Someone is after Starters like Callie and Michael—teens with chips in their brains. They want to experiment on anyone left over from Prime Destinations—Starters who can be controlled and manipulated. With the body bank destroyed, Callie no longer has to rent herself out to creepy Enders. But Enders can still get inside her mind and make her do things she doesn't want to do. Like hurt someone she loves. Having the chip removed could save her life—but it could also silence the voice in her head that might belong to her father. Callie has flashes of her ex-renter Helena's memories, too . . . and the Old Man is back, filling her with fear. Who is real and who is masquerading in a teen body?
No one is ever who they appear to be, not even the Old Man. Determined to find out who he really is and grasping at the hope of a normal life for herself and her younger brother, Callie is ready to fight for the truth. Even if it kills her.
Praise for ENDERS:
“Adrenaline-fueled . . . Fans of Starters will gobble this up.”—Booklist
“Delightfully disturbing.”—Kirkus Reviews
"A thrilling post-apocalyptic story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats from start to finish." Children's Literature
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My hand went to the back of my head and I swore I could feel the chip underneath my skin. But I couldn't, of course; it was buried deeply under the metal blocking plate. It was just the surrounding scar tissue I felt, hard and unforgiving.
I tried not to touch it. But it had become an obsession to finger it like a splinter in a palm, or a hangnail on a thumb. It haunted me all the time, even here, making sandwiches in the kitchen. Helena's kitchen.
Even though she was dead and had left the mansion to me, I couldn't help but be reminded daily that it had been hers. Every choice, from the sea-green tiles to the elaborate island in the center of this gourmet kitchen, was hers. Even her housekeeper, Eugenia, remained.
Yes, it had been Helena's crazy plan to stop the Old Man by using my body to assassinate Senator Harrison. But it was my fault that I had volunteered to be a body donor in the first place. I had been desperate to save my little brother, Tyler, then. Now I couldn't take it back, any more than I could get rid of this horrible chip stuck in my head. I hated the thing. It was like a phone the Old Man could call anytime, a phone I had to answer and could never disconnect. It was the Old Man's direct line to me, Callie Woodland.
The last time I had heard from him was two days ago, while I was watching his precious Prime Destinations being demolished. He had sounded like my dead father, even used his code words: When hawks cry, time to fly. I'd been thinking about that ever since. But as I stood at the kitchen counter spreading the last of the peanut butter on whole wheat, I decided that it had been the Old Man playing tricks on me. Cruel, but no surprise coming from that monster.
"Finished?" Eugenia asked.
Her crackly Ender voice cut through me. I hadn't heard her come in. How long had she been watching? I turned to meet the scowl on her wrinkled face. If this was my fairy-tale life, living in this castle, she would be the ugly stepmother.
"That's enough. You're emptying my entire pantry," she said.
That wasn't true. I'd made several dozen sandwiches, but our pantry could feed us for a month. I placed the last one in the insta-wrap machine, and the thin veg-wrap encased the bread instantly with a high-pitched zip.
"Done." I tossed the sandwiches into a duffel bag.
Eugenia didn't even wait for me to leave before she began wiping the counter. I'd obviously ruined her day.
"We can't feed the whole world," she said, scrubbing invisible stains.
"Course not." I closed the duffel bag and slung it over my shoulder. "Just a few hungry Starters."
As I put the bag in the trunk of the blue sports car, I couldn't get Eugenia's disapproving glare out of my mind. You'd think maybe she'd be nicer, knowing my mother and father were dead. But somehow she resented me for Helena's death. It wasn't my fault. In fact, Helena had almost gotten me killed. I slammed the trunk. Eugenia only stayed because she adored Tyler. That was okay; I didn't have to answer to her. She wasn't my guardian.
My hand went to the back of my head, and I absentmindedly scratched at my chip wound before I caught myself and stopped. When I looked at my fingers, my nails were dirty with blood. I winced.
I pulled a tissue out of my purse and wiped them as best I could. Then I walked out the door of the garage that led to the garden. Mossy stones, wet from the morning dew, led to the rose-covered cottage guesthouse. The place was quiet, no movement behind the windows. I knocked on the rough-hewn door, to see if he was back, but no answer.
The handle turned with a squeak. I poked my head inside.
I hadn't been inside his cottage since we'd all moved into the mansion. The place had taken on Michael's scent, a mix of artist's paints and freshly cut wood. Even when we had been squatters, he had always managed to smell good.
But what really marked the place as his was his amazing drawings, which covered the walls. The first one showed thin Starters with hungry, haunted eyes. They wore ragged layers of clothing, water bottles draped across their bodies, hand-lites banded around their wrists.
In the next image, three Starters fought over an apple. One lay on the ground, hurt. My life just a few months ago. But the next drawing was even tougher to look at.
My friend Sara. A Starter I had hoped to rescue. I'd told Michael about her and our time together at Institution 37, the nightmarish place where marshals had locked me up with other unclaimed Starters. The sketch showed Sara after she had diverted the guards' attention away from me and ended up ZipTasered, clinging to barbed wire as she was dying. Michael had never met her, but like most street Starters, he was familiar with desperation and bravery. He portrayed the willing sacrifice in her eyes.
The drawing blurred in my vision. I'd never find a friend that loyal if I lived a million years. She'd given me everything and I'd let her down.
That was my fault.
Someone entered the cottage. I turned to see Tyler coming in.
"Monkey-Face!" he shouted.
I quickly wiped my eyes. He ran up and wrapped his arms around my legs. Michael was behind him, standing in the doorway, smiling. Then he closed the door and put down his travel bag.
"You're back." I looked at Michael.
He shook his shaggy blond hair out of his face and looked surprised at the concern in my voice.
Tyler pulled away. "Michael brought me this."
He waved a small toy truck and ran it over the top of the couch.
"Where've you been?" I asked. Michael had been out of my sight since Prime was demolished.
He shrugged. "Just needed some space."
I knew that he wouldn't say anything with Tyler there. I knew he had seen me holding hands with Blake, Senator Harrison's grandson. Two puppets of the Old Man.
"Look, what you saw, that didn't mean anything," I said in a lowered voice. "And you, you and Florina"
We stared at each other. Tyler was still playing, making car sounds, but of course he could hear us. I tried to think of what to say to explain my feelings, but I honestly didn't know what my feelings were. The Old Man, Blake, Michaelit was all so jumbled.
My phone beeped a reminder: three unread Zings.
"Someone dying to reach you?" Michael asked.
The Zings were all from Blake. He'd been trying to contact me since the day I saw him at Prime's destruction.
"It's him, right?" Michael said.
I shoved the phone into my pocket, cocked my head, and gave him a look that said "don't push me."
Tyler glanced anxiously from Michael to me.
"We're going to the mall," Tyler said. "To get me shoes."
"Without asking me first?" I clung to my shoulder bag and stared at Michael.
"He begged me," Michael said. "And his favorites are too small now."
"He's growing so fast, better buy two sizes."
We were all glad to see Tyler healthy after a year squatting in cold buildings. "Come with us," Tyler said.
"I'd love to, but I'm off."
"Where to?" Michael asked.
"Our old neighborhood. To feed the Starters."
"Want help?" Michael asked.
"Why? You think I can't do this alone?" I said.
As soon as I snapped, I wished I could suck the words back in. Michael looked so hurt. Tyler's mouth fell open in an "uh-oh" moment.
"I'm sorry," I said to Michael. "Thanks for offering. Really. But I think I can handle it. You guys should go to the mall."
"You could meet us for lunch," Tyler said. "After we get my shoes."
He took Michael's hand and gave me his best "please please" face. We were the closest thing he had to parents, and he was doing everything he could to pull us together. What I really wanted was to make our parents magically reappear; to have our family back again. But I would have to settle for just fulfilling my brother's small request.
I balanced the duffel bag on my shoulder as I pushed open the side door of the abandoned office building that had been home for Michael and Tylerand Florinawhen I was being rented out. I stepped into the lobby and saw the reception desk, vacant as usual. I would never have admitted it to Michael, but my heart was beating harder. Faster. I held my breath to listen for any signs of danger. I was familiar with the place, but things change. Who knew which Starters lived here now?
I walked over to the reception desk to make sure no one was hiding, ready to attack. It was clear. I set my duffel bag on the counter, unzipped it, and pulled out a towel. As I was wiping the counter, I heard footsteps behind me. Before I realized what was happening, someone darted by and grabbed the whole bag.
"Hey!" I shouted.
A chubby little Starter ran to the exit, clutching my bag. Several sandwiches spilled out and dropped to the floor.
"That's supposed to be for everyone, you little jerk!" I yelled.
He burst through the door. I'd never catch up.
I ran around from behind the desk and bent down to pick up the food that had fallen. I had my hand on a wrapped sandwich when someone stepped on me.
"Back off." It was a Starter girl, maybe a year older than I was.
She held a plank of wood like a bat, ready to strike. The rusty nails at the end of the plank convinced me not to fight. I nodded. She eased her foot off my hand and I pulled it away.
"Take it," I said, nodding to the smashed sandwich.
She grabbed it and the other two on the floor. She bit right through the wrapper and started eating, making feral sounds. Thin, with short, dirty hair, she had probably once been just a middle-class girl. Like me.
I'd been that hungry before, but no one had ever come to my building to feed me. And now I knew why.
She swallowed. "You." She stepped closer and touched my hair. "So clean." Then she examined my face. "Perfect. You're a Metal, aren't you?"
"You know, Metal. One of those body bank people. You've got that chip in your head." She took another bite of the sandwich, peeling back the wrapper this time. "How does it feel?" She circled me to stare at the back of my head.
I wore the plainest clothes I had been able to find in Helena's granddaughter's closet. But I couldn't disguise my now-flawless skin, shiny hair, and perfect features. It was too obvious to the world that I had become a kind of chip slave.
"Like someone owns me."
The glittery mall was completely different from the harsh, lawless squatter life. Ender guards stood watch outside the shops, examining each passing Starter with steely stares. One guard spied some scruffy boys advertising their unclaimed status with dirty faces and stained jeans. He signaled mall security, and they roughly escorted the boys to the exit.
This had been a high-end mall even before the Spore Wars widened the gap between the rich and poor. Though not all Enders were rich and not all Starters were poor, it often seemed that way. But here, I passed plenty of hot Starters, shimmering in their illusion tops and jeans, which changed color and texture as they moved. They were like exotic birds, even the guys, wearing airscreen glasses, layers of scarves, hats with slim solar panels to charge batteries. Those who had temperature-control chips in their glistening metallic jackets kept them on. Others used insta-fold to compress their outerwear so it could be tucked into a wallet. People said they dressed this way to distinguish themselves from the street Starters. I had a closetful of clothes just like theirs, inherited from Helena's granddaughter. But that wasn't my style.
These were the claimed Starters living in mansions like mine. I couldn't always tell them apart from people like me who had received makeovers from the body bank. "Metals," that girl had said. These mall Starters were beautiful because they could afford to be. They had the best Ender dermatologists, dentists, and hairstylists and all the creams and beauty supplies their grandparents could buy. The Spore Wars had barely put a dent in their spending habits.
I stopped myself. There I was, judging them, but they'd lost their parents too. Maybe their grandparents weren't nice to them, but cold and resentful, having to see faces every day that reminded them of their lost sons and daughters.
The Spore Wars had changed us all.
I scratched the back of my head and looked around, hoping to see a shoe store. I was supposed to meet Michael and Tyler at the food court, but since my mission to feed the homeless had been a failure, I was early. I swallowed hard, thinking about it. Michael was rightI shouldn't have gone alone. I should have remembered my street smarts: Never take your hand off your bag. Never stand with your back to an entrance. Always be ready to fight. All that work and I'd only fed two Starters, who had run off without even thanking me.
I directed my attention to the airscreen display directory in the middle of the mall.
"Shoes," I said to the invisible microphone.
The display pulled the shoe store out of the map and projected a holo into the air. It was the only athletic shoe store in the mall. Knowing Tyler, he was trying on every pair there. I needed to go rescue Michael.
I headed toward the store, passing an Ender grandmother leaning on the arm of a pretty Starter, probably her granddaughter.
She's easy on the eyes.
It was that artificial, electronic voice in my head, and it set my teeth on edge.
The Old Man.
Hello, Callie. Did you miss me?
"No. Not a bit." I struggled to make my voice sound even. "Out of sight, out of mind."
I then remembered he could see through my eyes. I put my hands behind my back so he couldn't see that they were shaking.
I don't buy that at all. I'm sure you thought about me every day. Every hour. Every minute.
"It's all about you, is it?" I really wanted to scream at him, but the guards would think I was crazy.