I pressed my ear to the vent as he mentioned something about recruiting. My tool belt clanged on the metal, but I doubted it was loud enough to be heard amid the general noises below.
Without warning the cover popped free. In the seconds that followed, I caught a brief glimpse of a man then hands grabbed my shoulders and yanked. I fell onto the top bunk a meter below.
It was a soft landing, and I rolled over to my back. The man who had pulled me from the air shaft straddled my hips. He seized my wrists, pinning them to the mattress with his weight. I struggled to no avail—he outweighed me by forty kilograms. Finally, I stopped, but my heart kept up its fast tempo.
“Hello little bug,” he said. His smile seemed more amused than sinister. “Do you know spying on others isn’t playing nice?”
“Get off me.”
“Not until you explain what you were doing up there.”
“I was installing air filters so we can all breathe clean air. Let me go.”
His round face was close to mine. He had light brown eyes with tiny flecks of yellow, a mustache, and short brown hair. Another man’s head and shoulders appeared beside the bunk. He gripped the safety rail, probably standing on the bed below us. “Hey, Sloan, Wera said you wanted—” The scrub noticed me.
“Help me,” I said.
“Uh…what’s going on?” His voice almost squeaked.
“I caught me a blue-eyed bug,” Sloan said. “She claims she was installing air filters and is even wearing an air scrub uniform. Can you check the duct for me?”
“Uh…sure.” He climbed up to the vent and poked his head in. “It’s too dark to see.”
I huffed in frustration. “There’s a flashlight in my tool belt.”
Sloan shifted back so his friend could reach it. Now his weight rested on my upper thighs and wrists.
“There’s a filter…don’t know if it’s new or not.” His voice echoed slightly.
“What color is it?” I asked.
I met Sloan’s gaze. “It’s new, otherwise it’d be gray.”
“Then why did you stop over my vent when I started talking about bribing the Mop Cops?”
“I had to fix my tool belt, it slipped. You heard it bang.”
He studied me and I kept my innocent expression.
“Hey! Look what I found.” The friend held the microphone I had planted above the vent. Damn! I had hoped he wouldn’t look directly up. He rolled it around his palm. “I think it’s a mic.”
“Care to change your story?” Sloan asked.
“I didn’t plant that. Someone else must have.”
But Sloan didn’t believe me and recognition flashed in his eyes. “You’re that scrub. And as I recall, your little group of uppers used those mics to listen to the Pop Cops.”
“So? It’s probably left over from before. Let me go or I’ll scream for help.”
“Go ahead and yell, no one in here will care. Cain, check her belt for more of those devices.”
A cold and clammy fear spread through my muscles as Cain fumbled through my tools. He found the bag with the remaining few mics.
Sloan’s grip tightened as anger shone on his face. “Traitor.” He let go of my left wrist and slapped me across the cheek.
Pain exploded as my head whipped to the side. Tears welled. Sloan shifted off my legs. And before I could react, he shoved me with his feet. I slammed into the rail opposite Cain. With another push from him, I went up and over, falling off the bunk.
The landing knocked the breath from me. I curled into a ball and gasped for air. My shoulder hurt. Sloan’s loud voice carried over the general din, informing everyone in the barracks about me.
No time to recover. Legs surrounded me on both sides and I suffered two hard kicks to my back. When one clipped my head, I feared for my life. I rolled under the bunk. Too narrow to provide any protection, I kept rolling, hoping to outdistance the scrubs chasing me. Bunk, walkway, bunk, walkway, bunk, walkway.
Yells followed me. The floor vibrated with the rush of so many feet. As I drew closer to my goal—the far east wall, I noticed a line of scrubs waiting along that last walkway. Damn. I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t change my trajectory. Or could I?
Taking the biggest risk of my life, I paused under a bunk. The scrubs chasing me climbed over and through the bunk without checking underneath. I knew there would be stragglers, but I couldn’t wait too long. Changing direction, I rolled the opposite way toward the west wall. Yells erupted.
But after I reached an empty walkway, I jumped to my feet and ran toward the south wall. It didn’t take long for them to catch on, but I had a bit of a head start. I poured every bit of energy into my short legs. Feet pounded behind me. I yanked a screwdriver from my belt.
No heating vent was in sight so when I reached the wall, I dove under a bunk and rolled again until I found one. I popped the cover off and scrambled inside. A hand grabbed my ankle, tugging me back. I stabbed the screwdriver into the hand. It released me as its owner swore loudly.
The heating vent would not provide a safe haven yet. I slid, squirmed, pushed and pulled. Voices shouted and echoed. Once I felt certain I’d escaped, I stopped. I had reached the connector shaft that led into waste handling in Sector H1.
Sweat-drenched and huffing for breath, I lay there. As my heart slowed and my muscles quit trembling, my other injuries demanded attention. My shoulder, wrists and hip ached. Sharp pain stabbed my back anytime I breathed in too deep. Overall I felt like I’d been shoved through a pipe too small for me. However, every stab of pain reminded me of my luck in getting out of there alive.