“We have to try and go tonight,” I said, keeping an eye out for any Ewani guards who might happen by. The metal bars forming our cage allowed us to see out into the corridor, and the set of sturdy double doors were now tightly sealed shut.
Just talking about escape could earn you a thrashing from the guards.
Of course, that wasn’t the only reason you’d get selected for special attention. Many of the women in the cages around us had half-healed lash marks on their backs, myself included.
I hadn’t been able to figure much out about our captors, other than the fact that they were brutal and likely to kill us before we even made it to the stage where we would be sold.
Slavery was technically illegal on Thodos Station.
Indenture may have represented a virtual slavery, but there was an eventual way out, and methods to pay off your indenture. Straight up slavery was generally frowned upon, at least in public.
But from the number of captives here, there was a thriving market for it.
“What’s up?” Mera’s green eyes flashed over to the door. We could have asked one of the other prisoners in one of the other cells to watch the door for us, but that would have required spreading the word about our escape plan.
The less people who knew what we intended, the better.
It wrung out my heart, but there wasn’t any way to take the others with us. If we could escape, we could let someone know what was going on, and send help.
At least, that’s what I told myself so I could sleep at night.
At the Pulsar, I’d tried my best to look out for my friend, Mera. She seemed way too sweet, way too innocent to work at a skin joint.
Only, it turned out, Mera wasn’t as innocent as she seemed. She’d been on the trail of a ring of human traffickers.
Mera got on the shit list of the traffickers, and when they came for her after we got off our shift one night, I had the bad fortune to be there, too.
Both of us had woken up somewhere deep, deep in the Under. Deeper than either of us had ever been before, at the mercy of rat-like Ewani slavers.
That had been months ago. We wouldn’t last much longer.
“It’s necessary,” I replied. “For one thing, I haven’t had a decent meal in so long that I’m getting weak. You are, too. We need to do this while we are still physically able to pull it off.”
Mera looked like she wanted to argue, but thought better of it. She sighed and then arched her brows.
“Wait, you said for one thing. Is there another reason we should do this tonight?”
“Yeah. I have a feeling they’re going to move us soon.”
“What makes you say that?”
I glanced over at the door. So far, so good. It still remained closed.
“They’ve been doing head counts twice a day now, and it’s not because they’re worried some of us have escaped. And if you’ve noticed, our rations have been dwindling. They either think we’re still fat or they’re trying to weaken us further for transport.”
“You’re smart, Amy, to see all of these patterns.”
“If I was really smart, would I be in a cage right now?”
The lights dimmed out to blackness, and a loud, grating voice echoed through the speaker on the wall.
“Lights out! Sleep! No talk!”
Most of the women settled into whatever meager comfort they could find for themselves. Not us, though. We scooted over to the corner of the cell, where we’d been hard at work.
It was Mera who first noticed that the cell wasn’t really a cell. It was just an empty space the Uune had left when building the station, which seemed to serve no purpose. The Ewani had simply erected the bars of the cage around the shape of the room.
But the room did have a purpose. Its shape was due to the air ventilation cyclers running underneath it. With a ton of effort and a thin scrap of metal we’d found, we’d managed to pry a section of the floor paneling loose.
We’d taken turns exploring the ventilation shaft below. It ran about thirty feet in either direction. Unfortunately, it did not lead to freedom.
But it did lead to a laboratory. A laboratory with a computer networked into the station’s comm systems. If we could reach that computer terminal, we might be able to call for help.
And if we were very, very lucky, we might be able to escape through the lab and find a way back to the upper decks.
Working carefully, I lifted the panel out of the way. I dipped my legs into the duct first, moving slowly so I wouldn’t make any loud banging noises.
Mera came next, slipping into the duct beside me. The cramped duct did not give enough room for us to walk or even to rise into a comfortable sitting position. Even crawling proved difficult, but we had planned for this, too, wrapping our hands in strips of fabric we’d torn from our clothing and then just sliding along.
“Did I ever tell you I’m claustrophobic?” I whispered.
“Only every time we come in here.”
“Well, this will be the last time. Tell me it’s going to be the last time, Mera.”
“It’s going to be the last time.”
We grew silent as we spotted a yellow rectangle of illumination coming in through the ceiling of the ventilation shaft. That was the grate that opened up into the laboratory.
When we scooted up underneath the grate, I felt my heart sink. There was someone working late up there, one of the rat-like Ewani in a tattered lab coat, muttering to himself and messing with something on the table I could not see.
Dammit. I had hoped it would be empty. All the other times we had come by the lab, it had been deserted. I exchanged glances with Mera. She met my hard gaze and nodded firmly.
There was no going back.
We would make our play now, do or die.
Carefully, I pushed up on the grate. Since we had removed all the screws the night before—an arduous process which had taken most of the evening—the grate came up easily.
I went up first, then gave Mera a hand. The Ewani sat in front of a glass case holding what looked like a fat, furry pink and orange Terran caterpillar with a lot of extra mouthparts.
I couldn’t tell what the hell the technician’s purpose was. I swear, he inflicted misery on the damn thing because it got him off.
His lips peeled back into a gleeful grin as he pushed a button on the case, and a jolt of electricity surged through the box, causing the caterpillar thing to jump with agony.
It looked more like torture than science.
And yet, the Ewani took a moment to record his apparent findings. I wondered what to do about the Ewani—
Then Mera walked up behind him with a chair and bashed him over the head. The Ewani fell to the floor, twitching with blood pooling from his skull.
“Mera, what are you doing? You just killed him, I think.”
“I was only trying to knock him out.”
“With a forty-pound metal chair?”
I got a hold of myself and grimaced. Pity for our captors wasn’t really on my list of things to worry about today. “We need to get a message out, quick.”
“That computer terminal looks a lot like the one I used at the Pulsar Club. Let me take a crack at it.”
“Knock yourself out,” I said. “I’ll keep watch.”
Only, my gaze was drawn inexorably toward the creature in the glass cage. It wriggled its little body and came up to the glass, then put a pair of ball tipped antennae against the case and tapped them in what seemed like a deliberate pattern. Two taps, one short tap.
“I think this thing is trying to talk to me,” I said.
“Hush, I’m trying to concentrate,” Mera replied, changing the settings on the lab computer. “This thing is set to internal operations mode for some reason, I’m trying to get it to where I can make a call.”
“I’m sorry, I’m trying my best.”
I sighed. Of course, she was trying her best, she was an angel. I stared down at the glass case and felt my resolve crumbling.
“Oh, fuck it,” I said, looking for a way to open the glass case. I pushed buttons, carefully avoiding the one that had sent the jolt through the critter, until one finally clicked, unfolding the sides of the case like crystal Origami.
“There, you’re free,” I said. “Hopefully we will be, too.”
“Amy,” Mera said with excitement. “I’ve got a signal, but this terminal is set to only send messages, not receive them.”
“Then dial your friend, Tessi, quickly,” I said, coming over. “We probably don’t have much time.”
“She’s not picking up.”
“Then leave a message. She’ll get it eventually.”
“Right.” Mera cleared her throat and leaned in over the microphone. “Tessi, it’s Mera. I’ve been held captive for what seems like a long time way deep down in the Under. I think they’re going to sell us soon. Our captors are Ewani, and there seems to be some kind of laboratory here, too. I wish I could tell you something else, but they never let us out—”
The terminal suddenly went dark.
“What happened?” I asked, my belly tight with fear. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. This computer is enslaved to the master system. Someone used the network to turn it off.”
“I hope it got through. We’d better try and get out of here.”
Mera shrieked, and jumped back.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Look at your shoulder,” Mera said with a trembling voice. “Look!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I said. I looked over and saw the brightly hued caterpillar was now on my shoulder. “How in the heck did you get up there?” I shrugged. “I guess it crawled on me when I opened the case.”
“Get rid of it.” She shuddered. “It might be poisonous, or give you cancer or something.”
“Really?” I blinked. This girl had taken on a slaver ring, had just clocked a guy with a chair, and a tiny caterpillar threw her off? “I don’t think it’s harmful, Mera. Don’t you think it’s kind of cute?”
“No, I can handle just about anything else this universe throws at me, but bugs gross me out—”
The door to the lab burst open and an Ewani guard stared at us. He pointed a stun gun at Mera and fired.
I dove for cover behind the lab table, cupping my hand over the caterpillar to protect it. But when I landed on the floor and checked my hands, the caterpillar was gone.
“I hope I didn’t squish him,” I muttered to myself, but there was no more time to worry about it.
Mera cried out and toppled over, unseen.
There was nothing I could do but sit there as the Ewani came around the table and stunned me as well.