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“Not now,” Milton said, inclining his head toward the door.

Jeth turned and saw Dax coming down the corridor toward sick bay, Celeste following behind him.

“Good, you’re awake,” Dax said as he came in. He looked at Milton. “I just checked on Sergei. He’s sleeping.”

Milton nodded, then moved to the counter behind Dax and started reloading the jet injector with another dose of medicine.

Dax turned back to Jeth and patted him on the side of the head. “Good thing your skull is hard enough to handle a stunner.”

“Sure doesn’t feel like it,” said Jeth. “How’d you recover so quickly, anyway?”

Dax grinned and raised a hand to his implant. “One of the advantages of the Brethren implant. This thing can—” Dax broke off at a loud popping sound. Jeth looked up to see Milton pressing the jet injector against Dax’s neck. Dax let out a gurgled cry, then fell.

Milton set the injector down on the nearest counter. “That’s better.” ^

Jeth gaped. “What’d you do?” His sudden anger at Milton hurting Dax surprised Jeth. Then it occurred to him how much he’d grown used to Dax’s presence, and he couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not. Not that it mattered. What did was that Hammer would be furious. He would blame Jeth for this, consider it another betrayal.

“It’s just a sedative. He’ll be fine.”

Jeth shook his head. Milton didn’t understand. He didn’t know.

“It’s all right, Jeth,” Milton said, speaking more firmly now. “We can’t let Hammer find out what’s going on here. But the sedative won’t last long. Not with that implant.” Milton bent down and pulled the thing out. He set the implant on the table and motioned to Shady and Flynn, who were standing in the doorway. “You two take Dax down to the brig. Then get started on installing the metadrive.”

Jeth glanced down at Dax—too late to change it now— and then back to Milton. “Metadrive?” he said.

“Yes,” Sierra said. “It’s down in the cargo bay. Got here just before you did. It might come as a surprise, but most of what I told you before was true.”

“Oh, it’s a surprise all right,” said Jeth, realizing the metadrive must be in the crate the security guards had brought in. “What’d you do, lure the seller here and then shoot him?”

Sierra’s face went red. “Renford’s men killed him. Not me. I don’t betray people who don’t deserve it.”

Jeth took a threatening step toward her. “Are you insinuating that I deserved having my ship stolen?”

“Stop it!” Milton slammed his fist on the table. “Lizzie and Cora are more important.”

Jeth swallowed, guiltily, then forced his gaze away from Sierra, trying to pretend he didn’t see the tears standing in her eyes. He looked at Flynn. “Do you know how to install a metadrive?”

Flynn shrugged then grinned. “Guess I’ll have to figure it out.”

“It’s not hard if you use the old one as a guide,” said Sierra.

“Right. Okay then.” Flynn punched Shady in the shoulder. “Let’s go.” They grabbed Dax by the arms and dragged him from the room.

“Celeste,” Milton said, “go take out Sergei’s implant and lock him in his cabin. Then see if you can help with the metadrive.”

A look of disgust crossed Celeste’s face. Jeth couldn’t blame her. He wouldn’t have wanted to pull out an implant either. But Milton’s stern look kept her from arguing, and she turned and left.

Milton cut his eyes to Sierra. “I think we should head to the common room and bring Jeth up to speed. I just need a minute to fetch my copy of the Aether Project.”

Sierra’s eyes widened. “You made a copy?”

“Yes.” Milton glanced at Jeth. “I thought it might come in handy sooner or later. And I’m glad I did, now that Renford has the other one.”

Jeth’s patience reached its limit. “What’s going on?”

“What Renford told you is true,” Milton said. “Your mother is still alive, and Cora is her daughter. Your sister.”

Jeth swallowed. There was no denying it now, not with Milton confirming it with such certainty. “But what does that have to do with the Aether Project?”

“Everything,” Sierra said. “The Aether Project isn’t just information about metatech. It’s about preserving our ability to travel through space. What you must understand is that the power source that makes metaspace travel possible isn’t mechanical or man-made or even mineral. It’s biological. A living organism. An alien life form.” She paused and took a deep breath. “And it’s dying.”

Chapter 26

A FEW MOMENTS LATER, JETH SAT DOWN IN AN ARMCHAIR in the common room and watched as Sierra slid the data cell Milton had given her into one of the ports on the gaming table. Metatech . . . biological . . . dying . . . The insanity of such a notion nearly made him dizzy, and yet, somehow, it made sense. Especially the idea that the failed drives looked the way they did because they were literally dying. He’d witnessed that for himself.

“They’re called Pyreans,” Sierra said, facing Jeth. “They’re not quite animal and not quite plant, but something in the middle, something unlike any of the life-forms we know from First-Earth. They’re also a superorganism, which means they’re comprised of billions of tiny organisms that live together and are governed by a collective consciousness. The metatech hardware and computers that you are familiar with were invented centuries ago by the ITA—or, technically, by the various organizations that would become the ITA—to manipulate this consciousness so that it would allow ships to pass through metaspace. Since then, the ITA has refined this technology into the gates and drives that we have today, and have all the while harvested the Pyreans like crops, using them to power the gates and drives. But in recent years the Pyreans have begun to die off, like they’ve been hit by a plague. The scientists who have been searching for a cure have named their search the Aether Project.”

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