Rose Rico followed Bolt through the upper corridor of the Vault. The dance club used to be an emergency shelter, so each of the doors led to a cubbyhole where families had slept. A dim glow outlined the arched ceilings, while everything else was dark. Rose liked the feeling of being underground, but the music was too alien-influenced. The other kids called it cutting-edge, but she preferred a beat that was better for dancing.
Rose shook back her dark hair, nicely mussed by the hood of her poncho. Her mother had gotten the poncho as part of their quarterly allocation. She liked the feel of the thick suede against her naked skin underneath. Her thigh-high boots were shiny red, like the tiny comets and stars she had painted around her dark eyes this afternoon. Judging by the approving glances she was getting, her ensemble was working.
Bolt counted to himself as they passed the doors. His short hair was bleached half-white with long black roots. His upper lip was lifted in a sneer, but that could have been because of the smell in the Vault. Finally he stopped and opened one door, pushing Rose inside.
It was pitch black with the safety light taped over. "Hey!" Rose exclaimed, suddenly afraid that Bolt was going to steal the pitiful few pesos she had left after their night together.
"Who's there?" a low voice demanded.
"Bolt, with a new girl." Bolt kept his hand around her upper arm, holding her.
Rose tried to see as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, but there were only faint blobs that could have been two people. There was a steady dripping from the rain seeping into the underground structure.
"How do you know her?" the voice asked suspiciously.
"We just had sex," Rose offered helpfully. She almost snickered at the melodrama.
The evening had started out on a boring note while she waited for her friends to arrive so they could move on to upper Tijuana, where the posh dance clubs were. There weren't any blood sports scheduled for tonight, so there was nothing to get excited about. But then she had run into Bolt and everything had changed. She had wanted Bolt for years, but he was a man on the move. He didn't talk much about himself, which she liked, but according to rumor he was a regular on the trade circuit between Tijuana and Frisco. He was a northerner and had a clipped accent that was devastating.
Tonight she had caught Bolt's interest. She wasn't sure why. They danced and did sohappy all night, ending up with some wild sex on the mezzanine. Exactly what she needed for a pick-me-up after a hard week.
Then Bolt brought her here without telling her why.
"Her mother is a civ," Bolt said into the dark. "Head of Foreign Relations."
Someone gasped "Rico sets the quotas!" as the first voice demanded, "We aren't ready yet. Why did you bring her?"
"She can help us," Bolt told them. "She still lives in the civ complex. I bet she can get access to the secured net."
"Hold on a second," Rose laughed. She pulled her arm away from Bolt. "I don't even know what this is about!"
"It's about freedom," Bolt told her.
"What do you mean?"
"We've been watching you for a while, Rose." Bolt's face was close to hers, his voice low and insistent. "You don't like them any more than we do. You've had how many civ jobs? Six, seven?"
"More." Rose remembered all those part-time jobs her mother had arranged, working for various minor civs. She had never lasted more than a few months -- like her latest ag job. Her mother would have a fit when she found out Rose had quit. But she would die screaming if she had to spray baby plants for the rest of her life. "I hate it. They plod around with datafiles arguing over the best way to interfere in our lives, telling us what we can eat and do and say...morons."
Bolt sounded satisfied. "We're with you. Only we fight back."
Rose grabbed his arm. "You mean the underground? It really does exist? My mother rants about them but I always figured it was a boogeyman, you know."
Bolt drew away from her. "You really are something else, aren't you?"
The woman in the dark spoke up again. "You can leave now and forget this ever happened, Rose."
"Don't be pissy!" Rose exclaimed. "If you people are with the underground, I want to know more."
"Shh!" Bolt gave her a nudge. "They'll hear you outside."
Rose rolled her eyes. "Right, right, it's a secret."
"You'll have to prove yourself," the voice warned her.
Rose laughed. "Sure, you want me to do a human sacrifice or something?"
The voice was not amused. "Don't tell anyone you met with us tonight, and don't discuss anything you hear in this room."
"Gotcha," Rose agreed. "Haven't heard much so far."
Bolt shook her arm slightly. "She's not the most serious person, but I know if she hears what's happening she'll want to help."
Rose wished she could see Bolt's face. He almost sounded sincere there. But she pulled her arm away again. "You can let go of me. I'm not going anywhere." She rubbed her arm. "Can't you turn on the light now?"
"You can meet us face-to-face next time. For now, listen."
Rose was almost certain it was a woman's voice, that fluid middle range that seemed to imply strength. In spite of herself, she was on her toes, ready to hear what this hidden stranger had to say.
"People are disappearing. It's been happening for a long time, but it's getting worse. And we know the civs are responsible. We've tried to hold investigations, but witnesses have been silenced. We believe the corruption goes to the top, to the World Council."
Rose was suddenly very glad it was dark in the room. Conspiracy theories! Jeesh, how could a cool guy like Bolt buy into this drivel?
"I suppose it's the aliens' fault," Rose said as flatly as she could.
"The aliens use humans as slaves," the woman insisted, as if she understood Rose's skepticism. "It's been happening for thousands of years. That's why we're cut off from the rest of the galaxy. The World Council is cooperating with the Domain. They give them humans in return for technological information."
"So that's where we got grav tech," Rose said ironically. "Oh, that's right, we don't have grav impellers. That's why we're stuck in our own solar system."
"I know it sounds unreal, but it's true. Have you ever seen a prison? There's none within five hundred kilometers of Tijuana. Why do you suppose people never come back once they're sentenced and sent away?"
Rose blinked. "Who cares? They could be going to China for all I know."
"No one knows. There's nothing official about it. And we have people, like Bolt, who travel and gather information. There's no prisons up north, either. And the refugee camps by the inland sea are almost empty now."
"Empty?" Rose had to think about that one. "Are you sure?"
"I saw it myself last week," Bolt told her. "Five years ago, there were half a million people there. Now there are barely fifty thousand."
"Maybe they've relocated," Rose offered. "The Canadians -- "
"Aren't letting anyone in," Bolt interrupted. "They've clamped down on the borders so tight that nothing can get through. Believe me, I've tried."
"And there's nowhere else to go," the woman agreed. "America is wrecked. Only isolated pockets dug out of the ash. And we know that the rains down south are driving people out."
"So the civs send people to the aliens." It sounded idiotic to Rose. "Why? Doesn't the Domain have everything?"
"Humans, or as they call us, Solians, have one thing that most aliens don't have."
"What's that?" Rose asked.
"Passion," Bolt told her. "We're sexually receptive all the time."
"The Alphas of the Domain are sexually active only once every six standard days," the woman continued. "For most aliens, it's once a month or even once a year. Matching cycles takes time for Alphas, and between humanoid species it's extremely difficult. With humans, the problem is solved. Sex anytime, anywhere as long as you have a Solian pleasure slave."
Rose felt herself grinning. "Is this a joke?"
"No joke," Bolt shot back. He sounded disappointed. "I guess you can't see what's in front of you."
"Well, you've got to give me a better line than this. You're trying to tell me convicts are being sold as sex slaves? Get real!"
"Not only prisoners," the woman said in a tired voice. "The civs can get rid of anyone. People disappear all the time. We're in danger of being abducted if they find out about us."
That stopped Rose for a moment. Her friend Maria hadn't shown up at the club last week, and no one had seen her since. But Rose figured she was holed up with some hot guy. She certainly hadn't been abducted by aliens! "Well, good luck to your revolution."
The woman quickly warned her, "Don't treat this lightly! If you talk to anyone about this, you could be next. Especially your mother."
"You can bet I'm not going to be spreading this around."
She almost wanted to hear more of their tall tales, but Bolt hustled her out before she could think of anything else to say. It was hysterical, and she laughed for a good while after the door closed behind her. She didn't even mind that Bolt soon disappeared, grumbling at her reaction after he had vouched for her. Rose didn't care. She'd had enough drugs and fun for one evening; it was time to go home and get some sleep.
Returning to the civ complex made her depressed, as usual, despite the interesting evening. Bolt and his women...what a freak show!
The guard was particularly nasty to her, reporting her for coming in after curfew for the residents. He subjected her card to an additional scan and ran the detector up her boots, making her lift her poncho so he could reach underneath to grope her breasts and genitals.
She wanted to say something scathing, but the last time she'd called him a pervert she had received an official warning that her security clearance would be revoked if she continued to "harass" the guards. Then she wouldn't be able to live in the civ complex, and her mother certainly wouldn't contribute to her maintenance. Even if it did reflect badly on her social standing to have a daughter living on the street, her mother would do it to prove her wrong. Then she'd have to get a job to live in a shelter.
Since her mother was a councilwoman and head of Foreign Relations, second only to the governor of the enclave, their apartment was on one of the highest floors. Rose took the lift up and entered the room with its terra-cotta tiles and white plaster walls. It was dark and still, but the expanse of sky above Tijuana was tinted pink from the rising sun.
Her mother wasn't home, as usual, so Rose went to her own room. Three of the walls were painted dark red; the fourth was a window. The view was the same, showing the lights of the buildings and factories spreading down the hillsides toward the ocean. The greenhouses were back in the mountains, protected from the storms that raged down the coast. Being able to watch the dark clouds boil over the water was one of the best things about their apartment in the civ complex. A lot of people still lived in underground shelters like the Vault used to be.
Maria lived in an underground shelter...her friend Maria, who had never been out of touch with her for eight whole days, not since they had gotten close a couple of years ago. Where was she?
Remembering what Bolt had said, Rose hacked into her mother's terminal and took a peek at the civ business flowing through the net. It wasn't the first time she had eavesdropped on the secure net with specific questions to ask. Her friends knew she could find out anything for them.
A missing-persons report had been posted three days earlier from shelter Casa de Esperanza that was signed by Maria's sister. Rose felt a chill realizing that Maria wasn't off on a lark. She was really missing.
Maria's description and what she had been wearing when she was last seen were duly recorded. But there was no other information. The policia apparently hadn't asked anyone any questions about her. Rose knew none of her friends were aware that Maria's sister was looking for her.
Missing-persons reports were gathered by the various branches of security and were posted to upper-level civs on a daily basis. Rose flipped through the files. At first she thought there was some mistake, but a steady two or three people were reported missing every day. Some were tagged as deaths and some were recovered by the "reclamation office." Others were simply marked unknown. When she went back in the files, it continued the same way for years. A steady trickle that was too small to draw serious attention.
"People disappear all the time," the woman had said.
Now that Rose thought about it, that was an accepted thing. She had lived here her whole life, yet there were people she never saw anymore. Where did they go?
One thing she knew for sure -- if this sex-slave thing was true, her mother would know.
The next night Rose woke up to the sound of her mother's voice carrying through the main room, along with a man's deeper tones. Rose hadn't expected Silvia to return so soon; her mother spent even less time at home than Rose did. It had been that way since she was ten years old and her father had chosen to emigrate north.
Rose was throwing on a tank top and underwear as steps came toward her door. Rose went very still as her mother looked inside her bedroom. Since she was hidden in the shadows, Silvia didn't see her.
Rose would have normally jumped at the chance to walk out practically naked in front of her mother's friend. Especially because her undies were the innocent, yellow-flowered ones her mother had given her. But she remembered what that underground woman had said about Silvia being involved with the slave trade.
Maybe paranoia was contagious. Rose stayed quiet and let her mother think that because her bed was empty she wasn't home. Silvia went back into the main room.
Rose tiptoed to her door to peek out and listen. It sounded like Silvia was explaining that they couldn't meet in public anymore and he couldn't come to her office suite. Rose smirked, figuring the guy was a kinky sex partner her uptight mother was trying to hide.
"...but it worked, and your company was awarded the contract," Silvia finished, shrugging off a shimmering cloak and folding it over her arm. Her dress matched the cloak. She probably kept an entire wardrobe at her suite in the council tower. "You'll be able to start the excavation in the dump next month."
"Did you get the labor restrictions lifted?" the man asked. Rose couldn't see him. He was around the corner, while her mother stood in front of the window. Silvia liked attention, and Rose had seen her successfully compete with their splendid view before.
"Yes. Because of the toxins, you can bring Indians from the south up to do the work."
"It will be a few weeks before we can start siphoning some off," the man warned.
"Take care of that through José. He'll be your contact at the complex where the workers will be housed prior to going to the excavation site."
"So he'll choose which ones to cut from the herd?"
"Yes, in the beginning. After the start-up, most of them will be diverted directly to José. He'll make the payments to you upon delivery."
The man sounded admiring. "That excavation project was brilliant, Silvia. We may even make some money off it."
"We had to do something to get those people up here," Silvia retorted sharply. "The quotas keep rising."
Rose frowned. The woman had said something about her mother being in charge of "quotas." Was it quotas for slaves? It must be a coincidence, that's all.
The man murmured something else; then there was rustling from her mother's silvery dress. Rose tried to see them, but they moved away from the window.
Rose impulsively decided to push it with her mother. She walked out in her tank top and underwear to confront her.
Silvia and the handsome older man had withdrawn to the wrought-iron railing that ran along the top of the main room. They were standing together very closely and were talking too low for her to hear. They definitely looked intimate.
Rose yawned loudly as if she had just woken up. The man started in surprise, pulling away from her mother.
Silvia's eyes hardened as Rose sauntered closer. "Rose, dear, I thought you weren't home."
The man acted like his neck was screwed on too tight as he tried not to look down at her bare legs and taunting yellow flowers.
"I need to talk to you," Rose told her mother.
"Can't it wait until morning, dear?" Silvia patted her cheek with one hand as she started to her own room.
"Mia Madre! Now I have to sleep out here to make sure you don't sneak off in the morning."
Silvia pulled back her hand. Rose noticed that her mother must have had another treatment on her eyes and chin. The skin was taut.
With a stiff smile, Silvia turned to the man. "You won't mind waiting a moment while I speak to my daughter?"
The man nodded without even glancing at Rose.
Her mother led the way into the kitchen and slid the door shut behind them.
"You've trained him well," Rose said with a laugh.
Silvia slammed her hand down on the counter. "Now that you have my undivided attention, Rose, what do you want?"
Rose realized she hadn't played that right. She made her expression sad. "My friend Maria is missing. She's been gone for over a week and the policia don't know anything."
"Is she a civ?" Silvia asked.
"Well, it's not easy in the barrios," her mother said impatiently. "Sometimes people leave without telling anyone."
"Where could she go?" Rose said doubtfully. "That's why I need your help. You can find out what happened to Maria."
"Rose, dear, you'd better let the policia handle it."
"But they aren't doing anything," Rose protested.
"I hate to say it, but knowing your friends, they'll check the healers and find her overdosed or hurt or something."
"No they won't. They haven't yet." Rose stared at her mother, convinced she was hiding something. "You know what's going on, don't you?"
"You're talking nonsense, Rose. You know how overemotional you can get. Don't let your feelings override your better judgment." Her mother shook her head, her expression superior. "It's too bad about your friend, but there's nothing I can do."
"People go missing every day, and no one says anything. I think it's true -- the World Council has something to do with it."
Silvia stepped closer to her. "Shut your mouth! I could lose everything because you're spreading some silly gossip you got from your degenerate friends."
"If it's silly why are you getting so defensive?" Rose shot back.
"I won't do this with you! Not tonight. Why do you always try to ruin things for me?"
Rose had had enough of the double-talk for one evening. "The World Council has an agreement with the Domain, don't they? They use humans as sex slaves. How many people know and I didn't hear it until now?"
Silvia drew in a hissing breath. "You ungrateful child!" she screamed, the cords in her neck distending and her Latin beauty vanishing. "How dare you say that! If you won't think of yourself, think of me! I've given you everything, and you repay me like this!"
Rose backed up a few steps, but her mother stayed in her face, shrieking so loud that that guy must be able to hear in the next room.
"Okay, Mother, you can get a grip now," she urged. Silvia's fist was tightened and raised as if she would strike Rose.
Rose was actually a bit frightened at how unhinged her mother had become. She acted as if it were so dangerous that mentioning it out loud in their kitchen was tantamount to treason.
Silvia suddenly seemed to realize she was overreacting. With a shaking hand her mother smoothed her black hair and straightened the cloak on her arm. She cleared her throat before saying, "There's only so much I can do for you, Rose. I've reached my limit."
"That's nice to know," Rose retorted sarcastically.
Her mother's eyes flashed. "Don't push me, Rose. Or you won't have a bed to sleep in."
There it was again. The Ultimate Threat. Rose shut her mouth, managing a half-wry smile. She wasn't stupid. She wasn't ready to be thrown on the street.
She didn't say anything as Silvia arranged herself and left the kitchen. There were murmured words and then steps as they went into her mother's private room. Rose waited until the door shut before she went back out.
Maybe she had misunderstood. Maybe her mother was having an affair with that man, and was only guilty of giving him a business contract. Maybe the rest didn't mean anything. Maybe...
The lights of Tijuana looked the same, but Rose shivered. She would have bet that nothing could scare her mother, but Silvia was obviously frightened about something.
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Wright