“Good for you, Nudge,” I said. “You saved our butts here.”
Trying to focus despite this latest mind-blowing development, I skimmed icons and right-clicked my way into Explore. I searched for “avian.”
Then, oh, my God… document files filled the screen.
My fingers flew across the keyboard, searching out names, dates, anything I could think of to make a connection.
Origins. That looked promising, and I clicked on it. My eyes raced down the lines of text-and my throat closed. I almost went into shock on the spot.
I saw our names, names of hospitals, names of towns-even what looked like names of parents. Then I saw pictures of adults that seemed to go with the names. Were these our parents? They had to be. Oh, God, oh, God. This was it! This was exactly what we needed!
I hit Print, and pages started spewing out of the printer.
“What are you doing?” Fang asked, coming over.
“I think maybe I found something,” I said breathlessly. I knew we shouldn’t stop to look over the amazing pages here. “I’m going to print it, and then we should get the heck out of here. Start getting the others together.”
I grabbed pages as they came out, folding them up and cramming them into all my pockets. I didn’t even know how many there were, but finally the printer stopped. I was bursting to tell the others everything, but I didn’t. I bit the inside of my cheek until it hurt. See why I’m the leader?
“Come on!” I said urgently. “Let’s split! Let’s go!”
“Uh, just a second, Max,” said the Gasman, sounding really, really weird.
The Gasman was standing by a fabric-covered wall, and with typical curiosity, he had pulled the fabric aside. Slowly, we walked over to him, six sets of eyes opened wide as saucers.
When I was two feet away, my heart slammed to a halt inside my chest. I put my hand over my mouth to keep from screaming. Angel did scream, until Fang cupped a hand over her mouth.
Behind the curtain was a glass wall. Okay, no biggie.
But behind the glass was another lab room, with lab stations, computers, and… cages.
Cages with sleeping forms in them. Child-size forms.
Dozens of them.
Just like us.
I couldn’t speak. My gaze raked the glass wall, and I saw a small pad at eye level. I went over and pressed it in that cute don’t-think-it-through way I have.
The glass wall opened, and we tiptoed through, our nerves as taut as rubber bands.
Sure enough, there were mutant kids sleeping in cages and in large dog crates. It brought my awful, gut-twisting childhood whooshing back to me, and I felt on the verge of having a panic attack. I’d forgotten about my headache for maybe a minute, but now it was back, throbbing as if my brain was getting ready to blow.
Angel was looking sadly into one cage, and I went to her. Out of hundreds of genetic experiments, only we and the Erasers had been at all viable-as far as I knew. The two little creatures asleep on their cage floor were clearly horrible failures and probably couldn’t last much longer. What with some of their vital organs on the outside of their bodies and all. Kidneys, bowels, a heart. Oh, the poor babies.
“This is pathetic,” Fang whispered, and I turned to see him looking at a large cat, like a serval or a margay. I’d never seen a real animal in one of the labs before. Just as I was wondering what its deal was, it woke up, blinked sleepily, then turned over and dozed off again.
I swallowed really, really hard. It had human eyes. And when I examined its paws more closely, I saw humanlike fingers beneath the retractable claws. Jiminy Christmas.
Glancing over, I saw Angel reading the card tacked to another small cage. Its doglike occupant was running in its sleep. “Hi, doggie,” Angel whispered. “Hi, little doggie. You look like Toto. From The Wizard of OzT
I went over to Nudge, who was standing stiffly beside a cage. I looked in.
This one had wings.
I caught Fang’s gaze, and he came over. When he saw the bird kid, he sighed and shook his head. I actually saw sadness and tenderness in his eyes. It made me want to hug Fang. But I didn’t, of course.
“You know, we can’t save them all,” he told me softly.
“I’m supposed to save the whole world, remember?” I whispered back. “Well, I’m gonna start with these guys.”
There you go, Max, said the Voice. That’s the difference between you and Fang.
Don’t you dare say anything bad about Fang, I thought. He’s usually right. He’s probably right about this now.
Is it important to be right or is it important to do what’s right? That’s one of the hardest lessons to learn.
Okay, whatever. I’m really busy right now. “Start popping latches,” I whispered to Iggy, who whispered to the Gasman, and so on.
I opened a cage and gently shook the creature inside awake. “Get ready to run,” I whispered. “We’re getting you out of here.” The poor baby looked back at me uncomprehendingly.
Several creatures were awake and pressing against their cage bars, making weird noises I’d never heard before. We moved as fast as we could, opening doors. Finally, most of the prisoners were free, standing around, looking at the entrance to the lab with confusion or fear.
One cage held a large child who was gripping the bars. Fine features said this was probably a female. She had wings-I could see them tucked tight against her sides. She was older than the other winged child we’d seen.
I quickly unlatched the door to her cage. I jumped back when I heard a voice.
“Who are you? Why are you doing this?” she whispered.
“Kids don’t belong in cages,” I said to her. Then I called out in a loud voice, “Okay, everybody. Let’s blow this joint.”
“This way!” Nudge said, attempting to herd the mutants out of the lab. “Don’t be afraid.”
“I hear voices,” Iggy said. “Be very afraid.”
“Let’s move it!” I ordered. My heart was pounding- what was I doing? Was I going to take care of all these kids? I could barely manage the ones I had.
I would think about that tomorrow.
“Nudge! Fang! Angel!” I called. “Out, out, out!”
They zipped past me, urging the others, and then we ran through the first door and across the deep carpeting to the second door. “Up the stairs!”
I didn’t have Iggy’s hearing, but I felt, sensed, that our little liberation party was about to be discovered. And that would be bad.
Plan ahead, Max. Think it out. Think on your feet.
Yes, Voice. Okay, we had steps, then sewer-I practically pushed the others up the dark stairs, one, two, three… One of the mutant kids freaked out and curled up in a ball, whimpering. I snatched it in one arm and kept climbing, two steps at a time. In my mind, I pictured the route we had to take.
Up ahead, Fang shoved open the last door, the one into the tunnel, and we all poured out after him, moving from cool, fresh air to a hot, fetid dampness that made my nose wrinkle.
“Where are we?” asked the bird girl we’d freed. She looked about ten years old and was one of the few who would speak.
“Sewer system, under a big city,” I said shortly. “On our way out to fresh air and sunlight.”
“But not just yet,” Ari hissed from behind. “First we need to chat, Maximum. You and I. For old times’ sake.”
I went still and saw the bird girl’s eyes widen in fear too. Did she know Ari? Slowly, I handed her the small whimpering mutant in my arms, then turned.
“Back again? What are you doing here?” I asked. “I thought Dad was keeping you on a short leash.”
His hands curled into clawed fists.
I needed time. Behind me, I made “run!” motions with one hand. “So what happened, Ari?” I said, keeping his attention on me. “Who took care of you when Jeb left with us?”
His eyes narrowed, and I saw his canines growing visibly longer. “The whitecoats. Don’t worry about it; I was in good hands. The best. Somebody was looking out for me.”
I frowned, wondering-“Ari, did Jeb give them permission to Eraserfy you or did someone just do it while he was gone?”
Ari’s heavily muscled body quivered with rage. “What do you care? You’re so perfect, the one successful recombinant. And I’m nobody, remember? I’m the boy who was left behind.”
Despite everything, despite the fact that I could cheerfully have kicked his teeth in for what he had done to Fang, I did feel a pang of pity for Ari. It was true-once we were out of the School, I’d never given him a second thought. I didn’t think about why Jeb had left him or what had happened to him.
“Someone did terrible things to you because Jeb wasn’t there to protect you,” I said quietly.
“Shut up!” he growled. “You don’t know anything! You’re dumb as a brick!”
“Maybe not. Someone wanted to see if Erasers would last longer if they didn’t start from infancy,” I went on. Ari was trembling now, his hands clenching and unclenching convulsively. “You were three years old, and they grafted DNA into you and they got a superEraser. Right?”
Suddenly, Ari lunged and swung out with one clubbed paw. Even with my speed-record reflexes, he managed to cuff my cheek hard enough to spin me against the gross tunnel wall. Something like pus stuck to my face.
I sucked in a breath, accepting that I was about to get the stuffing beat out of me. Ol’ Jeb, though clearly an agent of the devil, had taught us the useful art of street fighting. Never fight fair-that’s not how you win. Use every dirty trick you can. Expect pain. Expect to get hurt. If you’re surprised by the pain, you just lost.
I turned slowly back toward Ari. “Out in the real world, you should be in second grade,” I said, tasting salty blood inside my mouth. “If Jeb had protected you.”
“Out in the real world, you would have been killed for the disgusting mutant freak you are.”
Now the gloves were off. “And you’re a… what?” I asked in mock polite confusion. “Face it, Ari. You’re not just a big, hairy seven-year-old. You’re much more of an obvious mutant freak than I am. And your own father let it happen.”
“Shut up!” Ari yelled furiously.
I couldn’t help it-I felt bad for him for a second.
But only for a second.
“You see, Ari,” I said conversationally, then launched myself at him with a roundhouse kick that would have caved in the chest of an ordinary man. Ari merely staggered.
Staggered back a half-step. Not even a full one.
He cuffed me again, and I saw circles and stars. He punched me in the stomach. My God, he was as strong as a team of oxen. That would be strong, right?
“You’re dead meat,” Ari growled. “I mean that literally.”
Then he surged toward me, claws out-and he slipped.
His boot slid on the slimy tunnel ledge and he fell heavily to his back. So hard I could hear the wind knocked out of him, a mighty gush of air.
“Get them out of here! ” I shouted at Fang, barely turning my head, then instantly dropped my full weight onto Ari’s chest.
I could hear my heart and feel adrenaline snaking through me, turning me into Supergirl. I remembered that Ari had hurt Fang bad out at the beach-and he’d enjoyed it.
Ari struggled to get up, wheezing like a large animal with pneumonia, trying to push me off. I grabbed his head with both hands, my face twisted with fury.
But he got away from me. He was so fast, faster than I was.
Ari punched me again, and I thought I heard a rib crack. He was taking me apart bit by bit. Why did he hate me so? Why did all of the Erasers hate us?
“Yes, Maximum, I am enjoying this. I want it to last a long, long time.”
I was his pummeling bag now, and there was nothing I could do about it. You can’t imagine the hurt and pain, or his strength, or the fury aimed at me.
The only thing saving me from destruction was the slippery footing in the tunnel, the grime under his feet.
Just then Ari lost his balance again, and I saw the smallest opening. A chance, at least.
I kicked him once more, this time in the throat. Solid, a good one.
Ari gagged and started to go down. I threw myself at him, grabbing his head, and we fell as one in slow motion. He was huge, heavy, and we dropped like lead. Wham! Butt, back, head… I held on tight-as Ari’s neck slammed against the hard side of the tunnel. I heard a horrible, stomach-turning crack that vibrated up my arms. Ari and I stared at each other in shock.
“You really hurt me,” he gasped rawly, terrible surprise in his voice. “I wouldn’t hurt you. Not like this.” Then his head flopped down, and Ari went totally limp. His eyes rolled up and the whites showed.
“Max?” Iggy was trying to sound calm. “What was that?”
“I-I…” I gulped, sitting on Ari’s barrel chest, still holding his head, “I think I broke his neck.”
I gulped again, feeling like I might be sick. “I think he’s dead.”
We heard angry voices and heavy, pounding footsteps on the stairs above us.
No time to think, to try and make sense out of what had just happened.
I jumped off Ari’s lifeless body and grabbed Angel’s hand. Angel grabbed Iggy, and we started running with Nudge and the Gasman right behind us. I was aching everywhere, but I ran. I ran like the dickens, whatever that is. I saw no sign of Fang and the other mutants- they’d already gone.
“Fly!” I shouted, dropping Angel’s hand, and she instantly leaped out over the sewer water, snapping her wings open and pushing down hard. Her sneakers dipped into the water, but then she rose again and flew off down the tunnel, her white wings a beacon in the darkness. The Gasman went next, looking freaked out and pale, and Iggy took off after him.
I heard a booming voice.
“He was my son! ”
Jeb’s anguished cry echoed horribly after me, bouncing off the stone walls, coming at me from all angles. I felt short of breath. Had I really killed Ari? Made him die? It all seemed surreal-the sewer, the files, the mutants, Ari… Was I dreaming?
No. I was painfully awake, painfully myself, painfully right here, right now.
I turned and looked back at Jeb, the man who’d been my hero once upon a time.
“Why are you doing this?” I shouted at the top of my voice. “Why this game? This test? Look at what you’ve done.”
Jeb stared at me, and I remembered clearly when he was like my father, the only one I trusted. Who had he really been back then? Who was he now?