Desert Steel Chapter 30

-Teamwork

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Timmy turned bright red. Beside him, Gwendolyn vibrated with fury.

“You done fellating yourself, boss?” Tanaka asked.

Sebastian laughed. “I guess so.” He rose back upright and turned his back to Timmy. “Your turn.”

Timmy exploded, rushing Sebastian, his arms outstretched for a tackle.

Tanaka moved so fast it was hard to believe. One moment he was in front of Sebastian, grinning, the next he was behind him. Tanaka’s fist collided head on with Timmy’s mouth. Tanaka kept his momentum going, powering forward. Timmy’s head was pushed backwards as his body continued on and his neck snapped back. He pivoted around Tanaka’s fist, his body going horizontal. Tanaka slowed down and scythed his whole arm down at a forty-five-degree angle. Timmy was pulled down faster than he could fall. He landed head first and skidded. Tanaka skidded to a halt too, his fist still on Timmy’s face. He withdrew it. It was dripping with blood. Timmy’s two front teeth were knocked out. Shrieking a war cry, Gwendolyn leapt at him with a furious flurry of blows. Tanaka dodged them with ease. The onslaught continued. Gwendolyn and Tanaka both began to drip with sweat from the exertion.

“What are you doing?” Sebastian asked.

“Can’t hit girls, boss,” Tanaka replied apologetically.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Don’t worry,” Jax said. “I’ve got this. I’ve been fantasising about this for a long time.”

“Go at it, Mr. Gentleman.”

Jax took two steps to close the gap, almost a run up, and threw a straight punch. Gwendolyn staggered sideways, but didn’t go down. Jax kicked her legs from out beneath her. She hit the dirt on her side. When she raised her head, attempting to get up, Jax kicked it like you kick a soccer ball. There was a loud crack and she slumped back onto the ground. Jax went in for another kick on her body, then stopped himself. He turned and saw both Tanaka and Sebastian about to intervene. He smiled at them.

“I don’t feel sho well,” Pauly moaned, clutching his stomach. “I think I’m going to be shick.”

Jax grabbed him by his arm and guided him over to Timmy and Gwendolyn. “You don’t want to vomit over there,” he said kindly, “you’ll get the ground dirty. Do it on this trash pile here.”

Pauly gagged and heaved a few times, and then vomited. It wasn’t a direct hit on either, but it ran on the ground and soaked their clothes. When they woke up, it’d be all they could smell.

Jax’s smile was one of irrepressible malicious glee.

“Great work team,” Sebastian said, “but how are we going to carry Ansar’s body?”

They all stared at Ansar’s body. He was lying on his back, a neat red hole over his heart. His eyes were open and looking up at the sky. His lips were parted in a serene smile.

Jax turned, gripped the door into the safe house, and pulled sharply. The door sheared off its hinges. Jax dumped the door onto the dusty ground beside Ansar. It was the right size.

“That’ll do it.”

Sebastian and Tanaka took Ansar by other end and transferred him onto the door. Then they hoisted up the improvised stretcher. They nodded, satisfied. They began the slow walk back, leaving Timmy and Gwendolyn behind, lying in the dirt.

Pauly vomited again and staggered on.

“Good job. No hesitation whatsoever,” Tanaka whispered to Sebastian.

Sebastian just nodded.

-Conversations in the Desert Part Three:

They took a break at the Casino, which also had a monopoly on access to the oasis, to rehydrate and sober up. They also shared out the Casino Platinums, one each. Jax protested for the portion of the Platinum given away but relented. That done, they set off into the desert again heading back North. The added weight of Ansar made the going hard.

“There’s still things I don’t get,” Jax said. “Why’d Ansar even bother take Pauly hostage? Why not just kill him? And why’d he tell us where he was going? Disappearing would have been so easy.”

“I thought about it the whole time he had me captured,” Pauly said. “It was hard to face the idea that I should have been killed, you know, but I did. I got some ideas. He was a thrill seeker, so I think a lot of it was just for the excitement. He also wanted to die rather than be captured and tortured by the guy he stole from, so I think I was being kept to ensure someone other than those two employees were chasing him.”

Jax looked at Sebastian. He shrugged. “That about covers it. All I have left to add is that the guy he stole from was called Mikhail.” He laughed. “Hey, I just realised I put a hole in his stolen waistcoat.”

They took a different route back, skirting Dune’s End and stopping at another town, Razor Bank, instead. They needed to pick up water from the Water Store, and Tanaka had floored the manager there. As an added precaution, they sent Jax to fetch the water, in case descriptions had been passed around.

“Man, what were you even thinking?” Sebastian remarked as they waited for Jax atop a dune outside the small town.

“He was annoying me,” Tanaka said. ” It wasn’t very good , but it was just a little tap.”

“I guess you have a short fuse,” Pauly said.

They all laughed.

“Pretty rich coming from a shortass,” Tanaka said, smiling.

Pauly smiled back. “I was hoping that would be overlooked.”

“Cut it short,” Sebastian said. “Crappy puns can be pretty unbearable.”

“That’s a tall order, Sebastian,” Pauly said, “but I’ll call it quits.”

The desert between their Razor Bank and Hovetown Left was monotonous, and a day longer than the travel from Hovetown Left and Dune’s End had been.

On the second day of travel, Jax moaned, “The desert is so fucking boring!”

“What are you going to do about it?” Pauly asked. “Play ‘I Spy’?”

He’d meant it as a light-hearted joke, but Jax, Tanaka and Sebastian were all quick to leap in.

“No. God, no.”

“No fucking way.”

“Nuh uh.”

Pauly jolted in surprise. “Jeez. Okay. How about… Who’s your first celebrity crush?”

“Eva Braun,” Jax said, then laughed. “Love me that Braun Sugar.”

“Some idol from AKB48. I forgot her name,” Tanaka said. “I didn’t really have many crushes, though.”

“Haven’t had one,” Sebastian said.

“You must have,” Jax said.

“Nope. I’m never going to meet them so it’s futile.”

“That’s not how emotions work, dude,” Jax said. “You’re lying.”

“Do I look like I’m lying?” Sebastian intoned, his face blank except for a hint of a smile. His eyes were slate tiles.

Everyone was silent as he stared them down. Then he broke out into a wide smile. “Just kidding!”

Everyone laughed.

“No wonder I always lose to you in poker,” Jax grumbled.

“Nah, you’re just shit mate,” Sebastian countered.

They were quiet for a beat.

“Emotions are futile, but that does not mean they are worthless,” Tanaka said slowly, like he was figuring out a complex maths problem.

“Our little philosopher awakens!” Sebastian said. “Regale us with your wisdom!”

Tanaka, quick as a flash, said, “It takes you four seconds to spout bullshit, and me less than one to kick your arse.”

Sebastian laughed. “No doubt, but wounds heal. My insults are forever.”

Jax cut in. “Before this shit flinging gets too out of hand, get back to the original question.”

“Joan Romée, otherwise known as Joan Darc, otherwise known as Joan of Arc. Romanticised drawings of her, anyway. I liked history as a kid.”

“Well, for my part,” Pauly said, “my first was a host for a kid’s show. Had big tits, really nice voice, made me feel safe.”

Jax laughed. “Shit dude, you need to get your mummy issues sorted out.”

“Hey, fuck you man. Just admit you’d want Hitler balls deep inside you, instead of pussyfooting around it by fantasising about his girlfriend. Or being his girlfriend, more like it.”

Jax raised his eyebrows.

“If it was Hitler, it would actually be ‘ball deep’,” Sebastian said, smirking.

“Why is it,” Tanaka asked, “that you always know something disturbing and sexual about every animal, person or event?”

“Because I take an interest in the right stuff,” Sebastian said, grinning.

“My most enduring crush has got to be Reina though. Started liking her when I was like twelve, and still do,” Pauly said.

“The pop star?” Tanaka asked. “I think I’ve heard some of her songs.”

“The humanitarian campaigner?” Sebastian asked. “I watched her UN speech.”

“The twelfth in line to the Spanish throne?” Jax asked. “My Uncle would not shut up about how she was secretly Jewish and planted to take over Spain.”

“All three,” Pauly said. “She wore that puffy white dress at her Madison Square Garden concert.”

“Yeah, she’s hot,” Tanaka agreed. Everyone nodded sagely in agreement.

Hovetown Left was a different town with the Fight Crew gone. The area where the ring had been was just an empty piece of well-trodden dirt. The jail had an itinerant drunk and a local drunk palling it up. People walked the streets, going about their daily business. Ansar had begun to smell and rot. Sebastian told the three to go collect water and supplies. When they returned, Ansar had been eviscerated and buried under a mound of sand. Sebastian had altered the stretcher to hold the sand in. No one questioned him. The weight was even greater then, but the stink seemed to be mostly gone.

The sun had plunged into dusk on their third day from Hovetown Left to Sixty Clicks.

“What’s Mikhail like, Jax?” Sebastian asked.

“Never met him,” Jax replied. “I did some jobs for his mob, and heard rumours, but that’s all.”

“What’d you hear?”

“He’s Russian, used to be Mafiya back on Earth. Apparently he didn’t choose to come here.”

“One of those convict dumps? Did Russia run one of those programmes?”

“No. Well, maybe they do, but he was never caught. He got hit by lightning. Some say he was on a hit. Others that he was trying to meet a forbidden love in a thunderstorm.”

Sebastian nodded. The energy of a lightning strike easily created a portal. “And he survived and built up a criminal group here.”

“Yeah. All the other rumours agree on two things. He’s a sadist of the worst calibre, and he ain’t no Adonis.”

After the small, quiet towns of the outer desert, Sixty Clicks felt like a heaving metropolis. It hadn’t even been that long since they’d left, around a month, but Sebastian felt different and change. He felt like an alien wearing a humans skin. Ansar’s body, mercifully buried in sand, weighed heavy on his shoulders. They dropped by the saloon where they’d handed over the children. Pauly and Jax opted out. They volunteered to watch the body and collect water instead.

The saloon owner behind the bar didn’t notice them. He pottered around, wiping glasses with a rag. Tanaka and Sebastian took a table. The place was busy, so they blended in. Tanaka took out his last cigarette and lit it. He savoured his first drag and blew out a long stream of smoke. Sebastian’s foot tapped out a hurried beat. After a long wait, the two children themselves came to serve them. They’d cleaned up well. The sores were gone, their blonde hair was clean, and their skin shone with youthful health.

“Would you like anything to drink?” The girl enunciated carefully, with a trace French accent.

“Hey kid,” Sebastian said. She froze. Tanaka smiled at them both.

“Are you those who did Grandpa?” she managed.

“We are. Can you speak English now?”

“Little. Can say: ‘Would you like anything to drink’ and ‘Thank you for your service’. Understand more.”

“Your brother?” Sebastian asked, for their genders were now far more obvious.

“He no talk. Not French or English.”

Sebastian eyed the little brother, who was staring at the floor, dead silent.

“The man hurt you?”

The girl’s pretty face crinkled in confusion. “Hurt?”

Tanaka mimed punching Sebastian’s face. The girl shook her head, her hair fanning out in a golden arc. “Sometimes… BLAH BLAH!” she raised her voice slightly to indicate shouting. “I sleep bad… go AAAH!”

Tanaka gave her his cut of her sale, and Sebastian did the same.

“Is tip?” She asked speculatively holding the money.

Sebastian didn’t have the heart to explain it was how much Terra Deserta had judged her to be worth. “Yes,” he said. “Good luck.”

They left. Tanaka was crying again. “I don’t know if that made me feel better or worse,” he said.

The trip from then on until Mikhailsburg was uneventful.

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