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Enders gave me the creeps. The doorman ashed a practiced smile as he let me into the body bank. He wasnt that old, maybe , but he still made me shudder. Like most Enders, he sported silver hair, some phony badge of honor of his age. Inside, the ultramodern space with its high ceilings dwarfed me. I walked through the lobby as if gliding through a dream, my feet barely touching the marble oor. He directed me to the receptionist, who had white hair and matte red lipstick that transferred to her front teeth when she smiled.
I traded the frame for his favorite toy, his only toy now, a small dogbot. He tucked it under his arm and it went into soft mode, lying just like a real dog. Except for the glowing green eyes. I put the frame back on the desk above us. Tyler coughed.
I pulled his sleeping bag up around his neck. Every time he coughed, I struggled not to hear the clinic doctors words echo in my mind: Rare lung disorder. Might heal, or not. I watched Tylers chest rise and fall, and heard the labored breathing of sleep take over. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and peered around the desks. Michaels handlite glowed against the wall. I threw my sweatshirt over my shoulders and padded over. I whispered. Come on in. He kept his voice hushed.
I entered his little fortress. I liked being there, surrounded by his pencil and charcoal drawings, his art supplies lling every nook. He drew city scenes, interpreting our landscape of empty buildings, friendlies and renegades, complete with handlites and layered, ragged clothes, water bottles slung across thin torsos. He put down his book and sat up with his back to the wall, motioning for me to sit next to him on his army blanket.
So, what happened to your face? I reached up to my cheek. It was burning. Does it look bad? Tyler didnt notice. Only because its so dark in here. I sat cross-legged facing him. I nodded. But Im okay. How was that place? He went silent. His head hung down. Michael raised his head.
I was worried you werent coming back. I promised, didnt I? He nodded. But I was thinking. I had no response to that. We sat a moment until he nally broke the silence. So, whatd you think of it? Did you know they insert a neurochip in here?
I pointed to the back of my head. Let me see. He touched my hair. I told you, I just went to check it out. I saw the concern in his face, his eyes soft with kindness. Funny, I hadnt really noticed him much when he lived down the street from us. Strange that it had taken the Spore Wars to bring us together. I stuffed my hands into my pockets and felt something.
A paper. I pulled it out. Whats that? The man at the body bank gave it to me. Its a contract. Michael leaned closer.
Thats what theyre going to pay? He snatched the form from my ngers. Give it back. He read the contract. Im not doing it. He paused. But why? I know you. Youre not scared. Theyll never pay that much money. Its unreal. Thats what tipped me off.
How do they get around the law, anyway? Hiring Starters? I shrugged. They must have some loophole. Its pretty much off the radar. You never see any ads for it.
He was right. The only way I knew about it was from that guy who used to live on the rst oor. He probably makes money for every Starter he brings in. He wont be getting any from me. I rested on my side, leaning my head on my hand. I dont trust that place. You must be tired, he said. That was a long walk. Im beyond tired. Tomorrow, lets go to the loading dock and see if we can get some fruit. His words faded, and my eyes felt heavy. Next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and he was smiling at me.
Cal, he said gently. Go to bed. I stuffed the contract back into my pocket and returned to Tyler. My body melted into the sleeping bag. I set my lite to sleep mode. It glowed softly.
Winter in Southern California wasnt brutal, but it was going to get too cold for Tyler. I needed to get him into someplace warm, a real home. But how? This was my nightly ritual worry. Id hoped the body bank would be the answer, but it wasnt.
As I drifted off to sleep, my lite turned itself off. My sleep was shattered by the screech of the smoke detectors. A bitter stench lled my nostrils.
I felt Tyler, near me, sitting up and coughing. The time on my handband read 5: I felt for my water bottle and opened it. I reached into the drawer above me and pulled out a T-shirt. I splashed water on it. Hold this to your nose, I told Tyler.
Michaels lite broke through the smoke. Lets go! 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 ames and falling debris. In the darkness of the early morning, we saw other friendlies coming outtwo we knew and three others who must have been on the lower oors.
They were staring at the building in shock. I spun around. Wherere the ames? Wheres the re? Michael said. Is that everyone? 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. 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 cant let you back in there. Insurance liability, the suit said. You cant keep our property, Michael said. Squatting is trespassing, the Ender said. Im warning you for your own good. Thirty seconds. My heart sank. All we have left of our things is in there. If we cant go in, please just bring our stuff out. Theres 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. Our parents are dead. My eyes burned with tears. The last pictures we have of them are inside that building.
On the third oor, 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 cant. 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, its okay. Tyler pulled my hand.
We can remember them without the pictures. We wont forget. Its the marshals, Michael said. 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 wed lived together just a year ago. We raced up the street, away from the marshals sirens. I glanced back just long enough to see the silver hair and steelgray 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 ofce building. We heard the marshals chasing us, but we were out of the walkway before they made it to the entrance, so they didnt 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 wed staked out hiding places when we rst 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 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 Tylers 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 Michaels shirt and pressed my cheek to his shoulder. The marshals 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. Hes over here! Then the sound that made our spines tingle, that electronic, arcing crackle, broke through the cold night. 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.
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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 The boys heels scraped the ground, and every bump was punctuated with a scream. It was like theyd 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 inch. If only wed 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, satised with one capture. They had bagged their prize, and it lled their daily quota.
But they would return tomorrow. Tyler nally 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 Tylers so he had a double layer. They huddled together on a low concrete planter while I paced. Now what do we do? Michael asked. Weve lost our sleeping bags. And my ZipTaser. I swallowed hard, remembering the marshals weapon.
And our water bottles, I said.
And anything else we saved, scrounged, or built. My words hung in the cold night air, the nality 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 It wasnt just a toy, or his last toyit 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 wed had just a year ago, were history nowundocumented history. The last cord was cut. But I kept it inside. Falling apart wasnt an option. Whatre we gonna do? Tyler asked. Wherell we go? He went into a t of hacking coughs. We cant stay around here, I said quietly.
Theyll 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 oor.
Another temporary place to squat. Something inside me broke. Draw me a map. I shed in my sweatshirt pocket and pulled out the contract. I ripped off a quarter of it. Ill join you guys later. I handed the paper to Michael and he started drawing. Wherere you going? Tyler asked, his voice hoarse. Im 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. I looked at Tylers tired face, his sunken cheeks, his baggy eyes. The smoke had made his condition worse. If he went downhill and didnt make it, I would never forgive myself. But Im going anyway. By the time I entered Beverly Hills, it was 8: 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 couldnt teach them to avoid becoming fashion donts. The plump Enders opened the door to a restaurant, and the aroma of bacon and eggs teased my nose. Those rich Enders acted like theyd forgotten there ever was a war.
I wanted to shake them and ask, Dont 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 werent all rich, but none of them were as poor as we were, because we werent 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. 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 ve stories tall, freestanding, covered with silver-mirrored panels.
I looked at my reection in them. Long hair hanging like tangled rope. Was I still there, somewhere, under all this? My reection 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 inch. Tinnenbaum moved to the left, out of view. The tall man glared at a glass case of electronic equipment. I couldnt make out his face in the reection, 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. 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. I hoped wed 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. Its okay. He must be important. You could say hes Mr.
Prime Destinations himself. He spread one arm. This is all his baby. I followed him into his ofce 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? 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 didnt want to admit that Id met Dennis squatting. Tinnenbaum knew I was a squatter, but I wasnt going on record with it. He seemed satised. And what sports are you good at? Fencing, swimming, riery. He raised one brow. My dad knew about guns. He was in the Science Corps. He trained me. Hes deceased, I assume. 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? He nodded and thumped the desk. Well then, lets see just how good you are.
I didnt move. Unless you have any questions? I had to ask. How do I know I wont get caught? For working? He smiled. Look, were not hiring you. Youre donating services, not working. You couldnt be working when youre asleep. He laughed. So the generous payment we give is a stipend, not a salary. He pushed his chair back and stood. This is a mutually benecial situation here. We need you as much as you need us. Now lets go see what you can do. 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 s, 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 werent 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 werent 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.
Im sure it was from my eau de street life. We were even, because I couldnt stand the fake scent of his cologne. He didnt even look at me, but instead read his mini-airscreen the whole way.
But I got Tinnenbaums attention once we were on the shooting range and the Range Master pushed a rie 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 rie was too big and heavy for me. I didnt want to admit that I was scared and would rather have spent my time with him shing 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. Theres a war going on, he continued. You must learn how to defend yourself. And Tyler.
But the wars not here, Dad, I said. At that time, the war was mostly being played out in the Pacic Ocean. But my fathers 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 rie 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 rst 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 rearms I could handle. Thanks, Dad. On the drive back, Tinnenbaums nose wasnt so wrinkled. He angled his minis base so I could read the airscreen. It displayed my contract.
I skipped to the important parts: The money would be enough to pay for an apart And to bribe an adult to sign the lease for us. That amount. Its the same as before you tested me. Shouldnt 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.
Hows 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, weve taken every precaution to protect our valuable assets. Meaning me. You can be assured that in twelve months of operation, we have not had a single problem. That wasnt 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 wed have it after only three rentals. I touched the airscreen and my ngerprint 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. When we arrived back at the body bank, I wondered if Mr. Tinnenbaum would introduce me to the tall man from before. But we never saw him. Instead, Tinnenbaum handed me off to Doris. Wait till you see what Doris has in store for you.
He grinned and then disappeared down the hallway. Its time to begin your makeover. Doris icked her wrist like she was my fairy godmother. Doris eyed me from toe to head.
My hand instinctively touched the end of my stringy hair, as if to keep her from chopping it off. You dont think were going to present you like this, do you? I pulled my sleeve over my hand and wiped my face. She reached for my arm. Youre one lucky girl. Were going to give you a free makeover, top to bottom. She examined my hand.
Her nails glowed with a dazzling iridescent polish that reminded me of an abalone shell. Mine looked like Id dug through tar at the beach. We have a lot of work to do. Doris put her hand on my back, guiding me toward a set of double doors. Youre not going to recognize yourself when were done with you.
Thats what Im afraid of. The rst station was a human car wash. I stood naked on a raised, revolving platform and held on to a bar hanging above my head. Tiny goggles protected my eyes while bittersmelling chemicals blasted my entire body. The sh-eye goggles made everything a little more surreal than it already was, including Doris watching me through an observation window. Large foam pads taller than my head pushed out from curved panels, moving closer and closer until I thought I was going to be smothered.
But I held my breath as the squishy material conformed to my body and scrubbed it top to bot Finally, it stopped and pulled back for the last step, a high-powered water stream that sprayed from every direction and hurt like needles. I passed through a small chamber lit only by blue lights, and then a hot, dry one. In the last room, which looked like a doctors exam room, two Enders wearing protective suits scanned me for any bacteria.
I was judged to be a clean palette and was whisked off for a series of beauty procedures. First up, laser treatments. This Ender team said it was just to clean up my freckles and teenage skin, but it took a long time. They wouldnt let me see the results, but they assured me I would be pleased. I could see that they had completely healed the cuts on my hands from ghting.
Next up, manicure, pedicure, and, as if I werent clean enough already, a full-body scrub. It hurt at eleven on a scale of one to ten, like they didnt want any original skin cells left.
Then Doris led me to a small room to meet their in-house hairstylist. She was the rst Ender Id ever seen with hair that wasnt all white or silver. Hers had streaks of purple, and it went straight up in spikes.
I tried to pass on the haircut. Dont be silly. Doris leaned on a counter, drumming her nails with increasing speed. Shes not going to give you a buzz cut. Youll still have your lovely long hair. Itll just be styled better.
Give you some layers. I let the spiky Ender put a cape over me, but the fact that she refused to let me see a mirror hardly inspired condence. When she was done, enough hair lay on the oor to make a cat. I was dying to see the results, but no one seemed to care. Book Variant Variant, 1 by Robison Wells.
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