Disclaimer: I own nothing. Not Maximum Ride, not DC Comics, and not the lovely picture this story uses. This applies for all of my chapters, so this is the only time I'll be saying it.
One week ago...
The sun was high in the sky, screeching seagulls sailed on warm air currents with their oddly shaped wings, and mutant bird kids played on the beach a hundred feet below. This was one of those rare good days in the lives of avian-American lab experiment escapees.
Sitting on the edge of a cliff with one leg tucked beneath her and the other dangling over the side, Max looked out over a beach in Maryland with her beautiful, thickly feathered wings stretched out behind her, soaking in the summer heat. It wasn't often that Max was vain, but really, her wings were pretty rockin' awesome. Having them out always made Max feel confident and powerful, like she could take on anyone or anything, and – it was embarrassing to admit it even in the (relative) privacy of her own head, but they also made her feel... attractive.
Blegh. She could just imagine the flock's reaction if they heard that.
Discarding the thought from her mind, Max tilted her head back and breathed in the pleasant, salty breeze rolling in off of the sparkling ocean, which for just a moment pushed away the earthy, plant-and-animal scent emanating from the dense forest behind her. This little cove they had found was untouched by humans; it smelled like nature, like it was clean and safe.
Below, there was a scream – Nudge. The Gasman had scooped up a stinking wad of rotting seaweed from the shore and was chasing her with it. He was using his super-farts to propel himself in the water with a torrent of bubbles as he ran, probably poisoning the local wildlife while he was at it. Nudge, who was thigh-deep in water, was shrieking and bounding away in great leaps, each one easily taking her six or seven feet into the air. With Max's raptor vision she could see the smallest of details of everything below, including the fluttering pink and white ribbons on Nudge's tankini as she ran. It was the most modest Max could get the eleven-year-old to wear, with an open back for her wings and three bare inches of brown stomach showing. What if they got into a fight while she was wearing that thing?
"This one's green!" declared Iggy excitedly, waving a piece of glass in the air. "Like emeralds! Or grass in the sun!"
"You're a friggin' poet, Iggy!" yelled Max, grinning. She'd never seen Iggy this happy before he'd discovered his new mutation that let him feel colors. Since Iggy was blind, he found swimming to be disorienting and – though he'd never said as much out loud, Max thought she knew her flock well enough to tell – frightening. So instead he was walking around barefoot, looking for shells and bits of things with Total trotting around by his heels. They were all in such good moods that when the blind bird kid flashed her the bird (ha ha, it was funny 'cause they were all part bird, and – never mind), she didn't even yell at him for doing it in front of the little kids.
Max turned her gaze out over the water, searching for Angel. It was a habit to do constant head counts. Of course, she couldn't see her; ever since her baby had grown gills (which made no sense at all, but since Angel could read minds why not be half fish too?) she had taken to exploring the underwater world whenever she could. That didn't mean Max didn't feel a tense coil of anxiety settle in her stomach whenever Angel didn't resurface for a long time. Her baby was going somewhere Max couldn't follow, making friends with sharks and jellyfishes, possibly being whisked away by a dolphin or an underwater current for all she knew...
With perfect timing, Angel's blonde head broke the surface of the water. She wiped her wet curls from her face and waved. On the shore, Total saw Angel and started barking in greeting.
"Don't worry Max, I won't go out too far. And the fish are really nice when you can speak their language!" Angel's voice said in her head, accompanied by the sudden headache that always plagued whoever Angel spoke to with her mind. It was an annoying side effect, but it was fading the more they used Angel's admittedly very useful ability.
"I know, sweetie. I'll always worry though," thought Max in return, raising her hand to give a little wave.
Suddenly, a tall shadow was cast over her. Fang had ventured out of the shade of the forest and walked up behind her, all silent and vampire-like, and he shoved his super-special untraceable laptop in her face. "E-mail."
"Would it kill you to speak in complete sentences?" asked Max, taking the laptop and opening it up. Fang sat down next to her without a word, apparently not deeming her question worthy of a response.
"It's from my mom!" exclaimed Max, feeling a thrill at the words. She would never get tired of having a mom – it was the best feeling in the world. In seconds, every bird kid in the area was sitting around the computer, dripping and covered with sand.
"What'd she say?" asked Angel eagerly.
"She misses us," said Max, carefully reading the e-mail and soaking in every word typed by her mom, "She helped a horse give birth recently, which is cool. The mom and the baby are healthy. Ella says hi to everyone... Ugh!" said Max in disgust at what she read next, "and so does Jeb."
Fang's hands clenched into fists and Angel's face pinched in anger. The rest of the flock said uncomplimentary things that Max let them get away with just because it was that traitorous, lying, abandoning jerk they were talking about. The mere thought of him left a bad taste in Max's mouth.
"What's he doing there?" asked Gazzy, scowling.
"Apparently, he and my mom want us to meet with some... scientists," said Max slowly, reading further.
Fang snorted, and Max had to agree. Everyone in the flock had a deep-seated hatred and mistrust of all scientists – for good reason – but if there was anyone they got along with worse, it was Jeb. On top of that, the last time they'd seen Jeb hadn't exactly been on good terms, which was another way of saying they'd gotten along like oil and water. Or more accurately, Max thought bitterly, like a bomb in a subway – explosive and prone to ending with dead bodies.
Max touched the painstakingly woven, dark red friendship bracelet on her wrist. According to Iggy, who was now their foremost expert on all things colorful, it was the shade of rose petals. Personally, it reminded Max of blood.
What was Mom thinking?
"Max," said Nudge, "I like your mom and all, but is she crazy?"
"Figures something's wrong with her," commented Total, looking at Max slyly, "I mean, it was her DNA that helped make that wackjob –" Total was cut off with a yelp when Angel yanked him out of the way of Max's fist.
"Someday, Angel won't be here to protect you. And when that day comes..." Max trailed off, letting her fist smacking into her palm do the talking.
"Violent, so very violent..." moaned Total. Angel scratched him soothingly behind the ears.
Fang nudged Max, then nodded at the computer.
Max turned back to the e-mail. "Oh, look!" she exclaimed with mock cheer, "They don't want to experiment on us. How refreshing!"
There was a collective chuckle from the flock.
"Or at least that's what they told Mom," said Max, shaking her head at her mom's gullibility, "According to her, they're environmentalists who want our help to run tests on stuff. With our special abilities, we should be able to get to more dangerous places than they ever could, blah, blah, blah..."
"But we don't know anything about science," said Nudge. And really, she meant they didn't know anything about it. That was one of those pesky little things one missed out on when one didn't receive an education.
Max shrugged. "Mom thinks we can help."
"What would we be studying?" asked Angel.
Iggy scoffed. "Isn't that a hoax?"
"No it isn't!" said Nudge indignantly, "It's a real danger, you know. The whole world's heating up."
"How d'you know?" challenged Iggy.
Nudge haughtily tossed her soaking wet hair over her shoulder. "I've heard about it places, like on TV and in magazines and stuff."
"Yeah, well I heard about aliens leaving messages in cornfields on TV, but I'm not gullible enough to believe everything I hear, so – OW!"
"Iggy, stop teasing Nudge. Nudge, don't throw rocks at the blind kid. Neither of you know anything about the topic, so stop taking a stance on it," ordered Max, reaching back to scratch an itch on her wing. "Now, do we wanna meet with these bozos or not?"
There was a chorus of "No," and one "Heck no," but they were drowned out by Angel's adamant "Yes!"
Max looked at her questioningly.
"Everyone has to do their part for the environment," Angel responded with surprising fervor. Max raised her eyebrows at her, exchanging a quick glance with Fang. He shrugged, apparently not knowing where this sudden interest came from either. Hopefully it wouldn't become some new obsession.
"Only you can prevent wildfires," said Gazzy, sounding exactly like Smokey Bear. Everyone laughed – well, except for Fang, but the corners of his mouth curled up a bit, and from him that was like full belly-aching laughter – while Angel pouted.
"This is serious!" the six-year-old bird kid exclaimed.
"Sorry Angel, you're outvoted," said Max. "And anyway, it's always a bad idea to meet with scientists, especially ones who are friends with Jeb. Even if everyone wanted to go I don't think I would let you."
"There's also something about the implied child labor that bothers me," Iggy quietly whispered to Gazzy, and they began snickering.
Ignoring them, Max continued, "Besides, these guys are professionals. They don't need us."
"But Max," said Angel, a hint of a whine entering her voice, "grown-ups are the ones ruining the environment! We can't leave it to them! We're the new generation, the planet is going to be ours someday. We have to do something!"
What the heck was this kid watching on TV?
"Angel, sweetie," said Max, trying to think of how to explain herself, "grown-ups might be hurting the environment, but they're also the ones fixing it. Like those scientists my mom wants us to meet, or... Greenpeace. Those guys. They're grown-ups. And it's not only them anyway, kids are hurting the planet too. There're plenty of teenagers driving gas guzzlers. Heck, whenever we've stolen a car, it's been a great big one so we all fit."
"I prefer the word 'borrowed,'" interjected Nudge, their car-jacking expert. "It's less, like, incriminating and whatever."
Angel looked stubborn. "That's even more reason for us to do what we can! If we sit by and do nothing, we'll only be like everyone else. What's that saying? If you're not part of the solution, you're only making it worse?"
"Sorry, but you've already heard your answer," said Max. Despite the situation, she felt a little bit proud of Angel. She was only six, yet she was putting up a really good argument. Not that she ever had a chance, because hellno was Max going to willingly meet up with a bunch of whitecoats, but it was still pretty convincing. "End of discussion."
"But I wanna help," said Angel, looking up at Max with big, pleading blue eyes. With a face like that, it was a wonder Angel even needed mind controlling powers at all.
"Then put out your campfires, throw your trash away where it belongs, and don't leave the lights on," said Max. "That's all we can do. If we start running around trying to save the world, it'll be like sticking a great big target on our backs. Our job is to survive, nothing else." Max had enough trouble trying to keep her flock alive and relatively happy to be worrying about the rest of the world. Yikes. "Plus, it would ruin our other plans if we got involved in something like that. Okay?"
Angel nodded unhappily, hugging Celeste to her chest. Geez, that bear was dirty. It was hard to believe it used to be white. Next chance they got Max was going to clean it.
"All right, you've all got ten minutes to get dressed and pack up, and then we're leaving," said Max, addressing the flock as a whole. This was met with a bunch of groaning. "By then I'll be done sending a reply to Mom. And don't whine at me, we've been here all morning. It's time to go."
Ten minutes and a couple of scuffles later found the flock diving off the cliff and wheeling into the clear blue sky. Their destination: New Jersey.
No one noticed they were leaving behind a trail of something... well, pretty dang important.