Fiction Page 8
THE NAPALM BANDIT
Lawrence R. Dagstine
The walls of the castle were high and thick, the gates made of wrought iron, watched by men with guns and swords. People came and went, merchants, beautiful female servants, laborers, craftsmen of various kinds, agents, contractors, solicitors, and moneymen, their careful wolfish faces lined with greed, some dressed in wide-shouldered jumpsuits or hand-painted chain mail, others having some smart trap for cadging the lucre that frothed inside the walls like suds in a wash barrel.
All of these people had special passes which permitted them to meet with the Duke of Quelew, Apos Drake. No matter how important they were in their own eyes, they were sent scampering unless they had the right papers or documentation. Phultos, a profiteering world filled with medieval countrysides and industrial localities, was unyielding when it came to security¾perhaps because of the other nine planets sharing its system, detention worlds with strict prison facilities. Phultos, nicknamed the pink planet, was populated by the grandchildren of former Terrenes. The largest cities resembled something out of a science fiction and fantasy novel. A diverse mix of World War One-looking factories and plants surrounded by small Arthurian villages and towns.
Drake, who lived in the largest of these villages¾and who had once been a warden on one of the detention worlds¾and then inherited the royal crest of the Quelew and his father's business, stood this very misty morning on the edge of his balcony, adorned in the most splendid attire. He wore a long golden cloaklike gown to match his long golden tresses, sprinkled with red and black rhinestones and the most rococo designs. Beneath this royal attire was a red cotton outfit and a blue silk sash, sort of like a cummerbund, holding it together. He stood there, soaking up the rays of morning sunlight, thinking to himself and acting hesitant. This was not like him, to be hesitant. Not ever. Physical hazards and other dangers were the daily grist of life to him; not so the castle walls, or the faces of preoccupied strangers, or what lay beyond those wrought iron gates.
In the old days, before he became a duke, those very same gates would have been closed to him, the guards and lobby receptionists disrespectful, forgetting about him and hero-worshipping a man who was never much of a father. Father. Now, he wasn't as reluctant to give his name or identity card to the old woman at the reception desk. Just swipe and go. She would quickly recognize the face and realize he was the sort of person she had dealt with many times, one who had moved up in the world. A superior.
And moved up he had. His workplace was a pure example. At one end of the large office there were animal skins and trophies, a gigantic fish tank, cases filled with treasures and rare artifacts, leather and suede cushioning, imported from the outer worlds, other contemporary furniture, a library, and a file cabinet to the far wall. On the other side was his desk, where he strode up and down, squeezing a ball of clay which he occasionally played a game with by tossing it to one of the guests present; anyone thus singled out was expected to catch the ball and throw it back. But alas, there were no guests at the moment. And even if there had been, it would probably have been more contractors or solicitors, trying to offer their services or sell more work.
Being of royal lineage, he was also a man devoted to hobbies: he had taken up successfully horseback riding, deep-sea diving, archery, and rock climbing, becoming proficient at each before dropping it for a new pastime which, in order to appeal to his taste, must contain the element of danger. In a society where shiftlessness bred physical softness he had kept himself tough, outnerving his competitors when he ultimately failed to outthink them. He ran his father's chemical plants in his spare time, with its thousands of employees and its lucre of invested capital, doing this on his own like a small lonesome cavalry post.
Drake was hated in the public's eye; perhaps the reason for this was because he ignored to pay the taxes or fines often incurred on his factories and plants. He wasn't the environmentalist type either. Any hazardous materials or toxic waste, such as napalm, which may have leaked into Quelew village now and again were transferred to the dungeons of his castle; the dungeons linked the factories to the sewers, and the sewers linked the rest of the planet.
He now sat at his desk, slightly tired of squeezing the clay ball. A light flashed on a small black box beside his arm. It was some sort of intercom. He leaned forward and pressed a button at the bottom, talking into it. "Yes, Ms Kruthers?" he said. "You want me?"
"You have a visitor, Mr Drake," said the lobby receptionist. "This man says he has an appointment with you."
"Appointment?" Drake didn't recall there being an appointment. Not today.
"Should I send him up, sir?" asked the receptionist.
Drake checked his journal just to be sure. "No," he replied shortly. "Cancel it whoever it is." Probably just another solicitor, he thought. "Cancel all my appoint-ments for the day. I have fencing lessons in five minutes."
"But sir, it was you who made the appointment. It was marked down under the urgency heading."
"Well, who the devil is it? I haven`t got all day."
Now he remembered. Lennon. Fergumin Lennon.
He'd summoned his childhood friend there for a reason. He was faced with a problem (more a dilemma), and needed a hand getting out of it. "Send him up, Ms Kruthers," said Drake. "Oh, and cancel my fencing."
A moment later Lennon entered. The man looked young for his age. He was oddly dressed, sort of like a Thespian, beard and all. But you could tell he was a warrior, an infiltrator, a freelancer. Attached to the end of his belt was a curved long sword and on his back was a bag of spears. Around his right shoulder was a holster, which housed some strange looking revolver. It was surprising that he didn't have to check these weapons downstairs with Ms Kruthers or the guards. Two thin strips of warpaint embellished his cheeks right beneath his eyelids. The duke found his silent behavior strange. He just grinned. Lennon was no longer the man he'd been, and Drake saw this.
"Well, well, well," said Drake, shaking his head, "if it isn't the man who beat me at desert tracking in my sophomore year. A matter of fact, you beat me at a lot of things during our university days. Age hasn't changed you any. Yet you do look stronger, wiser." He tossed the clay ball Lennon's way and it was caught with ease. Not even a flinch. Drake was slightly amazed at these quick reflexes. "The last time I saw you," he added, "you were taking it easy as a substitute warden at the old Spectrax Pen. I remember you writing me, telling me you were looking for adventure, and you were off to find the birthplace of your ancestors. Actually, our ancestors. Did they come from Trivos-3, like you had hoped?"
"No," said Lennon, in what almost seemed like an inaudible whisper. Most of the time his voice was thin and raspy. "They came from another planet in another system, someplace called Earth."
Drake leaned back decoratively in his leather chair and put his feet up on the desk. "Terra, huh? Perhaps all our ancestry dates back there. The history books tell us no different. Anyway, how've you been since retirement?"
Lennon looked around the office. "All right, I guess." Yet he sounded like he wasn't too proud of himself; Drake would have thought otherwise. "The pension they gave me paid for most of my travels. What about you? It must feel good to be a member of the royal house of Quelew."
"Now I know what you're thinking," Drake said, "that I was the luckiest of my siblings. The truth is, my father hated me. Old codger. He felt I was a nuisance, so I strayed towards my mother. Yet in the end he left me everything: factories, plants, village deeds, a political and industrious kingdom and a noble title¾all great responsibilities which I couldn't handle alone. I sometimes think he left me these things on purpose."
"Perhaps," said Lennon, with an indefinable hint of regard, "but it was still for the better. I would take on a whole imperial army just to own your name. What I don't understand, and I probably never will, is why you didn't tell me you were leaving Spectrax. You left me behind with all those maniacs. That was no way to treat a friend."
"Are you still mad about that?"
"Let's not reminisce further, Drake. It's the easiest way to forget. I'm sorry I brought it up. Tell me, why did you summon me here?"
Drake wasn't up to talking about the past either. Spectrax was a long but forgotten memory. "I have a job for you," he said, pulling out a map of some sort of drainage tunnels. "How are you at infiltrating factories and retrieving chemicals?" Lennon looked confused and Drake regarded him solemnly for a moment, then explained, "I have a problem which requires skills from your new line of work. A few months ago, I was being fined exorbitant amounts of money for using all my factories' ventilation shafts as storage areas for my napalm. Naturally, I wasn't up to losing any profit on the chemical shipments. So I had a tunnel built between this castle and the Eagle-1 factory, a sort of sewer outlet of my own doing. And I had the main shipment, about 20 or so cannisters of enriched napalm from the outer worlds, shipped to the dungeons of my castle which linked this new tunnel."
"I can't imagine this stronghold being polluted," said Lennon flippantly; yes, a touch of sarcasm was evident in his voice. "Why don't you send your men down there in latex suits to get it out?"
"I already have," Drake scowled, "and they're dead. You see, Lennon, once construction was completed on the tunnel, to avoid the penalties and fines I sold the Eagle-1 factory to a terrorist regime, who were also from the outer worlds. No paperwork. Under the table sort of stuff. The leader of this regime is using this special napalm to build weapons of war, and also pollute Quelew's air and chase me out of my own kingdom. Yes, I know, it was a foolish thing. I should have just paid the penalties and I wouldn`t have even had to deal with this dictator."
"And the tunnels¾the link up between the dungeons of this castle, the sewer, and the Eagle-1 factory?"
"No longer under my control. You can exit through Quelew, but you can no longer enter. The entrance has been sealed off. Don't worry, I am smart enough to put guards at the exit. A few months prior to your arrival two of my servants were blown apart with semi-automatics. I don't chance surprise invasions anymore. But now no one will safeguard the exit to the lower levels unless the purse is thick."
Lennon shook his head and laughed. "So that's why you called me here. To help infiltrate one of your old plants and return underground with your toxic waste. Napalm must be a profitable business if you're going to these measures." He started to walk around. "You seem to be a tradesman at hunting and retrieving yourself, judging by these trophies." He was at one particular case which held a trophy for ancient aircraft exploration. To think that Drake actually went on an expedition to hunt for a giant airship thousands of years old. "Why don't you do it?"
"Someone has to run the kingdom and the many other plants surrounding it," Drake said. "Besides, nowadays even I can't get into Eagle-1 alone. I need the help of a professional."
Lennon turned his head. "You do realize I am a freelancer and work solo? Also my fee is very¾"
"You will be paid well," Drake jumped in and said. "I guarantee you."
Lennon gave him a dirty look and headed for the door. Somehow, he didn't want this job, or Drake's money; although he could have used it after returning to Phultos a bit pocketless. After all, the pension from Spectrax wasn't enough.
"Using money again to repair a friendship?" Lennon was looking down at the floor when he said this. "No, I can't. Not this time, Drake. You're on your own."
Drake flew from his chair. He crossed the room in two or three light bounds, ambulating on the balls of his feet. He caught Lennon by the arm at the door to his office and spun him around. His air was friendly, almost playful, but his hold was much too tight for friendliness. In this immense grip Lennon, a very harmoniously built man, wriggled slight helplessly. The former Spectrax employee was now a certified bounty hunter, careful, shrewd, and quite successful at his new trade. He began bending Drake's fingers back. The pain was quite excruciating, but Drake held it in. What a joke. When the duke had come to him in distress before, thinking he had forgotten Spectrax, Lennon was offered money, not out of sorrow or generosity but so he could brag of having befriended a man so well-known. Now he needed him again, but for another purpose.
Drake's dark eyes were now somber, yet filled with desperation. "I have never had to beg for anything in my life¾except this once!" Lennon stared wildly at him, and gave him a polite warning to loosen the grip on his arm; he didn't care for being held onto like a reluctant toddler. "I will give you a chunk of my kingdom," he went on, "and a noble title like my own. If wealth doesn't interest you at this stage of the game¾then so be it! I give you a home and a chair in my parliament instead." And it was a whole lot more enticing than the position offered many years back at Spectrax.
"Fine...fine, give me your documentation and fill me in," said Lennon concurringly; though this wasn't what he truly wanted at first.
Drake gave a sigh of relief. He handed his friend a map of the tunnel his people built, the floorplans for the Eagle-1 factory, and a picture of an army official. "This is Colonel James," he said, "but he's better known as the tyrant in charge of Eagle-1, and head supervisor over the napalm. This other chart is a layout of the whole facility. Oh, and once you get in the vicinity, you will have to change your accent. Speak like them. And you will also have to wear a pair of brown army fatigues just as they do."
"Anything else?" Lennon glanced at the picture. It was now memorized in his head.
"That's it," Drake said. "Ms Kruthers will give you your uniform and instructions how to get there."
Lennon crossed his brows and grinned. He took the rest of the documentation, but not with extreme pleasure. A home, he thought to himself¾something he had always wanted. A noble title and a piece of Quelew too. Even a fool from the outer worlds wouldn't turn down such an offer. Lennon could settle down and remarry, earn the respected name he'd always dreamed of having. It was a position no freelancer like himself could resist.
Midnight quickly dawned over the eastern most part of Phultos and Lennon was fed up. He was hot, his uniform sticking to his back, the strap of his semi-automatic chafed his shoulder, and he was thirsty. Certain areas of the planet were so polluted that it caused an acceleration in the rising greenhouse effect. It was so bad that the planet was turning pinker every month, and the temperature jumped 20 degrees. He was beginning to regret taking this job. Drake had failed to mention the dozens of soldiers guarding Eagle-1, the training drills every five minutes surrounding the front and back entrances, or the hours of waiting on village street corners in the blazing heat.
And now Drake's accomplice, following steadily behind, popping up every few seconds with new information. This slightly angered Lennon. The duke knew he preferred working solo. "See that air duct beside the back gate, high above the watch hounds?" Lennon nodded. "That is actually a great big pipe leading into the factory's wash basin. It's your easiest way in. It hasn't been used since the employees were here. Only one guard, a dog trainer, stands by it, watches it. He doesn't let anybody through unless they're authorized, see? Yours is a responsible job, lad. I know you can outsmart him."
"I know what I can and cannot do," said Lennon silently, standing in the archway of a nearby alley. He felt like he was talking to his own shadow. He was waiting for the village bar to close before he made his move. "Now go away, old man. Tell Drake I can finish this alone."
Lennon looked back up the street. The bar was closing. Bar maids were putting up chairs and dimming the lights. He advanced, keeping his head low. The area near the air duct, which the dog trainer was guarding, was one of a chain stretched across the grounds from one part of the building to the other, almost four hundred meters in a cylindrical fashion. Definitely a pipe, he thought to himself. The facade of the building was another one hundred and fifty meters to the rear (or considered the front side from that end) of the grounds. He could see men inside the opposite forecourt, marking out where the privates would stand. The sergeants probably had some sort of basic training planned out for the morning.
There were about four dogs in all, not including the one the guard held by his side with a leash. He was hobbling back and forth looking like he was never going to make it through the night with his eyes open. The soldier looked beyond tired. Lennon found his opportunity in this. He dug deep down into his pocket and took out a handful of beef jerky, and once again advanced forward.
Lennon scurried through the bushes and slowly approached the pack of growling mutts, distributing meat all around evenly. The dogs were happily occupied, which was also a relief for Lennon; he didn't take too well to animals. His black beret was stained with sweat and the long brown greatcoat he wore swished below his knee. Maybe, thought Lennon, watching the guard hobble back and forth with his pooch, he wouldn't have to kill him to gain access to the pipe. Maybe he would let him in the nearby side entrance freely.
He stood up and came forward. The dog trainer threw him a freakish glance. As Lennon stopped in front of him, the other dog started growling, but he leaned forward and shoved some jerky in its mouth and patted its head. The animal was now timid. "It seems he likes me," Lennon smiled.
"Who are you?" asked the soldier, somewhat fascinated by his presence. "And what are you doing here?" It's a good thing Lennon had not forgot to use the fake accent on him. Drake was right. It was an alien tongue or dialect, but mixed with a warbled form of English. They too were of human origin.
"I was on my way back to my post. The bar's closed." Lennon was still smiling, as if all was well. "Happy hour's over."
"You're way off your grounds, man. Why did you take this route? And how did you elude my vector pups?"
"Oh, them?" Lennon played dumb. "They were friendly. And I often use this path at night as a shortcut. I figured you'd be so nice as to let me in this way, since I am a little toasted. Wouldn't want my barrack sergeant seeing me like this now would we?"
The dog trainer looked at the medals on Lennon's coat. "Take your hat off."
Lennon removed the beret. "Something wrong?"
"These medals are fake," said the dog trainer suspiciously.
Lennon grinned wickedly. "Are they now?"
"You want entrance? Let me see your identification and papers." The soldier repeated this a few times but Lennon did not move. "Come on, pops, I haven't got all day. Let's have a look at your papers."
"Pops, huh?" Lennon fumbled inside his coat, which could have done with a wash before Drake's secretary gave it to him. He produced two cards. The dog trainer studied the photograph on each card, then looked up. "Take off your beret again."
Lennon kindly removed it again. The trainer let his animal loose to run free around the lot. He compared the face with those in the photographs. The man in front of him hardly resembled the man in the pictures. Perhaps it was the facial hair that gave it away. He had cut himself shaving and small bits of toilet paper (in the pictures) were stuck on the cuts. The face was graying, sickly, and filmed with dark sweat. Definitely not Lennon. Not by a longshot. But the soldier kept silent.
"All right, you can go," he said, motioning Lennon with a slight nod of his head and a crass look. He pulled a lever to release the gate, but it wasn't opening right away. The dog trainer was reaching into his holster as Lennon stood there waiting for it to open, back turned.
A moment later there was a quiet scene of the forecourt, and then rapid gunshots as a piece of someone's skull flew through the air like a frisbee. Dogs started running up and down, barking...flashlights and alien voices began flickering...and a sound alarm, sort of like a siren, divulged the outside of the factory.
But Lennon could no longer hear a thing. He was safely buried within the middle of the pipe, the tip of his semi-automatic still warm.
He stripped off his greatcoat and rolled up his sleeves. He crawled through the slimy trail of dung, section by section. The smell was putrid; he even had to stop a couple of times to throw up, that's how bad it was. The black rubber and silver metal floor grate at the other end was quickly unscrewed and revealed a bathroom of sorts for former employees. The nausea and sweating inspired by endless hours of chewing on jerky back in the village and crawling through dung in that pipe was only now beginning to leave him.
He opened the door to the wash basin and found himself in a dark, empty hall on some floor of the factory. There was one window in this hall. He peeked out and saw soldiers and dogs rambling around. He ignored them and went about his business. He had to find the napalm, that was his objective; and now with all the commotion going on outside, it was the perfect time.
The next section of the factory brought him to a storage shaft. He unscrewed the grate and looked down it. It had to be there. Where else would you keep napalm? Only underground, right? But to be sure, he still went back and quoted the Eagle-1 floorplans.
He dropped his supplies and stepped into the shaft, grabbing hold of the top rung to a metal ladder. Before he descended, he tucked the map leading back to Quelew (through the man-made tunnel) in his shirt pocket. He left behind his old weapon and took with him a different gun, a long rifle often used by bounty hunters. A second later he slipped on a silencer. Lovingly and meticulously he assembled the weapon. What a craft indeed. It had been built to assassinate, built to take out an arsenal, built for someone like himself.
Once Lennon reached the bottom of the shaft he made it his job to find shelter behind a stack of crates, and not stick out like a sore thumb. There were three men standing over by the far wall of this cavernous structure, standing beside almost two-dozen toxic waste cannisters. Three or four of the cannisters had been already opened and used. Two of the men were regular soldiers, consulting with the first man. The first man was definitely a higher-up, and he held a clipboard and a pen in his hand and argued with the other two men. To the right was a giant forklift, perfect for driving the cannisters back through the man-made tunnels to Quelew.
Lennon listened in on their conversation...
"I've checked off the remaining napalm freight," said the higher-up. "Have the tanks been fueled and preparations made ready?"
"Yes, Colonel," said the first soldier, saluting. "Thirty-six destroyers in all. The napalm was a good substitute like you said."
"Well, why wouldn't it be? It's taken me months to block the sewers and fend off trespassers from Quelew. Tomorrow we start training, the day after is the full course attack. The duke won't know what hit him."
Lennon stared unblinkingly through a gap in the crates at the higher-up. Yes, just like in the picture...except he must have shaved. It was that Colonel James fellow. Lennon rested his weapon up on the crate, and put his eye up to the telescopic glass. He waited, patiently.
The searchlights from other soldiers began to illuminate the shaft above him and leap into focus. There wasn't much time.
Suddenly, everything felt like it was in slow motion. If there was ever a time to take his shot it was now. The second soldier passed Lennon's line of sight. He tracked the target with the gun. The head, even at such a long distance, a-peared large and clear, as large as a melon in one of Quelew's fruit fields.
Satisfied, he lined a series of small cartridges up on the edge of the crate. He gently cracked his knuckles and stroked the trigger. With forefinger and thumb he slid back the gun's bolt and eased the first bullet into the breech. The world around him still felt like it was playing in slow motion, just like a scratched record. The soldier never knew what hit him, and with the silencer at the end of his gun, it even took the colonel a while to realize what was going on. Lennon pushed the bolt forward again until it closed on the base of the last cartridge¾ten in all¾and gave a half twist and temporarily locked it. He stood up and came out of hiding. Only Colonel James was left alive. The colonel dropped his clipboard and gulped with fear, swallowed his breath. Lennon slowly fumbled for his pipe and tobacco. Lighting up and drawing hard on his first smoke in hours, he leaned back against the crate and said, "And what would you accomplish if you had done that?" He was talking about invading Quelew with destroyer tanks.
"I would be sole proprietor of the chemical resources that are due me," uttered the colonel, raising his hands slightly in the air. "Phultos is a moneymaking world. It was colonized a century ago by you Terrenes for the same reason my men and I came here. The napalm, the petroleum, the uranium, the gases, and the coal mines."
"In other words, lethal and non-lethal resources," said Lennon.
"More than that. One of the reasons Terrenes had to populate other planets was because these resources were slowly diminishing, disappearing off the face of the earth." The colonel shook his head and laughed. "But let's forget all that. It's obvious Apos sent you here to kill me and retrieve his barrels, before a leakage or spill or some other terrible disaster takes place. I agree, it is a loathsome feeling to go to bed at night knowing you live over a mile of highly flammable contaminants."
"If you have no regard for Quelew and its children, or their children's children, I can offer you something very worthwhile. Much better than what the duke probably offered you."
"I'm not so sure," said Lennon. "I usually don't deal with totalitarians or militant hopefuls. I suppose I have to let you go and keep all this napalm if the offer suits me."
Colonel James blinked at him. "Why, are you willing to talk a deal? Do you feel like being rewarded beyond your wildest dreams?"
Lennon didn't want to fire too close to the cannisters, for fear that they would explode. "What could you possibly give me that I don't already have?"
"Wealth." This was something Apos Drake just happened to offer as well.
"No thanks. I find human life to be more worthwhile than that. And besides, I would rather keep my lousy pension than see a world with a polluted future."
Lennon raised the gun and squinted at James. The colonel was a rather short and stocky man, but an easy target where his brain was concerned. It only took a second for it to be over. And Lennon had no regrets whatsoever.
But was his mission complete?
He walked over to the remaining cannisters of napalm and glimpsed over his shoulder at the forklift. Just beside the lift was the door that led into the man-made tunnels, the ones Apos's men had spent years building. These tunnels also gave access to the sewers, don't forget. "I'm sorry, Drake," he muttered, "I know you're my friend and all, and I was sent in to do a job. But I plan on leaving this job half done. And you know I have my reasons. I refuse to let you pollute the future of Quelew with this hazardous material. Not so you can profit."
Lennon slid open the door to the tunnels. He piled the cannisters onto the lift and drove it until he reached the sewers, particularly a path the water was taking toward an uninhabited part of the planet. He lowered the lift's prongs and dumped the toxic waste into the stream. Within seconds, the cannisters sank and were captured by the current, taken far away where it could do no harm.