Inside Out Page 5

It would be a challenge to search for the disks while avoiding the scrubs and Pop Cops. Like Cog had said, the threat of getting into trouble hasn’t stopped me before, and I have explored all the upper level ducts more for the challenge than just to break the rules. In the end my curiosity was too great to walk away. I found an appropriate air conduit and slipped inside the tight space.

The rush of air blew past me in the active duct. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the warm current as it caressed my face. I pulled my hair from its single long braid, and let it flow behind me, imagining for a moment that I flew.

The air shaft ended in a scrubber—a tight wire mesh impossible to bypass without unlocking and removing the cleaning filters nestled inside. This was the barrier to keep the scrubs down in their levels. I could have dismantled it and reattached the lock and filters when I returned, but the effort would eat up a lot of time.

Instead, I backtracked until I found a near-invisible hatch and opened it. Climbing from the duct, I stood on top of level two above Sector F. Pipes and wires hung down, crisscrossed and bisected the open space. I called it the Gap.

Between the levels of Inside, spaces ranged from one meter to one and a half meters high. A two-meter gap existed between the walls of the levels and the true Walls of Inside. The levels were bolted to these Walls with steel I-beams, and foam insulation had been sprayed onto them.

As far as I could tell, no one knew about the Gap. Only four near-invisible hatches offered access to it—one on each level. I had spent hundreds of hours in the shafts before I discovered them. I didn’t care what the reason was for such a space around the levels, it suited me just fine.

Bluelight shone and I negotiated the obstacle course of ducts to reach the east Wall. One of the six metal dividers framing our world, it was the barrier between Inside and whatever existed beyond.

A ladder was bolted to the Wall. It stretched from the very bottom of Inside to just above level four. Using it would make climbing to the air ducts above the third level easier. Except for two problems. A two-meter space gaped between where I stood on the edge of level two and the ladder. To use the ladder, I would need to traverse the thin I-beam connecting level two to the Wall. If I slipped, I would plummet about ten meters. The drop might not kill me right away, but if I broke my legs no one would know where to find me.

Breaks in the ladder were the second problem with the route. Someone long ago had cut off portions of the ladder as if they hoped to limit access to the upper levels. I had strung chains between the breaks, but climbing them required a great deal of upper-body strength.

No sense wasting time. A tingle of apprehension brushed my skin. I moved onto the I-beam. The beam was a little wider than my foot. Balancing on it, I placed one foot in front of the other with care. Once I mounted the ladder, I climbed until I reached the chain. Taking a deep breath, I wrapped my legs around the slender metal links and pulled myself up hand over hand to the next complete section of the ladder.

By the time I reached the next rung, sweat soaked my uniform and coated my palms. As I stretched for the bar, my fingers slipped.

I started to fall. Three wild heartbeats later, I managed to stop my descent by gripping the chain. When my body stopped swinging in midair, I grinned at the near miss. My pulse tapped a fast rhythm, matching my huffs for breath. I waited a moment before returning to the top of the chain. My second attempt to transfer to the ladder worked.

Navigating through the ductwork, I found the near-invisible hatch for level three and climbed inside the air shaft, searching for the sleeping quarters in Sector F.

Broken Man had said a duct above his rooms. Logic suggested he wouldn’t use a water pipe, too messy, or an electrical conduit, no space. He had been an air controller so it stood to reason I would find the disks, if they existed, in the air shaft. If.

I crawled through the shaft above the rooms, counting. Small rectangles of daylight warned me when a room was occupied, and I took extra care to be quiet. Stealing glances into the quarters as I slipped by, I spotted uppers working on their computers.

I usually avoided the populated sections. One sneeze and I would be permanently assigned to the solid-waste-handling crew. The crap cleaners. Nothing like the threat of unclogging those pipes to keep scrubs in line.

When I reached number three-four-two-one, I peered into the darkness below. The lack of light noteworthy. Inside had two light levels. Daylight for when people were awake and working and bluelight for sleeping. Bluelight was also used for temporarily unoccupied areas where, as soon as a person entered, the daylights would turn on. In the barracks, the bluelights stayed on all the time.

Darkness in Broken Man’s room meant it had been unoccupied for a long time. I shined my flashlight through the vent. The living area appeared normal. Sweeping my light on the walls of the shaft, I searched for the disks. At first, nothing caught my eye, but a strange bulge cast a slight shadow. I rubbed my fingertips over the bump and felt a slender edge.

Booby-trapped, I thought at first. Then I considered what I would do if I wanted to hide something from the Pop Cops. Either find a niche they didn’t scan, tuck it behind a lead-lined piece of machinery or camouflage it.

Using my fingernails, I peeled back a thin metal sheet. Underneath was a cloth bag.

I’d been so sure Broken Man had lied, I was almost disappointed. Almost. Let’s face it; if Gateway existed, I wouldn’t be upset.

I shook my head. These were dangerous thoughts. They led to hope and hope led to pain. I squelched them and focused on the contents of the bag. Four disks with rainbow rays streaked around their silver surfaces. Enthralled, I dropped the bag. It slipped through the vent and floated to the floor.

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