Jaden had no choice but to acquiesce. He followed Kim, with Reth’s smirk searing into the back of his neck. Well, Reth could pop all the bags of chips he wanted. How bad could Jaden get busted for making a little mess? Once inside Kim’s office, he might even get a chance to elucidate what really happened. Not that it mattered that much.
In Kim’s office, Jaden flopped into the round chair in front of Kim’s desk. He regarded Kim from underneath his blond dreads. “It’s not fair, Mom.” Jaden joked. “Reth’s always instigating stuff like this.”
“I admit that guy gets under my skin. I can’t help it, Kim.”
“You’d better start learning to control yourself if you want to be on the Ripper Squad. They won’t abide outbursts like yours. Not at all.”
“And Reth? He’s—”
“We’re not talking about Reth here, Jaden. We’re talking about you. As your team leader, it’s my job to make sure you stay aboveboard and that you achieve your maximum potential. It hasn’t been easy for me, as you well know. . . . ”
Jaden rolled his eyes. “How many times am I going to have to be upbraided about my past before The Corporation starts trusting me, Kim?”
“When are you going to cease your ignominious behavior? When are you going to show yourself as trustworthy, Jaden?”
Kim crossed her legs and pulled her skirt down with a slight squirm. Jaden couldn’t help but glance down at her sinuous figure.
He swallowed. “When have I ever shown myself not to be trustworthy?”
“Try less than an hour ago when you were impertinent to those Senior Management clients.”
“The girl wasn’t Senior Management, just her parents.”
“And that’s who you were insolent to—”
“Ally was my client, not her parents.”
“Who do you think paid the bill? The little raver or her Senior Management parents? This is exactly what I’m talking about. I worry about you, Jaden. I’ve tried to nurture you, but sometimes I think you identify with the street element, because of your past—”
Jaden shifted in his seat. “Kim, I’m eighteen now. I’m not the same little kid The Corporation rescued from the streets—”
“The little drug dealer kid, you mean. You were headed straight for the Unemployed Zone. If The Corporation had remained adamant and hadn’t taken pity on you, you would have never seen your fourteenth birthday—”
“For which I’m thankful, and I have been for five years, but how much longer do I have to keep groveling to vindicate myself with The Corporation? I’m a dutiful employee. I’m an acclaimed splitter, one of the best, and you know it, or else you never would have recommended me for the Ripper Squad.”
“A decision I hope you won’t force me to regret.”
Jaden looked at her. “Kim, you know you don’t mean that.”
“I don’t know anymore, Jaden. You’ve been in my charge for so long . . . I wonder if it’s colored my perception. This next week is so important for you, and for us. You’ve got to be at the pinnacle of your game at all times. The auditors could be lurking anywhere, assessing your performance to determine whether or not you’re fit for the Ripper Squad.”
“Reth said they were here this morning.”
Jaden didn’t really have an answer to that one. He had already played the scenario in his own mind and didn’t like the outcome.
Kim stood up and walked around her desk. She sat on the edge, giving Jaden another view of her well-toned legs. “You know I only want you to succeed.”
“I’m not the only one who thinks it’s imperative that you do well in the next week. Your application to the Ripper Squad has caught the attention of Tamlando Management.”
Jaden wrinkled his brow. “Really?”
Kim nodded sagely. “Quite definitely. So you see, now, more than ever, it’s not just your own future you’re competing for. You’re representing all of Tamlando. Your achievements will be a matter of pride for all of our division.”
No pressure or anything.
“Don’t worry, Kim. I won’t let The Corporation down,” Jaden said.
“Do I detect a note of sarcasm, Jaden? You know perfectly well I’ve been busting my ass to get you promoted.”
Uh-oh. Kim was starting to feel sorry for herself, which meant that Jaden was skating on thin ice.
“Sorry, Kim. I know you’ve done a lot.”
“Not enough, evidently, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“No, really. You’ve been great all these years, helping me, guiding me. I’ve appreciated it all, every minute of it.”
“I can’t help but feel that I could have done more.” She sniffed and turned back to her desk. “But there’s still time to help you, Jaden. I’ll just make you my top project from now on. You know, keep a closer eye on you so I don’t repeat the same mistakes of the past myself,” she said officiously.
“Uh, Kim, I don’t think—”
“You’ve got patients waiting for you, Jaden. You’re dismissed,” she said curtly. As Jaden left Kim’s office, he spotted Reth sauntering in the other direction. He’d probably been listening the entire time. Jaden shot him a withering look from under his dreads and trudged toward the Splitter Center.
The Splitter Center was on the lower floors of the behemoth Splitter Complex. The dorms took up the top floors, and the labs and practice areas occupied the middle floors. Jaden felt his indignation and discomfiture wane as he lumbered through the familiar space. It gave him the feeling that he knew exactly what to expect, what his day would bring him.
Then Mario surfaced at the center.
“Hola, Splitter Emory,” Mario said, his broad grin failing to conceal his nervous edginess. Mario’s round face always seemed locked open, eyebrows up, eyes wide, with every tooth showing.
Jaden forced himself to sound casual as he shook Mario’s hand and greeted him. “What are you doing here, Mario? You’re all paid up.”
“It’s back, man. The thirst. It was gone for a while after you worked on me, but now it’s back.”
Jaden’s heart jumped. Another failed treatment? What was going on here?
As Jaden prepared, his mind raced with the possibilities. After Mario’s first treatment a week ago, Jaden was certain that even the suggestion of alcohol would make the teen shudder with revulsion. What could have happened? Had he made a mistake in treatment? This was definitely not the time to be losing his touch.
Jaden jacked into Mario’s mind, which swirled in dynamic earth colors—browns and rusts, mostly. Mario’s alcohol addiction was a jaundiced yellow that Jaden had walled away not more than a week ago. Now it seared into Mario’s brain like the heat of a solar flare.
Jaden rebuilt the wall, trying not to get distracted by its absence. Perhaps his own lack of focus had caused the teen’s wall to weaken and then explode the first time. He withdrew from Mario and disengaged the probe.
Mario sat up docilely.
“Hold up a sec, Mario. Stay put. I’d like to connect once more.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Not at all, bro. Standard quality-control procedures. We want our patients to be one-hundred-percent satisfied with our service.”
Mario eased into the chair.
Jaden jacked back in and found the wall around Mario’s addiction intact. He had half-expected to see a virus of some sort adhering to the wall, oozing corrosive acid onto the bricks. But he saw nothing so melodramatic.
“You’re all set, Mario.”
“Thanks, Splitter Emory. Maybe next time I see you at The Verve, not here, eh?”
With a half-hour hiatus before his next session, Jaden decided to drop in on his friend Baqer to see if he could check his cybernetic implants for him—help him get a handle on these sudden problems he seemed to be having with his patients’ addictions recurring. He found Baqer, as always, in the lab.
Baqer was only twenty years old, but way too intelligent to be simply the maintenance man for a bunch of egotistical splitters; Jaden was sure he was headed for bigger and better things someday soon. When Jaden first arrived at the Splitter Complex, he practically revered the older and more sagacious technician. Now that he had come into his own, they were more like peers, and Jaden considered Baqer his friend, probably his best friend.
Jaden found Baqer bent over a convoluted mass of metal and wires spread along a white lab table. The other stations in the lab usually buzzed with the repairs and experiments of the other technicians but today it was atypically empty.
“Hey, Baqer. Got a second?”
Baqer looked up and beamed. “For you, my friend, anytime.”
“I’ve got maybe half an hour before my next session. Think you might check the calibration on my cybernetic implants?”
“You are experiencing a malfunction, maybe?”
Jaden stiffened. “Whoa, bro. Who said anything about a malfunction? I just want a checkup.” He had tried to sound playful, but regretted the umbrage that had crept into his tone.
“Hey, take it easy, my friend. What has happened to my happy-go-lucky Jaden?”
“I know, I know, bro. Sorry for the snit. This Ripper Squad stuff has me a bit on edge. I’ve got to get myself in top operating condition in case an auditor shows up. Reth said they were hanging around today when I was at T.D.C.”
Baqer nodded. “Scary-looking types, too. Twins.”
“I know not, my friend, but talk about stolid.”
Jaden shuddered. Ever since he was a kid, his eerily enhanced perceptions had allowed him to see right through most people. The possibility of meeting two unfathomable auditors chilled him.
Baqer picked up a diagnostic scanner. “Sit, my friend,” he said, gesturing to a stool. Jaden obeyed and Baqer ran the scanner over the chrome plate above his right temple.
“You would be wise to reconsider your choice of hairstyle, Jaden,” said Baqer, brushing away Jaden’s dreads from the implant. “You may have noticed that your cohorts tend to shave.”
“I like my hair,” Jaden said.
“Your implant does not. A strand or two of that nasty stuff gets stuck in the jack and your entire apparatus could short-circuit.”
“Right, and how many times have you actually seen that happen, bro?”
Jaden laughed. “What’s wrong with taking a little risk now and then, Baq? Live a little.”
“I believe in science, my friend,” Baqer replied. “Science is predictable. A certain behavior begets a certain response. If you want to be calling me risk-averse, I suppose I am,” he said blithely, always happy to talk about his deepest passion. “This won’t hurt,” he added as he inserted the diagnostic probe into one of the jacks in Jaden’s shiny metal plate. “You may feel a slight . . . pressure.”
“AAAAH!” Pain seared through Jaden’s skull, then abruptly stopped. “Where the hell did you learn that, Baq—the Republican Guard?”
“Your reference is anachronistic, my friend,” Baqer said, humming to himself as he manipulated his controls.
Jaden cracked a sly smile through his dreads. “Are you sure you don’t mean anaqronistic, Baqer?”
“Please to be shutting up now, my friend. We have another adjustment to make. With this next bit you may feel a slight pinch, not unsimilar to the bite of a mosquito.”
“The word is dissimilar, you moron, and mosquitos don’t—AAAAAH!” Another flash of pain, which disappeared as abruptly as it had come.
When Jaden had been caught at thirteen dealing the latest designer drug, the thought of cybernetic implants had terrified him. But The Corporation had given him an ultimatum—receive the implants and become a splitter, or pack for a trip to the Unemployed Zone. He chose the former.
The initial surgery had a recovery time of less than a week, and upgrades now took an hour, with almost instantaneous recovery. The cybernetic implants were miraculous. They turned his innate talent for reading people into a viable career that didn’t require him to keep a gun handy. Of course there were times when he missed the more adventurous life he had led as a kid, but The Corporation knew best.
“Very good,” Baqer said. “All readings are normal.”
Heavy footsteps thudded in the hall. Jaden rolled his eyes in exasperation—he didn’t want one of the other splitters finding out that he needed servicing. “So, can we wrap this up, Baq? I’ve got to get back to my roster.”
A familiar figure appeared in the doorway: Reth. “Wrap what up?”
Jaden sighed. The bald, overly muscled creep was everywhere. Didn’t he have clients of his own? “Just getting a little tune-up,” Jaden said.
“So what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing. Just a few hairs getting fried by the implants.”
“Gross, Jaden. You should maintain that hardware better.”
“Why don’t you worry about your own maintenance, Reth? You might do better on tomorrow’s exam.”
Reth’s eyebrows arched. “I see. Trying to get a last-minute upgrade or something? It won’t help you. There’s only one slot, and it’s already been promised to me.”
“Yeah, right, bro.”
“Ask my dad if you don’t believe me. My heritage alone is enough to make me a shoo-in.”
“I don’t think it works that way—and I’m not sweating this exam anyhow.”
“If it doesn’t work that way, how do you think the last five generations of Warrens have become rippers? It’s all about influence, Emory, about who you know.” He smirked. “Too bad you don’t know anybody.”
“He knows me,” Baqer said softly. “And that was enough to get him in for a tune-up the afternoon before the exam.”
Reth huffed, then realized the impact of what Baqer was saying. “Well, I know you, too, Baq.”
Jaden stifled a laugh and Baqer’s eyes sparkled mischievously. “It’s not just about who you know, Splitter Warren. It’s about how you know them.”
“If you’re giving Jaden a tune-up, then you have to give one to me too.”
“Fine, fine . . . ” Baqer said, gesturing toward the stool Jaden had vacated. Reth sat down and Baqer hovered the diagnostic scanner over his shaved head.
Baqer turned to Jaden. “I could uncalibrate him for you, for a meager fee, of course.”
“I’ll go get some cash, bro,” Jaden said, grinning.
Reth pushed away from the lab table. “I’m not letting you anywhere near me now,” Reth said.
With his best mad-scientist look on his face, Baqer limped toward him with the scanner. “Are you sure? Just a little tune-up. It’s exactly what you wanted. . . . ”
“Stay away from me!” Reth said, stumbling backward and bolting from the lab.
Jaden and Baqer burst into laughter.