Jaden awoke in his bed back at the Splitter Complex, naked except for his underwear. Man, he hoped Truck had put him in bed and not Kim. He sat up gingerly. His shoulder ached and his knee throbbed, but he could use them both. He stood and found he could even walk without too much of a limp. The few minor lacerations would heal in no time. He couldn’t have gotten better care in a hospital.
Jaden’s luck had been providential. Not only had he survived the crash that should have killed him, he’d gotten the job for which he’d yearned. He had no idea how he had gotten the job and not Reth, or why having this job wasn’t making him feel everything he’d expected to feel. This was his dream, and he was still a mess of confused emotions inside. One thing was certain, though. He was definitely going to gloat to Reth.
He didn’t know how long before he’d transfer to Fort Miami, but he figured he’d better be ready. He wasn’t about to let Kim and Truck down again. As he boxed away his trinkets, he realized how little of it he wanted to keep with him. Most of it would have to go into storage for the time being anyhow. The barracks didn’t have much room for personal effects. Eventually he might be allowed to move off-base, but not for the first year.
Probably his most precious possession was his h-pod, a camera that took three-dimensional, holographic pictures. He kept the palm-size orb permanently tuned to the hologram he took during last summer’s trip to the Disney Entertainment Complex in eastern Tamlando. Kim had scheduled a team-building exercise for all the splitters and support staff. As they entered the complex, his department had stopped to mug for a tableau in front of the Cinderella Castle. Reth wiggled bunny ears over Kim’s blonde crown of hair. Jaden wore his sunglasses and folded his arms across his chest, flashing the h-pod his coolest look. The other Tamlando Splitters all attempted similar goofiness. Most of the support techs had been crowded into the back row, and Baqer would have barely made it into the scene if Jaden hadn’t pulled his friend next to him. Baqer had been uncomfortable in the spotlight and had kept his eyes cast downward, though a bashful grin did creep up his cheeks.
As Jaden wrapped up his h-pod and put it in the small box of effects he planned on taking with him, he tried not to think what Baqer must be thinking about him right now. He’d treated his friend horribly, and there was no way Jaden could explain away his poor behavior at Internment Tuesday without telling him about Joy. He’d just have to avoid Baqer for a while—until time had a chance to soften the wounds.
“Trying to get first dibs on my room, Emory?” Reth leaned against the door frame.
“Get out.” He turned his back and continued packing. He didn’t have time for some prejudiced dilettante who had to harass prisoners just to make himself feel better.
“What’s gotten into you? I figured you’d be emotional about how the Ripper Squad turned out, but no need to bite my head off.”
Jaden shook his head, his dreads flapping about his face. How could he feel such enmity toward Reth when they had taunted the new prisoners together only days before? The heat of a blush rose to his cheeks as the hypocrisy of his actions hit him.
Dammit! Joy—it had to be Joy. It must still be in his system, mucking about with his brain. He’d have to try to pretend to be the person he was before he took Joy, if he wanted to keep his nocturnal adventures a secret.
In an attempt to be conciliatory, Jaden turned and sat down on his bed meekly. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just a bit on edge. It’s a big deal, you know?”
Reth moved a box and sat backward in Jaden’s desk chair. “I know. But there are other good jobs out there—stuff besides the Ripper Squad.”
“Yeah, definitely.” Jaden stood up and took an autographed Groundhog’s Day mallet down from the top shelf. He put it in one of the boxes for storage. “I must say, you’re taking this all in stride.”
“Well, it really was inevitable.
“I was certain you were a ringer.”
Reth arched an eyebrow. “Excuse me? I got my notification this morning.”
Jaden blinked. Wait a second, what was the story here? They couldn’t both have gotten the job—there was only one opening. “But I—I heard the same thing. This, uh, this morning, too,” Jaden lied. He didn’t like the duplicity, but there was no way he could tell Reth the circumstances under which he had really been told.
“I was trying to be nice about it Emory, but if you’re going to be a jerk—”
“I’m serious. I made it into the Ripper Squad.”
“We’ll see what Kim has to say about your lies,” Reth said, storming out.
“Not without me, you aren’t,” Jaden said, following. He was just as eager to ascertain the truth as Reth was. Dammit, what if everything he thought had happened was just some post-crash delusion? What if he wasn’t really going to be a ripper after all?
Reth burst into Kim’s office without knocking. “Tell this boll weevil that I’m the new Ripper Squad member.”
Jaden was glad Kim would be their arbiter. She’d set him straight.
“Reth, you’re the new Ripper Squad member,” Kim said with a devious grin, “and so is Jaden.”
“What?” Jaden exclaimed.
“No way,” Reth said, shaking his head. “He’s not good enough.”
“Sergeant Truck thought otherwise. He wanted you both, put in the requisition, and got you. You’ll get your ripper upgrades this afternoon, and then you’re to report to Fort Miami tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Jaden asked. He’d wished for this day for years, but to abandon everyone and everything he knew so quickly?
“I know I’ll be ready,” Reth said arrogantly.
Still in shock at the speed of recent events, Jaden reported to Baqer’s lab, anxiety pumping through his veins.
“Kim sent me for ripper upgrades,” Jaden said, hoping Baqer wouldn’t bring up his reprehensible behavior.
“Sit,” Baqer said.
Jaden’s knee still bugged him so he slid carefully onto the stool.
Baqer prepped him in silence, setting an array of tools and materials on the chrome tray on the lab table, including the pale gold ripper plate that would replace his chrome splitter one. Jaden could tell that Baqer, who was even less talkative than usual, was still holding a grudge.
“Will it hurt?” Jaden asked, more to break the silence than out of curiosity.
Baqer didn’t look up, but his voice carried a vitriolic edge. “Probably.”
“Great bedside manner,” Jaden said tensely. He didn’t know which made him more anxious, being estranged from his best friend or having someone who was that angry with him about to take a scalpel to his skull.
Baqer huffed in response, his breath stirring Jaden’s tousled dreads.
“Just joking,” Jaden said. “Geesh.”
“Don’t like your sense of humor.”
Jaden had the distinct feeling Baqer was talking less about his joke and more about the cruel way he had heckled Ally at the internment ceremony. At the time, Jaden had found it hilarious. Now the memory of his behavior heated his shame.
Jaden clamped his mouth shut for the rest of the operation. Silently, Jaden pined over the loss of someone so important to him. He should just apologize to his friend and be done with it, but his shame held him back. He was afraid their friendship was irrevocably damaged.
Unfortunately, my friend, I’m afraid you’re right, Jaden thought as he slunk from the lab.