by Matthew Cross
Two things don’t last: good luck and good weather.
It’s something the farmers of Finsbury liked to say.
It seemed fitting here, Panthino thought, as he sat next to his kidnapper, a skinny man with skraggly teeth and a strong smell Panthino could not immediately place.
They had kidnapped Panthino right off the village streets. He had just finished his errands for Da and gone into the alley to fetch the hover home. He had been lost in his thoughts and not noticed the growing rumble until the huge vehicle came to a grinding halt at the end of the alley, blocking the morning sun with its bulk.
A heavy door opened with a clank and the skraggly tooth man shouted at him.
“Oy, get in!”
The figure sitting next to Skraggly Tooth leaned toward the door, revealing the nervously smiling face of Desdemonia. A beautiful face. A face he could never refuse.
Even so, he hesitated. These men and their ponderous caterpillar-track vehicle were not from the village. Not from any farm within hundreds of hectares, Panthino knew.
Then Skraggly pulled the gun from his waist and pointed it at Desdemonia’s middle.
What choice did he have? He climbed in the green monstrosity and closed the door behind him with a clang. As soon as the door sealed shut, all sound fromoutside cut off, even the final ringing of the metal door.
The cab was large, and there was plenty of room for all four of them: Panthino, Skraggly, Desdemonia and the dour driver, who just gave Panthino one appraising look and started the vehicle forward with a lurch. The wide seats, each with their own wide elbow rests, even allowed lots of room for Panthino’s bulky, mechanical exoskeleton that wrapped around him from the waist down.
Panthino desperately calculated a way he could overpower the two men and pull Desdemonia to safety. Even though Panthino was larger than both men, they were adults and their arms bulged with sinewy muscle and blue veins. And even if Panthino could wrest the strangely shaped gun from Skraggly, there was no telling what the driver could do to Desdemonia in the meantime or what weapons he might have hidden nearby.
For the first time since he was kidnapped, Desdemonia, a school mate Panthino had crushed on forever, spoke directly to him. “He’s just joking, Panthino. Ignore him. He wouldn’t hurt anybody.” She smiled at Panthino. A small, nervous smile, which impressed Panthino, considering they had both been kidnapped at gunpoint.
The Globe Folio: Tales from the Five Cities
On the planet simply known as “The Globe,” all the residents live along the Elizabeth River in or near one of the five nation cities. In the wilds in between live the beasts and the bandits, but under the protection of the five cities, the people prosper. Trade travels along the Elizabeth River. Except for the Seven Day War between Whitehall and Finsbury, there has always been peace. What more could one want?
Generations ago, their ancestors fled a war among the stars and settled the Globe. They dismantled their ships and built cities. Now, they only look to the stars to admire their cold, distant beauty.
The City of Finsbury
The green-eyed farmers of Finsbury feed the Globe and furnish its timber from the rich bottomlands. Though spread far and wide, the brotherhood of Finsbury will band together to protect their lands from invaders, whether they be brigands or Whitehallers.
“Never killed a man yet,” Skraggly said, giggling, “but I kilt more pigs than you’ll see in a lifetime.” He giggled eerily.
Suddenly, a few things became clearer. The two men were butchers, pig butchers, from the Shambles in Southwark and he was in a pig truck. He had only seen them from a distance. That also explained their shaved heads. And Skraggly was probably taking the Formula, a drug cocktail that most butchers took to handle the horrors of their job.
“What am I doing in a pig truck?” Panthino asked.
“I’m sorry,” Desdemonia said. “We were sent to fetch you and it needed to be inconspicuous.”
Inconspicuous? In a caterpillar-tracked pig truck? Then again, even though they were not common out this far, the pig trucks did run the main roads from time to time all over Finsbury.
“Fetched a load of pigs,” Skraggly said, giggling. “Fetched a big boy, too. A big ‘un.”
“Hush now,” said the driver, in an oddly gentle tone. “Dezzie, put some music on.”
As Desdemonia fiddled with the console, Panthino realized to his shock that the driver had just called her “Dezzie.” Panthino did not know anyone from school that called her Dezzie. How did she know these men?
Over the next hour, Panthino had a lot of time to think about his situation. Somehow, he knew it had to do with the capsule full of weapons he had found buried beneath a field the night of the Moon Dance. All manner of weapons and a pulse cannon.
After fixing the broken tiller and covering the hole, Panthino had driven the trac back home through the darkness, thinking what he would tell Da. Whether he would tell Da.
Panthino had known the buried pulse cannon was trouble. Known as he dug in the dark, wet earth that he was digging up something old and evil, and yet he still dug. Now look where his curiosity had landed him.
But Da was the smartest man that Panthino knew, and Panthino found himself spilling out the story as Da sat in the home office from which he managed three farms for the bank. Da’s face lit up with the telling. He thought the hidden armory in the capsule-shaped room was Elizabeth-sent. A miracle that would make the family’s fortune.
Da swore Panthino to secrecy and then sent him to bed. Da stayed up the next few nights, poring over printed maps of Finsbury. When he saw Panthino look at them with a silent question, Da locked the office door. This very morning, Da had set out for Southwark to meet with the Council. As important as Da was in their village, Da had never been to the Council, as far as Panthino knew. But Da would not explain anything to Ma or Panthino as he set out at first light.
And now, Desdemonia had been pulled into it. He did not know how or why. Did not even know how anyone other than Da knew about the capsule. But it could be no coincidence.
Panthino thought back on that night, the night he had skipped the Moon Dance because Desdemonia had gone with Gobbo. The old jealousy flamed up anew, even though Desdemonia was not his girl. Never had been.
“Did you have fun at the Moon Dance?” Panthino asked suddenly. His voice started low and harsh but then broke pitifully. Why had he asked that? Skraggly giggled.
Desdemonia ignored Panthino’s accusatory tone and Skraggly’s giggle. She smiled at the memory. “Yes, I had a nice time, thank you. I wish you had come.”
Panthino did not know how to respond. All he could think of was how much he hated Gobbo and, a little bit, resented Desdemonia. And his only other thoughts of that evening were about the capsule beneath the field, and that he had sworn not to tell a soul. So he sat in silence. Unlike his Da, he could see nothing good that had come from the night of the Moon Dance. The night most people were calling “The Night of the Rocket.” The night the dreaded polity of ancient myth had appeared from the sky and landed at Whitehall.
Kneeling in the field in the darkness, Panthino had been one of the few in the village to have seen the purple streaks the rocket painted across the sky. That, too, Panthino had taken as a bad omen, and that was even before he knew the purple streaks signalled the arrival of the Polity.
Panthino’s stupor of gloom ended with a shock.
He recognized the outskirts of Southwark, the commercial center of Finsbury that sat on the Elizabeth River. Da had gone to Southwark to see the Council. Could they be taking Panthino and Desdemonia to the Council? Did Da know about this? None of it made sense.
But the truck bypassed the domed Council House and the marketplace. It went south and rattled across the sturdy Caliban’s Bridge, the only bridge on the Globe that crossed the Elizabeth. The truck entered the Shambles, the sprawling maze of giant, aging warehouses where livestock was turned into meat for Whitehall and the richest Finsbers. Growing up on a farm, Panthino only ate bacon and eggs once a week on El’s Day. The rest of the family’s diet came from plants.
It made sense, a pig truck going straight to the Shambles. Where else would it go?
Even so, Panthino was a little surprised when the dour driver parked and led them into one of the oldest warehouses in the center of the Shambles.
To Panthino’s relief, Skraggly stayed behind and unloaded the pigs from the truck into a giant complex of pens. He whistled to the pigs and said “Home again, home again, jiggity jig.” As Panthino passed into the dimness of the warehouse, he heard the pigs grunting nervously and Skraggly giggle shrilly.
Panthino’s nerves were so taut that he jumped when Desdemonia slid her arm into the crook of his. Or he would have jumped, if his heavy exoskeleton had allowed it. Instead, he lurched awkardly forward, pulling Desdemonia a step forward. It ruined what otherwise would have been the highlight of Panthino’s life: Desdemonia’s smooth skin touching his own. Desdemonia was the smartest, most beautiful, most talented girl at his school. And it did soothe him, but his emotions were all a jumble. Embarrassment and nerves mixing oddly with pleasure at Desdemonia’s touch. A shiver went up and down his spine, and from which emotion, he could not say.
They passed through a loading station, dark except for vehicle lights, and followed a lit path through an invisible force wall. The force wall was holding the cold in a frozen section full of boxes and warehouse drones. As the drones did not need visible light, there was only a glowing path along the floor to guide humans safely through the room. Desdemonia shivered and snuggled up against him, and Panthino forgot for a brief moment the peril they were in.
They passed into a dark, refrigerated section where robot arms packaged cuts of meat. Finally, they exited into the open expanse of the massive warehouse, which was dimly lit only by skylights far above and pockets of electric glow spread around the workstations of the killing floor.
Desdemonia seemed to awaken after leaving the cold rooms behind and gave a chirpy commentary on the warehouse’s operation. It was one of the original warehouses built by Finsbury’s founders and one of the few to do live butchering of hogs. Most hogs were fed a pig version of “The Formula” at the farm to calm them and then asphyxiated by pumping gas into the trucks that brought them to the Shambles. But true connoisseurs said those methods affected the taste of the pork. So the finest quality pork was still processed here in this warehouse and then shipped to fancy restaurants in Whitehall.
Panthino enjoyed the rare treat of bacon, but in general he did not care to consume meat. This warehouse was not changing his opinion. He asked Desdemonia about the weird, dreamy music playing through the tall shadowed spaces of the warehouse. She explained the soft music and the dim lighting was all designed to keep the hogs calm as they were moved from the stocks outside to the guillotine.
And only too soon, he saw what she was talking about. They passed human butchers quickly and efficiently cutting whole hogs into cuts of pork with their laser knives. They moved so quickly that the hog carcass almost seemed to melt into pieces on the table as blood gushed down channels in the tabletops and the floor. But even creepier than the nearly silent work and the blood were the eerily smiling faces of the butchers and the occasional giggle. And then the driver walked them right past the guillotine.
On the other side of a huge window of glaze, Panthino watched in silent horror as a single hog walked through an automatic door and along a raised conveyor belt. It’s face was hit by a disorienting blaze of colored lights and it stumbled forward. When it reached the exact center of the room, a red laser as wide as the room dropped from the ceiling to the floor and then turned off. The hog’s head fell cleanly to the floor and then it’s body collapsed. Channels in the floor carried away the blood as the carcass was moved by the conveyor belt into the butchering room beyond.
Panthino, shocked, stood rooted to the spot. To his horror, as soon as the carcass passed through a final set of doors, the first set of doors opened and another disoriented hog stumbled in. He could not watch it happen again. He stared at the floor and rushed to catch up with the driver.
Desdemonia patted his hand. “I’m sorry, I should have warned you. I’m just used to it after all these years. But if it helps, we designed it this way so the hogs never have to be scared. They never know it’s coming, and it happens so fast, they probably don’t even feel any pain.”
It did not help. Not even Desdemonia’s hand on his own or her soft voice made it better. Panthino felt sick and he rushed to the door held open by the driver. Only as he passed through into near darkness did he realize he had much in common with the hogs. He was also being led quietly through a dark maze and through an open door into an unknown doom.
I hope you enjoyed my story. Feel free to share any comments below.
Make sure to check back next Friday week–in a fortnight–for the next flash-fiction story set on the Globe, “The Interrogation,” where we learn Panthino’s fate.
In the meantime, you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:
Act 1: Night of the Rocket
- “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
- “Kite Night” by Matthew Cross
Act 2: Nights of Revelation
- “The Voice of Beasts–Part 1” by Frasier Armitage
- “The Voice of Beasts–Part 2” by Frasier Armitage
- “The Sands of Change-Part 1” by Shanel Wilson
- “The Sands of Change-Part 2” by Shanel Wilson
- “A Matter of Principle” by Frasier Armitage
- “Eyes Up the River–Part 1” by Shanel Wilson and Frasier Armitage
- “Eyes Up the River–Part 2” by Shanel Wilson and Frasier Armitage
- You just read: “Shambles” by Matthew Cross
- “Interrogation” by Matthew Cross