They returned to Portal City to resupply and rest. The nomadic sub-culture of people who navigated the outer desert looking for jobs and adventure such as themselves all did this. They took a well-earned break from what they called ‘tours’ and putting their new found cash to good use on the greater variety of supplies available, from beers to television. As a result, whole districts catered to the ‘sand’ money they brought in, a large proportion of which was also ‘blood’ money.
They came in directly from Mikhailsburg, a lesser travelled route, but even at the outskirts Sebastian felt overwhelmed by the amount of people around. The towns they’d visited had been at most inhabited by a hundred people, and New Arusha had seemed metropolitan in comparison. But that too bowed its head to the true titan of the desert Portal City. Military bases, maintained or decrepit, stretched out across the sand. In, around and on these skeletal frameworks city blocks were built in chaos. People scurried over everything like ants over an anthill. There was smoke, noise, smells and lights. Dunes cropped up on streets or in backyards. They hadn’t been there before, but the wind gradually shifted them around. The sprawl continued on for as long as the eye could see, due to limitations in construction and the free land they’d built outwards and not up. The central portals glowed purple.
Sebastian had last been in Portal City when he’d jumped. Coming straight from Earth the noise and the crowds hadn’t even registered. After months in the quiet open desert, they oppressed him.
“So what do we do?” Pauly asked, once they’d reached a main street in an entertainment district.
“Whatever you want. Just get back to this very spot before sundown, and don’t get lost.” Sebastian said. “Use your money wisely.”
“Anything else, grandpa?” Jax asked.
“Try not get yourself killed.”
Pauly and Jax nodded and dispersed, like kids getting free time on a school trip.
“What do you want to do?” Tanaka asked.
“I don’t know,” Sebastian said. He looked out over the buildings, where a small sliver of golden sand beckoned.
“Well,” Tanaka said. “I guess we should go to a bar. I know a good one nearby.”
The good one turned out to be a wholly average affair, a large room where people drank boisterously or sullenly depending on their mood. Then Sebastian realised he was judging with Earth standards. No one was getting shot, and no one was shooting up.
They took a table and two beers, chilled, German imports. It was an alien luxury, and Sebastian almost resented it. It felt… soft.
“What do we do now?”
“We drink,” Tanaka said. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Yeah but it can’t be just drinking, right? That’s boring.”
“We can talk. We can socialise.”
Sebastian took in the roar of the crowds around him. He stared into his drink and took another gulp.
“What’s the tattoo about?”
“The peak of my societal rebellion. Tattoos are disliked in Japan.”
“Too closely related to the Yakuza?”
“Maybe that’s some of it. I got a lightning bolt put in, but otherwise it’s reasonably traditional.”
“Does it go any higher than your sleeve?”
“Up to the shoulder.”
They drank in silence for a bit. The world flowed on around them. Sebastian started feeling bored.
“Want to play cards?” Tanaka asked.
“Poker, Texas hold ‘em?”
Tanaka go a deck, battered and worn, out of his bag. He dealt them out with fast hands. Sebastian won the first four rounds without blinking. Tanaka dealt even faster on the fifth and Sebastian folded. Tanaka grinned and laid out a straight flush from the deck.
“How’d you know?” He asked.
“I watched the man, not the hands.” Sebastian said. “That’s how I stay ahead for everything.”
He was still bored. He drained another glass.
There was the distant crackle of gunfire. He perked up, his posture straightening.
Tanaka shook his head. “There’s always one gunfight or another somewhere in the city.”
Gunfire crackled again. Then silence. No one else had reacted at all. Sebastian imagined their senses were dulled by the barrage of noise, and the commonness of gunfire. Their survival instincts were getting weeded out.
“I don’t like it.” Sebastian said.
“It happens all the time.”
“Automatic fire like that?”
Tanaka shrugged. “We’re right by the portals. All kinds of shit come in. Everyone wants the flashiest gun.”
“I don’t like it.” Sebastian said again. He pushed his glass aside.
Gunfire crackled again. Sebastian felt it was louder this time. Still no one reacted.
Tanaka heard it too. “Let’s go. Someone might need a hero.”
“I need a hero!” Sebastian sang, once again showcasing his awful singing voice. He got up.
An engine buzzed up outside and burbled to a stop.