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She sighed. “I imagined you would. I know the story about your parents.”

Jeth blinked. He hadn’t been thinking about his parents at all, but he wasn’t surprised she knew the story, given her background. That must have been why she recognized his last name when he introduced himself. And what she said made sense. Their lives had been fully bought—and expended—by the ITA’s will.

Shaking off uncomfortable connections, he asked, “What about Vince? Is he ITA, too?”

“He was an elite combat soldier.”

“And now he’s a deserter.”

Sierra flinched. “Yes, but not because he’s a coward. We both learned some awful truths about the ITA. Things neither of us could stomach. Stuff so horrible you couldn’t imagine.”

Jeth slid his fingers into the belt loops of his pants, more curious about what she knew than he cared to admit. “Oh, I can imagine a lot. But no worries here. Anybody who’s ever told the ITA to piss off is welcome on my ship.”

Some of the tension in Sierra’s body eased a little. “Good to know. So I guess this means you can understand why I’m so concerned about what you decide to do next.”

Jeth gritted his teeth, knowing exactly what she was getting at even though he hadn’t agreed to anything yesterday. “You don’t want me to call Hammer to come fetch us.” Of course she didn’t. If Hammer found out they were wanted by the ITA, he would turn them in and collect the bounty. The ITA did not take desertion lightly.

Jeth turned and sat down, falling into the chair as he ran his fingers through his hair. He wanted to yank it out, if only it would relieve the pressure inside his skull. Maybe the pain would inspire him to some solution to the problem. But in his heart he knew he had to call Hammer. It was the only choice. How could he call Renford now, knowing Sierra and Vince were ITA fugitives?

Jeth looked up at her. “I don’t want to call him either, but I’m out of options.”

“No, you’re not. I’ve another option. One that will solve both our problems.”

“Yeah, and what’s that?”

“Your sister told me about your deal with Hammer for this ship.” Sierra motioned to the bridge. “I know how much it means to you, but a ship without a metadrive is practically worthless to anyone who wants to come and go as they please.”

Jeth exhaled, his fury with Lizzie a dead weight against his chest. How dare she share such secrets with these strangers? She was under a lot of pressure with the manual jump, his conscience reminded him. And no doubt she’d blathered out of nerves. But that didn’t excuse it. She’d exposed a powerful pressure point for Sierra to use against him. “What does that matter?” he said.

“Because I have a way for you to get a replacement metadrive.”

Jeth snorted. He’d been wrong about her. She wasn’t smart. She was crazy. “Oh sure, because those are just lying about for the taking.”

“You can get anything if you’ve got the right bargaining chip.”

“Like what?”

“Like the weapon Hammer is after.”

Jeth narrowed his gaze. “You said you didn’t know anything about a weapon.”

Sierra folded her arms. “I lied.”

“Well then, now I’m ready to believe everything you say.”

She tapped her foot. “I didn’t know if I could trust you, and ignorance is safety.”

“Not to mention an ace in the hole, right?”

“Right.” She drew a breath and let the air out through her teeth. “Also, I didn’t realize what you were talking about at first. What he’s after isn’t a weapon in the traditional sense. It’s not an explosive or viral or anything like that.”

“Oh yeah? Then what the hell is it?”

“The most dangerous weapon there is: information. And I happen to know exactly how much it’s worth.”

“How much?”

Her lips parted in a smile. “It’s priceless.”

Jeth slowly exhaled, not daring to believe. Information, she said. A dangerous weapon. He did a mental review of the conversation with Hammer, remembering the way he’d stumbled ever so slightly when he’d first mentioned the weapon. Had he lied? Of course he did. He’s Hammer.

But Jeth wasn’t biting. Not yet. “Okay, tell me more. Why do you think this information is the weapon that Hammer’s after?”

“Because it was the only thing of real value on the Donerail. There were a couple of crates of guns and ammunition, but I imagine Hammer has plenty of those types of conventional weapons already.”

Jeth thought about it, conceding the point. “All right. Then what exactly is this information?”

“The code name the ITA uses for it is the Aether Project.”

Jeth ear’s prickled with recognition. He’d heard that title somewhere before, a long time ago. His mom and dad had mentioned it a couple of times between themselves in whispered conversations he wasn’t meant to overhear.

“What it contains is everything there is to know about metatech,” Sierra continued. “Where it comes from, how it’s manufactured. Everything. The entire project is on a data cell that I have hidden on the Donerail for safekeeping.”

Jeth’s head spun with questions and doubts. If she was telling the truth, kings, dictators, and other world leaders would give anything to possess it. For centuries, the ITA had held the monopoly on space travel, charging whatever they wanted for the use of metatech. Breaking that monopoly would indeed be priceless. And keeping it in place would mean a lot to Hammer. Without the monopoly, his metatech black market would crumble. And it obviously explained the ITA’s interest in retrieving the ship.

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