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“We heard a rumor about a ship like this that was transporting some kind of special weapon. Know anything about that?”

Sierra shook her head. “The Donerail was carrying lots of illegal goods, as far as we could tell, but the captain and crew kept a tight lid on that stuff and we didn’t go poking around.”

Cora sneezed, drawing everyone’s attention. Jeth had half forgotten she was there.

“Listen,” Sierra said, sounding annoyed once more. “I know you’ve got questions and so do we. But we’ve been stranded for almost two weeks. The metadrive is completely blown and we’re out of fuel and food and almost out of water. Any chance we can get on with the rescuing you mentioned?”

Jeth winced, suddenly feeling guilty. He couldn’t imagine what they must’ve gone through, and Cora was just a kid. He started to nod then frowned as something occurred to him. “You say you’ve been here two weeks?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Vince.

“But this ship’s been missing two months.”

Sierra swallowed. “That’s . . . that’s impossible.”

No more than a dead man trapped inside a wall, Jeth thought. A shiver skidded down his spine. “Maybe, but it’s true.”

She and Vince exchanged bewildered looks.

Jeth could tell it was news to them, that somehow they had been completely unaware of how long they’d been missing. Celeste’s story didn’t seem so farfetched anymore. He wondered how many other crazy stories about this place were true. Seems we’ve got our own to tell now.

Jeth shook off the thought and said, “Okay, we can finish talking later.” He motioned toward Shady. “Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter 11

THEY MADE THEIR WAY BACK TO THE AIRLOCK AFTER LOCATING the helmet for Cora’s space suit. As Sierra was fitting it over the girl’s head, Jeth signaled Celeste. “We’re bringing the survivors over. Give everybody a heads-up.”

“What? Already?” Celeste answered back, her voice loud enough to make Jeth wince. “Who are they? And how do you know they’re not diseased, or psychos who’ll kill us in our sleep?”

Jeth turned away from the others and walked down the corridor a couple of steps to avoid being overheard. “They’re not diseased or psycho, Celeste. Two of them are our age or a little older and the third’s just a kid.”

Silence answered him, the pause long enough that he figured Celeste was pacified.

Wrong.

“I still don’t like it, Jeth. Hold up and let me ask Milton if he thinks it’s safe.”

“No,” Jeth said, putting as much authority into the command as he could without shouting. “I’m in charge, not Milton. And leaving them over here is not an option. Now get ready to open the airlock.”

Celeste was silent once more, but he could picture her sitting over there, fuming.

“Fine,” she answered at last. “But if you’re wrong about those people, then I’ll be the one murdering you in your sleep.”

Jeth jumped up and grabbed the edge of the hatch. “Assuming they don’t get you first.”

“Ha. Ha. Seriously, Jeth. Have you thought about how you’re going to hide three new passengers when we get back to Peltraz?”

He gritted his teeth. “Not yet. But we’ll figure something out. One challenge at a time, same as always.”

“If you say so.”

Jeth heard a click as Celeste terminated the connection.

He reached down through the hatch, offering a hand to Sierra, but she waved him back. He obeyed, frowning in surprise as she jumped, grabbed the edge, and then hoisted herself up with perfect ease.

Pretty, feisty, and strong. That was a whole lot to like.

Don’t be stupid, the voice of reason broke in. You don’t need that kind of distraction.

No, he didn’t. Girl distractions were the worst kind. Downright dangerous, as his brief thing with Celeste when they’d first met had taught him. They’d gotten into an argument on a job and nearly been caught by a couple of spaceport guards. They ended their brief romance shortly after, and Jeth had sworn off girls ever since. He focused all his energy on Avalon, the only girl he really wanted or needed.

Once all five of them were crammed inside the airlock, Jeth opened the hatch and climbed out. Then he and the others pulled themselves over to Avalon using the towlines. Vince did it with Cora strapped to his back for safety.

The rest of the crew was waiting for them when they stepped out of Avalon’s airlock into the cargo bay. Jeth had known they would be, but that didn’t make him any less annoyed by it. There were still so many questions he wanted answered, but he couldn’t ask any of them with everybody else hanging about. He’d already made Shady swear not to tell the others about the strange damage on the Donerail. No reason to induce panic.

As Jeth pulled off his space suit, he kept his attention on Sierra. Vince might be the more physically imposing of the two, but Sierra was clearly the leader. And even though he’d told Celeste they weren’t psychos, Jeth didn’t exactly trust them. He’d given their weapons to Shady for safekeeping.

Sierra removed her suit quickly and then scanned the cargo bay with an appraising gaze. For some reason this made Jeth nervous, and he glanced around, trying to imagine what she was thinking.

Nothing good, he decided, taking in the dark stains on the floor. Most of the walls looked as if they were regularly used for target practice. They weren’t—the bullet holes had been there for ages, since before his parents died—but he couldn’t expect her to know that. To top it all off, exposed wiring hung here and there, and the water pipes were so rusted they looked like they might start leaking at any moment. The gray color of everything in the place, combined with the dim lighting, gave it a cavelike atmosphere.

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