At the same time Sebastian was discovering the discarded firearm, Pauly was struggling through fine sand two kilometres away. His feet were sinking up to the ankles, and the ground subsiding away beneath him. He had to try keep up with Ansar, who drifted across the sand effortlessly.
He’d been lead out of the town under the cover of the sandstorm. He’d walked until he could walk no further. Then he’d walked some more, thinking of the sawn-off shotgun Ansar carried. Now, finally, his legs ignored his brain and dumped him onto the sand.
“Uhh, Mr. Ass-lack-ono-vitch-anov?” he called out, trying to remember how to say his captors name.
Ansar stopped and turned, a light smile on his lips. “Mr. Aslakonovicanov is… Well, I do not know who he is but I am certain he is alcoholic and likes very much to make merry with the dogs. Do I look like I make merry with the dogs, browned one?” he asked in an undulating and melodic voice.
“No?” Pauly stuttered.
“Call me Ansar.”
“Ansar, sir, umm… I can’t walk any longer. Can we take a break?”
Ansar smiled. “But of course! There is only one question: can you not walk any longer, or do you just not want to walk any longer.”
Pauly was already sweating, but if he wasn’t he would have started.
Ansar smiled widened. “That’s all very good. But could you do one thing for me?” He drew his sawn-off shotgun. Pauly recoiled. “Could you try get up and walk? If not, I will shoot.”
Pauly felt dread terror nestle into his gut. Adrenaline flooded his body. An odd, fiery warmth suffused his legs. He got one foot placed flat. Ansar was still smiling. Pauly wished he had at attended leg day at least once at the gym. He pushed off. He managed to get to his feet. They felt like lead. He tried to take a step. All muscle strength was gone. The leg gave wobbled, and gave way. He managed to land on his hands. He sensed, but couldn’t see, the barrel pointed at him. He squeezed his eyes shut. He could feel tears beading up and he didn’t want to die crying.
Ansar put his gun away and plopped down on the floor. “You tried hard,” he said. He pulled a dinner plate sized loaf of unleavened bread, a staple of the Terra Deserta diet. He tore off half and held it out to Pauly. “Let us break bread, no?”
“No?” Pauly ventured, taking the bread. He devoured it in an instant.
Ansar laughed heartily. “Tell me, O Browned One, does bread evaporate like the morning mists in your country?”
“My name’s Pauly,” Pauly muttered. “I’m just hungry.”
“Ah so, Pally? Have some more, to stave off that vicious beast.”
Ansar procured a second loaf, and passed it across. Pauly ate it in little chunks this time, tearing off small crumbs and sitting them in his mouth until they dissolved. Ansar did the same, his eyes watchful but soft.
“Tell me about your tall friend, Poorly.”
“Huh?” Pauly asked, unsure whether to be cooperative or play dumb.
“Your comrade, the tall one who spoke for you. With the voice like iron and the eyes of a frozen lake.”
“He’s our leader,” Pauly said. It had never been said before, not explicitly, but when it was asked he knew beyond certainty.
“Is he a smart man?”
“Yes. Unbelievably so. Sometimes in a really subtle way, but he always seems to know things he shouldn’t.”
“Is he a good man?”
Pauly was contemplative for a moment. “I think so. It can be hard to tell. Sometimes he’s being kind, and other times he’s cold. He often seems to be morally conflicted, and then suddenly he’s heartless and ruthless. He smiles a lot, but his eyes are dead, y’know? Like the eyes of a dead fish.”
“But you think, overall, that he is a good person.” Ansar mused. “Why then, does he act as he does?”
Pauly lowered his heads. “I don’t think I can possibly know.”
Ansar laughed. “You don’t want to be impolite and judge him. Do I need to bring out my shotgun again?”
Pauly paled. “No, sir. I-I think he’s compromising. He thinks he has to be ruthless to be a good leader and make the right decisions.”
“I don’t know.”
Ansar leaned back in the sand. “What’s his name?”
“Wasn’t there a Saint Sebastian?” Ansar asked. “I seem to recall so.”
Pauly, who came from a family of devout catholic Italian immigrants, cast his mind back to the Sunday School he’d been forced to go to. He’d goofed off a lot, but the morbidity of being shot full of arrows had stuck in his mind.
“Yes. Patron saint of soldiers, athletes and those who desire a saintly death.”
“A saintly death…” Ansar repeated. A faint smile twitched at his lips. He rose to his feet. “Come now, Palely, our pursuers will be picking up our scent.”
Pauly got up. His legs burned with pain, but their strength had returned. He could walk. He took a chunk of bread hidden in his palm and dropped it behind him. He staggered after Ansar, who floated along the spine of a dune, his head silhouetted against the sun.
Timmy picked up the automatic, angling it in the light. He fiddled with it for a bit, before dropping it back onto the ground.
“He tried to fire the gun, but it jammed,” he said. “That’s why you should always maintain your weapon.”
Sebastian, who cleaned his revolver daily, nodded. Jax and Tanaka started looking thoughtful. “What else?”
“Patience, I’m getting there.” Timmy reached down and stared at the ground. “The sandstorm has obscured most of the tracks. I can’t tell where Ansar came from.”
“He came from behind the store,” Sebastian said. “That’s where he lost me.”
“He probably wouldn’t track back there, then.”
“No, I think he would. The street was likely to have several bounty hunters on it, while he knew I was lost and likely to move away behind him. It’s also the quickest way out of town.”
“One way to find out,” Timmy said. He pointed to the back of the houses. A steep bank of sand lined the back pathway all the way along. “When you clamber up something like this you don’t just leave footprints, you collapse the bank. The sandstorm won’t be able to hide it entirely.”
They walked up as a group and checked the bank. Directly in line with the gap between buildings where Pauly was captured there was a wide divot in the bank and a pile of sand at the base.
“We found the exit point from town!” Timmy announced. “But it’ll only get harder from here. Let’s go.”
“No,” Sebastian said. “We need water and supplies first.”
“A man’s life is at stake here!” Timmy admonished.
“We’re no good to him dead. Twenty Earth minutes, and we’ll meet back here.”
Timmy bowed his head. “Of course.”
As soon as they’d rounded the corner, out of Timmy’s sight and earshot, Jax spoke up.
“Why’d you say twenty minutes? We just need water, that’s like five minutes tops.”
“Because I don’t trust Timmy to not take off after Ansar without us, so I wanted him to think he would have a decent head start if he left now.”
“Yeah, okay, but even with a five minute head start he’ll be out of eyesight. How’ll we follow him, genius?”
“Well, Mr. Gentleman, what do you notice about the weather?”
It was. Since the sandstorm had left the wind had died down to nothing. It was eerily calm.
“The only difficulty with tracking is if the wind has blown away the footprints. Their footprints should lead us right to them.”
They’d reached the water store. Sebastian went inside. He threw down fifty New Zealand dollars, which were quite rare and ergo quite valuable. That gave him three bottles filled out of the nine they carried. He threw down a hundred, which now only filled five bottles, until he lectured the seller on basic arithmetic, using his knife as a prop. He stepped out into the strong sunlight. Two minutes used. The trio fast walked back to the spot. Timmy and the woman were nowhere to be seen. It was possible they’d left for supplies and planned to meet up in twenty minutes, so Sebastian climbed up the bank. Two sets of footprints went straight out into the open desert. It was confirmed. Pauly and Ansar’s footprints would have been wiped away by the sandstorm. Timmy had tried to ditch them.
They set out across the desert. Sebastian pushed them a little faster than he would have normally, despite the unforgiving sun. He wanted to get Timmy visible as soon as possible. In three minutes they achieved just that, and Sebastian killed the pace. Timmy and the woman were tiny smudges against the back of a gargantuan dune. Usually, dunes in Terra Deserta were five to ten metres in height, little waves of sand. Sometimes, however, there were titans several hundred metres high, tsunamis of earth.
“Why are we slowing down?” Jax asked. “We’ve got them.”
“I don’t want them to know we lied. Hold back for twenty minutes, then we’ll catch up. Make it seem like they had a twenty minute head start.”
They followed like that for ten minutes. The whole time Sebastian thought and rethought his plan. Wound everything back to the beginning. Played through it again. He ground to a halt.
Tanaka stopped immediately, but Jax protested.
“We’re letting them get away!”
“No, we’re not. Think about it. My geographical knowledge about this area isn’t great, but we’ve been headed West this whole time now. The pathways from Portal City are like the branches of a tree. It starts off with one large path to Sixty Clicks, then splits and leads to smaller towns, then those split and lead to smaller towns. Hadrian told us there were three towns South and close from Hovetown Left. Towns are usually evenly spaced ou-”
Jax’s face made him stop. He grinned sheepishly. “Long story short, there isn’t a town out his way reachable in a day’s travel, unless they loop back. So if they do keep going straight, they’ll stop overnight and we can catch them. But I don’t think they will.”
Jax was impatient and annoyed. He kept silent, so Tanaka dutifully stepped in. “Why not?”
“Because even if they were stupid enough to not realise their footprints were obvious when they set off, they’ve had fifteen or so minutes to realise it now. So assuming they have, what do they do?”
“I don’t know, you dickhead. How about you stop revelling in your smarts and tell us,” Jax said.
Sebastian expression froze in place. ‘Revelling in your smarts’ was a bastard cousin to ‘you think you’re so smart’. “I’m explaining my logic to check it’s not wrong,” he replied. “Okay?”
Jax, unsettled by Sebastian’s frozen expression, nodded.
“Now, I would backtrack over my footprints, and then lay in ambush. If they are doing that, by stopping here and waiting we defuse that threat. They’re not going to believe we would delay chasing after them and our friend, so if we don’t go by after an hour they’ll think we won’t go by at all. Good so far?”
Jax, now agreeing with Sebastian, nodded.
“I don’t think they’ll do that. Real or not, Timmy puts on a show of being a goody two shoes. So realising he’s going to be caught out, the best way to cover it up is to turn around and come back. Then he’ll run into his pursuers. He’ll claim he went out to scout out the path, knowing all along his footprints could be followed, and that he then came back to pick them up.”
Jax nodded, now following along. By doing so, he felt useful to the group again, which made him feel better than he’d like to admit. “And so if we kept going, we’d run into them too early, revealing we hadn’t waited twenty minutes before leaving.”
“Exactly. So we’ll wait here, and start pretending to be moving right before they return.”
Tanaka went to sit down. Sebastian was about to tell him not to, but Jax got there first.
“Don’t sit down! That’ll leave marks in the sand. We want it to seem like we’ve been walking the whole time.”
Tanaka hesitated . Over Jax’s shoulder, Sebastian quickly nodded, and Tanaka straightened back up.
To Jax, it seemed his order had been followed. He got a rush of power.
They stood waiting, behind a small dune at the base of the gigantic one. They were three statues under a sweltering sun. Despite the abrasive nature of the sandy wind, they missed it for its cooling effect. Sweat ran down their faces and pooled in uncomfortable places.
Soon, the distinctive sound of voices carried in the still air. At first, words couldn’t be made out. As they got closer, Sebastian could just make out enough phrases to realise they were playing ‘I spy’. Finally, he could hear everything.
“I spy with my little eye, something starting with ‘S'”
“Yes! Okay, your turn.”
Sebastian turned to Jax, who nodded to confirm it was time to move, feeling that same thrill of power. They set off over the small dune. Sebastian was half expecting to come face to face with them then, but sound carried far in the still desert air. It was actually the fifth dune on that they met.
If Timmy was surprised he didn’t show it. He smiled like they were the people he most wanted to see in all the world.
“My friends! I’ve been coming back looking for you, and you were even further back than I thought!”
“Uhuh,” Sebastian said. “You left without us.”
“I knew my tracks would be easy to follow. I didn’t want to waste time, so we decided to scout ahead.”
“Really?” Sebastian asked, raising his eyebrows. “You didn’t try dump us and get the bounty for yourselves?”
“How dare you!” The woman cried. “Timmy is doing his utmost to keep with the trail, and you come here with these base accusations!?”
“Now, now,” Timmy said. “Their suspicion is understandable. However, as you can see we were returning back to get you, which I hope will assuage your concerns.”
Sebastian was silent for a moment. His face could have been one of those simple white masks weren’t it for the swelling and cuts.
“Yeah, no problem,” he said, his eyes giving nothing away.
Timmy smiled. “Well come along then. Your friend was clever, he left a trail of items through the sandstorm. Past that the footprints are clear.”
‘You go, Pauly,’ Sebastian thought.
“Lead away,” Sebastian said.
Timmy nodded and headed off. Jax hung back, and so Sebastian did too.
“Why didn’t you call him out?” Jax whispered. “I was just about ready to flip out when the bitch started yelling.”
Sebastian smiled like a crocodile. “It’s a bit complicated, but what it comes down to is this:
I don’t want to lose.”