“Sure you do, Gazzy, but didn’t we all know that?” I pointed out.
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“If you did, you never told me,” he said poutily. Note to self: Must do better at encouraging flock.
“Fang? What say you, wise man?”
“Well, did you guys know the Rosetta Stone is, like, way more than a computer program? It’s actually this kind of awesome hieroglyphics-decoder-type rock. And about the flock, I discovered that in some parts of the world, if us bird kids had appeared hundreds of years ago, they literally would have thought we were gods. That’s pretty cool. And about me? I realized … I’d really like to travel the world. See different cultures, live in a tribe. I’m thinking Papua New Guinea or somewhere.”
“Yeah?” I raised an eyebrow. “Well, have fun with that. I think the flock’s seen enough of the globe lately.”
Fang flashed me a look of irritation. “Didn’t think I was getting graded, Max. Remind me to keep my mouth shut next time. I’ll risk the F.”
Okay, that was pretty much three strikes in a row for me. “I’m sorry, guys — I guess I’m just jealous that you all discovered this great stuff and I … didn’t.”
“Whatever, Teach,” Iggy said, a little disgusted. “In case you’re even remotely interested in hearing what I have to say, I learned something about myself.”
“Of course I want to know, Iggy,” I said hastily. “What is it?”
“I learned I want to see.”
We were all quiet.
Iggy had never said that. We totally took for granted that his superior extrasensory skills seemed to give him pretty much the same abilities and quality of life the rest of us had — if not better.
“I’m sorry, Iggy” was my best response. “I wish I could help you.”
“Max? You didn’t ask me,” Angel spoke up. Another wounded flock member.
“I was just getting to you, Ange. Did you discover anything?”
“Yeah. I found out that the African art collection here is on loan from the H. Gunther-Hagen Foundation. I didn’t know the doctor liked art, did you?”
My day was now officially ruined.
AFTER OUR ART INSTITUTE DIVERSION, I decided to go back to normal lesson plans to avoid the element of surprise — i.e., not knowing answers to my own questions. Control and I, after all, were likethis.
But even normal lessons turned out to be a problem. Case in point: everything mathlike besides plain math (+, −, ×, %) was a huge recipe for trouble. Nudge was reduced to tears by the natural–unnatural number conundrum, and tensions were high again.
“Look, I know this has been really hard,” I said, “but we don’t just quit because something is hard.”
Nudge frowned. “Yes, we do. We do all the time!”
Fang brushed his hand across his mouth and looked down at the table, obviously trying to hide a smile.
“Well, okay, maybe sometimes we do,” I admitted. “But I’m not backing down from this. We’re going to be educated if it kills us!” I looked at them seriously. “Because if we’re not educated, I’m dang sure that will kill us.”
“Max?” Angel turned her innocent blue eyes on me. “Here’s something to learn, but it’s funner to read.” She pulled out a book and handed it to me. Alarms went off in my head when I saw the cover: The Way to Survive, by Dr. Hans Gunther-Hagen.
“Where’d you get this?” I took the book from her and started flipping through it.
“Dr. Hans gave it to me in Africa. It’s really interesting,”
“Okay,” I said, narrowing my eyes at her. When was she hanging out with Dr. G-H in Africa? “Class dismissed.”
For the rest of the afternoon, I curled up in our deck hammock and blocked out the sound of the TV coming from inside while I read Dr. Scary’s book.
Fang came and sat in the other end of the hammock, so our feet were touching. I thought about the last time we’d managed to really be alone — not counting the night I’d thought he was an Eraser, ’cause that had sucked — and my cheeks flushed. I wished we were twenty years old. I wished we were safe and didn’t ever have to worry about people like Dr. G. I wished we could do whatever we wanted.
“This is what Angel is reading. I’m wondering if the not-so-good doctor got to her in Africa.”
“Just kind of horrible,” I said quietly. “At first it seems like he’s talking about how to save the earth, and how mankind has messed everything up, and how we should fix it. But if you keep going, he says that the only way for humankind to survive is if it radically changes — becomes more than human. He calls it skipping an evolutionary grade. Basically he wants everyone to ‘evolve,’ and he’s trying to come up with the technology to jump-start it. If he had his way, no one would be one hundred percent human anymore. Everyone would be hybrids, or have their genes tinkered with, to make them superhuman.”
“We like being more than human,” Fang pointed out. “But we’re only more than human because we’re rare,” I
said. “What are we if everyone is like us, or evolved in different ways? What if we become the ones who aren’t special enough?”
“Hm,” Fang murmured. “So where does the doctor go with his plan?”
I frowned. “He asks for help. From scientists, from volunteers. From people who want to be on the cutting edge of a new world. But meanwhile he’s out there injecting people with God knows what — or maybe worse. And not every one of his experiments can be a success. Some of them have to be mistakes. Failures. What happens to those people?”
“He’s not going to want anyone to see his failures,” Fang fact, he’s going to make sure no one does. He’ll have to get rid of them.”
I nodded, feeling sick inside.
“Are you thinking we need to stop him?” Fang asked. “I’m thinking we need to start with some research.”
DR. SCARY HAD about 300,000 Google hits. We started wading. The high point was stumbling on a photo of him from grad school, which actually made me laugh out loud. Back in the old days, the doc had a lot of hair. And it was perfectly feathered. Wow. You think you know someone …
But it all went downhill from there.
On around page thirty of our search results, we clicked on a link that looked like gobbledygook — but when the screen cleared and refreshed, it almost made my heart stop. At the top of the page appeared the logotype for the Institute of Higher Living. The rest of the screen was blank except for three boxes for a user name and two passwords.
I hadn’t heard anything about the Institute in a long time. We’d busted into one of their facilities and released some mutants once. That’s where we picked up Total.
Fang and I exchanged glances. We knew we had to find a way to break in.
“Nudge?” I called, and she came over. Nudge had a preternatural gift for computer hacking and was the only one of us who truly knew her way around this high-octane government computer we’d nabbed a while back.
I couldn’t even process the flurry of mouse clicks, screen flashes, dialog boxes going open and shut, and letternumber series that Nudge keyed in to the machine as she tried to hack in. It took her about ten minutes to get access — a long time by her measure — and it took Fang and me twenty more minutes of exploring to find a list of lab reports that sounded like maybe, just maybe, they had the fingerprints of Dr. Hackjob-Wackjob:
Morbid Effects of Autoantibodies on Rodents
Autoimmune Toxicity in Systemic Viral Experimentation on Chimpanzees
Abnormal Cell Differentiation from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Experimentation
Cancerous Effects of Viral Reprogramming of iPSCs in Human Adults
Defective Apoptotic Processes and Cell Proliferation in iPSC Experimentation on Human Children
Most of those words I didn’t know, aside from the red flags of cancerous and abnormal — but human children was all I needed to feel like throwing up. I almost didn’t want to go further. But I drew a breath and forced myself to start reading the first document.
Fang and I stared at the screen.
“Is it just me or does this feel like it’s written in Latin?” Fang said five minutes later. We were both so freaked by the scientific mumbo jumbo that we hadn’t even clicked to the next page view.
“Latin would be easier to understand than this,” I grumbled. “But hold on — see those references in parentheses to ‘figure one’ and ‘figure two’ and ‘figure three’? It means there are pictures somewhere associated with this paper.”
“Well, you know what they say … ,” Fang began.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” I finished. “Let me just skim through the rest of this stuff real quick and see if anything catches my eye.”
I have to give myself credit for that one. Most grownups wouldn’t have even bothered to try to wade through that crap, but I managed to pick up on two key points.
First: Autoantibodies set your immune system against you and attack the body’s own organs like they’re the bad guys. Second: Abnormal cell growth, too much cell growth, badly “programmed” cell growth = party invitation to cancer. Great.
I started clicking through the pages of the PDF faster now, to get to the pictures. And then, when I did, I wondered why I’d been so eager to see them.
Our grisly tour of Dr. Hans Gunther-Hagen’s Gallery of Mistakes took at least two hours.
We saw people with purple eyelids and grotesquely bulging eyes the size of baseballs, people with glands in their necks so swollen it looked as if there were an alien creature growing inside them. Others had muscles so inflamed their bodies ballooned and twisted into shapes I didn’t think possible. The skin disorders were maybe the worst for me to look at. Rashing and cracking and bleeding and virtual disintegration so wildly extreme that I had to stand up and walk away from the computer at one point.
This was only what was happening on the surface of these victims. I’d read enough to understand the bottom line: toxic disaster. Chronic pain, even agony, not to mention the psychological effects of dealing with it.
“There’s more. The regeneration stuff,” Fang said, and I nodded. It was a horror show, but I had to go deeper, and deeper still. Page after page, image after image, document after document.
I can’t even write down the details of what I saw on the screen that day. It would bring back too many nightmarish visions of festering wounds, partial and deformed limbs, and horrific tumors of all shapes and sizes.
“I just knew it,” I said in a low voice. “I knew he would stop at nothing to accelerate his research on humans.”
What we would call mistakes, Dr. G called progress.
IT WAS HOURS later when Iggy jolted us out of Dr. Hans’s Fun House.
“What’ve you guys been doing all this time? Online poker? You sure are … into it.”
“Playing a video game,” Fang answered, hiding the document on the computer desktop. Even though the other kids had seen a lot of freaky stuff in their lives, it was still our instinct to protect them from anything that might overload their quota of nightmares.
“You’re lying through your fangs,” Iggy accused.
Fang tried to play innocent — but “innocent Fang” is an oxymoron, so it didn’t work.
“That reminds me,” Angel called over to us from the couch. “I have a video for you, Max!”
She skipped to her bedroom and brought out a backpack that she turned upside down. Out dropped a clogged travel-size hairbrush, an iPod Shuffle, and a CD in a linty transparent sleeve.
“I found it in my bag a few days after we got back from Africa. It has your name on it, but I don’t know how it got there — I swear.”
I didn’t have a good feeling about this, but curiosity got the better of me and I popped the CD into the computer right away. I’d drill Angel later about why she “forgot” to give it to me until now.
When I clicked “play,” my not-good feeling got much, much less good.
My favorite finger-chopping foe smiled at me from the screen.
“Hello, Max,” Dr. Gunther-Hagen began. I braced myself, as Fang stood behind me with his comforting hands on my shoulders.
You ran out a bit quickly today, and I was so excited to be demonstrating my work that I never had the opportunity to give you some of the more important reasons why I know you would find it very rewarding to work with me.
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As I’m certain was apparent from what you saw and learned of my limb-regeneration project, I am the world’s leading expert on stem cell research, bar none. Growing an organ in a dish and implanting it is rather an elementary process for me and my team compared to limb regeneration. In fact, I’ve been successfully implanting organs grown from subjects’ own tissue for a number of years. Were you to join forces with me, doors would open up for you and your flock.