Desert Steel Chapter 23

-Realisation

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“I spy with my little eye, something starting with ‘D’.”

“Is it ‘dunes’?”

“Yes! Okay, your turn.”

Timmy and the woman were leading the pack. They’d found Ansar’s and Pauly’s footprints, as well as a chunk of bread one of them had dropped. The tracking was easy, but Timmy and the woman were still allowed to lead the way. This was because they were unbelievably annoying, and no one wanted to walk beside them.

Tanaka leaned in close to Sebastian and whispered. “If I wasn’t trying to become good, this’d be the point where I shoot them dead.”

Sebastian emitted a short laugh, but nothing else. He was lost in thought, as he always was when the monotony of walking took hold.

“I spy with my little eye, something starting with ‘S’.”

“Is it the ‘sky’?”

“Yes! Okay, your turn.”

Jax, making no attempt to conceal his words, said. “Since I don’t give a flying fuck about being good, this is the part where I do shoot them dead.”

If the two ahead heard him, they didn’t show it. Jax snorted, disappointed.

“Why are we bothering with this anyway? Let the guy have the cry baby.”

“Three reasons, Mr. Gentleman,” Sebastian replied. “First, the four hundred litres currency equivalent. Second, it’s a little something called ‘setting a precedent’. By saving Pauly, our partner, now when he is in danger or captured, we are setting a precedent for our group to always save our members. That way, if you are ever captured you have the assurance that we, including Pauly, will come to save you, because we have set that precedent.”

“If I’m captured, let me die,” Jax said sullenly.

Sebastian sighed. “Third, Mr. Gentlemen, we’re doing it because it’s the good thing to do.”

Jax rolled his eyes. He looked at Tanaka. “Nothing to preach, Nip?”

Tanaka shrugged. “You want to know something?” Jax rolled his eyes again. Tanaka continued, ignoring him.  “That it was the good thing to do was the last of my thoughts. First, I thought of revenge because Ansar had dared to try cross us and get away. Then I thought of the money. The good thing to do came third. But that it is the good thing is the motive I acted upon. I’m no saint or hero, but maybe, if everyday I consciously do good, even if only a little, I’ll be a hero one day.”

“Conscious incremental good to overcome self is path to divine,” Sebastian said, summarising Tanaka’s speech. “Your lucky numbers are 4, 8, 19, 27, 34, 10.”

Jax laughed. Tanaka looked confused.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“It’s like the quote from a fortune cookie,” Jax explained.

“Ohhhhh,” Tanaka said, giggling. “That is quite funny.”

They strode on, the two in front still playing their infernal game of ‘I spy’. Sebastian hung back with Tanaka.

“Can I talk for a sec?” he asked.

“Sure,” Tanaka said, grinning. “Anything.”

“When I said that I had Ansar, I meant it literally. All I had to do was pull the trigger and I’d have killed him, but I couldn’t do it.”

“Why are you telling me?” Tanaka asked.

“I had to tell it to someone, and it wasn’t going to be Jax.”

Tanaka glanced at Jax, who was giving Timmy’s back the finger. “Fair point.” He swung his earnest, dark eyes back to Sebastian. “If you were hoping I was going to say that this shows your inner good, you’re mistaken. True ‘goodness’ can only be gotten from a position of strength. That’s why I trained my gun draw until my fingers bled. What you showed there was weakness, and Pauly is paying for it.”

“I know,” Sebastian said.

“You can’t let weakness make your decisions for you.”

“It won’t happen again,” Sebastian said. His eyes were brushed gunmetal.

“I know it won’t,” Tanaka said matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t have you as my leader if I didn’t. Your weight is many times heavier than even mine.”

“My weight?”

“Sorry, did that not make sense? I’m trying to say your problems are more than mine.”

“My burdens, maybe.”

“Sounds right.”

“I didn’t talk to you just to confess that, though. I need to sound something off of you to try figure it out.”

“Sound?”

“Basically, talk to you about a problem to help myself figure it out.”

“Sound away.”

“The thing that bothers me is that I told Ansar to freeze. He knew I was less than four metres away. It was a shot I couldn’t miss. Yet he kept on walking. Didn’t even glance back.”

“Did he somehow know you wouldn’t shoot?”

“No way I can see, unless he’s smarter than me, which I think is near impossible.”

“Don’t you think that’s arrogant?”

“No.”

Tanaka smiled. “I agree. No point overestimating him.”

” Right. So where does that leave us. He might have known there was a chance that I wouldn’t shoot. There are plenty of people who hesitate when it comes to killing people. Does that mean he just gambled on that chance? It’s on hell of a bet. What does that say about him? Does he get off on the thrill of it?”

“Possibly. I’ve met these kinds of people before. Terra Deserta attracts them like moths to a flame.”

“More like flies to a dung heap.” Sebastian said, winning a snicker from Tanaka. “I rate it as more likely. There’s one other possibility, however.”

“What’s that.”

“He doesn’t mind if he dies.”

“What’re you guys talking about?” Jax asked.

Sebastian started. He’d been so caught up in his train of thought he hadn’t even noticed Jax approach.

“What kind of man Ansar is,” he said.

“So? What kind of man is he?”

“A dead one,” Tanaka said. “We’ll catch him.”

“Yeah, we will,” Sebastian agreed, but his voice was distant. Something he’d said earlier was coming back to him:

‘There isn’t a town out his way reachable in a day’s travel, unless they loop back.’

And Tanaka just then:

We’ll catch him.’

“Wait a minute,” Sebastian muttered. “St-”

“Stop!” Jax shouted, anticipating Sebastian. He recognised the expression. Sebastian had realised something important.

Timmy stopped. “What are you doing? We’re wasting time.”

“When the man says stop, you stop,” Tanaka growled, instantly transitioning from friendly to threatening. He’d crossed his arms. He’d raised his head, showing the ‘M·O·T·H·E·R·F·U·C·K·E·R’ on his brim. It could be funny the first time, but after a while the effect of constantly seeing the insult was actually off-putting.

“We have to turn around,” Sebastian said.

His two partners froze.

That’s what you had to say?” Jax asked. “Well now I’m regretting stopping them for you.”

“Save the snark for when we really need it,” Sebastian said. “I’m serious.”

“Why?” Timmy asked.

“Ansar’s looped back around.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

“What’s his objective here? Come on, think about it.”

“To get away, obviously.”

“Right. But what does that entail? It’s not good enough that we follow his tracks. We need to follow his thoughts too.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“To get away, he needs to reach a town so we lose his footprints. He’s got a prisoner, alright? That slows you down, no matter how good you are. Doubly so, when it’s someone as big and slow as Pauly. He was also caught unprepared. He didn’t know he was going to have to run out across the desert that very instant.”

“He’s a successful fugitive. He’d have emergency supplies ready at all times.”

“Not for two people, though. He’s having to split his supplies in half.”

“So?”

“So, how close is the nearest town in this direction?”

“Four days, I think.”

“Four days, with a prisoner slowing you down and low supplies. Which gives us four days and three nights following his footprints to catch up. Odds are we would. Except you’re wrong. The nearest town isn’t four days away. The one we just came from is less than half a day’s walk away. He loops back and leaves along one of the busy paths, erasing his trail.”

“Shit, you’re right,” Jax exclaimed. “Fuck.”

“It’s not all bad, though,” Sebastian said. “If we’ve realised in time, we actually get a shortcut to his destination. Depending on whether he cut straight back or took a wide loop and when, that could mean we even end up back there before him.”

Timmy nodded. “I can’t fault your logic.”

“Then don’t,” Sebastian said. He was already turning back, Jax and Tanaka in tow.

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