Inside Out Page 6

I shrugged. No big deal. Until a red light pulsed in the dark room below. Then daylight flooded the chamber as gas hissed.

Booby-trapped was right. But not the camouflage—Broken Man’s rooms. Smoke filled the air shaft. I held my breath as my eyes stung and watered, blurring my vision. Pushing back, I blindly scooted away. The door banged open and a man ordered, “Halt.”

Instinctively, I halted.

“Clear the gas,” a female voice ordered.

A pump hummed and the gray fog around me disappeared.

Voices echoed in the chamber. Boots drummed on the floor.

“Guard the door.”

“Fan out and search.”

“Watch for ambush.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes, eased back to the vent and peeked in. A woman stepped into my view. An intricate knot pulled her blond hair back from her face. She wore the uniform of the Population Control Police, purple with silver stripes down the outsides of the sleeves and pants. Her black weapon belt bulged to such an extreme that she looked like she wore a tire. A lieutenant commander’s insignia glinted on her collar.

A lieutenant snapped to attention beside her. “No one here, sir.”

“Impossible. Look again,” she ordered.

He rushed off.

She scanned the room, then spotted the bag on the floor. She tipped her head back and looked directly into the vent. Every cell in my body turned to ice.

“All sectors clear, sir,” another Pop Cop said.

“Get me some RATSS,” she yelled. “Post guards on all air vents in Sector F3. Now!”

Her order shocked me into action. I hustled along the duct with as much speed as I could muster one-handed. The Pop Cops’ Remote Access Temperature Sensitive Scanner (RATSS) would search me out through the ducts using heat-seeking technology. I had to leave Sector F3. Now. I had to find a hot spot to hide in.

As I slid through the air shaft, snatches of conversations reached me from the corridors where an alarming number of Pop Cops rushed to take up positions under the vents. I just stayed ahead of them.

“Someone sprung the trap.”

“Escaping through the vents.”

“Use the gas.”

“Stunners only. No kill-zappers.”

“Alert all sectors on level three.”

My heart hammered, driving me forward on the edge of panic. With the Pop Cops in every room, I couldn’t get to the near-invisible hatch. Instead, I raced toward Sector B3 where I knew of a well-placed laundry chute I could use. Impossible to climb up, laundry chutes only worked one way.

Just before I reached the chute, something bit my foot. Yelping, I twisted around. A RATSS had clamped on my toe. Damn!

Its little antennae vibrated, probably reporting my position. Imagining the information racing through the complex network of wires crisscrossing every level, I yanked my wrench from my tool belt and smashed the RATSS. After reducing it to scrap, I jerked it off my foot.

When I reached the laundry chute, I slid down two levels without having any dirty garments tossed on my head. A small bonus. I landed in a half-full bin.

The dryers hummed productively, creating one of the warmest sections of Inside. If a RATSS had followed me here, it would lose me in the heat from them and from the mass of scrubs who labored here.

I found a small crawl space behind a row of dryers and collapsed into it to catch my breath.

Questions swirled in my mind. Where to go now? I couldn’t give the disks to Broken Man. He might have orchestrated this whole thing. Obviously the Pop Cops had set a trap for whoever came to collect the disks. But why not rig the vent? Maybe they hadn’t known where the disks were located. That would mean Broken Man wasn’t involved. So why hadn’t they interrogated him before sending him down here? I hadn’t wanted any trouble. Now I swam in it.

I could hide the disks on level three for the Pop Cops to find. If Broken Man wasn’t a plant, then they’d known someone had come for them, but not who. Then I could walk away. Stay uninvolved. It was the safest course of action. The smartest move. The Pop Cops would have what they wanted.

Broken Man had said the disks might reveal the location of Gateway. Why risk my neck for a possibility? For something even I didn’t believe in.

I just couldn’t give the Pop Cops what they wanted. It rankled too much. Shoving the disks into a pocket of my belt, I hurried to find Broken Man.

Pop Cops had infested the lower level. Groups of three and four scanned the scrubs, occasionally stopping and questioning one. My skin burned where it touched the pocket concealing the disks. Trying to remain calm and invisible, I searched for Broken Man.

The dais he had used as a pulpit was empty. Cogon sat on the edge of the platform with his head in his hands.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Broken Man’s gone,” he said to the floor.

“Disappeared?” Figures, I thought. He was a plant and I had fallen for it like a gullible three-hundred-week-old.

“No. Taken.” Cog looked up. Blood ran down his face from a gash on his forehead.

“Cog!” I ran and grabbed a towel from one of the laundry bins lining the hall. A few scrubs folded sheets nearby, appearing to ignore us, but I knew better.

“Here.” I wiped Cog’s eye and cheek, pressing the cloth to the cut. “Who did this to you?” Cog was a big man. No scrubs would dare fight him.

“Pop Cops,” he said.

The significance of Cog’s word taken finally sank in. My world shrank, tightening around my body until I felt like I was being crushed. Interrogation of Broken Man would lead the Pop Cops to me.

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