by Frederick D. Rustam
|Table of Contents|
|Part 4: The Dark of the Sun|
Fires in the Night
“Bring her to the fire!” shouted the scruffy bandit leader. From the flames, he pulled a red-hot branding iron. “Let’s see if they’re awake and listenin’ over there.”
Skippy watched as a girl was pulled from a tent into the firelight, where several men were waiting. Nearby, they’d haystacked their rifles together. These bandits seemed a better-organized bunch than others he’d encountered.
* * *
One evening, Skippy had turned toward a distant structure. Closer, it had proved to be a large, low building with security floodlights mounted on it. It had a large roll-up entrance door for vehicles and a smaller one for pedestrians. There were no windows, but Skippy saw what looked like gunport slits. On the roof were a penthouse, radio antennas, solar panels, and a windmill. Rooftop sentries patrolled there.
After a cautious reconnaissance, Skippy’d seen that the surrounding camps were those of bandits. Why are they camped around that building? Maybe it’s a bandit headquarters, and they’re guarding it.
When the bandit leader approached the girl with the red-hot iron from the campfire, Skippy stood, drew his pistol from its holster and ran forward as fast as his short legs could carry him.
“Freeze! Get ’em up! Drop that iron!”
The bandits stared at the small stranger waving a gun at them. “Drop it, or get shot!” The man calmly put the iron back into the fire. Suddenly, another man made a run for the stacked rifles.
BAM! The bandit fell into the grass, cursing and pressing the wound in his side to staunch the flow of blood. The shooting showed the bandits that Skippy’s will was strong and his shaky aim good enough.
“You heard me! Grab sky!” he yelled. Slowly, the men raised their hands and began muttering. “Shut up! Keep your hands where I can see ’em!” Since leaving his ruined hometown, Skippy had learned that violent men sometimes had to be dealt with violently.
“Who might you be... Wyatt Earp?” inquired the bandit chief, eying the shiny badge on Skippy’s jacket, the one his friend Rumplestiltskin had given him in jest, the one which proclaimed him — to those close enough to read its inscription — “Chicken Inspector.”
“You’ll find out soon enough who I am.” Skippy gestured to the girl with his pistol. “Get over there and get their rifles.” She responded by slapping the bandit holding her and racing over to the stacked guns.
“You’re making a big mistake, boy,” cautioned the boss. At the next campfire, Skippy could see men emerging from their tents to see who had fired a shot.
“I’ve got ’em! Follow me!” The girl ran with her armful of weapons toward the building.
“You best go with her, mister,” advised the leader, who wore a wide-brimmed hat with a crow feather. “And you best stay inside with her. If you come out again, I’ll be waitin’ for you with that iron.”
“I’ll save my last cartridge for you, then, Captain Quantrill,” Skippy sneered.
“Come on!” the girl yelled. She was pounding toward the building. Skippy turned and ran after her.
When the bandits in nearby camps guessed what had happened, they fired at the runners. Distantly-aimed bullets whizzed by in the darkness. Skippy heard Crow Feather yelling, “Get ’em! Get ’em!” Because they were an “organized” group, the bandits that Skippy had rousted weren’t carrying their pistols. They were in a locked box in their cautious leader’s tent.
Gunshots erupted from the building’s roof. The sentries were giving Skippy and the girl covering fire. This action divided the bandit’s gunfire, allowing them to escape being hit. When the girl reached the smaller entrance, she dropped the rifles she was carrying and punched an intercom button. She quietly spoke a password, then pulled open the heavy steel door. She threw the rifles in and looked back at Skippy. “Come on!”
She rushed inside. Skippy paused to read the aluminum letters set in the entrance wall above him:
U. S. AIR FORCE STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND ORDNANCE DEPOT Fentress, Missouri
As he hesitated, the door slammed shut. On it was lettered crudely in red paint: “THE CITADELL.” Excess paint from the letters ran down the door. I guess they were in a hurry to get it painted.
The door opened again, and the girl stuck out her head. “You comin’ in or not?!”
A bullet aimed at Skippy ricocheted off the wall and struck bare ground, raising a puff of dust. In the harsh light of the security lamps, he was an easy target. “I’m in!” He leaped through the open door. She slammed it behind him. Skippy strained to see in the light provided by two lines of dim lamps attached to the high curved ceiling. “It’s not very bright in here.”
“That’s the way we want it. Your eyes’ll adjust. I’ll explain later. Welcome to the Citadell.” She touched his arm. “Thanks for stopping those peckerwoods from branding me like a cow.” The girl was about Skippy’s age and not bad-looking, even though her dark hair was cut unfashionably short. She was dusty and disheveled in her green coverall.
“You’re welcome... You know, somebody misspelled ‘Citadell’ on the door. It should only have one ‘l.’”
The girl contemplated the short, thin young man who’d rescued her. His beard-stubble face was tanned and worry-lined beyond his years. He wore an old leather jacket over a checkered flannel shirt and patched black sweater. Below his jeans were a pair of rugged boots that were too big for him and were stuffed with rags. A gimme cap advertising commercial corn seed was pulled down over his unkempt, dark-blonde hair.
“Really? Well, we’re unsophisticated folks. And besides, the painter was in a hurry.”
Life Is Swell in the Citadell
Skippy was pulled by his wrist down one of the building’s two open-top hallways. There were storage rooms on both sides, each with a closed steel door.
“My name’s Christine,” offered the girl.
“I’m Skippy,” he replied. “Are there any nukes stored here?”
“There used to be, but the Air Force took ’em away and used ’em.”
“Who lives here?”
“Refugees, homeless. The bandits call us ‘Trogs.’ It’s from some old word nobody remembers anymore. We live and work inside, where we’re safe. We stay in the rooms the Air Force stored their stuff in. I’m taking you to my family’s room.”
“Is it brighter in here during the daytime? I don’t see any windows.”
“No windows. After the sun sets, batteries power the ceiling lights, and we can see things — like now. After sunrise, those lights are turned off to recharge the batteries, and it gets dark inside.”
“We keep it dark in daytime so any invaders’ll be handicapped. If they break in at night, sensors’ll automatically turn the ceiling lights off.”
“How do you leave this place without being shot?”
“By a wastewater conduit that runs to a nearby creek. The bandits know about it, but they’re afraid to use it to get inside. It’s too easy for us to defend.”
“Who’s in charge here?”
“The Seer — our leader. The one who sees everything.”
Skippy awoke after a restless night spent trying to sleep in the room with Christine, her widowed mother, an aunt, and a jealous cousin.
The room was now empty except for Christine. “Good morning, Skippy,” she chirped.
“Morning? I’m not used to waking up in the darkness of daytime,” he grumbled.
In the hallway known as “Western Ave,” Christine aimed her flashlight beam into the darkness above, illuminating the overhead catwalk and cross-catwalks. “The Seer uses those catwalks to keep an eye on us, even in the daytime. He has special goggles that let him see in the dark. Nobody can hide from him.”
“Where does The Seer sleep?”
“He lives in a room built on a cross-catwalk at the back of the building.”
“How do I meet him?”
“You don’t. He’ll meet you if he wants to. Of course, he’s already seen you and knows you’re a newcomer.”
“How can he tell?”
“Newcomers are easily recognizable, Skippy. They walk around in the daytime with their arms out in front of ’em, feeling their way.” She smirked as she aimed her flashlight at Skippy’s shiny badge. “I guess you’ll want to inspect our chickens, now.”
* * *
Christine pulled open a door and led him down a dark stairway to the lighted basement. “We need light where we work during the day.”
Skippy saw Trogs standing and seated at tables. They stared at the newcomer. From a lumber storage area came the sawing and hammering sounds of carpentry.
“So this is where everybody is... What’s that smell?” he whispered.
“It’s the composter. It’s hard to keep its odors confined.”
“For the mushroom beds. We have to produce something valuable that we can trade to outsiders for stuff we need. So we grow magic mushrooms in compost made from our sewage mixed with weeds and dry waste.”
“Hallucinogenic fungi. We don’t have enough light to grow hemp inside the Citadell. We tried growing it outside, but the bandits wouldn’t let us harvest it. So we switched to ’shrooms.”
“Do your customers know what your compost is made from? You’re supposed to use horse manure.” He recalled the mushrooms in his mother’s tasty goulash.
“I won’t tell if you don’t. Come on. I’ll show you the ’shroom beds. We’ll skip the composter.”
Meeting the Man
The next day, while Christine’s family members were working, Skippy was allowed to sleep. When he awoke, he decided to do some prowling in the dark. His curiosity about the know-all Seer was getting the better of him, and he was determined to investigate the guy. But Christine had refused to lend him her flashlight. “You need to use your ears to learn your way in the dark.”
In the Western Ave. hallway, Skippy listened for The Seer’s footfalls on the catwalks, but he guessed that The Seer wouldn’t want to be heard as he “walked the cats.” He felt his way to the nearest catwalk-access ladder, and began climbing. His hands found the steel grid of the catwalk floor. He pulled his head above it — and immediately felt that indescribable feeling that someone was close to him.
“Argggh...” Suddenly, a scarf was looped around Skippy’s neck and tightened. He desperately clung to the ladder.
“Coming after me, are you?!” The cultured voice was strained. Skippy couldn’t answer or breathe. He stopped struggling, the only way to send a message of surrender. “Going to kill me with that rusty old police special of yours, huh?”
Let up! How can I answer while you’re choking me?! Skippy’s mind screamed at his attacker.
“Tell me!” The Seer released the garotte.
“No,” croaked Skippy.
“Then why’re you coming up here in the dark, boy?”
“I just wanted to meet you.”
“With the gun I let you keep?”
“I forgot. It’s become part of me. You can have it.”
Skippy felt the touch of cold steel on his forehead. “I’ll take it, but I don’t need it. This is a Beretta M9 15-round semi-automatic in mint condition. Climb up some more.”
Now that he knew The Seer wasn’t going to strangle him, Skippy’s irrepressible sense of humor came to the fore. “I’m gonna git me one o’ them fancy guns,” he cracked in a hick accent.
Hands stopped his cautious progress up the ladder and relieved him of his revolver. “Not today, you aren’t.”
From the dark outside her family’s room, Christine’s disembodied voice stabbed at him. “Where’ve you been?”
“I went to meet The Seer,” he replied blithely.
“You did what?!”
“He grabbed me when I climbed up a ladder to the catwalk.” Skippy could only imagine Christine’s shock at this revelation. “He took my pistol and told me to keep my place.”
“I’m glad I did what I did, then.” She gripped his wrist and put four cartridges into his hand. “I unloaded your gun while you were sleeping.”
“Great. The Seer trusts me, but you don’t.”
“You haven’t earned my trust yet.”
“What do I have to do to convince you — volunteer for the composter?” Before she could answer, their colloquy was interrupted by a clanging bell. It was so loud that the workers in the basement heard it.
“The attack alarm! We’ve got to defend the entrances.” She pulled him rapidly down Western Ave. They collided with others rushing through the dark in response to the alarm. At the building’s entrances, defenders manned four gunports until someone yelled, “They’re aiming for the ports!”
The voice of a rooftop sentry issued from an intercom loudspeaker. “They’ve got a tank! They’re puttin’ a charge against the big door!”
“Looks like the bad guys mean business this time,” Skippy coolly remarked.
“We’ve stacked a lot of junk behind the big door, but a fertilizer bomb could blow it all to hell,” said Christine. “This is the assault we knew would come.” Just then, a lucky bullet from the outside spanged off the bevel of a gunport and whizzed inside, where it ricocheted from a wall.
“Let’s get out of here.” Christine grabbed Skippy’s wrist and pulled him back into the dark interior. They rushed down Western Avenue, bumping into Trogs who were seeking the safety of their steel-doored rooms.
Those at the gunports were afraid to aim their rifles out of them through the hail of incoming bullets. From the rooftop, defenders fired futilely at the M-113 armored personnel carrier. It wasn’t really a tank, but its armor was impervious to rifle fire.
“We didn’t know they had a tank,” said Christine. “If we only had a bazooka...”
“If I only had my pistol,” moaned Skippy. “I have the ammo for it,” he replied bitterly as he fingered the cartridges in his hand.
“I’m taking you to the escape conduit, Skippy. You saved my skin, so I’m saving yours. Once you get to the creek, you’re on your own. I’m staying.”
“Don’t do that, Chrissy. It’s hopeless. Remember, Crow Feather still has his branding iron.”
“I probably won’t live long enough to see it again.” They rushed down the basement stairway. “This way. The hatchway to the conduit is hidden in a utility closet.”
“You can let go of my wrist now. I can see okay by your flashlight.”
“Here. This is the door.” She twisted the knob. “It’s locked! Who locked it?!”
“Going someplace, Christine?!” The voice from a nearby intercom’s loudspeaker was unmistakable.
“I was taking Skippy to the conduit, Seer. I owe him. He saved my life.”
“Skippy the Assassin, you mean? He almost had me convinced he’d become one of us. But that was before his pals drove up to our front door in an APC.”
“I’m not an assassin, and they aren’t my pals! I only want to get away from here. This isn’t my fight.” He realized how cowardly that must have sounded to The Seer. “I can’t be a Trog. It’s not my way.”
The leader considered Skippy’s plea. “Get up here, both of you.”
Cristine and Skippy stood at the catwalk-access ladder, straining their eyes to make out the shadowy figure whom Christine dared not illuminate.
“If I let you go, Skippy, where’ll you head?” The Trog leader seemed to be weakening in his resolve to use the newcomer as cannon fodder.
“Bartertown, I guess.”
The shockwave from an explosion at the roll-up door raced through the building, pounding eardrums and reflecting from interior surfaces. It blew aside the reinforced door and sent the junk stacked behind it flying. The blinding light of the APC’s headlamps assaulted the defenders’ precious darkness.
As The Seer tore the glare-swamped goggles from his face, something structural snapped, and his catwalk rolled to one side. He had to grip the railing to keep from falling to the floor.
Christine and Skippy gawked. The garish light revealed The Seer as a thin, wild-eyed, pale-skinned old man with a long, gray beard. To Skippy, he looked like the fabled John Brown, all fired up to free the slaves. The man quickly recovered his aplomb.
“Go to Bartertown, then.” He removed a key from his keyring and dropped it. “This is for the closet.” Christine picked it up and turned to leave. “Wait. Skippy, you’ll need this. Catch.” The Seer dropped his sleek automatic pistol into Skippy’s welcoming hands.
“Thanks, Big Dog. This’ll come in real handy.” He fondled the sleek firearm. “You take care now.” He and Christine headed back to the basement.
The Seer could see that invaders were overcoming the Trogs’ fierce resistance and were advancing inside the Citadell. He retreated to his quarters above the fray, where he loaded Skippy’s police special with a single round from a cigar box of various cartridges. He put the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
In the basement, Christine unlocked the utility closet and pulled open the hatch to the escape conduit. “Go, Skippy!” Reluctantly, he climbed down a ladder into the pipe and stood looking up at her. “Come on, Chrissy. There’s nobody down here. We can...” She slammed the hatch closed.
“Damn!” He ran toward the conduit’s outfall at the creek. He tiptoed to its lip and peered out around it. Nobody was in sight. He splashed through the creek and up a bank to where he could view the Citadell. He could see its blasted-open doorway. The battle had moved inside after the bandits had crushed the stacked-up junk with their APC.
“It’s hopeless.” Skippy returned to the creek and made himself as comfortable as possible under a cutbank. He hid there until nightfall, when it was safer to leave the area. Then he trekked west under starlight.
Copyright © 2010 by Frederick D. Rustam