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Hammer turned around and walked to the door. That’s it? He’s leaving? But Hammer stepped to the right of the door and placed his hand on a metal panel on the wall. A second later a compartment opened above the panel, revealing two objects Jeth couldn’t make out from where he sat.

Hammer picked both up, hiding them in his hands, and returned to Jeth. “Do you want to know what the key to my success has been?”

“Not really.” Jeth knew he shouldn’t be flip, but he couldn’t help it. The hopelessness of the situation gnashed at him with razor-sharp teeth. A part of him wanted it to be over. All of it. He was so tired, so beaten down, loss like a giant gaping hole inside him. If it weren’t for Lizzie . . .

“Loyalty,” Hammer went on. “That’s the key. It’s what’s made you so successful as well, you know. The loyalty of your crew. How they’re willing to follow you anywhere. It’s the mark of a good leader and one of the reasons I picked you.”

Jeth didn’t say anything. He didn’t trust his voice to speak.

“Yes, loyalty. You have to command it in your people if you want to lead. Betrayal can bring down an entire empire. It’s something I can’t tolerate. Like a cancer, it must be cut out before it spreads.”

Jeth swallowed. Here it was. The punishment that would make Sergei’s thrashing feel like a pleasant massage. Does dying hurt? he wondered. What will happen to Lizzie when I’m gone?

Hammer said, “But disloyalty isn’t a problem in my organization, because this device eradicates such behavior.” Hammer turned his left hand over, revealing one of the objects. It looked like a large clear-colored spider with flaccid, rubbery legs—a brain implant of the Malleus Guard.

“You’ve seen these before, but do you know how they work?” Hammer flipped the thing over, revealing a long, thick needle. “Once this is inserted it can never be removed. It controls electrical impulses in the brain. I can command it to block sensations of fear or pain. Or to take away the desire to think for yourself, turn you into something mindless, a drone that only follows commands. In other words, it can take away your free will.”

Jeth stared at the thing. It looked more like a spider than ever, one that fed on souls instead of blood. And Hammer commands it. Jeth examined Hammer’s appearance, realizing for the first time that he wasn’t wearing his red implant.

“I use this particular device on the Guard because they are unworthy to be Brethren,” said Hammer. “They might have committed a crime against me or they might lack the necessary intelligence, or their psychological profile suggests they are prone to cowardice. Or, more likely, betrayal.”

Like me, Jeth thought, catching the subtext in Hammer’s words. A cold sensation slid over his skin, seeming to absorb inward, chilling his heart. He pictured Danforth, remembering how he once had been and how he was now. The comparison made him shudder.

Hammer turned over his right hand, revealing another spider-like object, this one black. “This device is for the people whose loyalty I wish to have willingly and not by force. It can be safely removed, and while it does enhance key cognitive abilities, it does not remove the ability or desire for self will. On the contrary, I want my Brethren to think and act on their own. There are too many situations that require reasoning and ingenuity, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

Oh, Jeth could imagine it all right. It was the difference between sentience and machinery. Between life and a pale mockery of it.

“Oh, I almost forgot to mention,” Hammer said, his tone perversely casual. “This one”—he held up the clear-colored device—“can also shut down brain functionality entirely from a single command, or at the detection of a foolish attempt to remove it.”

Jeth smacked his lips, which had swollen to the size of his index fingers. “You mean it can kill you from the inside.”

Hammer bared his teeth. They were small in his fat face, white and sharp. “Precisely. Now, let’s get down to it. One of these is destined for you. It’s been in your future from the moment your uncle sat down at that gaming table and gambled first your ship and then your life away.”

The world seemed to lurch sideways as the full meaning of Hammer’s words struck Jeth. “He gambled me?”

“Oh, not so literally. He’d already lost Avalon and was desperate to get the ship back, but he had no collateral for the game. Instead I offered him a deal. If he won, he got Avalon back. If he lost, he would stay and become a permanent resident of Peltraz and do freelance doctoring when I needed it. At the time, I didn’t realize what a valuable asset his young wards would turn out to be. Not that it took long.”

No, it didn’t. Jeth had started working for Hammer mere months after Milton lost Avalon. It had never occurred to him to wonder why Milton hadn’t just found some other way out of Peltraz, taking Jeth and Sierra somewhere planet-side. A place where Jeth wouldn’t have drawn the interest of a crime lord and where Lizzie could’ve gone to school and been a normal kid.

“So, you see,” Hammer continued, “I decided years ago that you would become a member of my personal security force. I’ve been molding you for it ever since.”

Jeth glowered. “You haven’t molded me into anything. I’m nothing like you.”

Hammer gave him a patient look. “Then why don’t you ask yourself why you’re so good at being bad.”

Jeth managed a scowl despite the injuries on his face. “Fine, if you’re so certain about me, why didn’t you just implant the damn thing already and be done with it. I know you don’t have a problem forcing people into your service.”