With all my soul I hate The Jackpot. The whole club is fake, run by the UFF for the sole purpose of getting intel from Global Command's horny soldiers. Though I hate to admit it, Zee's strategy is effective. Between the soldiers' desperate need to sleep with a human, and R7, the UFF gets far more intel through the girls than they ever got through the long, slow process of torture. Before The Jackpot was a thing, Zee used R7 in the interrogation rooms. The soldiers fought it, giving up almost nothing, one even managed to give completely false intel that wasted the UFF's time and made Zee look bad. It turns out being naked and inside a woman makes the soldiers talk. A lot. R7 only works if there is trust.
Zee has 'sniffers' out in every bar, casino, and club across the city, looking for them; whorehouses are sanctioned by Zee and only men loyal to him work the doors. Those guys are his best sniffers. Illegal whorehouses he burns to the ground, with the girls and doormen locked inside. Zee's world is ugly and violent. People fear him. Even Carney, a total psychopath, makes sure not to get on his bad side.
Thanks to his network, Zee knows everything that happens in this vast, stinking cesspool of a city; more gangster than soldier, everyone fears Zee. He only fears the ones he calls the higher-ups—if he didn't there is no way he would have me in here opening my legs for other men. But orders are orders, and even he has to obey someone. So his sniffers work night and day to funnel GC soldiers to the club, pretending to be their friends, pretending not to know who they really are, offering them opiates and the best girls. They bring them all here—soldiers ready and willing to pay anything to sleep with a real woman—where we are ready and waiting with our fake Absinthe, R7, and meagre, empty bodies.
Everyone working in the club is either a soldier or vetted volunteer working for extra rations. The DJ is a sniper; the doormen, too. How many GC soldiers have I seduced since the higher-ups decided to repurpose me as a whore in between the times I had to go in and tell them about the next hurricane? Twenty-five? Thirty? Maddox was the last one. The best one. The one I loved. The one who loved me. My heart clenches, raw. The last time I walked in here, Maddox was still alive. Tears burn my eyes. I blink them back and nod at the other girls getting ready in the grimy changing room.
'Hey Vallis,' Sarz greets me with a faint smile. 'Been missing you. Heard about the DF Cap, shit luck, that.' She pulls off a ratty jumper and stands bare-breasted facing me. Ugly purple bruises pepper her torso. 'Damn, he was a good tipper. I ate good those months.' She bends over to peel off her thin, faded jeans. I look her over, surreptitious, she's much thinner than the last time I was here. Every vertebrae of her spine sticks out, sharp. Once, while I drowsed in Maddox's arms, he stroked my face and told me he heard a rumour that in the world before ours, being thin was fashionable because everyone was fat. Only rich people and fashion models were skinny. I knew he was trying to make me feel better saying that stuff since I was so frail against his well-fed, muscled body. He was so protective of me. I always felt so safe with him. Fuck, I miss him. More tears. More blinking.
Sarz reaches into her locker and necks a couple of pills. She rolls her head and closes her eyes in anticipation of the buzz to come. She catches me looking at her as she pulls on her gear, a hot pink latex bikini that looks shit on her scrawny, bruised body. She needs food, not painkillers, but food has become scarcer lately since one of the main production units for the chemical shit we get rationed out to us was bombed by GC. I know my ration packet keeps getting smaller, and I'm considered important. I wonder if Sarz gets any rations at all.
'Fuck these hit fast,' Sarz says with a languid sigh. 'I swear they just keep making 'em better and better.' She shakes herself out with a shiver of pleasure and sits down to strap on her see-through PVC platform stilettos. There's always plenty of opiates around, and a liquor everyone calls Absinthe because it's green, but it's not real Absinthe. It's just chemicals, made to assault the brain the same way booze used to do, except there isn't any grain or potatoes or whatever it was they used to ferment to make liquor anymore so this is what gets peddled out night and day by the UFF to keep the population sedated and quiet while they get on with the business of fighting their pointless, unwinnable war.
A UFF soldier comes in and stands guard just inside the door, wearing a flak jacket, his gloved hand resting on the grip of the black AK-47 slung over his chest. I catch him watching me undress. His gaze flicks to one of the other girls. He knows better than to look too long, knows who I belong to. No one messes with Zee unless they want to risk being cast out into the wastes, where a slow, painful death is certain. I catch a glimpse of my gaunt reflection in one of the cracked wall mirrors still left intact. Death is certain here, too. It just creeps up, quiet, and painless, numbed by opiates.
There's no mirrors where I bunk, even Zee doesn't have one, but my broken reflection tells me what I suspected. I'm thinner than I was the last time I worked here. I'm not surprised since I have been using my rations to keep Miro alive. I won't take the opiates, even though it would kill the hunger pangs. I keep thinking: what if I get a chance to get out and I miss it locked in a drug haze? No. Better to suffer, and wait, than give up like everyone else.
I pull on the one piece, cut like a strapless swimsuit. The black latex wraps itself around me, snug, catching on the garish blue strip lighting shining in from the corridor. My breasts were never big, but they are much smaller now, just like the rest of me. I don't look sexy, I look bony and malnourished. Before I got sent to work at The Jackpot, Zee told me behind the barrier only the elite of the elite have human partners—GC's idea of population control. The rest have robots to attend their physical needs. For the soldiers who can't stomach sex with machines, the exclusion zone is their only option. Some of them were alright, some were even kind. One was a virgin, and came almost as soon as he was inside me. One was a total bastard. He hit me, hard, over and over while he was inside me. Carney, waiting outside got tipped off by Zee and took care of him—a knife across the throat, warm blood all over me, stinking of metal, and a dead man still inside me. I got extra rations that night. Even Zee left me alone.
Except for Maddox, they killed them all once I was done with them. No one ever got to leave except for Maddox, a Delta Force Captain. He was valuable, and he talked, enough to keep Zee and the higher-ups happy. I had six mad, passionate months with him. And then he died and left me in this shithole, alone and aching for him, my heart silenced.
I pull on the wig, savouring the feel of its long blue tresses gracing my bare shoulders. Once, before I was captured by the UFF I had had long, dark hair, hair which hung halfway down my back in wavy lengths, but now I kept it cut close to my scalp. Not shaved, but not far off. Kept the lice at bay. There was nothing to wash hair with anyway. A memory slips free of Maddox kissing the crown of my head as we lay wrapped in each other's arms in a post-sex haze, of him telling me I'm beautiful, and meaning it. I close my eyes and force the memory away. It's over. He's gone. Tonight it starts again. I fuck a soldier for information all night and in the morning, as he leaves, Carney will kill him.
Booted footsteps approach. It's Zee, I can tell. I try not to, but I stiffen, defensive. The other girls stop talking, their murmurs hushed, reverent in the presence of the one who controls what's left of London. He takes hold of my arm and turns me around. I look up at him, hoping I look submissive enough, even though I hate him with every cell in my body.
'Got the stuff?' he asks, glancing at me then away, his eyes moving over the girls. His attention lingers on one of them. She giggles, nervous. I know he's doing it to try to make me jealous. I'm not. I never will be. I hope he fucks her fifteen ways from Sunday so he has no energy left for me.
I open my fist, a lurid green capsule nestles in my upturned palm. He looks at it, then closes his hand over mine, folding my fingers over my palm, burying the R7 capsule back out of sight.
'Same drill as before,' he says, his eyes going back to the other girl. 'Our sniffers have him on the way. He's already eaten two opiates and he's desperate to fuck. Don't waste time, get the shit into him. I want him talking right away, he's not high level like Maddox but higher than the shit we've been getting lately. We've had no useful intel for far too long. You remember what to do?'
'Twenty minutes,' I say, knowing the timing off by heart. 'From the time he finishes his drink until I can ask questions. You'll get your intel. I haven't forgotten how this goes.'
'I'll bet you haven't,' Zee says, acrid. He pulls his attention from the one behind me and runs his forefinger across the slick material encasing my chest, circling one nipple and then the other. 'This one's ugly as fuck though. A bit of a downgrade from your handsome captain. You'll be glad to have me inside you tomorrow, to get rid of the memory.'
I say nothing. What can I say? It's like he thinks I want this. His hand slides down to my waist. He pulls me closer to him. 'I'll go easy on you tomorrow,' he says, low, so no one else can hear. 'Been thinking maybe that's where I'm going wrong with you, maybe you need a gentler touch. Now kiss me, Vallis and get out there and fight the good fight.'
I kiss him, obedient, my heart encased in ice. He lets me go and I follow Sarz as she lurches on her eight-inch heels down the dim corridor toward the heavy thump of bass coming from the club. I push open the metal door and see the soldier coming in with the sniffers. I go to the bar and pick up a bottle of fake A and pour him a drink, cracking the R7 into it while he gropes Sarz who is ready and waiting to distract him. He leers at me as he takes his tainted shot from the bar. I smile into his ugly face, and let him fondle me across the sticky counter, Sarz forgotten now in pursuit of riper fruit. He tugs the top of my swimsuit down so my breasts fall out. I bite my lower lip, and smile, encouraging him. He leans forward and picks me up, lifting me over the bar to him as though I am nothing more than a doll. He settles me between his legs. I can feel his erection pressing against my belly through his trousers. His mouth is already on my breasts, and he suckles me like a starving thing, hurting me. I hang on to his shoulders, catching Zee watching us near the doors, hate burning in his eyes. I turn my face away from him, retreating into myself, reliving the memories of when Maddox was the one sitting on this stool.
The soldier's fingers are between my legs now, probing, frantic. It has happened before. I have been fucked at the bar, in front of everyone. I'm not allowed to stop it. Trust is everything. I close my eyes and retreat further into myself as he busies himself with unbuttoning his fly. The crotch of my suit is jerked aside and he is inside me, hammering into me in time with the pounding of the bass, my spine ramming hard against the bar. I bite my lip and endure the pain and humiliation, sensing Zee watching, jealous, and bitter; Sarz staggering back to her locker to get one of her precious opiates for me, and Carney, somewhere in the shadows, feeling himself, enjoying the show. From far away, I hear the soldier's grunts as he rides me, greedy, like a beast. I think of Maddox, calling down the strike, taking himself away from me forever. And deep inside, locked in silence, I weep and watch my heart curl up and die.