Into the last hours of their journey, Sebastian found a dune that lay in the right direction and stretched on for kilometres. He lead them along the spine of the dune, but kept about two metres from the very top. This was so to remove their silhouettes from the horizon. The heavy wind from the North sent sheets of sand over the crest. It was like being in the tube of a wave. His navigation turned out to be spot on. The dune tapered and terminated right into the central strip of the town.
The town was called Dune’s End for this reason. It was a trading town, existing only for supply restocks on trips to further towns. It’s location by the dune aided navigation. This made it ideal for its purpose as a throughway and point of orientation. Reflecting its lowly status, there was really nothing there. A strip of stores all offering different supplies. No competition. No signs of residential housing. The population was the travellers, and the caterers.
What a throughway like this did have in its favour was an abundant message board. All news and information flowed through this town, and all towns like it. Sebastian went straight for the board. Unlike the last time, he found this one within a minute, nailed up against the side of the town’s General Store. As expected, it was laden with papers and graffiti.
“What do we want?” Sebastian asked.
“A mansion filled with clean water and ice cream.” Pauly replied.
Sebastian chuckled. “No, more specifically. What work do we want to take on?”
“That one!” Jax and Tanaka said at exactly the same time, pointing.
Sebastian kept his face turned away from the board. He’d already read it through. “Is it the bounty poster for ‘Ansar Aslakhanov’?”
“Yes. By far the most cash,” Jax said.
“Yes. Catching criminals is the most heroic job,” Tanaka said.
Sebastian’s smile got smug. “Sounds like we’re all agreed, then.”
“Uhh… Not exactly,” Pauly said.
All three faces, sun and sand scorched, swung towards him. He withered under their gaze, but he kept talking. “The highest bounty means the highest risk, right? Why don’t we go low? Just enough to cover our needs.”
“High risk, high reward. Only pussies don’t have the balls for them. Are you a pussy?” Jax asked.
Tanaka was visibly disgusted. “That is not what a hero would say,” he admonished.
Sebastian just smiled. “It’s three against one, I’m afraid.”
Jax reached up and plucked the poster from the board. It was printed on white paper in black and white. It had the title: ‘WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE’. There was the photo of a man smiling like he knew a joke no one else did, a reward and the name: ‘Ansar Aslakhanov’. The reward was ‘Four Hundred Litres of Water or Cash Equivalent’. The currencies in Terra Deserta were measured against the ‘Water Standard’. This was how much water that money could buy. In the bigger towns, and Portal City’s sphere, efforts were being made to standardise this amount. Out in the outer settlements this wasn’t the case, but four hundred litres was still a high amount. Down at the bottom it said: ‘Reward given upon delivery to Mikhail or his affiliates at Mikhailsburg.’
“Why’d you do that?” Tanaka asked.
“So no one else can see the poster and take our prize,” Jax replied.
“The safety of the public is the greater good than our reward. We should want as many people as possible to see the poster.”
“Not this shit again.”
Jax’s words matched Sebastian’s thoughts. He stepped in before an argument overflowed.
“What does Ansar look like, Tanaka?” he asked.
Tanaka faltered. “Average face, crooked nose?”
Sebastian took the poster of Jax and showed it to Tanaka. “This the face you had in your head? Would you have recognised him in the street?”
“So we need the poster,” Sebastian said. Tanaka nodded, mollified. They didn’t need the poster, in truth. Sebastian’s memory was excellent. He had Ansar’s face burned into his memory. His real reason was the same as Jax’s. Sebastian was morally flexible, and giving himself an edge was well within his limits. He rolled up the poster and slid it into the bags attached to the back of his trouser belt.
“Let’s go get some water first.”
They walked up the street towards the water store they’d seen. Water stores, as the name suggested, sold water in towns where there was no oasis, or where oasis access was monopolised. They sold it from large barrels, pouring out a prepaid amount into any container of the customer’s choice. The monopolies they held in smaller towns lead to brutal prices. The term ‘water store prices’ was common place to describe anything exorbitantly expensive.
They walked up the street, four abreast, with plenty of space between each other’s shoulders. In this smaller town, this practically blocked the road heading North. Sand blew around their feet and down the road. About halfway there, maybe twenty five metres from the store, a man stepped out.
He was average height, maybe five foot ten inches. He wore an elaborately embroidered shirt that Sebastian could best describe as a waistcoat. Its colours were fantastic and flamboyant. This contrasted with the rest of his clothing. He wore trousers of dull muddy tone, and boots of the same. He had a cloak of heavy cloth in mustard yellow. His hat was a leather bushwhacker hat, with gun shells sown with leather straps into the side of the crown.
His face was grizzled. His nose had been broken and fixed crooked. A few scars shone white against olive skin. He hadn’t shaved in a while, and a chin strap and moustache was emerging. There was no doubt about it. It was Ansar Aslakhanov. Sebastian thought he saw both signs of Slavic and Turkic ethnicity in the face, although he’d be willing to admit the name had biased him.
Before Sebastian could react to this new information, three people beyond Ansar burst out of hiding, guns raised.
“Freeze!” one screamed. They were positioned so their fire would triangulate on Ansar from three directions, but weren’t so far apart that they might hit each other. It was a clean ambush.
Ansar raised his hands. He showed no surprise or fear. He was unhurried, almost lazy in his movement. “You won’t shoot me,” he said. He didn’t have the stereotypical heavy Russian accent Sebastian had been subconsciously expecting. Instead it was a pleasant, smooth and musical voice.
“Fuck yes we will,” the same person screamed. Whoever he was, he was hyped up on adrenaline, but controlled. That suggested experience.
“One of you misses, you hit the innocent bystanders beyond me. One of you hit, and the bounty is voided. You need me alive.”
The speaker cursed. The guns stayed up, but the intent was dying. Ansar was serene. He turned so he fully faced Sebastian. He started to walk away. None of the three shot him. Sebastian drew his gun. To his right, Tanaka reacted and drew his even faster, beating him to the punch.
“About that…” Sebastian said, the smugness lacing his voice. “Our bounty said nothing about taking you alive.” Ansar’s controlled face flickered, although it wasn’t fear that lay underneath. It was something else Sebastian couldn’t pin down. “I’ve never been called an innocent bystander before” He added.
Ansar backed up a few paces as Jax and Pauly also drew up their weapons. He was now standing at the centre point between the two groups.
“You shoot him, and we’ll shoot you!” The spokesperson for the other group shouted.
“You shoot him, and we’ll shoot you!” Sebastian shouted back. There was a silence, only interrupted by the footsteps of those not involved scurrying away. Soon, the street was clear of people.
“It seems we have a stalemate,” another voice from the ambushers said. This voice was calmer, friendlier, more reasonable. More so than it had any right to be, Sebastian thought.
“Well, let’s be reasonable here. We can’t stand out here forever, now can we?”
The man’s matter-of-fact, patronising voice rubbed Sebastian the wrong way. He didn’t let it show. He just smiled, his eyes cold. “Actually, I think we can. I’m not budging until you’ve dropped your weapons and given us Ansar.”
“Now that I cannot do.”
“Then we wait.”
“Now hold on there…”
“I am. You hold on there until you give up. I’ll be waiting.”
“This is ridiculous. We cannot stand here forever. We need food, water, sleep. Your bluff is hollow.”
“I stand by what I said, and so I stand.”
“Come now. Men, talk some sense into your leader. You, with the tattoos. Surely you can see that we need to negotiate.”
Tanaka grinned. “Maybe, but I’m a moron delinquent, what do I know? I trust my leader, no negotiation.”
The man sighed loud enough for them to hear, and fell silent. The wind howled straight down the road. For twenty full minutes they stood in stalemate, Ansar in the middle. Sebastian raised his head and felt the air. Things seemed ripe. It should come soon. With his free hand, clumsy with tape, he rummaged in one of his belt bags for his goggles.
The man finally lost his patience and spoke up again. “How long do you expect to maintain this charade?” He asked kindly, like he was speaking to someone mentally ill. Maybe he thought he was.
Sebastian head throbbed. It sometimes did ever since his concussion in the fight with Hadrian, but only for a short moment. He waited for the pain to clear before replying, which suited him fine because he wanted to leave the guy hanging anyway.
“Just until.” The wind howled. Sebastian made sure he memorised the street layout and Ansar’s positioning. From then on it was a gamble. Heads or tails, left or right. A fifty: fifty chance, except Ansar had all kinds of biases, all the way down to whether he was left or right handed. And although the expectation would be left or right, the problem was two dimensional. There was a full three hundred and sixty degrees of options. There was even the unlikely but possible action of trying to run through one of the groups. Three dimensional, even, once one considered the slim chance of him climbing a building. But all these other options were improbable. The amount of calculations would paralyse Sebastian, so he kept it simple. Left or right. Fifty: fifty. Not great odds, not bad odds. He flipped a coin in his head, and prepared.
“This is unnecessary,” the man was saying. “We can work this out.”
Sebastian ignored him. His ears told him what he had been waiting for was about to arrive. He smiled smugly, and visualised his path.
Whatever the man was going to say next was drowned out by the howl of the wind and the buzz of the sand. The entire town was engulfed in a cloud of angry orange. Sand ripped through the air in dense clouds, slashing everything. Visibility dropped to a metre.
The sandstorm had come to Dune’s End.