Inside Out Page 17

The troll lurched forward as the engine roared. Its speed stayed the same, but it had no trouble pulling the skid.

Paranoia made me keep checking for RATSS, but the troll and I reached Broken Man’s rooms without incident. I popped the vent off and swung down, dropping to the floor.

“Hello, Trella,” he said.

I spun. He sat in a corner of the living room. I smelled him from here. He was ripe.

“I don’t have a lot of time,” I said. Pulling a chair under the open vent, I used it to reach the food.

“Here, let me help.” Broken Man sprawled on the floor and used his arms to drag himself across the room. He wriggled into a sitting position and held his hand to me.

I handed the supplies to him, and he made a pile next to his legs. When the skid was empty, I hopped off the chair and carted the food into the kitchen.

“Hungry?” I asked from the kitchen.

“Very.”

I brought him a spoon, and he dug into one of the yellow vegetable casseroles. When everything was put away, I stepped onto the chair again.

“I’ll be back after my shift with fresh clothes,” I called. He waved his spoon in goodbye. I climbed into the duct, turned the troll on and completed the air shaft.

When I finished my assigned ducts, I headed to the washroom. Fresh laundered uniforms and clothes were always stacked in large canvas bins on wheels. Empty bins were then used for dirty garments.

I collected a bunch of clothes, linens and soap and bundled everything together with a towel. At my next stop I added some cleaning supplies, hoping to reduce the black dust coating every surface of Broken Man’s rooms.

He had returned to the corner when I plopped down with my bundle. I showed him what I had brought. He smiled in relief, but I cringed over the black grit between his teeth.

“Shower?” I asked.

“Please.”

I hesitated for an awkward moment. How to go about this? Fortunately, he had thought ahead. Poor man, he had hours alone with nothing to do, and I didn’t think to bring him anything to occupy him.

“Get a chair from the kitchen and put it in the shower,” he said. He set a businesslike tone as he gave me instructions.

As I placed the seat under the nozzle, he pulled himself into the bathroom and began to undress. His short commands only faltered when I tugged off his pants and underwear and hoisted him into the chair. I turned on the water and gave him the soap and the washcloth, leaving him to wash himself in private.

As I cleaned the dust, I wondered how he had gotten the long jagged scar stretched across his lower back. Shorter scars marked his arms and torso. His withered legs had flopped when I had moved him. I stopped wiping for a second to try to envision his life before the accident. One insight I did have while helping him into the shower. He was a natural blond, and I should probably apologize for the harsh comment I had made when I first met him about going back to the upper levels to have his hair dyed.

When I checked on Broken Man, he had turned the water off and sat dripping. I handed him a towel and assisted in drying and dressing. I debated how to move him. Despite my smaller size, all the time I’d spent climbing through the ducts and pipes had strengthened my muscles. Not wanting him to drag his clean clothes over the floor, I wrapped his arms around my neck, pulled his weight onto my back and in a hunched-over shuffle managed to get him into the chair in the living room.

“Thanks,” he said as he combed his fingers through wet hair.

“Food?” I asked.

He nodded. I brought him a bowl.

As he ate, he pointed to one of the walls where a rippled pattern was the only notable feature.

“See that? I bet it’s a computer terminal. I couldn’t reach it from the floor. Can you lift it?”

I studied the pattern. It consisted of horizontal sheets of metal about two-centimeters wide connected like a curtain. A dent at the bottom allowed my fingers to slide under.

“That’s it,” he said.

I pulled it up, then stepped back in alarm as the metal curtain disappeared under the wall with a rolling sound. Behind the sheet were a flat computer screen and a console of buttons and plugs.

“Yes!” Broken Man said. For the first time since we had rescued him, his face glowed with excitement. “Help me get closer.”

I pushed his chair next to the wall. He reached out to touch a button.

“Wait,” I said in alarm. “If you turn it on won’t the Controllers know about it?”

“No. It’s only when you hook up to the internal system. The basic public system for the scrubs doesn’t require a port. Besides, I just want to see if it works.”

He pressed a series of switches. His hands moved with a practiced grace. The computer screen brightened, and the symbol for Inside appeared. Typically unimaginative, the symbol looked like a cube with a capital I on the front panel. As the children in the care facility would say, “Boring.” Little did they know the activities and schooling in the CF would be the most interesting part of their lives. I shook my head of the gloomy thoughts as Broken Man changed the image on the screen.

After a while he said, “It’s still connected to the main system. We could access my disks from here.”

“Which would lead the Controllers right to us?” I asked, again afraid this seemed too easy. Too convenient. It made sense the upper worker who used to live here had a computer hookup, but that it still worked was suspect.

“Yes it would. Except I have a program to reroute the tracking software, so the Controllers would be led to another computer station on level four.”

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