Inside Out Page 31

“Possible. But this other program should work. It’s just complicated.” His attention returned to the screen.

I left him to his work and showered. My stomach growled with urgent need and I resigned myself to spending the next five hours gathering food for me and Domotor.

He grunted when I said goodbye. I traveled through the heating vents until I reached one of the main hallways. The scrubs traveling through the corridor ignored me. No curses. No taunts. I joined the flow and aimed for the cafeteria in Quad G2.

Standing in line, I noticed the stiffness of the people around me. It was well known I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me. They called me Queen of the Pipes, believing I thought I was better than them. Used to glares and sneers, I now had scrubs avoiding eye contact. Different. And the ones who met my gaze, nodded. A few smiled in encouragement. Stranger still was the muted hum in the room. Pop Cops patrolled the aisles between tables, and a mist of fear hung in the humid sweat-scented air. Yet a sense of purpose emanated as if no matter how afraid they were, the scrubs were determined to endure the Pop Cops’ scrutiny.

I pushed my tray along the metal track and pointed to a vegetable casserole. The scrub spooned a ladle-full into a bowl then added in a second scoop. I glanced at the man in surprise.

“There’s a clog in the kitchen’s air shaft,” he said. “Can you clean it out for us?”

It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me. “Report it to the kitchen manager.”

He stared at me. “I did. She said to have someone check the shaft at hour eighty.” He returned to filling bowls and the press of the scrubs waiting behind me propelled me toward the tables.

Odd. The whole exchange worried me. The scrubs couldn’t know about me. Could they? No. They’d rat me out in an instant. I shoveled the food into my mouth, but didn’t taste a thing.

There had been plenty of chances for scrubs to gain favor by implicating me. Yet here I sat with a double portion. Enough for Domotor and me. Instead of standing in line again, I stored the leftover food and checked the cleaning schedule.

My next shift started at hour eighty. Air shaft twenty-two was the first job listed on my sheet. Twenty-two crossed over the scrubs’ kitchen. I licked my dry lips. The man had said there was a clog. Could it be an ambush? No. Why go to all that trouble? A simple anonymous note to the lieutenant commander would do the trick.

Something was going on. I searched for Jacy. He held court in his corner of the barracks. A tone signaled the end of a shift. I hung back, waiting for the crowd to thin. He spotted me and soon the scrubs hurried away.

After scanning the barracks, he pulled two round disks from his pocket and handed them to me. “The listening devices,” he said.

I remembered my deal to plant them in air shaft seventy-two. The metal felt cold in my hands. About a quarter inch thick, the silver circles fit within my palm. An inner circle of gold-colored mesh coated the one side, and a black magnet clung to the other.

“Stick them close to the vents. They won’t come loose even when the cleaning trolls go through,” Jacy explained. “Put one in the Pop Cops HQ and the other over the Control Room.”

I hid them in my tool belt. “I have another question.”

“Goody. I have more listening devices.”

“Not that type of question. At least I think the answer wouldn’t be worth anything.”

He brushed away his hair, revealing his dark eyes. “Now, I’m intrigued.”

“I just want to know the latest gossip, what rumors are circulating.”

Jacy studied my face. “You never cared before. Why now?”

“The lower levels feel…odd.”

“With twice as many Pop Cops patrolling, people are scared and nervous.”

“I get that, but…” How to word my questions without giving too much away? “But they have the chance to…make their life better, and I don’t know why they don’t take it.”

“You should know why. Do you really need me to spell it out for you?”

I nodded.

He shook his head. “It’ll cost you two more devices.”

Figures. “Only if it isn’t some bull.”

“It’s not. This is serious.” He stepped toward me and lowered his voice. “Despite what you think, scrubs aren’t stupid. We put it together. One missing prophet, Cogon arrested for hiding him and LC Karla asking questions about you.” He held up three fingers. “If we rat you out to the Pop Cops, then the prophet is found and you and Cog are recycled.” His fingers curled in and formed a zero with his thumb. “We’re left with nothing. No hope, Trella, is worse than fear. Right now, we hope you’re up to something that will benefit us all.”

All feeling drained from my body. Logic leaked from my brain and panic filled the empty space. “And if I’m not?”

“No one will believe you. See we know something big is going on. Big enough to cause the Queen of the Pipes to come down from above and mingle with her fellow scrubs.”

“But…but…” My vision turned to static. I drew in a few breaths. The air smelled musty and damp with a hint of body odor. “But what if I fail?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“What?”

He gave me a sad smile. “It’s the effort, not the results that matter.”

Coming from the man who was all about getting something in exchange for his information and services, I didn’t believe him. The scrubs were either holding out for a better offer from the Pop Cops or waiting for me to perform a miracle for them. Sheep don’t risk their necks for other sheep.

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