Tag Archives: Jax De Villiers

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 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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Desert Steel Chapter 21

-Reunion

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“Fuck!”

The sandstorm had raged for another forty minutes. Jax had stumbled around in the storm for the first ten, before walking into a liquor store. After taking his anger out on the stool outside, he’d felt his way inside. Then he’d sat there, avoiding small talk with the store owner until the storm left. For the second time in a week he felt impotent and useless, sitting out another fight.

So when he emerged, having to push a pile of sand out of the way opening the door, he was pissed. He kicked at every new pile of sand, cussing as he did. He walked out onto the street. Then he stopped, astonished. He swore again.

“Fuck!”

Tanaka was still exactly where he’d been when the sandstorm had rolled in. His feet were smothered in sand, and a steeple of golden dust was perched on his hat. His clothes seemed battered and worn, although that might have been Jax’s imagination. Jax swung his attention South, to where the other group had been. One member must have gotten lost and stuck outside, he emerged from under his cloak and a mound of sand. Two others emerged from shops they’d successfully sheltered in.

Tanaka tilted his head up. Sand sloughed off his hat and down his back in a golden waterfall.

“Hands up, butts down!” he said, loud and forcefully.

All three people, in the process of greeting one another, turned towards the noise.

“What?” one asked incredulously.

“Did I fucking stutter, gaijin? Sit down, and put your hands in the air.”

Tanaka was leering arrogantly, an old habit from his delinquent days. It carried enough confidence and threat to be effective. When he got like this, his open, smiling self could be hard to find.

Two of them reached for their guns. Tanaka drew, kicking a cloud of dust off his cloak. He was ready to fire while they were still reaching down. He didn’t bother with warning shots. They wasted time, and better men had died attempting them. Well, not better. Almost as good as. Maybe just four days ago, Tanaka would have judged a warning shot as the good thing to do, but not anymore.

He didn’t bother try one fancy headshot either. He aimed at the centre of mass, and squeezed off two shots at the one he judged to be the fastest. The person went down in an awkward clump. The way he fell suggested he wouldn’t be getting back up.

For the second person, Tanaka decided he’d do a warning shot. He still believed in striving to be good. With no other attackers but the one in front of him he concluded it was an acceptable risk. It wouldn’t be a traditional warning shot, however. He was going to aim for the head, maybe a little wide. Small target, rushed, not really trying. He’d probably miss. Let fate decide. That way he’d have his target already lined up and tested if the target kept drawing. He hoped the buzz of a close miss would stop the target.

In the event, Tanaka’s shot went wide and to the right. However, the third man, who hadn’t drawn a weapon, was charging towards his partner. To Tanaka’s eye, it seemed like the bullet might have hit him. It didn’t stop the man if it did. He carried on and tackled his friend to the ground before he could draw.

The wind carried the gun smoke and sand down the street towards the pair. Tanaka ejected the two used casings and reloaded with fresh cartridges. Then he holstered his gun.

“Understand now?” he asked. “Stay where you are. Hands up.” The pair exchanged words and complied. Tanaka stayed planted where he was, arms crossed. That in itself was a statement of confidence. He was so skilled he could uncross his arms and still draw faster.

“You seen Sebastian, Jax?” Tanaka asked conversationally, without turning his head.

Jax froze up. “No.”

“Well I’m going to be here watching these two, so why don’t you go find him?”

“Because I’m not your fucking errand boy.”

“We’re a team. I have my role, you have yours.”

“My role isn’t a errand boy.”

“It is when the other role is gunslinger.”

Jax was all the more riled up because he was worried he was becoming one of the less helpful team members. Before he could do or say anything stupid, Sebastian arrived.

He came in from the North, little streams of sand running from his cloak and clothing. His hat had a thin layer of grit on the brim. His sandstorm goggles were up on his forehead. His eyes had white circles around them where the dust had been kept out by the goggles. He ripped the bandana from his face and was beating dust from it as he walked. It came off in large puffs. His mouth was a grim line.

“Where’ve you been?” Jax asked sourly.

“I almost fucking had him, is where I’ve been,” Sebastian replied.

“Had who?”

” Who the fuck do you think? The bounty, Ansar.”

“Before the sandstorm?”

“What? You mean that standoff? God no. I was just waiting for the sandstorm to arrive then.”

“Why the fuck would you want a fucking sandstorm?!”

“So I could catch Ansar.”

“How would you find him during a sandstorm, Einstein?”

“He had two ways to run, left or right. It wasn’t rocket science. And like I said, I fucking had him. Right in my goddamn hands.”

“What happened then?”

“I fucked up is what happened. Which is why I’m so damn pissed.” Sebastian emphasised this by the violence of his actions. He whipped the bandana to and throe to get the sand out. He ripped the goggles from his head and jammed them into his bag. His eyes were still dead, but his body gave away his fury.

“Well now what?”

“Argggggghhh!!!” Sebastian screamed. He was furiously shaking his shirt, sand pouring out from its folds. “This fucking sand is fucking everywhere and it is so fucking itchy. Grrrnngh.” He squatted, head in hands, sucking air in through his teeth. Jax stood awkwardly, unsure what to do in the face of such an uncharacteristic loss of control.

“Are you…”

“I’m okay. I’m just a little filled with impotent rage.” Sebastian exhaled and stood back up. His face was once again a mask and his eyes blank slates of steel. The momentary cracks were gone. He smiled with grim amusement at Jax. “So what’s going on here?”

Tanaka answered. “I wasn’t sure what you would want me to do, so I figured I should just keep everyone here until you returned. So I just stayed here until the storm passed and held everyone at gunpoint.”

“Good job. You stayed out in the storm without equipment? How are your eyes?”

“Alright. My genetics are good for squinting, eh gaijins?”

All three of them laughed.

“Anything happen?”

“They drew guns, so I had to retaliate.”

“Casualties?”

“What’s that?”

“You hit anybody.”

Tanaka grinned. “I don’t miss people. One dead, one possibly wounded.”

“Possibly?”

“I fired a near miss warning shot on my second target, but the third guy tried be all heroic and jumped in the way. I might have clipped him.”

“Alright. Where’s Pauly?”

“No idea. Haven’t seen him.”

“Probably pissing himself in a shop somewhere,” Jax said.

Well then let’s wait for him to turn up,” Sebastian said, expecting him to arrive in a few minutes, sheepish and unharmed.

They waited twenty minutes, their captives stuck in their uncomfortable position. Townspeople, such as they were, emerged from shops and houses and started going about their daily routines. Some came out with brooms and began sweeping sand clear of the doors. Others unlatched window shutters and opened their shops back out. They ignored the group, apart from a few glances. They had no interest in trouble. Pauly did not emerge.

“Well that ain’t good,” Jax remarked.

“No, it’s not,” Sebastian agreed. “If he stumbled out of town, he could be lost out in the desert now. It’s the very opposite of good.”

“Well now what?”

“You start looking for Pauly. Tanaka and I will go talk to our captives.”

Jax nodded and sauntered off, calling out, “Here chicky chicky! Here chicken! Bwock, bwock, bwock!”

As Sebastian got closer to the pair, he saw blood running down one’s right bicep. Tanaka’s warning shot had clearly hit after all. When he got closer still, he saw how miraculously little it had hit. The arm had the equivalent of a light scratch where the bullet had just scraped by. It was a superficial injury. It was then, when Sebastian moved his attention away from the wound, that he realised the second person was in fact a women, and an attractive one at that. She was beautiful in a soft, gentle way, with long reddish-brown hair that managed to be glamorous even in the harsh and sandy conditions.

“You can drop your arms now,” he said. They both did.

“I hope your happy, torturing us like that,” the woman spat. Sebastian had to admit he was surprised. Her tone was dissonant with her appearance. He’d judged a book by its cover, to his shame. “Poor Timmy here has a arm wound, thanks to you!”

“Now, now,” the man known as Timmy said, smiling. “Let’s be civil here, like adults.”

Sebastian didn’t smile back. He tried gauge Timmy’s age. He might have been a year shy of twenty, but baby faced. The woman was older, Sebastian wasn’t sure by how much.

Timmy turned to Tanaka. “However, I must preach to you to abandon your base brutality. I understand you were justified in retaliating when we disobeyed your orders to surrender. But you only needed to shoot once. To attempt to kill both was unnecessary and cruel. If you had succeeded, had I not intervened, you would be talking to just me now. Can you understand the value of that life that would have been lost? Could you really live with yourself if you had?”

Tanaka stared.

The women threw her arms around Timmy’s neck. “Oh, darling. You were so braze. And you’re injured, you poor thing!”

“Now, now, dear,” Timmy said, patting her on the back. “I only did what was the right and noble thing.”

“You’re barely injured, you git.” Sebastian said, fed up and pissed off.

Timmy looked at him. “It could have been far worse. Your man is lucky.”

“I’m starting to wish it was far worse.”

“I was shooting to miss!” Tanaka protested. “If you’d stayed put, you wouldn’t be hurt at all.”

Timmy shook his head. “There’s no room for excuses, young man. You may have missed, but to claim you meant to is just sad!”

Sebastian’s pet peeve, as previously mentioned, was being told ‘you think you’re so smart’. Tanaka’s was having his skill questioned. He coloured a deep crimson and stayed silent.

Timmy extricated himself from the woman’s hug.

“And you,” he said, pointing at Sebastian. “You let pride get the better of you. Ansar is a dangerous criminal. You should have prioritised the public safety and justice and teamed up to capture him. Instead you allowed a sandstorm to roll in and for Ansar to escape. Any more deaths on his account are on your head.”

“What were Ansar’s crimes? The poster didn’t say.”

Timmy’s mouth slammed shut. Then he broke out into a friendly smile.

“We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here,” he said. “Let bygones be bygones, and move on.”

Sebastian kept silent.

“We should team up,” Timmy continued. “Ansar needs to be caught, that’s what is important here.”

Sebastian turned on his heels and started to walk away. Tanaka kept his eyes on the two, covering Sebastian’s exit.

“I noticed one of your men is missing. Our team has a tracker!”

Sebastian turned back. “Oh?”

Timmy smiled apologetically. “Had a tracker,” he said, indicating to the crumpled figure. The man’s blood was already darkening into ichor, and the smell of desert steel was strong. “But he taught me the basics. We all exchanged skills, it’s a core principle of survival. If one of us dies, another knows enough to keep that role filled.”

Sebastian stayed stock still. “You don’t seem to bothered by the death of your friend.”

Timmy’s smile was warm, open and disturbing. “I’ve forgiven you, and moved on. It’s water under the bridge.”

Sebastian had no answer to that. He waited arms crossed, until Jax got back. He was hurrying, looking worried.

“Find him?” Sebastian asked.

“No. And I don’t think we will.”

“Why not?” Sebastian asked sharply.

Jax stuck his thumb over his shoulder. “The townspeople are sweeping away the mounds of sand outside their stores. The guy outside the gun store just uncovered a small black automatic pistol.”

“Show me,” Sebastian said. He turned to face Jax and strode past him. Jax struggled to keep up with Sebastian’s longer strides. “Follow us!” Sebastian shouted to Tanaka and the two other bounty hunters.

He got the gun store, the door hanging off its hinges. Sure enough, right by the corner, sat Pauly’s automatic. Sebastian crouched down and read the serial number. He’d memorised Pauly’s offhand during the long walks in the desert. It was a match.

He got up, and shook the collar of his shirt. Sand flew out. “So fucking itchy!”

“What now?” Tanaka asked.

“We try find and collect our bounty,” Jax replied.

“And find Pauly,” Sebastian said. “Shit, I was right here! Ansar must have taken him!”

The store keeper came out through his ruined door frame. “Hey, aren’t you the guy who broke my door.”

Sebastian stared him down. The store keeper reconsidered and went back inside. In Terra Deserta, you either developed an instinct for when a man wasn’t worth pushing, or you got yourself killed.

Sebastian turned on Timmy. “You can track? That’s our teammate’s gun. We think he’s with Ansar. Track him down.”

Timmy smiled. “Of course! It’s a pleasure to work with you. Your friend’s safety is important to me too.”

“Save your breath.” Sebastian said.

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Desert Steel Chapter 18

-Practice

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It was no sooner than when they had crested the first dune from town, that Sebastian started to talk.

“So, Jax. Are you going to explain why you freaked out at the party. I think you owe us all an explanation.”

“I thought you said you could care less about my past.”

Sebastian smirked. “Yes, you’re right, I could care less. I’m asking what happened at the party, is all.”

“What’s there to explain? They were bullying Amy and I snapped.”

“Oh, aren’t you just the perfect gentleman?”

“Fuck off!”

“Where’s your fedora?'” Sebastian asked.

“Nice memes you fucking faggot. Bet your mum’s real proud of you.”

“Thanks, dude. My entire adolescence was spent on anonymous chat boards, I hope it shows.”

“That’s fucking sad.”

“I had fun with it.”

“Yeah…”

For a moment, it looked like Jax was lost in another time and place.

“Mister Gentleman.” Sebastian teased.

Jax scowled, cussed him out, and the moment was gone. Sebastian smiled and bounced along the spine of a dune. His left hand drew his gun over and over again. The wind come in from the North strong and hard.

As the sun and heat peaked they sheltered in the paltry shade of a large dune. Sebastian took a few sips of his water. It had an earthy tang. Pauly started ripping into a air-dried strip of beef. Even as he rested, Sebastian drew his gun over and over. Having finished devouring his meal, Pauly became discomfited by the silence.

“So what anime did you guys watch?” he asked.

Jax glared at him. Sebastian, deep in thought, was delayed in responding. He managed to puncture the awkward silence just as it was forming.

“Jax has already said he watched ‘Moe Moe Bubble Girls’, which is about cute fairy girls. I don’t watch anime, although I did read manga. Tanaka said he doesn’t watch anime.”

“I did watch Doraemon as a kid.” Tanaka interjected.

There was another pause that threatened to stretch into silence until Sebastian realised he needed to ask a question back.

“Did you watch anime?”

“No,” Pauly said. “I went out and partied on my weekends. Anime was for…” He trailed off, and then changed tack. “I did watch Dragonball Z back when it was cool, though. What’s manga?”

“It’s the written comic book form.”

“What’d you read?” Sebastian was silent. Pauly got worried. “Hey man, if you don’t wanna talk about it.”

“No, it’s fine, I’m just trying to remember them all. There were at least two hundred series. The big three, obviously. Beelzebub, too. The popular seinens, like Berserk, Vagabond, Vinland Saga. Kokou No Hito is really good. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure was fun. I really love the art in Otoyomegatari. Baby Steps is a really good sports manga…” Sebastian stopped, seeing that everyone’s eyes had glazed over. “Lots, basically.”

“Yeah…” Pauly agreed.

“Christ!” Jax exclaimed to no-one and everyone. “How’d I get stuck with such a pathetic nerd?!”

“Says the neo-nazi who watched cute girls have a sparkly bubble fight with an evil witch.” Sebastian said. “I think you’re forgetting yourself here.”

“So are you!” Jax snapped back. He stopped, unsure what he meant, then forged ahead anyway. “You’re some no-life loser who wasted his life inside reading manga and surfing anonymous image boards. Not some badass leader you seem to be trying to be.”

“Can’t I be both, Mr. Gentleman?”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Why not? It’s just a joke nickname. Isn’t that what friends do?”

“Fuck off!”

Sebastian shrugged and lay back into the sand. Jax was breathing heavily. Pauly felt awkward. Everything he said seemed to have put Sebastian and Jax at each other’s throats. He took a sip from his water to ignore the atmosphere.

There was a click as a revolver was cocked. Pauly spun around. Tanaka had drawn his revolver.

“Make nice,” he said.

Sebastian glanced up and smiled. “Be serious.”

“I am,” Tanaka said. His face backed it up. “Make nice.”

Sebastian smirked at Jax. “Sorry I hurt your poor feelings.”

“Properly!” Tanaka commanded.

Sebastian sighed. His face lost its smile. Any emotion slewed off like snow from a roof. “I’m sorry Jax. I am socially undeveloped and the only way I know to connect with people and see their emotions is to tease them.”

Nobody could tell if he was still joking or not, but Tanaka let it pass.

Jax scowled. He looked at Tanaka, to double check the revolver was still drawn. It was. “Sorry I insulted you.” He turned his head to Tanaka. “There, you happy, you fucking slant?” he said.

“Uhh, I think that defeats the purpose of an apology.” Pauly said nervously.

“Hug.” Tanaka said, still deadly serious. When he was like that his delinquent past shone out. He was intimidating and majestically arrogant. The light cast his open face into sharp edges.

Sebastian and Jax did a double take with one another. Hesitantly and awkwardly, under the barrel of a gun, they embraced. The instant they began to break apart, Tanaka bowled them over in a massive bear hug.

All three of the tumbled down the dune. Sebastian laughed despite himself. It was like having a big, lovable dog.

At the bottom of the dune, Tanaka got up off the pile.

“No more fighting,” he announced.

“Oh, man, that was so fucking gay,” Jax said, getting to his feet as fast as possible.

Sebastian laughed. “Come on. What’s the harm in a little skinship?”

“Speak for yourself, faggot.”

“All better now?” Tanaka asked, all smiles again.

“Sure,” Sebastian said. “It was good catharsis.” Seeing Tanaka’s incomprehension, he added. “That means it was relieving.”

“Okay. That is good,” Tanaka said, deadly serious. Sebastian couldn’t help but laughing again.

“You, Tanaka, are one of a kind.”

“I know.”

That evening, Tanaka got up and faced Sebastian. The sun was dipping into the horizon and the stars surging up the other side.

“Show me your gun draw.”

Sebastian nodded and got up. “Good thing it was my other hand that broke,” he observed, raising the taped up hand.

He stood tall, his full height towering over Tanaka. He pushed back his cloak and hooked it on a metal spur on the back of his belt. This spur kept the cloak clear of the holster and the hand. Hooking one’s cloak on this spur was a belligerent declaration in Terra Deserta, just as raising one’s head was an amicable one. At a controlled speed, Sebastian drew as he had thousands of times before. Tanaka smiled. The form was perfect. Sebastian was a good student that could mimic things down to the last millimetre and then drill the action for hours without losing interest.

“Faster now. As fast as you can.”

Sebastian re-holstered, breathed, and drew. His hand blurred. Not as fast as Tanaka, but he came up with a gun held correctly, and it hadn’t snagged on anything.

“Okay,” Tanaka said. “Next step. Reaction times.” He pointed to a spot ten metres away from him. “You stand there. We’ll duel.”

Sebastian took up the position in the same stance. Tanaka shuffled his feet around. He swept his cloak aside. Then he straightened, tensed, and raised his face so it was out of shadow. His eyes unfocussed. An arrogant leer suffused his face. Suddenly, Sebastian wasn’t towering over Tanaka. Instead, all five feet eight inches of Tanaka seemed to be towering over Sebastian.

“You cannot draw until I draw. Understand? We won’t fire, obviously.”

Sebastian nodded.

Tanaka drew. His lightning tattoo left a yellow blur in the air as it moved. The sound of air whistling as his arm forced it out of the way was audible. It was like the noise when someone swings a tennis racket as fast as they can.

Sebastian blinked before his brain clicked. He drew as fast as he had before. By the time he had the gun out and aimed Tanaka was holstering his gun.

“Again,” he said.

Sebastian nodded, holstered his gun, and took a deep breath. Tanaka drew again and exactly the same thing happened. Again and again Tanaka holstered and drew. Again and again Sebastian wasn’t fast enough to react.

And again and again and again.

Sebastian knew why, scientifically, this was happening. Firstly, Tanaka was inhumanly fast. Secondly, it was a matter of distance. The nerve impulses sent by Sebastian’s brain had to travel his long arms. Knowing either of these things wouldn’t make Sebastian faster, so he put his mind to a different work. Each time Tanaka drew, Sebastian observed every flicker and twitch. Every tensed muscle, every glance. For the next three tries he was even slower due to the distraction. On the fourth try, he’d memorised every action. He timed his own reaction speed, then worked backwards through Tanaka’s mannerisms until he knew which action to react to.

On the fifth try, he drew at exactly the same time as Tanaka. Tanaka still got the gun out first in the end because he was faster, but the reaction time delay was zero seconds. Tanaka grinned. They did it again, and again. Both times, the reaction time was zero. Tanaka’s smile faded.

“You’re not reacting to my gun draw, are you?”

“No,” Sebastian admitted. “I can read your body language.”

“That’s not the proper path. How will you know a stranger’s body language?”

“How will I gain your reaction time? Just reacting over and over again won’t magically make the nerve signals faster.”

“You’ll never be as good as me like this.”

“I never will, regardless. I have to compromise. This is my way of doing things. And different isn’t always worse.” Sebastian could see Tanaka was still disapproving, so he gambled. “Watch this. Duel me again.” It was a gamble Sebastian knew in his gut would pay off. When he gambled on his mind’s ability, he always knew when he was going to win.

They reassumed their positions. Sebastian scoured Tanaka’s stance. He closed his eyes. He had the image, now he had to extrapolate. He’d learnt the lead up to Tanaka drawing to one and a half seconds back. Tanaka had been one second away when he’d closed his eyes. In his mind’s eye he could see Tanaka going through the one second of body language before drawing. He didn’t need to see this, though. He just had to count down one second, and draw about a quarter of a second before zero. He did so, opening his eyes.

He’d matched Tanaka perfectly. Reaction time: zero seconds.

Everyone gaped in awe.

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Desert Steel Chapter 17

-Fracas

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The party was thumping, if expectations were downscaled to outer Terra Deserta standards. All of the fight show crew was there, bar Hadrian, as was a slice of Hovetown Left locals. Alcohol was available in two kegs. It was nasty and cheap but it was stronger and tastier than the earthy oasis water. The party was taking place in one of the towns two saloons, which was furnished with a lean towards comfy. The saloon buzzed with conversation. Cigarette and other smoke occupied the top half of the room.

Tanaka was propped up against one corner of the bar. Not one to dwell on a past mistake, he was savouring a glass of moonshine with a unfettered grin. His hair had restored to its usual chaotic bramble. His ear piercings, a row of simple pale yellow and dull grey rings along the arc of his outer ear on both sides, gleamed. When he lifted up his glass, the lithe muscles in his forearm rippled beneath his tattoo. A crowd of admirers drank in every aspect. He fielded their questions with a friendly manner and an easy smile, even those asking about why his teammate had spat in his face.

Pauly was in his element. His old lifestyle may have had its foundations in bullshit, but one thing had shone true: he loved a party. As a bonus, he didn’t even have to lie. He really had been to bigger and better parties involving more famous people. Let me tell you about a REAL party, man, it’s got minor Staten Island celebrities and people drinking all different kinds of alcohol, none of this low level bullcrap. Besides that, he actually had a real reputation, having fought Hadrian. No longer did he have spin a tale about this gangbanger from Brooklyn he’d roughed up, or some out-of-state college student he’d slept with. Pauly was a badass for real this time. Sure, people still had to take what he said about himself with a grain of salt, but a little seasoning makes a meal taste better anyway. In Terra Deserta, embellishing stories was something of a local pastime. He was the life of the party, imparting anecdotes and cracking jokes with every group. He bounced around the room, constantly replenishing drink in hand.

Jax stood off in the corner, and smouldered. If anyone or any group strayed too near he repelled them with his glare. He sipped from his drink with a burning intensity. He observed the party as it flowed with unconcealed hatred. His mind continued returning to his dismal and pointless round in the fight. Every time it did his anger flared further. Even the crybaby Pauly had done better. Now he swanned around chatting while Jax wallowed in his isolated corner. Jax stole another furious sip of his drink. He passed the time by fantasising about punching a partygoer’s stupid smiling face. He scowled at a girl that had looked up and made eye contact with him. She dropped her gaze, a friendly smile dying on her lips. Jax’s eyes darted off for their next prey.

He alighted upon Steve, Erica and Amy, although unlike Sebastian he didn’t remember their names. Steve was lounging on a sofa, legs and arms splayed. Erica’s small and willowy form was curled up on his lap, one slender arm slung over his neck. She had a smile like cough medicine, sickly sweet but still unable to hide its bitter, nasty nature. She was talking over Steve’s shoulder to Amy, her face towards Jax. Amy’s boyish figure had its back to Jax. It was shaking. Erica’s lips moved, evidently saying something, and Steve threw back his head and laughed. The group in the area did the same. Amy spun and stormed away.

Jax saw she was fighting off tears and rage. After stalking a few steps away, the laughter still chasing her, she froze with fearful confusion. Her head spun left and right, looking for a safe haven to run to. She alighted upon Jax in the corner. He had no angry glare for her. She didn’t have some fat, shit-eating grin on her face. All people were trash, but some had the decency to be sad about it. She walked over and joined him. He took another sip of his drink, his glare sweeping the whole room.

He opened his mouth to say something, reconsidered, and closed it. She sniffled, and he flared up again.

“What the fuck’s your problem?”

She got pissed and glared at him, but she stopped crying. “People.”

“Amen,” Jax said under his breath. He took another sip. He eyed Steve and Erica. The group had lost interest, as had Steve, but Erica caught his eye and leered at him. He turned his attention back to Amy.

He cleared his throat. She stared dead-eyed off into the distance, past Erica and through the far wall. “Sorry, you know,” he managed. “For the things I said and did to you.”

“Whatever,” she said hurriedly, her voice cracking.

“People are trash,” he said. He gestured vaguely in Erica’s direction. “You don’t need them.”

“I need someone,” she said. Emotion was breaking through the cracks. She turned her eyes to meet with Jax’s.

His burned with rage and emptiness. “No. You don’t.” He paused, the flames dimming. “You want someone worth something.”

“I… guess,” she said, averting her eyes. The emotion and the pain in her voice tugged at Jax’s memories. His emotions swirled, and something dislodged.

He dropped his cup, the clear liquid spilling at his feet. He strode over to the sofa. Erica looked up at him.

“Yesssss?” she asked. The group around her sniggered. Rage rose of Jax’s body like steam.

He sucker punched her. Something cracked. Somebody screamed. She fell off of Steve onto the floor. Steve got up, fast, shouting something. It was an elemental buzz to Jax’s ears. He headbutted Steve as hard as he could. Steve fell back, roaring in pain. Hell broke loose. Confusion reigned. Some people tried get away. Others tried attack him. He kicked, and punched and bit. They were knocked back, tripping over one another.

To his left, and behind him, Tanaka waded through the tangle with practised ease. With the nonchalance of a man picking a flower, he took Jax’s flailing arm and wrenched it into a lock. Jax thrashed about, still hitting out at anyone in range in front of him. Tanaka increased the pressure, trying to drive home the point, but Jax seemed oblivious to it.

“Jax!”

The words were delivered like a whip crack, and the crowd was cowed as if it were.  It cut right through the fog of anger clouding Jax’s brain. He stopped struggling. Sebastian stood tall at the door, one eye still swollen shut. His good eye stared Jax down. Jax averted his gaze.

“Explain,” Sebastian commanded.

“He just started attacking peo-” someone began saying. Sebastian didn’t turn to look at the speaker.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he said. Whoever it was fell silent.

Jax expelled air in an angry and frustrated tut. He didn’t say anything, unsure where to even start.

“Answer.”

Jax glared up defiantly at Sebastian. “Just showing how you take out the trash.”

Hadrian had entered after Sebastian, his imposing presence oddly going unnoticed. He was now kneeling over the moaning Erica. “I think her jaw’s dislocated,” he said. He rose, his eyes hard. “I think you should leave.”

“Yes, let’s.” Sebastian agreed. He crossed his arms. Tanaka released Jax and left, Jax following just behind. Pauly came out last, hurrying out from a group of people. Applause started somewhere in the back of the crowd and spread. Sebastian pretended he didn’t notice. His eyes searched the room, and found Amy standing frozen in the corner.

Shock, horror, admiration, joy and disgust all fought for supremacy on her face. It told Sebastian everything else he needed to know. He sighed, turned on his heels and left. His three men were waiting for him outside under the veranda.

“That’s the first time it wasn’t my fault we’re thrown out of a party,” Pauly joked.

“Follow me,” Sebastian said, ignoring him. He lead them down the street and into the cellar where he had been. He surveyed his group. The blindly heroic Tanaka who was only now opening his eyes. The jokey and sociable Pauly who was emerging from his shell of bluff and fear. And Jax, a vicious and violent wounded beast.

Sebastian smirked. “That went better than it should have.”

Tanaka and Pauly gave relieved smiles.

“True. I thought the town was going to turn on us,” Tanaka said.

Jax sullenly remained non-responsive.

“So Jax,” Sebastian asked, the tension relieved. “What were you thinking? That you were some white knight coming to save poor, sweet Amy? Or are you some kind of berserker, and bullying is your trigger to hulk out?”

“How the fuck do you know this?!” Jax burst out. “You reading my fucking mind?!”

“Ooo, Jaxxy boy. You’re crying.”

“I am not.” Jax furiously wiped his eyes.

“You are. It’s ok, buddy, you’re among friends here. There are more emotions other than anger, you know.”

“You guys are not my friends!”

“No, because you don’t have any friends. Your only one died because you didn’t try to save him.”

Jax reacted like he’d been slapped. New tears sprung to his eyes. He bit his lip and lowered his head.

“I don’t know your past,” Sebastian said. “I don’t care either. I care about your fuck ups now. That old you? He died when you jumped through the portal. In this desert, you adapt or you die.”

Jax swallowed. Anger relit in his eyes. “Fuck you, you preachy bitch. I’m more adapted to this fucking desert than any of you moralising pricks.”

“Then act like it,” Sebastian said, unbothered.

Hadrian burst in, making everyone jump. He was alone.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he said. “Where’s my little trouble maker?” He saw Jax, and rushed up to meet him. Hadrian patted him on the back as he cringed away. “Great punch, man. First time I’ve seen anyone successfully shut Erica up.”

The three were stunned by Hadrian’s nonchalance . Sebastian just rolled his eyes.

“Yo-you’re not bothered that we just attacked your crew? Punched a girl?” Pauly asked.

“Nah. Equal rights, equal lefts, that’s what I say.” Hadrian laughed at his own joke.

Pauly picked up on the accent. “Are you and Sebastian from the same-”

“God no,” Sebastian said. “He’s Australian. Just ignore him and he’ll go away.”

Hadrian laughed again.

“Well anyway, we clicked her jaw back in and wired it shut, so she’ll be alright apart from the agonising pain,” he said.

“Do people think Amy put Jax up to it?” Sebastian asked.

“Not if she plays her cards right.”

“Do you think she will?”

“Nah.”

Sebastian nodded. He respected Hadrian’s insight, if not his attitude. He agreed. Amy would only incriminate herself further.

“You said you wanted to be my mate, Hadrian.”

“Yeah?”

“As a favour to your mate then: resolve the conflict, help Amy.”

Hadrian scratched one of his healing cuts. “Yeah, no worries. You’re a manipulative bugger, starboy, even if it is for the greater good.” He eyed Sebastian for a reaction through his wounds. There wasn’t one. “That was a compliment, by the way.”

“Thanks. My name’s Sebastian. I don’t think I’ve introduced myself yet.” Sebastian extended his hand. Hadrian took it and shook it firmly.

“Hadrian Chanda Smith.”

Pauly, Jax and Tanaka all exchanged looks. What had those two talked about when they’d been left alone.

“It’s been a pleasure, Sebastian. Most of the people we get are so damn boring. Which is why I’d recommend leaving town now. I don’t think I can quell another incident.”

“We’ll need bearings.”

Hadrian bared all his teeth in what was probably a smile. “No problem. There are three outposts near and South, but the biggest one will be the best one. Go one hundred and seventy seven degrees South from this town’s boundary. It was ten days travel for us, less for you probably. Feel free to take the oasis water.”

“Thanks, Hadrian. It’s been a pleasure.”

“Likewise.”

They filled up their water at the oasis, checked all their equipment, and left. Before Jax’s violent outburst they would have left to a fanfare. Instead, they beat a quiet and ignoble retreat. It suited Sebastian fine. Crowds and attention he hated, although he never let them phase him. Against all common sense and better judgement, however, he loved the desert.

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Desert Steel Chapter 13

-The Fight Part 1

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One of the guards, who was wearing a Bedouin style robe, pulled a cowbell out of the folds. He rang it with his knuckle. To the roar of the crowd, Hadrian, or Lord Shiva as he was known, charged forwards. Pauly, slow on his best days, was overwhelmed by the noise. He didn’t even twitch when Hadrian’s meaty bicep ploughed into his face. Pauly was taken right of his feet, his legs kicking up and his neck straining under the force of the blow. He landed on his back on the plywood floor, which boomed under the impact. It sounded worse than it felt, barely. Hadrian bounced against the cables a few times before jumping up and dropping his elbow into Pauly’s gut. Fortunately, Pauly’s dense muscles absorbed the majority of the hit. He managed to scramble up and escape to the corner of the ring. Hadrian got up and paraded around in front of the crowd.

Face stinging, stomach aching, Pauly realised he needed to fight back somehow. He threw a clumsy and telegraphed punch. Hadrian ducked under the swinging arm, popped up behind Pauly, and booted him in the back. Pauly was sent staggering into the ropes. They were still hard and unpleasant despite their plastic wrapping. He tried another punch, this one an uppercut. Hadrian merely leant back, watching the fist sail by. He launched a flurry of punches that knocked the wind out of Pauly’s lungs. Wheezing, Pauly attempted to charge him down, but was instead neatly tripped. He was sent sprawling onto the unpadded plywood for the second time.

On the ringside, Sebastian watched with dimming hopes. Hadrian was muscular, which had been obvious and intimidating from the start. He was gymnastic, which was further discouragement. But against the group’s most muscular fighter, Hadrian was also revealing himself to be fast. He dodged around Pauly’s swings with unhurried ease. Sebastian saw Jax’s and his own odds dwindling. They lacked muscle, and he now knew their speed would not fill the gap. Sebastian looked over at Tanaka. He was watching without a single sign of concern. But this same man had walked into an ambush shouting out that he’d be a hero. Was he delusional?

Hadrian climbed up to the second cable on his corner, sighted Pauly’s recumbent figure over his shoulder, and rallied the crowd.

SHIVA! SHIVA! SHIVA!

On the third, climatic cry, he leapt backwards, falling and twisting. The crowd watched in breathless silence. Hadrian landed with a resonating slam, his shoulder cracking Pauly’s ribs. The crowd erupted with cheers. Pauly’s hands scrabbled weakly at Hadrian’s chest. Hadrian looked at Pauly, looked at the crowd, and nodded to the bell holder. The nod was subtle, but Sebastian noticed it. The bell man rapped the bell once, and Hadrian disengaged, striding back to his corner. Pauly, dragging in each breath with agonising effort, rolled over and crawled over to the cables. By upper body strength alone, he pulled himself to his feet.

“What..? Is happ… enning?” he managed. His ribs sent shards of pain shooting up his side when he breathed.

“End of the round, I think,” Sebastian replied. “More importantly, how are you?”

Pauly managed a weak but brave smile. “I’ve been better. I think he’s broken my ribs.”

Sebastian nodded. “Just cracked, I think.”

“What’s… The difference?”

Sebastian didn’t tell him a lose bone chip or broken end could puncture an organ, something that would be certain death out here. It was a concern Pauly didn’t need. “Not much. Listen, your punches are pointless. They’re slow, and they’re obvious. He may be the peak of the male aesthetic mountain, but your arms and chest are bigger, and stronger. So try grab him. One good grip might be all you need. After all, he’s showboating. Got it?”

Pauly nodded just as the cowbell was rung again and Hadrian came out of his corner. Hadrian hopped around a bit, showcasing some fancy footwork that was wasted on Pauly. He then threw a right hook like a cobra strike. Pauly swung both his arms wildly, but they missed out on gripping anything. This gave Hadrian an opening to rush past Pauly and come flying back in a dropkick. Pauly stayed up and tried grab the now grounded Hadrian but he rolled away. Hadrian wound up and then sprung up onto his feet. Two more grabs missed Hadrian, who danced between them. Finally, Pauly got a grip, his thumb hooking under Hadrian’s armpit. He consolidated his hold, his left hand grabbing Hadrian’s side. Pauly froze.

He twisted his head to look back at his team.

“What do I do now?” he asked. Hadrian politely refrained from breaking free or striking back. The three on the side shrugged, and exchanged looks.

Jax hazarded a cautious “lift him?”

Pauly shifted his left hand grip to the inside of Hadrian’s thigh, and strained. His ribs screamed in protest but he ignored them. ‘I am desert steel’ he thought, his mantra. Hadrian’s feet lifted off the ground. Pauly’s biceps bulged. He got Hadrian up to his chest. Hadrian remained unresisting. With one last gargantuan effort, Pauly heaved Hadrian up above his head. A line of pain seared his side and he almost lost his balance but he managed to steady himself. His two arms were held up in a v shape, his elbows locked, and on them rested Hadrian. Pauly froze.

He twisted his head to look back at his team.

“What now?” he hissed. His team shrugged again.

“Drop him hard?” Sebastian offered.

Pauly went to do just that, moving his arms forwards to chuck Hadrian onto the floor, or maybe out of the ring. The weight above him shifted. Suddenly, his right arm was jerked backwards, while his left side was still pushing forwards. His forward leg twisted, and he fell down hard, a weight on his back driving him down harder. The floor bounced, the unsecured centre of the plywood flexing in and then out, acting like a drum. He tried get back up but the weight on his back was immovable. His right arm was being pulled back painfully, his shoulder felt ready to pop out of the socket. His ribs screamed.

“THERRRRRRRRRRRRREEEE IT IS FOLKS! THE LYNCHPIN AERIAL REVERSAL!!!!!! GIVE HIM A BIG HAND!!!”

Pauly’s shoulder was near dislocated to thunderous applause.

From Sebastian’s viewpoint, the move was a lot clearer. Hadrian had wrapped himself around Pauly’s right arm and fallen backwards. The weight shift had sent Pauly over, unable to break his fall. Then he’d pulled the right arm into a painful lock. It sounded almost bland when simplified and described, but the move had been poetry. The gravity-defying twist to shift the balance. The graceful descent. The forceful lock. The fluency between actions. The sensual flexing of his perfect body in action. There’d been an undercurrent to the action, however. Hadrian had stopped playing around, and gone for the kill. He was controlling the progression of the matches. Drawing them out was going to be even more difficult than Sebastian had initially anticipated.

“I give, I give!” Pauly screamed.

“Tap the floor, hard.” Hadrian ordered, in a near whisper. With his blown eardrum, Pauly almost didn’t hear it, but fortunately for his shoulder he did. He slammed the ring floor with two more dramatic and resounding thumps. The pressure came off his shoulder, to his immense relief. The cowbell rang once again. Hadrian got up and started riling up the crowd again. Pauly just dragged himself off the ring, collapsing at his group’s feet.

“You did well!” Sebastian said, having to shout over the megaphone that was blaring out the victory announcement.

“I did jack shit,” Pauly puffed. “He was just playing around.”

Jax was shaking his limbs in warm up. “I’m fucked, guys. I can’t fight fair.”

Sebastian nudged Amy. She glared at him. “What?” she hissed, the words acid.

“What happens if one of us cheats? Goes for a low blow?”

“You’re shot dead where you stand.”

Sebastian turned back to Jax. “I think you’d better fight fair,” he observed wryly.

“Fuck, man,” Jax said, before using the elasticity of the cables to jump into the ring. “I fucking hate getting the shit kicked out of me. It’s never fun.”

Hadrian was circling back round the ring, still hyping the crowd up. He spun on nimble feet and raised his guard. Jax half-heartedly did the same.

“ROUND TWO!!! SHIVA VERSUS RATMAAAAANNN!” the megaphone man rumbled. The cowbell was rung again and Hadrian darted forwards.

Regardless of what Jax had said, he was actually a decent fighter. His punches had good form, and he was fast, far faster than Pauly. The problem was that where Jax was good, Hadrian was better. Jax hopped around, and then went in for a left hook. Hadrian dodged, landed a stunning uppercut, ducked under a reflexive straight, and then gave a body shot that lifted Jax full off the ground. Jax manoeuvred back, trying to find space, but Hadrian kept the gap closed. Jax tried drive him back with a quick succession of jabs, but Hadrian batted them aside. He double faked his approach, and then gave a direct punch to the face. It was like getting hit head on by a steam locomotive. Jax reeled back, dropping his guard, and Hadrian fell back.

Sebastian watched with growing suspicion. Twice now Hadrian had given openings. He was either confident or stupid. Or the fight was about the entertainment, not the victory. As the fight continued, this third possibility was growing ever more likely. Sebastian didn’t let it bother him. The reason for the openings didn’t matter, and his turn was soon approaching by the look of things. He checked on Tanaka, to see if the comprehensive pounding was fazing him, but he was still unworried.

Jax waited for his vision to stop blurring from tears before moving away from the ropes. He was moving sluggishly now, and his head felt both oddly clear and foggy at the same time. He took a step in and sidestepped, just in time to dodge a punch that hummed as it passed. He stepped back again. Hadrian didn’t approach at first but when Jax continued to hang back he moved in. Jax leapt back, felt the cable dig into his back and dived and rolled just in time to escape a colossal onslaught. The crowd began to boo this cowardice. Jax ignored it as he backed up in the ring, his face still stinging. Hadrian was ignoring him for now, instead addressing the crowd again. A chant got started somewhere in the back eastern row, and spread.

KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL.

Hadrian wiped his nose with his thumb and dropped back into his guard. Jax body tensed up, ready to leap away.  Hadrian came in to the left and Jax spun out right. There was a dense thump and his thigh felt like it’d just run into a log. Jax went down. Hadrian had faked him out with punches and then delivered a low kick that had numbed his leg and thrown him down. Fucker! Jax tried to get up but Hadrian strolled over and gripped him by the armpit and side. In an imitation of Pauly’s move that mocked it by being superior to it in every way, Hadrian heaved the thrashing, cursing Jax into the air, held him there for dramatic effect, and then slammed him onto the plywood.

Jax’s back took most of the force, but his head still whipped back and hit the floor hard. At that point Jax had had enough. He was looking up at Hadrian, who stood wide legged and confident. His eyes alighted on Hadrian’s unprotected crotch, and his booted feet which were lying beneath it. He rose halfway, seeing blood.

Sebastian saw the change in Jax’s eyes, and he saw the obvious target of Jax’s rage. He hammered on the floor desperately. Jax and Hadrian both froze and stared. Sebastian waved his arms parallel to the ground. He remembered seeing it down by referee’s in some sports, and he figured it looked legitimate.

“Forfeit,” he said. “We give up this round.”

The cowbell man looked at Hadrian, who shrugged. The cowbell was rung. The crowd burst out into even bigger boos. The megaphone man started announcing the result and attempted to console them.

Jax got up, furious, and stormed over to his corner.

“I wasn’t fucking done,” he said.

“You were about to go for his balls,” Sebastian said. “You were going to be shot dead.”

“Whatever,” Jax said, although he knew Sebastian was right.

“Wait,” Sebastian said, the ghost of a smile on his face. “Don’t tell me you were thinking: ‘If I hurt him bad enough then my team can win the next round and live, even if I die’.” Sebastian said, in a modestly good affectation of a Boer accent. His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Jax, are you… Tsundere?”

Jax’s face relit with new rage. “No, I’m fucking Yandere because I’ll kill you shits!”

“How do you know that term?” Sebastian asked. “Could you be an ‘anime watching freak’, to quote yourself?”

Jax face transitioned from angry flush to blush. “So what if I do?”

Sebastian and Tanaka burst out laughing.

“Wha-what do you watch?” Sebastian managed between giggles.

Jax blushed even deeper. “Moe Moe Bubble Girls,” he admitted.

Tanaka’s and Sebastian’s laughter graduated into body convulsing guffaws. The image of a neo-nazi watching moe girls was too bizarre and hilarious. Jax stood at the corner of the ring impotently, his fists clenched. Sebastian recovered himself and jumped up into the ring. He patted Jax on the shoulder.

“I needed that, mate,” he said, and Jax softened a little.

Jax dropped down, leaving Sebastian alone with Hadrian in the ring.

Sebastian raised his fists. There was just one objective in his mind. After seeing Hadrian’s display, it wasn’t winning. He needed to make Tanaka take the fight seriously, one way or another.

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Desert Steel Chapter 9

-Conversations in the Desert

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Apart from the eerie squeaking of the sand and the howl of the wind, the desert was silent. The only other sound was the scrape of leather as Sebastian drew and holstered his desert steel as he walked, over and over again. There were times when Sebastian could have sworn he could hear the heat, a crackling and creaking as if the whole world was being  deep fried. But not today. He broke the silence by chatting to Jax.

“So why are you wearing the flag of apartheid South Africa?”

Jax shrugged. “Because I want to.”

“But you partnered up with a black man.”

“His name was Drake. And it was a joke, like, between the two of us.”

“You wearing racist iconography was a joke?”

“Yeah, y’know. I call him a dumbass nigger, he calls me a tiny ass whitey, we laugh.”

“The joke being neither of you meant it?”

“Yeah, man. I mean, we would have died for one another. He was closer to me than my dumbfuck Boer family ever was.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He was from Cameroon, and he spoke with this African accent that was like dark chocolate sauce, man. Sounded like a radio DJ. But he was built like a rugby player. Could have played for the Springboks.”

“How’d you get the t-shirt though?”

“I owned it. My family didn’t really take to the whole end of the apartheid thing very well. I didn’t give a fuck. Most people, black or white, are trash. Fuck ’em all. But you got to go along with family. You got to fit in.”

“So you played along with the whole white pride groups thing?”

“I revelled in it. Fights on the streets, riots, pissing off a bunch of self-righteous pricks. It was fun. Sure, I didn’t really believe any of that racist bullshit, but fun is fun.”

“And then?”

“Trouble. At school, in court. Movements got restricted, police cracked down harder, family softened up. All at once, my racist fucking family had turned into a bunch of mewling kittens, and I, the one guy who wasn’t racist, became the hardcore skinhead in the family.”

“And that’s when you jumped?”

“Nah man. Waited for the family to post bail for me. My family’s pretty loaded. Bail was like fifty thousand dollars US. Then I jumped. They must have lost that money then. My one last ‘fuck you’.”

“When’d you meet Drake?”

“Two weeks in. I was just going round fucking shit up. Robbing a few of the new jumpers, playing enforcer for some of the gangs in Portal City. Breaking arms, beatings, that sort of thing. Moved out North when things got hot, ran into Drake on the way. He asked me what a tiny ass cracker was doing with that shirt on. I asked him what a dumbass nigger was doing knowing what that shirt meant. We both laughed our asses off. Joined up then and there. Went into town, mugged some travellers, ran back to Portal City then tried the same thing out East. Drake was a beast. He once held three guys up against a wall while I searched their pants. Three! Like it was nothing. Two guys just clamped to the wall at their throats with his forearm. He had this deep laugh, sounded like a buffalo mating. We’d exchange racist jibes constantly, and that’s how’d he’d laugh when we did. Called it his nigger snigger. One time… Oh yeah, one time, we’d caused some trouble at a brothel. Some gang of self-righteous pricks took, uh… what’s the word?”

“Umbrage? ”

“No, what the fuck is that, smartass? Offence. That’s it. They took offence, and picked a fight. Now, I do ok, y’know. Because most people want to play fair, right? Because they think to themselves; if I only hit above the belt, then so will he, and then I won’t be hit in the balls or anything nasty like that. And then I kick them in the balls, and bite their arm, and gouge their eyes, and they go down real quick, screaming. But Drake, Drake, he handled seven guys by himself. Cleanly, you know, cleanliness next to godliness. Just punched them in the gut, and they’d fold right over like a deck chair and go down. They tried jump him all at once, and he was like a tornado, sending them flying from an arm or a leg. By the time I was done with my guy, there were eight bodies just laid out around him. A beast. I called him my pet beastman, and he called me his little ratman.”

Sebastian listened with genuine interest to Jax’s tale, which after some nudging had come pouring out. Jax had clearly admired Drake immensely, and this had only amplified after his death. This grief driven deification was more useful to Sebastian in what it revealed of Jax’s character. It was mostly what he’d thought, but he still had to hide a rising tide of revulsion. Jax was clearly someone who revelled in violence and cruelty, in pushing buttons and using obscenities. He looked fondly upon his times spent mugging people, marching in hate groups, and enforcing for brutal gangs.

What bothered Sebastian most was his own similarities to Jax. He told himself the difference was that he was bound by his own morality and that he reflected with guilt and remorse. But now, out here in the desert, where he’d ambushed and killed one man, killed and robbed a grandfather, and sold the children into slavery, he was beginning to wonder if he was lying to himself.

The worst part was the way that with each atrocity he saw or committed, the more a horrible emotional numbness enveloped him. Every time he looked back, the less remorseful he felt. There was a kernel of panic growing inside him- that he was losing himself-yet even that was beginning to drown in a sea of apathy.

Tanaka, who along with Pauly had been listening to the conversation, said, “Eight men, no big deal. When you have justice on your side, that is when true victory is achieved.”

To Sebastian, who looked upon all philosophy with the same disdain a matriarch might have for her daughter-in-law, these words were oddly soothing. They rubbed Jax the wrong way, however.

“Can the bushido bullshit, slant. Drake could have kicked your yellow ass seven shades of blue.”

Tanaka was calm. His black eyes were steady and cool. “I was the essence of lightning itself. I conquered my school  as a junior. They called me ‘Raijin’, the god of thunder and lightning. One time, another school sent twenty men, some armed with bats, to face me. I defeated them all, although I suffered many injuries. Another time, the bosses of ten schools ambushed me. I crushed them all. These were no victories. No one cares who wins a struggle between vermin. The winner is still vermin.”

Jax blew air out his mouth dismissively. “What happened to you, man? You find god?” His tone was mocking. Sebastian was willing to bet he was an atheist.

Tanaka shook his head, still unruffled. “I found good.”

There was a silence as everyone considered this. Again, Sebastian felt a comforting sense of coolness in Tanaka’s words, like taking a nice ice bath.

“What the fuck does that mean?” Jax asked.

“I realised that the honour and camaraderie I believed my gang and I had was a poor excuse for violence and fights. So I looked at the world with open eyes.” Here Jax snickered, and Sebastian knew some racist joke had just popped into his mind. “And I saw the injustice and evil I had ignored, and I struggled against it.”

“You can’t fix the world,” Sebastian said, but he sounded awed none-the-less.

“The glory is in the struggle. The good is in the struggle. We humans cannot achieve perfection, but to aspire to such ideals is divine.”

Jax, who was above all else lazy, said, “Fuck that.”

Nobody spoke after that. There seemed nothing else to say. But Sebastian, as he walked onwards, drawing his gun repetitively, was left with plenty to mull over.

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Desert Steel Chapter 8

-Cleave

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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.”

“U.S.?”

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.

“Yes.”

The bartender leaned back, tapping his feet. “Fifty.”

“Hundred.”

“Sixty.”

” Hundred.”

“Eight?”

” Hundred.”

“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.

He nodded.

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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Desert Steel Chapter 7

-Send off

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It was Sebastian’s sharp eyes and even sharper mind that found the grandpa’s money compartment, hidden under a false panel beneath his seat. The money was stored in a small cedar wood box, carved with fragile flowers. There was a lock on it, made of fine brass. Sebastian cracked it open with his knife. Inside were three rolls of hundred Euro notes, creased and grimy, but still acceptable, along with a wad of old Francs, back from before the Euro reform in 1999. Each roll of Euros was ten notes, or one thousand euros. Sebastian split it into three sets of eight notes and one set of seven, which he took for himself rather than risk a falling out. The Francs were a roll of twenty, so he quickly dealt out five each. The box also contained two photographs. One was a photo of the old man and his grandkids, in formal clothes and smiling outside a, large old country house. The other a photo of the grandpa with two adults, maybe the parents, smiling in a pretty garden. There was also a small porcelain ballerina. Jax tore up the photos, smashed the ballerina against the wall of the digger, then stomped on the box, crushing and splintering the fine wood. Sebastian looked on, unmoved. He’d begun to get a measure of Jax, and knew he was venting his guilt and grief into an elemental rage. Jax breathlessly pounded the box, again and again, his mouth set into a thin determined line. Sebastian turned to Pauly and Tanaka, who both seemed a little disturbed and frightened by Jax’s violent fury.

“Get these kids outside,” he said, “They probably haven’t been outside in days.”

Pauly look up at the ladder and the hatch, which allowed a single beam of daylight to penetrate the dusty interior. He pointed up at the old man’s body, which still blocked the ladder. “But the old man…”

Sebastian shrugged. He was tired, and shaken, and sick, and he couldn’t find it in himself to feel for the corpse of a crazed old Frenchman. He reached up and yanked the body down, hard. The body fell to a horizontal position then stopped suddenly, with a crack like that of a felled tree. The old man’s left leg had become tangled in the rungs, locked up and then snapped when pulled. His shin bone had broken through the wrinkled, leathery skin. There was a plopping sound as residue of his brain and other gore drained from his skull. One eyeball swung pendulously, popped out by the pressure of the gunshot but still attached by tendons and nerve. Sebastian grimaced, but otherwise showed no reaction. Tanaka ignored it, and concentrated on keeping the sullen children’s attention turned away. He drew his gun, floated it up his grip and back down again, wrote his name in a quicksilver blur, holstered, and reversed the action. The children’s large eyes followed faithfully, but they showed no joy. Pauly, for the third time that day, felt like he was going to vomit. This time, however, he needed no reprimanding. He looked away and took deep breaths, but stood firm. Sebastian grabbed the old man’s foot, pulled it straight, and slid it through the rungs. The corpse fell to the floor with a wet thud. Jax stopped stamping on the box, and starting rummaging in the back storage area, which had already been upturned by their search for money. Sebastian went up the ladder first, and told Tanaka to follow with the children. Tanaka lifted the smallest up into Sebastian’s arms, before signalling for the older, bigger child to climb up ahead of him. Pauly followed right after Tanaka. He nearly fell over himself to get out of the cramped dark cabin that was now filling with the stench of death. Jax came last, with a can of petrol.

Once in the daylight the children looked worse than ever. It wasn’t just the grime and the rags. Their feet were raw and blistered, from standing barefoot on sun heated steel. Their skin was pimpled and cracked from time in darkness and in filth. Their eyes were slits, red and sore, unused to bright light. There were sores around their mouths, and Sebastian saw at least one cut he thought was infected.  Despite this, the children blossomed now they were outside, skipping and dancing in the open space offered to them. The sight disturbed Sebastian. It was like watching a zombie jump with joy. Tanaka seemed unbothered. He stood laughing gleefully at the sight, before dashing into the fray to tussle with the long-haired eldest.

Sebastian turned his attention to Jax, who was now emptying the canister of petrol onto the roof of the digger.

“What’re you doing?”

Jax waited patiently for the last few drops to fall before tossing the canister aside. “I’m going to roast that old man like a pig in an oven,” he said, kicking the hatch closed. “And I’m going to send Drake out like a Viking.”

Sebastian was smart enough not to ask who Drake was. He remained silent.

Jax looked at Sebastian and Pauly both. “I need someone to help me get him up.”

Pauly recoiled emotionally, but did well to only shudder outwardly. Sebastian just nodded, and tracked over to Drake’s upper body. He hooked his arms under Drake’s armpits, and heaved him up. Half of Drake’s digestive tract, along with various organs, fell onto the sand. Sebastian’ s legs were drenched in blood and gore. If this bothered him, he gave no sign.

“Do you want the organs too?” he asked.

Jax, extremely disturbed by the scene, mutely shook his head. Sebastian hefted Drake’s body up so Jax could grab his arms and drag the torso the rest of the way up. Sebastian then picked up Drake’s legs, cradling them in his arms. These were passed up without trouble or incident. Jax arranged Drake’s body in the puddle of gasoline, then kneeled in a dry corner of the roof. He took out a lighter, one of the metal ones with an engraving, and violently mashed the button. The flame didn’t take, and he began flicking the button over and over again, more forcefully each time. His breathing was laboured and his rat eyes had narrowed to vicious slits. Sebastian hammered on the steel side, making Jax jump. His head whipped to face Sebastian, the tendons straining in his neck.

“Breath, dude. Deeply. Push the button once, calmly. Light the fire.”

Jax forced in one ragged, heaving breath. He struck the button once, neither fast nor slow. The spark jumped and a bead of orange danced. Reverently, Jax lowered this small pearl of energy onto the dark stain of the petrol. With a great WHOOMPF the flame caught. A wall of heat and light exploded from the roof, engulfing Drake’s cadaver. Jax leapt down quickly, and rolled in the sand, unsure whether he’d caught fire as well. Finally convinced he was fine, he accepted Sebastian’s hand and was helped up.

Everyone had stopped what they were doing and now watched the growing inferno. The smell of roasting flesh made everyone’s mouths water, although none of them would dare admit it. Pauly’s ‘times I felt sick’ count rose to four. Sebastian and Jax stood side by side watching.

“Hell of a send off,” Sebastian said.

“Yeah.”

They stood in sombre silence for a while. Sebastian’s mind kept turning over something Jax had said earlier the way a tongue keeps working at a popcorn kernel trapped between teeth. He turned to Jax.

“Did you put petrol inside the cabin too?”

Jax laughed sadistically. “Yeah. Up to his fucking eyes.”

Sebastian nodded, satisfied, as though Jax was confirming something he’d always known. “Yeah, okay, we’re getting out of here. Yeah, RUN!” he said, shouting the last command.

He turned and sprinted off to the far end of the quarry, where a shallower slope, probably for the access of the digger, had been dug. The rest of the group followed close behind, Tanaka and Pauly carrying a child each. He lead them to the top, over a dune, then another, and another. Pauly, though strong in the chest and arms, had no cardio or leg strength. He collapsed heaving on the fourth dune. Sebastian stopped and dropped down, hugging the side of the dune. The rest of the group followed suit, but not quite so drastically. Jax and Tanaka merely crouched.

“What is it?” Tanaka asked. Sebastian held a hand to his lips then raised it to signal he was waiting for something. They waited, panting. Nothing happened.

“No seriously, what?” Tanaka asked. Sebastian stuck his fingers in his ears and nodded at the others to do the same. Tanaka did, and made sure the children did too. Jax merely crossed his arms, and Pauly was too busy heaving for breath.

“For fuck’s sake, what-”

bakoom

The world split and shattered with a thundering boom. A shockwave rushed over the dunes that kicked up sand and slammed into Jax’s chest. He keeled over, shocked. Everyone else felt it too. The thump and the pressure coursing through them. The disorientation as it hammered their skulls. For everyone with their fingers in their ears, it was loud, for Jax and Pauly, it was ear splitting. The sand resettled. The world returned. They could hear their breathing again. Sebastian sat up, smiling in a self-satisfied way.

“That,” he said, “is it.”

The petrol inside the cabin and the engine had vaporised in the heat of the flame. The gas had expanded, the pressure built up inside the enclosed space. Then it had ignited.

The explosion had released a spire of flame bursting up into the sky that blossomed into a rose of orange fire. The glow could be seen from the horizon, and in Sixty Clicks it was clearly visible. To the group only four dunes clear, it was a colossus of hellfire and heat. They stood watching as it rolled in on itself and shed its orange silky skin to reveal a tempest of black smoke. It boiled ferociously in the sky before being whisked away in the wind. A shard of metal, perhaps the hatch itself, escaped from the hole and spun away to the North.

Sebastian turned to Jax again, smiling a toothy grin that reflected the sunlight. “I take it back. THAT was one hell of a send off.”

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