With my pocketknife I slit a window screen and unhooked the latch. The screen lifted off easily, and I set it carefully against the side of the house: A thoughtful burglar, that’s me.
Then Fang and I shook the old wooden window frame until the lock at the top jiggled open. Fang climbed in first, then I boosted Nudge in, then I scrambled in and shut the window.
Dust covered everything. The fridge was turned off, its door open. I started opening kitchen cupboards. “Bingo,” I said, holding up a dusty can of soup.
“Oh, yeah, pay dirt, woo-hoo!” Cans of beans, fruit, condensed milk, whatever that was-it sounded bad. The ever-popular ravioli. “We’re golden!”
Fang found some dusty bottles of orange soda, and we popped those suckers open. But let me tell you-there’s a reason people serve that stuff cold.
Half an hour later, we were sprawled on the musty couches, our eyes at half-mast, our bellies way too full.
“Uhhnnhh,” Nudge moaned. “I feel like, like concrete.”
“Let’s take ten, rest a bit,” Fang said, closing his eyes. He lay back against the couch and crossed his long legs. “Digest a minute, we’ll feel better.”
“I second that emotion,” I muttered, my own eyes closing. We’re coming, Angel. In a minute.
“Let’s throw all their stuff into the canyon,” Iggy said angrily, punching a door frame.
Having to listen to the rest of the flock leaving while he sat around being blind was more than he could stand. “I think even their beds would fit out the hall window.”
The Gasman scowled. “I can’t believe I have to stay home while they go off and save my own sister.”
He kicked a worn red sneaker against the kitchen island. The house seemed empty and too quiet. He found himself listening for Angel’s voice, waiting to hear her singing softly or talking to her stuffed animals. He swallowed hard. She was his sister. He was responsible for her.
An open bag of cereal lay on the counter, and he dug out a dry handful and ate it. Suddenly, he picked up the bag of cereal and hurled it at a wall. The bag split open, and Frootios sprayed everywhere.
“This sucks!” the Gasman shouted.
“Oh. did that just occur to you?” Iggy said sarcastically.
“I guess you can’t fool the Gasman. He might not look like the sharpest tool in the shed, but-”
“Shut up,” said the Gasman, and Iggy raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Look. This sucks so bad. Max left us here ’cause she thought we couldn’t keep up.”
Iggy’s face stiffened.
“But was she thinking about what would happen if the Erasers came back here?” the Gasman asked. “Like, they got Angel not far from here-they saw all the rest of us. So they know we must be somewhere in the area. Why wouldn’t they come back for us?”
“Huh,” Iggy said thoughtfully. “Course, it would be hard to find this place, and even harder to get to it.”
“Not if they have a chopper,” the Gasman pointed out. “Which they do.”
“Huh,” said Iggy, and the Gasman felt proud that he had thought of all this before Iggy had, even though Iggy was older-as old as Max and Fang. Nearly ancient.
“Does that mean we have to sit here and take it?” the Gasman asked, pounding his fist on the counter. “No! We don’t have to wait for the Erasers to come get us! We can do stuff! We can make plans. I mean, we’re not useless, no matter what Max thinks.”
“Right,” said Iggy, nodding. He came to sit next to the Gasman at the counter, his feet crunching over dry cereal. “Yeah, I see what you mean. So to speak.”
“I mean, we’re smart! We’re tough as nails! Max might not have thought about keeping the camp safe, but we did, and we can do it.”
“Yeah, now you’re talking. Uhhh… But how?”
“We could make traps! Do sabotage! Bombs!” The Gasman rubbed his hands together.
Iggy grinned. “Bombs are good. I love bombs. Remember the one from last fall? I almost caused an avalanche.”
“That was to make a trail through the woods. Okay. There was a reason for it. Max approved it.” The Gasman pawed through a hill of ancient newspapers, piles of junk, someone’s old socks, a long-forgotten bowl that had once held some sort of food substance-oops-until he found a slightly oil-stained memo pad.
“Knew it was around here,” he muttered, ripping off used sheets. A similar search revealed part of a pencil. “Now. We need a great plan. What are our objectives?”
Iggy groaned. “Oh, no-years of Max influence are taking their toll. You sound just like her. You’re, like, a Maxlet. A Maxketeer. A… a…”
The Gasman frowned at Iggy and started writing. “Number one: Make firebombs-for our protection only. Number two: Blow up demonic Erasers when they return.” He held the paper up and reread it, then smiled. “Oh, yeah. Now we’re getting somewhere. This is for you, Angel!”
Angel knew she couldn’t go on like this much longer.
Her lungs had started burning bad an hour ago; she hadn’t been able to feel her leg muscles for longer than that. But every time she stopped running, a sadistic whitecoat-Reilly-zapped her with a stick thing. It jolted electricity into her, making her yelp and jump. She had four burn marks from it already, and they really, really hurt. What was worse was she could feel his eager anticipation-he wanted to hurt her.
Well, he could zap her a thousand million times, if he wanted. This was it-she couldn’t go on.
It was a relief to let go. Angel saw the whole world narrow down to a little fuzzy tube in front of her, and then even that went gray. She sort of felt herself falling, felt her feet tangle in the treadmill belt. The zap came, once, twice, three times, but it felt distant, more an unpleasant stinging than real pain. Then Angel was lost, lost in a dream, and Max was there. Max was stroking her sweaty hair and crying.
Angel knew it was a dream because Max never cried. Max was the strongest person she knew. Not that she had known that many people.
Ripping sounds and a new, searing pain on her skin pulled Angel back. She blinked into white lights. Hospital lights, prison lights. She smelled that awful smell and almost retched. Hands were pulling off all the electrodes taped to her skin, rip, rip, rip.
“Oh, my God, three and a half hours,” Reilly was murmuring. “And its heart rate only increased by seventeen percent. And then at the end-it was only in the last, like, twenty minutes that its peak oxygen levels broke.”
It! Angel thought and wanted to scream. I’m not an it!
“I can’t believe we’ve got a chance to study Subject Eleven. I’ve been wanting to dissect this recombinant for four years,” another low voice said. “Interesting intelligence levels-I can’t wait to get a brain sample.”
Angel felt their admiration, their crummy pleasure. They liked all the things wrong with her, all the ways she wasn’t normal. And all those stupid long words added up to one thing: Angel was an experiment. To the whitecoats, she was a piece of science equipment, like a test tube. She was an it.
Someone put a straw into her mouth. Water. She started swallowing quick-she was so thirsty, like she’d been eating sand. Then another whitecoat scooped her up. She was too tired to fight.
I have to think of how to get out of here, she reminded herself, but thoughts were really hard to string together right now.
Someone opened the door of her dog crate and flopped her inside. Angel lay where she fell-at least she was lying down. She just had to sleep for a while. Then she would try to escape.
Wearily, she blinked and saw the fish boy staring at her. The other boy was gone. Poor little guy had been gone this morning, hadn’t come back. Might not.
Not me, Angel thought. I’m gonna fight. Right… after…I… rest.
This bed was horrible! What was wrong with my bed?
Irritated, I punched my pillow into a better shape, then started sneezing hysterically as clouds of dust sailed up my nose.
“Wah, ah, ah, choo!” I grabbed my nose in an attempt to keep some of my brains inside my head, but the sudden movement caused me to lose my balance, and with no warning I fell hard to the floor. Crash!
“Ouch! Son of a gu-” I scrambled to get up. My hands hit rough upholstery and the edge of a table. Okay, now I was lost. Prying open my bleary eyes, I peered around. “What the…”
Where was I? I looked around wildly. I was in a… cabin. A cabin! Ohhh. A cabin. Right, right.
It was oh-dark-thirty-not yet dawn.
I leaped to my feet, scanned the room, and saw nothing to be alarmedabout.Except for the fact that obviously, Fang, Nudge, and I had just wasted precious hours sleeping!
Oh, my God. I hurried over to Nudge, who was sprawled across a recliner. “Nudge! Nudge! Wake up! Oh, man…”
I turned to Fang, to find him swinging his feet over the edge of a couch. He sneezed and shook his head.
“What time is it?” he asked calmly.
“Almost morning!” I said, terribly upset. “Of the next day!”
He was already moving toward the kitchen cupboards. He’d found an ancient, stained backpack in a closet, and now he methodically started to fill it with cans of tuna, sealed bags of crackers, zip-locked bags of trail mix.
“Wha’s happ’nin’?” Nudge asked, blinking groggily.
“We fell asleep!” I told her, grabbing her hands and pulling her upright. “Come on! We’ve gotta go!”
Dropping to all fours, I raked my shoes out from under the couch and blew dust bunnies off them. “Fang, you can’t carry all that,” I said. “It’ll weigh you down. Nothing’s heavier than cans.”
Fang shrugged and pulled the backpack on. Stubborn kind of fella. He moved soundlessly across the room and slipped through the window like a shadow.
Now I was jamming Nudge’s shoes onto her feet, rubbing her back, trying to wake her up. Nudge was always a reaaallly slow waker. Usually I appreciated the lack of word-spew, which would begin when she was fully functioning, but right now we needed to move, move, move!
I practically threw Nudge through the window, slithered out myself, then propped the screen back in place as best I could.
A quick run down a country road and we were off, stroking hard, pushing to get airborne.
Sorry, Angel. Sorry, sorry, sorry, my baby.
Okay. Despite the imminent sunrise, I felt better once we were flying above the treetops.
But still! How stupid was that? What kind of a loser was I, to let us fall asleep in the middle of a freaking rescue! I thought about Angel waiting for us, and my heart clenched. With a sense of dread, I banked and set us going about ten, twelve degrees southwest. Anxiety fueled my wings, and I had to remember to find good air currents, set my wings at an angle, and coast when I could.
“We had to rest,” Fang said, coming up beside me.
I shot him an upset glance. “For ten hours?”
“Today we’ve got another four hours to go, maybe a bit more,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it in one shot. It was late when we left. We’re going to have to stop again anyway, right before we get there, and refuel.”
There’s nothing more annoying than cold logic and reason when you’ve got a good fit going.
Fang was right, of course-sigh-and of course we’d have to stop again. We hadn’t even hit the California border yet. Far from it.
“We going to storm the place or what?” Fang asked an hour later.
“Yeah, Max, I was wondering what your plan was,” said Nudge, coming up alongside. “I mean, there’s only three of us, and a whole bunch of them. And the Erasers have guns. Could we, like, drive a truck through the gates? Or even into a building? Or maybe we could wait till nightfall, sneak in, and sneak out with Angel before anyone notices us.”
That crazy thought cheered her up. I kept silent-I didn’t have the heart to tell her we had about as much chance of that as we did of flying to the moon. But if worse came to worst, I had a secret Plan C.
If it worked, everyone would escape and get free.
Except me. But that was okay.
Despite my growing anxiety, it was glorious up here. Not many birds flew this high-some falcons, hawks, other raptors. Every once in a while some of them would come check us out, probably thinking, Man, those are some dang ugly birds.
This high up, the land below took on a checkerboard effect of Robin Hoodsy greens and browns. Cars looked like busy ants moving purposefully down their trails. Every once in a while I picked something small down below and focused on it. It was cool how some little tiny thing, like a swimming pool, a tractor, whatever, would ratchet into focus. At least those maniacs at the School hadn’t had time to “improve” my vision like they improved Iggy’s.
“Gosh, I wonder what Iggy and the Gasman are doing now?” Nudge babbled. “Maybe they got the TV working again. I hope they don’t feel too bad. It would have-I mean, I guess it’s kind of easier for them to be home. But I bet they’re not cleaning up or getting wood or doing any of their chores.”
I bet they’re cursing my name from dawn to dusk. But at least they’re safe. Absently, I chose a flickering shape below and focused on it, watching a small blob become people, take on features, clothing, individuality. It was a group of kids, maybe my age, maybe older. Who couldn’t be more unlike me.
Well, so what? I thought. They were just boring kids, stuck on the ground, doing homework. With bedtimes and a million grown-ups telling them what to do, how to do everything, all the time. Alarm clocks and school and afternoon jobs. Those poor saps. While we were, free, free, free. Soaring through the air like rockets. Being cradled by breezes. Doing whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.
Pretty good, huh? I almost convinced myself.
I glanced down again and refocused. Then I scowled. What had, at first glance, looked like just a bunch of boring, earthbound kids schlepping to school together now turned, upon closer examination, into what looked like several big kids surrounding a much smaller kid. Okay, maybe I’m paranoid, danger everywhere, but I could swear the bigger kids looked really threatening.
The bigger kids were boys. The smaller kid in the middle was a girl.
Coincidence? I think not.
Don’t even get me started about the whole Y chromosome thing. I live with three guys, remember? They’re three of the good ones, and they’re still obnoxious as all get-out.
I made one of my famous snap decisions, the kind that everyone remembers later for being either the stupidest dumb-butt thing they ever saw or else the miraculous saving of the day. 1 seemed to hear more about the first kind. That’s gratitude for you.