THE MADNESS NEVER STOPS
Near Los Angeles Basin, California
Devin raised his right arm and focused directly over his wrist. It took less than a millisecond to calculate the trajectory — he didn’t have a built-in computer, but his 220 IQ served him well.
He slowly breathed in and out, getting ready to squeeze the trigger between breaths, between heartbeats. His sensitive nose wrinkled as the ever-present smog that hovered over the Los Angeles Basin filled his lungs. He hated to think what the pollutants were doing to his brain cells but accepted that some things were necessary evils.
His light eyes expertly tracked the objects flying overhead: one, two, three, four, five, six. Seven? There was a small seventh object, unexpected but quickly determined to be unimportant. Actually, all of them were unimportant. All but one. The one in front.
He knew they had raptor vision. He merely had extraordinary eyesight. It was good enough. All the same, the crosshairs in the gun sight attached to his wrist made missing an impossibility. He never missed.
That’s why they saved him for extraspecial missions like this one.
Many, many others had already failed at this task. Devin felt utter disdain for them. To kill one bird kid — how hard could it be? They were flesh and blood, ridiculously fragile. It wasn’t like bullets bounced off them.
Once more Devin raised his arm and observed his prey, catching her neatly in the crosshairs, as if they could pin her to the sky. The flock flew, perfectly spaced, in a large arc overhead, the one called Maximum in front, flanked by the two large males. Then a smaller female. Then a smaller male, and the smallest female after him.
A little black object, not bird kid shaped, struggled to keep up. Devin couldn’t identify it — it hadn’t been in his dossier. The closest thing he could imagine was if someone grafted wings onto a small dog or something, as unlikely as that was.
But Max was the only one he was concerned with. It was Max he was supposed to kill, Max whom he kept catching in his sights.
Devin sighed and lowered his arm. This was almost too easy. It wasn’t sporting. He loved the chase, the hunt, the split-second intersection of luck and skill that allowed him to exercise his perfection, his inability to miss.
He looked down at what used to be his right hand. One could get used to having no right hand. It was surprisingly easy. And it was so superior to have this lovely weapon instead.
It wasn’t as crude as simply having a Glock 18 grafted to the stump of an amputated limb. It was so much more elegant than that, so much more a miracle of design and ingenuity. This weapon was a part of him physically, responsive to his slightest thought, triggered by almost imperceptible nerve firings in the interface between his arm and the weapon.
He was a living work of art. Unlike the bird kids flying in traceable patterns overhead.
Devin had seen the posters, the advertisements. Those naive, do-gooder idiots at the Coalition to Stop the Madness had organized this whole thing, this air show, this demonstration of supposedly “evolved” humans.
Wrong. The bird kids were ill-conceived accidents. He, Devin, was truly an evolved human.
The CSM zealots were wasting their time — and everyone else’s. Using the bird kids to promote their own agenda was a typically selfish, shortsighted thing to do. Manipulating and taking advantage of lesser creatures in order to “save” even lesser creatures? It was a joke.
A joke that could not be perpetrated without this flock of examples. And the flock could not survive without its leader.
Once again Devin raised his arm and closed his left eye to focus through the gun sight on his wrist. He angled the Glock a millimeter to the left and smoothly tracked his target as she arced across the sky.
One breath in, one breath out. One heartbeat, two heartbeats, and here we go . . .
FREAKS AND M-GEEKS
“AND A-ONE, and a-two —” Nudge said, leaning into a perfect forty-five-degree angle. Her tawny russet wings glowed warmly in the afternoon sunlight.
Behind her, the Gasman made squealing-brakes sounds as he dropped his feet down and slowed drastically. “Hey! Watch gravity in action!” he yelled, folding his wings back to create an unaerodynamic eight-year-old, his blond hair blown straight up by the wind.
I rolled my eyes. “Gazzy, stick to the choreography!” He was sinking fast, and I had to bellow to make sure he heard me. “This is a paying job! Don’t blow it!” Okay, they were paying us mostly in doughnuts, but let’s not quibble.
Even from this high up, I could hear the exclamations of surprise, the indrawn gasps that told me our captive audience below had noticed one of us dropping like a rock.
I’d give him five seconds, and then I’d swoop down after him. One . . . two . . .
I wasn’t sure about this whole air-show thing to begin with, but how could I refuse my own mom? After our last “working vacation” in Ant-freaking-arctica, my mom and a bunch of scientists had created an organization called the Coalition to Stop the Madness, or CSM. Basically, they were trying to tell the whole world about the dangers of pollution, greenhouse gases, dependence on foreign oil — you get the picture.
Already, more than a thousand scientists, teachers, senators, and regular people had joined the CSM. One of the teacher-members had come up with the traveling air-show idea to really get the message out. I mean, Blue Angels, Schmue Angels, but flying mutant bird kids? Come on! Who’s gonna pass that up?
So here we were, flying perfect formations, doing tricks, air dancing, la la la, the six of us and Total, whose wings by now had pretty much finished developing. He could fly, at least, but he wasn’t exactly Baryshnikov. If Baryshnikov had been a small, black, Scottie dog with wings, that is.
By the time I’d counted to four, the Gasman had ended his free fall and was soaring upward again, happiness on his relatively clean face.
Hanging out with the CSM folks had some benefits, chiefly food and decent places to sleep. And, of course, seeing my mom, which I’d never be able to get enough of, after living the first fourteen years of my life not even knowing she existed. (I explained all this in earlier books, if you want to go get caught up.)
“Yo,” said Fang, hovering next to me.
My heart gave a little kick as I saw how the sun glinted off his deeply black feathers. Which matched his eyes. And his hair. “You enjoying being a spokesfreak?” I asked him casually, looking away.
One side of his mouth moved: the Fang version of unbridled chortling.
He shrugged. “It’s a job.”
“Yep. So long as they don’t worry about pesky child labor laws,” I agreed. We’re an odd little band, my fellow flock members and I. Fang, Iggy, and I are all fourteen, give or take. So officially, technically, legally, we’re minors. But we’ve been living on our own for years, and regular child protection laws just don’t seem to apply to us. Come to think of it, many regular grown-up laws don’t seem to apply to us either.
Nudge is eleven, roughly. The Gasman is eightish. Angel is somewhere in the six range. I don’t know how old Total is, and frankly, what with the calculations of dog years into human years, I don’t care.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Angel dropped down onto me with all her forty-one pounds of feathery fun.
“Oof! What are you doing, goofball?” I exclaimed, dipping about a foot. Then I heard it: the high-pitched, all-too-familiar whine of a bullet streaking past my ear, close enough to knock some of my hair aside.
In the next second, Total yelped piercingly, spinning in midair, his small black wings flapping frantically. Angel’s quick instincts had saved my life. But Total had taken the hit.