The Globe Folio: Tales from the Five Cities
[EDITORS NOTE: Below is the final story of a set of six stories set on a single planet but written by four authors. At the bottom of this story are links to the other five stories. And there will be more to come. I promise!]
by Matthew Cross
The United Polity Ship Pacifica, a Naval carrier, slid towards the planet, riding down the bent space of the sun’s massive gravity well. Ward was a Marine, not a scientist, so she knew the general theory but not exactly how the Slide Engines worked. The details were classified anyway, one of many strategic advantages tightly controlled by the Polity’s military. With such massive military advantages, the war should have been going better. Raised by the Polity Navy on an academy ship, there was no one more loyal to the Polity of Unified Planets than Capt. Ward. But she knew to keep her doubts to herself.
Shipboard duties during a Slide for a Marine were light, so Ward kept her Marines busy with constant training, surprise drills and study. To keep the peace with the ship’s crew, Marines also volunteered for KP, swabbing decks and other scut work, to show they weren’t just freeloaders. It was all in the SEAL Leadership Manual. “Stick to the Manual, Ward, and you won’t go far wrong,” said Commander Argyle, when pinning on her captain’s bars.
“And when the Manual doesn’t cover it, Commander?” she remembered asking.
“SEALs were born and bred for off-Manual, Captain. Achieve the objective, by any means necessary.”
The SEALs have a lot of slogans. So many it’s a common joke in the Navy. Achieve the objective, by any means necessary, was one. It was not one of the cleverest or one of the most uplifting. It did not summarize what a SEAL was, but it cut straight to the heart of what a SEAL did.
Ward was in the Officer’s Mess, setting the table for Cookie, the chief steward. Technically, officers weren’t supposed to do scut work, but Ward found small ways to lighten the load or at least lighten the mood when shipboard. She didn’t mind. It reminded her of simpler times aboard the U.P.S. Euphorion, her first academy ship where all the students did whatever needed doing. Cookie came out from the galley and announced that the planet was within visual-light range.
Ward calmed the butterflies in her stomach and laid the last of the fine silver. She was proud her hands did not shake, not noticeably anyway.
“Wanna take dinner in your quarters, Captain?” Cookie asked.
“Yes, please,” Ward said gratefully. Cookie was shipborn and cared little for planets. But Ward was planetborn and raised until her academy years. She lived in space and had the bug for exploration, but landing on a planet was the closest she would ever come to returning home.
In her quarters, Ward turned on the high-tech holo equipment installed for her to review battlefields in space and on the ground. She had already been using the high-radiation scans to get the lay of the land. And her intelligence lieutenant had gleaned all he could from the planet’s communication’s transmissions that traveled this far. It was dimmed little.
These people clearly had no interest in contacting anyone offworld, which was very strange. What kind of backwards rock was she going to? But when the brilliant blue marble appeared in the middle of her quarters, she threw herself onto her berth and stared at it. Even at maximum magnification, even using AI estimations to fill in the image, it was no bigger than her thumb. When she cut the planet’s yellowish-white sun from the image, the planet looked tiny and fragile floating in the darkness of the room.
What kind of backwards rock was she going to?
She watched the planet, really just a half-sphere view, revolve in the sun’s light on the live feed as she took her dinner. Cookie delivered her meal in person, which made her blush. “Cookie, you shouldn’t play favorites!”
Cookie waved a large, pudgy hand, and tucked his thumbs into his straining apron strings. “You work as hard as any crew on this bucket and I seen you doin’ for favors for anyone and e’ryone. If Cap’n Ward wants to watch a blue rock spin here in the privacy of ‘er quarters, ‘en Captain’s P’rogative.”
“Captain’s Prerogative is a right of a ship’s captain, not a Marine captain,” Ward said, trying to reprimand Cookie with a stern voice but failing.
“Cap’n’s P’rogative,” Cookie said again and closed the door.
The food was excellent, of course, but Ward found herself picking at her food and letting it grow cold as she watched the slowly spinning blue orb.
First Sight was a tradition in the Navy. Unless the ship was engaged in battle, most of the crew was given light duties for as much as 20 hours. It was a sound policy. Even when sliding, the briefest interstellar trip took more than a year. And you couldn’t keep planetborn away from the viewscreens anyway. So ship captains gave a First Sight holiday. And when the holiday ended, they used the natural rise in energy to finish the many chores remaining before attaining an orbit.
Ward tried to enjoy the first hours of the holiday, but her mind kept reviewing her orders and her last transmission from 3Q Fleet Command. They had been pretty simple. Simple was good. But usually orders were very detailed, giving a company-grade officer little to do but review the extensive instructions and implement them.
Here it had been the opposite: Secure the planet against the enemy and begin extraction of resources vital to the Polity Navy. Destroy any resources of use to the enemy but not of use to the Navy. It was vague; dimmed-stars vague.
She had discussed it with Capt. Exeter, the ship’s captain, of course. He was polite and gave a few vague suggestions. Eventually, Ward quit asking. The answer was clear. No one knew anything about the planet or its resources. As the commanding officer of the landing, she would have to figure out on her own what resources needed extracting and what needed destroying.
There would be tough choices ahead. Ward had made tough choices before and she would have to make them again. That’s the price of a captain’s bars or any officer rank. But she didn’t have to like it.
So far, the butcher’s bill had been light. In three years of the Slide, they’d only had two engagements. The first had been a small skirmish not far out from Nestor, a Polity hub on the edge of Polity space where Ward had joined the U.P.S. Pacifica. That space, so close to a Polity stronghold, should have been cleared. Such was the state of the Polity in the Third Quadrant. No one spoke of it, or not in more than whispers, but loyalty to the Polity had been shrinking in the quadrant ever since Ward had graduated from the academy.
The skirmish had only lasted a few hours. Barely enough time for Ward and her Marines to get involved. They had loaded into transports for boarding the enemy ships but had been recalled after the enemy broke off.
Capt. Exeter had harried the departing ship with a long stream of salvos meant to provide cover for the returning transports. But the fleeing ship had fired off a few parting shots and managed to hit one of the transports. Twenty dead, all told, three Marine squads, a Navy pilot and a Gunner’s Mate.
Four fighters zipped out immediately to harry the pirate ship.
That would count against Capt. Exeter’s butcher’s bill, not her own, as it happened while the Marines were in a Navy transport. Not that it mattered to Exeter or Ward. The Navy kept track of such things, in case a court martial was necessary. But unless you were a complete vac out, nobody reviewed the figures, especially during times of war. What mattered was that personnel were lost. Friends and friends-of-friends. But there was always a butcher’s bill to be paid. Officers had to pay it, learn any lessons that could be learned and move on.
The second engagement had been more serious. Two years into the Slide they had run across an armed ship attacking a merchant vessel. Afterwards, opinions among the ship’s officers varied on whether the crew of the armed ship were seasoned pirates or just opportunists. But everyone agreed this was Polity space and the Polity Navy had the duty to stamp out piracy, even in contested Polity space.
The pirate ship and its target had been far off the Slide vector, so the best Capt. Exeter could do was reverse Slide Engines and provide cover fire. Four fighters zipped out immediately to harry the pirate ship. Ward and two transports of Marines were sent out close behind them.
Capt. Exeter had not deemed the engagement worth revving up and sending out one of the bombers. The bombers were not ideal for space engagements on anything smaller than a destroyer and were considered high-value assets. If the four fighters and Ward’s contingent could not get the job done, Exeter would harry the pirate from a distance but resume the Slide towards the objective, leaving Ward behind if he had to. Orders were orders. Achieve the objective.
Fighting pirates was like shooting fish in a barrel. They rarely had military training beyond the captain, they were undercrewed and sometimes half-starved. So Ward took seasoned lieutenants but the greenest Marines. Just for the exercise, she ordered the transport pilots to perform a running drop rather than land and lock on the ship. Ward’s squad took the main communications array. She told the lieutenant to synchronize explosions with the squad taking out the pirate’s main gun. Not necessary for this mission, but good practice.
Ward knew the man would take some time to die in space.
Ward stood on the hull watching the squad and monitoring the other squads on her comms and HUD. She turned when she felt the telltale vibration in her boot. One of the pirates had gotten bold, or was smarter than his mates, and came out an airlock. He never saw her. She was behind the hatch before it fully opened. When his head emerged, her serrated blade cut both his communications and air lines. He did not even realize it until he had fully emerged. Then she kicked him off into space.
He was so distracted with his flailing air line that he failed to notice he was untethered in space. Just in case he had a gun and came to his senses before he asphyxiated, she finished him with a couple taps from her sidearm.
By the time Ward rechecked her HUD, the ship’s weapons and comms were destroyed. Two squads near the bridge infiltrated, extracted the pirate captain, and set explosives on the bridge. Ward lost two Marines in the fight for the bridge. Not wanting to tempt fate, she ordered the transport pilots to come back for a lock-and-load. Before the bridge even blew, the two transports had departed, following the distant lights of the fighters on their way back to Pacifica.
From the brig, Ward presented the pirate captain to Capt. Exeter via comms. Exeter seemed uninterested in any intelligence the pirate captain held. He gave Ward’s intelligence officer one hour to extract what he could. Then Capt. Exeter appeared at the brig personally, listened to a quick summary of the facts gathered, and pronounced judgment.
“By the power vested in me as captain of this Polity ship, you are found guilty of high piracy. Sentencing is execution and vacuation. Sentence to be served immediately.” The pirate began to wail and tried to throw himself on his knees, but Capt. Exeter had already drawn his sidearm and fired two shots into the man’s chest. He aimed low, avoiding the heart, and Ward knew the man would take some time to die in space. A midshipman and a spacer dragged the pirate away to be vacced from the nearest airlock.
Ward set her landing course so that she would pass visibly over each of the cities from the southern coastal city to the subterranean settlements in the mountains to the north. She then circled back south to land in a field near the largest city, the one with skyscrapers.
As a SEAL, Ward was used to planning and making unseen penetrations of enemy lines. But these are Polity citizens, not enemies, not unless they choose to be, she reminded herself.
As she descended through the atmosphere, rather than dampen the sound, she chose vectors over each city that would direct the roar of her rockets for maximum effect. They would hear and feel the rumble overhead. She painted purple streaks across their sky.
With her noisy and highly visible entrance, she was making a statement. The Polity Navy has arrived. You are safe from the enemy. We are here. And she was summoning the planet’s leaders to meet her.
The Marine Lander sat squatly in the high grass on a rise overlooking the city and the river beyond. It was an ugly craft and painted an uglier color, a patchy mix of greens and browns meant to serve as generic camouflage on most breathable planets. Ward liked its sturdiness. She was a SEAL, not a pilot, so she was not a finesse flyer, and the Lander drove like a bus, but a sturdy, stable bus. She could land it in nearly any kind of weather. And the Marines liked it because it had heavy armor, lots of room and could even serve as living quarters on inhospitable planets.
It could be used to hop about a planet, too, but it ate rocket fuel like the beast that it was. Slide technology did not work well in atmospheres, and even older grav technology worked better close to the ground and not in high altitudes. So landings required rockets, and Marines used the Lander.
Ward joined the knot of lieutenants on the hummock. It was not good strategy for all the officers to gather in one place, but she allowed it. First, they were technically on a Polity planet. Second, this was largely a diplomatic mission and she was trying to get her officers, and herself, to think of it that way. Finally, their intelligence revealed that the city’s greatest weapons were the few pulsar cannons mounted on the walls, and Ward had landed beyond their range. A good thing. In their dress whites, the clutch of officers made an excellent target.
The nighttime landing was part of the plan, and so far, things were going to plan. The city residents hid behind some type of crude force wall. Shortly after dawn, after the city had ample time to view the Marine Lander by daylight, a door opened and several gravcraft exited and lined up before the city walls. Each was a small, armored craft with a single pilot. Finally, a sleek, blue vehicle that screamed unarmed civilian emerged and glided slowly towards the Marine Lander. In fact, it came at a reluctant crawl.
Ward called for a wheeled vehicle and grabbed one bottle from the case of wine she had brought as a gift for the city leaders. Alone, she drove to meet the blue vehicle halfway.
The city’s ambassador was a tall, thin man with short brown hair and blue eyes full of lively curiosity. His blue suit and bearing screamed civil servant. Maybe a leader of some type, but probably a bureaucrat and not a politician. A lucky break! She hated politicians. No, she loathed them.
“Welcome to the First City of Whitehall,” he said with a nervous smile and shaking hands. “I am Leonardo.”
He spoke Polityglot. Another lucky break! Ward knew this lucky streak could not last, but she would milk it for all it was worth.
After brief introductions, Leonardo invited her into the city. She countered by inviting him to join her in the front seat of her vehicle and to share a glass of wine. The bottle clearly piqued his interest. After only the quickest look over his shoulder at the city, he shrugged and joined her.
Looking through the viewpane at the City, Ward and Leonardo sipped their wine and talked. In an unspoken agreement, they took turns each asking one question and listening to the answer. Leonardo was clearly curious about Ward and the Polity, but even before the wine kicked in, his answers to her questions grew longer and longer. He clearly had a quick mind and enjoyed educating others.
In no time at all, Ward learned a great deal about the Globe and its governments. Sifting through Leonardo’s words and combining that with pieces gathered by Lt. Lancaster, her intelligence officer, she realized that the five cities were actually ruled by their own separate governments. Leonardo proudly stated that Whitehall was the technological hub and intimated it ruled all the cities, but Ward was also able to glean from a word here and a gesture there that the other cities might not agree.
They talked and drank as the largest moon, Leonardo called it the Swearing Moon, rose and skirted the horizon, and the sun rose to noon. Leonardo sent a grav-tech drone back to the city and a larger drone delivered lunch. Ward had another bottle of wine brought to them and they had a surprisingly pleasant and civilized lunch. Ward finally had to break out water to avoid consuming too much wine and to combat the heavy salt of Whitehaller fare.
The city leaders clearly overcame their initial fears because a communicator on Leonardo’s wrist began beeping and buzzing incessantly towards the end of the meal. Again, he invited her and her Marines into the city, but she shook her head. She had already made up her mind to wait for the leaders of the other cities. Whitehall might be the most powerful, but she did not want to play favorites. Not yet.
She made her first trade of the diplomatic mission. She knew that once Leonardo reentered the walls of Whitehall that he would be whisked away for a long debrief. Meanwhile, they would saddle her with a true politician, a know-nothing, who would wheedle her for favors before the other city’s leaders could arrive. So, she promised Leonardo she would answer two questions for every question she asked if he would stay. He eagerly agreed.
She decided to push her luck.
“Leonardo, the Polity Navy recognizes Whitehall as the First City of the Globe. It’s obvious, even from space.” She pointed into the sky for emphasis.
He nodded, agreeing with the obviousness of it.
She continued. “So, naturally, Whitehall should host the gathering here. Neutral ground but under protection of the First City.”
“You mean, out here, in the savagelands? I don’t want to alarm you, Madame, I mean, Captain, but we’re lucky the beasts have given us peace for this long.”
It took an hour more of negotiations, mostly Leonardo speaking and tapping on his wrist communicator with his superiors, but they eventually settled on hosting the cities’ leaders inside the Marine Lander with Ward’s Marines guarding the perimeter. Ward suspected that Leonardo had swindled her, with his wide eyes and his talk of beasts, so that he could get a good look up close inside the Lander. But the main bay of a Marine Lander held few military secrets.
That afternoon, Capt. Ward’s lucky streak ran out.
It started well enough. Every city’s leader eventually did show up, as she knew they would. A City Councilor from Finsbury was the first to arrive, a rotund woman with green eyes, named Calpurnia. Leonardo made polite introductions but there was clearly an uneasy tension between the thin man and the fat woman. Next to arrive was Eglamour, the owner and Head Gaffer of the Smith from the desert city of Westminster. A large, muscled man, he had the most striking eyes, dark with violet flecks, and Ward found herself staring.
Next to arrive was Solanio from the Newlondon Guild, who had the farthest to travel. He arrived almost at dusk, giving apologies for his lateness as there was some sort of “complication” with the Whitehall authorities. He said it with a serpentine smile and Ward took an instant dislike to him that she could not explain. Solanio also said he would speak for Belmont, and all the others nodded as if this was expected.
Whitehall’s Governor Octavius finally came out from Whitehall’s gates, with Whitehall’s Mayor Flavius at his elbow. Flavius smiled too much and rubbed his hands nervously. Octavius, a large man in every dimension, with white curling hair and brown eyes set in a pudgy face, was clearly trying to make an impression as the last to arrive. He brashly welcomed them all and Ward allowed him to wrest control as the host of the event. This was slightly spoiled when a hooded man from Belmont arrived to the shock of everyone. He quietly gave the name Vernon and melted to the back of the throng.
“Peace,” he said, quietly.
More bottles of wine were opened and Whitehall’s salty meats and cheeses, apparently quite a delicacy, were served. Everyone agreed jovially that the Polity’s wine suffered in comparison to Finsbury’s wines and beers, but they drank plenty just the same. The Lander’s normally cold main bay grew warm with bodies and good cheer. With the dignitaries half drunk, Ward decided it was the best time to make her announcement.
“Thank you all for such a warm welcome,” she began. “Especially to Whitehall and Governor Octavius, oh, and Mayor Flavius, for their hospitality.” There was a mumble of agreement. Ward had tried to pace her drinking throughout the day, but perhaps she had lost track, because she felt the warm glow of the collected guests. “Now it’s my turn to welcome you back to the protection of the Polity.”
At that, all noises stopped and all eyes looked at her soberly. Had she misjudged the moment? She pushed on. “I don’t yet understand the full history of the Globe, but I hope to. I plan to. I know your ancestors meant to leave Polity space in pursuit of …” She sought out Leonardo’s eyes.
“Peace,” he said, quietly.
“Yes, peace,” Ward echoed. “I know the Polity was at war when your people left.”
“Are you still at war?” someone called out.
“Yes,” Ward said. “Yes, unfortunately, we are at war, again. And the war threatens the Globe much as it threatened your home planet.”
“Not war. The Polity!” called out someone behind Ward.
“Yes, the Polity is the threat,” Governor Octavius said, almost at her elbow. “Authority ignited rebellion, as it always does!”
The Globe’s leaders all spoke at once. Faces red and voices raised, they ringed Ward, stepping closer. I’m vacced, she thought.
Then she thought of her two concealed knives. For a moment, she considered carving her way out of this ring. She closed her eyes and took a breath. Ridiculous! She didn’t need anything more than her bare hands to incapacitate these soft politicians. But that would solve nothing.
She needed to be diplomatic.
She was saved from coming up with a solution by the sound of metal on metal. Everyone turned to find the hooded Vernon from Belmont lightly banging on the wall of the Lander like a gong with a mallet. The metal mallet was small but sturdy and covered in runes. He must have brought it with him.
He was a strange figure, covered in a black cloak and hood. He almost seemed to stand in a dim spot of his own making, and Ward could not see any features of his face under the shadow of his hood. She just caught occasional glints of reflection where his eyes should be. Was he wearing mirrored goggles?
“Captain,” the man said quietly, “I recognize a smokescreen when I see it.”
“Yesss,” Solanio inserted himself, “I agree with the gentleman from Belmont. I’m certain that the Polity Navy does not have the resources to send a ship to every planet just for protection. Why have your generals sent you here? What could we have that you need?”
On the Naval Academy ship, she had learned the basics of government and politics. As an officer, she had studied rudimentary diplomacy. As a SEAL, she had studied how to destabilize governments and how to bolster them. Most SEALs were better with knives than words, but one lesson came to mind. In diplomatic situations, tell the truth when you can. And tell the truth when you must.
“Sirs, you are correct. While I have been sent to protect this planet from our enemies, I also have orders to protect and to collect resources to support the war.” There were mumbles, but they allowed her to continue. “Usually, taxes are collected in the form of Polity currency. I have been granted authority to forgive the 500 years of taxes due the Polity in return for full cooperation.”
The leaders exploded in a cacophony of epithets and strange phrases.
“Dogs of war!”
Governor Octavius stood on a chair that could barely handle his weight. “You preach peace, but you mean domination. This is why we escaped the Polity! We must unite to fight this!”
Flavius, beside him, weakly shook his fist in the air, but quickly jerked it down with a look from Ward.
Perhaps her greatest weapon was their disunity.
“Live free!” cried the Westminster delegate, but none of the others seemed ready to follow the Whitehall governor’s lead. Perhaps her greatest weapon was their disunity.
Taking a cue from Vernon, she banged the Lander’s hull with the tang of one of her knives, whipping it from concealment and returning it in one swift motion. The sound quieted most, but the eyes of those closest to her grew large at her expert handling of the knife, as well. There was diplomacy and there was diplomacy.
“There is no need to make any decisions tonight. I will visit each of your cities over the next few days. I will meet your leaders and answer what questions I can. Then I will begin a catalog of the planet’s resources. That will give each city time to meet, to vote, what-have-you, and make your decisions.”
“And what choice are you giving us?” asked Councilor Calpurnia from Finsbury.
Ward smiled. “I’m glad you asked.”
On cue, the back door of the Lander lowered and Ward led the way onto the grassy knoll. The night sky between the Lander and the city walls was filled with drones of all sizes. Glowing orange, they whizzed about madly overhead. The large, red Swearing Moon had circled the horizon during the day and hung just behind the city’s tallest skyscrapers, creating beautiful if ominous silhouettes.
“I’ve done some research on your home planet, the one your ancestors left. There was a tradition called Kite Day, where all the children flew paper cut-outs on the wind,” Ward said.
She did not know if this was true or not, but many cultures on many planets had a similar tradition. She had learned from Leonardo that the Globers had lived here 500 years and the space crossing had taken five generations, so she doubted they knew enough history of that last world to challenge her.
“The kites were flown as a symbol of peace and hope. So as a gift to the children of Whitehall, we purchased these drones. The children are flying them right now.”
“So many!” said Councilor Calpurnia.
“Costly,” said Westminster’s Eglamour. “And do the children get to keep the drones?” Ward could see calculation in his eyes.
“No, it’s part of a light show just for tonight,” Ward said. “Capt. Exeter of the U.P.S. Pacifica should be starting it any moment.”
Lasers struck from the sky. They touched the wildly flying drones, which exploded impressively in sparks and even gouts of flame. The Navy Gunner’s Mates could have destroyed all the drones in the span of five breaths, but they made a good show of it, drawing out the carnage for the count of one hundred.
When all the orange drones had been shot down, three remained. These were controlled by Ward’s Marines. They aligned and began flying in a huge circle between the Lander and the city, flying so quickly they formed three ribbons of light in the air. Red on top, then yellow, then blue. They matched the stripes on Ward’s sleeves. The colors of the Polity flag.
When the explosions ended, Ward could hear the claps and cheers from the distant city. The light show continued with fireworks from the city, mortars and even a cannon shot from the Lander, and more lasers from the Pacifica above.
Ward clapped and laughed when someone in the city even fired off some of the pulsar cannons.
The leaders around her stood stoic and unsmiling. The message, hidden in a light show for the children, had not been lost on them. There was no hiding from the power of the Polity Navy. They controlled space and now they controlled the Globe.
I hope you enjoyed my story. Feel free to share any comments below.
Make sure to check out the original, beautiful photos illustrating this story, and learn more about the photographers. A few photos may surprise you.
You can also enjoy the first five tales in the Globe Folio that lead up to Capt. Ward’s landing on the Globe:
- “Pillars of Smoke” by Frasier Armitage
- “Shadow of the Dunes” by Shanel Wilson
- “The Towers of Whitehall” by Jim Hamilton
- “The Beast Below” by Shanel Wilson and Frasier Armitage
- “The Buried War” by Matthew Cross
Capt. Ward and the other characters you’ve met so far in the Globe Folio will return in even more stories soon. If you follow me on Twitter (@mattcrosswrites), you’ll see my announcements of new releases.