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       Starters, p.3

           Lissa Price
 

  “Hold this to your nose,” I told Tyler.

  Michael’s lite broke through the smoke. “Let’s go!” he shouted.

  I locked arms with my little brother. Our handlites partly penetrated the smoke as we all crouched over and made our way to the door.

  Michael put his hand on my back, guiding me to the stairs. Smoke clouded the stairway. It seemed to take forever, but we made it down. My legs were rubbery by the time we made it outside.

  We stepped away from the building, worried about flames and falling debris. In the darkness of the early morning, we saw other friendlies coming out—two we knew and three others who must have been on the lower floors.

  They were staring at the building in shock. I spun around.

  “Where’re the flames?” I asked.

  “Where’s the fire?” Michael said.

  “Is that everyone?” a man yelled.

  “Yeah.” I saw an Ender, maybe a hundred years old, approaching. He wore a crisp suit.

  “You sure?” The Ender looked at the friendlies, who nodded. “Good.” The man raised his hand and three more Enders wearing construction gear walked forward.

  One construction man ripped off the tape that covered the lock on the side door. Another used a hand tool to post a notice. The suit gave us a copy of the notice.

  Michael read it. “ ‘No trespassing. Premises under new ownership.’ ”

  “They smoked us,” one of the friendlies said.

  “You must vacate the area now,” the suit said in a calm but authoritative voice.

  When no one moved, he added, “You have one minute.”

  “But our stuff …” I moved toward the building.

  “I can’t let you back in there. Insurance liability,” the suit said.

  “You can’t keep our property,” Michael said.

  “Squatting is trespassing,” the Ender said. “I’m warning you for your own good. Thirty seconds.”

  My heart sank. “All we have left of our things is in there. If we can’t go in, please just bring our stuff out.”

  He shook his head. “There’s no time. You have to go. The marshals are on their way.”

  That made the other friendlies run. I put my arm around Tyler and turned to go, but something made me stop. The man in the suit already had his back to us, but the construction man saw us and nodded to him. He turned.

  “Please. Our parents are dead.” My eyes burned with tears. “The last pictures we have of them are inside that building. On the third floor, end of the hall. Could someone just give us the frame? Even if they have to throw it out the window?”

  He paused for just a moment, as if he was considering it. “I wish I could. But I can’t. Sorry.” He turned his back. I had never felt so hollow inside. It was hopeless arguing with him. More than a hundred years separated us; he could never understand what we had gone through.

  “Callie, it’s okay.” Tyler pulled my hand. “We can remember them without the pictures. We won’t forget.”

  Sirens blared.

  “It’s the marshals,” Michael said. “Run!”

  We had no choice. We ran into the darkness of the early morning, leaving behind the last physical links to our family and to the life we’d lived together just a year ago.

  CHAPTER TWO

  We raced up the street, away from the marshals’ sirens. I glanced back just long enough to see the silver hair and steel-gray uniforms rushing out of their vehicle. Michael scooped Tyler into his arms, and we ran as fast as we could. We ducked down a narrow walkway between our old building and another abandoned office building.

  We heard the marshals chasing us, but we were out of the walkway before they made it to the entrance, so they didn’t see which way we turned. They had guns and a hundred-plus years of experience, but we had young legs.

  We hid in a long row of bushes in the courtyard between the buildings. They were dying and scratchy but still full enough to hide us in the darkness of the hour. Good thing we’d staked out hiding places when we first moved in. I pushed aside branches as Michael put Tyler on the ground, and we huddled together.

  The marshals came out of the walkway. I peered at them through a hole in the bush, watching their movement. One headed left. The other came right toward us.

  Tyler made a sound, that wheeze that was always followed by a cough. I felt the hair on my arms rise. Michael slipped his hand over Tyler’s mouth.

  The marshal was approaching. Had he spotted us? He crouched and edged closer, his gun drawn. My heartbeat echoed in my ears. I gripped Michael’s shirt and pressed my cheek to his shoulder.

  The marshal’s hand groped through the leaves in front of my face. He was so close I could smell the oily scent of his gloves. I held my breath.

  “He’s over here!” the other marshal’s voice called out.

  Then the sound that made our spines tingle, that electronic, arcing crackle, broke through the cold night.

  ZipTaser.

  Excruciating screams followed the crackle. They ripped through us, making our teeth hurt and our souls ache. The leaves shook as our marshal ran off.

  I pressed my face to the hole in the bushes to see. A boy lay on the ground, facedown. His screams were giving way to moans.

  One of the marshals slapped autocuffs on him and turned him over. I recognized him as one of the newer guys in our building. The side of his neck was burnt black from the ZipTaser. That happened if they held it too close or the gun was turned up too high. They did it on purpose, to brand us.

  He started yelling as they ran a strap around his cuffs and across his chest, begging them to leave him. They ignored his pleas, tilting him at an angle and holding a strap over their shoulders to drag him behind them. The boy’s heels scraped the ground, and every bump was punctuated with a scream.

  It was like they’d snared an animal.

  They were cowards, conducting these raids in the dark of night, out of sight of any softhearted Enders who might intervene.

  Inside the safety of our leafy cover, we hugged each other in a ball. This kept Tyler warm, kept him from coughing, and kept any of us from making the slightest sound. Every scream made us flinch. If only we’d had a few more friendlies, we could have jumped on the marshals’ backs, biting, punching, scratching, until the boy could get away.

  The screaming faded as they all entered the walkway. Then we heard their car start. They were leaving, satisfied with one capture. They had bagged their prize, and it filled their daily quota. But they would return tomorrow.

  Tyler finally released his cough, which led to wheezing and more coughing. We crawled out of the bushes to get him off the damp ground. Michael removed his sweatshirt and put it over Tyler’s so he had a double layer. They huddled together on a low concrete planter while I paced.

  “Now what do we do?” Michael asked. “We’ve lost our sleeping bags.”

  “And my ZipTaser.” I swallowed hard, remembering the marshal’s weapon. “And our water bottles,” I said. “And anything else we saved, scrounged, or built.”

  My words hung in the cold night air, the finality of it all too overwhelming. Then Tyler came up with his contribution.

  “My dogbot,” he said.

  His lower lip jutted out, but it quivered as he struggled to pull it back. It wasn’t just a toy, or his last toy—it was the last toy given to him by our mom. If I had been a better person, I would have confessed that I understood, that I was devastated over losing our parents’ pictures. Those were memory triggers, gone forever. Our old lives, the ones we’d had just a year ago, were history now—undocumented history. The last cord was cut.

  But I kept it inside. Falling apart wasn’t an option.

  “What’re we gonna do?” Tyler asked. “Where’ll we go?” He went into a fit of hacking coughs.

  “We can’t stay around here,” I said quietly. “They’ll come back tomorrow with more men, now that they made a score.”

  “I know another building,” Michael said. “Not
far, twenty minutes.”

  Another building. Another cold, hard floor. Another temporary place to squat. Something inside me broke.

  “Draw me a map.” I fished in my sweatshirt pocket and pulled out the contract. I ripped off a quarter of it.

  “Why?” Michael asked.

  “I’ll join you guys later.” I handed the paper to Michael and he started drawing.

  “Where’re you going?” Tyler asked, his voice hoarse.

  “I’m going to be gone for a day or two.” I looked at Michael. “I know where to get some money.”

  Michael glanced up from his map. His eyes locked with mine. “Cal. You sure?”

  I looked at Tyler’s tired face, his sunken cheeks, his baggy eyes. The smoke had made his condition worse. If he went downhill and didn’t make it, I would never forgive myself.

  “No. But I’m going anyway.”

  By the time I entered Beverly Hills, it was 8:45 a.m. The shops were still closed. I passed a handful of Enders wearing heavy jewelry and too much makeup. Modern medicine could easily extend Enders’ life spans to two hundred, but it couldn’t teach them to avoid becoming fashion don’ts. The plump Enders opened the door to a restaurant, and the aroma of bacon and eggs teased my nose. My stomach growled.

  Those rich Enders acted like they’d forgotten there ever was a war. I wanted to shake them and ask, Don’t you remember? No one was winning the Pac Rim sea battles, so they threw their spore-head missiles at us? And we used our EMP weapon, which crashed their computers, their planes, their stock markets?

  It was a war, people. Nobody won. Not us, not the Pac Rim countries. In less than a year, the face of America changed to a sprinkling of Starters like me in a sea of silver-haired Enders, well off, well fed, and oblivious.

  They weren’t all rich, but none of them were as poor as we were, because we weren’t allowed to work or vote. That nasty little policy had been in place before the war, with the aging population, but it had become even more of an issue postwar. I shook my head. I hated thinking about the war.

  I passed a pizza place. Closed. The hologram in the window looked so real, complete with bubbling cheese. The fake scent blasts taunted me. I remembered the taste, the hot, sticky mozzarella, the tangy tomato sauce. Living on the streets for the past year meant I was always hungry. But I especially missed hot food.

  When I reached Prime Destinations, I hesitated. The building was five stories tall, freestanding, covered with silver-mirrored panels. I looked at my reflection in them. Tattered clothes, smudged face. Long hair hanging like tangled rope. Was I still there, somewhere, under all this?

  My reflection vanished as the guard opened the door. “Welcome back.” He wore a smug grin.

  While I waited at the reception desk for Tinnenbaum, I noticed two men arguing in a conference room off the lobby. One of them, facing the open door, was Tinnenbaum. The other man I could see only from the back. He was taller and wore an elegant black wool coat. Only a few inches of his silver hair protruded from his fedora. He slapped his gloves in one hand several times and then hit the table with them, making Tinnenbaum flinch.

  Tinnenbaum moved to the left, out of view. The tall man glared at a glass case of electronic equipment. I couldn’t make out his face in the reflection, but I got the feeling he was staring at me, as if he had a clearer view than I did. The hair on the back of my neck rose with a prickle. He appeared to be sizing me up.

  Why?

  At that point Tinnenbaum came out of the room alone, closing the door behind him. He came over to greet me with his trademark freaky grin.

  “Callie. I hoped we’d see you again.” He shook my hand. “My apologies for making you wait, but that was my boss.” He motioned toward the conference room with his head.

  “It’s okay. He must be important.”

  “You could say he’s Mr. Prime Destinations himself.” He spread one arm. “This is all his baby.”

  I followed him into his office and sat on the other side of his desk while he tapped at his airscreen. To my right was a framed mirror. Observation window, I imagined.

  “So who did you say referred you?” he asked.

  “Dennis Lynch.”

  “And you know him from where?”

  “He was a classmate. Before the war.” Tinnenbaum continued to stare at me, as if I should say more. “After the war ended, I ran into him on the street. He told me about this place.”

  I didn’t want to admit that I’d met Dennis squatting. Tinnenbaum knew I was a squatter, but I wasn’t going on record with it.

  He seemed satisfied. “And what sports are you good at?”

  “Archery. Fencing, swimming, riflery.”

  He raised one brow. “Riflery?”

  “My dad knew about guns. He was in the Science Corps. He trained me.”

  “He’s deceased, I assume.”

  “Yes. And my mother.”

  He eyed my clothing. “I assume you have no living relatives?”

  Of course, dummy. Would I be living on the street if I had grandparents? “Right.”

  He nodded and thumped the desk. “Well then, let’s see just how good you are.”

  I didn’t move.

  “Unless you have any questions?” he asked.

  I had to ask. “How do I know I won’t get caught? For working?”

  He smiled. “Look, we’re not hiring you. You’re donating services, not working. You couldn’t be working when you’re asleep.” He laughed. “So the generous payment we give is a stipend, not a salary.” He pushed his chair back and stood. “Don’t worry. This is a mutually beneficial situation here. We need you as much as you need us. Now let’s go see what you can do.”

  Mr. Tinnenbaum introduced me to an Ender named Doris, who was assigned to be my personal mentor. She had the silver hair of an Ender but the body of a ballerina. She dressed in typical Ender fashion, retro clothing with modern touches. Her suit was classic 1940s, but a power belt cinched her tiny waist. Rib removal, no doubt. She took me to their gym and tested me in fencing and archery, as well as in general strength, stamina, and gymnastics exercises. They weren’t going to take my word for it, in case some Ender had her heart set on winning a fencing competition.

  We were left with only the target shooting. That was one thing they weren’t set up for, so we had to go to a shooting range. Tinnenbaum and I got into the back of a limo and rode for twenty minutes. Trapped in the small space, he coughed and wrinkled his nose, then held his handkerchief to it. I’m sure it was from my eau de street life. We were even, because I couldn’t stand the fake scent of his cologne. He didn’t even look at me, but instead read his mini-airscreen the whole way.

  But I got Tinnenbaum’s attention once we were on the shooting range and the Range Master pushed a rifle into my hands. The motion shoved me back, back to three years ago, when I was thirteen, when my dad had done the same thing.

  I had protested that the rifle was too big and heavy for me. I didn’t want to admit that I was scared and would rather have spent my time with him fishing or hiking.

  “Cal Girl, listen carefully,” my dad had said.

  Whenever he used his special nickname for me in a serious way, it got my attention.

  “There’s a war going on,” he continued. “You must learn how to defend yourself. And Tyler.”

  “But the war’s not here, Dad,” I said.

  At that time, the war was mostly being played out in the Pacific Ocean. But my father’s answer made it clear he knew what was to come.

  “Not yet, Cal Girl,” he said. “But it will be.”

  Two years later, the Spore Wars would change us all.

  While Tinnenbaum watched with a skeptical gaze, I straightened and brought the rifle into position. I shut one eye and used the other to line up the digital sight on the target, an outline of a man. Then I shut both eyes and quickly opened them. The sight was still dead-on. I breathed in and squeezed the trigger.

  The bullet pierced the red circle in the
center of the forehead. The Range Master said nothing. He nodded for me to shoot again. My next bullet went through the first hole. Tinnenbaum stood completely still, staring at the target as if it had to be some trick. Other shooters, all Enders, stopped their practice to watch me hit the same spot, every time.

  We continued the testing with a variety of guns, so I also impressed them with the number of firearms I could handle. Thanks, Dad.

  On the drive back, Tinnenbaum’s nose wasn’t so wrinkled. He angled his mini’s base so I could read the airscreen. It displayed my contract.

  I skipped to the important parts: three rentals and the payment. The money would be enough to pay for an apartment for a couple of years. And to bribe an adult to sign the lease for us.

  “That amount. It’s the same as before you tested me.”

  “That’s right.”

  “Shouldn’t my skill level have bumped me up to a higher stipend?” Why not go for it, I thought.

  His smile faded. “You drive a hard bargain. For a minor.” He sighed and typed in better numbers. “How’s that?”

  I remembered something my dad had taught me to ask. “What are the risks?” I said. “What can go wrong?”

  “No procedure is without risks. However, we’ve taken every precaution to protect our valuable assets.”

  “Meaning me.”

  He nodded. “You can be assured that in twelve months of operation, we have not had a single problem.”

  That wasn’t a long time. But I needed the money more than I needed a better answer. What would my dad have said about this? I pushed the thought out of my mind.

  “The hard part is over,” Tinnenbaum said. “The rest is as easy as drifting off to sleep.”

  My brother could be warm every night. A real home. And we’d have it after only three rentals. I touched the airscreen and my fingerprint appeared on the contract, sealing the deal. Tinnenbaum gazed out the limo window, trying to look casual. But I noticed his leg had an uncontrollable nervous twitch.

 
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