The six women who made up the Sisters weren't sisters at all, but they had ridden together and fought together for so long that no one ever thought of calling them anything else. They were led by Sister Clara, a strapping six-foot-plus Amazon who could take on any manfight him, outdrink him, and always, so far, emerge from a fire-fight victorious. The other five women backed her up perfectly.
Clara's big face frowned when Bonner told her about Leather and Dara. "I never knew what she saw in you, Bonner," Clara growled, "and I shouldn't lift a finger to help you enslave her . . . But I'll be damned if I'll sit here and let Leather have her ..." She slapped the butt of her heavy Colt Sauer Short Action rifle. "The sisters want to ride with you." Bonner didn't hesitate. "You're on." "You got any idea where they have her?" The sister that spoke was called Jamie. She was tall and dark and she carried her elegant little Iver Johnson Super Enforcer with confidence. She rested it nonchalantly on her hip.
Bonner shook his head. "No."
"You got a plan?" asked Sister Lynn.
"Sort of ... I figure when we get there we'll look around, see what we can find out . . ."
"And then start blasting at anything that moves, right?" Clara shook her head in disgust.
"Give us a break, Clara," protested Starling, "what do you think we are, stupid?"
"You're all men, ain't you?"
"That's right," said Harvey, "you should try one.
Clara looked at the dirty and bedraggled little man.
Her distaste for his appearance showed plainly on her big features. The Sisters always took care over their clothes, a peculiar mixture of old jungle fatigues and the bits of high fashion paraphernalia they had been able to loot from the old world. All six of them wore knee-high black boots. Bonner had to admit they looked as tough as their reputation.
"Who's that little prick?" she asked cordially.
"Harvey," said Bonner, "say hello to the sisters."
"It ain't no accident our running into Radleps," said Bonner thoughtfully.
"Come on," scoffed Cooker, "I thought they were all over the place in this sector."
"Not these," said Clara.
"How d'ya know?"
"This was Marxie's battalion."
Starling whistled softly. "You're kidding me."
"Nope." Clara pointed to one of the severed heads that lay strewn about the field. A lake of blood pooled around it. "Recognize that cute mug? That's Marxie. Taken down by a freak with a shovel."
"They knew you were coming, Bonner," said Sister Kay.
Bonner shrugged. "So, we've taken down their best."
"And won," said Clara smiling broadly, "with help from the Sisters."
Bonner stole two tires off Marxie's C-J to replace the ones that had been shredded in the fire-fight. Starling decided to finally trade in his old rig for one of the fine Harleys that the Radleps wouldn't be needing anymore. The Mean Brothers preferred to ride with Cookeran axe and a shovel were about as complicated as they wanted to get.
By dawn they were on the road. By noon they were lying low just on the outskirts of Washington. "We split up," Bonner said, "see what we can find out. We meet back here tonight."
The crew nodded. "Hey, what do we do with the Means?" asked Harvey.
"What we gonna do with you, more like it?" said Starling. "You can't shoot so good and we haven't gotten you anything to blow up."
"Yeah," said Harvey, "what are you going to do about that?"
"Hit the bazaar," said Bonner. "You go in, Harvey, and see what you need. Get it if you can. If not, and you see one of us, let us know and we'll try and get it."
"Some fucking plan," said Clara. "How do you plan not being recognized?" "Luck," said Bonner. . "Is there a curfew?" asked Sister Jamie. "There's gotta be . . ."
"So be off the streets by nightfall. Back here by then. Got it?" Bonner looked from face to face. "No acting on your own ..."
As soon as each of them hit the streets they began disobeying Bonner's rules. Harvey began shoplifting his way through the bazaar. He managed to get some black powder and some blasting caps as well as some plastic that looked as if it was about a hundred years old. He was a blatant thief but no one was looking at him. The Mean Brothers that trailed behind him attracted the gaze of the crowd. When they reached the slave auction block he briefly considered putting them up for salehe would have if he could have thought of a way of letting the brothers know that he wasn't doing it for real, that he would auction them, then they could make their escape once they had suckered someone into paying for them.
Cooker headed straight for the domed ruin and stood in front of it as an acolyte before a shrine. Here was stored all the gas in the Slavestates. Inside those ruined marble halls were acres and acres of gasoline.
"Hi Test," he whispered, "premium, regular ..." He said the words as if they were part of a prayer.
A couple of Stormers on duty in front of the building walked up to him suspiciously. "What are you staring at, shrimp."
"Nothing," said Cooker.
The Stonner pushed him roughly. "Then beat it ..."
"Didn't mean no harm," mumbled Cooker. He looked over his shoulder at the building. He was planning on returning and blowing the whole thing up. Cooker didn't give a damn about this women that seemed to get everyone so het up. Cooker only cared about gashis gas. If he blew the entire Slavestate supply Cooker's own gas would be worth more than ever. He would get to be a big man, he would have power, money . . . Hell, he might even hire Bonner to do his fighting for him.
Bonner was most flagrant in the disregarding of his own rules. He looked at the huge ruins that surrounded the torch and decided that he would never find her by just wandering around looking for a likely Stormer that he could force to tell him Dara's whereabouts. The fact that she was somewhere in the city, needing him, in danger, burned through him. Every Stormer, Radlep, tax-general, that passed him never knew how close they came to death. Bonner could feel the emotion he had fought for a thousand miles pumping through him: anger. He could feel blind fury seizing him, taking hold of his brain, making him let go of the cool and dispassionate calm that had kept him alive for so long. He walked the crowded streets in a haze of hate. It was then that he found himself standing in front of the Big House. He looked at the two bored Radleps that lounged in front and at the cluster of favor seekers crowding around the entrance.
Take him now, Bonner thought. It looked so easy. Bonner sidled passed the scarred Radleps. They just glanced up and let him pass. They assumed he was some kind of Stormer. The wide halls of the Big House were jammed with the usual hangers-on, each so involved in his own interest that they never even noticed Bonner pass. He strode down the hall, looking as if he knew where he was going, all the while not quite able to believe that he was actually there, that he was only feet from Leather. A voice in his brain told him he was being stupid, that he was making a mistake, that he was letting his feelings guide his hand. Come back when you have a plan, when you know what you're doingBonner, don't be a fool . . .
But he kept walking. He was going to settle this thing now. And forever.
The outer offices, the ones that adjoined Leather's lair, were a little less crowded and there Bonner was noticed.
"You can't go in there," said a tax-general. Bonner pushed him aside as if he was a troublesome child. Bonner crashed through the next door; the Radlep on duty in front of the door leading to Leather's office jumped to his feet. He never saw Bonner go for his knives, but he felt the hot pain of the blade as it slid into his chest. He fell silently, staring dumbly at the handle of the knife as it quivered slightly in his breast.
Winchester in hand, Bonner threw open the door that separated him from his prey. Bonner hardly saw the Radlep that sat by the fireplace and it was in an almost offhand way that he launched the second knife. As the Radlep died, Bonner levelled the Winchester at the man behind the desk.
"Hello, Leatherman," said Bonner quietly.
Leather sat back in his chair, as if stretching before starting some sort of strenuous exercise. "Well, my old buddy Bonner. Have you any idea how much it cost to feed, train and equip the Radlep you just knocked off?"
"Dara." Leather chewed the word. "Dara. That bitch." Leather's already ugly features twisted unpleasantly and he absently touched the angry pink scar on his cheek. "I wanted her to die. I'da killed her long ago until I realized that she was the only thing that would bring you running. Come to rescue her, right? Still the knight in white armor? Now I can kill you both. Slowly."
"Shining armor," said Bonner.
Bonner spoke through clenched teeth. "Where is she?"
Leather rocked in his chair. "She's safe. I got my people taking care of her. I got a lot of my people taking care of her . . ." Leather laughed deeply, as if enjoying a private joke. "You see, I put your precious Dara into the Radlep harem. I thought she ought to earn her keep and get my boys hot until . . ."
A dark cloud of suffocating hate swept over Bonner. Without thinking he yanked the pump and both barrels of the Winchester laced the leather back of the chair where Leather sat. But Leather was gone. In that single moment. Leather had thrown himself sideways, missing Bonner's fire by a hair.
He rolled on the floor screaming. "Help! Help me!"
The door crashed open and Bonner was jumped by half a dozen Radleps. He snatched Leather's Ruger Redhawk from the desk and pumped three bullets into the wailing Leatherman. The weight of the Radleps brought him down.
Suddenly, the animal in Bonner seized hold of him. With the strength of a half dozen men he kicked and punched and scratched at his attackers. He struck out blindly, feeling the pure pleasure of the beast when his fist connected with the tortured flesh of another human being. He felt skin tear and bone splinter under his blows and deep within him his crazed mind savored the gnawing pain he was causingthis time he didn't want the killing to stop. This time he wanted to start killing and go on killing until they were all dead.
His fingers, as strong as taut steel cables, closed over the neck of a Radlep and he could feel the bone and muscle of the throat collapsing under his grasp. The Radlep's hideous face was inches from Bonner's own and he could smell the stink of the man's breath. Blood started from the Radlep's eyes and Bonner knew that he had squeezed the life from this terrible creature. He was absorbing blows now, a dozen fists were slamming into Bonner's body, but still he fought. He was aflame with hate. He had to kill. He had to kill all of them. Men were screaming.
Bonner heard Leather's voice, as if from far away:
"I want him alive. Take the fucker alive! Alive!"
A heavy boot pounded into Bonner's temple and suddenly all was darkness and silence.
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