Desert Steel

Desert Steel Chapter 3

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-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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