Desert Steel

Desert Steel Chapter 6

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-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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