Read Lifer Online

Authors: Beck Nicholas

Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian

Lifer (5 page)

BOOK: Lifer
10.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

There’s nothing.

“Blank,” Gan calls from behind the bar.

I look up. He’s sniggering to himself. I’m glad my name amuses somebody. “What?”

“Your credit stick’s ready.”

“Thanks.” I take it from his pudgy fingers, tugging a little to get it free.

“Now, what can I get you? Food, games, accommodation.” His voice drops to creepy. “Drugs, girls.” As he speaks, he flicks off the terminal screen, taking away any hope of spotting something useful.

“Food and drink, first.” I choose a hearty-looking meat and vegetable stew and bottled water from the menu, and then wander back toward the rectangle game while I wait for my food to be served.

No one’s playing and it’s only ten credits.

I glance back toward the bar, but my order isn’t ready. One game. I’ll play one game. It will use up time and give me a break from all the unknowns begging for attention in my head. Ten credits will hardly make a dent in my credit stick. I swipe it in the slot and authorize the purchase.

I take a moment to scan the instructions. As suspected, the aim is to smash all of the colored rectangles, referred to as bricks, by removing just one and triggering a chain reaction. The first level holds six bricks and takes less than six seconds to solve.

As I progress through the levels it becomes increasingly difficult. If I ignore the clock and concentrate, I discover a pattern in the apparently random bricks. From there it’s easy to solve. While I think back over what I could have done in level seventeen before starting another game, I realize my order’s sitting on the low table next to me. The bottled water tastes a million times better than the free stuff and the meat, smothered in the stew’s rich gravy, is so tender I barely have to chew.

It’s only lukewarm and I shovel it into my mouth, ready for the next game.

I look up again and the big clock over the bar tells me over an hour has passed, but I’m at the level that stumped the young girl when I first walked in. I could play out my options in my mind, but time’s running down. I let my eyes lose focus. Attempting to see the pattern and not the bricks.


That one.

I press, and hear someone gasp behind me. I turn, my hand drops to the weapon in my jacket. I’m ready to defend myself. What the hell have I been doing playing a stupid game when there might be people looking for me?

But the gasp comes from a girl. Or woman. I can’t quite pin her age. She isn’t wearing a green robe; actually she isn’t wearing anything much at all. My skin shrinks to uncomfortable and heat burns my ears.

She’s hot.

Her cutoffs and black tank top leave a whole lot of smooth brown skin exposed. The sides of her head are shaved and the long, purple strands left on top fall over the side of her heart-shaped face. Her lips look soft and her lilac eyes are laughing. At me.

I drag my gaze away, hoping I’ve managed not to drool.

“Your game’s finished,” she says.

Her voice is fresh and clear like my first taste of clean water.

Promise me.

It’s the softest of feminine whispers in my mind. Almost…almost…Nope. Gone. Was it a memory from my missing past? Have I left someone behind?

I try to remember more, but the walls there are as strong as before. I imagined the voice. Or my embarrassment is trying to save me from making an even bigger fool of myself.

Back to the present. The girl said the game was finished, that’s right. The screen flashes my victory in neon green, ‘Winner’. I nailed it. I allow myself a mental fist pump and can’t help a grin. I nailed it, and the girl was watching.

I aim for casual when I turn back around, but she’s gone. A scan of the room shows her hips swaying through a door marked ‘Staff Only.’ Great, here I was thinking she was watching me and she was just doing her job.

And I’m not exactly dressed to impress

My ears heat up all over again. It’s probably for the best. Speaking to hot girls won’t get me answers. Neither will playing games. But while I played, I could forget all the questions I need to answer. I was just a guy, playing a game. Reality won’t stay at bay forever.

First, I need a place to stay. Despite gnawing guilt from the phantom girl’s voice in my head, half my attention is on the ‘staff only’ door the whole time I’m negotiating room rates with Gan, but the hot girl doesn’t reappear. With a place to sleep sorted, I head back to the market and pick up some necessities.

I don’t know whether it’s because of the game I’ve been playing, but this time I notice a pattern in the movements of those in green robes. Five of them pass through the market in a way that seems structured. A patrol. My stomach tightens. Are they looking for me?

Once I see the pattern, it’s easy enough to avoid them and I make my purchases fast. I’m drawn to the brightly colored fruit stands. I could buy a whole meal for the cost of a single piece, but I spoil myself with two apples and an orange. With a bag of clothes, shoes and some bleach to disguise the stubble on my head, I return to the bar. I tell myself I’m not really interested, but I’m aware the girl isn’t anywhere to be seen as I make my way through the crowd to the steps at the back.

At the door I have to key in a code Gan provided. The room’s simple. There’s a mattress on the floor and stuck to the wall are directions to the shared bathroom. Metal bars cover the tiny mottled-glass window. Everything reeks of deep-fry from the kitchen below and there are two dark stains on the timber floor, but otherwise it seems clean.

The showers are right across the hall. Before long my scalp burns from the bleach. While I wait for it to work, I munch on a green apple. It’s tart, sweet, and juicy, and I wish I’d bought more. Then I ease my aching muscles under the shower’s hot spray. A few minutes later, I’m clean and dry with orange fuzz for hair. I drag on the black jeans I bought, glad to have my ankles covered at last, and add a secondhand gray t-shirt.

I check my reflection in the cracked mirror on the back of the door. It will do. I dump the dead boy’s pants on the way back to my room. As glad as I am, it’s kind of strange to get rid of them. I’ve had them almost as long as I can remember.

Now what?

I sit on the edge of the mattress to think. It’s softer than it looks. Almost comfortable. I lie back, better to think that way. Tension seeps out of my aching muscles and I stare up at a ceiling speckled with yellow and brown grease stains. There must be some way to find out who I am. Someone might have reported me missing, but finding out involves speaking to authorities. I yawn. Some instinct holds me back. The dull ache behind my eyes ramps up to throbbing. I close my eyes for just a second.

And sleep.

I wake to the sound of a hundred people in the hallway outside my door. Blinking, I jump to my feet, weapon in hand. My sleep-addled brain takes a second to revise the noise outside to one person. In a hurry.

Still half asleep, I key in the code and the door slides open. It’s the girl from the bar and she’s headed this way down the hall. I’m starting to think there’s something familiar about her, but I can’t trust the emptiness in my brain. I fumble with the door, not wanting to be caught gawking.

My hope of remaining unseen ends when the toe of a heavy black combat boot jams my door. Purple painted fingernails drag the door open. Her lips curve. “Just so you know, these doors aren’t exactly secure.”

“Um, yeah, I see that.” I’m talking like my mouth is full of sand. Probably because I’ve been asleep. Asleep. Hell, I hope my breath isn’t too bad.

Her eyes, now green instead of lilac, study me. Amusement crinkles their corners like she hears the thoughts tumbling through my brain. Did I speak aloud?

She steps back, allowing me to appreciate that she’s changed her shorts for some tight camo pants to go with the high black boots. “Talkative, aren’t ya, Blank?”

“Who told you my name?” I blurt the question and feel heat rush to my ears. At least the new orange of my hair might help disguise them.

“I overheard it,” she replies.

“Oh.” The strange guilt of being near her sits heavy in my gut. But I want to keep her in the hallway.
Think. Think
. The noise of her heavy boots at high speed woke me; she was in a hurry. “Going somewhere?”

Good one, remind the hot girl she has somewhere to be

A challenging grin lights up her face. “Why? Do you want to play with the big boys?”

The question hangs in the dingy hallway, keeping the cobwebs and peeling paint company. Before I ask her what or whom she’s talking about, she executes a graceful turn and heads toward the stairs.

“Is that an invitation?” I call after her.

But she’s out of sight.

Chapter Five




Lady has a surprise? For me? Shock leaves me speechless. Fishies do
give their servants anything but weary muscles and gossip to share below. Her frown indicates she’s waiting for some kind of response. I cough to clear my throat. “Um…okay.”

Smooth Asher

I rise and cross to where she stands in the middle of a yellow and white striped rug. The softness beneath my feet is unbalancing after the hard floors I’m used to, but not so much as this woman.

Her hand reaches out and clutches my sleeve. The long nails remind me of bird talons in the history recordings of Earth I watched as a child. “I’m so excited,” she says in a breathy voice. “I just know you’ll love it.”

With Lady’s hand tugging my arm, I stumble alongside her through a door and into a little hallway. Three identical doors lead off it. She steers us through the middle one. A strange mixture of fear and excitement pounds just behind my eyes. I don’t dare blink in case I miss something.

This is my chance to get inside knowledge on the layout of their quarters. Selfishly, I want to know about the surprise too.

I try to keep my bearings in relation to the level below. We turn into another small hallway. Here, there are three doors again, but these are not identical. The surface of the one furthest left is freshly painted. It’s the same bright yellow as the entry room.

Her hand reaches out. Her pudgy fingers close around the silver handle. I hold my breath as her knuckles whiten on the handle and she begins turning.

Then she freezes and her head twitches like she’s shaking an annoying bug off her face. Her hand drops to her side, and she steps away. “Afternoon tea first, don’t you think?”

“Afternoon tea?” I repeat dumbly, following behind. I glance back over my shoulder at the mysterious door. If I was curious before, I’m now desperate to know what’s behind it, but I have no choice but to follow Lady, for this is my role.

“Yes. That would be lovely.” She returns to the first hallway. “You don’t mind having it in the kitchen do you?” she asks over her plump shoulder.


Maybe I was too quick to be glad Davyd left. Nerves settle in my belly. If I do the wrong thing while serving her tea, I will be sent away and lose this opportunity.

But when we enter the kitchen she gestures for me to take a place at the intimate real wood table. I hesitate. Lifers do not sit for afternoon tea. Certainly not with Fishies.

Nobody seems to have told Lady that.


I obey. The muted color of the walls echoes the browns from the outer hallway. A framed picture of an Earth sunset claims pride of place on the wall. Everything is clean, fresh and warm. No scratches on anything, no stains, no arguments drifting from other families sharing too small a space. This is what I imagined when I pictured Samuai’s life away from me.

Lady places a covered tray in the center of the table on a white cloth and lifts the lid. Inside is a perfectly round cake. My mouth waters and my stomach growls in a most uncivilized manner. Fluffy white icing tops a pale yellow sponge. I’ve seen such items being prepared in the Lifer’s kitchen for those on the upper levels but never had the chance to taste. Our food is plain, filling fare. All the better for hard work.

“Would you like some cake?” Lady asks.

I can hardly say no, but I’m not sure whether I should.

She smiles and takes the decision out of my hands, cutting us each a small piece. “Enjoy,” she says. She speaks like we’re friends. Equals.

“Thank you.”

The way my stomach is churning, I’m more likely to chuck the cake back up than enjoy it. I use the small fork provided and break off a portion. With her watching me, I place it between my lips and the whole thing dissolves in my mouth with a burst of sweetness. “It’s amazing.”

Lady’s brown eyes twinkle. “You know,” she begins conversationally as she stands and fills a small pot with boiling water from the tap over the sink. “You look just like your mother.”

The next bite of cake turns to sand in my mouth. I cough, sending small crumbs flying into the small cloth I grab off the table. I mop up the mess and meet her gaze, trying to act like I didn’t just choke.

I do look like Mother. I’ve heard it said before, but I didn’t expect a Fishie to have noticed. I didn’t think she’d know who my mother is and I nearly ask, before remembering Davyd’s warning. I have too many reasons not to talk about Mother here.

Lady doesn’t seem to expect a reply, sitting again and biting into her cake. Lucky, because I have no idea what to say.

We share the rest of afternoon tea in silence. Finally, the last crumb has been eaten and the last liquid sipped. “Would you like me to wash the dishes?” I ask.

Lady shakes her head. “Of course not. We’ll send the dishes to the kitchen below.”

Her kitchen is a place to eat and serve food only. Copying her actions, I place my cup and plate in a large drawer next the sink. She closes it, presses the button marked ‘kitchen’ and there is a soft thud. I assume it’s on its way down to where Lifers like me will add it to one of the compact dishwashing machines.

I grip my hands together and wait for orders.

Clearly, Lady is not an invalid, and she doesn’t want me to cook or clean. What am I here for?

The question bounces around my head and I have to press my lips together to stop it bursting free. It’s like I can hear Davyd’s deep tones in my head.
“Do whatever she wants. No questions.”

BOOK: Lifer
10.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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