The Sands of Change
Ward jumped off her flier in front of Westminster’s main gate. There was little difference from this place to the hundreds of other desert cities she had seen on Polity missions. She rolled her eyes at the sandstone walls that wrapped around the city. One blast from her pulsar gun would shake the primitive thing apart. Ward tossed her visor into the flier, nearly pegging Leonardo in the head. Shame it didn’t hit him. She would have much preferred to take these tours without Whitehall’s self-appointed guide simpering at her elbow.
“Let’s get this over with.” She stamped through the sand and through the gate.
Leonardo sped through the group of Ward’s crew she brought with her.
“Welcome to Westminster, Whitehall’s industrial sister. You saw the oil pipeline on your journey here, and they created all the glass for our photo-voltaic cells that power Whitehall.”
Hover trolleys were gathering workers for their morning shifts at the Smith and Wildcat Fields. A few of the citizens cast tentative glances at the group of heavily armed and armored newcomers, but none gave any greetings or welcomes.
A hover came blasting around the corner and stopped suddenly directly in front of Ward. A small cloud of dust caught up with the hover and swirled around the group. Leonardo coughed and waved his hands to clear the air. Ward crossed her arms as two men jumped out of the hover. Both were quite young and had piercing violet eyes.
“Greetings, Captain. Welcome to our fair city!” the shorter one exclaimed.
“Gonzalo? Sebastian? We are not scheduled to see Eglamour and the Smith until this afternoon.” Leonardo consulted his notes in the small folio he kept attached to his hip.
“Captain, I am Sebastian, son of Eglamour.” Sebastian gave her a small bow, ignoring Leonardo. “And this is my younger brother Gonzalo. We have eagerly awaited your visit.”
“And which one are you, glass or oil?” Ward looked the brothers over.
“We proudly represent the Smith, the Globe’s great glass factory. We would be glad to take you on our hover to the factory floor for your tour.”
“We are due in the Fields, as I said, Sebastian.” Leonardo pointed to his notes.
“Ah, yes, you see a tragedy has befallen Westminster since your comm. The great Benedick, the head of Wildcat Fields, passed away from a long illness, yesterday. We did not want to delay your important visit, so we are here to take you to the Smith.” Gonzalo stepped forward, his chest puffed up to appear as important as possible.
“Fine. I don’t care which I see first, but I need to see the oil fields before I leave. Who can give me that tour?” Ward asked.
“Benedick’s niece, Imogen. She has been overseeing the operations since her uncle fell ill, but I am sure she is mourning as she is his only remaining family. I assure you, we will be able to handle anything you need while you are here in Westminster.” Sebastian smiled and gestured for Ward to board their hover.
Ward sighed. She was already tired of the grandiose welcomes, but it came with the territory on a mission like this. That’s why she much preferred close combat. No facades in the way. Just you, the enemy and your weapon of choice. Her hand unconsciously slid over her sidearm as she stepped into the relatively small hover.
“We do apologize, we only have room to accommodate Captain Ward on our hover. The rest of you are welcome to enjoy a pleasant stroll through our fair city and meet us at the Smith. Leonardo, I believe you know the way?” Sebastian climbed into the hover, followed by Gonzalo.
Leonardo fumed but before he could respond, Ward waved her hand.
“Johnson, you and the team will go on foot with Leonardo.” She touched the commlink in her ear.
“Yes, sir.” Johnson saluted and mirrored her and touched the commlink in his ear.
She was glad their commlinks had not failed so far. The communications around this place seemed primitive to what she was used to, and she didn’t want to rely on any of them to communicate with her team. These simpletons’ solution to the atmospheric disturbances which scrambled radio waves had been to program drones to carry messages for them. Pathetic, really. Any Polity child could have rewired a commlink to broadcast a message across the surface, even a surface as messed up as this one. Still, at least it meant they weren’t going to hack into the commlink and eavesdrop. Johnson would report anything else pertinent they may find along the way. And, as a bonus, she would be free from Leonardo for the first time since landing on this rock, or at least nearly.
“Gentlemen, shall we?” Ward reclined in her seat.
Sebastian took the controls and they sped off through the city. Ward especially enjoyed Leonardo’s face as they left. Maybe there were a few joys to be found, even if she couldn’t shoot her way through this mission.
A short while later, they arrived at the Smith. The two brothers gave her the grand tour, complete with a visit to each glassmith to see what they were working on. Ward hoped she would be spared gladhanding the locals, but she did her best to feign interest for a while. Colorful glass trifles were never interesting to Ward. Unless it served a purpose, she had no use for it. By the end of the second row of furnaces, she had seen enough.
“Thank you for your time. I will meet my Marines now.” Ward nodded a farewell and turned on her heel to leave.
“There is no need to rush! Please, can we offer you a meal at our dining hall? We have some of the best chefs in the Globe creating delicious meals for our glassmiths that rival what the famed culinary men of Finsbury produce.” Gonzalo jumped in Ward’s way.
“We have provisions. Thank you for your offer. I have many important things to attend to.” Ward couldn’t justify any more time spent dealing with these windbags. She knew glass was worthless to the Polity, so she allotted just enough time to seem diplomatic.
“We would be glad to escort you to Wildcat Fields now, if that is your wish,” Gonzalo piped up.
“That won’t be necessary,” Ward responded.
“We humbly thank you for the time you have spent with us, Captain Ward. We will be glad to furnish as much glass as the Polity will need. We hope you see the value we . . . I mean, the Smith, will provide.” Sebastian placed his hand on Ward’s arm.
Ward wrenched her arm away. It took everything in her power to keep herself from pulling her sidearm on him. She took a deep breath and regained her poise.
“I will report to the Polity and let them know your keen interest.” She marched off without waiting for an answer.
Sebastian and Gonzalo watched her strong silhouette exit through the doorway at the end of the factory.
“That’s it?! She’ll let them know our ‘keen interest’? She thinks we’re fools! We cannot tolerate her disrespect!” Gonzalo ran his fingers through his hair while pacing around Sebastian.
“She’ll see the error of failing to strike a deal with us today, but we need to stick to the plan. If we do, our patience will be rewarded. The Polity will be crawling back to us before you know it.” Sebastian crossed his arms across his chest confidently.
Ward, her Marines and Leonardo arrived at Benedick’s house after a short walk from the Smith. Though the city was rustic to her eyes, Ward appreciated the functional nature of the buildings and the clean layout of the streets. She almost let herself enjoy the walk outside, except Leonardo spent the entire time trying to convince Ward to postpone her visit to Wildcat Fields.
“Please. We should leave the poor girl to her mourning. Perhaps we can come back after we have visited Newlondon?” Leonardo pleaded.
“The Polity cannot wait, regardless of when death takes its toll.” Ward pressed the button next to the doorway.
After a short wait, Imogen opened the front door. Her once-neat braid was frayed, and the rims of her eyes were red. The imposing figures of Ward and her Marines seemed to catch her off guard. Leonardo stepped around Ward to greet her.
“Please, pardon our intrusion. You must be Imogen. I am Leonardo of Whitehall. We know this is a difficult time for you, but may I present Captain Ward of the Polity?” Leonardo motioned to Ward and her Marines.
“Yes, of course. The tour of the Fields. It will be no problem.” Imogen brushed the hair from her face. “Forgive me for not inviting you in under the circumstances. We can head straight to the Fields.” Imogen stepped out into the street and closed the door behind her.
“After you.” Ward gestured to Imogen. She was pleased to meet someone willing to get down to business without the flowery shows of flattery.
“We can start at the refinery. There you will be able to see the beginning of the pipeline. This way please.” Imogen led the group to the northwest corner of the city.
Imogen maintained a quick but steady pace. Ward allowed her to stay a step ahead of the rest. Her questions could wait. Ward was more interested in observing her. She noted the proud way Imogen carried herself. It was the same fortitude Ward expected of her Marines.
They arrived at the refinery where Imogen gave a brief yet instructional tour. Ward appreciated her efficiency. Imogen answered all the questions Ward put to her with ease and intelligence. Imogen’s professional demeanor only broke once, as they passed Benedick’s office.
“And this is head office.” Imogen’s voice cracked as she saw her uncle’s name on the nameplate.
Leonardo placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder. Imogen gave him a sad smile and smoothed her hair again.
“Seems like it would be your office now. Under the circumstances, that is,” Ward remarked offhandedly.
Leonardo scowled at Ward as Imogen’s face paled. Imogen traced the nameplate absentmindedly. Ward rolled her eyes at Leonardo and cleared her throat. She didn’t have time for emotional detours. Imogen blinked and turned back to the group.
The golden dunes were dotted with slow-moving oil rig pumps bobbing up and down.
“Yes, Captain. I guess you are right.” Imogen paused, then strode down the corridor. “This way please.” Ward noted the slightly faster pace that Imogen took the rest of the tour. Imogen proved she was capable under pressure, but Ward wondered how she would fare once they began negotiations. Imogen led them to a small but comfortable lounge usually reserved for crews returning from their shifts in the Fields.
“Captain, if you wish to see Wildcat Fields itself, we can take a crew hover from here. The Fields are managed by two-person crews because of the creatures that inhabit the dunes. Your Marines are welcome to wait here.”
“Thank you. Marines, at ease, I will return shortly.” Ward nodded to her Marines and Leonardo.
Imogen brought Ward into a small garage of hovers and got into the nearest one. Ward climbed into the passenger seat, and they set out into the dunes. Ward shaded her eyes to get a better view. The golden dunes were dotted with slow-moving oil rig pumps bobbing up and down. As they sped past, Ward saw a few workers in goggles tending to the mechanisms.
“I could use a pair of those goggles about now,” Ward quipped.
“There should be a pair under your seat, but they won’t help with the sun much.”
Ward reached below her seat. The goggles she found were lightweight, made with straps of canvas and fitted with deep violet lenses. Ward slipped them on but saw nothing unusual except her vision was now tinged purple.
“The goggles help filter the light so they can see the ultraviolet rays more easily.” Imogen pointed to the lenses. “They won’t help you much, except for maybe keeping the sand out. You may have noticed some Westies have violet eyes. Those with violet eyes can see ultraviolet light, but women have the strongest sight. Ultraviolet vision is a valuable asset on the Globe, especially in a place like Wildcat Fields. Not only are repairs made easier, but many creatures bear ultraviolet markings. They would be completely camouflaged otherwise.”
“That is a useful trait. If violet-eyed women have the best sight, why aren’t the crews exclusively women?” Ward slipped off the goggles and stashed them back under the seat.
“Long ago, the leaders in Whitehall learned of this unique trait and asked if their scientists could study a woman with violet eyes. They were able to develop a surgery that would enhance the ultraviolet vision even more. It was agreed that once violet-eyed women reached a certain age, they would be sent to Whitehall for surgery, and they would be hired out to the highest bidder for work in repairs or for creature defense and research. The women soon became known as Westminster Brides.”
Ward raised her eyebrows at the word “brides.” Imogen rolled her eyes and continued, “Not what I would have called them, but no one asked me. Whitehall, as it does today, controls the greatest number of resources and power in the Globe. Westminster was not in the position to refuse this arrangement, so the practice continues through today. Westminster rarely tries to compete with the prices Brides fetch, since much of the work for the Fields can be done with our own men.”
“You have one of the largest resources on the Globe, your oil. Why not leverage it if you do not wish to keep sending your women out in this forced labor?”
“When the Globe was established, we agreed to share these resources. That principle remains today, yet with a few more caveats. Finsbury once tried to assert its independence from Whitehall, to be free from their constant demands. Let’s just say that Whitehall ensured that it would never happen again. That sent a clear message to the rest of us of what could happen if we tried to operate independently from them.” Imogen’s fists tighten their grip on the hover controls.
Ward herself had “sent a clear message” to all the Globe leaders when she arrived, showing that the UPS Pacifica in orbit could destroy anything anywhere on the Globe with its lasers. She knew that would rankle some leaders, but had it also reopened old wounds in the other cities under Whitehall’s thumb?
Imogen brought the hover to a stop at a rig on a far ridge. Ward’s eyes scanned the ridge around her. She made a mental note to prod Leonardo about the failed Finsbury coup. Understanding the backward power dynamics of this rock was critical if she was to complete this mission successfully. Blazing oranges, pinks and purples painted the sky. Ward rarely got the chance to see colors like this while on the Pacifica or any of the other Polity ships she had been stationed on. Her mind drifted from politics and resources as she let the colors wash over her.
“Benedick would bring me to this ridge to watch the two moons rise,” Imogen continued. “He also brought me here when he had something difficult to discuss. I thought this would be appropriate for today. How much oil will the Polity demand exactly?”
Ward sat up from her reclined position in the passenger seat. Imogen maintained steady eye contact while the breeze blew the loose strands of her hair across her face.
“I like a girl who can cut to the chase. The Polity will need forty percent of your production.” Ward cocked her head, returning Imogen’s eye contact. The Polity didn’t really need that much oil, but Ward knew better than to ask for what she truly needed. That much would be a nightmare to try and haul off this rock, anyway.
“That is impossible. The whole of the Globe will come to a screeching halt within a week at that rate. We can give no more than ten percent.” Imogen remained calm and resolved.
“Navy leadership won’t be happy, but I am sure I can talk them down to twenty-five percent.”
“I promised my uncle to protect our people. While the Polity may promise protection, we have done well for ourselves for five hundred years. We will give no more than fifteen percent,” Imogen’s gaze returned to the ridge while she waited for Ward to respond.
“Then I have no choice but to accept.” Ward raised her hands in a gesture of defeat.
“That gun on your hip says otherwise.” Imogen smirked. “But I thank you for accepting. Shall we return? I am sure you want to get back before it is too late.”
“Quite right. Though today has been more informative than I had imagined.” Ward leaned back as Imogen started up the hover. Imogen was the first person with any brains around this place, so far. Ward appreciated being spoken to without artifice. Ward would have liked to entice Imogen to join her crew on the Globe, yet she knew Imogen would never leave the Fields. Especially since they were her responsibility now, something that made Imogen even more attractive as a crew member. Too bad.
Gonzalo watched Ward’s flier blast off into the darkening sky.
From the window of the apartment he shared with Sebastian, Gonzalo could see the flier’s red engines flair as Ward headed towards Whitehall. Jet engines were Polity tech, unlike anything he had ever seen. Sebastian sat on the small couch tossing an ornate glass ball in the air.
“There that wretched woman goes.”
“Come sit, brother.” Sebastian motioned to the cushion next to him.
A muffled ping escaped Sebastian’s pocket.
“What’s that?” Gonzalo searched for the source of the sound.
“It’s Father’s comm.” Sebastian pulled it out to see the message.
“When did you take it? Father will . . . “
“Father will what?” Sebastian interrupted. “He’s so confused, he doesn’t even know what year it is. Someone needed to be responsible for it. Let’s see what the message says.”
The blue screen read:
Eglamour, you are cordially invited to the auction of the Eye of the freshly slain Kraken in Newlondon Harbor. All invited are welcome to bid for the Eye. The most valuable bid will win! Good luck and looking forward to seeing you in our esteemed city soon. Sincerely, Solanio of Newlondon
“What did I tell you, Gonzalo? Luck is on our side. Ward will no doubt attend, so we will be sure to have a bid so extraordinary, Ward and those greedy Newlonders will be eating out of the palms of our hands. Tomorrow is a new day.” A sly smile crept over Sebastian’s lips as he clasped his brother on the back.
“And it will be ours!” Gonzalo cheered. Sebastian clicked a button on a remote resting on the coffee table. Brassy, upbeat tones filled the room with the newest Whitehall disco hit. The brothers danced around the room while the two moons rose through their window.
If you enjoyed Shanel’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Shanel’s “Shadow of the Dunes,” which kicked off the Westminster stories in the Globe Folio series.
And make sure to check back next Friday week for the next story in “Nights of Revelation.” Frasier Armitage takes us back to Whitehall as the governor and mayor grapple with the shifting power on the Globe in “A Matter of Principle.”