Will interrogation reveal the secrets of the weapons cache?

Interrogation

by Matthew Cross

Fear washed over Panthino as he carefully made his way down the stairs into the darkness below the warehouse’s butchering floor. Desdemonia led the way, sure-footed and calm. How she could remain so calm when they had been kidnapped, he did not know. But she seemed to know the pig butchers that had swept him from the village alleyway, and she had acted as his tour guide of the giant warehouse in the Shambles on the west side of Southwark, Finsbury’s center and marketplace. 

Panthino’s bulky, mechanical exoskeleton that wrapped around him from the waist down worked much better in large open spaces, so he had to inch his way down the stairs carefully. Fortunately, the stairs were made of plascrete, stable as rock, so after the first step he was not afraid they would collapse under his weight. Even so, the servos whined as he struggled to make the complicated series of small movements necessary for walking down stairs. Even in the darkness, Panthino blushed at the whining noise they made.

By the time he reached the bottom, his eyes had become accustomed to the dim lighting. Some hallways branched off into complete darkness, but the dour driver of the pig truck that had brought them here and Desdemonia walked straight through an open doorway into a long room. It was a meeting room with a long plas table meant to look like wood and an assortment of beaten plas chairs. There was dim overhead lighting and a spotlight shone on one long wall. On the wall was a large decal, a large oval logo in black, nearly as tall as Desdemonia. The logo was of a circle of men facing outwards, away from the circle, and holding a variety of weapons. After a moment, Panthino recognized the shape they formed was roughly the outlines of the borders of Finsbury.

The driver took a seat at the head of the table and Desdemonia and Panthino took seats near him. Panthino’s legs were quaking and he laid a large hand on them to keep them from activating the exoskeleton servos. The room was cool, like a cave, and he tried to pretend that’s why his teeth started chattering.

Somehow, he knew all this had to do with the cache of weapons he had found on the Night of the Rocket beneath one of the border fields. But how did they know? Panthino had not told anyone but his father.

“Well, lad, Desdemonia speaks well of you,” the driver said at last. “Says your a smart one and you’ll help us. We already know about the weapons you found, and a pulse cannon. All we need you to do is tell us where to find it.”

Panthino was confused. Desdemonia had told them about him? What did that mean? Why had she been talking about him to their kidnappers? And when? And, again, how did they know about the weapons?

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.

Panthino had promised Da not to say anything about the weapons. Panthino didn’t know what these pig butchers knew or how they knew it. But they didn’t know everything. They clearly didn’t know where the weapons cache was hidden, so they hadn’t seen him that night. Panthino had not told a soul, so the only person they could have learned from was Da.

“Where’s my Da?” Panthino suddenly demanded. His normally low voice came out hoarse and high but forceful just the same.

The driver smiled. “Don’t worry. Your Da’s still meeting with the Council. But we have friends at the Council, too, and we know everything your Da knows. We know you found the weapons buried in a capsule under a field. And your Da says there’s more like it. Says he knows where to find ‘em all. But the real question is, do you know where to find them all?”

It was a meeting room with a long plas table meant to look like wood and an assortment of beaten plas and metal chairs. Photo by Daria Nepriakhina.

Panthino shook his head. He didn’t know what the man was talking about. He had only found one capsule. An image flashed through his head, an image of his Da’s desk at home littered with paper maps. And then his father had closed the door and locked it, which he had never done before. Panthino shook his head violently to clear it. 

“We assume it’s on one of the three farms your Da manages. We’ll find it eventually, even if you don’t help us, but we’d be grateful if you saved us the time.”

Panthino looked at Desdemonia. She gave a small smile and nodded, encouraging him to speak. Her large, dark green eyes glistened in the dimness. She looked so beautiful, dark curling hair framing a heart-shaped face. He leaned forward, his mouth opening. And he almost yielded. He wanted to do what she wanted. Whatever she wanted. But he tore his eyes from hers and stared at his lap, at his exoskeleton. He had promised Da, and a promise was a promise. He could not break it. Not even for Desdemonia.

“Well, then?” asked the man.

“Give him a moment,” Desdemonia said.

“‘s alright,” the man said. “I’ll give you two some time to talk and an’ him some time to think about it. Lads, put ‘em in the other room.”

Men materialized from the dark and grasped Desdemonia and Panthino by the arms, practically lifting Panthino, even with his heavy exoskeleton. Behind him, on the opposite wall from the logo, was a wall of glaze windows from waist high to the ceiling. In the center was a sliding glass door that Panthino had not noticed before. Before he could even think to resist, or where to go if he broke free, the men had hustled him into the adjoining room.

With one push to the chest, his legs gave out and he collapsed into a hard, metal chair. They strapped his arms and struggled to work the straps around his legs, finally just running the straps through his exoskeleton. Seeing two men strapping Desdemonia to a chair facing him, he struggled, but it was too late.

“Lads, cut it out. This ain’t funny,” Desdemonia said.

But in mere moments, the door slid shut and the men were gone.

Panthino looked wildly about. They were in a long, dark room the same size as the meeting room on the other side of the glaze wall. On this side of the window, the glaze was dark and opaque. There were no lights here, just a dim trickle of light from far overhead. He could hear the machinery of the slaughterhouse floor above thrumming and there was a thump.

“I’m sorry, Panthino,” Desdemonia said. She was just a dark shape in the dimness with the hint of a halo on the crown of her head. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him. When my Da hears about this, there’ll be Hell to pay.”

Desdemonia’s voice was filled with anger, not fear. She knew these men. She was not afraid of them. But she was surprised by their violent methods, and Panthino found himself trembling. He gripped the arms of the chair to steady himself. It was sticky.

With the slightest whisper, the ceiling far above slid open and light shone down on them. Large, blocky shapes filled most of the ceiling, but around the edges was a metal grid, and white light shone down through it.

Large, blocky shapes filled most of the ceiling, but around the edges was a metal grid, and white light shone down through it. Photo by Ali Tayyebi.

“Slavering beasts!” Desdemonia cursed, something Panthino had never heard her do. “We’re under the guillotine. I never realized . . .”

Panthino heard another hum and saw the disorienting colored lights from the guillotine room above. The conveyor belt hummed, and he realized where he was. Horror filled him. In the room above was the conveyor belt, and the laser guillotine, and the hog about to be beheaded. It was nearly silent, but then he heard the head drop onto the conveyor belt with a thump and roll loudly into a metal chute.

Then he felt it. A spray of warm liquid and the smell of copper.

“Ugh!” Desdemonia said at the same time.

To his rising horror, Panthino realized what the liquid was and what the sticky substance covering the chair was. It was pig’s blood.

The conveyor belt hummed again and Panthino heard the sound of the door in the room above. It slid up for the next hog to be sacrificed. The colored lights flared. It was happening all over again. That’s when Desdemonia began cursing loudly. And someone else began screaming. Panthino realized it was him.


The men made Desdemonia and Panthino sit through five more beheadings before the ceiling above them shut. With each slaughter, the pig’s blood spurted down on them. It was not a lot, but every time the light spray seemed to speckle Panthino’s head and drip down his face. Panthino struggled in his chair and shook his head wildly, but he was trapped and there was nothing he could do to move or even just wipe the warm blood from his face.

Finally, the sliding glaze door to the meeting room slid open. The large men swarmed through the door. They swept Desdemonia and Panthino back into the meeting room, pushed them down into the chairs and stepped just outside the zone of dim light. The man, the one who had driven them here in the pig truck, materialized out of the darkness. He threw each of them a towel and Desdemonia and Panthino wiped wildly at their faces and their hair.

The man waited patiently.

When Panthino had calmed enough to look at him, the man spoke.

“Now, I can make threats,” he said softly, reaching down and lifting Desdemonia’s hand. She struggled to pull it free, but he held it fast. He lifted it into the dim light so Panthino could see Desdemonia’s fine, thin fingers. “I could lop off one of these beauties, and I bet you’d spill everything you know, son. But we’re all friends here, and there’s no need for threats among friends, is there?”

Before Desdemonia even snatched her hand away, Panthino was talking. Gibbering really. He told them everything he knew about the the capsule filled with weapons. He talked and talked and talked. Anything to postpone more torture. Anything not to have to go back into that room slicked and sticky with pig’s blood. Anything to protect Desdemonia.


Panthino sat in the back of the hover as the men emerged from the ground, grinning and carrying an assortment of weapons. They had all returned from Southwark in an odd collection of hovers, bypassed the village and reached the field where Panthino had dug up the hatch to the capsule. Unlike the slow trip in the pig truck to Southwark, it seemed to take no time at all. The flow of men coming up from underground stopped and there was a huddle around the hole. The men mumbled excitedly, but they were too far away for Panthino to hear.

The huddle broke up with some men going down the hole and others walking to their hovers. After some time, there was a rumble and the ground shook. Then, to Panthino’s amazement, a huge hole opened up and the round, metal nose of a machine emerged from the dark soil. An engine revved and suddenly the ground erupted in dirt and dust. When the sound stopped and the dust settled, there sat in the middle of the field a huge, oblong vehicle on treads. “Tank” was the word that came to Panthino’s mind, even though he had never seen one.

Then he realized what it was. It was the outside of the capsule. Or rather, the buried capsule filled with weapons was actually just the inside of a long tank.


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 Burning Flame,” by Frasier Armitage.

In the meantime, you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:

Act 1: Night of the Rocket

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Now you’re caught up. But don’t worry. We’ve got more stories from the Globe coming soon!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Panthino’s kidnappers take him to the Shambles

Shambles

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.

Skraggly stayed behind and unloaded the pigs from the truck into a giant complex of pens. Photo by Diego San.

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.

As the drones did not need visible light, there was only a glowing path along the floor to guide humans safely through the room. Illustration by Joe Cross.

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.

They exited into the open expanse of the massive warehouse, which was dimly lit only by skylights far above. Photo by Marten Bjork.

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

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross