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A Preview of First Love
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To the Reader
THE IDEA FOR the Maximum Ride series comes from earlier books of mine called When the Wind Blows and The Lake House, which also feature a character named Max who escapes from a quite despicable School. Most of the similarities end there. Max and the other kids in the Maximum Ride books are not the same Max and kids featured in those two books. Nor do Frannie and Kit play any part in the series. I hope you enjoy the ride anyway.
This is important. What you're holding in your hands is the only written record of the new history of the world. Don't freak out—I know I'm making it sound like a textbook, and believe me, I hated school more than anyone. But this much I can promise: It's not like any textbook you've read before. See, this chunk of pages tells the story of the apocalypse and all that came after—some pretty heavy stuff, for sure, and I don't blame you for being nervous. We all know that history tends to repeat itself, though, so for your sake and the sake of the future, I hope you'll read it… when you're ready.
I KNOW WHY you're here, and I know what you want.
You want to know what really happened.
You want the truth.
I get it. I've wanted the same thing my whole life.
But now I'm convinced the only real truth is the one you find out for yourself. Not what some grown-up or CNN tells you. The problem is, the truth isn't always kittens and rainbows. It can be harsh. It can be extremely hard to believe. In fact, the truth can be the very last thing you want to believe.
But if you're like me, you'd rather put on your big-girl pants than dwell on things—and truths—beyond your control.
Like the fact that I was a test-tube baby whose DNA was grafted with a bird's, so rather than your typical childhood filled with cartoons and tricycles, I spent my most adorable years in a dog crate, poked and prodded by men in white coats.
And how my flock and I escaped and spent our entire lives after that being hunted down by Erasers—human-wolf mutants with truly eye-watering dog breath.
While rolling with the punches (and bites and kicks), I had a mountain of personal crap to deal with, too. I was betrayed by my own father, who also turned my half brother, Ari, into an Eraser to kill me. Family fun!
Then Fang left us—left me, heartbroken—to start a new flock with my freaking clone. I won't lie—that one stung.
And I can't forget the crazies.… There are a lot of bad people out there who want to do a lot of bad things. From the suicidal Doomsday cult to the population-cleansing nutcases, we've fought them all.
And the icing on the cake? Something happened—a meteor? A nuclear bomb? We might never know—that caused all hell to break loose… and destroyed the world.
But you want to know what really happened after the apocalypse. Fair enough. The story belongs to all of us, especially you. Our history is your future.
Disclaimer: This is a story of perseverance and hope, but it's also one of grief. I've seen things—terrible things—that no one should even know exist. I've witnessed the world's darkest days and humanity's ugliest moments. I've watched cities collapse, friends die. This is the hardest story I've ever had to tell.
Still think you can handle it?
Let's go back, then. Our journey starts on an island somewhere in the South Pacific, not long after the sky first caught fire. You'll want to make sure your seat is in a locked, upright position, and prepare for some turbulence.
After all, we're talking about the end of the world.
BREATHE, MAX. FORCE the air in and out.
The air was heavy, and the rotten-egg stench burned the inside of my nose, but I focused on inhaling and exhaling as I ran. The earth shook violently and my feet slid over loose rocks as I raced down the slope. Red-hot coals pelted the earth around us as volcanic ash set our hair on fire and ate tiny, stinging holes in our clothes.
"Our backpacks!" I yelled, stumbling to a stop. I couldn't believe I'd forgotten them. "They're all we have left. Tools, knives—the crossbow!"
"We left them in the field!" Nudge cried.
I shaded my eyes and looked up—the air was thick with spewing magma, ash, and glowing rock belched up from deep beneath the earth. "I'm going for them," I decided. As the leader of the flock, responsible for everyone's survival, I didn't have much choice. "You guys get to that rock outcropping by the southern beach. It's the only protection we'll find."
"You have five minutes, tops," warned Gazzy, our nine-year-old explosives expert. "This whole part of the island's gonna blow."
"Right," I said, but I was already sprinting up the hill through the hailstorm of fiery pebbles. I might have flown faster, but I couldn't risk singeing my flight feathers right now. I grabbed the backpacks and raced back.
The ground shuddered again—a churning quake this time that felt like it was shifting my organs around. I lost my balance and catapulted forward, the provisions we needed torn from my arms as I face-planted hard.
Sprawled in the dirt, I focused through the dizziness just in time to see a smoking boulder the size of a refrigerator bouncing toward my head. I tucked my chin and rolled, saying a silent prayer.
Then I heard the sound—BOOM! It was like a rocket had been set off inside my brain. I may have blacked out, I don't know.
Shaking my head, I opened my eyes and gasped. The boulder had obliterated the space where I had just been lying, but beyond that, the top of the volcano was now shooting off a thousand-foot column of liquid fire and smoke.
I gaped, mesmerized, as bright orange lava oozed over the cliff we'd called home for the last three months. Then the sky started to rain blazing rocks, big ones, and I snapped back to attention.
I leaped to my feet, frantically grabbing backpacks and scooping up the scattered tools that were all we had left. The ground around me was being covered with hot ash, and as I reached for Gazzy's pack, it went up in flames. I snatched my burned hand back, swearing as the nerves convulsed with pain.
"Max, hurry!" My ears were ringing, but Angel's voice was clear inside my head. Ordinarily, I would be annoyed at being bossed around by a mind-reading seven-year-old, but the terror behind her words made my throat dry up.
I looked back at the volcano. Considering the size of the boulders it was hurling out of its crater, conditions could be even deadlier farther down the mountain.
What was I thinking, leaving my family? Forget the tools—I had to run!
My mouth filled with the taste of deadly sulfurous gas, and as it tore at my lungs I wheezed, choking on my own phlegm while glowing bombs fell all around me. I stumbled through the ash and rubble, tripping again and again, but I kept going.
I had to get back to my flock.
Another hundred yards and I would be at the meeting place. Pumping my legs, I took the turn onto the rock outcropping at top speed…
And sailed toward a river of boiling lava.
I windmilled my arms as momentum propelled me out into midair, with nothing but red-hot death below. As gravity took hold and I felt myself starting to drop, my avian survival instinct kicked in automatically. A pair of huge speckled wings snapped out from my back and caught the air, swooping me aloft on a hot, acrid updraft. I quickly wheeled back to the outcropping and closed my highly flammable wings.
"Wow!" Total's voice reached me over the sounds of the eruption, and then I saw his small, black Scottie-like head peer out from a shallow cave beneath the boulders. He came and stood next to me, his paws stepping gingerly on the hot ground. His small black wings were tucked neatly along his back. Did I mention that everyone in my mutant flock had wings? Yup, even our talking dog.
"I thought you were a goner," he said, nose wrinkling from the horrible smell.
"Your faith in me is touching, Total." I tried to steady my voice, but it sounded hollow and shaky.
Gazzy came out and nodded up at the volcano with seriously misplaced admiration. "She's a feisty one. This is just the start of it." With his love of fire and explosions, this eruption was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
"The lava's, what? Fifty feet wide?" I backed up as the edge of the outcropping began to get swallowed up by the tar-like river—a thick black goo with brilliant flashes of orange where molten stone glowed with heat. "We'll fly across, find a safer place on the northern side."
Gazzy nodded. "Right now we can. But see that molten mudslide rolling toward us? It's about two thousand degrees Fahrenheit. If we don't get to high ground fast, we're cooked."
It already felt like my clothes were melting onto my body—clearly Gazzy knew what he was talking about.
"Let's move!" I yelled.
Fang was already grabbing up the backpacks. Always calm and always competent, he was the steady rock to my whirling tornado. I rushed to join him, trying not to wince as my burned hand throbbed. We didn't have much, but what we had we couldn't replace: Besides our few weapons, we had some clothing stripped from the dead, cans of food that had washed up on shore, medicinal herbs plucked from now-extinct trees.
"Okay," I panted. "Have we got everything?"
Nudge shook her head, her lovely face smudged with soot. "But if the lava reaches the lake…"
Then the water supply we've stored there will be obliterated.
"I'll go back for the jugs," Dylan and I said at the same time.
"The sulfur levels just tripled!" Iggy shouted. "Smells like acid rain!"
"I'll go," Dylan repeated firmly.
Fang was my true love, but Dylan had literally been created to be a perfect partner for me: It would be against his nature not to protect me if he could. It was both endearing and maddening, because, hello? I'm not so much a damsel in distress as I am an ass-kicking mutant bird kid.
Now Dylan touched my burned hand so tenderly that for a second I forgot about being tough and was just grateful for his help during the chaos. He nodded at the other kids. "They need you here. Just work on getting everyone to the northern beaches, and I'll be back in a minute."
I frowned. "Yeah. But be careful, okay?"
"You're not actually worried about me, are you, Max?" His turquoise eyes twinkled playfully.
"No," I said, making an ew face at him.
He laughed. "I'll catch up."
I turned, smiling and shaking my head, and of course there was Fang, standing behind me silent as a shadow. He cocked an eyebrow and I flushed. I opened my mouth to say something, but he was already reaching past me for the backpack Dylan had left.
"Hover chain?" Fang asked brusquely. He knew me better than anyone, so he knew when to leave things alone. When I nodded, he unfurled his huge black wings, then leaned down and picked up Akila. A big, beautiful malamute, she was the only non-mutant among us—and the love of Total's life. Trying not to breathe the poisonous air, Fang leaped up and took off across the steaming river of molten rock.
"Okay, Iggy," I ordered. "You're up next! Nudge, get ready. Total, wings out. Gazzy and Angel, I'll be right behind you. Let's go, go, go!"
When I was sure my flock was airborne, I shook out my wings and followed, pushing down hard with each stroke as I struggled through the swirling ash. Burning and smoking debris pelted me from above, and waves of lava roiled below. The air was so toxic I could actually feel my lungs shriveling.
It was a short, hard flight. There was a fierce swirling wind from above that pushed us down almost as hard as we pushed up against it. The lava below us burned a deep red-orange, and as it took in more oxygen, it crackled loudly and started to spit. It took all my strength to stay aloft as my flight feathers curled up in embers. I blinked away tears, trying to spot my flock through the sizzling smoke and steam. The skin on my ankles started to blister—I was literally being slow-roasted, and I prayed that the others had made it across.
You are in a cool place. You are in Alaska. It's freezing. Cool air in your lungs… I saw Fang emerge from the steam, a dark figure carrying a large dog. Everyone else was across now, but I veered back over the river of lava to do one final sweep, make sure we had everything.…
My neck snapped sideways as a red-hot rock smacked into my head, and before I knew it I was careening down again toward the smoking, burping mouth of hell. I managed a strangled scream and then felt my whole body jerk as a hand yanked me upward.
"Gotcha." Fang smirked at me with that crooked smile of his and held me in his arms. "What do you say we get outta here?" Even with the chaos swirling around us, my heart skipped a beat at that smile.
Our feet sank into the far bank just before the mudslide surged into the river. It sent lava shooting up hundreds of feet like a fizzy explosion of orange soda, but we were already out of its reach. And even though my feathers were smoking and my eyebrows were singed and I was gagging on ash, I was grinning as I ran.
We made it. We've all—
"Wait." I skidded to a stop and turned around.
"What is it?" Fang asked, still tugging at my hand.
The hot air pressed in and sweat dripped down my face, but cold horror gripped my stomach like a fist.
HOURS LATER, THE swirling wind had turned into a pouring rainstorm. I squinted into the rain and billowing steam, scanning the horizon, searching for the silhouette of a kid with a fifteen-foot wingspan.
I began pacing back and forth across the rocky ledge on the northern side of the island, which was our go-to meeting place. All I saw was the volcano in the distance, still belching its plume of black smoke into the sky.
Just three months ago, this island had been a tropical paradise, a safe haven for dozens of mutant kids like us. That was before some kind of huge meteor had crashed into Earth and killed most everyone on it, as far as we knew. Then the resulting tsunamis arrived to flood our paradise, including the underground caves where the dwellings were.
Where my mom and half sister were.
We'd tried to leave, but the meteor's impact had devastated everything within immediate flying distance. The neighboring islands? As black and crispy as toasted marshmallows. And part of me couldn't just leave without some hope that my mom and Ella had somehow survived the floods. But now, with this erupting volcano as a strong motivator, we had to go whether I wanted to or not.
Dylan's coming. He's on his way. He's fine.
I was pretty beat up, with serious burns on my arms and legs, singed feathers, and a lump the size of a goose egg growing out of my temple. I clenched my teeth and tried to focus on the pain, but even that didn't distract me.
"Max, listen to me. You have to get in here," Nudge pleaded from the mouth of a cave, where Fang was building a barricade. "It's like a hurricane out there. You'll get blown off the cliff!"
Unlike the now-toppled place where we'd made our home before the eruption, our new perch was high and safe from mudslides and lava. But from gale-force winds and acid rain? Not so much.
I'd already lost my footing more than once, but I shook my head. "Everything looks different from before. He probably just got turned around."
Nudge's curls got soaked immediately and stuck to her tan cheeks as she stepped out to survey the landscape. She frowned. "He would've found shelter by now, though. Dylan knows the rules."
The members of my flock had survived because we looked out for the group first. If you went off on your own, you took your chances—there was no room for risk.
But this was different. Dylan would never, ever run away from me. That I knew.
"Come inside the cave," Nudge urged, bending down to put her chin on my shoulder. We're all tall and thin for our ages, but this past year twelve-year-old Nudge had shot past me and was now almost six feet tall—as tall as Fang. "We'll crack one of the cans for dinner and—"
"Dylan!" I yelled suddenly, thinking I spotted movement on the horizon.
But it was just the charred trunk of a tree blowing around, and the only answer I got was the howl of the wind.
Nudge sighed, patted my back, and ducked back into the cave.
Gritty pellets of water whipped against my face. Who was I kidding? No one could fly in this weather. Well, almost no one.
Maybe I could just—
"No, you couldn't. You're not going anywhere," a voice said from behind me.
I let out a breath. "Angel, just because you can read minds doesn't mean you have permission to root around inside my head."
Angel crossed her arms and studied me with a stern look, or at least as stern as a golden-haired, blue-eyed seven-year-old can look. We'd pretty much resolved our differences since she tried to overthrow me as leader of the flock, but she still had her moments. Right now, dirty-faced, wild-haired, and firm-chinned, the flock's youngest member looked like a short, blond dictator.
I narrowed my eyes. And who's going to stop me? You know we need to find Dylan. We don't abandon our own.
"Fang!" Angel shouted in response, her eyes never leaving mine.
Well. She's not the only one with a firm chin around here. Without hesitation I turned on my heel and jumped off the edge. But before I could even unfurl my wings, I saw a flash of black out of the corner of my eye, and felt the breath knocked out of me as Fang's body slammed into mine.
Together, we crashed back to the rocky ground, tumbling dangerously close to the edge. I kicked Fang's shin, and pebbles skittered over the cliff. Fang wrapped his arms around mine, but I do not react well to being pinned. Bucking and writhing, I desperately tried to throw him off. Suddenly all that mattered was breaking free to go after Dylan.
"Max, calm down!" Fang snapped, and I pulled a fist free and punched him hard. "Whoa! What's wrong with you?"
By now the others had come out to see what the commotion was.
"We. Need. To. Find. Dylan," I ground out through clenched teeth. "Get off me!"
Cautiously Fang let me go, then jumped back out of my kicking range. He knows me so well.
"Max, we can't go right now. It's a toxic stew out there," the Gasman explained. He should know. He'd earned his name when he was little, thanks to the toxic stew of odors he always produced. "I'm talking melt-your-face-off."
"I can get through it. Dylan's out there," I spat. "Doesn't anyone care about him?"
Gazzy chewed his lip and glanced away, and Nudge looked concerned. Of course they cared. Mr. Perfect had caused some strife in our flock at first, but he was one of us now, and even Fang looked grim as the reality of the situation set in.
"He's not stupid," Fang said. "He's probably found high ground until the storm passes and the lava hardens. If he's not back in the morning, we'll go look."
"I have to find him now!" It came out as a hysterical plea, which was such a shock that I stopped struggling. I'm not usually a sniveling weenie, but this was one of the most powerful calls to action I'd ever felt: I had to find Dylan.
Not we. I.
Fang blinked and sat back on his heels, looking at me strangely. "Tomorrow," he repeated, and stood to go back to his barricade.
Slowly, acceptance replaced my unreasonable urge. Finally I nodded and tried to swallow my fear. As I stood up, sopping wet and filthy with ash, I asked myself a question—the question I had seen mirrored in Fang's dark, brooding eyes:
Would I have reacted the same way for him, or for any of my flock?
Or does Dylan make me feel… something more?
WE SET OUT the next morning toward the lake where Dylan had gone for water. By then, the heat was unbelievable. It seeped up through the uneven mounds of already-hardening lava under our feet, and the ash cloud above us held it in like a blanket. Of course, heat rises, so flying was out of the question. The least-boiling place was on the ground. We were being slow-cooked like bird-kid stew, and I was the bitter onion, so mad at Dylan I could spit.
Most of us were doing okay regulating our body temperature—mutant genes, et cetera, et cetera—but poor Akila was looking a little rough. Her tongue hung out of the side of her mouth, but there was none of her signature drool, and she was panting super loud.
"Are you all right, my darling?" Total asked, trotting alongside her. Akila whined, and he jumped to lick her face a few times. That was just about the most real, doglike thing I'd ever seen Total do, and I'll be honest, it kind of freaked me out.
"Once Dylan stops being an idiot and shows up with the water jugs, everything will be fine," I said loudly. Despite our inborn sense of direction, I had no idea where we were—all landmarks were gone. Even the forest of tree stumps had disappeared under the rivers of gray deposits.
Finally we stumbled on the lake, but it wasn't the blue thermal pool we remembered. A thick gray film covered the surface, broken only by the hundreds or thousands of silvery dead fish bobbing through it. The cloud of black flies hovering over them was even thicker than the ash.
"Well, might as well eat 'em before they rot." Gazzy grabbed a silvery floater, brushed off the ash as best he could, and bit into the side. Then he looked up in surprise, his face as dirty and gray as the water. "Hey! It's cooked!"
One by one we grabbed a cooked fish right out of the still-warm water, brushed off the ash, and ate our fill. One downside of our avian genes was a lightning-fast metabolism that meant we were nearly always hungry.
A little farther on, we saw it: Our precious stockpile of water was untouched, the jugs covered with ash but intact. We weren't going to die of thirst—at least not yet.
Luck loves Maximum Ride, I thought, cupping my hands so Akila could drink. But then my heart plummeted. If the jugs hadn't been moved, it could only mean one thing:
Dylan hadn't even made it this far.
For hours we stayed close to the shore where the ash was less dense, and took turns flying through the debris to search the cliffs. But the volcano was still pumping black smoke, and the air was getting harder to breathe.
I was bent over after one of these missions, hacking up some blood and wondering if my fast-healing ability included my guts, when I spotted a charred gray knob poking out of the rubble.
"Another cave bone," I sighed. "Looks kind of femur-y." That's how we had known the island's underwater tunnels had collapsed after the apocalyptic meteor: The corpses had started washing up on shore. We were still finding them, almost three months later. I didn't know if any of the bones had belonged to my mother or my half sister. How would I be able to tell?
"Not necessarily." Fang's lips pressed together.
I held it up: Though charred, it was totally a human femur.
Gazzy shook his head. "It's burned. We don't know how old it is. The lava would've done that if it had been a cave corpse or someone more recently, like…"
I was having trouble swallowing, trouble breathing.
"Let's go back to the cave," Nudge said gently. "We can try another path—"
I whirled around. "Angel, try to tap into Dylan's thoughts. He's got to be somewhere. He's just hiding. Or looking for us. I'm sure he's nearby."
Angel looked away.
"Ig? Can't you smell him or something?"
Iggy leaned heavily against a rock. Flakes of ash fell from his white-blond hair when he shook his head. Though his eyes were unseeing, they were full of pity.
"It's not him," I insisted, kicking ash back over the bones.
"It's like Dylan's cognitive connection just stopped," Angel said finally. "Like with your mom and Ella—"
"We never found their bodies." My jaw tightened. "We don't know what happened to them. Just like we don't know what happened… here."
It was getting harder to say his name.
"Everything is dead, Max." Angel's tone was firm. "Everything except us."
"No." I wanted to shake her.
I looked down the beach. At first I couldn't make out what Fang was holding, it was so black and warped. Then he turned it over, and I saw a tiny flash of color.
That spot of bright green—a shade Dylan loved, that none of us had seen since the last of the trees had died—was enough to buckle my knees, and enough to force out the awful, wounded sob that had been building in my chest all day.
Because that burned-to-cinders object Fang cradled in his hand was one of Dylan's size-twelve sneakers.
Raves for the blockbuster MAXIMUM RIDE series:
#1 New York Times Bestseller
Publishers Weekly Bestseller
An ALA Quick Pick for Young Adults
An ALA/VOYA "Teens' Top Ten" Pick
A VOYA Review Editor's Choice
A New York Public Library "Books for the Teen Age" Selection
A Book Sense Summer 2007 Children's Pick
A KLIATT Editors' Choice
A Children's Choice Book Awards Author of the Year for MAX
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- May 18, 2015
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