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Jeth clutched the arms of his chair, resisting an overwhelming desire to hit the man. He never thought he would encounter someone he despised more than Hammer. Sure, Hammer tortured, manipulated, and killed people, but Jeth had never seen him do those things only for the pleasure of it. It always served a purpose. But there was pleasure in Renford’s eyes now, perverse and twisted. Jeth couldn’t imagine what life had been like for Sierra and Vince, growing up under the care of this man. Even more, he couldn’t imagine how she had turned out so good, so willing to sacrifice herself to save Cora. An ache blossomed in his chest at the thought.

Sierra didn’t respond. She merely continued glaring at Renford, her body as rigid as the metal chair beneath her.

“It is true,” Renford continued, “I do want something from you. I—” He broke off as someone entered the room.

Jeth craned his neck to see Hammer stride in. His stomach dropped, any childish hope he’d had that Dax had been lying about the deal vanishing in an instant.

“Sorry I’m late,” Hammer said, eyeing Sierra and Jeth.

Renford waved him off. “No matter. Your presence isn’t necessary for this.”

Hammer grunted. The annoyed sound of it perked Jeth’s ears. This was an unholy alliance, no doubt, but at least it didn’t seem to be an easy one. “Oh, I think it’s always necessary to protect an investment,” said Hammer. “Especially one as big as this.”

“What are you talking about?” Sierra said, shifting her glare toward Hammer. Jeth felt a momentary wave of awe at her spunk.

Glancing at Renford, Hammer chuckled. “So this is one of yours, is it? I like her already.”

Renford shot him a look sharp enough to cut glass.

Come on, Jeth thought, why don’t you two kill each other right now and save me the trouble?

Hammer stared back at Renford, unfazed.

Renford dropped his gaze to Sierra. “Let me formally introduce you to my new business partner, Hammer Dafoe.”

Sierra kept her eyes focused on Renford. “I know who he is. What I don’t understand is what he’s doing here.”

“Yes, well, in the past few weeks I’ve come to realize that simply selling the Aether Project would be foolish,” said Renford. “Why give up something so valuable for mere money? No. Rather than destroy the ITA, I’ve decided to take their place.” He paused then motioned at Hammer. “Excuse me. We’ve decided to take their place.”

Jeth’s mouth slid open. He closed it at once, teeth clacking. Hammer and Renford taking the place of the ITA? The idea of those two holding that much power was right up there with . . . no . . . he couldn’t imagine anything quite as bad as that. The ITA was guilty of a lot of horrible things, but at least it wasn’t a dictatorship. There was some measure of check and balance and restraint, a public service that, however corrupt, still held the galaxy together. He couldn’t imagine things holding together long under Hammer’s rule.

Sierra raised an eyebrow. “And how do you plan on doing that?”

Hammer folded his arms across his massive chest. “It’s a simple principle of business. Their monopoly on space travel will soon be our monopoly.”

“That’s right,” said Renford, keeping his attention focused on Sierra. “You know as well as I do that the ITA has failed to find an effective cure for the Pyrean sickness, and that it’s just a matter of time before what remains of the Pyreans die off. The only solution is to manufacture a new species for the job through Cora, and with any luck, Lizzie. Both of whom are under my control now. Add in Hammer’s resources and infrastructure and it’s only a matter of time before we can offer the public an alternative to their failing ITA-issued metadrives. There’ll be no saving the metagates, true, but with every ship equipped with its own metaspace navigator, no one will care much.”

That image of Cora as a human battery strapped into a machine swam in Jeth’s mind once again, all the muscles in his body clenching at the horror of it.

Beside him, Sierra visibly tensed. “Cora isn’t technology. She’s a little girl. A human being.”

Hammer coughed. “I thought you said she was smart?”

“Oh, she is,” said Renford. “When she doesn’t let her emotions interfere with her reason.”

“Don’t talk about me as if I’m not here.” Sierra glowered at both men in turn. “And I’m aware that Cora’s DNA isn’t strictly human, but that doesn’t make her anything less.”

“We’re not here to debate Cora Seagrave’s humanity or lack thereof,” Renford said. “Instead we need to discuss her future.”

Jeth scoffed, finding his voice at last. “What future? If you follow the ITA’s agenda, she’s going to die young.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” said Hammer. “Not once my scientists have had a chance to refine the AGT process.”

At first Jeth wanted to dismiss such an arrogant assertion, but then he remembered how successful Hammer’s scientists had been with stealth technology. Hammer employed people like himself—without scruples, willing to do whatever it took to succeed.

Jeth wanted to scream, wanted to do something rash, but he held back, willing himself to take deep, calming breaths. He knew right now he had to rely on that cool patience his father had taught him when he was learning to shoot. The right moment will come. Wait for it.