The Gasman looked scared, then tried to wipe it off his face.
Iggy’s spine tightened, his face like ice. When he’d been at the School, they’d tried to surgically enhance his night vision. Now he was blind forever. Oops.
“They took Angel back to the School?” the Gasman asked, confused.
“I think so,” I said, trying to sound together and lead-erly. As if I weren’t screaming with panic inside.
“Why?” Nudge whispered. “After four years, I thought maybe they had forgotten-”
“They want us back,” said Fang.
We’d never really talked about this. It was like, out of sight, out of mind. Actually, more like, let’s all try to forget when we were at the mercy of sadistic spawns of Satan in a place that’s a total, hellish abomination and ought to be firebombed. Yeah, more like that.
“They’ll never forget about us. Jeb wasn’t supposed to take us out of there,” I reminded the Gasman.
“Jeb knew they would do anything to get us back. If anyone ever discovered what they did to us, it would be the end of the School,” Fang explained.
“Why don’t we tell on them, then?” Nudge demanded. “We could go to a TV station and tell everyone and say, Look, they grew wings on us, and we’re just little kids, and-”
“Okay, that would fix them,” Iggy interrupted. “But we’d end up in a zoo.”
“Well, what are we gonna do, then?” The Gasman was starting to sound panicky.
Fang had gotten up and left the room, and now he returned, holding a sheaf of yellowed, fading papers. The edges looked nibbled, and he shook some mouse poop off.
“Eew,” said Nudge, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “Eew. Was that-”
“Here,” said Fang, pushing the papers at me.
They were Jeb’s ancient printed-out files. After he disappeared, we’d cleared off his desk and shoved everything in the back of a closet so we wouldn’t have to look at it all the time.
We spread the papers out on the kitchen table. Just looking at them made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Not to mention the strong eau de mouse. I’d rather have been doing anything but.
Fang started to sift through the pile. He found a large manila envelope, sealed with a clump of wax. After looking at me, catching my nod, he popped the wax with his thumbnail.
“What is that?” asked the Gasman.
“Map,” Fang said, pulling out a faded topographical drawing.
“Map of what?” Nudge leaned closer, peering over Fang’s shoulder.
“Map of a secret facility,” I said, feeling my stomach clench. I’d hoped I’d never have to see it again, never break that wax seal. “In California. The School.”
“Whaaat?” the Gasman squeaked.
Iggy went even paler than normal, if possible.
“That’s where they took Angel,” I said. “And that’s where we have to go to get her back.”
“Oh,” said Nudge, her brain hitting overdrive. “Yeah. We have to go get Angel back. We can’t let her stay there-with them. They’re-monsters. They’re going to do bad things to her. And put her in a cage. Hurt her. But there’s five of us. So the rest of us have to go get hmph- ”
I had wrapped my hand across her mouth. She peeled my fingers apart. “Uh, how far is it?”
“Six hundred miles, more or less,” Fang said. “At least a seven-hour flight, not including breaks.”
“Can we discuss this?” Iggy asked, not turning his head. “We’re way outnumbered.”
“No.” I scanned the map, already working out routes, rest stops, backup plans.
“Can we take a vote? They had guns. And a chopper.” There was an edge in Iggy’s voice.
“Iggy. This is not a democracy,” I said, understanding his fear but unable to do anything about it. “It’s a Maxocracy. You know we have to go after Angel. You can’t be thinking that we would just let them take her. The six of us look out for one another-no matter what. None of us is ever going to live in a cage again, not while I’m alive.” I took a deep breath.
“But actually, Nudge, Fang, and I are going after Angel. You and the Gasman-I need you to stay here. Hold down the fort. On the off chance Angel escapes and makes her way home.”
There was a moment of dead silence.
“You are so full of it,” said Iggy, turning toward me. “That’s not why you want us here. Why don’t you just say it?”
Tension was making my stomach hurt. I didn’t have time for this. No-Angel didn’t have time for this.
“Okay,” I said, trying for a placating tone. “It’s true. I don’t want you to come. The fact is, you’re blind, and while you’re a great flyer around here where you know everything, I can’t be worrying about you in the middle of a firefight with the Erasers.”
Iggy’s face twisted in anger. He opened his mouth but got cut off.
“What about me?” the Gasman squealed. “I don’t care if they have guns and a chopper and Erasers. She’s my sister.”
“That’s right. And if they want her so bad, they might want you just as bad,” I pointed out. “Plus, you’re a great flyer, but you’re eight years old, and we’re going to be logging major hours.”
“Jeb would never have made us stay,” Iggy said angrily. “Never. Ever.”
I pressed my lips together. I was doing the best I could. “Maybe not,” I admitted. “We’ll never know. Jeb’s dead. Now everyone get your gear together.”
PART 2 HOTEL CALIFORNIA, SORT OF
“We clear on Plan B?” I asked, raising my voice so Fang and Nudge could hear me over the roar of the wind.
We were headed into the sun, south-southwest. Leaving the Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind, streaking through the sky at a steady ninety miles per hour. If we hit a nice air current, we could add twenty miles per hour to our speed. The glory of flight.
Fang nodded. God, is he ever the strong and silent type.
“Uh-huh,” said Nudge. “If we get separated somehow-though I don’t see how we could, unless maybe one of us gets lost in a cloud or something-do you think that could happen? I haven’t ever been inside a cloud. I bet it’s creepy. Can you see anything inside a cloud-”
I shot her a look. She paused, then quickly finished, “We meet up at the northmost point of Lake Mead.”
I nodded. “And where’s the School?”
“In Death Valley, eight miles due north from the Bad-water Basin.” Her mouth opened to add more, but I raised my eyebrows at her. I love Nudge, Nudge is a great kid, but that motormouth of hers could have turned Mother Teresa into an ax murderer.
“You got it,” I said. “Good job.” Did you hear that address? Could the School be located in a more perfect place? Death Valley. Above the Badwater Basin. Like, when we got there, we’d see a road paved with good intentions and have to cross the river Styx to get in. Wouldn’t surprise me.
The wind was undoing my braid, and chunks of long hair whipped annoyingly across my face. Note to self: Cut hair short.
The Gasman and Iggy had been none-too-happy campers when we’d left, but I thought I’d made the right decision. That was the problem with this leader stuff. It didn’t come with an instruction manual. Given what Angel was facing, their being unhappy was the least of my concerns.
I glanced over at Fang and saw that his face looked serene, almost-well, not exactly happy, Fang’s never happy-but just really calm. I edged closer to him.
“On the plus side, flying is just really, really cool,” I said, and he looked at me with a half smile of understanding. His dark wings moved powerfully, glinting faintly purple in the sunlight. The wind was whistling in our ears; we could see everything for miles. It was like being God. I imagine.
Oh, yeah. “On the minus side, we’re mutant freaks who will never live a normal life.”
Fang shrugged. “Win some, lose some.”
I was too upset to laugh but gave a wry smile and looked over at Nudge. She was three years younger than us but was holding her own. Like all of us, she was tall for her age, and skinny, probably weighing no more than sixty pounds, thanks to her strong, light bird bones.
Ninety miles an hour wasn’t fast enough. The “scientists” at the School could do a lot of damage in seven hours. Even so, I knew we’d have to take a break before we got there. If we were going to hit the School, we’d need to be rested, not hungry.
I checked my watch-we’d been skyborne for a good two hours. I was already feeling empty, a little shaky. Flying burned energy like nothing else, and after a long flight, I felt like I could eat a cow. Fork optional. Even needing to get to Angel, we couldn’t forget the basic necessity of eating.
“Max?” Nudge’s big eyes, the same tawny russet as her wings, looked over at me. “I was thinking-”
Here we go.
“I mean, right before we left? I just looked at Jeb’s old files, you know? And some of them were about us. Or me. I saw my name on a page, my real name, Monique, and then, like, some people’s names, and then-Tipisco, Arizona. Tipisco is right on the Arizona-California border-I found it on the map. Real tiny town, it looked like. Anyway, I was thinking, none of us ever knew our real parents, and, you know, we’ve always wondered, or at least I mean I’ve always wondered, but I guess the rest of you have too, like, whether they gave me up voluntarily or whether-”
“Nudge. I know how you feel. But those names might not have anything to do with you. We don’t know if we were just test-tube babies or what. Please. Let’s focus on rescuing Angel.”
“Yeah, okay. I was just thinking.”
I knew this one was going to come back and bite me in the butt.
Her mouth was so dry. Her head ached-everything ached. Angel blinked several times, trying to wake up. Above her was a dark brown plastic roof. A cage. A dog crate. A Kanine Kamper, size medium. Fuzzy thoughts pushed at her brain as she struggled to a sitting position. She knew where she was-she would recognize that chemical, disinfectant smell anywhere. She was at the School.
New new ‘n’ wings and new new wings girl new
Quickly, Angel turned in the direction of the thoughts.
In a crate next to hers were two other children, younger than she. Their eyes, too big for their hungry faces, locked onto her.
“Hi,” Angel whispered. She didn’t feel any whitecoats around-just the scrambled, incoherent thoughts of these kids.
Mouth noise girl wings new new
The other children stared without answering. Trying to smile, Angel looked at them more closely. She thought they were both boys. One had rough, scaly skin-literally scaly, like a fish, but just in patches, not all over. Not a happy effect.
The other one just looked like… a mistake. He had extra fingers and toes, and hardly any neck. His eyes were huge and bulging, and the hair on his head was sparse. It made Angel’s heart hurt just to look at him.
“I’m Angel,” she whispered again. “Do you have names?”
Noise noise bad girl wings bad noise
The two boys looked afraid, and they turned from her and edged farther back in their cage.
Angel swallowed hard and was quiet. What had happened to Max and the others? Were they in cages too?
A door opened and footsteps sounded on the linoleum floor. Angel felt the caged boys trembling with dread, crazed, swirling thoughts of fear crashing in their brains. They huddled together at the back of their cage. But the two whitecoats stopped in front of Angel’s.
“Oh, my God-Harrison was right,” one whitecoat said, hunching down to stare at Angel through the grate. “They got her! Do you know how long I’ve wanted to get my hands on this one?” He turned excitedly to the other whitecoat. “Did you ever read the Director’s precept report about this recombinant group?”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t sure I believed it,” said the other whitecoat, a woman. “Are you saying this is Subject Eleven? This little girl?”
The first whitecoat rubbed his hands together with glee. “You’re looking at it.” He leaned forward to unhook her cage door. “Come on, little thing. You’re wanted in lab seven.” Oh, yes! Man, when I section herbrain…
Angel winced, then rough hands dragged her out.
Pathetic relief washed through the boys that it was she who was being taken and not them.
Angel didn’t blame them one bit.
“Max? I’m starving.”
I had been ignoring my own ferociously growling innards for half an hour. There was no way I was going to break first-and give Fang the satisfaction? I don’t think so. But I did have an obligation, as leader, to take care of Nudge. As much as I hated to stop and lose time, it was a reality.
“Okay, okay. We need food.” How’s that for incisive leadership? “Fang! We need to refuel. Ideas?”
Fang pondered. It always amazes me how he’s able to seem so calm at the absolute worst times. Sometimes he seems like a droid-or a drone. Fang of Nine. Fang2-D2.
Below us were mountains-the San Francisco Peaks, according to our map.
Our glances met-it was creepy how we knew what each other was thinking so much of the time. “Ski slopes,” I said, and he nodded. “Pre-season. Empty vacation houses.”
“Would they have food?” Nudge asked.
“Let’s go find out,” I said.
We flew in a big circle around the edge of the mountains. Small towns that came alive in winter dotted the foothills. I led us away from them, to where a few homes stood like train-set models among the trees. One house was apart from the others. No cars parked outside, no smoke coming from the chimney. Nobody home?
I banked and slowed, tucked my wings in a bit, and started to drop.
We landed a hundred yards away. As usual, after flying for hours, my legs felt a tad rubbery. I shook them out, then folded my warm wings in tight against my body.
Nudge and Fang did the same.
We crept quietly through the woods. No signs of life. The porch was covered with pine needles, the driveway hadn’t been used, the shrubbery was way overgrown.
I gave Nudge the thumbs-up, and she smiled, though, amazingly, she stayed quiet. Bless you, child.
A quick reconnaissance revealed no alarm system I could see. No red lights blinking inside for motion detectors. This wasn’t a big fancy house worth alarming, anyway. It was just a teeny-tiny vacation cottage.