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       Starters, p.17

           Lissa Price
 
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  Go to the left. Just walk out like you own the place.

  I did what she said. Beatty’s clopping stopped.

  “Miss. The office of the headmistress is this way.” She pointed to the right. Her voice was so sharp, it hurt my ears.

  “I know. But I’m not feeling well. I’m leaving.”

  “We have a doctor here. A good one. I’ll call him.”

  “No thank you.”

  Beatty chuffed, her lips turning down into a sneer. But I kept walking to the main gate, holding my head high, never looking back. I was learning the posture of the entitled.

  When I reached the gate, the guard looked at me from inside his little cage. I stared at the gate, expecting it to open. It didn’t.

  The phone rang and he answered it. It was all old technology there.

  He stared at me and then hung up. He motioned for me to approach. I stepped closer to the mesh grating.

  “Have a nice day,” he said. “See you again.”

  The gate opened and it took all my will not to run through it. When it closed behind me, my breathing resumed and I walked across the street. I turned back and looked at the compound. The dormitory rose higher than the wall, and something there caught my eye.

  Sara was in one of the windows, looking very small, waving at me. I swallowed whatever had gathered in my throat.

  Now you see how bad it is in there. Now you know.

  “It’s even worse, didn’t you hear her?” I said to Helena. “The body bank’s going to cherry-pick the prettiest kids and start using them. We have to stop this.”

  Finally. You get it.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  I was so glad to be out of that horrible place. I wondered if Helena had ever expected Sara to have any clues about Emma’s death, or whether that was just a lie to get me into an institution.

  Before I could think any more about it, my cell phone rang. I got into my car and locked the doors. It was Madison. She’d left a message for me to come over and pick up the stuff I’d left there yesterday. Helena gave me the okay to stop by, as long as I was quick. It wasn’t far, and I arrived in ten minutes.

  I had barely stepped onto Madison’s porch when she pulled the door open.

  She stared blankly. “Do I know you?”

  Uh-oh. Was this a different Ender inside? “Of course you know me. Pinky friends, remember?” I waved my little finger.

  She folded her arms. “Well, you could have fooled me. I thought you were the one who disappeared in a puff of smoke last night.”

  “I’m so sorry. Really.”

  “I was imagining all kinds of horrible things that involved accidents and blood and humongous fines for damaging the rental body.”

  “It was an emergency.”

  “I figured. A Blake emergency. Come on in.”

  I followed her into the house.

  “I had to join him at an awards ceremony for his grandfather. It all happened pretty fast.” I looked around the room and didn’t see my overnight bag.

  “I’ll bet. They’re in Washington, you know?” Her eyes sparkled. “He’s on TV right now, with the senator.”

  “Now?”

  “The six o’clock news,” Madison said.

  The senator? Helena’s voice was sharp in my head. I want to see.

  I moved past Madison to the game room.

  She followed me. “Silly, you thought I called you just to pick up your stuff? I knew you’d want to see this.”

  In the middle of Madison’s game room, Senator Harrison filled the airscreen, larger than life. A group of reporters were in the foreground, below his podium, and the White House was in the background.

  “Today, the president came to a historic decision,” Harrison said into a row of microphones. “As you know, employment for minors was forbidden by the Senior Employment Protection Act. As our senior population was living longer, they needed to be guaranteed they would not be forced out of the workplace. The decision then was to ban anyone under nineteen from working. Then the war came. It’s been over for a year now, and many of us feel it is time to ease into a change. I am proud to announce the Special Circumstances Youth Employment Act, which will allow certain teens to work for a select group of sanctioned companies. Phase one will address the institutionalized, unclaimed minors. The first company will be Prime Destinations, on the West Coast. By doing this, we will give meaning to the aimless lives of countless minors.”

  So Helena was right. We were all in big trouble.

  As the senator concluded his statement and began to take questions from reporters, the camera moved and I noticed Blake standing beside him. Immediately my heart started pounding. What did he know about me? Had his grandfather told him I wasn’t who I pretended to be? And if Senator Harrison was doing business with Prime, did he now know that I wasn’t your regular customer, but a donor trapped in a mind lock with the renter?

  Did Blake hate me? I scanned his face as if I could get the answer.

  Then I noticed it. His tie clip.

  It was the whale clip ornament from my shoe. He’d removed it from the shoe I dropped at the Music Center and was using it as a tie clip. That meant that whatever he knew—or didn’t know—he wasn’t mad at me.

  He must have liked me, to do something like that. I moved into his holographic space, but he was no longer there, having been replaced by a reporter doing a wrap-up directly into the camera. It didn’t matter, I was still basking in the memory of his face and his symbolic gesture.

  “Isn’t that something?” Madison said. “Prime’s the first company to hire. Well, la-dee-dah. At least it’ll be official now. Maybe we won’t have to be so secretive.”

  “You think?” I noticed a blue flashing light in the corner of the airscreen. Below it was the number 67. “What’s that blue light?” I asked.

  “SPC. Special privatecast. From one of the many services I subscribe to. I can watch it later.” She got up and looked at the airscreen. “Sixty-seven—that’s Prime Destinations. Right after Harrison mentioned them?” She wrinkled her nose. “Odd.”

  “It’s no coincidence. Turn it on.”

  Madison air-touched the icon. A bulletin flashed across the screen: Stand By for Special Announcement from Prime Destinations.

  The screen showed an empty set, with marble columns in the background.

  “Who else is watching this?” I asked.

  “Only Titanium Premium subscribers of Prime.”

  “How many of you are there?”

  She shrugged and sat down on the couch. “Don’t know. Most of them are like you, Silver subscribers, right?”

  “Yeah.” I nodded. “Silver.”

  “Shhh.” She tucked one leg under her and fluttered her hand. “It’s starting.”

  Tinnenbaum stepped into frame from the left, with his TV-host posture. From the right edge of the frame, Doris entered, beaming.

  “Hello, friends,” Tinnenbaum said, addressing the camera. “Thank you for letting us into your home.”

  “We’re thrilled to be here,” Doris said.

  “This is a special announcement exclusively for our Titanium Premium subscribers, private and confidential to you,” Tinnenbaum said.

  “So if you have others in the room, you may wish to watch this later,” Doris said.

  Madison and I traded a look. This sounded important.

  Tinnenbaum and Doris smiled at each other, pausing to let people turn off the program if necessary. Then Tinnenbaum nodded to someone off camera, as if he’d been signaled to proceed.

  “We have a special surprise for you,” he said. “The head of Prime Destinations is here to make an important announcement.”

  Madison sat up straight. “We’ve never seen him before.”

  That’s him, Callie. Helena’s thoughts rang in my head. The Old Man himself.

  I locked my eyes on the airscreen. The picture cut to a different camera. In some other place, possibly another location entirely, the camera moved closer to a darken
ed booth with windows. It was raised on a platform. Inside was the three-quarter silhouette of a man.

  “Looks like we’re still not going to see him,” I said.

  The camera moved in closer, framing him from the shoulders up. The lights in the booth came on, but the face we saw was not that of a 150-year-old Ender. Instead, it had a strange electronic shimmer to it, as if thousands of pixels slithered over his features. Parts of his face looked like the features of a woman, parts like those of a man; some pieces were young, some old. All were constantly moving, racing and chasing each other.

  The effect was eerie, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’d never seen this technique before.

  “Thank you, Chad and Doris.” The Old Man’s voice was electronically disguised as well, and had a quality that I could only describe as liquid metal.

  Fluid tones with a metallic edge.

  “To my loyal Titanium Premium subscribers, you are the special ones who have supported us from the beginning. We want to let you be the first to know of our newest service. First of all, we will be extending our product line so our inventory of body types will include more nationalities to fulfill your specific youth fantasies.”

  “Oh, that’ll be fun,” Madison said. “I’d love to try Chinese.”

  I wanted to gag. Madison made an entire nationality sound as trivial as a menu selection.

  The Old Man’s face continued to morph and shimmer, as if he wore a 3-D mask. I could make out the shape of his features underneath but could only guess at what he really looked like. The camera moved in closer, signaling something big. “But the more important, the more revolutionary advancement is going to be available much sooner than we had ever imagined.” He paused to get our full attention. “Permanency.”

  Madison gasped and put her hand to her mouth.

  “Instead of renters, you will be able to become owners,” the Old Man said.

  No!

  That was Helena. Screaming in my head.

  The Old Man continued. “You can choose a body, complete with a specialized skill set, and maintain that body for the rest of your life. You will in effect become that new and vibrant person. You can build relationships that last. Live the fantasy forever.”

  My heart pumped so hard, I could hear it pounding in my eardrums.

  “As we all progress with advancements in prolonging life, your experience will expand. We can already keep your birth body in that chair until it reaches two hundred years. Soon it will be two hundred and fifty. One of my employees likes to say, ‘Two hundred fifty is the new hundred.’ ”

  A quick cut to Tinnenbaum and Doris, looking down as if watching the Old Man on a monitor. They laughed politely before the camera cut back to the Old Man.

  “You can enjoy the best years of life as this new body ages beautifully through its twenties and thirties and beyond,” the Old Man said. “At Prime Destinations, our visions for you are endless.”

  The lights faded to black inside the booth, and the camera cut back to Tinnenbaum and Doris.

  “As always, we will maintain the strictest rules of privacy,” Tinnenbaum said. “And we ask the same of you. While we are planning on expanding our inventory, we also have our internal waiting list of Titanium subscribers eager to jump in and test the waters.”

  Doris smiled. “You could be one of them, so don’t hesitate. Come in soon to discuss the possibilities for your permanently youthful future.”

  Their images faded to a black screen with an endless scroll of warnings and disclaimers, complete with a female voice-over reading the list so fast it was almost comical.

  Madison muted the sound. “Can you believe it?”

  “No.” My chest tightened, as if a fist were inside squeezing.

  “I can’t wait.” Her eyes lit up. “That man is a visionary.”

  I rocketed off the couch. “What are you saying? That you’d do it?”

  “Why not? Of course it’s fun to try different bodies, but instead of all the back-and-forth and in-and-out, it would be nice to settle with one and be done with it.”

  “Madison, listen to yourself. It’s not like picking out a new dress or a car or a house. These are people. Living, breathing teens who have their whole lives ahead of them. But not if you steal it from them.”

  She pouted.

  “Do you really want to be in someone else’s body for the rest of your life?”

  She was quiet for a moment. “When I did my first rental, and I was in that young body, I felt like I was home again. More like myself, the way I used to be, healthy and fit and spry. Don’t you feel the same way?”

  I folded my arms. “No. I don’t. This was just a lark. Temporary. But if you or I are permanently in someone’s body, it means that girl will never get a break. It’s not like she’s out for a month and then gets her life back. She’ll never know what it’s like to go to college, fall in love, get married, have children. You might have those experiences—again—but she won’t. Her brain will be asleep—forever.”

  “Oh dear.” Madison slumped back on the couch. “That sounds so horribly inhumane.”

  “You’re robbing them of the most precious thing—their lives.” I looked around and spotted my overnight bag against the wall.

  “When you put it that way … it sounds like kidnapping.”

  “It’s worse than that.” I picked up my bag. “It’s murder.”

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  I was so mad I could barely think. I shoved my overnight bag into my car, drove out of Madison’s driveway, and then parked on the street where she couldn’t see me. It was dark now, eight-thirty p.m. I sat there with locked doors, my car parked near the hedges that separated her estate from the next one.

  I leaned my head back against the leather headrest. “You were right, Helena. About Harrison. I didn’t believe you before, but it’s all true.”

  It’s even worse than I thought.

  “Treating us like we’re property. Slaves. It’s not our fault, it’s all because of that stupid war that we never wanted.”

  You’re right.

  “I’ve seen what they do with the rented bodies. They call it joyriding. They jump off bridges, do stupid stunts. They treat their cars better than they treat us. And your poor Emma …”

  I gasped and put my hand to my mouth as a new possibility occurred to me.

  “Helena. Maybe Emma’s not dead.”

  What … are you saying?

  I looked out the windshield of my parked car. The streetlight cast harsh shadows, making the bushes and trees seem hyper-real.

  “Maybe,” I said slowly, “she’s been taken over as a permanent.”

  My God.

  “They must have tested it before they would announce it to their subscribers. She could be alive. Maybe that’s where the missing kids are.”

  Oh, Callie, if only …

  “You were right, Helena. Harrison has to be evil to do this to all the unclaimed minors. And the Old Man behind it all is ten times worse. Watching the airscreen, his face hidden, hearing his mechanical voice … it was like tarantulas crawling up my spine.” I rubbed my arms and shuddered.

  We’ll make a plan—

  She stopped talking in the middle of her thought. I waited a moment.

  “What?” I asked.

  Silence. Then, for the first time, her voice sounded terrified.

  No. No. Stop.

  I sat up straight. “Helena? Helena, what is it?”

  Please … don’t … Her voice became strained and faint.

  “What’s happening?” I screamed.

  I felt her power draining. I wanted to reach out to her with my mind, to give her some of my strength.

  I waited forever for some response. When it came, it was as faint as a whisper.

  Callie, run!

  That was her last word. And then nothing. The sound in my head went completely silent.

  Our connection was severed, I knew it. I felt it.

  A cold fear took over my
body, making me shiver. I couldn’t stop the shaking.

  She was gone. Helena was dead, I felt it in my bones.

  I was alone.

  Suddenly I heard a noise like a high-pitched ping and a crack. I looked to my right but didn’t see any unfriendlies. I turned to the left and saw a boxy SUV slinking away in the night.

  Then my focus changed as I saw a small hole in my driver’s side window. Surrounding it, a web of cracks radiated out, growing as I watched.

  The hair on the back of my neck rose. I looked up and saw the red brake lights of the SUV. They’d stopped.

  They turned around. They were coming back.

  I started my car and pulled out. The SUV was barreling down the middle of the street, heading right for me. I stopped my car and pressed the reverse button. I floored it, retreating from the approaching SUV. As it got closer, its high beams came on, blinding me with the blast of white so I couldn’t see who was behind the wheel.

  Only a few feet separated the hoods of our cars. I checked the rearview mirror, hoping I wouldn’t hit anything. My palms got so sweaty my grip on the wheel became slippery. I held on tighter as I raced backward. Houses, lawns, hedges, flashed by me on either side. At least there were no other cars driving in this residential neighborhood.

  The SUV got close enough to bump my hood. I flicked the wheel back and forth and pressed the gas pedal to the floor. I pulled away, but the SUV caught up and hit me again.

  A small intersection was coming up in my rearview mirror. I made a quick decision and pulled hard on the wheel, whipping back into the side street. The SUV’s momentum kept it going through the intersection and beyond. I switched into drive and raced straight across the intersection, staying on the side street, knowing it would take the SUV time to back up and turn around.

  I floored it and hung a right, then a left, making my getaway. I turned off my lights and searched for a place to hide. One house had its gates open, and I pulled into the circular driveway, hiding my car behind the tall hedges. I shut off my engine and listened. A moment later, I heard the screech of the SUV as it raced through the streets. The sound faded away to the quiet residential night that mansion neighborhoods enjoyed.

 
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