THE PRICE

by Kate Lindsey, from an idea by John Vincent © 1990

"Well, what do you think?"
     Ace stared round the tiny chamber that was no bigger than the bathroom they'd had back at the children's home.
     "What about the rest of it?" she asked sarcastically.
     The young officer laughed. "Good, I like a girl with a sense of humour. So do others."
     She threw her rucksack and jacket onto the bed. "So what about this job?" she demanded. "You said you could get me a job. Otherwise, how can I pay for... this?"
     "It's five Crowns for every cycle," he said, reaching out and stroking her cheek - she gritted her teeth. "You shouldn't have too much... difficulty... earning that much in a day."
    "Doing what? Lab assistant? Waitress?"
     He laughed again, shaking his head. "Surely you've realised by now?"
    Ace swallowed, her eyes drifted warily to the bed and back to the man's face; sharp breath between her slightly parted lips as a wave of nausea passed through her. "There's... there's nothing else?"
     "You'll starve before you find it, and even then you'll need a bribe of fifty Crowns or more to secure it. At least this way you won't go hungry, or want for a place to sleep while you look."
    He reached into his pocket and took out a gleaming gold coin, placing it on the small table next to be bed.
    "The start of your first cycle's rent," he said. "Take it or leave it... and here. I went to quite a bit of trouble to find you this place, as well as clearing up all that mess you caused in the Transmat™ section when you got caught up in that incoming beam. You owe me enough already, so don't disappoint me."
    She stared at the coin - in it were all her hopes and fears, and her survival. He was right, of course - if she wanted to live here it was the only option, but the price was...
     "There's really nothing else?" she asked as the lieutenant began pulling off his gloves.
     "Only this," he said, holding up his right palm for her to see the frost-burnt impression that she had all too quickly learnt the significance of. "I really wouldn't recommend it. And for you, there is only this, or that," he nodded at the coin on the table.
     Ace slowly reached out. Her fingers touched the coin, pushing it this way and that abstractedly.
     "I'll take this," she said at last. "You know I have to."
     She turned away from him and began to pull off her T-shirt. With her clothes, she shed all her expectations, all her longings for a better... a happier life. The dream had come true, she had escaped the restrictions of Earth, but the old nightmare demons had been waiting to greet her all along.
    Finally, she turned around to face him, her head bowed and her hands clasped together against and covering the softness below her waist, a final gesture of useless modesty.
    "Let go of your hands and look at me," he commanded.
     She faced him and her hands dropped to her sides, clenched into tight fists.
     "Mmm, very nice," he muttered, unbuttoning his tunic. "You should make quite a good living here."
     "You call it living?"
     "Existence, then."
     "I..." she began. "I'm... I'm only fifteen."
     "So? You're young - that's another thing men like," he observed and placed a hastily scribbled piece of paper on the table next to the coin. "There's a list of a few Comtel™ numbers here - some gentlemen I know who enjoy a good time; they rely on me to mention them to anyone new who turns up."
     "I..." she had to swallow to fight down the urge to vomit. "I've never... I've never done it before."
     "Really?" he said, his eyebrows raising as he paused from un-buckling his belt. "I suppose under the circumstances that deserves a little more."
     He fished around in his pocket and dropped three more coins, smaller Quarter Crowns, next to the first on the table.
     Ace stared at them and the anger welled up inside her. "Is life so fucking cheap here?"
     "Cheaper than this," the lieutenant said. "I'm one of the generous ones."
    "But I've never..." she shook her head despairingly. "It shouldn't be like this; it should never be like this."
     "What's the matter?" he taunted. "Not one of those who still thinks it should be saved for after bonding, are you? But that's just another form of exploitation, isn't it? It's a bit too late for that sort of false morality now - especially here."
     "No," she said. "It's just that it shouldn't have to happen like this - ever."
    "But it is, and we're here," he said. "This is real life and on Iceworld this is the only life for many. You can hope to end up with something better, that's all. Maybe you'll find it, or maybe you'll find what I did."
    The surprise threw Ace of balance. "You mean you..."
     "You just have to... accommodate... the varied tastes you find here," he said.
     Ace stared down at the ground again and watched the mixed pile of clothes on the floor growing. All the anger, all the fear, had left her, had drained away leaving only a deep pit of despair. She relaxed with helpless reservation and meekly lay down when he told her to. He climbed onto the bed and roughly pulled her knees apart, lifting them up and spreading them wide.
     "A word of advice," he said. "Try to look as if you're enjoying it, even though you're not. It reassures the punters, believe me."
     "I'd've thought you'd know too much to do this to someone else."
     "Oh, but I do," he said. "I'm giving you the tips I had to learn. Though at least I only had to look into the faces of half of them, and you'll only have to put up with the men. Unless Belaz is feeling a bit bored, of course," he added with a rather childish smirk.
     He pushed straight in and lay down on her. She clamped her teeth together and winced at the sudden pain. She felt like crying, but the tears and sobs wouldn't come.
     "Put you arms around me..." he said. "Tighter."

Two hours later, Ace sat alone in the tiny room, the blanket wrapped around her protectively. Slowly, she leaned across and scooped up the four coins from the table, then weakly chinked them in her hand, her tired muscles still aching.
     Four coins.
     She'd sold herself for that.
     At last the tears came as she reached out for the list.

FIN

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