Melora slid down the brass pole in front of the filthy drunken miner, smiling slyly as he tucked a crumpled Sovereign bill in the glittering band on her thigh.
A moment later she smacked his fingers out of the way as he tried to slide his hand higher.
“Don’t touch the goods!” Dalilah snapped as he shook his hand, wincing and scowling up at Melora. The older woman, a former dancer herself with a hard face and harder fists, waved him off when he opened to mouth to argue but he backed up when he got a good look at the wooden baton she carried.
He was already tired and caked with dirt, and tired, dirt-caked miners didn’t pick a fight with barmaids after a brutal day of work on the Ionope outpost mining planet. The mines themselves took all the fight out of the men by the time they made their way back to the outpost and Red’s Cherry Bar.
“Take a break, Melora,” Dalilah said, twirling her baton idly.
Melora slid off the stage gratefully, the cheap worn beads of her bra and panties tinkling. She slid the Sovereign bill from her garter and passed it to Dalilah as she walked past her to the bar, hoping for a quick cup of water before another miner took up residence in front of her stage.
Melora’s own face seemed to watch her movements from every wall: colorful posters had recently been tacked up over several years’ worth of older, faded posters that festooned the walls of Red’s.
Her portrait had been rendered in ink and watercolors by one of the few artists living on Ionope. The auction for her virginity, better known as auctioning off the “Rose of Ionope”, a tradition started by her depraved boss, was coming up soon. Red Jim wasn’t going to let her forget about it anytime soon, much less the miners who would be throwing money at him for the privilege. Their leers had grown almost unbearable for Melora in the weeks since the posters had gone up, and Dalilah had been much quicker with the baton than usual, knowing Jim wouldn’t want his auction to be ruined.
Melora’s stomach lurched and she averted her eyes from the half-assed likeness of her. Her own ink-drawn eyes seemed to condemn her.
Another dancer with long caramel curls was manning the bar tonight, wearing threadbare sky-blue lingerie. Out on Ionope they didn’t get much in the way of nice clothes, but there was no point in complaining. They usually lost most of them by midnight anyways and the miners who populated the bar didn’t seem to care much one way or the other.
“Water please, Kymbra?” Melora asked, leaning against the polished wood. Kymbra glared up at her for a moment, distracted from reading a week-old newspaper, but she poured her a glass of water...and even plunked in a single precious shard of ice.
Kymbra’s surliness made it difficult to get along with her these days and Melora remembered the happier, more bubbly girl she’d been before her auction last year. Kymbra had been one of the most famous Roses Red Jim had ever auctioned off, fetching nearly three thousand Sovereigns at her auction, an unheard-of number for this godforsaken region of the galaxy.
Kymbra-Before-Auction had shared sweets with Melora, bandaged her bruises when Mel had arrived battered and grief-stricken, desperately seeking work...and Kymbra-Post-Auction was now an angry woman who radiated fury at the best of times.
When Mel looked at Kymbra she often wondered if she was looking into her own future. Resentment, disappointment, despair...and now way off the blasted rock of a planet, flung into the far reaches of space. Spaceships from the New Earth Sovereign Territory only visited occasionally and that was usually only after one of the mining companies hit a new vein of trellium.
The Sovereign Fleet wouldn’t wouldn’t take colonists with them back to New Earth unless the colonists could pay their way...and none of the women working in Red’s had that kind of cash.
Kymbra slid Mel the glass of water without comment and Mel downed it gratefully, eyeing Kymbra’s chipped violet nail polish. Kymbra-Before-Auction never would have been seen without a single curl out of place, let alone chipped polish. Despite their recent inability to get along Mel had always admired Kymbra’s commitment to perfection.
The chipped polish was a bad sign- Kymbra would soon be slipping into another fury-driven storm that no one would be able to save her from until it ran its course.
Dalilah strolled over and leaned on the bar next to Mel, tapping the baton idly as she watched miners spill in and claim the dancers of Red’s, flashing Sovereign bills. The miners were fresh off work and still tired, but after a quick stop at the Pit up the street for cheap rotgut whiskey they were already getting handsy with the dancers.
Dalilah’s dark curls were touched with frost these days. Mel reached out to her mentor and brushed an errant strand back into place behind her ear. “Have you seen Red Jim around?” she asked. A poster of herself was hung directly across from her. Mel’s own dark eyes bored into herself and she knew there was very little time left before she hit the point of no return.
Dalilah glanced at her sideways. “No. And you won’t be the first to ask him to cancel it.”
Mel slid her empty water glass back to Kymbra, steeling herself to beg Dalilah for one favor. Dalilah’s kohl-rimmed blue eyes flashed- was that sympathy? Probably not. Dalilah had been on Ionope long enough for her heart to grow as hard as the rocky soil of the planet.
“Why can’t I try?” Mel asked innocently even as her heart sank. There was no point in hoping against hope.
“Don’t play dumb,” Dalilah said, tapping the baton faster now. “You think Kymbra here didn’t beg and plead? You think I didn’t get down on my knees and offer every delight known to mankind just to choose my first one? Red Jim doesn’t care one bit so you might as well save your breath and get back on that stage.”
Mel stared at the brass pole, that hated thing. And to think she had once loved dancing. The planet of Ionope had a way of stealing beauty, taking something lovely and twisting it into something foul.
Flowers, for example. She’d only ever seen flowers on a holoscreen, and now she was sure she would never want to smell roses, no matter how sweet their scent might be. Not now that she was called a Rose herself.
“I don’t feel like dancing tonight,” Mel murmured to herself, but Kymbra smirked with glossy lips, ready to sharpen her claws on whoever was closest at hand.
“Nobody does, doll,” she purred. “One week and you’ll be one of us big girls.”
Dalilah had wandered off, her hawk-like eyes narrowing in on a roving hand, and Mel leaned across the bar towards her fellow dancer, anger flashing through her. She hadn’t asked for this life, either.
“Why so bitter, Kymbra?” she asked, and the smirk slid off Kymbra’s lips, hurt flashing in her eyes. Mel immediately regretted her words. Her old friend did not deserve cruelty.
“Sorry, Mel,” Kymbra muttered. “I would stop it for you if I could.”
Mel knew what she meant. In one week she would be just like Kymbra- irrevocably changed and maybe for the worse. One week until Red Jim painted her up, paraded her on a stage, and announced the opening bid.
She would experience her first time with a man she didn’t know, whose breath would smell of whisky and dirt, and then she would know exactly how Kymbra felt these days.
Resentment, disappointment, despair. The familiar litany echoed in her head.
Mel gave Kymbra a small smile. “I know you would,” she said, reaching for Kymbra’s hand, but a flash of red moved in the corner of her eyes.
Red Jim was coming, the big boss of Ionope. With only one shanty mining town on the whole planet and most of the local businesses belonging to him, Red Jim had the run of Ionope and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Ionope was far enough into deep space that the New Earth Sovereign Territory didn’t bother sending out regular patrol units. The colonists could catch fire for all they cared, as long as they mined enough trellium to send home- even if it meant most of the people lived under the thumb of Red Jim or the mining magnates.
Those few who had ever tried to speak out against Red Jim had usually been shut down in very quick ways- but a few had been unlucky enough to take up residence in one of Red Jim’s “rooms” out in the wasteland of Ionope. They were concrete-lined pits dug into the earth of the desert and were undetectable once buried.
Mel had never seen one of these rooms, but she’d heard plenty of rumors and had no desire to ever be dropped into one.
His auburn hair was the only attractive thing about him, glowing like a living ember. The rest of him was a thin, tanned hide, sustained solely on misery and rotgut whisky.
Her boss broke into a smile when he saw his dancers, sauntering over in the way that only a rich and untouchable man could. He was even more imposing in his customary pitch-black suit.
Kymbra immediately busied herself with wiping the bar and arranging glasses.
“How’s my budding rose?” he asked, running his hand over Mel’s icy-blonde hair and caressing her cheek. She was frozen under his sharp eyes as his thumb came to rest on her lower lip and she wondered for a moment if he actually did possess human feelings, if he could understand their torment. “Have the girls been teaching you tricks? I’m hoping to beat Kymbra’s price with you, so you’d better be able to put out like a goddamn wildcat.”
Her hope for his humanity died instantly. As Dalilah had said, it was dumb to wonder in the first place. Her heart had hardened over the years for a reason- Red Jim would never put a woman’s feelings above his money.
Red Jim’s smiled faltered as he gazed at her and Mel realized her error too late. “Ah Melora, sugar. Harboring false hopes?”
She quickly arranged her face into a bright smile but it was too late. His hand whipped out faster than a snake, striking the side of her head and sending her tumbling into the bar.
She gasped for breath, a line of pain searing across her ribs.
“No, boss! I’m ready!” Mel gasped, trying not to wince. With her auction coming up Red Jim wouldn’t lay into her too furiously, hoping that flawless, unbruised skin would fetch a higher price.
It was only afterwards, when a deflowered dancer’s value plummeted, that his hands would become fast and mean once more.
She cringed when he raised his hand again, but he only readjusted his jacket. “Good, good,” he said, brushing invisible dust off his sleeves. “I didn’t take you in for nothing. I’ve known for years you’ll be the best auction this establishment will ever see.”
Mel pressed a hand to the side of her throbbing head. He’d hit her where her hair would hide any bruising.
Several voices suddenly piped up near the door, rising into shouts over the hollow thud of the music. Red Jim raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like they hit a new trellium vein. Get back to work, see if you can get your hands on a few beads.”
He sauntered off, grabbing a full bottle of whisky off the bar as he passed and pausing to direct a few dancers towards the shouting miners, snapping his fingers like they were dogs.
Kymbra trotted around the bar, looking stricken for a moment before she caught herself and plastered a neutral look on her face. Her fingers were gentle as she touched the side of Mel’s aching head.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, helping Mel to her feet. “You’re not bleeding.”
“Did you hear him?” Mel asked breathlessly. “They’ve got trellium.”
Kymbra’s eyes widened. “Well, screw this, Dalilah can man the bar then,” she said, glancing to the door. “Payday just came early.”
She prowled off with feline grace, seeking the source of the shouting- the man with the trellium beads. Mel made herself follow but her ribs were still burning and her pride momentarily shattered.
She knew better than to expect mercy from Red Jim. He’d taken her in several years ago after Mel’s mother had succumbed to the lung cancer than formed after years of working in a trellium-processing laboratory. Her father had been killed a year before that by the collapse of a trellium mine.
Red Jim had owned the laboratory and had brokered the deal on the mine between my father and the mining company, telling him he still expected a small amount of trellium was left. When Mel had arrived on Red’s doorstep with nowhere else to go for money when she was only fifteen, triumph had flashed through Red Jim’s eyes for a brief moment before he’d put on a mask of sympathy and let her in.
Mel had tried to leave before but Red Jim always found a way to dissuade her. He’d give her a handful of Sovereigns, a bottle of imported wine, and once a necklace he had clasped around her neck himself.
The real problem always came down to money. There wasn’t many places for a young woman to work on Ionope and no one else to take them off-planet...and Red Jim’s protection on Ionope, while questionable at best, was better than none.
He picked up broken scraps and made them useful to him. There was no mercy in that at all.
Mel’s stage awaited as another knot of miners stumbled into Red’s. It was packed now, grime-caked bodies pressing in on her from all sides.
Several pairs of eyes landed on her, already bleary with drunkenness. Newly flush with cash or trellium beads, the miners had likely stopped for the Pit’s cheaper rotgut before making their way to Red’s.
“Well now, boys,” one of the miners slurred. “Look who it is- the Rose of Ionope.”
One of the younger miners, in his early twenties and not yet quite as grizzled as his elders, grinned and stumbled forward.
“Not for long,” he bragged, grabbing Mel’s arm. She tried to twist away but his grip was tight. “I’ve got fifty beads of trellium says I pop her first.”
Cold nausea swept through her. Fifty beads of trellium. That could buy out the work-contract of every dancer in Red’s with plenty to spare. But she wouldn’t see a single bead of it- it would all go right into Red Jim’s coffers.
Not to mention she didn’t want this brash jerk to be her first. “I’ll dance for you now, but keep your hands off me,” she said tartly. They laughed as she backed away until she bumped into the stage.
“What do you say we take her for a test ride first?” the leader asked, whisky boosting his bravado. Mel cast her eyes around desperately, hoping to see Kymbra, but the other dancer had probably disappeared into one of the private alcoves by now.
The younger one suddenly looked abashed at his behavior. He wasn’t as hardened and brutal as the old-timers yet and probably still held a kernel of empathy. “Red Jim will skin us alive if we touch her, Mick. Maybe let’s back off and just take that dance.”
Mick shrugged. His bloodshot eyes fell from Mel’s face to her exposed cleavage. “Red Jim can suck my cock,” he responded with a crooked grin, and reached for the strap of her bra.
Time froze as shouts rose behind him, coming ever closer. His rough skin scraped against Mel as he hooked his finger into the strap, meaning to yank it away. Shock held her frozen in place as her lungs fought to work.
Then an enormous blue fist closed around Mick’s wrist and squeezed.