Jeth took in the others. Lizzie was still wearing the clothes she’d snuck on board with, but Shady now sported a khaki-colored uniform with a large blue W embroidered over the left breast pocket above the name JACKSON.
Standing beside him, Flynn Emerson looked ridiculous in the bio-suit he’d already donned for his unfortunate part in the job. The dark rubbery material hung in thick folds over his slight frame, weighing him down. A sheen of sweat covered his narrow, pointed face, but he didn’t seem to mind as he popped a half-melted piece of chocolate into his mouth. Flynn’s role in the Shades was that of repairman and all-around mechanical genius.
“Where’s Danforth?” Jeth asked, looking around. He had to scrunch up his right eye to see. The contact lens was still bothering him, even though he’d put it in hours ago to give himself time to adjust to its feel. He despised wearing the thing, but he would need it to bypass the security in the emperor’s tower.
Flynn licked his thumb and then cocked it over his shoulder. “He’s saying hello to the setup man.”
“Huh.” Frowning, Jeth headed across the cargo bay and down the ramp. The bright glow of genuine sunshine made his eyes ache. He hadn’t been planetside in a long time, and the shock of natural sunlight pierced his forehead. He squinted against it, finally making out Danforth and another man standing beside a Wellforth delivery truck. Like Shady, both Danforth and the setup man wore khaki uniforms.
Oppressive heat enveloped Jeth like a fog as he crossed the wet, squishy ground toward them. The trees in the distance drooped beneath the weight of vines and overgrowth.
“Oh, there you are, Jeth,” Danforth said. “I’m sorry I didn’t wait for you, but the truck arrived ahead of schedule.”
“Better early than late,” the setup man said. He had a plain, uninteresting face aside from a bulbous nose that looked like some knobby outgrowth of tree bark rather than human flesh.
“This is Jeth Seagrave,” said Danforth. “He’s in charge.”
“So I’ve heard.” The man took in Jeth’s appearance with a disbelieving expression.
Jeth didn’t let it bother him. It wasn’t the first time an adult had dismissed him based on age. On the contrary, that sort of underestimation was what made him so good at this job.
“This is Mark Hilty,” Danforth said, gesturing unnecessarily. As his arm moved, a stench of body odor combined with some underlying chemical smell that Jeth associated with public toilets struck his nose, gagging him. He held his breath and stepped to the right, away from Danforth. The man’s hygiene was a contributing factor in Jeth’s dislike of him.
Mark Hilty held out a hand and Jeth shook it.
“So, what have we got?” Jeth asked.
Hilty turned and walked to the back of the truck. It was a standard Wellforth Corporation anti-grav truck, wide and long and with an outer shell built like a tank. He keyed the code into the rear door lock and the ramp lowered, letting out a puff of cold air. Hilty stepped inside, where more than a dozen barrels containing the various wines, beers, and other alcohols Wellforth was famous for stood lined up on either side with a narrow walkway between them.
He shouted over his shoulder, “We need to move some of these out.”
Jeth peered up the ramp and watched as the man grabbed a dolly and then hoisted up one of the barrels nearest the front with it. He wheeled the barrel outside, pried off the lid with a tool from his belt, and then shoved it over, spewing champagne all over the ground.
“Got to make room for the decoys,” Hilty said.
Jeth nodded. Five decoy barrels waited in the cargo bay of the Debonair. Jeth and the others had loaded them before they’d left the spaceport. On the outside, the decoys looked identical to the barrels in the truck, but inside they were lined with a special material that would hide their true contents from the security scanners the truck would pass through on the way into the palace.
Human contents, Jeth remembered. The thought made him squirm. He, Celeste, Flynn, and Lizzie would have to squeeze inside those barrels, hiding out for however long it took to get through the checkpoint. Not long, he hoped, palming sweat off the back of his neck. He’d been planetside only a few minutes and already a part of him craved the cool, constant atmosphere of space. They were lucky that they’d brought an extra barrel just in case, although it had never crossed Jeth’s mind that he would need one to hide his sister inside.
“When you get back,” Hilty was saying, “we’ll swap your barrels out again so I can turn in the truck with the normal ones.”
“Okay.” Jeth checked his watch; they were right on schedule.
As Hilty headed up the ramp to retrieve the next barrel, Jeth turned toward the cargo entrance where the crew waited in the cooler air. “Let’s get to work.” He waved at the lot of them before stepping up onto the ramp into the truck.
“Hold on a second,” Danforth called to him. “Don’t you think you should sit this one out? You don’t want to get to the party all sweaty and reeking.”
You’re definitely the expert on stenches, Jeth thought. He bit his tongue to keep from saying it aloud. And here was another reason he despised Danforth so much—his knack for making Jeth feel stupid. He wasn’t, and no matter how uncertain Danforth made him, Jeth knew he was more than capable of leading this mission alone. He’d done it on dozens of jobs since Danforth had left the Shades.
Still, he’d learned a long time ago that failing to heed helpful input was a sign of incompetent leadership, so he swallowed his pride and reentered the air-conditioned cargo bay.