Inside Out Page 3

The crowd dispersed, and I was face-to-face with the latest prophet. Long blond hair, thin narrow face and no calluses on his hands. There were no blonds in the lower levels. Hair dye was a luxury reserved for the uppers only.

“Trella,” he said in a deep, resonant voice.

“Look,” I said. “You’re more than welcome to seduce these sheep,” I waved my hand at the working scrubs. “But don’t sing your song of a better place to Cog. When you go back upstairs to reapply your hair dye, I don’t want him left hurting.”

“Trell,” Cog said, shooting me a warning look.

“You don’t believe me?” Broken Man asked.

“No. You’re just an agent for the Pop Cops. Spewing the same bull about how our hard work will be rewarded after we’re recycled. Oh, you might stick around for a hundred weeks or so, but then you’ll be gone with the next shift and another ‘prophet’ will take your place.” I cocked my head to the side, considering. “Maybe the next guy will have a missing limb. Especially if your wheelchair angle works.”

Broken Man laughed, causing the nearby scrubs to glance over at us. “Cog said you would be difficult, but I think he spoke too kindly.” He studied my face.

Impatient, I asked, “What do you want?”

“I need your expertise,” Broken Man said.

“What expertise?”

“You know every duct, corridor, pipe, shortcut, hole and ladder of Inside. Only you will be able to retrieve something I need.”

“How did you know?”

“I’ve heard rumors about the Queen of the Pipes. Cogon confirmed them.”

I glared at my friend. The scrubs in my Care group had given me the title and not because they admired my tendency to explore the ductwork. Just the opposite. They had teased me for my desire to spend time alone.

“Will you help me?” Broken Man asked.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You were right,” he said. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I used to live in the upper levels.”

I stepped back in alarm.

“No,” he rushed to assure me, “I’m not part of the Population Control Police. What do you call them? Pop Cops? I worked as an air controller, keeping track of the air systems, making sure the filters were clean and the oxygen levels breathable.” Broken Man opened his mouth wide and pointed to a large gap in his bottom back teeth. “See the space for my port?”

“Anyone can have missing teeth,” I said. “I know a lady in Sector D1 who’ll get rid of anything you want. Including body parts.”

Broken Man rubbed a hand over his face. His long thin fingers traced a graceful line down his throat. “Look. I have to spout the propaganda. If I tell the scrubs Gateway exists and the Pop Cops are lying to them, the Pop Cops will recycle me.”

I felt as though he’d shot a stunner at my chest. He mentioned Gateway in a matter-of-fact tone. Gateway was a myth in the lower levels. The Pop Cops insisted no physical doorway existed to Outside. But stories and rumors circulated despite their claims, and everyone liked to speculate on its location.

The Pop Cops’ prophets preached that Outside could only be attained after a person’s life ends. And only if the person worked hard and obeyed Inside’s laws. If a scrub was worthy, his inner soul would travel to Outside while his physical body would be fed to Chomper.

Most of the scrubs believed this Pop Cop dribble. I didn’t. Souls were a myth and our bodies stayed trapped Inside.

“Come again?” I asked Broken Man.

“Gateway exists and I can prove it. Before coming down here, I hid some disks in a duct above my sleeping quarters, number three-four-two-one in Sector F3. I need them and only you can retrieve them without being seen. The disks might have information on the location of Gateway.”

“Might have?” He was backpedaling already.

“I didn’t get a chance to look at them.”

“How convenient. I’m not authorized to go above level two. There are locked air filters to keep undesirables out, and if the Pop Cops catch me, I could have an unpleasant encounter with Chomper and end up as fertilizer for hydroponics.” I shivered. Inside didn’t have room for many holding cells. Undesirables were simply recycled at the whim of the Pop Cops.

“Hasn’t stopped you before,” Cog said.

I punched him in the arm. “Shut up.”

He smiled.

“Perhaps she’s scared,” Broken Man said.

“Not scared. Just not stupid enough to walk into a trap,” I said.

“I meant that you might be scared because I’m telling the truth, and then you’d have to believe me.”

“I don’t have to believe anything. Especially not your lies.” I turned to Cog. “Watch this one.”

When I began to walk away, Broken Man called, “Going to clean air duct number seventeen?”

I stopped.

“I was in charge of the cleaning schedules before my ‘accident.’”

I turned back. “Nice try, but cleaning assignments are posted all over the lower levels. See, Cog, he’s grasping at air. A true prophet wouldn’t have to trick someone into believing him.”

“I’m sure no prophet has had to deal with Trella Garrard Sanchia before,” Broken Man said.

My blood froze in my veins. Scrubs didn’t worry about bloodlines; most knew nothing about their biological parents. Most didn’t care. Scrubs birthed more scrubs. We mixed blood like paint. Too many colors combined, and we ended up with brown-eyed, brown-haired babies who were raised in Care groups until they were old enough to work. Me included. With my brown hair and eyes, I blended right in with the scrubs.

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