The soldiers parted and two austere men in expensive navy suits and mirror shades approached. “Jaden Emory?”
“Yes?” Jaden squeaked.
The man reported into the com link on his wrist. “Target acquired. Initiate clean-sweep sequence oh-six-ten.” He turned to the broad-shouldered soldiers. “Get him inside the Raptor.”
Two soldiers set down a stretcher and rolled Jaden onto it. Pain seared through his body, but he stifled everything but a grimace.
Other soldiers encircled the car, extinguishing the flames. Man, he hoped that glow-key had incinerated completely.
The night sky became the brushed steel of the Raptor’s cargo hold. The stretcher jolted into a combat med-station. One masked soldier examined his knee, while another prodded his shoulder. Neither administered an analgesic for the pain.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” a familiar voice demanded from behind.
Jaden looked up with pain-glazed eyes and found Kim scowling down at him. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“You sneak out of the Splitter Complex after bed-check and then crash your Phoenix 5000 into the U.Z.? I think I’m the one who gets to ask the questions.”
“I went for a drive, that’s all. I couldn’t sleep.”
Kim narrowed her eyes. “So why’d you crash?”
Focusing on the blinking panel of lights above him on the med-station, he avoided her gaze. “I guess I was more tired than I thought. I must have dozed at the wheel negotiating the return trip.”
Raising a skeptical eyebrow, Kim didn’t reply.
The soldier working on Jaden’s knee dug beneath a bone. Jaden stifled a cry. “Who are these people? What are they doing here?”
“Isn’t it obvious? They’re cleaning up after your mess.”
“The Corporation can’t have one of our star rippers found trying to infiltrate the U.Z.”
“Don’t jest with me, Kim.”
“I’m not. Word came after bed-check. You made it into the Ripper Squad.” She flipped her long platinum hair behind her. “I thought I’d be magnanimous and wake you up with the good news. When I did, I found an empty bed.”
The medic working on his leg had stopped the bleeding and now bandaged the wound.
Jaden tried to process the news that he’d actually landed the job that had been his only dream for so long. He knew he should be thrilled, but there was so much else going on it was hard to focus.
“But how’d you find me?” he asked her. “I didn’t even know where I was going until I got here,” Jaden said without a smidge of veracity. He didn’t like the thought of Kim knowing where he had been, particularly in light of his manifold indiscretions last night.
“Corporation tracking devices are embedded in every vehicle. You forced me to use it. I couldn’t let you tarnish the name of the Tamlando Splitters on the eve of your promotion.”
“But I just went out for a drive!” Jaden protested. He had the sinking feeling that Kim knew more than she was telling. If a Corporation tracking device tracked him here, had it also tracked him scouring the disreputable part of town for Squeeze?
“And look what happened.”
“It was an accident. I was tired.” Jaden’s hands balled into fists. He didn’t appreciate being vituperated even though he knew she was right.
“The Jaden I know wouldn’t have taken a nose dive into a force field, no matter how enervated he was. You’d better shape up, Emory, or you’re going to find it hard-going on the Ripper Squad. Sergeant Truck won’t be nearly as tolerant as I’ve been.”
A bass voice thundered from behind Kim. “Damn straight I won’t!” Truck strode over to the med-station. His black uniform matched that of the soldiers outside, but he didn’t wear a face mask. Even if he had, Jaden would have identified the solid wall of a man anywhere.
“I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again. I’ll be on my best behavior.”
Truck’s resonant laugh blindsided Jaden. “Hold on, soldier. Don’t turn into some lightweight or you’ll never fit in with my department. We work hard. We play hard. You get one get-out-of-jail-free card. You’ve just used yours. Remember that, and you’ll do fine.” The well-tanned wrinkles around Truck’s eyes crinkled.
“Yes, sir.” The medic shifted Jaden’s shoulder again, and he flinched.
“Get this kid a shot of pain meds,” Truck barked.
“Yes, Sergeant,” the masked medic answered.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t want any of this to happen.” The honey oozed across his brain and the world drifted away.