Outside In

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MY FINGERS ACHED AS MY LEG MUSCLES TREMBLED. Beads of sweat snaked down the skin on my back, leaving an itchy trail. I clung to the almost sheer metal wall and breathed in deep. When my heart slowed to a more normal rhythm, I relaxed my right hand’s grip and stretched for the next hand hold—a short piece of pipe. Then I repeated the motion with my left, climbing another meter higher.

Far below, spots of daylight illuminated the half completed construction on level ten. Distant voices floated on the stale dusty air. I had passed the last of the bluelights. Nothing but blackness remained above me.

I cocked my head, sweeping the flashlight’s beam across the wall in search of another pipe to grab. Logan had designed a special helmet equipped with a light to keep my hands free.

“Trella?” Riley’s voice startled me.

I lost my grip. Falling, I cursed my own stupidity for not switching my earring/receiver off.

“I know you can hear me,” he said with an annoyed tone. “Where are you?”

Getting one hell of a rope burn, I grabbed my safety line and squeezed to slow my fall. After what felt like a thousand weeks, I reached the end of the rope and jerked hard, biting my tongue. I swung, tasting blood and lamenting the slip. That had been the highest point I or anyone else had attained. Ever.

Riley grunted in frustration. “Trella, you can go exploring later. You’re late for the Committee meeting. They’re waiting for you.”

He wasn’t the only one frustrated. For the last twelve weeks, I’d been promised time to go exploring the Expanse. All my previous forays had lasted about an hour before I’d been summoned to another important meeting. This time, I had been determined to ignore everyone, only to forget about the receiver.

I had hoped to reach the ceiling of the Expanse, but the effort needed to re-scale the wall would be too much for my tired muscles. Resigning myself to yet another delay, I stopped my swing by dragging my hand along the wall.

The construction workers wanted to build a ladder up the side of the Expanse, install daylights and find the ceiling. But the Committee insisted they first finish the six new levels for the citizens of Inside to spread out. I agreed, yet my curiosity would not be satisfied until I knew the height of the Expanse.

Pressing the top button on my shirt, I said to Riley, “Tell the Committee I’ll be there in an hour. They can start without me. They don’t need me there to quibble over every minor detail.”

“You’re right,” Riley said. “They need you when they quibble over the insignificant details, the worthless details and the waste-of-everyone’s time details.”

While understandable, his sarcasm was too harsh for someone as even-tempered as Riley. “What happened?”

“I can’t get a work crew to fix the faulty wiring in level five. It’s a mess, but they’re too busy with level six. We’ve lived in those four levels for the last one hundred and forty-seven thousand plus weeks, it won’t kill us to wait a few more.”

Overcrowding in the bottom two levels had been insufferable, but now that the uppers and lowers were united, there should be more room. Except the uppers wouldn’t consider any plans for the scrubs to move into their levels. They insisted it would be a wasted effort since the new levels would be ready soon.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. I transferred my weight back onto the wall and unclipped the rope from my safety harness. Climbing down two meters to the roof of level ten, I glanced up. Next time, I would need a longer rope.

By then, level six would probably be finished. I walked over to the access stairs. It was so nice not to squeeze between levels. But before I reached them, the construction foreman called my name.

I waited for him to join me and smiled in recognition of the burly man. “Hi Hank, how’s it going?”

“Lousy,” Hank said. He had buzzed his gray hair to a stubble on his head. Holding a wipe board in one hand, he tapped the board with a marker. “I’ve a list of repairs for levels one to four, but no one will do them. And I’m losing construction people every hour.”

“Losing how?”

“They take a break and never come back.” My alarm must have shown on my face, because Hank rushed to assure me.

“It’s not like that. They’re angry the uppers aren’t doing any of the work. My crews are being difficult, showing up late, leaving early or not coming at all.”

A passive resistance. Wonderful. “Why won’t anyone fix the repairs?”

“Same reason. The uppers aren’t doing their share.”

I suppressed a sigh. The Pop Cops had threatened the uppers with exile in the lower levels in order to scare them into cooperating. They had thought life below would be nothing but hard physical labor. Since they had run all the systems in Inside, their jobs involved sitting in front of a computer, and telling the scrubs what to do. Changing their perception of the scrubs was still ongoing, and I believed would be one of the hardest tasks. But not impossible.

“Okay, Hank. I’ll tell the Committee.”

He looked doubtful. “That Committee can only agree on one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“To disagree.”

I laughed, but Hank didn’t. “Oh, come on. It’s not that bad. We don’t have Pop Cops anymore.”

“Maybe we should.”

Hank’s words followed me as I descended to level three. He had to be joking. No one…well, no scrub—and Hank had been one for maintenance—would ever wish for the return of the Pop Cops. I dismissed his comment as being melodramatic and hurried to my room.

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