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The group trudged back into town by high noon. The Sun, at its apex, had burned away every last piece of shadow. Sixty Clicks glowed an angelic white under its harshness. The sand was scorching, so Sebastian and Tanaka carried the children piggyback. Pauly, whose left eardrum had burst in the blast, staggered on drunkenly, a bloody pus draining from his ear and drying along his neck.
At Sebastian’s suggestion, they circled the town to the South so as to avoid immediate association with the blast. Walking along the main street, the town showed little sign that it had been shaken by a blast, but Sebastian spotted some blown out windows and a randomness to the citizens’ walking patterns that hinted at disorientation.
The group stopped in the centre of the main drag. In one direction, the road narrowed towards its vanishing point and then merged seamlessly into dunes out towards the Portal City. In the other, the road did the same out towards the further outposts. On either side, saloons and general stores advertised on sun-cracked boards, and brothels openly exhibited themselves. Decisions, decisions… Sebastian gave a wry smile as Tanaka, half-jokingly and half-serious, covered the children’s eyes.
Jax, terminally impatient, spoke first. “Why the hell haven’t you guys fucked off yet? We’ve arrived, bugger off.”
Sebastian, who’d expected this, smiled in that self-satisfied way he had for when something he’d predicted came true. “Because none of you have any idea what to do yet.”
“Wipe that smug look off your fucking face. You seem to think you’re so fucking smart, but you ain’t nothing but shit beneath my shoe,” Jax raged, his temper breaking in an instant.
Sebastian’s eyes dimmed and brightened. One light died, and another, colder flame took its place. Sebastian had, like everyone else, an array of hates and pet peeves. Being told ‘you think you’re so smart’ was one of them.
“Am I wrong?” Sebastian asked. His voice was infuriatingly calm, but there was an edge to it, like a razor blade hidden in cotton candy.
“You can’t read fucking minds. You don’t know me.”
“Am I wrong?”
Jax hesitated. “Well… I don’t have any exact plans as of yet.”
“I have no plans,” Tanaka admitted happily.
“I’d rather just stick with you,” Pauly added.
Sebastian’s eyes returned to normal. He smiled. Everyone felt themselves relax, without having realised they had been tense.
“You see?” he said.” We’re better together. No one’s leaving because we all know that. As a group we’re safer.” With this point Pauly was won over. “Without a group, it’s boring, we need company, we need friends.”At this point Tanaka was won over. “And we’re stronger together, we can take on more together.”
“And what, you’re the boss? What makes you so special?” Jax asked sullenly, but he was no longer arguing against staying together, just wrangling over who was in charge.
Sebastian played his trump card, “Can any of you freely navigate?”
There was silence. No questions. Everyone knew what ‘freely navigate’ meant, even the rookie, untravelled Pauly. Jax smouldered angrily, but he knew he’d lost. And he knew he had to swallow his pride and agree. He needed that kind of skill set with him.
Sebastian continued ,”But of course I respect your experience and advice.” The word he didn’t say was ruthlessness, but it was there in the undertones. He needed someone who would make sure he made the decisions he knew were right, not the ones that were comfortable. He also needed Jax to not be too resentful.
Jax nodded, with only trace amounts of anger remaining. “Alright.”
One, two, and three. All of them won over in less than a minute. Sebastian smiled again.
“Right, well then the first thing we need to do is deal with these kids. Follow me.”
He lead them down the road, past a general store and two brothels, before turning under the shaded veranda of a large saloon. The shade was blissfully cool, but Sebastian took no time to savour it. He strode confidently through the crowds of travellers sheltering from the heat with glasses of weak ale. He walked straight up to the bar, the rest in tow, and rapped sharply on the top. The bartender eyed him sourly. Four young men, heavily armed, one crimson from the knees down with ichor, were the kind of people that caused trouble. This was no exception.
“We’ll give you the kids,” Sebastian said, “hundred dollars each.”
The bartender froze and eyed the nearby customers, but they seemed either distracted or wasted. He leaned in closer. In the lawless lands of the desert, slavery wasn’t illegal, and was in fact common, but plenty of people drew exception to it. Plenty of heavily armed people.
“Those sick puppies?” he whispered.
“Those cheap, low maintenance workers, yes.”
“They’re sick. Dead men walking.”
“They’ll heal. Or they’ll die. Hundred bucks.”
The U.S. dollar, like on Earth, was the most respected and well-known paper currency, and as such was the most abundant. This, in a highly ironic twist, made it worth less than the rarer currencies, such as the Cambodian Riel, of which there were maybe a thousand notes in the entire desert.
The bartender leaned back, tapping his feet. “Fifty.”
“Eighty and a-”
Jax got fed up. “Hundred Motherfucker! Motherfucking one hundred!”
Sebastian put out a restraining hand. The bartender scuttled backwards. The nearby customers started taking notice. Sebastian leaned forward. “Hundred or we see what my friend will do.”
The bartender looked at Jax, who was breathing heavily. When he was angry, his narrow and pinched features no longer looked like that of a rodent. They looked like that of a demon. The bartender gulped, and nodded. The children were walked around to a backroom. Two hundred dollars exchanged hands. The rest of the group left, but Sebastian stayed behind.
“You see my pants?” he asked.
The bartender nodded. From the knees down Sebastian’s jeans were a crusty crimson.
“That’s the dried crust of a man’s guts and lungs. If you sell these kids off to a prostitution ring for a large profit, and I know you can, I will personally ensure you live twenty days of agony before you die. I’ll be coming back around here, and I’ll check. Do you understand that?”
The bartender nodded.
“Do you believe that?”
The bartender looked into Sebastian’s eyes. They were battleship grey, and glowed with the glint of light off a metal blade. They were the eyes the bartender had always seen when he’d imagined the face and sunken sockets of the grim reaper.
Sebastian emerged to find his group waiting for him under the veranda. Tanaka’s face was wet with tears, and the two others looked mildly embarrassed by this.
“What’s wrong with him?”
Jax shrugged. “Won’t stop blubbing about missing the kids.”
Sebastian was bemused by Tanaka’s tears. They’d met the kids for all of half an hour, during the course of which they’d killed the children’s grandfather. He wasn’t entirely surprised. He’d pegged Tanaka as having a sentimental streak.
“What would you have done?” he asked.
Tanaka’s voice was surprisingly steady despite his tears. “Kept them with us.”
“That’s stupid. We could never have cared for them, they’re safer here.”
“You sold them as slaves. That’s wrong.”
“I gave them a home. I compromised. We could have done worse. Jax would have probably just dumped them on the street.”
Jax nodded in agreement. “I didn’t think of getting money out of them. My mistake.”
Tanaka rounded on Jax, his genial nature slipping away. “Why wouldn’t you shoot them dead on the streets?”
Jax looked at him like he was a moron. “Waste of bullets. Unnecessary hassle. Would create lots of trouble.”
Tanaka threw up his arms in exasperation. “You’re heartless. You’re morally broken.”
“I wasn’t going to kill them though. Who gives a donkey’s ass why I wouldn’t have done so?”
Sebastian smiled, and interjected. “You hit upon a very interesting point there, Jax. In fact, I believe Immanuel Kant was the one who said…”
Jax cut him off. “You’re a fucking Kant.”
The tension in the group dissolved, and everyone laughed, including Tanaka and Jax. Nobody noticed how Sebastian had redirected Jax’s fury to himself and deflated the situation. Sebastian was happy to keep it that way. He lead the group out to the road, and pointed out South.
“It’s six forty five, and there are two towns out that way within a reasonable walking distance.”
Tanaka frowned. “Six forty five? It’s midday.”
“Yeah, I know. I keep to a ten hour day time system.”
Jax, always looking for an argument, put in. “Why the fuck do you do that? Just use a normal watch.”
“Normal watches are useless. Terra Deserta has a twenty six Earth hour day. And I don’t need a watch.”
“How do you know that? How do you keep time without a watch?”
Sebastian shrugged, like it was no big deal. “I counted when I arrived. Twenty six hours. So I decided to do what I’d always wanted to anyway, which was convert time to a decimal system. I counted the time of one day in my head, divided that by ten for hours, an hour section by one hundred for minutes, a minute section into one hundred seconds, and so on.”
Pauly, awed, couldn’t stop himself from staring slack jawed. “Jesus Christ.”
“How accurate are you?” Tanaka asked.
Sebastian gave him a cool, steel blue gaze that gave nothing away. ” To the nearest second.”
The three men exchanged glances which said the same one thing. ‘Damn.‘
Sebastian seemingly ignored this, although he secretly felt proud and happy. It was a guilty feeling he’d always tried to bury.
“We’ll just go to the town to our left. It’s three days walking. Get the supplies you need, we won’t share. If you don’t bring enough water, you’ll be left to die. Tanaka.” He turned towards the Japanese man. “Teach me how to draw like you do. If you will” There was a hunger in his eyes.
The fastest man in the east grinned. “You see my hat? It says ‘lightning’. You see my arm? ‘Lightning’. I am Raiden reborn. I was fastest man in Tokyo province. Boss of my high school. You think you can become me?”
“I can try.”
Tanaka’s grin widened. “Good. To try for the divine is the holy purpose of man.” His grin grew wider still, until he looked like the Cheshire cat. “One thousand draws. Good grip, like so.” He demonstrated. “Straight wrist.” He drew slowly, wrist straight, and then pointed. “You see that? Do that. Every day one thousand.”
“Fuck that,” Jax said. He had been wanting to learn too, if only to avoid being completely outclassed by Sebastian, but he backed off at the thought of the workload.
Sebastian just nodded. The hunger still burned in his eyes. Tanaka had seen it in many a man in the desert, usually in those dying of thirst. It was the same thirst here, just as primal, just as insatiable. If this worried Tanaka, he did not let it show. It probably didn’t. Tanaka was cocky. He felt secure enough in his speed and aim to welcome challengers and protégés.
Twenty minutes later (about thirteen of Sebastian’s Terra Deserta minutes), the four were lined up and ready to go. The Sun was probably at its hottest, but they all agreed getting out of town before anyone connected them with the explosion was priority. The path out into the desert was therefore deserted apart from themselves. Everyone else favoured the shade of the verandas or the entertainment and drink of the saloons and other houses of vice. Pauly let out a little snorting laugh. Sebastian turned to him, somewhat indulgently. Conversation and action took effort in the scorching heat.
“What?” he asked.
Pauly looked slightly nervous. “I was thinking about how we’re kinda like the group from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. You know, skipping down the yellow sand road, off to see the wizard, singing.”
Jax remained stone faced. Tanaka snorted. Sebastian smiled. “That’s actually sort of funny. The thought, y’know. Too bizarre.”
Pauly smiled, relieved. In his old social group he’d been afraid to tell jokes, or to show off his sense of humour, for fear of failure and rejection. His true self had always been stifled underneath the facade of muscle and tan and bluff. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
This got a laugh. A tired, weak, hot laugh, but that was the best anyone could ask for under the circumstances.
Sebastian took the first step out into the real hinterlands, leaving the relative peace and safety of the Portal City’s sphere of influence. “Follow the yellow sand road, follow the yellow sand road. Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow- sand road!” he sang. His deep and raspy voice sounded awful, cracking, and crushing the notes in his throat. It sounded like an alien language being attempted by a human’s vocal cords. Innocence and singing, it seemed, had no place in Terra Deserta.
Everyone laughed, and followed.
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