You are wasting time. It isn't just your own time, Max. It's everyone's time. You are wasting seven billion people's time.
I bit my lip, fists tight against the arm of my chair. It was almost eight o'clock and the flock and I were just finishing up with dinner. Across the table from me, Gazzy was having a heated discussion with Nudge re: who had the strangest teacher at school. I shuddered slightly. That word still had really bad connotations for me. Anne had excused herself to get some apple pies out of the oven, successfully fulfilling her role as a stereotypical Betty Crocker.
"Huh?" I looked up, letting my fingers relax a little, trying to appear nonchalant.
"I asked what your teacher is like?" Nudge repeated, looking a little hurt.
"Oh," I said casually. "I don't know. Normal, I guess."
I didn't mean to be so stingy with my answer, but I was having trouble focusing. I don't know if you've ever sat around a dinner table with five noisy kids and one obsessively maternal adult, but let me tell you, it's no picnic. You can't even hear yourself think. Unfortunately, this time my problem was on the other end of the spectrum. I could hear myself think a little too well. Or more specifically, I could hear the Voice a little too well.
You need to stop acting like such a child, Max. You need to focus on saving the world.
So on top of the conversations and arguments that were being shouted across the table, I had the Voice going at me in my brain and I couldn't even plug my ears to block out the sound.
I don't get it. I thought. What do you even want me to save the world from?
The grownups. They're destroying the world, and you are its only hope.
Yeah. It's only hope in hell, I though, glancing at my surroundings. So let me get this straight. Grownups are destroying the world, but you want me to stop acting like a child?
There's a difference between acting like a child and being a child.
Thanks, Confucius, I grumbled mentally.
Look, Max. You are responsible for the world, my Voice said. If it was just your life, no one would care if you bothered, but-"
"Shut up!" I growled.
"But..." I glanced up to see Anne standing by the table, looking like she didn't know whether to be angry or hurt. "All I did was ask you if you wanted some pie." She held the dish out like a peace offering.
"What?" I asked, thoroughly confused. "Oh. Sorry... I um, wasn't talking to you. And, thanks but no. I'm fine."
"But you've hardly touched your dinner," She said.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry. I'm not really hungry. Can I be excused?" I gritted my teeth against having to ask. The rest of the flock was looking at me like I was crazy. I doubt any of them had willingly turned down food in their lives, but feeling like a schizophrenic can really take the appetite out of a girl.
"Okay," She said hesitantly.
As I pushed my chair back from the table, I caught Fang's eye. Trying to be subtle, I flashed him the sign that Jeb had taught us for "wait." Two fingers, held against my back. Then I pointed towards the ceiling, and then to myself.
Wait up for me.
Fang gave an almost imperceptible nod.
I made my way up to my bedroom and curled up into a ball under the covers, still trying to block out the Voice's continuous lecturing tone, rattling around inside my skull. I pressed my fingers hard against my temples.
An hour or so passed and when I hear Anne open my door to check on me, I closed my eyes against the slice of light from the hall and feigned sleep. Let her put the kids to bed, I thought. She's better at it then I am, anyways.
I waited in the dark for one more hour, trying not to fall asleep, and watching minutes flick by on my radio clock in a vivid primary red. When the house was completely silent, I slipped out of my room and across the plush carpet, making my way downstairs. Fang wasn't in the kitchen yet, so while I waited for him, I gathered up all the supplies I thought we'd need. If Fang even agreed to go through with this. Which was pretty unlikely, now that I thought about it.
Dr. Martinez said you might lose the use of your arm.
I ignored the Voice, and continued to work until I felt a tiny shiver run across the back of my neck and down to the base of my wings.
"Don't do that," I whispered, turning around to see Fang step out of the doorframe's shadow. He shot me a brief smirk before frowning slightly and moving across the kitchen to join me. He didn't notice the bundle in my arms.
"What's up?" He asked quietly.
"Hilarious, Max," he said without cracking a smile. "Seriously. You were acting really weird tonight. Are the headaches coming back?"
"No. It was just the Voice. No big deal," I lied. "But I've come to a decision and I need your help."
If I thought the flattery of telling Fang I need him would help my case, then I was seriously mistaken. He just raised an eyebrow at me and waited for me to elaborate.
"The chip has to go."
"What?" He said frowning.
"I have to get rid of the chip. The fact that whitecoats put it in me is bad enough, but the School has to be using it to track us. I looked it up online and microchips with tracers in them are about that size. Other chips are usually bigger. Besides, I'm pretty sure that the chip is the reason I have the Voice. If we take out the chip, then I think it will go away. And do you remember how much that guy in the subway tunnel freaked when he found out about it? I mean, sure he was a schizo but he also went to MIT and..." I trailed off, realizing that I was rambling. "And I have to get rid of the chip."
Fang watched me silently for a moment before saying, "Alright... And how do you propose we do that?"
I stepped over to the kitchen table and set down the bundle I'd been holding. From a few wrinkled dishtowels rolled out a bottle of antiseptic some bandages and Anne's sharpest steak knife. I was actually surprised that she had a knife like that. For a woman who lives on powerbars, she has a surprising amount of heavy-duty cutlery.
"No," Fang said sharply.
A stranger looking at him would have seen his prototype stoic face but I noticed the slight widening of his eyes and the way that his muscles tensed up under his shirt. Well, I hadn't expected not to freak him out.
"Fang," I said quickly, before he could get another word in. "I need you to cut the chip out of me. We can't have Erasers following us wherever we go just because of some stupid half-inch piece of metal."
"Are you crazy?" He glared. "Do you have any idea how many veins and arteries there are in your arm? You'd die from blood loss."
"Think about it," I said matter-of-factly. I was hoping I could convince Fang that I knew what I was doing. "You lost a lot more blood when we were attacked by Erasers then I possibly could now. This is a controlled environment. We can stop the blood flow, that's what the dish towels are for." I pointed.
"Can't we just ask Anne to take you to the hospital? She's in the FBI for Christ's sake, she could make it so the doctors don't ask questions."
I shook my head. "I don't trust it. I know that Anne has been really nice to us, but even if I was going to trust her, I couldn't necessarily trust any random doctor I get stuck with. They might think that I should have a chip in me. God only knows what they could do, Fang and I don't want it to affect the flock. Please."
He shook his head, forcing his black hair to lick his cheeks. "Max..."
"Please, Fang," I begged. I think it was the first time I'd ever begged anything in my life. "I need to get rid of this chip. I'd do it myself but if I get dizzy from the blood loss, I don't want my hand to slip."
He closed his eyes. "You're going to do this with or without my help, aren't you?"
"Yes," I whispered.
Fang looked away from me, silent for at least a minute.
"Fine," he muttered.
I sat down at the cream Formica tables (that coordinated with everything else in the immaculate room) and Fang took his place opposite me, running a hand through his hair. I spread out the dishtowels and set the bandages to the side. He took the knife that I handed him with a glare. I felt bad about putting Fang in this situation, I really did. He didn't want to hurt me. He wouldn't to hurt any of the flock.
I held my left arm out a pointed to the spot where I'd seen the computer chip on Dr. Martinez's x-ray. Fang held the knife over it and I forced myself not to look away
"Just, um.." I started and Fang look up at me. "Try to avoid the muscle, please. As much as you can." I'd already decided not to tell him about the whole possibly-losing-the-use-of-my-hand scenario. I could deal with that when we got to it but whatever happened, it was worth getting that freaking chip out of me.
Fang nodded and then pressed the tip of the blade into my arm. I didn't know anyone could be that gentle while slicing you open, but it still hurt like a mother. I gave a light gasp as the blood started to seep out.
"Sorry." Fang said quietly, pressing the knife deeper.
I just clenched my teeth and groaned. It wasn't eloquent, but I think it got my point across. But I had asked Fang to do this, so I bit my lip and tried not to make any more noises that might further the guilt trip I knew he was giving himself.
"Thanks," I whispered.
The Voice was being unusually silent throughout this ordeal and I wasn't sure whether to take that as a good thing or a bad thing.
"So what did it say?" Fang asked.
"At dinner. What did the Voice say that pushed you over the edge?"
I frowned at the way he had phrased that. I wasn't quite sure what it was about it that bothered me... maybe that leaders aren't supposed to have an edge. But I realized that he was trying to distract me. I appreciated it but at the exact same time I wanted him to shut up. I really didn't want to talk about the Voice.
"Nothing," I said.
"Really?" He asked. "Because you looked pretty upset."
"It was nothing," I repeated, wishing for a moment that I could take a turn using the knife on him. Only Fang can get to me that fast and that deep.
"Max," he said seriously.
"It really wasn't that big a deal," I said, trying to ignore the sawing pain in my forearm. I gasped again. "It was just telling me to save the world, stop being such a kid, etc. You know, the usual. And.."
"And that if I died no one would care," I said quickly, staring at the table.
Fang didn't stop working and I figured I wouldn't get any acknowledgment on that last statement. I knew that I was being stupid and self-centered when I should have been focusing on the flock but the Voice's words had struck home somehow. Maybe it was the way that Anne was replacing me, bedtime by bedtime and dinner by dinner. The way that the kids didn't really need me anymore.
"You know that's ridiculous, right?"
"You know that none of the flock would have any idea what to do without you? Where to begin? You're not just our leader, Max. You're our friend," he said softly, not looking up at me.
"...Really?" I asked, and then wanted to smack myself for sounding so pathetic.
"Duh," he said. "God, sometimes I really don't know how the dumbest one of us got to be the leader." Then he looked up for a second, so I could see that he was grinning. For that second, I actually forgot that my arm was gushing blood all over Anne's coordinated table top.
"Got it!" Fang almost yelled, and with one last burst of pain, the computer chip came out of my arm.
It fell onto the dishtowels I'd laid out and for a moment, Fang and I just stared at it. It was tiny and unobtrusive looking, despite being covered in blood. I didn't understand how such a little thing could cause so much trouble. But then again, I thought. Just look at Angel. I smiled happily.
"What should we do with it?" Fang said, pressing a few of the towels against my arm to stem all the blood. He smeared some antiseptic on my arm and then started to bandage it.
"Umm..." I said, trying to think through all the blood-loss. My senses were a little out of it and I felt stupid for not having planned to this point. "Flush it, I guess?"
Fang shrugged, and as he took it to the bathroom, I tested out my new state.
Hello? Voice? I thought forcefully.
Sighing with relief, I then attempted to flex my fingers. It hurt like hell, but I could move my hand.
Fang came back into the room and started washing up so that so Anne wouldn't wake up to kitchen full of blood. Yeah, cause that would go over like a ton of freaking bricks. When I tried to help him, he just glared at me and said, "For god's sake, Max, go to bed and let your arm heal."
I glared back, but turned to go upstairs. As I left the room, I heard him mutter, "Idiot."
Instead of retaliating, I just went on up to bed like he'd told me to. Because that's the wonderful benevolent kind of leader that I am.
As soon as I got to my room and shut the door, I hit the sheets, not even bothering to change into my pajamas. I closed my eyes, ready for a night for heady sleep, undisturbed by forced images of destruction, sterile needles, mushroom clouds and newspaper headlines.
Then I heard something that made me jackknife into a sitting position, my eyes wide open.
Nice Try, Maximum, said my Voice.