Desert Steel Chapter 20


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Sebastian didn’t waste time being smug. He could do that on while on the move. He’d guessed Ansar would be moving to his right. It was an instinctive, gut feeling, but it was as good as any. He hustled a diagonal path that aimed to intercept Ansar, based off his calculations of Ansar’s speed. As he ran, he ripped the goggles out of his bag with his right hand. Awkward with the taped hand, he struggled to pull them over. His eyes were squinted near shut, the sand lacerating his face. It was like swimming through razor blades. He succeeded in getting them on just as he reached what he’d hoped to be the interception point.

His eyes opened, and he was stunned by how little he’d been seeing before. The world opened up into a blur of angry sand. He felt cocooned and isolated. No noise beyond the roar of the wind could be heard. Near shapes were shadows in an orange mist. Anything else was concealed. Sebastian altered his path to follow what he’d guessed would be Ansar’s path, in case he’d been faster than expected. When no shadows emerged from the sand, he jagged a hard left, to test out a possible path away and to the right.

He came up to a disorientated figure, but it wasn’t Ansar. Maybe one of the other bounty hunters, running lost. He moved back, navigating on his mind’s eye map alone, until he was at the exact spot Ansar had been standing. The sand was scouring his mouth and noise as he panted. He reached back into his bag again, and found his bandana. He tied it over his mouth and nose two handed as he sprinted. The scouring sensation stopped, although his breaths were now humid and moist on the cloth. The sand was still scratching exposed skin, but he could almost call himself comfortable. He followed the left path this time, his long legged gait chewing up the distance. Shadows rushed into view. A sack, full. Then a pole, for a veranda. Then the building to which the veranda was attached. Sebastian went right through the door. Something he was noticing on Terra Deserta was all the doors were thin and cheap. A sneeze could take them off their hinges. He stumbled into a gun shop. The owner was standing off to one side, cradling a shotgun, ready to step in only if his shop was badly affected. He didn’t seem willing to fight over the door. The sandstorm blew in with Sebastian, coiling past his legs like a smoke machine effect on a stage. Ansar was strolling along towards the back door, unhurried. He must have thought nobody was going to find him in the storm.

“Freeze!” Sebastian shouted. His voice was muffled under the cloth. He had to really bellow to be heard over the wind. Ansar glanced over his shoulder, observed him with a detached air, and kept walking.

Sebastian levelled his gun on Ansar’s head. Cocked it, making an audible click. Ansar kept walking, steady, unbothered paces. Sebastian went to pull the trigger, and froze. His view of Ansar’s back was from the same angle as the man he’d killed back before he’d arrived in Sixty Clicks. He was back there again, caught in a loop. Same decision. Kill a man. His finger wavered over the trigger. His brain overrode it, forcing it around the trigger. The gun had almost no pull force. A breeze could fire it. But he couldn’t pull the trigger. It was like trying to push a mountain. His whole forearm was shaking from the effort. Tendons under tension stretched from his wrist to elbow. Veins popped to the surface. Twice Sebastian tried muster all of his energy into one pull, with visible effort showing on his face. His teeth were gritted. A light kindled in his cold, barren eyes, not fear but it’s primordial ancestor.

Sebastian’s fast mind had many benefits, but in terms of survival none stood out more so than his adaptability. Two tries were enough. He didn’t cling to some false hope of overcoming his body’s resistance. The flame in his eyes was stamped out. He holstered his gun, de-cocking it. He took the distance that had taken Ansar ten steps in three. He grabbed Ansar by the shoulder, and stamped down on his calf. Ansar was forced to his knees, but didn’t cry out. He jabbed back with an elbow, narrowly missing Sebastian’s groin and hitting his hip instead. Sebastian’s hold loosened, and Ansar gripped a display with his free hand, using it to pull himself away. He got to his feet, and head for the back door. Sebastian kicked him in the back, in what was more of a shove than a blow. Ansar went tumbling, almost smacking his face on the door jamb. He just managed to save himself with his arms, but he was left vulnerable. Sebastian was on him straight away, his left hand bunching up Ansar’s collar and choking him with it. He pressed the first knuckle of his right hand hard against Ansar’s skull. He hoped the hard, small point of pressure would simulate the sensation of having a gun barrel pressed against your head.

“Freeze!” he said again.

Ansar reached up and wrenched the back door open. The through draft created between the two doors sent a solid pillar of sand blasting across Sebastian’s face. He didn’t even flinch through his goggles.

“What part of freeze don’t you understand?” Sebastian asked.

He let go of Ansar’s collar to punch him in the head. It was a mistake. As soon as the choking was gone, Ansar lunged forward, locked himself around the door frame, and pulled. He slipped free. Under normal circumstances, Sebastian could have caught him again in a second. But with the sandstorm raging even in the shop, visibility was cut down to one metre again. Even at his slow pace, Ansar disappeared from view. Sebastian sprinted up to where Ansar had been, and found nothing. He was back in a blind, three hundred and sixty degree puzzle. Except now, behind the shop, he had no mental map, and he had no easy left or right guess.

Sebastian adapted. He was flexible. Three hundred and sixty degrees of possibilities, and he wasn’t going to find Ansar standing still. He chose a direction at random, and took off.

Pauly was caught completely by surprise by the sandstorm when it rolled in. One moment he could see, the next he couldn’t. The air itself suddenly began to cut him. He panicked. He couldn’t breathe. The world hurt.

So for the first second, he was frozen with shock. Then, blind and scared, he stumbled around aimlessly, the sand scraping at his face. Like a horse under a whip, he was spurred forwards, faster and faster, trying to outrun the pain. His mind was blank as he tore past shadows in the dust. His breathing was laboured as he tried to find oxygen in the clouds of grit. His cracked ribs ached. His eyes were squeezed shut, as sharp grains scrabbled at the lids. He tripped on something, although he couldn’t see what. A barrel, maybe, or a chair, maybe even a person. He could be anywhere in the town now. His ribs seared his side when he landed. He curled up, hiding his face under his body.

The pain passed, and with it his thinking returned. He opened his eyes. The sand wasn’t reaching them anymore. He could see, although all he was looking at was the ground. The air was growing stale beneath his body, but it was clear. He regained his breath. He was okay. There was a sandstorm, but it held no danger.  The wind howled and swirled around him. Sand began to accumulate in piles against his body. He ran over his options. Normally, a sandstorm would mean he should cover himself and remain where he was, as he was doing now. However, there’d been a gunfight and a bounty to collect this time. They had a man to catch. He considered getting up and pursuing the man, then discarded the thought. He was disorientated. He had no idea where he was, or where the man was. So he lay curled up, wishing he had a nice cloak to cover himself with. The wind threw waves of sand against his back. He waited.

The first set of footsteps he barely heard. They were puffs of noise, soft and fluffy. He wasn’t expecting them, and so he thought he might have imagined them. The second set were unmistakeable. They were definitive and determined. They were fast, and slammed the ground each time they landed. Whoever it was passed by so fast the whirr of displaced air could be heard. Pauly kept still, with his head down. He wasn’t going to poke his head out into a danger when he was this vulnerable. He waited. Shortly after there was the crash of splintering wood and tortured metal, and a muffled shout.  Pauly waited some more, debating with himself. Then he got up, his mouth dry. He pulled out his automatic piece. He still wore it in his waistband, he didn’t have the money yet for a holster. He took off  after the noise in a bent, crouching jog, like he’d seen cops do on television. He walked straight into a pole, bouncing off into the sand. Cursing, he got back up and walked normally and cautiously. He reached a wall of typical low-budget, low-materials Terra Deserta construction. He planted his left hand on it. Kept his gun up. Traced left, never leaving his hand off the wall. Got splinters in his hand. He reached a corner. Froze up, and hugged the wall. Put his back to it, gun pointing to the sky, just like in the movies. Psyched himself up. Took deep breaths. Spun around the corner, gun pointing straight ahead. Saw and heard nothing. He realised his eyes were still squeezed shut. He forced them open. All he could see was sand. A grain got in his eyes, scratching along the lens. He spun back, feeling stupid. His eye was watering. He blinked furiously until the grain was gone. He could still feel the scratch.

He sat down against the wall. Rethought the whole situation. He’d told himself he was going to be brave, but maybe he’d been confusing it with stupidity. He couldn’t see a thing. He didn’t know who he was chasing. He didn’t know where they’d gone. ‘What would Sebastian do?‘ he thought. Nothing, right? He wouldn’t waste his energy on a hopeless attempt, or a symbolic gesture. He wasn’t one for anything but cold, hard pragmatism.

Pauly wiped the tears from his eye, frustrated. He was trying to be braver, but he felt like he was just going around in circles. Every path seemed to end in failure. He shook his head violently, rejecting the thought. No! No! No! Because down that path, the path of giving up, lay death. He got back to his feet. He didn’t know where he was, but there could be no harm in moving on. He could try round the corner. Maybe there would be someone else from his group there. He’d definitely heard someone’s footsteps.

He rounded the corner, and ran straight into someone. They both went down in a heap. Pauly’s eyes shot open. In the chaos of the storm, it took him a moment to recognise the man. It was Ansar. Pauly fumbled for his gun. He’d dropped it. Ansar was reaching behind his back. Pauly felt a bolt of fear, and fumbled some more. Ansar began pulling up the butt of a gun at a glacial pace. Pauly managed to grip the gun. He swung it to point at Ansar. Ansar kept on drawing his gun. It was a sawn-off shotgun. Pauly tried pull the trigger, but couldn’t. He realised the safety was on. He botched up flicking it off twice, his fingers shaking. Got it the third time.

“Stop!” he shouted. Ansar kept drawing. The barrel was about to point at Pauly’s head.

Pauly squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. Just a cold, dead thunk.

His gun had jammed. Consider the amount of sand and grit blowing around, it wasn’t surprising. Pauly threw it away like it was poisoned. He threw his hand up into the air.

Ansar’s shotgun fell down to horizontal. To Pauly, it was a coffin lid slamming shut. Ansar got to his feet and held his shotgun at his hip. He smiled.

“Look at the bounty God has gifted me today!” He exclaimed. “Come now, Browned One!”

Pauly rose, legs shaking. He’d heard stories about the way shotguns tore those it shot to pieces. He’d always thought it would be the worst thing to be shot with. He swallowed his immediate fear. He stood firm, although his breathing was laboured.

Ansar started backing up the way he’d came. Out of town, towards open desert.

“Come, come,” he beckoned. Pauly followed. He had no more heroics left in him. The sand swirled and swallowed him and Ansar up.

Pauly’s automatic lay by the corner, steadily becoming buried.

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3 thoughts on “Desert Steel Chapter 20

  1. The ‘sack’ Sebastian passed entering the shop was actually Pauly curled up in the ground. It can be fun to play around with writing an event from two different, imperfect perspectives.


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