Inside Out Page 50

Finding a warm spot to sleep, I dozed in the shaft. If I was Queen of the Pipes, I should request a better throne. Dreams of Outside swirled through my mind. The doorway hovered in front of me, but stayed the same distance away no matter how fast I ran.

My supervisor waited for me at the beginning of my shift. She scowled at me, and I knew it wouldn’t be good. It wasn’t. She yanked my arm out and slapped a red cuff around my left wrist. It bit into my skin.

“For failure to finish your shift. Explain,” she ordered, “and don’t try the broken troll excuse. Your troll was found in the air shaft in perfect condition, but no one could find you.”

My thoughts raced. “I fell asleep.”

“Where?”

“Air shaft seventeen.”

“You’re lying.” She uncapped a marker and wrote the number ten on the cuff. “Report to Emek in solid-waste handling for ten hours extra duty. It can be broken into five-hour increments during your next two off-shifts.”

“But that’s—”

“Have Emek sign the cuff and return to me after assembly. Failure to comply will result in your permanent reassignment to Emek’s team.”

Her punishment was extreme for a first offense. “But—”

“My supervisor was not happy over your disappearance. Now I’m on notice. I’ll be watching.”

True to her word she stayed until I hefted the troll into the shaft, and she waited at each transition point during the next ten hours. I thought she would follow me down to the solid-waste plant in Sector H1, but she just made sure I headed in the right direction.

Emek smiled broadly when I arrived. Blood seeped from under the bright-colored cuff on my wrist. “Welcome to the crap cleaners. Grab a pair of overalls, a plunger and follow Rat. He’ll be your partner.”

“Rat?”

He pointed to a young scrub. Despite the name, Rat wore clean overalls and his brown hair was trimmed and tidy. His manner remained pleasant even when we un-clogged a bilious wad, reeking with the most horrible stench. My eyes watered and I almost lost the contents of my stomach.

To distract myself, I asked him, “How did you get the name Rat?”

“It’s my nickname. My real name is Mark.”

“Okay, so how’d you get your nickname?”

“Rats like me. I keep their population down and make sure the rest are healthy.”

“Healthy rats?”

He laughed. “Most people don’t want to know what goes on in solid-waste handling. All they want is clean water and fertilizer. Rats are important to our world. Bet you didn’t know that.”

“You’re right.”

“Bet you don’t know about the bugs, either.”

I held a hand up. “I don’t, and I don’t want to. For certain things, ignorance really is bliss.”

My comment turned my thoughts to Gateway. What if I couldn’t open it? What if I was caught and killed before seeing Outside? I berated myself. One minute I was convinced Gateway didn’t exist, the next, I waxed maudlin over the possibility of not opening it. Just because we found a few coordinates in the computer, shouldn’t make me an instant believer.

I forced that line of thought away. It wasn’t helping, and I could what-if myself until I was reduced to a nervous mess. Instead, I followed Rat and tried not to breathe through my nose.

Shoveling black goo from the bottom of the incinerator was my last task.

“Isn’t this maintenance’s job?” I asked.

“Nope. This is good stuff.” He dumped a shovelful into the bin. “That’s it. Take the bin to the recycling plant and then you’re done.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the sheep’s pen. Want to come? I’m good with sheep, too.” He winked.

“No, thank you. Ignorance remember? Best I don’t become an expert in waste management.”

He waved as he left. And I realized he enjoyed his work. His job was used to punish other scrubs, but he didn’t see it that way. He knew his job was vital to Inside and was content. Why couldn’t the rest of the scrubs be content? Maybe they were, and I hadn’t noticed.

“Trella? What are you doing here?” Logan asked as I pushed the bin through the sorting piles. Dark half circles hung under his eyes.

I waved the cuff in front of his bleary eyes. “I pissed my supervisor off. She assigned me extra duty.”

“Anne-Jade will be glad. She’s worried because she fell asleep in the air shaft, but she didn’t see your supervisor, so she hoped it would be okay.”

“She did fine. I’m glad you came over. Broken Man wants to open those files. When can you get the password questions?”

“My next off-shift.”

“Great. Also can you—” I checked for Pop Cops “—get security information about the uppers?”

“Depends on what you want to know.”

I’d already memorized the names Domotor had given me. Reciting the list of uppers to Logan, I asked, “Can you find out which one of these people is working undercover for the Travas?”

“If the information is listed in the computer system, but it’s unlikely.”

“Why?”

“Because someone could find it.”

“Like Broken Man?”

“No. You need level-nine clearance…oh!”

I smiled as Logan realized only a few Travas had the required security clearance.

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