Monthly Archives: November 2015

Desert Steel Chapter 5

Détente

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Sebastian forced himself to look away from the bloody, dismembered body, and gave a wry, amused smile. To an onlooker, such a look may have appeared psychopathic, but in truth it was one of shellshock at the absurdity and suddenness of the whole situation.  ‘A plan never survives first contact‘ he thought, the prophetic phrase seeming ridiculously hilarious to his disturbed mind. His mind whirred, knocked off its axis by the change. It quickly realigned itself, and a new path became clear. He looked around the remaining group, and decided it was time to act.

Pauly stared, hands on knees, at the puddle of vile half-digested vomit pooling at his feet and draining into the sand, leaving behind the bigger chunks. He was exhausted, physically and mentally, and he’d given up. He was standing in a godforsaken piece of desert in his own vomit, and he was going to die there, killed by some hard-ass punk. He stayed there, crying uselessly, waiting for the bullet to come.

I don’t want to die.’

“I don’t want to die.”

His thought and the voice came at exactly the same time, so much so that for a moment he thought he’d spoken out loud by accident. Then he realised the voice had had an alien nasal twang to it that he didn’t recognise, not his own Italian New Yorker drawl. His head shot up. He felt as if a hundred thousand volts had just run through him. He felt as if he’d just drunk liquid fire. He felt… Hope.

It was the Old Glory wearer with the poncho speaking, his head still down but his eyes no longer sighting a target. He was speaking in a conversational tone, like he was just discussing his plans over some coffee.

“I’d rather walk out of here alive,” he continued, speaking as though to himself, but loud enough for everyone to hear. Enrapt, Pauly hung onto every word, even nodding along at points. “And I think everyone else here does to. So why don’t we?”

A smile shone from Pauly’s face like the sun emerging from an eclipse.

“We could gun each other down right here, pointlessly, or we could join up. The miner is why we’re here, right? Why don’t we take him together? He’s in an armoured vehicle, so I don’t think any of us could take him alone.” Sebastian waited a few seconds for his words to sink in, and then looked up, revealing his face from the shadows. No one went for their guns. The edge had been taken out of the situation.

“Who’s with me?” he asked, taking care to not look at the tanned guy so as not to spook him.

Without even thinking, Pauly, who, although not understanding the specifics of the situation, knew a lifeline when he saw one, shot his hand up and shouted “ME!”, and then clamped his mouth shut in abject horror. The other two men regarded him dryly, but didn’t move.

Sebastian, who’d been waiting to see if they would gun the tanned kid down, breathed a sigh of relief. A death he’d indirectly caused, especially of so harmless a man, was something he did not want to see. He smiled in a relaxed manner, and saw the men relax in kind.

“Then let’s go,” he said, not in a commanding tone, but not leaving room for questioning either. Not leaving them time to reply, he turned his back on the group, and began walking to the slope. Although confident he’d mostly defused the situation, he still waited anxiously to see if he would be shot in the back. His ears strained for clues of what was occurring at his exposed and vulnerable rear. He noted one set of hurried footsteps, which he took to be the tanned buff peacock trying to catch up on his shorter legs, then more confident strides keeping pace with his own that he took to be one of the two other men. And then…

…The click of a revolver being cocked. Sebastian swore under his breath. He turned around slowly, his hands half raised in surrender, but not entirely. The rat faced man had his gun, a comically high calibre gun with a chrome finish, aimed from his hip in an unworried manner. His face was pulled into an unattractive victorious grin.

“Stop moving.” he enunciated clearly and calmly in a strong Boer accent. There was no waver in his voice.  This was a man who knew what he was doing, and was capable of killing. There would be no talking him out of it. Sebastian prepared to go for his gun. If he was lucky, the other two following him would too, and one of them would be shot instead while Sebastian took down the South African. If they didn’t coordinate, he would be shot dead and any rebellion quelled. It was the only chance he had and he went for it without hesitation.

Before he could even twitch, the Japanese man with the kanji on his hat spun, twisting low and hard, sending his cloak out like a fan. Faster than Sebastian would ever have believed possible, the man drew, his hand blurring down, his tattoo leaving a streak of yellow as it moved, then shooting back up at speeds that approached teleportation. Everyone’s jaws hit the floor. The ratman hadn’t even reacted enough to pull the trigger. In that moment, everyone realised it was by the grace of this man that they still lived. He could have drawn, fired off four shots, and then holstered before the rest could have blinked. Sebastian got the eerie feeling that something not human was standing before him. To Pauly, it was as though a demigod had just descended from the heavens. The initial shock receding, Sebastian pulled his gun too, feeling like a pathetic sloth in comparison. He trained his gun on the ratman.

“Holster it.’ he said. Not ‘drop it’, but ‘holster it’. The subtext was clear. We’ve got a guy so fast he could tie his laces before you could even draw. The lightning god, his head still low, also spoke, in a heavily Japanese accented snarl.

“You pointing that gun at me?” He raised his head, revealing his face from the shadows. “Motherfucker?”

A terse silence followed, and then the ratman burst out laughing. Sebastian and Pauly both jumped.

“You-you labelled yourself as ‘motherfucker’?” The Boer managed between howls of laughter.

The man was confused, clearly, looking left and right for support. “When I ask question and raise head, you no read word and finish for self?”

This only made the ratman double over, his gun clutched to his stomach, and laugh even more.

“Yeah, I did, but- holy hell- it’s written on your fucking forehead! You fucking labelled yourself you dumb gook!”

The Japanese gunslinger turned his head to Sebastian, perplexed, but Sebastian was just as confused as he was until the man raised his head to show the underside of the brim of his hat. Stencilled in bold letters across the underside of the brim so it could be read clearly by an observer was the word ‘MOTHERFUCKER’. In a flash, Sebastian understood. The Japanese man, in a perversion or inversion of the raising of the head and hat to show friendliness, had stencilled an insult on his brim to be read by his opponents and had not realised that he’d practically labelled himself instead.

“Your hat,” Sebastian explained, touching the brim of his own hat. “it labels yourself as a motherfucker to us.”

For a moment incomprehension clouded his face, then he broke out into a honking, joyful and genuine laugh that infected Sebastian as well. Three men, moments ago preparing to kill each other, were now laughing together in a scene of glorious joyful surrealism in the desert. Even Pauly began to giggle along, although nervously. The tension and adrenaline drained out of them, leaving behind a hollow relief.

Eventually the laughter petered out, and the South African holstered his weapon and smiled magnanimously.

“Alright fellas,” he said, “you’ve convinced me. Let’s go get that fucking miner.”

For a moment, Sebastian considered shooting him right there and then, pulling the trigger just short of the firing threshold. He’d clearly shown himself as untrustworthy, a rat in both appearance and nature. Someone like that would only cause more problems in the future. Rationally speaking, it would be a lot simpler to kill him now. Morally, though, it was wrong to kill an unarmed man. Sebastian was better than that, wasn’t he? He’d killed an armed man who didn’t know he was there, however. Was he really a good man? Was he so far gone he would kill without pause just to be sure?

Sebastian never got a chance to find out. The Japanese gunslinger holstered his own weapon and approached the South African warmly, clapping him on the back in an affectionate and exuberant manner. Sebastian was slow to follow, keeping his gun out, because he was lost in his own thoughts. He tried in vain, with an air of desperation, to piece together the fractured thoughts and arguments to discover what his decision was going to be, but it had all been tainted and ruined by his knowledge of the present and the Japanese man’s  actions. The only reality to be found was that he didn’t know whether or not he would have shot an unarmed man, and that uncertainty was somehow worse than knowing that he was going to do it would have been. Through great force of will, he managed a sickly smile and holstered his own weapon.

The look in the South African’s eye was victorious, although it was hidden well, so well in fact that Sebastian would have thought it his own imagination if his instincts had not confirmed it. It made Sebastian feel uneasy, but he decided there was no use crying over spilt milk. He would have to resign himself to the situation, and, as J.F.K. said: ‘forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.’

To Pauly, the events had been a rollercoaster of emotions. He’d begun with despair, plunging deep to the lowest he’d ever been, before being raised up to the pinnacle of hope, spiralling back into fear and loss, then climbing through confusion and humour. When he wasn’t sure he could take anymore he flat lined at disquiet. The star studded stranger, who he’d come to see as his star studded saviour, had been oddly frozen with indecision when everyone else was making good, and then, horrifyingly, had appeared broken when everyone else had been smiling. Suddenly, his face set back into one of stern control, like a bone being set back into place, and all emotion died on its cold barren tundra. Pauly felt muscles in his stomach he’d never known before clench uncomfortably. He didn’t know what was going on in the mind of this enigmatic figure, but he could sense the animalistic smell of bloodlust. The saviour made eye contact with the ratman, who scared Pauly in a primal way, and smiled. Pauly felt a curious pulsation as his body loosened. ‘Everything is okay’ he told himself, ‘we’re all friends now.’ But he knew neither of these things to be true, and knew they never truly would be.

Sebastian approached the lightning Japanese and the ratty South African, all smiles, although as always it never really reached his eyes.

“Hey guys,” he said, “I’m Sebastian Keys, from New Zealand. What’re your names?”

The Japanese man began to bow, stopped halfway, grinned sheepishly, and put out his hand. He seemed oblivious to any of the turmoil his new companion had just suffered. He seemed to Sebastian to be overly relaxed and naive, easy to smile and slow to anger. Perhaps that came from being able to draw a gun faster than any trap could spring.

“My name is Tanaka Daisuke. I am from Japan. Please to meet you.”

The South African came next, a little defensively. Perhaps he saw, or only expected, the deeply buried distrust Sebastian was still harbouring. He held his hand out cautiously. Maybe he expected his hand to be crushed, but instead he got a firm and friendly handshake.

“My name is Jager De Villiers, of South Africa. But call me Jax.” he said, neither returning a greeting nor giving an apology. Sebastian decided he definitely disliked this rodent-like fellow.

Sebastian stood back from his two new partners, and turned to Pauly, who was standing awkwardly off to the side. He smiled winningly and extended his hand. “What’s your name, bro?”

The one thing Pauly feared more than anything else was being left out. He ignored the off-putting rat-faced Jager, and the superhuman Tanaka. He took the hand, which had dealt out death, and shook it firmly.

“I’m Pauly Dean, from New York.” he said, “Pleased to meet ya.”

Sebastian smiled warmly and, in a voice that stood at a four way intersection of self-deprecation, sarcasm, teasing and seriousness, said. “Well gentlemen? Shall we go attack a digger?”

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Desert Steel Chapter 4

-Standoff

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Paul ‘Pauly’ Dean was pant-shittingly terrified. He wanted to scream, and he wanted to run, but he could do neither. His large muscles bunched up and clenched until they burned with agony, but he couldn’t relax them.  The worse part, he felt, was the feeling of being small, some insignificant bug about to be squashed on the windshield of life. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t do even that, which made him want to cry even more.

There were four other men. They all had one side of their cloaks brushed aside, revealing a piece of desert steel holstered at their hips. Their faces were in complete shadow, their brims bent low over the brow. Their eyes were peeking out from just under the brim. It reminded Pauly of the time he’d gone to the zoo and seen the crocodiles. They’d sat concealed in the water, just their eyes peering out from the murky depths. Nobody was moving, unnaturally so. There were none of the usual fidgets or shakes present in somebody standing still. Pauly couldn’t even tell if they were breathing.

They all wore sand-coloured cloaks, ending just above the ankle. Pauly didn’t have any cloak. They wore either cargo pants or comfortably fitting jeans, and a loose t-shirt or shirt. He had a wife-beater and tight designer jeans. They all wore some form of wide-brimmed hat. Pauly wore no hat. It would have ruined his spiked up hair and, besides, he could get a nice tan without having to go to a salon now- he’d already gone an unpleasant mahogany. In other words, he felt out of place, and one thing Pauly had always made sure of was that he fitted in.

Pauly had spent his whole life fighting off fear. He didn’t know why or even when it started, but he was always working to ignore the shadows that seemed to him to lurk behind everything, the monsters that seemed to lurk inside every person.  When he was a kindergartener in New York City, he’d pulled the girls’ ponytails and kicked sand in the sandbox. In adolescence, he ran with a gang of similar boys, braying and bragging their way through middle school, dealing out vicious bullying to the school’s ‘losers’. He walked big but felt small, so when he peaked at 5 foot 8 inches, he built outwards to compensate, spending hours at the gym pumping weights, almost entirely upper body, until his pectorals looked like balloons. But he’d been too pale, so then he’d gone to tanning salons and gotten spray tans until he looked like a balloon animal basted in barbeque sauce. He’d still felt small, now entering high school, so he’d added about twenty metres cubed of hot air, talking bullshit until it got him into trouble. Usually, he was able to talk his way out again, flexing his bulging chest while shouting something along the lines of: ‘You looking at me, pal?’

But he’d fucked up big this time.

Pauly, being as he was, didn’t fully realise this. He knew he was in trouble, certainly, but it was never really his fault. His friends, at some party he’d remembered shitting on (Let me tell you about a REAL party, man, it’s got celebrities and people swinging on the chandelier, none of this low level bullcrap), had been chatting about that new desert land they’d discovered that was apparently full of hard-asses and murderers. So of course he’d said he could handle that shit, that the hardest hard-ass would meet his match in Pauly Dean, but that really wasn’t his fault. That had been his friends egging him on, practically begging him to tell them what he’d do in Terra Deserta. And he’d been drunk at the time. The moment he’d actually gone through the portal with all his friends chanting his name he remembered only vaguely, but he knew there’d been a far bit of alcohol involved. No one could be blamed for what they did drunk, they weren’t in control of themselves. And, if nothing else, church had taught him God was all-powerful, so in the end it was never really Pauly, it was the will of God almighty himself. So it wasn’t his fault.

It was, however, his problem, so after sobering up in a shaded corner of an abandoned military base, he’d sat and sulked in Portal City. Inevitably he pissed off some group that didn’t back down from the ‘you looking at me’ routine, sending him out of the city with his tail between his legs. He’d picked due south, which was as good a direction as any, and headed out. But he’d missed Sixty Clicks, the entry point of the farther southern towns free from Portal City’s influence, by five hundred metres  out west, and instead walked straight into an armed standoff.

All this, this revelatory summary of his life, had flashed before his eyes, and still the other men hadn’t moved. He could feel the touch of their gaze as it shifted over him, slowly but steadily sliding over his face, before flicking to the next man. It felt like having a slug crawl across his face, leaving behind its slimy trail. His legs shook once and he felt himself pee a little. ‘Just shoot me already!’ he felt like screaming, ‘just end it!’, but he didn’t have the courage for even that. They were looking at him less, he noticed. Their attentions were shifting, and concentrating. He realised they were picking their first targets. For a moment his hope peaked, a little surge of energy, before he dropped deeper into despair. He wasn’t even considered a risk. Their eyes had cut right through his hype and found the small, quivering, fearful baby inside. His mind flashed with images of himself, still frozen to the spot, being given the ol’ robocop treatment by the winning gunslinger. A spark of defiance ignited, and he began assessing his opponents, as they, the bastards, had assessed him.

One, to Pauly’s far left, was Asian, maybe Chinese or Japanese, and about his own height. He was wearing a long sleeved shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, revealing a heavily and colourfully tattooed right arm. Most prominently, he had a lightning bolt running from elbow to wrist. His hair was bleached blonde, although on his dark hair it was instead a dirty orange. Black hair was showing at the roots, indicating he hadn’t had dye in a few weeks. Metal glinted under the shade of his hat, suggesting piercings of some kind. His hat had some word printed on the crown in Asian pictographs, although Pauly couldn’t say which kind. His eyes, unlike the others, seemed unfocused.

The next two were standing apart, but in line with each other, whereas everyone else was turned so they could see both their neighbours clearly. Pauly, who’d never been seen without a buddy or sidekick to back him up, knew this meant they were together. Their targets would be the other two men, then himself. The one to Pauly’s left was white, with rodent-like features. He wore a khaki t-shirt with some unrecognisable flag on the front, along with faux military cargo pants. His eyes were cruel. The one to Pauly’s right was black, big with a trunk-like frame. Side by side with his skinny rat partner they must have looked like a comedic duo from the old black-and-white films Pauly had watched as a kid. He wore a red singlet and the same military pants as the ratman. His hands were bedecked with gaudy rings.

The final man, to Pauly’s far right, was wearing a blue, star covered shirt, under a tattered, tasselled poncho. A star was drawn on his hat’s crown, and another star hung by a piece of string from the brim, but, amazingly, it didn’t swing at all he was so still. He must have noticed the scrutiny, because his eyes swung back and met Pauly’s. They were cold, dead plates of blue tinged steel. The star studded stranger winked, and a smirk quirked his face. In that one instant, Pauly’s will to fight, to go out guns blazing, fled. His hand, which had been inching towards his own piece, an automatic pistol a friend had given him before he’d jumped over, dropped. The man’s eyes, for a moment blazing with a cold heartlessness, dimmed back to boredom and listlessly wandered back to the ratman.

                ‘Holy hell,’ Pauly thought ‘just one wink and he shot me down before having to draw his gun. I’m dead now, marked before the battle’s even begun.’  And now, finally, his eyes unfroze and he began to weep.

Sebastian concentrated back on the rat faced boy with the flag of apartheid South Africa on his t-shirt. He’d been walking up to find the mine, following some pretty obvious tire tracks, and had walked into three other guys doing exactly the same thing. They’d gone into a standoff, but he’d just shut down the terrified bulky latecomer, who’d been the most unstable element. He’d been preparing to draw first and go down fighting, but Sebastian had killed that hope. Next was…

An entire dune, maybe ten metres high, subsided and collapsed, to the sound of heavy machinery. Before anyone could react it disappeared downwards into a steep slope of rushing sand. The black man in cargo pants, who had been positioned at the foot of the dune, was helpless to do anything but fall with it, sliding down the sandy slope. He finally came to a stop halfway down, coughing up sand. Nobody moved to help him, dared move to help him, not even his partner. Pauly, who was, somewhere under those inflated muscles and spray tan,  a good person at heart, felt an unbearable cocktail of fear and guilt. He waited for the others, unnerved, to start shooting, but still they stood infuriatingly still. ‘Do something, dammit!’ he wanted to shout, ‘help him!‘. But he was too scared to speak, and too scared to help himself. With the roar of an engine, the nature of the subsidence became clear. A digger reared its head, and buried its bucket down deep into the side of the slope. Its body was covered in steel plates, leaving just a slit for the driver to see out of. Gouging out a clump of sand caused the slope to collapse further, sending the black man sliding again. Realising the danger, he started to climb up, but for every metre he got up the digger took away ten. The subsidence continued to eat away at the top, and the men nearest, the ratman and Sebastian, edged away slowly, eyes on each other. The black man tried to climb sideways, but the slope was circular and it all flowed down to the bucket as a central point. Finally, the man surrendered himself to the inevitability of his descent and slid down quickly, perhaps hoping to clear the bucket and exit around the digger. It wasn’t to be. The bucket bit down into his midriff, severing him completely and staining the sand red. His guts spilled out, his arms thrashed for a few agonising seconds, and then he was still. The engine of the digger cut out immediately, and the eerie stillness spread, from the corpse to the digger to the four men in a standoff above.

Seeing all this, Pauly bent over, dry heaved twice, then vomited. He was still crying helpless, silent tears.

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Desert Steel Chapter 3

-A Chance

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Sebastian awoke under a cloud of starlight. The entire sky was a black canvas dusted with stars, with an especially rich band that coincidently ran directly above and parallel to Sebastian’s reclined body. There was no halo glow by the horizon indicating a departing or approaching sun, but otherwise the time of night was difficult to gauge for there was no moon in Terra Deserta. Perhaps the Sun, a jealous god, had swallowed it whole. Of all things it was this lack of a lunar presence that truly gave Sebastian the pangs of homesickness, and the unbalancing and disorienting feeling of being somewhere truly alien. He stowed these feelings away, for he had no time for such things. It was midnight, or near enough to, and he needed to harness this time free from the harsh interference of the Sun to travel. He knew the time, as he knew his direction, through his truly uncanny mind, which had timed the first day and night in Portal City, and kept time true ever since.

The cold of the night changed the sensory landscape. The sand crunched underfoot, where previously it had hissed and slid, the air was crisp and bitter and burning, his breath sent out plumes of vapour, and his skin, only hours before scorched and hot now stung and quivered under a restrictive vice of cold air. The Sun no longer beating him to his knees, he walked easy under a field of stars.

He didn’t feel easy, however. The sun had broken him down to his primal base, left his starved brain to retreat within itself, leaving nothing but the thought of the next step, of the next dune, but no further. No thoughts about the dune after that, none about the next town, and none about the past either, the last dune, or the last town. Now, revived by sleep, his brain was reliving the past.  He could still feel the huskiness in his throat, the emptiness in his stomach, the tightness in his abdomen, and the heat in his groin. It was something he’d only really felt before when he was sexually aroused. It was lust. It had come upon him as he lay in ambush, the anticipation climbing with the horse’s gradual approach. It wasn’t bloodlust though. His anticipation, his arousal, had not been for the kill. It had been for the thrill, the danger, the excitement of knowing he himself could be dead in a few minutes. It was a sensation he’d come to the desert to both escape and, in some part of him he’d tried to deny, to find. And he’d succumbed to temptation, hadn’t he? Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. Sebastian, an atheist, although by no means militant or gnostic, had strong respect for the teachings of the Christian faith from a philosophic point of view, and that respect extended to the seven deadly sins. Had he been driven by lust, forever marring him with mortal sin, or had he merely felt lust as he undertook a necessary task? He didn’t know, which for Sebastian, a person who was many things but never unsure of himself, disturbed him even more than anything else. He’d looked down on people who talked of finding themselves, or needing to be understood, for he felt the concept ridiculous; he was himself, and there was nothing else to find nor anything more to be understood. But now he, if only fractionally, felt a little lost within himself, and that was more disorienting than the endless yellow-orange dunes could ever be. Sebastian shivered, but not because of the frigid air. The stars above, before filled with a warm beauty, were now twinkling a cold, icy light.

As Sebastian crests the final dune before the town, heat is flowing back into the world, chasing the eerie stillness of the night away with it. A rich yellow permeates the eastern sky, and the stars, one but one, have winked out. The wind picks up again, carrying lighter, finer grains of sand that scour through everything in their path. Sebastian’s cloak absorbs most of this punishment, although his exposed boots suffer small scratches in the leather, and some of the truly minuscule pieces work their way up through the isolated weather system within the cloak, scarring his belt buckle and revolver. The sand grains rub against each other, making a curious squeaking sound. The sunlight, rising to his back, envelopes his silhouette in a halo of light and enlarges his shadow, laying a titanic black smear of shade over the town. His extremities burning as the blood returns, Sebastian takes the time to survey the town.

Its name was Sixty Clicks, owing to its placement exactly sixty kilometres South of Portal City; a claim Sebastian considered dubious. On Earth, markers such as the exact intersection of borders were often found to be off by hundreds of metres. On Terra Deserta, where all anyone could really give in terms of distance was an estimate of how many days travelled, Sebastian reckoned the Town could have been anything from forty to a hundred kilometres out. The town’s unofficial slogan: ‘Start o’ the sticks’ was more accurate, so long as one took ‘sticks’ to refer to the isolated small townships beyond this one, not to a literal forest, as no such thing existed. Insofar as Sebastian knew, there existed no native plants, only imports of hardy desert plants from Earth. It was a prosperous town, in desert terms, due to its position as indicated by the slogan. All travellers heading south for mid to extreme outposts and towns passed through Sixty Clicks, and all travellers needed water and food, so the man who owned the well and the man who farmed cereals and grains, and the man who processed the cereals and grains, and the man raising livestock, and the man butchering livestock, and the man curing the meat all grew, in relative desert terms, fat and happy. But travellers also wanted booze and women and music and cards and a comfy bed, so saloons, hotels and brothels were also doing brisk business, although prostitutes were an expensive commodity, because women were quite rare, women willing to go into prostitution rarer still, and attractive women willing to go into prostitution were as rare as unicorn shit . The kind of woman willing to go into the desert was one not easily subjugated, although of course woman looking for a job in prostitution existed too, and made money hand over fist (in desert terms) in doing so. The whole town was built around a central strip of exposed bedrock, the main drag of saloons, general stores, hotels and brothels making a straight line pointing directly to Portal City, to ensure easy orientation for travellers. Beyond this central strip, more modest houses were sparsely scattered through barely arable soil, where scraggly but serviceable crops were grown, until the dunes began. The buildings were mostly made out of wood, corrugated iron and tarpaulins imported from Earth. Traders of these materials, often black market, were paid in bitcoins, both due to their being untraceable, and as no materials could be passed back through the portals, virtual currencies were the only viable method of payment. There was change afoot, however, as clay and manure were being employed as a form of home grown  construction.

Now the Sun cast off its avatar and graced the town with its own divine presence, drenching everything in a warm earthy orange and banishing Sebastian’s elongated shadow. In a gesture that was oddly playful, Sebastian leapt and tumbled down the dune, landing awkwardly and laughing breathlessly an inch away from crushing a priceless stalk of grain. Gathering himself up, unharmed but sandy, he respectfully walked along the edge of the crop field, carefully placing each foot on a well beaten path left by an attentive farmer. The aforementioned farmer stood tensely at the end of the path, where his shack, little more than some sticks in the  dirt with a tarp over top, was built. He glared sourly and distrustfully at the stranger decorated in stars. He had his own desert steel holstered at his right hip, his hand resting on its butt. Sebastian raised his head so his face wasn’t hidden by the brim of his hat, an action which showed friendliness in Terra Deserta that had already become so ingrained in the older inhabitants that they even did it without a hat on. Sebastian wasn’t anywhere near there yet, but he was sensitive to the local customs and quick to catch on.

“G’day mate!” he rasped cheerily. His throat was dry and his voice rough from days in the desert with little water.

“You a feckin’ Aussie?” the man asked in a high pitched Irish accent. Sebastian usually found the lilting accent pleasant, but it was venomous in this man’s mouth. “I can’t stand the feckers.”

“Nah, mate. I’m a kiwi,” Sebastian replied breezily, not stopping, intent on leaving this man and this conversation as soon as possible. He both feared and yearned for another fight. He needn’t have worried. The farmer knew a man coming down from the east must be the truest of desert steel, a man of the desert who could navigate and live unaided. A mysticism had grown around these people, who technically were only notable for their abilities in navigation. Stories of them having a metaphoric third eye that meant they could shoot and hit anything true, even behind them; of shootouts ten on one that ended with a trail of ten bodies and one man calmly camping out in the desert; of whole towns laid to waste by a single phantom of the sands blowing in from uncharted territory, abounded. The man, with the occasional grumble, scurried fearfully back to his shack, already planning to tell his neighbours over a strong spirit or two how he had courageously stood up to a star studded stranger that came in from the eastern desert. Sebastian, who had been lucky in two fights and honourless in an ambush, was surprised by the fear in which he had been received, something he had never experienced before as a teenager who, although tall, was skinny and unassuming. It was strangely empowering.

Picking his way through two more fields, this time the farmers cringing back in their shacks as he passed with a smile and a casual greeting in a lazy kiwi accent, he reached the main drag, joining a small but not insignificant trickle of travellers, and searched for a message board. After two passes he was still unsuccessful until a friendly, middle aged prostitute pointed him down a broad alley between two saloons. He thanked her with a ten dollar note from his wad of New Zealand dollars- in the multicultural Terra Deserta all currencies were accepted with an improvised exchange rate. He entered the alleyway, signposted in crude lettering as Crossfire Alley, and found the message board nailed up against the saloon’s wall,  right where she had said it would be. He didn’t doubt that this lane, couched between two bawdy saloons and with an information post for bounty hunters, bandits, mercs and the like, lived up to its name, so he made his visit brief. He was aided by the underwhelming message board, which exchanged a few unpleasantries to some unknown peoples, offered uninteresting jobs such as farmhands and bartenders, a thousand different ads looking for prostitutes, and another thousand looking for traffickers of prostitutes. No bounties, no trade jobs… Nothing, in other words, for a man who drifted through the desert far from civilisation, seeking out and escaping the thrill of danger. It was then that a message, scrawled messily on the wood of the frame itself, caught his eye, although that does not best describe it. Sebastian had, in the few seconds spent looking at the board, read every message from the top down to the bottom word for word, before quickly scanning the frame, where he alighted upon the message. On Earth, and in many ways here on Terra Deserta, his brain had been his greatest asset and distinguishing feature. The message read: ‘Bastards mining five hundred metres out West. No reward but if you take out the noisy fuckers I’ll turn a blind eye and you can take as much as you want from them.’

Although Sebastian’s eyes didn’t even flicker while reading over this, a smile did break out on his face. Water wasn’t free in Terra Deserta, even for those freely living and navigating in the desert, and his money was running short. It was little more than a rumour, but it was a chance, and the closest thing to a law in Terra Deserta was that chances don’t come often.

When they did, you had to take them.

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Desert Steel Chapter 2

-The Desert Land

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On the tenth of February, 2014, purple flickering spheroids began opening in power sources around the world. It was soon discovered that any high level expulsion of energy would create these portals. A rocket launch in the US was seen blowing ephemeral portals from its engines like a child might blow bubbles. At first, no one knew what they were. Numerous theories abounded, the most popular one being the creation of plasma from the energy discharge. Certainly, no one was jumping into them. Barriers were erected in power stations, new safety protocols introduced. The world, which for a few days had waited  with bated breath for the next news bite, largely forgot about it. The scientists got on with investigating, and everyone else got on with their lives.

Eventually, scientists realised that matter entering the portals wasn’t disintegrating or combusting but instead disappearing. At this point the governments swiftly stepped in, keeping this discovery classified as they fought a secretive portal race with each other. A UK team were the first to put a camera through, and have images transmitted back of an alien world, a sandy desert for as far as the eye could see. Three weeks later the Russians, somewhat famed for their recklessness in regard to their soldiers’ lives, put a man through. He found himself standing halfway down a small dune in the middle of the desert, the portal halfway buried in the sand. It was there that he made a startling discovery: the portals only worked one way for matter. Energy, however, could pass both ways, hence their ability to communicate and transmit signals.

Although discouraged by this news, soon all the major states, and quite a few minor ones, were pouring men and equipment through their portals. They believed high enough energy emissions on the desert planet would create similar one way portals back, and besides that weren’t lacking in people ready and willing to take a trip to a new, undiscovered planet, one way or not. It was then they suffered another setback: the portals all opened in one place. After a few minor skirmishes between armies, backroom talks managed to stabilise the situation long enough for the countries to discover that there was nothing of value there whatsoever. Drilling had turned up water reservoirs, but nothing else, and the furthest expedition taken had returned to report sand dunes from the portal to the ends of the earth. It was discovered that energy emissions on the desert planet did not create portals, rendering the explorers stuck there permanently.

The world’s governments, realising there were neither resources nor land to gain, revealed the existence and portals and handed the research of the portals over to the public universities, scaling back their portal programs to just supplies so as not to leave their soldiers and researchers in the desert land, or Terra Deserta as it had been officially termed, for dead. The world spent another few days wringing every last detail out in the news before once again essentially losing interest.

And so perhaps, the portals and their Terra Deserta would have remained a scientific oddity, only accessible to people with 800 megawatt power stations, or those unlucky enough to be struck by lightning and then have its portal form on top of them. However, it was soon discovered that the so-called portal power threshold, the minimum power required to form a portal, had dropped immensely, to the point that a power spike in a common electrical system could create one, albeit very briefly. At first there was hysteria over whether soon even nerve impulses would teleport people into desert land, until a young Japanese scientist proved the decline was caused by the heavy usage of the portals tearing and weakening the fabric of space-time, and that the decline was asymptotic, with the next decline of one volt not occurring in the next million years.

Within days of this discovery, two contrasting inventions were made. The first was a portal inhibitor, which allowed for cars, among other things, to operate without teleporting their engine block into the desert. The second was a piece of hardware that deliberately triggered a power spike in a home electrical system.

Portal creation had reached the home.

Soon after, in ‘smart’ houses, a few lines of code were written that could create the same spike. Now, at the single click of a button, people could send themselves to the Desert Land. At first governments were worried about the code being spread as a virus. Firewalls were strengthened, hackers harshly punished. Then something startling happened. People were intentionally disabling their firewalls and jumping into the Desert Land.

These people were mostly young men, the same demographic that before had pursued wars, exploration and conquest, running off to die on foreign soil, who were now running off to die on the most foreign of lands. Women, and older men, also went of course, but governmental statistics estimated that the males outnumbered the females, and that the average age was nineteen. Different governments reacted differently, some allowing the exodus, others attempting to quell it, which failed.

After a few weeks, reports from the portals began to paint a clear picture of chaos and violence. The people that had moved irreversibly to an endless desert were diverse. There were thrill seekers, psychos, explorers, entrepreneurs, losers, dregs, dropouts and idiots. They all shared just two things: they were the outcasts from the society they’d left, and they were all there in the desert.

With time, the situation stabilised, although lives were still lost and blood was still shed on regular occasion. But amongst this, a society was forming. The Portal area grew into Portal City, an amalgamation of military bases left over from the governments’ investigations and shanty towns built from corrugated iron, plywood, even the burnt out husks of tanks and trucks. The techniques for digging for wells were learned and refined. Basic cereals were grown around the rare oasis or on any patch of soil one degree removed from sand. Camels, horses, goats, sheep and cows were introduced with varying levels of success, some dying out fast, others lingering, those most suited for deserts surviving.  Towns and outposts formed on the outskirts, and then the real crazies and the outcasts of the outcasts moved further afield, creating settlements truly isolated out in the desert. A system of navigation was founded, with Portal City at the centre, and the magnetic poles as their guidance. Settlement locations  were marked by their distance from Portal City and their degrees north. Navigation was to start in Portal City, then follow your compass in a straight and undeviating path. It was rough and imprecise, and many missed their direction by a few degrees, or lost their straight line from Portal City due to having to bypass a large dune, ending up overshooting their destination, sometimes by only a couple of hundred metres, to die out in the desert, never to be seen again.

Eventually, the true desert steel emerged, people who could navigate town to town without walking in a straight line from Portal City and back. They trekked and lived in the desert, spending days out alone on untried tracks, walking through parts of the desert never seen before with barely any food or water. These kinds of people were highly sought after, and highly feared. They were the best supply of trade between towns, and of news, and they could track down a bandit who’d escaped among the desert. But they could themselves be bandits, sweeping into town and disappearing out again, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, like the Northern sandstorm winds. They were, in these isolated towns where revenge took the place of law, the one people for whom the townsfolk, desert steel though they were, could not easily exact retribution, but instead be forced to watch them merge back into the desert, or else die, lost in the desert while in pursuit.

On the 20th of June, 2015, Sebastian Keys, seventeen years old, stepped through a portal he’d formed in his bedroom in New Zealand after returning home from high school. He was wearing desert army boots, jeans, a white t-shirt, and a wide-brimmed leather hat with a flat-topped cylindrical crown. He was carrying five hundred New Zealand dollars, a water flask, and a large, sharp hunting knife. Within the first day he purchased a gun, a low calibre desert steel, and a sand coloured cloak.

By his third day he left Portal City for a medium distance outpost, isolated but not extreme. On his way he encountered a Peruvian, wearing a patterned and tasselled red and gold woollen poncho, in an unusual square shape. After a violent altercation the Peruvian lay dying, his throat slit, the smell of desert steel strong in the still evening air. Sebastian stole the poncho, wearing it over his cloak so as to weigh it down when the wind picked up; previously, it had billowed up over his head. Within a week of arriving in Terra Deserta Sebastian navigated the desert from town to town, without the landmark of Portal City.

In this next town, twice as far out than the last, he was ambushed in the local saloon by an American, a nationalist militant wearing a stars shirt and stripes trousers. Sebastian’s shirt was torn in the struggle that ensued, but he was otherwise unharmed, whilst the American had his skull fractured against the bar. Sebastian took the American’s shirt, and fled, navigating the desert alone once again.

Arriving in the next town, he settled down and did odd jobs for a Vietnamese couple with one preteen daughter, who’d taken the brave, yet decidedly rash and stupid decision to take their chances setting up a shop in Terra Deserta. Inspired by Sebastian’s newly won shirt, and motivated by a crush for the young, mature and not un-handsome stranger, the girl decorated his hat with a sunburst pattern around the star she knew best, that from the Vietnamese flag, and a small plastic star from one of those scrapbooking sets given to girls her age tied to a nylon string. Sebastian paid her back with an impressive pencil portrait of herself on a piece of paper, a rare resource in Terra Deserta, then left the next day, tracking out for another middle distance town.

It was here that  he killed for the first time that wasn’t in self-defence, pre-emptively shooting dead a man on a horse wearing strange donuts of soft fabric, rather than risk encountering a potential foe. He would be haunted by this decision for the rest of his life, but not nearly as much as he was haunted by how easy it was and by how little he truly felt about it. And by how he had even enjoyed the thrill of it.

He was desert steel, forged in the heat of the sun and quenched in blood.

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Desert Steel Chapter 1

-A Chance Encounter

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                The horizon curved gently, arcing maternally over rows of dunes. It lead the eye, entranced, all the way along its arc of ethereal glow. Above that amber glow stretched the sky, a weak pale blue but breathtaking in its unbroken expanse. No clouds. Not ever. Only the sun sat fat in the sky, a golden god in his dominion.

If there was a god in these lands- and the general consensus was that they were godless and godforsaken- it was the sun. It’s holy visage sent hot spikes of pain through the eyes to the back of the brain with its divine brilliance. It’s righteous power baked the earth, baked the air, baked its people. Baked them until they were forced to crawl reverently underneath  its gaze. When blood was spilled- and under this sun it was spilled often- the sun baked it down to a black scum that some classically minded man had coined ichor. The smell of the freshly spilled blood, still warm from the body and roasted under the sun, was pungent and metallic. The smell was known as desert steel.

Blood was going to be spilled under the sun today.

The man, a teenager-made-old, stood stock still on the crest of a dune. The wind caught his dusty cloak, the colour of sand, and lifted it up and away from his body, revealing the clothing and the body beneath. He was lean, the water sucked from his flesh, but with a tight and often underestimated sheath of muscle. He stood tall, perhaps an inch or so over six foot.

His shoes were desert army boots, bereft of adornment and well worn. A pair of no brand jeans, the knees worn white but not torn, fed into them just above the ankle. He wore two belts, one for his jeans, with a large square buckle that was once shiny but now worn and scratched. The other was an ammunition belt, lined with pockets containing cartridges. It sat at a jaunty angle on his hips, starting high on the right hip, crossing the other belt just after the buckle, and ending in a holster sitting low on his left hip. In the holster was a revolver, small calibre, some modern remake of an old cowboy six shooter.

His collared short-sleeve shirt was a pale washed out blue only a shade removed from the sky. It was buttoned up and tucked neatly into his jeans. It was patterned by regularly spaced rows of small five pointed white stars, each row a half-step off from its neighbours. The wear of the fabric and the decoration gave the clothing an old and alien look. It was as though it was sown from a museum piece of Old Glory itself.

Around the neck of his cloak was a square of woollen fabric. It had a central square neck hole and sat so that its corner hung at his sternum. It was simply patterned, like a poncho’s, in red and gold, with tassels lining its edges.

On his head, pulled down tight to his ears so as to resist the wind, was a leather hat. It had a wide and stiff brim that didn’t bend an inch under the wind or its own weight. The crown was short, flat-topped and cylindrical. Round the front of the crown the star motif continued with one large yellow five pointed star. The star had alternating red and yellow sun beams radiating out from it. The bottom of this design was obscured by a black band, so that only the top three points showed. From the right end of the brim a small plastic star hung from a short piece of nylon string.

Beneath the brim, shadowed from the sun, a coldly calculating face looked out across the desert. His brow was heavy and his eyebrows rectangular and perfectly flat. His eyes expressed a deadpan expression that ran from apathy to boredom to psychopathic ruthlessness, like a train track with three stations. Currently he was leaving Boredom and steaming ahead to Ruthless. His mouth, on the other hand, was alive and playful. It was currently quirking into a satisfied smirk. His eyes were wide and flat, matching his eyebrows. His irises were a striking battleship grey. If eyes were windows to the soul, his had some bombproof metal shutters down.

His eyes stared straight ahead, fighting hard against The Haze. On Earth, heat haze is a minor occurrence, a shimmer of air or the appearance of water on tarmac. Here, the air, from the ground to a hundred metres up in the sky, danced and jived. Light bounced around randomly. Images swam into view, distorted and refracted. Out of The Haze, a kilometre or two straight ahead, a shadow swayed and grew.

The man, although he could have been as young as sixteen, cursed quietly. But only as a matter of course. He’d screwed up, yes, but only in a minor and unimportant manner. He felt confident and comfortable in the chances of his continued survival. He was highly visible on the crest of the dune, but his threat was two kilometres out. Plenty of time to run. Plenty of time to hide. To a distant observer, The Haze bent the light harshly, the shadow on the dune wobbled, and was gone.

Twenty minutes later and a man on horseback rode steadily and cautiously up the same dune upon which the star studded stranger had stood.  He was straight backed and alert. His gun, a high calibre revolver straight out of an ’80s action flick,  was drawn, barrel up. He was around twenty. He wore a cotton long sleeved t-shirt with great doughnuts of spongy fabric sown to the back and sleeves and an inappropriately warm beanie.

He wasn’t entirely stupid, that much was clear. He’d spotted the shadow on the dune, and he’d drawn his gun in anticipation of conflict. But he’d made three mistakes, excluding his clothing, and he was going to die. The first mistake was that he’d kept moving. The static opponent, the defender, is almost always safer then the moving one, the attacker. The second mistake was he’d stayed visible. This made his arrival predictable, his path traceable and his self vulnerable. The third mistake was he’d gone to where he’d seen a person, instead of detouring around. The third was most understandable. Even slight deviations from a straight path in a featureless desert could make one lost and doomed. Besides, since he was travelling so visibly any ambusher could adjust to meet him anyway.

Within ten seconds of arriving upon this one dune of many, the doughnut man turned his back on another dune of many. The star studded stranger popped his head over the dune. His left arm was resting on the warm sand of the crest, and his revolver was in his left hand. His battleship grey eyes sighted their target unblinking despite the sand and the sun. His mouth quirked into a victorious half-smile. There was a bang and a flash and a cloud of smoke and a spray of blood and a man’s life ended on top a horse beneath the cruel scorching gaze of the sun.

The surviving man, the teenager-made-old, the star studded stranger, the Old Glory, rose from his place at the turn of the dune. Sand poured with a toneless hiss from his hat, his cloak, his trousers, his shirt. His gun, still smoking, was holstered. The smell of gunpowder and metal made hot by sun and by fire was also known as desert steel. In a way it was merely a precursor to the other desert steel; by the end of a battle the two kinds intertwined to create a greater desert steel.

At some point the term was expanded, and desert steel became slang for a gun. Specifically, the revolvers everyone used because they were far less likely than others to jam from the fine sand and dust that was pervasive in the desert.  The dead man’s own desert steel lay unused at his side, its heavy barrel pitched forward into the sand. The victor gave a quick but thorough search of the corpse, turning up a flask of water and a wad of notes. Both were quickly stored away into the man’s own belt and pockets. Finally, the man turned his attention to the gun. He flicked the cylinder open and unloaded it into his hand. He reloaded it with just one cartridge, discarding the rest. In an act of childish blasphemy and defiance, he pointed it up at the sun and fired.

The recoil tore the gun from his hands and flung it over the side of the dune. The man laughed once, a short, sharp bark, and started walking from where the corpse had ridden. He ignored the horse which had reared up at the gunfire, dumping its rider, and had trotted a few metres away. This was what the man loved, in a perverse kind of way. He walked efficiently and steadily, wasting no energy. He drank only little sips, and only when he had to. The horizon wavered and shivered in the heat but he kept his eyes straight on it, never moving. His breath came short and hard and laboured, but it came. But what he loved most of all was that his mind shrivelled. Shrivelled in the fierce heat, in the tedious movement, in the repetitive landscape, and in the dehydration. It shrank and its thoughts dried up until all there was, was the desert and the next step. He loved it because it freed him from himself.

He was a hard man, had to be. Had to be to enjoy trekking on through endless desert, had to be to shoot a man dead and keep on walking. The one thing everyone agreed on , no matter their reasons or motivations for being in this desert, was that you had to be hard to survive. You wanted to be hard. You wanted your friends to be hard. You wanted your enemies to be soft but if they were hard by god you admired the son of a bitch.

Iron was hard, and hard men carried guns, and used them and shed blood, creeks and streams of blood. So you called hard men of the desert ‘desert steel’ too.

The man, slowly chasing the horizon, would have been irked by that and argued with it as he had in the past, had his mind been on and watered. This was because his nature was pedantic, and his knowledge vast, a combination that could make him somewhat of an annoyance. ‘Steel?’ he would have asked disbelievingly. ‘Why steel? Diamond surely holds the distinction of being harder. And if we’re to say it must be a metal, then tungsten is far more deserving for the moniker.’ But of course he would make no leeway, and besides he knew himself that those words did not flow so well from the tongue, nor did they carry the same symbolic baggage and other meanings as desert steel did.

At this point of linguistic evolution, with desert steel meaning everything from the smell of blood to a hard man, the phrase ballooned again. It expanded so that it meant all its meanings at once as well as none at all. It became an exclamation, or an observation, for when the shell-shocked mind could offer no others. For when words couldn’t effectively convey the cocktail of emotions the desert steel  hard man couldn’t admit to feeling. When hard men rolled into a town and bullets zipped across the street and through the houses. When blood ran from under doors and pooled in the gutters. When gunpowder smoke still hung in the air over a row of bled-out corpses. When all this happened, a man could turn to his friend, say ‘desert steel’, and be understood.

Life in this desert was desert steel.

The sun having beaten him to the horizon, the man settles down for a brief sleep. There’s no light pollution here. A whole galaxy of stars stretches out above him, an orchestra of light and majestic beauty. Lying there on his back, alone and small, the star studded stranger feels, for one brief, exquisite moment, at peace. When he falls asleep, there is a smile tugging at his lips.

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