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Jeth scowled after her, resisting an urge to give her hair a good hard tug.

At once guilt pricked his insides. She didn’t deserve the brunt of his bad mood. “Wait a second.”

She froze, then turned to face him, crossing her arms in front of her. “What?”

To his surprise, her annoyed expression made him want to laugh. It reminded him a bit of Viggo when Jeth had accidentally stepped on the cat’s tail—pissed off but incredibly cute in a fearsome, fuzzy sort of way.

Oh, she’s more than cute. Jeth ignored the thought as he forced his eyes to stay on her face and not wander to any other parts of her he might find distracting. Not that her face wasn’t a distraction all by itself. She looked better after a night’s sleep, bright-eyed and less pale.

He rubbed his cheek where her hair had lashed him. “I didn’t mean to snap. You just startled me, is all. How’d you manage to do that anyway?”

A smirk curled her lips. “You mean walk about without making all kinds of noise? Easy, I’m a girl.”

Jeth snorted. “Right. Well, even so, you shouldn’t sneak up on a person like that.”

“Why? Are you afraid of me?” she said, a tease in her voice.

He grinned. “You did try and kill me the first time we met.”

“Yes, but I imagine a professional thief like you gets that a lot.”

Jeth’s good humor flipped back to bad. “How do you know about that?”

The smile slid from Sierra’s face. “Um, Shady mentioned it,” she said at last. “He said you’re known as the Malleus Shades. It’s . . . catchy. Malleus, the Latin word for Hammer.”

I’m going to kill him. Jeth took a deep inhale. “So, what do you want? ’Cause I know you didn’t come up here this early to discuss my line of work.”

Sierra’s expression turned serious. “I came to talk to you about what’s happening to Avalon’s metadrive.”

Jeth gritted his teeth. “What do you know about it? Have you been wandering around my ship in the middle of the night?”

“No—”

“Lemme guess, Flynn told you.”

She shook her head. “No one told me. They didn’t have to. I know the symptoms of drive failure, and it’s exactly what we felt in that last jump.”

“Really. So how does somebody like you know so much about metatech?”

“Because I’m ITA.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m an ITA agent.”

Jeth scoffed. “That’s impossible. What are you, sixteen?”

Sierra put her hands on her hips. “Seventeen, not that it matters. I joined the ITA at fifteen, spent a year and a half as a probationary agent, and received full field status a few months ago.”

Jeth crossed his arms. “You’ll understand if I find that hard to believe. I know a thing or two about the ITA. You can’t even submit an application until you’re seventeen.” He knew this well, because as a kid it was all he ever wanted: to be old enough to join the ITA and to become a space explorer alongside his parents.

“I didn’t apply. I was recruited.”

The idea made him cringe. It was a concept he associated with Hammer, the way he was always seeking out new talent, new blood. “Why would the ITA want to recruit a kid?”

“Because I’m gifted, but if you don’t believe me . . .” She reached into her pocket and withdrew an item he had no trouble recognizing—the badge of an ITA agent, with the star and eagle emblem.

Jeth stared at it, incredulous. Sierra certainly wasn’t dumb, but would the ITA actually go so far as to recruit her? It broke every ITA rule and regulation that he knew of. And yet the concept wasn’t farfetched at all—that was, if he replaced “ITA” with “Hammer.”

Jeth held out his hand, and she gave him the badge. He examined it carefully. It certainly seemed genuine. Then his mind made a new connection. “You’re on the run from them, aren’t you? The ITA?”

“Correct,” Sierra said, her voice clipped.

Jeth thought about Renford, trying to remember everything about their brief meeting. He’d only mentioned the ship, saying nothing about survivors. Jeth had assumed that, like Hammer, the ITA was only after the weapon on board and didn’t believe there would be survivors—that the ship had been missing two months and not two weeks like Sierra insisted. And yet Sierra being an ITA protégé couldn’t be coincidence, could it?

He considered telling her about Renford but held back, worried that she would clam up and refuse to tell him more. “Why are you on the run?” he asked, trying to sound casual as he handed her back the badge. If he could get her talking, get her to trust him, she might reveal more on her own.

Sierra stared at him for several long seconds, considering her answer carefully. She slid the badge into her pocket. “Once you join the ITA, you can’t quit. They don’t tell you that beforehand, and I found it out the hard way. But I didn’t like being owned. I didn’t know it would be like that, with them dictating your every move, every decision. I wanted to be free to live my life on my own terms.”

Something moved inside Jeth’s chest, a feeling like butterflies. Only it had nothing to do with nerves but rather like calling to like. Her words might’ve been stolen right out of his own mind, his heart. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I understand that.”

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