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       Starters, p.18

           Lissa Price
 
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  Lights came on in the home of the driveway I was borrowing, so I started my engine and left. As I drove off, I wondered where I could go. My brother was at the hotel, Blake was in Washington, and who knew where Michael was? I couldn’t tell Madison.

  I wanted to run to my brother and Florina for refuge. But someone was shooting at me. The last thing I wanted was to lead danger to my brother’s door.

  Run, Helena had said. But where? Before I went anywhere, I had to go to Helena’s place.

  For the gun.

  I got to Helena’s home and went straight to her bedroom. I threw open the dresser drawers, digging through the scarves, searching for the gun Helena had had waiting for me at the Music Center. It was gone.

  Had Eugenia moved it?

  I went out to the hall and shouted for her. “Eugenia!”

  Her heavy shoes clunked as she climbed the stairs. “Coming.”

  Her voice sounded bored. I didn’t wait but shouted down the length of the hall as she approached, taking her own sweet time.

  “Did you take anything out of my drawers?” I asked.

  She waited until she stood in front of me before she answered. Her expression could only be described as stunned. “You know I never, ever touch your drawers.”

  “You took it. You took the gun, didn’t you?”

  She put her hand to her mouth. “A gun? No. I’d never touch a gun.”

  “People will do anything if they have to.”

  “It was here, in your bedroom?”

  I turned around and looked at the room. Then I winced.

  I’d remembered where I left the gun. I went to the closet, opened it, and saw the evening bag there. Eugenia stood in the doorway. With my back to her, I squeezed the bag.

  The gun was inside.

  I turned around. “I’m so sorry. I haven’t been myself. I’ve had headaches. I was going to go see my tech, to look at the chip.” I was reaching, praying that she knew who Helena’s tech was.

  “Why don’t you just go back to the place where they put it in? You sure paid them enough.”

  She was still angry. But that was nothing compared to how she’d feel if she knew she might be in danger. Helena had only told her about the rental, nothing else.

  “Eugenia, listen carefully. Don’t answer the door for anyone. If someone calls, you don’t know where I went.”

  Eugenia stared at me, her face long and serious. “You mean business as usual?”

  So Helena had been cautious. But it was never as dangerous as this. My life was at risk every minute I stayed. Eugenia knew nothing, which would serve to protect her.

  “I have to go,” I said. “Please be careful.”

  I got into Helena’s sports car and turned on the engine. I pulled up the navigator’s listing of Helena’s history. The long list made me want to give up, but then I recognized one of the names. Redmond. That was the person Eugenia had mentioned my first night at the house. She said he’d called Helena.

  “Redmond,” I said to the navigator.

  “Redmond. Right away,” the navigator chirped.

  The navigator led me to a warehouse in an industrial area of the San Fernando Valley. It wasn’t exactly a neighborhood I would have chosen for a nighttime drive. I passed chain-link fences holding back dogs that warned me to keep driving. The address popped up on the navigator. It was a complex of warehouses with pools of light coming from roof-mounted lamps. I parked inside the compound so my car wouldn’t be visible to any renegades on the street.

  Redmond’s address was the last warehouse. The door was locked. I pressed an old-fashioned metal buzzer. Above it was a tiny hole with a shiny center, a camera, most likely. Redmond was crafty, making the exterior look old and cheap. A moment later, the door opened with a loud clunk.

  Inside, it was very industrial, the kind of place you’d expect a sculptor to live and work. Concrete floor, a basic hallway created out of a plain white wall. I saw the cool glow of fluorescent light at the end of the hallway. I took out my gun.

  My heart was pounding. Was this a trap? I wished I had Helena in my head. She’d know; she’d tell me. I should have pressed for more information about Redmond when I had her.

  I came to the end of the hall. I turned left and stepped into a large space broken up by rows of tables and counters of electronic parts, computers, and monitors, some working, some with guts exposed. There was so much that some of it was fastened to bars suspended from the high ceiling. A chemical odor hung in the air.

  An airscreen above a cluttered counter showed the outside door, where I had rung the buzzer. Below it, a silver-haired man sat slumped in front of a bank of computer monitors. Ender.

  What I couldn’t tell was whether he was dead or alive. He was motionless as I crept up behind him, both arms holding the gun in front of me.

  “Redmond?” I said.

  “Helena,” he mumbled with a British accent. “You took so long, I almost dozed off.”

  He lifted his head. I could see his face reflected in two black-screened monitors. He looked back at my reflection in them, speaking to me without turning.

  “Helena, what’s that for?”

  “I’ve got a request.”

  “Usually you ask without pointing a gun at my head.”

  He started to swivel his chair around. I slammed my foot on the metal ring, freezing it in place.

  “Put your hands on the back of your head,” I said.

  Everything I was doing I’d either learned from my dad or from the holos. It worked, and he obeyed.

  One of the monitors beeped in time to a pulsating red dot, part of a map of the city. The dot looked like it was right at the spot where we were.

  “What’s that?” I pointed to it.

  “It’s you. Your tracking device. But you know that.” His eyes narrowed.

  He was thin and gangly, with mad-scientist hair. His bone structure was nice—you could tell he had been handsome when he was young.

  “Everyone knows more about my body than I do,” I said. “Well, now I want you to remove the chip. I’m finished.”

  “How did it go?”

  “What?”

  “Your big plan.”

  “All these monitors and you don’t get the news here?”

  He stared at me and rolled his chair forward, hands still on his head. He was reading me, examining, searching to see who was really inside me.

  “My God.” He lowered his hands and moved in so close that I could smell mint on his breath. “That’s not Helena in there, is it?”

  My gun hand shook. “No. She’s dead.”

  He wrinkled his brow. “How?”

  I shook my head. “I don’t know. But I heard it happen. She was inside my head at the time. I think someone killed her.”

  His eyes grew wider as he hung on my words.

  “We were getting close,” I said. “I thought I’d get to meet her, in person.”

  “Helena was a fireball.” Sadness washed over Redmond’s face. “We met in college, must be over a hundred years ago now.”

  “How much do you know about the body bank?”

  “I know what I need to know.”

  “Then I’ll give you the dummy’s version. The body bank killed her. She warned me they would kill me too.” I aimed the gun again. “I need you to take out this chip.”

  “I can see why you don’t want them tracking you. You’re an eyewitness to Helena’s death.”

  “An earwitness, anyway. So please, take it out.”

  “I can’t.”

  “I could kill you.” I straightened the arm holding the gun. “You should know that better than anyone. You’re the one who flipped off my stop-kill switch.”

  “The question remains whether Helena’s plan would have worked,” he said. “Would you have been able to do it? It’s not clear whether I was successful or whether I failed at that too.”

  “Do you really want to be the one to test it? For the last time, I’m begging you to remove t
he chip.”

  “I want to. I do. Because I’m concerned they may have built in a drop-dead command.”

  “And that is?”

  “They send a signal to the chip to make it explode.”

  I squeezed my eyes shut for a second. That was one I hadn’t thought of.

  “Don’t worry. It’s more likely they’d continue to use the chip—with another senior, someone else there at the body bank, wired up the way Helena was.”

  I didn’t know which was more frightening: someone else taking over my body or my head exploding. “But since you’ve altered the chip, I haven’t had any more blackouts. Helena was unable to take over.”

  “Right. But someone else could reach the level that Helena had with you at the end—that kind of mind-to-mind connection.”

  “So take it out!”

  “I would if I could. But it’s impossible. It’s located in your brain.”

  “But you went in and altered it. Twice.”

  “And it wasn’t easy. But I can’t remove it. They embedded it in you in a complex webbing pattern so that if anyone tried to take it out, it would self-destruct. You would almost certainly hemorrhage at the least and be blown to bits at the worst. Think of it as a tiny bomb in your head.”

  “A bomb? In my head? You’ve got to be kidding.”

  “Sorry.”

  Hemorrhage. Exploding head. I was feeling dizzy.

  “It’s horrible.” I lowered the gun. “Why did they do this to me?”

  “They probably did it to all the donors. As a fail-safe. This way, no one can kill a donor and steal the valuable technology.”

  “So I’m stuck with a piece of metal in my head that links me to them for the rest of my life?”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  I would never be the same. Never be safe. The girl who had walked into the body bank was gone forever.

  Redmond cleared his throat. “There is some good news.”

  “What?”

  “You’re the only one with an altered chip. That makes you a unique subject.”

  I let out a bitter laugh. “What’s so great about that?”

  He stared at me. “The body bank might want to keep you alive.”

  Redmond fashioned a magnetic plate that covered the area of my head closest to the chip. I didn’t feel any pain, thanks to a local anesthetic. As I lay on a table in his sterile room in the back, I couldn’t help but admire his precision. Redmond felt to me like a young soul in an old body. I trusted him. Truth was, I didn’t want to leave his lab. There was a deep feeling of safety, being with someone who knew my inner workings the way he did.

  He explained that his prior career had been as a brain surgeon. But when he retired, he went back to his first love, computers. He said working with hardware was like operating on a patient who never complained. And if anything went wrong, he could always start over.

  I felt comforted in his hands. But I was dangerous to him. He was not a supporter working for the cause. He was there for the pay, for the allure of the unknown science, and maybe because Helena was an old friend.

  But I was a stranger, and I knew he wanted me out of there as soon as possible.

  “Now, I’ll warn you, this isn’t a permanent fix. It’s just what I could do on short notice. This sealant I’m using will break down from the contact with the plate. Anything stronger would burn your scalp.”

  “How long will it last?” I asked.

  “I don’t know. Maybe a week.”

  He continued to work, applying a gel to the plate’s metal edges.

  “What do you know about the Old Man?” I asked.

  “The one thing everyone knows is that he’s kept his identity a secret. No one’s ever seen his face. Rumors abound.… He used to be a software genius, he was in charge of Dark Ops during the war and sustained some injury.… Who knows if any of it is true?”

  I swallowed, thinking of Helena and Emma. “I want to find him.”

  “So do a lot of people. Which is why he’s so reclusive.”

  “I know he goes to the body bank sometimes. I saw him there once.”

  Redmond stopped and leaned over so he’d be in my line of sight. “Don’t go after him. You’re young and beautiful. If you stay out of their way, you’ll have your whole life ahead as your reward. He is a bad, bad man.”

  He helped me to a sitting position. He handed me a mirror and, like a hairdresser, let me admire his handiwork in a second mirror on the wall.

  “You can’t even see it,” I said.

  He took my hand and placed it on the back of my head. “Easy,” he said.

  Underneath my hair, I felt a hard metal plate that was molded to the shape of my skull.

  “I had to shave some of your hair by the scalp, but your outer layer covers it. You can’t see anything strange unless the wind blows too hard,” he said.

  “And this will prevent them from tracking me? For a week?”

  “Yes. And I won’t be able to follow you either. You’re on your own now.”

  “It’s okay.” I put the mirror down and stood. “I’ve been that way for a long time.”

  His expression became even more serious. “Come with me.”

  I followed him back to his lab. He pressed his fingers to a pad on a file drawer built into his desk. It opened with a click. He pulled out a small metal box about the size of his palm. On the top, it was labeled Helena.

  “Now, if anything should happen to me, come and get this box.”

  “How will I unlock it?”

  “It’s already coded for your fingerprint. Helena did it.”

  I looked at my fingertips. Was anything mine anymore? The box was plain. A hard drive?

  “What’s inside?” I asked him.

  “The key that has the information about how I altered your chip.” His eyes softened and his lips almost formed a smile. “I guess you could say it’s your birth certificate.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  Now that the body bank could no longer track me, they would know that somehow I had defeated the chip. Because we couldn’t remove it, there was no way for Redmond to put out a false tracker to mislead them. Up to this point, Prime might have thought that I was at the mercy of Helena’s plot. But not anymore.

  I sat in my car by Redmond’s warehouse and pulled out a new cell phone he had given me—he was concerned that Helena’s could be tracked. I turned on her cell phone just long enough to see Lauren’s number, then shut it off. When I called Lauren, I got a recording. I left a message for her to call me—well, not me, she didn’t know me, but Helena—and gave her the new number.

  I started to call Madison, but a call came through Helena’s phone. I saw that it was Blake.

  Blake.

  My heart was chasing my breath. The last time I’d seen his face was on the airscreen, when he’d been wearing my whale clip. Had his grandfather tried to turn him against me, and Blake hadn’t bought it? Or had the senator never said anything to Blake at all?

  I took a deep breath. Then I used the other phone to call him back.

  “Blake?”

  “Callie.”

  Just hearing his voice made me feel like crying. “You’re back.”

  “Finally.” He took a second. I heard him take a deep breath.

  “Listen, Blake, about that night …”

  “I know. I missed you.”

  “I really missed you,” I said.

  “That’s good. ’Cause it would be really bad if it was just me.”

  He made me laugh a little.

  “Hungry?” he asked.

  “Starving.”

  He Zinged me the address of an old-fashioned, all-night restaurant called the Drive-In. When I arrived, I was glad to see several armed Ender guards on the property. They were no longer the enemy. I saw them as possible protection.

  Fancy cars filled every space by the food service center. No expense had been spared making this place, advertised on the walls in neon as BLAST FROM THE PAST. Fit En
ders on blades held trays above their heads, carrying burgers and shakes and banana splits to your car, while quaint rock ‘n’ roll played from speakers. Outdoor airscreens played movies from the 1950s without sound, adding to the true sensa-round retro experience.

  I pulled into a parking space on the edge of the property, far from the food service. I walked over to the restroom. When I came out, I didn’t see Blake’s car, so I walked back to wait in mine. A few minutes later he drove up close to my car and smiled. Nothing could have looked better to me. His passenger door opened with a click and a whirr, and I got in.

  As soon as I was in my seat, he leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Hi.”

  It felt right to be with him, in his car.

  “You look so good,” he said.

  He pulled into a space by the restaurant between two other cars. A trim Ender with a silver ponytail bladed over and took our orders.

  After she left, Blake took my hands in his.

  “I’m sorry,” I said.

  “Don’t.”

  I breathed in his scent and for a moment took comfort in the familiar features of his face. But I knew if I let myself relax into him, tears would follow. I had to be strong to say what I needed to say.

  He started to pull me toward him.

  “There’s stuff I have to tell you,” I said.

  “I know.” He sat back in his seat. “Me too. I wanted to call you from Washington, but my grandfather took my cell phone away. I just got it back.”

  “Seems like you’ve been gone forever, so much has happened.”

  “I thought about you the whole time,” he said. “The hardest was at night, right before I went to sleep. During the day, there were all these distractions. But at night, it was just you.”

  Something glinted on his leather jacket. The whale clip from my shoe. I touched it.

  “I should wear mine,” I said. “We’ll be a pair.”

  “We’re already a pair.”

  He looked at me with such intensity I thought his eyes were going to smoke. Then he leaned closer and put his hand around my neck, pulling me to him. I felt his breath on my face—it instantly gave me chills—right before he kissed me.

 
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