woke me from sleep that night. My body tightened like a longbow and I tried to jump up, only to be held down by a big booted foot on my throat.
Ari. Always Ari.
In the next second, Fang and Iggy woke, and I snapped out my free hand to wake Nudge.
Adrenaline dumped into my veins, knotting my muscles. Angel woke and seemed to take off straight into the air with no running start. She clutched Celeste tightly, hovering about twenty feet above us. I saw her look around, saw her face take on an expression that had disaster written all over it.
I looked around too.
And gasped despite myself.
We were surrounded by Erasers, more Erasers than I’d ever seen before. Literally hundreds and hundreds of them. They’d been growing these things in quantities I could hardly imagine.
Ari leaned down and whispered, “You’re so pretty when you’re sleeping-and your mouth is shut. But what a shame to cut your hair.”
“When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it,” I spat, struggling against his boot.
He laughed, then reached down and stroked my face with one claw. “I like ’em feisty.”
“Get off her!” Fang launched himself at Ari, taking him by surprise. Ari outweighed Fang by a hundred pounds, easy, but Fang was coldly furious and out for blood. He was scary when he was like that.
Iggy and I leaped up to help and were instantly grabbed by Erasers.
“Nudge and Gazzy-U and A,” I yelled. “Now!”
Obeying without question, the two of them leaped into the air and flapped hard, rising to hover next to Angel. Erasers snapped at their legs, but they’d been quick and were out of reach. I was so proud, especially when Nudge snarled down meanly.
I struggled, but three Erasers held me in a tight, foul embrace. “Fang!” I screamed, but he was beyond hearing, locked in battle with Ari, who raked his claws across Fang’s face, leaving parallel lines of red.
The six of us are superhumanly strong, but even we don’t have the sheer muscle mass of a full-grown Eraser. Fang was badly outmatched but managed to chop Ari’s collarbone.
Ari yelped and bared his teeth, then pulled back and swung hard, catching Fang upside of his head. I saw his head snap sideways and his eyes close, then he dropped like a dead weight onto the sand.
Ari seized Fang’s head and brought it down hard on a rock. And then he did it again.
“Leave him alone! Stop it! Please stop it!” I screamed, a mist of fury swimming before my eyes. I struggled against the Erasers holding me and managed to stomp on one’s instep. He yelped a curse and corkscrewed my arm until tears rolled down my cheeks.
Fang’s eyes opened weakly. Seeing Ari over him, he grabbed sand and threw it into Ari’s face. Fang scrambled to his feet and launched a roundhouse kick at Ari that caught him square in the chest. Ari staggered back, wheezing, then recoiled fast and cracked Fang with an elbow. Blood sprayed from Fang’s mouth, and again he went down.
I was crying by now but couldn’t speak: An Eraser’s rough, hairy paw was clapped over my mouth.
Then Ari bent over Fang’s body, his muzzle open, canines sharp and ready to tear Fang’s throat. “Had enough,” he growled viciously, “of life?”
Oh, God, oh, God, not Fang, not Fang, not Fang-
My eyes went wide. I knew that voice too well.
Jeb. My adopted father. Now my worst enemy.
I stared with the fiercest, most righteous anger and hatred as Jeb Batchelder easily moved through the crowd of Erasers, parting them as if he were Moses and they were the Red Sea. It was still bizarre to see him-I’d been so used to mourning, not despising, him.
Ari paused, his rank and deadly mouth open over Fang’s neck. Fang was unconscious but still breathing.
“Ari!” Jeb said again. “You have your orders.”
Jeb walked toward me, keeping one eye on Ari. After endless seconds, Ari slowly, slowly drew back from Fang, leaving his body crumpled unnaturally on the sand.
Jeb stopped in front of me.
He’d saved my life more than once. He’d saved all our lives. Taught me to read, how to make scrambled eggs, how to hot-wire cars. Once I’d depended on him as if he were the very breath in my lungs: He was my one constant, my one certainty.
“Do you get it now, Max?” he asked softly. “Do you see the incredible beauty of the game? No child, no adult, no one has ever experienced anything like what you’re feeling. Do you see why all this is necessary?”
The Eraser holding me peeled his fingers away from my mouth so I could speak. Instantly, I spit hard, clearing my mouth and throat of tears. I hit Jeb’s shoe.
“No,” I said, keeping my voice steady, though everything in me was shrieking, desperate to run to Fang. “I don’t get it. I’ll never get it. I want to get out of it.”
His heartbreakingly familiar face looked strained, as if he was losing patience with me. Tough. “I told you, you’re going to save the world,” he said. “That’s the purpose of your existence. Do you think an ordinary, untrained fourteen-year-old could do that? No. You’ve got to be the best, the strongest, the smartest. You’ve got to be the ultimate. Maximum.”
I yawned and rolled my eyes, knowing he’d hate that, and Jeb’s jaw tightened in anger. “Do not fail,” he said, a hard note in his voice. “You did okay in New York, but you made serious, rather stupid mistakes. Mistakes cost you. Make better decisions.”
“You’re not my dad anymore, Jeb,” I said, putting as much annoying snideness into my tone as possible. “You’re not responsible for me. I do what I like. I named myself-Maximum Ride.”
“I’ll always be responsible for you,” he snapped. “If you think you’re actually running your own life, then maybe you’re not as bright as I thought you were.”
“Make up your mind,” I snapped back. “Either I’m the greatest or I’m not. Which is it?”
He motioned with his hand, and the Erasers let me and Iggy go. Ari turned and smirked at me, then blew me a kiss.
I spit at him. “Daddy always loved me best!” I hissed, and his face darkened.
He took a fast step toward me, paws coiled into fists, but was pushed along by a rough, hairy wave of the other Erasers. They swept him up and shuffled off around the large boulder at the end of our beach. Jeb was with them.
No, he was one of them.
Stumbling badly, my shoulder feeling like it was on fire, I made my way down the beach. Before I moved Fang, I felt his neck to see if it was broken. Then I carefully turned him over. Blood trickled from his mouth.
“Fang, you have to wake up,” I whispered.
The others ran over. “He looks really bad,” Gazzy said. “He should see a doctor.”
Nothing seemed broken-maybe his nose-but he was still out cold. I lifted his head into my lap and used my sweatshirt to dab at the bloody stripes on his face.
“We could carry him, you and me,” said Iggy, his long, pale hands floating over Fang, cataloging bruises, lumps, blood.
“Where to?” I asked, hearing my bitterness. “It’s not like we can check him into a hospital.”
“No hospi’l,” Fang mumbled, his eyes still shut.
Relief flooded through me.
“Fang!” I said. “How bad?”
“Pre’y bad,” he said fuzzily, then, groaning, he tried to shift to one side.
“Don’t move!” I told him, but he turned his head and spit blood out onto the sand. He raised his hand and spit something into it, then opened his eyes blearily.
“Tooth,” he said in disgust. “Feel like crap,” Fang added, touching the knots on the back of his head.
I tried to smile. “You look like a kitty cat.” I made whisker motions on my face, indicating where Ari had raked his. He looked at me sourly.
“Fang,” I said, my voice breaking. “Just live, okay? Live and be okay.”
With no warning, I leaned down and kissed his mouth, just like that.
“Ow,” he said, touching his split lip, then he and I stared at each other in shock.
Mortification heated my face. I glanced up to see Nudge and the Gasman gaping at me. Luckily, Iggy was blind, and Angel was getting Fang water.
Gazzy looked from me to Fang to Iggy, clearly thinking that he was sunk now that I had obviously severed all ties with reality.
Slowly, Fang levered himself into a sitting position, his jaw tight, sweat breaking out on his face. “Man,” he said, and coughed. “This feels pretty bad.”
It was about the most he’d ever admitted to, painwise. He stood clumsily and took the water from Angel. Taking a swig, he rinsed his mouth and spit it out onto the sand.
“I’m going to kill Ari,” Fang said.
Fang and the rest of us made it back to Manhattan without dropping out of the sky due to injury, exhaustion, or both.
“You macho thing, you,” I said when we finally landed in the darkness of Central Park. He looked worn out, clammy, and pale, but he had flown all the way with no complaint.
“That’s me,” he said, but he gave me a long look, like, I haven’t forgotten what you did, meaning the Kiss.
I blushed furiously, embarrassed beyond belief. I would never live that down.
“Are you really okay, Fang?” Nudge asked, the most touching concern in her voice. Nudge doted on Fang.
He looked like he’d fallen off a cliff, with huge purple bruises distorting his face, the awful scratches Ari had left on his cheeks, the stiff, pained way he moved.
“I’m cool,” he said. “Flying helped loosen me up some.”
“Look, let’s find a place to hunker down, catch some Zs, and then take another shot at the Institute,” I said. “We’ve got to figure it out-we can’t stop now. Right, guys?”
“Yeah, right,” Nudge said. “Let’s do it, get it over with. I want to know about my mom. And other stuff. I want to know the whole story, good or bad.”
“Me too,” said Gazzy. “I want to find my parents so I can tell’m what total scuzzes they are. Like, ‘Hi, Mom and Dad, you’re such scum! ”
I decided we’d better stay underground for safety’s sake. In the subway station, we jumped off the platform and walked quickly along the tracks. It looked familiar, and sure enough, a few minutes’ walking brought us to a huge firelit cavern populated by homeless people and misfits. Home, sweet home, especially if you happen to be a sewer rat.
“Boy, does this look inviting,” Fang said, rubbing his hands together.
I made a face at him as we climbed up onto the concrete ledge. Inside, I was glad that he had enough energy to be sarcastic.
Suddenly exhausted and emotionally wiped, I held out my left fist to make our bedtime stack. We did our thing, then Angel snuggled next to me. I checked to make sure the others, especially Fang, were okay, then I lay down, letting despair cover me like a blanket.
I was in the middle of another sleep-driven brain explosion when I felt myself surface to consciousness without opening my eyes. Not analyzing the impulse, I shot out my hand and grabbed someone’s wrist.
Moving fast, still on instinct, I sat up and twisted the intruder’s arm behind his back, my senses roaring to life.
“Cool it, sucker!” the arm’s owner whispered furiously. I yanked upward, threatening to pop his arm out of its socket. I definitely could’ve done it.
Fang creaked upright next to me, his eyes alert, but his body moving stiffly.
“You’re screwing with my Mac again,” said the hacker, and I loosened my hold on him. “Jeez, what happened to you?” Directed at Fang.
“Cut myself shaving,” Fang said.
The hacker frowned and rubbed his shoulder where I’d strained it. “Why’d you come back here?” he asked angrily. “You’re totally wrecking my hard drive.”
“Let me see,” I said, and he grumpily opened his laptop.
The screen was covered with the inside of my head: images, words, photos, maps, mathematical equations.
The hacker scowled, seeming more perplexed than mad, though. “It’s weird,” he said. “You guys don’t have a computer with you?”
“No,” Fang said. “Not even a cell phone.”
“What about a Palm Pilot?” the hacker asked.
“Nope,” I said. “We’re kinda more low-tech than that.” Like, having Kleenex would be a huge step up for us.
“A memory chip?” he persisted.
I froze. Almost against my will, I slid my gaze over to Fang.
“What kind of memory chip?” I asked, striving for casual.
“Anything,” the hacker said. “Anything that would have data on it that would interfere with my hard drive.”
“If we did have a chip,” I said carefully, “could you access it?”
“If I knew what it was,” he said. “Maybe. What do you have?”
“It’s small and square,” I said, not looking at him.
“Like this?” The hacker held his fingers about three inches apart.
His fingers were a half-inch apart. “You have a memory chip this small?”
“Let me see. Where is it?”
I took a deep breath. “In me. It’s implanted in me. I saw it on an X-ray.”
He stared at me with horror in his eyes. He turned off his laptop and closed the lid. “You have a memory chip that small implanted in you,” he verified.
I nodded, guessing this was somewhat worse than having cooties.
He took several steps back. “A chip like that is bad news,” he said slowly, as if I were stupid. “It might be NSA. I won’t mess with it. Look, you stay away from me! Next thing, they’ll be after me.” He backed away into the darkness, his hands up as if to ward off evil. “I hate them! Hate them!” Then he was gone, back into the bowels of the tunnels.
“See ya,” I whispered. “Wouldn’t want to be ya.”
Fang looked at me irritably. “I can’t take you anywhere.”
I so wished he weren’t all banged up-so I could whack him.
We tried to get some sleep-God knows we needed it. I kind of dozed off. Then I wasn’t asleep, I knew that much. But I wasn’t awake, exactly.