As teen cyberpsychic Jaden Emory entered the Tamlando Detention Center, he pulled his crocheted cap down over his dreadlocks so that it covered his gleaming cybernetic implants. A sea of police officers and addicts stood between him and the addiction cells on the far side of the complex.
“Time to get to work,” Jaden muttered, blowing air out of his mouth and stepping into the gray maze of corridors. A slim redhead in a lemon-colored jogging suit with her hands cuffed together in front of her slipped him a shy smile.
Instinctively he smiled back, flashing her his trademark insouciant grin. Jaden’s tall, lanky frame, huge, white-boy dreads, and big, glossy brown eyes tended to get him noticed.
By girls in particular.
Jaden wiped the cocky smile off his face, abashed. What had he been thinking? This girl might just be “noticing” him, but she might also be smiling because she remembered him from his past. His somewhat shady past. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, his one-more-strike-and-we’re-locking-you-up-and-throwing-away-the-key past.
He picked up his pace, ambling forward a little faster and letting his breath out.
As his team leader, Kim could make him come to the T.D.C., but she couldn’t make him linger. He’d pop in, do his job, and leave. He’d only stay long enough to split away the addict’s vice, then he was out of there.
When he finally paused outside addiction cell #642, trepidation gave way to anticipation. His fingers tingled as he removed his cap and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans. Who would be waiting for him behind that door?
Back at the Splitter Center, where he lived and handled his run-of-the-mill assignments, he’d probably be facing forty-five minutes with some mom addicted to Twinkies who’d been turned in by a caring family member concerned about her carbohydrate obsession. Here at the Tamlando Detention Center, he was probably facing a violent offender. An alcoholic, perhaps, or a drug addict. He rubbed his palms on his jeans. Kim knew he abhorred coming down to the T.D.C., so it had to be a tough case, something she only trusted to him. If he were lucky, maybe he’d get to split a sex addict, or even a psychopath who killed for his addiction. Just beyond that door, guards were probably poised to strike with blast-cannons at the offender’s first false move.
God, the year 2157 was stupid.
Well, time to find out.
Jaden exhaled audibly and passed his hand over the security lock. The door whooshed open.
Jaden frowned. No burly guards. No state-of-the-art firepower. Just a blue-haired teenage girl and her parents.
The girl brooded over the pink laces on her bright orange shoes, carefully avoiding the stern gazes of the scowling couple that flanked her like skyscrapers.
Her scraggly blueberry-colored pigtails bounced when she looked up. Jaden saw a spark of recognition in her eyes, then a flash of dread.
Jaden ambled forward and extended his hand. “Hey, good to see you again, Ally,” he lied. It hadn’t even been three weeks ago that he’d cured the vivacious raver of her music addiction. Any splitter who was at all adroit would only require a single session to cure a patient. Since he was thirteen, none of Jaden’s patients had required second treatments. Five perfect years, and now this.
Ally furrowed her brow in mock confusion. “Um, have we met or something?” she asked, shaking his hand without getting up. Jaden sensed that if she had tried to get up, her mother’s well-manicured claw would have come down on her shoulder.
“Uh, whoa, I think—,” Jaden began.
Ally’s aqua eyes beseeched him to corroborate her pretense of ignorance. Jaden had no idea why she didn’t want him to talk about their previous session, but this was fine by him. The last thing he needed right now was The Corporation giving him static about a recidivist showing up.
“Oh, sorry. I thought so at first, but you just look a lot like someone I used to know,” said Jaden.
Ally perked up. “Was she cute?”
Ally’s father interceded. “Alan Fayre,” he said. He shook Jaden’s hand perfunctorily, looking with disapproval at Jaden’s mammoth mane of dreadlocks, then wiped his hand on his expensive suit. Ally’s mother looked on, a pained expression of exasperation pressed into her delicate features. Mr. Fayre didn’t introduce her.
“Can we just get on with this? I’d like to have her fixed before the press catches wind of her arrest. We’re from Upper Management, you know.”
“Oh, yeah, no problem, bro,” Jaden said, noting how Ally’s father talked about her as if she wasn’t even in the room. “Let me just peruse your file a moment, Miss . . . Ally.” He brushed his hand across one of the empty white walls and the wall turned into a computer terminal that allowed him to pull up Ally’s record. “Got busted at a rave last night, huh? Was it killer?”
“Uh, yeah?” Ally said, her tone implying that it was a stupid question.
Ally’s mother cleared her throat.
Ally’s gaze darted toward the sound. “I mean yes, Splitter—”
“Emory,” Jaden finished for her. “You can just call me Jaden if you want, though,” he said, smiling. At eighteen, he was only older than Ally by a year, tops, and it didn’t feel right for her to call him by his formal title, especially not on their second meeting.
“Uh, your daughter’s not broken, Mr. Fayre. She just needs a little extra help in the willpower department.” Jaden was beginning to seriously dislike Mr. Fayre. “Uh, so if you’ll both be leaving, I can get started right away.” He presented the door with a flourish.
Ally’s parents took one last disapproving look at his hair and huffed out.
The second the door slid shut, Ally bolted from her chair and started pacing the room nervously. “Man, you’re good. They totally bought that. Thanks for not narcing on me. Though I guess that’s pretty ironic, considering that you actually are a cybernarc.” Her blue pigtails bounced in time with her frenetic motions.
“Um, I beg your pardon, Miss,” Jaden began. The Corporation frequently monitored the splitting rooms, and the last thing he needed was for some auditor to overhear their conversation and show up on his doorstep.
“I mean, thanks for telling them we hadn’t met before, you goofball,” Ally said.
“But we haven’t.” Jaden winked at her from under his mop of dreads.
Ally rolled her eyes. “Trying to teach me a lesson, I see. What else should I expect from a cybernarc?”
“Um, I think if we could just focus on the reason you’re here, which I believe is to help you leave behind this time-wasting, unproductive addiction you have to music?” Jaden rolled his eyes at the sound of his own voice. He tried to sound ingenuous, spouting the corporate script he’d been trained to use, but he’d never been especially adept at reciting Corporation policy. He tried to improve, but no matter what he did, his real personality always colored the words the wrong way and made them sound asinine.
“I’ve got a better idea,” she said. “Why don’t you leave my mind alone and just tell my parents you ‘fixed’ me? I promise I’ll be good from now on.” She batted her eyelashes.
Jaden glanced around the room suspiciously, then took a chance and blurted out, almost under his breath, “Wait a minute, bro. When you came to me three weeks ago, all you wanted was to be cured of your addiction. You saw it as a liability. Which it is. What’s your problem now?”
“I am. The world is. I need—” Ally twirled in a circle, her arms outstretched, her azure miniskirt whipping up “—my music.”
Jaden summoned all the forbearance he could muster. He’d never heard music himself, of course, but all addicts tended to beg to keep their vices when they were coerced into a splitting session. He knew he should be inured to the supplication and rationalization by now, but it still tried his patience.
“You know you can’t go on like this, bro,” Jaden said, pushing his dreads out of his eyes. “If you could, you, like, wouldn’t be here.”
“I’ve just got to get better at not getting caught,” she said.
“Well, you’d better be flippin’ outstanding at not getting caught,” Jaden said, “ ’cause the next time you are, they’re going to pink-slip you for sure. Trust me, bro—you don’t want to end up in the Unemployed Zone.”
Ally shuddered and wrapped her arms around her waist. “Fine,” she said, capitulating. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Jaden nodded as he took off his braided poncho and slung it on the back of the chair. Addicts tended to come around when he talked about the Unemployed Zone. Okay, so he didn’t know firsthand how bad the Unemployed Zone was, but he’d read the corporate briefing. Once he’d even been to Fort Miami, the gateway to the U.Z. Beyond that well-fortified barrier, civilization ended and addiction began.
As he skimmed his fingertips across the wall console again, the splitting chair in the corner whirred to life, its low rumble almost a purr.
Ally sat in the chair. Jaden strapped her in, and with a few more swipes at the console, the chair adjusted to fit Ally’s body. The three-pronged splitter probe ascended from the chair to rest along the back of her neck.
“This won’t hurt,” Jaden said, touching a button on the console. “You may feel a slight . . . pressure.” A long thin needle slid out of the device and embedded itself into her spinal column.
Ally’s mind burst into colors and shapes in front of him, a visual representation of what was going on inside of her head. Jaden was a synesthete, and his senses got all mixed up from time to time, but he could sense things others couldn’t. When he received his first cybernetic implants at thirteen, he could jack into other people’s minds and see their personalities as shapes and flashes of color. When he was jacked in, he could see people’s addictions as if they had a solid mass. He could even manipulate these shapes and split off the bad parts of an addict’s personality. This was the essence of his work as a splitter. He was a drug dealer who had been turned into a drug counselor.
Ally didn’t know it, but in Jaden’s eyes her inner world swirled neon green, awash with pink and gold spheres and cubes. He guided his mind through the images, through her mind, until he found the place where he had constructed a wall around her vice the last time. Instead of the thick brick wall, he found her music addiction, which glowed an iridescent blue. Only a few crumbled bricks remained at the bottom. But something didn’t seem right. The wall hadn’t crumbled; it was as if it had exploded from within. He’d heard about vice walls built by incompetent splitters occasionally springing leaks, but this was no leak. The entire wall had been annihilated.
He’d have to ponder the whys and wherefores of this problem later. The task at hand was to reconstruct the wall. Jaden moved his arms around through the air as if conducting, and in a sense, he was. He was guiding the shapes and sounds of Ally’s mind through the paths he desired. It was tricky work, but after about half an hour’s effort, Ally was good as new. Better, even. She’d no longer have the distraction of an all-consuming addiction to mess up her life. She could return to her upscale house and elite high school and prepare for her own unique role within The Corporation. Jaden rolled his eyes at the thought of it.
Jaden slid the implement back out of her neck. “You’re all set.”
Jaden undid the straps and stepped back. Sometimes it took them a minute to adjust.
Jaden breathed a sigh of relief. She’d be a different girl now. Now that she would no longer chew up the scenery, she’d be able to be a focused, productive employee. No longer would she be diverted from whatever vital role The Corporation, in all its wisdom, might choose for her.
“Let’s go show your parents what a dutiful employee you’ve become,” he said.
“Yes, Splitter Emory.”
Jaden led a prosaic Ally down the hall toward the waiting room. She was definitely more manageable, but part of him almost missed her frenetic perkiness. Addicts generally seemed quieter after splitting— docile even. He assumed it was a temporary side effect of the treatment. Nobody complained.
All in all, Jaden was happy about helping Ally, but something still gnawed at him. He’d been proud when he expurgated her vice the last time, but it hadn’t stuck. What had induced his substandard performance? And what guarantee did he have that her addiction would stay walled away this time?