-The Desert Land
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.