Lizzie’s voice came out a sob. “Okay.”
Jeth shut his eyes as the others cleared the room, leaving him alone at last. When he heard the door close, he finally let go of the horror he’d been holding back inside, the overwhelming despair from knowledge of a future he had no hope of escaping. All of his dreams about owning Avalon again and flying away were dying inside him.
He started to cry then, letting the emotion leak out. He had to get rid of it, because he knew come morning he would have to embrace a new life, one without dreams or hope. He had to find a way to earn Hammer’s trust and to become one of the Brethren. He had to. For them. For Lizzie and Celeste and Flynn and Shady.
He had to save them from the fate that waited for him. He was all they had.
Hours later, Jeth crawled out of the bed, his body stiff and wounds still throbbing. He barely felt it. Somehow, through the night, he’d managed to cut himself off from feeling anything. Or at least from caring. He emerged from the bedroom, seeking a hot shower and then maybe some food. As the warm, soothing water poured over him, he raised a hand to the back of his skull and touched the hole for the first time. The skin throbbed from the slight pressure of his finger. He realized at once the thing wouldn’t be very visible. It was almost funny how small it was.
And yet how huge.
When he finished, Jeth returned to his room and rummaged through the closet, where he found some new clothes waiting for him. He slipped on a pair of pants and a shirt and finally a hooded jacket. He hoped the hood, lying thick and fat against his neck, would hide the implant architecture.
Summoning as much courage as he could, Jeth emerged and headed for the living room. Shady and Flynn were sitting on the sofa in front of a view screen, watching a show. Lizzie sat in an armchair, reading. Celeste was in the kitchen, sitting at the table and drinking a cup of something steaming.
“How’re you feeling?” Lizzie asked, setting aside the reader.
“Fine,” Jeth said as he marched past her, heading to the computer terminal on the far wall. He sat down and pulled up the access screen to the savings account Hammer had given him. He only had view-access, but it was a way to keep track of how much money he’d earned toward Avalon. Jeth made a habit of checking it regularly, and even though he’d resigned himself to the fact that Avalon would never be his and that none of this mattered, he entered his login name and password.
The large red words were like a punch to the chest. He sucked in a breath. He’d known it was coming, that deep down the money had never truly been his, but it still hurt.
He had nothing now, not even the pretense of something to hope for.
Despair pressing down on him, Jeth closed the screen and punched up the link to his personal messages. He did it out of habit, nothing more. The only person who ever sent him messages was Brian Carvell, one of his old school friends. But those had grown fewer and further between as time went on. They had so little in common anymore. Brian was off to college soon, thinking about his future and a career in intergalactic law. Jeth was going nowhere.
The flashing icon of an unread message blinked at him as the screen opened. Jeth stared at it in surprise. The sender was listed as unknown. He clicked on it. The message was short, cryptic:
24-756-11-543. Come now. Hurry. —M.
Jeth reread it a dozen times, not daring to believe it was real. And yet he knew it was. He’d even known it was coming, deep down. That they had come through the other side of the metajump safely, and that, as long as he was still alive, Milton would find a way to contact him sooner or later. Although Jeth hated Sierra and Vince, neither had struck him as killers.
Jeth’s mind instinctively began to scheme for a way to get out of this apartment and steal a ship. Those numbers were undoubtedly coordinates, and he would fly there and reclaim Avalon. He could do it. He and his crew were the best around. They could find a way, especially here on their home turf, which they knew so well.
Except . . . what did it matter? What would he do once he had Avalon? Could they outrun Hammer forever? Would Hammer forget about them eventually?
No. Jeth understood now. Hammer did not accept losing. Sooner or later Jeth and his crew would be caught. Flynn and Shady will be Guard. Celeste and Lizzie will go to the brothels.
Jeth couldn’t let it happen. He wouldn’t.
And so, here was the answer to saving them. This information could be his ticket back into Hammer’s good graces. Jeth’s next steps formed in his mind as clear as directions on a map. He would offer this information to Hammer as a sign of a good faith. And he would volunteer to find Avalon and to steal the Aether Project. Convincing Hammer of his desire to succeed would be easy. All he had to do was picture the look of surprise on Sierra’s face when he took the data cell from her. If he could, he would leave her stranded somewhere, hopeless, just as she’d left him. Hammer hadn’t given Jeth any indication that he was interested in Cora or any of the survivors, just the information.
And when I return I’ll swear to join the Brethren. But only so long as he lets the others go.
It might be enough. Just maybe.
But they’ll never leave you behind, a harsh voice spoke in Jeth’s mind.
They will. Jeth glanced around at Lizzie, Celeste, Flynn, and Shady. They have to.
IT TOOK LITTLE EFFORT TO CONVINCE HAMMER OF THE plan. It was as if he’d been expecting something like this all along. I knew you’d come around, his eyes said. I knew you’d choose to obey me.