The light proved more forgiving the next time Toliver awoke, and the pain in his head was merely a dull, persistent throb. He felt somehow younger, stronger with the sense of an idea or revelation on the tip of his mind. Whatever it was, he lost it quickly. He found himself strapped to a slanted plank, chained hand and foot, his jaw locked rigidly closed. Dust motes floated through the dim light, but he had no idea where he had ended up, or why.
With the jerk and rattle of pulleys, a tattered curtain grudgingly opened before him. It must certainly have been a bright color at some point, but Toliver could discern no clues as to what that might have been. In the increased light, he realized he was one in a group of five, similarly trussed and silenced. He occupied the middle, with two on either side of him. A crowd of rough-looking men waited impatiently for whatever was going to happen next. These men wore expressions that varied from angry to indifferent, save for three or four who had donned studied-looking Meat Masks for the occasion. (The best disguise money can buy — Greenvat/Phantom Industries) Nothing further happened and the crowd grew restive, yelling and taunting those on stage and each other.
When the tension had grown past breaking, a man wearing the oddest collection of clothing Toliver had ever seen or could imagine ambled onto the stage. Toliver’s gaze travelled from the extremely tall top hat in wide white and black, zigzag stripes down to an ancient pair of compspecs. This had been accented with an earpiece and swing mic behind a front piece painted with a laughing mouth more demonic than joyful. The rest of the ensemble sported a bright-yellow morning jacket over a maroon, ruffled shirt. The shirt had been tucked in to forest green pants and the figure wore rhinestone encrusted flip-flops. He stood near a garish, graffiti- decorated podium which sported a large bell on top. Toliver hardly knew where to look first.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” the MC cried in classic pitchman fashion, “the auction is about to begin.” The mic’s front piece modulated the man’s high tenor voice into a deep, rich baritone. Toliver could see no room to add another body to the mixed, but more squeezed in anyway.
“Our first offering is this virginal maiden who might serve as both a bed servant and hand servant.”
“I’m willing to prove she’s a virgin,” an unknown man shouted from the crowd.
“Thank you for your offer, ser.” The MC’s voice boomed out, spiking the feeble laughter from such a well-worn jibe. “Gilly’s always has the proper data dots and seals on file and medical assurances to back our claims. So where do we start the bidding?”
“Please don’t insult us, ser. Minimum bid always starts at ten.”
One of the men near the front leaned his head to the right.
“The auctioneer, presumably Gilly, said, “We have ten. Who will go eleven?”
Joad Wonderhammer had passed bio bored before the curtain had even opened. He wouldn’t have been here at all if Sawyer hadn’t ordered him to go and instructed him who to buy. What was it about the man in the middle that intrigued him? He couldn’t chip what it might be. The young sex-slave had long since been sold and presumably the young boy next to her. Joad had not been paying attention and that would never do.
Then, as if his thought had been heard, lot three was on the block.
“All right,” Gilly cried, “We’ll start this fine specimen at twenty cred.”
A man Joad couldn’t see called out “Twenty-five.”
“I have twenty-five. Do I hear more?” Gilly shouted, though he could be easily heard. Joad touch the brim of his slouch hat. “I have thirty.”
“Forty,” the mystery voice shouted from the crowd. Joad touched his hat again.
“I have forty-five. Do I hear more?” He waited briefly through a muttering tide of voices. “Going, going, sold,” Gilly proclaimed tapping the bell beside him with a hammer he’d picked up from the podium.