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       Starters, p.24

           Lissa Price
 
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  “Thank you, Lauren, for notifying me of your progress. And I want to thank your brave donor, Callie Woodland, for exposing Prime.”

  I smiled politely, but we still had a long way to go.

  “Every grandparent who is there, thank you. Working together, we will be able to shut them down and get your grandchildren back, each and every one of them.”

  I looked at the faces of the grandparents. The senator’s presence, even if only on airscreen, was helping to solidify the troops. The power of a charismatic politician.

  “I’ll be with you every step of the way. We can do this,” the senator said. “Let’s get them back.”

  One grandfather, who had been quiet until then, repeated the senator’s words. “Let’s get them back,” he said solemnly.

  A woman on the other side of the room stood. “Get them back.”

  Affirmative murmurs rumbled through the room.

  Madison, Lauren, and I glanced at each other, trading hopeful looks. Maybe we could pull this off.

  The grandparents left with their instructions. Senator Bohn said he would know by morning if the judge would issue the stay. I watched the production team trying to change Tinnenbaum’s mouth so his lips fit the new words they were making him say. It wasn’t working.

  “It’s different when it’s a baby or a dog talking. This has to look seamless,” Madison said to her team. “It won’t work unless it’s believable.”

  Her geek team trying to bust through to the privatecast had an even harder time. I didn’t understand it, but they hit some big technical glitch when they came up against an unexpected volcano wall, which frazzled some of their equipment. Madison reminded them that nothing mattered if they couldn’t figure out how to get this to the subscribers.

  We left them to work it out while I took Lauren and her attorney to Redmond’s laboratory. We couldn’t find a phone number for him, so we had to arrive unannounced, and it was almost midnight.

  As we rode in Lauren’s limo, I reached into the purse Madison had given me to see if there was a mirror but came up empty. I asked Lauren for one. She hesitated, then pulled out a compact.

  I activated a light over my shoulder. As soon as I looked in the mirror, I understood her hesitation. I looked so strange. Parts of my face were still the flawless work of the body bank makeover team. But then I had one black eye, several bruises, a huge cut with stitches running from jaw to cheek, and, if I pulled my cheek back, a gap where I was missing a tooth.

  “Would you like a comb?” she asked.

  “Why bother?” I snapped the mirror shut and handed it back to her.

  “We can fix all that,” she said.

  “Let’s fix the important things first,” I said.

  Everything was coming together because we all wanted something. Lauren wanted to find her missing grandson; I wanted to find Tyler and get Michael his body back. Senator Bohn wanted to make Senator Harrison look bad for making the body bank deal with the government, and the lawyer was in it for the money.

  I didn’t know if this was going to work. If one piece went wrong, if the announcement wasn’t believable, or if the geeks couldn’t manage to break through and privatecast it, the whole thing fell apart. But what Lauren and those grandparents and I had at stake meant the world, so there was no other choice.

  When we got to Redmond’s compound, we immediately saw that something was wrong. Bright lights illuminated the building, and two marshals’ cars blocked the entrance. A crowd from the neighborhood stood around gawking. I ran out of the limo, with Lauren and the attorney at my heels.

  A plume of smoke billowed in the air, but I couldn’t see Redmond’s building from where I stood. An Ender marshal with short white hair stopped us.

  “No access, folks,” he said.

  “What happened?” Lauren asked.

  “Just trying to determine that now,” he said. “Please step back.”

  An Ender wearing overalls and holding back a dog on a chain collar came forward. “Some kid bombed the place. They got nothing better to do than tear down what we build up.”

  While the marshal was distracted by the Ender, I ran past them to Redmond’s building.

  “Hey, you, stop!” the marshal shouted.

  I rounded the corner of the compound and was stunned by what I saw. The building was blackened and gutted. One corner of the roof was completely gone, as if a monster had bitten it off. Ender firemen were checking the smoldering remains.

  I heard firemen assessing the damage inside the building. I ran in.

  “Hey, get out of here. It’s not safe,” one of them yelled at me.

  Everything was charred inside: all the monitors and machines, even the ones hanging from the ceiling. The smell of melted computer parts was unbearable. I held my sleeve to my nose. Redmond’s burnt and mangled chair was dripping water, like some conceptual art piece. It was all a horrifying, soggy black mess.

  “Where’s Redmond?” I asked. “The man who lives here.”

  “We haven’t found a body.” One fireman looked around, throwing his hands in the air. “Yet.”

  Redmond was too valuable to kill. And too smart to be caught. I was betting he’d gotten away and was in hiding. We wouldn’t have his testimony.

  Then I remembered the box.

  The firemen were busy taking heat measurements on the other side of the room. I leaned down and pressed my fingers to the pad on the file drawer. I coughed to cover the little click that it made. I peeked inside and used the edge of my jacket to pull out the small metal box. It was light and cool to the touch. I saw he had changed the label from Helena to Callie.

  I slipped it into my pocket.

  Before any of the firemen could escort me out, I moved to the door. I stopped there and took one last look at the lab. I didn’t really know Redmond, having only met him once, but he was sort of my maker, if that made any sense. He was important to me. It hurt to see all his work destroyed this way.

  I joined Lauren and the lawyer, who were standing just outside the compound, in the reflection of the marshal’s red light. “They said someone saw a kid do this,” the lawyer said to me.

  “Yeah, some kid with a murderous senior inside,” I said. “It’s got body bank written all over it.”

  Fear clouded Lauren’s face. I hoped this wasn’t going to give her second thoughts about our plans.

  “Did they take anything?” the lawyer asked me.

  “I don’t know. But I got something that will help us.” I patted my pocket.

  “What?” Lauren asked.

  “A computer key. It has Redmond’s notes about my chip, how he determined it was permanently installed.”

  “Excellent,” the lawyer said. “Good work.”

  He was happy. But I felt terrible for Redmond. Had I led Prime to him? Was all this my fault? First Sara, then Redmond. Who else was going to suffer because of me before this was over?

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  A day later, I walked up to the body bank as if I were reliving a nightmare. I had thought about this place so many times, with such fear and dread, wondering if Helena was inside, if my brother was, if the Old Man was. I’d been afraid then. Helena had warned me they would kill me, and so I had stayed away.

  It was different this time. This time, I was ready. This time, I had backup.

  But they were keeping their distance, as planned. Sewn into my pocket was a small alert device, half the size of a grain of rice. We had worked out a three-stage approach. And stage one consisted of one person—me.

  As I approached the high double doors, the doorman’s smile melted. It curved farther downward into a frown the closer I came. He looked frightened, either because of my bruised, stitched face or because he recognized me.

  Maybe I was notorious. I almost laughed.

  I had to open the door for myself as the doorman stared at me. I kept staring right back at him, even as I passed through the portal.

  As soon as I stepped inside, another guard
came over and waved a weapons detector over me. My alert device was supposed to pass this test.

  “I have no weapons,” I said. “Other than my big mouth.”

  The guard seemed satisfied.

  Mr. Tinnenbaum ran out of his office and pointed. “Grab her!”

  The guard pulled my arms behind my back and held me.

  “So you’ve changed bodies, I see,” I said to Tinnenbaum. “What’s the matter, Lee’s body got boring for you?”

  He scowled.

  I widened my eyes in innocence. “You know, the first time I was here, everyone was all smiles.”

  Doris came out of her office. “What are you doing here?”

  “Ah, Doris. This face suits you so much better than Briona’s,” I said.

  “Talk about faces.” She squeezed my cheeks together with one hand. “All the work we did on yours. Wasted.”

  I jerked my head away. “Now all we need is Rodney, and the trio’s complete.”

  Tinnenbaum got right in my face. “You look awful. What do you want?”

  “I want to see him,” I said. “The Old Man.”

  Doris and Tinnenbaum exchanged looks. She shook her head. Their reaction, with the slight delay, only confirmed for me that he was there. I knew what they didn’t: the Old Man was dying to see me.

  “I’ll wait,” I said.

  Fifteen minutes later, the guard and Tinnenbaum escorted me up an elevator and down a long, winding hallway. This didn’t look like the way to a CEO’s office. I stopped.

  “Where are you taking me?” I asked.

  “You asked to see him,” Tinnenbaum said.

  “His office is here?”

  “He likes to do things his own way.”

  I didn’t like this. Eventually, we came to a metal door. Tinnenbaum spoke to an invisible panel on the wall.

  “We have her here, sir.”

  The door slid open, disappearing into the wall. It was dark inside, almost completely black, but a small overhead light shone down on us as we stood in the entranceway.

  “Come in,” the voice said. I recognized the metallic synthesized voice of the Old Man.

  “Sir?” Tinnenbaum said.

  “Leave her.”

  The guard let me go.

  “We’ll be right outside,” Tinnenbaum said.

  The door slid shut, making it even blacker. I heard footsteps. They sounded a long way off. This room had to be very large, bigger than any office or conference room. I saw a spot of light before anything else, an eerie beacon across the room. As it approached, I saw that it was the electronic mask the Old Man wore. The face displayed was not human.

  It was a snake’s head. With glossy scales and huge dark eyes. A red-and-black forked tongue whipped out.

  My heart beat so hard it hurt. I slipped my hand into my pocket and pressed the silent alert to let the others know I’d flushed the Old Man out. Now all I had to do was stall.

  “Why come now?” he asked. “You could have come the other day, on the transport with the other boys and girls.”

  “I want to offer a trade.”

  “A trade? What kind of trade?” The snake opened his jaw, displaying his fangs.

  The Old Man’s images were chosen to frighten me. I struggled to keep my voice steady. “My life for my brother’s.”

  “Tyler?”

  “Yes.” I waited for his reaction to confirm my hunch that Tyler was there somewhere.

  “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. How do I know you won’t run away?”

  “I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to keep me.”

  The face suddenly changed to a woman in extreme agony. It made me gasp. He laughed.

  “Who is that?” I asked. The woman was crying, wailing.

  “Just a very sad lady. I think someone killed her children,” he said. “Maybe her husband.”

  “That’s horrible,” I whispered.

  “But we weren’t talking about her, we were talking about Tyler.”

  I shivered just hearing his metallic voice say my brother’s name again. “If you will bring him out, and I can see him, I will trade my life for his.”

  “Your body for his?”

  “Yes.”

  “That doesn’t seem quite fair. He is younger.”

  “But he’s not well.”

  “Good point.”

  The face changed to a woman who’d gone to prison for poisoning her family.

  “Could you stop that?” I asked.

  “I like your spunk, Callie. I accept your offer.”

  “You do?”

  “Yes. But I’m not bringing him out here. You will just have to take my word on that part.”

  Now it was my turn. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

  “I don’t think ‘fair’ ever came into the conversation.”

  “Yes, it did,” I said. “You brought it up first.”

  “You’re clever. I admire that.”

  “You’ll have to give me something.”

  “What?” he asked. “What do you think is fair?”

  “Take off your mask,” I said quietly.

  He was silent for a moment. The woman’s face froze. “Take it off?”

  “Yes.” I spoke up. “Let me see your real face.”

  He changed the face to a famous mime’s, in full makeup. “Here it is.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “That’s the best you’re going to get.”

  “Then there is no deal.”

  He paused. When he spoke again, his voice sounded more assured. “I don’t have to make a deal with you.”

  “But the difference is, I keep my word. So if we come to an agreement, you’ll have me here of my own free will. Forever. Me, for a brother I can’t see, for one look at your face. That’s all.”

  “You still don’t see you’re at the disadvantage here, in my facility, with my people.” He paused and looked down. “You’d do this because you love him that much?” he asked.

  “I’m all he has.”

  All the faces I’d seen before flashed across his, in rapid succession, left to right. Then top to bottom, scrolling up. Then all the bits mixed up, so faces flashed by: a war criminal, a mass murderer, then a burn victim and a woman sobbing from some unspeakable pain.

  It broke up into quarters and finally stirred and swirled until it became a terrible stew of misery, all the more horrific against the hollow silence of the room. My ragged breathing was the only thing I heard.

  “This is what you want, Callie? You want to see the real me?”

  “The real you, not some electronic collage.”

  “The real me.” His voice was quiet. Resigned.

  “Yes.” I breathed out the word.

  “All right.”

  His electronic face dimmed and died to blackness with a metallic click.

  I waited in the dark.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

  I heard the Old Man’s footsteps coming closer, but he didn’t speak. Was he next to me? There was no sound of breathing. Then it hit me. He had faked the footsteps. They were electronic, synthesized sounds, like his voice. This was a man who played with illusions; he wasn’t walking toward me.

  He had moved away.

  It was just me and dead silence in the blackness. I backed up to a light sensor I’d spotted earlier and I pressed it with my palm. The lights came on in pools, spotlighting empty areas, proving that, yes, I was alone in a large, empty room.

  I turned around and saw a monitor mounted high on the wall. It displayed the chaos in the lobby. A team of marshals was taking charge, making arrests, cuffing body bank employees.

  Stage two. I pressed my pocket alarm again.

  “He’s gone!” I shouted.

  The two backup marshals who had been shadowing me at a distance burst into the room.

  “Which way did he go?” the taller one asked.

  “I don’t know, I couldn’t see.”

  The room had three exits aside from the one
behind me. The Old Man could have run out of any of them. The taller marshal took the first door, the other man the second, and I opened the third one. I saw a short hallway that led to a bank of two elevators. The hum told me they were both moving, but there was no light to tell whether they were moving up or down. I pressed the pad and got in the first one that came. I rode it down past the first floor, to the garage level.

  I ran out into the dimly lit garage, looking for the Old Man. Plenty of high-end cars were parked close to the elevator, with the less-expensive employees’ cars in the farther lanes. I bent down to look for his feet underneath the cars but couldn’t see anyone. I wanted to find him and tear that mask off his face, to strip him bare.

  I stopped and listened. Maybe he was hiding. I had to quiet my own breathing a moment. A sound, the shuffle of footsteps. I turned around and saw someone in the shadows, against the wall, hiding behind the front of an SUV.

  I ran over there. This area was dark. The figure sprinted away from me, but he was cornered. When he got to the rear wall, he slumped down into a squat.

  It was Terry, the nurse who wore eyeliner. He was crying.

  “Kitten, don’t let them arrest me,” he said. “I couldn’t take jail.”

  “Help me, and let’s see what we can do.” I put my hand under his elbow and got him to his feet. “Where would the Old Man hide?”

  “He wouldn’t hide. He’d just leave.”

  “Which car is his?”

  “Not the car.” His pretty eyes looked up. “The heli.”

  Terry and I raced up the stairs to the roof. I was mad at myself for not thinking of the heli-transport first.

  “I just knew this day would come.” Black makeup streaked his cheeks.

  “Then maybe you should have quit.”

  We burst through the last door, which led to the roof, and ran out into the cold. The loud sound of the whirling blades and the blast of air hit us in the face like a slap. We squinted as our hair whipped around our faces, and we saw the black-bug heli on a landing pad some twenty feet away. Not yet airborne.

  Through the curved window I could see the Old Man sitting behind the pilot, looking away. I ran to the heli, bending low to avoid the blades. The pilot motioned to the Old Man, and he swung around toward me.

 
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