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“I brought you up here to show you this.” Milton opened one of the files, and an image appeared on the screen, some kind of medical readout comprised of bars with thin blue lines etched sideways across them in a random pattern.

Jeth stared at it, his mind blank. “What is it?”

“DNA test results.”

“Okay?”

“So is this.” Milton pulled up another file that appeared right below the first. This one showed a similar pattern of bars and blue lines, except there were more of them—hundreds more.

“The top one is my DNA,” Milton said. “The bottom is Cora’s.”

Jeth blinked a couple of times, still not understanding. Although he supposed this was one of the reasons why Milton had shut himself up in here the last two days. He wondered how he’d gotten a sample of her blood, but then he remembered the scratch on the back of Cora’s hand.

“Why the difference?” {g}

“No idea,” Milton said, his frustration palpable. “All I can tell you is what it means on a biological level.”

Jeth waited for him to go on, breath held.

“She’s not human.”

Shock drove all thoughts from Jeth’s brain, as he stared at the bottom image, his mouth slackening. In his mind’s eye, he pictured Cora as he’d first seen her—something wild and exotic, and with her eyes too large and dark.

Milton cleared his throat. “I should clarify. She’s not entirely human. Some of this is human DNA, but the rest of it isn’t.”

“Animal?”

“Not any animal I know of.”

“Then what is it?”

“. . . Nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Jeth closed his mouth to keep from asking the next question that occurred to him. It was stupid, impossible. In the entire universe, there was no such thing as aliens. Humans had colonized all the inhabitable worlds and had never found anything else. Not one sign of life in hundreds of surveyed planets.

He pictured Cora again, this time as he’d last seen her, with a sleepy smile on her face as she kissed him good-night. Was there something wrong with her beneath all the normal little girl things? Something dangerous? For the first time in days he remembered that horrible, animalistic scream he’d heard on the Donerail and the way it had gotten inside him, like a predator intent on consuming him from the inside. Sierra and Vince had been just as affected by that sound as he and Shady were. But Cora . . . there’d been no sign of her.

Jeth shuddered, pushing the idea away. Things were complicated enough. “Why did you want me to see this?”

Milton scratched the thick stubble on his chin. “Because if there’s more to Cora than meets the eye, then there might be more to their entire situation. Stuff they’re not telling us.”

Icy fingers seemed to stroke Jeth’s neck. “You think Sierra and Vince know what she is?”

“It’s certainly possible. They did rescue her from an ITA scientist. And it wouldn’t be the first time the ITA experimented on children. An organization so powerful and autonomous has little reason to worry about moral consequences.” Milton shuddered, and Jeth had a feeling that he was speaking from experience. He’d been an ITA doctor for a very long time. Jeth wondered if that wasn’t the reason why his mother had called Charles for help instead of him.

Jeth rubbed his temples, suddenly aware of how late it was. “Why show me this? I mean, what does it matter what Cora is? She seems harmless.”

Does she? Are you sure?

Milton shook his head. “That’s just it. She might not be harmless. She might be a ticking bomb ready to go off at any moment. I’ve seen it happen before with some of the ITA’s test subjects. And,” Milton said, his tone growing more ominous, “if we assume Cora was part of an ITA experiment, how do we know that she isn’t what Sierra and Vince stole, instead of this so-called Aether Project? What if that was just a lie to hide the truth from us?”

“They didn’t steal her. They rescued her from a bad situation.”

Milton raised his hands. “I’m not saying they have bad intentions toward Cora.”

“Clearly not,” Jeth said.

“But they would lie to protect her if they had to. Even to us.”

Jeth considered the idea, trying to look past his personal feelings. He supposed it was possible. And it did seem more likely that Sierra would’ve gotten to know Cora through their roles as scientist and subject rather than as occasional babysitter. But did that mean the Aether Project data cell didn’t exist? He didn’t want to believe it, and yet here was a thread of doubt, a possibility that Sierra and Vince might be lying, might be keeping a dark, frightening secret.

Jeth met Milton’s gaze. “What do you think I should do about it?”

Milton rubbed his forehead. “Find out the truth of what’s really going on. There’ll be hell to pay if Hammer finds out about any of this. You know that as well as I do. I don’t blame you for believing them. I like them too, but we shouldn’t ignore this.” He motioned toward the screen. “And I don’t want you to make the same mistake your mother did in trusting the wrong person. People can’t be trusted, Jeth. Not without earning it.”

Jeth supposed he had a point. He had no proof at all that the Aether Project data cell really existed. And he didn’t know any of them well enough to be aware of what their true motivations might be.

Doubt rose up inside Jeth like a fog, blurring everything. He locked his eyes on Milton. “I’ll confront them about Cora tomorrow. And I’ll insist Sierra show us proof she’s telling the truth about the data cell.”

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