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       Starters, p.23

           Lissa Price
 
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  Her earnest little face beamed at me. She looked like she was about to hug me goodbye, not a safe thing to do, when movement came from the building.

  A guard led the ten boys and sixteen girls to the transport.

  “They’re already boarding,” Sara said. “We’re too late.”

  We’d hoped to get there before the others did. “Take my elbow. Guide me through them.”

  We had to cross their line to get to the other side of the transport, to be out of the view of the gate guards. But if anyone spotted our bruised, broken faces, our cover would be blown.

  We kept our heads down.

  The kids in line were so excited about being chosen, getting to ride a transport, and getting to leave the institution forever, they didn’t even look at us as we passed.

  We made it to the right side of the transport, where we were hidden from the gate guards. Across the grass, the heli pilot had his back turned. I dropped to the ground and slid underneath the transport. Sara bent and took my hat.

  “Good luck,” she whispered.

  I mouthed Thanks. I slid my body across the gravel to position myself directly in the center of the transport. I spotted a bar where I could tuck my feet. But before I could move, she knelt down.

  “Callie,” she whispered, fear on her face. “He’s not there.”

  “Who?”

  “Box, the guard.”

  My heart sank. We’d been counting on him.

  “Come back.” She held out her hand.

  I waved her away. She frowned. I looked up at the undercarriage and she left.

  I reached up to a bar above my chest and tested it. Hot and greasy. I pulled the gardening gloves out of my pocket and put them on. I grabbed the bar and, one at a time, tucked my arms in until I was able to hold my hands together to lock myself in. I felt the heat of the bar through my shirt. I was hanging facing the underside of the transport.

  I looked over and saw Sara’s feet about ten yards away. On my other side, the number of shuffling feet had diminished. The kids were almost all boarded.

  “Wait!” I recognized Beatty’s voice and her heavy footsteps on the gravel. “You’re still missing one girl.”

  I held my breath. The driver insisted that he was on a schedule. The last kids boarded.

  Then the engine started. The vibration made it harder to hold on. Heat radiated from the metal, and sweat trickled down the sides of my face. I had thought I was strong, but this was harder than I had imagined.

  The transport started to roll. The noise of the engine, the gears shifting, the wheels turning—even at this slow speed, it felt like my head was in a meat grinder. My teeth were rattling; my bones were shaking. I was sure my stitches would burst open.

  I worried I wouldn’t make it out the front gate. What were we thinking? Whose idea was this crazy plan? And Box wouldn’t be there. All I had to go on was the hope that they’d let the fancy Prime transport sail on through.

  We came to the gate. I could see the base of the guard’s booth from my upside-down vantage. Our transport slowed. I tried to will it with my mind to keep going. It crawled along. I held on as I heard the gates sliding open for us. My arms were aching, but I told myself I just had to hold on a little longer. For Tyler.

  Then the transport braked to a stop. I gripped the bar even tighter and held my breath.

  Footsteps approached. Then someone else ran in another direction. Murmurs turned into shouts.

  “Stop that girl!” It was a woman’s voice. Beatty.

  Did she mean me? I tucked my body up as close as I could to the transport’s undercarriage.

  “Shoot her!” a man’s voice called out.

  A sharp electronic crackle sizzled through the air like a lightning bolt.

  A ZipTaser.

  But the cry of pain that always followed this sound never came. There was silence.

  “You missed!” a man shouted.

  They didn’t mean me; I never even saw the arc of light.

  Then everyone started shouting and I could hear running feet. The transport started rolling again. I gritted my teeth and held on. We were driving through the gates, past the gates, clearing the gates!

  It was going too fast, to make up for lost time. The driver turned hard out of the property onto a side street. The turn was too much for my tired arms. My muscles gave out.

  I fell. My back hit the pavement hard, even though the drop was only a few feet. I quickly pulled in my arms and legs, becoming as straight as a stick as the transport roared over me, the huge wheels rushing so close to my head that the whoosh blew my hair. Once the transport was gone, exposing me in the bright sunlight, I rolled to the curb, hid behind a tree, and looked back at the compound’s barrier.

  At the very top of the thick concrete wall, with the blue sky and fluffy clouds behind her, a girl clung to the barbed wire, her arms hanging over it.

  Sara.

  A guard rose from behind the wall, climbing what must have been the ladder that she had used, on the other side. He stepped out onto the top of the wall.

  Sara looked down at me, saw that I had made it outside the compound. She brought her right hand up to her chest, placing her fist over her heart.

  She hadn’t been trying to escape. She’d done it to create a diversion. To protect me.

  I mirrored her, putting my fist over my heart.

  Hold on, Sara.

  Her bruised face was pained and weary, but a rapturous smile came over her. It was contagious, and my lips turned up a little too. She was reassuring me.

  She put her foot against the wire and pulled herself up. She was going to go over to the other side of the wire. No! Where could she go from there? She could run along the top, but they would catch her.

  The guard froze a few yards away from her. He shouted at her to stop. She continued to climb.

  He pulled out his ZipTaser and aimed it at her. He was too close.

  I saw the blue light arc and pierce her body. She scrunched her face in agony and twisted her torso in pain. Her gut-wrenching scream overshadowed the ZipTaser’s metallic cry. My stomach pushed back deep inside me, and I put my hands over my mouth to stop myself from crying out.

  The guard didn’t see me, half hidden behind the tree. He moved closer to Sara.

  Her neck and side of her face were blackened by the ZipTaser. She opened her eyes and looked down at me. A surprised look came over her, as if someone had played a horrible trick on her. Her eyes glazed over, then shut.

  She slumped forward, her head slack, her body held only by the barbed wire.

  Sara, no! Don’t go!

  But her body appeared suddenly empty. Hollow.

  The guard pressed his fingers to her neck, then looked at another guard standing at the top of the ladder and shook his head. The first guard moved slowly, wrapping his arms around her with care, lifting her away from the wire. He brought her body to the second guard, who carried her down.

  I remained hidden behind the tree, watching her for as long as possible, until she slipped out of sight.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  Numbness radiated inside me, filling my limbs, my chest, my face. Sara was dead. Little Sara. Gone. I was glued in place there, never to move again. Then an ominous sound vibrated through my body—the droning blades of a heli-transport rising from the institution grounds. My hair blew back as the machine crested above, emerging high over the fence, giving me a view of the underside of the black bug.

  My survival instincts kicked in and I turned and ran across the street. I raced past a boarded-up house to a back alley, where I pressed my body against a weathered garage door, my chest heaving. The Old Man’s heli reappeared, hovering overhead.

  Had he seen me? Should I move? Or stay put?

  I knew his pilot couldn’t land in this narrow area, but what if they had radioed the guards?

  I decided to keep moving. I ran through alleys and side streets. Residents saw me, but at least I was disguised in the gardener’s unif
orm, thanks to Sara. Poor Sara. I ran faster, away from the institution. As long as my feet were moving, I was still alive.

  The drone returned, like some relentless insect. I kept moving, clinging to walls or trees, any cover I could find. I looked skyward. It wouldn’t give up.

  I saw wires in the sky a few blocks away. I ran in that direction, trying to keep hidden as much as I could. The black bug trailed me. When I reached the source of the wires, an electric substation, I dove under a pickup truck. The asphalt scraped my palms. I knew the heli couldn’t fly over this area, with the dangerous wires poking into the sky.

  It gave up, a wasp that couldn’t find anyone to sting. I exhaled and then scrambled out from under the truck. I saw the heli-transport flying away into the distance.

  I walked and walked and walked, until the slippers ripped apart. I peeled them off and walked some more, thinking about Sara with every step.

  I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. What had happened while I was under the transport? My stomach tightened as I tried to figure it out. Sara must have seen the gate guard coming to check under the vehicle. That was why she’d made the brave move to distract everyone. She had dashed for the ladder, in full view of the guards and Beatty herself. She had done it for me. She had sacrificed herself for me, because she knew I had to find my brother.

  Then they’d shot her.

  When I arrived at Madison’s house, I rang and rang the bell, but she wasn’t home. I had come so far and she wasn’t there. My pain spray had worn off and my stitched-up face throbbed. I slid down the door, collapsing into a heap on her porch, where I fell asleep. It was just starting to get dark by the time she returned and woke me.

  “Callie. What are you doing here?” Madison bent over, her blond bob hanging in her face. “I didn’t see your car.” She helped me up and stared at my gardening disguise. “What’re you wearing? Some new teen style?”

  She unlocked the door and I stood in her bright foyer. Finally, she saw my battered face, stitches and all.

  “Oh my God, what happened to you?”

  “Madison. I have to tell you the truth. I’m not a renter. I’m a real teen. A donor. And I have a lot to tell you about Prime.”

  “You’re … a teen?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re not old inside, like me?”

  I shook my head. She stared at me blankly for a moment.

  “So all this time …?”

  “Ever since I met you, that night in Club Rune,” I said weakly.

  “No wonder you sounded so young. You are young. But why on earth did you do this?”

  I was so drained. Every part of my face ached. My feet hurt. I just wanted to go back to sleep for a million years.

  “Because I had to.”

  She hooked her arm in mine, helping to support me. “Let’s get you some painkillers and a hot shower. Then you better sit down and tell me everything.”

  An hour later, after I had brought Madison up to speed on what had happened, we agreed I should contact Lauren. I showered and changed into clean clothes Madison provided. I was still bruised and swollen, and missing a tooth, but I felt almost human. Not long after, the doorbell rang, and Madison let in an elegant, trim woman wearing a soft pantsuit and pearls.

  “Hello, Callie.” The woman extended her hand. “You’ve only known me in Reece, but this is who I really am.”

  “Lauren.” I shook her hand. She was about 150, as graceful as I had imagined.

  A senior gentleman in a suit joined us.

  “This is my attorney, Mr. Crais. He was also Helena’s.”

  Madison nodded, meeting them for the first time, and then excused herself. “I’ll go get drinks.”

  We sat in the living room. Lauren winced as her eyes scanned my face. “Who did that to you?”

  “It was just a fight.”

  “It’s that rough in the institution?” Lauren asked.

  “No,” I said. “It’s worse.” I looked at them. There was no way to explain it all now. “It’s like this: I’d die before I ever go back there again.”

  “Don’t worry, that’s not going to happen. I’m glad you contacted me,” Lauren said. “We were trying to locate you.”

  “You were?”

  “I’m sorry about the last time we spoke. You have to understand, I was in shock over the news about Helena.”

  “I know.”

  “I’m not at liberty to explain everything yet”—she traded a look with her lawyer—“but Helena was my dearest friend. And I wanted to contact you because now I know that she believed in you.”

  I wondered what that meant. Had Helena gotten a message to her during a blackout?

  “So we came up with a plan,” she said.

  “We contend that Lauren had been in the process of claiming you when you were admitted to the institution,” the attorney said. “So you’re not the property of the institution, therefore it’s not their prerogative to reassign you to Prime Destinations.”

  “Even though you were involved in a criminal act—”

  “Allegedly,” the attorney interrupted.

  “Allegedly,” Lauren repeated. “If you had been claimed at the time, my legal counsel would have assisted you. That benefit was withheld from you.”

  “This keeps you legally out of the clutches of the institution and the body bank,” the attorney said.

  “So you’ll be my legal guardian?” I asked Lauren.

  “You’ll be as free as you wish. I’m just the name on paper.”

  I felt a pang of disappointment. It was stupid. Why should Lauren take on the burden of really being my guardian? She hardly knew me. It was enough for her to be my guardian on paper.

  “The point is to keep you out of the institution so you’re at liberty to do whatever you want,” the attorney said.

  “What I want is to save my little brother,” I said. “I think the only way to do that is to take down the body bank.”

  “We hoped you’d say that,” Lauren said.

  We all got to work, Lauren and her attorney, Madison and me. I had the idea to create an announcement mimicking the Prime Destinations announcement I had seen. We wouldn’t try to duplicate the Old Man, but it was possible to digitally copy the faces of Tinnenbaum and Doris off the original announcement. Then we would put the words we wanted to say into their mouths.

  Madison volunteered to create the announcement using her production manager skills from decades ago. She made some calls and assembled an audio/visual team of Ender experts who transformed her five-car garage into a studio. She also hired two Ender tech geeks to break into the system so they could privatecast the production over Prime’s designated subscriber channel. This was going to be no small feat, but Madison’s deep pockets could fund the manpower and the gear. She wanted to help make up for all her body bank rentals.

  I discovered a whole different side to the ditzy Madison I knew.

  Meanwhile, Lauren and the attorney were working their cell phones to reach all their contacts. The attorney had a relationship with a Senator Bohn, who they hoped would get involved. He was Harrison’s political rival.

  That evening, we had a living room full of grandparents of missing body bank donors. But getting them to agree to a plan was a production in itself.

  “We have a wealth of resources in this room,” Lauren said. “We’ve got thousands of years of experience: doctors, lawyers, a bodybuilder, even an ex-marshal. And we have deep funds. Now that Callie has pulled together all the information, we finally have a fighting chance to get our children back.”

  One senior man stood up. “We don’t want to stir up trouble. Our grandson is still out there somewhere. Vulnerable.”

  A thin woman next to him spoke. “If I have to wait another month to get him back, I’ll wait. We need Prime’s cooperation to find our grandkids.”

  I stepped in front of Lauren. “You don’t understand. I saw Prime’s announcement. They’re starting a permanency program. Your grandchildre
n are going to be bought, not rented. You’ll never see them again if we don’t stop this.”

  The lawyer jumped in. “Because we have insiders like Lauren, we were able to see the privatecast. That announcement admitted Prime’s intention of permanency. Lauren recorded it, and we sent a copy to Senator Bohn. If he can use that to get a judge to issue a stay, it will nullify the president’s contract with Prime. If the judge determines that lives are in immediate jeopardy, we can shut them down.”

  “And what if he can’t?” the thin woman asked. “What if they claim the original announcement was doctored, just like you’re manufacturing this one?”

  At that moment, Madison came into the living room. The seniors grumbled upon seeing her perfect teen body.

  “She’s a renter!” one of them yelled, pointing at Madison.

  “That’s right, sugar.” Madison flipped her head, swinging her blond bob. “A renter—not a buyer.”

  I went to Madison and put my arm around her shoulder. “She’s on our side. And she’s spending a fortune to stop Prime.”

  The crowd continued to buzz. Lauren put up her hands.

  “Please,” she said. “We don’t want to fight with any renters. If we are to have any chance of shutting down Prime, we’re all going to have to cooperate. Because in order to get your grandchildren back, we have to do this quickly, with the element of surprise.”

  “I have an idea,” I said, looking at the thin woman. “The technical expert who altered my chip could testify. He examined my chip and said it could never be removed, that it was permanent. That shows that they always intended this program to be permanent.”

  The attorney folded his arms and nodded. “That will certainly help.”

  Lauren’s phone rang. She looked at the screen. “It’s Senator Bohn.”

  Lauren put her phone near a small airscreen on a coffee table. Senator Bohn’s picture came up for all to see. He was the opposite of dynamic Senator Harrison. Bohn had a kindly face and a gentle smile.

  “Senator Bohn, I have you on airscreen,” Lauren said. “As you can see, we have a bunch of concerned grandparents here.”

 
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