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“Not at all, although I prefer willing members instead of conscripted ones. The Guard have their uses, of course, but they could hardly be considered sufficient manpower for the kind of interplanetary organization I run. That’s why I have the Brethren. And only the willing ever join the Brethren.” He pulled out his personal comm and checked it briefly. “Now, there’s one little hitch. You were born on Therin, which is a Confederated planet.”

“So what?”

“These implants were designed by the ITA. They’re legal, Jeth, and I’m not the only one to use them. There are many governments across the galaxy that do. The black ones are normally for soldiers, the clear ones for prisoners—or slaves. The ITA carefully monitors each device, and they cannot be activated on anyone registered with the Confederation who is under eighteen. Like you.” Hammer paused. “Except you will be eighteen very soon.”

Just a few days. Jeth closed his eyes, willing himself to be unconscious again, willing himself to somehow enter metaspace without a drive or gate and be gone from here. Gone so far that no one could ever reach him again. But it was a child’s fantasy.

Jeth summoned what remained of his courage and said in an even voice, “What exactly are you threatening?”

“Oh, it’s not a threat, merely a statement of fact.”

Hammer returned the two implants to the compartment on the wall. Then he faced Jeth again and slipped a hand inside the front of his jacket, withdrawing a small, rectangular case. Hammer opened it, revealing the red brain implant he normally wore. Except for its color, the thing looked no different from the other two implants. He pulled it out, flipped it over in his hand, and then raised the sharp point to the back of his head. Then, with a sickeningly wet sound, Hammer pushed the thing into his skull. The flaccid red tentacles surged to life, stretching up and outward, wrapping themselves around the base of Hammer’s head and neck.

Jeth flinched and looked away, his stomach churning.

“In a moment,” Hammer said, “I will summon Sergei to take you to a private medical facility where my physicians will insert into your brain and spine the architecture necessary to support an implant. It’s a relatively simple procedure, all things considered, and when you wake up you won’t have much more than a headache. Then, when you turn eighteen in a little over a week from now, you will receive one of the implants I showed you. All of this will happen, whether you like it or not. Which implant you receive, however—now, that will be up to you.”

Hammer took a deep breath and then leaned toward Jeth, his expression menacing. “Betray me again, continue to defy me, or make any attempt to escape my service, and you will receive the clear one, the one for the Guard. I will have it inserted in you and, when the rest of your crew comes of age, in them as well. Shady and Flynn will become members of the Guard along with you, while Celeste and your sister will be placed in one of my brothels.” A slow, icy smile formed on Hammer’s face. “And the beautiful thing about this arrangement is that you won’t even care.”

If Jeth had anything left in his stomach he might have vomited. As it was, he could only sit there, frozen in place by terror and dread. And that suffocating hopeless feeling.

“If, in the time you have left, however,” Hammer continued, “you can find some way to earn my trust, to convince me that your loyalty is certain and that you will never again attempt to betray me, I will give you the second implant. Things will stay just as they are now. You and your crew will continue to do jobs as appropriate, and you will slowly rise through my ranks of Brethren, perhaps even becoming general yourself someday. You will never want for work or food or purpose.”

Jeth didn’t doubt it. But there was something so much more important that he would long for with every fiber of his being for as long as he lived.

Freedom.

It wasn’t a choice at all. One way or another, this was a life sentence.

Chapter 23

THEY TOOK TO HIM A ROOM MADE OF METAL. METAL FLOORS and walls and ceilings. They cut his hair close to his scalp then forced him to lie on his stomach atop a cold metal table with his face pressed against a padded hole. They strapped his arms and legs down, but it wasn’t necessary. Mere seconds after the injection the doctor gave him—the needle a sharp prick against his neck followed by a rush of cold that spread through him like nitrogen in his veins—a paralysis gripped his body. He lay there with his gaze fixed on the floor, his mind aware that the doctors were doing something to his head and neck, but his body incapable of feeling it.

He heard the soft whir of some machine kicking on. It sounded like a drill. One that would dig into his skull, carving out a sheath to house the implant.

Guard or Brethren.

There was no question which he would choose. But how would he ever be able to convince Hammer to make him the latter? He had no aces left, no bargaining chip. Nothing at all.

The whirring grew louder. The doctors pressed in close to him. Another needle pricked his neck. This time the medicine took him under, too deep even for dreams—or nightmares.

They didn’t give him time to recover after the procedure. The second he was awake, Hammer’s men hauled him up while the doctors watched silently. Jeth swayed on his feet, too dizzy to stand. The skin on the back of his skull burned like he’d been branded with a hot iron, but the rest of his head felt cold from where they’d cut his hair. The Guards caught him before he fell. Then they carried him out of the operating room and into a shuttle.

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