Jaden awoke to the coppery taste of blood and the noxious smell of smoke. The Phoenix 5000 was crumpled around him. He felt an acute pain in his right knee and saw a bit of blood seeping through his pants, but his wounds weren’t exigent. His immediate concern was the black smoke billowing out of the rear of the car. Flames licked through the smoke.
And people thought flying cars were a good idea.
Maneuvering with his good leg, he twisted until his back was against the door and pushed. Broken glass and pointed metal jabbed into his spine, but the door creaked a bit. If his knee wasn’t busted open he’d just scoot out the window, but he was afraid he’d exacerbate his injury.
The flames licked higher. He had to get out of the stupid car.
Readjusting his position, and using the steering wheel to help him, he pushed again. The door gave just a bit more. He’d have to use both feet to free himself.
He screamed as the pain shot through his body. The door screeched and groaned, but it finally spat him out onto the grass with the other debris.
The flames crackled, sending slivers of hot glass into the night. Jaden scooted away from the car beneath the shelter of the only significant coverage around—a short, scraggly saw palmetto with razor-sharp palm fronds and a spiny trunk.
How on earth could he have been so stupid to try to fly into the Unemployed Zone? He’d known about the force field, but Joy had messed with his brain so much that he had forgotten everything but Ally. Only the pain of his wounds had brought him back to some semblance of normalcy. The ache for Ally, though, remained.
Forget flying into the U.Z.; what had he been thinking when he took Joy to begin with? He knew what it did to people, what it did to Ally. Had he been that close to his nadir?
The hairs on the back of Jaden’s neck stood up. He was being watched. An animal, maybe? Did alligators come this far out of the swamp? Or maybe a Florida panther? He didn’t think there were still bears here, but something was definitely looking him over.
He peered into the darkness. Two eyes glowed back at him.
“You okay, mister?” came the hushed voice. A boy.
“What do you think?” Jaden snapped, wincing at the pain.
A wiry boy of maybe eleven or twelve stepped out of the shadows. The firelight crackled, reflecting the fragile fence. The boy stood on the Unemployed Zone side of the barrier.
“I think you better scoot away from that palm and a little closer to that fire, if you want to keep snake-bite free. Cottonmouths aren’t so keen on fire, but they are mighty partial to curling up in those palmettos.”
“Ah, thanks,” Jaden said. He scooted back toward the conflagration and winced.
“Hurt bad?” the kid asked, searching him with intelligent, inquisitive eyes.
Jaden tenderly touched his shoulder. It spiked pain through his upper body.
“Yeah,” he gasped. He either had contusions from the seat restraint or his collarbone was broken. When his breathing returned to normal, he asked, “What are you doing out here, kid?”
“You mean ‘in’ here, don’t you? You want to know why I’m in the U.Z.”
“I meant out here alone, at night.”
“I take care of myself.”
“I see that,” Jaden said, smiling. The kid’s irreverent attitude reminded him of his own at that age.
“Better bandage that knee,” the boy said. “The perims will come for you, but probably not until sunrise. Nobody comes out here at night.”
“Perimeter guards. Better have a good story by then if you want to stay on that side of the fence. Ailing auntie in Fort Miami, or a depressed friend on the eve of his wedding or something.”
Again, the astute kid was right. He’d have to come up with a cover story for why he slammed into a force field. Hopefully the guards wouldn’t come for him too quickly. He needed the Joy to be out of his system. The aching hole in his heart when he thought about Ally confirmed the drug was still in full force. “What’s your name, kid?”
“They call me Tail, ’cause I’m always waggin’ around for scraps.”
“Doesn’t everyone get daily rations?” Jaden asked.
Tail laughed. “You obviously don’t know much about the life of an In. Unless I’m swift and use a ruse or two, my rations get taken. What I can manage to save mostly gets used as payment for services. There’s not much left to actually eat.”
“So it seems you get around a bit, huh?”
“Ever see the new prisoners come in?”
“Every week,” Tail said. “Easy marks.”
“Do you remember yesterday’s batch?”
“I’m Unemployed, not daft,” the kid said.
“There’s one particular girl I’m interested in. Her name is Ally Fayre. Have you seen her?”
“Don’t know any names. What’s she look like?”
“Blue hair, in pigtails probably. Short, petite, aqua eyes.”
“Blue hair, huh? She a raver?”
“Yeah, that’s her.”
“Heard the new batch of ravers already got the thumb,” Tail said, wagging his hand like a hitchhiker seeking a ride. “Whole bunch of bodies got dumped along the edge of the ’Glades. Any that were alive are probably alligator bait by now. You will be, too, if you don’t bandage that leg. They can smell blood a mile away.”
Jaden heard Tail’s warning, but he couldn’t process anything after the news that the girl he loved was dead. Ally was dead. The night closed in around him, and he felt his throat tighten. It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t.
A spotlight broke through Jaden’s grief. A silent, unmarked black aero-truck hovered silently about forty feet above him.
“Prisoner will leave the perimeter immediately,” boomed a voice from the Raptor 300.
Tail turned instantly and sprinted away from the fence, arms and legs pumping hard. Evidently he had been through this drill before. Must be the perimeter guards from Fort Miami. But he’d have thought the truck would have had some sort of markings.
Suddenly Jaden remembered the small envelope of Joy still in his pocket. Whoever had come for him, he couldn’t let that be found on him. He could take it, but he needed as much of his wits about him as he could. He’d have to hide it.
The Raptor 300 began landing maneuvers.
Jaden slipped the pill envelope out of his pocket and slid his hand behind him, almost beneath him. Trying not to look suspicious as the Raptor 300 landed not twenty-five feet from him, Jaden squirreled a hole into the sandy earth. He pressed the envelope into it and covered the hole back up. The grass was spotty at best, so with a bit of effort nobody would notice the disturbed square of Florida sand. The glow-key was missing. He figured he’d lost it on the dance floor. If not, it would combust in the fire. Either way he was relatively safe.