Prodigal's Return
will run away in fear, weakening the wall defense.”
    “Mebbe some of the sec men, too. Then we keep doing it. Each time, making it easier for us to take over a ville, and the next one after that.”
    “Winter corn again, eh?”
    Dean shrugged. “Gotta plan for the future, Chief. Besides, the wrinklies wouldn’t be good for anything but target practice, and now we have Durante for that.”
    For a long minute, Camarillo looked hard at the teenager, then slowly smiled. “Well done, Lieutenant. There’s a sealed jelly jar of .308 brass that’ll fit your BAR longblaster in my bunker back at camp. Stop by for dinner tonight. We’ll talk some more biz, and you can pick it up afterward.”
    “Thanks! But you better make it after dinner. I plan to do some hard riding with my new slut as soon as possible,” Dean said, smacking the girl on the butt. Althea jumped at that contact, but stayed mum, her face oddly blank.
    “Fair enough,” Camarillo relented, going back inside the iron room. “Now go choose your wrinklies. Two should be enough.”
    “Better make it an even dozen.”
    “Five, and make triple-sure they’re strong enough to run away from any mutie, but not in such good shape that they’ll try to come back and rescue any friends.” The door slammed shut, and Camarillo scowled through the grille. “If even one of my coldhearts gets aced by them, you pay the price. Understand?”
    “Yes, sir!” Dean said, snapping off a smart salute.
    Snorting in reply, Camarillo returned the gesture much more cavalierly, then started working the controls of the steam truck. Slowly, the huge machine began to inch forward, gradually building speed.
    “Come along,” Dean commanded, and Althea rushed to obey.
    Once they were away from the other coldhearts, shemoved in closer to whisper, “You helped these monsters raid my ville,” she said, “yet you saved those wrinklies. I don’t understand.”
    “I have to pretend to be a part of the gang, or else it will be my ass nailed to the lashing post,” Dean stated bluntly, slowing his long stride to match her smaller steps. “I helped the wrinklies because it’s the right thing to do. An old friend of mine named Doc always used to say that the only true definition of civilization was the strong helping the weak. That sounds about dead center to me.” He shrugged. “I can’t save everybody, but if I manage to rescue even one poor bastard from a life in chains, that seems worth doing.”
    Walking alongside the teenager, Althea said nothing until reaching his horse. Climbing into the saddle, Dean reached down a hand. Without hesitation, she took it, and he pulled her up to sit behind him.
    “Hang on tight. The sons of bitches like to ride fast,” Dean growled, his hatred for the other coldhearts readily evident. “It takes the fight out of the slaves, and makes them easier to train.”
    Wrapping her arms around his waist, Althea rested her head against his back.
    “Got any family?” Dean asked in a whisper.
    “Some,” she replied in confusion. “My mother got aced on the wall, but my father used to be the ville potter, and I have a cousin named Bill.”
    “Young. A sec man.”
    “Too bad for him. We’ll find your father, and he’ll be the first of the five set free.”
    Hot tears welled in her eyes, and Althea hugged Dean a lot tighter than necessary to merely stay on the horse.
    “Yeah, I know.” He sighed, shaking the reins to start the horse into an easy walk. “Wish I could free everybody. But at the moment there’s nothing we can do but wait, and stay sharp.” Dean kicked the horse into a hard gallop and headed toward the long line of chained slaves.

Chapter Seven
    Checking over everything one last time, the companions prepared their meager supply of weapons.
    “Everybody ready?” Ryan asked, loosening the panga in the sheath at his side.
    “Born ready,” Jak said confidently, flexing his hands.
    “That must have surprised your mother

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