“You have five minutes to shower,” the guard says as he hauls me into a bathroom on the second level of the blimp. “Don’t be sloppy. No body hair allowed.”
“I know the drill,” I mumble as I head toward a row of four shower heads mounted to the tile wall. There’s no need to disrobe; I haven’t been allowed clothes in nearly two days.
The last shower head on the left begins spraying as I step beneath it, and the warm water is a blessing. It’s the only luxury I’ve had in months. Since the day Maci Bishop burst into the dormitory at the Resort with two men at her side—both death row inmates—and practically pulled us out of the building. Conscripting us into their rebellion, whether we liked it or not.
I have to admit, the idea of freedom—relative freedom, anyway—sounded good at first. I’ve never been in charge of myself. Not once, in my whole life. So I grabbed what I could carry and let myself get swept along for the ride. Until I heard one of the men say that we were headed into zone three.
Varian is in zone three.
As bad as life at the Resort could be, getting rented out to strangers most nights, it wasn’t that different from my life before prison. And it was definitely better than stumbling into Varian in the open population. So I gave up on escape. I couldn’t go back to the Resort, overrun as it was with rioting death row inmates, but I couldn’t go with the others into zone three, either. So I stopped running and waited to be recaptured by the patrol shuttle I could already hear overhead.
I had no idea that Graham would come back for me. No idea that he’d try to carry me, despite my protests.
I hope they didn’t kill him. He was a damn nice guy.
The patrol shuttle dropped some kind of horrible paralytic mist over us, and I passed out. When I woke up, I was in one of the holding cells on Guard Station Alpha, orbiting the prison planet Rhodon, and that’s where I’ve lived ever since—in a cold, hard, empty metal cell no longer than the cot that slides out of the wall for me to sleep on. It’s the worst place I’ve ever lived.
But it’s still better than running into Varian in zone three.
Rhodon means “rose” in some ancient language. At least, that’s what one of the guards told me. And I can see how the planet might look like a rose from space. A beautiful red rose, blooming in the night sky. But some people call this place Devil’s Eye, and I think that’s more accurate. This planet is like the eye of some demon living in space, just starting to wake up and glare at you—before it opens its mouth and devours you whole.
That’s what happened to me, anyway.
“Hurry up,” the guard snaps as I wet my hair. “The fights ended an hour ago.”
The fights. I’ve been on the blimp several times now, but I’ve never seen one of these fights. All I know about them is that they’re fought between death row inmates in some kind of arena, and that this damn ship flies over that arena in slow circles so wealthy tourists can watch from up here, where it’s safe. Technically, this ship is a space yacht, but we prisoners call it the blimp.
I think it’s more like a resurrection of the Resort, flying through the air, because what they do with me here is no different from what they did with all of us there.
While the guard watches, I use the all-purpose soap from the wall dispenser to shampoo my hair and lather up my body. Then comes the depilatory cream to remove what little stubble has grown on my body since yesterday.
Today is the first fight of the season, but some of the guests came early, for a flyover tour of Rhodon. I have no idea what they find so fascinating about cruising at low speed and low altitude over a prison planet. Maybe it’s all the red vegetation.
Forget cruising. If I had a ship of my own, I’d fly fast.
The guard glances at his wrist com, then curses beneath his breath. “You have five minutes to finish. If you’re late, you will regret it.”
Five minutes to dry my hair and apply body lotion all over. That’s cutting it close.
I give myself one last, good rinse, then I step out from under the shower and twist my hair into a thick rope, trying to wring all the water I can from it. I can feel the guard’s eyes on me as I cross the room to grab a towel from the stack on the counter. I know what he’s thinking. But he’s not allowed to touch. Not without paying the fee.
I wonder what they’re charging for me now? No one ever tells me things like that, but I suspect the fee is pretty high these days, since the riot at the Resort. Since all of my former dorm mates escaped into zone three, leaving only me to be rented out.
I think they’re still out there. I think I’m really the only one who got caught.
Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped running.
I pluck that weed of a thought before it can grow roots in my mind, because I would be much worse off if Varian found me. Though I will admit that alone in my cell, it’s hard to remember that I’m better off on Station Alpha.
That’s why I sing.
There’s a freshly sterilized brush sitting on the counter and while I carefully pull it through my wet hair, I wonder where I’ll wind up tonight. Not that it matters. Nothing could be as bad as last night.
But that’s over, and I’m not gonna think about it anymore.
I hum while I dry my hair, because the sound of the dryer covers my voice, and because if my lips are moving, the guard will know what I’m doing. I’m not allowed to sing here.
“Thirty seconds,” he says as I set the dryer down. But I think he’s bluffing. I think he likes to see me sweat.
The dispenser over the sink squirts a fragrant lotion into my hands, and I rub it over every inch of my body, until I’m slick with it. If I had more time, I’d work it into my skin, but when he shoves the bathroom door open, I have no choice but to head into the hall, still rubbing at my shiny arms as we go.
We pass several other guards in the cold metal corridor, but it isn’t until a pair of guests—both women in formal dresses—walks past us, their heels clicking on the shiny metal floor, that my nudity truly hits me. They're done up like shiny jewels in a fancy setting, and I am not worthy of clothing.
One of the women seems to be coldly assessing me, as if she’s mentally comparing my features to hers. But the other woman’s interest is much more familiar. She wants to touch me. No, she wants to hurt me. I drop my gaze and scoot away from her in the hallway as we pass, and a relieved sigh slips past my lips once she’s gone.
The guard pulls me to a stop outside a room labeled 204. I stare at the number for a second before it truly sinks in. “Wait, this is the wrong room. I was here last night.”
He shrugs. “I guess he extended his engagement. You must have done something right.”
But the “he” in room 204 is really a “they.”
“No. Please.” My palms feel damp as I try to edge back from the door, but the guard’s hand clamps around my arm in a steel grip. “Come on, Mallory, you know better.”
“Please,” I beg in a whisper. “Please. Take me anywhere else. Or…tell them I’m sick. Just...let’s find a closet, and I’ll make it worth your while. No one has to know. Just tell them I’m sick. Please.” When he seems tempted, I reach for the waist of his uniform pants, and for just a second, I think he’s going to agree. Hell, I’ll blow him right here, if that’ll get me out of going through that door. Into that room.
But then he grabs my wrist and squeezes as he pulls my hand from his waistband. “Rules are rules.” Then he knocks on the door.
My eyes close, and I focus on breathing, slow and steady. It’ll be fine.
No, it’ll be horrible and humiliating, but it won’t kill me. No matter who they send me to, my objective never changes. It’s the same one I had before Rhodon, and even before Varian. From all the way back to my childhood on a dying planet half a galaxy from here.
Do whatever it takes to stay alive.
The door slides into the wall with a soft whoosh, and my eyes fly open. I know the man standing in the doorway. Well, I don’t know his last name, but I know that his first name is Gerald and he’s a sadistic fuck.
And I know that his wife is even worse.
“Is that the girl or the food?” her voice calls from inside their suite.
“The girl.” Gerald steps back to make room, and the guard shoves me inside.
“Have fun,” he says, and I don’t know which one of us he’s talking to. Then he lets the door slide shut, trapping me alone with Gerald and his ruthless wife Phoebe.
The metal floor is cold beneath my bare feet. There’s a plush white carpet in the middle of the room, but I don’t dare head for it. I feel safer with the door at my back.
“You missed one hell of a fight,” Phoebe says as she pours a drink from a fully stocked bar in the corner. “The victor is a beast of a man.” She’s middle-aged, but I can only tell that from the wrinkles that crease her forehead when she’s disappointed. Her dress is elegantly snug, and I’ve met enough wealthy women in the past few years to know that it probably cost a fortune.
Varian gave me a dress like that, once. I felt like royalty, until he ripped it off.
While Phoebe studies me, she swirls an inch of amber liquid in a short glass. I think it’s whiskey.
I’ve had whiskey twice. The first time was the night I met Varian. One of the other girls had told me that if he offered me a drink, I should accept it and drink all of it. Quickly. I don’t remember what else happened that night, but I woke up in a puddle of my own blood and I ached all over.
The second time I had whiskey was my first night at the Resort. The client was concerned that I couldn’t stop trembling. He offered me a drink to help me relax. I took a sip to be polite, then I declined the rest.
He was the nicest man I ever met. He was gentle, and slow, and when he was done with me, he let me nap in the big, soft bed in his suite for nearly two hours before he woke me up for round two. He said he wished he could keep me. That if he didn’t have a wife and kids across the galaxy, he might just do that. Because I was so beautiful. Because I was so soft, and young, and I followed directions to the letter.
He said it just like that, and I was so proud of myself for making him happy. When he got ready to leave, I begged him to take me with him. I promised to do anything he wanted. I swore I wouldn’t eat very much and I wouldn’t be loud or ask for things. I even offered to hide in his luggage. I know I could have fit.
But he only shook his head, and when I reached for him, his gaze grew so cold that—
Nope. I’m not going to think about that.
“We saw him live once, a couple of years ago,” Phoebe continues, and it takes me a second to realize she’s still talking about the fight. About the champion. “He was a civilian gladiator before he was a convict.”
“Can we get you anything before we begin?” Gerald asks as he unbuttons a crisp white shirt to reveal a slim, toned chest dusted with curly, graying hair. “Do you need the restroom?”
I shake my head. Tonight I won’t talk to them. Tonight I won’t beg. I won’t say a single thing, and they can’t make me. They can’t—
“This way, then.” Phoebe gestures toward an open door, and I hold my head high as I follow her into the bedroom. The bed is neatly made, and I exhale in relief when I realize that tonight there’s no sign of—
Metal clinks as Phoebe bends to pull a handcuff from beneath the top left corner of the bed. I already know that its long chain stretches beneath the frame, then connects to another cuff on the right side. So that my arms will share what little slack I’m allowed.
If I tug on my left wrist, the cuff around my right one will pull taut.
I hate restraints, but they aren’t the reason panic is buzzing in the pit of my stomach, like a nest of angry bees.
“Hop up.” Phoebe pats the bed, and I crawl onto the comforter as slowly as I can. Gerald is watching me from the doorway—I can feel his gaze—and he probably thinks I’m trying to be alluring, or something stupid like that. But this is plain old procrastination. “On your back, please.” Phoebe is always perfectly polite. She insists on manners. But pretty words can’t make up for ugly deeds.
I sit in the middle of the bed, then I lie back. This is a great bed. Big and soft, like Varian’s. I wish I could sleep here, all by myself.
Phoebe takes my left arm, while Gerald steps forward to seize my right. In seconds, I’m handcuffed nude to the bed. My legs are next, and it takes every bit of my dwindling self-control not to kick Gerald when he reaches for my ankle. I accidentally kicked Varian once, and he broke my foot in three places. We told the doctor that a car ran over it.
“Well, isn’t that a pretty picture?” Phoebe stands at the end of the bed with her hands on her hips, staring down at me. And I’m sure she’s right. I’ve been told a thousand times that I’m beautiful.
I really wish I were plain.
Gerald steps forward with a slim cylinder in one hand. A familiar pneumatic injector. “No!” Phoebe cries. “You got to do it last night. Tonight it’s my turn.”
My gaze locks on that injector, and a single syllable rumbles up from my throat. It’s not quite a word, even though I sound like I’m pleading, so I haven’t broken my promise to myself. Yet.
Phoebe takes the device from her husband and crawls onto the bed next to me, careful not to rip her beautiful, sparkly gold dress.
“Please.” I didn’t mean to say it. I was going to be strong tonight. I really meant to. “I’ll do anything you want. Anything. Just please don’t do that.”
“Oh, hush, you little drama queen. It’s not that bad. I’ve taken it myself, a couple of times.”
I don’t doubt that. Phoebe is a sick, sick woman. But I’m sure she didn’t take as big a dose as they’re going to give me, and I’m equally sure her husband didn’t make her suffer the full effects of the drug.
“Please,” I whisper.
She laughs as she presses the end of the cylinder to the side of my neck. There’s a soft hiss and a sharp sting, and my fate is sealed. I blink back tears as I stare at the shiny metal ceiling. It’s only a matter of time now.
Phoebe glances at the com device on the bedside table to my left, then she looks up at her husband. “We have about half an hour before that’ll kick in. Have a drink with me while we wait?”
“That sounds delightful.”
They disappear into the main room, leaving me splayed out on their bed, silent, hot tears sliding down the sides of my face. As my fear bleeds into anger, I try to retract my arms, and my bonds pull tight. I can hardly bend my elbows. There’s more give in the chains restricting my legs, and the reason for that makes me feel sick.
I pull my legs as close together as they’ll go. Then I turn my head to the right, and out the window, I see stars gliding past in the dark sky. It’s a beautiful night. Out there, anyway. I’ll think about that. Until the drug kicks in, I can pretend I’m on a shuttle all my own, sailing toward the edge of known space.
My shuttle has a galley with a food synthesizer and a coffee maker. Varian used to let me have coffee when I was good, and I miss it more than anything. Almost anything, anyway. On my shuttle, all alone on the edge of the galaxy, I will drink coffee all day long. All night too. Because if I want to stay up all night, I can. It’s my shuttle.
And I'll wear…something soft. And warm. On my shuttle, I’m never naked and cold. I have blankets. And pillows. And—
The lights flicker overhead, pulling me from my fantasy. “What the hell?” Phoebe says from the other room, and I recognize the clink of her glass as she sets it on the counter.
Then the lights go out completely, drenching me in darkness. For a few seconds, I can’t see anything, and though I’m dimly aware that Gerald and Phoebe are saying something from the other room, I can’t hear them over the rattle of the chains as panic triggers my body’s attempt to curl into a tight ball.
My limbs can’t cooperate, of course, and after a few more seconds of futile pulling, I realize I can still see the stars, out the window.
A burst of red light flashes across the room. An emergency strobe. An alarm blares from overhead, shrieking over and over.
Everything is not okay.
Then the ship lurches beneath me and begins to descend.
I scream. In the other room, something thumps onto the rug, and Gerald curses. Weak yellow light begins to glow from hidden panels overhead, and the room looks bizarrely…sickly, awash in alternating streaks of red and yellow.
“What in the living fuck is going on?” Gerald demands, just as the ship begins to straighten out. “That was a two-thousand credit bottle of whiskey. This is unacceptable.” I’ve spent enough time with people like Gerald and Phoebe to know that they can think of no worse an insult than that. Than something failing to meet their standards.
For years, I lived in fear of being pronounced unacceptable.
Phoebe shrugs as she walks into the bedroom, dabbing at a wet spot on her dress. “They’ll replace it,” she says, loud enough to be heard over the alarm. “And they’ll damn well pay for my dry cleaning.” She unzips her dress and lets it pool on the floor, then she steps out of it on her way to a trunk sitting against one wall. Red light flashes against her nude form as she opens the trunk and peers inside.
“The alarm is still going,” I point out in as calm a voice as I can manage, while Phoebe pulls a more casual dress from the trunk. “I think we should—”
The dim lights die and the ship dips beneath us again. Another scream tears loose from my throat. Phoebe stumbles to the side and catches herself on the edge of the trunk, bathed in only the red light from the strobe.
“Phoebe!” Gerald races in from the other room. “I think the ship’s going down. Come on!” He takes the dress from her and pulls it over her head. She shoves her arms through the armholes and pulls the hem down over her hips on her way out the door.
“Wait! Uncuff me!” I shout as they both race into the main room, barefoot. “Please!”
But they don’t even look back. Beneath the blaring of the siren and the panicked racing of my own heart, I hear the soft but distinctive swoosh of the front door sliding open. Then they’re gone. I’m all alone, handcuffed naked to the bed. And the ship is definitely going down.
My chest heaves on the edge of my vision. Breath wheezes in and out of my throat. I pull on the cuffs until they bite into my skin. Until my fingers go numb and my ankles feel raw. But the ship keeps descending and the chain won’t give.
Treetops tease the bottom of the window, and panic is a wild animal clawing its way up my throat. I scream, but no one comes for me.
I am going to die, right here, right now. Bound naked to a stranger’s bed.