Inside Out Page 16

With a gnarled finger, the old scrub tapped the man who had hushed him. “Laugh all you want, but the millionth week isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.”

“...Broken Man.” Karla Trava’s voice cut through the buzz of voices around me. My attention snapped back to her.

“Information is still needed. You will be rewarded for any tips that lead us to him.” She stopped for a heartbeat. “But don’t lie to me.” Her tone turned deadly. She gestured. Two Pop Cops pulled a scrub forward. Karla yanked the poor guy up to the tabletop by his collar. He swayed on weak legs and his face was a mask of fear. His hands trembled. Silence blanketed the dining room.

Karla patted her weapon belt, looking as if she debated. With a blur of motion, her kill-zapper jumped into her hand. She pressed the nozzle to the scrub’s chest.

“This,” she said, “is what I do to liars.” A crackle built to a crescendo as the man jerked and twitched.

When the lieutenant commander pulled the weapon away, the man dropped to the floor with an echoing thud.


THE SOUND OF THE SCRUB HITTING THE FLOOR BURNED into my mind like the kill-zapper had burned into the man’s chest. I shook in my chair, feeling hot and short of breath. It didn’t take much imagination to envision myself an arm’s length away from LC Karla with a kill-zapper at my breast.

She stepped off the table and let the usual ensign read the weekly announcements. The ensign stumbled over his words, probably thrown by the unnatural silence in the room.

Little by little, whispered conversation spread, and the ensign’s voice evened out. My plans to collect food during the assembly took on a higher level of danger. Karla Trava had raised the stakes.

Even so, I couldn’t let Broken Man starve. Time was running out. I faked a coughing fit. My seatmates glanced at me in annoyance. I sputtered and choked for a while then stood and headed for the kitchen doors, hoping anyone who was interested would assume I sought a drink.

As soon as the doors closed, I bolted to the refrigerators. Grabbing cheese, sheep’s milk and containers of vegetable casseroles, I piled them on one of the stainless-steel counters. I shut the refrigerator and sprinted to the freezer, tossing a few hunks of frozen mutton onto my pile. With panic fueling my actions, I leapt up on the counter next to the food. Right above my head was a vent to an air duct. I opened it and loaded the shaft with the provisions. Careful not to block the airflow, I shoved and stuffed until my breath came in puffs.

When finished, I replaced the vent cover, hopped down and filled a glass with water. I slipped back into the dining room, covering my gasps for air with the drink as I reclaimed my seat. None of the scrubs gave me a glance, and I hoped no one suspected.

When the signal sounded to end the assembly, I filed out with the rest of the scrubs. The line of people bulged sideways. Even though the scrub’s body had been removed, everyone avoided the spot where he had fallen.

As I passed Karla, she pressed her lips together and cocked her head to one side. I dropped my gaze and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, which only resulted in her calling out to me.

“Trella, come here,” she ordered.

I stepped out of line. My heart jumped in my chest. “Yes, Lieutenant Commander?”

“Feeling better?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your cough. I hope you’re not getting a virus.”

Her concern was frightening. “No, sir,” I said, my mind roiling. “I just must have swallowed something wrong.”

“Oh, yes, I understand,” she said with an even flat tone. “I find myself having to swallow wrong things all the time. They leave a bitter taste. Makes me choke. Churns my stomach.”

I had no answer. My mind buzzed with warning signals.

She studied me for an eternal minute, then said, “Hour zero. Time to report to your station for your next shift. Air duct twenty-two, I believe.”

“Yes, sir,” I managed to squeak out. I joined the flow of scrubs to the hallway, not daring to look back at the LC. She had been reading my file. She knew all about me, and she wanted me to know. Damn.

An interesting fact about air duct number twenty-two was it crossed right above the kitchen, and eventually, if you followed it far enough, it passed right on top of Broken Man’s hideout.

Once I reached my cleaning station, I hefted the troll into the air shaft. Then I raided a maintenance closet for extra supplies. Crawling behind the troll, I built a crude skid. I kept glancing behind me, checking to see if LC Karla had sent a couple of RATSS to spy on me.

When the troll reached my stash of food, I shut it down while I rigged the skid up to it. I peered through the vent. The kitchen bustled with activity. Scrubs filled containers and chopped vegetables. Two ensigns strolled through the chaos. They were probably keeping track of the knives, counting in their heads to make sure a scrub didn’t steal one and attack the Pop Cops.

No sign of Karla. My relief surprised me. Subconsciously I must have been expecting her to ambush me; to reach through the vent and cry “Gotcha!” before she kill-zapped me.

With that awful image in mind, I loaded the food onto the pallet as fast as I could, then restarted the cleaning troll. The troll’s engine strained with the extra weight. I had to smile when I flipped open one of the control panels on the side of the troll and turned a tiny thumbscrew. Cogon had shown me how to increase the machine’s throttle, so it could move faster. An increase of speed meant I would finish my work sooner, and would have more time off—provided no one caught me.

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