Inside Out Page 11

“Well, then, it’s to our mutual benefit that I disappear and we both forget about this little incident. Agreed?”

“Yes. No. Yes, but I want to know what you’re doing up here.”

I thought fast. “Cleaning the shaft like a good little scrub.” Climbing back onto the couch, I said, “I’m finished, so I’ll be returning to the lower levels where I belong. Can you give me a leg up?”

He laced his fingers together, but before I could step into his cupped hand, he pulled back.

“What? If I’m caught here, I’m in trouble.”

“What’s it like in the lower levels?”

“Why?”

“I’m curious.”

“Go log on to the computer, look under scrubs,” I said.

“I already tried. All I found was one paragraph of information. I want to know more.”

“You shouldn’t. Curiosity is a fatal trait in here.”

He set his legs slightly apart and tucked his hands under his crossed arms.

I sighed at his stubbornness. “Imagine every space in this room filled with people. Moving from one end to the other is like swimming in a thick human tank. Constantly being jostled and pushed. Smells of scrubs invading your senses, overwhelming you to the point of nausea. Always waiting in line for food, water and for the washroom. Mind-numbing routine with change a rare event. Being battered by the noises of people eating, moving, snoring, mating and talking over the constant roar of the machinery. In the lower levels, there is no quiet place. No peace.”

I drew a deep breath. My speech had come in one burst. The young man had unknowingly unleashed a deluge, which had propelled him onto the couch. Looking around the chamber, I said, “To a scrub, this room is paradise.”

We stared at each other for a few heartbeats.

“No one should live like that,” the man said in a quiet voice.

“Over eighteen thousand and counting do.” I tried to be flippant, but my words felt heavy. A woman caught in the illegal act of terminating her pregnancy was bred until her fertility ceased. Our population bulged. Children were our future, said the Pop Cops. But why? Especially since the future looked like life crammed into every available space. None of the scrubs had a clue.

I pointed toward the duct. “I should go before I’m missed.” A lie. I doubt I would ever be missed. Noted absent, charged delinquent, reprimanded but never missed.

He stood on the couch and created a step with his hands. After I had wiggled inside the air shaft, I called down my thanks.

Before I could move he said, “My name’s Riley Narelle…” He paused as if embarrassed by his family names. Clearing his throat, he continued, “Ashon. Anytime you need a moment of peace, you’re welcome to use my hideaway.”

If he noticed the shock on my face, he didn’t show it. I gave him a curt nod and hurried away, shaken by his offer. An offer that would be too dangerous for me to accept. Scrubs and uppers don’t mix. Ever. The Pop Cops had specific guidelines for keeping everybody where the Pop Cops decided they belonged. Besides, we hated each other. The uppers lived in spacious quarters with their families. Their work schedules were shorter and they had more freedoms. They made the decisions and we followed.

The time I had spent at my niche and with Riley had used up most of my off hours and I needed rest. Moving through the pipes as fast as I dared, I made it to the lower level, found a comfortable shaft and fell asleep.

Empty corridors should have been my first warning. I had woken after a couple of hours to a strange hush and dropped down to level one to investigate. Pop Cops herded scrubs into the dining room. Surprised, I tried to retreat but was spotted and pulled into the flow.

Shoulders pressed against shoulders. I gagged on the overripe smell of tightly packed humans. When no more scrubs could be wedged into the room, the doors were shut and guarded by the Pop Cops. There were three “meeting” locations in the lower levels, and I guessed the Pop Cops also had our two common areas in Quads A1 and A2 filled with scrubs and sealed off just like the dining room.

I started to sweat, and not just from the excessive body heat. Standing on top of a table in the middle of the dining room was the female lieutenant commander who had ambushed Broken Man’s quarters. I glanced at the clock. Hour sixty. My troubles started only twenty-five hours ago. It felt more like a week.

“Citizens of Inside, I realize this is unusual,” said the LC. Her voice boomed from the speakers. “Our hundredth hour assembly isn’t due for another forty hours, but we are missing a citizen.”

Murmurs rippled across the scrubs. Everybody reported in at the end of each week. We all had assigned locations so we could hear the news and get updated on the rules and regulations. The Pop Cops called it an end-of-week celebration, but I knew it was just a device to keep track of the scrubs, checking for pregnancies and making sure we behaved.

“All citizens will remain in their secure locations until we find our missing person,” the LC continued.

It made sense; their RATSS got confused when so many people milled about.

“We are looking for a man who calls himself the Broken Man. He uses a wheelchair, so we’re most concerned he might have been injured. If any citizen has information regarding his current location or information that would lead us to him, you may be promoted to any posting of your choice.”

My guts turned to metal. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t feel. Lovers would snitch on each other with an offer like that. Cog and I were sunk. I shouldn’t have gone for those damn disks. We might as well turn ourselves in. Who knows, maybe they wouldn’t recycle us. Yeah, and maybe I’d be invited upstairs and given a family, a room and an interesting job. If I was going to delude myself, might as well dream big.

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