Tag Archives: Ansar

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 22

-Pursuit

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At the same time Sebastian was discovering the discarded firearm, Pauly was struggling through fine sand two kilometres away. His feet were sinking up to the ankles, and the ground subsiding away beneath him. He had to try keep up with Ansar, who drifted across the sand effortlessly.

He’d been lead out of the town under the cover of the sandstorm. He’d walked until he could walk no further. Then he’d walked some more, thinking of the sawn-off shotgun Ansar carried. Now, finally, his legs ignored his brain and dumped him onto the sand.

“Uhh, Mr. Ass-lack-ono-vitch-anov?” he called out, trying to remember how to say his captors name.

Ansar stopped and turned, a light smile on his lips. “Mr. Aslakonovicanov is… Well, I do not know who he is but I am certain he is alcoholic and likes very much to make merry with the dogs. Do I look like I make merry with the dogs, browned one?” he asked in an undulating and melodic voice.

“No?” Pauly stuttered.

“Call me Ansar.”

“Ansar, sir, umm… I can’t walk any longer. Can we take a break?”

Ansar smiled. “But of course! There is only one question: can you not walk any longer, or do you just not want to walk any longer.”

Pauly was already sweating, but if he wasn’t he would have started.

“I can’t.”

Ansar smiled widened. “That’s all very good. But could you do one thing for me?” He drew his sawn-off shotgun. Pauly recoiled. “Could you try get up and walk? If not, I will shoot.”

Pauly felt dread terror nestle into his gut. Adrenaline flooded his body. An odd, fiery warmth suffused his legs. He got one foot placed flat. Ansar was still smiling. Pauly wished he had at attended leg day at least once at the gym. He pushed off. He managed to get to his feet. They felt like lead. He tried to take a step. All muscle strength was gone. The leg gave wobbled, and gave way. He managed to land on his hands. He sensed, but couldn’t see, the barrel pointed at him. He squeezed his eyes shut. He could feel tears beading up and he didn’t want to die crying.

Ansar put his gun away and plopped down on the floor. “You tried hard,” he said. He pulled a dinner plate sized loaf of unleavened bread, a staple of the Terra Deserta diet. He tore off half and held it out to Pauly. “Let us break bread, no?”

“No?” Pauly ventured, taking the bread. He devoured it in an instant.

Ansar laughed heartily. “Tell me, O Browned One, does bread evaporate like the morning mists in your country?”

“My name’s Pauly,” Pauly muttered. “I’m just hungry.”

“Ah so, Pally? Have some more, to stave off that vicious beast.”

Ansar procured a second loaf, and passed it across. Pauly ate it in little chunks this time, tearing off small crumbs and sitting them in his mouth until they dissolved. Ansar did the same, his eyes watchful but soft.

“Tell me about your tall friend, Poorly.”

“Huh?” Pauly asked, unsure whether to be cooperative or play dumb.

“Your comrade, the tall one who spoke for you. With the voice like iron and the eyes of a frozen lake.”

“He’s our leader,” Pauly said. It had never been said before, not explicitly, but when it was asked he knew beyond certainty.

“Is he a smart man?”

“Yes. Unbelievably so. Sometimes in a really subtle way, but he always seems to know things he shouldn’t.”

“Is he a good man?”

Pauly was contemplative for a moment. “I think so. It can be hard to tell. Sometimes he’s being kind, and other times he’s cold. He often seems to be morally conflicted, and then suddenly he’s heartless and ruthless. He smiles a lot, but his eyes are dead, y’know? Like the eyes of a dead fish.”

“But you think, overall, that he is a good person.” Ansar mused. “Why then, does he act as he does?”

Pauly lowered his heads. “I don’t think I can possibly know.”

Ansar laughed. “You don’t want to be impolite and judge him. Do I need to bring out my shotgun again?”

Pauly paled. “No, sir. I-I think he’s compromising. He thinks he has to be ruthless to be a good leader and make the right decisions.”

“Does he?”

“I don’t know.”

Ansar leaned back in the sand. “What’s his name?”

“Sebastian.”

“Wasn’t there a Saint Sebastian?” Ansar asked. “I seem to recall so.”

Pauly, who came from a family of devout catholic Italian immigrants, cast his mind back to the Sunday School he’d been forced to go to. He’d goofed off a lot, but the morbidity of being shot full of arrows had stuck in his mind.

“Yes. Patron saint of soldiers, athletes and those who desire a saintly death.”

“A saintly death…” Ansar repeated. A faint smile twitched at his lips. He rose to his feet. “Come now, Palely, our pursuers will be picking up our scent.”

Pauly got up. His legs burned with pain, but their strength had returned. He could walk. He took a chunk of bread hidden in his palm and dropped it behind him. He staggered after Ansar, who floated along the spine of a dune, his head silhouetted against the sun.

Timmy picked up the automatic, angling it in the light. He fiddled with it for a bit, before dropping it back onto the ground.

“He tried to fire the gun, but it jammed,” he said. “That’s why you should always maintain your weapon.”

Sebastian, who cleaned his revolver daily, nodded. Jax and Tanaka started looking thoughtful. “What else?”

“Patience, I’m getting there.” Timmy reached down and stared at the ground. “The sandstorm has obscured most of the tracks. I can’t tell where Ansar came from.”

“He came from behind the store,” Sebastian said. “That’s where he lost me.”

“He probably wouldn’t track back there, then.”

“No, I think he would. The street was likely to have several bounty hunters on it, while he knew I was lost and likely to move away behind him. It’s also the quickest way out of town.”

“One way to find out,” Timmy said. He pointed to the back of the houses. A steep bank of sand lined the back pathway all the way along. “When you clamber up something like this you don’t just leave footprints, you collapse the bank. The sandstorm won’t be able to hide it entirely.”

They walked up as a group and checked the bank. Directly in line with the gap between buildings where Pauly was captured there was a wide divot in the bank and a pile of sand at the base.

“We found the exit point from town!” Timmy announced. “But it’ll only get harder from here. Let’s go.”

“No,” Sebastian said. “We need water and supplies first.”

“A man’s life is at stake here!” Timmy admonished.

“We’re no good to him dead. Twenty Earth minutes, and we’ll meet back here.”

Timmy bowed his head. “Of course.”

As soon as they’d rounded the corner, out of Timmy’s sight and earshot, Jax spoke up.

“Why’d you say twenty minutes? We just need water, that’s like five minutes tops.”

“Because I don’t trust Timmy to not take off after Ansar without us, so I wanted him to think he would have a decent head start if he left now.”

“Yeah, okay, but even with a five minute head start he’ll be out of eyesight. How’ll we follow him, genius?”

“Well, Mr. Gentleman, what do you notice about the weather?”

“It’s still?”

It was. Since the sandstorm had left the wind had died down to nothing. It was eerily calm.

“The only difficulty with tracking is if the wind has blown away the footprints. Their footprints should lead us right to them.”

They’d reached the water store. Sebastian went inside. He threw down fifty New Zealand dollars, which were quite rare and ergo quite valuable. That gave him three bottles filled out of the nine they carried. He threw down a hundred, which now only filled five bottles, until he lectured the seller on basic arithmetic, using his knife as a prop. He stepped out into the strong sunlight. Two minutes used. The trio fast walked back to the spot. Timmy and the woman were nowhere to be seen. It was possible they’d left for supplies and planned to meet up in twenty minutes, so Sebastian climbed up the bank. Two sets of footprints went straight out into the open desert. It was confirmed. Pauly and Ansar’s footprints would have been wiped away by the sandstorm. Timmy had tried to ditch them.

They set out across the desert. Sebastian pushed them a little faster than he would have normally, despite the unforgiving sun. He wanted to get Timmy visible as soon as possible. In three minutes they achieved just that, and Sebastian killed the pace. Timmy and the woman were tiny smudges against the back of a gargantuan dune. Usually, dunes in Terra Deserta were five to ten metres in height, little waves of sand. Sometimes, however, there were titans several hundred metres high, tsunamis of earth.

“Why are we slowing down?” Jax asked. “We’ve got them.”

“I don’t want them to know we lied. Hold back for twenty minutes, then we’ll catch up. Make it seem like they had a twenty minute head start.”

They followed like that for ten minutes. The whole time Sebastian thought and rethought his plan. Wound everything back to the beginning. Played through it again. He ground to a halt.

“Stop.”

Tanaka stopped immediately, but Jax protested.

“We’re letting them get away!”

“No, we’re not. Think about it. My geographical knowledge about this area isn’t great, but we’ve been headed West this whole time now. The pathways from Portal City are like the branches of a tree. It starts off with one large path to Sixty Clicks, then splits and leads to smaller towns, then those split and lead to smaller towns. Hadrian told us there were three towns South and close from Hovetown Left. Towns are usually evenly spaced ou-”

Jax’s face made him stop. He grinned sheepishly. “Long story short, there isn’t a town out his way reachable in a day’s travel, unless they loop back. So if they do keep going straight, they’ll stop overnight and we can catch them. But I don’t think they will.”

Jax was impatient and annoyed. He kept silent, so Tanaka dutifully stepped in. “Why not?”

“Because even if they were stupid enough to not realise their footprints were obvious when they set off, they’ve had fifteen or so minutes to realise it now. So assuming they have, what do they do?”

“I don’t know, you dickhead. How about you stop revelling in your smarts and tell us,” Jax said.

Sebastian expression froze in place. ‘Revelling in your smarts’ was a bastard cousin to ‘you think you’re so smart’. “I’m explaining my logic to check it’s not wrong,” he replied. “Okay?”

Jax, unsettled by Sebastian’s frozen expression, nodded.

“Now, I would backtrack over my footprints, and then lay in ambush. If they are doing that, by stopping here and waiting we defuse that threat. They’re not going to believe we would delay chasing after them and our friend, so if we don’t go by after an hour they’ll think we won’t go by at all. Good so far?”

Jax, now agreeing with Sebastian, nodded.

“I don’t think they’ll do that. Real or not, Timmy puts on a show of being a goody two shoes. So realising he’s going to be caught out, the best way to cover it up is to turn around and come back. Then he’ll run into his pursuers. He’ll claim he went out to scout out the path, knowing all along his footprints could be followed, and that he then came back to pick them up.”

Jax nodded, now following along. By doing so, he felt useful to the group again, which made him feel better than he’d like to admit. “And so if we kept going, we’d run into them too early, revealing we hadn’t waited twenty minutes before leaving.”

“Exactly. So we’ll wait here, and start pretending to be moving right before they return.”

Tanaka went to sit down. Sebastian was about to tell him not to, but Jax got there first.

“Don’t sit down! That’ll leave marks in the sand. We want it to seem like we’ve been walking the whole time.”

Tanaka hesitated . Over Jax’s shoulder, Sebastian quickly nodded, and Tanaka straightened back up.

To Jax, it seemed his order had been followed. He got a rush of power.

They stood waiting, behind a small dune at the base of the gigantic one. They were three statues under a sweltering sun. Despite the abrasive nature of the sandy wind, they missed it for its cooling effect. Sweat ran down their faces and pooled in uncomfortable places.

Soon, the distinctive sound of voices carried in the still air. At first, words couldn’t be made out. As they got closer, Sebastian could just make out enough phrases to realise they were playing ‘I spy’. Finally, he could hear everything.

“I spy with my little eye, something starting with ‘S'”

“Sand?”

“No.”

“Sun?”

“Yes! Okay, your turn.”

Sebastian turned to Jax, who nodded to confirm it was time to move, feeling that same thrill of power. They set off over the small dune. Sebastian was half expecting to come face to face with them then, but sound carried far in the still desert air. It was actually the fifth dune on that they met.

If Timmy was surprised he didn’t show it. He smiled like they were the people he most wanted to see in all the world.

“My friends! I’ve been coming back looking for you, and you were even further back than I thought!”

“Uhuh,” Sebastian said. “You left without us.”

“I knew my tracks would be easy to follow. I didn’t want to waste time, so we decided to scout ahead.”

“Really?” Sebastian asked, raising his eyebrows. “You didn’t try dump us and get the bounty for yourselves?”

“How dare you!” The woman cried. “Timmy is doing his utmost to keep with the trail, and you come here with these base accusations!?”

“Now, now,” Timmy said. “Their suspicion is understandable. However, as you can see we were returning back to get you, which I hope will assuage your concerns.”

Sebastian was silent for a moment. His face could have been one of those simple white masks weren’t it for the swelling and cuts.

“Yeah, no problem,” he said, his eyes giving nothing away.

Timmy smiled. “Well come along then. Your friend was clever, he left a trail of items through the sandstorm. Past that the footprints are clear.”

‘You go, Pauly,’  Sebastian thought.

“Lead away,” Sebastian said.

Timmy nodded and headed off. Jax hung back, and so Sebastian did too.

“Why didn’t you call him out?” Jax whispered. “I was just about ready to flip out when the bitch started yelling.”

Sebastian smiled like a crocodile. “It’s a bit complicated, but what it comes down to is this:

I don’t want to lose.”

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Desert Steel Chapter 20

-Sandstorm

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Sebastian didn’t waste time being smug. He could do that on while on the move. He’d guessed Ansar would be moving to his right. It was an instinctive, gut feeling, but it was as good as any. He hustled a diagonal path that aimed to intercept Ansar, based off his calculations of Ansar’s speed. As he ran, he ripped the goggles out of his bag with his right hand. Awkward with the taped hand, he struggled to pull them over. His eyes were squinted near shut, the sand lacerating his face. It was like swimming through razor blades. He succeeded in getting them on just as he reached what he’d hoped to be the interception point.

His eyes opened, and he was stunned by how little he’d been seeing before. The world opened up into a blur of angry sand. He felt cocooned and isolated. No noise beyond the roar of the wind could be heard. Near shapes were shadows in an orange mist. Anything else was concealed. Sebastian altered his path to follow what he’d guessed would be Ansar’s path, in case he’d been faster than expected. When no shadows emerged from the sand, he jagged a hard left, to test out a possible path away and to the right.

He came up to a disorientated figure, but it wasn’t Ansar. Maybe one of the other bounty hunters, running lost. He moved back, navigating on his mind’s eye map alone, until he was at the exact spot Ansar had been standing. The sand was scouring his mouth and noise as he panted. He reached back into his bag again, and found his bandana. He tied it over his mouth and nose two handed as he sprinted. The scouring sensation stopped, although his breaths were now humid and moist on the cloth. The sand was still scratching exposed skin, but he could almost call himself comfortable. He followed the left path this time, his long legged gait chewing up the distance. Shadows rushed into view. A sack, full. Then a pole, for a veranda. Then the building to which the veranda was attached. Sebastian went right through the door. Something he was noticing on Terra Deserta was all the doors were thin and cheap. A sneeze could take them off their hinges. He stumbled into a gun shop. The owner was standing off to one side, cradling a shotgun, ready to step in only if his shop was badly affected. He didn’t seem willing to fight over the door. The sandstorm blew in with Sebastian, coiling past his legs like a smoke machine effect on a stage. Ansar was strolling along towards the back door, unhurried. He must have thought nobody was going to find him in the storm.

“Freeze!” Sebastian shouted. His voice was muffled under the cloth. He had to really bellow to be heard over the wind. Ansar glanced over his shoulder, observed him with a detached air, and kept walking.

Sebastian levelled his gun on Ansar’s head. Cocked it, making an audible click. Ansar kept walking, steady, unbothered paces. Sebastian went to pull the trigger, and froze. His view of Ansar’s back was from the same angle as the man he’d killed back before he’d arrived in Sixty Clicks. He was back there again, caught in a loop. Same decision. Kill a man. His finger wavered over the trigger. His brain overrode it, forcing it around the trigger. The gun had almost no pull force. A breeze could fire it. But he couldn’t pull the trigger. It was like trying to push a mountain. His whole forearm was shaking from the effort. Tendons under tension stretched from his wrist to elbow. Veins popped to the surface. Twice Sebastian tried muster all of his energy into one pull, with visible effort showing on his face. His teeth were gritted. A light kindled in his cold, barren eyes, not fear but it’s primordial ancestor.

Sebastian’s fast mind had many benefits, but in terms of survival none stood out more so than his adaptability. Two tries were enough. He didn’t cling to some false hope of overcoming his body’s resistance. The flame in his eyes was stamped out. He holstered his gun, de-cocking it. He took the distance that had taken Ansar ten steps in three. He grabbed Ansar by the shoulder, and stamped down on his calf. Ansar was forced to his knees, but didn’t cry out. He jabbed back with an elbow, narrowly missing Sebastian’s groin and hitting his hip instead. Sebastian’s hold loosened, and Ansar gripped a display with his free hand, using it to pull himself away. He got to his feet, and head for the back door. Sebastian kicked him in the back, in what was more of a shove than a blow. Ansar went tumbling, almost smacking his face on the door jamb. He just managed to save himself with his arms, but he was left vulnerable. Sebastian was on him straight away, his left hand bunching up Ansar’s collar and choking him with it. He pressed the first knuckle of his right hand hard against Ansar’s skull. He hoped the hard, small point of pressure would simulate the sensation of having a gun barrel pressed against your head.

“Freeze!” he said again.

Ansar reached up and wrenched the back door open. The through draft created between the two doors sent a solid pillar of sand blasting across Sebastian’s face. He didn’t even flinch through his goggles.

“What part of freeze don’t you understand?” Sebastian asked.

He let go of Ansar’s collar to punch him in the head. It was a mistake. As soon as the choking was gone, Ansar lunged forward, locked himself around the door frame, and pulled. He slipped free. Under normal circumstances, Sebastian could have caught him again in a second. But with the sandstorm raging even in the shop, visibility was cut down to one metre again. Even at his slow pace, Ansar disappeared from view. Sebastian sprinted up to where Ansar had been, and found nothing. He was back in a blind, three hundred and sixty degree puzzle. Except now, behind the shop, he had no mental map, and he had no easy left or right guess.

Sebastian adapted. He was flexible. Three hundred and sixty degrees of possibilities, and he wasn’t going to find Ansar standing still. He chose a direction at random, and took off.

Pauly was caught completely by surprise by the sandstorm when it rolled in. One moment he could see, the next he couldn’t. The air itself suddenly began to cut him. He panicked. He couldn’t breathe. The world hurt.

So for the first second, he was frozen with shock. Then, blind and scared, he stumbled around aimlessly, the sand scraping at his face. Like a horse under a whip, he was spurred forwards, faster and faster, trying to outrun the pain. His mind was blank as he tore past shadows in the dust. His breathing was laboured as he tried to find oxygen in the clouds of grit. His cracked ribs ached. His eyes were squeezed shut, as sharp grains scrabbled at the lids. He tripped on something, although he couldn’t see what. A barrel, maybe, or a chair, maybe even a person. He could be anywhere in the town now. His ribs seared his side when he landed. He curled up, hiding his face under his body.

The pain passed, and with it his thinking returned. He opened his eyes. The sand wasn’t reaching them anymore. He could see, although all he was looking at was the ground. The air was growing stale beneath his body, but it was clear. He regained his breath. He was okay. There was a sandstorm, but it held no danger.  The wind howled and swirled around him. Sand began to accumulate in piles against his body. He ran over his options. Normally, a sandstorm would mean he should cover himself and remain where he was, as he was doing now. However, there’d been a gunfight and a bounty to collect this time. They had a man to catch. He considered getting up and pursuing the man, then discarded the thought. He was disorientated. He had no idea where he was, or where the man was. So he lay curled up, wishing he had a nice cloak to cover himself with. The wind threw waves of sand against his back. He waited.

The first set of footsteps he barely heard. They were puffs of noise, soft and fluffy. He wasn’t expecting them, and so he thought he might have imagined them. The second set were unmistakeable. They were definitive and determined. They were fast, and slammed the ground each time they landed. Whoever it was passed by so fast the whirr of displaced air could be heard. Pauly kept still, with his head down. He wasn’t going to poke his head out into a danger when he was this vulnerable. He waited. Shortly after there was the crash of splintering wood and tortured metal, and a muffled shout.  Pauly waited some more, debating with himself. Then he got up, his mouth dry. He pulled out his automatic piece. He still wore it in his waistband, he didn’t have the money yet for a holster. He took off  after the noise in a bent, crouching jog, like he’d seen cops do on television. He walked straight into a pole, bouncing off into the sand. Cursing, he got back up and walked normally and cautiously. He reached a wall of typical low-budget, low-materials Terra Deserta construction. He planted his left hand on it. Kept his gun up. Traced left, never leaving his hand off the wall. Got splinters in his hand. He reached a corner. Froze up, and hugged the wall. Put his back to it, gun pointing to the sky, just like in the movies. Psyched himself up. Took deep breaths. Spun around the corner, gun pointing straight ahead. Saw and heard nothing. He realised his eyes were still squeezed shut. He forced them open. All he could see was sand. A grain got in his eyes, scratching along the lens. He spun back, feeling stupid. His eye was watering. He blinked furiously until the grain was gone. He could still feel the scratch.

He sat down against the wall. Rethought the whole situation. He’d told himself he was going to be brave, but maybe he’d been confusing it with stupidity. He couldn’t see a thing. He didn’t know who he was chasing. He didn’t know where they’d gone. ‘What would Sebastian do?‘ he thought. Nothing, right? He wouldn’t waste his energy on a hopeless attempt, or a symbolic gesture. He wasn’t one for anything but cold, hard pragmatism.

Pauly wiped the tears from his eye, frustrated. He was trying to be braver, but he felt like he was just going around in circles. Every path seemed to end in failure. He shook his head violently, rejecting the thought. No! No! No! Because down that path, the path of giving up, lay death. He got back to his feet. He didn’t know where he was, but there could be no harm in moving on. He could try round the corner. Maybe there would be someone else from his group there. He’d definitely heard someone’s footsteps.

He rounded the corner, and ran straight into someone. They both went down in a heap. Pauly’s eyes shot open. In the chaos of the storm, it took him a moment to recognise the man. It was Ansar. Pauly fumbled for his gun. He’d dropped it. Ansar was reaching behind his back. Pauly felt a bolt of fear, and fumbled some more. Ansar began pulling up the butt of a gun at a glacial pace. Pauly managed to grip the gun. He swung it to point at Ansar. Ansar kept on drawing his gun. It was a sawn-off shotgun. Pauly tried pull the trigger, but couldn’t. He realised the safety was on. He botched up flicking it off twice, his fingers shaking. Got it the third time.

“Stop!” he shouted. Ansar kept drawing. The barrel was about to point at Pauly’s head.

Pauly squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. Just a cold, dead thunk.

His gun had jammed. Consider the amount of sand and grit blowing around, it wasn’t surprising. Pauly threw it away like it was poisoned. He threw his hand up into the air.

Ansar’s shotgun fell down to horizontal. To Pauly, it was a coffin lid slamming shut. Ansar got to his feet and held his shotgun at his hip. He smiled.

“Look at the bounty God has gifted me today!” He exclaimed. “Come now, Browned One!”

Pauly rose, legs shaking. He’d heard stories about the way shotguns tore those it shot to pieces. He’d always thought it would be the worst thing to be shot with. He swallowed his immediate fear. He stood firm, although his breathing was laboured.

Ansar started backing up the way he’d came. Out of town, towards open desert.

“Come, come,” he beckoned. Pauly followed. He had no more heroics left in him. The sand swirled and swallowed him and Ansar up.

Pauly’s automatic lay by the corner, steadily becoming buried.

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