“One night for two thousand credits.”
A black-gloved hand slid across the large display that made up the surface of the desk. It then turned the block of text scrolling across so that it oriented in her direction. The other hand casually flicked the stylus towards her.
Ianthe had never been told the man’s name. She had only ever heard him called The Procurer.
She squinted down at the tiny printed lines, trying to make sense of the complicated legalese that might as well have been written in another language.
“With you?” She tried for flippant to cover her mounting unease, but her voice cracked on the last word.
The older Alpha laughed, the sound deep and full-bodied. But the smile didn’t quite reach the eyes that surveyed her with a calculated coldness. The silence stretched for a long moment as his gaze never broke from hers.
A steady buzz of shuttles flying past the window of his high-rise office was the only sound, but even that distracted her. Heavy curtains, far finer than anything she had ever owned, draped the floor-to-ceiling windows, obscuring almost all the light from the bright sun outside and casting the room in darkness.
How long had she been here? Minutes, hours, more? Time had become meaningless as she sat on the edge of the metal bench that offered not even the slightest bit of comfort. It was in stark contrast to the antique leather chair that the man across from her relaxed in.
“My preferences are more particular, dear girl,” the man said, finally breaking the silence. He bent the fingers of one hand to inspect the clipped nails. “But a beautiful Beta still has considerable value.”
If there was irony in his tone, the Alpha hid it well. Obviously, he referred to the rare and highly sought-after female Omegas. Fewer and fewer of them were born with each passing year.
But her potential value, whatever he decided it would be, was exactly why she was sitting in this office. She didn’t feel particularly beautiful at the moment. Instead, she like what she was: a twenty-year-old Academy dropout, living in the slums with her family and pulling double shifts at a public cafeteria just to keep food on the table.
Her hand moved over the contract text, swiping multiple time as dozens of pages flew across the screen. It wouldn’t be possible to read it all, not unless she had several days and an industrial telescope.
She stopped on the lab results from the multiple vials of blood and saliva they had demanded before anyone would even speak with her. Part of her wanted to inspect the test results in greater detail but her interest would arouse unnecessary attention.
If they had discovered something, then she wouldn’t be sitting here.
“What exactly does all of this mean?” she asked, swiping past the test results to the signature page at the end.
“The terms are quite simple, really. I assumed it had all been explained to you already.” The Procurer reclined in his armchair, bending his leg to rest one foot on the opposite knee.
“One more time, then.” Ianthe clenched her hands together to stop them from shaking. “Please.”
“Of course, my dear.” His small smile made it clear he knew she was simply playing for more time, her nerves too wrecked for reliable decision-making. “I am prepared to offer you one thousand credits, with half deposited in your account upon acceptance of our agreement. In exchange, you will spend one night at Eros House for the amusement of our patrons.”
Patrons? She hadn’t expected the plural and hoped that he had misspoken.
“What would I have to do?”
There was not even a hint of a pause.
“Whatever you’re told.”
The shock of his words felt like being drenched in cold water. She stood and crossed behind the uncomfortable chair to stand by the window. Her hands flicked at the heavy drapes until she caught a sliver of the spectacular view. This blue sky was the cleanest thing she had ever seen. You didn’t get views like this down in the slums where a cloud of pollution filled the air. And the many high-rise structures — full of Alphas and the lucky Betas who served them — blocked whatever view of the sky might have been available through the smog.
People had traded their lives for a glimpse of this sky.
“I can’t do this.”
The Procurer stood and came to Ianthe’s side. His hands touched her back, the effort to be gentle obvious, in a gesture that would have been almost fatherly under other circumstances.
“It can seem daunting at first, I know, to have your limits tested and these boundaries pushed.” His hand stroked her hair, the rings on his fingers catching in the wild curls. “We have a very select clientele with specific desires, Alpha’s carefully chosen from among Pandora’s most elite. I can promise they will treasure you like the jewel you are. No harm will come to you, at least none that is permanent.”
She did not like the emphasis he placed on that last word.
His patrons would be Alphas, of course. Who else would pay so much for the privilege of having a Beta obligated to follow their every command? As if they didn’t control every aspect of Pandora and all the people in it, even more was required to satisfy them.
Ianthe hated Alphas, their roars and demands, and the fact that they acted as if their position in society was some natural birthright rather than just a cruel twist of fate.
But she couldn’t afford to have an opinion. Not anymore.
She thought back to how this had all started. One of her customers at the cafeteria had approached her, not a regular like most, wearing a suit much too fine for the place. He never spoke a word to her except to place his order, leaving a black business card with a generous tip on the table after he left.
Eros House had been written on it in holographic print, along with an address.
Everyone had heard of Eros House whether they actually believed it existed or not. It was said to be a secret place for the rich and well-connected where almost any desire could be fulfilled — for a price.
It wasn’t easy to believe they wanted her. She had a pretty enough face, but not exceptionally so, and her body was a little too lean and boyish from missed meals. The thick, dark hair that cascaded around her shoulders in messy waves and curls was probably her best feature, along with expressive eyes that were the color of shined mahogany.
But she was also small, features delicate, with small hands and a slight build, even absent the near-starvation. And she only seemed even more undersized next to the graying Alpha who seemed to have experienced no diminishment in strength or musculature despite his advancing age.
She was built like an Omega.
And that would be worth something to a man like this, who traded in fantasy. The money she could make with one night would be enough to feed her family for a year.
The Procurer moved away to lean against the desk. His hands were clasped in his lap with legs crossed neatly at the ankle, casual, as if he sensed her weakening.
“You said I could get half of the money now?”
“Half now and half on completion of the contract. To protect all parties involved, of course.”
Ianthe cleared her throat against the knot of fear that tried to steal her voice. “When would I start?”
His teeth glinted in the low light when he bared them in a smile like a crocodile’s. “There is no night like tonight.”
Her heart beat hard against her chest, the sound so loud that she was sure he could hear it. She thought of all the things that those credits could buy — water, food, meds. It was ten times as much money as she would earn in a year working at the cafeteria. She momentarily entertained the fantasy of going back to the Academy, maybe even getting a job for Central Command after graduating. There was nothing glamorous about life as a bureaucratic drone, but she’d make enough to live in the middle levels above the slums where at least the air was breathable and clean water ran from the pipes when you turned the tap.
A thousand credits were enough to change her life.
But was it worth the risk?
“Can I have that stylus?”
The Procurer held out the sleek writing tool with manicured fingers that seemed starkly clean against her much grubbier hands. The tips of their fingers brushed for the smallest second and she looked up into his face.
His smile was predatory. “You won’t be sorry.”
She already was sorry, but the lure was impossible to ignore. There was no other legal way for her to earn an amount like this and credits were the only ticket out of the slums.
Ianthe held the stylus for a moment, trying to force the tremble from her hand. Blood rushed through her ears, loud enough that she couldn’t hear the Procurer’s words as he continued to speak to her, although the cruel twist of his lips was almost enough to distract her.
Her name came out shaky and jagged as she slid the stylus across the glass surface.
Signing herself away.
The Procurer swiped across the screen, just as she made the last little flourish, and the contract disappeared, leaving the screen blank.
An expression crossed his face that was in mockery of a smile, equal parts covetous and threatening.
“Welcome to Eros House, my dear.”
* * *
“A black skycar will arrive outside your apartment at precisely nine in the evening. Do not keep the driver waiting. You will enter the backseat on the passenger’s side. Do not speak and you will not be spoken to. Further instructions will be provided upon your arrival and must be followed to the letter. Any disobedience will be…corrected.”
The sound of Circe’s yell tore her attention from the grimy window. She had been watching the encroaching darkness of sunset creep across the garbage-filled street outside their apartment.
She could still hear the Procurer’s voice floating over her, even though it had been hours since she left his office.
“Hush,” Ianthe whispered, pointing to the small pallet where her younger brother, Eaon, slept. The narcoleptics they had given him were not enough to eliminate the raspy quality of his breathing, but they were the only thing that relieved the pain enough for him to rest. It would be impossible to get him back to sleep if he woke without providing another pill that they couldn’t afford.
Circe glared down at her, eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me to hush. Are you ready?”
Ianthe shrugged, ignoring the obvious disapproval that rolled off her sister in waves. “If that’s even possible.”
Circe scoffed. “I still can’t believe you’re doing this.”
Pressing her cheek against the cold glass of the window, Ianthe sighed. “I didn’t realize that I had a choice.”
“This is dangerous.” Circe glowered out into the night. “I shouldn’t have let you talk me into it.”
Ianthe fought the urge to roll her eyes. Circe had been a willing accomplice from the beginning. She had been the one to present herself at the medical testing station, using Ianthe’s identification card, to have the lab work done. It was her test results appended to the contract that had just been signed.
“Maybe we should try to get the credits in some other way. Maybe there’s something that I can do.”
Ianthe bit her tongue on a sharp retort. There was nothing she could say that would be fair. She continued to stare out the window but shifted her gaze to take in her sister’s reflection, fighting off the sense of despair that always existed in the background of her thoughts.
They looked very much alike — not identical, but similar enough to be mistaken for one another as children. But Circe was damaged. An accident over the cook stove during childhood had robbed her of what would likely have been considerable beauty and covered the upper part of her body in devastating scars, including her neck and the right side of her face. It was possible to hide the worst of the damage with the flowing scarves she kept perpetually wrapped around her head, like a Sh’islim convert who covered for modesty, but she wasn’t fit for a service job. No shop owner wanted her to be the face of their business. Nerve damage to her hands from the fire made manual labor impossible, and that was the only other kind of work available in the slums.
So it was left to Ianthe to support them.
Only the three of them were left now, a family half-formed. Alphas were responsible for every bit of the destruction. She had been born in the middle levels, her father a Beta sergeant in the logistics corps. Her mother had been Omega, and beautiful. A ranking Alpha had taken a liking to her mother and when her father had resisted, the Alpha had killed them both.
The judicial body had ruled her mother’s death an accident, so they’d only received death benefits for her father. That money was spent within a year and the only place to live that they could afford had been in the slums.
Circe finally broke the brooding silence. “You look nice.”
Ianthe murmured her thanks, even as the hollow feeling grew in her chest. She was wearing a knee-length dress with thin straps, made of a soft cotton. Natural fibers were a rare commodity in the slums as were any clothing items that were not government-issued uniforms. The dress was left over from the days when they could still afford minor luxuries. It had belonged to her mother.
“Are you sure they’re expecting you to wear something this simple?”
Recognizing that her sister criticized more out of concern than anything else, Ianthe tamped down on a flash of annoyance. “They didn’t say, but it’s this or my work suit.”
“If you say so.”
For about the hundredth time, the thought of just taking the money and running crossed her mind. The Procurer had been a man of his word. Five hundred credits had registered in her account before she’d even reached the lower levels from his office. It was enough money to start a new life somewhere else if she went on her own. There had to be a place she could hide where even The Procurer’s cold gaze couldn’t reach. And if not, she could always try disappearing into the Forbidden Zone. Nobody ever came back from there, but maybe she was strong enough to survive.
Of course, that would make her a liar and a cheat. And she wasn’t interested in being either of those things.
And her family needed her here, not torn to pieces in the Forbidden Zone.
The clock above their ancient stove glowed the time in blood red. It was practically the only bit of light in the gathering darkness of their apartment. Silence weighed down on her, heavy like a shroud. Her family surrounded her, and yet she was completely alone.
Ianthe startled and stared up at her sister, who had been watching her silently. She took the little packet and unrolled it with trembling fingers. Four mismatched pills of different colors and sizes rolled onto her palm.
“You’ll need an extra dose,” Circe murmured, voice deceptively casual. “The last thing you want is to slip your scent around a bunch of Alphas.”
“Will this be enough?”
“Fuck an Alpha and I guess you’ll see,” Circe snapped, the anger betraying her anxiety. “This is your stupid plan, not mine. I pray you don’t fall into estrous the moment that you’re mounted, but it’s not like I can look up the proper dose for black market alterants on the CommNet. Really, Ianthe.”
Dropping her head so her sister wouldn’t see her glare, Ianthe swallowed the pills, not bothering with the lukewarm glass of water sitting next to her on the windowsill. “Thanks for the support, sis.”
“That’s a week’s wages you just swallowed down. They had better work."
Scent suppressants, hormone inhibitors, whatever cocktail of chemical alterants that they could get their hands on — Ianthe took her pills dutifully every day. The expense of the black market meds was part of what kept them in the slums, and Ianthe sometimes went without meals to supplement the costs.
It was a punishable offense for citizens of Pandora to conceal their biological alignment. Offenders would be hauled off to Central Command for sentencing to unimaginable fates. If they caught her, all of them could end up serving a life term in the works camps.
The bright lights of an approaching skycar lit up the window. Trembling, Ianthe adjusted the short hem of her dress and stood.
“Time to go.”
Her sister’s whispered words felt final somehow as if she were leaving for a lifetime rather than just for the night. She tried to rationalize away the fear. There wasn’t a fate worse than death awaiting her, no public flagellation or firing squad. She only had to endure one night with a stranger in exchange for one thousand credits.
But that didn’t stop the sense that something terrible awaited her.