‘Outlivers’ chapter two – Too Rich For Use
THE BUS STOPPED outside a stone and brick building in the heart of the city. Eight floors high, a hotel, in the old days, one girl said. The other teenagers roamed up the steps as if on a sight-seeing trip, trying to take it all in. Theia hung back. She scowled at the building.
“Smile girl,” said an old woman with her hair dyed blonde, the skin on her cheeks stretched tight from the face lifts, “your life’s now charmed.”
But Theia didn’t feel charmed. Or charming. She stalked up the steps and through the front doors into the lobby. Escape. That’s all that mattered. But there were too many people. Enforcers would be on alert, looking out for her, the girl with the cuts and bruises, the one they had to drag on the bus.
The entrance hall glittered with mirrors and chandeliers. Theia smirked when she caught a glimpse of her reflection, bruised and scruffy.
A group of adults yelled at the trainees, getting the girls into one line, the boys in another. She hung around, waiting, examining the doors, the windows, movements of the guards and the instructors. No chance to run. Sit it out. Wait for the moment.
An instructor handed Theia a key, told her a room number and ordered her to wash, change her clothes and get ready to meet the trainers.
She trudged up wide stone stairs to her room on the fifth floor. The floral patterns hit her the moment she opened the door: curtains, wallpaper, bedspread. She bounced on the thick mattress, grimacing at the decadence of it all. In the corner stood a chair, and along one side a wardrobe with a full length mirror. A bedside light, books to read. She opened a door next to the wardrobe. Her own bathroom, toilet and shower. Who lived like this? Why hoard such wealth?
Behind thick curtains a window looked onto a walled garden. She tested it – sealed shut. Even if she got it open, there was no way down, not without breaking her neck.
She paced the room. Why so hot in here? Stifling. She stripped to her cotton underwear, threw her clothes on the chair and lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Why had this happened? After all she’d done, why had she be chosen? It was Aeron’s fault, what had he said to the red-head woman? And why? He’d changed, beyond recognition. More handsome, for sure, and charming, but working with that woman, being a part of this place, that wasn’t the boy she’d known.
A rap on the door and it swung open. A woman, sixty or so stood in the doorway. “Downstairs five sharp for induction, and the evening meal. Wear these. Don’t be late.” The woman put a bundle of clothes on the bed and left without waiting for a reply.
Theia examined it and found a pair of thin, white, leather slippers and a pale pink dress that clashed with her hair. She flung it on the floor and stamped on it, kicked it across the room. She never wore dresses. You couldn’t run or climb or fight in a dress. Or train or work-out. She couldn’t even sit in one comfortably.
She thumped the wooden door of the wardrobe to let off frustration. Her fist went through, wood splintering and cutting her skin. She eased the splinters apart to get her hand free, cursing her stupidity.
Theia examined the table, covered with bottles, brushes and jars, paraphernalia for making a face beautiful. She’d never used these things. Why waste money on them? Who would care? The other girls did things with their eyes, their cheeks and lips. She’d heard them talk about how it was done, but Theia never shared in the gossip. She was too busy training at Soho’s gym, or hanging out on the waste ground by the river, watching it flow.
She glanced at the clock beside the bed. Ten to five. If she didn’t show up, they’d come for her. She dressed in her black cotton gym clothes, still damp from the rain. If she saw a chance to run, she’d take it. But not in a pink dress, not in white slippers.
She felt eyes watching her as she went down the stairs. Trainers exchanged glances and one made a note on a clipboard. But no one said anything. She’d expected to be dragged back to her room and made to change. But they let her through, pointed her along a corridor towards a door.
She stepped into a long room with a stage at the far end, the floor filled with chairs. Most of the other trainees had arrived already, eager to make a good impression. Theia scanned the room, doing an assessment. Around two hundred here for training, most of them girls. How many boys? Forty, not much more.
She took a seat at the back, near the exit and as far from the stage as she could get. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and leant forward, staring at the wooden floor between her feet.
A few minutes later the trainers arrived, all women. A hush fell over the room as they clomped towards the stage in high heels. Five men took up position at the back of the room, two of them in suits and three enforcers in uniform, electric stun guns on their belts.
The trainers filed onto the stage and introduced themselves. Theia barely listened. She couldn’t be bothered to remember names or faces. They read out long lists of rules, codes of conduct, places the trainees were allowed to go, things they mustn’t do, expectations to live up to. Veiled threats, and though no one spoke of punishment, it hovered in the air, clear from the sharpness in the voices, from the body language and wagging fingers.
The trainees were told to stand and applaud their special guest. They should feel honoured to meet her, to be in her presence, the woman who ran the companion training programme. The woman who held the power of life and death.
The red-headed woman from the workfair glided through the door, Aeron tagging behind her, scurrying, head tucked low, his shoulders shrunken forward, taking small steps, quiet and unseen. What happened to the proud, defiant boy, the one who swam the river in flood water? Who tore flags from the statues on Outliver Day, and fled the enforcers laughing, escaping into sewers? What happened to the boy who talked of freedom, wondering what lay outside the city?
She watched Aeron, as he carried the woman’s bag for her, a computer tablet tucked under one arm, her coat draped over his shoulder, hanging on her every word and movement. What happened to the boy who used to hold her on the waste ground behind the ruined church? To the boy who kissed her? Who said he loved her?
The red-haired woman mounted the stage. Aeron waited below, dutiful and obedient. What had they done to him, to make him so meek?
And if they could do that to Aeron, what would they do to her?
THEIA OPENED her eyes. The sheets were soft, the ceiling freshly painted. No leaking roofs here, no water dripping through the rafters. All the same, her sleep had been fitful, waking repeatedly, desperately thinking of ways out, until finally, in the small hours, she’d drifted into disturbed dreams. She glanced at the clock. Nearly six, breakfast in an hour.
She threw back the single sheet. The blankets lay discarded on the floor. The room was too hot with a stifling heat. She crossed to the window, opened the curtains, peering out into the first light of a late September day. The leaves on the trees were turning to browns, reds and golds. Autumn was here, the nights would soon be cold.
Where to go, if she made it out of the training centre? The estate was the only place she knew, and the first place they’d come looking. Wherever she went, they’d trace her with the ankle band. If she cut it off, every enforcer who stopped her would know her as a runaway. No workplace would accept her. No shop would sell to her.
Escape the city, there was no other way, but she’d need shelter, a place to stay, a way to find food.
She showered, revelling in the warm water, coating her body with soap, scrubbing her head clean. She rubbed her spiked hair with her hands. She liked it short. She’d keep it like this, if they let her. But they wouldn’t. They’d want long tresses, something feminine and demure.
The bruises on her shoulders, arms and face were still sore, getting more tender, if anything, purple and swollen. She patted herself dry with a towel and lay down on the bed to let the last of the moisture evaporate from her body.
She stared at the ceiling listening to the sounds of the outside world, the rumble of cars and lorries on the streets of the city, the groaning of the heating pipes in the old building, the creaking of wood, footsteps on stairways, the ringing of church bells in the distance, and birdsong. Even here, in the heart of the city, the birds found ways to live, still chirped their chorus in the mornings, fitting in around the human world, adapting and surviving. Could she do the same, become a companion, spend her life as someone’s slave, to bring meals and carry bags and whatever else companions did?
Aeron was making a life here, he’d become trusted, allowed to voice an opinion, even influence decisions. But she wanted to be with Soho, at the gym, perfecting the movements, exploring the mysteries.
She rose from the bed and dressed in her old clothes, ignoring the pink dress. She’d find Aeron, talk to him. He had influence over the woman with red hair. This was all a mistake. She’d persuade Aeron. He’d convince the red-head woman. And surely then, she’d be allowed to go home.
THEIA FOLLOWED the line of trainees heading down the stairs. She hung back, keeping clear of the group, one of the last to appear in the breakfast room. She felt eyes on her, glimpsed frowns and smiles and gossiping. She wore her old clothes as an act of defiance, but no one confronted her. That would come, for sure.
She looked at the long bench full of food. Eggs and bacon and mushrooms, toast and butter, marmalade and jams, sausages and fried tomatoes, cereals, milk, fruit and juices. She took an apple to a table where three boys ate in silence. They glanced at her as she sat down, but none of them spoke. They seemed shy and withdrawn, but strong and healthy. Had everyone been chosen for their looks? Everyone except her, with her cropped hair and bruises.
“You lost a fight,” one of the boys mumbled.
“Some fight.” The boy looked down at his plate, stuffing his mouth with bacon and toast, as though embarrassed he’d spoken.
She’d better to get to know these. Girls here would never be allies. But the boys might. “I’m Theia,”
They mumbled their names. She held out her hand to Rikard, the one who’d asked about the fight. He stared at it for a moment, before putting his own hand in hers. He was strong but it was a soft grip. Lacked confidence. He’d would get eaten alive in here, he came across as weak. Then again, he might survive where she couldn’t. He’d sway in the wind, as Soho said, where she’d stand defiant – and break. The boy had a handsome face, good skin, lively eyes. In another time and place, she might have found him cute, if he wasn’t so soft. Right now, he was a resource.
Her eyes flicked from boy to boy. “What do you know about this place? How long are we here? What happens?”
“Four weeks, I heard, but that’s only the start.” Rikard spoke with his mouth packed with food, chewing between words. “They get to know you, show you the basics. Then you go live with a trainer, for months. You might spend years in training and still get kicked out.”
“What happens then? If you don’t make it?”
“Don’t ask,” Rikard said. “Make sure it doesn’t happen. Just in case.”
Who would know? Aeron. “That woman last night, with the red hair, what’s her name?”
“Essa Geryon,” Rikard said. “She’s scary.”
“Any of you seen her this morning, around the place?”
Rikard shrugged, the other two carried on eating, not looking at her. It looked as if she’d found the other misfits, the ones who resented being here, who had the wrong attitude.
She used a low voice, not wanting to be overheard. “Did you want to be companions? Or shall we get out?”
Rikard’s eyes met hers for an instant, but before he could answer a bell clanged at the front of the room, drowning out all talk, and a female trainer shouted for silence. She read out lists of names, splitting the trainees into five groups for evaluation. Theia’s section was taken to a room on the ground floor and told to sit at the desks, and turn over the exam papers.
They had two hours for the test but Theia finished in thirty minutes and sat back, staring through the window. It was childlike. Anyone who had been to school, learnt to read and write, could answer these. But the others struggled, scribbling furiously, or rubbing their heads in frustration, biting on pens and looking around for ideas.
A trainer appeared at her side, asked if she’d completed the questions and took her to a room with a desk and two chairs.
“You finished early, so you can start your interview,” the trainer said. She introduced herself as Mary. A frail woman in her sixties with white hair and glasses. Odd, though, no dyed hair, no sight correction treatments.
Her manner was soft at first, inviting Theia to sit, asking how she’d settled in, how she found the exam.
“Easy,” Theia said. “I’d have passed when I was ten.”
“It’s a basic test of reading and writing. Companions don’t need to be clever,” Mary said. “Clients may want you to read to them, or they’ll dictate letters, ask you to study reports and summarise them. But there are more important tests.” She paused, looked up at Theia. “Attitude, for example.” Her voice had an edge now, a steely coldness to it. “It’s an area where you’re failing.”
“I don’t want to be here.”
“I can’t understand why they picked you. But you were chosen in person, by Madame Geryon. A great honour.”
“It’s a mistake. I want to go home.”
“She insists we do something with you, but your attitude is pitiful. Why are you wearing those clothes? We gave you a dress.” The woman peered at Theia over the top of her glasses. “We told you to change.”
“I feel right in these clothes. I hate that dress. I shouldn’t be here. Send me home.”
“You’re here by orders of Madame Geryon. You will stay.”
“I need to speak with her, with Aeron, her companion.”
“Stop this, now.” The woman put down her pen. A small, simple gesture. Not a physical threat, but an implication that if Theia didn’t change, something would be done.
“I’m not like the others. Let me leave. You’re wasting your time.”
“If it was up to me, I’d send you away. You’re a risk, I’d never send you to a client. But we’re told to work with you. And we will. You’ll learn. You’ll improve that attitude. Or we’ll do it for you.”
Theia glared at the woman, defiant. They couldn’t change her. She was stronger than them.
“Do you know what happens to girls who fail?” Mary picked up the pen, toyed with it in her fingers.
Theia sat motionless, staring at the wall behind Mary’s head.
“They don’t go home,” Mary said.
“Where do they go?”
“You wouldn’t enjoy it, trust me. Become a companion. It’s an honour. A safe life, comfortable.”
“As a servant.”
“We all serve, one way or another. This is the better way, for you.”
“So where do they go? The ones who fail?”
“A few become carers, if they tried hard and had the right attitude. If we trust them with our clients.”
“And the others?”
Mary paused, brow furrowed, sifting for the right phrase. “They serve in other capacities. Most are sent to the enforcers.”
“They’d never make me an enforcer.”
“Give you a gun? No. But you might assist in other ways.”
“They don’t get companions.”
“Everyone needs companionship, at one time or another,” Mary said. She shoved her chair back. “Complete the programme. You’ll learn our decision, soon enough. But start co-operating, if you know what’s good for you. Follow me.”
She took Theia to a basement gym. She expected a punch-ball, bars and weights. The equipment at Soho’s was primitive: wooden swords, a few mats, little more. But this place was all equipment – machines for lifting weights, for rowing, walking, running and stepping up stairs. The trainer fitted her with a monitoring device, strapped wires to her chest and showed her how to work the controls. “You look fit enough,” he said. “You play sports?”
“Martial arts,” she said. “Aikido, Tai Kwon-do, Kung Fu, Jujitsu, mixed fighting, boxing, kick-boxing…”
“That where you got the bruises? Who did that?”
“A man? Where?”
“A bar. A fight club.”
“For money? You’re lucky he didn’t kill you. He must have gone easy on you, being a girl.”
The man frowned, scowled, looked her up and down. “Make a better bodyguard than a companion.”
“Maybe that’s the idea.”
“Then you’re in the wrong place.”
“That’s what I keep telling them.”
“Keep busy. I’ll be watching. And monitoring.”
Theia put herself through her paces for an hour while the other trainees in her group filtered in. Most had never worked out in their lives by the look of them, lifting bar bells, running on the treadmill for five minutes before stopping to get their breath. The pretty girls weren’t used to sweating and exercise, not this kind, at any rate, and Theia watched, a look of scorn on her face.
“Keep going, you’re scored on fitness. This counts, people,” the trainer yelled.
Rikard came to use a treadmill next to Theia. “How’d your interview go?” he asked.
“Not good. They don’t want me here. I want out. But we’re stuck with it. What about you?”
“Weird,” he said.
“I’d rather not say.” He looked ashamed, as if he wanted to talk but if felt too personal. She didn’t blame him. She wouldn’t give away secrets either.
The trainer called time and told them to shower, boys and girls separately.
As Theia got undressed a group of girls stood close by, sniggering.
“What happened to your hair?” said one of the big girls, six foot tall or more. She flicked a towel towards Theia. “I thought you were a boy, ’til you came in here.”
“Whatever.” Theia turned away and dried herself.
“We’re supposed to be the elite. Can’t have scum making the place look ugly,” the girl said.
“Tell it to the trainers. I don’t want to be here.”
The girl shoved Theia in the back, pushing her against the wall. “Don’t answer back.”
She fought her instincts, making herself wait. Don’t hit out, not yet, give the girl a chance to back off. Then hit her.
“Learn your place. You’re nothing here.” The girl wanted rank, to set herself up as queen bee. She smacked Theia across the back of the head.
Theia didn’t even flinch. The big girl grabbed Theia’s head, screaming with rage, furious at being ignored. In one movement Theia twisted, turned, got free, knocked the girl off-balance and threw her across the changing room, smacking her head into the wooden lockers.
The room fell silent. Theia liked. Got their attention.
The girl got to her feet, slowly. “You’ll pay for that.” The girl charged.
Theia stepped aside, landed a punch to the right arm, a high kick to the mouth, then tipped the big off off balance and threw her back against the lockers.
This time, the girl stayed down.
“What’s going on?” The trainer strode into the changing rooms, the girls screaming, covering themselves with their towels. Theia was naked, but she didn’t bother trying to cover herself. She watched the man, defiant, her knees bent, feet hip width apart, in a stance where she could swivel and fight if she needed to. Or break the man’s neck if his eyes didn’t behave themselves.
“Break it up.” The trainer looked her in the eye. His gaze wandered to her breasts, fought its way back up. “Get dressed. All of you. You’re on parade in ten minutes.” He turned and stood over the big girl. He prodded her with his feet and she groaned. “Clean yourself up and get moving.”
They were taken back to the long room, the one with the stage at one end. Still no sign of Aeron or Essa, but the hall was filled with adults, around thirty in all, most of them men in their fifties or sixties, but some older. A lot older. Outlivers? How old could they get? Two hundred or more, if the stories were true.
The trainees were marched down the room, the adults turning to watch. Mary waited near the stage by a side door. She pointed the trainees inside, and Theia found herself backstage.
“Undress,” Mary told them. “Completely naked, boys and girls. Stand up straight. One by one, parade across the stage, stop, pose, twirl twice and walk off. Slowly,” she said, with a disarming smile. “Let them get a good look.”