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Desert Steel Chapter 32

-Boredom

<Last Chapter

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.”

“Nice.”

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?”

“Yep.”

“Alright.”

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.

<Last Chapter

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Desert Steel Chapter 31

-Desert Steel

<Last Chapter    Next Chapter>

Mikhailsburg was placed on the Eastern outskirts of Portal City, isolated but still well connected. Sebastian knew they were getting close when he noticed people watching them from behind distant dunes. Another minute’s walking and Mikhailsburg revealed itself. It was a wooden manor with an imposing, faux crenulated facade, and no ground windows. It had a barbed wire fence, a ditch and a watchtower defending it.

A squad of guards met them a hundred metres from the entrance.

“State your purpose!” The leader, a scarred black man, asked.

“We’re here to collect the bounty for Ansar,” Sebastian said. “The poster directed us here.”

The man glanced left and right. “Look man,” he said, dropping his voice, “If you haven’t got the real Ansar, I’m giving you this one chance to turn around. I’ve had to mop up the guys that try trick him.”

“We’re legit,” Sebastian said.

“Okay,” the guard said. “It’s your funeral. We will escort you to Mikhail.”

Jax hurried up so he was right behind Sebastian. “What if the hole in his waistcoat angers him? What if Ansar’s decayed so much he can’t be identified?”

“What if, what if?” Sebastian replied. “We want the bounty, don’t we?”

“The Casino Platinums are five hundred water standard each! What’s one hundred more?”

Sebastian turned and looked him in the eyes. “In the desert? One hundred more days of life.”

The escort took them up to the front door of the manor. It was a two door portal, ten feet high. It carried a sense of dark foreboding. The guard knocked once, a loud booming noise. One door swung open on creaky hinges. The room beyond was dark and dank. The guard motioned them in. Sebastian entered first. There was the faint scent of desert steel in the air.

He was in a musty entrance hall. Bars of light shone in the dusty air. Shadows moved in the far distance. A low muffled noise hummed in the woodwork and twisted Sebastian’s gut. The rest of the group stepped in behind him. They all stood huddled right by the doorway.

“Too spooky for me,” Pauly said. The guard entered behind them and shut the door. Its slam had a disturbing finality to it. The guard pushed past them.

“Follow me,” he said.

They did just that until he ushered them into a waiting room. A threadbare couch, scrounged from some Portal drop presumably, had the pride of place. A small coffee table with tawdry gossip magazines was a jarring addition of normalcy in what was feeling close to a demon’s lair.

“Wait here,” the guard said, shutting the door. It locked with a loud click.

Pauly picked up one of the magazines. “‘Twenty-one tips on keeping your haunted house of horrors hip,'” he read. “‘Torture devices for the young professional.’ Yecch. Is this place creepy or what?”

“Is it?” Tanaka asked. “I hadn’t noticed.” He went over to the sofa and lounged in it like he owned the place.

“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?” Jax asked.

“We’ll see,” Sebastian replied. “Put Ansar on the coffee table for now.”

They did. He made a more appropriate decoration than the magazines.

They waited. A bloodcurdling scream made them all jump. They laughed nervously and waited some more. A squat man entered through the door opposite to the one they’d entered. He was middle-aged, and had a round, creased face. Another guard followed him at his heels. His arms were red with blood up to the elbows.

He smiled amiably. The guard carried in a shallow bowl of water. He rinsed his hands off on it, dipping them in and shaking them dry. The guard left and hurried back with a towel. He rubbed the excess blood and water off his arms. He smiled again.

“Terribly sorry about the wait,” he said. “Had an especially stubborn man to work on. I am Mikhail.”

In the light, Sebastian saw that Mikhail’s face wasn’t just creased. The heat of the lightning strike had melted his face half off. Rubbery pink skin clung to his skull. One eye was white and unseeing. Lichtenburg figures, fractal scarring from the electricity, ran down his neck, under his shirt and across his arm. He was a horrific figure.

“Hello Mikhail, I’m Sebastian,” Sebastian said.

Mikhail put out his hand. “Put her there.”

Sebastian stared at the arm, his mind working. He took it and shook with no sign of disgust. “We got Ansar.”

Mikhail smiled. “Ooooh, yes, yes. Is this him here?” He crouched over the corpse. It was decayed and dried up, but the clothing and some features were still there. Mikhail kissed the corpse, wet and loud. “That’s him!” He crowed. “You got him!” He danced a jig. “Fifty water standard he stole from me. Worked for me for months, then turned. This’ll be instructive for all those who try follow in his footsteps.”

“Our reward?” Sebastian asked.

“Of course!” Mikhail said. “Never let it be said I don’t give people their dues. Is US dollars fine?”

Sebastian nodded. Mikhail fished the right amount from his pockets. He paused with his hand just above Sebastian’s.

“Where’d you find him?”

“Down South.”

“You ever meet Gwendolyn and Timmy?”

“Who?”

“Short, baby faced boy, tall red head. They might have gone under another name.”

“Sounds like Jack and Jill. They got lost after Dune’s End. Only met them briefly.”

Mikhail nodded. “They’ll probably stay lost if they know what’s good for them.”

He dropped the money into Sebastian’s hand.

Sebastian stood there, rigid.

Mikhail doddered around the corpse, muttering to himself. His hands traced lines along the desiccated flesh. He drew a sharp knife from his belt. When he looked up and saw they were still there, he looked surprised.

“You can leave now. Take the stretcher with you.”

They left slowly, like one does backing away from a growling dog. Once outside Sebastian let out a massive sigh of relief.

“That place was desert steel, man,” he said.

Everyone nodded.

They walked towards Portal City along a more regularly trafficked route. Once they were well clear of Mikhailsburg, they stopped. Sebastian lay on his back, trying to see the stars through the blue veil of the sky.

“I’m going to give Ansar a grave,” he said at last.

“Arslan,” Pauly said. “His true name was Arslan.”

“‘The Lion’?” Sebastian said, raising his eyebrows. “Oddly appropriate.”

Sebastian took the stretcher, once a door, and pried its boards apart. Then with some twine he tied one board to the other, making a rudimentary cross.

“Do you think he was Muslim?” he asked. “He was some kind of Turkic Russian, right?”

Pauly shrugged. “I can’t recall.”

“Or Orthodox?” Sebastian continued. “Their cross is different.”

“It’s fine, Sebastian,” Tanaka said. “In a good deed, intent is worth as much as outcome.”

“Yeah, like Hitler thought he was doing good killing all those Jews,” Jax laughed dismissively.

Sebastian jammed the cross into the earth. There was a solid hard dirt here, not light sand. He hammered the top until it was dug two feet into the ground. It had been human height before, now it reached up to Sebastian’s stomach. He pulled out his knife and scratched deep into the wood ‘A R S L A N’. He sat back. Everyone contemplatively stared at his work. It had a strange solidity for such a frail piece of wood in a temperamental desert.

“He never actually killed anyone, you know,” Pauly said. “Just threatened to a few times.”

“He was a slippery son of a bitch, that’s for sure,” Jax said.

“He was so calm and fearless,” Tanaka said. “He had a hero’s heart, but a rogue’s soul.”

“His poetry was shit though,” Sebastian said.

What say it of a man,

when there’s a smile on his death mask?

Is he brave? Is he a fool?

What do his dead eyes see?” Pauly recited. “I think that was his best one.”

“Hmmm,” Sebastian assented, staring at the cross.

“There’s one thing I don’t get,” Pauly said. “He told me he stole four hundred and fifty water standard, but Mikhail said he only stole fifty.”

“Maybe he lied,” Jax said. “Empty boasts are plentiful out here.”

Pauly ignored the subtle jab. “He never made empty boasts. I don’t think he had reason to, either.”

Sebastian laughed suddenly, making everyone except Tanaka jump.

“What?” Tanaka asked.

“I figured it out,” Sebastian said. “He did steal four hundred and fifty water standard.”

“How?” Pauly asked.

“The bounty,” Sebastian said. “He was never going to let himself be taken alive and be tortured by Mikhail. By having us kill him, he ensured the bounty went to us, outsiders.”

“Thus robbing Mikhail of another four hundred,” Pauly said, understanding dawning on his face.

“Screwing over your enemies even in death,” Tanaka said. “That’s hardcore.”

“That’s desert steel,” Sebastian said. “He was the real deal.”

He reached forward and carved on the vertical plank so the cross now read:

desertsteel

<Last Chapter    Next Chapter>

Desert Steel Chapter 30

-Teamwork

<Last Chapter    Next Chapter>

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.

<Last Chapter    Next Chapter>

Desert Steel Chapter 29

-Lost

<Last Chapter    Next Chapter>

Ansar and Pauly skulked down a dusty narrow street. The shacks and hovels were huddled close together. People hung around outside their doors on makeshift chairs, watching all passersby. The heat congealed in the narrow alleys, mixing with the sweat and sewage to make a cloying soup in the air. Raw sewage ran down the centre. Closer to the oasis the Casino had built a sewer system to keep the water clean, but the outer areas were left to wallow. Muggers, pickpockets and all other forms of thieves flourished in the cramped, poor environment, but they picked their targets. Two young men, one large and muscled, the other armed, repelled unwanted attention.

“Uhhh… Ansar, sir?”

“Yes, Pulley?”

“Why do you have a four hundred litre bounty on your head?”

Ansar smiled. “Because I stole four hundred and fifty litres from a powerful and angry man.”

“But why?”

Ansar laughed. “Because I am Arslan. Life’s a game and it was fun to steal from him. Maybe if I’m lucky, someone will compose an epic poem for me.”

“You’re a thrillseeker?” Pauly asked. “That’s all this is?”

“You know what they say about Terra Deserta: It attracts thrillseekers and killseekers. And all this is? This is life, Pelly. Anything is all this is.”

“I guess,” Pauly said, head down.

“Ah, you look like a bear shat in your stew. Cheer up, my friend, he who bends to death. Today is a day of triumph!”

“How so?” Paul asked, the colour draining from his tanned face.

“I have two Casino Platinums in my pocket, a canister full of champagne stolen from the VIP lounge, and I have cut off my trail with my pursuers. The latest game is over, and I’ve won.”

Pauly reminded himself of the message he’d scratched into the floorboards with a splinter, and hoped Sebastian was as smart as he thought. Ansar took him off the street they had been on, which was something of a main road, and down into a maze of narrow, filthy alleys that zigzagged through cramped houses. They finally stopped at a modest, unassuming shack with mud walls and a corrugated iron roof on the right side of the alley. Ansar opened the door, a board made of several uneven planks, and ushered Pauly inside.

The interior was well lit due to an open slit at the far end of the roof. The interior was larger than expected, due to the two side walls having doors knocked out into the next shacks along. The central entrance room was a square of hard earth with a round table and two chairs in the centre. Ansar took a chair with a satisfied groan. He tossed off his cloak, which trailed dust as it flew into the corner. His sawn-off remained on his back. He pulled out his water flask, now filled with champagne.

“In the room across there is a shelf with two wooden cups,” he said. “Bring them over.”

Pauly went into the next room. It was darker than the other one, with no slit. His eyes adjusted and he saw the shelf. It was laden with bottles of strong spirits, with two wooden cups huddled up at the edge. He took the two cups and returned to the centre room. Ansar indicated for him to sit down and he did, placing the two cups on the table. Ansar filled them both with champagne. He raised his hand in toast, and Pauly followed.

“To my hostage, never dull,” he said and drank. The champagne was warm and flat. He smiled at Pauly. “Now you.”

Pauly stumbled and stuttered over his toast. “To my captor, the lion that roars at death.”

The toast seemed to please Ansar and his smile was especially big as he threw back his second drink.

“To death, that spice of life.”

They both threw back another drink, Pauly’s hesitant.

“Say, Ansar,” he said, staring at his drink. “How about we have a real celebration?” He gathered up steam. “I mean, this is some low-level bullcrap. I’ve been to real parties, with swinging from the chandelier and all the spirits you can drink.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Drinking contest.” Pauly said. “Loser ends up under the table.”

Ansar looked thoughtful for a second. Pauly quelled the urge to break out into a sweat. Ansar smiled. “Okay, Pauly. Drinking contest.” He drained his glass of champagne. “Let’s crack open the strong stuff.”

He led Pauly into the room with the drinks, and carried an armful back to the tables. Pauly did the same. A baker’s dozen bottles of heavy liquor were now on the table. Ansar grabbed a bottle by its neck and pulled it towards him. It was labelled ‘Aquavit’, a Scandinavian alcohol. Pauly chose out a bottle of whiskey. He poured the amber liquid into his cup up to the brim. Ansar followed suit with his.

They both drained their cups in one gulp, and placed them upside down on the table. Pauly felt the familiar burn on his throat. His life of partying and binge drinking, along with his larger mass, gave him a high tolerance. He smiled grimly. Round two. They switched bottles. Drained their mugs. Slammed them down.

This continued until both bottles were drained. Pauly’s head felt light, and his face felt hot. It was nothing compared to how wasted he’d been before. They chose one bottle this time, of vodka from Poland. They filled both cups before throwing back the alcohol. Pauly’s bragging habit emerged from his tipsiness.

“Feeling a little unsteady yet?” He asked louder than was necessary. He puffed out his chest. “Not ready for big boy portions yet?”

Your eyes are dim, your face is flushin’

Silly words from your mouth are gushin’

Take heed! Never try out drink a Russian!” Ansar rhymed.

Fast car, crossing street,

Small dog, sausage meat.” Pauly countered. They poured more drinks and gulped them down. The third bottle quickly drained.

The walk to the North East of the city had sobered up both Tanaka and Sebastian, leaving them thirsty and tired. They were on the main street, but the district fragmented into a maze of alleyways. Civil planning had clearly not been present in the construction of the shanty town.

“How are we supposed to find them in this fuckfest?” Jax asked.

Sebastian nodded at the bored inhabitants sitting outside their shacks.

“These guys have nothing to do but people watch. If Ansar took the main street, they’ve seen him.”

Jax regarded them, and sneered. “You won’t get anything out of them unless you pay through the nose, and even then they’d just lie for the cash.”

“Nonsense,” Timmy said. “I think you’re underestimating the basic decency and cooperation of humanity.”

Sebastian, Tanaka and Jax all burst out laughing. “At least try and make it believable,” Jax said.

Timmy turned up his nose at them and went to the nearest watcher.

“Excuse me, sir, but have you seen two men walk by here? We’re looking for them.”

The watcher stared at him, spat on the floor, and then stared past him.

Sebastian sighed. He pushed Timmy out of the way. He pulled out one of his Casino Platinums.

“Two men. Describe them to me.”

The man eyed the silver metal poker chip. “One short, heavily muscled, browned. Other average, cloaked, leather hat, colourful shirt.” he said hurriedly, before anyone else tried claim the money.

“Where’d they go?”

The man pointed up the street. “They turned off onto that side street there. That’s the most anyone will be able to tell you.”

Sebastian went to hand him the coin. Jax grabbed his arm. “We’ve already got the info. Fuck giving him the money.”

“I’ll take it out of my share,” Sebastian replied, “Christ.”

Tanaka reached over, plucked the coin form his hand, and gave it to the man. “Take it out of mine,” he said. “Let’s go. Pauly is waiting.”

The side street led to a jumble of alleyways and dead ends.

“Well, great,” Jax said. “How does this help.”

“It’s a much smaller area than before,” Sebastian said. “We might be able to go door to door.”

“Still a lot of doors,” Tanaka observed. “Could lead to a lot of angry villagers.”

“Let’s explore the alleyways first,” Sebastian suggested. “See how far it goes.”

Pauly and Ansar were into their seventh bottle, this one a cheap brandy. Pauly’s vision was bleary and he had trouble stringing together coherent thoughts. Old ideas and memories were bubbling up in his mind. His speech was heavily slurred and he kept repeating the same things over and over. His upper torso was swaying where he sat.

It was as drunk as he’d ever been.

Ansar was calm and smiling like a cat. He lounged in his chair.

“I must say, Pauly, I’m mighty impressed. You hold your drink as well as any man I’ve ever met.”

“Itsh eashy if… If… Drinksh a lot.” Pauly said. He felt really tired.

“Of course. You knew you had a high tolerance for alcohol. I guess your plan was to challenge me to a drinking contest, get me passed out, and escape. A brave plan, I’ll give you. Not exactly subtle, but brave.”

“It’sh not ov-over.” Pauly took another shot. Ansar laughed.

“Drinking more isn’t going to make me drunk, my friend. I haven’t been drinking since halfway through the first bottle.” Ansar took his cup and poured its contents on the floor.

“Not me,” Paul said. “Coward. Losht the contesht. Gonna… Gonna sleep now.”

Ansar smiled. “You do that.” He got up as Pauly’s head lolled forwards. He needed to pee. He’d still drunk a reasonable helping of alcohol.

He got up and went outside. He unbuckled his belt, opened his fly, and let out a stream of steaming piss onto the shack across the way. He sighed with relief. It was happy days. He’d hold onto Pauly for a few more days, then cut him loose and head off. Maybe somewhere in the East. There was always fun to be had and he’d heard rumours of a religious cult up that way. He zipped up his fly and buckled up his belt.

“Hey Ansar, where’s Pauly?”

Ansar looked up the alleyway. His pursuers were there, all of them. He grinned.

They walked the paths, often hitting dead ends and having to return. With each one, Sebastian’s heart sank. There were just so many shacks, with so many escape routes. The instant they kicked down one door Ansar would know about it and disappear. He kept walking. It was better to doing nothing, if only because it made him feel like he was trying.

They rounded a corner. Near the end of the alley, peeing onto a wall, stood Ansar. Sebastian was reminded of their first encounter, the sheer luck of walking into him right after choosing his bounty poster. He had to strangle the urge to laugh.

“Hey Ansar, Where’s Pauly?” Tanaka asked, like he was talking to a friend he’d just run into at the supermarket.

Ansar looked up and grinned.

“In the shack there. And in desperate need of rescuing. You can only take one of us alive.”

Tanaka drew, his gun a line of quicksilver. Timmy grabbed him.

“No, we need him alive!”

Tanaka cussed him out and elbowed him away, but the chance was gone. Ansar had vaulted a shack and was running on the rooftops away from the shack holding Pauly. The group rushed up the alley to where he’d stood. Timmy and Gwendolyn leapt up onto the roof to the left, pursuing Ansar. Jax went to follow, but Sebastian stopped him.

“No! We’re getting Pauly first!”

Jax hesitated, watching Timmy, Gwendolyn and the rapidly disappearing Ansar. “Fuck!”

He turned back and joined Sebastian and Tanaka.

“It might be booby trapped,” Sebastian said. “Hold on.” He clambered up onto the roof and slid along. He found the slit letting light in, and peered inside. He saw Pauly slumped in his chair, not moving. He slid through the gap. The smell of alcohol was strong in the air. He saw Pauly was breathing. He opened the door, letting Tanaka and Jax in.

“He’s fucking fine,” he said.

“Fuck me,” Jax said, taking in the room. “It was a total fucking bluff.”

“It’s my fault,” Sebastian said, pissed. “God damn it.”

“You did the right thing,” Tanaka said. “That’s what matters.”

“No, I did the good thing,” Sebastian said. “That’s not the same.”

“Maybe it’s better.”

“No, it’s not,” Sebastian snapped. “It’s my job to do the right thing. You can be the guy that does the good thing, Tanaka.”

“Can’t you do both?” Tanaka suggested, concerned.

“Not always,” Sebastian said. “Shit. Fuck. Piss. Come on. Let’s see if our dynamic duo have captured Ansar.”

Tanaka hoisted Pauly up. He woke up, confused.

“I eshcaped?” He asked. “I did good?”

“Yeah,” Tanaka said. “You did good.”

They came out to see Timmy and Gwendolyn returning with Ansar sandwiched between them. His face was one of extreme calm.

“We gotsh him?” Pauly asked. “Issh he a lion?”

“Yeah, yeah, we got him,” Tanaka said.

Timmy was all smiles. “We can take him back to Mikhail together and share the reward,” he said. “It’s time for him to face justice.” He pulled Ansar’s cloak aside. “I mean, look at the lack of remorse. He’s even wearing one of Mikhail’s waistcoats!”

Ansar just stared off into the distance.

“How’d you catch him?” Sebastian asked.

“The roof he was running on collapsed. Guess it goes to show justice always catches up to you in the end.”

“Jushtice?” Pauly repeated.

Sebastian face was an expressionless mask and his eyes pale blue river stones. “Time to go get our reward then.”

“You betcha,” Timmy said.

“I am the lion who roars at death,” Ansar intoned, his voice deep and sonorous. Everyone started. Gwendolyn tugged him sharply and started walking him away. Timmy followed to his rear.

Pauly, slumped over on the ground, tugged at Sebastian’s jeans. Sebastian turned and looked down at him.

“I think… I think that he wantsh to die,” Pauly slurred.

Sebastian knelt down and looked Pauly straight in the eyes. For a moment Pauly saw the depths to his eyes behind the shield, like a deep dark lake beneath a thick frozen surface.

“I know,” Sebastian said. He stood back up and drew his gun at Ansar’s, Timmy’s and Gwendolyn’s backs.

“Hey Ansar,” he said.

Ansar turned around and died with a smile on his face.

Timmy and Gwendolyn both recoiled, leaping away from the now corpse. “Jesus Christ!” Gwendolyn shrieked.

Timmy turned to Sebastian, his face white. “You’ll regret this.”

“No,” Sebastian said, “I won’t. Because I’ve figured it all out.”

He holstered his weapon and gave a smug smirk. “Even once you knew about the dead and alive bounty you still insisted on taking Ansar alive. You talked up justice, but let’s face it, we both know that was a load of horseshit. Once I found out you were the employees of the bounty issuer, it all made sense. Mikhail had given you a mission to bring Ansar back alive. You’d taken too long so he issued the bounty, dead or alive. For you, returning Ansar dead would be a failure of your mission, which I doubt Mikhail treats kindly. For us though, we’ve achieved the bounty. By the way, I reckon if we did carry Ansar in with you, you’d have Mikhail kill us and take all the credit.”

Timmy took a shuddering breath. He was shaking with rage.

“So by killing Ansar, I’ve won. Which actually means I’ve won twice, because I’ve also figured you out. Your ‘holier than thou, goody two shoes’ schtick, and Gwendolyn’s harpy impersonation. You two play it up off each other, to try piss people off and make them look like bad guys to bystanders. In Portal City, I’m sure it works a charm. Big crowds for an audience, and half the people there are new jumpers, fresh from Earth. They’ve just come from a world where they help old ladies cross the street and where they have the luxury to do good. You probably are really good at it, have people jump in to help you all the time. The problem is, you’re city folk. You’re out of your depth here. Half the time, you haven’t even had an audience for your lectures. The time you did, that whole ‘why don’t you care’ routine in Dune’s End, maybe ten people stopped, and one stayed. And he was probably just there to watch the show.”

Timmy’s eyes, usually so innocent and serious, could have burned holes through inch thick steel.

“I don’t even think you can navigate in the desert! The other side of your act is that you get people annoyed, really annoyed. Jax was always going off at you, insulting you, breaking your things. You never got mad. It’s because when we’re mad you’re winning. You have us off balance. What gets you angry is losing.”

Sebastian leaned in close, with a shit-eating grin.

“You hate losing, and you. Just. Lost.”

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Desert Steel Chapter 28

-Counting

<Last Chapter    Next Chapter>

The moment of cresting the final dune and having the full expanse of New Arusha unfold across the dry plain before you was unforgettable. To Sebastian, the mesmerising view wasn’t just of the glittering casino. The shanty town, of mud and wood and corrugated iron, shone with its own vibrant, dirty energy.

“Where do we even start?” Jax asked. “If it was a small town… But this!”

Sebastian laughed. “If I have even an inkling of what Ansar is like it’s going to be the casino.”

“What if he’s somewhere else?”

“What if he’s not in the city? We’ve got to start somewhere.”

The group moved down the dunes to the oasis. At the two entrance ways, they stopped.

“We should split up,” Sebastian said. “Tanaka, Gwendolyn, with me to the left, Timmy and Jax to the right.”

“Okay,” Timmy agreed.

Sebastian lead his group  along past every table in a zigzag pattern. It wasn’t seen as suspicious, as many other people were drifting between tables, looking for exciting bets and fun games. With the large length of the hall, it took them twenty minutes to reach the VIP staircase.

Ansar was sitting there on the top step, waiting for them. Seeing them, he smiled, rose, and disappeared back up into the lounge above.

Tanaka’s hand flickered for his gun, but he gave up the idea when he saw the number of guards around.

Gwendolyn swatted the back of Sebastian’s head.

“What?” Sebastian asked.

“Did you see him?”

“I’m not blind.”

“Well then go after him!”

“Do you see the guards at the bottom of the staircase? You think they’re just there by chance? Wherever he is, it’s some kind of guarded area.”

Sebastian went up to the guard. He noted the star under his chevron, and turned his polite subservience up a notch. “Excuse me sir? Do you mind telling me what’s up there?”

The guard was bored and glad for any conversation. “A VIP area.”

“How do you get in?”

“Either we know who you are, or you can field five Casino Platinums or equivalent.”

Sebastian thanked him and returned to the other two. “We need five Casino Platinums. Now.”

Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. “Sure, let me just get out my ATM card. Dumbass.”

Tanaka ignored her. “You got an idea?”

“We’re in a casino. We can win the money.”

“If we’re very lucky.”

“I can card count,” Sebastian said. “I think I can make some of my own luck. Gwendolyn, you wait here for Jax and Timmy. Tanaka, we’re going gambling.”

Sebastian chose a blackjack table close to the entrance, betting low at first. Card counting at its simplest was a matter of keeping track of all the high and low cards. With his memory and mathematical skills, it was a breeze. After ten rounds he had almost doubled his pot. Tanaka left and returned with drinks.

“Let’s make this fun!” he said, beaming. “I always wanted to go to a casino.”

Sebastian grimaced. “I should stay clear headed. Have fun on my behalf man.”

“You got it, boss!” He chugged both drinks in a matter of seconds. Apparently, he even drank fast.

The rounds progressed like that, Sebastian quietly accruing more winnings while Tanaka became a loud suspicion buffer. Sebastian moved up two tables, to higher stakes, and kept gambling. Noticing the dealer starting to watch him, perhaps growing suspicious, Sebastian nudged Tanaka.

“I will have that drink,” he said.

Tanaka grinned. He handed Sebastian an orange liquid. “We’re too young to not have fun.”

Sebastian chugged the burning spirit in one go. He waved for another. Tanaka rushed to oblige.

Sebastian usually avoided getting drunk, because it dulled his greatest weapon, his mind. But he got shitfaced in the casino. Soon it was a blur of tables higher and higher up. Throughout it all he maintained his counts. His winnings grew and grew. The dealers, seeing a harmless drunk, lost their suspicions of card counting.

Pauly sat on the hard wooden boards. People flowed in and out of the casino on the other side of the oasis. The room was silent except for the tinkle of glasses and the soft padding of the waiter’s feet.

“Aren’t you worried?” Pauly asked. Ansar had seen Sebastian and the rest enter from across the oasis, and waited at the top of the stairs to bait them in.

“Why?” Ansar asked. “Because they’ll kill me? A weak man cowers to death like a weak tree breaks in the wind. But a lion roars in the face of death. Ansar is the name given to me by my mother, but Arslan is my true name.”

Pauly bent his head down.

“You want to know your true name, Peelly? You are the tree that sways to the wind, but does not break.”

Pauly kept staring at the knots in the wooden floor.

“Of course, a lion resists death. I’m not going to be lying around here forever. I have a safe house in the North East of the city.”

Pauly kept staring at the floor. He nervously played with the loose splinters.

It took twenty minutes, but Sebastian and Tanaka returned, buzzed and victorious, to the VIP area, with five Casino Platinums. There was no one there waiting for them.

Sebastian frowned, His brain pickling in alcohol. “Hol-hold up.”

“You’re my bestest friend.” Tanaka slurred. “You know that? Like, if you were a girl… And I was a girl… We’d still be friends.”

“I’m thinking,” Sebastian slurred back. “But thanks man, you’re like… Two best friends.”

Sebastian stood still for a moment, his gears still turning but slowed by drink. He staggered over to the guard. “Did the girl and a baby-faced boy go up?” he asked.

The guard didn’t look at him. “We don’t divulge anything about VIPs.”

Sebastian giggled. “You just did. Hey, Tanaka, you hear that?”

“Yeah. What a dumbass.” Tanaka paused, then gave a pantomime shush. “Shhhh. I gotta be good.”

The guard turned and stared at them stony-faced.

“You just told us they were VIPs, which means they did go up,” Sebastian said. “What about a stocky rat-faced man. Did you throw one out?”

The guard smirked. “I did. As I will you two if you don’t move along.”

“Nah,” Sebastian said. “Becaushhh we’re with the VIPs. They’ll ashking for us soon.”

The guard scowled. “Prove it.”

“Sure. Call down some precious VIPs. Disturb them.”

The guard was trapped. He glared at the two of them. “No trouble, or I’ll make it double.”

“Team rocket!” Sebastian exclaimed.

“Huuuuh?!” Tanaka moaned.

The guard pulled out a baton.

“That won’t be necessary, officer.”

It was Timmy, descending the staircase, Gwendolyn in tow.

“Lotta nerve trying to run ahead on us,” Tanaka growled. “Too much nerve. You can’t handle me…” He shushed himself again and muttered ‘good’.

Timmy smiled. “Gwendolyn had no way of knowing I had the authority through Mikhail to get in. We’re supposed to stay undercover and it was my call.”

“Except Jax wasn’t invited,” Sebastian observed, swaying on his feet.

“It’ssshhh a load a bullshit,” Tanaka said. “I could get my fists up their arses before they can blink. Make ’em into puppetsh”

“He didn’t have Mikhail to vouch for him, did he?” Timmy said. “We would have returned down these stairs with Ansar and reunited with Jax but…”

“He got pissedddddd,” Tanaka laughed.

“No, we’re pisshed,” Sebastian retorted. They both laughed.

“While you were getting drunk,” Timmy said with disapproval, “We were searching for Ansar and your friend. Drinking is bad for your brain, you know. It’s a bad habit to keep.”

“You can’t find him, can you?” Sebastian said. “He escaped with Pauly again.”

Timmy nodded solemnly. “We need your help, Sebastian.”

“Of course, you do,” Sebastian replied. He and Tanaka wobbled past the guard, who was gritting his teeth but saying nothing.

Sebastian staggered into the VIP room, staggered straight to a rubbish bin, and vomited into it. Tanaka burst into laughter.

“Gaijin can’t handle his drink!”

Sebastian wiped his mouth clean and stood up with steely determination. His mind was clearing. He turned to Timmy.

“The staff won’t talk?”

Timmy shook his head.

“When’d you arrive?”

“Five minutes after you left.”

Sebastian’s eyes swung left and right. Over the couches, empty and full.

“Anyone else come up here?”

Gwendolyn shook her head. Her fiery hair flared in the motion. “How many VIPs do you think there are?”

Sebastian didn’t reply. He moved from empty couch to empty couch, feeling each one. He stopped at one with a clear view out over the oasis.

“Ansar was here,” he said.

“How can you possibly know that?”

“MAAAGIC!” Tanaka said.

“The seat is still warm and the leather deformed,” Sebastian said. “No one new has arrived. Hopefully people don’t move around much, but I think it’s the best guess you’ll get.”

“Good job,” Timmy said.

“I’m not done.” Sebastian crouched down and pointed at the wooden floor. “Someone sat here, you can see the sweat marks, probably Pauly. He’s scratched something.” He got down closer. “Looks like NE.”

“Maybe it’sh initialsh,” Tanaka said. “Like, Nicholash Earl or something.”

“No,” Sebastian chuckled. “I think it’s North East.”

“What? Kanye West’s daughter?” Timmy asked.

“No, like the direction,” Sebastian said. He and Tanaka looked at each other, exchanged smirks, then burst out laughing.

“Kanye East!” Tanaka spluttered.

Timmy frowned. “Very funny, but once you’ve emerged from your artificial drunk good cheer may I remind you your friend is captured and fast escaping.”

Sebastian recovered himself and swallowed his grin. “No, he’s not. He’s holed up somewhere in the North East of this city.”

“Okay, how do you know that?”

“There’s nothing North East of here. And in desert navigation, you never say ‘I’m going North East’, you say ‘I’m going to this town’. It makes sense anyway, this is a big city. Plenty of places to hide.”

“Too many.”

“Not really. We know it’s North East, which is actually a narrow area. If it was just North that would probably mean a full quarter of the City to search. But North East is more specific, it gives us just an eighth to search. Less, actually, since if it’s too close to the centre it would be called ‘central’ or ‘by casino’. Maybe the area of one of the small towns.”

They left the casino. Sebastian didn’t bother look to see how Ansar escaped. He didn’t really care. It wasn’t important. They found Jax sulking outside the casino.

“You find him?” he asked.

Sebastian smiled. “We will. Come on.”

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Desert Steel Chapter 27

-Gamble

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Ansar drove Pauly hard. At first, motivated by fear, he complied unresisting. He kept up the pace even as his feet blistered in his inappropriate shoes. They’d been good and comfy on a dance floor, but they failed him in the sand. But as time went on, Pauly got some confidence back once he saw Ansar wasn’t about to shoot him. At the same time, he nurtured his fledgling courage. And so, as they walked day and night with only power naps to keep them going, Pauly started getting a lot more tired. He started needing more and more breaks. His legs gave out beneath him daily. Unless constantly reminded, his pace dropped back to a slow walk. Ansar got wise of course, but there was only so many times you could threaten to shoot someone before the threat wears out. He had to keep a constant eye on Pauly to keep him going.

Despite all this, they were making good, if painfully won, time over their pursuers, who’d left late and were sleeping fuller hours.

As he walked, and avoided walking, Pauly relived his last day in Dune’s End. Ansar had rented a room in the saloon. He’d asked for some handcuffs, which Pauly was surprised to find they supplied. Then he’d shoved Pauly in the room’s closet, handcuffed his wrists together, and shoved a long barrelled shotgun in his mouth. Ansar then laced Pauly’s fingers through the tight trigger guard, winked and smiled, and shut the door. It had been tight and cramped. His face was pressed up against the locked door. His fingers frozen on the hair pull trigger. His teeth bit around the metal barrel. It was a deceptively difficult trap. A single wrong move in the cramped closet could have blown his head off. Even if he got it out of his mouth it was such a small space the barrel was sure to be aimed at some body part. Still, it probably could have been broken out of. The trap was also psychological. It played on Pauly’s fear and paralysed him.

He stayed perfectly still, fingers petrified against the trigger, for four hours until Ansar returned and let him out. It was sheer luck that he didn’t pee himself or worse while he was stuck there. Ansar had just smiled and forced him to climb out the window to escape town.

The way cowardice had allowed him to miss a four hour window to escape shamed Pauly. It remained on his mind every time he staggered, or felt faint, or needed to catch his breath.

Eventually, they reached the summit of a high dune, giving them a sweeping view of the desert beyond. Pauly’s heart sank. The glistening jewel of the desert, New Arusha, jutted out from a blue oasis. Pauly remembered the shotgun, and decided now was a good time to faint. He swayed like a tree in the wind before folding over into the sand. His breathing was shallow and measured, his eyes shut. Ansar crouched down beside him.

“Awaken, he of weak legs,” he said playfully.

Pauly didn’t stir. His breathing maintained a steady pace.

“Don’t make me use this,” Ansar said, drawing his sawn-off shotgun.

There was a catch in Pauly’s breathing before the normal rhythm resumed. Ansar waited patiently. Pauly didn’t move.

“You’re right,” Ansar said. “I’m not going to shoot you.” He ejected the two shotgun shells from the double barrels, then grabbed the gun by the barrel. “I’m going to beat you.” He axed the gun butt into the sand right in front of Pauly’s face. It made a loud ‘Whap!’ Pauly couldn’t help but to flinch. Ansar grinned. “I can see you’re awake, Pooly. Don’t try conceal it.” He tapped the meat of his palm with the stock.

Pauly began to giggle, which grew inside his gut into great guffaws. He felt elated and insane.

“Why do you laugh, Pilly? Has your mind broken like a summer breeze on my back?”

Pauly kept his head down, but he spoke with a grin on his face. His fear had gone for a moment, and the feeling was liberating. “Hurt me all you want. I don’t fear pain. Pain tells me I’m still alive.”

“You fear death more than you fear pain,” Ansar said. “How foolish.” With one foot he shoved Pauly down the dune.

Pauly tumbled down the dune, kicking up sand and bouncing painfully. He finally reached the bottom, dizzy and wheezing. His ribs ached. Ansar strolled down the dune.

“Are you ready to walk now?” he asked.

Pauly staggered to his feet, sore and, for now, defeated. He nodded, head down, and followed Ansar to the town.

New Arusha was a practice in extravagance, power and wealth. It was the closest the southern regions had to a city, fed by its large and clean oasis. Its oasis was about the width of a football field, and roughly circular. Its unusual blue-green tones were often described as emerald, although Sebastian would have argued Tanzanite was more appropriate. Initially the town had built up around the water, existing only because it could. A few forays into storing and transporting the water to sell to other towns as ‘New Arusha Water’ were attempted, but failed under the logistical difficulties. Then, a man known as Rico founded a casino by the water’s edge. The casino expanded rapidly, chewing up rivals wishing to mimic its success. Soon, it was the biggest casino in Terra Deserta. Amazingly, the dirt poor people of the desert flocked to it, gambling away guns, clothing, Earth currencies, and even water. The building became palatial, an edifice of unparalleled expense. Wrought iron and steel were used as the frames, which due to their weight must have cost millions to supply. Glass sheets made up the front facade, which enclosed most of the oasis in the shape of a horseshoe. Some of them were ten metres squared, and all were smelted from the desert sand. The rest was wood, but varnished and polished, instead of the dry, cheap splintery wood used everywhere else. There was a rumour that the glass front reflected the sunlight into a death ray they used to execute cheaters. Pauly didn’t know whether to believe it or not.

The casino shone in the desert sun. Pauly was so enraptured by the glare that it wasn’t until they got much closer that he noticed the sprawl of cheap shacks around it. It was a large shanty town, populated by casino employees and people who leached of off the gamblers the casino brought in. They sold food, weapons, clothing and cheap accommodation. Ansar led Pauly up to the undeveloped edge of the oasis. To both their left and their right were entrances to the casino. The building started low and then rose as it went around the oasis, until it formed a central high block with a spire directly across the oasis from them.

A guard walked past on patrol. He was weighed down by hot, impractical but intimidating tactical gear. A helmet, reflective ski goggles and balaclava hid his face. He wore kneepads and elbow pads. He had gold stripes along his sleeves and legs. In the very centre of his chest were two small gold chevrons. Everything else was either black or khaki.

Pauly eyed the assault rifle held by gloved hands with weighted knuckles. Ansar saw him looking and in one effortless sweep of his leg sent Pauly sprawling. The guard didn’t even glance at him.

“They’re here to keep the peace in the casino, not play hero for damsels in distress,” Ansar said. “If you tell them you’re being held prisoner they’ll just kick the both of us out of the casino.”

Pauly nodded and got back up. Ansar lead him into the casino through the Eastern doorway.

The entranceway was designed to impress. Its vaulted ceiling had large beams supporting it, giving an illusion of height. The floor was polished and fresh despite the foot traffic. A line of cheery employees greeted those entering. Pauly couldn’t help noticing that the number of female employees far exceeded the average Terra Deserta ratio.

Ansar returned the plastic, stretched grins of the greeters with a warm, winning smile. Pauly, ill at ease and still stunned by the casino’s grandeur, just gawked as he was dragged through. The casino then opened up into one big floor, unbroken all the way around the oasis until the other entrance. Tables studded the space like stars in the sky, playing roulette, blackjack, poker and more. People were gambling with materials, tools, weapons  and currencies. The tables were piled with the bets.

Ansar led Pauly past all this, up towards the central spire. Things got more and more high stakes as they went. About three quarters of the way through, he stopped and asked an employee the maximum betting in water standard. On the reply he moved on up ten tables and asked again. Satisfied this time, he motioned for Pauly to stand at a roulette table. There were three gamblers there already, their wealth showing in the quality and condition of their clothing. One had an ornately engraved desert steel. The bets on the table were above average, large piles of currency and the odd high quality item. Ansar stepped in, nodding a greeting at the three other occupants. He watched one round go by. The ball skittered and rattled across the wheel before dropping into black six. The pile was redistributed between two of the men. The third, the one with the ornamented revolver, hesitated before throwing it into the new bet.

“Even,” he said.

Ansar pulled a wad of paper money from his pocket and dropped it on the pile. Then a silver coin with a golden rim. He dropped a sheet of clean white paper on the pile. He untied his cloak and let it drop. Then he stripped of his waistcoat and dropped it on the pile. His torso underneath was sleek, tanned and scarred. He put his shotgun on the pile too. His hat joined it. He picked his cloak off the ground and put it on too. He smiled, naked from the waist up.

“The stars are with me today,” he announced. “All on thirty six.”

No one showed any surprise. The other two placed their own bets. One played it safe on odds. The other followed Ansar’s lead and bet on number thirty one.

The dealer spun the wheel and released the ball. It skittered around the rim. If Ansar was nervous he didn’t show it. His smile only widened. The wheel slowed. The ball bounced on a partition. It hovered over unlucky number thirteen. Everyone was holding their breath except Ansar. The ball fell into number thirty six. Ansar’s smile didn’t widen.

The payout was thirty five to one. The dealer evaluated the worth of Ansar’s bet to be about one hundred litres on the water standard. About half of that was the waistcoat, which was embroidered and lined with silk, and the coin.

“How do you want your payout?” the dealer asked. “Casino Platinum?”

Ansar nodded.

Casino Platinum was native currency of New Arusha, propagated by the casino. It was convenient for measuring the worth of a bet, as well as being something small and portable for bigger winnings. It was a high value currency, with the worth of the casino as its backer. One Casino Platinum was five hundred litres on the water standard. They were poker chips made out of aluminium or steel, only the true elites had real platinum chips.

Ansar put all his clothes back on and his things away. The dealer handed him seven Casino Platinums with no reluctance. Ansar had won by fair luck, and for every winner there were ten losers. The house always won. Ansar thanked the man and lead Pauly on, deeper into the place. They reached the centre. The central spire was accessible by a single guarded staircase. A sign beside it read: ‘VIP area’. Ansar went right up to the guard.

“Can I get in?”

The guard’s face was hidden by his gear. “If you have to ask that question, you can’t.”

“What’s the money cost?”

The guard openly looked Ansar up and down. “You win it big, or you wasting both out time?”

“Won it big.”

The guard relaxed, shrinking a little in his uniform. His chest had a single two chevrons and a star. “Five Casino Platinums.”

It was the equivalent of more than a year’s water requirement. Ansar handed it over without blinking, most of his winnings gone back to the casino in an instant. The guard stood aside and let him through. The guard blocked Pauly when he tried to follow.

“Five per person,” he said.

Pauly considered bolting right then. Before he could, Ansar spoke up.

“He’s my slave.”

Slavery wasn’t unusual in the lawless Terra Deserta, and the guard was accommodating for VIPs. Pauly’s chance evaporated when he realised the guard would help Ansar recapture him. The guard nodded and shoved Pauly through. Then he pulled out a rubber stamp, wet with ink, and stamped Pauly’s forehead with a bold ‘S‘.

“Don’t give him any of the luxuries up there or the other guard will charge you another five Platinums,” the guard warned.

Ansar nodded and lead Pauly, now shamed by his ink brand, up the stairs.

The VIP room overlooked the oasis, which sparkled in the desert sun. Ansar lounged out on a long plush crimson couch. A waitress hurried to offer him a drink. He took a mug of ale from her tray. Pauly stood, unsure what to do. Ansar waved his hand and another employee appeared almost instantly.

“Can my slave lie on the floor?” Ansar asked.

“Yes sir,” the employee replied, bowing low. “Of course. All furniture is off limits, however.”

Ansar smiled and took a hearty gulp from his mug, his eyes looking out across the oasis. “Lie down if you want. We’re going to be here a while.”

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Desert Steel Chapter 26

-Conversations in the Desert Part 2

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The scenery was undulating dunes for miles. Sebastian and his group were the only ones in sight.

“Hey Sebastian,” Tanaka said, interrupting Sebastian, who was practising his draw to get it faster.

“Yeah?”

“What with your deadpan face and emotionless voice, I was just wondering: do you have any fears?”

“Of course. What about you, O Lightning God?”

“Yeah, course.”

“So what is it?”

“Sharks.”

“Sharks?”

“Yeah man. They re-grow their teeth like with a fucking organic conveyer belt. They’re torpedoes with blades.”

“Blades?”

“You know, that sharp pointy thing that sticks out of the water.”

“You mean a dorsal fin. Those aren’t sharp.”

“That’s what they want you to think. You ever actually touched one?”

“Yes. At an aquarium, Tanaka. I’m not a pussy.”

Tanaka huffed dramatically, although he wasn’t far from a smile. “Fine. I’m actually scared of them because I hate swimming. I can’t move fast in water. That’s terrifying.”

“Imagine being in syrup. That’s like a hundred times as thick.”

“Please don’t say that.”

“That’s such a stupid thing to be afraid of though, man. Like, point me to the nearest body of water and I’ll legit have your children.”

“Fears aren’t always rational.”

“What if there were sand-sharks? Maybe there’s one underneath you right now, swimming up to get you.”

Tanaka smiled. “Yeah, but I can move fast here. I’d beat the shit out of anything up here.”

Sebastian smiled back. “What, even a bear?”

Tanaka’s grin widened. “Back in Japan, I once jumped into a bear enclosure as a dare.”

“I’m guessing it didn’t tear your arm off.”

“It came up to sniff me, I bopped it on its nose, and it backed off. That’s all I managed before the zookeepers dragged me out. I got in a lot of trouble that day, but damn did my legend grow.”

“Buuuuullllshittt,” Jax shouted. “A bear would wreck your shit up.”

“He’s not lying, Jax,” Sebastian said. “I can tell when you guys are lying. Besides, lying is bad, and Tanaka’s going to be a hero someday.”

“That’s right,” Tanaka said, nodding.

“Christ, if you’ve actually fought a bear you’re already a hero,” Jax said.

Tanaka smiled, but his look was distant. “It takes more than strength to be a hero. Besides, it wasn’t really a fight. The bear wasn’t trying to hurt me.”

“What’s your fear, Jax?” Sebastian asked.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“I don’t get scared, I get angry. Nothing scares me anymore.”

“What about a nightmare scenario? Like, one where you still got scared.”

Jax got thoughtful. “Then, I guess it would be facing a crowd.”

“Facing a crowd?”

“Yeah like a big group of people judging me, and I’m paralysed with fear. Can’t punch one of them, can’t give them the finger. Just stand there, all alone and feeling scared.”

“That’s a really depressing thought,” Sebastian said.

“Not for me,” Tanaka said. “I can’t imagine being scared of an audience.”

“Whatever, fucknuts. I don’t care what you think. Sebastian, what’s your fear? You haven’t told us yet.”

“Scurvy.”

Tanaka and Jax exchanged a look and then protested in sync. “Aw, come on!”

“Fears, actual fears. Not some random disease,” Jax demanded.

“I’m serious. When was the last time you had fruit or vegetables with vitamin C? Where do you expect to find any? Right now, we’re all just ticking time bombs for scurvy. Every day you could wake up with your gums swollen or bleeding. If you do, then what? How are you going to cure it?”

“That’s… actually scary,” Tanaka said.

“I’m going to be honest with you. If we don’t find a source of vitamin C soon we’re all going to die.”

“You know what? Fuck sharks. I’m scared of scurvy too,” Tanaka said

“Scurvy it is,” Jax agreed.

The sun peaked and then began it’s slow descent. Sebastian took a gulp from his water canister and ran his tongue over his parched lips.

“So who is Timmy, Jax?” Sebastian asked.

Jax shrugged. “He and Gwendolyn are one of Mikhail’s top tier employees. I don’t know much else, just that they did all sorts or jobs for him in Portal City.”

“It was dumb of them to use their real names,” Sebastian observed.

“Guess they thought no one out here knew them.”

“Bad luck they ended up working with an ex-enforcer.”

“Yeah. I’d never seen them before, though. Just heard the names.”

“Who was the third guy? The one Tanaka shot.”

“A tracker, didn’t Timmy say? So maybe some local guide they hired.”

Sebastian glanced back at Timmy and Gwendolyn who were tagging along behind, just out of earshot.

“Do you think either of them can actually navigate? Think about it. We’ve only ever seen them track someone else, never navigate without a path,” he asked.

“Possible,” Jax conceded. “I realised something, though. Once I got past the initial shock of realising they were Mikhail’s.”

“That if we kill them out here Mikhail will never know? We could just pretend we never met them, give false names, and disappear out into the outer settlements.”

“So you’ve already thought of it.”

“Of course I have. That’s what I do.”

“So why don’t we?”

“Because I realised that Tanaka’s right. I want to be good too, and this is as good a place to start as any.”

Jax swore. “You’ve turned into a fucking pussy.”

“Oh really, just like Tanaka right? Fastest hands in the world and you call him a pussy.”

Jax spat, which was ten times the gesture in Terra Deserta where water was precious. “Damn right he is. Good this, hero that. There’s no point being strong if you’re too much of a pussy to use it.”

“I don’t think you understand Tanaka at all. He’s an arrogant, reckless delinquent trying to be good. His nature isn’t good.”

“Oh yeah? Watch this.” Jax walked up three paces to be beside Tanaka. “Tanaka, you’re a manlet fucking gook. You’re bleached hair looks like piss and your tattoo like a crayon drawing. Earrings are for faggots, which suits you just fine you cocksucker.”

Tanaka smiled. It was a arrogant, tolerating smile. “Big words coming from a rat. Go pick on someone your own speed, like a ten year old girl. Just make sure she doesn’t beat your arse down too hard. The only two reasons I won’t do it myself is because I’m trying to be good, and your insults are as harmless as an old tortoise.”

Jax glared, stuck. He realised he had to retaliate, or else lose face to both Tanaka and Sebastian. He took a half-hearted swing. Tanaka swayed back, dodging easily. “Now it’s self-defence,” he said. His fist jabbed out and bopped Jax’s nose.

Nose stinging, eyes watering, Jax staggered back and away. Sebastian already had a handkerchief out.

“Told you,” he said. “Do you retract your pussy statement now?”

“Whatever,” Jax said, snatching the handkerchief and wiping his nose clean.

Tanaka fished out five U.S dollars from his bag and handed it to Sebastian.

“What’s that for?” Jax asked.

“We were going to have a bet on whether or not you’d take a swing at Tanaka, but we both agreed it was inevitable. So I bet that when you did Tanaka wouldn’t be able to resist taking a shot at you.”

“I couldn’t,” Tanaka said. “It was too tempting. No hard feelings though, right?”

The sky went blood red as the sun set. Sebastian, Tanaka and Jax camped one dune over from Timmy and Gwendolyn. It was a pleasant evening. The air temperature was diving to its icy night time temperatures, but right then it was in a sweet spot. Everyone was enjoying having their weight off their feet and the heat off their skin. None of the three spoke. Sebastian lay on his back on the cooling sand and looked up to the orchestra of the stars in the sky, as he always did. His eyes drank the oddly cold light in until it was all he saw. His mind drifted elsewhere.

The sound of ragged, strained notes blared from over the dune. Sebastian’s peace was shattered. He propped himself up on his elbows. Strangled notes were being force out of a harmonica. The song coming out was stillborn. Tanaka and Jax mirrored his irritation. They endured it for another few minutes, until Tanaka and Sebastian both pleadingly stared at Jax.

“Why don’t you do it?” Jax demanded.

“I’m trying to be good,” Tanaka said.

“I want to, but we agreed you’ll do the angry part,” Sebastian said.

Jax, tired and wanting to rest, sighed. He got to his feet, groaning as stiff muscles resisted. He stormed over the dune. A muffled greeting could be heard, which wasn’t responded to. Then there was a brief squawk  of protest followed by a smashing sound. A noise that might have been sobs carried over the dune, accompanied by Gwendolyn’s shrieking.

“That was his grandmother’s harmonica, you arsehole! It can’t be replaced!”

“I don’t give a shit!” Jax screamed back. He came storming over the dune, then flung the shattered remains over a far dune.

Sebastian was smiling openly. Tanaka was trying to hide his own smile of pleasure, but he couldn’t keep a straight face.

Somewhere else in the great expanse of the desert, Ansar was leading Pauly along a long dune.

“How about this, Polly?

What say it of a man,

when there’s a smile on his death mask?

Is he brave? Is he a fool?

What do his dead eyes see?

Pauly kept his head down. He tried search for the right answer, the one his captor wanted. Was he talking about killing Pauly? He gave up. He looked up, and saw Ansar had turned back and was watching him. He hid his sudden fright at this and looked Ansar dead in the eyes.

“I don’t know. I need to know what the poem’s about.”

Ansar threw up his arms in exasperation. “Do you know what a rose is about? Why a sunset happens? Does knowledge of sugar make chocolate sweeter?”

Pauly threw his mind back to high school science. “Isn’t the sunset something to do with the light passing through more air, or something?”

“You miss the point, Pully. Beauty does not need knowledge. It is the one true free concept, beholden to nothing else.”

Pauly nodded in agreement and dropped his gaze.

“No!”

Pauly halted, concerned. “N-no what?”

“Don’t just roll over like a mewling dog. You disagree.”

Pauly swallowed. “A poem is beautiful on its own, but surely you must agree that knowing its meaning enhances its beauty.”

“Which is more beautiful: the woman you don’t understand but fascinates you, or the woman that you know intimately and in her entirety?”

Pauly cast his mind back to his parents. The way his father looked at his mother when they sat together on a humdrum Saturday afternoon. He recalled his own crushes in high school as a scared teenager who for all the bluff knew nothing about girls. The way Mary Calabrese’s exposed leg at the prom had obsessed him.

“I can’t say I really know what the second one’s like,” he said, “but I think that one.”

Ansar clapped his hands together. The sharp noise startled Pauly. “So we disagree! And in that, too, is beauty.

Two minds, two souls opposed,

conflict, battle, unresolved.

Yet, there in the passions of war,

kindles softly, beauty all.

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Desert Steel Chapter 25

-Confirmations

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Sebastian kept guard until sunrise, refusing to swap out shifts. He sat outside, deep in thought. When Tanaka came out for his shift and was refused he stayed anyway. They spent the whole night chatting and joking. With the rising sun the Water Store manager arrived. He unlocked the hefty padlock around the front door, and then unbolted the two windows. He went to the back door and unlocked another thick padlock. Then he unlocked the padlocked door to the windowless water storage room. He opened the pipe running from the barrels, allowing water to run from the tap out behind the counter. He checked the dipper stick, a plank of pale wood.

He stormed out the front door, furious. Sebastian and Tanaka observed him with bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. He swung towards them, pointing an accusatory finger.

“YOU! Did you take my water?”

“Yeah dude. Then we sat outside and waited for you to arrive,” Sebastian said.

“Well someone has taken ten litres of water!”

“Not us.”

“So then why are you dumbasses here?”

“Because we know who took your precious water.”

“He’s a bad man,” Tanaka added solemnly.

“Who?!”

Sebastian got up. The manager was actually quite tall, but Sebastian just edged him out and he made full use of those extra centimetres. The manager shrank away under his pressure.

“How’d he get in?” Sebastian asked.

“What’s it to you?”

Sebastian shrugged. “My friend here is the fastest hand in the East, and everywhere else for that matter. So what’s it to you why I wish to know?”

The manager laughed. “I’m a Water Store manager, prick. If we didn’t have protection we’d be overrun and killed daily. You shoot me and the Water Store Union will crush you like a mite, just like we’ll crush your burglar friend.”

Sebastian smiled. His eyes were chips of glacier ice. “I hope you find comfort in that when you die.”

Tanaka smiled too, his a full-on delinquent leer.

The manager blanched, spat, and set his jaw. “You think I became a manager by succumbing to base threats?”

Sebastian tried to look mystified but he was a terrible actor. “What threat? That was a blessing. We are merely offering our services of investigation because our interests align.”

The manager glared at them both. “Fine,” he said tersely. “Come and astound me then.”

The Water Store was dark and cool. The morning light had yet to filter through the windows. Sebastian inspected one of the windows. It had a heavy frame of expensive wood. It wouldn’t splinter easily like the average store’s. It dropped down onto the sill, and was bolted in two places. Sebastian slid it up and down once. He tried the bolts. They were well oiled and slid in and out smoothly.

“No bars?” Sebastian asked.

The manager scowled. “What’s it fucking look like?”

“The convenience store down from my house had bars on its windows,” Tanaka said. “Didn’t stop me.”

Sebastian left the window shutter down. He stomped on the floor. A lot of cheap Terra Deserta buildings had dirt floors, but a Water Store was never cheap. The floor was wooden planks. They gave a hollow thud. He walked around the counter. His boots thudded along the planks. One plank gave out a twang, differently pitched than the rest. Sebastian, who’d been scanning the wall to the water storage room, froze. He tried the plank again, with the same result. He waved the other two over. They huddled around him. He pressed on the board. It gave a little, sinking until it was flush with the rest. He got out his knife and tried prying the board out. The nails sprung out with no resistance. The holes they left behind were chewed up and splintered. They’d been pulled out and reinserted. The plank revealed a gap between the shop floor and the sandy ground. In the sand, a pattern of arcs had been swept out, as though someone had performed little snow angels over and over. Sebastian dropped the plank back into place.

“That’s how he got into the water storage room,” he said. “I think he came in through the window. The bolts are frictionless. Maybe a small magnet would be enough to ease them up.”

“Well how does this help me?” the store manager demanded.

“Dude, we found out how your store got broken into. Figure how that helps yourself,” Tanaka said. He paused, and looked at Sebastian. “Was that good?”

Sebastian shrugged. “Good enough. If you want to go the full mile tell him how it helps.”

“You can know fix the chink in your security, dumbass.”

“Maybe drop the dumbass,” Sebastian suggested.

Tanaka’s arm flashed out. The water store manager sank to his knees, sighed, and fell over backwards. “Dumbass dropped.”

Sebastian laughed. “Yeah, but now they’re multiplying.”

Tanaka shrugged. “I spent my whole life letting my fists take care of things. Dude was an arsehole. Old habits die hard.”

They walked out the door. Sebastian turned to Tanaka. “Hey, I just thought of a joke.”

“What?”

“You’re the chink in our security.”

They both laughed.

They found Jax, Gwendolyn and Timmy having breakfast in the saloon. Jax’s breakfast was liquid, which surprised Sebastian and Tanaka both. Jax wasn’t a heavy alcohol user. Then they saw that Gwendolyn was bitching into his one ear, and Timmy was moralising into the other. They sat down at the table.

“Please tell me this is over,” Jax begged.

“Nope,” Sebastian said. “Ansar robbed the Water Store. Probably when Gwendolyn left her post.”

“Oh fucking hell!” Jax exclaimed.

“Let’s not play the blame game here,” Timmy said quickly. “It will get us nowhere.”

“Oh fuck off,” Jax said. “I hate that fucking phrase. ‘Let’s just ignore someone’s total fucking incompetence and sweep it under the rug.’ Fuck that. We don’t need these two losers anymore.”

“Hey there…” Timmy began.

“No, he’s right,” Sebastian said. “We had you for tracking before. Why should we need you now?”

Timmy stuck out his chin. “We have a right to be involved. Ansar needs to be brought to justice.”

“You have a right to jack-shit,” Jax said.

“We’re leaving,” Sebastian said. He and Tanaka headed for the door. Jax got up as fast as he could, and hurried to join them.

Once outside, Jax spoke up again. “We say that, but how are we going to find them?”

“Ansar told me he was going to New Arusha.”

“Wait what!? You spoke to Ansar?”

“Better to say he spoke to me, then vanished.”

“Didn’t you try chase him?”

“Where? He disappeared. He could have gone anywhere, he was armed, and he must have had an escape route planned.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic. What if he’s lying to send you the wrong way?”

“He could be. But it’s all we’ve got. There’s about five possible towns he didn’t say he was going to. The odds aren’t any better.”

“So let’s go to New Arusha.”

“Where’s the old Arusha?” Tanaka asked.

“Tanzania,” Sebastian said without a moment’s hesitation. “Shall we go?” He paused, seeing the look on Tanaka’s face. “What?”

“Why the hell would you know that?”

“I just do, okay? New Arusha is placed in line with this street heading South. Come on.”

It didn’t take long, trekking through open desert, to notice they had followers. Not even secret ones. Timmy and Gwendolyn were brazenly keeping pace behind them, maybe thirty metres away. Sebastian allowed it until they were well clear of the town, and then took a soft left that took them out into a never before trodden path. It was one of the wonderful things in Terra Deserta for Sebastian. To walk on Earth never before sullied by human presence, and which, in the large expanse of the desert, could well never see it again for centuries. The isolation comforted him. Finally, he came to a stop and waited for Timmy and Gwendolyn to catch up. They didn’t, instead stopping short and watching. Sebastian walked towards them. They started walking away. He stopped and they stopped. This continued, in an intricate dance, back and forth, until…

“Hello.”

…Tanaka finished flanking around some dunes while they had their eyes on Sebastian. They were caught, and Sebastian and Jax joined Tanaka.

“What is it, gentleman?”

“The only gentleman around here is Jax,” Sebastian said. “I’ll let him tell you.”

“Piss off,” Jax ordered.

Timmy smiled. “It’s a free desert. We can walk we’re you please.”

“It is free,” Sebastian agreed. “Which means it is also free of security and law. I think you can understand what I mean.”

“You couldn’t possibly kill two unarmed travellers.”

“You have guns.”

“Not drawn.”

“True enough. Tanaka?”

“Yes?”

“If I advised you that it would be the good thing to do to shoot them both, would you do it?”

“I’d be happy to, but I wouldn’t. I judge for myself, even if I do respect your advice.”

“Of course. Would you stop me and Jax from killing them?”

“No.”

Sebastian turned back to Timmy. “There you have it.”

“It would be wrong, and you know it.”

Sebastian shrugged. “Let them go, Tanaka.”

“You sure?” Jax asked.

“I’m curious,” Sebastian said. “I know Ansar is a skilled thief. Timmy, this doesn’t come free. Tell me what Ansar did, or I’ll let Jax decide things for me.”

Timmy nodded. He knew a lifeline when he saw one.

“Ansar is a very skilled thief. Silent, fast, fearless. He stole something from a very powerful man.”

“Mikhail?”

Timmy started. He tried covering it by stuttering out a “who?”

“The guy we collect the bounty from on the poster, Timmy. I’m not stupid, the guy has a town named after him and he prints his posters on white paper. He must be powerful and rich.”

“Mikhail is involved in this?” Jax asked, incredulously.

“You didn’t read the poster?”

“Most of it… The big words.”

“So you know him?”

“Yeah, I ran a few jobs for him back in the day in Portal City. Extortion, loan collection, one hit.”

“Let me guess. Mikhailsburg is some small town within the sphere of Portal City from which he exerts his control.”

“Not really a town. More a fortified manor.” Jax was just catching up with the new information. “That means they’re that Timmy and Gwendolyn.”

“Employees of Mikhail, right?”

“Let’s just say if we kill them, the only question left will be how many pieces we’re buried in. Mikhail’s a sadistic bastard. Maybe one of the worst crime lords of PC.”

“If that’s true, why didn’t they say so?”

“Because he doesn’t want anyone to know about him or Mikhail wanting Ansar,” Sebastian said, staring at Timmy. “But Mikhail’s changed his mind. Maybe he got impatient. Hence the bounty posters. Ain’t that right?”

Timmy looked back at Sebastian with earnest, innocent eyes. “Ansar’s a bad man. We need to take him alive so justice can take its course.”

“Is that right?” Sebastian asked. He asked nothing further.

They walked on until the blazing sun left and the pale blue sky slipped on night like it was a comfortable black velvet dress.

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Desert Steel Chapter 24

-Search

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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.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“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?”

“Sure.”

“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.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“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.”

“And arrogant.”

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.

“Tanaka…”

“Yes?”

“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.”

“猫のように歩く。私は漫画をたくさん読んで”

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.”

“What’s that?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Done.”

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.”

“As if!”

“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.

“It was.”

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.”

“Safe?”

“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.”

“How so?”

“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.

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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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