Desert Steel Chapter 18

-Practice

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It was no sooner than when they had crested the first dune from town, that Sebastian started to talk.

“So, Jax. Are you going to explain why you freaked out at the party. I think you owe us all an explanation.”

“I thought you said you could care less about my past.”

Sebastian smirked. “Yes, you’re right, I could care less. I’m asking what happened at the party, is all.”

“What’s there to explain? They were bullying Amy and I snapped.”

“Oh, aren’t you just the perfect gentleman?”

“Fuck off!”

“Where’s your fedora?'” Sebastian asked.

“Nice memes you fucking faggot. Bet your mum’s real proud of you.”

“Thanks, dude. My entire adolescence was spent on anonymous chat boards, I hope it shows.”

“That’s fucking sad.”

“I had fun with it.”

“Yeah…”

For a moment, it looked like Jax was lost in another time and place.

“Mister Gentleman.” Sebastian teased.

Jax scowled, cussed him out, and the moment was gone. Sebastian smiled and bounced along the spine of a dune. His left hand drew his gun over and over again. The wind come in from the North strong and hard.

As the sun and heat peaked they sheltered in the paltry shade of a large dune. Sebastian took a few sips of his water. It had an earthy tang. Pauly started ripping into a air-dried strip of beef. Even as he rested, Sebastian drew his gun over and over. Having finished devouring his meal, Pauly became discomfited by the silence.

“So what anime did you guys watch?” he asked.

Jax glared at him. Sebastian, deep in thought, was delayed in responding. He managed to puncture the awkward silence just as it was forming.

“Jax has already said he watched ‘Moe Moe Bubble Girls’, which is about cute fairy girls. I don’t watch anime, although I did read manga. Tanaka said he doesn’t watch anime.”

“I did watch Doraemon as a kid.” Tanaka interjected.

There was another pause that threatened to stretch into silence until Sebastian realised he needed to ask a question back.

“Did you watch anime?”

“No,” Pauly said. “I went out and partied on my weekends. Anime was for…” He trailed off, and then changed tack. “I did watch Dragonball Z back when it was cool, though. What’s manga?”

“It’s the written comic book form.”

“What’d you read?” Sebastian was silent. Pauly got worried. “Hey man, if you don’t wanna talk about it.”

“No, it’s fine, I’m just trying to remember them all. There were at least two hundred series. The big three, obviously. Beelzebub, too. The popular seinens, like Berserk, Vagabond, Vinland Saga. Kokou No Hito is really good. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure was fun. I really love the art in Otoyomegatari. Baby Steps is a really good sports manga…” Sebastian stopped, seeing that everyone’s eyes had glazed over. “Lots, basically.”

“Yeah…” Pauly agreed.

“Christ!” Jax exclaimed to no-one and everyone. “How’d I get stuck with such a pathetic nerd?!”

“Says the neo-nazi who watched cute girls have a sparkly bubble fight with an evil witch.” Sebastian said. “I think you’re forgetting yourself here.”

“So are you!” Jax snapped back. He stopped, unsure what he meant, then forged ahead anyway. “You’re some no-life loser who wasted his life inside reading manga and surfing anonymous image boards. Not some badass leader you seem to be trying to be.”

“Can’t I be both, Mr. Gentleman?”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Why not? It’s just a joke nickname. Isn’t that what friends do?”

“Fuck off!”

Sebastian shrugged and lay back into the sand. Jax was breathing heavily. Pauly felt awkward. Everything he said seemed to have put Sebastian and Jax at each other’s throats. He took a sip from his water to ignore the atmosphere.

There was a click as a revolver was cocked. Pauly spun around. Tanaka had drawn his revolver.

“Make nice,” he said.

Sebastian glanced up and smiled. “Be serious.”

“I am,” Tanaka said. His face backed it up. “Make nice.”

Sebastian smirked at Jax. “Sorry I hurt your poor feelings.”

“Properly!” Tanaka commanded.

Sebastian sighed. His face lost its smile. Any emotion slewed off like snow from a roof. “I’m sorry Jax. I am socially undeveloped and the only way I know to connect with people and see their emotions is to tease them.”

Nobody could tell if he was still joking or not, but Tanaka let it pass.

Jax scowled. He looked at Tanaka, to double check the revolver was still drawn. It was. “Sorry I insulted you.” He turned his head to Tanaka. “There, you happy, you fucking slant?” he said.

“Uhh, I think that defeats the purpose of an apology.” Pauly said nervously.

“Hug.” Tanaka said, still deadly serious. When he was like that his delinquent past shone out. He was intimidating and majestically arrogant. The light cast his open face into sharp edges.

Sebastian and Jax did a double take with one another. Hesitantly and awkwardly, under the barrel of a gun, they embraced. The instant they began to break apart, Tanaka bowled them over in a massive bear hug.

All three of the tumbled down the dune. Sebastian laughed despite himself. It was like having a big, lovable dog.

At the bottom of the dune, Tanaka got up off the pile.

“No more fighting,” he announced.

“Oh, man, that was so fucking gay,” Jax said, getting to his feet as fast as possible.

Sebastian laughed. “Come on. What’s the harm in a little skinship?”

“Speak for yourself, faggot.”

“All better now?” Tanaka asked, all smiles again.

“Sure,” Sebastian said. “It was good catharsis.” Seeing Tanaka’s incomprehension, he added. “That means it was relieving.”

“Okay. That is good,” Tanaka said, deadly serious. Sebastian couldn’t help but laughing again.

“You, Tanaka, are one of a kind.”

“I know.”

That evening, Tanaka got up and faced Sebastian. The sun was dipping into the horizon and the stars surging up the other side.

“Show me your gun draw.”

Sebastian nodded and got up. “Good thing it was my other hand that broke,” he observed, raising the taped up hand.

He stood tall, his full height towering over Tanaka. He pushed back his cloak and hooked it on a metal spur on the back of his belt. This spur kept the cloak clear of the holster and the hand. Hooking one’s cloak on this spur was a belligerent declaration in Terra Deserta, just as raising one’s head was an amicable one. At a controlled speed, Sebastian drew as he had thousands of times before. Tanaka smiled. The form was perfect. Sebastian was a good student that could mimic things down to the last millimetre and then drill the action for hours without losing interest.

“Faster now. As fast as you can.”

Sebastian re-holstered, breathed, and drew. His hand blurred. Not as fast as Tanaka, but he came up with a gun held correctly, and it hadn’t snagged on anything.

“Okay,” Tanaka said. “Next step. Reaction times.” He pointed to a spot ten metres away from him. “You stand there. We’ll duel.”

Sebastian took up the position in the same stance. Tanaka shuffled his feet around. He swept his cloak aside. Then he straightened, tensed, and raised his face so it was out of shadow. His eyes unfocussed. An arrogant leer suffused his face. Suddenly, Sebastian wasn’t towering over Tanaka. Instead, all five feet eight inches of Tanaka seemed to be towering over Sebastian.

“You cannot draw until I draw. Understand? We won’t fire, obviously.”

Sebastian nodded.

Tanaka drew. His lightning tattoo left a yellow blur in the air as it moved. The sound of air whistling as his arm forced it out of the way was audible. It was like the noise when someone swings a tennis racket as fast as they can.

Sebastian blinked before his brain clicked. He drew as fast as he had before. By the time he had the gun out and aimed Tanaka was holstering his gun.

“Again,” he said.

Sebastian nodded, holstered his gun, and took a deep breath. Tanaka drew again and exactly the same thing happened. Again and again Tanaka holstered and drew. Again and again Sebastian wasn’t fast enough to react.

And again and again and again.

Sebastian knew why, scientifically, this was happening. Firstly, Tanaka was inhumanly fast. Secondly, it was a matter of distance. The nerve impulses sent by Sebastian’s brain had to travel his long arms. Knowing either of these things wouldn’t make Sebastian faster, so he put his mind to a different work. Each time Tanaka drew, Sebastian observed every flicker and twitch. Every tensed muscle, every glance. For the next three tries he was even slower due to the distraction. On the fourth try, he’d memorised every action. He timed his own reaction speed, then worked backwards through Tanaka’s mannerisms until he knew which action to react to.

On the fifth try, he drew at exactly the same time as Tanaka. Tanaka still got the gun out first in the end because he was faster, but the reaction time delay was zero seconds. Tanaka grinned. They did it again, and again. Both times, the reaction time was zero. Tanaka’s smile faded.

“You’re not reacting to my gun draw, are you?”

“No,” Sebastian admitted. “I can read your body language.”

“That’s not the proper path. How will you know a stranger’s body language?”

“How will I gain your reaction time? Just reacting over and over again won’t magically make the nerve signals faster.”

“You’ll never be as good as me like this.”

“I never will, regardless. I have to compromise. This is my way of doing things. And different isn’t always worse.” Sebastian could see Tanaka was still disapproving, so he gambled. “Watch this. Duel me again.” It was a gamble Sebastian knew in his gut would pay off. When he gambled on his mind’s ability, he always knew when he was going to win.

They reassumed their positions. Sebastian scoured Tanaka’s stance. He closed his eyes. He had the image, now he had to extrapolate. He’d learnt the lead up to Tanaka drawing to one and a half seconds back. Tanaka had been one second away when he’d closed his eyes. In his mind’s eye he could see Tanaka going through the one second of body language before drawing. He didn’t need to see this, though. He just had to count down one second, and draw about a quarter of a second before zero. He did so, opening his eyes.

He’d matched Tanaka perfectly. Reaction time: zero seconds.

Everyone gaped in awe.

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