Inside Out Page 2

I shrugged. “Got to make sure the pipes are squeaky clean for the uppers.”

“Yeah. Like it would take you that long,” Cog said. “You were sleeping in the pipes again.”

“Don’t start.”

“You’re going to get hurt—”

“Who’d care? One less scrub to feed.”

“Grumpy, aren’t we? What’s the matter, Trella? Get wet?” Cog smirked, but couldn’t hold the expression for more than a second. He was soon smiling, unaffected by my mood.

“Shouldn’t you be changing a fan belt or something?” I asked, trying to be nasty, but Cog ignored me, knowing it was all an act—although with any other scrub, I wouldn’t be acting.

He nodded to scrubs passing our table, calling out hellos and sharing his smile.

“How’s the shower head in washroom E2?” Cog asked one man.

“Much better,” the man replied.

I had no interest in mundane details so I tuned out their conversation. Instead, I contemplated my only friend. Too big to fit into the pipes, Cog worked with the maintenance crew and did odd jobs. Most of it busy work, just like scrubbing. Too many idle hands had been deemed dangerous by the upper workers.

Scrubs also labored in the recycling plant, the infirmary, the care facility, hydroponics, the kitchen, the livestock yard, solid-waste facility or in the waste-water treatment plant. Most scrubs were assigned their jobs. A Care Mother noted the skills and aptitudes of each of her charges and recommended positions. My smaller size automatically matched me as a cleaning scrub. It suited me just fine.

“When’s your next shift?” Cog asked.

“One hour.”

“Good. Someone wants to meet you.” Cog’s eyes held an avid glow.

“Not another prophet. Come on, Cog, you know better.”

“But this time—”

“Probably just like the last time, and the time before and the five times before that. All talk. No action, pushing false hope. You know they have to be employed by the upper officials to keep the scrubs from rioting.”

“Trell, you’re jaded. Besides, he asked for you by name. Said you were the only one who could help him.” Cog seemed to think this divine calling should impress me.

“I have better things to do with my time.” I picked up my tray, intent on leaving.

“Like sleeping in the pipes? Pretending you’re all alone, instead of crammed in here with everyone else?”

I scowled at him. My fiercest frown, which usually resulted in some breathing room.

Cog stepped closer. “Come on. Hear the guy out.”

Again, his face glowed with the conviction of a true believer. Poor Cog, I thought. How can he set himself up for another crushing disappointment? How can I turn him down? Especially when he was the only one who remained my friend despite my abuse. And who’d watched out for me, growing up in the care facility together.

“Okay. I’ll listen, but no promises,” I said. Perhaps I could expose this prophet as a fraud to keep Cog from becoming too involved.

Dumping our trays in the wash bins, we left the cafeteria. Cog led the way through the main corridors of the second level toward the stairs in Quad A2.

The narrow hallways of Inside had been constructed with studded metal walls painted white. Only Pop Cops’ posters, spewing the latest propaganda, scrub schedules and the list of proper conduct could decorate common area walls on levels one and two. At least the massive bundles of greenery in every section of Inside helped break up the monotony. Although, if the plants weren’t needed to clean the air, I was sure the Pop Cops would remove those, too.

I would never have had the patience to fight my way along the main paths, but Cog’s thick body left a wake behind him. I followed along in this space, walking without effort and without touching anyone. A moment of peace.

We descended the wide metal steps. Cold stabbed the soles of my feet and I wished I had worn my mocs. Bare feet were useful in the air ducts, but not in the main throughways.

Cog led me to Sector B1. This prophet showed some intelligence. Sector B1 was filled with laundry machines. Rows upon rows of washers and dryers lined up like soldiers waiting for orders. The laundry was the most populated area, it had the largest number of workers, and every scrub in the lower levels came here for fresh uniforms.

Surrounded by a throng, the prophet had set himself up on an elevated dais near the break room so everyone could see him.

“...conditions are deplorable. The uppers have rooms to themselves and yet you sleep in barracks. But your suffering will not go unrewarded. You’ll find peace and all the room you want Outside.” The prophet’s voice was strong. His words could be heard over the hiss and rattle of the machines.

I leaned over to Cog. “The wheelchair’s a different touch. He’ll gain the sympathy vote. What’s his name?”

“Broken Man,” Cog said with reverence.

I barked out a laugh. The prophet stopped speaking and focused his gray eyes on me. I stared back.

“You find something amusing?” Broken Man asked.

“Yes.”

Cog stepped in front of me. “This is Trella.”

The man in the wheelchair snapped his mouth shut in surprise. Obviously, I wasn’t what he had expected.

“Children, I must speak with this one in private,” he said.

I had to stifle another snort of disbelief. As if there was such a thing as privacy in the lower levels.

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