“Ally! What are you doing here?” Jaden said, attempting to contain himself. After scouring the swamp for her he couldn’t believe she could just show up at the center.
But something was wrong. The ebullient, glowing girl he had known on the outside had disappeared. Her blueberry-colored ponytails sagged, and dark brown roots crept through at her crown. She had her hands thrust in her pockets.
Her voice barely rose to a whisper. “Rip and release,” she said.
“Rip and release,” she said louder. “I want you to rip me, to take this—” She pulled and plucked at her shirt with one hand while the other stayed buried in her pocket. “To take all of this evil out of my body.”
Jaden wanted to wrap his arms around her, to comfort her, but what could he do with two U.Z. guards in the room?
He put on his most imperious voice. “I’ll take it from here, men. She’s not likely to overpower me.” He winked. “Would you prefer to wait in the lobby, or should I call the guard house for pick-up when I’m done?”
Jaden waited anxiously for the guards to leave so Ally would relax and be her normal self again, but even after the door had shut behind them there was no change in her behavior. “Let’s just get this over with,” Ally said. “I want the evil out of me.”
Jaden touched her chin and brought her face upward. “There’s no evil inside of the girl I love, Ally Fayre.”
Ally’s aqua eyes were totally vacant. She pulled away from him and thrust her hand back in her pocket. “You just don’t understand. I don’t have any other choice.”
“What happened to you, Ally?”
Her laugh was acerbic. “I got pink-slipped by the boy I loved. What do you think happened?”
“I can expl—”
“There is no way on earth you can explain away what you did to me. The only thing you can do now is make it up to me by ripping me so I’ll no longer be Unemployed.”
“You don’t want that.”
“How can you know what I want? You’ve never been inside the U.Z. You don’t know what it’s like. Even if my soul could bear the shame and alienation there’s no way I’ll live to see my release date twenty years out.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Why not? It’s the truth. But elite rippers don’t have to think about the truth, do they?”
Jaden didn’t even know where to begin. There was so much he wanted to tell her.
“I’ve been searching for you,” Jaden said.
“From your cushy desk chair in Fort Miami?”
“I’ve been in the U.Z. twice now. I had to know you were okay.”
Ally laughed derisively. “Nobody just waltzes into the Unemployed Zone.”
“I didn’t waltz. I swam.”
She stared at him for a second, and the first flicker of life came into her features. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Please believe me when I tell you yes from the bottom of my heart.”
Tears struggled down Ally’s face. “Then why did you send me away?”
“I’m as much of an addict as you are, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Or maybe I did and just didn’t want to deal with it. I had my addiction split out of me, but it changed me, took other parts with it.”
“You’re addicted? To what?”
“To you, Ally. I had you split out of me, and when I did, my world collapsed. I found solace in Joy, and it made me realize how wrong I had been.”
Ally squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head in silence. “You’re mocking me. I won’t be derided.”
“Ally, listen to me. It’s true. It’s all true.”
“Ripping is the only way,” she said, not opening her eyes. “Rip and release.”
Jaden grabbed her by the shoulders. “Ally, snap out of it. That’s just Corporation propaganda you’re spouting.”
“Rip and release,” she repeated.
“I ripped someone once, a very evil man—a killer. It wasn’t liberation for the monster—it was lobotomy.”
“Ripping doesn’t just take away the bad parts of you. It takes away lots of little bits of you from all over. Once you’re ripped, you’re no longer the same person.”
“I don’t want to be the same person. I want to be different. I want out of the world I see with these eyes.”
“I fell in love with those eyes, and the world they saw,” Jaden argued.
“You only loved me when the music was in me,” Ally said.
“That’s not true!”
“But it is. The only time I’m who I truly am is when there’s music. . . . ” Her eyes got a dreamy, faraway look in them. “When there’s music, the world explodes into color. All these beautiful shapes and colors swirl in front of my face. Without my music, the world is variations on gray. I can’t live like that.”
Jaden’s heart skipped a beat—Ally was a synesthete, just like him. But without the cybernetic implants, she had no way of controlling her experience.
“How long have you been like this?” Jaden asked.
“Forever, for as long as I can remember. And now I want it gone. If you rip me, maybe I’ll forget the world has color.”
“Ally, you’ve got synesthesia, just like me,” he said eagerly. “You see music in colors and shapes. My cybernetics use music to turn people’s personalities into what you see when you hear music. I used to think that my implants allowed me to help people, but I’m not so sure anymore. People’s addictions are part of them, and even when they’re split or ripped out, they’re still with you. It’s why Joy works so well. It only takes a small crack to let your addiction spark through.
“Don’t you see? It’s like my past. I’ve spent five years trying to forget the streets I came from, to pretend that the smart-aleck drug-dealer kid I was isn’t still inside of me. But he is, Ally. He’s part of me, and like your music, without my street smarts, I’m only a hollow shell.”
“I don’t want to be like this,” Ally said. “I just want to forget it all.”
“You’ll never be whole until you accept who you truly are.”
“And where exactly am I supposed to do that? In the Unemployed Zone?” Ally pulled her hand out of her pocket and held it up. She waved at him with four fingers.
“They took my thumb, Jaden. They cut it off for a daily ration of stale meal bars and water.” Tears rolled down her face. “I want to be ripped. Reprogram me or the only way I’ll get out of the Unemployed Zone is when they scatter my ashes to the wind.”
“I’ll get you out of there,” Jaden promised. “But you’re going to have to go back in.”
“Jaden, I can’t. I just can’t. There won’t be anything left of me.”
He grabbed a notepad from the desk and scribbled a note. “I want you to find a kid named Tail. Everyone knows him. Tell him to take you to see Gaspar—”
“Jaden, no! I haven’t been in the U.Z. very long, but even I know who Gaspar is. He’s a despot who eats ravers for lunch.”
Jaden had seen that for himself, firsthand, but he had no choice but to consign her to someone’s care or else she wouldn’t be alive by the time his plan went into action. “Give him this note and wait there for me. I’ll come for you in two days.”
“Gaspar will be picking his teeth with my bones by then.”
“Not if you give him this note. He may be notorious and he’s definitely a mean bugger, but he’s true to his word, especially if he thinks there’s profit to be made. He’ll give you asylum. Between Gaspar and Tail, you’ll be protected. Just, uh, don’t ever call Gaspar ‘Don,’ okay?”
“Nothing.” Jaden bit back a smile. Obviously Ally hadn’t even heard the other name, which was better for her.
“Do you promise you’ll come for me?” Ally asked.
“You have my word.”