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Jeth felt something shift inside of him, his anger toward Sierra easing just a little. “Why?”

“They were preparing her for AGT, Accelerated Growth Therapy. It’s a form of gene therapy that can rapidly age a person both physically and mentally. Cora is much more powerful than your mother, you see, but she doesn’t have the same control. Instead of sending just the object through metaspace, she’ll sometimes send the entire table. She’s unintentionally phased some of the scientists and techs. If she gets too excited or emotional she can do even worse damage.”

Jeth thought about all the destruction on the Donerail and wondered if Cora might’ve been responsible for some of it. But he held back asking about that now as Sierra went on.

“The problem is that the success rate of AGT is abysmal, especially in prepubescent subjects. Seventy-six percent of them die within the first year.”

“But if Cora is so valuable, why would they risk it?” Jeth asked.

A sound almost like a growl issued from Sierra’s throat. “Because they’re desperate. The failing metatech is a massive problem, almost apocalyptic. There are hundreds of planets and spaceports with billions of people on them who won’t live long without the gates to transport food and supplies. And since they haven’t found a cure for the Pyrean sickness, they plan to replace the metatech with beings like Cora. They believe that once she is more mentally mature she should be able to move entire ships through metaspace at will. To create those beings, they plan to harvest her eggs once she reaches sexual maturity through the AGT, and they also hope to successfully clone her.”

Jeth gaped, disgust a bitter taste in his mouth. “But that’s crazy. Aren’t there supposed to be all kinds of problems with human clones? Like physical deformities and psychotic behavior? Wasn’t that the reason cloning was outlawed?”

Sierra grimaced. “It was, and the problems you mentioned are definitely a factor. The ITA plans to deal with the mental issues by adding behavioral controls into the metatech implants, but none of the clones have lived past infancy yet to prove if it works. Still, the ITA will succeed with the cloning sooner or later.”

“But how do they plan on getting away with it if it’s illegal?”

“Because the clones aren’t human beings, not technically. Not at the genetic level.”

Jeth glared. “You can’t be serious.”

“Unfortunately, I am.” Sierra tapped her foot. “Don’t get me wrong. I agree with you, but that’s the loophole the ITA plans on exploiting, that Cora isn’t human and therefore not entitled to human rights.”

“That’s bullshit.” Anybody who’d ever meet the kid could tell she was human. Mostly.

Milton grunted. “Yes, it is bullshit, but this is the ITA, the most powerful entity in the universe. If they say it’s right, no one will question it. And whatever moral objection people might have, the need for interstellar travel will soon convince them otherwise.”

Jeth tried to imagine what it would be like to have a clone, a person, on his ship doing all the work of a metadrive. It was outrageous, disgusting. He pictured Cora as a human battery, mindless, forever plugged into a metatech computer. Jeth wanted to hit something. Instead he took a deep breath, trying to focus that outrage into something useful. “So, how does Lizzie play into this?”

Sierra scowled. “The ITA has been planning a way to abduct her for the last few months, now that she’s thirteen and has reached sexual maturity. They want to harvest her eggs to try and alter them genetically to match Cora’s. They’re determined to produce a whole new species as quickly as possible.”

Jeth clamped his mouth shut, too outraged to speak, to breathe.

“Apparently,” Milton went on, “the ITA believes that there’s something unique in your mother’s genetic makeup that made the change possible. They believe she passed this ability on to Lizzie and you. Of course, you, being male, are not quite as useful, as it’s passed down the female line. Which is, no doubt, why Renford didn’t bother trying to take you as well as Lizzie.”

Jeth’s resolve hardened inside him. “We have to get them back. The ITA can’t get away with this.”

Sierra sighed, her expression stricken. “That’s the hitch. Renford isn’t going to bring them back to the ITA. He stopped working for them a long time ago.” She waved a hand at Jeth’s shocked expression. “Oh, the ITA doesn’t know it, or at least they didn’t at the time that I stole the Aether Project. Renford is an Echo and head of a black ops division, which means that he works almost completely independently from ITA headquarters. He’s been pursuing his own agenda for a while now. His endgame is to destroy the ITA by selling the secrets of metatech and making himself a wealthy man in the process. Now that he has a copy of the Aether Project as well as Cora and Lizzie, he has everything he needs to succeed.”

Jeth swallowed hard as a wave of despair crashed over him. All the stuff about clones and space travel and AGT might not make sense to him, but Renford’s motivation was something he understood well. This was Hammer’s realm, one of conmen and kingpins, where everything was a gamble, a game of cards.

And where Jeth had only ever held a losing hand.

Chapter 27

JETH REMEMBERED THE DAY HIS PARENTS BROUGHT LIZZIE home from the hospital. It was one of his earliest memories, standing there beside the crib and looking down at this small, pink thing, hairless and squirmy. Sister, his parents had said. He hadn’t yet understand what that meant, but in time he would. In time he would grow to love her, despite the fights and rivalries, despite how she drew his parents’ attention away from him. Eventually he would accept the simple, steadfast truth—he would do anything for his sister.