Coming up from behind, Tail knocked the blaster out of Reth’s hand. Jaden tackled Reth, pinning him. Reth butted his nose with his forehead, and Jaden wheeled backward. Reth lunged for his blaster and reached it just before Tail did.
Reth grabbed the gun and then Tail. He took the eleven-year-old by his shirt and hefted him outside to navigate his way through the gunfire on his own. Jaden just hoped he could trust his instinct that Tail knew how to take care of himself by now.
Ally finally snapped to life. “He’s just a kid!”
Reth snorted. “There’s no such thing in the Unemployed Zone.”
Weaponless and without any real choice, Jaden and Ally surrendered. Loaded up in the Raptor 300 that had rescued Jaden after his crash, he and Ally were returned to Fort Miami.
Instead of getting a speed-trial and sentenced into the Unemployed Zone, Jaden was taken back to his quarters, and Ally was whisked away toward the labs.
Jaden struggled to try to make sense of it all. What were they doing to Ally? What was going to happen to them? How could things have ever gotten this bad?
He heard a knock at the door.
“Come,” Jaden said.
The door slid open and there, before Jaden, was Ally.
A rush of emotion flooded Jaden. He threw his arms around her and kissed her, dragging her into his room, but she was strangely limp in his arms.
Ally finally turned her head. The unmistakable kidney-shaped ripper implants gleamed.
Jaden backed away. “Ally, what happened?”
“I’m a ripper now, just like you.”
Ally no longer had blueberry-colored pigtails. Her hair had been dyed to match her roots and curved around her face in a flattering bob.
“Why did you let them do this to you?”
“What do you mean, let them?”
Jaden shivered. “How could you, after everything I told you about what splitting and ripping does to a person?”
“I used to think like you, too, but now that I’ve been through the procedure I see how silly that all is. You just don’t have the proper mindset,” Ally said. “I intend to use my new abilities to help people.”
“Ally, no good can come of ripping, no matter how well-intentioned you are.”
She remained inexorable. “You’re so wrong. For the first time in my life, I know what my true role in The Corporation is. All these years of struggle and angst for what? If I had just come to The Corporation sooner, they could have helped me a long time ago.”
“They’re not helping you!” Jaden said, wishing he could be more eloquent. “They’re changing you. They’ve made you someone you’re not.”
“And who are you to decide who I am? That’s up to me, not you. For the first time in my life, I’ve got a talent all my own, something that defines me beyond my parents’ wealth and status. If I use my powers for good, they can’t help but be proud of me. They’ll finally be forced to forget my errant past.”
“There’s no way, after everything we’ve done, that The Corporation is going to simply forgive and forget and let us atone and be productive employees again. They’re not that beneficent,” Jaden argued.
“You might be surprised,” interjected a voice. And Jaden certainly was surprised to find Tail sticking his head through the door. The kid entered the room. “They’ve been pretty beneficent to me.”
Jaden was delighted to see him. “You made it out, Tail! But how? And what are you doing here?”
“Actually, after your crash, the Corporation paid me to keep tabs on you whenever you entered the U.Z. Some guy named Squeeze would tell them when and where you were entering, and I’d take it from there. They even promised they’d put me in the Splitter Academy if you got busted. So while it sucks to be you, I’m going to be a splitter now—pretty cool, huh, Ally?”
Ally and Tail high-fived.
Jaden rolled his eyes. “Listen, Tail. I really don’t think you’re going to like life as a splitter.”
“As opposed to what—life in the swamps? I’m going to like it fine. When I get paid, I’m going to buy myself a Phoenix 5000.”
Ally interjected. “Listen, Jaden. We’re reformed. Like you were supposed to be. Only Tail and I aren’t doing this half-assed, like you. If you’re going to reform, you better go all the way—none of your hypocritical, cooler-than-thou posing, Amsterdam.” She emphasized his nickname mockingly.
“Ally, I know you can ‘reform’ if you want to—but why would you want to?” Jaden knew there had to be some way of reaching her, of helping her remember who she was and what she stood for. “After all you’ve learned, do you really want to be an employee again? I know I don’t. I’m not contrite, and I don’t want to be.”
“I know,” Ally said. “That’s why I’m here.”
A chill crept over Jaden. “What do you mean?”
Ally locked the door as Tail stood watching, interested. From the small bag she carried with her, she pulled out a pronged device that looked like a tick.
Jaden backed away. It looked like the portable splitting device Baqer had invented, except it had been further developed . . . to be used for ripping.
Ally’s expression was firm and passionless. “I’m here to help you, Jaden, just like you helped me. When I was at my lowest, you did what you had to, as a dutiful employee. You pink-slipped me so I could become one with The Corporation again.”
“But I’m going to save you the pain of the Unemployed Zone, and I’m going to let you keep all your fingers. That propensity you have for addiction, though—that’s going to have to go.” Her lips curled in a thin smile and her eyes flashed at him mockingly. “This won’t hurt, Jaden. You may feel a slight . . . pressure.”