Tag Archives: Pauly Dean

Desert Steel Chapter 26

-Conversations in the Desert Part 2

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The scenery was undulating dunes for miles. Sebastian and his group were the only ones in sight.

“Hey Sebastian,” Tanaka said, interrupting Sebastian, who was practising his draw to get it faster.

“Yeah?”

“What with your deadpan face and emotionless voice, I was just wondering: do you have any fears?”

“Of course. What about you, O Lightning God?”

“Yeah, course.”

“So what is it?”

“Sharks.”

“Sharks?”

“Yeah man. They re-grow their teeth like with a fucking organic conveyer belt. They’re torpedoes with blades.”

“Blades?”

“You know, that sharp pointy thing that sticks out of the water.”

“You mean a dorsal fin. Those aren’t sharp.”

“That’s what they want you to think. You ever actually touched one?”

“Yes. At an aquarium, Tanaka. I’m not a pussy.”

Tanaka huffed dramatically, although he wasn’t far from a smile. “Fine. I’m actually scared of them because I hate swimming. I can’t move fast in water. That’s terrifying.”

“Imagine being in syrup. That’s like a hundred times as thick.”

“Please don’t say that.”

“That’s such a stupid thing to be afraid of though, man. Like, point me to the nearest body of water and I’ll legit have your children.”

“Fears aren’t always rational.”

“What if there were sand-sharks? Maybe there’s one underneath you right now, swimming up to get you.”

Tanaka smiled. “Yeah, but I can move fast here. I’d beat the shit out of anything up here.”

Sebastian smiled back. “What, even a bear?”

Tanaka’s grin widened. “Back in Japan, I once jumped into a bear enclosure as a dare.”

“I’m guessing it didn’t tear your arm off.”

“It came up to sniff me, I bopped it on its nose, and it backed off. That’s all I managed before the zookeepers dragged me out. I got in a lot of trouble that day, but damn did my legend grow.”

“Buuuuullllshittt,” Jax shouted. “A bear would wreck your shit up.”

“He’s not lying, Jax,” Sebastian said. “I can tell when you guys are lying. Besides, lying is bad, and Tanaka’s going to be a hero someday.”

“That’s right,” Tanaka said, nodding.

“Christ, if you’ve actually fought a bear you’re already a hero,” Jax said.

Tanaka smiled, but his look was distant. “It takes more than strength to be a hero. Besides, it wasn’t really a fight. The bear wasn’t trying to hurt me.”

“What’s your fear, Jax?” Sebastian asked.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“I don’t get scared, I get angry. Nothing scares me anymore.”

“What about a nightmare scenario? Like, one where you still got scared.”

Jax got thoughtful. “Then, I guess it would be facing a crowd.”

“Facing a crowd?”

“Yeah like a big group of people judging me, and I’m paralysed with fear. Can’t punch one of them, can’t give them the finger. Just stand there, all alone and feeling scared.”

“That’s a really depressing thought,” Sebastian said.

“Not for me,” Tanaka said. “I can’t imagine being scared of an audience.”

“Whatever, fucknuts. I don’t care what you think. Sebastian, what’s your fear? You haven’t told us yet.”

“Scurvy.”

Tanaka and Jax exchanged a look and then protested in sync. “Aw, come on!”

“Fears, actual fears. Not some random disease,” Jax demanded.

“I’m serious. When was the last time you had fruit or vegetables with vitamin C? Where do you expect to find any? Right now, we’re all just ticking time bombs for scurvy. Every day you could wake up with your gums swollen or bleeding. If you do, then what? How are you going to cure it?”

“That’s… actually scary,” Tanaka said.

“I’m going to be honest with you. If we don’t find a source of vitamin C soon we’re all going to die.”

“You know what? Fuck sharks. I’m scared of scurvy too,” Tanaka said

“Scurvy it is,” Jax agreed.

The sun peaked and then began it’s slow descent. Sebastian took a gulp from his water canister and ran his tongue over his parched lips.

“So who is Timmy, Jax?” Sebastian asked.

Jax shrugged. “He and Gwendolyn are one of Mikhail’s top tier employees. I don’t know much else, just that they did all sorts or jobs for him in Portal City.”

“It was dumb of them to use their real names,” Sebastian observed.

“Guess they thought no one out here knew them.”

“Bad luck they ended up working with an ex-enforcer.”

“Yeah. I’d never seen them before, though. Just heard the names.”

“Who was the third guy? The one Tanaka shot.”

“A tracker, didn’t Timmy say? So maybe some local guide they hired.”

Sebastian glanced back at Timmy and Gwendolyn who were tagging along behind, just out of earshot.

“Do you think either of them can actually navigate? Think about it. We’ve only ever seen them track someone else, never navigate without a path,” he asked.

“Possible,” Jax conceded. “I realised something, though. Once I got past the initial shock of realising they were Mikhail’s.”

“That if we kill them out here Mikhail will never know? We could just pretend we never met them, give false names, and disappear out into the outer settlements.”

“So you’ve already thought of it.”

“Of course I have. That’s what I do.”

“So why don’t we?”

“Because I realised that Tanaka’s right. I want to be good too, and this is as good a place to start as any.”

Jax swore. “You’ve turned into a fucking pussy.”

“Oh really, just like Tanaka right? Fastest hands in the world and you call him a pussy.”

Jax spat, which was ten times the gesture in Terra Deserta where water was precious. “Damn right he is. Good this, hero that. There’s no point being strong if you’re too much of a pussy to use it.”

“I don’t think you understand Tanaka at all. He’s an arrogant, reckless delinquent trying to be good. His nature isn’t good.”

“Oh yeah? Watch this.” Jax walked up three paces to be beside Tanaka. “Tanaka, you’re a manlet fucking gook. You’re bleached hair looks like piss and your tattoo like a crayon drawing. Earrings are for faggots, which suits you just fine you cocksucker.”

Tanaka smiled. It was a arrogant, tolerating smile. “Big words coming from a rat. Go pick on someone your own speed, like a ten year old girl. Just make sure she doesn’t beat your arse down too hard. The only two reasons I won’t do it myself is because I’m trying to be good, and your insults are as harmless as an old tortoise.”

Jax glared, stuck. He realised he had to retaliate, or else lose face to both Tanaka and Sebastian. He took a half-hearted swing. Tanaka swayed back, dodging easily. “Now it’s self-defence,” he said. His fist jabbed out and bopped Jax’s nose.

Nose stinging, eyes watering, Jax staggered back and away. Sebastian already had a handkerchief out.

“Told you,” he said. “Do you retract your pussy statement now?”

“Whatever,” Jax said, snatching the handkerchief and wiping his nose clean.

Tanaka fished out five U.S dollars from his bag and handed it to Sebastian.

“What’s that for?” Jax asked.

“We were going to have a bet on whether or not you’d take a swing at Tanaka, but we both agreed it was inevitable. So I bet that when you did Tanaka wouldn’t be able to resist taking a shot at you.”

“I couldn’t,” Tanaka said. “It was too tempting. No hard feelings though, right?”

The sky went blood red as the sun set. Sebastian, Tanaka and Jax camped one dune over from Timmy and Gwendolyn. It was a pleasant evening. The air temperature was diving to its icy night time temperatures, but right then it was in a sweet spot. Everyone was enjoying having their weight off their feet and the heat off their skin. None of the three spoke. Sebastian lay on his back on the cooling sand and looked up to the orchestra of the stars in the sky, as he always did. His eyes drank the oddly cold light in until it was all he saw. His mind drifted elsewhere.

The sound of ragged, strained notes blared from over the dune. Sebastian’s peace was shattered. He propped himself up on his elbows. Strangled notes were being force out of a harmonica. The song coming out was stillborn. Tanaka and Jax mirrored his irritation. They endured it for another few minutes, until Tanaka and Sebastian both pleadingly stared at Jax.

“Why don’t you do it?” Jax demanded.

“I’m trying to be good,” Tanaka said.

“I want to, but we agreed you’ll do the angry part,” Sebastian said.

Jax, tired and wanting to rest, sighed. He got to his feet, groaning as stiff muscles resisted. He stormed over the dune. A muffled greeting could be heard, which wasn’t responded to. Then there was a brief squawk  of protest followed by a smashing sound. A noise that might have been sobs carried over the dune, accompanied by Gwendolyn’s shrieking.

“That was his grandmother’s harmonica, you arsehole! It can’t be replaced!”

“I don’t give a shit!” Jax screamed back. He came storming over the dune, then flung the shattered remains over a far dune.

Sebastian was smiling openly. Tanaka was trying to hide his own smile of pleasure, but he couldn’t keep a straight face.

Somewhere else in the great expanse of the desert, Ansar was leading Pauly along a long dune.

“How about this, Polly?

What say it of a man,

when there’s a smile on his death mask?

Is he brave? Is he a fool?

What do his dead eyes see?

Pauly kept his head down. He tried search for the right answer, the one his captor wanted. Was he talking about killing Pauly? He gave up. He looked up, and saw Ansar had turned back and was watching him. He hid his sudden fright at this and looked Ansar dead in the eyes.

“I don’t know. I need to know what the poem’s about.”

Ansar threw up his arms in exasperation. “Do you know what a rose is about? Why a sunset happens? Does knowledge of sugar make chocolate sweeter?”

Pauly threw his mind back to high school science. “Isn’t the sunset something to do with the light passing through more air, or something?”

“You miss the point, Pully. Beauty does not need knowledge. It is the one true free concept, beholden to nothing else.”

Pauly nodded in agreement and dropped his gaze.

“No!”

Pauly halted, concerned. “N-no what?”

“Don’t just roll over like a mewling dog. You disagree.”

Pauly swallowed. “A poem is beautiful on its own, but surely you must agree that knowing its meaning enhances its beauty.”

“Which is more beautiful: the woman you don’t understand but fascinates you, or the woman that you know intimately and in her entirety?”

Pauly cast his mind back to his parents. The way his father looked at his mother when they sat together on a humdrum Saturday afternoon. He recalled his own crushes in high school as a scared teenager who for all the bluff knew nothing about girls. The way Mary Calabrese’s exposed leg at the prom had obsessed him.

“I can’t say I really know what the second one’s like,” he said, “but I think that one.”

Ansar clapped his hands together. The sharp noise startled Pauly. “So we disagree! And in that, too, is beauty.

Two minds, two souls opposed,

conflict, battle, unresolved.

Yet, there in the passions of war,

kindles softly, beauty all.

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Desert Steel Chapter 22

-Pursuit

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

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

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

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

“No?” Pauly stuttered.

“Call me Ansar.”

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

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

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

“I can’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me about your tall friend, Poorly.”

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

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

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

“Is he a smart man?”

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

“Is he a good man?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Does he?”

“I don’t know.”

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

“Sebastian.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timmy bowed his head. “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s still?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop.”

Tanaka stopped immediately, but Jax protested.

“We’re letting them get away!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jax, now agreeing with Sebastian, nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sand?”

“No.”

“Sun?”

“Yes! Okay, your turn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You go, Pauly,’  Sebastian thought.

“Lead away,” Sebastian said.

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

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

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

I don’t want to lose.”

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Desert Steel Chapter 20

-Sandstorm

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Freeze!” he said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauly squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. Just a cold, dead thunk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 12

-Match Day

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Sebastian woke early the next day, nerves inhibiting his ability to sleep. The sand in his clothes and the bed had further amplified his discomfort. This discomfort was also coupled with a full bladder. He got up and peed haphazardly into the gezunder, with a few splashes and side sprays wetting the floor. Zipping up, he went to the small barred window. Placed high on the wall, it may have been unreachable to Tanaka, Jax and Pauly. On tip toes Sebastian could just manage to peer over the sill and through the bars. It was just before dawn. Sebastian could just see the night sky that he so loved to see, but the cruel sun was rising. The black sky was being bleached blue and the stars snuffed out one by one.

Sebastian sat, shivering from both nerves and the early morning cold. There was movement in the bunk above him, and duly Pauly swung his legs over and dropped down. He looked awful, and was shivering like a wounded animal. He was clenching his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering. Gingerly, he went to the potty and tried to pee. At first he was too tense to do so. Eventually a stream flowed, although it was shaken everywhere by his trembling. He turned and their eyes meet. He jolted, then awkwardly got his dick back into his pants. Suddenly something poked him in the back and he leapt away.

It was Jax’s foot. He was drawn and haggard, a look accompanied by a swollen brow and black eye. Despite this, his face was lit by a supernatural energy, and he looked better than he had in days. Sebastian recognised the look. He’d observed it in school bullies, and in the kids that pulled the wings off flies or burned ants with magnifying glasses. It was the light of gleeful evil and sadism. Jax smiled, put his finger to his lips to mime silence, and then jerked his head towards the couch. The guard from last night was still there, and she was asleep. Apparently their captors didn’t take their guarding too seriously. Sebastian could see why, the cage was pretty indestructible without any tools.

Jax gently lowered himself from the bunk. His boots whispered across the wooden floor. His fly came down with a gentle susurration. Jax got right up against the bars, and peed. His initial stream fell short, but his second had a furthered burst of power. It splashed against her reclined booted feet. Jax began chuckling maliciously, as the purr of water on leather filled the room. Some urine made it further, wetting the guards ankles. The guard stirred, before snapping her eyes open and leaping up. Jax jeered joyfully. Pauly, for whom going along with bullying was second nature, jeered too. Sebastian didn’t go that far. However, he’d been locked up, forced into a fight to the death, and watched his comrade be hurt twice, so he smiled along. The guard was jumping between furious and disgusted. This created a confusion that left her frozen just long enough for Pauly, buoyed by his partner’s jeers, to pick up the potty and splash her in the face. There was a shocked silence. Pauly felt instant regret. It was an emotion with which he’d grown painfully familiar over the years of being carried along too far by a group. Sebastian was toeing the line between malevolent satisfaction and guilt. Jax was only happier still. His smile threatened to split his head in half. He delivered an outpouring of victorious and imaginative insults.

The guard gaped, gasping with horror and disbelief. Tears sprung into her eyes and she began to cry, albeit with extreme resistance. Sebastian was tipped over into the guilt side.

“You-you idiot! There’s no fucking water in this fucking desert! Do you understand that? I can’t shower! I’ll smell of piss for months!” she screamed. With large gulping sobs she recovered herself, and the person that returned was a demon of pure rage. She picked up her rifle, and worked the bolt action to put a bullet in the chamber. She levelled it at Jax. “Fuck you!”

Jax stared down the gun. “Shoot me then, you bitch.” His voice was fearless and defiant. For a moment, Sebastian felt he’d caught a glimpse of the true Jax. A man who’d just lost his best friend, nihilistic and depressed. But then it was gone, like a mirage in the desert.

The gun remained pointed at Jax for a whole minute before the guard shook her head and raised the barrel up and away. “You’re not worth it.”

“No one’s worth killing,” Jax replied, “but we do it anyway, you pussy.”

The guard scowled and dried her face with the dry bottom part of her shirt. Sebastian found the midriff she exposed painfully erotic for reasons he couldn’t explain.

Tanaka had slept peacefully through the whole altercation. He carried on for another hour still before awaking calm and rested. He smiled at everyone, even the guard. For a man only an hour or so away from a fight for his life, he was unbelievably confident and energetic. He bounced around the cell, shadow boxing, dancing, chatting incessantly. Everyone else watched him resentfully, their stomachs churning and their bodies trembling. The guards came to take them to the ring. Tanaka bounded to the door, raring to go. Pauly’s legs gave out and he had to be caught and supported by Sebastian. Sebastian gave one last plea.

“Tanaka, please, take this seriously.”

Tanaka just winked and lead his guards out.

The instant they left the jail the noise hit them. It was the loud noise of a hundred people not being loud individually. The verandas were lined with spectators, mostly parents with their children. Some of them were holding up signs, most saying ‘Lord Shiva’. Sebastian wondered why a Hindu god was being celebrated now. Some kind of quasi-religious sacrificial fight? A weak cheer was raised as they walked down the main strip, along with a scattering of boos. Tanaka waved and smiled. They walked the full length of the main drag. They were then marched back to the centre of town, and down an alleyway to a clearing on the outskirts of the oasis farmland.

The space was roughly circular, and flat. People were already seated in a ragged circumference at the edges. The prime spot was a row of wooden benches in the shade of the buildings, and it was already full. Others were kneeling in the dirt in areas still in morning shadow. The sun exposed areas, already scorching, were only inhabited by a few brave souls. In the centre was a ring. Four poles had been driven deep into the hard-packed dirt in a square of about 6 metres squared. The sun had bleached them a ghostly white. Through some method the floor had been elevated about half a metre.  Sebastian suspected either a wooden frame or a stack of pallets. To obscure whatever messy framework there was, tarpaulin had been stapled to the sides. For flooring, a layer of thin plywood had been lain out and screwed in. Three lines of cables of threaded steel were strung at high tension between the poles. To soften the hard metal duct tape had been wrapped around it. It looked ominously like a execution stand. The group was lead to the far left corner, and made to line up.

One of the guards sniffed the air.

“Smell likes piss,” he exclaimed. He leered at the four prisoners. “One of you babies pee your pants?”

All together, excluding the oblivious Tanaka, they turned and stared mutely at their prison guard. She glared at them, then forced a sickly sweet smile.

“I think we can leave the teasing alone, Steve,” she said.

Steve was bemused. He contented himself with one last sneer before turning his attention away from the group. Their prison guard tapped the butt of her rifle, clearly communicating that she’d be happy to silence them with violence if such favours weren’t effective. Another time, Jax may well have pushed onwards and taunted relentlessly. This time he was preoccupied, as was everyone except Tanaka.

The noise level from the main street began to pick up. A rhythmic chant was rising, and snatches of words began to carry over to the ring. ~EEEEEVA…~~ORD…..~SHEEEEE.

“Sounds like a baboon orgy,” Pauly joked half-heartedly.

“Or a religious cult praying,” Sebastian said.

There was activity around the ring too. Young men and women scuttled about: setting up a speaker system running off a diesel generator, laying out a threadbare and sandy red carpet, and handing a barrel-chested man a megaphone. The equipment must have been extremely expensive to acquire and maintain so far out.

A woman rushed over to the group.

“You guys need stage names,” she said breathlessly. She glared at their prison guard. “Amy was supposed to have gotten them from you in the morning.”

Amy, the piss roasted away in the heat but the smell lingering, glared back. There was some kind of rivalry present, although what kind Sebastian could not tell.

“You guard the cells next time, then,” Amy said.

“Maybe I will,” the girl replied snootily. “We don’t want the prisoners carrying knives around.”

“Girls, we don’t have time for this,” Steve said.

“I’m sowy, Steve honey,” the girl said, speaking in a cutesy voice and clutching his arm. Steve smiled and softened. In that instant, Sebastian decided he disliked the pair. He felt a sympathetic twinge for his prison guard. He might have given her a supportive look had he been someone else, but his steel eyes gave away nothing.

“Names, now,” Amy said.

Sebastian was now on her side in the familial ‘no one treats her like that except me’ manner. He spoke straight away without resistance. “The Star-studded Stranger.”

“Nice one,” Tanaka said.

“Jax,” Jax said.

“I’ve heard you guys talking, that’s your normal name,” Amy said.

“It’s a nickname.”

“Not good enough.”

Jax paused. “Ratman,” he said, but the words seemed painful, like he was chewing shards of glass.

“What about you, big guy?” she asked, looking at Pauly.

Put on the spot, Pauly’s mind was empty. “I don’t know.”

“Big guy it is, then. Jap?”

Tanaka grinned ear to ear. His fist shot up into the sky. “Raijin, the holy lance of justice!”

“Fantastic. There. Done,” she turned to the girl. “Problem solved, Erica.”

Erica rolled her eyes and pranced back to the man with the megaphone.

The chant was reaching a climax, and it was spreading to the people around the ring. Some of the workers and guards even joined in. SHEEEV-A… SHEEEEV-A… LOOOOOOORD SHEEEEVA. With a crinkle of static, the man activated his megaphone. His barrel chest  inflated.

“UNDEFEATED FOR SEVENTEEN MATCHES!” Pauly and Jax exchanged nervous glances. That wasn’t good. “UNDISPUTED CHAMPION OF THE RING!! MASTER OF NINE DIFFERENT MARTIAL ARTS!!! FAMED ACROSS THE DESERT FOR HIS LYNCHPIN AERIAL REVERSAL!!!! THE TRANSFORMER!!!!! THE DESTROYER!!!!!!! HIS NAME IS…” The man paused for dramatic effect. The silence rippled outwards across the crowd. More people were streaming in from the street, taking up the less desirable sunny seats. It was so quiet their individual footsteps could be heard. The man took another deep breath. His voice was joined by that of the enthusiastic components of the crowd. “LLLLLLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORD SHHHHHHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVAAAA!”

The stereo started blaring a generic hip-hop instrumental, heavy on the brass. Bounding out of the alleyway came Hadrian. He’d stripped out of his v-neck, and was barefoot. He still wore his puffy pair of shorts. Likewise, the spiked hair, the ear gauges, and the large wooden bead garland remained. What was truly eye-catching was that his torso and face had been dyed a bright blue. It was like looking at a Greek statue vandalised with blue paint. He energetically bounced around, waving an adulating crowd into louder and louder cheers. He got up close to some of the onlookers, before darting up the red carpet and diving onto the stage. He climbed up onto the wires at his corner and waved some more. He then leapt into a corkscrewing backflip that he landed effortlessly. The crowd adored it.

Sebastian didn’t allow himself to be drawn into the wrestling-like spectacle. His eyes were forcibly in boredom mode when they wandered over to Tanaka. Alarm bells rung, and his mind sprung to attention. Tanaka was enthralled by Hadrian’s spectacle, but he was also excited. There was a hunger in his eyes that Sebastian recognised, because it was the same hunger he had. The hunger for danger, and for a challenge. And just like that, Sebastian knew Tanaka was about to leap into the ring as the first challenger. He acted straight away, hugging Tanaka around the shoulders. He didn’t care how silly he looked.

“Pauly! Get in the ring now!” he shouted.

At first, Pauly didn’t hear. His burst eardrum was facing Sebastian, and the roar of the crowd in the other. He turned around dumbly. “Huh?”

“Jump in the ring!” Sebastian managed to say just as Tanaka wriggled free. Pauly’s eyes light up with comprehension. He leapt underneath the lowest cable into the ring. He beat Tanaka, who had been standing further away, in the nick of time.

Pauly got unsteadily to his feet, brushing sand off his front. His synapses were firing off in a confused fashion. He didn’t actually click to the fact he was in the ring until he came up face to face with Hadrian. Or rather, face to impeccably sculpted chest, considering the height difference. Pauly’s mind was still in a cloud of surprise and befuddlement. He melancholically rued his unexciting and lame stage name, and wished he’d come up with a better one. Hadrian gave a friendly smile, his white teeth glowing against blue-stained lips. The megaphone man wound up for his announcement.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNDDD IT’S OUR FIRST ROUND, FOLKS. LORD SHIVA VERSUS… THHHHHHEEEEEE BIG GUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUYYYY!”

Pauly’s brain finally got the memo. ‘Aw shit,’ he thought.

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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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Desert Steel Chapter 6

-Assault

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The digger was positioned on the eastern side of a hole in the sand. The hole’s sides were sloped, but not harshly, due to the tendency of sand to flow in and fill up a hole. Despite this, the digger had cleared itself a reasonably  flat expanse at the bottom in which to manoeuvre, and had successfully dug down about fifty metres. Sebastian assumed the digger would hit bedrock at some point, but so far it had turned up sand and little else.

The first problem Sebastian saw with attacking the digger was getting close enough. It was heavily armoured, and therefore also probably armed in some respect. The digger sat in an open area, a man-made quarry, with few hiding spots. Therefore any approach would probably devolve into a shooting gallery. However, Sebastian had noticed that the digger had low visibility. The narrow viewing slit had logically greatly diminished the operator’s field of view. This was confirmed, in Sebastian’s mind, by the death of the black man. He didn’t believe the killing had been intentional. With the narrow slit obscuring his vision, the operator had probably only seen the man when it was too late. The shutting down of the engine Sebastian interpreted as the operator reacting instinctively to the sudden and unexpected gore. The operator would then probably spend a while recovering from the shock, maybe in denial for a bit about what had just happened. Another minute or so arguing with himself, and the other people inside- for Sebastian strongly suspected there were other occupants; the cabin was over-sized.  Eventually though, the operator’s dilemma would boil down to one of  two decisions: to hunker down and stay inside, maybe even continue digging, or to climb out and investigate. Sebastian was almost certain the operator would choose the latter. It was human nature to wish to confirm, and in some way face up to, one’s mistakes. Hopefully, this would occur after Sebastian and his group had found their positions. He wasn’t certain though, couldn’t be. There was a chance of things going bad, a chance of oblivion. Sebastian felt the warmth in his lower torso, the tightness in his chest, the thrilling anticipation. The lust was back. He breathed oddly; heavy, cloudy breaths. Controlling himself with the iron core that lay in his character, he instructed Tanaka and Jax to move quickly down to the digger’s northern flank, whilst he and Pauly would move in to the South, skirting the eastern subsidence where the black man lay dead.

Tanaka and Jax moved quickly, skirting the edge of the slope until they were clear of the digger’s front, then sliding down the edge at high speed. Although Tanaka lost control half way down, bouncing and rolling the rest of the way, he emerged unharmed at the bottom, the sand proving a soft landing. They lay flat, their cloaks allowing them to blend in with the sand. Sebastian could barely make them out; Pauly, inexperienced and with no hat to keep out the glare, couldn’t see them at all. Sebastian checked that no-one had emerged from the digger, then leapt over the edge and began a controlled slide down.

Pauly, now alone on the dune above, found himself trapped in his own dilemma. He was safely removed from the scary, skilled men who disappeared like phantoms of the sand, and drew guns like a lightning strike. He could leave now, escape. But escape where? Back to Sixty Clicks, where he had no money, and where the three men would soon return? Back to Portal City, where a roving gang waited to roast any arrogant American with tight jeans and a tan? Onwards to the outer towns, where even more of these men waited? He knew his best chance was to stay with this gang. He’d gotten on a ride, and now it was too dangerous to get off.

This decision liberated him. Fear loosened its hold around him. He’d found his place. Now he just needed to fit in. The showdown had showed Pauly he needed to be tougher, needed to be better. He stood at the top of the slope, watching Sebastian descend with speed but control. He would start with this slope. He leapt over the edge without hesitation, and slid down even faster than Sebastian had, albeit with less fine control, and managed to stop without incident. He smiled with pride the whole way down. Sebastian, who sympathised with the terrified New Yorker, gave him an encouraging smile, then lay down under his cloak. In an instant, Pauly went from successful team member to a fish out of water. He was without a cloak, upright, and dark skinned. He stood out on the light sand like a sore thumb. Pauly froze.

Sebastian looked up at him and laughed good-naturedly. “We’re going to have to get you a cloak, mate,” he said, showing no sign of disapproval or disappointment. He couldn’t afford to. He needed all his partners functioning, which is why he’d kept Pauly close to him.

“What should I do?” Pauly asked desperately, staring at the digger wild-eyed.

“Lie down, and relax,” Sebastian said, “Nothing else you can do.”

Pauly did just that, although he was shivering with nerves and his breathing was a moment’s notice from becoming hyperventilation. Sebastian said nothing more. He needed to turn his attention to the digger, and Pauly’s condition would have to do.

For twenty three seconds, by Sebastian’s count, nothing moved. Silence reigned, bar the howl of the wind off the top of the hole. On the twenty fourth second, there was the grating screech of metal on metal. Pauly started. The other three moved their guns into a better shooting position, but slowly so as to avoid detection. A hatch swung open on the top of the cabin, pushed up by a gnarled hand, then gravity pulling it down so it slammed. An old man, with a cloud of greying hair, and a long white beard, pulled himself out to his waist. He stopped, blinking in the sunlight. In a reedy voice, he called out, the concern clear in his voice.

“Excusez-moi, êtes…”

He never finished his sentence, although Sebastian was pretty sure he was asking if the black man was alright in French. Denial could be strong. Before he  could continue, a gun, Jax’s, reported and shaved off the top half of the man’s head, just above the eyes. Sebastian agreed with this action, fundamentally. The man could have spotted them, especially Pauly, at any time. The remaining occupants could close the hatch if they assaulted once the man left the digger. This way, the man’s body blocked any remaining occupants from closing the hatch. So it was the right decision to make. Sebastian couldn’t fault it.

But the man had been worried about ending another man’s life. He’d come up trying to help. And the high calibre had taken the top of his head off like one would the top of a soft-boiled egg, with the yolk spilling out thick and gooey. The decision had been the right one, but Sebastian hated it, and only the logic of it stopped him from putting it down as another black mark against Jax.

Sebastian was the first man to move, and also the fastest on foot, his long stride chewing up the distance. In a feat of considerable athleticism, fully utilising his height, he leapt up the side of the digger and hauled himself onto the roof. The steel plating reverberated under his weight. To whoever was left inside it must have sounded terrifying. Sebastian didn’t like taking risks, and believed survival was best found in smart decisions, but the dangerlust was upon him and he couldn’t afford to show cowardice here, so he dropped through the hatch, the old man’s corpse leaving enough space to slip through, not waiting for anyone else to catch up. He landed in a low crouch, screaming at everyone to hit the ground in a deep, bestial tone, hoping to send off-balance any resistance that may await him. His eyes hadn’t adjusted for the dark, and he felt extremely vulnerable as a cacophony of screams, his own voice, and more footsteps above echoed in the room. He was relieved when another person dropped down behind him with a thump, sending up clouds of dust that tickled his nose. When after half a minute he still hadn’t been shot or otherwise attacked, he began to relax, and his breathing steadied. The afterglow of his danger high was wearing off, and he felt unreasonably tired. Two more people joined behind him, pushing him further towards the operator’s seat. The cabin was getting hot and cramped. His eyes adjusted just enough to make out silhouettes, or lack thereof. It wasn’t until he spotted movement in the corner of his eye that he finally sighted the occupants, a blob of shadow huddled in the corner. He pointed his gun towards it.

“Out. Ici.” he commanded. His knowledge of French was basic.

The shadow broke in two and scurried forward, and it was with horror that Sebastian saw that the occupants were two scruffy children. They were pretty children, blonde and pale beneath the  dirt and grease. Their wide eyes were a deep ocean blue. They wore rags, and stood barefoot. The older one, maybe six years old and with waist length straight hair, stared at them defiantly, while the younger one, maybe four and with a bowl cut, looked away shyly.

“Fuck!” Tanaka exclaimed, shocked, although Sebastian sensed a little innocent glee in using the foreign English swear word. “They’re children!”

” Fuck!” Sebastian agreed, pissed at himself and the world.

“Oh man. Oh man, oh man. Ohmanohmanohmanohmanohmanohmanohmanohmanohman…” Pauly moaned. He’d gone pale. Jax rounded on him.

“You gonna vomit again, big guy? Or you gonna cry? Huh? Because I don’t want your vomit, and I don’t want your verbal diarrhoea, and I don’t want a pussy in my team.”

Pauly stopped talking and gaped blindly at Jax. Then, with a glint of steel in his eyes, he shut his mouth, and felt the colour start to flow back into his face. Sebastian, again, hadn’t liked the aggressive, callous tone Jax had adopted, but it had worked a treat, and again he couldn’t fault it. He and Tanaka had also both calmed down now, shamed second-hand by Jax’s words. Sebastian realised that for Jax, the responsibility sat even more squarely on Jax’s shoulders than anyone else’s, and yet the others, himself included, had been the ones freaking out.

He turned to the kids and tried to summon any of the French he could  remember.

“Parlez-vous anglais?”

Both kids shook their heads. The oldest said “Non.”

“Qui… Qui Qui était cet homme?”

“Grand-père,” the oldest answered. The younger one began to weep. The older one shushed him.

The group stood in silence for a moment, fidgeting awkwardly.

“What that mean?” Tanaka asked.

“He was their grandfather.”

There was a sombre silence. Jax broke it.

“Fuck it, I don’t give a fuck. Why the fuck was he digging here?”

Sebastian turned back to the kids. “Uhhhhh… Pourquoi creuser?”

“Or.”

Jax made to grab the oldest kid. “Fucking ore? He took you little shits out here to dig for ore?”

Sebastian restrained him. “Or means gold.” He paused, taking in the interior of the cabin now his eyes had fully adjusted. “Look, dude. The guy was crazy sure he’d find gold.”

Jax looked around and saw Sebastian was right. There was a topographical map spread over the floor, torn beneath Sebastian’s boots, with a big circle drawn around it with OR written in a bold hand. He bent down to inspect further and saw that it was the topographical map of South-Eastern Mongolia. He scanned the walls, and saw newspaper clippings pasted to one of the walls, detailing in French the discovery of a desert land. On another, a blueprint had been drawn up, crudely, of an armoured digger. The third wall was a collage of children’s crayon drawings. A Santa Claus lookalike, which must have been the grandfather, and two golden haired children were the common theme. At the top left they were on fields of green, in a big mansion. Then they were in a field of yellow, a desert, and then a mountain of gold orbs. Throughout it all they were smiling big red grins. To Jax it looked like their throats were slit. Finally, the drawings changed, became cramped and dark. The kids were inside the digger, and they weren’t smiling anymore.

It reminded Jax of the children’s books he had read as a kid. An eccentric, fun, rich grandpa, maybe a scientist with things that went gloop in his amateur laboratory. The grandpa invented some ridiculous vehicle, like a bubble bus or a flying saucer, and he discovered some new place, and so whisked the kids away for a fun adventure, then they came back for dinner with mummy and daddy. The End. But in the real world, the grandpa was insane, thinking there was gold in the desert because of reading a map of Mongolia, who created a cramped, dark, loud digger that must have gone upwards of fifty degrees in the desert sun. The tales he’d spun of gold and riches had been great, but the reality had been hell. The grandpa had probably never let them leave, thinking he was keeping them safe.

Jax turned his eye to the fourth wall and saw through the slit his dead partner, who’d been known as Drake, his guts spilled on the ground. The grandpa was dead and gone up in the hatch so Jax dealt a furious backhand across the face of the eldest kid instead. Sebastian seized his hand as Tanaka squawked cries of protest. The kid fell over wordlessly. Jax and Sebastian, struggling against one another, came face to face, and Jax saw then in Sebastian’s eyes that Sebastian didn’t trust him, still hadn’t forgotten his betrayal. He shook his hand loose.

“This digger must have cost money. There should be some lying around here somewhere,” he said, turning his back on the rest.

He too was desert steel. His voice didn’t waver.

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Desert Steel Chapter 5

Détente

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Sebastian forced himself to look away from the bloody, dismembered body, and gave a wry, amused smile. To an onlooker, such a look may have appeared psychopathic, but in truth it was one of shellshock at the absurdity and suddenness of the whole situation.  ‘A plan never survives first contact‘ he thought, the prophetic phrase seeming ridiculously hilarious to his disturbed mind. His mind whirred, knocked off its axis by the change. It quickly realigned itself, and a new path became clear. He looked around the remaining group, and decided it was time to act.

Pauly stared, hands on knees, at the puddle of vile half-digested vomit pooling at his feet and draining into the sand, leaving behind the bigger chunks. He was exhausted, physically and mentally, and he’d given up. He was standing in a godforsaken piece of desert in his own vomit, and he was going to die there, killed by some hard-ass punk. He stayed there, crying uselessly, waiting for the bullet to come.

I don’t want to die.’

“I don’t want to die.”

His thought and the voice came at exactly the same time, so much so that for a moment he thought he’d spoken out loud by accident. Then he realised the voice had had an alien nasal twang to it that he didn’t recognise, not his own Italian New Yorker drawl. His head shot up. He felt as if a hundred thousand volts had just run through him. He felt as if he’d just drunk liquid fire. He felt… Hope.

It was the Old Glory wearer with the poncho speaking, his head still down but his eyes no longer sighting a target. He was speaking in a conversational tone, like he was just discussing his plans over some coffee.

“I’d rather walk out of here alive,” he continued, speaking as though to himself, but loud enough for everyone to hear. Enrapt, Pauly hung onto every word, even nodding along at points. “And I think everyone else here does to. So why don’t we?”

A smile shone from Pauly’s face like the sun emerging from an eclipse.

“We could gun each other down right here, pointlessly, or we could join up. The miner is why we’re here, right? Why don’t we take him together? He’s in an armoured vehicle, so I don’t think any of us could take him alone.” Sebastian waited a few seconds for his words to sink in, and then looked up, revealing his face from the shadows. No one went for their guns. The edge had been taken out of the situation.

“Who’s with me?” he asked, taking care to not look at the tanned guy so as not to spook him.

Without even thinking, Pauly, who, although not understanding the specifics of the situation, knew a lifeline when he saw one, shot his hand up and shouted “ME!”, and then clamped his mouth shut in abject horror. The other two men regarded him dryly, but didn’t move.

Sebastian, who’d been waiting to see if they would gun the tanned kid down, breathed a sigh of relief. A death he’d indirectly caused, especially of so harmless a man, was something he did not want to see. He smiled in a relaxed manner, and saw the men relax in kind.

“Then let’s go,” he said, not in a commanding tone, but not leaving room for questioning either. Not leaving them time to reply, he turned his back on the group, and began walking to the slope. Although confident he’d mostly defused the situation, he still waited anxiously to see if he would be shot in the back. His ears strained for clues of what was occurring at his exposed and vulnerable rear. He noted one set of hurried footsteps, which he took to be the tanned buff peacock trying to catch up on his shorter legs, then more confident strides keeping pace with his own that he took to be one of the two other men. And then…

…The click of a revolver being cocked. Sebastian swore under his breath. He turned around slowly, his hands half raised in surrender, but not entirely. The rat faced man had his gun, a comically high calibre gun with a chrome finish, aimed from his hip in an unworried manner. His face was pulled into an unattractive victorious grin.

“Stop moving.” he enunciated clearly and calmly in a strong Boer accent. There was no waver in his voice.  This was a man who knew what he was doing, and was capable of killing. There would be no talking him out of it. Sebastian prepared to go for his gun. If he was lucky, the other two following him would too, and one of them would be shot instead while Sebastian took down the South African. If they didn’t coordinate, he would be shot dead and any rebellion quelled. It was the only chance he had and he went for it without hesitation.

Before he could even twitch, the Japanese man with the kanji on his hat spun, twisting low and hard, sending his cloak out like a fan. Faster than Sebastian would ever have believed possible, the man drew, his hand blurring down, his tattoo leaving a streak of yellow as it moved, then shooting back up at speeds that approached teleportation. Everyone’s jaws hit the floor. The ratman hadn’t even reacted enough to pull the trigger. In that moment, everyone realised it was by the grace of this man that they still lived. He could have drawn, fired off four shots, and then holstered before the rest could have blinked. Sebastian got the eerie feeling that something not human was standing before him. To Pauly, it was as though a demigod had just descended from the heavens. The initial shock receding, Sebastian pulled his gun too, feeling like a pathetic sloth in comparison. He trained his gun on the ratman.

“Holster it.’ he said. Not ‘drop it’, but ‘holster it’. The subtext was clear. We’ve got a guy so fast he could tie his laces before you could even draw. The lightning god, his head still low, also spoke, in a heavily Japanese accented snarl.

“You pointing that gun at me?” He raised his head, revealing his face from the shadows. “Motherfucker?”

A terse silence followed, and then the ratman burst out laughing. Sebastian and Pauly both jumped.

“You-you labelled yourself as ‘motherfucker’?” The Boer managed between howls of laughter.

The man was confused, clearly, looking left and right for support. “When I ask question and raise head, you no read word and finish for self?”

This only made the ratman double over, his gun clutched to his stomach, and laugh even more.

“Yeah, I did, but- holy hell- it’s written on your fucking forehead! You fucking labelled yourself you dumb gook!”

The Japanese gunslinger turned his head to Sebastian, perplexed, but Sebastian was just as confused as he was until the man raised his head to show the underside of the brim of his hat. Stencilled in bold letters across the underside of the brim so it could be read clearly by an observer was the word ‘MOTHERFUCKER’. In a flash, Sebastian understood. The Japanese man, in a perversion or inversion of the raising of the head and hat to show friendliness, had stencilled an insult on his brim to be read by his opponents and had not realised that he’d practically labelled himself instead.

“Your hat,” Sebastian explained, touching the brim of his own hat. “it labels yourself as a motherfucker to us.”

For a moment incomprehension clouded his face, then he broke out into a honking, joyful and genuine laugh that infected Sebastian as well. Three men, moments ago preparing to kill each other, were now laughing together in a scene of glorious joyful surrealism in the desert. Even Pauly began to giggle along, although nervously. The tension and adrenaline drained out of them, leaving behind a hollow relief.

Eventually the laughter petered out, and the South African holstered his weapon and smiled magnanimously.

“Alright fellas,” he said, “you’ve convinced me. Let’s go get that fucking miner.”

For a moment, Sebastian considered shooting him right there and then, pulling the trigger just short of the firing threshold. He’d clearly shown himself as untrustworthy, a rat in both appearance and nature. Someone like that would only cause more problems in the future. Rationally speaking, it would be a lot simpler to kill him now. Morally, though, it was wrong to kill an unarmed man. Sebastian was better than that, wasn’t he? He’d killed an armed man who didn’t know he was there, however. Was he really a good man? Was he so far gone he would kill without pause just to be sure?

Sebastian never got a chance to find out. The Japanese gunslinger holstered his own weapon and approached the South African warmly, clapping him on the back in an affectionate and exuberant manner. Sebastian was slow to follow, keeping his gun out, because he was lost in his own thoughts. He tried in vain, with an air of desperation, to piece together the fractured thoughts and arguments to discover what his decision was going to be, but it had all been tainted and ruined by his knowledge of the present and the Japanese man’s  actions. The only reality to be found was that he didn’t know whether or not he would have shot an unarmed man, and that uncertainty was somehow worse than knowing that he was going to do it would have been. Through great force of will, he managed a sickly smile and holstered his own weapon.

The look in the South African’s eye was victorious, although it was hidden well, so well in fact that Sebastian would have thought it his own imagination if his instincts had not confirmed it. It made Sebastian feel uneasy, but he decided there was no use crying over spilt milk. He would have to resign himself to the situation, and, as J.F.K. said: ‘forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.’

To Pauly, the events had been a rollercoaster of emotions. He’d begun with despair, plunging deep to the lowest he’d ever been, before being raised up to the pinnacle of hope, spiralling back into fear and loss, then climbing through confusion and humour. When he wasn’t sure he could take anymore he flat lined at disquiet. The star studded stranger, who he’d come to see as his star studded saviour, had been oddly frozen with indecision when everyone else was making good, and then, horrifyingly, had appeared broken when everyone else had been smiling. Suddenly, his face set back into one of stern control, like a bone being set back into place, and all emotion died on its cold barren tundra. Pauly felt muscles in his stomach he’d never known before clench uncomfortably. He didn’t know what was going on in the mind of this enigmatic figure, but he could sense the animalistic smell of bloodlust. The saviour made eye contact with the ratman, who scared Pauly in a primal way, and smiled. Pauly felt a curious pulsation as his body loosened. ‘Everything is okay’ he told himself, ‘we’re all friends now.’ But he knew neither of these things to be true, and knew they never truly would be.

Sebastian approached the lightning Japanese and the ratty South African, all smiles, although as always it never really reached his eyes.

“Hey guys,” he said, “I’m Sebastian Keys, from New Zealand. What’re your names?”

The Japanese man began to bow, stopped halfway, grinned sheepishly, and put out his hand. He seemed oblivious to any of the turmoil his new companion had just suffered. He seemed to Sebastian to be overly relaxed and naive, easy to smile and slow to anger. Perhaps that came from being able to draw a gun faster than any trap could spring.

“My name is Tanaka Daisuke. I am from Japan. Please to meet you.”

The South African came next, a little defensively. Perhaps he saw, or only expected, the deeply buried distrust Sebastian was still harbouring. He held his hand out cautiously. Maybe he expected his hand to be crushed, but instead he got a firm and friendly handshake.

“My name is Jager De Villiers, of South Africa. But call me Jax.” he said, neither returning a greeting nor giving an apology. Sebastian decided he definitely disliked this rodent-like fellow.

Sebastian stood back from his two new partners, and turned to Pauly, who was standing awkwardly off to the side. He smiled winningly and extended his hand. “What’s your name, bro?”

The one thing Pauly feared more than anything else was being left out. He ignored the off-putting rat-faced Jager, and the superhuman Tanaka. He took the hand, which had dealt out death, and shook it firmly.

“I’m Pauly Dean, from New York.” he said, “Pleased to meet ya.”

Sebastian smiled warmly and, in a voice that stood at a four way intersection of self-deprecation, sarcasm, teasing and seriousness, said. “Well gentlemen? Shall we go attack a digger?”

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Desert Steel Chapter 4

-Standoff

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Paul ‘Pauly’ Dean was pant-shittingly terrified. He wanted to scream, and he wanted to run, but he could do neither. His large muscles bunched up and clenched until they burned with agony, but he couldn’t relax them.  The worse part, he felt, was the feeling of being small, some insignificant bug about to be squashed on the windshield of life. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t do even that, which made him want to cry even more.

There were four other men. They all had one side of their cloaks brushed aside, revealing a piece of desert steel holstered at their hips. Their faces were in complete shadow, their brims bent low over the brow. Their eyes were peeking out from just under the brim. It reminded Pauly of the time he’d gone to the zoo and seen the crocodiles. They’d sat concealed in the water, just their eyes peering out from the murky depths. Nobody was moving, unnaturally so. There were none of the usual fidgets or shakes present in somebody standing still. Pauly couldn’t even tell if they were breathing.

They all wore sand-coloured cloaks, ending just above the ankle. Pauly didn’t have any cloak. They wore either cargo pants or comfortably fitting jeans, and a loose t-shirt or shirt. He had a wife-beater and tight designer jeans. They all wore some form of wide-brimmed hat. Pauly wore no hat. It would have ruined his spiked up hair and, besides, he could get a nice tan without having to go to a salon now- he’d already gone an unpleasant mahogany. In other words, he felt out of place, and one thing Pauly had always made sure of was that he fitted in.

Pauly had spent his whole life fighting off fear. He didn’t know why or even when it started, but he was always working to ignore the shadows that seemed to him to lurk behind everything, the monsters that seemed to lurk inside every person.  When he was a kindergartener in New York City, he’d pulled the girls’ ponytails and kicked sand in the sandbox. In adolescence, he ran with a gang of similar boys, braying and bragging their way through middle school, dealing out vicious bullying to the school’s ‘losers’. He walked big but felt small, so when he peaked at 5 foot 8 inches, he built outwards to compensate, spending hours at the gym pumping weights, almost entirely upper body, until his pectorals looked like balloons. But he’d been too pale, so then he’d gone to tanning salons and gotten spray tans until he looked like a balloon animal basted in barbeque sauce. He’d still felt small, now entering high school, so he’d added about twenty metres cubed of hot air, talking bullshit until it got him into trouble. Usually, he was able to talk his way out again, flexing his bulging chest while shouting something along the lines of: ‘You looking at me, pal?’

But he’d fucked up big this time.

Pauly, being as he was, didn’t fully realise this. He knew he was in trouble, certainly, but it was never really his fault. His friends, at some party he’d remembered shitting on (Let me tell you about a REAL party, man, it’s got celebrities and people swinging on the chandelier, none of this low level bullcrap), had been chatting about that new desert land they’d discovered that was apparently full of hard-asses and murderers. So of course he’d said he could handle that shit, that the hardest hard-ass would meet his match in Pauly Dean, but that really wasn’t his fault. That had been his friends egging him on, practically begging him to tell them what he’d do in Terra Deserta. And he’d been drunk at the time. The moment he’d actually gone through the portal with all his friends chanting his name he remembered only vaguely, but he knew there’d been a far bit of alcohol involved. No one could be blamed for what they did drunk, they weren’t in control of themselves. And, if nothing else, church had taught him God was all-powerful, so in the end it was never really Pauly, it was the will of God almighty himself. So it wasn’t his fault.

It was, however, his problem, so after sobering up in a shaded corner of an abandoned military base, he’d sat and sulked in Portal City. Inevitably he pissed off some group that didn’t back down from the ‘you looking at me’ routine, sending him out of the city with his tail between his legs. He’d picked due south, which was as good a direction as any, and headed out. But he’d missed Sixty Clicks, the entry point of the farther southern towns free from Portal City’s influence, by five hundred metres  out west, and instead walked straight into an armed standoff.

All this, this revelatory summary of his life, had flashed before his eyes, and still the other men hadn’t moved. He could feel the touch of their gaze as it shifted over him, slowly but steadily sliding over his face, before flicking to the next man. It felt like having a slug crawl across his face, leaving behind its slimy trail. His legs shook once and he felt himself pee a little. ‘Just shoot me already!’ he felt like screaming, ‘just end it!’, but he didn’t have the courage for even that. They were looking at him less, he noticed. Their attentions were shifting, and concentrating. He realised they were picking their first targets. For a moment his hope peaked, a little surge of energy, before he dropped deeper into despair. He wasn’t even considered a risk. Their eyes had cut right through his hype and found the small, quivering, fearful baby inside. His mind flashed with images of himself, still frozen to the spot, being given the ol’ robocop treatment by the winning gunslinger. A spark of defiance ignited, and he began assessing his opponents, as they, the bastards, had assessed him.

One, to Pauly’s far left, was Asian, maybe Chinese or Japanese, and about his own height. He was wearing a long sleeved shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, revealing a heavily and colourfully tattooed right arm. Most prominently, he had a lightning bolt running from elbow to wrist. His hair was bleached blonde, although on his dark hair it was instead a dirty orange. Black hair was showing at the roots, indicating he hadn’t had dye in a few weeks. Metal glinted under the shade of his hat, suggesting piercings of some kind. His hat had some word printed on the crown in Asian pictographs, although Pauly couldn’t say which kind. His eyes, unlike the others, seemed unfocused.

The next two were standing apart, but in line with each other, whereas everyone else was turned so they could see both their neighbours clearly. Pauly, who’d never been seen without a buddy or sidekick to back him up, knew this meant they were together. Their targets would be the other two men, then himself. The one to Pauly’s left was white, with rodent-like features. He wore a khaki t-shirt with some unrecognisable flag on the front, along with faux military cargo pants. His eyes were cruel. The one to Pauly’s right was black, big with a trunk-like frame. Side by side with his skinny rat partner they must have looked like a comedic duo from the old black-and-white films Pauly had watched as a kid. He wore a red singlet and the same military pants as the ratman. His hands were bedecked with gaudy rings.

The final man, to Pauly’s far right, was wearing a blue, star covered shirt, under a tattered, tasselled poncho. A star was drawn on his hat’s crown, and another star hung by a piece of string from the brim, but, amazingly, it didn’t swing at all he was so still. He must have noticed the scrutiny, because his eyes swung back and met Pauly’s. They were cold, dead plates of blue tinged steel. The star studded stranger winked, and a smirk quirked his face. In that one instant, Pauly’s will to fight, to go out guns blazing, fled. His hand, which had been inching towards his own piece, an automatic pistol a friend had given him before he’d jumped over, dropped. The man’s eyes, for a moment blazing with a cold heartlessness, dimmed back to boredom and listlessly wandered back to the ratman.

                ‘Holy hell,’ Pauly thought ‘just one wink and he shot me down before having to draw his gun. I’m dead now, marked before the battle’s even begun.’  And now, finally, his eyes unfroze and he began to weep.

Sebastian concentrated back on the rat faced boy with the flag of apartheid South Africa on his t-shirt. He’d been walking up to find the mine, following some pretty obvious tire tracks, and had walked into three other guys doing exactly the same thing. They’d gone into a standoff, but he’d just shut down the terrified bulky latecomer, who’d been the most unstable element. He’d been preparing to draw first and go down fighting, but Sebastian had killed that hope. Next was…

An entire dune, maybe ten metres high, subsided and collapsed, to the sound of heavy machinery. Before anyone could react it disappeared downwards into a steep slope of rushing sand. The black man in cargo pants, who had been positioned at the foot of the dune, was helpless to do anything but fall with it, sliding down the sandy slope. He finally came to a stop halfway down, coughing up sand. Nobody moved to help him, dared move to help him, not even his partner. Pauly, who was, somewhere under those inflated muscles and spray tan,  a good person at heart, felt an unbearable cocktail of fear and guilt. He waited for the others, unnerved, to start shooting, but still they stood infuriatingly still. ‘Do something, dammit!’ he wanted to shout, ‘help him!‘. But he was too scared to speak, and too scared to help himself. With the roar of an engine, the nature of the subsidence became clear. A digger reared its head, and buried its bucket down deep into the side of the slope. Its body was covered in steel plates, leaving just a slit for the driver to see out of. Gouging out a clump of sand caused the slope to collapse further, sending the black man sliding again. Realising the danger, he started to climb up, but for every metre he got up the digger took away ten. The subsidence continued to eat away at the top, and the men nearest, the ratman and Sebastian, edged away slowly, eyes on each other. The black man tried to climb sideways, but the slope was circular and it all flowed down to the bucket as a central point. Finally, the man surrendered himself to the inevitability of his descent and slid down quickly, perhaps hoping to clear the bucket and exit around the digger. It wasn’t to be. The bucket bit down into his midriff, severing him completely and staining the sand red. His guts spilled out, his arms thrashed for a few agonising seconds, and then he was still. The engine of the digger cut out immediately, and the eerie stillness spread, from the corpse to the digger to the four men in a standoff above.

Seeing all this, Pauly bent over, dry heaved twice, then vomited. He was still crying helpless, silent tears.

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