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?”
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.”