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That was a lot to risk. Maybe too much. Jeth didn’t know what to do. He needed time to think.

Flynn cleared his throat. “So, what’s the plan now, Boss?”

“Nothing. It’s been a stressful enough day already, so for now let’s keep this between us.”

“Sure, okay.”

Jeth couldn’t tell if it was relief or concern he heard in Flynn’s voice. He decided it didn’t matter. He turned and left the engineering room, fighting back the rising despair that threatened to overwhelm him.

He kept it at bay long enough to convince the others that nothing was wrong and that whatever repairs and plans they needed to make could wait until they’d had a good night sleep. He made sure that Sierra, Vince, and Cora got something to eat and a chance to clean up. Then once they were settled into their cabins, he retreated to his quarters.

The moment he was alone, the dam of emotions broke inside him. It was so horribly, impossibly unfair. Seven years Avalon had been imprisoned at Hammer’s spaceport. Seven years Jeth had dreamed and planned and hoped for his freedom. And now, just when he was on the verge of succeeding, this happened.

Even if he had the money to buy a new metadrive, there weren’t any to buy. For every metadrive the Shades managed to steal, Hammer had ten customers in line to buy it, customers who bid up the price well beyond what Jeth could afford to pay.

Hell, he couldn’t even buy a different ship. The money he earned toward Avalon went directly to Hammer, kept in trust. I’ll be stuck working for him forever. The bitter thought burned its way through Jeth’s body like acid in his veins.

He stretched across the bed, burying his face in the pillows. For so long he’d thought Avalon was the answer, the ultimate solution. He was wrong. She was just a ship, an object that could break and fail him as easily as his parents had failed him. As Milton had.

For the first time in his life the idea that freedom might not exist at all threatened to overwhelm him. Was the promise of freedom just something the desperate and oppressed clung to because they didn’t have anything else? Had it always been just a dream, a fantasy built up in the mind of a boy forced to grow up too soon?

Jeth didn’t know. And as the hours ticked by, he tried to convince himself that he didn’t care.

Chapter 14

JETH STARED THROUGH THE FRONT WINDOWS OF THE BRIDGE, not really looking at the sea of black punctuated by bits of light. It was early but he was wide awake, his mind a tempest of thoughts, all of them the wrong ones. He should have been thinking about what to do, whether to call Hammer or Renford.

Instead he was thinking about the last time he’d seen his parents. The memory was far hazier than he could’ve imagined. It didn’t seem all that long ago, and yet the memory felt ancient. He couldn’t recall the exact sound of their voices. The ITA had confiscated all of their old video journals. Their faces were easy; he had lots of photos, but the voices were hard, almost impossible to remember.

Instead of his father’s deep baritone telling Jeth they would be back in a couple of months and that he should look after his sister and focus on his studies, he kept hearing Milton’s gravel-lined voice. Instead of his mother’s throaty laugh as she kissed Lizzie’s head, tickling her to keep her from crying, he heard Celeste’s full-bellied one.

Jeth might not be able to remember his parents as well as he wanted, but he had no trouble remembering himself and how unconcerned he’d been about saying good-bye that day. He’d been impatient to see his friends, waiting for him at Metis Academy, the ITA-run boarding school on Therin where he lived during the long periods of time when his parents were out exploring. If he’d known it was the last time he was going to see his parents, he would’ve paid more attention. He would’ve hugged his mother longer and not protested when she kissed him on the cheek.

He would’ve begged them not to go.

For a moment his longing for them was so strong, he almost forgot where he was—in the Belgrave Quadrant with a world full of trouble waiting just over the border.

Jeth closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, wishing he could scrub away the memories. Especially the ones that came afterward, when his parents returned from that last trip. All the news stories and the whispers from the other kids at school—Arrested for treason. Sealed trial. Execution. He never got to see them. Not even to say good-bye.

Why was he thinking about this now? Why did his parents’ death seem so near after years of distance?

Down deep inside him, he knew the answer. For the first time in long time he wished for a parent to make the hard choices for him. But he refused to admit it. Instead, Jeth told himself it was just because they were in the Belgrave and because of the data crystal Lizzie had discovered. He’d briefly considered asking to see it last night, but with the shock of Avalon’s metadrive failing, he didn’t have the will to face anything else painful. Besides, examining its contents wouldn’t help him make a decision on what to do next.

Hammer. Renford. Hammer. Renford. Which one? Neither? Have to choose.

“Good morning.”

Jeth lurched up from his chair and spun around, completely caught off guard. Sierra stood behind him. He had no idea how she’d managed to get so close without him hearing. A head taller, he frowned down at her. The last thing he wanted was company. Especially hers. She was one-third the cause of his trouble.

“What are you doing up here?” he snapped.

A look of surprise crossed Sierra’s face followed by a glower. “Excuse me. I didn’t realize the bridge was off limits.” She turned around so fast her ponytail swatted him in the face.

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