Abby Sy designed this astronaut pattern and named it Roberta the Astronaut in honor of Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space. Abby is a crochet designer who lives in Toronto with her dog Ollie. Read more about Abby and Hollie.
Is that why we wear skintight suits and climb tall buildings? Yes. To retrieve shiny things. Plus, it’s just fun.
That’s why I’m hanging off the side of this 16-story, private resi tower right now. From this corner, I can see in one direction the 20 hectare property stretching off into the darkness and the brightly lit, private driveway that winds from the gate at the highway. In the other direction, I can see the private beach and the softly glowing surf. As you might guess, some pretty rich people live here. Some of the richest on the planet: M. Lasone and M. Lasone.
Yeah, those Lasones.
Why is that the richest people have the most beautiful jewels? Oh, yeah, coz they have the money.
My earpiece softly chimes, bringing me back to the task. I test the suction cups I just adhered to the plate window on the top floor. I attach the cables dangling from the roofline. Will it hold? I’ll find out in a few mins.
I liberally apply the repel gel on the glass around the suction cups. The windows were made to withstand everything from lasers to warheads, so they’re pretty tough. But they have seams, which are only covered by polysteel. That’s pretty tough, too, which is why I brought demolition-grade nanobots. They love polysteel.
I stole them from a junkyard. That was a tough job and not at all glamorous.
I highly recommend testing your nanobots before applying them hanging upside down from the 16th floor. I did. I borrowed a suite at the Ritz Boca Hotel in town for an afternoon. It had a lovely walk-in shower. That’s where I learned to apply the repel gel thickly. By the way, I don’t recommend making a reservation at the Ritz Boca for a while. Not until they clean the nanobots out of their plumbing system. Oops.
It’s crucial to go through every step of your plan meticulously. Especially when you’re mixing a job with revenge. On the upside, when you’re seeking revenge, choosing the target is real easy. I’ve had two years trapped at an all-girls prep school to prepare for tonight. It’s gonna go like clockwork.
I’ve timed out everything. There’s the chime in my earpiece again. I carefully open the sealed package holding the nanobots and spread them over the glass. They drift like gray dust across the shiny surface. They have no problem clinging to the slick glass. I’m a little jealous.
I’m not exactly sure how long they’ll take to eat through the polysteel frame holding the window in place. But I tested a small sample of the nanobots on a bar of polysteel thicker than this window. It took them less than sixty breaths to consume the whole thing. Like I said, they love the stuff.
I climb back up to the roof and wait. I don’t want to be hanging next to that window when the frame is gone. I cross the roof to the corner’s other side. My guests are beginning to arrive.
This is the offseason for the beach, so the family is away. But there are still a couple of guards and some maintenance staff that live here even in the offseason. I gave them a few distractions. Just a couple days ago a package was delivered with an amazing new video game. Don’t worry, I bought it on someone else’s credit and it can’t be traced back to me. The gift card inside says “Play it loud to unlock bonus features.”
When I climbed up here tonight, the windows on the first three floors were vibrating. So I’d say they have a pretty good sound system in there. And I’m counting on that to distract them from the fact that the rooftop cameras went out for a little bit. I’m just jamming them until I get inside.
The second distraction is forming at the gate on the highway.
Someone spread the word of a secret blitz party. Meet downtown. Bring your own transportation and your own drinks. Costumes encouraged. Party favors will be provided.
As I was climbing the tower, my earpiece chimed to confirm that another scheduled message had gone out with the address for the Lasone’s beach resi.
On my way here, I also dusted the hinges of the gates with a tiny amount of nanobots. And from the lights and shouts wending their way down the long driveway, I figure the gates must be open.
Actually, there’s a long line of lights stretching up the highway towards town. Looks like it’s gonna be a rager of a party tonight.
Oh, and the last message said they could park anywhere.
I hear popping sounds and then a low, dull “tonggg.” I walk back to the other wall and look down. The large rectangle of glass is hanging from my wires and swaying gently to and fro. OK, party time for me is over. I slip inside.
It’s a large bedroom. I pad to the closet.
This is not the master suite, which takes up most of the floor. This is an adjoining guest room next to the elevator. The closet actually has a back door that leads to utility rooms and the machinery for the elevator. There are cameras here, too. And I have to jam them with the equipment in my backpack until I get to the bare patch of wall right behind the huge, walk-in closet in the master suite.
On the other side of this wall, the closet itself is jammed full of clever security features, including cameras and lasers and whatnot. And two combination locks that I can’t crack. Sure, I can jimmy or pick simple locks. That’s a necessary skill for a high-story thief. But I’m no safecracker.
But I don’t have to be. Not when you back the safe up to a simple cinderblock wall. And not when you don’t even guard that wall with cameras or any kind of alarms. Fools! When you do that, you give me all the time in the world.
I set my pack down and draw out the heaviest and most expensive piece of equipment I’ve ever used. It’s an industrial marine drill. Works wet or dry, hot or cold. I slip the air filter over my mouth and nose and slide earprotectors over my ears and the earpieces. This is gonna get loud.
See why I planned for some loud distractions?
The drill cuts through the cinderblock like a hot knife through crème dela crème. There it is, the dull-gray finish of the back of the safe! I clear a larger whole in the cinderblock. This is where it gets tough. I have to make a hole large enough for the top half of my body and then lean into the hole. I snag a brocade chair from the bedroom.
Don’t worry, I jammed the cameras both ways. And I’m careful not to leave a trail of cement dust everywhere I go.
I can’t hear what’s going on around me because of the earprotectors. So I’m looking around furtively every 50 breaths. It’s annoying and the sweat protector across my forehead is beginning to feel damp. My earpiece gives another chime. This is a special chime that sounds like a short trumpet fanfare. That was supposed to celebrate finding the back of the safe. After all, finding it on the first try is no guarantee. But I’m already drilling into the safe’s outer core. So I’m well ahead of schedule.
I’m not normally superstitious. But when you’re on a job, you need to use your brains and your guts. And when your guts say something’s off, you need to listen. Everything is going according to plan. In fact, it’s going far better than expected. And my gut says this kind of luck can’t hold.
But there’s always an element of risk to a job. Otherwise, where’s the fun?
I stop the drill and wiggle my way out of the hole in the wall. I slip off my earprotectors and listen intently in the darkness of the utility hallway. Nothing. I check my jamming device. It has a small screen that allows me to see the feeds coming from cameras very close to me. I click through all the cameras I can reach on this floor. Everything looks dark and quiet. I left sonic sensors on the wall of the double elevator shaft. No movement of the elevators.
I even check my jammer device again to make sure I haven’t been jamming one of the cameras this whole time. That could draw attention.
I shrug and get back to work. You can plan for every eventuality. In fact, you must. But there’s always an element of risk to a job. Otherwise, where’s the fun?
I eliminated all the risks I could. I timed this out perfectly. I have to trust to my distractions and stick to the timetable.
The standard version of this safe is built with five layers of polysteel with some thin carbon layers in between. Even that standard version requires some heavy-duty floor supports, which are even more expensive than the safe itself. My timetable allows for seven polysteel layers with possibly a few extra carbon layers.
I figured M. Lasone really wanted to protect his wife’s lavalier. After all, I had nearly stolen it the first time two years ago. Well, I actually had stolen it. I was literally holding it in my hand when they caught me. But I looked up at the judge through wet eyelashes and he knocked it down to “attempted theft.” Old fool.
Of course, he still sentenced me to stay on this lousy planet and go to school. School!
And then the Lasones offered to pay my tuition at the prestigious Wycombe Hall boarding school. The same school their own daughter attended, they told the judge. But don’t think they were doing me any favors. Sending a poor girl to Wycombe is cruelty, not kindness.
But did you know that rich girls like to gamble? They do. Especially when the betting pools are based on their classmates’ social lives and their steps into womanhood. More than once there was an awkward throng waiting for some debutante to come out of the shower in the locker room.
PopPop was a bookie, so I knew a lot about the trade. But I put together some betting pools he never would have imagined. That’s how I paid for this amazing drill.
Thief, con artist, bookie. Maybe Wycombe did help me round out nicely.
The drill breaks through to the inside of the safe. I’m stunned. The drill bit spins in midair for a few breaths before I release the trigger. That cheap, hairless, milk drinker Lasone! He put his wife’s most precious jewels inside a five-layer safe. A basic model.
I should feel grateful, but I don’t. I feel insulted!
I shake my head. You’re on the job. Focus!
I pull the marine drill out. It’s no good for cutting at angles. I insert my telescoping drill and camera. I drill upwards through two shelves and there it is. The lavalier. It captures the light from the drill and paints blue fractalson the safe’s walls.
A warning chimes in my earpiece. The elevators are moving. It could be something. It could be nothing.
I flick my wrist and the lavalier slides down around the long neck of the drill. With a few twists, I maneuver the necklace over the hole in each shelf and gravity does the rest.
There’s my beauty!
Resting in the dust-covered palm of my gloved hand.
Another chime. One of the elevators has moved above the fifth floor. I pull out of the hole and flick through the camera feeds. Again, I can’t see every camera on this floor, but nothing seems amiss.
I slip the lavalier down my neckline. My own necklace ends in a simple hook at my breastbone. The lavalier snags on the hook. I tug to make sure it’s secure. It feels cool against my skin. I tremble.
There’s a funny thing about rich people. Despite all their vast wealth, they’re very cheap when it comes to someone outside their circle. Say, the help, for instance. With my bookie earnings, I was able to supplement one of the maid’s meager wages. And you wouldn’t believe the things she told me about M. Lasone and M. Lasone.
For one thing, that’s one sick marriage. I kind of let the maid think I was a gossip reporter. That made her a lot less suspicious when I asked about their bedrooms, their jewelry, and their schedules. But I also had to listen to a lot of details about the Lasones, including the children, that I can’t unhear.
The best secret I learned was about the safe room. It takes up two floors of the subbasement. And there’s a glide tube from the master bedroom straight down to the safe room.
I slip the backpack over one shoulder and head out through the bedroom closet. I leave the rest of the gear behind. I always handle all my gear with gloves so bio traces are minimal and degrading every sec.
I flinch as I open the closet door into the bedroom. In total darkness, I can tell a difference in the trace light from outside. Then I feel the ocean breeze and smell its salty tang. Turns out the nanobots were real hungry and all the windows along that wall have fallen out of their frames. I hear more popping sounds and one of the windows on the other wall silently falls out of sight.
There are no audible house alarms, but my elevator sensors now chirp in my ear. Both elevators are headed up. With windows on this floor dropping out of the sky, they have to know something’s up. Plus, I probably triggered some motion alarms in the safe or its closet sometime during the drilling and at least one more when I lifted the lavalier from its base.
It’s time to join the party outside.
In my pack, I have a party dress that slides easily over my catsuit. I also have a cat mask. A little inside joke. But the costume serves a practical purpose. It hides my real features from cameras, whether they be security cameras or cameras carried by partiers. After all, I’m still on parole and I can’t be seen at this party.
I also have five mailer pouches in my pack. When I reach the party outside, all I have to do is find five of my plants wearing orange vests. There should be ten people wearing orange vests, so five should be easy to find. Then all I have to do is hand off my envelopes and make my exit.
The slider tube is in M. Lasone’s smaller closet behind a parquet door. I type in the code, step in, and glide down the brightly lit tube for 16 floors.
The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is
I started the story below. See how S. Songweaver starts after the red line and takes us to an action-filled and hopeful ending.
by S. Songweaver and Matthew Cross
Ophir woke in the dark to the thick, warm smell of cabbage cooking.
The lights automatically turned on as he rose from bed. On Hulm, where the sun shone brightly most days, they never lacked for electricity. Baba had scavenged solar panels for the roof and, through constant care, kept the tricky wiring running. To Mama, he would say, “Habibti, as long as you are married to me, light shall always shine on your beautiful face and you shall feel the electricity of my love.”
“Habibti,” Mama would say with a small smile, “Light is plentiful on Hulm. Are you so generous you would also give me air to breathe and ground to walk on? I would much prefer a larger cistern.” But when Mama said it, she said it with such a soft smile and soft eyes that Ophir knew it was a joke.
Ophir snapped on his toolbelt and ran to the kitchen. Baba was making fried cabbage rolls for Lucky Day.
It was still dark outside, but Baba had been up for hours rolling out and cutting the dough. Baba only made vegetarian rolls. They cost less to make, but Ophir could only sell them for half the price of rolls filled with goat meat or even eggs. “Habibti, we don’t eat meat. Some of our friends do and some do not. But we will make sure our friends that don’t have a special treat for a festival day.”
Ophir helped fold the rolls as Baba began dropping them into the hot oil. The first batch always came out wrong and Baba let Ophir eat as many as he wanted from the first batch. Ophir crunched the crispy roll and hot cabbage juice flooded his mouth. The fried dough burnt his tongue.
Baba laughed as Ophir rolled the bite around his mouth and sucked in air, trying to cool the hot dough. Fried juices dripped from Ophir’s lips, and he laughed, too. “Couldn’t wait for it to cool, eh, Habibti?” Ophir shook his head, giggling.
It was going to be the best Lucky Day ever!
Most days, Baba was a mender and Mama was a weaver. Mama worked her looms in the back room where the good light shone in through the window. Baba sat at the counter on the front of the house, repairing small machines, family heirlooms that had cracked, and sometimes even favorite pairs of shoes. He also sold small machines and odds and ends that he had repaired but never been paid for.
It was going to be the best Lucky Day ever!
At sunrise, Mama produced another surprise. She had made a new apron for Ophir, a real shop apron made of sturdy material like Baba’s. And it had two large pockets on the front! Ophir donned the apron over his toolbelt to protect the tools. Mama cinched the strings and tied them behind his back. “You look just like your Baba, Habibti,” Mama whispered.
Baba and Ophir took up their stations at the counter. Baba sold cabbage rolls and Lucky Day ribbons, made by Mama, to the growing crowd. Ophir had grown tall the past year and he could finally see over the counter without standing on a stool. He handed out rolls while Baba handled the money.
The parade wound through every street of the village on the way to the central square. “Habibti, come look,” Baba called to Mama. “Come! Come! This year, they have made dragons!”
Mama came out from the kitchen, where she had been cooking more cabbage rolls. Baba wrapped his arms around Mama as they watched the dancing figures weave drunkenly up the dusty street. Ophir climbed up on the counter to see over the crowds lining the street. He did not see any dragons. Only men carrying two large, wobbling dog heads and lines of men and women behind carrying streamers. Then came the usual figures wearing headdresses of gold in the shapes of dogs, cats, camels and unicorns.
When the crowd dwindled, Ophir took his tray and followed the crowd to the central square. There, the Eumda would make a speech and declare the day a holiday, even though everyone already knew that. The school was closed and the richest children in the village would buy the treats and play the games lined around the square. The poorest children would run and play, even if they could not afford the games or sweet treats. And, if they could steal a treat, they would.
None of the child thieves bothered Ophir. Only adults seemed to care for the cabbage rolls. Ophir circled the square, trying to make his voice heard over the adult vendors and the gleeful chatter surrounding him. Baba and Mama let him spend the whole day in the square. When his tray and the insulated box beneath were empty, he ran home and bounced on the balls of his feet, eager to return to the square, as Mama filled the box with steaming rolls. Baba counted the coins in the box. “Habibti, you have done well. Even better than last year. We are blessed by Lucky Day.”
Encouraged, Ophir ran back to the square. This time, he ignored the games and he zeroed in on the older adults, urging them to buy his wares and buy one for a friend. If he did well, perhaps they could buy Mama a new cistern. One without a weeping crack. And if he sold all the rolls, he could leave the tray at home and return to the square, free to run and play with the others.
Business picked up at midday, and Ophir even sold a few rolls to his classmates for their lunch. Mama had run out of dough and Ophir’s box was only half full. He kept counting the rolls after every sale, counting down to when he could return an empty box with coins at the bottom to Baba.
He stood in the shade of an alley, counting the rolls one more time when he heard the popping noises. At first, he thought it might be firecrackers. He looked up, eager to see the bright, sparking colors. Instead, a crush of people ran to the middle of the square. Then he heard gunfire. He turned to run down the alley, but there was already a soldier coming up the far end. Thinking of the coins, Ophir tried to run past the soldier, but the alley was too tight.
The soldier threw Ophir to ground. The man dumped the last of the rolls on the ground and scooped the coins into his pockets. Tears sprang to Ophir’s eyes. His whole family had worked so hard for that money. He rushed at the soldier and found himself suddenly sitting on the ground, his eye exploding in pain. The soldier laughed harshly and pushed Ophir into the square with the muzzle of his rifle. Soldiers with guns ringed the entire square.
Ophir was herded into Alththania’s pawn shop with dozens of villagers, mostly adults. The villagers were crying and screaming, but still they instinctively sorted themselves out. The men pushed the women behind them and faced the soldiers at the door. The women pushed the children to the back of the store, hushing and holding the smallest ones. Ophir was almost 13, but he was short for his age and he found himself at the back of the store with the children too big to carry.
He was afraid, especially when he heard more gunfire erupting outside. But it was distant, coming from other parts of the village, not the square. Ophir closed his eyes and prayed for Baba and Mama. Baba was smart. At the first sign of trouble, he would have dropped the swinging wood door that also acted as the stall’s awning and latched it tight. Soldiers would want nothing with a mender and his second-hand goods.
After the soldiers closed the door, the men in the front huddled together and spoke in low voices. Some of the women cried, and some of the women comforted those women and the children. “It’s OK, Habibti. Everything will be fine,” one woman said, rocking a child in her lap.
“It’s a cleansing,” one young man said very loudly. “It’s happened elsewhere. And now it’s happening here. We’ll never …”
The other men shouted him down, but their frenzied talk continued in a louder rumble.
If Ophir could just make it home, everything would be alright. But for security, Alththania’s shop had no windows. That had been the soldiers’ first mistake. Everyone knew that Alththania bought and sold gold, silver, and the occasional jewel. The glass case behind Ophir was filled with gold necklaces and rings and even a few ruby rings. It was the closest he had ever been to true wealth. But Alththania also bought and sold guns, everything from slug slingers to pulse rifles.
The soldiers had left the jewels, but they had removed the guns from the shelves. The wall behind the main counter had nothing left but empty shelves and wire hangers. But even Ophir knew Alththania kept some things hidden beneath the floorboards.
Ophir could not hear the details of the men’s talk up front, but it was clear there were two camps. One said to wait for the Eumda to sort things out, and the others were suggesting they do their own bargaining, purchase their way to freedom. “We are a poor village,” said a thin man with lined cheeks. “They will soon see that and be on their way.” That brought on doubtful grumbles.
Ophir took stock of his surroundings. There was a door to Alththania’s backroom. He knew all the village alleyways and there was no back door to the pawn shop. But he wanted to get away from the crying, snot-nosed children crowding around him. He wanted to stretch his legs.
Quietly, he crawled around the counter. Luckily, the room was not locked and Ophir crawled inside and latched the door behind him.
It was a small, cramped space with a desk in the front corner and a large safe, shelves on three walls and a large row of shelves running down the center of the room. Curious, Ophir examined the shelves. Like his father’s shop, it was filled with machinery, but expensive machines his father would never be allowed to work on. There were kitchen mixers, microwave ovens, and pulse massagers. They were not new, but they were not dusty or dented like the machines in Baba’s mending shop. Some even came with their own cloth or plastic covers.
In the far corner, where the automatic lighting barely reached, Ophir found the android. The head, torso and arms were all in one piece, sitting drunkenly on a stool. The legs were on a nearby shelf. They gleamed metallically in the dim light.
Ophir looked guiltily at the door, his fingers already itching to touch the android.
His father would have given a day’s wages just for five minutes with the android, working or not. Baba and Ophir had even talked of building their own android one day, but they all knew it was a dream. Like when Mama would buy one lottery ticket and they would take turns holding the ticket and saying what they would buy with the winnings.
Ophir looked guiltily at the door, his fingers already itching to touch the android. The door was still latched and he could not hear anything from the main room. He had more than five minutes. He might have hours and hours.
After examining the parts until he grew tired of standing, Ophir took the pieces to the desk to examine them more closely under the bright, white light of the wall lamp. All the connections seemed sound and clean. Ophir could not understand why the android had even been disassembled.
He only looked guiltily at the door once more before pulling the tools from his tool belt. He set to work, only pausing when he smelled smoke. The smell was very faint but acrid. Not the smell of hearth fires or cooking fires. He heard rumblings from the men in the main room, but there were no screams. He decided the fire must be from another part of the village.
Ophir lost track of time. Only when the start-up sequence began did he finally sit back with a sigh, rubbing his eyes. He heard a murmur from the main room and a strange noise.
There were muffled screams followed by gunshots and whimpering. Ophir swallowed as the android hummed to life. Shuffling could be heard in the next room followed by REE-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA. The sickening noise of gunfire.
Ophir instinctively crouched behind the bot that was still calibrating, making himself as small as possible in a corner of the room until the noise outside stopped.
Nearly an hour passed before the silence in the room was finally interrupted by the shiny, metal android stretching and standing. It whirled as its face displayed the word “Hello.”
Ophir was hiding his face in his arms. He did not notice the android’s message until the android poked him.
“Hello. I am Bot A1M.”
The blue words appeared across the bot’s square faceplate.
Ophir swallowed and asked “Hello, Aim . . . . Is it safe?” unsure if the android would know such things.
“There are no life forms other than you here,” the android updated.
Ophir nodded, then remembered what the man had said about a cleansing.
“Baba!” he blurted out.
“I am not your Baba,” The android displayed, trying to be helpful.
“No, not you.” Ophir carefully approached the door and placed his shaking hand on the knob.
“I sense the field beyond here is not good for a child to see,” the android offered on its faceplate. “Although my parental restrictions have not been turned on.”
“I have to get to my family. Is it safe?” Ophir asked.
Dots appeared across the android’s face as it considered. Then, after a moment, it displayed “Yes. The nearest life form is about one half kilometer away. It seems the gunfire has ceased.”
Ophir swallowed. “Baba and Mama are barely outside that range.” He opened the door and carefully walked into the other room. Ignoring the acrid, metallic smell, he tried to pretend the people were only sleeping as he edged to the exit.
As Ophir reached the door, the android lingered behind, shuffling its feet hesitantly at a floorboard.
“Is that something that might help?” Ophir asked.
“Yes.” Carefully, the android lifted the plank of wood to reveal a gun as big as Ophir’s torso.
Ophir’s eyes went wide. “Do you know how to use that?”
The android picked up the weapon in response and seemingly armed it.
“Okay, Aim,” Ophir said. “Can you come with me to find my family?”
“A1M priority has been updated to protect and serve.”
The bot readied as the boy opened the door to the dusty air outside.
Together, they braved the street towards home.
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that S. Songweaver and I wrote together. She’s a great collaboration writer!
If you enjoyed S. Songweaver’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.
The photographers of Unsplash.com provided me with a great collection of photos for my story “Kite Night,” a Sci Fi story set on the planet called the Globe. (If you’ve not read the story, you’ll want to read it first, as this post contains some spoilers.)
Snowy Vin took this perfect photo of a single firework explosion against a dark night sky. She shot it at Lake Kawaguchi at Fujikawaguchiko, Japan and titled the photo “Firework.”
I used this photo for the story’s main title image. Because the original photo cropping is very square, I had to “extend” the black night sky through photo image magic to make it fit into my regular title image rectangle. And, of course, I added the text.
Siniz Kim shot this beautiful place setting. She titled it “Preparedness,” which is a great title. When I saw it, I knew it was perfect for the table Capt. Ward was setting in the officer’s mess. Siniz is the principal and founder at Zigzag GmbH in Stuttgart, Germany. You can find more of his street and outdoor images at unsplash.com/@siniz.
Orbs of the Multiverse
If you have read any of the previous Tales of the Globe, then you recognize this gorgeous photo as the first image for each story.
If I understand this correctly, Daniel created this beautiful image by mixing soap and oil. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but I’m no artist. This piece, Orbs of the Multiverse, is from his new Soap & Oil Planet series. To my eyes, it looks exactly like a planet floating in space, and I love his title for the piece. So I chose this image to represent the beautiful, blue planet of the Globe.
Raul Barrios shot this great image of a blacksmith forming a crowbar on an anvil with his blacksmith’s hammer at the ready. Raul shot this at the Blacktown City Medieval Fayre in Blacktown, Australia.
This photographed hammer or mallet is not covered in runes, but it is a blacksmith’s hammer, which the mysterious Vernon is carrying. Because he is from Belmont, Vernon knows blacksmithing and has tools of the trade. I think you’ll learn more about the mysterious Vernon of Belmont in stories to come.
Melanie Magdalena shot this mesmerizing photo, titled “Lift Off at Lantern Fest 2015,” at Sandia Speedway in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the United States. As the photo’s title indicates, this is a photo of floating paper lanterns, not mechanical grav-tech drones. To hide the fact that these are paper lanterns, I cropped the photo and rotated it 90 degrees. I think the altered image does manage to convey floating, orange shapes in a night sky that might be futuristic drones, if you don’t look too closely. But I’m also glad to be able to share Melanie’s beautiful, original image here.
[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.
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.