Training pups isn’t easy. On a good day, what we do is dangerous. Every other, it’s suicidal. Taking in a new shiver is never a happy experience. While it might seem awful to convince a group of children that throwing away their lives for banditry and violence is the way to go, there really isn’t much of an alternative. Any life on this planet is already thrown away, at least now they get to do it on their own terms.
This planet only exports two things. Spice, and hopelessness. We take advantage of both.
With only a few minutes before the drop, I stared at the unshaven, weary, dark-eyed man in front of me. I would have felt sorry for him, had I not known I was staring at a reflection. I rubbed my eyes and left the washroom, and was immediately assailed by a small group of pups. Caught in their way, they almost knocked me over as they excitedly ran past. Usually, I’d have angrily demanded order, but with only a few minutes left to prep, I figured I’d save the lecture for after we returned.
As the bright red countdown decreased, eventually everyone found their way into the egress bay. Packed in on the long bench were twenty-something bright, childish pairs of eyes. They were excited, and that was a good thing. Adrenaline is what keeps you alive out there. After a minor briefing, they knew all they needed to know. In truth, the hit was meant to be simple. Small size trading skiff, relatively unguarded, on a quiet stretch of sand. As ideal as conditions can be.
One by one, they stood and claimed their boards and equipment from their lockers, performed final maintenance checks, and then lined up along the launch rails.
We have three rules. One, your board. Your board is your lifeline, it’s your way in, and your way out. Without it, you’re as good as dead.
Once all of the pups were in position, I strode to the center and set up my own board. As my feet locked into the cuffs, the red countdown appeared along the top of the bay door.
Two, your buddies. The desert is lethal, no one survives alone. Your cohorts are your lifeline. Without them, you’re as good as dead.
With one minute remaining on the clock, the room creaked, and the bay door slid open. I signaled to the pups, and slid my goggles over my eyes, and my mask over my face. I watched as they did the same.
Three, the sand. Don’t ever touch the sand. If you do, you’re as good as dead.
I signaled to the pups again, and rose my back foot, slamming it down, priming the ignition against the rail, and watched them do the same.
In truth though, these rules have little value. The entirety of what we call a “training course” has little value. We can teach you to ride a board, we can teach you to fight, we can even teach you to steal. But, nothing we can ever teach you compares to your first ignition.
The countdown hit zero, and I felt the fresh heat of twenty-some-odd flames at my back, propelling us from the mothership. As we breached the open air, I pulled ahead of the pack to guide them, and began the descent. It wasn’t long until the skiff was in view, a small brown blemish, hovering silently over the bone-white sand. I looked back to confirm that all was in order, then began the final approach.
I drew my gun, and descended upon the pilots cabin. The pups all spread throughout the ship, as ordered, armed and ready to deal with any personnel. I hovered alongside the port window, and looked inside to find an untouched helm. I slid around onto the deck, and unlatched myself from the board. A breach into the quarters showed no signs of a human occupant. After a brief search, I returned to the deck. One by one, the pups returned, all with the same news. The ship was empty, devoid of life.
It was at that very moment that I should have called off the hit. Automated skiffs weren’t unheard of maybe ten, twenty years ago. But now? It’s like they were asking to be robbed. Regardless, I set the pups to work gathering the spice from the cargo hold. There couldn’t have been more than a kilogram, but even a gram was enough to feed a mouth for a day. Once all the spice bags were collected and distributed, we found ourselves with one, large, untouched wooden crate. No one would ship anything valuable on a spice skiff, too high risk. So, what was it doing here? My curiosity piqued, I levered open the top, and peered inside. It took a moment for what I was looking at to truly register, or at least, I think it did. In truth, the time of the ordeal is sort of a blur. I yelled to the children to abandon ship, and they did, to the best of their ability. I managed to get back to my board, and lift off the deck. I couldn’t have been more than fifty meters from the ship when it erupted into a blaze. The hull shattered from the force of the explosion, and as heat ran over my back, I turned behind me.
I counted eleven boards in the air.
They were asking to be robbed, and I obliged happily.
Behind the eleven boards, the corpse of the skiff drifted to the sand, and contacted with a thunderous clap. A single person touching the sand is enough to guarantee their death. Something of this magnitude was near-hopeless. I began ascending, and registered a call to the mothership, telling them of the situation, and that we’d need an emergency pickup. Just as I finished, I felt the low rumble emanate from the sand. The source moved quickly, snaking its way towards the disturbance. Only a moment later, it exploded from the sand, and propelled itself upward with incredible speed for its size. It cleared the apex of it’s jump, and descended through the middle of the pack. When I looked back again, I counted ten. Just then, another wyrm attempted the same maneuver. I watched as it’s titanic body swatted two more, throwing them down to the sand.
I don’t know how long this continued, but when they seemed to have given up their pursuit, I counted only four boards behind me. The mothership appeared soon after, and we boarded in silence. The survivors stowed their gear, and returned to the bench. Four pairs of eyes, downcast, dark. The total take was a little under two-fifty. Before, it would have been enough to feed all the pups for a week or two. But now, those who remained would eat well for a month.
On a good day, the life of a Sandshark is dangerous. Every other, it’s suicidal.