Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The disturbing clatter whined inside Jaxon Tremain’s mind, playing without permission or welcome. He laughed bitterly. He didn’t know how long he’d been locked up in the dank little cell. A week? An eternity?

Perhaps an endless dirt nap loomed in his future. Yeah, undoubtedly. He should be glad. It would be another endless ticktocking, except there would be no pained awareness, no crazed waiting for death to—finally? blessedly? regrettably?—come.

Survived worst, he thought, trying to comfort himself.

Once, he’d been shot and burned with a pyre-gun. An accident during training, but his shoulder still bore the fire-seared scars. Another time, he’d been undercover, ratted out, then weighed down with steel beams and tossed into a muddy man-made river. Water and grime had filled his mouth, stinging like acid down his throat, into his lungs. When he’d miraculously fought his way free, he’d been surprised to find his skin still intact, muscle still glued to bones.

Once, he’d been stabbed in the kidney. A straight cut, all the way through, severing one of his favorite organs. Foolishly, he’d turned his back on a suspect one second too long and adios, old friend.

Sometimes that’s all that was needed. One second.

The words echoed in his mind. One second was a single tick. Or tock. He laughed again, but the laughter soon turned to gagging and the gagging to coughing, the coughing to choking pain.

“I’m going insane,” he muttered when he calmed. Not that the words were understandable. “Tickity, tockity, tickity, tockity.” How many more were left for him?

Couldn’t be many.

Being an Alien Investigation and Removal agent for New Chicago certainly has its perks, he thought dryly. ’Cause when an agent needed help breaking his nasty breathing habit, he got help.

Since Jaxon’s abduction, a group of aliens had whaled on him so many times he’d lost count. They’d probably whale on him a thousand times more, fists flying at him in tune with that f**king clock. Tick, tock. Another laugh. Yep. Insane.

The otherworlders had beaten him because he’d refused to answer their questions. Even when screams had erupted inside his mind, loud and discordant, mortality in every pitch, he hadn’t caved. Remembering the screams, he shuddered. Perhaps all the men and women he’d killed over the years had risen up, their souls fused with his as they finally made themselves known, determined to be heard at last.

Now, at least, the screams were buried somewhere deep, replaced by that damn clock. A small price to pay, he supposed.

Unfortunately, his body’s suffering had only intensified.

He’d been punched in the mouth until his teeth shredded his gums. His tongue was the size of a baseball, so big he couldn’t even move it to ensure he was still the proud owner of all those pearly whites. His nose was broken, yet somehow the scent of urine still taunted him, blending with the metallic aroma of dried blood and sweat. His, a thousand others.

His eyes were swollen, leaving only tiny slits. Not that there was much to see. Murky darkness failed to live up to its promise of sweet oblivion, revealing four barred walls, a plastic-lined floor to better clean any gore, and old-fashioned metal chains that continually sliced into his wrists and ankles like razors.

Those chains rattled as he shifted to a more comfortable position against the bars. Big. Mistake. He winced as intense pain ripped through him; his air supply ground to a tormented halt. Several ribs were broken and any type of movement just cracked them farther apart and made inflating his lungs an impossible chore, hundreds of needle-sharp pricks cresting.

Concentrate on something else, something enjoyable. Well, there was a bone protruding through his left arm and his right ankle was snapped back so far it was a miracle his foot hadn’t fallen off. That was better, right?

Survived worse, he reminded himself. Dated Cathy Savan-Holt.

A stick banged against his cage.

Jaxon stiffened with the realization that he was no longer alone. His vision was blurred as he scanned the small enclosure, quickly landing on the intruder. Hate filled him. Hate—so helpless, a victim—frustration and a twinge of fear.

The Delenseans had returned.

Not the party-loving race we always thought they were. Jaxon wondered if they’d come for interrogation or round eight of human piñata. Maybe both. He’d noticed the six-armed bastards sometimes liked to multitask. Either way, Jaxon had probably reached the end of the line.

Bye-bye, breathing habit.

The other-worlders had to be tired of his lack of cooperation. They had to know his lips were sealed no matter what they did to him.

I led a good life. Kind of. As a trust-fund baby whose grandparents and parents had helped rebuild the city after the war and still had their fingers in several security businesses, he had more money than God, had traveled the world, and had friends who would die for him. Some already had. But he’d remained unattached to any semblance of home and hearth, distanced from nearly everything around him.

That distance seemed foolish now.

More banging. “Scared?” a heavily accented voice taunted. Metal creaked against metal as the door opened.

Darkened as the cell was and swollen as his lids were, Jaxon could only make out a shadowy outline. “You’re kidding, right?” He barely managed to work the words past his enlarged tongue, wasn’t even sure the bastard could understand him. “I’ve missed you, been counting the minutes till you returned and all that shit.”

“You sound terrible. Like a drunk.”

“Fuck you.”

“Now that I understood.” A pause, a laugh. “You know, you weren’t this brash when I followed you all those weeks. Undetected,” the alien added smugly. “You were always so reserved, so stoic. Not a single curse ever passed your lips.”

Yes, Jaxon was known for his patience and manners. He’d taught himself to exude both. Forced himself to exude both, actually. Sometimes he could even pretend the serenity came naturally, that he didn’t have to fight for it every second of every day.

“No explanation?”

About what? What had they been discussing? Oh, yeah. His lack of etiquette. “Amazing what having your toenails ripped off will do to a guy’s personality.” Actually, this was the real him. The sarcasm he usually repressed, and the potty mouth he usually flushed before a single bad word could escape. Safer that way. For everyone. Right now, however, he didn’t give a shit what he acted like or what the consequences were. “Want me to show you? Prove it?”