Taking Joy alone, Jaden still felt the tenderness of his love for Ally, but without the music and the people, the real world crept in too completely, and he couldn’t let himself go to just enjoy it. Dammit! He should have taken the glow-key from Squeeze when he had offered it.
Jaden spent his two hours of Joy flying aerial acrobatics along the northeastern boundary to the Unemployed Zone. Unlike the savanna where the ravers made camp, the area had some trees. He flew the sluggish Gull 200 below the designated flight path, seeing how long he could duck beneath the tree line before having to bob back up to avoid colliding with a sabal palm. His accident had made him timorous around the force field, but with Joy on his side, he felt invincible.
Ravenous and spent, he arrived at the barracks in Fort Miami just after the mess hall had closed. Figured. He crawled into his bunk without even bothering to take off his leave clothes and fell into a fitful sleep.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Get your indolent butt out on the parade ground, ripper!” a gruff voice hollered through the door.
Groggy, Jaden rolled out of bed. Wasn’t it the weekend? He peered out the small window and saw the whole department completing a series of intense exercises on the parade ground. Ugh. Jaden threw on his gray workout uniform and dragged himself outside.
“Two circuits of the course and eight laps,” Truck barked. “Best way to get the old blood pumping first thing in the morning!”
Jaden jogged half heartedly into the workout arena. He must have left too early the day before and missed yesterday’s session. After a haphazard attempt at stretches, Jaden tackled the course. Pull-ups were first. Two sets of bars were juxtaposed. Fotee, the medic who had worked on him the night of the crash, joined him, and before Jaden had finished ten, Fotee had done thirty and moved on to the next station.
Sit-ups were next. Fotee had finished before Jaden had even sat down. Each sit-up made Jaden want to heave. He was just not ready for this level of strenuous exercise after the night he’d had, topped off with those hours on Joy. Dirk slid into Fotee’s slot and finished the thirty sit-ups before Jaden had hit the halfway mark.
At the push-ups slot, Reth slid next to him. Jaden couldn’t let that jerk beat him out, no matter how poorly he felt. He forced himself to pick up the pace. If he didn’t, he’d be relegated to last place and left working the course after everyone else had finished. His entire body itched and ached, and his head pounded—one of Joy’s less joyous aftereffects—but somehow Jaden managed to make it twice around the course, indefatigably keeping up with Reth the entire way. By the time he had to do his laps, though, Reth had outdistanced him. Jaden still had two more laps when Reth finished and jogged over to talk to someone near the fence.
Dammit! If he had known about the stupid weekend drill, he never would have taken Joy so late at night. Stupid workouts.
As Jaden rounded the corner, he recognized the woman talking to Reth. It was Kim. He sprinted the last lap and jogged up to his old team leader.
“Kim! What are you doing here?” She was a welcome sight after such a harrowing week.
“Just stopped by to see how my boys were settling in,” she said.
“It’s rough,” Jaden said honestly, “but it’s worth the effort.”
“It’s a breeze,” Reth said. “Never felt more alive. I can see why my father and grandfather both loved it here.”
Kim nodded. “It’s a noble path you’re following. I’m glad you’re fitting in.”
Jaden hoped he was fitting in. The guys seemed nice enough, but he thought they were too engrossed in their jobs. But maybe he was the anomaly because he’d been so fragmented and scattered lately. He just had to get this Ally mess cleaned up, and then he could return his focus where it belonged, completely on his training as a ripper.
“How long are you staying?” Reth asked. “Maybe you and I could catch a bite or something.”
“I’ve got a few errands to run in town while I’m down here. And I’m guessing you need a shower,” she said, playfully pushing him away with one finger. “I’ll look you up when I get back from town.”
“Deal!” Reth said, bounding off toward the showers like a kid chasing an ice cream truck.
“I should really be going, too,” Jaden said, running his fingers through his sweat-drenched dreads in hopes of keeping them out of his eyes.
“Not so fast, Ripper Emory. I thought I’d finally drag you away for that celebration meal,” she said. She tossed her head and her long blonde hair slid down her back.
Jaden definitely wasn’t in a convivial mood. “I thought you said you had errands.”
“You are my errand.” She smiled enigmatically. “And I won’t take no for an answer.”
Man, all Jaden wanted to do was sleep until his next foray into the Unemployed Zone after dark. But he’d put her off before. He couldn’t get away with doing it again.
“Let me grab a quick shower,” Jaden said.
“Don’t take too long,” Kim replied with a smile.