Outside, the bluish sun slanted low across the green dust of the Martian desert, its last rays sparkling on the far mountain tops. One by one, lights flickered on in the city.
“Mary must be expecting that Earthman,” Anne said. She held her glastic blouse tight together over her breasts and leaned a little out of the window.
Milly nodded. “The Azmuth landed this morning.”
The noises of commerce were fading. From the window Anne saw the neon blaze up over the door. For the thousandth time she blinked between the equivocal words: 30--BEAUTIFUL HOSTESSES--30. Laughter, dry and false, filtered up from the tea bars along the street. She looked westward, toward the spaceport, and made out the shadowy nose of the berthed space liner looming against the night. She could picture the scene--a thousand stevedores unloading cargo, refill men and native spacewriters scurrying over the sleek hull, the Earth voyageurs shouting orders and curses.
“Maybe he isn’t even on it.” Anne turned from the window. She crossed to the couch and sat down, fluffing out the green crinkly glass of her skirt; pendant, multicolored birds flashed from the rings in her ears. She tucked rosy feet under her scented body. “I don’t like Earthmen,” she said.
“They spend money.”
“They make me sick,” Anne said. “With their pale skins and ugly eyes and hairy bodies.”
“They have strong arms.”
Anne’s wide, red mouth curled in distaste. “They’re like a bunch of kids.”
The room was lighted by soft, overhead fire. Heavy drapes hung from the walls. Sweet, spicy incense curled bluely from the burners by the window.
Before the mirror, Milly edged in the narrow line of her pink eyebrows with a pencil. She folded her lips in, rubbing them together, licked them, making them a glistening red. She pinched her cheeks.
“I wonder when they’ll catch Crescent?” she said.
Anne yawned languorously. “It won’t be long.”
“I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes,” Milly said.
Anne patted her mouth lazily. “She ought to have known she couldn’t run away.”
“What do you think Miss Bestris will do to her?”
Anne stood up, brushing out the wrinkles in her dress. “I should care.”
“But what will she do?”
Anne shrugged. “Whip her, maybe. How should I know?”
“Don’t you feel you’d like to run away, once in a while?” Milly asked, turning to look at the other girl.
Anne laughed coldly. “I’ve got better sense.”
“But don’t you want to?”
Anne tossed her purple hair. “Where is there to go? Who is there to go to?”
“Yes ... I guess you’re right.” Milly turned back to her reflection.
Both girls turned their heads to the buttons on the wall. The white one was glowing.
“It’s Miss Bestris.”
“We’d better go,” Milly said.
Together they walked down the heavily carpeted stairs to the sitting room.
The Madame was waiting. She was a large woman, rolling in creases of fat, and her pink hair was rough and clipped short. She had a pair of dimples in her cheeks and a single gold band around her right wrist. She was leaning against the piano.
“Hurry now, girls, hurry right along,” she said.
More girls were entering the room; they spread out, sitting on the chairs, curling at the Madame’s feet. Their eyes--amethyst, gray or golden--were on her face. Many had pink hair, others had tresses of purple or salmon.
“Now, girls, I suppose you know there’s an Earth ship in port?”
The girls nodded.
“So I expect we’ll have visitors tonight. I want you to all look your very best.” She smiled at them. “Anne, why don’t you wear that low-cut, orange plastic with the spangles, and June, you the prim white one? You look like an angel in it.” June smiled. “And Mary... ?”
“Yes, Miss Bestris?”
“Mary. Did you buy that neo-nylon I told you about?”
“No, Miss Bestris.”
“Mary, Mary, Mary. I just don’t understand you at all.”
“I’m saving my money, Miss Bestris,” Mary said intently.
“Yes, dear, I know that. We’re all saving our money. But we simply must look presentable. We have a reputation to hold up.”
“Yes, Miss Bestris.”
“Then, Mary, dear, do--do, please, buy yourself something decent.”
“Yes, Miss Bestris. I will ... Tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, if I...”
“Child? If you what?”
“Nothing, Miss Bestris.”
“Well. See that you get it tomorrow. If you don’t, I’m afraid I’ll have to take some of your money and get it for you.”
Mary looked down at the floor. The flaming glow of the hydrojet torches cast golden lights in her softly purple hair.
“By the way, Mary. Is that your cake in the oven?”
“Yes, Miss Bestris.”
The other girls snickered.
“Let her alone,” said the Madame. “If she wants to bake a cake, why shouldn’t she?”
No one answered.
Miss Bestris went on around the room, discussing the girls’ clothing, brushing this girl’s hair, pinching that girl’s cheek, chucking this one under the chin, smiling, frowning. Then finally she stepped back and nodded.
“You all look quite good, I think. I can be proud of you. And now, I want you all to go to your rooms and make them extra attractive, and then try to get a little rest, so you’ll all be especially beautiful when the boys come. Run along now.”
The girls filed out, and night continued to settle. After a while, her cigarette glowing in the gloom, the Madame waddled to her office. There three people were waiting for her.
The office was plain, businesslike, masculine; no lace, no ribbons, no perfume, only the crisp smell of new paper, the tangy odor of ink, the sweet smell of eraser fluid. When she came in the door the three people stood up.
She waved her cigarette hand with a once delicate gesture and flame light glinted dully on the gold band. “Please don’t get up for me,” she said, but her tone was condescending and the three visitors sat down respectfully.
Miss Bestris crossed to her desk; she perched on a corner of it, leaned back, blew smoke.
“You wanted to see me about your girls?”
Two of the people, man and wife, looked at each other. “Yes,” they said. And the other man said, “Yes.”
“Did you bring any pictures?”
They handed her pictures, and she held them up to the overhead torch. She studied them critically, pursing and unpursing her lips in secret calculation.
“This one,” she said finally, holding out one of the pictures.
The man and wife rustled their clothing; they smiled faintly proud at each other.
The other man got up slowly, retrieved his picture, left the room without saying a word.
“We can’t do for little Lavada,” the woman whined. “She was a late child, and we’re getting old, and we thought she would be better here. It’s hard to do for a growing girl when you get old. And my husband can’t keep steady work, because of his health and...”
“I’m sure she will be happy here,” the Madame said, smiling.
“Yes,” the man agreed. “It’s for the best. But--you know--well, we hate to do it.”
“How old is she?”
“ ... Fourteen.”
Miss Bestris studied the picture again. “She doesn’t look over twelve.”
“We have doctors to see to that,” the Madame said. “How much did you have in mind?”
“Well,” the man said, “it’s been a month now since I worked, and with debts and everything...”
“And something to put aside for winter,” his wife added.
“We couldn’t take less than a milli dordoc.”
“And we wouldn’t even think of it, but we don’t have a scrap of bread in the house.”
“And all our bills, and winter coming on...”
Miss Bestris turned the picture this way and that. The parents waited. The woman cleared her throat. The man shuffled his feet. The clock on the wall went tick-tick, tick-tick.
“I’ll give you eight hundred and thirty dordocs,” the Madame said.
Miss Bestris bent forward, holding out the picture. “Here, then. Take it. I wouldn’t offer that, but I need a girl right now. One of mine ran away last week, and I’m afraid she won’t be able to work for a month or so after they bring her back. I’m being generous. Eight hundred and thirty, or take your picture and don’t waste my time.”
The man and woman stared at her. And the clock went tick-tick.
“Take it, Chav.”
“ ... All right,” the man said. “We need the money.”
Miss Bestris leaned across the desk, pressed a button on her panel. Almost immediately, a door slid silently open and her lawyer entered with a white, printed, standard-form sales contract in his hand. Efficiently and rapidly, he entered the particulars. “Sign here,” he said, and the parents signed.
“Now,” said the Madame, “if you’ll bring in Lavada tomorrow at nine, I’ll arrange for a doctor to be here. If his examination is satisfactory, the money will be ready.”
The lawyer left, and the woman said, “You understand, we wouldn’t do this but for...”
“I understand, perfectly,” Miss Bestris said. “You don’t need to worry. This is the best kind of house--Earthmen only, you know, and they’re very particular. My girls are given the best of care. I’m like a mother to them, and if they are thrifty and diligent, they’ll be able to save enough money in a--a very short time to redeem their contract as provided by law. You needn’t worry at all.”
“Well,” the woman said, “I feel better after talking to you. I feel better about the whole thing to hear you talk like that.”
The clock went tick-tick.
“Uh,” the man said, “you won’t--? That is, our little daughter is sometimes wilful and ... uh ... well ... Sometimes.”
Miss Bestris smiled. “We know how to handle girls.”
“You’ll treat her... ?”
“As I would my own child,” Miss Bestris said; she took out another cigarette, lit it. “I think we’ll call her--well--Poppy. Earthmen like to feel at home, you know.”
The clock went tick-tick.
“Well, uh,” the man said. “Uh. Thank you.”
In one of the rooms upstairs Mary sat before the dressing table with her back to the mirror, while June and Adele occupied the two overstuffed chairs. Night sounds drifted up from the yellow canal, and fresh flower scents whispered on the warm air. The diaphanous glass curtains rustled at the open window.
“They’re too expensive,” Mary said. “I’m sure Miss Bestris overcharges us for them.”
“Hush,” said June, glancing around at the walls nervously. “Hush, Mary.” She smoothed at the delicate, plutolac lace fringe above her breasts. “Imported material like this costs money. You can’t get it for nothing, and we have to have the best.”
“I still think she charges too much.”
Adele shrugged delicately and crossed shapely ankles. “I think Miss Bestris must like you, or she wouldn’t let you wear that dress again tonight. You ought to watch out that you don’t get on the wrong side of her.”
Mary laughed, her amethyst eyes sparkling. “I won’t care. Not after tonight.”
“You’re not going to run away?” June asked breathlessly. “You wouldn’t dare do that. You’d catch it, sure!”
Mary shook her head. “Not run away.”
Adele leaned forward and said huskily, “You got enough money to redeem your contract?”
Again Mary shook her head. “No. It’s nine hundred and ten dordocs. I have only ninety-three. But I’ll have enough in the morning!” She stood up and crossed to the window, looked out toward the spaceport.
“Tell us, Mary!”
“Tell you what?” Anne asked, coming into the room. Languidly she drew the door closed behind her and rested against it. “Tell you what?” she insisted, narrowing milky eyes.
“Mary says she can redeem her contract tomorrow.”
Anne’s wide mouth curled contemptuously. “Nonsense!”
“It’s not,” said Mary without turning.
Anne glided sensuously across the room to the bed, her tight fitting plastic rippling with her tigerish muscles. She sat down.
“He said he’d take me away, this trip,” Mary continued. “He’ll sign off, and then we’ll both get a ship and go to one of the frontier planets. Where it won’t matter about--all this.”
Anne laughed harshly. “My God! You believe that?”
“We’ve both been saving our money,” Mary said dreamily. “He’s in love with me. He said so.”
“Honey, that’s what they all say.”
Smiling, Mary turned from the window and leaned backward, stretching. “You don’t know him. He’s different.”
“They’re all the same,” Anne said, her mouth twisting bitterly. “They’re just alike. Don’t believe any of them.”
And Mary said, “With him, it’s different. You’ll see.”
After a moment, Anne said, “That Earthman? That what’s-his-name?” Mary nodded, and Anne brushed an imaginary something off her knee. “An Earthman,” Anne said. “They’re the worst of all.”
“You don’t know him, or you wouldn’t say that.”
Adele looked away from Anne. “You love him, don’t you, Mary?”
“You’re a fool,” Anne said. “Listen to me. Love a man? God! You’ll see. After him, there’ll be another and another, and--just like Rosy--you’ll watch ‘em leave you and laugh at you until finally you’re hurt so bad you don’t think you can stand being hurt any more, and then along comes another one, and it starts all over again, and then one night you take a razor blade and go to the sink and stick out your throat and...”
“No! No! You’re wrong! He’s not like the rest!”
Anne leaned back carelessly, resting, propped on one hand. “See. You know I’m right, already.”
Anne shrugged. “Honey, tell me that tomorrow night.”
“I better go take my cake out,” Mary said. She fled the room in a swirl of shimmering glastic.
Anne sneered, “I don’t see why Miss Bestris puts up with her the way she does.”
“You’re jealous,” June said quietly.
Anne did not answer.
“Mary’s decent,” Adele said. “Maybe that’s why. She’s from the sticks, and her parents still come to see her on visiting days, and there’s something about her so--so innocent. Maybe that’s why Miss Bestris likes her.”
June said, “I think she’s better than the rest of us. I think Miss Bestris feels sorry for her in a way.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” Anne said, facing June. “The only one that’ll ever feel sorry for her is herself!”
“You shouldn’t have talked like that to her!” June snapped. “Why don’t you let her alone? She’ll feel bad enough without you helping!”
Anne rolled over on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. June took a helox lamp from her drawer and started to bake her hair darker. Those Earthmen were so funny about colors.
In the kitchen, Mary took the cake out of the oven. It was steamy and light and fluffy, and it smelled sweet and warm. She set it on the table and mixed a two-minute green frosting which she spread, carefully, over the cake. She patted here and there with the spatula and stood back, her eyes proud and serious.
She hummed a little tune under her breath as she scrubbed the pots and pans. Her hands moved in practiced rhythm, and the water splashed and gurgled. When the kitchen was again spotless, she looked once more at the cake, and then, turning out the light, she went back to her room.
Anne and Adele had left, but June was sitting quietly in the dusky moonlight. Her white dress seemed vaguely luminous.
Laughing, Mary flicked on the light.
“It’s a wonderful cake,” she said. “The best one I ever made. Just the way it should be.”
“I wouldn’t feel too bad, Mary, if he doesn’t come to eat it,” June said. “I don’t want to sound like Anne, but there was a lot of sense in what she said.”
“It’s just like a real wedding cake.” She hummed the snatch of Martian tune. “Like in the tele-papers.” She laughed with her eyes. “The bridegroom takes the silver knife and cuts two large pieces of the cake while the bride, dressed in filament coral, stands at his right hand. She carries a bouquet of--Anne just likes to be mean!”
June frowned. Mary crossed to the dressing table. She studied her face in the mirror. It was heart shaped, elfin; her purple hair was a riot of curls, and her eyes were amethyst and gold. She smiled at herself. “I want to look as pretty as I can tonight.” She twisted around. “You don’t think he’ll come either, do you?”
Mary looked back at the mirror. “He likes our canal blossom perfume.” She dabbed some of it on her ear lobes. “I like it best, too.”
June stood up, crossed to the musikon, found a slow five-toned waltz. She turned the music very low, and left the color mixer dim enough so that only the faintest ghosts projected hues moved on walls and ceiling.