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       Starters, p.22

           Lissa Price
 
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“Can you fix me?” Sara asked.

  “I’ll do my best.” He moved over to me, turning my face. “That cut on your mouth will need stitches. Your jaw took a pretty good beating. But the back of your head is fine.”

  I tried not to smile. That was exactly what I wanted to hear.

  “Doctor,” Sara said. “Can you fix me first? There’s a man here, and I have to be beautiful.” She shot me a look of 100 percent hate.

  The doctor could do only so much with the limited resources in the infirmary. An hour later, I had stitches and Sara’s nose was being taped. We were both sprayed with a pain blocker. Sara was beside herself, complaining that she had to get out there to meet the man from Prime. There was no mirror in sight, so she was unaware that besides having a bruised and bloody nose, the swollen skin underneath her eyes was decorated with a shiny purple and black rainbow.

  I hoped the Old Man had come and gone. Beatty entered the room, and her expression reflected how bad we both must have appeared.

  “Look at your faces. What a sorry state,” Beatty said.

  The doctor cleaned Sara’s face with cotton.

  “Don’t bother with that one right now,” Beatty said. “Finish up with her.” She pointed at me.

  The doctor turned to Beatty with a puzzled expression.

  “I need to get her into the gym.”

  “What about me?” Sara asked. “I want to go too.”

  Beatty held her by one shoulder as the doctor turned to start on me. “You’ll do as I say.”

  Sara wriggled out of Beatty’s grip and jumped off the table. “You can’t make me.”

  Beatty grabbed her by the arm and pushed her into a chair. “Now, you know I can, Sara.”

  Beatty led me into the large gym. An Ender taped a piece of paper with a number on it to my chest. Girls were lined up on one side, in rows, starting against the wall and facing center. The boys were on the opposite side. Everyone had a number. I scanned their faces as I was marched in. This was my chance to find Tyler. The kids stared at my face with frightened eyes. I was put at the end of the front row.

  I didn’t see Tyler, but many of the boys were out of my line of sight. The Old Man was walking down the last row of boys, his hands behind his back. The air was crackling with tension, I figured from the excitement of the kids thinking they might be rescued. But the focus of the tension came from the presence of the Old Man himself. He just had that effect, I felt it.

  He still had on his coat and hat. All I could see was his back. What could he look like? I wondered. Just then, he turned to come across to the girls’ side, and his face came into view.

  His modified face, of course. He wore a mask, some sort of special metallic fabric molded to his face. It not only hid his identity, but also functioned as a sort of screen or monitor, so images—other faces—played across it. One moment, his face was that of a popular star from the turn of the century, the next it was that of a poet from decades ago, or some unknown man. Because it was three-dimensional, its effect was eerie, not silly like a flat costume mask, but not so smooth that it could pass for a real face. It was something in between, artificial but captivating. And as it was constantly changing and moving, it had a creepy, almost organic result. It was like the face-blocking technique he’d used for his privatecast, but in real life.

  I was mesmerized, in an uncomfortable way, the way you can’t stop staring at a car accident.

  He examined some kids carefully and eliminated others in a heartbeat. A female Ender with an electronic pad followed the Old Man, marking down the numbers of the kids he was interested in and taking notes. He began to make his way down my row of girls, and I heard him asking them questions about their abilities.

  As he approached, the hypnotic effect of the face-changer became stronger on me. All of a sudden, he was speaking to the girl next to me, but I couldn’t focus on his words. His voice was the electronic one I had heard on the privatecast. I figured a device under his wool neck scarf made those metallic tones.

  It was my turn. He stared at me. Had he ever really seen me at Prime? No. Only my reflection. And now, with my bruised, swollen face, I was sure I wouldn’t even recognize myself.

  I saw that his face-changer could change expressions as well. A famous soccer player’s face took over, looking puzzled.

  “What happened to you, number 205?” he asked.

  I looked down at my feet. “Fight. Sir.”

  “How does the other party look?”

  “Not a scratch on her. Guess I’m a bad fighter.”

  He changed to an old silent film star and smirked. “I doubt that.”

  He moved on to the next row of girls. I exhaled. He had always planned to come to this institution, looking for new kids. He wasn’t here looking for me.

  When he was done examining the last of us, he left the room with his assistant. We were told to keep our places. The assistant returned and whispered to the headmaster of the institution. He nodded to her, and she read out the numbers from the list.

  Every time a number was called, its wearer squealed as if they’d won a contest. A few girls burst out crying, they were so overcome with joy. I craned my neck to see each “winner,” making sure it wasn’t Tyler. But they weren’t choosing any of the younger kids. Finally, the last number was called, but no one responded. People looked around until the girl next to me elbowed me.

  They were calling my number.

  I looked down at the 205 on my chest. So much for my big, painful plan. I’d managed to hurt myself, damage my face, and still, for some reason, I was picked for the body bank.

  The headmaster announced that everyone who was not selected was dismissed to his or her dorm room. The “winners” were to stay put to await delivery of their property, the meager contents of their wooden boxes. I stood and watched while the others filed out in rows, followed by the guards and the headmaster. I scanned the Starters’ faces as they left, looking for Tyler, but he wasn’t there.

  They left us, the chosen ones—ten boys and seventeen girls—standing like statues, spread apart in the cavernous gym. One guard remained stationed at the door.

  We glanced around, evaluating each other. The girl in my row must have been chosen because of her blond hair; that boy across the way for his muscles. They were beaming, proud to have been deemed the most attractive or skilled in the institution. When one boy in the row facing mine made eye contact with me, I saw puzzlement wash over his face. Why should I, the girl with black eyes and stitches up her jaw, be picked? Then he gave a slight understanding nod and looked away. Maybe news about my fight had spread and he assumed I’d been chosen for my killer instinct.

  Maybe I was.

  I wanted to scream to these kids to run as fast as they could, go hide in a closet, under their beds, anywhere. They had no clue what this really meant, that they were close to the end of their lives. That they would never experience adulthood.

  And then I realized—why didn’t I take my own advice? What was I standing there for, just waiting to be taken?

  I turned and walked toward the back of the gym toward a fire exit door. I heard the guard at the main door shout.

  “Hey. Minor. Stop!”

  “I’m just going to the bathroom,” I shouted over my shoulder.

  I heard him jogging across the gym floor. “Do not use that door!” he yelled.

  “It’s an emergency.” I rushed for the exit, matching his jogging pace.

  “Stop or I will shoot you.” His footsteps came to a halt.

  I knew he was aiming his ZipTaser. I stopped but didn’t turn.

  “And harm the precious merchandise?” I held out my arms. “You’ll get in big trouble for that.”

  I pressed my feet into the floor and sprinted for the door, shoving it so hard it banged against the wall. As I ran down the empty hallway, I could hear him yelling into his communicator for backup since he couldn’t leave his post.

  At the end of the hallway, I pushed open the door leading to the s
tairwell. As I headed down the stairs, I heard footsteps coming from the second floor. Maybe it was the backup coming to the guard’s aid. When I got to the bottom, I was in the basement.

  Exposed pipes ran along the bare brick walls. A lone uncovered lightbulb lit the end of the hall, and I ran to it. When I reached it, I turned the corner and saw three options, all dark walkways. I picked the one closest to the outer wall and raced to the end. I looked to the right, and there was the emergency door Sara had mentioned. I hoped it was the right one and not one that would sound an alarm.

  I pushed it open and went through. No alarm. The hallway continued. At the end was a door with a window in it. I could make out what was left of letters painted long ago and saw an “L.”

  I peeked through the little window in the door. It was the laundry room, and it appeared to be empty. I slipped inside.

  The room was filled with uniforms in all stages of processing. To the left, bins on wheels held piles of dirty laundry. To the right, bins waited with clean laundry. Stacks sat on folding tables, and shirts hung from a pulley system suspended from the high ceiling.

  The washing room was to the left, the door kept closed to muffle the noise. I turned to the right, where an overflow room held several bins of clean laundry. But before I got inside, I heard someone cough.

  I turned to my left and saw a girl with her back to me lifting laundry onto the table. She was hefty, and I guessed that was why no one had bothered to call her to be considered for the body bank.

  “You my relief worker?” she shouted.

  “Yeah,” I said, keeping my head down.

  “About time.” She wiped her brow with her sleeve and left.

  I peered through the window in the door to the side room but saw just darkness. I slipped inside, closing the door behind me. I flicked the light on just long enough to pick out which bin I was going to hide in. I felt my way to the bin farthest from the door and climbed inside, burying myself in the clean laundry. I didn’t have a plan; I just hoped I could hide long enough to get to the point where the Old Man was so off schedule that he had to leave.

  I curled up in the fetal position. If my heart hadn’t been beating so hard, I might have been able to sleep. I tried to picture the kids who were waiting to be taken to the body bank. Were they already on the transport while the guards searched the compound? How long before they searched utility rooms like this one?

  It wasn’t long before I heard a door opening. Someone was entering the laundry room. Footsteps. Maybe it was the shift worker. I heard my door open. The light went on. Through my canvas laundry bin, I could see the silhouette of a girl.

  I held my breath. She walked closer. Closer. She was right by my bin. Then she stopped.

  Her hands reached down through the laundry for me, grabbing my arms, pulling me up.

  Small hands.

  I could have fought them, but I stood up, letting the laundry fall away.

  I knew this girl.

  “Sara,” I whispered.

  She held on to my arms, her face inches from mine. It was hard to read her expression because her left cheek had puffed up so much that it forced her left eye shut.

  But she looked great to me.

  “Callie.” She smiled a distorted half smile. “Some hiding place. I could totally see you in there, all curled up.”

  “Shhh,” I said.

  “Don’t you tell me to shut up.” She gripped me harder. “I thought you were my friend.”

  “I am your friend.”

  “Liar. You ruined the best chance of my life. I’ll never forgive you.”

  “Please.” I held up my palms. “Someone will hear you.”

  “They’re going to hear me. Because I’m turning you in.” Her squeaky voice had become defiant.

  I could have easily pulled away from her grip. I was older, taller, and stronger. But I was afraid she would start screaming.

  “I heard you got picked, Callie. They made an announcement over the speaker system. Whoever finds you gets a reward.” Her one eye widened. “Maybe they’ll even give me your spot at Prime Destinations.”

  “You’re too young. No one under fifteen was chosen.”

  She scowled. “You’re lying.”

  “You heard the names they picked. Were any of them younger?”

  “No.” Her bottom lip started to quiver.

  “Please, Sara, don’t turn me in. I know you’re mad, but I did it for your own good. I hit you so they wouldn’t want to take you.”

  “Then why’d they pick you? Look at you.” She made a face like she smelled rotten eggs.

  “I don’t know, maybe because they know I’m already one of their donors? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that if I go back, they’ll kill me like they did my renter. And then my brother doesn’t have a chance.”

  “What?” Confusion twisted her face.

  She was barely getting over the idea that she was not going to be chosen in my place, and there I was telling her she would be my killer if she outed me.

  “I’m not sure what you’re saying, but I know you’re not afraid of anything,” she said. “And you’re afraid of Prime?”

  “Because I found out they’re killing people. Starters. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like they’re separating your body from your brain and then shutting down your brain forever.”

  She froze, as if trying to make sense of it. I felt myself holding my breath, eyeing the door, estimating the distance to it, how long it would take me to jump out of the laundry bin and how quickly her screams would bring others running.

  “Well, that’s not good,” she said.

  She slowly let go of my arms. I exhaled.

  Sara helped me fashion a disguise to replace my prison uniform. She explained that the only workers around the facility other than the minors themselves were the head gardeners. These Enders maintained the landscaping around the entrance and admin building as a show for visitors. To distinguish themselves from the minors, especially from a distance, they wore a black shirt and pants, and a large hat for protection from the sun. It was this outfit that Sara put together for me, out of the laundry. She even managed to find a clean one.

  We tied back my hair so none of it would show outside the hat.

  “Maybe we should draw a few wrinkles,” she said as she examined me.

  “I think we should just get out of here.”

  “You can’t go without shoes.” She pointed to my bare feet.

  My gray prison-issue tennis shoes would be a dead giveaway. I kicked those under a pile of clothes while Sara searched for a pair of black fabric slippers that had been washed.

  She came back holding two slippers. “This is the only pair.”

  I stepped into one, then the other. They were at least two sizes too big. “Perfect,” I said. “Let’s go.”

  I found some rubber bands and used them to keep the slippers on. We had worked out a plan to get me out of the institution. We were worried that the Old Man would tear apart the compound until he found me, so hiding wasn’t an option. He would come after me to save his reputation, to show that some Starter could not defy his orders.

  Sara said she’d heard of a Starter escaping last year by hanging on to the underside of a delivery truck. Because of that, it was standard for guards to run quick checks of the trucks before they exited through the gates. But they never searched the vehicles of important visitors. We figured the Old Man, with his heli-transport, was so powerful that the institution wouldn’t risk insulting him with any routine delays. The institution’s cooperation with him suggested that money had changed hands.

  It was still risky.

  “You sure the Starter got away?” I asked. “And he didn’t get hurt?”

  “I didn’t say that,” Sara said. “I just heard he got out.”

  “You don’t know for sure, because you never heard from him again.”

  “Listen, there’s something else, this one fat gate guard. Everyone calls him Box. He can’t b
end to see under any trucks.”

  “So?”

  “He’s working today,” she said.

  That convinced me. Not only would the guards be less likely to delay the important Prime transport, but I also had the benefit of Box’s lack of flexibility.

  I was strong and light. I only had to hang on long enough to get past the gates. Then I could let go and the transport would drive off, never knowing I had been stuck like a leech on its belly. That was our plan. It would be a whole lot harder than when I had just waltzed out of there the day I first visited, but it was an opportunity. And I was going to take it, because once Prime’s transport left, the guards would resume their usual truck checks.

  We walked out into the daylight, me in my gardener disguise, Sara as my minor apprentice. She also wore a hat to hide her bruised face, and carried a trash bag and a bucket of hand tools. As we made our way along the paths that led to the administration building, I bent slightly and slowed my gait to appear more Ender-like, even though what I really wanted to do was run like crazy. Not that I could have in the oversized slippers.

  We saw two Starters coming our way. Sara gave me a hand signal. We both bent our heads down so the hats covered our faces until they passed.

  When we reached the main quad in front of the admin building, we saw the Old Man’s black heli-transport on the far side of the grass. The pilot stood outside it, stretching his legs, but no one was inside. The transport vehicle that would take the chosen ones was closer to us, parked in the short road halfway between the administration building and the guarded gate to freedom.

  “That’s your ride,” Sara whispered.

  “It could be yours too.” I looked at her.

  She shook her head. “You have to go find your brother. I’ve got lots of time.”

  “You just want me to be the guinea pig.”

  That made her smile. “I’ll miss you,” she said.

  I would miss her too. “We’ll see each other again. Someplace happier.” I didn’t believe it but knew it would make her feel better.

  “Of course we will. We’re friends.”

 
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