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Evening the Odds

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space pirate icon of Pooch   space pirate icon of Jake   space pirate icon of Cougar   space pirate icon of Clay   space pirate icon of Roque   space pirate icon of Aisha

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Jensen leaned on an automated trash-vaporizer at the edge of the Daska market and peered around looking for Clay, who was taking a hell of a time with the cargo deal. It was just supposed to be one container—what was taking so goddam long?

"Hey, man, you think Jolene'd like this?" Pooch called from a nearby stall, fingering a necklace doubtfully. The silvery filaments lit up randomly, bursts of colored light flaring and dying like tiny comets.

"Sure, girls like shiny stuff, right?" Jensen said, distracted, scanning the crowd for Clay and Roque.

"This ain't no girl, Jensen, this's Jolene I'm talkin' about." Pooch frowned. "You think it's too flashy?"

"It's kind of inherently flashy, Pooch," said Jensen, giving him the eyebrow. "Given that it's all covered with flashy lights." The vendor, a scraggly old woman in dark blue robes and an eyepatch, scowled at him.

"Yeah," Pooch sighed. "Reckon you're right." He dropped it back on the table and scratched his head, wandering back over to Jensen and ignoring the old lady who was thrusting more trinkets at him. "Seen the others? Didn't think it'd take Clay and Roque this long. It's just one container, right, nothing complicated?"

"Yeah," said Jensen. "Guess it depends what's in the container."

"Pays not to ask," said Pooch knowingly. "Hmmm. Maybe Jolene'd like something made outta that Xi-Shi silk. She likes slippery things." He leered a little.

"Spare me," muttered Jensen. "I'm sure as hell not gonna be your wingman if you're buying silk panties for your wife. No way."

"The Pooch has no need of a wingman when purchasing a negligee for the mother of his children. Besides being the pilot and chief engineer of our faithful craft, the Pooch has many other talents and is no stranger to negligees. Which reminds me, I gotta get another quantum torque hammer, the old one's busted. See you in five."

Jensen snorted, then climbed up on their parked groundcar's rim to see if Clay and Roque were anywhere in sight, squinting into the pink haze stirred up from Daska's red dust by the feet of several hundred market-goers.

Stalls spread away to either side, a random jumble with twisting lanes in between, no long vistas. Jensen found it claustrophobic; it made his trigger finger itch, not having sight-lines. The people were mostly locals, hot and dusty, with loose robes in rough weaves, sometimes leathers, the wealthier sporting acrylics imported from the Core. Knives were common and most had guns on their hips. Jensen even saw a few swords which was a fucking joke—most blasters'd slice through a blade before you could say, well, knife. Here and there antigrav baskets trailed their owners, piled with foodstuffs or clothing, sometimes livestock, like chickens. One woman had a writhing mess of what looked like eels contained in a forcefield. Or, considering how dry this planet was, Jensen guessed they were more likely snakes. A street-vendor passed by selling chunks of roasted flesh on sticks. It smelled good, but after the snakes, Jensen wasn't gonna chance it.

He looked up. Behind him the last jagged chunk of Prophet's Wall—a relic of one of the oldest structures from the days of the Generation Ships—rose up tall as a tree. Not that this world had trees. Jensen wasn't a hick town desert dweller, though; he'd traveled. He'd seen trees here and there where terraforming had taken better hold before the money ran out.

Fuck, he hated hanging around under the local landmark with no one to talk to; it made him antsy. He had to stay, though. Someone had to make sure the local kids didn't strip the damn groundcar for parts. He glared at a nearby crew of grubby market brats and cursed Pooch for abandoning him—Pooch was the damn pilot: he should look after the fucking transport. And Clay and Roque! They'd better be cutting this deal, 'cause if they'd gotten sidetracked in some rented pavilion, fucking each other stupid on satin pillows with cold beer on tap, someone was gonna get cut. Probably Jensen, what with Roque's knife collection, but he had ways to get his own back. Jensen briefly lost himself in happy musings about electronically devious ways to exact his revenge on Clay and Roque for making him dick around on the dusty edge of the market, minding the goddam car for fuck's sake.

"Where's Pooch?" said Clay behind him. Jensen twitched violently, then pretended he'd been planning to fall off the groundcar all along.

"Nipped off to get some tool or other. See—there he is."

Pooch sauntered up, hefting a gently-used torque hammer. "Clay, 'bout time."

Clay frowned. "Negotiations took a while. The guy with the 'package' is a little uncommunicative. C'mon, we need to take the car over to the other side by the wadi and pick the thing up there. Roque's gone with the guy who owns it, so we can find them again."

"And when you say 'owns'," Jensen said, swinging up into the open bed of the groundcar as Pooch settled himself at the controls, "you mean as in possession being nine tenths of the law, right?"

"Best not to ask," muttered Pooch, concentrating on firing up Loser III's engines as he took them up for a bird's eye view of the market, people and stalls and laneways spreading out in every direction, before locking the car's nav system onto Roque's tracker and zooming off in pursuit.

Jensen clutched his safety harness and thought about their ship as they sped south, away from the hazy late afternoon sun. The mothership was Loser I. Clay had won her in a high-stakes card game on Felis Prime and named her for her late, unlamented owner. Pooch always said the name was good luck. Calling a ship "Sweet Ride" or—worse—"Forever Free" was just asking for engine trouble or a run-in with a MAX cruiser. The small craft were the groundcar, Loser III, and the planet-to-orbit shuttle, Loser V. Other shuttles and groundcars, Losers II, IV and VI were long gone, lost to past skirmishes with MAX ships or double-dealing groundlings.

Jensen grinned: Pooch was always good for a rise on the names thing. "Hey, Pooch?" Pooch tilted his head, enquiring. "We should rename this groundcar Loser II. I'm sure we've got some paint back at the ship."

Pooch frowned. "Don't you play me, Jensen. You know the names of my girls is like reverse psychology on fate. Hate those even numbers—they all got blown up. Nope, the Pooch gotta have the odds. Them even numbers are just bad luck all around."

"Sure, Pooch, if you say so." Jensen grinned. Yep, wind him up and let him run; like clockwork, every time.

They found Roque at the edge of a dry wadi on the south side of the market. He was with a dude with longish hair who was wearing a lot of leather, including a broad-brimmed hat pulled down almost over his eyes. Jensen sized the client up. Not too tall, but wiry, and he looked strong. He moved like a cat—fluid grace, then taut stillness, poised for action. Jensen felt his mouth go dry, hoped it was just the desert dust, but knew it wasn't. He shook his head and focused instead on the crated container by Roque. It looked ordinary enough—same as most of the boxed-up cargo around these parts.

"This what we're taking?" he asked Clay, who nodded. Jensen looked over at Pooch. "Net it and hang it under the car, you think?" Pooch agreed.

"No," said the guy with the hat. "It travels inside your transport, with me."

"Yeah, no," said Jensen. "Too much hassle to break down the seats so's to fit it in the car itself, we'll just net it—it'll be fine. Pooch'll be sure not to smash it into anything on the way, don't you worry. Not many aerial hazards on this dustbowl, anyway."

Pooch raised one eyebrow. "The Pooch has never smashed netted cargo into anything in his life. The Pooch is a professional." Jensen rolled his eyes.

Suddenly the short guy with the hat was right up in Jensen's face, eyes black as space staring at him. The dude's face was expressionless but he exuded menace, and Jensen felt gooseflesh break out, a shiver running up his spine. "The package rides in the car. Comprende?"

Jensen glanced across at Clay, hoping for some back-up, but Clay just shrugged. "It's just a matter of dismantling a few seats. Roque and I'll help."

"Okay okay, jeez," said Jensen. "The fucking package rides in the car. There's no in-flight vid, but it can enjoy the view anyway." He turned, muttering, glad to get away from the guy's intense stare, black eyes like holes in his head. Fucking spooky, man, even if he was hot. Hell, maybe it was why he was hot.

When the seats were broken down and stowed, Jensen got Pooch to detach the antigrav pallet and with a lot of effort they got it under the load. Hat-guy wouldn't let them roll the container onto the pallet, which was standard fucking practice, but oh no, not allowed. All four of them had to manhandle it on, bit by bit, while Pooch kept the pallet steady. Then he carefully raised it and deposited the crate neatly in the middle of the groundcar. It was fucking huge, but the antigrav would take care of that. They squeezed in, barely enough room and no damn seats of course. The shuttle was only twenty minutes away, though.

Once they were underway, Jensen turned to Clay, who was jammed in alongside him. "Why's he riding along? Hat-guy?"

Clay squinted into the wind of their passage, not making eye contact. "He's coming too. He's not trading it, he's buying passage for himself and the…thing. The package."

Jensen side-eyed him. "We never take passengers. It kind of gets in the way of the stuff we do. Like the smuggling and the piracy."

Clay shook his head irritably. "He's paying a fucking fortune."

"He'd fucking better be," muttered Jensen.

The shuttle loomed in the lee of a hill, and Pooch triggered its hatch, flying them in smooth as Xi-Shi silk. They unloaded the container again, and Pooch docked the groundcar, then wandered back, whistling. Pooch was always in a good mood after flying the open-topped groundcar; he said he liked the wind on his bald scalp.

"So what's in this thing, anyway," Jensen said brightly, ignoring Roque and Clay's warning frowns, and knocking on the smooth alloy side of the container.

In a flash, Hat-guy had Jensen's arm in a vice-like grip. "You don' touch."

"Ouch, shit, over-reacting much? Okay, okay, I get it. No touching your stuff, jeez." He glared at Clay, who was trying not to grin. "Where are we taking Mr. Possessive here, and his ever-so-precious box?"

"Tampico V," said Clay.

"Huh, never heard of it." At least it wasn't an even number, Jensen thought, so Pooch'd be happy.

"It's an outer moon in the Baja system. Mostly a base for trading and…ships like ours. But I should have introduced our guest," continued Clay. "Most remiss of me. Pooch, Jensen—this is Mr. Carlos Alvarez."

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Pooch ran through his flight checks with one ear on the crew as they settled into their usual places, Jensen at the comms station, Clay and Roque hauling themselves along accessways to the forward and aft gun bunkers. Not that this was a hostile world, but out here on the Rim it paid to be careful. Alvarez hunkered down in a spare seat by the comms terminal, hat pulled right down and ignoring the steady stream of questions and chatter from Jensen. Pooch made sure their passenger donned a headset and strapped himself in before turning back to his console and firing up the drive.

They'd only just left atmo and were nowhere near where Loser I was hidden behind an outer moon when trouble hit, in the form of Jensen squawking "Fuck it—we got an intercept!" and throwing the transmission up on the holoscreens for them all to see. Almost simultaneously Pooch saw the blip of a craft on the sensors, closing fast.

The usual stuffed shirt in a MAX uniform flashed up on holo, official registration codes scrolling green down the left hand side. "Vessel designated LSR-5000 prepare for boarding. This is MAX cruiser Q449-320, intercepting on suspicion of contraband smuggling and piracy. Assume stable orbit and cut all thrusters or you will be fired upon."

"Fuck that for a game of soldiers," muttered Pooch, boosting inertial dampeners but cutting his thrusters to look like they were complying. "Clay?"

Clay had already taken the comm from Jensen, his voice syrup smooth. "MAX cruiser Q449-320, this is LSR-5000. There must be some mistake. We're registered traders with clean papers, so why the intercept? Going to need to see your warrant on this one." On the ship-only channel he said, "Pooch, on my code."

The comm crackled. "LSR-5000 assume stable orbit immediately. No further warnings will be issued."

"Well, we're gonna need a little more information than that, Q449-320," Clay said carefully. "What exactly are these charges?"

"Human trafficking and transport of stolen goods. Prepare to be boarded." Beside the holo image of the grim-faced jerk in officer's uniform, MAX insignia in gold metal either side of his high collar, data scrolled down the screen. It was too fast to follow, but, hello—a mugshot of Alvarez, front and side views. It was followed by similar views of a woman, but Pooch didn't recognize her.

Pooch shook his head and focused on the nav screens, diverting more power to the shields as he gentled the ship into alignment with the cruiser, pretending to be clumsy and letting her roll and yaw to make it hard for the docking gear to get a lock on them, keeping their thrusters aimed down and out for maximum clearance.

"You got all that data, Jensen?" Clay asked on the ship-only channel.

"That an' more," Jensen assured him, ignoring the angry glare leveled at him by Alvarez, who was looking pretty pissed with Jensen hacking into the cruiser's databank for the low-down on him and his crate. Both of which, it appeared, were very much wanted by MAX. Pooch scowled. They were supposed to be keeping a low profile after the shit-storm they'd stirred up on Zhengzhou's fifth moon last month, supposed not to be antagonizing the authorities by carrying renegades and high-profile cargo. He hoped Clay knew what he was doing.

"Docking now. Remain in position or you will be fired upon," said the MAX dickhead, robot-like. Maybe he was a bot; Pooch had heard MAX was doing all sorts of weird crap to extend their grip from the Core out into the Rim. Android cops, maybe, or GE humans. There were rumors.

The docking tube spiraled from the cruiser and snaked toward their main hatch. "Look, we don't want no trouble," Clay said, and that was the code. Before he'd even finished, Pooch had pushed her to maximum drive and cranked the ship into a screaming arc down and out, shields maxed, dampeners on full, and even so, they needed the harnesses to stay in their seats against all the G-force.

A red beam grazed their stern, deflected by the shields, and various things lit up on Pooch's console. "C'mon, baby," he said soothingly. "That was just a love-tap, no harm done." He dodged and wove, avoiding the cruiser's guns as she dragged her larger bulk around to follow them. "Quit dicking around, Roque, and take the fuckers out!"

"Yeah, you try gettin' a bead on them with these crazy-ass maneuvers you're pulling," muttered Roque over the comm, but he sent an answering beam slashing back at the MAX ship, outlining the vessel in a nimbus of blue light as the laser hit their shields. So everyone's got shields, Pooch thought in between dodging, thankful he'd all but forced Clay to get the damn things properly repaired last time they were dirtside on New Springfield. It'd be a stand-off if the cruiser weren't three times their size and probably faster in a straight chase, despite crap maneuverability. So no straight chases then.

He headed for the moon where they'd hidden the mothership. Her autopilot was keeping her blindside to the planet, Daska, but if he could get them within range… "Jensen," he spat into the comm, hauling the ship into a sharp lateral turn, the cruiser's lasers sliding past their port stabilizers, missing them. "You know that program—"

"The remote—"

"Yeah. Set it up. Fast."

"Pooch?" that was Clay. "You're gonna try the—"

"Yeah. Thought we might," gritted Pooch, spiralling away from another laserburst. One beam caught them square on the ass and Loser V shuddered and lost a little headway. A panel popped open on the bulkhead and there was a faint smell of fried electronics, but the shields mostly held. Jensen cursed and typed furiously, routing essential systems away from the damage.

"Roque, you okay?" yelled Clay into the comm. There was a pause, long enough for Pooch to start worrying, not that he had any attention to spare from the ducking and weaving.

"Shit," came Roque's voice. He sounded slurred, in pain. "Shit, my hands…"

Clay fired at the cruiser—he'd have rotated his guns to shoot back past Roque's turret at the ship on their tail. Roque wasn't firing now, but he was alive.

"I can't go," shouted Clay. "Jensen?"

"Gotta man the comms—we're about two conduits away from a full-blown meltdown if I don't get the power rerouted."

"I will go," came a new voice, and Pooch's head snapped around. It was Alvarez, unbuckling himself and handling weightlessness like a pro, balance and timing perfect as he launched across the hub to Roque's access tube and vanished inside. Maybe he was a spacer, for all they knew. Sure seemed to know his way around a ship.

Pooch kept grimly on with evasive tactics to dodge the cruiser's fire. The moon swelled in the forward viewport. After a while Alvarez emerged from the access tube towing Roque, who looked mildly stunned, with burns to both hands. "Your medkit," he snapped, and Jensen reached up and tossed it, spiralling it across the hub. Alvarez caught it neatly, one handed, hauling Roque along with the other. He strapped Roque into the seat he'd previously occupied, dressed his blistered hands efficiently and gave him a shot of endorphoxin, then launched himself back toward the access tube.

"What're you?—" asked Jensen distractedly, looking up from frantic coding.

"I can shoot. You need a gunner," Alvarez muttered, vanishing up the tube.

"Pooch, can you get us out of laser-range?" Clay sounded desperate. He fired—another cluster of beams sprayed the cruiser, but its shields held. They must be weak by now, taking all those hits, Pooch reckoned. They needed a bigger damn gun. He concentrated on avoiding the cruiser's lasers—their own shields were half-powered and another salvo would most likely take them out.

Pooch jinked and wove, forging a path through the deadly beams. "Nope, can't outrun them," he gasped, sweat dripping into his eyes. No time to tie on his bandana; he blinked it away. "Not much longer, we're almost…I just gotta slingshot us around and—"

The ship rocked, inertial dampeners holding, then failing, throwing them hard against their harnesses. Alarms sounded and smoke drifted up from the engines. Pooch's console was a mass of angry lights.

"Report!" yelled Clay. At least he sounded okay.

Jensen coughed and batted away smoke. "Direct hit. We've lost power to most systems. Main drive's down, secondary's on ten percent. We're moving, but not fast. Life support's holding, for about another hour, maybe. Scrubbers'll deal with the smoke, but the shield's fried. Should still have weapons—" In answer, a web of laser fire shot out from the aft turret and blanketed the cruiser. Alvarez.

"Nice shooting," said Clay appreciatively, and joined him, fighting a desperate rearguard action to fend off the cruiser until they could limp into the moon's shadow. There'd be no slingshotting now, thought Pooch, but if they could just get closer, inside the range. "Can we still do it?" he asked Jensen, trying to coax more speed from the secondary engines as Jensen configured the system with what they had left, hands flying on his console.

"Yeah, maybe. I think…get me in range, Pooch. We gotta try."

"Almost there," Pooch murmured, stroking the molded bulkhead beside him in encouragement. They slipped into the moon's umbra. On Pooch's viewscreen, Loser I, a dark shape against the stars, crested the crater-pocked horizon. They slid past her over the curvature of the moon, hidden now from the cruiser for a second or two before she caught them, helpless and at bay.

"They're almost on us, Jensen," Pooch said urgently. "Five, four, three, two, and…now!"

Jensen hit some keys. "Biggest Loser is go," he said, and the cruiser rose into view over the arc of the moon, lights blazing arrogantly, turning so as to fire on them where they drifted, unshielded. Loser I tilted toward the cruiser as Jensen's remote program operated her nav system and opened the big laser cannons fore and aft. Bigger guns than the cruiser, and Pooch was pretty sure her shields wouldn't hold. The unmanned ship spat fire, red beams arcing across the void of space, hitting the cruiser full on and enveloping her first in blue as the shields flared, then, as they overloaded, green and then orange as she blossomed into a fireball and broke up. A stray chunk of shrapnel took out their forward comm vane and Clay yelped.

"You okay?" Pooch called anxiously. The gunners were too exposed on these old shuttles but they couldn't afford one of the new streamlined models from the shipyards on Riga Tertius.

"Yeah, missed me," panted Clay, and Pooch could hear him heading back to the hub along the access tube.

"Alvarez? You all right?" asked Pooch, suddenly remembering him.

"Si," and he heard the guy pull himself along the rear access tube, as well. Clay popped into the command hub and Alvarez followed a moment later. Pooch let himself relax a little; they were both fine.

Clay peered around, then coughed. The smoke was clearing but stray wisps drifted up the hatchway from the engines and everything stank of burned wiring. Hours of fun ahead repairing those, Pooch thought, but he liked the work, never happier than with his arms buried deep in an engine's guts, oil-smeared and whistling. Well, apart from when he was with Jolene, of course.

Pooch shook off thoughts about Jolene; no time for that now. Clay was bending over Roque, whose bandaged hands were cradled in his lap. Clay murmured something in his ear, and Roque grinned up at him, soft and open in a way he'd never have been without an ampoule of endorphoxin in his system. That stuff was strong. Hard to tell if he was blushing but Pooch'd lay dollars to donuts that Clay was talking dirty about giving him a hand. Roque smirked and licked his lips, and Pooch caught Jensen's glance. They both rolled their eyes.

Alvarez was balanced on the bulkhead like a cat, holding the access tube railing and watching them all through his hair, which drifted around his face despite the hat. Pooch nodded at him. "Good work on the guns, there," he said.

"Yeah, pretty fine," said Jensen. "Where'd you learn to shoot like that?"

"Around," said Alvarez, pushing off the bulkhead and pulling himself into the spare seat past Jensen's station.

"Okay, Pooch," said Clay, straightening, color high in his cheeks. "Let's go home."

"Open her up," said Pooch, and Jensen hit the command for Loser I's main bay, the lock irising open and the tractor beam catching them and pulling them in to dock safely with the mothership.

The bay repressurized and the ship's gravity kicked in, various shaken-loose components clattering down to the shuttle's deck. They disembarked, Clay helping Roque unbuckle, arm around his shoulders as they made their way to Roque's cabin. He turned at the living quarters passageway and said, "Let's get going—set course for Tampico V."

"Aye, cap'n." said Pooch, saluting sardonically. Hard to be properly deferential to a man with a hard-on tightening his pants. Jensen snorted and Clay scowled, then gave up and flapped one hand in a get on with it gesture, vanishing down the passageway with Roque, who was licking his neck. Last we'll see of them for a while, Pooch thought, grinning. No point wasting endorphoxin—that shit cost a fortune.

He and Jensen hit the flight deck, Jensen calculating the course while Pooch ran his checks. When they were underway and on autopilot, they wandered through to the galley, and Jensen mainlined some coffee. Pooch cracked a beer.

"Where's Alvarez?" asked Jensen suddenly, sitting up, frowning.

Pooch rubbed his face; man, he was tired. "Dunno. In the head?"

Alvarez wasn't in the bathroom, or the crew lounge. They found him in the hangar bay with the crate, sitting on the deck leaning back against it, knees bent and head bowed. Not alseep, or only catnapping—he snapped fully alert as they approached.

"Hey, man," said Jensen, frowning down at him. "You can't sleep here. C'mon—we'll get you a bunk."

"Is okay," the guy said. "I will stay."

Jensen dropped down into a crouch, eyes concerned behind the wire-rimmed antique spectacles he affected. Pooch knew for a fact his vision was just fine. Jensen said he'd had the glasses customized for holo feeds and insisted they upped his pick-up rate threefold when they were hitting the dirtside bars, but Pooch also reckoned he liked to hide behind them, just a little. "Deck's gonna be damn cold, and hard," Jensen said.

"It's a 17 hour trip," added Pooch. He was definitely hitting the sack—the ship would wake him if anything needed doing.

"Even so," said Alvarez, and that was that—they couldn't budge him. Pooch shrugged as they headed for their cabins. Dude was weird; let him freeze his ass off.

"Think if I rigged up a holo with a feed on that crate in one of the rooms he'd leave the bay?" Jensen said, looking back toward the hangar, brow furrowed.

"I think he's even more paranoid than Clay, an' that's saying something," Pooch replied. "Leave him." But as he made a last check on the flight deck before crashing, he noticed Jensen on one of the monitors, heading back to the bay with a sleeping pad and blankets, even a meal pack.

Pooch shook his head. That was Jensen—always adopting strays. Clay'd had to get rid of a puppy, two kittens and one of those talking lizards from Porto Serra, not to mention a three-year-old orphan kid from that famine world where the crops had failed. Jolene had found a home for the kid, and Jensen still visited when they were back on New Springfield.

Pooch took himself off to bed, hoping Jensen wasn't going to be as heartsick about losing this one as he'd been about the puppy.

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"Hey," said the one called Jensen, dropping some bedding and a meal pack down beside Carlos. "Thought you might need these if you're set on camping here." Light glinted off his strange goggles, which Carlos suspected might be more than they seemed.

"I need nothing," Carlos said. He considered whether that was an adequate response to avoid sounding antagonistic. "But thank you," he added. Hopefully that would do it.

The man, Jensen, dropped down beside him, leaning back against the container, mimicking Carlos's pose. "Man, I'm beat," he said. Carlos frowned—had this Jensen been assigned to guard him? He said nothing, waiting for Jensen's agenda to become clear.

"I hope we get to go back to base after this trip," said Jensen. "I mean, there's a shit-load of repairs we need to make on the shuttle, and Pooch's worried about Jolene. He's gonna be a daddy you know, in a couple months." Jensen grinned and let his head fall back against the container.

Carlos tensed, but decided not to make an issue of it. It was Triton plasteel after all, so Jensen could do no harm just by leaning there. It still made Carlos twitch, to have anyone this close. "Why are you telling me this?" he asked, baffled.

"About Pooch and Jolene? No reason, man, just chatting." Jensen cocked his head and eyed Carlos curiously. "You got any family out here on the Rim?"

"No," Carlos said. He thought for a moment. "I do not like questions," he added.

Jensen grinned. "You and Roque both," he said. "He's always telling me I talk too much, but it's what I do, y'know? Guess it's a habit, or how I think things through. Now Roque, he seems like such a tough guy, but he's really a big softie—you buy that?" Carlos made no reply, but his silence may have sounded sceptical and Jensen seemed not to need him to interact. "Well, you're right, he's a badass in a fight and he's got some big fucking knives, but when it comes to Clay…" Jensen chatted on, wriggling about a little, stretching his legs.

Carlos kept a close eye on him, covertly, from under the hat, but he seemed to pose no immediate threat. Probably just a guard, then. Jensen continued, "I've got some family, my sister Dora and her kid, Jess. Don't see 'em anywhere near often enough, so I really hope we get some downtime after this. Jess is in this soccer team for little kids—the Petunias. I really wanna catch a game when I see them again, they're so great, taking it all super seriously…"

Carlos let Jensen's voice wash over him. It was oddly soothing, even if none of it made sense. After a while he took the sleeping pad Jensen was trying to push under him and sat on it, accepting a blanket as well. He let himself doze as Jensen talked on, knowing his training would wake him at the hint of any threat.

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Clay screwed his face up in something close to pain, then sat back in the captain's chair in the middle of the flight deck and put his feet up on a storage locker. "Jensen, calm down and run that past me again." He looked up at Roque. "Keep an eye on the monitors. Make sure he's still in the bay." Roque nodded, hunkering down in his seat, staring at the screen. "ETA, Pooch?"

Pooch glanced over from the pilot's console. " 'bout eight hours." He looked across at Jensen and frowned. "You get any sleep at all?"

Jensen waved a dismissive hand—he was so over sleep. He was through sleep and out the other side. "Nah, this took precedence. Okay, so after I got Carlos settled down—"

"Carlos?" asked Clay, raising an eyebrow.

"It's his name," Jensen said defensively. "One of them, anyway." Clay raised the other eyebrow, and Jensen hurried on. "So I came back in here to analyze the data from the MAX feed. And I found out what's in the box." He sat back, waiting for accolades.

"And?" asked Clay, looking annoyed.

Jensen sighed. Seriously, where was the appreciation? "It's a girl. Well, a woman. Must be in cryo—thing's the right size for that."

"People smuggling? He's got us people-smuggling?" Clay was on his feet, furious. "We don't do that shit."

"Guess the MAX charges weren't too far off," said Pooch, frowning. "Maybe we shouldn't have blown them to bits."

"Yeah," said Roque. "Like we had any damn choice."

"What else did you get?" demanded Clay, his jaw set. "Before we go in there and space your friend Carlos."

Jensen held up his hands. "Hey, whoa. I dunno that he is trafficking; it's complicated."

Clay sat down heavily. "Spill it, then."

Jensen leaned forward: this was the best bit. "They were both part of an experimental project run by MAX—Carlos and this woman. Her name's Aisha. First I thought they might be bots, or y'know, have some sorta superpowers—that'd be cool!" Clay glowered at him. "But it's more a kind of special training to make them into, like, killing machines. Weaponized humans!"

"This's a good thing?" asked Roque, looking up from the monitor. "We got a couple of killing-machines on board and you're thrilled to bits?" He shook his head.

"Yeah," said Clay, frowning at Jensen. "What he said."

"But don't you see?" Jensen waved his hands. "They've gone rogue! They've escaped, and the MAX security forces're after them. They're not working for MAX any more!" Jensen leaned forward for the punchline. "And get this—in the data, it said he also goes by the name 'Cougar'!"

Clay stiffened. " 'Cougar'? He doesn't exist, that's just Rim-legend."

"No, it's real. He's real. And he's here. 'Cougar' took out that corrupt dictator on Sextus IV, and the cannibal cult on the Mandalay space station after someone put toxins in the water. And he stole a shipload of ration blocks from MAX and diverted them to Brega Minor in time to stop a famine."

"Aw c'mon, you don't know any of this shit is for real," Pooch put in. "You trust people too much, Jensen. Just 'cause you like this Carlos dude, you want him to be some big Robin Hood-type hero—"

Jensen shook his head vehemently. "It's not bullshit. It's there in the data. Calls them renegades, traitors. Well, Carlos, anyway. Seems he's been active longer, working as an assassin, infiltrator, sniper, that kind of shit. Then he stole the woman, Aisha, before her training was done, took her away before they finished brainwashing her."

"So what—Carlos's got the hots for her? He rescued his girlfriend from the bad guys?"

Shit. Jensen hadn't thought of that. "Uh…I guess it's possible…"

"Yeah, in a vidnet romcom, maybe." Pooch rolled his eyes.

"I'm still not getting where us carrying two weaponized human renegades is so great," Clay broke in. "But I'm not smuggling a woman, however they trained her. We're getting her out of cryo so she can speak for herself."

"And the human killing machine dude guarding her crate?" asked Roque.

"Gonna have to tranq him. Normally I'd say you and me could take him down, but with your hands they way they are, and too many variables we don't know about…"

"Yeah," said Roque. "Safer to tranq him."

Jensen beamed at them. "I am so far ahead of you, I'm like a comet."

"Jensen," said Clay warningly. "What in hell have you done?"

"Just took him some coffee 'bout an hour ago." Jensen was all wide-eyed innocence. "Might happen to have slipped an amp from the tranq gun into his beverage. Taken orally it won't wipe him out for hours, but he's out for the count for a brief time. I checked."

"We'd better get on with it, then," said Clay, standing and hauling Roque up as well. "You too, Pooch. She's still on auto, right?"

"Yeah," sad Pooch, falling in beside Jensen as they headed for the hangar bay. He looked across. "You drugged him, huh? Start of a beautiful relationship."

"Yeah," said Jensen cheerfully. "Hope he's not too pissed."

"Oh, he'll be pissed. And he's trained to kill."

"I'm sure we can work it out," said Jensen, wondering if he should worry. But super-soldiers, and a mystery woman in cryo! It was all pretty great. "Every relationship has a few kinks at the start."

"Kinks, huh? Oh, brother." Pooch sighed and clapped him on the shoulder, and they followed the others to the armory to get tooled up.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Maybe it was his training, but Carlos ('Cougar', Jensen thought with a thrill) wasn't quite as out of it as Jensen had thought. He was groggy, though, and his reflexes were slowed to human-normal, so with all of them on him they managed to restrain him. Jensen got a black eye, which Pooch said he totally deserved, the bastard.

Roque, Clay and Pooch all sat on Carlos, while Jensen opened the crate. The locking mechanism was insultingly easy to bypass and, as expected, there was a standard cryo unit inside. The unit was password-protected, but Jensen tried the obvious things first, and sure enough, it opened when he punched in al-fadhil. He rolled his eyes—Carlos might be a super-assassin but he needed some training in data security—the woman's aliases had been right there in the MAX feed.

He triggered the thawing sequence. "How long?" asked Clay.

"Five minutes 40 seconds," said Jensen. Carlos struggled under Roque's bulk. "Don't, like, crush him," Jensen added anxiously.

"You don' know what you're—" spat Carlos. He'd lost his hat in the fight, and Jensen picked it up and dusted it off. Carlos had seemed attached to it so maybe if Jensen looked after it, Carlos might not kill him.

"I got your hat safe," he reassured Carlos, then, greatly daring, "Can I call you Cougar?"

"Fuck…that," gasped Carlos. "Not safe…Aisha."

"Yeah," snarled Clay, pinning his legs. "We figured that out after Jensen discovered you were both trained killers."

"I am trained…she is half…"

"So?" Just means you're more dangerous than she is. Look, if we let up some so you can breathe better, will you quit the damn struggling and just tell us what you mean?"

"Yes. I give…my word."

"Outstanding," Clay said sarcastically. "Ease up a little, guys, but not too much." Carlos heaved a deep breath in, then another. "Now talk."

"In the training…they remove human feelings. I am trained to be lethal, but I am…in control."

"And the woman?" asked Clay, looking across at Jensen, who held up three fingers for the remaining time.

"Aisha is not…she is lethal, like me, but her feelings are unstable. Things can trigger her, an' then she is dangerous. She goes…loco."

"Berserk," Jensen added helpfully. Carlos nodded.

"So what triggers her?" asked Clay, frowning.

Carlos shrugged. "Memories from training. Vidnet jingles." He licked his lips. "The training is…bad. Very bad."

"That's why you rescued her even though she wasn't stable?" Jensen asked. " 'cause they were abusing her?"

Carlos nodded. "Si. Could not let them do to her what they had done to me."

"I dunno, cap'n, maybe we should box her up again," Pooch said doubtfully.

"Can't," explained Jensen. "Thawing's gotta run its course now, then when it pings we can restart, not before. She'll be groggy, though, should be safe for a while. Seems a shame to keep her in cryo, though, kinda mean."

"She's an unstable weaponized human on a berserker hair-trigger, Jensen," Clay said wearily. "I don't think we've got a lot of choice here." He looked at Carlos. "What were you planning, anyway?"

Carlos shrugged. "Get away by ourselves. Try an' help her."

"And if she went 'loco' on you?"

The cryo unit pinged and Jensen moved to restart the freezing program, but before he could punch in the sequence the lid slammed up, knocking him back, and something—a blurred impression of naked tan body and dark hair—exploded out of the container, hurtling off into a corner of the bay and vanishing into some loosely stacked crates.

"Fug," said Jensen, holding his nose. "I thig she broge id." He pushed experimentally at the bridge of his nose but it felt okay. Maybe it wasn't broken after all.

"Well," Pooch said. "At least she ain't got a gun."

"She don' need one," Carlos replied.

"Better and better," muttered Clay. "Okay, Alvarez. We can't deal with her and sit on you all at once. You gonna play nice if we let you up?"

"Si," said Carlos. "I do not wan' to be drugged again." He shot Jensen an angry glance. The others released Carlos carefully and he stood, brushing himself off. Jensen wordlessly proffered the hat. Carlos grabbed it and jammed it on, still looking angry, and Jensen spread his hands, doing his best contrite face.

"Um, sorry, man." His nose was a lot better—definitely not broken. "We just really needed to know what was in the crate. I didn't mean to. Well, no, I did, I mean I knew what I was doing, but I didn't know you were Cougar until I cracked the data feed. Hey—can I call you Cougar?"

Carlos—Cougar—glared at Jensen. "Shut the fuck up," he said. Which was totally not a no, in Jensen's book. He beamed: Cougar it was.

"Yeah, shut up, Jensen," agreed Roque. He turned to Clay. "We could tranq her," he suggested.

"Not a good idea," put in Jensen, "Not right after cryo. You can get bad reactions."

"Well, that's her speciality," muttered Clay, staring narrow-eyed at the heap of crates like a cat with a cornered mouse.

"More like cardiac arrest. Seizures," explained Jensen, wrinkling his nose like a rabbit to check it was fully recovered. Clay glared at him and he hurried on. "Not recommended, 'specially with her…what they might've done to her."

"Well, I'm the captain of this rust-bucket and I let her on board, so I'm gonna to have to deal with this mess," Clay said decisively, ignoring the affronted 'hey' from Pooch. "Alvarez, you're with me—we're gonna talk her down. Jensen—get her some clothes. Pooch and Roque, monitor from the flight deck. I don't want to spook her with a crowd."

"Clay," protested Roque, but Clay held up a hand.

"Just do it." Roque shook his head, but he backed off reluctantly.

"Don' think she's loco right now," said Cougar. "Just freaked out." Roque didn't look reassured.

Jensen figured Pooch was more her size than the rest of them. Well, Cougar was, really, but he didn't have any luggage, which kind of made sense, now. Jensen got a t-shirt and some pants he was pretty sure didn't fit Pooch any more, then found some rope in a storage room that she could use as a belt. Not high fashion, but there wasn't much of that out on the Rim.

He brought the clothes back to the hangar bay. As he neared the hatch he saw a flash of movement out the corner of his eye, and flinched back. It was Roque, hiding just outside and clutching the tranq gun in clumsy bandaged fingers. He glared defiantly at Jensen and mouthed "back-up plan". Jensen frowned at him, but it was Clay and Roque, what were you gonna do? He shrugged and stepped through into the bay.

Clay and Cougar were sitting on the deck near the crates, and Clay was talking, doing that calm, ain't nobody here but us chickens thing with his voice that had gotten them out of any number of bar fights—and into just as many as well. Clay gestured at Jensen to leave the clothes, so he did, and crept out again. Roque didn't look at him that time, hunkered down, glowering.

After an hour or so Pooch took some food in, saying maybe it'd lure her out, and not long afterward Cougar came out, saying Clay'd decided he might do better by himself. By the time Jensen took in some coffee a while later there was a woman with tangled shoulder-length black hair dressed in Pooch's old clothes, sitting on a crate alongside Clay. They seemed to be getting on pretty well, and Clay had that flirtatious lilt to his voice that Jensen remembered as the prelude to people getting decked by Roque. Who was sitting against the bulkhead outside, looking gutted.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Tampico V was your typical outer-Rim hell-hole, an abandoned mining planet barely terraformed for life support, with one dusty town chock full of crooks and smugglers. Clay admitted he and Roque were banned from the bars there after an incident a few years back involving a local warlord, a herd of pigs, a laser pistol and four barrels of scotch. Well, what passed for scotch in that sorry neck of the woods.

Someone had to scout out that it was safe for Cougar and Aisha to disembark, even though Jensen had tweaked his scanners up to maximum sensitivity and there were no MAX vehicles showing either in orbit, or dirtside on the docking platform. Pooch and Jensen strapped on a few extra guns and hit the town.

The general store was a pitiful shack that mostly sold dust and despair, but there was a used clothing place next door where Jensen got some gear for Cougar and clothes for Aisha that looked like they'd fit, even boots. Jensen didn't like to think what'd happened to the prior owner of the boots. Good footwear was like gold this far out, and the uppers had a few suspicious stains. Pooch nabbed some glow-jewel earrings for Jolene, and made Jensen swear not to tell Jolene where he'd gotten them.

It went downhill from there. Almost the first thing they saw in the biggest bar on Main Street was a huge goddam wanted holo with Cougar and Aisha's faces on it. Worse, it had pictures of Clay and Roque as well, and Loser I. "Shit," said Pooch, staring at it. "Good thing we parked behind the ridge and brought the groundcar."

"They must've sent the damn thing through from MAX HQ by ansible only hours ago," Jensen muttered as they beat a retreat to the car.

"Yeah," said Pooch gloomily. "Guess that fucking cruiser sent a databurst back with our ID codes before we creamed them."

Jensen groaned. "Oh, man. We're not gonna be able to go anywhere now, if MAX've got a hard-on for us this bad. Won't matter if we split up with Cougar and Aisha, they're still gonna want to take us apart." They were at the groundcar now, and Jensen stopped, grabbing Pooch by the arm. He suddenly felt sick. "What if…Pooch, what if they trace us as well, back to Clay and the ship. What if they—"

Pooch stared at him, stricken. "Jolene," he said. "I tried to get her to leave New Springfield and go stay with Dora and Jess on Hanover, but she's so fucking stubborn. Said she'd finally found a decent OB-GYN and she was staying put till the kid arrived. She's in the system, Jensen, on the fucking grid."

Jensen swallowed, throat dry. He pulled Pooch up into the car and they zoomed off to the ship. It wasn't just Jolene he was frightened for. He'd taken Dora and Jess off the grid years ago and settled them on Hanover, an absolute backwater world too small to be of any interest to the MAX squads. But it was the summer holidays on Hanover now, and Dora had promised to go visit with Jolene and help her through the last few weeks, and the birth. Most likely they were all on New Springfield together. "We gotta get back there, Pooch, like yesterday!"

"Can't we message Jolene and Dora by ansible?" Pooch asked, as they docked with Loser I. "Check they're okay?"

"You mean tell them to get the hell out of there if they are okay," said Jensen, worry twisting his gut. "Yeah. Let's just hope they answer."

"Shit," said Pooch, and charged off toward the flight deck, looking grim.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

There was no answer from Jolene's comm system. Pooch yelled at Clay about why they had to go back, right fucking now! while Jensen hacked furiously, tracing Jolene's neighbors on both sides through their utilities accounts and calling them as well. A little social engineering with an elderly widow and a harried mother-of-three later, and he knew that no one had seen Jolene or "that nice girl and her daughter who've been staying" for the past day. Not since a commotion in the night with MAX squad cars in the street and flashing lights.

He and Pooch cornered Clay on the flight deck, Roque hovering sourly in the background and Cougar and Aisha leaning against the bulkhead looking like they wanted to hit someone but couldn't figure out who.

"We gotta go back, fuck the risk," said Pooch, fierce, his fists clenched. "You got us into this shit, Clay, and we're not leaving Jolene and Dora and Jess in their clutches. No way."

Clay turned to Jensen. "You're sure the squads took them all?"

"Yeah," said Jensen, "I'm sure. Jess and Dora were visiting with Jolene. The neighbors saw the MAX cars—I talked to them by ansible."

Clay gave Jensen a look. "I don't wanna know how you got their numbers, do I?"

"Nope," said Jensen.

Pooch growled, losing patience, and Clay held up a hand. "Yeah, yeah, I get it. Fuck it, lay in a course—it'll take, what, two days from here?"

Jensen calculated rapidly. "Maybe 36 hours, if we push it."

"We're pushin' it," said Pooch savagely, starting the gravity drive initiation sequence.

"Okay, shit," said Clay. "Take us to New Springfield."

There was a blur of motion and Cougar had Clay pinned to the deck, Clay's knife in Cougar's hand, razor-sharp blade against Clay's throat. Aisha had Roque's knife at his throat as well, Roque's gun trained on Jensen. Jensen raised his hands slowly and Pooch looked around from the pilot's console, bug-eyed. "You are taking us where?" Cougar said, his voice icy.

"N-New Springfield," grated Clay, straining back from the blade. "It's our base for repairs and downtime—where Pooch's wife lives."

Aisha spoke, her voice shaking. "That is where their fucking labs are, where Carlos stole me from. Where they made me, and him. Where they fucking tortured us. You plan to take us back there?"

She looked down at Cougar, crouched over Clay, knife rock steady. "Kill them all?" she asked.

"No," he said shortly. "We cannot fly it ourselves."

"Kill them all but the pilot?" she suggested instead, casual, like she was asking if he'd have a drink before dinner.

Cougar considered for a moment, then shook his head. "Running has not worked," he said, looking up at Aisha. She bit her lip then nodded, once.

Cougar turned back to Clay. "New Springfield. What will you do there?"

Clay eyed him across the knife. "Break into wherever MAX are holding our people, rescue them and kill as many MAX goons as we can."

"Big words," said Aisha scornfully. "The labs are at the main MAX base on New Springfield. They built them here, out on the Rim, of course—too risky running that sort of program in the Core, where they might be detected. Your people will be at those labs. Do you think it will be easy breaking into a top secret MAX complex?"

"Maybe," said Clay. "With your inside knowledge."

Aisha scowled. "It's a death-trap. They want us back, bad. That or kill us and hide the evidence so they can roll out phase two of the program without further interference."

"The fuck is phase two?" Pooch asked angrily.

Aisha turned her dark gaze on him. "An army like us. Twenty, fifty, a hundred. They plan to start them young, younger then we were." She glanced at Jensen, who felt his throat close up. "How old is your niece?"

"Eight, she's just eight," Jensen said, barely able to get the words out.

Aisha nodded. "Perfect age. They'll use her."

"Fuck, no," spat Jensen, fury filling him. "We're going back there now, and we're going to kill those bastards and blow the fucking lab sky-high."

"And Papa," said Aisha, her voice tremulous again, sounding oddly young. She was staring at Cougar, who was standing, knife in hand, his face blank. "We're going to kill Papa."

"Who the fuck's Papa?" asked Roque. He pushed past Cougar and dropped to the deck beside Clay, checking his neck.

"Our maker," said Aisha. Her eyes were all-pupil. "The head scientist, the one in charge of our 'treatment'."

"Our 'father'," said Cougar, his voice flat.

"Yeah," said Clay. "We'll definitely be killing that fucker."

"Then we are with you," said Cougar.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Planning filled most of the 38 hour journey—they didn't make it in 36, even with Pooch spending half his time in the engine room, cosseting the drive and promising the ship all manner of upgrades if she got them there that tiny bit faster.

He kept an eye on Jensen, who hacked into the MAX database for New Springfield without too much trouble, getting specs for the complex and building a detailed 3D holo. Clay and Roque spent hours arguing tactics with Aisha, fleshing out the rotating floorplans with intel from her and Alvarez. Alvarez mostly watched, eyes flicking from one to another under the brim of his hat, occasionally muttering comments to Aisha.

When he wasn't hacking, or writing the programs they'd need come planetfall, Jensen hung around Alvarez, trying to get him to talk about his exploits. He was still convinced Alvarez had gone off-mission more than once as the legendary Cougar, averting disasters MAX had perpetrated to control the outer worlds, or tragedies where they couldn't be bothered to intervene. Pooch watched Jensen's puppyish antics, wincing when he crossed some line and Alvarez slapped him down—he was prickly like one of those tumbleweeds from the Xenia badlands, three feet across and nothing but sharp spikes. It took a lot to deflect Jensen, though, and he kept bouncing back, orbiting around Alvarez like an especially noisy pulsar circling the event horizon of a black hole. Or whatever the opposite of a black hole was. Something that held things at bay, not drew them in.

It was like watching a disaster unfold in slow-mo, and Pooch figured Jensen was gonna end up heartbroken, even though Alvarez sometimes seemed to like the fanboy chatter, smirking quietly into his beer when Jensen took off on an especially wild flight of fancy. Pooch tried to talk to Jensen about how crushing on a guy who'd been brainwashed to lock down all his feelings didn't seem like the best damn plan in the history of ever, but Jensen brushed him off.

Maybe the prospect of a kamikaze mission was getting to the others, too. Pooch caught a glimpse of Clay and Aisha kissing as he passed through the sleeping quarters on his way back to the flight deck. If you could call it kissing—it looked more like fighting than fucking, like maybe they wanted to devour each other whole.

Soon after that, following a late-running session with Clay, Roque and Aisha arguing the plan's details over a bottle or three of cactus rotgut, he saw them all stumble into Clay's cabin—the only one big enough for a threesome, as befitted the captain. This time it was Roque and Aisha locked together, Clay groping Roque's ass as he nudged them through the doorway. Clay'd even winked at Pooch before hitting the button to shut the hatch. Pooch shook his head; best not to ask. The next morning, Aisha's hair had been cut short and spiky with one of Roque's knives, and Roque looked almost smug.

Pooch just focused on his girls—the ship and Jolene. They had to get Jolene back, and find Dora and Jess. Nothing else mattered.

New Springfield wasn't as easy to land on as Tampico V. The urban sprawl of the main city gave way to farms and light industry—not too many places to hide a ship like Loser I. Pooch knew it well, though, easing her down on a plateau high in the massif overlooking the town. There was nothing up there; no reason for patrols to overfly them.

The groundcar brought them down into a tangle of streets and low-rise buildings. Pooch navigated the traffic like a pro—he'd had some air-taxi jobs in his youth, flown getaway in Rebel skirmishes before MAX had clamped down and driven him further out into the Rim and onto Clay's crew. They were all ex-soldiers who'd been caught in the Rebellion, even Jensen.

Gonna need that training, thought Pooch, as he shifted lanes to avoid an old antigrav utility vehicle hauling a trailer full of rusty stasis units. It was a crazy plan, but maybe that made it worth trying—at least the MAX guards weren't expecting a bunch of lunatics to assault their stronghold. Everything hinged on Jensen disabling the security system for the roof where they planned to land. Then, once in, he'd need to bypass the DNA-keyed locks on the doors to the laboratory wing. Pooch figured he was up to it—he'd yet to see a system Jensen couldn't crack.

They were going in by air, Pooch hovering the car while the other five were lowered down on cables to a roof hatch Cougar knew, avoiding the main guard post out front. No getting the girls out that way, though, so he'd pick them up out back in a courtyard where prisoners were made to take exercise by day. Pooch hated that he couldn't go in there himself and get Jolene, that he had to rely on the others to find her and bring her out to him. Someone had to drive, though, and he trusted Clay and Roque. Hell, Jensen was maybe even more frantic about Dora and Jess than he was about Jolene. Alvarez and Aisha were unknowns, but they'd been trained to be unstoppable. Might as well use that.

Yeah, it was a crazy plan, and Pooch could only hope that the odds were with them. He knew it was a damn-fool notion, but he liked that there were five going in, and one—himself—in the shuttle. And Jolene and Dora and Jess were three. They'd goddam well better still be three…He shook his head and clamped down hard on that line of thought. They'd be fine. They'd be there, and Clay's team would get them out.

Pooch set the car down in a park bordering the MAX complex on the western edge of town, pale domes rising above eucalypts and acacias edging a dusty expanse of hard-baked clay. The domes glowed faintly blue—a force-field, but Jensen would deal with that. They hunkered down under the trees to wait until night fell and the city quietened.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Jolene cradled Dora in her lap. They were huddled together more for comfort than warmth—the cell was a climate-controlled plasteel box with all the basic amenities, everything solid-state and tamper-proof. Jolene stroked Dora's hair, careful not to wake her. Dora was exhausted, having ranted and wept, beating her fists on the door until Jolene dragged her away, after the bastards took Jess.

The baby kicked—she was active tonight, probably stirred up by Jolene's own stress and fear. Jolene rested one hand on the curve of her belly and eased Dora's head away a little so her daughter wouldn't wake her with an elbow or a kick.

Jolene had seen the scan, so she knew her child was female. Too much damn uncertainty in their lives already with Pooch on the outer Rim with Clay's crew; Jolene didn't need to be fretting about the sex of her child and wasting time thinking up boy's names. Sorry there, honey-girl, she said to the little one. This ain't so great for you either, havin' me all shook up. I'll keep you safe, though, and your daddy'll come for us. He'd damn well better, she thought bleakly, 'cause there was no way she and Dora were breaking out of this place by themselves.

She rested her head back against the wall, overwhelmed by guilt and if onlys. If only Dora hadn't come with Jess to help her through the last trials of her pregnancy, if only she hadn't been a pig-headed fool about staying on New Springfield, ignoring Pooch's worries. If if if.

And Pooch. He was supposed to be right here beside her, helping her bring their child into the world, not off somewhere in the Black flying his goddamn precious spaceships. Jolene clenched her fists, guilt flaring into anger and then fading as sick helplessness washed through her.

It wasn't Pooch's fault he couldn't stay with her, wasn't his fault he'd had to escape to the edge of the Rim and cast his lot in with smugglers and pirates. Clay and Jensen had good hearts really, and Roque was a pushover if you handled him right. They weren't bad, none of them, just driven to that life by the same thing that ruled and ruined all their lives: MAX. And now Jolene was taken, and Dora, and cold-eyed Captain Wade Travis had pulled a sobbing Jess away and slammed the cell door in their faces.

Jolene was frightened to think what the next day might bring. Frightened to think what had brought them to the notice of the local MAX squadron. Whatever had happened, it was clear this Captain Travis wanted information about Pooch and Jensen and the others. Over my dead body, thought Jolene viciously. But she knew she'd talk, and so would Dora, knew they'd babble out any old bullshit because Travis had Jess. How long would Dora last if he threatened Jess, talked about breaking her fingers one by one? How long would any mother last? Jolene groaned softly and pressed the flat of her hand against her belly to feel the life fluttering inside.

The worst of it wasn't how fast she and Dora would cave once the bastards started threatening Jess. The worst was the fact that they knew almost nothing, had nothing much to bargain with. Travis wasn't going to be satisfied with that. He was going hurt them anyway, and then he was going to start hurting Jess, and he wasn't going to stop.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Cougar gestured for them to follow, leading them deeper into the complex through dimly-lit back corridors. Jensen needed a terminal he could hack to find out where Jolene, Dora and Jess were being held. He hadn't been able to access individual cell vidfeeds from the ship, all he had were room-occupancy numbers. One cell in this wing had held two, but no rooms held three prisoners; Jensen tried not to let himself think what that might mean.

"There," whispered Cougar, very soft in Jensen's ear, hooking his thumb to point around a corner. "A guard hub. Feeds from the cells." Jensen nodded. Clay ghosted up and leaned in, cocking an eyebrow.

"Six guards," breathed Cougar. "Two on screens. Guardroom behind." Clay nodded and drifted back to lean in and murmur to Roque and Aisha.

Cougar and Aisha went in first—fast and silent, onto the MAX guards before they looked up from their terminals. Jensen figured the guards were dead before even hitting the floor. He moved in, stepping over the bodies and using their active work stations to flick rapidly between vidfeeds. There were faint thuds from the break room behind him, then Aisha emerged, wiping her knife. "Not a bad start," she said, teeth bared.

He found the right cell—Dora's bright head in Jolene's lap, Jolene staring ahead, hollow-eyed. He couldn't see Jess, but maybe she was out of camera range? Jensen switched to a heat-signature view: only two. Shit. Perfect age Perfect age Perfect age yammered his brain. He pulled off his glasses and screwed his fists into his eyes until all he could see were bright flashes.

Cougar was frowning at him when he opened his eyes and jammed his glasses back on. "Found Jolene and Dora," Jensen said brusquely, and pointed down a side corridor. "Cell 226."

Cougar inclined his head. "You can open it?" Jensen nodded and started hacking the security system for the wing. "Bueno," said Cougar. "I will guard you." He looked at Aisha and indicated the corridor with a jerk of his head. "226." She nodded, and she, Clay and Roque slipped away.

The electronic locks gave way after Jensen, frustrated, started searching the dead guards' pockets for clues. One had a 2D holo of a woman, the name "Mara" scrawled across it. That, plus the guy's date of birth from his ID badge, and Jensen had the password. He gave heartfelt thanks for idiots, briefly given pause by the domesticity of the holo, this guard with his two lives, cut short. Jensen shook himself—this place, these people, had taken Jess and Dora, so fuck them. "Done," he told Cougar, and they followed the others.

Dora felt so small and frail when she sagged into his arms, face wet against his t-shirt. "They took Jess," she said brokenly. "Jake, they took her!"

"We'll get her back, Dee," Jensen promised, throat tight. "When? How long?"

"A few hours," said Jolene, extracting herself from a Roque bearhug. Cougar and Aisha watched, flanking the door. "I dunno exactly. They took my chrono, and Dora's."

"She is in the laboratory wing," stated Aisha flatly. Cougar nodded.

"So what are we waiting for?" asked Jensen.

Cougar shrugged. "Lotta guards in the way." He looked at Dora and Jolene. "Safer if they—"

"No," Dora said coldly. She scrubbed one hand across her face. "No fucking way. I'm going to get my daughter."

"Hell, yeah," put in Jolene. "Me, too. I want a crack at that dickhead Travis." She looked at Jensen. "He took Jess." Jensen's fists clenched.

"Travis?" asked Clay, turning to Cougar.

"The CO," Cougar replied. "Captain Wade Travis. He is—"

"A sadistic fuck," said Aisha.

Dora's gaze flicked between Cougar and Aisha. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"

Clay stepped forward, doing his smooth-talking thing again. "Dora? Jolene? This here's Carlos. And this," he indicated Aisha by the door, "is Aisha." Aisha stared silently back at Dora. "They're helping us—they escaped from here not long ago, so they know the layout." He gave Dora a reassuring smile.

"Yeah?" Dora gave Clay a 'don't you try that shit on me' look. "Like Jake hasn't hacked the specs for this place every way to Sunday."

"Yep," Jensen agreed. "But nothing beats on-the-ground intel."

"So how do we get there, where they’ve taken her?" Dora had turned back to Cougar, hands on hips.

"We go up," Cougar said.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

"Up" was a network of catwalks in the top of the dome, reached by narrow emergency stairs. The catwalks were strung across the top third of the structure, way above the modular units below. The metal walkways looked fragile but were solid up close, not swaying or giving, even beneath Clay and Roque's weight. Jensen clutched the handrail on either side and stared straight ahead, treading carefully so there was no loud clattering to betray their presence. Weird how he could handle freefall and looking through the ship's viewport into the Black, but these sort of heights brought him out in a cold sweat. Gravity, man, not to be trifled with.

Cougar led them across to the far side of the dome, then down more stairs. He paused before the metal door at the base of the stairway, all of them huddled in the narrow space. "Is the main entry from this dome to the laboratories," he whispered. "There will be guards, at least two."

"Mine," said Aisha, and licked her lips.

"No," muttered Clay. "You stay with Jolene and Dora. Me an' Roque'll get this one."

Aisha bristled. "Because I am a woman, you think—"

"Yeah," cut in Jolene in an angry whisper. "We don't need no bodyguard."

"Silencio!" hissed Cougar and made a throat-cutting gesture, his eyes hard. "I will shoot them. You," he stared Aisha down, "will stay back this time." Her nostrils flared and she looked away, jaw tight. Jolene and Dora exchanged glances, but didn't argue. Clay arched a brow and Cougar shrugged. "You an' him," he tilted his chin at Roque. "You take the trash out."

Jensen watched Cougar, enjoying the show. "This where that DNA-locking hoodickey is?" he asked, keeping his voice down. Cougar nodded. Jensen got out the modified scanner he'd made to bypass the system. "Okay, ready," he murmured.

There were four guards at the end of a wide, featureless hallway, no cover anywhere. Cougar felled them in rapid succession, silently, with darts from a tranq rifle. Jensen shook his head. "Man, that's some shooting. They teach you that here?"

Cougar turned to him, eyes glinting under the hat. "Among other things," he said. Jensen shivered.

Clay and Roque dispatched the guards and hid their bodies while Jensen worked on the keypad. It took almost three minutes for his scanner to crack the locking system. Felt like a fuck of a lot longer, but finally the screen glowed green and a smooth click sounded as heavy bolts retracted.

The reception area was empty, lights dimmed, and Aisha headed off to the right, a corridor curving deeper into the building, passing empty offices and darkened lab spaces, banks of lights glowing on equipment here and there, fans whirring above them.

She killed two more guards at another DNA-locked entrance, and Jensen cracked the lock again. He went to push the doors open when they clicked free, but Cougar stopped him, a hand on his arm, turning to Clay.

"The ones being 'trained' are through here. There will be staff. A few guards also—maybe three or four."

"Staff?" asked Clay quietly. "Like nurses?"

Aisha bared her teeth. "They are not innocents. They help in the training. In the tortures. More than the guards do."

Clay frowned. "How many?"

Cougar shrugged. "Perhaps six. They are not trained to fight. They…restrain. And use drugs. Other equipment." Something flickered behind his eyes for a moment, but his face was blank.

Clay nodded and spoke to them all, his voice low. "Okay—remember what we discussed. Jolene, Dora, you stay well back. The rest of us'll get Jess, kill any guards, kill the staff if they interfere. If there's only a few kids, we'll take them with us, play it by ear. Right?" Jolene looked mutinous, and Dora stared fixedly at the doors. Roque and Jensen nodded.

Cougar pushed open the doors.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Jensen hung back with Jolene and Dora, covering the rear. The others fanned out into the block, a warren of corridors and individual locked rooms, killing the guards rapidly and herding seven protesting staff into a central nursing area. One woman began screaming, and Aisha slit her throat.

Clay rounded on her, glaring, but Aisha was grim-faced. "I had a friend here once. Athet. This one held her down while the guards…while they…"

"Yeah, okay," said Clay, swallowing. The other staff pressed back against the far wall, silent and watchful. Aisha held them at bay, blaster unwavering. Her pants were blood-smeared, where she'd wiped her knife.

They fanned out, Jensen sticking with Dora and Jolene. He figured the first six rooms were for new intake—they had cycles of sensory stressors, to soften the new ones up. Some cells were utterly dark or flooded with harsh, glaring light. Some were filled with piped-in noise, unbearably loud. The locks opened with pass-cards they'd taken from the staff, and in every room was a child, maybe ten years old. Some looked younger. Jess was in the sixth room, in pitch blackness. She whimpered when the card terminated the program and normal lighting came on, cowering back and shielding her eyes. Dora ran to her and fell onto the pallet, clutching Jess and rocking her, murmuring soothing nonsense. Jensen fell to his knees and put his arms around them both, taking deep shuddering breaths.

After a while he patted Dora's back and stood up, joining Jolene at the doorway. "I'm not leaving the other kids in there," Jolene said. She opened a room holding a thin, dazed-looking boy. It had been a noise-room. The boy looked lost, and she picked him up, hugging him to her, and brought him in with Dora and Jess. The kid let her settle him on the pallet, confused and unresisting. Jolene pulled him against her, and looked up at Jensen. "Bring the others here." He nodded.

He brought an extra sleeping pad, and led the other four stunned and fearful children in. They huddled together, Jolene stroking their hair and talking quietly to them. Dora was still curled around Jess. "Give me your gun," Jolene said. Jensen opened his mouth to protest, then shut it and handed her his blaster. It was pretty foolproof, point and shoot, and he knew Pooch'd trained her up. "Now go help the others," Jolene said, and he went.

It got worse, a lot worse. There were many more rooms, maybe twenty. These had hospital beds, if you could call them that, with mechanical frames clamping slender forms in place, the children hooked up to IV lines, catheters, their heads shaved and covered with electrodes. None of these children responded; they seemed catatonic.

Clay and Roque were white-faced, and Cougar's shoulders were tense, his eyes haunted. "I will check out the back," he said, indicating doors at the far end of the corridor. "There is another lock. Jensen?"

"Yeah," said Jensen dully, and followed.

Cougar wouldn't let him go through once he'd cracked the door, and Jensen didn't protest, sliding down the wall to slump on the floor. He wasn't sure he could stand to see much more. They couldn't take the kids in the hospital beds with them and he didn't dare terminate the programs; it might kill them to interrupt whatever was in those IVs. Maybe that'd be for the best; he didn't think anyone was gonna be able to bring those kids back.

Cougar slipped back through the doors, and folded down to sit against the wall beside Jensen. They both stared at the opposite wall. "They are all dead in there," Cougar said, after a while, his voice rusty. "Is where they store the…failed experiments."

"Fuck," muttered Jensen, face in his hands. "What kind of?...They just don't care how many?..." He couldn't find the words.

"He does not care, no," said Cougar. He swallowed. "People are things to him. To be used and…discarded."

"Him?" asked Jensen, eyeing him, and then all hell broke loose.

It was down where the staff were being held, Clay's voice raised and Aisha shouting that she was going to find Carlos, then her footsteps running toward them.

"No," said Cougar, leaping to his feet and starting toward the disturbance. "She must not—" But it was too late. Aisha was transfixed in a doorway, staring at a catatonic kid clamped to a bed, pierced by wires and tubing. She shuddered all over, then put her head back and gave an unearthly, ululating howl, dropped her blaster and moved, faster than anything Jensen had ever seen.

Cougar made a choked sound and sped after her, almost as fast. She had twenty yards on them though, and by the time they reached the cluster of staff she was among them, a whirlwind of death, knives like extensions of her arms as she sliced them to ribbons. Her eyes were rolled back, only the whites visible, and she was drenched with blood in seconds.

Cougar didn't try to stop her, instead herding Clay and Roque and Jensen well away, back toward the entrance hallway where Jolene, Dora and the kids were huddled. Jensen didn't know if that was going to be enough; he didn't think she'd recognize even Cougar, like this.

She turned from the red-stained corpses at her feet, knives still outstretched like an image of Kali from some old Earth nightmare, and advanced on them. Cougar thrust Jensen behind him and crouched to meet her.

"Aisha," said a stranger's voice behind them. Jensen spun to see an older man, bearded, wearing a lab coat. He was flanked by a MAX officer and two guards, all with blasters trained on them. "What a mess you've made," the older man said, his voice disapproving.

"Papa," Aisha said, teeth bared in her blood-spattered face. "Now you die—" and she surged forward.

"Wadrega," snapped the man, and she dropped like a stone. So did Cougar, like his strings had been cut.

Jensen fell to his knees, checking Cougar anxiously. He seemed fine, just unconscious.

"What the fuck?" asked Clay, stepping toward the stranger. The MAX guards twitched their guns at him and he raised his hands. "Easy there."

"Colonel Clay, I presume?" said the bearded man. "I am Dr. Ahmed Fadhil, the Chief Scientist here. Or 'Papa Doc' as my charges call me." Clay stared at him narrow-eyed, and Fadhil smiled thinly and waved one hand. "No matter. Just an old joke from Earth-that-was."

"Chief Scientist, huh?" asked Clay. "Not a lot of actual science going on here that we've seen." Roque snarled agreement behind him. Clay looked down at Jensen. "Carlos okay?"

"Yeah, just passed out. Guess Aisha's the same," Jensen said. He looked up at Fadhil. "The fuck did you do to them?"

"One does not create a deadly weapon without an off-switch," said Fadhil. "It is Pashto, an ancient language from Earth. It simply means 'stop.'"

"Cute," said Jensen flatly. He repeated the word in his head a few times until he had it down. Not that he was ever going to get a chance to use it to stop Aisha going berserk; there was no way they were getting out alive.

"Weapons on the deck, then lie down, face first," snapped the MAX officer—Jensen figured this was the Wade Travis dude Cougar'd mentioned. The one Aisha had called a sadist. Peachy.

Jensen pulled the knife from his boot. "I don't have a gun," he said. Clay and Roque slid blasters into the pile. Roque snarled a little at parting with his knives, and Travis shot him casually, searing a hole through his left bicep. Roque grunted in pain and clutched his arm, but gave up his knives, Travis watching him with a smirk. Jensen lay down on his front, head turned to the side to see what was happening. It made his neck ache.

"Can I play with them a little before we off them?" Travis asked Fadhil. "We need some intel and you've knocked out the other two."

Fadhil scowled at him. "The 'other two', as you put it, are worth more to MAX than your entire squadron, Captain. Secure them safely and make sure they're unharmed." He waved a dismissive hand at the deck where Jensen, Clay and Roque were stretched out. "With the rest, you can do whatever you want. Be my guest."

Travis walked over to where Clay was lying and kicked him in the ribs. "Oh yeah," he said, grinning, turning back toward Fadhil. "This's gonna be fun."

A red beam lanced at him from behind Fadhil, searing a hole in his chest. Good girl, Jolene, Jensen thought, as everything erupted. Nice shot to center mass. Clay and Roque had snatched back their blasters and gunned down the other guards.

Fadhil went for something inside his coat but Clay was on him, gun jammed up under his jaw. "Nuh-uh. You stay right there. No fucking moving."

Jensen checked Travis who was staring up at the ceiling, eyes unseeing. Jolene came down the hallway, blaster in her hand. She stopped by Travis, staring down.

"Nice shooting," said Jensen. "You okay?"

"No," she said. "He dead?"

"Oh yeah," said Jensen. Jolene let the blaster drop and half-fell toward him. He pulled her in and held her. She drew back after a moment and looked over at Clay and Fadhil.

"This the one hurt all these kids?"

"Yeah," said Clay, "and Carlos and Aisha. He's the boss. Sounds like he did a lot of hands-on work, too."

"What the fuck are you waiting for then?" Jolene asked, her voice cold.

"Nothin' at all," said Clay, and shot Fadhil through the head.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Aisha was furious with Clay when she and Cougar woke up ten minutes later. "He was mine to kill, not yours," she spat.

Clay shrugged. "Didn't work out that way, sorry." He gave her a hand up and the moment she was on her feet, she hauled off and socked him in the jaw. Clay reeled back and Roque grabbed for Aisha but she slammed an elbow into his injured arm and spun away, dropping into a defensive crouch. Roque fell to his knees, clutching his arm and cursing. "Ow, fuck," said Clay, a note of admiration in his voice as he stared at Aisha, rubbing his bruised chin. "Man, that's a wicked right hook you got there."

Roque cradled his arm and glared at Clay, shaking his head disbelievingly.

Jensen handed Cougar his hat. "You okay? He used a hypnotically embedded trigger on you and Aisha. Dropped you both with a word."

Cougar glared at him. "What word?"

"Uh, I don't think you're quite all there yet," Jensen said, raising his hands. "I'm not gonna say it and have you keel over again."

Cougar narrowed his eyes. "You know this word."

"…Yeah?" Jensen admitted nervously. "Is this gonna be one of those 'if I tell you I'll have to kill you' things?"

"Possibly," said Cougar. Jensen swallowed, and Cougar twitched a half-smile. "But not today."

"No code-wording anyone," said Clay firmly. "We're outta here pronto, or Pooch'll be smashing the groundcar in through the front doors to find us."

Jolene had already gone back to help Dora. "We're taking five kids with us, as well as Jess," said Jensen.

Clay's eyebrows shot up. "Says who?"

"Jolene," said Jensen.

Clay rubbed his face with both hands. "Shit. Okay." He thought for a moment. "We'll call the hospital once we're clear. Let them know about…" he jerked his chin at the hallway with the remaining kids. Roque nodded and they headed back toward the others, Jensen and Cougar trailing behind.

"Wait," said Cougar, stopping dead after a few paces. "We must tell people. Show them what MAX…need a vid."

"Got it covered," said Jensen. He tapped his holo-glasses. "These've been recording everything."

"Okay, si," said Cougar. "But the far room, you did not." He swallowed. "I can take them, I can go back—"

"No," Jensen said. "You're not going back in there again. It'll be enough with this."

Cougar didn't reply, but his shoulders sagged in relief.

"C'mon," said Jensen, and he took Cougar's arm and pulled him gently toward the others.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Later, they hid out on a rooftop at a safe distance, but close enough to see several ambulances pull up at the MAX compound and hover, lights flashing.

Pooch and Jolene couldn't stop touching, cheeks wet with tears. He rested his hand on her belly, and felt the baby move. "Oh, man," Pooch said, his voice choked. After a while, he turned to look at the five extra kids sitting alongside Jess. Dora, Jensen and Cougar were wrapping all six of them in foil blankets from the emergency kit.

"Huh," Pooch said. "You been collectin' strays again, Jensen?"

"Nah," said Jolene. "These ones are mine." She looked around the crowded groundcar. "Ours," she amended.

"Jolene," whined Clay, but she glared him down.

"Jensen hacked the laboratory database from the groundcar's system," she said, crossing her arms stubbornly.

Jensen looked up. "Yeah—they're all orphans. Wade Travis got them from a slave market on Benin Prime for that asshole Fadhil to use in his 'experiments'."

"Okay, okay, I know when I'm outnumbered," Clay said, throwing his hands up in surrender. He turned back to continue bandaging Roque's arm. On Roque's other side, Aisha leaned into him, her face drawn. Slowly, Roque's arm came up around her shoulders, pulling her in tighter.

Dora tucked a foil blanket around a thin girl with dark hair and looked up at Jensen. "MAX could still use the data from Fadhil's lab and set up other training centers. Did you?—"

"Yep," said Jensen. "We were gonna blow the whole place sky high, but with those kids stuck in the beds back there...Anyway, I snuck a virus into their operating system when I hacked it. Not quite as satisfying to blow their data sky high, but it'll do."

"Bueno." Cougar folded down onto the deck and sat, leaning back against Jensen's legs. On the bench beside Jensen, one of the kids was wearing Cougar's hat, pale face peeking out under the rim, his small hand lost in Jensen's large one. Jensen's other hand came to rest in Cougar's hair.

"Let's go home," said Pooch, sliding in behind the controls.

"Nice an' easy now," said Jolene. "No speeding."

"Yes, ma'am," said Pooch.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

Later still, they were on the mothership, light years away from New Springfield, course set for a far Rim outpost Cougar knew, where he said they'd be safe. For a while, anyway. Pooch left Jolene in their cabin and went to get some camomile tea from the galley.

On the way there, he looked into the lounge, hearing quiet voices. Not the kids, they were all crashed out, exhausted, with Clay, Roque and Aisha taking shifts watching over them. Dora and Jess were in bed as well.

Jensen was on the couch, Cougar cradled in his arms. Cougar was mumbling "Vaya con Dios, angelitos," his voice thick with tears, while Jensen held him tight, stroking his back. The hat was beside them on the floor. Jensen stared up at Pooch across Cougar's huddled form, fiercely protective. Pooch raised his hands placatingly and tiptoed back out.

In the galley, Pooch brewed up a mug for Jolene and one for himself. The mundane sequence of tasks soothed him—dialing up the boiling water, coding the right tea into the beverage synthesizer. He stirred in freeze-dried honey. Maybe it would work out okay. MAX had a long reach, but Cougar knew all the company's tricks, had the intel they needed to stay one step ahead.

Maybe they could even fight back. Spread the word, leak the vids Jensen'd recorded to the nets. Keep doing what Cougar had already started, on Sextus IV, and Mandalay, and Brega Minor. Mixed in with a little smuggling and piracy, of course. There were rich pickings from MAX freighters, and they had to make a living, after all. 'specially now they had a bunch of extra mouths to feed.

Pooch ran the numbers again. Him and Jolene, Jensen and Cougar, Clay and Roque and Aisha, Dora and Jess. That was nine, and the five kids made fourteen. Fifteen with the baby in Jolene's belly. She was due real soon, so Pooch figured he could count her.

A nice round number, fifteen.

Pooch liked those odds.

=[]=[]=[]=[]=

the end