As America lies bleeding, Native American Chief Hiamovi seeks to unite his people into a single nation capable of reclaiming the US from the white man. His growing army is on a collision course with cult leader Samuel Colt, who intends to put the country back in the iron grip of the once mighty Neo Clergy. The two men are set for a showdown at Little Bighorn, once site of Custer's legendary last stand, now a twisted nuclear landscape.
The fate of the battle may just be decided by Anna Bontraeger, rescued from a brothel by rogue scientist Matthew Greaves and taken on a perilous road trip across a devastated continent. Greaves and his small band have to get Anna to Little Bighorn before Colt or Hiamovi, so she can unlock the secrets that will save what remains of humanity and bring about a new dawn over Doomsday!
It started in her dreams.
Anna was at a barn raising. She'd come in her parents' buggy. Her poppa was the community's master carpenter and could have built them the finest buggy in the whole settlement, but it was a sin to store up and possess fine things for yourself when your brother's and sisters in God hadn't any. So poppa built them a buggy no better than anyone else had. For God made all men humble in the end and poppa's gifts were for the whole community, not just his family.
Anna was helping her momma and the other women prepare the food for the noon day meal. The women were chattering about who was courting whom and who had been seen riding home in whose buggy after the Sunday evening hymn singings. There was a lot of concern for poor Katy Lapp whose third child had been taken ill and wasn't expected to last the summer.
Anna kept glancing over at poppa who was overseeing the raising. She knew that pride was a sin but she was so proud of him and how clever he was. They had been there since daybreak and already they had the frame built. Come evening the Beilers would have a brand new barn for storing their tobacco crop. No-one in the community used the tobacco themselves, that would be worldly and would lead them into sin. The tobacco was grown for sale to the outsiders.
Anna shuddered when she thought of the outsiders. They lived in a world full of so many traps, built by Satan to keep them from God. Anna had never seen an outsider and never wanted to.
Except for when she was in chains, like the Israelites in Babylon. And an outsider was inside her. And it hurt so bad. And he just laughed when she cried and begged Jesus to stop it all. And he pushed harder and deeper into her…
And she was peeling carrots for the pot. She put down the knife and started shaking, for Satan must surely have sent her a vision. It was because her thoughts had strayed from righteousness to the ways of the outsiders. She had let down her guard and Satan had slipped in.
But the pain had seemed so familiar. As though the moment had a hook inside her soul and was tugging her back to a memory of loss and degradation. She had to escape it. She looked to her poppa. Her kind and gentle poppa who was her rock and her protector.
He was nowhere to be seen. She ran to the barn which was suddenly finished, except it wasn't a barn anymore. It was a building that shouldn't be anywhere on the settlement. A building where she had been held prisoner.
What was the Pleasuredrome doing on the settlement? Where had the community gone? Why wouldn't her legs work properly and let her run after them?
And there were angels in the sky.
And there were demons coming out of the Pleasuredrome, all wearing the face of Mr Greaves. Mr Greaves, heavenly Lord, what was he doing on the settlement?
The angels in the sky started to call to her. They were mighty pretty. They looked like the fallen woman Linda, who talked with such a dirty mouth. But they were angels and filled with the grace of the Lord.
The demons called to her too. Neither of them called out loud. They spoke directly to her body and her soul, as though she could only hear their call in the pit of her stomach and the marrow of her bones. They pained her and they transported her into ecstasy with their calls. She knew not if it was the angels' or demons' calls that transported her and she feared the truth.
Anna reached up her arms to the angels, and she tried to call back to them but her mouth wouldn't open. She tried.
And she tried.
And she was sitting up in her bunk, drenched in sweat, inside the fallen woman's motorised vehicle. She had been dreaming. Sweet blood of Christ it was only a dream.
Then Anna felt an unbearable pang of loss as the memories of the first part of the dream came back to her and she remembered that she would never see her momma, her poppa or any members of the community again.
It was the dead of night but Anna couldn't get back to sleep. She looked around the sleeping area. Mr Cortez was sleeping on the floor under a blanket. He had been kind to her of late. She prayed often that his soul would be saved from enslavement to the devil called Mohammed. Even still, she fetched him his mat when he stopped to pray five times a day. His beard reminded her of the men of her community. Except that they were forbidden to have moustaches because military men wear moustaches.
Cortez had told her that God and the entity Allah, to which he prayed, were one and the same. She wasn't sure if that wasn't simply the dissembling of Satan the arch liar, but she hoped that it wasn't.
Cortez told her he had once been a bad man. He had hurt people without caring about it. Then Allah had interceded and showed him the way. She still held out hope that he could be saved.
Anna lay back down and wondered if she could sleep again tonight. Then she heard the call again, just like in the dream. Only this time she wasn't asleep. Merciful God, she was wide awake but she could hear the call.
It was stronger this time. There were no angels or demons yet she could feel the call pulling at her whole being. She sat upright. No, she was pulled upright, like a puppet. The power of the call was so great it was moving her body and she couldn't stop it.
Anna's heart beat faster and her stomach lurched. What if she had become infested by some demon? What if consorting with heathens and helping them in their prayers had opened her up for possession? Could Lucifer now control her every action?
The call got stronger and Anna felt her body respond with a deep yearning. As though it had waited all her life for this. Maybe this wasn't the work of the Dark Lord. Maybe she was being called by God.
Anna knew she had to get out of the vehicle and away from the others. She climbed quietly off her bunk and reached for her clothes. Mr Greaves had bartered her a selection of frocks and under garments about a month ago.
He tried so hard to be nice and she knew it didn't come easy to him. She couldn't help but find him deeply unsettling though, there was just something about him that made her flesh creep. He believed the strangest things about her. He wanted her to catch some disease so she could save the world and make everybody live forever.
Anna didn't understand a word of what Greaves spoke about most of the time. When he told her she was really born in a laboratory, and made by the worldly crafts of scientists as a sort of a bride for a virus, she became so afraid and confused she couldn't think. All Anna could do was pray for days and days asking guidance.
The call hit Anna again, washing over her like a wave. It was so strong that she found herself outside in the dark with no memory of having left the vehicle. The call was inside her, tugging at her. It was under her skin whispering to her flesh.
It was pitch dark outside. Anna had no shoes and no will of her own.
It was Cortez that woke Linda. The big guy was up and on his feet before she'd even blinked the sleep from her eyes.
"What's up," she croaked, wishing she had a cigarette and a shot of bourbon. "What's happening?"
"Anna is not in her bed."
Greaves fumbled with his glasses and nearly fell out of his bunk. "Are you sure?" he said.
"See for yourself," Cortez pointed to her bunk. "I woke up when I heard the door shut. There's no sign of her anywhere."
"Where's she gone?" Greaves said. "Why has she left?"
"Who knows," said Linda. "Maybe the john's backed up. What are you so worked up about?"
"We're out in the wilds of Nebraska," Greaves said, getting all antsy. "We don't know this territory. We don't know what's out there. We've no idea what kind of danger she's in."
"You're the walking encyclopaedia," said Linda. "I thought you'd memorised every square inch of the USA."
"I'll go and look for her." Cortez said. "She is probably close by."
He left Bertha and Linda caught Greaves scoping her butt. She realised she hadn't dressed yet. All she had on was a slip and a pair of panties. "Hold that thought," she said with a smile. "You might need it next time you're alone with a box of tissues."
Greaves pulled a face and turned away. The pills in his pockets rattled with agitation.
Linda got dressed and Cortez came back inside. "She isn't anywhere nearby. It's dark but I checked everywhere."
"Listen," said Linda. "I'll go look for her okay? She can't have gotten that far."
"How come you want to go?" said Cortez. "Don't you want to stay here and look after your vehicle, seeing as it means so much to you?"
"What and stay locked up with encyclopaedia boy? I don't think so."
"It's pitch black out there," said Greaves. "How are you going to find her? What if you get into trouble?"
"There's a little something I've been saving for just such an occasion," said Linda. She opened a cupboard and pulled out a reinforced steel trunk. Unlocking it, she took out a hunting rifle with telescopic sights, some ammo and a pair of night vision goggles.
"You didn't tell us about those," said Greaves.
"Hey, a girl's gotta have a few secrets, right?" Linda also grabbed a snub nosed pistol and a large hunting knife, just in case. Once she was safely tooled up she took off into the night.
Linda had parked Bertha on an old picnic site near a river that, according to Greaves, was called Dismal – it looked it too. Still you never could tell when it came to names. The road signs a few miles back said: 'Welcome to Hooker County', so Linda thought she'd be right at home. Shows you how wrong you can be.
There was dense woodland either side of the site where Bertha was parked. A small road ran by it and on the other side was a steep rise that was also wooded and seemed to go up quite a ways.
Linda slipped on the night vision goggles and shapes appeared out of the dark. The world suddenly looked all green and phosphorescent, like she was in an old computer game. She started to look for any kind of tracks Anna might have made. For a second she felt thirteen again, out with her father hunting game on the shores of the Tionesta Lake.
That was before she found out what a motherfucker her father was. Back then she was desperate for his attention.
Her brother wasn't interested in their father's passion for hunting, so Linda pestered and pestered him to bring her along. Eventually he agreed. He taught Linda how to shoot, how to handle knives and how to track all kinds of animals.
Those were the happiest memories she had of him, before she discovered drugs and boys. And before she found out about the three mistresses he bankrolled.
Linda scanned the ground for footprints. It wasn't easy in the dark, but it wasn't impossible either. Anna wasn't wearing shoes. Linda could tell this because she'd kept to the softer earth. This meant she was more likely to leave tracks, but the tracks would be less distinct than the tread mark of a shoe.
The tracks led up to the road and stopped. It took Linda a while to pick them up again, but it was fairly straight forward once she did. They started again on the rise. Anna wasn't trying to cover her trail so she wasn't too hard follow. Whenever the foot prints disappeared Linda looked for bent or broken branches and strands of hair or fabric caught on a twig. These were more difficult to see in the goggles' monochrome glare.
There didn't seem to be any logic to Anna's movements. Linda wondered if she might be sleep walking. Her trail led all over the place. Eventually it came out at the top of the rise in a clearing that overlooked the picnic site where Bertha was parked.
Anna was pacing backwards and forwards muttering to herself in her weird accent, which sounded half American and half Dutch. She looked startled when Linda walked into the clearing, like a little rabbit caught in a juggernaut's headlights. Linda realised she must look pretty scary to someone who had never seen night vision goggles, so she took them off.
"What the hell are you doing out here? I've been following your trail across the whole hillside."
"I'm mighty sorry to have put you to any trouble," Anna said. "I've been praying to the Lord for guidance."
"Oh really? Well next time you needing guiding use a compass like the rest of us."
Anna just blinked at her. Linda realised the poor kid probably had no idea what she was talking about. She felt a sudden surge of sympathy. "Look, you can't just take off like that without telling anyone where you're going. What are you playing at?"
Anna hung her head. She looked like a scolded school girl. "I'm sorry. I wasn't aiming to be a vexation to nobody. It's just that, well, do you know what it's like when you feel like you hear a calling, but not with your ears, and suddenly you aren't the one who's in charge of your body and you've just got to keep on walking until you're told not to?"
"Well, now you come to mention it," said Linda. "I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about." The minute she saw the dejected look on Anna's face, she regretted being so flippant. "So like, you're hearing voices and stuff? Is that it?"
"No, not voices strictly. It was like some kind of calling that woke me up and just took over my body. I thought at first it was the Devil come to claim me for his own. But then I began to hope it was the Lord calling me to the top of the mountain to take me away from all my troubles. Then when I walked a ways up here I knowed it for what it truly was."
"No, it was that disease that Mr Greaves keeps a harping on about."
"Really? So like, that shit's for real then?"
"I'll thank you kindly not to cuss please."
"Well excuse me! You can't blame a girl for being surprised though. I mean, we all know that Greaves has got some kind of weird computer brain, but a lot of the stuff he comes out with, it's kinda out there don't you think?"
"I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't follow what you're saying Mistress Linda. He comes out with what stuff where?"
Linda felt like she was talking to someone from another century. "I mean the things he says, they're a bit hard to believe."
"Oh yes. I was afraid to believe them, mighty afraid. I think his so called science is the work of Lucifer. Then I felt this – how does he call it? – Doomsday Virus calling to me."
"What? All the way from Montana? That's more than two States away. How can that happen?"
"I do not know Mistress Linda," said Anna, her eyes filling with tears. "But it knows I am coming. It's alive, it is truly alive and it's waiting for me. And I'm scared." She broke down, her whole body heaving with sobs like a little lost girl. "I am so, so scared."
Linda didn't often feel compassion. It made you vulnerable. Compassion was a luxury from another time and another life. She was a survivor. She dropped whatever endangered her without a thought. She'd let her compassion go without mourning its passing. Until now, standing on a hillside as a full moon came out from behind the clouds.
This fragile woman had clung on to her dignity and her beliefs in the face of unimaginable abuse. And now the only certainty in her life, the very rock to which she had clung, was crumbling away. Thanks to men like Greaves with their test tubes and their theories. They had raped her all over again, shattering everything she held sacred.
Linda put down the rifle, took off her jacket and draped it over Anna's shoulders. Anna shivered and Linda pulled her close, then she too started to cry. For a stinking world that had started out as a piece of shit and just kept getting worse. For every two bit, lousy bastard who had ever paid to shoot his load inside her. Fuck the lot of them, she thought and gave in to her estranged compassion.
The moon was high when the girls finally stopped crying. They stepped away from each another, awkward at the unexpected intimacy. Linda wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "Listen," she said. "We need to get back. You know what an old woman Greaves is."
Anna smiled. "Come now, that is an insult – to old women."
A joke. A smile and a joke. Linda had never seen her do either before. Anna was suddenly, and quite surprisingly, beautiful.
From where she stood on the rise, Linda could make out Bertha way below them. "I think I can work out an easier route down the hill," she said. She bent to pick up her rifle and scanned the terrain.
Something caught her eye. Was that a movement near Bertha or had she imagined it? She peered hard. She hadn't imagined it. Something, no someone was moving around Bertha, several someones in fact.
Linda brought the sights of the rifle up to her eye and took a closer look. There were two men crouching next to Bertha's fuel tank, siphoning off her gas. Linda drew a bead on both of them, to make certain she had them in her sights, then she scanned the surrounding area to see if they were alone. She spotted at least four others at the perimeter of the site. From the confident way they moved there was likely to be more of them nearby.
It must be a gang of raiders. Linda had no idea there was anyone in the whole county. They'd stopped at a small town called Mullen a few miles up the road, to see what they could scavenge. The place had been picked clean, nothing around except for a few skeletons. That was why they'd chosen to stop just up the road. The raiders were probably passing through themselves.
Linda only had a clear shot at the two men by Bertha's fuel tank, but she didn't dare fire in case she sent the gas up.
"Is there trouble Mistress Linda?"
Linda shushed Anna and waited for the men to finish.
When the two had filled their container they started to lug it back to the woods. Linda got the taller of the two raiders in her sights. Slowly she emptied her lungs, waited till her heart beat was regular and squeezed the trigger.
It was a perfect head shot. Daddy would have been proud. The bullet went clean through his right temple and took the left side of his head with it. Brains and blood burst out of his shattered cranium, framing it in a crimson halo. The man crumpled.
The second raider leaped with shock. He dropped the container and stared wildly around. He started to fumble in his belt for what looked, at Linda's range, like a Colt .45. He never got it out. Linda had already made the shot and put two in his chest.
He jerked backwards and splashed down into a spreading pool of his own blood.
Bertha's passenger door flew open and Cortez charged out. Bullets smashed into the ground around him and ricocheted of the side of the truck. Cortez turned and ran back for cover. He slammed the door and the shutters went down, protecting the windows.
The armour plating would repel all but the highest calibre bullets. Greaves and Cortez were safe inside for the moment, but they were sitting ducks. They couldn't go anywhere with an empty gas tank and they couldn't see more than a few yards beyond Bertha in the moonlight.
They could use the headlights but that just made them more of a target. Chances were the raiders knew this terrain better than any of them. All they could do was sit tight till dawn.
Linda meanwhile could provide covering fire, picking off any of the raiders who might try and attack. If she was careful, night and the cover of the trees would stop them from making her position.
She paced around the edge of the bluff, looking for the best sight lines. She picked three separate spots that would allow her to cover the area surrounding Bertha. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the sun to rise.
"Please, Mistress Linda," said Anna. "You're frightening me. Whatever is the matter and what are you shooting at?"
Linda looked over at Anna. The poor girl looked more scared than ever. She was shaking while gnawing on her thumb.
"It's okay. Everything's going to be fine. There's a few men prowling round Bertha. Raiders who were trying to steal her gas and anything else they could get their hands on. I took care of a couple of them but Greaves and Cortez can't do much to defend themselves while it's still dark. Looks like we're going to be here for a while. Might as well make ourselves comfortable."
"Took care of… you mean you killed them?" Anna looked horrified. "That's a sin. That means… "
"I'm going straight to hell. Pretty much where I was bound anyway."
"You shouldn't joke so Mistress Linda. We are on this Earth but a short time. Your soul will be tortured in hell for eternity."
"Well it can't be a lot worse down there than it is here at present. Fact is, things have got so bad here who's to say we haven't all died and gone to Hell already? Maybe Hell's just opened up and annexed the Earth and everyone left on it."
Anna was silent for a time while Linda scoped the trees surrounding Bertha through her rifle sights. "Perhaps it is a sin," said Anna, in a quiet voice. "But I must confess I have wondered similar things myself, many times."
"I think many people have. I'm no expert on these matters, but I don't think that's a sin. It's just hard to believe in a better tomorrow when all you dream about is yesterday and what you fear most is what you'll wake up to tomorrow."
"But you've got to believe. Why, not to believe, that's the worst sin of all. Not because you cheat God, but because you cheat yourself. Without faith you can't be redeemed and without redemption there isn't any possibility of hope."
"Wait a minute," said Linda, scanning the trees below. "You just said you thought you were in Hell. Where's your redemption there?"
"There isn't any redemption in Hell and that's how I know we're not in Hell. In spite of all my wondering, I still believe. That's not been taken away from me. I can still be redeemed. I can still hope. In Hell there isn't any hope, because you're never going to get redeemed, there's nothing to believe in. And in a way, Mistress Linda, maybe you are right. Maybe Hell has annexed, as you would have it, a bit of this world. Because I just realised you don't have to die to go to Hell. All you have to do is stop believing. Give up all hope and you are already there."
Linda caught a movement in the trees. A pair of legs running. Nothing she could fix on or aim at. They were planning something, but what? "You mean after all that stuff you've just been through with the Doomsday Virus, you still believe?"
"Even though I know I was made by men, using Lucifer's tools, to be offered up to some disease that can take over the world, I still have my faith. So I'm not in Hell. I have being praying to the Lord for guidance and He has delivered it unto me."
"Good for Him. Let's hope He delivers us from this shit we're up to our necks in."
"Your language is not becoming. And you said everything was going to be fine."
"Yeah, well, that was before you got all religious on me. Now I'm the one needs reassuring."
"You're going to kill again aren't you?"
"Only so we can stay alive. I know you might be bound for heaven, but right now, if I die, I haven't got the slightest hope of being redeemed. So I'm fighting for my body and my soul. Anyway I didn't think you Christians were against killing. Isn't God always striking people down and stuff?"
"I cannot speak for other Christians. I was raised in an Amish community, we are committed to a lifestyle of peace and non-violence. We don't believe you can positively resolve any situation using violence."
"Which is cute," said Linda. "Until someone's busting to pop a cap in your butt. Then it kinda loses its appeal, ’cos it seldom works."
"We don't choose non-violence because it always works. We choose it because of our commitment to Jesus Christ and the truths that he preached."
There, down in the shadows, Linda almost missed him. One of the raiders was creeping up on Bertha from behind. It was a blind spot from inside. The raider was carrying something. She was too far away to tell what it was. It could be a grenade, or it could be a smoke canister.
That's right, thought Linda. Just a little further and you'll be in the moonlight. The raider took two more steps and she had a clear aim. She put two in his gut. He was knocked to the floor with his hands on his midriff. Blood pissed through his fingers as he tried to keep his stomach wall from falling out.
The raider was screaming in pain and calling out to his comrades. Linda could feel Anna wince without looking at her. Just as Linda hoped, his cries drew one of his companions out. The man bent down to pick up whatever the fallen raider had dropped. Linda caught him at exactly the right angle. The bullet tore through the top of his head and out the back of his neck, severing the spinal column. Death was instantaneous.
Unlike the poor bastard lying on the ground. He was writhing and jerking and calling out: "Jesus fucking Christ help me you mother-fucker help me! Oh God you cunt, you cunt no, No, NO!"
"Speaking of other Christians," said Linda. "I bet that's not a prayer you Amish often used."
Linda felt Anna's hand on her shoulder. "Please, he doesn't have to suffer so," she said and Linda could tell from her voice how much strength she was summoning to remain calm and gentle. "Killing is wrong, but this is worse. I know you can put a stop to it." She was right. No-one else was coming to help him. Linda was just torturing the wretch out of spite. Two more bullets answered the man's prayers.
"Mistress Linda, do not think me impertinent, but I have need to ask you a question."
"Shoot," said Linda. Then remembered Anna would not pick up the irony. "I mean go ahead, ask."
"Do you hate your father?"
"No. I loved mine very much."
"Well you're the lucky one. Mine was a bastard. What's that got to do with anything?"
"There was a girl in my community, who shunned all her brothers. No matter how respectfully and piously they treated her. From the oldest to the very youngest, she turned from them all. Hatred burned in her bosom for every man. Her father hanged himself in his own barn. This is unusual within our community. Later we discovered it was through guilt. His wife had died some years before and he had done his daughter a great… disservice."
"Really?" said Linda. "Well my father never did me that ‘disservice’. Not physically anyway. Mentally that's another matter. See when I was a little girl I was like the son he always wanted. The son my brother refused to be. It was my father who taught me to shoot so well. We used to go on long hunting trips together. Then I became a young woman and he couldn't help noticing. Nothing had changed for me, but it had for him. He didn't like spending nights alone in a cabin with me. Not out in the middle of nowhere. So suddenly he just freezes me out, doesn't want to know. Even sent me away to a private school. I mean how extreme is that?
"This all suited my mom fine, of course. All she did all day was hang out with her country club friends, getting drunk on Martinis and high on whatever pills her doctor prescribed. She hated not having a daughter she could dress up and parade around at her society functions. She hated that I liked my father more than her. She hated most things. Top of her list were common folk and my father. Didn't hate the money he made though.
"Anyway, I get good grades at this exclusive school, so I figure I deserve to party a little. Some of the other girls from my school used to hang out at this bar called Nabokov's. Named after an author who wrote this book called Lolita, you probably won't have heard of it, it's about an older guy who falls for this young girl. Anyway that was the whole point of the joint. It was basically a place where older guys with money could, you know, cruise younger girls, buy them expensive drinks and maybe take them home." Linda looked up from her sights and glanced over at Anna. "You're not following any of this are you?"
Anna's brow furrowed. "I got a little lost when you mentioned bars of Nabokov. Is this a type of metal?"
"No," said Linda taking a deep breath. "A bar is a place where people meet to drink alcohol, to talk and maybe take someone back to their home."
"Not exactly. To do what married people do, but without the same level of commitment."
"Yes. If they get lucky. Anyway, I'm having fun doing this for a while, then who should I run into at this club but my own father. And I don't just run into him at the bar or the cloak room or nothing. No, I run into him in the ladies room. I open the door of the cubicle and there he is. Snorting coke and getting blown by a girl from my school, two years younger than me." Anna was wearing that puzzled expression again. "Listen, I don't need to go into it, but those are two very bad things okay?" Anna simply nodded and let Linda continue. "The next day at school this girl comes looking for me and starts making out like she wants us to be friends and everything. She tells me my father offered to put her up in her own flat and everything, saying he's already got three other women like that. So when I got home I confronted him with this."
"How did he respond?"
"He went ballistic. He called me a whore and a junkie for hanging out in a bar like that. Can you believe the nerve of the guy, after what I caught him doing? So we have this big stand up row and he throws me out on my ass. Literally picks me and throws me out onto the lawn. Then he opens my bedroom window and starts throwing all of my things out. Clothes, CDs, make-up, books, all of them right there on the ground. And my mother, she just sits there and watches. Sipping her early morning Manhattan and popping pills, like nothing is happening."
"So you had nowhere to live?"
"Nope," said Linda. "And then I found out who my friends were. None of my school friends would take me in, or the 'good families' I knew. I ended up in a YWCA hostel, with no income. Then I bump into a guy I knew from that bar I was telling you about. He buys me dinner and tells me I could be making good money just doing what I used to do for the fun of it. He gets me a couple of clients and before I know it I've got a swanky uptown apartment and the names of the most powerful men in the State in my address book. I got to travel the world executive class and basically had a ball."
"Had a ball. That means you were happy, am I right?"
"More or less."
"You enjoyed the things those men did to you? I am sorry to say I know a little about that myself. I find it hard to believe that it made you happy."
"Yeah, well my situation was different. I had a choice about what I did. I wasn't chained to a wall. Besides there were worse things I could have done with my time."
"Well yeah," said Linda getting a little riled. "As soon as people started dying in their millions I found that out. Turned out that while there wasn't a lot of demand for IT specialists or stock brokers anymore, people in my line of work could still get by. Only the rewards were a lot less and the risk was a lot greater."
"Is that when you started killing people?"
"Only, as I've said before, to stay alive."
Linda caught a movement down by Bertha. The door to one of her exterior storage compartments opened slightly and something fell out. It was long and black and it rolled under the van. It was Cortez. Damn it, he was a cunning bastard. She ought to have known that he and Greaves weren't just going to sit there and do nothing.
They must have dismantled one of the dividing walls and slipped into the outer storage compartment. Then jimmied the lock from the inside. If they'd done any permanent damage to Bertha she'd make them pay for it.
Linda could just make out Cortez commando crawling along the underside of Bertha. He came out right by some trees, completely in shadow. There was no way the raiders could have seen him. He was taking the fight to them.
Close combat, in the dark, in dense woodland. Didn't matter how well the raiders knew the terrain, this was now Cortez's territory. Poor bastards didn't stand a chance.
"Mistress Linda," said Anna. "I have only known you a short while so forgive my impertinence, I don't claim to see into your soul but would you permit me to make an observation about you?"
"Go ahead. Knock yourself out. It'll help pass the time I guess."
"I know you say you had a choice about your erm… career. Is that how you would have it?"
"And I know you say you only killed to stay alive, but I wonder if you would grant me the indulgence of offering another explanation?"
"You have such a quaint way of talking. But you don't have to keep pussy footing around, get to the point."
"Alright, I think you fornicate with other men to win back your father's love. You went to this place Nab, err… "
"Yes, you went to Nabokov's to find men your father's age. To give to them what you couldn't give to your father. The very thing that you felt made him withdraw his love for you. Then when he banished you from his home, once again over the very same thing, you kept looking for his love from other men. You gave them what you felt had kept you from your father. However, they could not give you the love that your father withheld. It says in Corinthians 6:18: 'He that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body'. You started to kill men out of anger at your father. You were angry that he stopped loving you and even angrier at what this had made you do to yourself."
Linda put down her rifle and just stared at Anna. She looked away, nervous and self conscious. "Pray forgive me Mistress Linda. I fear I have spoken out of turn. The circumstances are unusual and I forgot myself. You were being so kind and I…"
"No, no," said Linda. "That's okay, I'm not cross, I'm… well I'm flabbergasted. I mean I thought you were this retard. I'm not being rude or nothing, but all you did was whimper and pray all the time. Then suddenly it's like you just look right into my soul or something. You're a regular little Freudian aren't you?"
"Freudian. Is that like an Episcopalian?"
"Not exactly. But it's kinda like a religion to some people."
A scream of intense pain stopped the conversation. It came from the woods around Bertha. Both Linda and Anna jumped. Several short bursts of gunfire followed. Linda scanned the woods through the rifle sights.
A single raider bolted towards the road. A machete shot out of the trees. It was so fast Linda only made out what it was when it had buried itself in the man's head, cleaving the back of his skull. The man stopped running and reached up to touch the handle. Only then did he realise he was dying and keel over.
Cortez strode across the clearing wiping blood off his big Bowie knife. He picked up the container full of gas and took it back to Bertha. Greaves came out with a funnel and they refilled the tank.
"Come on," said Linda. "I think it's safe to go back now."
The moon was low and the sky was getting lighter. Dawn was on its way. The bluff, the woodlands and the river below, everything looked different in the light of the approaching day. Especially, thought Linda, the brave and astonishing young woman with whom she'd spent the night.