Kay didn't go to New Plymouth to hustle. She went for a fresh start, away from screaming family and stalker ex, with a plan to wait tables or scrub floors while she settled in. But she had no family, no connections, and just enough money for the flight out, so when the visa paperwork got stuck in the pipe, she couldn't afford the two-thousand wan bribe to grease it.
She faked an employer to snag a dorm capsule in Tower Twelve, but she couldn't fake the rent. On the second of the Martian month, the LED ring on her capsule door flipped from green to red. Kay was checking her climate levels, trying to figure out what "red" meant, when stilt-legged Callisto Poli, madam of a Central Viking brothel, sauntered by. Her narrow face and knobby hands exaggerated her age.
Poli took a drag off her wristvape and said something in a diamond-drill voice.
Kay turned on her ear-to-lip translator tube. "What was that?"
"Rent's past due," repeated Poli.
"A little shame to go with the stress." Poli sized Kay up. "No reason a girl like you can't make a living out here."
Kay sized up Poli right back. "I'm not a hooker. No disrespect."
"Hooker's better than homeless. Even so, there's a flyer on Tower Ten you might want to see." Poli walked on. "Enjoy your red ring."
No harm in looking. Kay took the transit-pipe to Tower Ten and thrilled to find Roman alphabet on the lobby board's open call.
"Club Combustion seeks dancers. Vertebrates only."
Dancing sounded more her speed—controlled environment, super-sized bouncers. She'd only do it until she got her money straightened out.
Bag packed, Kay headed to Combustion, a strip club in the North Bonneville towers, to join a day-long queue of other desperate girls—Earthling, Gliese Moon, Gamma Hadron. When they called her in, she danced in wedge heels and her only set of matching underwear, and she never let go of the pole.
Outside the dressing room waited Fat Reggie, an Italian teddy bear with goatee and brass knuckles. He reported the owner's opinion of her "good waist" and "natural teeth" and how she looked "cold but not stuck-up."
"Get some proper dancewear. You're hired."
Clients varied: lonely miners, kinky marrieds, youths too broke to buy more than water. Slumming Arcturans got bent on benzene and never tipped. Sometimes a convention of spider-eyed, pre-gamed Ursa 47s would show up and make the night. Old-timers Platinum and Gold claimed the best lockers. Copper, a red Europa Eel, flickered figure-eights in the tank over the bar. An amphibious Gliese Moon biped called Lithium preferred droning Orion-belt music so as not to overexert herself. Hydrogen, a Gamma Hadron craterfox, weighed only five kilos but even megafauna dropped monster coin on her energetic, dexterous lap-dances.
Kay danced as Neon to old Chess Records. Feet on the ground, death-grip on the pole, she learned a way of squeezing her knees and popping her ass that bounced the string of pearls around her waist. It got attention.
She learned how to give a private dance: bump, straddle, toss hair, groan hot breath in the client's auditory meatus. A good customer held stock-still, afraid to miss his money's worth.
In the dressing room, it seemed like all the girls talked about was fried food, money, and who was on drugs. Fat Reggie was nice enough, never rude or flirty, but there was no one in the club she'd call a friend. The job was a job.
One night a tall Sigma 9 fella showed up in silk pajamas. He had chrome eyes, satyr's ears, and fabulous curly hair styled upward like a crown. He grinned at every girl in the club, showing tidy square teeth.
A beefier Sigma 9 male with buzz cut and plastic overcoat sat a polite distance behind the first. Stage lights flashed over the otter fur that covered them head to toe.
Hydrogen claimed a spot at the first fella's table, pressing her fox cheek to his so their translator tubes could pick each other up over the bass.
"Hey, baby," she said.
"Hello, dear one," said the Sigma 9. "I'm looking for a girl more substantially built. Could you recommend one?"
"I appreciate it." He tapped his CashCard to her Bankbar bracelet. Its readout glowed "10."
She crooked a finger at Lithium, who tried the Sigma 9 fella next.
"Looking for company?"
"I certainly am. May I see your hands?"
She showed him eight slender fingers, soft pads front and back.
"What a shame. No nails." He extended his CashCard. "Would you be so kind as to direct to me a girl with nails?"
"If your friend buys a dance from me, sure."
So Lithium pointed him out ("easy money") to Neon née Kay.
"Please show me your hands," he said, and Kay did—round, natural and clean as she could keep them. They made Sigma 9 smile. "I would like a dance from you."
With bodyguard and Lithium, they set up camp in the room behind stage, paired on adjacent VIP couches.
Kay stalled for the next song. "What's your name, baby?"
"Mellorc, my dear one."
"What kind of music do you like, Mellorc?"
"All kinds. Say. Would you be so kind as to run your hands through my hair?"
His hair looked clean and smelled like molasses. Seemed safe.
"Like this?" She stroked the waves behind his ear.
He let out a shivering sigh. "That's very good. Both hands?"
Mellorc slid down the couch. "Nails, please."
Kay scratched his scalp like a lotto ticket, bouncing his glorious curly hair. Mellorc closed his eyes. "Yes. Perfect. Now work your way up."
She did. The molasses smell intensified. Her hands met on the top of his head and found a bald shark fin among his hair. "What's that?" she asked.
"Run your hands over it, please."
She did. A new song started.
"Ready for a dance?" asked Kay.
"Yes, almost," said Mellorc, throat tight. "Once more."
Kay stroked the ridge again and with sudden, brutal clarity realized what it had to be. It throbbed. She recoiled, but Mellorc grabbed her wrists and pushed his fin forward. The point spurted dark syrup through her fingers. He groaned.
Kay jumped to her feet, holding her hands out in horror. "What the fuck?"
Neighboring Lithium paused her dance to stare.
"It's all right," said Mellorc, fishing in his suit pocket. "I pay very well."
"It sure as fuck is not all right! You jizzed in my hands!"
Mellorc shook his head. "Such coarse language."
The commotion summoned Fat Reggie to the VIP doorway. He had a good forty kilos on Mellorc, but not on the bodyguard. "Problem here?" he asked.
"No problem," said Mellorc, pressing his CashCard on Kay. "One hundred."
"You think that makes us even? I don't want your fucking money. Reg, get him out of here."
"You heard the lady," said Reg. The Sigma 9 bodyguard stood to intervene. Reg squeezed his lapel radio. "Code White, VIP."
"No trouble," said Mellorc. "We're leaving. Thank you for your work."
Kay fled to the dressing room to scrub Mellorc's tea-colored semen down the sink.
Fat Reggie knocked and peeked in. "What happened?"
"He jizzed in my hands. Jesus, Reg, what's with some of these guys? Why can't they tell a stripper from a prostitute?"
"They can't. They're idiots. That's why I'm here."
"Well, good, because it's fucking disgusting. What if he gave me some kind of disease?"
"Cross-system? Probably not. But you might still get it checked."
"Damn right, I will."
Kay spent the rest of the night belittling customers ("That's a girl drink."), giving pushy dances and slapping tippers with her hair. Strangely, it didn't hurt her income.
End of night, per usual, Fat Reggie walked the girls in pairs from the back exit to the transit-pipe station. Cool blue Lithium eased over to Kay as they waited for their turn.
"You all right?" she asked.
"I will be," said Kay. Then, as an afterthought: "Thanks."
In the common room of Tower Twelve's all-female 83rd floor, Kay dropped thirty wan on a HealthyCell finger-prick scan. If this fucker diseased me. . . . It made her so angry she couldn't think straight. He got away with it.
Waiting for the test results, she splurged ten wan on a fresh Granny Smith and set up camp away from the horde of females—nannies, help-desk ops, masseuses—prattling near the wall-mount TV.
Beyond the picture windows, graffiti-specked transit-pipes cobwebbed the towers. Kay ate the apple so slowly it turned brown in her hand. Maybe it was a bad city. Maybe she shouldn't have come.
In tiny shorts and open leather duster, Callisto Poli loped past her to the Spyglass.
"Shit," said Poli. "Spot me a wan? Phobos is halfway through an eclipse, and all I got is cash."
"Split the look with you."
Kay tapped her Bankbar to the Spyglass receiver. The timer ticked and Poli looked. She whistled a harmony.
"That's a pretty moon," said Poli. "Looks like a match striking. Here."
Kay took her turn. City haze gave Phobos a halo and softened its dimpled edge. "It's like it's looking back at us."
"How are things, Kay? You making good money?"
"Are you sure?"
"Less sure every day."
Poli's laugh sounded like a piccolo.
Everything came back normal on Kay's HealthyCell. Thank God for small mercies. Somehow it didn't calm her down.
At 3:00 a.m. Kay locked herself in her capsule, her door's LED ring glowing benevolent green. It took her hours to fall asleep, 60 mg of diphenhydramine notwithstanding.
Mellorc dared return the next night, bodyguard in tow. Neon/Kay spotted him and gestured for Fat Reggie, but Mellorc got to her first and cornered her. For a weapon, Kay grabbed a mini water off the bar.
"My dear one," said Mellorc. "Would you be so kind as to dance for me again?"
"Go to hell," said Kay.
He tapped his translator as if it were defective. "It's all right. Many girls do this for me."
"Then find another girl."
"You're the girl I want."
"You don't always get what you want."
Fat Reggie arrived. "You gonna behave yourself, buddy?"
Kay pinched her translator tube mute. "This guy's not taking 'no' for an answer."
Reg maneuvered between them. Mellorc's bodyguard edged closer. Watching, Trace and Boku—bouncers the size of escape pods—edged closer, too.
"This ain't a brothel," said Reg. "You want that, there's plenty of places in Central Viking that can help you out."
Mellorc looked truly offended. "This is what she's here for."
"I say what I'm here for," said Kay.
"You refused the money. I remember. I'll give you twice as much. Three hundred."
Reg said, "Shit, Neon. I'd rub him off for that."
"Then go ahead. The answer is no."
"Four hundred," said Mellorc.
"Four fifty," said Reg, "and I'll find you two girls hotter than this to work you all night." To Kay: "No offense."
"I'm a gentleman," barked Mellorc, attracting stares. "I pay a good price. Do you know who I am?"
Reg held up his hands. "I'm sure you're a big wheel wherever you come from, but right now you're just a guy in a club." He waved over Trace and Boku.
"I'm gonna go," said Kay.
Mellorc grabbed her arm. Reggie flipped him to the carpet before he could squeak. Trace and Boku scuffled with the bodyguard.
Spooked, the club emptied in a heartbeat. Kay stood back stupidly, unsure how to help.
The bodyguard pulled a body alarm, shooting a cloud of Irritating Plum up Trace's nose. Trace lost his grip. The bodyguard got an arm loose and swung for Fat Reggie.
Kay lunged and threw a sloppy elbow at the bodyguard's neck. It bought Reg enough time to zip-tie Mellorc and hit his lapel radio. "Emergency. Police requested. Multiple assault at Club Combustion." To Kay: "Get out of here!"
She ran past Copper's tank and heard a bubbly voice cry, "Take me!"
Kay flinched, but she grabbed Copper with both hands—slime coating, toxibarb tail, and all.
Then a fleet of Sigma 9 soldiers stormed the club.
In the dressing room, a dozen half-naked girls threw on overshirts, grabbed gear bags, and beat feet out the back for the transit-pipes. Copper gasped as Kay toted her overhead like an Olympic torch.
At the transit-pipe station, Kay dropped Copper in a hip-height AquaTube and the girls scattered into pods.
Kay's pod broke the building line for a view of the city. A serrated dogtooth of a Sigma 9 Striker hung over Tower Ten. Out of the ship, otter-furred soldiers slid down cables to the balcony. The club's broken neon sign read "BUST N."
"Oh, God, Reggie. Why?"
Tower Twelve girls clustered at the TV. Breaking news showed the Sigma 9 ship, the club, the police aircruisers zipping to the scene. A stoned Limosian girl with lacquered bangs kept all four hands pressed to her face.
Kay watched from the corner.
An official portrait of Mellorc flashed up, captioned in GenLing and Picto. Kay searched down the screens for an English translation, and there it was: "Prince Mellorc of Sigma 9."
"How the hell'd they get a ship like that in low orbit?"
"I dunno. Bribe?"
"Get your story straight, guys. Is it three hostages or two?"
"Sigma 9 doesn't have any bad blood here. Do they?"
"Fuck if I know."
"Why don't the cops just take 'em out?"
"You want a firefight two hundred meters up?"
"What else are they gonna do?"
"That's your club, isn't it?" Poli sidled up, loading a cartridge in her wristvape. "You know anything about this?"
Kay couldn't bring herself to answer.
The Limosian girl strolled past them to the vendboxes. "Don't worry. They'll straighten this out by dawn."
"She's an idiot if she thinks that," whispered Poli.
The standoff dragged on.
Two days of nonstop coverage. Two days of packed common room, watching and speculating. Two days of blotchy-faced New Plymouth Chief of Police assuring them negotiations were progressing.
The Striker ship blotted the sun from 21st Avenue. Nobody went to work in Tower Ten. By video, flanked by hostages and lit like a rock star by club spots, Mellorc released his demand, which the news stations played ad nauseam: "I require either the human female called 'Diamond,' who has treated me so shamefully, or eight hundred million wan in reparations."
Fat Reggie and Trace and Boku kneeled hooded and blurry in the background.
None of them had given up her real name.
"I'm not unreasonable," said Mellorc. "I will trade all three hostages for the human female called 'Diamond.' This is extremely fair for the offense I have suffered."
"She must be some hot shit," said one girl.
"Hot shit or not," said another, "fuck her for not showing herself."
Kay couldn't sleep at all.
Surely the cops were handling this. Surely she'd make things worse if she came forward. She could be off the planet for all anyone knew. Maybe she should be.
But Reg and Trace and Boku had refused to sell her out. How could she turn her back on them?
Red-eyed and worn, Kay waited by the Spyglass, as far from the common room buzz as she could get.
Poli emerged from her hall, mini-skirt rasping her stilt thighs.
"Hey, Poli. Got a minute?"
"I have a big problem, and I could use some advice—"
A callbox bleat interrupted. Poli hit the response button. "Yeah?"
"Two here for Kay Sitko," said the doorman.
"That's me." Kay took the button. "Describe."
"Blue biped. Orange craterfox."
"Let 'em in," she said. "Time to face the music."
The door clacked, and in raged Lithium, baggy sleep-suit, zero makeup, phthalo blue with rage. Hydrogen stormed in alongside. Poli took a judicious step back.
"You," hissed Lithium.
"Hear me out," said Kay.
"Diamond. You're the one he wants, and you're just hiding out. Do you know how hard you were to find?"
Girls murmured. Benches scraped.
"You're Diamond?" asked the Limosian girl.
"Not exactly," said Kay.
"Yes, exactly," said Lithium. "The Sigma 9 word for 'neon' sounds like their word for 'diamond,' and Mellorc wasn't paying good attention, but I'm paying good attention, and you're a fucking coward."
"I didn't know what to do."
"So you did nothing?"
"I was about to do something."
"Oh, were you?" Lithium threw up her hands. "Why didn't you just give him what he wanted? You could have stopped all of this."
"You too good to get your hands dirty?"
"Enough," said Poli in her shrill voice. "All she did was know her limit and say so. Can't change a limit. Trying just makes a new problem."
Lithium leaned into her. "I don't know what planet you live on, sister, but in the real world—"
"If you do different, that's your mistake, not hers."
At that, Kay crumpled to the floor.
Hydrogen crawled close and nuzzled her foxy chin in the crook of Kay's arm. Instinctively, Kay petted her, releasing soothing pheromones.
"Rub him off one more time?" asked Hydrogen.
"No," said Kay.
"You could wear gloves."
Hydrogen nipped Kay’s wrist. "You're impossible."
"You think it's hard dealing with me?" asked Kay, rubbing the bite. "I have to deal with me all the time."
Around the room, postures relaxed. Hydrogen munched her tail.
Lithium narrowed her eyes, membranes bobbing. "Fair enough." She muscled Kay up by the shoulders and planted her on a bench. "But right now I don't care what your problem is. I care about our guys up there."
"So do I," said Kay.
"You're in luck." Poli pointed to Mellorc's beautifully lit statement video, looping on the TV again. "Clearly he cares what people think. Make them hate him. He'll change his tune."
"He's holding three hostages on top of Tower Ten," Kay said. "How can anybody hate him more than that?"
"You've got to tell the other side. Put a face on it."
"Finally!" said Lithium. "You'll do it, right?"
As if to ask the same question, hooded, blurry Reggie loomed on the wall TV.
"I will," said Kay.
Lithium loaned Kay a suit. On makeup, Hydrogen demonstrated an excellent sense of color for red-blooded complexions.
All the girls helped tidy the common room. When Hydrogen told them, "Call me Saska," the intimacy stunned Kay like a blast of Irritating Plum.
Lithium stayed Lithium.
Kay trimmed her speech to a brutal two minutes.
"Is that all you've got?" asked Saska née Hydrogen.
"The less I say, the less they have to spin."
Lithium borrowed a camera from her boyfriend and staged Kay in a plastic chair.
"Gods, no," said Lithium. "You look like a terrorist. Here." She nudged Kay closer, between daylight and lamp. "Now you and you," she said, picking demure-looking girls, "stand behind her. Look like you give a shit."
She let Kay take a snort off her wristvape before the camera rolled.
"My name is Kay Dayna Sitko of Earth," Kay read. "I'm the one Prince Mellorc of Sigma 9 calls 'Diamond.' I worked as a dancer at Combustion. Prince Mellorc came to my club and demanded sexual gratification. I refused.
"I don't regret that refusal. It isn't my job to educate. It isn't my job to appease. What I do regret, bitterly, is that I didn't have the courage to come forward until now.
"I care very much about Reginald Addario, Trace Okeke, and Boku of Gliese 8. I grieve for them and pray for their safe release. Prince Mellorc, you have the power to end this. Release them. They are innocent."
When her voice wavered, it was real.
The news outlets ate her alive. They debated her sanity, her chastity, her pride. They criticized her lip color, which Saska took personally.
But they played her video over and over, and the contrast with Mellorc's was fatal.
Prince Mellorc released a follow-up video, solo this time, gelled blue spots faking daylight, explaining Kay "did it once already," and she was "needlessly rude."
The police came to interview her ("Had you met before?" "Did he seem unbalanced?") and assigned some guys to the building.
All the same, Kay got death threats by mail and mobile and stopped leaving the 83rd Floor.
For a commission, Lithium took bids for an interview exclusive. MGN won and set up camp in the common room. Saska advised their makeup artist on Kay's "difficult" complexion.
Their correspondent, a long-necked Arcturan female, asked, "How long have you been working at Combustion?"
"Six weeks," Kay said. "I hope to save enough for a work visa."
"Is that what you came to New Plymouth to do?"
"There were very few opportunities where I came from."
"Is it true that you performed a sex act on Prince Mellorc?"
"What he asked me to do is not considered a sex act on Earth. It took thirty seconds for me to realize it served as one for him. But then it was already too late."
The interviewer nodded and shuffled her notes, but as soon as the segment director called "break," she threw back her head and whistled like a dolphin.
"Was that funny?" asked Kay.
"I'd say so," said the interviewer. "But Mellorc might not."
While Kay swabbed off TV makeup, Poli came up the stairs.
"You missed it," said Kay.
"I waited downstairs. My line of work wouldn't be good for yours."
"You didn't have to do that."
"Don't be dense. It went well?"
"Good. This city's gonna get interesting. We're gonna get those boys home."
With the interview fee, Kay ordered the Sippi-Fruit booth's Tropi-Gal Getaway platter for the common room. Lithium and Saska joined. Poli was too busy.
Checking her mobile, Lithium nearly choked on a pineapple chunk. "Poli, you crazy bitch."
"The Central Viking brothels are on strike. Look."
MGN confirmed it in a bewildered nightly news segment, their straight-faced Limosian correspondent reporting from the foot of Tower 190. One refused patron gave them a quote ("Sigma 9's got a hundred fucking princes. One of 'em's gonna be an asshole.") but refused to appear on camera.
Outside the common room window, blue "Diamond Hard" graffiti appeared on the side of a Skywalk. Mellorc released a forty-minute screed, from which newscasts cherry-picked "barbarian city" and "this is sexual warfare."
Delighted, pundits and comedians turned their attention to "Half-Minute Melly."
More blue "Diamond Hard" tags appeared. Lithium messaged Kay a picture of one on Tower Ten, words styled in a diamond shape.
"Diamond Hard" T-shirts turned up in lobby shops. Some genius printed them on the front of men's underwear and sold out the lot in two hours.
At lunchtime, however, an unmarked parcel cleared Tower Ten's floors eighty through ninety for the eight hours it took the bomb squad to bless it. Crammed in common rooms and hallways, the residents expressed many thoughts in earshot of Kay ("ridiculous", "stuck-up," "shh, there she is now").
As soon as Poli came home, Kay hunted her down.
"This is a fucking nightmare," said Kay.
"Yes, it is," said Poli, "and if you give in now, you'll never wake up."
The news stations shared a relay from the Sigma 9 Kuiper Belt outpost, where a reinvigorated people's movement called the monarchy "archaic" and "corrupt."
The next day, Prince Mellorc arranged a hostage handoff with the NPPD on the Combustion balcony. The girls packed in the common room to watch in reverent silence.
In hovercam footage, Mellorc and his soldiers looked unkempt and exhausted. Reg, Trace, and Boku, thank God, walked out under their own power.
The Central Viking brothels reopened.
Mellorc stood trial for kidnapping, assault, and conspiracy. He plea-bargained for an abbreviated sentence at the Kuiper Belt outpost and lifelong persona non grata status on Mars.
Reginald Addario wrote a book with Trace and Boku. Lithium, real name Tamma Foy, negotiated fees for their five-colony speaking tour. Reg opened a luxury shuttle shop. His New Year's parties were mythic.
The death threats sparsed out but didn't stop. With new dark brown bob and harlequin eye makeup, Kay changed apartments, staying in touch with the Tower Twelve girls by text and mobile, except Poli, who didn't do social tech. Kay left a note for her but couldn't be sure it arrived.
The interview money facilitated Kay's visa for a ramen shop waitress job in Tower Nineteen, to the chagrin of Tamma née Lithium.
"I could get you a book deal," said Tamma.
"I don't want to stay famous," said Kay. "Not for this."
"Suit yourself. But call me. You going to Reg's this year?"
One day Poli showed up in Kay's ramen shop—no miniskirt anymore, no duster, just a soft gray tunic and slacks. She shared the booth with a suitcase and favored one arm as if it were broken.
She accepted Kay's hug. "I'm retiring."
"Business that good?"
Poli's laugh sounded tired. "There was a real uptick after the strike, actually. Folks are all the same. They want what they can't have."
"Where you headed?"
"Don't know yet. Somewhere far."
"What happened to your arm?" asked Kay.
Poli sighed. "One of those things. Had to set a limit. Sometimes you don't have the world on your side."
There was no time to phrase it gently. "Poli, what you did with the strike, I can't even tell you. It meant so much to me. It was you. I couldn't have done it without you. How can I thank you for that?"
"You can't," said Poli. "But I didn't do it for thanking." She pinched her translator tube and said directly, in squeaking, sibilant English, "A limit is its own reward."
Poli ordered green tea but left before Kay brought it. At the empty table waited a paper bill for twenty wan with a blue diamond drawn on it. Kay ran out to the promenade but there was no sign of Poli, no stilt-legged figure in the crush of shoppers and food carts. What did she expect? Back to work. She paid for Poli's tea out of pocket so she could take home the blue diamond bill.
That night, Kay watched the Phobos eclipse from Tower Nineteen. Then she turned her Spyglass on the city. It wasn't a bad city. Not all of it.
She gave Tamma a call to catch up.