Jaden returned home as he had planned, just before bed-check. Unfortunately, the late-night shopping spree hadn’t boosted his spirits. As he lay in bed, amorphous darkness all around him, his ghosts came to visit. Each time he closed his eyes Squeeze was there. It was as if with that one wink Squeeze said, “I’m always here for you, Amsterdam, if you want her back.”
And each time he saw Squeeze in his mind, he thought of that girl, of Ally, and something cold and dark turned over inside of him.
Jaden knew what the problem was. It must still be bothering him that he didn’t know where Joy came from. Who had created such an evil, subversive drug without The Corporation knowing? It just didn’t seem possible. Everyone worked for The Corporation—everyone from the corner grocery clerk to the primary school teachers to the CEO. How could someone achieve something of this scale outside The Corporation?
Well, he’d never find the answer sequestered in his room. He’d have to do a bit of reconnaissance. He’d start with that lowlife Squeeze. He’d probably get busted for sneaking out after bed-check, but he didn’t care. This was more important than getting written up for some frivolous infraction. If he could find the source of Joy, he’d be a hero.
Squeeze wasn’t as easy to find as he had been last time. With the mall closed, Jaden checked Squeeze’s normal haunts, but they were all bereft of activity. Squeeze worked the streets, but that didn’t mean he had to be on them all the time. Jaden had been disconnected from the darker side of Tamlando for so long that he didn’t have the connections he used to. Maybe his car gave him away, and the seedier elements took cover whenever he approached. After all, his model-year Phoenix 5000 didn’t exactly blend in. He decided to hoof it, to take the streets by foot, like he had in the old days. He’d start down by the docks where Squeeze had taken him when he was looking for Ally.
After two hours haunting the alleys and loading docks of Tamlando and paying off tipsters, Jaden found himself outside a derelict warehouse on Tampa Bay. He stood on a box to peep in the window. Squeeze was there all right, but so were at least half a dozen other thugs.
Jaden felt a hand on the back of his shirt as he was hustled from his perch.
“Hey, boss! Look what I found!” The unseen thug dragged Jaden into the warehouse.
A large toad of a woman waddled forward. “Well, now that you’ve brought him inside, we’ll have to kill him,” she said, taking a bite of a rapidly melting ice cream bar.
“Wait!” Jaden said. “What do you think I’ve seen? Some boxes and some warehouse stuff? Doesn’t seem like something to kill a guy over. I just came to see Squeeze.”
One of the thugs hit Squeeze upside the back of his head. “You led him here?”
Squeeze shrugged. “It’s just some kid I used to know. ’Bout as special as a coconut in the U.Z.”
“Looks like a narc,” the round woman said, taking another bite of her ice cream bar. Chocolate peeled off the outside and dripped down the front of her shirt.
“I’m just a kid,” Jaden said, echoing Squeeze’s words.
“You don’t look like you’re just a kid,” the boss said.
Jaden had an idea. “I came to buy some Joy. I need a hit, really bad.”
The tension in the room diminished. Shoulders slouched, hands moved away from guns. A couple of the thugs even snickered.
“Not too smart to be an addict, I see,” the toad woman said. She nodded at Squeeze. “Give him his hit and get him out of here. Now.”
“Yes, ma’am. Right away,” Squeeze said obsequiously, skittering toward Jaden. He handed him a glow-key and a packet of two little orange pills. “Five hundred,” Squeeze said.
“For this?” Jaden said.
Squeeze squinted at him through heavy eyelids. “Five hundred,” he repeated, then lower, “Pay and get the hell out of here before they change their minds, Amsterdam.”
The thugs eyed him. One rested his hand on his gun again.
Jaden transferred the credits into Squeeze’s account on the spot, palmed the drugs and glow-key and left.
What a bust. Sneaking out, traipsing all over the scummy side of town, for what? He wasn’t a single step closer to finding out who was behind Joy. It was obvious even when he did get Squeeze alone, the weasel wouldn’t know anything. He was just a pawn—a gofer for a boss who was probably just a pawn herself. What a waste of time.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the glow-key and the pills. He should just toss them into the bay, dump them where they couldn’t hurt anyone.
Jaden plopped down at the edge of the water, his feet dangling over the side of the dock. Those little pills were outstanding at hurting people, at ruining lives. He opened the wax paper packet and tapped the two little orange pills into his palm. Little pills like these had gotten that girl pink-slipped.
The cold hard stone in his gut turned over.
That girl had a name—Ally. And the pills hadn’t gotten her pink-slipped. He had.
He shoved the pills back into the envelope and stuck them in his pocket as he bolted back up from the edge of the water.
If he hadn’t pink-slipped her, someone else would have. It was all for the best. The sooner she served her time and learned the error of her ways, the sooner she’d be able to be a productive Employee of The Corporation again.
He couldn’t ruminate anymore. It was late, and he had to get back. He didn’t even know why he was thinking about Ally anyhow. He had been split by a professional, and that should be the end of it. He couldn’t help but blame Squeeze. His mind had associated the dealer with that girl, so every time he saw Squeeze, he thought of her. Blast him!
Jaden followed the line of the harbor along the water, hoping to recognize some through-street that would lead him back to his stupid flying car. A warm tropical breeze wafted across the water, but suddenly a chill curled his spine. He looked up.
The rusted oil tanker where he found Ally loomed in front of him.
Dammit! Wasn’t he ever going to be able to put this behind him?
He took the glow-key from his pocket and threw it at the tanker. It wasn’t as if he’d be needing it.
The glow-key issued a soft crack and fell to the ground, glowing pink. The wall of the tanker wavered as if it were made of water and someone had dropped a pebble into it.
He bent over to pick up the glow-key, and the pills fell out of his pocket. Obeying some urge he didn’t even understand, he put one of the pills in his mouth and swallowed it. He shivered.
Suddenly, he crumpled to the ground, struggling to hold back the tears, his dreads falling in the dirt. He missed her so much.
Just thinking the words made him feel both better and worse at the same time. Now he knew what the cold hard stone in his gut was. It was Ally, and he had put her there when he doomed her to ten years in the Unemployed Zone. He’d do anything to have her back, to break down the wall that kept him from the girl he loved. Yeah, she’d been right about that. He didn’t know how or why or when it had happened, especially so fast, but it was true. He loved Ally.
He closed his eyes and saw Squeeze winking at him again. “I’m always here for you, Amsterdam, if you want her back.”
He did. Now. Forever.
He picked up the glow-key, held it in front of him, and intoned, “Ibiza!”
The tanker shimmered and opened for him as glitter rained down from above.
“Welcome to Joy Island!” arose the cry.
It was just as he had remembered it, the writhing ravers, the loud, rhythmic beat music, the soft mist of fog with oscillating lasers. But something was different. The addictions of the addicts no longer pummeled him. The music infused him with ardor, energy, excitement, and, well, joy. He couldn’t contain himself. He let the music take him, and he danced amid strangers, bouncing and whirling in an arbitrary choreography using his glow-key as his partner, and yet he didn’t feel alone. He felt a great affinity with this group of anonymous strangers, more than he ever did with The Corporation. As an employee you were always part of the big picture, part of the greater business plan, but in an antiseptic kind of way. Every employee was connected to every other employee, but only as titles on an organizational chart. This was so totally, completely different.
He felt united with every person around him, but in a personal, spiritual way. For once in his life he felt he was truly experiencing the moment, living in the now, and not planning and scheduling for some ambiguous future. This must be what Ally felt when she was here, he thought. It must be why she came here, even though she knew it meant the end for her.
Ally. Ally Fayre. She was no longer “that girl” in his mind. She was Ally, the girl he loved, the girl he wanted, the girl he needed as much as he needed food or air.
“I’m in love with Ally Fayre!” he shouted, even though he knew it wouldn’t rise above the din of the music. “I love her!”
The cold hard stone in his gut exploded outward with his words, and he knew that it was right, that it was fixed, that he was the way he always should be.
Except he didn’t have Ally. It wasn’t the music or the drugs giving him this indescribable feeling, it was his love for Ally. His addiction was back, and he welcomed it.
But he couldn’t savor his joy without the object of his idolatrous obsession. All around him gamblers placed bets, drinkers drank, and food addicts gorged themselves to excess. He needed his addiction, too. He must feed the need.
Jaden raced out of the rave and found his resplendent red Phoenix 5000. He tumbled behind the wheel and fumbled with the keys. He knew just what he had to do. He had to find Ally, to be with her. It was the only way.
He soared high above any normally used flight pattern and charted a course straight for the Unemployed Zone. The answer was simple. His Phoenix was a high-flyer, and fast. He’d zip right over the fence and take one last peek at his love. At near top speed it took less than half an hour to reach the edge of the Unemployed Zone. Flooring the pedal on his stupid flying car, Jaden soared straight for the U.Z.