Inside Out Page 70

He rubbed my arm. “I don’t know. It’s a pretty complicated setup. The Travas don’t have the imagination for it. Unless someone else is involved or something else is going on.”

I straightened. “The Controllers?”

He frowned. “It’s possible.”

“Do you know who they are?”

“No. When I think about them in a logical way, I believe they don’t exist. The Travas desire control of all systems, and I don’t see them obeying orders from mysterious Controllers. I’m sure they invented them to have someone to blame when things don’t go well. However, when I access the computer network, I feel like I’m being watched. That every time I go into the system I lose a part of myself, and when I’m done I have a horrible headache. Sounds silly. My dad says the pain is from eye strain.”

“It’s not silly. I wish I knew why someone went to all this trouble. Maybe Karla will grant me a last request and explain it all to me.” Doubtful, but a girl could try.

“Don’t say that.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’ll figure it out.”

I didn’t share Riley’s optimism. Instead I checked the clock. Hour ninety-four. Six hours until Cog’s final walk, until I…

No. I wouldn’t think those thoughts. At least, not yet. Riley’s arm remained around me. I set Zippy on the floor and turned toward him. My sudden desire to be closer to Riley drove out my scary future. Our lips met. A wave of heat rushed through my body as we kissed.

He pressed against me; his hot hands splayed on my back. Wherever our bodies met, tremors vibrated on my skin. I twined my fingers in his hair.

Too soon, Riley pulled away. “My break’s over.” Regret flashed in his eyes. “I need to get back.” He stood. “Don’t do anything rash. Don’t go anywhere. Please. You’re safe here.” He hesitated as if he wanted to say more, but instead, squeezed my arm then hurried away.

When the door clicked shut all warmth fled my body. Reality returned and time continued. My dreamy thoughts solidified and I planned my next move. I would have to find the perfect spot to approach Karla.

My head throbbed. I stared at the opposite wall, counting rivets. Twenty for each sheet of metal. No more, no less. The builders of Inside had never deviated from their plans. No creativity. No surprises.

However, the Pop Cops had managed quite the surprise with a fair amount of creativity. Impressive.

Time marched like Pop Cops on patrol. I located my scrub uniform balled up in a corner of the room. The musty-smelling fabric was stiff with dried sweat and blood, but I pulled it on anyway. No need to dress up for the Pop Cops. I covered the large hole and biggest bloodstain by ripping a part off the student’s uniform and tying it around my waist. My goal was to get as close as possible to Karla and Cog before some other overenthusiastic Pop Cop arrested me.

I debated about bringing the microphone and receiver. Should I tell Jacy the bad news? He could be working for the Pop Cops. Yanking the earring from my lobe, I set it on Riley’s desk with the button. No sense letting the Pop Cops find the technology on me.

Hour ninety-nine. Time to go. I glanced around the room, memorizing the details, and decided to write Riley a quick note. The words refused to come. I scrawled an inappropriate thank-you and an “I’m sorry for causing so much trouble for nothing” message.

Back into the air shaft, I proceeded to the lower level not caring if RATSS spotted me. I reached the bottom without encountering a single one. Figures.

As I crawled through the duct, a strange droning noise vibrated the metal. It grew louder as I drew closer to the vent. Scrubs packed the hallway below. In a few places, scrubs stood three deep on each side, leaving a narrow space.

Pop Cops tried to get them to move, but stubbornness radiated from tight jaws and hard eyes. The hundred-hour assembly bell rang—a faint ring compared to the general murmuring. Again, Pop Cops demanded they report to their assembly locations, screaming and harassing the scrubs to no avail. I wondered how long it would be before they started stunning people. They seemed reluctant to pull their weapons. I wondered if they feared a panicked stampede if they started shooting.

I stayed in the duct until I found a location without Pop Cops. When I dropped to the floor, the closest scrubs jerked in surprise, but soon they beamed at me. The line of people shifted, creating an opening my size. Sliding into the spot, I swallowed, trying to push my heart back down to its proper place, but it refused to budge, choking me.

While waiting for a sign of Cog, my body felt as if it held too much water. My nose dripped and tears blurred my vision. I concentrated on the floor, counting the lines of rivets. If I couldn’t see and was barefoot, I could probably navigate through the hallways of Inside by feeling the little bumps. At least, Inside’s predictability would benefit the blind.

The sudden jolt of insight felt as if I’d just connected two live wires in my brain. I had the answer to question number three, Your eyes can see, but mine don’t work, yet I see what you can’t. What am I? It was the reason I couldn’t find Gateway.

The noise level rose to my left, and Cog’s head bobbed through the crowd. I gasped when he came into view. New bruises covered his swollen face, patches of blood soaked his coveralls and his hands were cuffed behind his back.

But the most astonishing aspect was his smile. He grinned at everyone.

I leaned out past the scrubs. Four Pop Cops led the way, pushing back the edges of the crowd, and four were behind him. Lieutenant Commander Karla wasn’t there. Instead, Lieutenant Arno followed the procession.

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