“I don’t want to go,” Jaden protested.
“As your team leader and your friend, I’m telling you that you’ve got to have closure on your relationship with that girl,” Kim said.
“But Fort Miami is so far away,” Jaden said. “And I’ve got patients who need me—”
“And it’s all just excuses and you know it. It’s your last chance to see that girl before she gets interred in the Unemployed Zone for the next ten years. You’ll regret it if you don’t go. I won’t allow it.”
“But I don’t ever even think about her, unless you bring her up,” Jaden said truthfully. “I don’t need closure on something I never have to deal with.”
“All the same, I’m ordering you to attend. She’s being interred tomorrow. You can ride with Reth if you’d like. He never misses Internment Tuesdays.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass. I’ll take my stupid flying—I mean, I’ll take my Phoenix 5000 instead.”
The next day Baqer caught him in the hall on the way to the parking garage. “Want company?” he asked.
“Okay,” Jaden said ambivalently, not entirely certain that he did. “I’m going to Fort Miami.”
“I know,” Baqer said.
“Won’t be back until after dinner. That okay?”
“I was sorry to hear about Ally,” Baqer piped up soon after they’d started driving.
“She’s an addict. She got what she deserved.”
Baqer raised his eyebrows. “Harsh, my friend. Listen, I know you’re angry now, but if you want to talk, you can always come to me.”
“Talk about what?”
“It’s hard to talk about feelings, I know, but it’s important to try when something this big happens. It’s not good to keep it all bottled up. Believe me, I’ve been there.”
“I’m not bottling anything up. I really don’t have anything to talk about.” He didn’t know what Baqer was trying to elicit from him. Maybe his friend was trying to get something off of his own chest. “But you know, if you have something you want to share, go ahead. I’m glad to listen. I do it pretty well,” he said, smiling.
Baqer shook his head morosely. “I know it’s only been a week, but with these speed-trials, everything goes so swiftly. It’s like when my mother died. She had been sick for so long, but when she finally gave up the ghost, it happened so quickly. . . . ”
There it was, Jaden thought. Stoic Baqer finally wanted to talk about his mother. “I understand what you mean,” Jaden said.
“I thought you would,” Baqer said, lapsing into silence for the rest of the trip.
Jaden used the upper barrier to the Unemployed Zone to guide him to Fort Miami. The fifty-foot tall fence that circumscribed the U.Z. and divided it from the free world stretched clear across the southern tip of Florida, along what used to be the Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41. Flight paths had taken the place of intercity and interstate roads, and as a result, many of the old highways lay in disrepair. Nobody used old U.S. 41. Nobody wanted to think much about the 1.5-million-square-mile prison that made up South Florida.
Jaden tried to fly low, hoping to catch a glimpse of the criminals behind the wall. The arid land was flat and grassy with very few trees and less water, a savanna on the edge of the large swamp of the Everglades. Criminals were few and far between in that morass. Groups of nomads seemed to congregate at various intervals along the wall. Jaden figured the groups signified food and supply distribution centers.
He’d never been to Fort Miami or the Unemployed Zone, but he knew a little bit about the U.Z. He knew criminals were given food and supplies at regular intervals, allowing them to survive in a rather inimical environment, just barely above the level of privation. The swamps bred mosquitoes in the summer and alligators and poisonous snakes all year round. The savannas were mercilessly hot, particularly now in the summer with only minimal foliage to provide shade from the heat. The southern tip of the U.Z. enclosed the Florida Keys, a string of once-connected islands now accessible only by boats constructed by the criminals. The Keys were hospitable enough, if you could avoid the pirates.
The entire U.Z. was managed by Fort Miami to the east. The only way in or out was through the gates of Fort Miami. As they circled the free air space waiting for a security code for the parking garage, Jaden took in the enormous scope of the installation. A series of connected buildings, it stretched for miles along the barrier to the Unemployed Zone. Some of the buildings served as holding cells for criminals awaiting trial. Some processed addicts. Others warehoused provisions for prisoners. Thousands of pounds of food entered the U.Z. each day just to sustain the criminals. He saw a low, flat building and wondered if that might be the barracks for the Ripper Squad. They were stationed at Fort Miami, primed to work with the most incorrigible addicts.
It had been over a week now since Jaden’s disastrous interview to become a ripper, and he hadn’t heard a word. His only consolation was that Reth hadn’t heard yet either, so there was a chance the job was his. Still, he couldn’t imagine how that would be possible after the mess he’d made of everything. All because of his stupid addiction to Ally. The girl had probably cost him the job he’d been working toward for so long.
A large crowd had already congregated around the walkway to the main gates of the U.Z., waiting for the new batch of prisoners that would pass through the elevated platform off to his left. This gated tunnel reminded Jaden of a hamster’s Habitrail tunnel. It suited the addicts. They were all just animals who couldn’t quell their urges anyhow.
Jaden and Baqer jostled through the crowd, trying to find a spot where they’d have a good view of the prisoner walkway. The assemblage was a mixed bag. Small groups of grieving family members were interspersed with gleefully judgmental employees, eager to see new addicts behind bars.
A row of olive-clad guards filed out to line the walkway between Fort Miami and the U.Z. A chant rose from the U.Z. side of the wall, soft at first, and then louder as a chorus of hundreds of addicts clamored, “Fresh meat! Fresh meat!”
“Hey, Emory! That’s what your girlfriend’s about to be in three minutes: fresh meat!” Reth’s voice rose above the anxious din. Jaden spotted him pushing through the crowd, grinning. Kim had said that Reth always came to Internment Tuesdays, but Jaden had hoped to avoid him by coming separately.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Jaden said.
“Tough to maintain that long-distance relationship, huh?” came Reth’s riposte.
Jaden rolled his eyes.
“I feel sorry for you, Emory. You finally get a girlfriend and some jerk pink-slips her. What a shame.”
“I turned her in,” Jaden said, without a sliver of compunction.
Baqer almost swallowed his tongue in shock.
“Yeah, right,” Reth said.
“I did. She was an incorrigible addict and deserved what she got. I’m the one who pink-slipped her.”
Reth seemed more convinced by Baqer’s stupor than by Jaden’s sincerity. Maybe he should have told Baqer, but it just didn’t occur to him. He never thought about that girl unless someone else brought her up.
“It’s all about justice, Jaden,” Reth continued. “People need to get what they deserve, no more, no less. If they break the rules of The Corporation, and step outside of prescribed policy, they need to get pink-slipped, plain and simple.”
“The Corporation’s rules are very important,” Jaden conceded. He tried to ignore the weird expression on Baqer’s face. What was he so bent out of shape about anyhow?
The criminals filed tentatively across the platform. A cheer went up from the crowd, nearly drowning out the wailing of distraught relatives. Hecklers jeered the criminals, and Jaden and Reth joined in.
Baqer grabbed Jaden by the shoulders. “What are you doing?”
Jaden jerked back. “What’s your problem?”
“Jaden, Ally is about to go to jail for ten years, and you’re cheering?”
“Sure, why not? They’re all getting what they deserve.” Jaden craned his neck searching the faces of all those incorrigible addicts, each one unique. He wondered what stories they hid behind their bland visages. Maybe he’d get to find out if got the Ripper Squad job.
Baqer blocked his view. “Jaden, you don’t feel that way, or at least you didn’t last week. You wanted to save her, remember?”
Jaden shrugged. “She couldn’t be saved. What’s the big deal?”
“She is,” Baqer yelled, pointing at the blue-haired teen on the platform. Ally paused, balking at the large crowd. Someone threw a shoe at the cage right next to her, and she jumped and screamed. Torrential laughter tumbled through the crowd.
“Fresh meat! Fresh meat!” came the obstreperous cry from the other side of the wall.
“Squeeze the blueberry!” Jaden shouted.
Reth echoed him, and then together they shouted, “Squeeze the blueberry! Squeeze the blueberry!”
The girl followed the sound of the cheer and met Jaden’s gleeful gaze. He waved to the pitiful addict. Bye, bye, little addict. Hope the rave was worth it.
Baqer didn’t talk to him the whole way home, which was fine by him. He’d had enough of the vexed lab tech’s derisive comments. When they returned to the Splitter Center, Jaden took Reth’s offer to play a few rounds of SimRipper. The virtual reality game trained real rippers and gave potential rippers a taste of what the job was like. Two players or more could compete against one another and a virtual ripper opponent to see how many criminals they could treat in a certain time period. SimRipper was calibrated for rippers with full ripper cybernetics, so Jaden and Reth both had to work doubly hard at the game. Splitter cybernetics were no match for rippers. They almost always lost to the virtual ripper, but practicing was fun. It made them both productive employees.
Kim’s voice issued from somewhere behind them. “What are you two boys doing?”
Jaden checked his score. A slim number of points separated him and Reth.
“Jaden Emory and Reth Warren, talk to me!” Kim insisted petulantly.
No time to pause the game now.
“Player three has entered the game!” the computer proclaimed.
The round ended and a session of daily departmental activity followed. But this time there was a new employee onscreen—a blue-haired Kim who was even lither than the one in real life, if that was possible. Jaden couldn’t help but gape, and he noticed that Reth gawked as well.
“Is this the only way I’m going to get you boys to pay me any attention?” she pouted.
“I believe there’s something different about you, Kim,” Reth said, his tone very serious. “New dress?”
Jaden laughed. “No, no, Reth . . . she had corrective surgery on her eyes. See? No more glasses.”
Reth guffawed and Jaden joined him.
“You two are too much! What’s gotten into you?”
“Splitters are allowed to joke,” Jaden said.
“You’re going to chastise us for playing nice?” Jaden said.
“No blasted way,” Reth agreed. “Jaden just grew a couple today, that’s all.”
In the simulation, Jaden punched Reth playfully in the arm and Reth scowled, making Jaden’s social skills score drop a couple of points.
“Hey, you knew that was a joke!” Jaden complained.
“Yeah, but this way I make a little headway at your expense. Gotta learn how to play the game, guy.”
Kim rolled her eyes and logged out of the game.
Jaden and Reth finally paused the game two hours before bed. Jaden tried to get himself declared winner, but Reth refused, despite the fact that Jaden was slightly ahead, so they compromised by putting the game on pause.
After such a busy day and evening, Jaden thought it would feel good to just sprawl across his bed and relax a bit. His bed felt lumpy, though, and when he moved to his favorite chair, he found that it leaned a bit to the right. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get comfortable anywhere. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.
Maybe he just needed a good burst of late-night shopping. He still had forty-five minutes until bed-check. He could pop into his nifty Phoenix 5000 and be over at the Ybor City Mall in five, shop for a half hour, and be back with five minutes to spare. That would feed his need.
Even after that hefty bribe he’d had to give Squeeze to find Ally, he still had a plenitude of credits on his card. Everyone knew you had to spend money to make money, so perhaps his emptiness was a result of too much cash flow.
At the mall, incessant virtual ads inundated Jaden. Instead of setting his filter for his most restrictive preferences, he left the setting as it was and caved to most of the sales pitches. He picked up his purchases near the exit and caught sight of an unwelcome specter. Squeeze leaned outside one of the mall restaurants, a new, equally filthy purple derby cocked on his head. He shook hands with a jittery-looking woman who palmed a glow stick and a packet of what Jaden assumed was Joy.
He shuddered at the thought of the drug. One little pill could undo all the hard work of the entire Corporation. Who could have come up with something so nefarious?
Squeeze winked and tipped his derby at him.
Jaden turned his head. He left the mall with his arms full and his heart empty.