"If you kids don't knock it off, I'm going to turn this tree around and go home!"
At her father's command, Evie Lane removed the two fingers she had curled into her brother's nostrils. "But Dad! We're so close to the Buhana Jungle I can hear the birdsongs! I can smell the mangoes!"
Her brother, Rick, who at eleven was one year older than Evie and never let her forget it, released the grip he had on a lock of her wavy dark hair. "Mangoes aren't indigenous to the Buhana Jungle. Everyone with a hundred sixty IQ knows that."
Evie leaned back in her wood-carved cockpit chair and made a long, drawn-out snorting sound, like a snore. "Zszszszszsog! If only you used that big brain of yours for something other than shooting laser beams at space marines in your video games."
Rick adjusted the glasses on his blushing face. "Studies show video games improve spatial reasoning and hand-eye coordination."
"Coordinate your way to the evac room. We land in the Buhana Jungle in t-minus real soon." Their father did not look away from the main viewport of the Roost's cockpit as he spoke.
"Nerds first," Evie said, offering Rick the chance to lead the way.
"Jerks second," Rick retorted, racing toward the back of the Lane family's personal hovership. He ducked under the hollow branches that piped water and fuel throughout the aircraft.
The Roost was unlike any flying machine the world had ever seen. It was carved from a giant sequoia named King Sargon that had fallen victim to a lightning strike in Yosemite National Park. Dad had discovered the great fallen tree while in the region rejuvenating bald eagle habitats. He took the remains back home to Switzerland, where he carved rooms and passageways through the trunk of the broken titan. Two custom repulsor engines had been grafted to its roots, which allowed the tree to fly at supersonic speeds.
In fourteen seconds (a new record) Evie and Rick reached the evac room, a large compartment where the exit ramp deployed.
Standing in the corner of the room was their robot teacher, 2-Tor, a seven-foot-tall mechanical crow. 2-Tor's eyes glowed with life. Colors swirled on the video screen in his belly.
The birdbot stepped forward, flapping his chromium wings and cocking his head from side to side. When he spoke, his digitized voice sounded faintly British. "Aha! So you have deigned to grace me with your presences at last. Miss Evelyn, you are late for your algebra practice test."
"Sorry, 2-Tor," Evie said with an innocent smirk. "Duty calls!"
2-Tor hooted like an owl that had swallowed a kazoo. "If you continue to neglect your studies, Miss Evelyn, you will flunk your math exam...again! Mister Richard has never flunked anything in his life!"
Evie glared at Rick sourly. 2-Tor was always on her case. He never lectured Rick. Sometimes Evie suspected that her brother must have hacked into 2-Tor's software and changed his programming so that 2-Tor would let him do whatever he wanted.
In this case, however, Rick came to her defense. "Difficult as it is to believe, 2-Tor, it isn't Evie's fault this time. Dad has us on another one of his ridiculous missions to save an innocent bird from the evils of trash."
That was putting it lightly. In recent years, many of the earth's most beautiful regions had been turned into dumping grounds. Deserts were doused in trash. Caves were clogged. Forests were overflowing! The Buhana Jungle was no exception. It was a festering wound poisoning the earth, jammed full of junk no one wanted anymore.
Evie's dad sauntered into the room dressed like a goofy astronaut. His pointed nose and poof of auburn hair made it look like the sun was rising behind his head. He zipped up his brown flight suit. "I've set the Roost to autopilot. Now remember, kids, the Buhana Jungle is the only known habitat of the rare bird known as the Buhana of Paradise. If we don't rescue this specimen, the whole species could be wiped out."
Evie fidgeted as the Buhana Jungle grew large in the Roost's portholes. The toxic storage site in this tropical paradise belonged to the Condo Corporation, a real estate and construction company that was owned by the father of the most popular girl at Evie's school, Vesuvia Piffle. She was Empress of the Academy, and if you wanted to be anybody at the International School for Exceptional Students, you needed Vesuvia's approval. Without it, you were nothing, a smear of mustard on the cafeteria floor that the janitor would mop up at the end of fifth period.
If Vesuvia found out that Evie's family was raiding Condo Corp property, there was no telling what the platinum blonde monster would do. Maybe Vesuvia would hire a roboshop quartet to follow Evie around school, and everywhere she went the robots would sing about what a poorly dressed and smelly loser she was. Then only Rick would hang out with her...and no one hung out with Rick.
"Everybody ready?" Evie's father grinned like he had woken up to discover he had grown wings overnight. "Suits on! Grab your mouthmasks! Fresh water and cleaning supplies...check! Let's go get that bird."
Evie glanced out the window again at the ever-approaching jungle. "Dad, it looks like we're coming in too fast."
"Never fear, daughter dear! Compared to the Roost's top speed, we will be landing at a snail's pace!"
Compared to the Roost's top speed, a snail's pace meant they landed at approximately a zillion miles an hour. Old car tires, broken logging equipment, and other trash-dump projectiles went flying as the rocket-powered tree roared across the jungle, carving a canyon out of the littered landscape.
The Lane family hopped off the exit ramp and sank up to their waists in trash-filled mud. Evie struggled to pull her arms free of the sludge.
"Trash," Dad retched, attaching a white respirator to his nose and mouth. "There is nothing I despise more than poorly discarded unsanitary waste products."
Evie gagged. "Ugh! It smells like lasagna made with old socks."
"Yech!" Rick added. "It smells like a toilet brush on an all-asparagus diet!"
Dad fanned away a swarm of flies. "I invented those deodorizing mouthmasks to block out unwanted odors and unwanted complaints! It does me no good if you don't wear them."
Evie fitted the mouthmask over her face and was surprised at how well it concealed the overwhelming stench. After so many missions with her dad around the world, swimming neck-deep in garbage and saving animals from damaged habitats, she was glad to have something to block out the nauseating smell. She turned to tell Dad that his latest invention was totally awesome, but he was already several feet ahead of her, cutting a path through the mud.
The Buhana Jungle looked almost as Evie had imagined it, with densely packed trees, mud, tangled roots, and a grand canopy of leaves high overhead. Wrecked chainsaw trucks and demolition vehicles were upturned everywhere. Discarded power cables hung like snakes from the trees, and billowing plastic bags suffocated many branches.
In the distance, a kapok tree emerged from the heaps of scrap metal, empty food containers, and bulging trash bags. This must have been where Condo Corp's deforestation crews dumped their waste when they weren't chopping down hundred-year-old trees to make room for one of their signature properties. A massive billboard hanging from a tree read: "Take a swing at all eighteen stories of Condo Corp's new Vertical Golf Course!" Evie shook her head. The corporation's willingness to destroy the environment for the sake of something pointless never ceased to amaze.
When Evie and Rick reached the kapok tree, Dad was already shimmying up the trunk. He tugged on a branch and cooed softly. "Hey there, little fella. It's okay. No one's going to hurt you."
"Did you find the bird?!" Evie squinted to see what or whom her dad was talking to.
"Shh!" Rick nudged her. "You're gonna scare it away."
Evie didn't want to frighten the bird, but she couldn't help hurrying. She had a bad feeling about trespassing on Condo Corp property.
Rick must have felt the same way, because as their father hopped out of the tree, he said, "Dad, we really shouldn't be here. We're breaking the rules. You're going to get caught again, and Mom isn't going to like that."
"But, Rick, we're saving the planet! What is there to complain about?"
Rick flapped his arms like a grumpy eagle, spattering the ground with trash and mud. "Come on! I swore on my Game Zinger that I wouldn't let you get caught again."
"Your mother will understand that I am doing this for the greater good...I hope." Dad opened his hands, revealing the limp shape of the Buhana of Paradise. Its sapphire-and-ruby feathers were so soiled with grime that it looked like it was covered in belly button lint. The remains of a plastic sandwich bag were knotted around its feet.
"Aww, poor thing!" Evie said.
"But, hey, we found him!" Dad said.
"Yeah we did!" Rick cheered.
"Go Team Lane!" Evie gave Rick a high five, for the moment forgetting their differences. One thing they could agree on was that saving an injured bird was a good thing.
Dad watched the exchange between the kids, grinning. Then he jumped back to work. "Evie, help me with the scissors. Rick, did you bring the wash bucket?"
Rick slid the scroll of super plastic out of its carrying tube. He handed it to his father. With a flick of his wrist, Dad unrolled the flat plastic and popped it into the correct wash-bucket shape.
Just as Evie cut the bird free of its bonds with her scissors, the hum of a hover engine filled the air. "Uh, what's that?" Dread filled Evie's voice.
A floating petunia came down through the leafy canopy, its bright plastic petals spiraling like helicopter blades. The pink flying machine moved toward them, dodging branches, sirens blaring. Evie's heart sank.
The pink flowercopter came down to eye level, where they could see its robotic interface, a number of multi-jointed grasping arms, and a video screen with a face on it. But not just any face: the face of Evie and Rick's classmate, Vesuvia Piffle.
She spoke with a sharp, squeaky voice, like a cross between a cartoon princess and a homicidal maniac. "Intruders! This wilderness preserve has been claimed by the Condo Corporation as a waste dumping ground. You are trespassing on private property! Ha! Daddy will be so proud when he sees that all by myself I caught three thievingwait, Evie?"
Evie tried to hide her face from the rotating camera on top of the video monitor.
"Evie Lane, it is you! I'd recognize that hideous taste in clothing anywhere. You're the one trespassing? You're the one stealing from Daddy's company?!"
Evie turned to her father for help, but he was occupied washing the bird. "Vesuvia, I can explain."
"I bet you can!" Vesuvia sneered. "You can explain to the other girls at school why you're the biggest loser ever."
"Please," Evie begged. "Give me another chance. We're just trying to save the bird. What are you going to do?"
Vesuvia's tone turned angelic. "Oh me? Nothing."
"Really?!" Evie exclaimed. "Oh, thank you. I'm so sorry. I'll never"
Vesuvia began to cackle, the sound drowning out Evie's frantic apology. "That's nice. Tell it to Winterpole. Something tells me they won't be as forgiving." The flowercopter turned to the sky, where several sleek hoverships burst through the canopy in an explosion of leaves. "See you at school, thief!" echoed Vesuvia's voice.
Evie's stomach dropped.
Winterpole, the international police agency dedicated to making sure nothing ever changed, not even a little bit, had been an icicle in the Lane family's side as long as Evie could remember. If something existed on any of the seven continents, Winterpole had jurisdiction over it. The bureaucracy of the organization was so impenetrable that they rarely accomplished anything, and they always slowed down the innovations of her father, who genuinely cared about helping the environment. All Winterpole did was follow its mission statement of "Organization and Documentation of Natural Property," whatever that meant.
Fearful accusations filled Rick's eyes. "Dad, what's Winterpole doing here?"
"Well, you know how the Buhana Jungle is the last remaining habitat of the Buhana of Paradise?"
"Uh-huh," the kids shared a look. They knew how this story would end.
"So, unfortunately, in order to protect the species, Winterpole created a law prohibiting anyone from removing a bird of its kind from its home."
Evie could not contain her offense. "Wait a sec. So you're saying that to protect the bird, Winterpole made a rule that you can't take it out of the habitat that's killing it?"
"Yes, that's exactly it." Dad shook his head. "Ridiculous, right? The operatives there just don't think; they issue statutes without regard to whether a particular environment is, say, a toxic dump. If I could just get in front of them, I'd"
One of Rick's veins was bulging so much it looked like it was about to leap free and go for a jog.
"You okay there, son?" George asked.
"Dad, we know Winterpole is far from super effective, but what you're telling us is that in order to save this bird, you broke Winterpole bylaws, risked the integrity of Lane Industries, and endangered the lives of your children?"
"No!" Dad replied. "I haven't done all that." He tucked the bird into the front of his flight suit. "Okay, now I'm doing all that. Run! To the Roost."
They waded through the mud back to their enormous hovership, Rick nagging like their mother did the whole way. But Evie barely heard his complaints; the memory of Vesuvia Piffle's vile cackles still filled her ears. Evie would have to change her name and go to junior high in Finland. There was no telling what that perky pain would do.