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       Starters, p.25

           Lissa Price
 
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  His face was that of a mummy from a horror holo.

  I stood on the skid, grabbed the door handle, and yanked open the door. The Old Man reached out to pull it closed, and I grabbed his arm.

  I held on to the doorframe as I pulled on his coat sleeve. Past him, slumped on the seat beside him, someone was encased in a bag. I couldn’t tell their size or gender, or if they were even still alive. Terry was behind me but was unable to get close. It was just me, fighting with the Old Man.

  I tugged, pulling him half out of the heli. I reached for the edge of his mask.

  “What’re you hiding?” I yelled over the roar of the blades.

  He held on to the frame of the heli and tried to shove me back with his other hand.

  “Where’s my brother?” I screamed, and dug my fingers into the side of his face.

  He put his foot on my stomach and pushed. I held on.

  The pilot pulled out a gun and aimed it at me. I couldn’t do anything. I was dead.

  But the Old Man pushed his arm away. I didn’t know why. The disconnect made me freeze. The Old Man yelled something at the pilot. He worked his controls to lift the heli, me still standing on the skid. In my peripheral vision, Terry waved for me to jump.

  We were rising off the ground. If I stayed any longer, I’d have to climb inside. I gave the mask one last tug before I jumped off. It ripped at the side but stayed on. As I fell backward, I saw the Old Man holding the mask to his face as he closed the door.

  I landed on my back on the ground. Terry ran over to help. I waved him off. I wasn’t hurt—just mad and frustrated at the man who always got away.

  Lauren and the attorney and my two marshals joined us, but it was too late. As I watched the Old Man’s heli escape into the sky, I was tormented by one question.

  Was that Tyler in the bag?

  We all joined the chaos happening on the first level of the building. The other marshals had rounded up the employees and lined them up against the wall. Tinnenbaum, Doris, and Rodney each argued their cases, protesting and demanding their cell phones back so they could call their lawyers. The guards, the receptionist, and a few other workers slumped on the floor, resigned. Some were crying. Trax, the tech guy, sat with his head in his hands. One nurse stood screaming at a marshal. In the middle of all this, Senator Bohn spoke directly to a camera as a small two-man crew recorded him.

  I went up to Tinnenbaum. “Where’s my brother?”

  He shook his head. I lurched for him, but the attorney held me back.

  “You know how secretive the Old Man is,” Doris said. “We’d tell you if we knew.”

  A marshal intervened. Before I could press them further, everyone’s eyes turned to the main door. Several teens with jaw-dropping bodies entered the building. Puzzled expressions distorted their otherwise stunning faces.

  Stage three.

  “What’s going on?” a tall blonde said. “We were told to come here.”

  “Who told you?” the senator put the microphone in her face.

  “He did.” A dark-haired boy pointed. “Tinnenbaum.”

  “I did no such thing,” Tinnenbaum said.

  The senior renter in the boy’s body nodded. “Oh, yes, you did, my man. A privatecast came in on our Prime channel, and you said we all needed to come back to the body bank, that something was wrong with our chips.”

  “I didn’t pay this much to have my youth adventure cut short,” the blonde said. “But if there’s some kind of recall, let’s get it over with, shall we?”

  I looked over at Lauren. She smiled. Our fake privatecast had worked. More renters poured into the lobby, all with the same confused expression on their faces. The noise level was getting unbearable as the entitled Ender renters inside teen bodies demanded answers.

  Weaving past the others was a familiar face. Madison. Her long earrings dangled under her blond bob as she made her way to us in the center of the lobby. I put my arm around her shoulders and faced Senator Bohn.

  “This is Madison,” I said to the senator. “She produced that announcement.”

  The senator shook her hand.

  “Where’s Trax?” Madison asked.

  The tall tech Ender with the shock of wild white hair stood up, his hands cuffed.

  “Come on, handsome, take me to my body,” Madison said.

  A marshal uncuffed Trax but held on to his arm. He followed the tech like a shadow as he led a group of us through the corridors into the bowels of the body bank. It was me, Madison, Lauren and her attorney, and Senator Bohn, with the camera crew shooting all the way. Behind us, most of the grandparents and a large, noisy group of renters in their teen bodies followed.

  We finally arrived at a room I had never seen before. Trax called it the waiting room. It was a large space that resembled an ICU, with a circular nurses’ station in the center. From there, recliners fanned out like flower petals, each holding an elderly renter. There must have been over a hundred renters, all with their eyes closed and tubes inserted into the backs of their heads connecting them to a computer.

  The nurses were shocked to see us but cooperated, perhaps motivated by the presence of the senator and the camera. Some of the renters appeared to have been there as long as two months, judging by the growth of beards and hair. They ranged in age from about 80 to 150.

  Madison, with her long legs, sashayed up to a heavyset woman about 125 years old, who was reclining with her eyes closed. Like the other renters, she wore a hospital gown and had a blanket draped up to her waist.

  Madison pointed to the large senior and spoke to Trax. “Now be a sport and get me back into my old, fat body. It may not be much, but it’s mine.”

  He pulled over a chair for Madison to sit in. He went to the nurses’ station and put his hands on a vertical keyboard. He pressed a series of keys, triggering soft tones. I followed his eyes up and saw a circular computer module hanging directly above him, close to the ceiling. The lights flashed in a sequence for a few moments. And then the lights and the sounds stopped.

  Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, it was so quiet in the room. Then the large woman in the recliner opened her eyes. Trax went over to her and touched her shoulder.

  “All right?” he asked her.

  She shook her head as if shaking off sleep. “Never better.” She waited for him to unhook her tubes, and then she sat up. “Hello, Callie girl. This is the real me. Rhiannon.”

  I smiled at her.

  The real Madison, the teen donor, was slumped over in the chair with her eyes closed. She was twitching like a cat in the middle of a nightmare. Then she opened her eyes. She was disoriented, her blond bob hanging in her face. She sat up.

  “Where am I?” she said in a soft voice. She looked around. “Who are all these people?”

  Her voice was recognizable but different.

  Rhiannon leaned forward and put her hand on Madison’s shoulder. “It’s all right, honey, you’re back at Prime. Your rental is over.”

  Some of the renters were not happy with the idea of getting cheated on their rental term. They were getting vocal. The senator, the attorney, and Trax put their heads together. They decided the best and quickest solution was simply to pull the plug.

  “All right, everyone sit down on the floor. Now,” the senator said.

  Only a few of the grumpy seniors in the rental teen bodies obeyed. Trax followed the same sequence he had used a moment earlier to shut Madison down. Any teen who hadn’t already been on the floor soon was. The senior bodies started moving in the recliners. The rest of us went to assist the poor teen donors, who had no clue why they were waking up on the floor.

  I scanned the crowd. Someone I knew was there, near the back.

  Michael.

  He was safe. I knelt down beside him.

  “Michael?”

  He looked at me with a groggy expression. “Cal?” He propped himself up on one arm. “What happened to your face?”

  I touched my jaw. “Some serious unfriendl
ies.”

  “Does it hurt bad?”

  “I’ll be all right.”

  “Where am I?” He sat up and rubbed his head.

  “At the body bank.”

  He took that in. “The body bank. Is my rental over?”

  “It’s so over.” I put my arms around him and held him.

  He wrapped his arms around me, and I remembered how safe he made me feel. I buried my nose in his shirt for a moment. I could have stayed like that forever, but my mind was on my brother. If he was there, I would find him.

  I helped Michael stand. All the donors were on their feet now, getting oriented.

  Lauren came over to me with Senator Bohn, their bodies tense.

  “We’re not positive, so please don’t get your hopes up, but we may have a lead on your brother,” the senator said.

  The senator and I rushed with Trax and a marshal down a long hallway.

  “I didn’t know he was your brother.” Trax shook his head.

  “What about Florina?” I asked. “Is there a girl with him?”

  “No, just the boy,” Trax said.

  As we hurried along, he explained how the Old Man had consulted with Trax earlier that morning. He wanted to know whether the procedure would work on a preteen brain. The discussion had led to a question about the size of the particular brain, and Trax had examined Tyler.

  “But I don’t know if he’s still there.” Trax’s brows furrowed. “The last time I saw him was seven-thirty this morning. The Old Man moved him around a lot.”

  “Who’s been taking care of him?” I asked.

  Trax shrugged.

  “Come on. Let’s go.” I grabbed Trax’s arm and pulled him into a jog.

  We went through a door marked NO ADMITTANCE and made two more turns, until we came to a short hallway ending at a locked door with no markings.

  Trax waved his palm across a reader pad, and the door unlocked. I practically knocked him over as I ran inside.

  It was a windowless office space, with little furniture other than a filing cabinet and some worktables. A small cot was by the wall, a pile of blankets rumpled on top. I pushed them aside.

  It was empty.

  I fell to the cot and smelled the sheets. Tyler had been there. His imprint was still on the bottom sheet.

  “He’s gone,” I said. “He took him. That Old Man took him.”

  The marshal carried out an inspection, checking the closets and bathroom, opening file drawers. It was useless and we all knew it.

  I started crying. I couldn’t help it. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I’d done everything I could, everything for him. And he was gone. I knew where he was. He was on that heli with the Old Man. I had been that close. And I’d lost him.

  “He was here earlier. Really,” Trax said.

  He and Senator Bohn stood there, staring in different directions. I sat on the edge of the little cot. It didn’t matter what anybody thought or how stupid I must have looked with my nose running. It was so completely hopeless. I had been dragged through the mud, had done everything I could, and I still couldn’t find my brother.

  Dad, I know I promised you. I tried. I did.

  My insides were scraped hollow. He was alone and scared, stuffed inside a bag. With the Old Man. My body started shaking as my sobs got louder.

  Trax reached out to comfort me. “I’m so sorry.”

  “Leave me alone,” I said, lashing out at him. I stood and struggled for air. “There’s nothing you can say to help. All you body bank people, you’re all responsible. How could you do this to him? He’s just a kid. A kid who never had a chance to be a kid.” I swung around, looking at Senator Bohn. “All you Enders, it’s all your fault. Why didn’t you vaccinate everyone? We wouldn’t be in this whole mess if you hadn’t been so cheap.”

  The senator looked pained. He put both hands around the back of his neck.

  The marshal came into my view from his little inspection of the rooms. He shook his head to Senator Bohn. “He’s not here.”

  Something about those words, out of a marshal’s mouth … I had hidden many times from the marshals, watching, hoping they wouldn’t find me or my friends or any other Starter. But this time I was hoping he would find my brother.

  The problem was, I realized, if my brother saw him, he wouldn’t come out. He’d be scared to death. He’d hide.

  We always hid in places marshals never thought to look. Like in the walls. Like in plain sight. Like up.

  I scanned the room.

  The Enders watched me with wary eyes, as if they were afraid of what I might do. I stared at the ceiling. If my brother saw the marshal but not me … and didn’t hear me …

  I went into the bathroom and looked up. The Enders followed me, crowding in the doorway. The toilet seat was closed. That was my first tip.

  I stepped on top of it.

  The men rushed forward, arms out as if they might have to catch me from a fall. I climbed onto the sink. I saw fingerprints on the ceiling panel and I pushed on it.

  “It’s okay, Tyler,” I shouted to the ceiling. “It’s me.”

  I lifted the panel and slid it over to the side. Tyler peeked out like a shy fox.

  “Callie?”

  My heart leapt to my throat. “Tyler. Come here, you.”

  I bear-hugged him out of his hiding place and handed him to the marshal. I climbed down from the sink, and then grabbed my brother as tightly as I could in my arms. I kissed his head, breathing in the sweet scent of his baby-soft hair. My chest felt so light, it was like a truck had been lifted off it.

  He was crying. I was crying. The men were crying.

  And I wasn’t letting go.

  After much hugging and kissing, and after determining that Tyler was in good condition, the Enders brought us down to the lobby, where the noise level had ratcheted down from a ten to a five. We introduced Tyler to Lauren. Senator Bohn grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around my brother.

  “Is he all right?” Lauren asked me.

  “He fed me, the Old Man, and gave me medicine,” Tyler said.

  I doubted that was for altruistic purposes, but I didn’t say anything to him. Then I remembered Florina. She’d been with Tyler when they were taken from the hotel.

  “Tyler, what happened to Florina?” I asked.

  “They pushed her out of the car.”

  “What?”

  “When they picked us up, they drove a couple blocks. Then they made her get out.”

  “I hope she’s okay.”

  He nodded. “I saw her get up.” He thought for a moment. “Did you know she’s got a great-aunt? In Santa Rosa?”

  I shook my head.

  “She talked about her. Maybe she went there,” he said.

  The senator rubbed Tyler’s head. A marshal showed the senator a list pairing up renters with donors, who all began to walk into the room. He gestured to one side, and they had each renter stand beside their donor. Madison stood by Rhiannon. Tinnenbaum was by Lee, Rodney by Raj, and Doris by Briona. Michael was standing by a decrepit Ender with a big nose and a potbelly. He must have been two hundred. That was the guy who had licked me when he was in Michael’s body? I wanted to gag.

  The line of Starter donors and Ender renters snaked down the hallway. Lauren, Tyler, and I walked the line, scanning every face, but I didn’t spot anyone who resembled Emma. Lauren did not find her Kevin.

  “I knew it was a long shot,” Lauren said. “But you never give up hoping.”

  “We’ll keep searching.” I touched her shoulder. “This won’t be finished until we find them.”

  The long night wore into the morning as everything was wrapped up. Grandparents came to reclaim their grandchildren. They were surprised to see the unclaimed minor renters disappear into the dark morning, but I understood. They didn’t trust the Enders.

  Tyler was asleep on a couch in Doris’s office. Michael and I slumped in chairs around her desk. We were drained and half asleep ourselves. At least, I told myself tha
t was why Michael seemed distant.

  “So Florina’s got a great-aunt in Santa Rosa,” I said.

  “Yeah. She said she would claim Florina.”

  “Lucky girl.”

  “Florina said I could go with her. Not as claimed, of course.”

  “Why didn’t you?”

  He shrugged. “Too cold up there.”

  I nodded.

  “So I guess we’re not going to get paid,” he said.

  “Wouldn’t count on it.”

  “All that.” He shook his head. “We risked our lives … for nothing.”

  “Hey, it wasn’t for nothing. We’ve got these state-of-the-art chips in our heads out of the deal.” I laughed. What else could we do? I was happy to have my little tribe back together, even if we had no place to go. Goodbye, mattresses and showers; hello, hard concrete floors and water buckets.

  Lauren stepped into the doorway.

  “Callie, could I see you for a moment?”

  I looked at Tyler’s sleeping body. Michael nodded and said he’d watch him.

  “I think you’re going to want to hear this,” she said with a smile.

  She took me to Tinnenbaum’s old office, where her attorney sat at the desk. It gave me the creeps to see the water fountain that had earlier impressed me so much.

  “Mrs. Winterhill left a will. You’re named in it.”

  I looked at Lauren. She motioned for me to sit in one of the chairs facing the desk. She took the other one.

  “But when did she …?” I asked.

  “She did this before she started the rental. She felt she owed it to the girl whose body she was risking,” the lawyer said.

  “She’s left you half of her estate,” Lauren said, “including the main house and a vacation home.”

  A home.

  I couldn’t speak.

  The lawyer read from a paper. “She says: ‘I don’t know you, but I’m sorry for having to use you in this way. And I’m sorry for the world we’ve left you.’ ”

  A home? I was exhausted. I had to be dreaming. I touched my cheek and felt the very real stitches.

 
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