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“Not far from here.”

Jeth swallowed. “If you hurt—” He broke off, unable even to voice the possibility of such a thing and wary of more pain. “Where’s Lizzie?” He knew the question was pointless, but his worry for her consumed rational thought. He’d already lost Avalon and Milton. He couldn’t lose her, too.

“Your sister is fine. For the moment. And I must say, I was surprised to see how attractive a young woman she’s become. It’s been a while since I’ve really looked at her.”

Hot anger surged through Jeth at Hammer’s insinuation. It burned the hurt right out of him, and Jeth leaped up, prepared to rip the man’s throat out with his bare hands. It was foolish, stupid, but desperation spurred him on. Hammer’s punch landed first, and in Jeth’s weakened state, he crumpled beneath it. He hit the ground hard enough that all the air whooshed out of his lungs. He gasped, each breath a knife in his side.

Hammer yanked Jeth up and dropped him on the bench. “Try that again and I will have my men break your kneecaps. Understand?”

Jeth nodded, trying to think clearly through the haze of pain.

“Now, why don’t you tell me the truth about what happened in the Belgrave?”

Jeth struggled to remember the story that he and the others had agreed on in those few short minutes they’d had before Hammer’s men had brought them on board the starship. It seemed forever ago. No one had asked them a single thing during the entire trip back to Peltraz.

“And don’t bother repeating that cock and bull about being innocent victims just trying to help the survivors,” said Hammer. “I know it’s not true. Too many things don’t add up. My men tell me that not long before we picked you up you made a call to an unidentified contact using an encrypted calling card.” Hammer reached into his front pocket and withdrew Renford’s calling card. “This one. Now who could you have called? And why? Even more peculiar, why would the thieves who stole your ship bother sending a message saying where I could find you?”

Jeth blinked. “A message?”

“Oh, yes,” Hammer said. “It came from Avalon. Why would they go to such trouble?”

No idea. Jeth ran his tongue over his teeth, testing them for looseness. “Maybe it was Milton. He was still on the ship when they took it.”

“Perhaps,” Hammer said, returning the card to his pocket. “But I think it’s time to tell me the real story. Unless you want me to have Sergei extract it from your crew instead.”

Jeth closed his eyes as an image of Lizzie receiving the same kind of beating at Sergei’s hands made him shudder. He didn’t have any fight left in him, nor any strength left to spin a new story. “All right,” he said.

Then he told Hammer the truth about what happened, about finding the survivors, the metadrive failing, and Sierra’s offer of a solution. He even told him about Renford approaching them during the Montrose job.

Outrage seemed to sparkle in Hammer’s tiny black eyes as he listened. “Agent Renford of the ITA? Marcus Renford?”

Jeth nodded, wondering vaguely at Hammer’s recognition. “That’s who the calling card belongs to.”

“Ah,” said Hammer. “Well, go on.”

“That’s it,” Jeth said. “I told you everything.”

Hammer inclined his head. “What about the Aether Project? Did you ever actually see it?”


“I see.”

Jeth braced for whatever retribution Hammer would deliver now. He wouldn’t be surprised if the man killed him with his bare hands.

Yet amazingly, Hammer kept his temper in check, pretending to be wounded instead. “What I don’t understand is why you would betray me in the first place.”

Jeth drew a defeated breath. “I wanted my ship.”

“But I already promised you your ship when you completed the job.”

“You lied.”

Hammer gaped, as if Jeth had spoken in gibberish.

Jeth went on. “We both know you never intended to give me the ship and let me go. The crew is too valuable. So, I figured I needed something to trade that you wanted more than us.”

“Ah,” Hammer said. “The Aether Project.”

Jeth nodded.

A cold smile lifted Hammer’s lips for a moment. “Yes, something as valuable as that might’ve made the bargain work. Can you imagine it? All the secrets of metatech, everything the ITA has hoarded for hundreds of years.” Hammer shook his head. “Pity you didn’t manage to pull it off.”

“So the Aether Project was the weapon you were after?”

“Yes. It’s the weapon I’m still after.”

The knowledge of how close he’d come to succeeding burned inside Jeth. He gritted his teeth, then stopped as he felt one of them move ominously.

Hammer folded his arms. “Still, you’re resourceful, Jeth. Smart and good in a pinch. Remarkable for someone so young.”

Unfazed by the change in topic, Jeth said, “Let me guess, I remind you of you, right?” Bitterness emboldened him as he remembered how Hammer had once said he was like a son.

Hammer smirked. “Not at all. At your age, I was prone to attacking first and thinking later. I only managed to get as far as I did then because I was so damn good at fighting. And I’ve never been afraid of doing what needed to be done.”

Jeth didn’t doubt it. He shivered. Nothing Hammer had said or done so far had frightened him as much as that statement.