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Jeth exhaled. “Hammer’s intel said Wellforth just bought it off the ITA a couple of weeks ago.”

Bentley grunted. “Sons of bitches. Why do they got to keep turning out these shit drives?”

Such outrage coming from the usually placid Bentley would’ve struck Jeth as funny under different circumstances. But at the moment he was too preoccupied with his own anger. New or not, this metadrive was a piece of junk, the odd discoloration an indicator that it would soon stop working entirely. No one outside of the ITA knew how metatech was made or even what the material inside the drive was comprised of, but everyone knew the universal signs of metatech on the verge of crapping out.

Jeth swore under his breath, his hatred of the ITA absolute. No matter how hard he tried, they kept screwing up his life. The damage to the Montrose was bad enough, and with the metadrive on the fritz, this job had turned out to be a total bust. He didn’t understand what the hell was going wrong with the metatech lately. Bitterness burned the back of Jeth’s throat, and he swallowed it down. At this rate, he would never make enough to buy back Avalon.

But he couldn’t think about that now. Couldn’t risk losing his cool in front of these technicians or his crew. So with a straight face and a churning gut, he headed back to the others.

“Let’s go,” he said.

They all knew him well enough not to argue.

By the time they made it home, it was midnight, Peltraz time. They landed the Scouts in their customary docking bays and then headed into the station. Even though everybody looked beat to Jeth’s eyes, he knew none of them would turn in just yet. They needed to let off the usual post-job steam.

“Well,” Flynn said, rubbing his eyes, “I’m gonna grab a sandwich at Five Fry’s if anybody wants to come.”

Celeste rolled her eyes. “The rest of us have normal-size stomachs.”

He shrugged. “More’s the pity for you.” He turned and strode off on his skinny legs.

Shady nudged Celeste in the arm. “Feel like some one-on-one? Sector Four is open late.”

Celeste shook her head. “I’m heading to Twelve.” “Oh. Right.” A smirk crossed Shady’s face. He’d forgotten that Celeste had recently decided on a new boyfriend—the only distraction she preferred over spending a couple of hours killing computer-simulated aliens in the game room.

Celeste winked. “See you later.”

As she walked off, Jeth heard Lizzie sigh beside him. He glanced down at her, an anxious feeling in his gut. “What?”

“Oh nothing.” Lizzie twirled a piece of hair around her finger, a lingering childhood habit.

“What’s a matter, Liz?” Shady wagged his bushy blond eyebrows. “Wishing you had a boyfriend to run off to, too?”

Lizzie went scarlet, and Jeth had to bite his tongue to keep from exploding at Shady. Why did he have to speculate? The last thing Jeth needed right now was adding that particular worry to his already full plate.

“No, of course not,” Lizzie said, a little too defensively. “I just hoped Celeste would go shopping with me. It’s not as much fun by myself.”

Shady backed up, hands raised. “Don’t look at me. I’m off to the games.” He turned and hurried away, as if fearing that Lizzie would con him if he lingered long enough. Jeth didn’t doubt it. The crew were a bunch of softies when it came to Liz.

She sighed again, casting Jeth a sideways look. “Don’t suppose you want to go?”

“Sorry, Liz. I’ve got stuff to do.”

“Okay.” For a moment, her crestfallen look was almost enough to make him change his mind, but she brightened a moment later. “Maybe Cliff’s working tonight at the Garden and Menagerie. He might let me inside after hours.”

Jeth smiled, hoping she was right. The Garden and Menagerie was the safest thing she could be doing at Peltraz this late at night, short of being at home. He didn’t even consider forcing a curfew on her. She was getting too old for that. Old enough to get shot on a job. He exhaled. What a night.

“Be careful.”

“Yes sir, Boss,” she said, grinning.

Jeth watched her walk off, and then he turned and headed for home. To Avalon.

The ship was docked in one of the long-term bays in Sector 15. Only “docked” was too kind a word. She was imprisoned, and had been since Jeth’s uncle Milton had lost her in a card game in one of Hammer’s casinos seven years ago. It had happened not long after Jeth’s parents had died. Milton, who had been a doctor in the ITA for most of his life, defected in protest, taking custody of Jeth and Lizzie. The three of them left their home planet, Therin, aboard Avalon, in search of a suitable Independent planet to call home. Peltraz spaceport was just supposed to be a stop on the way, but once Milton lost the ship they were stuck.

Jeth had hated Hammer ever since. Working for him now was just acid in an open wound.

But at least Hammer had allowed them to keep living on the ship even after he took possession. Avalon was made for long-term inhabitation. And later, once the idea of forming a teenage gang of thieves had come to him, Hammer decided to let all of the crew live on the ship. “To ensure a familial loyalty among the group,” he had claimed. But Jeth knew it was really just for the cheap accommodations.

He didn’t mind though. It made the ship home for all of them.

Jeth took the long way, down one of the scenic pedestrian walkways high above the spaceport’s city center. Lined with glass on both sides, the walkway was built so you could look down at the sprawl of businesses or out into space and Peltraz’s renowned star field. Peltraz was a massive spaceport, easily the size of any of the major cities on the nearby planets and home to more than 300,000 people. There were hundreds of places Jeth had never seen in the city-state, entire neighborhoods he’d never even heard of.