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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