Jaden fought to keep his emotions under control as he lay in bed, trying to lose himself in sleep. His upper bunk gave him a spectacular view of the barracks’ ceiling two feet from his nose. The space where a bottom bunk might have been had been replaced by a small desk and chair. His footlocker had to fit in the closet. At least his stark surroundings allowed him privacy. It would be tough to keep a stiff upper lip sharing a room filled with myriad hardened pros. Nothing probably ever bothered any of the other rippers.
Of course, he was pretty convinced he was the only ripper who had ever taken Joy, too.
The dark, cold knot that Kim’s splitting session had walled away had returned to his stomach, even heavier now. But there was a crack, a crevice in the surface, and for the last two nights as he lay in his claustrophobic bed, his mind uncluttered with the rigors of ripper training, his feelings for Ally would rush over him. And not so far behind were the tears that threatened to follow.
What had he done? Thanks to him, the girl he loved was either alligator bait or serving twenty years for her proclivity for dancing and listening to wild music.
But that wasn’t her only problem. She was a Joy addict, and she deserved what she got.
But he had taken Joy, too. He was an addict, too—to his feelings for Ally. And therein lay the quandary. Didn’t that put him on the wrong side of the force field?
When Jaden got his first day pass on Friday afternoon, there was only one thing on his mind—Joy. He couldn’t stand the indecision, the warring factions inside of him. One minute he thought Ally deserved her sentence, and the next he was certain he should be sharing it. He needed a reprieve from his anguish. He needed peace, even just for a few hours.
He rented a low-end Gull 200 and cruised the edge of the U.Z., searching for the site of his crash and the stash he had buried. He narrowed the possibilities to a couple of spots. Anxious to be flying so near the force field after such a horrible crash, he landed the car beside a clump of bushes a bit further out and walked the remaining distance. The saw palmetto seemed to be in the right place, but if this was the actual site of his accident, the Ripper Squad had done a great job eradicating every sign of it.
He padded toward the fence. It sure looked a lot different from the ground. He didn’t know what had been going through his head the other night. The flimsy wire fence only went up maybe fifty feet. He had been a fool to think this was the only thing keeping all those hardened criminals in the U.Z.
Off in the distance, he noticed movement. Someone rambled toward him from the other side of the fence—several people, actually. Jaden jogged back to the car and ducked behind it.
“Right here’s where it happened,” a young boy’s voice insisted. Jaden recognized the cocky swagger in the voice: Tail.
“Then how come there’s no wreckage?” an older woman demanded.
“I saw it all,” Tail said. “And the reason there’s no crashed car is the best part of the story.”
“So tell us already, Tail,” an emaciated older man said.
Jaden peeked around the fender. The car was obscured by the bushes, but he could see well enough if he raised his head just a little. Tail stood with his back to the fence, looking just as scraggly in the daylight. Half a dozen indigent criminals clustered around him. They wore grubby, light-colored clothes with long sleeves and pants and ranged in age from a girl of maybe eight to an older man in his sixties.
“It’ll cost you,” Tail said.
Jaden smiled. He’d said those words countless times when he was just about the kid’s age. When he was a dealer, he had ascribed a specific price for everything. Commodifying every aspect of his life was the only way he had survived on the streets, and it was obviously the way this boy survived. The only difference was that in the old days, The Corporation had taken pity on juvenile offenders. Didn’t look like they had been as lenient with Tail.
A collective groan rose up from the crowd. “Not again,” someone muttered.
“Not a full bar,” Tail said with alacrity. “Just half-rations from each.”
“I bet his story’s not even worth it,” the older woman said, spitting.
Tail turned away. “Well, if you don’t think a rescue attempt is worth half-rations, then perhaps you’re right. . . . ” Jaden half-chuckled at the boy’s wily grin. The kid knew what he was doing, all right.
“A rescue attempt?” the little girl asked. “Who was it? Who were they coming for?”
“Might be someone with a name a-begins with ‘B’ . . . ” Tail said.
“Quarter-rations,” the older man said.
“Deal,” the sandy-haired kid said with a crooked grin.
Each member of the group handed Tail a square of something brown and sticky, which he wrapped in a crumpled piece of paper before shoving it in his pocket.
“Now everyone sit down and spread out. I want everyone to be able to see and hear.”
“Ain’t nuttin’ to see,” a man grumbled.
“Shhh . . . ” Tail said, his finger to his lips. He thrust his hands parallel to the ground, palms up, and then slowly brought them together over his head, bringing them back down until they pressed against his chest. “It begins!” he boomed. “At the darkest part of the night, the sky rained fire.”
“Blaze?” the little girl cried. “Was it Blaze?”
“It was indeed. In a car as bright and shining as the stars, the color of the fire he will use to bring down the walls one day.”
One of the women sighed pensively.
“Weren’t no Blaze. Blaze is on the inside, like us,” a man said.
“Gots a boat as can fly an’ sail,” a woman added. “In the Ten Thousand Islands.”
“Blaze has powers both inside this world and outside of it,” Tail said ominously. “Last night he completed the first test of his wall blaster, on this here very wall.”
A soft murmur rose from the group, and they looked at the plain wire fence with a newfound awe and respect.
“Then how come the wall’s still standing?” a woman asked.
“I told you, that’s the best part. Minutes after the device detonated, the place was swarming with Outs.”
“Perims?” the older man asked.
“Blue suits and black coats. Scooped it all away. Even fixed the trees and the grass.”
“Why would they do that?”
“They wanted Blaze’s device,” Tail said, “but he was too smart for them. The big boom-crash was because it had a self-destruct. Nothing blows up like that on its own.”
The crowd nodded sagely in agreement.
“What about Blaze?” one of the women asked.
“He got away of course. As soon as the device did its job, he hightailed it out of there.”
“So why isn’t the fence still down?” the older man asked.
“The black coats fixed it. Put it all back the way it was.”
“An’ how come you’re still here to tell us about it? How come you didn’t hightail it out of there right behind Blaze?”
“Didn’t know at first that the wall was down. By the time I figured it out, the blue suits and black coats had shown up. I wouldn’t have made it far with them snooping around.”
“So what’s Blaze going to do next?” the woman asked.
“He doesn’t know,” the older man said. “He’s just a kid.”
“I may be just a kid, but I’d know what I’d do if I were him,” Tail said. “I’d take my data from the explosion back to the lab and start building me an even bigger boom-crash. Take out a big enough chunk of the wall and the perims and blue suits won’t be able to fix it before a whole bunch of Ins become Outs.”
“Hooray!” the little girl cried.
“I knew it,” the older man said. “Just like I thought.”
“Blaze will be coming for all of us soon,” a woman agreed. “Let’s go back and tell the others the good news!”
“Hey!” Tail cried. “It’s my story!”
“Not any more,” the older man said, winking. “We paid for it and now it’s ours.”
The crowd bustled off the way they had come, eager to pass along Tail’s story.
Tail threw a rock hard at the wall and it sparked into shrapnel.
As the group faded in the distance, Jaden stood up and called to Tail. “Hey, kid!”
When Tail turned to see who had called to him, he froze. His gaze didn’t lock on Jaden’s, but rather on the side of his head.
Dammit! Why did people have to stare at his plate?
“It doesn’t hurt, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Jaden said.
Mesmerized by the gleaming golden plate, Tail eyed it instead of him as he backed away from the force field. “You never told me you were a ripper.”
“Trainee,” Jaden said, plucking at his gray uniform.
Tail teased a few more steps back.
“Can you read my mind through the force field?”
Jaden laughed. “I can’t read anyone’s mind, force field or not.”
“You’re lying. That’s what rippers do.”
“The signs say rippers read minds and fix them.”
“They’re all over in here. They say if you get your mind Ripped, you get out.”
“Well, that much is true, but I’m not clairvoyant. I can connect to an addict’s mind and smooth away the problems, but only under the proper conditions.”
“The proper conditions don’t include seeing a likely candidate, do they? I’d like my brain to stay just the way it is, thank you very much.”
Jaden laughed. “Just come back already. I want to ask you about your apocryphal story.”
“What about it?” Tail said, approaching the fence once more.
“What were you telling those folks? You twisted everything around until there wasn’t a single grain of truth in there.”
“The group, they want to hear about their hero Blaze, not some high fancy crashin’ his sports car. Gives them hope and me a modicum of food in my belly. I figure it’s an even trade.”
“So is Blaze a real person?”
Tail shrugged. “As long as I keep spinning stories about him, he will be. And as long as I keep getting fed doing it, I’ll keep weaving my tales.” He surreptitiously foraged in his pocket for a scrap of ration bar. “Come back for your pill?” the perspicacious kid asked.
“How’d you know?”
“You were kind of obvious that night. I’d be surprised if the blue suits didn’t find ’em. They went over everything pretty good.”
“I haven’t checked yet. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place.”
Tail laughed. “You’re such an Out! Couldn’t find your way if they popped out your brain and replaced it with a global positioning system, could you?”
Jaden started to kick up dirt around the palm with the heel of his shoe. He hadn’t buried the pill very deep. It should turn up with a couple of scrapes.
After ten minutes of excavating with his shoe followed by twenty minutes of digging on his hands and knees, Jaden finally gave up the search. His fingers throbbed, and his nails had split. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and left it moist and gritty.
“Figured the blue suits found it,” Tail said sanctimoniously. “What do you need pills for anyhow? You’re on the outside.”
“That pill will help me find the girl I lost,” Jaden said, and in a way it was true. Joy would help him be with Ally, and at peace, one more time.
“If she’s inside, you’re not going to find her from out there.”
Jaden looked down at the sandspur-covered pants of his gray uniform and the caked sand beneath his broken nails. Like the night of the crash, the kid spoke the truth. He’d have to get inside if he wanted to find out what happened to Ally.
“Do you think you might be able to find out what happened to her?” Jaden asked.
Tail shrugged. “For a price, maybe. But what you really need is a runner.”
“They can get stuff in and out of the U.Z.”
“Where would I find one?”
“Dunno. You got a dealer, right? Ask him.”