Monthly Archives: December 2015

Desert Steel Chapter 13

-The Fight Part 1

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One of the guards, who was wearing a Bedouin style robe, pulled a cowbell out of the folds. He rang it with his knuckle. To the roar of the crowd, Hadrian, or Lord Shiva as he was known, charged forwards. Pauly, slow on his best days, was overwhelmed by the noise. He didn’t even twitch when Hadrian’s meaty bicep ploughed into his face. Pauly was taken right of his feet, his legs kicking up and his neck straining under the force of the blow. He landed on his back on the plywood floor, which boomed under the impact. It sounded worse than it felt, barely. Hadrian bounced against the cables a few times before jumping up and dropping his elbow into Pauly’s gut. Fortunately, Pauly’s dense muscles absorbed the majority of the hit. He managed to scramble up and escape to the corner of the ring. Hadrian got up and paraded around in front of the crowd.

Face stinging, stomach aching, Pauly realised he needed to fight back somehow. He threw a clumsy and telegraphed punch. Hadrian ducked under the swinging arm, popped up behind Pauly, and booted him in the back. Pauly was sent staggering into the ropes. They were still hard and unpleasant despite their plastic wrapping. He tried another punch, this one an uppercut. Hadrian merely leant back, watching the fist sail by. He launched a flurry of punches that knocked the wind out of Pauly’s lungs. Wheezing, Pauly attempted to charge him down, but was instead neatly tripped. He was sent sprawling onto the unpadded plywood for the second time.

On the ringside, Sebastian watched with dimming hopes. Hadrian was muscular, which had been obvious and intimidating from the start. He was gymnastic, which was further discouragement. But against the group’s most muscular fighter, Hadrian was also revealing himself to be fast. He dodged around Pauly’s swings with unhurried ease. Sebastian saw Jax’s and his own odds dwindling. They lacked muscle, and he now knew their speed would not fill the gap. Sebastian looked over at Tanaka. He was watching without a single sign of concern. But this same man had walked into an ambush shouting out that he’d be a hero. Was he delusional?

Hadrian climbed up to the second cable on his corner, sighted Pauly’s recumbent figure over his shoulder, and rallied the crowd.

SHIVA! SHIVA! SHIVA!

On the third, climatic cry, he leapt backwards, falling and twisting. The crowd watched in breathless silence. Hadrian landed with a resonating slam, his shoulder cracking Pauly’s ribs. The crowd erupted with cheers. Pauly’s hands scrabbled weakly at Hadrian’s chest. Hadrian looked at Pauly, looked at the crowd, and nodded to the bell holder. The nod was subtle, but Sebastian noticed it. The bell man rapped the bell once, and Hadrian disengaged, striding back to his corner. Pauly, dragging in each breath with agonising effort, rolled over and crawled over to the cables. By upper body strength alone, he pulled himself to his feet.

“What..? Is happ… enning?” he managed. His ribs sent shards of pain shooting up his side when he breathed.

“End of the round, I think,” Sebastian replied. “More importantly, how are you?”

Pauly managed a weak but brave smile. “I’ve been better. I think he’s broken my ribs.”

Sebastian nodded. “Just cracked, I think.”

“What’s… The difference?”

Sebastian didn’t tell him a lose bone chip or broken end could puncture an organ, something that would be certain death out here. It was a concern Pauly didn’t need. “Not much. Listen, your punches are pointless. They’re slow, and they’re obvious. He may be the peak of the male aesthetic mountain, but your arms and chest are bigger, and stronger. So try grab him. One good grip might be all you need. After all, he’s showboating. Got it?”

Pauly nodded just as the cowbell was rung again and Hadrian came out of his corner. Hadrian hopped around a bit, showcasing some fancy footwork that was wasted on Pauly. He then threw a right hook like a cobra strike. Pauly swung both his arms wildly, but they missed out on gripping anything. This gave Hadrian an opening to rush past Pauly and come flying back in a dropkick. Pauly stayed up and tried grab the now grounded Hadrian but he rolled away. Hadrian wound up and then sprung up onto his feet. Two more grabs missed Hadrian, who danced between them. Finally, Pauly got a grip, his thumb hooking under Hadrian’s armpit. He consolidated his hold, his left hand grabbing Hadrian’s side. Pauly froze.

He twisted his head to look back at his team.

“What do I do now?” he asked. Hadrian politely refrained from breaking free or striking back. The three on the side shrugged, and exchanged looks.

Jax hazarded a cautious “lift him?”

Pauly shifted his left hand grip to the inside of Hadrian’s thigh, and strained. His ribs screamed in protest but he ignored them. ‘I am desert steel’ he thought, his mantra. Hadrian’s feet lifted off the ground. Pauly’s biceps bulged. He got Hadrian up to his chest. Hadrian remained unresisting. With one last gargantuan effort, Pauly heaved Hadrian up above his head. A line of pain seared his side and he almost lost his balance but he managed to steady himself. His two arms were held up in a v shape, his elbows locked, and on them rested Hadrian. Pauly froze.

He twisted his head to look back at his team.

“What now?” he hissed. His team shrugged again.

“Drop him hard?” Sebastian offered.

Pauly went to do just that, moving his arms forwards to chuck Hadrian onto the floor, or maybe out of the ring. The weight above him shifted. Suddenly, his right arm was jerked backwards, while his left side was still pushing forwards. His forward leg twisted, and he fell down hard, a weight on his back driving him down harder. The floor bounced, the unsecured centre of the plywood flexing in and then out, acting like a drum. He tried get back up but the weight on his back was immovable. His right arm was being pulled back painfully, his shoulder felt ready to pop out of the socket. His ribs screamed.

“THERRRRRRRRRRRRREEEE IT IS FOLKS! THE LYNCHPIN AERIAL REVERSAL!!!!!! GIVE HIM A BIG HAND!!!”

Pauly’s shoulder was near dislocated to thunderous applause.

From Sebastian’s viewpoint, the move was a lot clearer. Hadrian had wrapped himself around Pauly’s right arm and fallen backwards. The weight shift had sent Pauly over, unable to break his fall. Then he’d pulled the right arm into a painful lock. It sounded almost bland when simplified and described, but the move had been poetry. The gravity-defying twist to shift the balance. The graceful descent. The forceful lock. The fluency between actions. The sensual flexing of his perfect body in action. There’d been an undercurrent to the action, however. Hadrian had stopped playing around, and gone for the kill. He was controlling the progression of the matches. Drawing them out was going to be even more difficult than Sebastian had initially anticipated.

“I give, I give!” Pauly screamed.

“Tap the floor, hard.” Hadrian ordered, in a near whisper. With his blown eardrum, Pauly almost didn’t hear it, but fortunately for his shoulder he did. He slammed the ring floor with two more dramatic and resounding thumps. The pressure came off his shoulder, to his immense relief. The cowbell rang once again. Hadrian got up and started riling up the crowd again. Pauly just dragged himself off the ring, collapsing at his group’s feet.

“You did well!” Sebastian said, having to shout over the megaphone that was blaring out the victory announcement.

“I did jack shit,” Pauly puffed. “He was just playing around.”

Jax was shaking his limbs in warm up. “I’m fucked, guys. I can’t fight fair.”

Sebastian nudged Amy. She glared at him. “What?” she hissed, the words acid.

“What happens if one of us cheats? Goes for a low blow?”

“You’re shot dead where you stand.”

Sebastian turned back to Jax. “I think you’d better fight fair,” he observed wryly.

“Fuck, man,” Jax said, before using the elasticity of the cables to jump into the ring. “I fucking hate getting the shit kicked out of me. It’s never fun.”

Hadrian was circling back round the ring, still hyping the crowd up. He spun on nimble feet and raised his guard. Jax half-heartedly did the same.

“ROUND TWO!!! SHIVA VERSUS RATMAAAAANNN!” the megaphone man rumbled. The cowbell was rung again and Hadrian darted forwards.

Regardless of what Jax had said, he was actually a decent fighter. His punches had good form, and he was fast, far faster than Pauly. The problem was that where Jax was good, Hadrian was better. Jax hopped around, and then went in for a left hook. Hadrian dodged, landed a stunning uppercut, ducked under a reflexive straight, and then gave a body shot that lifted Jax full off the ground. Jax manoeuvred back, trying to find space, but Hadrian kept the gap closed. Jax tried drive him back with a quick succession of jabs, but Hadrian batted them aside. He double faked his approach, and then gave a direct punch to the face. It was like getting hit head on by a steam locomotive. Jax reeled back, dropping his guard, and Hadrian fell back.

Sebastian watched with growing suspicion. Twice now Hadrian had given openings. He was either confident or stupid. Or the fight was about the entertainment, not the victory. As the fight continued, this third possibility was growing ever more likely. Sebastian didn’t let it bother him. The reason for the openings didn’t matter, and his turn was soon approaching by the look of things. He checked on Tanaka, to see if the comprehensive pounding was fazing him, but he was still unworried.

Jax waited for his vision to stop blurring from tears before moving away from the ropes. He was moving sluggishly now, and his head felt both oddly clear and foggy at the same time. He took a step in and sidestepped, just in time to dodge a punch that hummed as it passed. He stepped back again. Hadrian didn’t approach at first but when Jax continued to hang back he moved in. Jax leapt back, felt the cable dig into his back and dived and rolled just in time to escape a colossal onslaught. The crowd began to boo this cowardice. Jax ignored it as he backed up in the ring, his face still stinging. Hadrian was ignoring him for now, instead addressing the crowd again. A chant got started somewhere in the back eastern row, and spread.

KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL.

Hadrian wiped his nose with his thumb and dropped back into his guard. Jax body tensed up, ready to leap away.  Hadrian came in to the left and Jax spun out right. There was a dense thump and his thigh felt like it’d just run into a log. Jax went down. Hadrian had faked him out with punches and then delivered a low kick that had numbed his leg and thrown him down. Fucker! Jax tried to get up but Hadrian strolled over and gripped him by the armpit and side. In an imitation of Pauly’s move that mocked it by being superior to it in every way, Hadrian heaved the thrashing, cursing Jax into the air, held him there for dramatic effect, and then slammed him onto the plywood.

Jax’s back took most of the force, but his head still whipped back and hit the floor hard. At that point Jax had had enough. He was looking up at Hadrian, who stood wide legged and confident. His eyes alighted on Hadrian’s unprotected crotch, and his booted feet which were lying beneath it. He rose halfway, seeing blood.

Sebastian saw the change in Jax’s eyes, and he saw the obvious target of Jax’s rage. He hammered on the floor desperately. Jax and Hadrian both froze and stared. Sebastian waved his arms parallel to the ground. He remembered seeing it down by referee’s in some sports, and he figured it looked legitimate.

“Forfeit,” he said. “We give up this round.”

The cowbell man looked at Hadrian, who shrugged. The cowbell was rung. The crowd burst out into even bigger boos. The megaphone man started announcing the result and attempted to console them.

Jax got up, furious, and stormed over to his corner.

“I wasn’t fucking done,” he said.

“You were about to go for his balls,” Sebastian said. “You were going to be shot dead.”

“Whatever,” Jax said, although he knew Sebastian was right.

“Wait,” Sebastian said, the ghost of a smile on his face. “Don’t tell me you were thinking: ‘If I hurt him bad enough then my team can win the next round and live, even if I die’.” Sebastian said, in a modestly good affectation of a Boer accent. His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Jax, are you… Tsundere?”

Jax’s face relit with new rage. “No, I’m fucking Yandere because I’ll kill you shits!”

“How do you know that term?” Sebastian asked. “Could you be an ‘anime watching freak’, to quote yourself?”

Jax face transitioned from angry flush to blush. “So what if I do?”

Sebastian and Tanaka burst out laughing.

“Wha-what do you watch?” Sebastian managed between giggles.

Jax blushed even deeper. “Moe Moe Bubble Girls,” he admitted.

Tanaka’s and Sebastian’s laughter graduated into body convulsing guffaws. The image of a neo-nazi watching moe girls was too bizarre and hilarious. Jax stood at the corner of the ring impotently, his fists clenched. Sebastian recovered himself and jumped up into the ring. He patted Jax on the shoulder.

“I needed that, mate,” he said, and Jax softened a little.

Jax dropped down, leaving Sebastian alone with Hadrian in the ring.

Sebastian raised his fists. There was just one objective in his mind. After seeing Hadrian’s display, it wasn’t winning. He needed to make Tanaka take the fight seriously, one way or another.

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Desert Steel Chapter 12

-Match Day

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Sebastian woke early the next day, nerves inhibiting his ability to sleep. The sand in his clothes and the bed had further amplified his discomfort. This discomfort was also coupled with a full bladder. He got up and peed haphazardly into the gezunder, with a few splashes and side sprays wetting the floor. Zipping up, he went to the small barred window. Placed high on the wall, it may have been unreachable to Tanaka, Jax and Pauly. On tip toes Sebastian could just manage to peer over the sill and through the bars. It was just before dawn. Sebastian could just see the night sky that he so loved to see, but the cruel sun was rising. The black sky was being bleached blue and the stars snuffed out one by one.

Sebastian sat, shivering from both nerves and the early morning cold. There was movement in the bunk above him, and duly Pauly swung his legs over and dropped down. He looked awful, and was shivering like a wounded animal. He was clenching his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering. Gingerly, he went to the potty and tried to pee. At first he was too tense to do so. Eventually a stream flowed, although it was shaken everywhere by his trembling. He turned and their eyes meet. He jolted, then awkwardly got his dick back into his pants. Suddenly something poked him in the back and he leapt away.

It was Jax’s foot. He was drawn and haggard, a look accompanied by a swollen brow and black eye. Despite this, his face was lit by a supernatural energy, and he looked better than he had in days. Sebastian recognised the look. He’d observed it in school bullies, and in the kids that pulled the wings off flies or burned ants with magnifying glasses. It was the light of gleeful evil and sadism. Jax smiled, put his finger to his lips to mime silence, and then jerked his head towards the couch. The guard from last night was still there, and she was asleep. Apparently their captors didn’t take their guarding too seriously. Sebastian could see why, the cage was pretty indestructible without any tools.

Jax gently lowered himself from the bunk. His boots whispered across the wooden floor. His fly came down with a gentle susurration. Jax got right up against the bars, and peed. His initial stream fell short, but his second had a furthered burst of power. It splashed against her reclined booted feet. Jax began chuckling maliciously, as the purr of water on leather filled the room. Some urine made it further, wetting the guards ankles. The guard stirred, before snapping her eyes open and leaping up. Jax jeered joyfully. Pauly, for whom going along with bullying was second nature, jeered too. Sebastian didn’t go that far. However, he’d been locked up, forced into a fight to the death, and watched his comrade be hurt twice, so he smiled along. The guard was jumping between furious and disgusted. This created a confusion that left her frozen just long enough for Pauly, buoyed by his partner’s jeers, to pick up the potty and splash her in the face. There was a shocked silence. Pauly felt instant regret. It was an emotion with which he’d grown painfully familiar over the years of being carried along too far by a group. Sebastian was toeing the line between malevolent satisfaction and guilt. Jax was only happier still. His smile threatened to split his head in half. He delivered an outpouring of victorious and imaginative insults.

The guard gaped, gasping with horror and disbelief. Tears sprung into her eyes and she began to cry, albeit with extreme resistance. Sebastian was tipped over into the guilt side.

“You-you idiot! There’s no fucking water in this fucking desert! Do you understand that? I can’t shower! I’ll smell of piss for months!” she screamed. With large gulping sobs she recovered herself, and the person that returned was a demon of pure rage. She picked up her rifle, and worked the bolt action to put a bullet in the chamber. She levelled it at Jax. “Fuck you!”

Jax stared down the gun. “Shoot me then, you bitch.” His voice was fearless and defiant. For a moment, Sebastian felt he’d caught a glimpse of the true Jax. A man who’d just lost his best friend, nihilistic and depressed. But then it was gone, like a mirage in the desert.

The gun remained pointed at Jax for a whole minute before the guard shook her head and raised the barrel up and away. “You’re not worth it.”

“No one’s worth killing,” Jax replied, “but we do it anyway, you pussy.”

The guard scowled and dried her face with the dry bottom part of her shirt. Sebastian found the midriff she exposed painfully erotic for reasons he couldn’t explain.

Tanaka had slept peacefully through the whole altercation. He carried on for another hour still before awaking calm and rested. He smiled at everyone, even the guard. For a man only an hour or so away from a fight for his life, he was unbelievably confident and energetic. He bounced around the cell, shadow boxing, dancing, chatting incessantly. Everyone else watched him resentfully, their stomachs churning and their bodies trembling. The guards came to take them to the ring. Tanaka bounded to the door, raring to go. Pauly’s legs gave out and he had to be caught and supported by Sebastian. Sebastian gave one last plea.

“Tanaka, please, take this seriously.”

Tanaka just winked and lead his guards out.

The instant they left the jail the noise hit them. It was the loud noise of a hundred people not being loud individually. The verandas were lined with spectators, mostly parents with their children. Some of them were holding up signs, most saying ‘Lord Shiva’. Sebastian wondered why a Hindu god was being celebrated now. Some kind of quasi-religious sacrificial fight? A weak cheer was raised as they walked down the main strip, along with a scattering of boos. Tanaka waved and smiled. They walked the full length of the main drag. They were then marched back to the centre of town, and down an alleyway to a clearing on the outskirts of the oasis farmland.

The space was roughly circular, and flat. People were already seated in a ragged circumference at the edges. The prime spot was a row of wooden benches in the shade of the buildings, and it was already full. Others were kneeling in the dirt in areas still in morning shadow. The sun exposed areas, already scorching, were only inhabited by a few brave souls. In the centre was a ring. Four poles had been driven deep into the hard-packed dirt in a square of about 6 metres squared. The sun had bleached them a ghostly white. Through some method the floor had been elevated about half a metre.  Sebastian suspected either a wooden frame or a stack of pallets. To obscure whatever messy framework there was, tarpaulin had been stapled to the sides. For flooring, a layer of thin plywood had been lain out and screwed in. Three lines of cables of threaded steel were strung at high tension between the poles. To soften the hard metal duct tape had been wrapped around it. It looked ominously like a execution stand. The group was lead to the far left corner, and made to line up.

One of the guards sniffed the air.

“Smell likes piss,” he exclaimed. He leered at the four prisoners. “One of you babies pee your pants?”

All together, excluding the oblivious Tanaka, they turned and stared mutely at their prison guard. She glared at them, then forced a sickly sweet smile.

“I think we can leave the teasing alone, Steve,” she said.

Steve was bemused. He contented himself with one last sneer before turning his attention away from the group. Their prison guard tapped the butt of her rifle, clearly communicating that she’d be happy to silence them with violence if such favours weren’t effective. Another time, Jax may well have pushed onwards and taunted relentlessly. This time he was preoccupied, as was everyone except Tanaka.

The noise level from the main street began to pick up. A rhythmic chant was rising, and snatches of words began to carry over to the ring. ~EEEEEVA…~~ORD…..~SHEEEEE.

“Sounds like a baboon orgy,” Pauly joked half-heartedly.

“Or a religious cult praying,” Sebastian said.

There was activity around the ring too. Young men and women scuttled about: setting up a speaker system running off a diesel generator, laying out a threadbare and sandy red carpet, and handing a barrel-chested man a megaphone. The equipment must have been extremely expensive to acquire and maintain so far out.

A woman rushed over to the group.

“You guys need stage names,” she said breathlessly. She glared at their prison guard. “Amy was supposed to have gotten them from you in the morning.”

Amy, the piss roasted away in the heat but the smell lingering, glared back. There was some kind of rivalry present, although what kind Sebastian could not tell.

“You guard the cells next time, then,” Amy said.

“Maybe I will,” the girl replied snootily. “We don’t want the prisoners carrying knives around.”

“Girls, we don’t have time for this,” Steve said.

“I’m sowy, Steve honey,” the girl said, speaking in a cutesy voice and clutching his arm. Steve smiled and softened. In that instant, Sebastian decided he disliked the pair. He felt a sympathetic twinge for his prison guard. He might have given her a supportive look had he been someone else, but his steel eyes gave away nothing.

“Names, now,” Amy said.

Sebastian was now on her side in the familial ‘no one treats her like that except me’ manner. He spoke straight away without resistance. “The Star-studded Stranger.”

“Nice one,” Tanaka said.

“Jax,” Jax said.

“I’ve heard you guys talking, that’s your normal name,” Amy said.

“It’s a nickname.”

“Not good enough.”

Jax paused. “Ratman,” he said, but the words seemed painful, like he was chewing shards of glass.

“What about you, big guy?” she asked, looking at Pauly.

Put on the spot, Pauly’s mind was empty. “I don’t know.”

“Big guy it is, then. Jap?”

Tanaka grinned ear to ear. His fist shot up into the sky. “Raijin, the holy lance of justice!”

“Fantastic. There. Done,” she turned to the girl. “Problem solved, Erica.”

Erica rolled her eyes and pranced back to the man with the megaphone.

The chant was reaching a climax, and it was spreading to the people around the ring. Some of the workers and guards even joined in. SHEEEV-A… SHEEEEV-A… LOOOOOOORD SHEEEEVA. With a crinkle of static, the man activated his megaphone. His barrel chest  inflated.

“UNDEFEATED FOR SEVENTEEN MATCHES!” Pauly and Jax exchanged nervous glances. That wasn’t good. “UNDISPUTED CHAMPION OF THE RING!! MASTER OF NINE DIFFERENT MARTIAL ARTS!!! FAMED ACROSS THE DESERT FOR HIS LYNCHPIN AERIAL REVERSAL!!!! THE TRANSFORMER!!!!! THE DESTROYER!!!!!!! HIS NAME IS…” The man paused for dramatic effect. The silence rippled outwards across the crowd. More people were streaming in from the street, taking up the less desirable sunny seats. It was so quiet their individual footsteps could be heard. The man took another deep breath. His voice was joined by that of the enthusiastic components of the crowd. “LLLLLLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORD SHHHHHHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVAAAA!”

The stereo started blaring a generic hip-hop instrumental, heavy on the brass. Bounding out of the alleyway came Hadrian. He’d stripped out of his v-neck, and was barefoot. He still wore his puffy pair of shorts. Likewise, the spiked hair, the ear gauges, and the large wooden bead garland remained. What was truly eye-catching was that his torso and face had been dyed a bright blue. It was like looking at a Greek statue vandalised with blue paint. He energetically bounced around, waving an adulating crowd into louder and louder cheers. He got up close to some of the onlookers, before darting up the red carpet and diving onto the stage. He climbed up onto the wires at his corner and waved some more. He then leapt into a corkscrewing backflip that he landed effortlessly. The crowd adored it.

Sebastian didn’t allow himself to be drawn into the wrestling-like spectacle. His eyes were forcibly in boredom mode when they wandered over to Tanaka. Alarm bells rung, and his mind sprung to attention. Tanaka was enthralled by Hadrian’s spectacle, but he was also excited. There was a hunger in his eyes that Sebastian recognised, because it was the same hunger he had. The hunger for danger, and for a challenge. And just like that, Sebastian knew Tanaka was about to leap into the ring as the first challenger. He acted straight away, hugging Tanaka around the shoulders. He didn’t care how silly he looked.

“Pauly! Get in the ring now!” he shouted.

At first, Pauly didn’t hear. His burst eardrum was facing Sebastian, and the roar of the crowd in the other. He turned around dumbly. “Huh?”

“Jump in the ring!” Sebastian managed to say just as Tanaka wriggled free. Pauly’s eyes light up with comprehension. He leapt underneath the lowest cable into the ring. He beat Tanaka, who had been standing further away, in the nick of time.

Pauly got unsteadily to his feet, brushing sand off his front. His synapses were firing off in a confused fashion. He didn’t actually click to the fact he was in the ring until he came up face to face with Hadrian. Or rather, face to impeccably sculpted chest, considering the height difference. Pauly’s mind was still in a cloud of surprise and befuddlement. He melancholically rued his unexciting and lame stage name, and wished he’d come up with a better one. Hadrian gave a friendly smile, his white teeth glowing against blue-stained lips. The megaphone man wound up for his announcement.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNDDD IT’S OUR FIRST ROUND, FOLKS. LORD SHIVA VERSUS… THHHHHHEEEEEE BIG GUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUYYYY!”

Pauly’s brain finally got the memo. ‘Aw shit,’ he thought.

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Desert Steel Chapter 11

-Quarrels

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“You fucking idiot!”

Sebastian kicked at Tanaka’s legs to emphasise his point. Tanaka remained infuriatingly calm. His only reaction was to lift his shins up to block the blows. They weren’t very hard. They were meant to show seriousness, not to harm.

“What the hell were you thinking?!” Sebastian asked, his leg scything low.

“I am going to be a hero,” Tanaka said calmly. “A hero wouldn’t back down from a challenge. A hero wouldn’t sneak.”

“This is real life! Not one of your stupid fucking anime! People who do that in real life die!”

Tanaka stuck his chin out stubbornly. “I am Raijin. I will be a hero.”

“You’ll kamikaze and become a corpse!”

Tanaka’s eyes flashed victoriously. “But I’ll die a hero.”

“You’ll die an idiot!”

The guard got up off the sofa and banged the butt of her rifle against the bars.

“Hey! Break it up, and shut it up!” Her voice confirmed that she was female.

Sebastian ignored her. “Trying to shoot thirteen armed people with a six shooter isn’t heroic, it’s stupid!”

The guard’s mouth dropped open. “You were actually going to try that? Are you insane?” she asked incredulously.

Suddenly, Jax, who had been sitting sullenly in the corner unnoticed, lunged for her gun, reaching through the bars. She twisted just in time and stepped back. She neatly jabbed him in the face with the gun stock. Jax reeled back, clutching his eye socket.

“You fucking bitch!”

The woman, with surprising levity, stuck her tongue out at him. She sat back down at the sofa, well out of reach.

Jax sat down, still holding his brow. “Fuck!”

“Nice try though,” Pauly said. He’d meant to sound encouraging and kind, but it came across as sarcastic. Sebastian laughed, his anger cooling, and Jax glared at Pauly with his one good eye. Pauly cringed. He expected another one of Jax’s outbursts, but Jax’s rage swerved and directed itself at Tanaka.

“This is your fault, you animes watching freak!”

“I don’t watch anime,” Tanaka said.

“Not the point, you useless chink. You’ve fucked us over and now we’re caught. Fuck!”

“We’ll be fine, don’t worry,” Tanaka said. “But I don’t watch anime. I was a delinquent, not a child.”

“Whatever, man. You’re a retard, not a loser that watches Chinese cartoons. Hurray.”

Sebastian joined back into the conversation. “How can you guarantee we’ll be fine. This is real life, you dick. There’s no plot armour to save us. The hero doesn’t always win. The hero doesn’t always live. Get that through your head.”

Tanaka sat down on his bunk. “I’m bored with this conversation.” He laid back and pulled his hat over his face. Jax and Sebastian stared in disbelief. Within minutes, light snores started emanating from the hat.

“Motherfucker,” Jax breathed.

It was past midnight by Sebastian’s mind clock when the outer door swung open and a small contingent marched in. Three men and one woman armed with the same bolt action rifles entered first, and lined up either side of the path to the cell’s door. The woman on the couch got up to, but not hurriedly, and she didn’t stand at attention. Sebastian noted this to suggest the group had a respected leader, but not a feared or strict one. A man entered unarmed, and Sebastian assumed he must be the leader.

He was probably just under six feet tall, and he carried himself with self-assured confidence. His blonde hair, presumably bleached judging from his dark eyebrows, was short and gelled into a sea of spikes. His ears, like Tanaka’s, were pierced, but his were wooden gauges that had expanded large holes in his ear lobes. He had a pair of old-timey goggles on his forehead and a large necklace that looped down over his chest. Bright red spheres, made of wood and the size of a fist, decorated the necklace in an unbroken chain.  He wore a v-neck that plunged below his sternum, and puffy shorts. What stood out most, however, was his body itself. He had the body of a Greek god, except with bigger lats. What struck Sebastian wasn’t how strong or muscular he looked, but how aesthetically perfect his body was. Whereas Pauly’s pectorals look over-inflated and odd, his were slabs of granite. The way his thighs curved into the knees was a thing of art. His body was the outcome if Michelangelo’s David and Arnold Schwarzenegger had a love child. It was the golden ratio personified.

“Any trouble?” he asked.

Their guard nodded. “That one tried grab my gun,” she said, pointing at Jax.

The man walked right up to the bars. “Tsk, tsk. What would you even hope to do with it, locked in there? Take a hostage?”

Jax snarled back. The man took no notice. “Now if you had, I can assure you we would have only gone to every length to kill you all. Do you understand? Down that path lies only oblivion.”

“My grandfather was Scottish,” Jax said.

The man tried raise one eyebrow, and failed. It wriggled like a caterpillar on his face, and then both raised upwards into an arrogant leer. Such imperfection on his face, when contrasted to his perfect body, was jarring. “So?”

“So,” Jax said, and in one smooth motion he’d pulled a knife from his sock and grabbed the man by the neck. He wasn’t as fast as Tanaka, however, and the man had plenty of time to react. He grabbed Jax’s knife hand and back flipped, in a move so effortless and graceful that it seemed to defy gravity. Jax’s arm was twisted painfully and he dropped the knife, screaming. The man adjusted his necklace and picked up the knife. It was, Sebastian saw, a sgian-dubh, a knife traditionally worn in a highlander’s sock. The man passed the knife to the guard, who put it in her belt.

“Give me back my grandfather’s knife, you whore!” Jax screamed, now clutching his arm, with his brow still swollen up from his last injury.

“You’ve lost the right to have that knife,” The man said calmly. “But you can regain it, and everything else: your guns, your freedom.”

“How?” Sebastian asked bluntly. He had no patience for bullshit anymore.

The man smiled. “Simple. The four of you have to fight me, one at a time, fairly. You win, you go free.”

“And if we lose?”

“You die.”

Those words sucked whatever good feeling was left out of the room. Tanaka, Jax and Pauly were stunned speechless. Only Sebastian kept thinking, trying to work out all the details.

“Do each of us have to beat you?”

“No. Just one of you wins, and then you all go free.”

“What are the rules?”

“Keep the fight within the ring. No weapons. No hits to the groin. No eye gouging. Locks, grappling and throwing are all allowed, as are punches and kicks. Only one opponent in the ring at a time.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow morning. Agreed?”

Sebastian stared the man down with his lifeless battleship grey eyes, or at least tried to. The man’s eyes were shielded by self-assurance. “What if we don’t?”

“You die now.”

“Agreed, then.”

The man smiled again. “Great! My name is Hadrian. Prepare to put on a show.”

“Fuck you.”

If this bothered Hadrian, he didn’t let it show. He just left, taking his four person honour guard with him. The guard stuck her tongue out at Jax again, and sat back down on the sofa.

Tanaka leaned back contentedly while sitting on his bed, a smug smile on his face. “You see? Did I not say we’d be fine?”

Jax, still rubbing his slowly recovering arm, was incensed. “Fine?! Didn’t you see the fucker twist my arm like it was nothing?! With a fucking back flip! I can fight dirty, but I’m shit at fighting fair.”

Pauly agreed. “I don’t even know how to fight… I uh, never really had it come to that. Also, he was built like a bear on steroids.” He looked pale, and he was breathing unevenly.

Sebastian nodded, his face unreadable as always. “I’ve only ever gotten lucky in a struggle, and luck doesn’t work on those kinds of backflips.”

Tanaka rolled his eyes. “Didn’t you hear? Only one of us has to win. I was the King of Tokyo back in high school. I was the Lightning God Delinquent, undefeated for three straight years. I can go first, defeat him, and we can all go free.”

Sebastian kicked him in the stomach, not hard but enough to show his anger. “What if you lose, then? What if he’s better than you? We all die? This isn’t a fucking game. It’s real life.”

Tanaka shrugged. “I won’t.”

“You can’t know that for sure.” Sebastian took his foot off Tanaka’s stomach, and strode over to his bunk. “We need to increase our odds. Tanaka, if you’re our best fighter, then you’ll go last. The rest of us, try to win, but if we can’t do that then hang on as long as possible. We need him tired out.”

Tanaka scowled. “That’s not honourable, nor heroic.”

“You don’t get a choice in this decision. Our lives are at stake too. You’ll fight him last, and you’ll fight him with everything you’ve got. You’ll take this seriously. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Tanaka said, but Sebastian saw nothing but defiance and stubbornness in his dark eyes. He closed his own eyes and cursed softly under his breath.

“Pauly, you’ll go first. Jax, second. I’ll go right before Tanaka…” He glared at the Japanese teen who was now absentmindedly relaxing on his bunk. “…And let’s just hope to god or anyone else who’ll listen that he’ll take this seriously.” Sebastian knew the guard could hear everything, but he didn’t care. Their strategy was uncomplicated, and obvious. If they were good enough, it was also unbeatable. If they weren’t, the Greek god of backflips would defeat them.

Sebastian sat down heavily on his bunk, causing a layer of sand that had inevitably formed on the bed to bounce up. “Credit where it’s due, though, that was a good idea with the knife, just bad execution,” he said to Jax.

Jax tried find sarcasm in Sebastian’s words, but where Pauly’s words had been distorted by his efforts to show kindness, Sebastian’s were delivered in the toneless drone he always spoke in. It was devoid of emotion. There was nothing but unbending literalness in that voice.

“Thanks,” Jax said. “Thank my grandpa. He died when I was thirteen, but he was the best of the cesspit of genes they called my family.” As an afterthought, he added, “I hope I get it back.”

“What reason do you think they even bother with this whole charade of a fight. I mean, they ambushed us, captured us, and now want to fight us,” Sebastian wondered aloud.

Jax banged on the bars and pointed to his new lady friend. “Why don’t you tell us, you sadistic bitch?”

The guard scowled at him and looked around. She saw a heavy glass ashtray on the floor by the sofa, a luxury good that was strange to see this far out. She chucked it at his head. It hit the bar instead, bouncing off and ricocheting into the desk. It took a chunk out of the wood. Jax flinched back, and then skulked off to the far corner.

“Entertainment?” Pauly suggested, with some apprehension. He was still getting used to putting forward ideas and putting himself out. Back in New York he’d been too afraid of the social repercussions to put out his own ideas. In Terra Deserta where a missed idea could mean death, he was forced to do so. Every time he did, he felt the same uneasiness as he shed the ghosts of his past. “He said: ‘Put on a good show’, didn’t he?”

“‘ Prepare to put on a show’, but yeah,” Sebastian said, quoting the exact words. “But entertain who? Themselves?”

“Why not?” Jax asked. “You keep looking for rational answers here, Sebby.” Sebastian hated being called ‘Sebby’, and Jax knew it. “It’ll be your undoing. What you need to realise is that here on Terra Deserta, a lot of people are just stark raving mad.”

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Desert Steel Chapter 10

-Blunderer

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Three days and two nights of walking and resting lead the quartet over one final dune, revealing a medium sized oasis town known as Hovetown Left.

Jax pushed the brim of his hat back to give himself a better view. He wiped the sweat from his brow.

“Well fuck me sideways,” he exclaimed,” you can navigate. We’re not gonna die.”

Sebastian only gave a grunt at this jab, and surveyed the town.

The town had the designator ‘left’ because it was the left town heading South from Sixty Clicks. The meaning of Hovetown was unknown to all but its founder. He couldn’t be asked because he was knifed to death in its only brothel a month after its inauguration. Where Sixty Clicks had grown fat on the trade and travellers its position supplied, Hovetown Left had only grown pleasingly plump. Its sibling rivalry with Hovetown Right meant the trade carrying through into the outer settlements was split in half. Its further out location meant it hadn’t benefitted from Sixty Clicks’ ‘PC tourists’. PC tourists were visitors from Portal City who travelled out to towns just clear of Portal City’s influence, enjoyed the true poverty and deprivation, then returned to Portal City where the Portals meant a steady train of Earth goods and technologies, not to mention wifi connections.

As a reflection of its economic standing, the main drag of Hovetown Left was narrower, and didn’t line up perfectly with the straight line of the Sixty Clicks approach. Any traveller at this point would need to at least be able to orientate without relying on a road. The buildings were squatter, most not two stories. The verandas lining the shops and houses were smaller too, not having to accommodate as many pedestrians. In Terra Deserta, where all materials were expensive, construction was generally kept to a bare minimum. The oasis was off to one side, couched by a titanic dune, and walled up by a defensive cluster of housing on the other. The wet ground offered around the oasis had no buildings. The land was too precious for that, crops took up every usable inch. All in all, a pleasant town. It had what Sebastian thought was the right balance between wealth and isolation, and with the cherry on top of a natural oasis.

Something seemed off, however. Sebastian’s instincts were tingling with anticipatory fear. The wind was getting stronger, and the orange tinged sand was being kicked up. It hung in the air like a visual representation of malaise. This leant the view of town a sepia tone that was reminiscent of old photographs. It wasn’t truly obscuring, however, and Sebastian could clearly see the street and houses. Finally, his conscious mind fell in line with his subconscious and he realised that the town was empty. Even excluding travellers, locals should have been visible walking, playing or farming. Hovetown Left was a ghost town.

“I don’t like the look of this town,” Sebastian said.

“W-why?” Pauly said, nerves jangling.

Sebastian pointed, his index finger tracing the path of the main strip. “No people about. I think we should recon. Tana-”

The words died in his mouth. Tanaka was no longer on the top of the dune with them. He was instead bowling down the side, kicking up a trail of dust.

“Fucker!” Sebastian shouted, frustrated and surprised. “Jax, Pauly, move down the backs of the buildings, I’ll try catch Tanaka.”

Half of this was hard to hear as he was already rushing down the dune, eating a fair portion of Tanaka’s kicked up dust. Spitting out a gritty paste of dehydrated saliva and sand, he didn’t have time to see if his order had been followed. He was livid, in the oddly calm way he had. Where others’ rage may have been akin to violently boiling water, his was like a placid lake of magma. Tanaka might have had faster hands, but he had shorter strides and Sebastian was closing the gap fast.

“Tanaka!” Sebastian called, trying to avoid being too loud.

Tanaka ignored him, and halted a bit of the way into the main drag. He threw back his head and bellowed, “Is there anyone in need of aid!? I am here to help!”

Sebastian ground to a stop just at the mouth of the town. “Tanaka you dumbass!  Don’t go yelling in a potentially hostile environment?”

“It’s fine, I can handle any problems,” Tanaka replied. He cupped his mouth. “I am Tanaka Daisuke! I will be a hero one day! Believe it! I am here to help!”

His voice echoed around the town. There was no reply.  Sebastian strode up to meet him.

“We’re getting out of here,” he said. His tone did not leave room for argument.

“Hold it.” The calm voice carried in the oddly still town. “Hands up.”

Sebastian did as the voice said. His eyes bounced around like the balls in a pinball machine, searching for the source of the voice. What he saw was even more disheartening. He counted six figures lying prone along the rooftops on the left, armed with rifles, and seven on the right doing the same.

Tanaka threw his cloak back, clearing the path of his hands to his revolver.

“Thirteen people,” Sebastian hissed, “It’s a no go.”

Tanaka winked, and wriggled his fingers.

“You can’t pull it off. The range is too far, the distance between targets too great, and your gun only carries six bullets.”

“Don’t you think I know that!” Tanaka shouted, “but when it’s a challenge like this I can’t back down. It’s got my blood boiled up! A true hero never backs down!”

Sebastian punched him, hard, in the cheekbone. Tanaka went down, startled and hurt. Sebastian wound back for a kick, one of the armed men on the roof crying protest, but it was a feint, his feet stomping onto the ground and becoming a launching pad for a lunge to safety. A rifle shot rang out but missed, kicking up the sand at his feet. If it had been Sixty Clicks, with its wider road, Sebastian would have been a goner, but he successfully reached a pile of barrels by a support pole of one of the verandas. Another shot from across the street splintered one of the barrels but Sebastian was miraculously unharmed apart from some superficial scratches.

He was breathing heavily now, those moist lusty breaths he got when things got dangerous. One of the ambushers on the near roof got onto the veranda and tried to peek over the edge, but Sebastian was ready and a shot sent them scuttling back. Sebastian decided things were getting too hot on the street, but he didn’t want to risk another run in the open so he hunkered down as more shots slammed into his rudimentary cover.

His needed distraction came in two ways. Jax and Pauly, hearing the shots, had emerged from a gap between two buildings down the way, opening fire on the far side of the road, and Tanaka had recovered and was emptying his gun at the roof just above Sebastian. All these shots were meaningless in terms of lethality, the distance making them harmless, but the flashes, the bangs and the smoke were about as good as a distraction could get.

Sebastian took the chance and burst through the shop door, knocking off the cheap lock. He came up to a stumbling halt just short of sending a small child tumbling. The child was staring with opened-eyed fascination, while his mother pulled him close to her, shivering with fear. Sebastian scanned the room quickly. There were several adults, some with young children, but no visible threats. He relaxed a little and drew his gun. All the adults recoiled. All the children gaped.

“Move to another room,” he said, his voice hoarse. The adults obeyed, herding the children, some of whom resisted, into a backroom behind the stores counter. Sebastian moved clear of the windows, and began searching for a way onto the roof, but he could find none. Shots and shouts carried in through the open door, but he couldn’t tell what was happening.

He found a back door, and poked his head out. It looked clear, which was as good as he was going to get, so he exited. The back of the building offered a lot of potential for climbing, with thick slatted boards and crates and rubbish piled up beside it, but the climb would be slow, noisy and exposed.

Sebastian started moving along, deeper into town, until he reached a building he deemed far enough clear of the ambush point. He climbed up this one, getting splinters from the worn, low-quality wood in his fingers. He dragged himself onto the roof on his stomach, and lay flat for a moment, waiting for someone to spot him, but no one did. He got up to a crouch, and surveyed the situation from this better vantage point. He could run along the rooftops now to the ambushers, but it was essentially open ground to close and he’d probably get shot dead. Probably. Sebastian considered the option for a while longer, and then discarded it.

“Starboy! We got the others! If you don’t turn yourself in within the next thirty seconds we kill one of them! Then, you have another thirty seconds, or we kill another!”

It may have been the same voice as before, it may have been another. It didn’t matter. Sebastian peeked over the roof’s edge just to see if it was a bluff, but Jax, Pauly and Tanaka were all lined up with rifles to their heads. This didn’t surprise Sebastian much. Tanaka had used up all his bullets and would have been left standing in the open like a berk. Jax and Pauly clearly hadn’t realised that there were ambushers on their side of the road, leaving them open from above.

Sebastian breathed out one hot, angry breath, the only visible sign of frustration, before standing up and climbing down onto the veranda then dropping onto the street. He raised his hands and walked slowly and reluctantly over to the rest of his group. There were five attackers holding them at gunpoint, all disparate in dress. Once he reached them, one of his attackers, a woman if he was judging her feminine face correctly, disarmed him and carried away his revolver and knife. Sebastian took in the faces of his gang. Pauly was scared, no surprises there, and Jax enraged, ditto. But Tanaka was an infuriating calm. Sebastian’s placid lake of magma didn’t begin to boil, but it got a hell of a lot hotter.

All four of them were marched over to a building that must have normally functioned as the town’s jail. It was squat, its walls thicker and better quality than the others. The windows were small and barred. Inside, the room was divided by a bar wall with a hefty lock on its door, a desk and sofa on the near side, and two bunk beds and a porcelain potty on the far side. One after the other they were shoved inside, under watchful eyes and steady guns. The door swung shut with a solid clang. The key turned, the lock falling into place with a heavy thud. One of the captors, the one with the shoulder length auburn hair Sebastian had pegged as a woman, sat down on the sofa, her rifle cradled between her legs. The others left. And that was that.

Sebastian and his group had been captured.

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Interlude 1

-Desert Rose

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“Why can’t Mama and Papa come to visit, Grandpa?” the little girl asked, in French. Her eyes were wide and sad, but she’d clenched her small pudgy hands into tight fists. She was the eldest. She had to be strong. She had to be adult.

Her grandfather, a kindly old man with a groomed white beard, stood awkwardly in the doorway.

“Felicia, darling… Your parents have had an accident. They can’t visit, no matter how much they want to.”

“Then why can’ t I visit them!?” she said, slowly gearing up for a tantrum. She’d been having them more and more lately. She’d always been the good child, a little porcelain doll in a quail egg blue dress, while her little brother had torn about like a rabid dog. But she was losing her self control. Emotions she’d never known before were starting to boil over.

Her grandfather kneeled down to her, the pain clear in his eyes.

“We have, my love. We visited them last week.”

“My parents aren’t clumps of stone!!!” she screamed, tears blinding her. She remembered that place, the dewy green field, the slabs of granite, the pile of flowers. The cloying sickness of the place. The buzzing sense of wrongness when Grandpa pointed to the stones and said they were Mama and Papa.

“Felicia…”

“NO! MY PARENTS ARE NOT STONES!!!” she howled, her knuckles white. She raged and wailed, an untameable tempest. Grandpa pulled her in and hugged her tightly. She hammered her little fists ineffectually against his back, thrashing about within his grip. Eventually she ran out of breath and was forced to stop. She had raged for such a time that her face had transitioned from a flushed red to an exhausted white.  Grandpa held her for a few seconds more, letting her feel his warmth and realise his presence. Finally he released her, now sullen and heaving for breath.

“My rose,’ he began, using his affectionate nickname for his grandchild, “I cannot bring back your parents. Do you understand that? All I can offer you is myself.”

Piece by piece, she was recovering herself. “What if that’s not enough?” she asked, stumbling upon those poignant and thoughtlessly cruel statements young children sometimes tend to find.

Grandpa reached out and stroked the braid of her beautiful blonde hair. “Then I’ll have to give you even more.” He stood up, his old knees cracking as he did so, and went to the door. “Go to bed now, my rose. Please.” He left.

Felicia unclenched her fist. Her nails had punched through the skin and small arcs of blood were beading on her pale palms.

The next morning, she awoke from a fitful sleep. She padded down the long hall in her nightgown, passing a row of boarded up windows with ornate frames. She entered another bedroom, this one lacking a door. Her brother lay there, sleeping soundly. His hair was splayed out on the bed looking like an angelic halo. She woke him firmly but affectionately. She had to be strong.

“Florence. It’s time for breakfast.”

He awoke with a low groan. His eyes were red-rimmed. He’d been crying a lot lately. Quietly, to himself. He barely spoke at all now. For him, silence had been his comfort blanket. For her, rage. She lead him down the grand staircase, its red carpet now threadbare and torn. They had their cereal together. Grandpa was nowhere to be seen. He would be awake, as he always was by dawn. He must have been in his study, planning. He had some grand idea, he’d told them. Every night he told them stories of the riches and hope that lay out in the world to be found. Felicia liked these stories. When they had both finished their breakfast, she lead Florence back upstairs and helped him change. He’d been able to change alone before, but he’d regressed in many ways since the accident. His speech had gone. He had to be urged to eat. Twice, she’d seen him wet himself while crying silently. But she had a silver bullet.

“Want to play in the garden, Florence?”

His face changed in an instant, to one of unfettered joy. Squealing with delight he scurried off unguided towards the garden.

Felicia followed afterwards. She had to be strong.

Pierre de Foix watched as his grandchildren, his roses, blossomed within the beautiful environment of the garden to play with a childish glee that was so rare to see in them now. The garden was a rarity, one of only a few seventeenth century styled gardens left. It had maze-like gravel paths, interesting hidden statues and beautiful hedgerows. It was overgrown and weed-stricken, but the children knew not of such things. He turned back to the man in the suit.

“You cannot possibly take my grandchildren from me,” he said, “I’m all they have left, and they’re all I have left.”

The man in the suit shrugged. “You’re broke. You cannot feed them properly. You cannot clothe them. To leave them like this is inhumane.”

“To take them from their only family is inhumane.”

“I know. But their lives take priority. This is all so unnecessary. Just sell the house. The location alone must make it worth a million. The history will double that. Live in a nice cheap flat, spend the money on the kids.”

“This land, this house, has been in my family since the fourteenth century! It has been passed down from my father, and his father before him. To sell it would be to end that line, it is unthinkable to watch it die with me. And what of the children? This is their home, their last oasis in the desert. This garden is the only place I see them smile. And you tell me to leave?”

“Look at the house. It’s a rotten dump. You want a garden, every city has a public park or two. You worry about the end of the line? These kids get taken and adopted, then that is the true end of your line. Life is change. Life is flux. Your grandchildren are sad. One day they will be happy. They love this garden. One day they will love a public park. You know what is permanent? Death and loss. You have already suffered the former. Do not make me impose the second upon you.”

Pierre let these words wash over him. The words of a silver-tongued demon. This man wished to rob him of his home, and his grandchildren. “Just tell me. What do I need to do to solve this?”

“You need money Mr. de Foix. Sell the house.”

Pierre had one last niggle of doubt. For one moment he considered the suggestion rationally. He watched his grandchildren tumble in a grassy square.

“Never,” he said.

He went back into his study and redoubled his efforts. There had to be a way. People had struck it rich before by discovering lucrative extracts of oil, gold or gems. Gaia would provide. Pierre knew in his heart of hearts she would. The treasure was there, just waiting for him to unearth it. It would save both his ancestral keep and his grandchildren. He searched online until his eyes swam. He became increasingly desperate. He began to think Mother Earth had failed him, that she had closed off her bosom, concealed his rightful prize. Then, in a shock of realisation, he saw that there were two planets nurturing man now. Terra Desert, otherwise called the Desert Land. Hands shaking, he typed ‘Desert Land topographical map’ into the search bar. This was it, he knew it. He’d never been so sure of anything in his life. This must be what it feels like when at last you stumble upon your true path of fate. He pressed enter. The first image to load was a topographical map of the Eastern Gobi Desert in Mongolia; there existed no topographical maps of Terra Deserta itself yet. Pierre’s eyes were blind to this. His mind and heart saw Terra Deserta, with gold in the curves and peaks of the map. He printed it out, his hands tearing the paper from the printer, still wet with ink. An unnatural thirst raged within him. His mind spun with ideas. He needed mining equipment, and defences, for he knew Terra Deserta was unsafe. Too unsafe. He needed some way of ensuring his roses’ safety. A digger, but a tank as well? The primordial embryo of an idea planted itself in his mind. He sat down, and began to draw.

That night, he sat the two children together and told them a story. The story of a grandpa, eccentric, but a genius and beloved of the Mother Earth. Of a great adventure, the grandfather and his grandchildren exploring a new and fascinating world, making lots of new friends. And at the climax, of a trove of gold found just below the surface. He even had a little poem prepared. He had a page drawn for each quartet he rhymed, done in crayon by a shaky hand that had mashed the waxy coloured tips into the paper:

Look at the Grandpa, so withered and old,

He took up a quest and found lots of gold,

Look at his children, his two little roses,

Cute as a button from headses to toeses.

He showed them a picture of three smiling figures, the two smaller with heads of golden twine. A hole where the crayon had punched through looked like the gaping maw of a black hole. Felicia, too young to know of such things, was nevertheless put off by the drawing. She tried to strangle the thought. She had to be strong.

Off they go, to the vast desert land,

A wonderful place with gold in the sand,

Along they roll, safe in their digger,

How to get in, no one can figure.

He showed them a box with a claw, and three smiling faces peering through a square opening. The ground was a blinding yellow.

Here they dig, here they know,

A vein of gold the ground does stow,

Bring it up, carry it away,

Now they are rich today.

The page showed a mountain of gold bricks, the three smiling figures standing on top. The pressure he’d put on the crayon had warped the paper and perverted the smiles. They looked wrong.

Back they come, back they roam,

All the way back to their home,

What a fun time, all together,

Never to be apart, forever.

The same smiling figures. The same sick, twisted smiles. Bound together now, trapped together claustrophobically. Felicia looked up at her Grandpa. She saw that he was crying.

A month later, Grandpa had modified a digger with steel plating and an extension to the cabin, and filled it with petrol and rations. He’d mortgaged the house to pay for it all. He called the two children inside from the garden, sat them down, and told them about all the gold they were going to find. Hugged them and told them he loved them. Then he loaded them into the digger, and they portalled away to the strange land. Felicia looked outside through the slit. The land was barren and scorched. There were no gardens here. And just like that, she could no longer be strong.

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Desert Steel Chapter 9

-Conversations in the Desert

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Apart from the eerie squeaking of the sand and the howl of the wind, the desert was silent. The only other sound was the scrape of leather as Sebastian drew and holstered his desert steel as he walked, over and over again. There were times when Sebastian could have sworn he could hear the heat, a crackling and creaking as if the whole world was being  deep fried. But not today. He broke the silence by chatting to Jax.

“So why are you wearing the flag of apartheid South Africa?”

Jax shrugged. “Because I want to.”

“But you partnered up with a black man.”

“His name was Drake. And it was a joke, like, between the two of us.”

“You wearing racist iconography was a joke?”

“Yeah, y’know. I call him a dumbass nigger, he calls me a tiny ass whitey, we laugh.”

“The joke being neither of you meant it?”

“Yeah, man. I mean, we would have died for one another. He was closer to me than my dumbfuck Boer family ever was.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He was from Cameroon, and he spoke with this African accent that was like dark chocolate sauce, man. Sounded like a radio DJ. But he was built like a rugby player. Could have played for the Springboks.”

“How’d you get the t-shirt though?”

“I owned it. My family didn’t really take to the whole end of the apartheid thing very well. I didn’t give a fuck. Most people, black or white, are trash. Fuck ’em all. But you got to go along with family. You got to fit in.”

“So you played along with the whole white pride groups thing?”

“I revelled in it. Fights on the streets, riots, pissing off a bunch of self-righteous pricks. It was fun. Sure, I didn’t really believe any of that racist bullshit, but fun is fun.”

“And then?”

“Trouble. At school, in court. Movements got restricted, police cracked down harder, family softened up. All at once, my racist fucking family had turned into a bunch of mewling kittens, and I, the one guy who wasn’t racist, became the hardcore skinhead in the family.”

“And that’s when you jumped?”

“Nah man. Waited for the family to post bail for me. My family’s pretty loaded. Bail was like fifty thousand dollars US. Then I jumped. They must have lost that money then. My one last ‘fuck you’.”

“When’d you meet Drake?”

“Two weeks in. I was just going round fucking shit up. Robbing a few of the new jumpers, playing enforcer for some of the gangs in Portal City. Breaking arms, beatings, that sort of thing. Moved out North when things got hot, ran into Drake on the way. He asked me what a tiny ass cracker was doing with that shirt on. I asked him what a dumbass nigger was doing knowing what that shirt meant. We both laughed our asses off. Joined up then and there. Went into town, mugged some travellers, ran back to Portal City then tried the same thing out East. Drake was a beast. He once held three guys up against a wall while I searched their pants. Three! Like it was nothing. Two guys just clamped to the wall at their throats with his forearm. He had this deep laugh, sounded like a buffalo mating. We’d exchange racist jibes constantly, and that’s how’d he’d laugh when we did. Called it his nigger snigger. One time… Oh yeah, one time, we’d caused some trouble at a brothel. Some gang of self-righteous pricks took, uh… what’s the word?”

“Umbrage? ”

“No, what the fuck is that, smartass? Offence. That’s it. They took offence, and picked a fight. Now, I do ok, y’know. Because most people want to play fair, right? Because they think to themselves; if I only hit above the belt, then so will he, and then I won’t be hit in the balls or anything nasty like that. And then I kick them in the balls, and bite their arm, and gouge their eyes, and they go down real quick, screaming. But Drake, Drake, he handled seven guys by himself. Cleanly, you know, cleanliness next to godliness. Just punched them in the gut, and they’d fold right over like a deck chair and go down. They tried jump him all at once, and he was like a tornado, sending them flying from an arm or a leg. By the time I was done with my guy, there were eight bodies just laid out around him. A beast. I called him my pet beastman, and he called me his little ratman.”

Sebastian listened with genuine interest to Jax’s tale, which after some nudging had come pouring out. Jax had clearly admired Drake immensely, and this had only amplified after his death. This grief driven deification was more useful to Sebastian in what it revealed of Jax’s character. It was mostly what he’d thought, but he still had to hide a rising tide of revulsion. Jax was clearly someone who revelled in violence and cruelty, in pushing buttons and using obscenities. He looked fondly upon his times spent mugging people, marching in hate groups, and enforcing for brutal gangs.

What bothered Sebastian most was his own similarities to Jax. He told himself the difference was that he was bound by his own morality and that he reflected with guilt and remorse. But now, out here in the desert, where he’d ambushed and killed one man, killed and robbed a grandfather, and sold the children into slavery, he was beginning to wonder if he was lying to himself.

The worst part was the way that with each atrocity he saw or committed, the more a horrible emotional numbness enveloped him. Every time he looked back, the less remorseful he felt. There was a kernel of panic growing inside him- that he was losing himself-yet even that was beginning to drown in a sea of apathy.

Tanaka, who along with Pauly had been listening to the conversation, said, “Eight men, no big deal. When you have justice on your side, that is when true victory is achieved.”

To Sebastian, who looked upon all philosophy with the same disdain a matriarch might have for her daughter-in-law, these words were oddly soothing. They rubbed Jax the wrong way, however.

“Can the bushido bullshit, slant. Drake could have kicked your yellow ass seven shades of blue.”

Tanaka was calm. His black eyes were steady and cool. “I was the essence of lightning itself. I conquered my school  as a junior. They called me ‘Raijin’, the god of thunder and lightning. One time, another school sent twenty men, some armed with bats, to face me. I defeated them all, although I suffered many injuries. Another time, the bosses of ten schools ambushed me. I crushed them all. These were no victories. No one cares who wins a struggle between vermin. The winner is still vermin.”

Jax blew air out his mouth dismissively. “What happened to you, man? You find god?” His tone was mocking. Sebastian was willing to bet he was an atheist.

Tanaka shook his head, still unruffled. “I found good.”

There was a silence as everyone considered this. Again, Sebastian felt a comforting sense of coolness in Tanaka’s words, like taking a nice ice bath.

“What the fuck does that mean?” Jax asked.

“I realised that the honour and camaraderie I believed my gang and I had was a poor excuse for violence and fights. So I looked at the world with open eyes.” Here Jax snickered, and Sebastian knew some racist joke had just popped into his mind. “And I saw the injustice and evil I had ignored, and I struggled against it.”

“You can’t fix the world,” Sebastian said, but he sounded awed none-the-less.

“The glory is in the struggle. The good is in the struggle. We humans cannot achieve perfection, but to aspire to such ideals is divine.”

Jax, who was above all else lazy, said, “Fuck that.”

Nobody spoke after that. There seemed nothing else to say. But Sebastian, as he walked onwards, drawing his gun repetitively, was left with plenty to mull over.

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Desert Steel Chapter 8

-Cleave

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The group trudged back into town by high noon. The Sun, at its apex, had burned away every last piece of shadow. Sixty Clicks glowed an angelic white under its harshness. The sand was scorching, so Sebastian and Tanaka carried the children piggyback. Pauly, whose  left eardrum had burst in the blast, staggered on drunkenly, a bloody pus draining from his ear and drying along his neck.

At Sebastian’s suggestion, they circled the town to the South so as to avoid immediate association with the blast. Walking along the main street, the town showed little sign that it had been shaken by a blast, but Sebastian spotted some blown out windows and a randomness to the citizens’ walking patterns that hinted at disorientation.

The group stopped in the centre of the main drag. In one direction, the road narrowed towards its vanishing point and then merged seamlessly into dunes out towards the Portal City. In the other, the road did the same out towards the further outposts. On either side, saloons and general stores advertised on sun-cracked boards, and brothels openly exhibited themselves. Decisions, decisions… Sebastian gave a wry smile as Tanaka, half-jokingly and half-serious, covered the children’s eyes.

Jax, terminally impatient, spoke first. “Why the hell haven’t you guys fucked off yet? We’ve arrived, bugger off.”

Sebastian, who’d expected this, smiled in that self-satisfied way he had for when something he’d predicted came true. “Because none of you have any idea what to do yet.”

“Wipe that smug look off your fucking face. You seem to think you’re so fucking smart, but you ain’t nothing but shit beneath my shoe,” Jax raged, his temper breaking in an instant.

Sebastian’s eyes dimmed and brightened. One light died, and another, colder flame took its place. Sebastian had, like everyone else, an array of hates and pet peeves. Being told ‘you think you’re so smart’ was one of them.

“Am I wrong?” Sebastian asked. His voice was infuriatingly calm, but there was an edge to it, like a razor blade hidden in cotton candy.

“You can’t read fucking minds. You don’t know me.”

“Am I wrong?”

Jax hesitated. “Well… I don’t have any exact plans as of yet.”

“I have no plans,” Tanaka admitted happily.

“I’d rather just stick with you,” Pauly added.

Sebastian’s eyes returned to normal. He smiled. Everyone felt themselves relax, without having realised they had been tense.

“You see?” he said.” We’re better together. No one’s leaving because we all know that. As a group we’re safer.” With this point Pauly was won over. “Without a group, it’s boring, we need company, we need friends.”At this point Tanaka was won over. “And we’re stronger together, we can take on more together.”

“And what, you’re the boss? What makes you so special?” Jax asked sullenly, but he was no longer arguing against staying together, just wrangling over who was  in charge.

Sebastian played his trump card, “Can any of you freely navigate?”

There was silence. No questions. Everyone knew what ‘freely navigate’ meant, even the rookie, untravelled Pauly. Jax smouldered angrily, but he knew he’d lost. And he knew he had to swallow his pride and agree. He needed that kind of skill set with him.

Sebastian continued ,”But of course I respect your experience and advice.” The word he didn’t say was ruthlessness, but it was there in the undertones. He needed someone who would make sure he made the decisions he knew were right, not the ones that were comfortable. He also needed Jax to not be too resentful.

Jax nodded, with only trace amounts of anger remaining. “Alright.”

One, two, and three. All of them won over in less than a minute. Sebastian smiled again.

“Right, well then the first thing we  need to do is deal with these kids. Follow me.”

He lead them down the road, past a general store and two brothels, before turning under the shaded veranda of a large saloon. The shade was blissfully cool, but Sebastian took no time to savour it. He strode confidently through the crowds of travellers sheltering from the heat with glasses of weak ale. He walked straight up to the bar, the rest in tow, and rapped sharply on the top. The bartender eyed him sourly. Four young men, heavily armed, one crimson from the knees down with ichor, were the kind of people that caused trouble. This was no exception.

“We’ll give you the kids,” Sebastian said, “hundred dollars each.”

The bartender froze and eyed the nearby customers, but they seemed either distracted or wasted. He leaned in closer. In the lawless lands of the desert, slavery wasn’t illegal, and was in fact common, but plenty of people drew exception to it. Plenty of heavily armed people.

“Those sick puppies?” he whispered.

“Those cheap, low maintenance workers, yes.”

“They’re sick. Dead men walking.”

“They’ll heal. Or they’ll die. Hundred bucks.”

“U.S.?”

The U.S. dollar, like on Earth, was the most respected and well-known paper currency, and as such was the most abundant. This, in a highly ironic twist, made it worth less than the rarer currencies, such as the Cambodian Riel, of which there were maybe a thousand notes in the entire desert.

“Yes.”

The bartender leaned back, tapping his feet. “Fifty.”

“Hundred.”

“Sixty.”

” Hundred.”

“Eight?”

” Hundred.”

“Eighty and a-”

Jax got fed up. “Hundred Motherfucker! Motherfucking one hundred!”

Sebastian put out a restraining hand. The bartender scuttled backwards. The nearby customers started taking notice. Sebastian leaned forward.  “Hundred or we see what my friend will do.”

The bartender looked at Jax, who was breathing heavily. When he was angry, his narrow and pinched features no longer looked like that of a rodent. They looked like that of a demon. The bartender gulped, and nodded. The children were walked around to a backroom. Two hundred dollars exchanged hands. The rest of the group left, but Sebastian stayed behind.

“You see my pants?” he asked.

The bartender nodded. From the knees down Sebastian’s jeans were a crusty crimson.

“That’s the dried crust of a man’s guts and lungs. If you sell these kids off to a prostitution ring for a large profit, and I know you can, I will personally ensure you live twenty days of agony before you die. I’ll be coming back around here, and I’ll check. Do you understand that?”

The bartender nodded.

“Do you believe that?”

The bartender looked into Sebastian’s eyes. They were battleship grey, and glowed with the glint of light off a metal blade. They were the eyes the bartender had always seen when he’d imagined the face and sunken sockets of the grim reaper.

He nodded.

Sebastian emerged to find his group waiting for him under the veranda. Tanaka’s face was wet with tears, and the two others looked mildly embarrassed by this.

“What’s wrong with him?”

Jax shrugged. “Won’t stop blubbing about missing the kids.”

Sebastian was bemused by Tanaka’s tears. They’d met the kids for all of half an hour, during the course of which they’d killed the children’s grandfather. He wasn’t entirely surprised. He’d pegged Tanaka as having a sentimental streak.

“What would you have done?” he asked.

Tanaka’s voice was surprisingly steady despite his tears. “Kept them with us.”

“That’s stupid. We could never have cared for them, they’re safer here.”

“You sold them as slaves. That’s wrong.”

“I gave them a home. I compromised. We could have done worse. Jax would have probably just dumped them on the street.”

Jax nodded in agreement. “I didn’t think of getting money out of them. My mistake.”

Tanaka rounded on Jax, his genial nature slipping away. “Why wouldn’t you shoot them dead on the streets?”

Jax looked at him like he was a moron. “Waste of bullets. Unnecessary hassle. Would create lots of trouble.”

Tanaka threw up his arms in exasperation. “You’re heartless. You’re morally broken.”

“I wasn’t going to kill them though. Who gives a donkey’s ass why I wouldn’t have done so?”

Sebastian smiled, and interjected. “You hit upon a very interesting point there, Jax. In fact, I believe Immanuel Kant was the one who said…”

Jax cut him off. “You’re a fucking Kant.”

The tension in the group dissolved, and everyone laughed, including Tanaka and Jax. Nobody noticed how Sebastian had redirected Jax’s fury to himself and deflated the situation. Sebastian was happy to keep it that way. He lead the group out to the road, and pointed out South.

“It’s six forty five, and there are two towns out that way within a reasonable walking distance.”

Tanaka frowned. “Six forty five? It’s midday.”

“Yeah, I know. I keep to a ten hour day time system.”

Jax, always looking for an argument, put in. “Why the fuck do you do that? Just use a normal watch.”

“Normal watches are useless. Terra Deserta has a twenty six Earth hour day. And I don’t need a watch.”

“How do you know that? How do you keep time without a watch?”

Sebastian shrugged, like it was no big deal. “I counted when I arrived. Twenty six hours. So I decided to do what I’d always wanted to anyway, which was convert time to a decimal system. I counted the time of one day in my head, divided that by ten for hours, an hour section by one hundred for minutes, a minute section into one hundred seconds, and so on.”

Pauly, awed, couldn’t stop himself from staring slack jawed. “Jesus Christ.”

“How accurate are you?” Tanaka asked.

Sebastian gave him a cool, steel blue gaze that gave nothing away. ” To the nearest second.”

The three men exchanged glances which said the same one  thing. ‘Damn.

Sebastian seemingly ignored this, although he secretly felt proud and happy. It was a guilty feeling he’d always tried to bury.

“We’ll just go to the town to our left. It’s three days walking. Get the supplies you need, we won’t share. If you don’t bring enough water, you’ll be left to die. Tanaka.” He turned towards the Japanese man. “Teach me how to draw like you do. If you will” There was a hunger in his eyes.

The fastest man in the east grinned. “You see my hat? It says ‘lightning’. You see my arm? ‘Lightning’. I am Raiden reborn. I was fastest man in Tokyo province. Boss of my high school. You think you can become me?”

“I can try.”

Tanaka’s grin widened. “Good. To try for the divine is the holy purpose of man.” His grin grew wider still, until he looked like the Cheshire cat. “One thousand draws. Good grip, like so.” He demonstrated. “Straight wrist.” He drew slowly, wrist straight, and then pointed. “You see that? Do that. Every day one thousand.”

“Fuck that,” Jax said. He had been wanting to learn too, if only to avoid being completely outclassed by Sebastian, but he backed off at the thought of the workload.

Sebastian just nodded. The hunger still burned in his eyes. Tanaka had seen it in many a man in the desert, usually in those dying of thirst. It was the same thirst here, just as primal, just as insatiable. If this worried Tanaka, he did not let it show. It probably didn’t. Tanaka was cocky. He felt secure enough in his speed and aim to welcome challengers and protégés.

Twenty minutes later (about thirteen of Sebastian’s Terra Deserta minutes), the four were lined up and ready to go. The Sun was probably at its hottest, but they all agreed getting out of town before anyone connected them with the explosion was priority. The path out into the desert was therefore deserted apart from themselves. Everyone else favoured the shade of the verandas or the entertainment and drink of the saloons and other houses of vice. Pauly let out a little snorting laugh. Sebastian turned to him, somewhat indulgently. Conversation and action took effort in the scorching heat.

“What?” he asked.

Pauly looked slightly nervous. “I was thinking about how we’re kinda like the group from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. You know, skipping down the yellow sand road, off to see the wizard, singing.”

Jax remained stone faced. Tanaka snorted. Sebastian smiled. “That’s actually sort of funny. The thought, y’know. Too bizarre.”

Pauly smiled, relieved. In his old social group he’d been afraid to tell jokes, or to show off his sense of humour, for fear of failure and rejection. His true self had always been stifled underneath the facade of muscle and tan and bluff.  “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

This got a laugh. A tired, weak, hot laugh, but that was the best anyone could ask for under the circumstances.

Sebastian took the first step out into the real hinterlands, leaving the relative peace and safety of the Portal City’s sphere of influence. “Follow the yellow sand road, follow the yellow sand road. Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow- sand road!” he sang. His deep and raspy voice sounded awful, cracking, and crushing the notes in his throat. It sounded like an alien language being attempted by a human’s vocal cords. Innocence and singing, it seemed, had no place in Terra Deserta.

Everyone laughed, and followed.

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Desert Steel Chapter 7

-Send off

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It was Sebastian’s sharp eyes and even sharper mind that found the grandpa’s money compartment, hidden under a false panel beneath his seat. The money was stored in a small cedar wood box, carved with fragile flowers. There was a lock on it, made of fine brass. Sebastian cracked it open with his knife. Inside were three rolls of hundred Euro notes, creased and grimy, but still acceptable, along with a wad of old Francs, back from before the Euro reform in 1999. Each roll of Euros was ten notes, or one thousand euros. Sebastian split it into three sets of eight notes and one set of seven, which he took for himself rather than risk a falling out. The Francs were a roll of twenty, so he quickly dealt out five each. The box also contained two photographs. One was a photo of the old man and his grandkids, in formal clothes and smiling outside a, large old country house. The other a photo of the grandpa with two adults, maybe the parents, smiling in a pretty garden. There was also a small porcelain ballerina. Jax tore up the photos, smashed the ballerina against the wall of the digger, then stomped on the box, crushing and splintering the fine wood. Sebastian looked on, unmoved. He’d begun to get a measure of Jax, and knew he was venting his guilt and grief into an elemental rage. Jax breathlessly pounded the box, again and again, his mouth set into a thin determined line. Sebastian turned to Pauly and Tanaka, who both seemed a little disturbed and frightened by Jax’s violent fury.

“Get these kids outside,” he said, “They probably haven’t been outside in days.”

Pauly look up at the ladder and the hatch, which allowed a single beam of daylight to penetrate the dusty interior. He pointed up at the old man’s body, which still blocked the ladder. “But the old man…”

Sebastian shrugged. He was tired, and shaken, and sick, and he couldn’t find it in himself to feel for the corpse of a crazed old Frenchman. He reached up and yanked the body down, hard. The body fell to a horizontal position then stopped suddenly, with a crack like that of a felled tree. The old man’s left leg had become tangled in the rungs, locked up and then snapped when pulled. His shin bone had broken through the wrinkled, leathery skin. There was a plopping sound as residue of his brain and other gore drained from his skull. One eyeball swung pendulously, popped out by the pressure of the gunshot but still attached by tendons and nerve. Sebastian grimaced, but otherwise showed no reaction. Tanaka ignored it, and concentrated on keeping the sullen children’s attention turned away. He drew his gun, floated it up his grip and back down again, wrote his name in a quicksilver blur, holstered, and reversed the action. The children’s large eyes followed faithfully, but they showed no joy. Pauly, for the third time that day, felt like he was going to vomit. This time, however, he needed no reprimanding. He looked away and took deep breaths, but stood firm. Sebastian grabbed the old man’s foot, pulled it straight, and slid it through the rungs. The corpse fell to the floor with a wet thud. Jax stopped stamping on the box, and starting rummaging in the back storage area, which had already been upturned by their search for money. Sebastian went up the ladder first, and told Tanaka to follow with the children. Tanaka lifted the smallest up into Sebastian’s arms, before signalling for the older, bigger child to climb up ahead of him. Pauly followed right after Tanaka. He nearly fell over himself to get out of the cramped dark cabin that was now filling with the stench of death. Jax came last, with a can of petrol.

Once in the daylight the children looked worse than ever. It wasn’t just the grime and the rags. Their feet were raw and blistered, from standing barefoot on sun heated steel. Their skin was pimpled and cracked from time in darkness and in filth. Their eyes were slits, red and sore, unused to bright light. There were sores around their mouths, and Sebastian saw at least one cut he thought was infected.  Despite this, the children blossomed now they were outside, skipping and dancing in the open space offered to them. The sight disturbed Sebastian. It was like watching a zombie jump with joy. Tanaka seemed unbothered. He stood laughing gleefully at the sight, before dashing into the fray to tussle with the long-haired eldest.

Sebastian turned his attention to Jax, who was now emptying the canister of petrol onto the roof of the digger.

“What’re you doing?”

Jax waited patiently for the last few drops to fall before tossing the canister aside. “I’m going to roast that old man like a pig in an oven,” he said, kicking the hatch closed. “And I’m going to send Drake out like a Viking.”

Sebastian was smart enough not to ask who Drake was. He remained silent.

Jax looked at Sebastian and Pauly both. “I need someone to help me get him up.”

Pauly recoiled emotionally, but did well to only shudder outwardly. Sebastian just nodded, and tracked over to Drake’s upper body. He hooked his arms under Drake’s armpits, and heaved him up. Half of Drake’s digestive tract, along with various organs, fell onto the sand. Sebastian’ s legs were drenched in blood and gore. If this bothered him, he gave no sign.

“Do you want the organs too?” he asked.

Jax, extremely disturbed by the scene, mutely shook his head. Sebastian hefted Drake’s body up so Jax could grab his arms and drag the torso the rest of the way up. Sebastian then picked up Drake’s legs, cradling them in his arms. These were passed up without trouble or incident. Jax arranged Drake’s body in the puddle of gasoline, then kneeled in a dry corner of the roof. He took out a lighter, one of the metal ones with an engraving, and violently mashed the button. The flame didn’t take, and he began flicking the button over and over again, more forcefully each time. His breathing was laboured and his rat eyes had narrowed to vicious slits. Sebastian hammered on the steel side, making Jax jump. His head whipped to face Sebastian, the tendons straining in his neck.

“Breath, dude. Deeply. Push the button once, calmly. Light the fire.”

Jax forced in one ragged, heaving breath. He struck the button once, neither fast nor slow. The spark jumped and a bead of orange danced. Reverently, Jax lowered this small pearl of energy onto the dark stain of the petrol. With a great WHOOMPF the flame caught. A wall of heat and light exploded from the roof, engulfing Drake’s cadaver. Jax leapt down quickly, and rolled in the sand, unsure whether he’d caught fire as well. Finally convinced he was fine, he accepted Sebastian’s hand and was helped up.

Everyone had stopped what they were doing and now watched the growing inferno. The smell of roasting flesh made everyone’s mouths water, although none of them would dare admit it. Pauly’s ‘times I felt sick’ count rose to four. Sebastian and Jax stood side by side watching.

“Hell of a send off,” Sebastian said.

“Yeah.”

They stood in sombre silence for a while. Sebastian’s mind kept turning over something Jax had said earlier the way a tongue keeps working at a popcorn kernel trapped between teeth. He turned to Jax.

“Did you put petrol inside the cabin too?”

Jax laughed sadistically. “Yeah. Up to his fucking eyes.”

Sebastian nodded, satisfied, as though Jax was confirming something he’d always known. “Yeah, okay, we’re getting out of here. Yeah, RUN!” he said, shouting the last command.

He turned and sprinted off to the far end of the quarry, where a shallower slope, probably for the access of the digger, had been dug. The rest of the group followed close behind, Tanaka and Pauly carrying a child each. He lead them to the top, over a dune, then another, and another. Pauly, though strong in the chest and arms, had no cardio or leg strength. He collapsed heaving on the fourth dune. Sebastian stopped and dropped down, hugging the side of the dune. The rest of the group followed suit, but not quite so drastically. Jax and Tanaka merely crouched.

“What is it?” Tanaka asked. Sebastian held a hand to his lips then raised it to signal he was waiting for something. They waited, panting. Nothing happened.

“No seriously, what?” Tanaka asked. Sebastian stuck his fingers in his ears and nodded at the others to do the same. Tanaka did, and made sure the children did too. Jax merely crossed his arms, and Pauly was too busy heaving for breath.

“For fuck’s sake, what-”

bakoom

The world split and shattered with a thundering boom. A shockwave rushed over the dunes that kicked up sand and slammed into Jax’s chest. He keeled over, shocked. Everyone else felt it too. The thump and the pressure coursing through them. The disorientation as it hammered their skulls. For everyone with their fingers in their ears, it was loud, for Jax and Pauly, it was ear splitting. The sand resettled. The world returned. They could hear their breathing again. Sebastian sat up, smiling in a self-satisfied way.

“That,” he said, “is it.”

The petrol inside the cabin and the engine had vaporised in the heat of the flame. The gas had expanded, the pressure built up inside the enclosed space. Then it had ignited.

The explosion had released a spire of flame bursting up into the sky that blossomed into a rose of orange fire. The glow could be seen from the horizon, and in Sixty Clicks it was clearly visible. To the group only four dunes clear, it was a colossus of hellfire and heat. They stood watching as it rolled in on itself and shed its orange silky skin to reveal a tempest of black smoke. It boiled ferociously in the sky before being whisked away in the wind. A shard of metal, perhaps the hatch itself, escaped from the hole and spun away to the North.

Sebastian turned to Jax again, smiling a toothy grin that reflected the sunlight. “I take it back. THAT was one hell of a send off.”

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Desert Steel Chapter 6

-Assault

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The digger was positioned on the eastern side of a hole in the sand. The hole’s sides were sloped, but not harshly, due to the tendency of sand to flow in and fill up a hole. Despite this, the digger had cleared itself a reasonably  flat expanse at the bottom in which to manoeuvre, and had successfully dug down about fifty metres. Sebastian assumed the digger would hit bedrock at some point, but so far it had turned up sand and little else.

The first problem Sebastian saw with attacking the digger was getting close enough. It was heavily armoured, and therefore also probably armed in some respect. The digger sat in an open area, a man-made quarry, with few hiding spots. Therefore any approach would probably devolve into a shooting gallery. However, Sebastian had noticed that the digger had low visibility. The narrow viewing slit had logically greatly diminished the operator’s field of view. This was confirmed, in Sebastian’s mind, by the death of the black man. He didn’t believe the killing had been intentional. With the narrow slit obscuring his vision, the operator had probably only seen the man when it was too late. The shutting down of the engine Sebastian interpreted as the operator reacting instinctively to the sudden and unexpected gore. The operator would then probably spend a while recovering from the shock, maybe in denial for a bit about what had just happened. Another minute or so arguing with himself, and the other people inside- for Sebastian strongly suspected there were other occupants; the cabin was over-sized.  Eventually though, the operator’s dilemma would boil down to one of  two decisions: to hunker down and stay inside, maybe even continue digging, or to climb out and investigate. Sebastian was almost certain the operator would choose the latter. It was human nature to wish to confirm, and in some way face up to, one’s mistakes. Hopefully, this would occur after Sebastian and his group had found their positions. He wasn’t certain though, couldn’t be. There was a chance of things going bad, a chance of oblivion. Sebastian felt the warmth in his lower torso, the tightness in his chest, the thrilling anticipation. The lust was back. He breathed oddly; heavy, cloudy breaths. Controlling himself with the iron core that lay in his character, he instructed Tanaka and Jax to move quickly down to the digger’s northern flank, whilst he and Pauly would move in to the South, skirting the eastern subsidence where the black man lay dead.

Tanaka and Jax moved quickly, skirting the edge of the slope until they were clear of the digger’s front, then sliding down the edge at high speed. Although Tanaka lost control half way down, bouncing and rolling the rest of the way, he emerged unharmed at the bottom, the sand proving a soft landing. They lay flat, their cloaks allowing them to blend in with the sand. Sebastian could barely make them out; Pauly, inexperienced and with no hat to keep out the glare, couldn’t see them at all. Sebastian checked that no-one had emerged from the digger, then leapt over the edge and began a controlled slide down.

Pauly, now alone on the dune above, found himself trapped in his own dilemma. He was safely removed from the scary, skilled men who disappeared like phantoms of the sand, and drew guns like a lightning strike. He could leave now, escape. But escape where? Back to Sixty Clicks, where he had no money, and where the three men would soon return? Back to Portal City, where a roving gang waited to roast any arrogant American with tight jeans and a tan? Onwards to the outer towns, where even more of these men waited? He knew his best chance was to stay with this gang. He’d gotten on a ride, and now it was too dangerous to get off.

This decision liberated him. Fear loosened its hold around him. He’d found his place. Now he just needed to fit in. The showdown had showed Pauly he needed to be tougher, needed to be better. He stood at the top of the slope, watching Sebastian descend with speed but control. He would start with this slope. He leapt over the edge without hesitation, and slid down even faster than Sebastian had, albeit with less fine control, and managed to stop without incident. He smiled with pride the whole way down. Sebastian, who sympathised with the terrified New Yorker, gave him an encouraging smile, then lay down under his cloak. In an instant, Pauly went from successful team member to a fish out of water. He was without a cloak, upright, and dark skinned. He stood out on the light sand like a sore thumb. Pauly froze.

Sebastian looked up at him and laughed good-naturedly. “We’re going to have to get you a cloak, mate,” he said, showing no sign of disapproval or disappointment. He couldn’t afford to. He needed all his partners functioning, which is why he’d kept Pauly close to him.

“What should I do?” Pauly asked desperately, staring at the digger wild-eyed.

“Lie down, and relax,” Sebastian said, “Nothing else you can do.”

Pauly did just that, although he was shivering with nerves and his breathing was a moment’s notice from becoming hyperventilation. Sebastian said nothing more. He needed to turn his attention to the digger, and Pauly’s condition would have to do.

For twenty three seconds, by Sebastian’s count, nothing moved. Silence reigned, bar the howl of the wind off the top of the hole. On the twenty fourth second, there was the grating screech of metal on metal. Pauly started. The other three moved their guns into a better shooting position, but slowly so as to avoid detection. A hatch swung open on the top of the cabin, pushed up by a gnarled hand, then gravity pulling it down so it slammed. An old man, with a cloud of greying hair, and a long white beard, pulled himself out to his waist. He stopped, blinking in the sunlight. In a reedy voice, he called out, the concern clear in his voice.

“Excusez-moi, êtes…”

He never finished his sentence, although Sebastian was pretty sure he was asking if the black man was alright in French. Denial could be strong. Before he  could continue, a gun, Jax’s, reported and shaved off the top half of the man’s head, just above the eyes. Sebastian agreed with this action, fundamentally. The man could have spotted them, especially Pauly, at any time. The remaining occupants could close the hatch if they assaulted once the man left the digger. This way, the man’s body blocked any remaining occupants from closing the hatch. So it was the right decision to make. Sebastian couldn’t fault it.

But the man had been worried about ending another man’s life. He’d come up trying to help. And the high calibre had taken the top of his head off like one would the top of a soft-boiled egg, with the yolk spilling out thick and gooey. The decision had been the right one, but Sebastian hated it, and only the logic of it stopped him from putting it down as another black mark against Jax.

Sebastian was the first man to move, and also the fastest on foot, his long stride chewing up the distance. In a feat of considerable athleticism, fully utilising his height, he leapt up the side of the digger and hauled himself onto the roof. The steel plating reverberated under his weight. To whoever was left inside it must have sounded terrifying. Sebastian didn’t like taking risks, and believed survival was best found in smart decisions, but the dangerlust was upon him and he couldn’t afford to show cowardice here, so he dropped through the hatch, the old man’s corpse leaving enough space to slip through, not waiting for anyone else to catch up. He landed in a low crouch, screaming at everyone to hit the ground in a deep, bestial tone, hoping to send off-balance any resistance that may await him. His eyes hadn’t adjusted for the dark, and he felt extremely vulnerable as a cacophony of screams, his own voice, and more footsteps above echoed in the room. He was relieved when another person dropped down behind him with a thump, sending up clouds of dust that tickled his nose. When after half a minute he still hadn’t been shot or otherwise attacked, he began to relax, and his breathing steadied. The afterglow of his danger high was wearing off, and he felt unreasonably tired. Two more people joined behind him, pushing him further towards the operator’s seat. The cabin was getting hot and cramped. His eyes adjusted just enough to make out silhouettes, or lack thereof. It wasn’t until he spotted movement in the corner of his eye that he finally sighted the occupants, a blob of shadow huddled in the corner. He pointed his gun towards it.

“Out. Ici.” he commanded. His knowledge of French was basic.

The shadow broke in two and scurried forward, and it was with horror that Sebastian saw that the occupants were two scruffy children. They were pretty children, blonde and pale beneath the  dirt and grease. Their wide eyes were a deep ocean blue. They wore rags, and stood barefoot. The older one, maybe six years old and with waist length straight hair, stared at them defiantly, while the younger one, maybe four and with a bowl cut, looked away shyly.

“Fuck!” Tanaka exclaimed, shocked, although Sebastian sensed a little innocent glee in using the foreign English swear word. “They’re children!”

” Fuck!” Sebastian agreed, pissed at himself and the world.

“Oh man. Oh man, oh man. Ohmanohmanohmanohmanohmanohmanohmanohmanohman…” Pauly moaned. He’d gone pale. Jax rounded on him.

“You gonna vomit again, big guy? Or you gonna cry? Huh? Because I don’t want your vomit, and I don’t want your verbal diarrhoea, and I don’t want a pussy in my team.”

Pauly stopped talking and gaped blindly at Jax. Then, with a glint of steel in his eyes, he shut his mouth, and felt the colour start to flow back into his face. Sebastian, again, hadn’t liked the aggressive, callous tone Jax had adopted, but it had worked a treat, and again he couldn’t fault it. He and Tanaka had also both calmed down now, shamed second-hand by Jax’s words. Sebastian realised that for Jax, the responsibility sat even more squarely on Jax’s shoulders than anyone else’s, and yet the others, himself included, had been the ones freaking out.

He turned to the kids and tried to summon any of the French he could  remember.

“Parlez-vous anglais?”

Both kids shook their heads. The oldest said “Non.”

“Qui… Qui Qui était cet homme?”

“Grand-père,” the oldest answered. The younger one began to weep. The older one shushed him.

The group stood in silence for a moment, fidgeting awkwardly.

“What that mean?” Tanaka asked.

“He was their grandfather.”

There was a sombre silence. Jax broke it.

“Fuck it, I don’t give a fuck. Why the fuck was he digging here?”

Sebastian turned back to the kids. “Uhhhhh… Pourquoi creuser?”

“Or.”

Jax made to grab the oldest kid. “Fucking ore? He took you little shits out here to dig for ore?”

Sebastian restrained him. “Or means gold.” He paused, taking in the interior of the cabin now his eyes had fully adjusted. “Look, dude. The guy was crazy sure he’d find gold.”

Jax looked around and saw Sebastian was right. There was a topographical map spread over the floor, torn beneath Sebastian’s boots, with a big circle drawn around it with OR written in a bold hand. He bent down to inspect further and saw that it was the topographical map of South-Eastern Mongolia. He scanned the walls, and saw newspaper clippings pasted to one of the walls, detailing in French the discovery of a desert land. On another, a blueprint had been drawn up, crudely, of an armoured digger. The third wall was a collage of children’s crayon drawings. A Santa Claus lookalike, which must have been the grandfather, and two golden haired children were the common theme. At the top left they were on fields of green, in a big mansion. Then they were in a field of yellow, a desert, and then a mountain of gold orbs. Throughout it all they were smiling big red grins. To Jax it looked like their throats were slit. Finally, the drawings changed, became cramped and dark. The kids were inside the digger, and they weren’t smiling anymore.

It reminded Jax of the children’s books he had read as a kid. An eccentric, fun, rich grandpa, maybe a scientist with things that went gloop in his amateur laboratory. The grandpa invented some ridiculous vehicle, like a bubble bus or a flying saucer, and he discovered some new place, and so whisked the kids away for a fun adventure, then they came back for dinner with mummy and daddy. The End. But in the real world, the grandpa was insane, thinking there was gold in the desert because of reading a map of Mongolia, who created a cramped, dark, loud digger that must have gone upwards of fifty degrees in the desert sun. The tales he’d spun of gold and riches had been great, but the reality had been hell. The grandpa had probably never let them leave, thinking he was keeping them safe.

Jax turned his eye to the fourth wall and saw through the slit his dead partner, who’d been known as Drake, his guts spilled on the ground. The grandpa was dead and gone up in the hatch so Jax dealt a furious backhand across the face of the eldest kid instead. Sebastian seized his hand as Tanaka squawked cries of protest. The kid fell over wordlessly. Jax and Sebastian, struggling against one another, came face to face, and Jax saw then in Sebastian’s eyes that Sebastian didn’t trust him, still hadn’t forgotten his betrayal. He shook his hand loose.

“This digger must have cost money. There should be some lying around here somewhere,” he said, turning his back on the rest.

He too was desert steel. His voice didn’t waver.

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