BY JEREMY WILSON AND SHANEL WILSON
The late afternoon light trickled through the crystalline window of Verges’s home in Westminster. He shuffled around his kitchen, filling his pockets with two-day-old fry bread before he left for his shift in the Wildcat Fields. Satisfied his pockets were full enough, he turned to the two work packs that hung from wooden hooks by the front door. The smaller one was covered in a thick layer of dust. Seeing the smaller pack, Verges grumbled and grabbed the larger one.
“I should put that away already,” he grunted, as he slung his pack over his shoulder.
As Verges adjusted the straps of his pack, he squinted against the sun reflecting off a small picture frame hanging next to the wooden hooks. He didn’t need to see the picture to vividly recall its image: a smiling, curly-haired girl with a face full of freckles wrapping her arms around a jolly, bearded man in a happy hug. Verges’s beard was a lot grayer these days, and his beloved daughter, Cleo, was now grown and working as a Bride in Whitehall. He had hoped Cleo would inherit her mother’s oil-slick-colored eyes, but she had his bold, violet eyes instead. When she came of age, she left to fulfill her duty and become a Westminster Bride.
His house had grown quiet because of her absence the past few years, causing Verges to pick up as many shifts as his manager, Imogen, would allow him out in the Fields. He preferred to be out there anyway, where he could catch a glimpse of the feral creatures that lived in the savagelands surrounding the Wildcat Fields.
Verges stepped off the hover trolley when it reached the refinery. A crowd of crew persons waited to board, covered in dust and sweat from a long day managing the rigs out on the dunes. A few muttered hellos as Verges passed. He nodded in return and made his way to the hover garage.
Verges checked in on the console at the entrance. He noticed his partner, Lodovico, had not checked in yet, so he made his way to their hover to get it ready for a night out in the Fields. He threw his pack into the driver’s seat and started performing the safety checks.
“Oy there, weren’t you just here last night, Verges?”
The voice startled Verges, causing him to bump his head on the undercarriage of the hover.
“It’s got to be done, Aaron.” Verges rubbed his head as he stood to greet the tall, slim man.
“Well, it’s your lucky night. The rigs will get a night off from your poking and prodding. Lodovico has called out, so you don’t have a partner to go out on shift with. Something about his wife being nervous about the Polity’s captain arriving tomorrow.” Aaron leaned casually against Verges’s hover, picking his filthy nails.
“I doubt Tamera is the nervous one.” Verges scowled, strapping down the toolbag to the rear of the hover.
“You’re right about that, mate!” Aaron’s scraggly hair bounced as he snickered.
Verges‘s brows knitted together as he watched Aaron continue to lounge against the hover while Verges tried to finish the safety checks.
“On shift tonight with Tubal, are ya Aaron?” Verges shooed the younger man away from the hover so Verges could check the drill poles.
“Nah, I’m heading home. I saw you check in, so I thought I’d wander into the garage to say hello, let you know you were off the hook for the night.” Aaron perched on the hover parked across the way.
“Well, hello. I am sure your children will be waiting at the door for their dear old pop, don’t you think?”
“I suppose you’re right, as usual, Verges. You’re a wise old geezer. Want to catch the next trolley together?” Aaron hitched a thumb toward the door.
“Not tonight. I want to make sure the hover is ready for the next run.” Verges kept his eyes on the hover so he wouldn’t be tempted to escort Aaron out forcibly.
“Always thinking ahead, aren’t ya? Just don’t go out alone. You know how dangerous it is.” Aaron hopped down from the hover and started strolling to the door.
“Do you think I’ve forgotten the rules?” Verges called after him.
“Not at all, but that hasn’t stopped you before, old boy. G’night, Verges.” Aaron waved and disappeared through the door.
Verges grumbled but was glad to be left alone. Verges hadn’t gotten the chance to take the hover out solo at night in ages. While it was expressly against the Wildcat Field rules to go out into the Fields at night alone, he knew how to avoid the dangers and he knew Imogen would go easy on him if word got back to her. The rigs needed tending, especially if the Polity would soon be trying to take a share of the oil the Fields produced. Every drop would become that much more precious. Verges also would not miss an opportunity to encounter some of his feral friends, especially without Lodovico scaring them off every chance he got. Once he was comfortable that the hover was ready and sure that everyone else had gone home, Verges climbed into the driver’s seat and quietly steered the hover out to the dunes.
Just beyond the outskirts of town, Verges paused to watch the last rays of sunlight dance across the dunes. A gentle breeze welcomed him, carrying the scent of Mary’s Irises. Verges inhaled deeply and smiled. He’d always loved Mary’s Irises. They were a sight to behold but nearly impossible to find, hidden among the sandstone crags and only blooming in the darkest hours of night. Their pale, translucent petals, speckled with crimson, suggested a fragile nature, but they were far hardier than most of the Smith workers he knew.
When the sun finally disappeared below the shifting sands, Verges eased the hover onward toward the Barren Sea, where they’d left off tending the rigs the night before. The gentle breeze grew into a steady wind and the dunes began to hum. Lodovico always complained the sound gave him a headache, but Verges found it calming. Even so, it made his job trickier by masking the sounds of the creatures in the dunes.
He glided past dune after dune, his mind wandering to thoughts of his daughter. When she was younger, Verges would bring her along on nights when he would be tending the rigs solo. Together, they would repair the derricks and marvel at the creatures they came across. He wished she could be here now, but Whitehall had demanded that she stay to train other Brides. It had broken his heart, but he couldn’t say that he was surprised, knowing the incredible young woman she had become. Love and pride began to well up in the corners of his eyes.
Abruptly, the wind turned into a gale, pelting Verges with stinging sand and reducing his visibility to almost nothing. He slid his violet goggles into place to protect his eyes and veered the hover sharply north to cut through the Rift. When he reached it, he slowed again, buffeted by the wind.
The Rift was a deep scar in the ground hidden by the endless dunes. Passing through it always filled Verges with a mix of unease and excitement thinking of what must be lurking in the labyrinth of slot canyons and caves branching out ever deeper into the planet. Traversing the canyon was actually the quickest way to get to the Barren Sea, but Imogen’s grandfather had forbidden the rig teams from passing this way since they’d lost several teams mysteriously during the last Alignment. Not that that had ever stopped Verges on nights when he was out alone.
Verges carefully navigated the hover into the canyon. On nights like this, the raging wind above would send sand cascading down the sculpted canyon walls, creating flowing curtains backlit by the blood-red Swearing Moon. A fist-sized puffadoon eyed him suspiciously from a nearby rock ledge as it gnawed on a sand hopper. It’s bloated, warty skin reflecting dull orange in Verges’s goggles.
As the canyon reached its narrowest point, the hover’s headlamps reflected off of what appeared to be a rippling, silvery pool on the canyon floor blocking his path. Easing the hover closer, he could see the pool was a writhing mass of silvery bodies.
Verges smiled and readied the fry bread in his pocket. He tossed a piece toward the silvery mass and was greeted by a cacophony of excited clicks.
Agile little beasts with black, beady eyes, sharp snouts, and shimmering hides that reflected light like a mirror. A single Quik was relatively harmless, but a family of them will make quick work of even the strongest man’s hubris. Normally they were found among the dunes, where many a weary traveler were enticed into an unpleasant demise thinking they had found water. Occasionally, though, a brood would wander into one of the canyons and take up residence.
Verges used the fry bread to lure the Quiks out of the way and slide the hover past, barely clearing the outcrops on either side. He had to bring the hover to a crawl to avoid wedging it in the narrow opening. Once through, he paused briefly to admire the small, silvery beasts.
The sound of rocks being knocked loose, amplified by the canyon walls, startled Verges and sent the quicksilvers scattering into clefts and crevices. He scanned the canyon walls and saw nothing, but he suddenly felt like he was being watched. Curiosity gave way to prudence, and he decided to continue on his way.
By the time he reached the other end of the canyon, the wind had died down. As he exited, he glanced back and thought he saw a shadow moving at the canyon’s mouth. He stopped the hover and watched intently, holding his breath. When nothing happened, he slowly pressed on into the Barren Sea.
He passed the first two rigs, having tended those last night. He quietly swore as he approached the third. The rig was overrun with vines of Hathaway’s Crown.
Early Globers discovered the flowering vine growing straight out of the dunes and had named it so because of its beauty and tenacity. Ironically, it turned out that the vine fed on the very oil they were trying to extract and could wreak havoc on the rig machinery.
With a little effort, the vines could be trained to create a barrier around the rigs to keep the Quiks out. Verges found, though, that if he didn’t cut them back regularly, Hathaway’s Crown would quickly overtake the rig and force its way into the casings, seeking oil.
It had been less than a week since Verges had checked this rig, but already the vines had overtaken the structure. Cutting them back would take considerable time. Verges sighed. No need to be in a rush; that’s how accidents happen.
He slid the hover next to the rig and switched off the engine. Without the hover engine running, Verges paused to enjoy the sounds of the sand for a moment. The peaceful calm belied the dangerous traps the dunes held. He glanced back toward the edge of the canyon. The rig was a good distance away from it, but something in the pit of his stomach didn’t trust that the shadow near the canyon wasn’t lurking in the darkness. Once he was satisfied that he was alone, Verges dug in his pack for his plasma shears.
“Hathaway, I better have enough charge to cut away your crown,” Verges prayed, since he had neglected to charge the battery pack after using the shears the night before.
Vine shears were standard issue for Wildcat Field workers, but Verges had modified his with plasma blades. They were risky because of how much ultraviolet light they emitted, but they cut his work time in half. It was a trade-off he was willing to make. He ignited the blades and set to work.
After several hours, the canvas sack Verges used to collect the vine clippings was nearly full, even though he was only halfway through his trimming. He wiggled and tamped the sack to make more room before he reached for another piece of vine on the side of the rig. When he flicked the switch on the plasma blades, they popped and fizzled instead of igniting.
“Blast it.” Verges hit the blade handles against his palm several times. The blades stayed dark.
He looked back to the rig, vines still curling around the top of the derrick. If he left those there, the rig would be engulfed before he could return. Verges climbed back into the hover where he pulled out a long cable from under the controls. He inserted the cable into the charging port on the shears and paused, taking another look around the dunes. No signs of curious creatures, yet.
The night had grown dark and still. Normally Verges would have been disappointed to have such a quiet, creatureless night in the rigs, but he knew that could change as soon as he turned on the hover. Verges reached over and flipped the ignition switch. The hover engine purred like a kittercat, and he tried the switch on the shears again. Their violet glow instantly illuminated the buzzing hover.
Verges jumped out of the hover and scrambled up the side of the derrick to reach the remaining vines. He took a deep breath to calm himself. He hated rushing, but dawn was approaching and he hadn’t given himself much of a choice. He made a mental note to keep a spare battery in his work pack to avoid this in the future. Verges looped the cable around the upper strut of the rig and continued trimming. Clippings fell to the sand, making soft thuds and sending grains of sand cascading down the side of the dune.
Between the purr of the hover and focusing on the vines, Verges couldn’t hear the clippings fall. He couldn’t hear the quiet padding of footsteps approaching, either. It wasn’t until he felt a tug on the cable connecting his shears to the hover that his attention was pulled away from the vines.
Beneath him, several bulbous eyes reflected the glow of his shears. The creature tossed its ragged, russet-colored mane and let out a low growl. It pawed the sand between them with one of its eight, spindly legs that was now entwined in the cable.
“A sand wraith!” Verges whispered into the night.
All the blood from his face drained when he locked eyes with the beast. Verges had never seen one before, nor had he met anyone who had. It was said that anyone who did never returned from the dunes.
The legends described the beast as having eight, giant, spider-like legs covered in thick, tawny hair that tower over even the tallest of men. Its head and body, it was said, resembled a monstrous, engorged lion, with jagged fangs curving out from its whiskered muzzle. It was thought that sand wraiths lurked in the canyons and only stalked prey into the dunes if they were particularly hungry. They would strike with unnatural speed, pinning their victims down in a flurry of legs while slowly ripping them apart.
Verges noted that the legends were right about the beast’s fearsome lion and spider-like features, but its legs were not quite as tall. The wraith looked to be about his height if he had been on the ground next to it. Though, he knew those nimble legs could scale the derrick to reach him in seconds flat if it wished. Being caught in the cable would barely slow it down.
The sand wraith’s growl grew into agitated grunts, its legs skittering in the sand as it pulled against the cable, nearly yanking the shears clean out of Verges’s hands. Verges flicked off the shears so neither of them would be sliced by the plasma.
“Easy there.” Verges cautiously climbed down the derrick; his hand outstretched toward the sand wraith.
It lowered its massive head and sneered; a low guttural roar shook the derrick as Verges landed in the sand.
“I won’t hurt you.” Verges dropped the shears and held his hands up to show the beast he meant no harm.
It stepped backward, jolting the hover that was still connected by the cable to the shears and sending the hover crashing into the derrick. Verges lunged forward and rolled to avoid being pinned between the two.
“Whoa!” Verges unsteadily got back to his feet, his sweaty face and neck now covered in sand.
He slowly reached into the hover and killed the engine. Verges watched as the beast’s hackles seemed to drop and relax. Though he took that as a good sign, his heart pounded against his ribcage. He stepped forward, half bowed, while keeping his eyes locked with the wraith’s. The intense yellow of the wraith’s eyes glowed brightly because of his goggles, which had started fogging up from his sweat. He yanked them off and dropped them by his side. The air between them was thick with the beast’s hot, sticky breath.
“Let me help you.” Verges bent down and found the cable in the sand.
He reached a hand out, mere inches from the wraith’s trapped leg. He paused, bowed his head and then gently stroked its spike-like fur. The hairs bristled at his touch, creating a rasping sound as they rubbed together. Verges recoiled, watching the wraith’s every move. When it did not retreat or attack, he continued. Verges gingerly lifted its clawed foot pad and unwrapped the cable from its leg. Once freed, he set the leg back down into the sand and took a step back.
The wraith snuffed and stamped its legs, stretching to its full height and causing Verges to stumble backwards a few paces. The wraith’s eight legs worked in perfect harmony as it stepped forward to close the gap between them. Verges held as still as he could, though he couldn’t mask the heaving of his chest.
The wraith crouched down, pressing its body against the sand and wrapping its legs around itself like a cage. It sniffed at Verges’s boots, giving them a small lick with its leathery tongue.
Verges allowed himself to breathe again, watching the creature intently.
When the wraith finished slathering his boots, it stepped even closer, knocking Verges backwards, and shoved its oversized muzzle into Verges’s lap. Despite being perilously close to its fangs and nearly suffocated by its mane, Verges let out a giddy chuckle. Instinctively, he reached out and began to scratch the wraith behind its flattened ears, as if it were a kittercat.
A sudden, low, thundering noise caused Verges to pause and scan the horizon. Seeing no clouds, Verges was confused until he realized the sound was coming from the wraith. The more Verges scratched, the louder the rumbling got, and the heavier the wraith’s head became in his lap. He eventually had to stop scratching when the weight of the creature’s head threatened to crush him.
When Verges stopped, the wraith raised its head and stared at him intently, looking almost confused. Verges chuckled again and returned its gaze, losing himself in the wraith’s intense, golden eyes. After several long moments, a crackle of static burst from the comm on the hover, startling them both. The wraith leapt backward and reared up as if to attack the hover.
“Woah,” Verges intoned, trying to calm the beast. The creature’s many eyes darted from Verges to the hover and back.
It hesitated. When the comm remained silent, the wraith lowered itself back down but kept its distance. They stood watching each other.
The horizon began to glow, signaling the return of light and, with it, a gentle breeze that rippled through the wraith’s mane. From the direction of the Rift came a series of loud, short grunts. The wraith tilted its head toward the sound and returned a similar grunt. It padded a few steps before turning to regard Verges one last time. They locked eyes and then the wraith sped off toward the canyon, disappearing into the dunes as the first rays of light began to paint the mouth of the canyon in the distance.
Verges stared toward the canyon for several long minutes, his mind struggling to comprehend the night’s events. The comm crackled to life again, tearing Verges’s attention away from the creature.
“Verges,” came Aaron’s voice over the comm, “Verges, come back.”
He cursed and reached for the comm, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice, “What?!”
“No really, Verges, come back. You’d better get your tail back here before Imogen gets in or she’ll have your hide, gray and wrinkled as it is, old boy.”
“Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Ma!” Verges shut off the comm and collected his tools. With one last glance toward the canyon, Verges eased the hover into the rising sun.
If you enjoyed Jeremy and Shanel’s story, feel free to leave comments below. If you would like to read more about Westminster, read “Shadow of the Dunes,” which kicked off the Westminster stories in the Globe Folio series.
P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:
Act 1: Night of the Rocket
- “Pillars of Smoke” by Frasier Armitage
- “Shadow of the Dunes” by Shanel Wilson
- “The Towers of Whitehall” by Jim Hamilton
- “The Beast Below” by Shanel Wilson and Frasier Armitage
- “The Buried War” by Matthew Cross
- “Kite Night” by Matthew Cross
Act 2: Nights of Revelation
- “The Voice of Beasts–Part 1” by Frasier Armitage
- “The Voice of Beasts–Part 2” by Frasier Armitage
- “The Sands of Change-Part 1” by Shanel Wilson
- “The Sands of Change-Part 2” by Shanel Wilson
- “A Matter of Principle” by Frasier Armitage
- “Eyes Up the River–Part 1” by Shanel Wilson and Frasier Armitage
- “Eyes Up the River–Part 2” by Shanel Wilson and Frasier Armitage
- “Shambles” by Matthew Cross
- “Interrogation” by Matthew Cross
- “The Burning Flame–Part 1” by Frasier Armitage
- “The Burning Flame–Part 2” by Frasier Armitage
- “Swift as Shadow–Part 1” by Shanel Wilson
- “Swift as Shadow–Part 2” by Shanel Wilson
- “Song of Thieves” by Frasier Armitage
- “The View from the Wall–Part 1” by Shanel Wilson
- “The View from the Wall–Part 2” by Shanel Wilson
- “Outcast of Belmont- Part 1” by Frasier Armitage
- “Outcast of Belmont- Part 2” by Frasier Armitage
- “Bounty” by Matthew Cross
- You just read: “Feral Fields” by Jeremy Wilson and Shanel Wilson
Now you’re all caught up. But don’t worry, we have more stories from the Globe on the way soon!