Inside Out Page 27

Logan stepped close to me. “But, we’re almost there.”

“How soon?”

“Twenty weeks, maybe more.”

Too late to help me. “Any chance you could speed it up?”

Anne-Jade turned on me. “No. Crafting these devices takes an immense effort. And it’s just us. You’re looking at the entire Tech Nos. The Pop Cops have decimated our group, and the only reason we’re still alive is because we move slow and proceed with the utmost care. So far, we have out-smarted the uppers.” Twin circles of red spread on her cheeks.

“We know we’ll be found out eventually,” Logan added. His tone remained flat as if he discussed a routine event. “We just want to impart the maximum damage before we’re fed to Chomper.”

With Zippy leading the way, I crawled through the air shaft on level four. The trip here felt routine. Bad sign. Before Broken Man, I had limited my trips into the upper levels to once every five or ten weeks. Now I popped up here every off-shift.

I turned Zippy off as we neared Riley’s room. No sense alerting him to our presence even if hour fifty-eight was only minutes away. Peering through the vent, I searched for Pop Cops.

Riley sat on the edge of the couch. After a moment he stood, glanced at the clock, smoothed his shirt and adjusted his headset. Nervous or bored, I couldn’t tell for sure. The Pop Cops could be waiting in the corridor for Riley’s signal. And why would he be wearing his headset?

Now or never. I reached the vent above the couch and removed the cover. Riley jumped at the sound. I suppressed a grimace. He was nervous. Because of a trap or because of me? At least he wasn’t armed.

I dropped Zippy onto the couch and climbed down the ladder. Keeping my feet on the lowest rung, I prepared to bolt at any sign of trouble.

“I thought you wouldn’t come,” Riley said.

He appeared older. No longer in training, he wore a plain gray shirt and black pants. Fresh scratches marred his cheek and neck, and his left sleeve was torn and bloody.

“What happened?” I asked, gesturing to his arm.

A wry smile twisted his lips. “Extra duty with Commander Vinco. The commander delights in knife fighting and uses his unarmed helpers for target practice.”

I couldn’t resist. “Unarmed?”

Impishness lit his face. “So far, I’ve managed to survive the duty, much to his annoyance.” He rubbed his shoulder as the humor faded from his expression. “But he’s getting creative, which is not the reason you’re here.” He stared at me for a moment.

Warmth flushed through me. I imagined I was quite the sight. Wisps of brown hair had sprung from my braid long ago and clung to my sweaty face. Stains and tears marked my one-piece cleaning uniform, which felt rather tight all of a sudden. Bare feet roughened with calluses completed the picture. I don’t know why I cared about my appearance. I hadn’t before.

“Aren’t you going to come down?” Riley pointed to the couch.

“I’ll stay here.”

“You still don’t trust me even after I covered for you?”

No sense sugarcoating it. “Yep.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I owe you one.”

“Wonderful,” he muttered. He crossed his arms and frowned. “You might as well go then. I can’t help you if you don’t trust me.” Riley turned to leave.

Not the reaction I expected. “Help me with what?”

He paused. “Getting Domotor’s port.”

“Why?”

Riley faced me with a challenge in his blue eyes. So used to the various shades of brown in the lower levels, the color still amazed me.

“If you want to know why, then have a seat.” He swept his arm wide.

Curiosity was a lethal trait. Scrubs learned in the care facility not to ask too many questions or challenge what you were taught. To accept and agree meant more privileges, fewer punishments and a decent work assignment. A few had learned this lesson quicker than others. A few still hadn’t accepted it.

My Care Mother followed the Pop Cops’ rules, but she lacked the inner conviction. She punished because she had to, not because she agreed with the rules. If one of us found a loophole, she honored it and applauded our inventiveness.

Unfortunately, my talents in creative explanations had been limited. And the faded scars crisscrossing my body reminded me I should squelch all curiosity. But should didn’t mean I would. I settled on the couch next to Zippy.

Riley pointed to the little cleaning troll. “Is that what you used to keep the motion detectors silent?”

“I’m not answering anything until you tell me why you want to help me.”

He swallowed his first comment, drew a deep breath and said, “After meeting you the first time, I searched for more information about life in the lower levels. My interest triggered a warning. Good thing I was still in training, the warning was sent to my trainer who’s also my father instead of the Controllers.” He touched his left arm. Blood still welled from a number of cuts.

“What happens when the Controllers are alerted?”

A wince flashed across his face. “You don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do. You’re an upper. How bad can it be?”

He paused. “Interesting. The ignorance goes both ways.” Balanced on the couch’s armrest, his gaze slid past my shoulder. “Makes sense, though. The Trava family wouldn’t want uppers and lowers to unite.” Riley’s focus returned to me.

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