“Nirvana,” Fang said, pawing through food that was still good but not sellable. “Burger?”
Nudge thought, then shook her head. “I don’t know-after watching the hawks shredding little animals-oh, but look, here’s a couple salads. And some apple pies! Bonus!”
They tightened the drawstrings of their windbreakers around their waists. Then, working fast, they started stuffing food inside their jackets, anything that would travel. Three minutes after they’d landed, they were airborne again, lumpy and smiling.
It was amazing how much better Nudge felt after eating. She sighed and sat cross-legged in the cave entrance, watching the hawks fly.
Fang finished his fifth thin hamburger patty and wiped his fingers on his jeans. “You know, I think the way they swoop and stuff is like a message to the other hawks,” he said. “Like they’re telling them where there’s game or where they’ll be or something. I haven’t figured it out yet. But I will.”
“Oh.” Nudge sat back on her heels and spread her wings out, enjoying the feel of the sun warming her feathers. She tried to be quiet and not disturb Fang, but after five minutes she was close to meltdown.
“Fang? We’ve just got to go find Max,” she said. “Or should we go on and try to find Angel?”
Fang pulled his attention away from the hawks with difficulty. “We’re going to circle back, look for Max,” he said. “She must have-run into something.”
Nudge nodded solemnly, unable to define what kind of something would have kept Max from them. She didn’t want to think about it.
Fang stood, tall and dark against the weathered sandstone of the rock cliff. He looked down at her, his face calm and patient, his eyes reflecting no light whatsoever. “You ready?”
Nudge jumped to her feet, brushing sand off her butt. “Absolutely. Um, where do you think we should-”
But Fang was already gone, snatched away by the wind, borne upward by air rising from the canyon below.
Nudge took a small running leap off the cliff after him.
‘Tarzan!” she yelled. Whatever that was supposed to mean.
I woke up warm, dry, bandaged, and safe.
I felt like death.
As always, as soon as I was conscious, I panicked for a second, not knowing where I was. My brain anxiously registered flowered wallpaper. A soft, warm bed that smelled like laundry softener. I looked down. I was wearing a huge T-shirt that had a cartoon character on it, one I didn’t know.
I was at Ella’s house. 1 was supposed to be rescuing Angel-if she was even still alive. Fang and Nudge were probably sticking pins in a Max doll by now. I didn’t blame them.
Now that I was awake, the pain in my shoulder and wing hit me all over again, a stinging ache that radiated out like a starburst. Ugh. I remembered once I’d dislocated my shoulder, sparring with Fang. It had hurt so bad, and I had staggered around clutching my shoulder and trying not to cry. Jeb had calmed me down, talking to me, taking my mind off it, and then, when I least expected it, he had popped it right back into place. Instantly, all the pain was gone, He’d smiled and stroked my sweaty hair off my forehead and gotten me some lemonade. And I’d thought, This is what a dad would do. This is better than what a dad would do.
I still missed Jeb so much it made my throat close.
Suddenly, I froze, because my bedroom door was opening very, very slowly and quietly.
Run! my mind screamed as my hands curled into claws against the sheets. Fly!
Ella’s brown eyes, curious and eager, peered around the door. She spoke softly over her shoulder. “I think she’s awake.”
Ella’s mom appeared. “Morning, Max. You hungry? Do you like pancakes?”
“And little breakfast sausages?” Ella added. “And fruit and stuff?”
I hoped it only felt like I was drooling on my nightshirt. I nodded. They smiled and left, and then I saw the clothes on my bed. My own jeans and socks had been washed, and there was a lavender sweatshirt with large slits newly cut into the back.
Ella’s mom was taking care of me, like Jeb had. I didn’t know how to act, what to say.
A girl could get used to this.
No matter how quickly the Erasers killed them, the Gasman was sure it would feel like forever.
“Up and away,” Iggy breathed, inching slightly closer to him.
Up and away? The Gasman frowned. Iggy had to be kidding. Straight up?
Crash! The Gasman jumped as the window behind him shattered with a shower of glass and broken wood. An Eraser pushed through the ragged opening with a silent grin.
“Guess what?” the first Eraser asked with a pleasant smile. “We got the little one-they don’t need you two alive.” They laughed, the sound like deep bells ringing, and then their faces began to change. The Gasman couldn’t help grimacing as they morphed, becoming more wolflike, their muzzles extending, their teeth protruding until it looked like they had a mouthful of knives.
“Boys, boys,” one almost purred. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you? You can run, but you can’t hide.” His shiny dark hair was becoming thicker, and more hair sprouted grotesquely on his arms and hands. He literally licked his chops and rubbed his huge, hairy hands together, as if he’d learned how to be a bad guy from cartoons.
Iggy’s voice was so faint, his lips so still that the Gasman wasn’t sure he’d heard anything. Every second seemed oddly stretched out. His hands closed into fists by his sides. He was ready. Sure.
“This freak’s blind,” one Eraser said, gesturing toward Iggy. “Don’t worry, kid. It’ll all be over soon, and you won’t have to worry about being blind anymore. But it’s a shame they didn’t give you one of their new eyes-like mine.”
The Gasman looked up at him, and a feeling of revulsion rose in his throat as he saw what the Eraser meant. Set deep into one orbital socket was a stainless steel ball. A red laserlike glow made it look as though it was filled with blood. The Eraser grinned and turned his eye to the Gasman. A red dot appeared on the Gasman’s shirt and, as he watched, it slowly began to burn a small hole in the fabric.
The Erasers laughed.
“You left before they could fix you up with the latest technology,” one said. “Your loss.”
Yeah, right, the Gasman thought in disgust.
“How about it, piggies?” the first Eraser asked. “Do you want to try to run? Who knows-you might get lucky. For a little while.”
Grinning with anticipation, the Eraser drew closer.
Once again, the Gasman wasn’t sure if he’d heard Iggy or if he was imagining it.
The Gasman’s toes clenched inside his sneakers.
When Iggy shouted, “Three!” the Gasman leaped straight into the air, unfurling his wings with a huge whoosh. With a roar of anger, one Eraser grabbed the Gasman’s foot and yanked. Above him, Iggy burst through the rotting roof of the cabin, out into the sky. The Gasman broke free of the Eraser’s grip.
Then he was pushing through the shattered roof, tucking his wings in tight to get through the hole. Outside, he lost altitude too fast and landed clumsily on a rickety roof beam. He slid sideways, grabbing roof shingles that came off in his hands.
Iggy yelled from twenty feet above him, “Gasser! Move!”
Just as he slid over the edge of the roof, the Gasman spread his wings. He pushed down hard with all his strength, then pulled his wings up and pushed them down again. As he surged up to meet Iggy, Iggy threw a package down into the cabin.
“Move, move, move!” Iggy yelled, flapping like crazy. Within seconds, they were a hundred yards away.
Boom! Only it was more like ba-ba-boooooom!
The two boys recoiled from the blast, tumbling backward in the air from the shock wave. The Gasman righted himself, eyes wide, as a fireball ten yards in diameter rose from where the cabin had been.
He was speechless.
After the fireball from Big Boy disintegrated, the cabin burned brightly, its old, rotted wood consumed as instantly as kindling. Flames reached for the sky, licking at the green trees nearby, snaking along the ground as brittle brown pine needles caught fire.
God, it was beautiful.
“Well,” Iggy said after a long while, “that takes care of them.”
The Gasman nodded, feeling sick. One dark body had flown upward in the blast, falling back to earth as a glowing coal. The other Eraser had crawled a few feet away from the cabin, a burning silhouette that had collapsed, its outlines blurred by flame.
“Unless they escaped,” Iggy added.
Of course Iggy hadn’t seen anything. The Gasman cleared his throat. “No,” he said. “They’re dead.” He felt slightly queasy, guilty, and dirty. Then he remembered Angel, how she’d shared the last of the ice cream with him three nights ago. She was so small, and God only knew what horrible things they were doing to her. His jaw hardened.
“Take that,” he muttered. ‘That was for my sister, for Angel, you scum-sucking jerks.”
Then he saw the black Hummer, its hood crumpled, driving fast toward the burning cabin. An Eraser was leaning out the passenger window, looking through binoculars.
“Come on, Iggy,” said the Gasman. “Let’s get out of here.”
The bell clanged jarringly, and rough hands pushed Angel forward. She stumbled, catching herself at the last second before falling onto coils of razor wire.
Angel wanted to cry. She’d been doing this all day-it was late afternoon by now.
She was starving and light-headed and every muscle ached-and still they made her run.
It was a maze, Angel knew that.
They had made it in a huge gymlike room in the School’s main building. They rang a bell and pushed her forward, and then she had to run as fast as she could to find the exit. Each time, the maze was different, the exit in a different place. If she slowed down, she got an electric shock so strong it scrambled her brain, or red-hot wires under her feet burned her. So, eyes blurry with tears, Angel ran forward blindly, taking this turn and that until she finally stumbled out the exit.
Then she would get a sip of water and a five-minute rest while they redid the maze.
Angel sniffled, trying to keep quiet. She hated this! If only she knew beforehand-if only she knew, she could run through fast and not get shocked or burned.
Angel sat up, a tingle of excitement running down her spine. She closed her eyes and tried to listen to what the whitecoats were thinking.
One of them wanted to let an Eraser loose in the maze, have it fight with her, see how strong she really was. One of them thought they should increase the heated wires so she always had to run on them, whether she was slowing down or not. Then he could study the effect of stress on her adrenaline levels.
Angel wanted them all to burn in h-e-double toothpicks forever.
One of them was designing the next maze, the creep.
Angel concentrated, trying to look as though she was resting. Someone gave her another sip of water, and she sucked it down fast. She could see the rough plan of the maze! It was in her mind because it was in the white-coat’s mind. Deliberately, Angel breathed in and out, looking spent, but she felt a new surge of possibility.
She got it. She knew what the next maze would look like. Blinking tiredly, Angel sat up, keeping her eyes unfocused. In her mind, she was reviewing the maze’s layout: a quick right, then another right, then a left, skip the next three rights and take the fourth one… and so on, till she saw the exit.
She could see all the traps, the dead ends, the paths that led nowhere.
She could hardly wait to blow their minds. This would be fun!
A whitecoat grabbed her, made her stand in front of the new maze’s entrance.
The bell clanged.
Someone pushed her.
Angel took off. Running as fast as she could in case all the wires were hot, she took a quick right, another right, then a left, and so on. She raced through with record speed, with no hesitation. She didn’t get shocked once and never felt a hot wire under her feet.
She burst out of the maze’s exit, then collapsed onto the cool wooden floor.
Words floated to her: Amazing. Cognitive ability. Interpretive skills. Creative problem solving. Dissect her brain. Preserve her organs. Extract her DNA.
A voice said, “No, no, we can’t dissect her brain just yet.” The speaker laughed, as if it were funny. His voice sounded… like she’d heard it in a fairy tale or something, like at night, or at home, or with Max…
Angel blinked and swam toward consciousness. She made the mistake of looking up. An older man was there. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and was smiling at her. She got no thoughts from him whatsoever. He looked…
“Hello, Angel,” said Jeb Batchelder kindly. “I haven’t seen you in a long time. I missed you, kiddo.”
Nudge didn’t know exactly what Fang expected to see. Max, flying toward them? Max, standing on the ground below, waving her arms to get their attention? Max’s body, crumpled-Nudge shut that thought down. She would just wait. Fang was older and really smart; Max trusted him. Nudge trusted him too.
How far back had Max separated from them? Nudge couldn’t remember. She and Fang had been flying in ever-widening circles for hours. How did they know Max hadn’t passed them somehow and was waiting for them back at Lake Mead?
“Fang? Do you remember where we left Max?”
“Are we going to go there?”
Pause. “Not if we can help it.”
“But why? Maybe Max is hurt and needs help. Maybe we need to save her before we go save Angel.” It was hard, keeping these missions separate. First Angel, now Max, then Angel again.
Fang banked to the left, tightening the angle as they’d seen the hawks do. Nudge followed him. Below them, the ground looked parched, with only occasional roads, cactuses, brush.
“I don’t think Max would have gotten hurt all by herself,” Fang said slowly. “She’s not going to fly into a tree or crash-land. So if she’s late because she’s hurt, it probably means that someone, a person, hurt her. Which means that someone knows about her. We don’t want that someone to know about us too. Which they would if we went to where Max is.”
Nudge’s jaw dropped.
“And if Max is late because she’s busy, then our going to her won’t speed things up-she’ll come when she’s good and ready. So for right now, we do a general look-see. But we’re not going all the way back.”
Nudge heard Max’s voice in her head: Think before you speak. So she shut her mouth and thought. She had no idea how Fang could not get Max, even if it meant they might get captured or hurt themselves. They all might get captured or hurt saving Angel, right? Why was Max different from Angel? Max was more important than Angel, Nudge thought, feeling guilty. Max took care of them, helped run their whole lives.