A starving eight-foot creature mined an alien sea bed in the vast dark deep. Stood up exhausted from his day’s work to study the horizon for predators; gills straining for water as he fought to catch his breath. Tried to ignore the twisting pull of lifelong hunger in his stomach. As the swirling sand cleared from his secret dig site, something white gleamed under the light of his lantern. Maybe his family could eat this week after all. He dived back at the rockface in a starving frenzy, chiselling away at the rock until his back stung and his arms burned and he’d dug up the biggest crystal he’d ever seen. It was his family’s hospital bill and retirement plan; a ticket away from all the back-breaking work and endless hunger down here in the Sand Flats. Their ticket to paradise. Gasping for breath, muscles aching, the creature glanced around and hurriedly stuffed the crystal into the sack on his belt. Hearts pounding up in his mouth, he swept the drifting sand back in to cover the hole in the rockface. With one last look over his shoulders, he swam off for the long quiet way home.
‘Open the bag,’ a city guard ordered him in grumbling sonar, swimming up beside him and making sure he saw the sparkspear in his webbed hands.
‘Come on brother, I need to get home. My mother’s sick,’ the creature replied in apology, trying to swim on. He felt the sparkspear in his side.
‘Open the bag,’ the city guard replied, moving the spear to the creature’s throat.
‘Please, brother,’ the creature pleaded. ‘I’ve got sick parents to feed. You understand. Do it for Shoalbond.’
‘Shoalbond doesn’t put food in my family’s mouths,’ the city guard replied with a smug fish-lipped smile. ‘That’s the IG’s job. Open the bag. Last chance.’
‘You’re a bastard, do you know that?’ the creature replied, his shoulders dropping.
‘I’m a bastard with an IG paycheck,’ the guard replied. ‘Open it. Now.’
Slowly, reluctantly, feeling the lethal sparkspear up against his throat, the creature pulled up the sack from his belt and opened it to reveal a fortune’s worth of crystal. The crystal that would’ve bought his sick parents a resthome on Coral Rise under the sparkling sunlight, far from the belching chimneys down here on the Sand Flats. Far from the fumes that’d killed so many before them.
‘Oh shit,’ the city guard mumbled, staring transfixed at the sheer size of the glassy crystal. ‘Hard luck, brother,’ he said smugly, taking the sack. ‘IG property now.’
‘My little sister’s dying,’ the creature pleaded, opening up his rawest nerve. ‘Come on brother. She’s six.’
‘Every bastard’s got someone dying,’ the guard replied, snatching the crystal away. ‘It’s the Sand Flats. Word of advice – if you want to help your dying family, don’t get caught next time. Now fuck off.’
‘You’re killing my family,’ the creature replied desperately, his fish eyes darting between the guard’s and the crystal. ‘Break off a piece for me. Break off a piece for yourself. Just leave me something to buy some food, for fuck’s sake.’
‘IG property,’ the guard grinned back. ‘Move along.’ People coming back from the mines were beginning to stare.
‘Come on, just break me off a piece,’ the creature urged him. ‘Keep the rest, I don’t care. Just give me something to feed my family with.’
‘Fuck. Off.’ The guard replied, poking his sparkspear into the creature’s throat again. The growing crowd was making him edgy.
‘We haven’t eaten in days,’ the creature pleaded, staring with a sudden intensity. ‘I need that to take care of my family! You’ve got no right!’
‘I said fuck off!’ the guard yelled back, jabbing him with the spear. The creature looked down at the blue blood puffing aquatic from his stomach, and flipped. Grabbed the spear from the guard’s hands and struck out. The guard looked at him in sudden shock, gills gasping for breath. Stuck through with his own sparking spear. The creature watched the guard go limp and drift down dead into the churning sand. Stared at him in shock. Already the crowd was bustling in to grab the killer and pin him down. Already, more of his shoalbrothers and shoalsisters were creeping in to fight and claw over the million-credit crystal lying in the sand at his feet. He fought with every ounce of starving animal anger in his body, and still the crowd grabbed and pulled and pinned him down in the floating sand. As more guards hurried over from the city, the creature knew what was coming next. This was a crime worthy of exile to the shallows. A long hot death in the searing sun, gasping for breath in a foot of water while his body baked – and not just himself. He’d have to watch his sick parents and little sister succumb to the same fate first. He’d sentenced them to death, and his starving fanatical shoalbrothers and sisters would make sure the sentence was carried out. All for the faded glory of Shoalbond… and the grinning, grabbing IG corporations who’d sprung up in its place.