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“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” Jeth said. He looked at Hammer directly for the first time. He had a bulldog face with black, piggy eyes and perpetually red cheeks. His bald head gleamed nearly as brightly as the polished floor. Like his soldiers, Hammer wore an implant, too. Only his was dark red, the color of old blood.

Hammer let out a dramatic sigh. “Your theatrical exit drew the attention of the ITA, the Montrose’s shielding system was unsalvageable, not to mention the metadrive, and you brought back both Scouts with damage that will cost me thousands of unis to repair.”

“Hey, now,” Jeth said, testing the waters. “The metadrive wasn’t my fault.”

Hammer scowled, the gesture making his piggy eyes even smaller. “That’s beside the point.”

Jeth didn’t respond. Hammer might not be truly angry, but that could change in a second if Jeth pushed him too far.

“Now,” Hammer said, “why don’t you tell me what went wrong at Kordan?”

Jeth shrugged. Lying to Hammer was risky, but telling him about Renford would be downright stupid. Unless he wanted to spend the next couple of months having his every activity monitored and probed for possible betrayal. “It was just bad timing with some reserve sentries. But we got away all right, and with the ship salvageable. Mostly. So, job done. Now, what’s the next one?”

Hammer leaned back in his chair, the wood groaning in protest. His belly was so large he had to sit back from the table to make room for it. “You’re awfully cocky for someone so young, you know that?”

Jeth flashed a mirthless grin. “I’ve earned it, wouldn’t you say?”

Hammer snorted, his pretend anger vanishing with the sound. “You do okay, I suppose. But I tolerate your cockiness because I like you, Jeth. Like you could be my own son.”

Horror at the idea sent a scowl rising to Jeth’s face, and he quickly tamped it down before Hammer spotted it. Jeth’s real father might’ve died a prisoner, and he might’ve lived a short life, clinging to naive ideas like the betterment and well-being of all mankind, but he’d been good. A father worth having.

And nothing at all like Hammer. Please, the starving man had said. I’m hungry. If Hammer were Jeth’s father, he’d have committed patricide long before now. And only a son would be able to get close enough to him to do it.

“It just so happens that I do have your next job lined up,” Hammer said, not noticing Jeth’s reaction. “Something . . . different.”

Jeth arched an eyebrow, feigning ignorance. “Yeah? What’s that?”

“It’s a salvage mission. Need you to use Avalon to retrieve a lost ship.” He paused. “From the Belgrave Quadrant.”

Jeth frowned, doing his best imitation of surprise. Fortunately, he didn’t have to fake his trepidation over the notion of flying into the Devil’s Boneyard. That emotion was genuine.

“Now, I know the Belgrave has a certain reputation, but considering how much you kids like a thrill, I imagine you’ll be up for it.”

You don’t know them very well, Jeth thought. They all liked a good challenge, but the Belgrave was on a whole new level. It was one thing to face danger in familiar territory, but something else to face it in the complete unknown.

“And even if there is some hesitation,” Hammer continued, “I think the two hundred-k payment ought to smooth things over.”

Jeth gaped, his surprise genuine this time. That was a lot of money, way more than they’d ever made on any job. It was enough to put him within spitting distance of buying back Avalon. That’s one helluva carrot.

The idea of trying to bargain suddenly occurred to him. He’d never dared such a thing before. There wasn’t much point when Hammer held all the power. With a single word he could cut them all off like he had the beggar. The only way out of such a death sentence was if some relative or friend outside Peltraz was willing to come and take you away from the spaceport, assuming Hammer would allow them to land and take off again. But Jeth’s and Lizzie’s only relative was Milton, and he lived on Avalon with them. The other members of the Malleus Shades were orphans, wards of the state already. Wards of Hammer Dafoe.

And the money wasn’t just for him, but for the others, too. He had no right to bargain with it. Yet . . .

I’m so close.

Jeth inhaled deeply, ignoring his squirming insides. “What if I were to say you give the crew twelve-k a piece and keep the rest?”

Hammer frowned, not in anger exactly, but definitely not thrilled. “In exchange for what?”

“Avalon.”

Hammer laughed, his entire belly wriggling. “Very funny, Jeth. Never knew you were such a jokester.”

Do you really believe he’ll let you have your ship? Jeth heard Renford say. He supposed it was time to find out.

“I’m not joking. My cut of that money puts me pretty close to buying her back, by my count anyway. And if you’re already going through the trouble of letting Avalon out of her cage, why not make it simple and let her go for good. Once I’ve brought back the missing ship, of course. You know I’m good for it.”

Hammer’s gaze hardened. “Ah, but that’s the catch, isn’t it? It’s Avalon I need, not you. Who’s to say I don’t get someone else to take her out? Someone who’d be happy with the pay I’m offering?”

Jeth balled his fingers into fists as he fought to keep his cool. Hammer had to be bluffing. The Malleus Shades might not be salvagers, but they had an unbeatable track record, and nobody else was familiar with Avalon. “Like who? The Dark Sol Gang out of the Antares System? I hear they’re pretty good, but could you really trust them like you trust me?”

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