The heat shimmered across the endless sand. The undulating landscape was bleached bone. Looking across the hostile alien world, any sane person would have been absolutely positive that nothing lived there. The heat was like a wraith, hovering, always close. The soul destroying-moan of the constant wind and the burning rays sucked the very life essence from anyone, or anything stupid, or unfortunate, enough to be caught there. However, the casual onlooker would have been wrong; the sand itself was so fine that even the spiders and scorpions that haunted normal deserts, disappeared under the surface. This area of the BurningDesert was normally avoided; even the sloth-toed Anark, the lone four-footed animal native to the area, only came here if the overly stupid, or crazy two-legged creatures forced it to. The rest of the inhabitants lived under the dunes. To the residents here, the sand’s hundreds of mile expanse was like a vast ocean.
In the distance the air shimmered in the heat; against the rippling blue sky, small patches of color could be seen. Red and blue, mixed with yellow and indigo. No two were the same. These splotches seemed to hover in the air as if mocking the surrounding area for the lack of original color. The blotches in the sky gradually gained clarity as they came closer. Now, if someone was daft enough to be here watching, they might see the objects were cloth. They bobbed and danced in the thermal air currents across the blistering sand. Relentlessly they came, until they took on shape. They looked to be a type of kite sail anchored, hundreds of feet below to an object, screaming across the sand.
The tall muscular man braced himself looking upward, shading his eyes against the sun as he checked the position of his kite sail. Satisfied, he pulled the leather headpiece back into place. The mask covered the face where two clear glass lenses protected the man’s delicate eyes from the razor sharp particles that peppered his frame. The mask covered the nose and mouth, where gauze filters kept the minute granules clear of the sensitive nasal membranes. The rider quickly covered the twenty feet to the rear of the racer and looked over the stern. The dusky-skinned man could see ten other racers spread out over the area, jockeying for the best position, heading into the Devil’s Heart. This part of the race tested the mettle of any who dared the sand. Often a Sand Racer would disappear, never to be found. The carcass of the broken sleds made navigation here hazardous. The rider, his long hair in a ponytail, just grinned beneath his mask.
Usually the first two or three sleds were left alone. The passage sent vibrations through the sand and the scarabs that hunted this area quickly responded. There weren’t enough of them normally to damage a sled, but it was known that every four years in their spawning cycle, thousands of them waited just under the surface, spread out over several miles. Even the mighty Sand Leech vacated the area when the scarabs swarmed.
The rider went forward, checking his anchor harness as he took up position between the steering ropes. He slipped his feet into the straps; wiping his hands dry on his loincloth and grasped the ‘D’ shaped steering lines, one in each hand. He looked once again to the side and rear, and then glanced apprehensively around the emptiness. They were two years overdue for a swarm. For the first time he actually thought of abandoning the race; however, usually the leaders were fairly safe. He shrugged off his doubts and kicked off the sand guide lock. Now that the lock was released, the tiny triangular-shaped piece of wood under the sled was detached and pulled behind the racing sled on a small cord. For the rest of the race the manoeuvring would be strictly up to the rider.
The man looked around as a high-pitched hiss could be heard, the sound the polished oaken hull made screaming over the sand. Another rider, his fiercest rival, was already closing. He shook his head angrily, most sane drivers slowed entering the Heart; the bordering dune that separated the area was close to two hundred feet high and a half-mile wide. The sled’s rider grunted and pulled hard with the right line, changing the angle slightly so the sled veered to the right. He took the dune at an angle, hissing along the side, gradually working his way to the crest. He looked over at the indigo sled and could see the other rider’s bold tactic; he was taking the barrier head on. It was a gutsy move and if he pulled it off, it might well give him the race, putting him a good two miles ahead of everyone else.
Suddenly lunging to the left, pulling the emergency dump, and spilling most of the wind, he veered hard, as he could see the shattered remains of a black hull protruding from the sand. The manoeuvre forced him higher up the dune than he would have wanted, so he carried on left and cut behind the indigo sled driver. He looked up in horror to see that in the yellow sled, the youngest rider was trying the head on attack, as well.
For the next five minutes, the rider was too busy getting his craft over the crest; he topped and literally flew forty feet, heading for the sand at a rapid speed. Again he pulled the dump and the sail sagged, dropping sixty feet, pulling him almost vertical with the sand below. One more dump and his runners kissed down lightly on the bleached surface. As he tugged backwards and forwards, working the kite sail higher, he had a chance to look around quickly. The manoeuvre had gone badly for indigo and he had come down hard, breaking the runner on one side. The sled was slowing quickly and was becoming unmanageable. The rider could see the indigo sled driver abandon his steering position and race to the rear of the sled; he transferred his anchor to a small cradle in the rear and yanked a cord. A small ‘U’ shaped cloth popped out the back and the indigo rider was quickly plucked from the deck of his sled as it tipped, slewing sideways, pushing into the sand, smashing itself to kindling. An indigo colored rocket shot skyward, as the friction of the emergency release ignited the fuse.
The rider sighed and yanked hard on the left; he desperately held it as the winds aloft tore at the kite sail. By the time the almost two mile turn had been made, his arms felt as if they had been torn from his sockets. Now the rider could see a yellow rocket sinking, sputtering to the ground. It didn’t take long to find the wreck. The rider dumped more air and manoeuvred closer to the shattered sled. He could see the yellow rider lying in the sand; the youth had managed to get his capture harness rigged. Now he just lay in the sand, his broken and bleeding body a shapeless lump. Slipping one foot out of the block the Blue Rider quickly stamped on the spring plate next to his driving position, then he did the same to the other side.
Suddenly the dune in the distance erupted as hundreds of scarabs poured from dozens of conical shapes. The rider’s eyes tightened angrily. This stupid recklessness had put all their lives in danger. His sled screamed closer to the yellow cloth bundle on the ground and the hook on that side snagged the harness where it had been staked out; the cord unreeled as the body was dragged along. The line reached the end and the automatic tension started pulling him in. The rider had no chance to help the yellow driver onto the sled as he carefully lined up the indigo rider and the hook effortlessly snagged his pick up line, on the other side. Again the cord reeled out before the automatic tension pulled him in.
The rider looked quickly back and could see fin shaped objects protruding from the sand. He knew that each scarab was about three feet long, with the body almost a wedge shape with a bony ridge along its back about half as tall as it was long. The rider gritted his teeth, desperately working the sail higher for more speed. With one last look behind him, he could see hundreds of the ‘fins’ following them. It was no wonder they called the scarab the ‘land shark’.
He heard a thunk from the side of his sled and quickly looked down. He could see the indigo rider pulled up on the runner where he was now securely held. It would be a bumpy ride, but at least he could see he was alive as the man gave him a tired ‘thumbs up’. Burdened with the extra weight, the rider had to use his knowledge, experience and all his luck, to keep his over-loaded sled ahead of the scarabs.