Inside Out Page 10

I folded the handkerchief and smoothed a few wrinkles before returning it to the cabinet. The other item in my niche was a comb decorated with pink pearls along its spine. The smooth spears pushed into my fingers as I pulled the comb through my long brown hair. With all the excitement, I had forgotten to rebraid it and it had knotted.

Thoughts of the comb wove through my mind as the comb’s teeth worked at the knots in my hair. According to my CM, it had been a gift from my birth mother. My CM had kept it safe for me until I reached 1400 weeks, the age of maturity. The age when you were no longer considered a child. It was when you became a scrub and the reality of what the rest of your life would be like became suddenly and brutally apparent. The old-timers called it sweet sixteen, but there wasn’t anything sweet about it.

I finished combing my hair and examined the gift, wondering which adult scrub cared enough to part with such a precious item, yet didn’t care enough to contact me. Even though it was forbidden, a few mothers kept in touch with their offspring.

Damn. Every moment counted. I shoved my comb back into the cabinet. These stolen glances were a nasty habit that I needed to break. I slammed the door shut and bolted.

Never taking the same route to and from the cabinet, I snaked my way west before entering an air conduit on level four which would lead to a laundry chute I could use. The air conduit passed above an abandoned storeroom. I always shone my light down through the vent to marvel at the wasted space. A perfectly good chamber big enough to house four scrubs comfortably was being used for broken furniture.

Ghost furniture. Each time I checked, the pieces lost more of their color and texture under a coating of dust—one of the evils of Inside.

This time, when I paused a bluelight glowed, and the room appeared to be different. The couch cushions had been cleaned, revealing a brown and green geometric pattern. The mess of broken chairs had been piled in a corner. The junk on the desk in the opposite corner had been removed and an upper sat before it, working under a small lamp.

Startled, I pulled away and hit my head on the top of the shaft. The noise vibrated and the upper turned to look. With careful and slow movements, I started to cross the vent.

“Who’s there?” he called.

I paused, resting my knees and most of my weight on the vent. Big mistake. The vent cover groaned and popped free. Scrabbling with my hands for purchase, I felt my legs drop, pulling my body down. The last thing I saw before hitting the floor was a black-haired man with a shocked expression.

4

AS I CRASHED TO THE FLOOR, I PULLED MY BODY INTO a protective ball. I kept a fetal position as waves of pain pulsed up and down my legs. I braced for the cry of outrage from the occupant of the room and the call for the Pop Cops.

Instead, a concerned face came into my view.

“Are you all right?” he asked. His blue eyes held a touch of awe as he stared at me with parted lips. No immediate threat.

I grunted and stretched, feeling for injuries. It wasn’t the first time I had fallen, and it wouldn’t be the last. My leg muscles would be sore for twenty hours or more, but otherwise no broken bones. Rising with care, I leaned on the couch as a dizzy spell washed through me.

The young man stepped back as if afraid. I suppressed a laugh; I had probably given him a real scare. Smoothing my hair, I glanced around the room. Food bowls, glasses, markers and a wipe board littered the area, suggesting the room was in use.

The tenant wore a black-and-silver jumper, indicating a level-four resident who was in training for whatever job the Controllers had assigned him. Having never met an upper besides the Pop Cops, I had learned about them and their families from the computer’s learning software in the care facility.

“Are you a…scrub?” he asked.

Oh, yes, a young one probably around fifteen hundred weeks old. Well, close to my age, but the uppers coddled their children, babying them until they were seventeen hundred weeks old.

I pointed to my work suit. “Guess.”

“Oh. Yes. Well. Sorry,” he said. His pale skin flushed pink.

My head cleared. He seemed in no hurry to call for help, probably didn’t even know he should be reporting me. I wasn’t taking any more chances; I climbed onto the couch, trying to reach the air duct. It was another meter beyond my grasp. The vent was in the middle of the ceiling, and I couldn’t use the rivets to scale the side wall.

My first attempt to jump was unsuccessful. I thumped to the floor with an alarming bang.

“Stop it,” he said.

His firm tone gave me pause. “Why?” I asked.

“With all the noise you’re making, someone will hear you and come to investigate.”

“Why do you care?” I shot back at him. “I’m the one who isn’t supposed to be here. It’s not like you’ll get in trouble.”

He frowned. “I don’t want anyone to know about this room,” he said. “It’s where I come for privacy.”

I couldn’t help it—I laughed. “What? You have to share a room with a brother?” I guessed. “Poor boy,” I mocked. “Try sharing a barrack with three thousand others.”

Fury flashed in his eyes. But I had to give him credit for controlling his temper.

“When I’m here,” he said evenly, “no one can find me. No one can give me assignments. No one can harp at me about shirking my duty. No one makes me pledge loyalty to the Controllers.” He stepped toward me. “And I’m not about to give it up because some scrub doesn’t have the sense to be quiet.”

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