Desert Steel Chapter 5


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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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