“It wakes,” someone said.
Snickers of “it” reverberated.
He knew they were talking about him. He’d been referred to as “it” for most of his life. Usually, a person only made that mistake once.
He scanned the cages a second time, his mind processing several details at once. There were ten cages in total, forming a wide circle with an opening at the east and an opening at the west, allowing freemen to enter the clearing without hindrance. Not a single cage was empty. There were five males, including himself, and five females.
Each person was an otherworlder of some sort, and none were of the same species. There was a Teran, he thought, but he could only see the back of the woman’s tawny hair and couldn’t be sure. There was a female Delensean, with blue skin and six arms. A male Mec, with an oddly shaped baldhead and skin that would change color according to his mood. Right now he was clear, almost transparent, as though he had no emotions at all.
Next was a male Ell Rollie, with a big physique and, as with the rest of his race, probably less going on upstairs than a one-story house. A female Morevv, one of the most beautiful species ever to walk the earth, with silver skin and silver eyes. A female Rakan, with a more radiant golden sheen than even John No Last Name. A male Targon. A male Bree Lian. A female Cortaz.
Each wore thick metal cuffs around their wrists. Solo lifted his too-heavy arms. The same cuffs squeezed his wrists. He frowned. The skin around the metal was a darker bronze than usual, with an underlay of red, as if he verged on the edge of morphing into his other form. When he wiggled his fingers, sharp pains shot through his arms all the way to his shoulders. He’d had pins drilled into his bones before, and recognized the sensation. But why pin him if not to heal bone? To limit his range of motion, perhaps?
But why limit his range of motion as well as cage him?
“Do not be afraid.”
Recognizing the voice, he glanced to his right.
About the size of Solo’s index finger, X had silver hair that had once been an inky black, and dull eyes that had once been a vibrant blue-green. A torn and dirty robe draped his emaciated frame. Skin that had once been luminous, glowing with all the colors of the rainbow, had become pallid and paper-thin over the years.
X. His guardian.
The being always looked undernourished, but when he fed Solo what little strength he still possessed, like he must have done after the explosion, he looked like death walking.
Solo was the only one who could see X, the only one who could hear him. He just hoped Dr. Evil, his other companion, maintained radio silence today.
Dr. Evil. His tormentor.
Dr. E hadn’t been given to him, he had just shown up and refused to leave.
“I’m not afraid,” he finally replied. He wasn’t sure what was going on.
He remembered X telling him to stay away from the meeting with Michael. Remembered ignoring him and stomping inside Michael’s office. Remembered . . . the explosion. Yes, that’s right. Blue had opened the door, and a bomb had gone off. Solo had been thrown across the room and had instantly blacked out. After that, he remembered . . . what?
“You should be very afraid,” another voice spoke out.
Dr. Evil. His hopes were slashed and burned.
Solo looked to his left. Where X had become aged and worn down over the years, Dr. E had thrived. He had thick blond hair, and eyes of the palest jade. His skin was tanned, unlined, and blazed with health. He, too, wore a robe, but his gleamed a brilliant white.
E—short for Laevus.
X—short for Adiutrix.
Solo had been too young to pronounce such complicated names. He had also been somewhat freaked out. But the pair had kept popping in and out, arguing, offering advice, and he’d eventually gotten used to them.
“You will find a way out,” X said now, always the optimist. Not once had he ever believed Solo would fail in any regard, which always wrought crushing disappointment when Solo did, in fact, fail.
“Will he? Really?” Dr. E retorted. “Because I seriously doubt he can chew through the bars. No matter how big his teeth are!”
Solo looked beyond the cages, taking stock of his options. More humans walked about now than before, hurrying in one direction or another, while some were practicing on different apparatus. There was a barbed trapeze, with spikes protruding from a thin bar. A man climbed on top of a life-size cannonball seemingly made of glass, with snapping fish swimming through its walls. A woman performed flips on a trampoline, careful to avoid randomly placed rings of fire.
. . . sell him to the same circus we sold the AIR agent to . . .
The words reverberated in Solo’s head.
. . . sell him . . . circus . . .
Star, a man who had abducted and maybe even killed sixteen people, had loomed over him and said those words.
Sell him to the same circus we sold the AIR agent to. He’ll fetch a decent price.
The truth hit him with the force of a sledgehammer. Star had directed those words to an employee, about Solo. And then the two had done it, he realized. They had sold him to a circus. This circus.
Dread flooded him, a corrosive acid that scorched and ruined. This was—should have been—impossible. Star could not have known where the black ops agents tasked with his capture would be meeting, when the agents themselves hadn’t known until an hour beforehand. More than that, there was no one on this planet who possessed the skill to bypass Michael’s security. A system Solo had set up.
But okay. Star had known, and Star had somehow bypassed. As many years as Solo had worked for Michael, he’d learned to search for a solution the moment he realized there was a problem. Star could be dealt with later. Right now, only escape mattered.
And it should be easy. He was in a cage, yes, but there were no armed guards posted at the door. The bars were metal, yes, but they lacked—he reached out—an electric charge. Good.
One of the captives scoffed and muttered, “Dummy. You’ll never get free.”
He would have to remember that there would be witnesses to his every deed. If only John and Blue were here. They would be—
Finish ashing him. As fried as he is, there’s no way he’ll survive transport anywhere else, and that way, there will be nothing left of him for anyone to find. A shame, though. I kind of liked him.
And this last one?
Do nothing. I’m keeping him.
The conversation played through Solo’s mind, and he ground his molars. Whatever Star and his employee had said, John and Blue were alive. Michael, too. Solo would believe nothing less. His friends were strong, wily, and resourceful. Death didn’t stand a chance.