They returned to Dune’s End dusty and out of breath just before the sun kissed the horizon. Sebastian didn’t slow down and rest once he reached the town’s perimeter, but neither did he speed up. He stayed fast, but efficient and not frenzied.
“He could have already made it back, or he could be still on his way,” he said. “Tanaka, patrol this border. I doubt he’ll loop all the way around and enter from the other side, so if he hasn’t arrived yet you should find him. Jax, patrol the main street. Timmy, go guard the water store. He can’t have been back long and if we restrict his access to water he’ll be trapped here. And you…” He pointed at the woman, realising he didn’t know her name.
“Gwendolyn,” she said, shooting him a look of pure acid.
“…Gwendolyn, go door to door like me. If you don’t see him in there, ask the shopkeeper if you’ve seen him recently. We clear?”
Timmy nodded. “Of course.”
“Okay, get to it.”
They split up and scattered across the town. Sebastian started at the North-Western most shop, a shoe store. He entered and scanned the room. Seeing it was empty, he walked to the counter and leaned over it, checking behind despite the shopkeeper’s protests. Then he asked the shopkeeper if he had a backroom. When he got a yes, he walked round and searched it, again ignoring the shopkeeper’s complaints. Finding nothing of interest, he asked the shopkeeper if he’d seen a man in a colourful waistcoat and leather hat or a man with a deep tan, designer jeans and a singlet. That was negative to, so he left and tried the next store down. He did this with all the stores in the row, each turning up empty. He emerged out of the last store on his row earlier than Gwendolyn did on hers, so he stood for a moment, taking in the town. The dusty wooden facades, the faded signs, the itinerant crowds. Nodded to himself, and waited. Gwendolyn stormed out of the last store furious. Sebastian hailed to her and they meet in the middle of the street. The sun was low enough that they were in the shadow of the storefronts, but the earth radiated heat.
“Find anything?” he asked.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what’s wrong?” she retorted, seething.
“Because I don’t care,” Sebastian said. His toneless voice and hard eyes backed him up.
“How dare you!” she shrieked. A few passersby were stopping and staring. Sebastian eyed them with disinterest. He couldn’t tell what their opinions were. They probably had too little information. “Do you think acting all aloof and detached makes you cool? Do you enjoy hurting me by acting like my problems are nothing?”
Sebastian remained silent. The crowd didn’t seemed bothered, as of yet.
Then Timmy came running in, guns metaphorically blazing.
“Guys, guys, we can work this out.”
“Sebastian said he doesn’t care that some greasy pig shopkeeper was leering at me.”
“Is this true?” Timmy asked, aghast.
Sebastian remained silent. His bored eyes stared up at the now emerging stars.
“I’ll take your silence as a yes,” he said. “This is really troubling Sebastian. Can’t you see how that could hurt Gwendolyn?”
Sebastian showed a hint of irritation. It was more because Timmy was distracting him from his stargazing than the content of Timmy’s speech. He glanced around again. Of the crowd that had stopped, a lot had moved on. Most had probably left once they’d realised nothing of interest was happening. The remainder probably because they didn’t want trouble. But a few people in Terra Deserta did carry around morals and dreams of heroism. In this sampling, one person was still hanging around. He stood watchful by a veranda post. His hat had a quote written on the crown in large gothic script, which Sebastian couldn’t make out.
Gwendolyn buried her face into Timmy’s chest, having to crouch to do so. He was only slightly shorter than average, but she was long and slender, almost rivalling Sebastian in height. Sobs wracked her body.
Sebastian still gave nothing away. He started staring Timmy down. His eyes were two of Charon’s obols. They didn’t blink, didn’t waver. They possessed a steadiness and sturdiness not usually found in living things.
By comparison, Timmy’s watered with innocence, earnestness and hurt. They blinked normally, shook in place, shone with emotion. But they did not look away.
“I think you should apologise to Gwendolyn,” Timmy said.
Sebastian kept on staring. He wasn’t unsettled by Timmy’s resilience to being stared down. He’d never considered it one of his strengths, despite the frightful, inhuman deadness his eyes possessed. He’d also seen the same resilience in Hadrian’s eyes, although for different reasons. Hadrian’s eyeballs had been marinating in confidence. Timmy’s, on the other hand, boiled with conviction that he was in the right.
“I’m sorry, Gwendolyn,” Sebastian said. A good apology. Eye contact, directness, no bitterness in the voice. Except it was devoid of any and all emotion. It was as if a robot was following a textbook. As soon as the apology was over Sebastian’s eyes flitted back onto Timmy’s, searching for something. He didn’t see it, but he didn’t not see it either.
Gwendolyn rode out a few more sobs, drew herself up and haughtily accepted. The bystander melted away like the morning mists on Earth.
“Now go back to guarding the Water Store,” Sebastian said.
“No,” Timmy replied firmly. “I need to give this shop keeper a piece of my mind.”
“You go do that.” Sebastian turned and strode over to the water store, an action mirrored by Timmy as he headed for the last store in the row.
Sebastian waited ten minutes at the water store until Jax got bored and came to find him.
“He’s not coming,” Jax said. “You must have been mistaken, or we were too late. Either way he’s gone.”
“No,” Sebastian replied. “He’s here. He can’t have been that much faster than us.”
“Look around you, man. You could stand on one side of town and piss on the other.”
“You underestimate the amount of hiding places. These shopkeepers won’t sell out anyone to anyone else. This is Terra Deserta. If you revealed info on your clientele no one would go there.”
“So what? We tear this town apart?”
“No, we guard the Water Store. Water is the chains that bind Ansar to a place. If we lock down his access he’ll be trapped here until we find him.”
“Can I make a suggestion?”
“Burn this place to the ground. That’ll guarantee things.”
“No. I hear your advice, but I reject it. Now you guard this place while I go find Tanaka.”
Sebastian cut through the very same gap between buildings where Pauly had been captured. He found Tanaka where he’d expected to find him: still dutifully patrolling the border.
“If he hasn’t already arrived, he won’t,” Sebastian said. “You can stop patrolling.”
“Fucking finally.” Tanaka plopped down onto the sand. He fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and a matchbox out of his bag. He struck the match on the sole of his boot, making an arc of sparks that cut through the evening air. He lit the cigarette and tossed the match into the sand.
“You smoke?” Sebastian asked, surprised.
Tanaka took a deep drag, making the embers flare. “Delinquent since birth. You surprised?”
“You hadn’t smoked the whole time we’ve been together.”
“I’m on the T.D. quitting programme: Rareness.” Tanaka chuckled. “Been on a cold turkey for a month. This is my second to last cigarette.”
“Why smoke it now?”
“Good a time as any. Team member gone, on edge, tired, heroism strained. You don’t know how many times I’ve been tempted today to put a bullet through Timmy’s skull. I mean, he’s all good and preachy, and that pisses me off. Which when I’m trying to be good isn’t exactly helpful.”
“I think I can tell. Every time you’re angry you tense up your right arm.”
Tanaka smiled. “Nothing gets past you, gaijin. Makes me feel better.”
“Yeah. Why’s that?”
“I’m dumb, brash, arrogant, reckless, and supernaturally powerful.”
Tanaka laughed. “That too. Point is, I’m going to become a hero some day but I’m like a blind man trying to find his way in the dark. I need guidance, and knowing I have someone as smart as you to give it makes me feel everything is going to be all right. I can easily defeat Ansar, save Pauly, and squash Timmy and Gwendolyn. But I don’t know how or when to do it.” He took another drag from his cigarette.
“A blind man doesn’t give a shit if it’s dark. He can’t see.”
“Well fuck you, gaijin. Give me a simile in Japanese.”
Tanaka and Sebastian both laughed. “Fuck you, smartass,” Tanaka said.
“Stay jealous, dumbass.”
Tanaka patted the sand beside him. “Wanna watch the sunset?”
Sebastian sat down beside him. It felt good to take the weight off his feet.
The whole horizon was in flame, and streaks of red and purple ran across the sky. The sky was coming out in black and the brightest stars, or possibly planets, were glimmering from above.
“Pretty,” he said.
“Almost makes up for being a shithole.”
“Almost. Still, it’s nice to see the sun go. The stars are my favourite part. There’s no light pollution at all here.”
“I don’t. They make me feel small and insignificant.”
Sebastian smiled. “I know. That’s what I like best.”
“You two homo fags finished?” Jax said, making Sebastian start for the second time today.
“What about the water store?” Sebastian asked.
“Timmy came back and took over.”
Sebastian nodded. He looked up at the stars. “I have a favour to ask of you.”
“I think we can all agree Timmy is a goody two shoes moraliser and Gwendolyn a caustic, aggressive bitch.” Tanaka and Jax nodded. “So I want you to be a lightning rod for our anger. Get pissed off on our behalf. Rage at them, rant at them, whatever. If I tell you to stop or cool it, you do it. But always know that doesn’t mean I’m siding with them. It just means your anger isn’t helping us right then.”
“So you’re ordering me to get angry?”
The three went down and met up with Gwendolyn and Timmy.
“You sort out that shopkeeper?” Sebastian asked.
Timmy smiled. “It turned out to be all one big misunderstanding. It’s so nice when people turn out as good as you expect them to be.”
“Oh really?” Sebastian said, not looking surprised at all.
They agreed to a rotating shift where one guarded the Water Store while the others stayed at the saloon. Gwendolyn got first shift, so they left her there to sulk while they played cards and drank. Timmy rained on their parade a bit by not only refusing to gamble or drink alcohol, but also preaching the errors of their ways to them as they did so.
After forty minutes, Gwendolyn came into the bar and pulled out a chair. Sebastian stared at her until she averted her eyes.
“Hour and a half shifts each we said.”
“We don’t have watches on. How am I supposed to know the time?”
“You can estimate. You were out there for forty two minutes. That’s not even half the allotted time.”
“How can you possible know that!”
Tanaka, not looking up from his cards, said, “he can keep the time perfectly in his head. Four of a kind.”
“Boasting is only one step above lies,” Timmy lectured.
Jax slammed his cards down on the table. “You want some fucking honesty then? If you don’t shut up and sit down I’ll eviscerate you.”
Sebastian raised his hand. “That’s enough, Jax. I’ll go do my shift before it’s left unguarded for too long.”
Jax scowled but stayed silent. Gwendolyn sat down. Behind her and Timmy’s backs Sebastian winked at Jax and walked outside.
The air was fresh and cool on Sebastian’s face, especially after the smoky and hot saloon. He smiled as the world opened up before him and showed him the stars.
“Lovely night, isn’t it?”
Sebastian didn’t need to look, he recognised the voice. It was Ansar. He turned, sighing. If he was surprised he didn’t let it show.
Ansar’s teeth gleamed in the dark. He was perched on top of the veranda of the saloon, cross-legged.
“You wound me. I am only wishing to talk.”
“Talk about where Pauly is.”
“He is elsewhere, and taken care of.”
“Is life safe? Are you safer crossing the street, than entering a Terra Deserta bar?”
“No, and yes. Where’s Pauly?”
“He is a newborn in my arms. So awfully afraid of the world, so fragile. Dependent on me for safety, and yet I can take his life so easily.”
“Did you come here to ramble? Because if you did you’ll be disappointed.”
“Because I’m going to shoot you dead.”
“Do you know what happens when a newborn baby loses its parents and is left abandoned? It cries and screams for help, but eventually it fades and dies.”
“You’re saying if I kill you Pauly will die? Bullshit.”
“Perhaps. Allow me to double down. Through the wall behind me is a sleeping man. I do not know him or his story. All I know is he rented this room for the night. My shotgun is pressed up against the wall. Tell me, what happens if I pull the trigger.”
‘The man has his head blown off, assuming the head of the bed is against the wall. Which it might not be. He might not be where Ansar’s aiming. He might not even exist.’ Sebastian thought. What he said was: “You die by my hand.”
“And a man dies by mine.”
Sebastian hooked his cloak up on the spur on his belt.
Ansar waved his free hand. “Of course, I might be bluffing. Pauly could be safe. The man could not exist. Are you willing to gamble on that, though? Two uninvolved, if not innocent, lives?” He shrugged. “What kind of man are you, Sebastian?”
Sebastian weighed up his options. Thought of Tanaka, trying to be good, to become a hero one day. Wondered about what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be. He realised he’d been only ever thinking of survival, of the immediate. He looked at the situation. He freed up his cloak and let it fall back around him.
“What do you want, Ansar?”
Ansar smiled. His teeth flashed white in the crisp cold dark.
“To compose a poem for you, perhaps.
Eyes, a steel cage to a smoky tempest,
Taut, tense, tired, but determined,
Here, he stands…”
He trailed off. “No, no. Hmmm.
As above, so below, Heaven’s clothes,
Man of ice, man of steel,
Bending but not breaking,
What is he?”
He smiled and leaned back. “Not bad, don’t you think?”
“This isn’t a game.”
Ansar looked surprised. “Oh, but it is. Life is a game. We just need to realise it.”
“Whatever you say. Now give us Pauly, and we’ll take you alive.”
Ansar laughed. “That’s never going to happen. You’ll take me dead or not at all.”
“We have the Water Store guarded. You’re trapped here.”
Ansar waved away the statement. “Hardly. I snuck in there and robbed it blind before coming up here. I am a cat burglar after all.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Oh? Mikhail’s dogs are not telling you anything? That’s a shame. It makes the game a little unbalanced.” He tapped his temple. “Tell you what, I’ll give you a titbit to make up for it: I’ll be taking Pauly along the beaten track to New Arusha.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“All part of the game. Trust me or don’t, my word is all you have left.”
Ansar smiled, and disappeared. Sebastian wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it himself. Ansar simply ceased to be there. Sebastian was left alone again in the night. He trudged over to the Water Store and stood guard. No point in leaving it an easy target if Ansar was bluffing.