Roxie Ray – Purchase – Intergalactic Exchange Program – SFB Publishing

Prologue - Brittany

Things could always be worse. At least, that was what I kept telling myself.

I squinted against the late afternoon sun shining through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the penthouse, and tried to pretend for just a moment that this was my life—that this insanely extravagant home at the top of one of the most expensive buildings in New York belonged to me.

The ache in my arm as I scrubbed the window told me differently. Sighing heavily, I dropped the cloth onto the floor and stretched my sore muscles then rubbed my strained forearm.

I’d been up before dawn, making my way from house to house to scrub, and wash, and spray, and scrub some more. And once I finished here, I still had another house to get to. I’d be lucky to have time to shower and eat before exhaustion overtook me and I passed out in my bed in the tiny cracker-box apartment I called home across the river. Even the word apartment was stretching it. I lived in a hovel I could barely afford, despite my hard work.

However, as I picked up the cloth and got back to work, I reminded myself it could always be worse. It was becoming my mantra these days. It would be entirely too easy to give up altogether if I didn’t tell myself that. And giving up wasn’t an option. It just wasn’t what Stone women did.

We worked our asses off, and then worked some more. The alternative was relying on the government, and I was determined not to let that happen. I’d seen one too many people buy into the propaganda the new regime perpetuated. Sure, they got free food and a free place to live, but they were little more than indentured servants for it.

Ever since the old governments had been overthrown and the new order had taken hold and spread to every corner of Earth, I’d fought tooth and nail against giving in. I still believed I could make may own way. I was strong and independent, and refused to give up. My parents had instilled the belief that hard work and grit were the only way to get by in life, and I believed it with my entire being.

The barely audible sound of electronic sensors coming to life in the entryway brought my attention back to the present. Damn it, was I running behind? I checked my watch, but it was just after four o’clock. The Carmichaels shouldn’t be home for at least another hour. I always made a point of finishing my work and getting out of there before they got home. I groaned and hung my head—it looked like my luck had run out.

Voices sounded on the other side of the door, then more whirring of the high-tech security system, and the door slid up, revealing not only Mr. and Mrs. Carmichael, but another woman. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place her, and I didn’t want to stare, so I quickly turned and continued to work so it wouldn’t look like I’d been doing nothing.

I couldn’t afford to lose the Carmichaels as clients, even though they were total assholes. Okay, not total assholes. They paid me well and had helped with many of the connections that made up the rest of my client base, but it didn’t excuse them for treating me like I barely existed and was no more than the dirt on the bottom of their very expensive shoes.

Once again, I repeated my mantra—it could always be worse. At least I knew what to expect when it came to them. I’d rather see their true colors than deal with a bunch of fakes pretending to be something they weren’t. Fake people were almost as high on my shit list as the government.

I focused on scrubbing the window, though I tracked the Carmichaels’ movements in the reflecting glass. As expected, they ignored me entirely, striding through the entryway and talking loudly to their guest as they made their way to the lounge on the opposite side of the penthouse.

I could see their guest’s reflection clearly as she stopped in the entryway and looked around, her gaze falling on me. I kept working, hoping she’d also ignore me and follow my clients.

No such luck. She cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes, taking me in as I tried to work as quietly and efficiently as possible. Not for the first time, I cursed the person who thought floor-to-ceiling windows that made up an entire wall was a good idea. Sure, the view of the park was great—the leaves were a riot of colors right now in late November—but it wasn’t worth the effort to keep them clean. Of course, none of that mattered to the rich and powerful who made up my client base. As long as there were no smudges when they stared out at their million-dollar view, all was right with the world.

I might have been a little bit cynical.

“Tory, are you coming?” Mrs. Carmichael’s lilting voice called out from the lounge.

“Just a moment, I’ll be right there,” Tory replied, her gaze still fixed on me.

As soon as I heard her voice, I realized why she looked so familiar. She was Tory Hearst, and she was on the newsfeeds practically twenty-four-seven. She was tall and model-thin with piercing blue eyes and bright blonde hair styled in the latest bizarre fashion of intricate braids piled on top of her head. Ridiculous, really. I preferred my simple style of pulling my long brown hair back into a ponytail. Much more efficient.

I held my breath as Tory took a few steps in my direction, a curious smile on her face.

“Good afternoon,” she said, her voice just as captivating as it was on the newsfeeds. It was no wonder the Intergalactic Exchange Program had chosen her to be their spokesperson.

Slowly, I turned, acknowledging her with a simple nod. But I couldn’t take my gaze off her as much as I might have wanted to. I needed to get back to work, but something about the way she was staring at me made me feel like prey—and Tory was the predator.

She sized me up as she closed the distance between us. “I’m Tory.”

“I know who you are.” Not the kindest of greetings, but what was I supposed to say? I had work to do.

Tory didn’t seem to take offense as she widened her smile. “That’s always great to hear. It makes me happy to know that word of my work is spreading around the world.”

I cocked an eyebrow but didn’t say anything else. She must think mighty highly of her work with the IEP. I, however, had quite the opposite opinion of the government agency.

“And your name is…”

I tried not to sigh. I could already feel the sales pitch coming.

“I’m Brittany.”

“Lovely to meet you, Brittany. So, you’ve heard of my work. Tell me, what do you think of the Intergalactic Exchange Program?”

It took a valiant effort not to roll my eyes. I was fairly certain she didn’t want to hear what I thought. The IEP was nothing but a legal way for Earth to offload its citizens onto another planet and make some money in the process. It was temporary, lasting only for one year, but it was a year of servitude on an alien planet. For which you didn’t get paid until it was over and the aliens who purchased you returned you to Earth. Yeah…no thanks, I’m good.

“I haven’t given it much thought, to be honest.” It was mostly the truth considering I’d dismissed the “opportunity” outright my entire life. From what I understood, humans who joined the asinine program were practically enslaved to the aliens who purchased them after being auctioned off to the highest bidder. It was crazy.

“Hmm.” Tory angled her head so the late afternoon sun made her white-blonde tresses seem to glow. She tapped a perfectly manicured nail against her chin. “You really should give it some thought, you know. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

She glanced at the rag in my hand, the bucket of cleaning supplies at my feet, and then scanned me from head to toe, no doubt finding plenty of dirt caked all over my clothes.

“I have to say, Brittany.” She leaned in close and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You could almost certainly be making much, much more through the program than what you’re currently making as a maid on Earth.”

I crinkled my nose at the outdated term. “The Carmichaels—all my clients, really—pay me an above-market rate.”

Tory nodded knowingly. “I’m certain they do. And I’m equally certain it isn’t nearly enough.”

I shifted uncomfortably at how close to the truth that was. It didn’t seem to matter that my client roster was made up of some of the wealthiest people of New York. The cost of living on Earth had skyrocketed. There wasn’t enough food or money to go around, and the divide between rich and poor seemed to worsen by the day. I had no hope of ever elevating myself to the next level. It was all I could do to pay my rent and buy measly portions of prepackaged rations.

“You don’t have to say anything. I can see it on your face. Which, by the way, is absolutely stunning. Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are? You really would command quite the price at auction.”

I blinked, momentarily stunned by what she said, then shook my head vehemently. “Thank you for the compliment, but I’m not interested.”

Tory simply smiled, flashing perfectly straight and blindingly white teeth at me. “Are you sure about that? I have a feeling you haven’t heard all the details about just how wonderful the IEP truly is.”

Oh, great. A sales pitch. Just what I wanted.

But before I could stop her, she dove right in.

“Just imagine, Brittany,” she said, her eyes lighting up with excitement. “All the most beautiful and exotic planets in the universe. The culture and technology. I can promise you, what you’ll find on other planets is beyond your wildest imagination.”

I started to tell her that I’d learned plenty from the history books in school, but she seemed to anticipate my objection before it was fully formed.

“None of the information you’ve seen or learned does them justice. I’ve been to several of the most prestigious planets, and I have to tell you, I’ve never seen anything so gorgeous, so awe-inspiring. At headquarters, we have hundreds upon hundreds of planets available for your choosing. And with your qualifications, you’d almost certainly go to the first planet of your choosing.”

“Qualifications?” What the hell kind of qualifications did I have?

“Well, for starters, you have experience being in the service of some of the wealthiest people on our planet. I’m sure your references would be impeccable. And then, of course, there’s your looks. Yes, you’d definitely go for quite a nice sum.”

I raised my eyebrows, ready to politely—or as politely as possible at that point—tell her no thanks, not interested. But then she named a number that had my jaw dropping.

“You’re kidding.”

“Not at all, my dear.” She flashed another smile, and my stomach fluttered with excitement at what I could do with that kind of money. I could move out of my hovel, find a nice place to live. Hell, maybe I could even move out of this city and have plenty of money to figure out what I’d really like to do with my life.

What are you thinking? I snapped my jaw closed and shook my head. No, Tory was just a highly skilled, glorified salesperson. She was just doing her job, trying to sell me on the idea of the amazing IEP.

“Just think about it,” she murmured, reaching for my hand. I thought she was going to shake it or something, but she pressed a small piece of paper into my hand.

I stared down at it. It was a business card with Tory’s information on it.

“I know you need the money, Brittany. Why don’t you give it some thought tonight, then tomorrow you can come down to my office if you have questions.”

She was right. I did need the money. Desperately. But a year of my life in servitude to an alien race that I knew nothing about? When I looked up again, Tory was already disappearing into the lounge.

I tucked the card into my pocket and got back to work.

***

I was right. By the time I got home, I was so exhausted I barely made it through the front door before collapsing onto my bed. Not that I had far to go. My apartment was basically a ten-foot square cube, including the kitchenette and bathroom. Which were right there in the same room as my bed that doubled as a seating area. Like I said, a hovel.

I’d done what I could to make it look nice, but I didn’t exactly have much extra money lying around to do anything significant. An old curtain that one of my clients had thrown out served as a divider between the bathroom area and the rest of the space.

My muscles ached as I sprawled out face down, and I barely registered the lumps in the mattress that usually had me tossing and turning.

Something had to give, that much was clear. I couldn’t take on any more clients because there was only so much time in the day, and I was already pushing my physical limits.

Sighing, I pulled out the card Tory had given me. A year ago, I would have shredded the thing and not thought twice. But now…

The annual salary Tory had quoted earlier made my head spin. What I could do with that kind of money. It would change my life. But could I really do it? Sure, Tory had painted a pretty picture, but that was her job. It was highly likely that the truth was nothing at all like what she’d told me.

I’d heard the horror stories. There were planets out there that were entirely male-dominated, taking gender equality back to the Dark Ages. They treated women horrifically. And if they were paying prices like Tory had said, they must have a hell of a lot of money to throw around… And that was a hard pass for me. I’d had enough experience with rich men to know it made them feel entitled to treat women like shit. I definitely wasn’t going to put myself in a situation like that ever again. Not even for a life-changing payment.

Still… Tory had said I could have a planet of my choosing, and I was pretty sure I’d heard of some planets that were made up entirely of females. I could do that…

I sat up on the bed, shocked to realize I was actually considering signing my life away for a year. Maybe I would go pay Tory a visit in the morning. After all, it couldn’t hurt just to get a little more information, not when that kind of money was on the line.

Surprised at myself, I settled on that plan and quickly drifted off to sleep.

***

The next morning was the only time I didn’t have scheduled clients, so I got up early and headed to Tory’s office. She greeted me kindly when I walked in, apparently not at all surprised to see me.

“I see you gave it some thought.”

“Do you have any female-only planets on your roster?” I asked without preamble.

She merely lifted a brow and gave me that wide smile. “I’m sure we could work something out.”

She led me deeper into her office, once again giving her spiel about what an amazing opportunity this would be for me. How life-changing, how inspiring, and all that jazz. Then she sat me down at a desk and pulled out a fancy electronic device that I wasn’t familiar with—alien technology? Perhaps. I was too poor to know much about current tech. But it was easy to figure out, and I was soon scrolling through profiles of various planets that were part of the Intergalactic Exchange Program.

To my relief, there were a decent number of female-only planets, and I selected all of those as preferred locations when Tory pulled up an application on the device.

I filled it out quickly, trying not to think too much about what I was doing—something I’d been so opposed to less than twenty-four hours ago. Following Tory’s advice, I applied for a position in the household services industry, as that was where I had experience.

The irony wasn’t lost on me that I was doing what I’d sworn I would never do. But what alternatives did I have at the moment? Work harder and harder and send myself to an early grave? Or take the opportunity given to me?

Hell, if I wanted to get philosophical about it, I could even say that maybe this opportunity had been destiny playing her hand by bringing Tory into my life yesterday. I wasn’t the type to buy into fate, but maybe, just maybe, this would be a turning point for me.

One thing for sure, my life was about to be changed irrevocably. I only hoped it was for the better.

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