“Hey!” one of the other captives called. “New guy. Hamburglar.”
“What’d you give Criss?” someone else demanded.
“I want me some!”
Solo snapped his teeth at the speakers, and they went quiet. Two even bowed their heads, recognizing a predator far more dangerous than themselves—one they did not want to rile, even caged as he was.
The Targon blew him a kiss.
Kitten watched him with expectant impatience.
Without a word, he claimed a piece of bacon and tossed half of what remained in the bag to her, and the other half to the Targon. She caught her portion and dug in. The Targon shook his head and volleyed his portion to her, as well.
“Sweet gesture, but I can’t eat this,” the Targon said. “My woman—” He slammed his lips together, going silent. And he must have decided that wasn’t good enough, because he spun, giving Solo his back.
“I’m too happy to be upset that you shared with Kitten without making her give the dumbest vow ever,” Criss purred. “She’s feral, by the way. I’m surprised you got her to talk to you rather than spit curses, but news flash, you’ll never be able to tap that.”
He ate the bacon, relished the flavors.
“I’m not a beer keg,” Kitten snapped.
Voices from beyond the clearing caught his attention.
“They’ll be here in less than an hour. Move your lazy carcasses, now, now, now!”
“Have you glued the spikes to the paddle?”
“Feed the snakes, Rasa! If they take one more nibble out of my hand, I’m gonna start biting back.”
A bead of sweat rolled down Solo’s back. Already the air was warm and humid, and it would only grow hotter and wetter as the day passed.
“What’d you do to make Vika like you, anyway?” Criss asked, rolling to her side.
He had no answer and, taking a page from the Targon’s playbook, turned away.
“Whatever. Hint taken,” she mumbled. “This isn’t a beauty-and-the-beast story, though, is it? It’s a sisterwife thing, right? You want Vika, Kitten—and probably me. Definitely me. I’m pretty sexy. Well, consider me no longer intrigued . . . unless Vika brings you something more to eat. If you get a meat loaf, I’ll be your slave for life. Well, half a life. My brothers will kill you.”
Again, he offered no response.
“Have you prepared your mind for what’s about to happen?” she asked.
The reminder flooded him with apprehension. The circus, due to start.
“Just do what you’re told,” she said. “You’ll hate yourself for it, but you’ll be better off. Trust me.”
• • •
He could not have prepared himself for this, Solo thought.
For fifteen dollars a head, one human after another was allowed to parade through the clearing. The humans would stop in front of each cage and study the starving otherworlders inside while eating cotton candy, melting ice cream, hot dogs, and pretzels laced with addictive chemicals.
Did they know they were being drugged?
Some would stare with awe and wonder. Some would offer a critique of flaws. Some would throw pieces of grain at the captives. Solo allowed those pieces to bounce off him, letting them fall at his feet, but he watched as the others picked them up and ate, desperate enough to take what they could get, when they could get it, despite what Vika had fed them.
He should have shared his bounty with all of them, he realized with a flicker of guilt.
Children ran through every so often, laughing, tossing pebbles rather than food, before being chased off by the armed guards. That certainly explained where the rocks hurtled at Vika had come from.
“Dance for me, Pearls,” one man begged Criss while the two males with him nodded eagerly.
Never once uttering a derogatory comment or insult, Criss danced, lifting her arms over her head and swaying her hips. The men moaned and groaned their approval, even though her every motion was made while she gritted her teeth and hate shone in her eyes.
Just do what you’re told. You’ll hate yourself for it, but you’ll be better off, she’d said. Trust me.
Even now, he believed the opposite. If you hated yourself for your actions, you were never better off.
Only Kitten challenged the humans. She spat curses, as Criss had said she would, and tried to scratch and bite anyone who stepped too close.
Some of the female viewers asked the male otherworlders to lift their loincloths, and they, too, obeyed. Even the Targon, who wore his customary grin—though it was now cut by shards of broken glass.
No one asked Solo to do anything. He’d partially morphed, his skin a light shade of red, his eyes probably glowing, and his fangs and claws at half-mast. However, those with stronger stomachs stared at him with morbid curiosity until realizing he would not be the one to first lower his gaze, and that the fury blazing through him might give him the strength he needed to burst through the bars and do some damage before the guards could shoot him.
He heard murmurs of “ugly” and “hideous,” just as he’d heard all his life, only now there was nothing he could do about it. He just had to take it. To react was to pass out, and to pass out was to be far more vulnerable, as he’d already realized, and this was not a place or time to welcome any type of vulnerability.
“I bet you want to kill these people,” Dr. E said. He was paler than before, truly pallid, and shakier. “I know I do.”
The damage Solo could have done at any other time . . .
“You should memorize their faces, and when you get out of here, you should hunt the offenders down and give them a little taste of your pain.”
“There’s another way, you know,” X said before he could reply. Always he was there with his kindness and compassion, doing his best to build Solo up and encourage him. His color had already returned.
“Don’t you dare feed him another line about forgiveness. We can’t forgive this kind of behavior.” Always Dr. E was there with his flamethrower, determined to enrage Solo further.
Well, it was working.
“He can, yes,” X said, “but that’s not what I was going to say. This is a terrible situation, but there is a light in the darkness if you’ll look for it rather than keeping your eyes closed.”
“My eyes aren’t closed,” he growled softly. They were open, and they were peering at the human couple who’d just stopped in front of him, gaping. Why weren’t they disgusted by the conditions living beings were forced to endure? Why weren’t—