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       Enders, p.18

           Lissa Price
 
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  Now I really felt like a failure.

  “It’s not working,” I said.

  Hyden got out of the special seat. He looked at the airscreen, examining the program. And then he climbed out of the car and joined me.

  “I looked at the program. I did it right. It should work.”

  Michael came over and put his arm around my shoulders. Hyden looked back at the car.

  “Let’s try another location,” Hyden said.

  “Isn’t all this exposure dangerous?” Michael asked.

  “If he jacks her, then we’ll really have a test,” Hyden said.

  We all got back in the car, and Hyden drove.

  I realized we were missing something important. “We have no phones.”

  “They’re all back at Dawson’s.” Hyden motioned with his head. “Wanna go back?” He grinned.

  I grabbed a bottle of water from the car’s cooler and handed one to Michael. Behind him, I saw a looming shape following us on the lonely road. A massive SUV.

  Its headlights were off.

  “We’re not alone,” I said.

  Michael turned around to look. The hulking SUV drew closer.

  Hyden squinted in his rearview mirror. “How long has he been behind us?”

  “Just saw him,” I said.

  “It could just be a guy who forgot to turn his lights on,” Michael said.

  “I don’t think so,” Hyden said.

  “One of Brockman’s?” I asked.

  Hyden nodded. “I shouldn’t have done the test outside. He scanned us.” He slapped the wheel. “Hold on. I’m going to lose him.”

  He sped up and did a fast turn down a small street in this mixed industrial area. A cat darted out in front of our car.

  “Watch out!” I said.

  “I see it,” Hyden said.

  He swerved and hit a trash can, knocking it into the street. The SUV behind us just plowed through it, sending garbage flying.

  I turned around. “Michael, is that a Starter driving?”

  He looked. “Sure is. A guy.”

  I squinted. “And he looks jacked. Do you know where you’re going?”

  “No! I’m just trying to lose him,” Hyden said as he held on to the wheel.

  I pulled up the airscreen nav and saw a dead end ahead.

  “This road is blocked,” I said. “There’s no way out.”

  “Good,” Hyden said.

  “Good?” Michael shouted.

  Hyden went faster. The jacked Starter was right on our tail. I could see a tall concrete wall at the end of the street.

  “We’re heading for that wall!” I shouted.

  “I know.” Hyden gripped the wheel. “We’re not going to hit it.” The wall was coming up fast. “We’re going to hit him. Get ready.” He slammed on his brakes and jammed into reverse.

  The SUV rammed into our vehicle with a horrible, earsplitting metallic crunch. Our airbags deployed, cushioning us from all angles.

  We all caught our breath.

  “You two all right?” Hyden pressed a button; our airbags deflated and seat belts released.

  “I guess,” I said. My body was shaking from the impact. “Michael?”

  “I’m a lot better than that guy.” Michael stared at the SUV behind us.

  Hyden grabbed a gun—so did I—and got out of the car. “You stay,” he said to Michael.

  Hyden’s vehicle was essentially a tank, but I hadn’t expected we’d come out of that without a dent. The front of the other guy’s SUV had accordioned against our rear, a mess of metal, but Hyden’s ride was as solid as ever.

  We approached slowly. Hyden aimed his gun, looked in the driver’s side, then opened the door.

  The Metal fell out.

  “No seat belt,” Hyden said. “He’s dead.”

  He was bleeding from the head and his eyes were open in a frozen last stare.

  Hyden checked his pockets and came up empty. I checked the SUV to make sure no one else was inside. I opened the passenger’s-side door and looked around. There were no papers to tell us where he was from.

  Hyden stepped over the body and reached in the driver’s seat, calling up information from the nav airscreen. “I want to find out the last place this thing has been.”

  A moment later, he found it.

  “Joshua Tree,” he said. “Used to be a national park in the desert.”

  Brockman’s place.

  Two hours later, we roared through the desert in the darkness of night, the moon backlighting the cacti. The wind howled outside our SUV, blowing the scent of sweet desert grass through our vents, making me shiver with fear and anticipation. The desert frightened me. A harsh climate that would freeze you to death at night and burn you to a crisp in the day, with no shelter or water for miles.

  It wasn’t my kind of place, but one that I could appreciate, the way I liked seeing scary holos on Halloween. It was the middle of the night, but I wasn’t tired. I felt exhilarated.

  “What are we going to do once we get there?” Michael asked.

  Hyden glanced at me and then back to the road. “Guess we’ll storm the place,” he said with a half smile.

  “Maybe we should wait until morning. Get an Ender like Lauren to alert the marshals or something,” Michael said.

  Hyden turned to me. “Do you want to wait?”

  All I could see was my father’s weary face in that video. “No. We’re so close now. What if they run and we lose them?”

  “Let’s scope it out,” Hyden said.

  Michael sat back in his seat. I’m sure he thought we were crazy and reckless. I didn’t blame him, but it wasn’t his father in there.

  The navigator alerted us that we were approaching our destination. A wind kicked up, sending a tumbleweed rolling across our path. Up ahead, I spotted a low building in the shadow of the moon. As we drew closer, I could see that it was actually a compound of several concrete buildings surrounded by desert land.

  I stared, looking at it through the bug-pocked windshield. “That’s it?” I asked.

  Hyden nodded. “Somewhere in there is my father.”

  “And hopefully mine.”

  Hyden looked at me. We were bonded in that instant.

  “How do we know that Brockman hasn’t faked your father’s voice the whole time?” Michael said.

  “We had the video of my father. I saw him,” I said.

  “And you created a fake broadcast of the Old Man to get the renters to return to Prime. You know just because you see it doesn’t make it true.” Michael thumped the back of my headrest. “We could be walking into a trap.”

  “What do you suggest we do?” I snapped. “Give up? Go sit like moles in some underground parking lot? I’ve gone this whole year believing my father was dead. I won’t know for sure until I see him in person. I want to try.”

  “If you want, you can stay with the car. Be a quick getaway for us,” Hyden said.

  Michael blew a puff of air out of his mouth. Meanwhile, we were a quarter mile from the building. Hyden slowed down the SUV and brought it to a stop. I looked at him with raised brows.

  “We shouldn’t drive up there,” Hyden said. “Too noisy.”

  “But our chips will be on their radar,” I said.

  “They’ve got a whole bunch of chip heads in there, so maybe they won’t notice ours.” He turned to look back at Michael. “So what’s it going to be, Michael? Stay or go?”

  “I’ll come. You’re going to need all the help you can get in there.”

  Hyden pulled down the weapons attached to the inside walls of the SUV and handed one to me.

  “It’s loaded,” he said. “Michael, you know how to shoot?”

  “No, he doesn’t,” I said before Michael could answer.

  “Yeah, I do, Cal,” he said. “I went to target practice with my dad.”

  I made a face. “You never told me.”

  “There was no reason to. We didn’t have a gun, did we?”

  Hyden gave hi
m a handgun. “Now you do. It’s loaded. Safety’s on.” He also passed out strap-on holsters, knives, and plexi-cuffs.

  “It’s a lot of stuff,” Michael said uneasily. “Maybe we should alert the marshals ourselves.”

  “And how often do they come when you call them?” Hyden asked. “And just what are you going to tell them? We have these guns so we can avoid a shoot-out. If the marshals did come, and they won’t, that’s what we’d have.”

  A slight breeze carried the sweet scent of juniper. Moonlight cast blue shadows on the cacti that watched us as we passed.

  A small creature—a scorpion—crossed my path, scurrying to get out of our way.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  We walked in silence on the hard sand, weaving between the Joshua trees and shrubs to make a stealthy approach. I thought about everything I wanted. How I might see my father. Maybe get my chip out. Maybe Brockman could be forced to tell us how to remove it. Then I might get to be a Starter again, instead of a Metal.

  My eyes scanned the sand for any creatures to avoid stepping on. That was probably why I didn’t notice a covered jeep driving off-road, heading our way, until it was a hundred yards ahead.

  The headlights were off. The last time we’d seen this, it hadn’t been good. And now we were too far from our vehicle to run back to it.

  We were caught, out there in the desert night.

  “Spread out. Get behind something!” Hyden shouted. “Shrub or rocks.”

  Michael and I scrambled to find the biggest source of protection.

  “Get your guns out,” Hyden said.

  I got down on the hard sand behind a cluster of shrubs, my gun aimed. The guys did the same so that we formed a large triangle.

  The jeep stopped before it reached us. The driver turned off the engine and opened his door.

  My heart pounded, a thump-thump in my ears.

  The driver had long white hair and thick black-rimmed glasses. He was tall and wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.

  “Easy, guys. I come in peace,” he said, his arms raised.

  I recognized his voice. The Ender geek from Prime. “Trax?” I said.

  “Yeah, it’s me. Callie?”

  Hyden stood, his gun still aimed. “Why are you here, Trax?”

  “Hyden,” he said. “You mean you can’t guess?”

  Michael remained crouched behind his shrub, slightly behind Trax. I suspected Trax hadn’t seen him.

  “I have to know something, Trax,” I said. “Did you kill Helena?”

  I lowered my gun, but it was still in my hands.

  “Why would I do that?”

  “Because you worked for my father,” Hyden said.

  “I worked for the Old Man,” Trax said. “The Old Man. And for old time’s sake, I came out here on my own—Brockman has no idea—to warn you.”

  “Warn us about what?” I asked.

  Trax came closer to me, his hands still raised, but lower. “Warn you that it’s dangerous in there.”

  With one swift move he pulled a gun out of his pants, hooked his arm around my shoulders, locking my arms, and pointed the gun at Hyden.

  “Drop yours,” Trax said.

  Hyden knelt and put his gun on the ground.

  “Get your hands up,” Trax said to Hyden. “Where’s the other Metal?”

  “Never mind him, what about you?” Hyden said. “You killed Helena, didn’t you?”

  “Tinnenbaum ordered me to. Because your father ordered him to.” Trax tilted his head toward Hyden. “She was going to bring big trouble.”

  Trax started pulling me backward. Toward his jeep. I couldn’t aim my gun anywhere but down. Could I aim for his foot? Or would I just shoot mine?

  “She would have jeopardized everything,” Trax said. “He couldn’t have that.”

  I twisted my torso, trying to get free. “So the Old Man ordered her killed?” I asked.

  Trax stopped. “The Old Man?” He looked at me. “You don’t know who the Old Man really is, do you?”

  “Brockman,” I said. I figured the more I could keep Trax talking, the better.

  Trax laughed. “No, but you’re close. Brockman is the Old Man’s father.”

  I squinted. What was he talking about?

  “Brockman is a Middle,” I said. “He can’t be the Old Man’s father. He is the Old Man.”

  I looked to Hyden, expecting him to chime in, but he just stood there, quiet. Silence hung in the night air.

  “Why would you say that?” I asked Trax.

  “Hyden knows what I’m talking about,” Trax said. “Tell her who the Old Man is.” He nodded to Hyden. “Just who is that masked man?”

  None of this was registering with me.

  “Spell it out for her,” Trax said. “Or I will.”

  The expression on Hyden’s face was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was as if he just realized he’d swallowed poison, but it hadn’t yet hit his stomach. His lips started to move, but no sound came out.

  “She can’t hear you,” Trax said in a singsong voice.

  “It’s me,” Hyden said in a low voice, looking straight at me. “I’m the Old Man.”

  A half laugh came out of my mouth. “You can’t be. You’re a Starter.”

  “It was me,” Hyden said softly.

  For a moment, my heart stopped. My brain stopped. And my ears must have quit as well because everything seemed muffled. I was not hearing this.

  “What are you talking about?” I asked.

  “She needs proof.” Trax pulled something out of his bag and threw it at Hyden.

  It landed on the sand. I couldn’t tell what it was.

  “Pick it up,” Trax commanded.

  Hyden bent down and took it. When he held it in his hands, I recognized it. The Old Man’s mask.

  “Put it on,” Trax said, still pointing his gun.

  Hyden didn’t move. He stared at the mask in a way that reminded me of Hamlet and the skull.

  Hyden, the Old Man? Couldn’t be. This was some trick that Trax had cooked up.

  “He won’t put it on because it’ll prove what I’m saying. The mask is only biocompatible to his skin. He’s the only one who can activate it.” Trax pushed me closer to Hyden. “Put it on him,” he said to me.

  I had to see. I took the mask out of Hyden’s hands. It didn’t look like Hyden. He held still while I slipped the strap over his head. The mold fit his features perfectly.

  I held my breath for a moment.

  “Just wait. It’ll glow all pretty-like,” Trax said.

  The mask lit up. That chilling blue light. An image of a face formed pixel by pixel. Then it changed to form another face.

  “And there’s the magic. The mask of a hundred thousand faces,” Trax said.

  Hyden pushed a button in the front, in the bottom of the mask, near his neck.

  That awful metallic voice came from Hyden—the Old Man’s voice. “I’m sorry, Callie. I wanted to tell you.”

  “Oh, the creepy voice,” Trax said. “I really missed that.”

  My skin felt like tiny bugs were crawling up my arms, my legs. “No,” I said, fighting the horror inside me. “You’re not him. He was taller. Bigger.”

  “Use a little imagination, dear,” Trax said. “He had a full costume with special tricks. The coat, the gloves, lifts in his shoes … and with a wig and hat, he made a very believable Ender. I believed him until Brockman told me.”

  This was insane. It had been Hyden all along. Not his father. Him.

  “You never should have left me out to dry when Prime got busted, boss,” Trax said to Hyden. “I’d be stuck in jail like Tinnenbaum if your dad hadn’t gotten me out.”

  “I found out you two were spying on me and reporting to him,” Hyden said, still with that electronic voice. “Why should I save a traitor?”

  The mask glowed that eerie blue light as different faces cycled in random order. I reached out and ripped the mask off his face, breaking the strap. The mask tore at the
edge.

  I threw it on the ground. It still played a face from the residue of Hyden’s energy, but now flickering and dying like a confused chameleon. Finally, the face disappeared and only the blue pixels glowed.

  “You lied to me,” I screamed. “The whole time!”

  “Would you have listened to me if you knew the truth?” he asked. “Would you have let me protect you?”

  I punched Hyden across the jaw so hard my fist throbbed. He didn’t even try to defend himself. I started to go at him, but Trax yanked me by the arms.

  “How many lies have you got in you, Hyden? How could you?”

  Trax pulled me back to the jeep. I was so focused on Hyden, I didn’t put up much of a fight. But before Trax could open the door, Michael leapt out from behind the jeep, surprising Trax by grabbing him from behind. Michael pulled us both backward, and Trax had to loosen his grip on me to fight off Michael, giving me my chance to get loose.

  I twisted out of Trax’s hold and ran forward. I turned to see Michael holding Trax’s gun arm, and Trax resisting, aiming it wildly in the air, then at Hyden, even me. Hyden rushed to help, knocking away Trax’s gun with his own. It fell and spun on the ground. Trax tried to go for it, but Michael held him back.

  Then Hyden pulled out his plexi-cuffs and Michael cuffed Trax’s wrists and ankles.

  I watched and rubbed my arm, sore from Trax’s grip.

  “Is it true Brockman didn’t know you came out here?” I asked.

  Trax nodded.

  “So you knew we were coming,” I said.

  “I saw you on the grid,” he said. “That’s part of my job.”

  “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Michael asked.

  “Because he had his own agenda,” Hyden said. “Revenge.”

  Trax’s long white hair hung over his face. He shook it off. “I got what I wanted. Humiliated you in front of your girlfriend.”

  “I’m not …” I couldn’t even repeat the word.

  “He’s never cared about anyone the way he cares about you.” Trax looked to see if he’d gotten a reaction out of Hyden.

  I kept my eyes on Trax during the awkward silence when no one wanted to speak.

  “What do we do with him?” Michael asked.

  “Leave him here.” Hyden patted down Trax, taking something metal from his pocket.

 
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