Jaden knew Squeeze would be mad at him for not bringing the packages to him immediately, but after what Squeeze had put him through, he didn’t care if the dealer had to wait or not. He had stored the packages in a locker in the parking garage. Jaden had to keep up pretenses with the rippers or he’d never be able to make another run for him at all.
Today was a particularly important day for Jaden. After months of SimRipper, he was finally going to get a chance to do the real thing.
“For particularly obdurate addicts, we use the Hive,” Truck said, pointing at the chairs encircling a pole. “Sometimes it takes more than one ripper to get all the evil out of a criminal. Makes it good for training purposes, too. A few of these joint sessions and you’ll be ready to trade that gray uniform for a black one.”
Jaden beamed. This was what he had been waiting for all this time. He really wanted to prove himself, to show that no matter what he had been or what Kim thought of him, he was meritorious— worthy of being part of the Ripper Squad. “I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Jaden said.
“This guy’s going to be worse than anyone you’ve ever dealt with before,” Truck said. “He only wants to get ripped so he can be paroled from the Unemployed Zone. He’d never get out unless he got ripped, and he wouldn’t survive his sentence in the U.Z.”
“What did he do?” Jaden asked.
Jaden felt the blood drain from his face. He’d always hoped for a really vile criminal to treat, but was he ready for this?
Once Jaden, Reth, and six other full rippers were settled in the Hive, two guards brought the criminal in. He was a chillingly normal-looking man in his mid-thirties—blond hair, blue eyes, a high forehead that suggested a soon-to-be receding hairline. Nothing about his outward appearance that would reveal the hideous crimes he was capable of. And that was the great thing about ripping—at least soon this guy really would be as harmless as he looked. The guards secured the criminal to a pole in the center of the chairs and activated a force field.
“Let’s just get this over with,” the man said. “I’ve got a play date on the outside.” He leered at the circle of rippers.
“They’re really going to let this guy out?” Jaden whispered to Fotee next to him.
“He’ll be fine once we get done with him. Watch.”
A collar unfolded itself from the pole and locked around the throat of the criminal. His eyes bulged as the ripper probe whirred into the base of the man’s spinal column.
The room exploded with the colors of the addict’s mind. His spirit was the sickly yellow of nicotine-stained fingers. Vile images oozed out of the man.
One by one, the rippers attacked the criminal’s addiction, sniping out at him like a circle of cobras. Each ripper took a chunk, severing the evil from its source.
Jaden took his venomous nip. This was nothing like splitting, and nothing at all like SimRipper, even. Splitting entailed building a wall around the addiction. Ripping tore pieces out of the man, pieces that would never be replaced. And the pieces weren’t just the man’s addiction, Jaden saw now. The very process of ripping ensured that other pieces of the man might be removed. The need to sever the addiction totally from the man meant the process was less precise than splitting.
Still, the rhythm of the process captivated Jaden, and he found himself caught up in the precision teamwork of the group. The treatment took over an hour. When the collar was released, the criminal slumped to the floor.
“Is he all right?” Jaden asked.
“Now that we treated him, he will be,” Fotee said.
“Who cares?” Reth asked. “If he dies, there will be one less criminal on the streets, reformed or not.”
The other rippers laughed appreciatively.
Jaden thought that was a little extreme, but he was pleased that the repulsive creature would be a viable employee now. With the other bits they took out of him, he’d be insipid and perhaps a bit obtuse and not quite as sharp on the uptake, but The Corporation had a place for every employee. Jaden felt this knowledge run through his mind, the words he’d heard over and over for years that had formed the whole new belief system that had helped him say goodbye to Amsterdam forever. It was reassuring to be back in this safe, mental place, remembering what his life was all about.
Being a ripper felt good, felt right, when he was with his department. Maybe being a ripper could even fill the hole left by Ally, over time.
Jaden couldn’t help but get caught up in the celebratory mood of his teammates. They’d done a good job, together. For the first time in days Jaden felt good, like nothing could sully this moment.
Jaden turned to laugh at a joke Fotee had made when he bumped into a very serious figure in a blue suit.
“Sorry,” Jaden began. “I—” His words stuck in his throat as he recognized one of the two twin auditors, then saw her twin standing next to her.
Her impassive face a slab of granite and her lips a firm line, the auditor closer to him spoke. “Ripper Jaden Emory, The Corporation has evidence that you are a music addict.”
“What?” Jaden demanded, his body going cold.
“Come with us,” the auditors said in unison.
Jaden followed them meekly into a windowless concrete room and sat when directed.
“I’m sure there’s some kind of mistake,” Jaden said.
“The mistake—” one auditor began.
“—is yours,” the other one finished.
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand,” Jaden said. He wasn’t a music addict, so that much would be easy to plausibly deny, but although he didn’t know exactly what was in the packages he delivered between the Squeeze and the U.Z., he had most likely carried music cards and readers. Or maybe someone saw him leaving a rave. Man, this was going to be bad. It didn’t matter if he was innocent or not. If they dug deep enough, there would be enough circumstantial evidence to convict him. He had to find out what they knew and what they didn’t so he didn’t confess to crimes they had no clue about. The best way to handle it would be to shut up and listen.
“An informant came forward,” Auditor One said.
“And told us details of your recent transgressions,” Auditor Two said. “It will go easier on you—”
“If you confess now,” Auditor One finished.
Jaden laughed. “I appreciate the effort, but that trick only works in bad movies.” To his chagrin, the trick had worked on him once, when he was seven and had eaten the remaining chocolate chip cookies. It didn’t work any more. He wouldn’t confess to anything just because they claimed they had the goods on him.
“The informant was quite specific,” Auditor One said.
“The informant provided many details,” Auditor Two added.
“Maybe you should share some of them with me, then, if you want me to confess.” He folded his arms across his chest.
“Your position as a ripper is too high-profile. An internal investigation has been launched—”
“—to verify the details—”
“—prior to your arrest.”
Jaden tasted bile in the back of his throat. Arrest? They were already planning to arrest him?
But the old street Jaden, Amsterdam-Ass Jaden, was not about to let these two suits bully him.
“So if you’re not arresting me now, that means I’m free to go, then?”
“You will be watched,” Auditor One said.
“Closely,” Auditor Two added.
“If you decide to let me know what you’re accusing me of, let me know. Until then, leave me alone,” Jaden said, getting up and leaving the interrogation room.
Truck waited for him outside, as did the majority of the rest of his department.
“Emory, you’re suspended,” Truck said. “At least until the investigation results are in.”
“But Sergeant!” Jaden exclaimed, “I didn’t do anything! It’s all just speculative.”
“Then the investigation will vindicate you and you’ll be back on the team. Until then, my hands are tied.” Truck walked off down the hall, shaking his head.
“Bad form,” Fotee said. “We all thought you were doing so well.” There was sadness in his voice, regret.
“What a disappointment,” another said.
“Great potential down the drain.”
“Look, there’s been a mistake,” Jaden said, denouncing the claims. “I’m innocent.”
The group was implacable. Nobody seemed to pay him any attention.
“I knew there was something wrong with him all along,” Reth said conspiratorially. “He was always sneaking around back in Tamlando. He had to be up to something illicit.”
“This is ridiculous,” Jaden protested. “The only evidence they have against me is the word of some anonymous informant. You can’t condemn me because of some faceless snitch.”
“Your poor upbringing is what condemned you, ultimately. With a past like yours, you should have known you’d never amount to anything.”
Jaden stiffened. He was tired of the defamatory comments, tired of having his past thrown back in his face all the time. “Back off, Warren.”
Reth strutted around the small circle of rippers. “Ashamed of your life as a drug dealer?” Reth chided. “I would be too.”
“Don’t go there,” Jaden growled. “You don’t know anything about it.”
“Oh, don’t I? Poor little drug dealer kid rescued by The Corporation. Just couldn’t stay away from the street addictions, huh?”
Jaden couldn’t believe it. The only person who knew intimate details about his past was Kim. How could she be so perfidious?
A chilling thought grasped Jaden. Had she been the one to betray him to the auditors as well?
Jaden couldn’t take it any more. All his hard work trying to rise above his tough past, all of it dashed on the rocks because of this loudmouth. He wasn’t going to let Reth debase him any longer. Catalyzed into action, Jaden roared and tackled him belligerently. He caught Reth around his waist and dropped him to the ground.
Reth flipped him and landed a right cross on Jaden’s chin.
Jaden felt strong arms pulling him and Reth apart.
“What the hell is going on here?” Truck’s loud voice boomed from down the hall.
“He attacked me!” Reth squealed, rubbing the back of his head.
“We don’t condone fighting here. Both of you, to quarters!”
Jaden pulled free of the arms that inhibited him. “You’ve all already convicted me before I’ve even had a trial.” He stormed out of the building. If they were determined to make him a pariah and put him behind bars, he was going to stay free as long as he could.
What was he going to do? He’d be watched at every turn now. He couldn’t get Squeeze his package, and there’d be no more journeys into the U.Z. for him. He needed help, but who was there left to trust? He was on his own. There was no doubt about that.
Baqer. Baqer would help.
Jaden still felt badly about the way things had been left between them, but he knew Baqer was a true friend. Jaden would be able to convince him to forgive him for being such a jerk at Ally’s internment and help him out.
He rented another stupid flying car—a clunker—and headed to Tamlando to see his only remaining friend. When he reached the Splitter Center lab, Baqer was putting equipment in boxes.
“Jaden, what are you doing here?” Baqer asked, shifting uncomfortably.
“Can we talk? You know, in private?” His meaning was implicit but he gestured at the drawer that held the security bypass switch just to make sure Baqer got it.
Baqer flipped the switch and nodded. “It’s okay now.”
“You’ve got to help me. I need to get a note to someone, but I know I’m being watched.”
Jaden noticed there was no sparkle in his friend’s eye. Baqer usually relished the cloak-and-dagger stuff.
“Look, I know I behaved badly when we went to the internment at Fort Miami, but that wasn’t me. It was the splitting. I had Ally split out of me, and it turned me into an execrable, unthinking corporate monster. I’m sorry, Baqer. I totally get why you’d deplore how I behaved. I should have told you sooner. In fact, there are a lot of things I should have told you.” Jaden launched into a full explanation of the turmoil of his life, from having Ally split out of him to taking Joy to bring her back to infiltrating the U.Z. to look for her. “You’re the only one I can trust, Baqer, my only friend. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this before.”
Baqer’s expression grew increasingly conflicted as Jaden spilled more of the story. He looked back down at his half-packed box, clearly torn. “Jaden, I—”
“Look, I wouldn’t ask you to help if I had any other options. With these auditors watching every move I make, I can’t ever go back into the U.Z., and I definitely can’t go see Squeeze. I hate to ask you to be complicit in my affairs again, but I need you to get a note to him, to tell him what’s happened.” He pressed a folded note into Baqer’s hand.
Baqer set it on the table and pushed it back toward Jaden.
“You always wanted some adventure, didn’t you? Now’s your chance, my friend.”
“I can’t help you,” Baqer said. “I’m leaving. I—I finally got that transfer. I’ve got a three o’clock shuttle to New York.”
“That’s wonderful, but how? After all these years?”
“I just needed something to distinguish myself.” Baqer winced as he said the words.
Jaden felt an uneasy ache as he finally noticed his friend had yet to meet his eyes.
“So . . . I showed Management the splitting device we created.”
“Baqer, you didn’t!”
“They were so impressed that they had me develop a version for rippers.”
“You didn’t tell them what I did—”
Finally, Baqer met his gaze. “I’m sorry,” he said firmly. “I was tired of being here, not getting anywhere, and it seemed like you were turning into a whole different person, anyway. Crazy from the addiction you couldn’t see, then crazy from the treatment for it. Not the Jaden I knew.”
Jaden felt ill. Kim and Reth hadn’t turned him in. Baqer had!
“How could you do this to me?” Jaden demanded. “I thought we were friends!”
“You cherished your addiction over our friendship.”
Jaden couldn’t believe his friend’s betrayal. Not for one second had he ever doubted Baqer’s fidelity. “But I couldn’t help it,” Jaden protested, panicked. “My addictions are part of me, of who I am.” He paused, hearing his own words and feeling their meaning sink in. “Baqer, I didn’t realize until I got split myself and then had the splitting negated by Joy that splitting doesn’t just build a wall around the addiction like I thought it did. It walls away other things too, seals away part of who you are. Maybe—maybe splitting isn’t always right.” His mind reeled from all the epiphanies suddenly coming to him. Not until this moment, arguing with Baqer, had he understood that there was no way he could keep all his recent experiences with Ally and Joy separate from his life as a splitter and ripper.
He truly believed he and Ally should be free and together. And he also believed that having his feelings for her and everything else that made him who he was intact instead of split away was the way it should be. So then why did it make sense for the two of them, but no one else?
It was all he’d believed in for so long, but what if the Corporation was wrong? Jaden remembered being caught up in ripping that murderer, even as he saw all the other parts of the man they were ripping out of him for good. At the time, the experience had been a rush—it had felt like a job well done. But some nagging doubt inside of him had questioned the extent of the process even then, and now he realized why.
“I think you’d better leave,” Baqer said.
“Yeah, I think so.” Jaden turned and headed out of the lab, but he paused at the door. “You know, you once told me that The Corporation never forgave a betrayal. Seems they’ll let you replace one betrayal for another.”