The Head on the Wall
By Matthew Cross
Capt. Ward landed her flier in the plaza in front of the domed building that served as the seat of government of Finsbury. The Globers called Finsbury a city, one of the five cities of the Globe, but the farmlands of Finsbury spread for hectares on either side of the Elizabeth River. Should it be called a county or a shire, she wondered.
Ward’s two escorts, Marines piloting their own fliers, quickly strode up on either side of her, eyes scanning the building ahead and the busy marketplace behind for dangers. Ward had already made her own preliminary threat assessment out of sheer habit and removed her helmet. She doubted there was any danger she could not handle on her own, and with two Polity Marines at her back, she knew only a Republic Special Forces team could match her. Nothing on the Globe, a sleepy, little, blue planet, frightened her.
That was not true. Failure frightened her. She feared not completing her mission successfully. And, unfortunately, what was needed here to extract the Globe’s resources for the Polity was diplomacy, Ward’s weakest skill.
She crossed the plaza to meet with the Finsbury contingent, led by Councilor Calpurnia, whom Ward had met at Whitehall on the now infamous “Kite Night.” Many Globers also called it the “Night of the Rocket.”
Councilor Calpurnia was a large woman. She wore a heavy layer of fat, but underneath that Ward noted strong muscles, probably earned from hard work in the woman’s youth. Calpurnia curtsied and Ward bowed. The men behind Calpurnia bowed. Ward surmised that Calpurnia was no token or figurehead. She had probably fought and clawed her way to the top of this men’s club, and Ward would not underestimate her.
Ward wore her dress whites, but the City Council of Finsbury all wore more casual, loose-fitting clothing, like nothing she had seen in Whitehall, where opulent and outrageous fashions ruled. All their clothing also had similar prints in mottled greens that Ward assumed was camouflage. To Ward, camouflage clothing meant military exercises, and she wondered what it meant in Finsbury.
After introductions were made, Calpurnia turned to Ward. “Captain, I bet you’re real good with a gun. Have you ever been hunting?”
Ward frowned, thinking. “I once tracked a Republic Special Forces unit across a frozen moon. I shot one and killed the second with my knife, but the third had frozen by the time I reached him.”
The councilors all stared at Ward. One with his mouth hanging open. Had she made another diplomatic error or perhaps a breach of protocol?
Calpurnia laughed, but it sounded strained. “Well, then, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble hunting the beasts with us today, Captain. The beasts don’t shoot back.”
Calpurnia laughed and the other councilors laughed with her.
“Let’s find you some suitable clothes, Captain. We don’t want a beast to bleed on your pretty, white duds.”
It took a squadron of hovers of all shapes and sizes to transport the councilors, their assistants, and all their gear into the countryside. Calpurnia insisted on driving Ward in her own personal hover, a sleek, emerald-green capsule that looked like it came from Whitehall. No one else among Finsbury’s leaders had such a luxurious craft, Ward noted. Ward’s escorts piloted their own fliers.
On the way, Calpurnia explained the history of the hunt. Since the founding of Belmont, its leaders, once called the Brethren of Finsbury, had sworn to protect the farmers from the beasts. Before there were force walls, just walls around the houses and wire fences around the fields, the beasts often invaded the farms, threatening farmers and their property. Whenever a farmer sent a drone with a call for help, the Brethren raced to the fields to provide protection.
“Now, the force walls protect us from the beasts. And, of course, Whitehall sends their Vestras to keep the walls running, and the Artemises to hunt down the worst of the beasts,” Calpurnia said. “If we need much protecting these days, it’s from the greed of Whitehall. They won’t share the secrets of the force walls or the power generation, so we’re forced to pay whatever price they demand. It’s our food what keeps them alive, but they set the price of their force walls high and value our food low.”
Calpurnia swept her hand across the windscreen, indicating the green fields before them that stretched to the horizon. “In a land of plenty, we still have children that starve. And now the Polity wants to take more of our food and call it the price of protection.”
Ward listened and held her tongue.”Listen more, and talk less,” said the SEAL Leadership Manual.
The assortment of hovers landed, kicking up thick, brown dust, in a green field bordered by a tall, humming force wall. Calpurnia walked over to a man standing next to a large, green piece of equipment, a cube-shaped vehicle of some type. After the dust cleared, the damage was obvious. The machine lay on its side and one side had been crushed in.
One Councilor whistled. “Stove it right in. And, look, there, horn marks. Gotta be a Sledgebeast.”
The Councilors unloaded wheeled riding vehicles. They drove around the field, tearing up the tender, green plants. The farmer said nothing, just stood there dourly with his arms crossed. After a while, the Councilors formed their vehicles in a half circle, laughing, making crude jokes and drinking canned ales. They checked their various blaster rifles, compared models and bragged of the even larger blasters they had on order from Whitehall.
Ward had only brought her personal sidearm and a few knives, one of them the laser-bladed knife from Vernon. Calpurnia inisted Ward take one of the many rifles on her wheeled vehicle, and nodded at the men. Ward took it as a gesture that she would fit in better if she took the rifle, so she did and examined the crude pulse weapon.
It turned out that “hunting” a Sledgebeast was simple. Drones were sent out to harry it in their direction. They saw a cloud of dust long before they saw the beast. Most of the Councilors took up positions standing up in their open-frame vehicles while a few raced across the fields on either side to flank the beast.
From the base of the dust cloud appeared a wedge of muscle on four hooves. It had a wide head and three long, curved horns. The ground trembled with its hoof beats. The men riding on either side repeatedly fired their pulse weapons at it. The beast veered left and right, but it did not stop. Then it ran into one of the vehicles, turning it over, before scraping a horn along the stacked stones of the inside of the force wall. The beast opened its mouth, but instead of a bellow, it issued a scream. As the beast drew closer, Ward’s assumption that it was a mammal changed. It seemed to be covered in a flowing layer of feathers.
Ward sensed fear and desperation from the beast. It was trapped inside the force wall and probably could not find its way out.
The Councilors in the semicircle had been firing their weapons repeatedly, some even reaching for a second weapon, long before the Sledgebeast was within range. They grinned and called out in their excitement, claiming to have hit it. The beast veered away from the wall, towards the half-ring of vehicles, and into a volley of pulse fire. The weapons definitely had an effect, but they seemed more to enrage than weaken the beast.
The Sledgebeast crashed into the force wall once again, jackknifed and suddenly faced the right flank of the arc of vehicles. It charged, turning over vehicles and throwing the passengers into the dirt. The hunters closest to Ward and Calpurnia managed to drop into their vehicles and speed clear, but Calpurnia stood her ground and fired relentlessly into the beast. With a flick of its thick neck, it threw an empty vehicle into the air, and then glared at Calpurnia.
Calpurnia threw her discharged weapon in the dirt and reached for another from behind her seat. The beast raised a screeching cry and charged. Ward leapt from the passenger’s seat with two knives in her hands, one the laser knife from Vernon. She left the useless pulse weapon behind.
The Sledgebeast glared at Ward, and Ward only glared back. Her legs pumped and her knives flashed. Ward’s head-on charge seemed to confuse the Sledgebeast and it’s stride broke. That would not save Ward, who stood no taller than the beast’s shoulder, not unless she dove to the side at the last second. Ward did not think; she allowed her instincts to take over and her body to react with the lightning quickness of fast-twitch muscles.
She raced smoothly towards the beast, noting the long, upward curving horns and the beast’s broad head and broader neck. The head and neck were free of feathers, and she could see foamy sweat ran down its muscled neck and straining tendons. Then she saw them. Distended blood vessels running up from the body and along the neck to the massive head.
The Sledgebeast lowered its horns as it closed on her, but then it could not see straight ahead. She slid under the horns and jabbed upwards fiercely with both arms. Her SEAL knife glanced off the hard flesh but the laser knife found its mark, burning a path down the curved neck as the beast thundered over her. Ward wriggled between the pumping legs and rose to face the beast.
Gouting blood, it stumbled. It’s momentum carried it almost to Calpurnia’s vehicle. The beast’s legs gave out and the mountain of muscle slid through the soft dirt. A horn caught in the dirt, causing the body to spin. Calpurnia leapt free as two of the beast’s legs kicked out and hit the vehicle’s side. Even with only a fraction of the beast’s power behind those kicks, the vehicle jumped a few metes. The door was bashed in and one tire exploded.
Despite the injuries, many of the men were ecstatic and ran over to examine the beast. The assistants sent drones for more help and treated the wounded. Ward, covered in dirt and blood, looked over as her two Marine escorts running up. Despite being the ranking officer on the planet, she would have to explain herself to her chief of security and chief of intelligence. The Polity invested years and massive sums of money in training their officers, and officers could not endanger that investment by being reckless.
Calpurnia was quiet as she flew the hover back to Southwark, Finsbury’s marketplace and government seat. Ward watched the pattern of the rows and rows of crops flash by and waited patiently.
“I know you saved my life back there,” Calpurnia said finally. “You coulda just jumped clear and left me there. But you risked your own life. I know that.”
“The Polity Navy protects citizens of the Polity. From any danger, seen or unseen,” Ward said.
Calpurnia shook her head. “Naw, Polity don’t care about a City Councilor or the whole City Council for that matter. You coulda let us all die and just bargained with our replacements, I bet.”
Of course, Calpurnia was correct. Ward was not technically required to protect citizens from natural disasters or their own foolishness. Still, Navy SEALs were not the kind to stand by when they could lend a hand.
“But don’t think I’ll bargain my own life against myself or Finsbury. You saved my life. What’s done is done. But I didn’t ask you to,” Calpurnia said.
“The Polity also does not have to bargain with City Councilors,” Ward said mildly. “When we last met in Whitehall, I said I would assess the resources here and determine how the tax will be apportioned. I’m trying to be fair and spread the burden among the cities. As you said, you have food here that the other cities need. I’ll take the ten percent tax of all food traveling north. That leaves the food that stays in Finsbury and even the food traveling south to Newlondon tax free.”
Calpurnia opened her mouth to protest but stopped. She stared straight ahead as she drove.
“Aboard your lander, I asked what choice you gave us,” Calpurnia said. “And then your ship in space showed us how you could rain fire like gods in the sky. And if all your soldiers are like you, we couldn’t even withstand you on our own ground.”
Ward was the only Polity SEAL sent on the mission to the Globe. No one else on the Pacifica had her fighting or tactical abilities. But there was no reason Calpurnia needed to know that.
“Still, if I want to keep my seat at the head of the Council, I need to come away with something,” Calpurnia said slyly.
“What do you want?” Ward asked.
It turned out to be far less than Ward imagined, and a bargain was struck.
The Sledgebeast’s head would be mounted on the wall in City Council Hall. It was the largest Sledgebeast anyone had ever seen, and, apparently, the bragging rights meant something in Finsbury. All Ward had to do was allow Calpurnia to take the credit.
Ward mounted her flier, pleased with the bargain. She now controlled ten percent of the food flowing to Westminster, Belmont and Whitehall. As a boon, she would give that to them for free to ease the burden of the oil and steel she had extracted from them to pay their own taxes to the Polity. That generosity should go a long way to relieve the tensions clearly building in Whitehall from the Polity’s presence.
With the exception of Belmont, things were looking up. Maybe, just maybe, she could change the Glober’s minds about the Polity.
With a sense of optimism, Ward flew back to Whitehall, watching the blood-red Swearing Moon circle the horizon to the north.
If you enjoyed my story, feel free to leave comments below. If you would like to read more about Finsbury, read “The Buried War” which kicked off the Finsbury stories in the Globe Folio series.
P.S. Now 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
- “Shambles” by Matthew Cross
- “Interrogation” by Matthew Cross
- “The Burning Flame–Part 1” by Frasier Armitage
- “The Burning Flame–Part 2” by Frasier Armitage
- “Swift as Shadow–Part 1” by Shanel Wilson
- “Swift as Shadow–Part 2” by Shanel Wilson
- “Song of Thieves” by Frasier Armitage
- “The View from the Wall–Part 1” by Shanel Wilson
- “The View from the Wall–Part 2” by Shanel Wilson
- “Outcast of Belmont- Part 1” by Frasier Armitage
- “Outcast of Belmont- Part 2” by Frasier Armitage
- “Bounty” by Matthew Cross
- “Feral Fields” by Jeremy Wilson and Shanel Wilson
- “A Matter of Details” by Matthew Cross
- “Siren’s Song–Part 1” by Shanel Wilson
- “Siren’s Song–Part 2” by Shanel Wilson
- You just read: “The Head on the Wall” by Matthew Cross
Now you’re all caught up. But don’t worry, we have more stories from the Globe on the way soon!