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       Starters, p.13

           Lissa Price
 
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  My mind was racing a million miles an hour, wondering what had happened. Was I too late?

  I stood inside a hotel room. Outside, about ten stories below, a crowd was gathered in a square, facing a stage with an empty podium.

  My heart beat even faster. Was the senator already dead?

  Please, no.

  I examined the rifle. It was loaded. Fully. The barrel was cool to the touch. Below, the crowd was calm.

  I breathed out. I hadn’t shot anyone.

  Where was I? The tall buildings looked like downtown L.A. The park below, Pershing Square.

  On the desk, there was a leather folder embossed with The Millennium Biltmore Hotel in gold foil. Nice place Helena had picked to kill someone. I lifted the rifle to remove the cartridge.

  Callie. Please don’t.

  Her voice came in more clearly than ever.

  Don’t unload.

  “Helena?”

  Yes.

  “You can hear me?” I asked.

  Now I can. We have a better connection.

  “How’s this possible?” I shivered, as if to shake her out of me. “What have you gotten me into?”

  I took the cartridge out of the rifle and put it on the desk.

  Could you reload the rifle, please? We don’t have much time.

  “No, I’m not going to reload!” I shouted. “You shouldn’t have a weapon in the first place.” I threw it on the bed. “Where did you get it?”

  If you destroy it, the way you did my gun, I’ll just get another.

  “I didn’t destroy it. I threw it away.” I went to the window and looked down.

  Senator Harrison was arriving. He climbed to the podium area and began addressing the crowd.

  “I’m not going to shoot anyone for you, and I’m not going to let you use my body to kill.” I reached up and slammed the window shut.

  Listen to me, Callie. I want to prevent a crime. One that will affect tens of thousands of people your age.

  I shook my head. “You’ve got a bad track record for telling me the truth.”

  I decided it would be smart to get far away from the rifle and such a dangerous vantage point, just in case. I stormed to the door.

  Callie, stop.

  I slammed the door behind me and ran down the hallway. “What kind of person plans something like this?”

  Don’t run. You just had surgery.

  My feet slowed to a walk. Was she making this up? To control me?

  Your chip.

  I touched the back of my head. It was sore. More sore than when Blake had touched it.

  “What’d you do to me?” I screamed.

  An Ender couple came out of their room and stared at me. I was a crazy girl in the hallway, shouting to no one. I rushed ahead to the elevators and slipped into an open one. As the brass-plated doors closed, I saw my reflection in them. I was wearing a black jumpsuit and my hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. What look was Helena going for, ninja chic?

  We altered the chip.

  I gripped the railing inside the elevator. “You had someone operate on me?”

  He’s a biochip expert. And a surgeon. We had to alter the stop-kill switch.

  “The what?” The elevator stopped and an Ender joined me. I had no choice but to shut up and listen to Helena.

  The chip’s design prevents renters from killing. My friend disabled it when I began the rental. But there were the problems, the sporadic blackouts, me getting pushed out of the—your—body, the bouncing back and forth. At that point I asked him to try to fix it. The best he could do was make it so we could communicate like this.

  I glanced at the Ender in the elevator with me. He seemed to like the way I was dressed. Great. When the elevator stopped at the lobby level, I let him go ahead of me, until he was out of earshot.

  “Well, I don’t want you messing with my head. And I don’t want you in my head,” I said to Helena. “That wasn’t part of the deal.” I felt my cheeks on fire.

  The lobby was swarming with people pressing against the windows to get a glimpse of the senator speaking in the park across the street.

  “Where’s the car?” I asked Helena.

  Please, don’t go.

  I reached in my pockets and found a valet ticket. As I exited the hotel, I handed it to the doorman.

  A microphone amplified the senator’s voice so I could hear him from where I stood. I watched as he addressed the crowd from the podium.

  “Our youth could have a productive role in our society,” he said.

  He is such a liar.

  “All politicians lie,” I said. “It’s a requirement for the job.”

  His lies are big. The kind that kill children.

  On the drive Helena insisted on telling me her thoughts about the senator. At first, she had thought his platform was to improve the standards for youth, promote better living conditions and health care, particularly for the institutionalized. But lately, in the last six months, she had discovered that he had a secret plan.

  He’s involved with Prime Destinations.

  “How?” I drove past other drivers also talking to voices in their heads. But at least theirs were at the end of an earpiece.

  He’s got a financial stake in the company. He’s going to Washington to persuade the president to use Prime before the next election. To press them into service for the government.

  “Doing what, exactly?” I had no patience for Helena’s wild theories.

  I can only guess. The main point is that these teens will not be volunteers. My sources say they’ll be conscripted at best, kidnapped at worst.

  It was all coming at me too fast. I didn’t know what she was talking about. It seemed like her anger over losing Emma was blinding her. What if there wasn’t some big conspiracy? Who was to say Emma hadn’t just run away? And that Lauren’s son, Kevin, hadn’t run with her?

  But I had to ask. “So what do you think they’d be doing?”

  Anything for which it would be beneficial to have an Ender with over a hundred years of experience and wisdom in the strong, youthful body of a teen. Spying comes to mind. But that’s probably just the beginning.

  “And you uncovered all this because your granddaughter went missing?”

  They killed her. The body bank killed her.

  The anger in her voice chilled my blood. “You’ve got proof? You never saw the body.”

  I have considerable proof. You think I reached this decision lightly? I have spent the last six months working on this. And there are other victims, other grandparents.

  “They don’t all agree with your conclusions.”

  Helena was quiet for a moment. So you’ve been talking to Lauren. She’s naïve. She can’t believe any company would kill young people.

  “Just like the way you were going to get me killed? Shot by marshals after I’d killed Senator Harrison?”

  Her long silence said a lot. Finally, she broke it.

  You’re fast. Strong. You’d get away.

  “I’m not faster than a bullet.”

  The tone of her voice changed. It became almost childlike. Where are we going?

  “Not we. Me! It’s my body. You’re just along for the ride.” I pictured her back at Prime, strapped in that chair.

  Not Prime Destinations, you can’t.

  “That’s exactly where I’m heading.”

  Why would you want to go there? You won’t get paid if you don’t fulfill your contract.

  “I think the odds that I’ll get paid are getting slimmer by the minute. Your plan would’ve gotten me killed first.” I exited the freeway. “Maybe I’ll bargain for half.”

  What do you think you can say to Prime Destinations that they’ll understand? You’re breaking your contract, that’s all they’ll care about.

  “I’ll tell them about you. About altering my chip. Then they can fix it.”

  If you let on that you know about any of this—the donors who were killed, or Senator Harrison’s plan—they’ll
kill you.

  “You’re missing one little thing, Helena. I don’t believe you. I’m not buying anything you say.”

  But you have to. The altered chip. The blackouts. The very fact that I can talk to you like this proves what I’m saying.

  I gripped the wheel. What she said about the chip had to be true. But did that mean everything else was? My temples started to pound. I pulled over.

  We were four blocks from Prime Destinations.

  “I want you out of my head. Now.”

  Don’t go back there. Please. I’m begging you.

  I cringed. She sounded so scared. “Give me one good reason.”

  If you go back, we’re both dead.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  I was idling near a coffeehouse, keeping an eye out for renegades.

  “Helena. I’m going to need more proof.”

  She believed the body bank would kill us both if I returned there.

  To help keep me from going to Prime Destinations, she had offered to tell me where to go to get the chip removed. Probably to the geek friend who had altered it in the first place. How could I trust him? He was the guy who had nullified the stop-kill switch, turning me into Helena’s own personal killing machine.

  She was silent.

  “Helena?”

  She’d had moments of quiet before, but this was different. Empty. Like when someone was no longer at the end of a phone line. I pressed at the chip beneath the stitches in the back of my head in a lame effort to get Helena’s “signal” back. But all I got was a sharp pain.

  “Ow.”

  She didn’t even respond to that. It was clear she had left, whether intentionally or not.

  Before Helena’s voice had shown up in my head, I had thought the assassination attempt would happen at the Music Center. But then Helena had surprised me by trying it at Pershing Square. She had moved it up, seeing that I was getting to be too much of a problem, taking away her gun and all. Assassins hate that.

  I decided to go ahead with my original plan, because it was likely Helena was going to as well.

  The next day, I showed up at Madison’s house, aching to confide in her. I wanted to tell her everything I’d learned, how Helena’s voice could come into my head while I was in control of my body.

  But that would freak Madison out. If she knew that inside I wasn’t an Ender like her, like I’d been pretending to be, she wouldn’t trust me anymore. She could turn me in to Prime. She really wasn’t my audience for sympathy at this point.

  Madison’s house was stuck in a décor that had been stylish maybe twenty years ago: alien chic. Shimmery green chairs floating in the air, strange hologram chandeliers, and 3-D alien landscapes on the walls.

  As she led me down the hall, she explained how she liked to use certain rooms when she was “in character,” meaning renting. Her place was big, so she had a lot of rooms to choose from.

  We went to the game room, a dream hangout that made me forget my troubles. She showed me to the buffet table by the wall and handed me a bowl. Rows of the best snacks in plexi-tubes called to us, and we filled our dishes with candy and chocolates and pretzels. The last station was an amazing soda fountain she could program so that the syrup made funny colored designs in the glasses.

  We took our stash to a humongous velvety sectional, where we spread out. The centerpiece in the middle of the room was a floating Invisascreen, 200 by 350 inches, that could project holos. I’d never seen one like this in someone’s home. Besides holos and shows, it also had games that let us play super soccer, or air tennis, or golf, with the sports’ biggest stars.

  We could be cast members of shows seen only by subscribers she’d friended. This was way out of my family’s league. But for the rich like Madison, there was almost no end to the possibilities for starstruck fans.

  “I used to be a production manager, so I got an industry discount,” she explained with a wink.

  I guessed even the rich liked bargains.

  Madison ordered the latest sequel to a popular holo. The characters were projected in space, life-sized. Seeing them this close and at this scale was different from seeing an Xperience. After a few minutes, Madison got up and stepped into the space. There were two actors in the scene, and the taller one turned to her.

  “Hello, Madison,” he said. “Glad you could join us.”

  “Wow. How’d you make that happen?” I asked, fascinated.

  “You have to stand here”—Madison pointed to the rectangle of space in the center of the room—“or it doesn’t work.”

  As soon as I entered the space, the other actor, the shorter one with fierce eyes, turned to me.

  “Hello, Callie,” he said. And I thought I would melt.

  He stepped closer. I could smell him, kind of a woodsy scent, like cedar. He didn’t look exactly like real life. It was more like the way a good hologram fooled you at first, but on closer inspection you saw the giveaway, a slight shimmer around the edges. But it was still pretty amazing.

  “How do they do this?” I didn’t want to take my eyes off him, but I turned to Madison. She was deep in a conversation with her actor.

  My actor touched my arm, drawing my attention back.

  “Don’t worry about how. Just worry about who.” He smiled at me.

  I could feel his touch. It wasn’t like in real life; it was subtler, like a breeze across my skin. It made the hair on my arm rise.

  A phone rang.

  Everyone stopped and folded their arms, waiting for me to go silence it.

  “Callie.” Madison put one hand on her forehead. “That just ruins the illusion.”

  “Sorry.”

  I stepped out of the space and went to the sectional. The caller ID displayed the last name I wanted to see at that moment.

  “Blake?” I said into the phone.

  “Callie. How’s it going?”

  I turned back to see Madison smiling at her actor while he played with her hair. My actor stood there with his hands in his pockets.

  “Look, Callie, I know this is last-minute, but I just got the okay from my grandfather. Would you like to come to the Youth League Awards with me?”

  “Tonight, you mean?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I—I—really can’t.”

  “It’s important. I’d like you there. And you said you wanted to meet my grandfather.”

  “He’ll probably be too busy anyway,” I said.

  “There’s a reception afterward. Everyone who’s anyone will be there, even the mayor. It’ll be fun.”

  It was the last place in the world I should be. I bit my lower lip to keep from saying yes. I wanted to be with Blake, but this was exactly what I was trying to avoid—being in the same place as the senator. What if I blacked out and Helena took over?

  “I want to, Blake. Really. But I promised Madison I’d spend the night here. It just wouldn’t be right.”

  We said goodbye and hung up, and I could feel his disappointment. It matched mine.

  Madison looked over at me as I put my phone back in my purse. “Everything okay?”

  “Yeah, fine.” I slumped on the sectional.

  “Come and join us.” She waved me over. Both actors were now talking to her.

  I shook my head. “I’ll just watch from here.”

  Madison shrugged and held hands with both actors as she turned away and the three of them walked off into a jungle. I thought about how Helena hadn’t taken control of my body for a while now. And she hadn’t spoken to me for the longest time.…

  I gasped. What if she had left the body bank? Could she have cut the rental short because our connection had been compromised? If she had decided I wasn’t going to cooperate with her, maybe she’d left the body bank and was on her way to assassinate the senator herself. At the awards, as planned. Doing it herself hadn’t been her original plan, but she might have jumped to something that desperate since I had made it clear I would never shoot him.

  If I went to the awards, I
d get to speak to Blake’s grandfather. I could try to explain, warn him. And I no longer had a weapon. Helena would have to use up precious time finding another one, if she took over my body again.

  I’d been stupid to turn Blake down. I excused myself and took my phone into Madison’s guest bathroom to call him.

  Blake drove me to the underground parking lot of a downtown building. He was thrilled that I’d changed my mind. I reminded him how much I was looking forward to meeting his grandfather. Maybe even having a chance for a moment alone with him. Blake said he’d try to make that happen. He didn’t even question it. If only all guys were this nice.

  Blake flashed a special key, and the underground doorman led us to a private elevator with black and gold carpeting. The doorman put his own key in a slot and tipped his hat as the doors closed between us.

  “This isn’t the Music Center,” I said.

  “It isn’t?” Blake said. “Oh no, I made a wrong turn.”

  I gave him a sneer that he answered with a grin. The elevator stopped at the top level, marked “Penthouse.”

  The doors opened to a very short hallway that led to another door. Blake inserted his key and unlocked it. Inside were dark wood and low lights. On the right was a curved bar, complete with an Ender bartender wiping a glass.

  “Welcome, Blake.”

  “Hey, Henry.”

  Blake didn’t pause but continued walking through the room, past leather chairs, to a sliding glass door. He waved his palm over a pad on the wall and the door slid open. We stepped out onto a large terrace.

  A modern square fountain dominated the center, making a calming bubbling sound that covered the bustling downtown noise. I walked to the edge of the terrace and peeked through the potted palms bordering the railing. It was clear why the trees were there. Boarded-up, crumbling buildings surrounded this oasis. Some were completely demolished, as if smashed by a giant monster.

  I turned my back to the sight.

  “So this belongs to your family.”

  He nodded. “Yeah. We use it before the opera or receptions at the concert hall. The staff doesn’t really like having to wait on me when my grandfather’s not here, though. I’m just a kid to them.”

 
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