Sparks in Cosmic Dust by Robert Appleton - Science Fiction
The final frontier is shrinking. Interstellar Planetary Administration sanctions are forcing the border colonies of deep space into extinction. Kappa Max is one of the last major cutthroat outposts, home to the lawless and the lonely...
Varinia Wilcox, the star attraction of a lucrative bordello gambling house.
Solomon Bodine, spurned by his lover and looking for distraction.
Clayton Barry, AWOL and a few drinks away from having to live in the gutter.
Lyssa Foaloak, a double-crossing criminal who'll kill anyone for a few credits.
Four strangers, each with secrets that could cost them their freedom, are desperate to get off-planet. They meet Grace Peters, a cynical ex-doctor with an intriguing offer: a six-month trip to a faraway moon where she claims a stunning fortune awaits.
But this adventure is no easy escape. Danger, passion, secrets and madness await. Can they survive the mission, and each other, to make it out alive?
Whoa, not so fast...
Varinia scrambled to catch her bra before it slipped. The violet sand under her stool shivered as yet another exodus shuttle blasted off the asteroid. The umpteenth that week. She'd wanted to keep the striptease sensual, inviting, but her bra straps were already off-shoulder and the vibration threatened to give her lecherous customer a free eyeful of her breasts.
Not on her life.
He would have to pay for that privilege. More than that, he would have to achieve something no man had ever done on Kappa Max--he would have to beat her at her specialty card game, Cydonia Face.
She glanced up through the transparent convex roof. The shuttle's ringlet of blue flame faded as a shrinking iris into the awesome dilation of deepest space. These days the asteroid spun so fast on all three axes, owing to the gravitational tug from the nearby gas giant having shifted its orbit, that the constellations appeared every bit as rootless and aimless as Varinia felt every hour of every day. How long had she been here now? In Earth time? Something like a year plus change. Tempting sleaze-heavers and lonely-hearts haulers with glimpses of her sublime curves for over a year. Unbeaten. Unspoiled. The most sought-after prize on Kappa Max. At least that's what the advertisements claimed.
But in that time she'd made a fortune.
Cydonia Face, the game she couldn't lose, the game she couldn't escape from.
"I'm afraid I'll have to twist." She pouted at her tin-man opponent through the reinforced glass separating them, then tapped the flesh-colored button on the left of her console, summoning another card. He licked his lips and clinked his tongue ring on the metal half of his mouth. The man's cybernetic reconstruction wasn't the worst she'd seen, but it gave him a creepy, unfinished appearance. The organic two-thirds of his face looked around forty-five and Creole--high cheekbones, quite handsome--and boasted a black-gray beard amusingly curtailed by the shiny titanium.
"I'll keep what I've got," he replied, ogling her cleavage. His imitation right eye flicked up to covet the silver key hanging by a red ribbon on her side of the glass. When he'd won the last item of clothing from her, the window would open, the key would be his, and he could unlock the door and have his way with her anywhere, any way he wanted. The company's only stipulation was that their girls suffer no physical injury; that would affect their marketability. Oh, the chivalry. Other than that, in the Delfin, the customer was always right.
And always fleeced.
Varinia spied her new card and heaved a sigh of relief. A red jack. That, together with her red king, gave her one half of a Cydonia Face--all four red male face cards. The odds against her opponent having the other red jack and king were pretty high with so few cards in play, but he'd stuck with a fresh hand of five--either he was bluffing or he had face cards galore. Given his gutless playing thus far, Varinia reckoned he was about to rout her with a royal flush.
All right, Tin Man, let's see if you really do need that heart.
She relaxed her shoulders and cupped her cards upright against the edge of the console, as though she were scrutinizing them. A huge, almost-to-bursting inhale lifted her bosom, distracted him. Her resulting lightheadedness rose and slivered loose like a small bubble escaping from a bigger one, fueling a sublimation to her secret self no one on Kappa Max was aware of.
They could never find out. Her reputation and her contract and her life depended on it.