BY MATTHEW CROSS
Gremio reined in his team of goats at the edge of the plateau.
He had seen the purple streaks painted across the sky a few nights before. He had wondered if the faint growling sound had been his imagination. He scanned the grass-covered dunes that led down to Whitehall and saw the spaceship. He might have missed the ship—colored tan and brown—except for a couple of small figures in white uniforms moving about and then some type of vehicle heading towards the force walls of Whitehall and its glittering towers beyond.
The ship sat almost directly east of the city and Gremio, coming from the savagelands, was approaching the city from the northeast. So it was easy for him to guide his wagon and the goats across the sloping plain and give the ship a wide berth. He lived a simple life. Growing up in Finsbury, he had been taught in school the evils of the Polity’s wars. He was as suspicious of offworlders as anyone else. While he was curious, he decided he would gladly go the rest of his life without meeting an offworlder.
His wife, Katherine, and their children depended on him. He could not afford to go risking his life mixing with offworlders, whether they be pirates or Polity.
“Polity!” he laughed. “It’s not likely to be them now, fellows, is it? We left them behind long ago. No, my money’s on pirates.”
Walls surrounded the towers of Whitehall. Blue lightning fizzed across them as the shields’ halo danced over iron and stone. Behind the colossal walls, glass shards loomed into the heavens, light skimming over the sand from the reflections.
Gremio drove the team right up to the city walls and waited patiently, whistling a tune poorly to himself. Because all travel on the Globe was along the Elizabeth River, which lay on the western side of the city, there were no buttons or knockers or any way on this side of the city to signal the officers of the City Guard inside. And because he eschewed all electronics, both on philosophical and safety reasons, he could not call inside. So he just waited until the programs monitoring all the city’s camera’s notified an officer.
Eventually, a door-sized space opened in the force wall. An officer in a brown uniform stepped through and Gremio could see the officer’s partner standing just inside the wall. “Greetings, officers. I’ve brought beasts for the Bounty. Bandersnatches, o’ course.”
“What’s that smell?” asked the officer, pulling a face. Even the officer’s helmet and visor could not keep out the smell of week-old bandersnatch.
“That smell, officer,” Gremio said, “is the bandersnatches. A frumious smell to be sure. But I roam far and wide to hunt these down. I can’t exactly bring ‘em in while they’re still fresh, can I?”
In fact, Gremio had intentionally loaded the last of the Bandersnatch heads onto his cart nearly a week ago and allowed them to bake in the sun and soften a good bit. They were covered in midges and other bitemes. But the goats did not seem to mind the smell, and Gremio was used to it after two days riding. Gremio reached behind him and tugged at the tarp underneath the heads, intentionally causing a wave of flies to rise up into the air. The officer flinched but held his ground.
“If you’ll just open the wall a bit wider,” Gremio said. “I’ll drive it on in and you can count it for the Bounty.”
“We can’t let something like that into the city. It’s a health code violation, for sure.”
Gremio, still sitting on the wagon seat, made a show of looking around the open countryside. “Well, officer, I can’t rightly leave my goats here on the plain. I’ve some shoppin’ to do in town and won’t be back ‘til nightfall. The beasts are sure to eat ‘em up long before that.”
The officer looked doubtfully at the goats, which stood shoulder high and had high, curving horns. They could, indeed, defend themselves quite well in the wild, especially the four of them together. But Gremio did not know this officer, so he had to put on the full show to make sure he received the maximum bounty.
“Usually, Officer Tranio lets me stake the goats inside the wall while he counts up the heads. I got ‘em on a tarp, and I can just pull that off for ya and leave ‘em right here.”
“How many bander-whats-its you got there?” the officer asked. The flies and the smell must have finally overwhelmed him because he backed nearly into the force wall to get as far away as possible from the wagon.
“Well, let’s see, I lost count. I figure I got ten back there, but you’re welcome to count ‘em, officer.” Gremio threw a wide smile.
The officer looked like the last thing he wanted to do was step closer to the back of the wagon.
“Well, that’s fine, we’ll just say ten then.”
In fact, Gremio knew the shaggy pile of rotting bandersnatches only contained eight heads. But so far, the officers at the gate had never bothered to count them.
Gremio hopped down off the wagon seat. He grunted as he pulled the tarp, tumbling the bandersnatch heads and partial bodies underneath onto the ground, mostly still on the tarp. He never knew what the Guard did with them after he left. Probably called some sanitation drones to haul them to a midden somewhere. He had lived in Whitehall for a bit, years and years ago, but no one seemed to know where all the trash went.
The officer had already stepped back inside the walls. They widened the gap for Gremio to bring in his team of four goats. “Watch, now, they like to bite and they will eat hats,” Gremio warned the officers, who walked across the weedy lot to a smooth sidewalk. Gremio staked the goats across the patch of weeds, each with a long lead so it could graze as it liked.
The officer handed Gremio a disposable handheld device with the Bounty credits for ten heads on it. The officer paused, knowing he should offer Gremio a courtesy ride in the cruiser and not just leave him in this seedy part of town. Gremio knew he smelled like rotten bandersnatch, but he waited three breaths and let the awkward silence grow.
Finally, he said, “Well, thank you, now officers. I think I’ll stretch my legs and then find me a good shower. No need to wait on me.”
“Are you sure . . . ,” the officer said, while his partner started the hover’s engine. Gremio just waved them along with a smile. With a relieved sigh, the officer hopped in the cruiser and the guards disappeared.
After a shower and a quick bite at a boarding house he used in this part of town, Gremio took a train into the heart of Whitehall. It was midmorning already and he had to put in his orders quickly if he wanted them to be filled and delivered to the northern wall before nightfall.
The first stop was always the printers. Because they kept no electronics in the house, they read a lot of bound books. Paper books for the boys’ lessons, manuals for Gremio, and romances and crafting books for his Katherine. He took his time making his choices on the monitor in the lobby of the printers. He had a list from Kate, but she always finished the books on her lists long before it was time for another trip to Whitehall. The printer, who knew Gremio well, promised the books would be delivered to the northern wall by end of business, as always. Gremio nodded gratefully. At the last minute, he selected two more romance titles for his Kittercat. They always put her in an amorous mood.
He spent the rest of the morning placing orders through monitors and in person at shop counters.
“Alas, poor Yorick!,” Gremio said, standing on the wide, white sidewalk and stretching his back. “Alas, poor me!”
He liked to visit the city. But he hated shopping. It wore him down. It was barely past lunchtime and he was exhausted.
A woman rushing by and looking only at her handheld device bumped into Gremio, nearly knocking him down. She dropped her handheld, which clattered across the sidewalk. She spared him only a glance. “Watch where you’re going, you lummox,” she said and then chased her handheld as the passing throng kicked it along.
Flummoxed, Gremio headed hurriedly in the other direction, even though he had nowhere in particular to go. He often felt guilty about collecting the Bounty. He and Kate provided quite nicely for themselves off the land, but they could not make the luxuries of civilization. And in the highlands where they lived, there was nothing they could raise or make of value to Whitehall. Just the beasts for the Bounty.
But when he ran into ‘Hallers like that woman . . . No, she ran into me! Well, a lot of that guilt just melted away.
He was hungry, but he also felt a bit parched. He knew of an alehouse or two where he could get a good Blue Plate special and a pint or two for a reasonable price. He took the stairs down into the train tunnels and hopped a train to the older eastside of town. Far from the river and riverpark views, the eastside buildings were rusted, metal structures and not the glittering, crystalline towers.
Gremio found a seat at one of the few empty tables in the Pantaloon. In populous Whitehall, even the out-of-the-way dives were full of people. To Gremio, it always felt crowded inside the city walls. The Pantaloon was a Finsbury-style alehouse, windowless, dark, and full of smoke and vapors. It was as backwards and unfashionable as the painting on the Pantaloon’s wall outside—a painting of a fat, old gentleman giving a deep bow to a pretty young woman as he tried to look up her dress. That always gave Gremio a chuckle. With every visit to the Pantaloon, Gremio noted that he and the painted gentleman looked more and more alike. Like the gentleman, Gremio still wore the baggy trousers and open vest that were so fashionable a few decades ago in Whitehall. And Gremio had grown fatter and grayer of head, too.
But Kate didn’t seem to mind. She said with the years he only became more himself, and that she loved that. And living in the wilderness as they did, there was no other man to catch her eye. He was a lucky man.
As he ate, he went over his paper to-do list, checking off each item. He nodded with satisfaction. The only item he had left was to visit a jeweler. He and Kate had a big anniversary coming up. And as long as Whitehall paid out the Bounty each quarter, he would have enough disposable funds next visit to place an order for a sapphire necklace. Sapphires were her favorite.
Now there was nothing to do but kill time until the end of the business day, when his orders would be delivered to the northern wall. He considered going to a theater, but most of the new ones only offered loud, motion-filled, immersive experiences. Instead, he ordered a hookah for his table. Katherine wouldn’t let him smoke in the house, and once they had the boys, he had given up the recreational drugs so popular in his youth in Finsbury.
As soon as the server left, the front door opened, letting shafts of golden, afternoon light into the dim, smoky room. Gremio shielded his eyes. A man paused in the doorway, a silhouette with a glowing halo of gold around his head. Gremio attributed the halo entirely to the sunlight, but when the man entered and the door shut behind him, his golden hair continued to shine even in the dim alehouse lights. Gremio had never seen anything like it.
The man shuffled through the tables, trying to find a seat in the smoky dimness.
“Here,” Gremio called, raising his hand and giving a wave.
The man waded through the haze. And when the man appeared at Gremio’s table, it was a completely alien face that looked down on Gremio.
Gremio swallowed and then pasted on a wide grin. “I’ve got a seat free here. And a hookah on the way. Perhaps you’d care to pick up the first round?”
The man smiled, nodded, and slid onto the bench across from Gremio.
“Thank you, kind sir,” the man said. Then he bowed awkwardly, while seated. “I am Hamlet and have just arrived in this fair city from Newlondon.”
Gremio knew it for a lie at once. This “Hamlet” had piercing blue eyes, which could mark him as a Newlondoner. And Gremio had seen some Newlondoners with hair bleached at the tips by the sun, but no Newlondoner had the pale skin or short, golden hair of this “Hamlet.” The hookah arrived and Hamlet joined Gremio for a smoke. Hamlet had clearly never seen a hookah before, but he watched Gremio carefully and learned quickly. Gremio hid a grin as Hamlet gulped and coughed the dewnut flavored fumes.
With fast, clipped speech, Hamlet fished for information about Whitehall’s politics. Gremio answered the questions he could, even though it was clear that this “Hamlet” was a spy from the offworld ship. The truth was, Gremio himself was an outsider in Whitehall, something any Whitehaller would know at a glance. What little Gremio knew of Whitehall’s government or politics was no secret.
The offworlder continued to pepper Gremio for three rounds of the hookah, but Gremio did not mind. Hamlet picked up the price of each round and ordered two pitchers of ale as well. It was a rare treat to spend time in the company of another man for a smoke and a drink, even if that man was an alien. Gremio held forth on his opinions of Whitehall, and Hamlet listened intently.
Eventually, the topic turned to Gremio’s favorite subject, besides Kate, which was himself.
“So you’re a Bounty Hunter?”
“So you hunt down escaped fugitives?”
“What? No, I hunt the beasts, and I bring them in for the Bounty. That’s why it’s called a Bounty Hunter.”
Hamlet asked about the beasts. “Whitehallers clearly fear them, despite all their guns, but they don’t seem to know much about them.”
“The beasts don’t like ee-leck-tronics,” Gremio said. “Messes with their heads. Drives ‘em half blind and full crazy. I once saw a Scythebull ram a force wall until he kilt himself.”
The force walls attract the beasts from a distance, Gremio explained. And up close, it drives them to a frenzy. The further from the cities you travel, the safer it is, he explained. “O’ course, the Globe is full of dangerous animals, so you gotta have a slug thrower, just in case. But if you watch your step out there, a man like you’d be fine.”
“So . . . ,” Hamlet finally said. “You’re not really from Whitehall are you?”
When Gremio shook his head, Hamlet smiled and shook his own head ruefully.
“And you’d be one of them that came from the ship that landed,” Gremio said.
Hamlet’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
Gremio felt sorry for the hapless spy. What could he say? The man’s hair, his skin, his speech, the way he dressed. Everything about him felt alien. As they had talked, Gremio had taken in the man’s features and even noticed in the gloom that the man’s facial features, his very bone structure, looked alien. Hamlet was clearly human, but he was just as clearly not a Glober.
“Well, there’s your name, for starters,” Gremio said, trying to be tactful.
“You mean Hamlet?”
“Keep it down. Don’t nobody say that name here,” Gremio said.
“Here in Whitehall?”
“Nowhere on the Globe.”
“And . . . why? I thought Globers were mad about these ancient plays.”
“It’s because of the curse, of course.”
“I thought Macbeth was the cursed play.”
“I heard the same once,” Gremio said. “But on the Globe, the play of the Danish prince is tragedy twice over.”
After the first colonizers landed on the Globe, Gremio explained, they celebrated with a day of festivals along the riverfront. “A big shindig,” Gremio said. Capt. Elizabeth herself chose the play to end the evening, “the tragedy of the Danish prince,” Gremio said in a whisper. “And then the Wave come up the river and wiped out the entire plaza. Washed away nearly every body there. Ever since, don’t nobody put on that play and don’t nobody say that word.”
“Well . . . thank you for the information, friend. If you knew all along, why’d you help me?”
“For the drinks and the smokes, of course. Cheers!”
The stranger drew a fat, gold coin from a small pouch and left it on the table for the server. It was enough gold to pay the afternoon’s bill and then some. Then the offworlder slid the pouch over to Gremio. “Thanks again.”
Gremio went straight to the best jeweler he knew and placed the order for Kate’s sapphire necklace and a sapphire ring to match. He didn’t really believe in banks, but he did believe in bandits, especially outside the force walls, where he lived. So he went to a bank, cashed in the gold coins for Whitehall credits and opened an account. This would be his nest egg, in case the Bounty ever ended, or when he and Kate became too old to live in the wilds on their own.
From the bank, he called the City Guard and asked for an officer to meet him at the northern wall to open the force wall. When Gremio arrived at the wall, he made a great show of slowly loading the pile of packages onto the wagon. The officers sighed and began helping him load. He hitched up the goats and gave the officers a winning smile and a large wave as he drove through the force wall.
Gremio drove up the slope to the plateau, recounting the wonders of the day. “Hamlet!” he said, slapping his knee. “By the gods, he picked Hamlet!” For a moment he stopped and looked over his shoulder superstitiously, but then he relaxed and chuckled aloud.
Two nights later, he reached home. Although he was eager to see Kate and the boys, he had to take care of the animals first. He worked by the light of the Swearing Moon and the smaller Arrant Moon. He put the goats in their pen with fresh feed and then went to check on the bandersnatches. All the beasts were calmly sleeping inside the enclosure. Despite their oversized heads and manxome jaws, they could be very gentle creatures. In another quarter, he’d take another load of heads into Whitehall.
Tired, he walked towards the house. He saw a light in the main room. They’d be up late, then, waiting for their gifts. With a smile, he went inside.
If you enjoyed my story, feel free to leave comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, 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
- You just read: “Bounty” by Matthew Cross
- “Feral Fields” by Jeremy Wilson and Shanel Wilson