6:2: “Far Side of the Moon”, by Ruth Nestvold

6:2: “Far Side of the Moon”, by Ruth Nestvold

Chanda glanced briefly out of the window at her former life, wondering what she had done to deserve this one. She could barely make out the contours of her past, the Indian subcontinent recognizable behind shifting clouds. Of course, it wasn’t a window, it was a screen projecting a view from the hub. The torus of the habitat was spinning too fast for anything resembling a window or a viewport.

“Chanda?” Hashim asked, his voice concerned.

“I’m fine,” she lied, turning away angrily, back to the sensors for the growth chambers in the hydroponics station: oxygen levels, nutrient tanks, acid flow to decrease pH. The ALS system on the Volva was old, but it was clever and complicated nonetheless. The Volva—or Vulva as the women forced or tricked into working here had dubbed her—was only a small first-generation habitat.

Chanda was checking the overflow valves when Mee-Noi’s clipped, gravelly voice came on the small earphone inserted in her left ear. “New tourist transport docking. All whores to the viewing room.”

She took a deep breath. Whores.

Putting aside the computer for recording the readings, she turned to Hashim. “The new transport is here. I must go to the lounge.”

Hashim rose, wiping his hands on his smock. His mouth had that tight look he got when reminded of her true role on the Volva.

“I will take over,” he managed to get out. She knew him well enough by now—he was angry. According to the other girls, he never called anyone else to his quarters when the traders allowed him one of the “awards” given to the male workers on the habitat.

Chanda felt no pride in that fact. More often, she resented him because at times he seemed to see her as more than a mere commodity. But then he called her to his room and expected her to perform, just like the rest.

She stopped in her bare cubicle of a room to change. While her friend Stefania plastered the walls with photographs and filled the shelves with dried flowers and trinkets, Chanda’s single decoration was a picture of her fiancé in uniform in front of the Taj Mahal. The only other memento of the life she had lost was a dusty photo album which she never opened.

Chanda stripped off the stretch pants and tunic she used in the biosphere, sponged down, and changed into her whore’s outfit. When she arrived in the lounge, most of the other girls were already there.

“Am I late?” she asked, sinking into her favorite silk armchair. The consortium of international underground organizations which had bought the Volva from a consortium of governments (who didn’t much care what went on in space, far beyond any national borders) was only concerned with profit margins, but the backdrop for the merchandise had to at least suggest the opulence the johns paid for.

Abebe shook her head. Her tiny dress of cream satin and lace shimmered against skin so dark it was almost black. “Stefania and Darya are not here yet.”

“They will not come,” Jimena said, a small Philippine woman who had been a prostitute back on Earth and never tired of telling them all how fortunate they were here in orbit. “They have retired. I hear they will go to the moon.”

At the word “retired,” conversation in the room came to a halt. Chanda’s simmering anger turned suddenly to nausea; she put her head between her knees and took several deep breaths.

She felt Abebe’s long-fingered hand on her shoulder. “Sit up, Chandi,” came Abebe’s low voice next to her ear. “The viewing will be soon.”

Chanda did as told, shaking her head. “Stefania could not retire,” she murmured, hating, hating, hating. “She was as much in debt as I. They killed her.”

“I know. We all know.” Abebe’s rhythmic sing-song soothed, even though she was agreeing to a nightmare. “No one retires from this place.”

———•———

Chanda’s earphone crackled. “One for you in zero G, chamber 6!”

Abebe and several others looked at her with faint sympathy, but little Jimena seemed put out—with her untouched looks, she was usually one of the first chosen after a transport docked. And she seemed proud of it.

“I must go,” Chanda said. “Duty calls.”

Chanda made her way to an elevator that would take her up a spoke to the center of the habitat. She hated the zero G johns. With no resistance besides skin against skin, it took most forever to finish.

This one was no different. As she groaned in time to his attempts at thrusting without gravity (he kept forgetting to anchor himself), her mind wandered, playing back his guttural English, wondering if he was from Germany or Holland. The Dutch johns were more likely to take her, while the Germans preferred dark Abebe or Thai Siri or Philippine Jimena. The Amis liked the ones with the biggest breasts, like Nadya or Rita or Joy.

Or Stefania. But no one would take Stefania again.

He grabbed her upper arms with meaty hands, pulling her closer and drifting with her beneath a huge viewport. There were eight zero G chambers in the hub; this one was moonside. Above them it hung, a wide sickle of the far side of the moon. She could make out the Mare Orientale, a spot of darkness on the blade of a knife, hanging in the sky like a threat.

Her earphone came on again, Deshi this time. “More convincing, Chanda! We have Yakuza here now, they watch!”

Yakuza. The Japanese underground. Together with the Russian Mafiya and the rest of the consortium, they were responsible for the travesty of her life on the Vulva.

She hated zero G, but she hated the rapes and the beatings more. She groaned a little louder and threw her head back. The jagged knife-edge of the moon made it seem all too clear what waited for her.

And as much as she hated this life, she didn’t want to go into retirement.

———•———

After four johns from the new transport, Chanda received permission to take a break. She fell asleep immediately, but she didn’t rest. Nightmares plagued her, dreams of a place once home, and of Brazilian Stefania inviting her to see the sights of Karnataka, as if it were her home now. Stefania, with wide lips and high cheekbones like Abebe, but skin like tea with milk and hair less wild. She had a laugh to fill a room and a smile to fill a heart. The traders had not been able to break her spirit, no matter how many times they beat her or how many crew members raped her. She had fought them with laughter, something they had no weapons against.

That made them even angrier.

Stefania laughed now, standing in front of Shiva’s altar in the temple Brihadishvara in Thanj~vãr.

“You don’t belong here,” Chanda said with unshakable dream logic.

Stefania smiled that wide smile and began to dance the alarippu, the invocation to the gods.

Chanda forced herself awake, unable to endure the dream any longer. Checking the time display, she was surprised to see she had slept over ten hours.

She got up and dressed in leggings and T-shirt for work in the biosphere, the job she had thought she came here to do, long ago in the life she had forgotten. Chanda had been so naive then, just a student in Bangalore when the war broke out. After less than a year, nuclear wastelands dotted the Middle East, affecting the Indian subcontinent as well. Hundreds of thousands of boat people circled the globe, searching for a place where life was liveable.

Rather than joining the refugees, she’d signed up to work in the biosphere on a space hotel. It hadn’t occurred to her to question why they would take a bioscience major who had been unable to finish her studies.

And now she was a whore and a wage slave.

Chanda was the first woman in the cafeteria. She got herself cereal made from the wheat grown in the ALS system and took a table by herself. There was no camaraderie on the Vulva between men and women—while she suspected many of the men were wage slaves too, at least they were not merchandise.

And they were rewarded regularly with girls of their choice.

Abebe and Siri were the first to join her at the breakfast table. “Did you have Yakuza too?” petite Siri asked, her voice low.

“I think so.”

Siri’s mouth grew thin. “I hate them. I had one, I know. He hurt me, over and over, but of course he didn’t leave a mark.”

Chanda remembered when Siri first came to the habitat, small and scared and speaking only a few words of English—and a virgin. Chanda was so glad she hadn’t been a virgin.

Siri’s parents had sold her to the Yakuza, believing (or pretending to believe) their stories that once she paid off her debts, she would send them money. But none of them would ever pay off their debts.

Abebe didn’t even have a debt. She and her fellow refugees had been captured off the Fuerteventura coast by Eastern European traders who worked with the Yakuza and provided them with “personnel.” With no papers and no official identity, Abebe was among those here who were most obviously slaves.

“I think I had a trader too,” Abebe said in her musical voice. “But he wanted nothing special, only a blow job.”

Before Chanda could do the loyal thing and provide details of her suspected Yakuza, they were joined by Mee-Noi and a new delivery of girls. Mee-Noi was not a large man, but he was broad and muscular, like a bulldog, and he controlled the girls easily.

“Some of your colleagues,” he said curtly to the new ones. “Siri, Abebe, Chanda. Meet the new girls, Fatma, Haydee, Prahong, Mariana, Birhan, and Ramona.”

Most of the girls showed the obvious signs of the traders’ “persuasion”: jumpiness, bent heads, fear in their eyes when they did look up. But no bruises.

One—she thought it was the one called Ramona—was a small thing probably no more than thirteen, but with fire in her dark eyes rather than fear. She reminded Chanda of Stefania, with her wild, curly hair and her mix of African and European features.

The girl noticed Chanda’s gaze and narrowed her eyes. “Merda!” She gestured at Mee-Noi. “You let this filho da puta, this caralho, make you slave? Balalao!” She turned to the girl called Mariana and spoke rapidly in her own language.

Mariana looked scared, but spoke for the other girl anyway. “She says she would sell her body if she could get something for it, but here, this is like the mining towns in Brasil, the men who keep you like property, and throw you away like a dirty rag when you are used up.”

“There isn’t anything we can do,” Abebe said quietly.

Ramona pounded a small, dark fist on the table. “Nothing you can do? Always there is something you can do!”

Mee-Noi pulled her away with a smile, amused by the show of defiance. Chanda would have loved to match her anger to the girl’s, but she knew how Ramona would pay for it.

“You breakfast now, and then you get ready,” he instructed the six new recruits. “After, you will be expected in the hong bud boree sut.”

He neglected to tell them what it meant, although she saw the one called Prahong blanch.

It was the room for the unveiling of the virgins.

———•———

Chanda placed her palm on the door to the biosphere and entered a garden as green as Lal Bagh in the life she had forgotten. Ramona was wrong, how wrong—there was nothing they could do here on the Vulva, so far from anything resembling law or authority. They, the merchandise, were no more than three dozen at any one time, while the male personnel came close to fifty, and there could be up to two hundred “tourists.”

She would gladly kill the Yakuza, but with what weapon? They were not even given knives with their meals—the rumor was that too many girls had committed suicide.

Chanda wandered through the ornamental garden. The artificial season in this section of the habitat was late spring, and the scent of lilacs and roses and oleander filled the air. The walls were green and the ceiling blue, the light from the sun strips warm and pleasant, the warmth touched by morning coolness.

A stalk of oleander broke in her hand, and Chanda looked at it, surprised. She had not even known she held the flower.

Was this life her punishment for surviving, her karma? She had committed the normal little sins in her last life, the life of heat and color and spices, had even slept with her betrothed before she went away to university in Bangalore. But her greatest sin must have been staying alive.

Still, she did not deserve the life she lived now.

The only explanation was that life was unfair, and no religion taught that.

She reached the agricultural section of the garden. With a practiced eye, she checked the plants for any sign of disease. Different rooms simulated different seasons to ensure that harvest was continuous, and she passed from late spring to high summer: rows of quinoa, red, ripe tomatoes, and blooming potato plants between shelves of cucumbers and spinach.

“Good morning, Chanda.”

She turned and inclined her head demurely, succumbing to a lifetime of training.

“Good morning, Hashim.” She hadn’t expected to see him this early.

“No sign of scale or mildew?” he asked.

She shook her head.

He gazed at her for a moment out of eyes as dark brown as her own—a good color, honest like earth, not like so many of the johns who came to the Vulva to buy her for an hour or three, men who had eyes the color of a fake sky or a false jungle.

“We have important guests now,” he said quietly.

She nodded. “We heard. Yakuza. Some of us entertained them last night.”

Hashim looked away, staring at the sunstrip-ripening tomatoes. “You deserve better, Chanda,” he said in a low voice. “You are a good woman, modest and quiet, not a …” He couldn’t get the word out, although he surely knew how to say “whore” in half-a-dozen languages, as they all did. She couldn’t believe how grateful she suddenly was for that.

She stepped in front of him and put a finger to his lips. “Shhh, Hashim, you should not speak of this.” She gently took the small portable computer they used for monitoring levels in the biosphere out of his left hand. “The Yakuza have eyes and ears everywhere,” she typed and handed it back to him.

“The levels are good,” he said and deleted the message.

He turned and headed in the direction of the ALS system. She fell into step beside him. “I met several Yakuza and Mafiya and Dai Huen Jai yesterday after you left, very big fish,” he said, deliberately returning to a more conversational tone. “They are on their way to the moon. The bosses plan to start a resort on the far side, sponsored by Russia.”

No. Chanda clenched her fists at her sides to keep from losing her composure. Not another place like this, a place where no one would care and there was no hope of escape. “They wanted to see the life support systems?”

Hashim nodded. “Ours are not the most up-to-date, but the bosses do not care about that. They like that it is not as expensive to maintain. But I told them it also is not as safe.”

“The transport brought some new girls,” Chanda said.

“I know.”

“And Stefania is gone,” she added.

That he seemed not to have heard yet, he was silent so long.

“There’s a new girl who reminds me a little of her,” Chanda continued, wondering at herself for talking with him about these things. “Ramona. She was angry with us, said there is always something you can do.”

“I wonder,” Hashim said quietly. He stopped and took her arm, turning her to face him. Behind him, the tiny white flowers of the potato plants were bright in the light of the sun strips. “I have asked for you tonight, and the traders have given me permission.”

Chanda blinked, surprised.

He answered the question she hadn’t asked. “The tourists will be busy with the new girls.”

———•———

Siri usually worked with them in the gardens and on the farm during the day—she was too shy and scared to work in the bar, and no amount of mistreatment with shock sticks could keep her from jumping and ducking every time an Ami or a German called out for a drink in a loud booming voice.

But she had the fragile beauty of a barely pubescent girl: dark, exotic, delicate, the constant pain in her black eyes irresistible to many of the johns. She was one of the most popular girls on the Vulva. And so the traders allowed her to work on the farm in off-hours.

The other assistant who worked most regularly in the biosphere was a blond young man who did double shift on the farm and in the kitchen and whose name Chanda deliberately forgot, like her former life. His preferences ran to things worse than zero G.

Late that afternoon, No-Name was harvesting soybeans in the fall chamber. In the high summer chamber, Chanda and Siri picked chard and spinach leaves, while Hashim pruned the tomato plants. Chanda and Siri looked up at the same time as their earphones came to life.

“All whores report to the viewing room tonight by eighteenth hour,” Deshi’s voice informed her.

So she was not to be Hashim’s reward tonight? Chanda gazed at him through the shelves of peanut plants. “We are to be in the lounge by six,” she said. “All of us.”

He shook his head, his lips pursed. “I will call the avtoritet.”

Between the green leaves, she watched him move away to a wall phone, surprised to realize she had been looking forward to a night with him. Only one man instead of half-a-dozen, that was what she was anticipating—to be used with imagined affection rather than merely impersonal lust.

A small hand stole into her own. “He is a good man, your Hashim, I think,” Siri said.

Chanda pulled away, feeling vaguely guilty at not allowing her that hope. “A man like any other.”

Hashim came around the peanut plants toward them. “Plans have changed—no ceremony in the hong bud boree sut today. They say I will have my time with you tomorrow.” He turned away, stomping between rows and shelves of green foliage and ripe vegetables to the hydroponics station.

———•———

When Chanda entered the lounge that evening, she could feel something had happened. The low buzz of conversation was the same as every night, but there was a different quality today, more compelling, the glances the girls exchanged intense rather than bored or scared or drugged.

Abebe joined her immediately, a pretense of her normal friendly smile on her face. Beneath it, Chanda could tell she was excited and barely able to contain the news.

They embraced and touched cheeks, and Chanda murmured in her friend’s ear, “What is it? Why has the unveiling of the virgins been called off?”

They switched cheeks. “There is a rumor that Mee-Noi was killed by the little Brazilian girl.”

Chanda froze. Abebe turned her towards one of the luxurious sofas and linked arms, steering her into action. Together they settled down among pillows of rich, purplish-blue silk.

“Ramona?” Chanda got out. Abebe nodded. “How?”

Her friend shrugged. “We do not even know if it is true. But the girls who work in the medical station were given the afternoon off.”

Chanda saw again Ramona’s angry, dark eyes, her small fist on the table, Mee-Noi’s self-satisfied smile as he pulled her away. She saw the terrified looks in the eyes of the other girls, saw the way they jumped every time the Thai pimp moved.

Then she remembered the stick they had used on her when she first came, when she refused to become a whore. She had been one of the ones who jumped and stared at the floor until Abebe’s gentle hand and Stefania’s defiant laughter had given her a reason to look up again.

Always there is something you can do.

Ramona had done something. Chanda didn’t want to consider the price she had paid, but she had done something.

She looked around at the other girls; everywhere she saw eyes a shade brighter, smiles that looked real rather than pasted-on.

Suddenly Chanda realized—it was hope. If a streetwise Brazilian kid could rid them of Mee-Noi, they were not as powerless as they thought they were.

“It has changed them, Abebe,” she said. “Changed us.”

Her black friend nodded. “Yes. But not for long.”

Chanda gazed at the other women. The voices around her had an animation she had never heard before. “But perhaps long enough.”

“Long enough?”

She leaned in to murmur in her friend’s ear. “I wonder what would happen if something went wrong in life support?”

Abebe’s eyes went wide. “Could you do that?”

Chanda smiled. “It is an old system. And I work there.”

Could she really go through with it? Should she? How much did she care for this life?

Very little. And if she could put an end to some Yakuza as well, it would be worth it.

———•———

The next day, Chanda inspected the water and atmosphere filters, wishing Hashim would stop hovering. There was so little time. An unscheduled transport had been sent for; the Yakuza bosses would cut off their visit to the Vulva and continue to the moon early.

“I have assurance we will be together tonight,” he said.

She nodded. Was there some way she could get him to leave? He hated being reminded she was a whore—perhaps that would do it.

“I think I had at least two Yakuza last night.”

His expression tightened, but he didn’t leave in a huff as she had expected. “They are evil,” he muttered beneath his breath so that the surveillance equipment wouldn’t pick it up.

Chanda gazed at him, her mind racing. He thought he loved her: perhaps he would be willing to help.

Help kill the Volva, kill themselves?

How else could she do it in so little time? She had to risk it. “It is unfortunate the Yakuza will be leaving. We could have shown them much more about the ALS system.”

Hashim glanced at her sharply. “I am glad. You should be too.”

“But having them here is an opportunity.” She looked away from him to the digital readout, allowing a slight smile to curve the corners of her mouth. “They know nothing yet about the risks of maintaining a biosphere. They need to learn the danger.”

“What do you mean?”

Chanda paused. He could betray her to Deshi or Joe or any of the others, and her retirement would be horrible. She looked up from the small computer and into his eyes. Dark brown like earth, soft, sympathetic, gazing at her intently, wanting to know.

She tapped one of the meters. “So much can go wrong in a sensitive system like this. Sensors can malfunction, the computer can break down and fail to correct it, filters can be damaged, overflow valves can become clogged. Despite safety measures, an unfortunate chain of events could knock out the life support system. They need to learn before they open another hotel on the far side of the moon.”

He was silent so long, the muscles of her stomach tightened in fear.

Finally he spoke. “True. We all feel safe, but life here in space is still unnatural.”

She nodded. “There is always something you can do. But if too many little things were to go wrong at once, I wonder if there would be any way to turn it around?”

He held her gaze. “Very little.”

Had he understood what she was trying to say? She couldn’t tell. “There is always something you can do,” she repeated.

Hashim turned away again, checking the flow meter on the computer control system. “I hear the transport for the Yakuza will be here in two days.”

Two days! “That is very little time to show them so much,” Chanda murmured.

“Perhaps you are right that it would be better if they stayed longer,” Hashim said.

She dragged in a deep breath—he was agreeing with her! Did that mean he was going to help?

But if she killed the Vulva, she would kill everyone on it. She gazed at the viewscreen in the hydroponics station, showing the pock-marked face of the moon. “The other women might not agree.”

Somehow, she would have to find a way to ask them.

Hashim nodded thoughtfully. “You are right.” He recited the levels for the overflow valves, and Chanda typed them into the portable computer she carried.

He turned away from the sensors. “I do not need your assistance here for a while. But there is one more thing you could do for me.”

“Yes?”

He handed her a key. “In the far right cabinet when you enter the storage room you will find a supply of disinfectant. We are having a problem with a fungus, especially in the spring chamber among the quinoa plants. Could you clean the area?”

Disinfectant and a fungus. Yes, he was helping her. “Certainly.”

A deliberate smile pulled up the corners of his mouth. “It is a good thing the hydroponics units are sealed. A fungus like that in the wheat could ruin life support.”

Chanda smiled back. Hashim was giving her a key. He wouldn’t go so far as to do it himself, use fungus on the hydroponics station and acid on the ventilation, but he was helping in his own way. It would be her risk if it didn’t work, but if it did, he was accepting the fact that they would all die.

They might all die, but there might also be a way to make it less horrible.

She dropped the key into the pocket of her smock. “I will see to it.”

Hashim touched her elbow. “There might not always be something we can do, but perhaps more often than we think.”

———•———

She found Siri in the late summer chamber. She gave the smaller woman a pair of gardening shears and said in a low voice, “You have heard of the Yakuza plan to start one of these prisons on the far side of the moon?”

Siri closed her eyes briefly and nodded.

“What would you give to keep that from happening?”

———•———

Chanda entered the bar through the back after exchanging her smock for appropriate “hostess” wear. Hibiscus and oleander grew between the tables, illuminated by grow strips. On one side of the bar a huge screen played feed from the hub, alternating views of Moon and Earth hanging in a black sky. A tourist called her over to his table, grabbing her ass while he ordered a whiskey sour. Suddenly, Chanda could no longer resist, and she slapped the man’s hand away.

He looked briefly taken aback, but then he winked. “Want to play rough?”

No, she couldn’t risk their plans just to let her feelings show, not even once. Smiling suggestively, she bent over the table, plucked a sprig of oleander, and tucked it behind her ear. “You don’t know how rough.”

He leaned back and returned the smile. “Much better.”

Yes, she knew it would look good, brightest red against shifting, glossy black.

Flowers would look good on all of them.

After serving the Ami his drink, she found Abebe on the other side of the small, artificial pond. Above her, the huge display changed to a view of the moon.

“You are helping in the bar today?” Abebe asked, surprised.

Chanda nodded. “For a little while. Hashim did not need me in the biosphere.” She picked a sprig of blue lobelia and tucked it behind Abebe’s ear. “Have you heard that the Yakuza are leaving for the moon in two days?”

Abebe’s generous mouth went small. “I hate them,” she whispered furiously. “How many more of these things will they build?”

Chanda squeezed her friend’s hand and let it drop. “Perhaps less than they intend,” she whispered back. “I think I can make it work, but I need your help.”

She outlined her plan for the ALS. If the girls agreed, they would make a poisonous sleeping draught for themselves first.

Abebe looked scared, but she didn’t object. “I will ask,” she whispered.

Chanda grabbed her arm. “But don’t speak to Jimena or her friends.”

A mean smile curled up the corners of Abebe’s wide mouth. “Do you think me so stupid?”

———•———

Abebe sent Rita to the garden during her break where she “just happened” to meet Chanda. Rita sent Joy, and Joy sent Nadya. Nadya met Irina, Nwando, Delia and Khun-Mai in the cafeteria, and Siri talked to Runako, Yuliya, Claudine, and Karla in the exercise room.

And so it went.

There was something they could do.

———•———

When she returned to the biosphere, Siri was “pruning” the potato plants as Chanda had suggested.

In peace. No one had noticed the senselessness of the task.

Chanda dropped the sprig of oleander on the pile of potato green cuttings. Siri turned and smiled at her, the usual fear gone from her dark eyes.

Chanda knelt next to her and began to cut the greenest stalks with the most berries. “Siri,” she whispered, “is this the right thing to do?”

“Yes.” Although she spoke in a whisper, as Chanda had, the force she put behind that one word almost made it sound like a shout. “We will keep them from creating another hell like this.”

“Not forever, though.”

The smile lit up Siri’s face again. “But for a while. It is enough.”

Chanda squeezed Siri’s hand and rose. “Thank you. I must work in the flower garden now.”

On a bench in an out-of-the-way corner of the ornamental garden, Chanda found a small pile of flowers, oleander and azalea and lobelia, nearly thirty sprigs. Intense, poisonous perfume surrounded her and she smiled.

The women were with her.

She emptied the flowers, a riot of blue and red and orange and green, into a bucket she had brought and began to “prune” a trellis of blooming passion flowers. She had always loved passion flowers, the burst of white on the outside and the thorny-looking purple centers. Being fruit-bearing as well as attractive, it was one of the most common ornamental plants on the ship; the ripe maracuja provided a welcome supplement to the diet of those on the habitat.

While she was snipping branches from the passion flower vine, one of the new girls, Mariana, entered the garden wearing a spray of purple rhododendron flowers in her golden-brown hair. There were dark circles under her eyes, but her step was sure and she held Chanda’s gaze as she drew near.

The younger woman stopped beside her and took the sprig out from behind her ear. “It begins to wilt.”

“Yes, I see.”

“The men are quite charmed by the flowers,” she said, twirling the blooms in her hand. “I hear the Yakuza say we should wear them all the time.”

Chanda chuckled, and the two women exchanged a long look.

Mariana dropped the bunch of rhododendron into the bucket. “Para Ramona,” she murmured.

Chanda snipped off another large, white flower along with some leaves from the vine and dropped it in on top of the rhododendron. “For Stefania.”

The young woman—girl, really—smiled. “I must find myself another now.”

Chanda watched Mariana move away, a spray of light blue lobelia in her hair. She could only hope what they collected would be enough; she would rather drift to sleep and die of heart failure than suffocate. But even if the death was not as gentle as she hoped, it would be preferable to what the Yakuza would do to her if the plan didn’t work.

Because she knew now—she would go through with it. She owed it to the younger girls, those who were here and those who were not.

———•———

Finished, Hashim rolled off and took her hand in his.

“The Nile Valley this time of year is very beautiful. I wish I could show you. The white sails of the feluke against the deep blue of the river and the green of the palm trees. Hibiscus and hyacinths bloom along the banks, and in places the ibis lives wild again.”

Chanda listened to his deep voice in the dark, speaking of the life he had left behind. The rhythms of his English spoke of long practice, as did hers, the rhythms of a former British colony, proud of its non-native heritage.

“In my country, women are treated with respect. There, a man would kill any other who laid hands on his woman. But time and space changes everything.” He slipped his hand out of hers, and she could hear the bedcovers rustling in the dark, feel the mattress shift beneath them. Then his hand was in hers again, and the cold of glass touched her palm.

She wasn’t too sure about the morality of killing another man because he had touched your woman, but she was sure of the vial she now held in the palm of her hand.

“Everything is different out here in the dark of space, far away from river and desert and palm trees, sun and heat and the smell of spring,” Hashim continued. “Safer than the encroaching sand and more dangerous. Imagine the effects of a fast-growing fungus attacking the wheat in the hydroponics chambers with the sensors disabled. Life out here among the stars is even more fragile than on the edge of the desert.”

She had collected fungus this morning, and Hashim had done his part as well. Chanda closed her fist around the smooth glass and leaned over to give him a voluntary kiss on the cheek. “You are a good man, Hashim.”

He turned her face to him and kissed her on the lips. “I think I forgot to check the overflow valve in the ALS system this evening,” he said for the sake of whomever might be listening. “I would like you to go up and inspect it. I am very tired now.”

Chanda smiled in the dark and swung her long legs over the side of the bed. “If you wish.”

As she pulled on her clothes by the faint light of a small bedside lamp, he drank down a vile-looking concoction from a small water glass and grimaced.

“I hope you sleep well,” she murmured and let herself out of the room to make her way to the hydroponics station.


 

Ruth Nestvold lives in a house with a turret and spends much of her free time among her roses in a garden on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany. Sometime-English-professor, sometime-IT-professional, she has sold stories to numerous markets, including Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Scifiction, Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction, and several anthologies. Her novella “Looking Through Lace” made the short list for the Tiptree award and was nominated for the Sturgeon award. Recently, the Italian translation won the “Premio Italia” for best international SF novel. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

As to the inspiration for the story, all I can tell you is that it was anger at various news items encountered here and there over the years, about women tricked into prostitution and basically enslaved, and about sex tourists to countries where authorities look the other way and they can get pretty much anything they want. I did some research on that, tried to figure out how I could use it in a science fictional setting, and it all developed into the story.



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