Paul ‘Pauly’ Dean was pant-shittingly terrified. He wanted to scream, and he wanted to run, but he could do neither. His large muscles bunched up and clenched until they burned with agony, but he couldn’t relax them. The worse part, he felt, was the feeling of being small, some insignificant bug about to be squashed on the windshield of life. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t do even that, which made him want to cry even more.
There were four other men. They all had one side of their cloaks brushed aside, revealing a piece of desert steel holstered at their hips. Their faces were in complete shadow, their brims bent low over the brow. Their eyes were peeking out from just under the brim. It reminded Pauly of the time he’d gone to the zoo and seen the crocodiles. They’d sat concealed in the water, just their eyes peering out from the murky depths. Nobody was moving, unnaturally so. There were none of the usual fidgets or shakes present in somebody standing still. Pauly couldn’t even tell if they were breathing.
They all wore sand-coloured cloaks, ending just above the ankle. Pauly didn’t have any cloak. They wore either cargo pants or comfortably fitting jeans, and a loose t-shirt or shirt. He had a wife-beater and tight designer jeans. They all wore some form of wide-brimmed hat. Pauly wore no hat. It would have ruined his spiked up hair and, besides, he could get a nice tan without having to go to a salon now- he’d already gone an unpleasant mahogany. In other words, he felt out of place, and one thing Pauly had always made sure of was that he fitted in.
Pauly had spent his whole life fighting off fear. He didn’t know why or even when it started, but he was always working to ignore the shadows that seemed to him to lurk behind everything, the monsters that seemed to lurk inside every person. When he was a kindergartener in New York City, he’d pulled the girls’ ponytails and kicked sand in the sandbox. In adolescence, he ran with a gang of similar boys, braying and bragging their way through middle school, dealing out vicious bullying to the school’s ‘losers’. He walked big but felt small, so when he peaked at 5 foot 8 inches, he built outwards to compensate, spending hours at the gym pumping weights, almost entirely upper body, until his pectorals looked like balloons. But he’d been too pale, so then he’d gone to tanning salons and gotten spray tans until he looked like a balloon animal basted in barbeque sauce. He’d still felt small, now entering high school, so he’d added about twenty metres cubed of hot air, talking bullshit until it got him into trouble. Usually, he was able to talk his way out again, flexing his bulging chest while shouting something along the lines of: ‘You looking at me, pal?’
But he’d fucked up big this time.
Pauly, being as he was, didn’t fully realise this. He knew he was in trouble, certainly, but it was never really his fault. His friends, at some party he’d remembered shitting on (Let me tell you about a REAL party, man, it’s got celebrities and people swinging on the chandelier, none of this low level bullcrap), had been chatting about that new desert land they’d discovered that was apparently full of hard-asses and murderers. So of course he’d said he could handle that shit, that the hardest hard-ass would meet his match in Pauly Dean, but that really wasn’t his fault. That had been his friends egging him on, practically begging him to tell them what he’d do in Terra Deserta. And he’d been drunk at the time. The moment he’d actually gone through the portal with all his friends chanting his name he remembered only vaguely, but he knew there’d been a far bit of alcohol involved. No one could be blamed for what they did drunk, they weren’t in control of themselves. And, if nothing else, church had taught him God was all-powerful, so in the end it was never really Pauly, it was the will of God almighty himself. So it wasn’t his fault.
It was, however, his problem, so after sobering up in a shaded corner of an abandoned military base, he’d sat and sulked in Portal City. Inevitably he pissed off some group that didn’t back down from the ‘you looking at me’ routine, sending him out of the city with his tail between his legs. He’d picked due south, which was as good a direction as any, and headed out. But he’d missed Sixty Clicks, the entry point of the farther southern towns free from Portal City’s influence, by five hundred metres out west, and instead walked straight into an armed standoff.
All this, this revelatory summary of his life, had flashed before his eyes, and still the other men hadn’t moved. He could feel the touch of their gaze as it shifted over him, slowly but steadily sliding over his face, before flicking to the next man. It felt like having a slug crawl across his face, leaving behind its slimy trail. His legs shook once and he felt himself pee a little. ‘Just shoot me already!’ he felt like screaming, ‘just end it!’, but he didn’t have the courage for even that. They were looking at him less, he noticed. Their attentions were shifting, and concentrating. He realised they were picking their first targets. For a moment his hope peaked, a little surge of energy, before he dropped deeper into despair. He wasn’t even considered a risk. Their eyes had cut right through his hype and found the small, quivering, fearful baby inside. His mind flashed with images of himself, still frozen to the spot, being given the ol’ robocop treatment by the winning gunslinger. A spark of defiance ignited, and he began assessing his opponents, as they, the bastards, had assessed him.
One, to Pauly’s far left, was Asian, maybe Chinese or Japanese, and about his own height. He was wearing a long sleeved shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, revealing a heavily and colourfully tattooed right arm. Most prominently, he had a lightning bolt running from elbow to wrist. His hair was bleached blonde, although on his dark hair it was instead a dirty orange. Black hair was showing at the roots, indicating he hadn’t had dye in a few weeks. Metal glinted under the shade of his hat, suggesting piercings of some kind. His hat had some word printed on the crown in Asian pictographs, although Pauly couldn’t say which kind. His eyes, unlike the others, seemed unfocused.
The next two were standing apart, but in line with each other, whereas everyone else was turned so they could see both their neighbours clearly. Pauly, who’d never been seen without a buddy or sidekick to back him up, knew this meant they were together. Their targets would be the other two men, then himself. The one to Pauly’s left was white, with rodent-like features. He wore a khaki t-shirt with some unrecognisable flag on the front, along with faux military cargo pants. His eyes were cruel. The one to Pauly’s right was black, big with a trunk-like frame. Side by side with his skinny rat partner they must have looked like a comedic duo from the old black-and-white films Pauly had watched as a kid. He wore a red singlet and the same military pants as the ratman. His hands were bedecked with gaudy rings.
The final man, to Pauly’s far right, was wearing a blue, star covered shirt, under a tattered, tasselled poncho. A star was drawn on his hat’s crown, and another star hung by a piece of string from the brim, but, amazingly, it didn’t swing at all he was so still. He must have noticed the scrutiny, because his eyes swung back and met Pauly’s. They were cold, dead plates of blue tinged steel. The star studded stranger winked, and a smirk quirked his face. In that one instant, Pauly’s will to fight, to go out guns blazing, fled. His hand, which had been inching towards his own piece, an automatic pistol a friend had given him before he’d jumped over, dropped. The man’s eyes, for a moment blazing with a cold heartlessness, dimmed back to boredom and listlessly wandered back to the ratman.
‘Holy hell,’ Pauly thought ‘just one wink and he shot me down before having to draw his gun. I’m dead now, marked before the battle’s even begun.’ And now, finally, his eyes unfroze and he began to weep.
Sebastian concentrated back on the rat faced boy with the flag of apartheid South Africa on his t-shirt. He’d been walking up to find the mine, following some pretty obvious tire tracks, and had walked into three other guys doing exactly the same thing. They’d gone into a standoff, but he’d just shut down the terrified bulky latecomer, who’d been the most unstable element. He’d been preparing to draw first and go down fighting, but Sebastian had killed that hope. Next was…
An entire dune, maybe ten metres high, subsided and collapsed, to the sound of heavy machinery. Before anyone could react it disappeared downwards into a steep slope of rushing sand. The black man in cargo pants, who had been positioned at the foot of the dune, was helpless to do anything but fall with it, sliding down the sandy slope. He finally came to a stop halfway down, coughing up sand. Nobody moved to help him, dared move to help him, not even his partner. Pauly, who was, somewhere under those inflated muscles and spray tan, a good person at heart, felt an unbearable cocktail of fear and guilt. He waited for the others, unnerved, to start shooting, but still they stood infuriatingly still. ‘Do something, dammit!’ he wanted to shout, ‘help him!‘. But he was too scared to speak, and too scared to help himself. With the roar of an engine, the nature of the subsidence became clear. A digger reared its head, and buried its bucket down deep into the side of the slope. Its body was covered in steel plates, leaving just a slit for the driver to see out of. Gouging out a clump of sand caused the slope to collapse further, sending the black man sliding again. Realising the danger, he started to climb up, but for every metre he got up the digger took away ten. The subsidence continued to eat away at the top, and the men nearest, the ratman and Sebastian, edged away slowly, eyes on each other. The black man tried to climb sideways, but the slope was circular and it all flowed down to the bucket as a central point. Finally, the man surrendered himself to the inevitability of his descent and slid down quickly, perhaps hoping to clear the bucket and exit around the digger. It wasn’t to be. The bucket bit down into his midriff, severing him completely and staining the sand red. His guts spilled out, his arms thrashed for a few agonising seconds, and then he was still. The engine of the digger cut out immediately, and the eerie stillness spread, from the corpse to the digger to the four men in a standoff above.
Seeing all this, Pauly bent over, dry heaved twice, then vomited. He was still crying helpless, silent tears.