The next morning, Jaden awoke before the rest of the department. He had to get a message to Ally, to let her know to persevere for just a little longer. The phone wasn’t any good—just about any message transmission could be bugged. He’d have to rely on the old-fashioned way; he’d have to go talk to her.
Jaden parked his stupid flying car in the garage adjacent to Gibson High and then haunted the bus drop-off, waiting for Ally. He wore his crocheted cap and poncho—Ally wouldn’t be able to miss him.
But Jaden almost missed her. If it hadn’t been for her blueberry-colored pigtails, this time bound tastefully without embellishment at the base of her neck, Jaden would have never recognized her. The school uniforms all blended together in a sea of black-and-white monotony.
Ally almost walked right past him as she chatted with two other girls. Jaden reached out and touched her arm. “Hey, bro.”
She snatched her arm away. “Excuse me?” she said, her voice that of the privileged elite. Jaden cocked his head and looked down his nose at her. His heavy dreads fell in his eyes. “Ally, it’s me, Jaden.”
What was he expecting from her, a look of elation?
“What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice clipped.
“I wanted to tell you something.”
One of the uniformed girls with her snapped her gum. “Do you know this narc?” she said nasally. Obviously another good Senior Manager’s brat.
“Kind of. Why don’t you two go on ahead, and I’ll catch you at lunch?” Ally said.
“Whatever,” the second girl said, rolling her eyes. The pair tromped off down the hall.
“What do you mean, ‘kind of,’ Ally? And for your information, I’m a splitter, not a narc.”
“Same difference. And what are you doing at my school, with your stupid dreads waving all over and your freakish implants out for everyone to see? Do you think I want my friends to see me with a cybernarc?”
“Oh? Is that why you’re afraid to be seen with a splitter? Or is it that you’re afraid your friends will find out there’s something wrong with you, Ally?”
Ally grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away from the throng of high schoolers. “My business is my business, you jerk.”
“Nice vocabulary, narc. And isn’t that what you told me to do? ‘Act like a normal person and you will be normal.’ Hypocrite.”
“You can’t disavow what’s been happening to you. You’ll end up just like your parents.”
“Leave my parents out of this.”
“Look, I just came to help you.”
In the background, the bell rang.
“I’m going to be late. I’ve got to go.”
“I do, just not here. Not now.”
“That’s what I came to tell you. I’ve found a way to help you. You’ll have to meet me—”
“I can’t do this now. I’ll get detention if I don’t leave—”
“Fine, but the Unemployed Zone is a lot rougher than some high school detention.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t get in trouble again.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do—keep you out of trouble!”
“Forget it!” he yelled. He balled the piece of paper with the address and threw it at her. “Meet me or not. I’m not the one who’s going to wind up in the Unemployed Zone performing lewd acts for five dollars just so I can feed my addiction.” He turned and stormed off, his dreads flopping wildly around his face.
Did he actually just use the word blast?
He was still irascible when he returned to the Splitter Center. Why was he bothering to put himself in jeopardy for her anyhow? He punched his pass card into the reader and the door slid open. He glowered at the receptionist as he stalked toward his office. She returned his look with a startled expression.
“Splitter Emory, why aren’t you at the exam?”
“Blast!” With Ally on his mind, he’d totally forgotten the second-level splitter exam. Jaden whirled and bounded through the halls toward the testing center. So far he was only a couple minutes late. With a bit of luck, he’d be able to slip in back without anyone noticing.
What was he thinking? This wasn’t some entry-level job application. There were only two candidates for the job—himself and Reth. Certainly they’d have noticed that fifty percent of the test-takers hadn’t shown up. He might even be disqualified for his tardiness.
Jaden peered in the window at the testing room. Everyone else had already been convened. Restive, Reth tapped his fingers on either side of the testing monitor, itching to begin. In the front of the class, the two auditors stood with their backs to the door. Kim faced the door, talking animatedly to the two women.
Jaden padded down the aisle and slid into his seat. The testing monitor blinked an irritating green-and-white “PENDING” logo. No wonder Reth was going stir-crazy.
“Well,” Kim said, “It was quite kind of you to answer my questions. I won’t delay your exam any longer.”
“Certainly,” the auditors answered, turning around in unison.
The twins were about Kim’s age and identical from their straight long brown hair to their navy suits and stiletto heels. They had an aloof, faraway look about them, as if the instructions for their actions filtered in from some alternate authority hidden in the heavens.
“Now—” the first auditor said.
“—we begin,” the second auditor finished.
Jaden dug into his exam, and although the test was tough, he felt pretty good about his performance. He was a bit more distracted than he’d have liked, but after what he’d been through over the last day, he’d expected no less. No, he had done well, and now it was all up to the auditors to make the decision. He left the testing room a bit cocky, whistling to himself.
Outside, Kim waited for him. “It’s a good thing you showed up when you did,” she said. “I don’t think I could have stalled those keyboard-jockeys another minute.”
“You were stalling them? What for?”
“For you, stupid. Can’t have the test start without one of my top performers in attendance.”
“I didn’t think you saw me come in.”
“You’re a bit hard to miss, Jaden.” She bumped him playfully on the shoulder.
“Well, thanks, Kim.”
“Let’s go out to dinner tonight to celebrate,” Kim said. “Just the two of us.”
“Your imminent ripper-dom, of course.”
“It’s a date, then,” Kim said, giving him a quick peck on his cheek. Her lipstick left a stain that he was still trying to efface when he arrived at the lab.
The exam had gotten him the afternoon off, so Jaden and Baqer had plenty of time to work out the details of the portable splitting equipment. After a few hours of work, they had a functioning prototype.
Baqer, you’re flipping phenomenal, you know that?”
“You’re wasting your time as a maintenance man for a bunch of pretentious splitters.”
“Why isn’t there a u in your name? You look like someone tried to cheat at Scrabble.”
“You can be shutting up, now, my friend.”
“Seriously, Baqer—what are you doing here? Why don’t you apply for a promotion?”
“Got offered a promotion two years ago.”
“So why didn’t you take it?”
“My mother was sick.”
“And they haven’t given you other chances. If the bosses could see how mad your skills are, I bet they’d be swayed.”
Baqer shook his head. “Been turned down ever since.”
“The Corporation sucks,” Jaden said softly, glad the security bypass was on.
“The Corporation never forgives a betrayal,” Baqer said, causing a shiver to run down Jaden’s spine.