Tag Archives: Sebastian Keys

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 25

-Confirmations

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Sebastian kept guard until sunrise, refusing to swap out shifts. He sat outside, deep in thought. When Tanaka came out for his shift and was refused he stayed anyway. They spent the whole night chatting and joking. With the rising sun the Water Store manager arrived. He unlocked the hefty padlock around the front door, and then unbolted the two windows. He went to the back door and unlocked another thick padlock. Then he unlocked the padlocked door to the windowless water storage room. He opened the pipe running from the barrels, allowing water to run from the tap out behind the counter. He checked the dipper stick, a plank of pale wood.

He stormed out the front door, furious. Sebastian and Tanaka observed him with bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. He swung towards them, pointing an accusatory finger.

“YOU! Did you take my water?”

“Yeah dude. Then we sat outside and waited for you to arrive,” Sebastian said.

“Well someone has taken ten litres of water!”

“Not us.”

“So then why are you dumbasses here?”

“Because we know who took your precious water.”

“He’s a bad man,” Tanaka added solemnly.

“Who?!”

Sebastian got up. The manager was actually quite tall, but Sebastian just edged him out and he made full use of those extra centimetres. The manager shrank away under his pressure.

“How’d he get in?” Sebastian asked.

“What’s it to you?”

Sebastian shrugged. “My friend here is the fastest hand in the East, and everywhere else for that matter. So what’s it to you why I wish to know?”

The manager laughed. “I’m a Water Store manager, prick. If we didn’t have protection we’d be overrun and killed daily. You shoot me and the Water Store Union will crush you like a mite, just like we’ll crush your burglar friend.”

Sebastian smiled. His eyes were chips of glacier ice. “I hope you find comfort in that when you die.”

Tanaka smiled too, his a full-on delinquent leer.

The manager blanched, spat, and set his jaw. “You think I became a manager by succumbing to base threats?”

Sebastian tried to look mystified but he was a terrible actor. “What threat? That was a blessing. We are merely offering our services of investigation because our interests align.”

The manager glared at them both. “Fine,” he said tersely. “Come and astound me then.”

The Water Store was dark and cool. The morning light had yet to filter through the windows. Sebastian inspected one of the windows. It had a heavy frame of expensive wood. It wouldn’t splinter easily like the average store’s. It dropped down onto the sill, and was bolted in two places. Sebastian slid it up and down once. He tried the bolts. They were well oiled and slid in and out smoothly.

“No bars?” Sebastian asked.

The manager scowled. “What’s it fucking look like?”

“The convenience store down from my house had bars on its windows,” Tanaka said. “Didn’t stop me.”

Sebastian left the window shutter down. He stomped on the floor. A lot of cheap Terra Deserta buildings had dirt floors, but a Water Store was never cheap. The floor was wooden planks. They gave a hollow thud. He walked around the counter. His boots thudded along the planks. One plank gave out a twang, differently pitched than the rest. Sebastian, who’d been scanning the wall to the water storage room, froze. He tried the plank again, with the same result. He waved the other two over. They huddled around him. He pressed on the board. It gave a little, sinking until it was flush with the rest. He got out his knife and tried prying the board out. The nails sprung out with no resistance. The holes they left behind were chewed up and splintered. They’d been pulled out and reinserted. The plank revealed a gap between the shop floor and the sandy ground. In the sand, a pattern of arcs had been swept out, as though someone had performed little snow angels over and over. Sebastian dropped the plank back into place.

“That’s how he got into the water storage room,” he said. “I think he came in through the window. The bolts are frictionless. Maybe a small magnet would be enough to ease them up.”

“Well how does this help me?” the store manager demanded.

“Dude, we found out how your store got broken into. Figure how that helps yourself,” Tanaka said. He paused, and looked at Sebastian. “Was that good?”

Sebastian shrugged. “Good enough. If you want to go the full mile tell him how it helps.”

“You can know fix the chink in your security, dumbass.”

“Maybe drop the dumbass,” Sebastian suggested.

Tanaka’s arm flashed out. The water store manager sank to his knees, sighed, and fell over backwards. “Dumbass dropped.”

Sebastian laughed. “Yeah, but now they’re multiplying.”

Tanaka shrugged. “I spent my whole life letting my fists take care of things. Dude was an arsehole. Old habits die hard.”

They walked out the door. Sebastian turned to Tanaka. “Hey, I just thought of a joke.”

“What?”

“You’re the chink in our security.”

They both laughed.

They found Jax, Gwendolyn and Timmy having breakfast in the saloon. Jax’s breakfast was liquid, which surprised Sebastian and Tanaka both. Jax wasn’t a heavy alcohol user. Then they saw that Gwendolyn was bitching into his one ear, and Timmy was moralising into the other. They sat down at the table.

“Please tell me this is over,” Jax begged.

“Nope,” Sebastian said. “Ansar robbed the Water Store. Probably when Gwendolyn left her post.”

“Oh fucking hell!” Jax exclaimed.

“Let’s not play the blame game here,” Timmy said quickly. “It will get us nowhere.”

“Oh fuck off,” Jax said. “I hate that fucking phrase. ‘Let’s just ignore someone’s total fucking incompetence and sweep it under the rug.’ Fuck that. We don’t need these two losers anymore.”

“Hey there…” Timmy began.

“No, he’s right,” Sebastian said. “We had you for tracking before. Why should we need you now?”

Timmy stuck out his chin. “We have a right to be involved. Ansar needs to be brought to justice.”

“You have a right to jack-shit,” Jax said.

“We’re leaving,” Sebastian said. He and Tanaka headed for the door. Jax got up as fast as he could, and hurried to join them.

Once outside, Jax spoke up again. “We say that, but how are we going to find them?”

“Ansar told me he was going to New Arusha.”

“Wait what!? You spoke to Ansar?”

“Better to say he spoke to me, then vanished.”

“Didn’t you try chase him?”

“Where? He disappeared. He could have gone anywhere, he was armed, and he must have had an escape route planned.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic. What if he’s lying to send you the wrong way?”

“He could be. But it’s all we’ve got. There’s about five possible towns he didn’t say he was going to. The odds aren’t any better.”

“So let’s go to New Arusha.”

“Where’s the old Arusha?” Tanaka asked.

“Tanzania,” Sebastian said without a moment’s hesitation. “Shall we go?” He paused, seeing the look on Tanaka’s face. “What?”

“Why the hell would you know that?”

“I just do, okay? New Arusha is placed in line with this street heading South. Come on.”

It didn’t take long, trekking through open desert, to notice they had followers. Not even secret ones. Timmy and Gwendolyn were brazenly keeping pace behind them, maybe thirty metres away. Sebastian allowed it until they were well clear of the town, and then took a soft left that took them out into a never before trodden path. It was one of the wonderful things in Terra Deserta for Sebastian. To walk on Earth never before sullied by human presence, and which, in the large expanse of the desert, could well never see it again for centuries. The isolation comforted him. Finally, he came to a stop and waited for Timmy and Gwendolyn to catch up. They didn’t, instead stopping short and watching. Sebastian walked towards them. They started walking away. He stopped and they stopped. This continued, in an intricate dance, back and forth, until…

“Hello.”

…Tanaka finished flanking around some dunes while they had their eyes on Sebastian. They were caught, and Sebastian and Jax joined Tanaka.

“What is it, gentleman?”

“The only gentleman around here is Jax,” Sebastian said. “I’ll let him tell you.”

“Piss off,” Jax ordered.

Timmy smiled. “It’s a free desert. We can walk we’re you please.”

“It is free,” Sebastian agreed. “Which means it is also free of security and law. I think you can understand what I mean.”

“You couldn’t possibly kill two unarmed travellers.”

“You have guns.”

“Not drawn.”

“True enough. Tanaka?”

“Yes?”

“If I advised you that it would be the good thing to do to shoot them both, would you do it?”

“I’d be happy to, but I wouldn’t. I judge for myself, even if I do respect your advice.”

“Of course. Would you stop me and Jax from killing them?”

“No.”

Sebastian turned back to Timmy. “There you have it.”

“It would be wrong, and you know it.”

Sebastian shrugged. “Let them go, Tanaka.”

“You sure?” Jax asked.

“I’m curious,” Sebastian said. “I know Ansar is a skilled thief. Timmy, this doesn’t come free. Tell me what Ansar did, or I’ll let Jax decide things for me.”

Timmy nodded. He knew a lifeline when he saw one.

“Ansar is a very skilled thief. Silent, fast, fearless. He stole something from a very powerful man.”

“Mikhail?”

Timmy started. He tried covering it by stuttering out a “who?”

“The guy we collect the bounty from on the poster, Timmy. I’m not stupid, the guy has a town named after him and he prints his posters on white paper. He must be powerful and rich.”

“Mikhail is involved in this?” Jax asked, incredulously.

“You didn’t read the poster?”

“Most of it… The big words.”

“So you know him?”

“Yeah, I ran a few jobs for him back in the day in Portal City. Extortion, loan collection, one hit.”

“Let me guess. Mikhailsburg is some small town within the sphere of Portal City from which he exerts his control.”

“Not really a town. More a fortified manor.” Jax was just catching up with the new information. “That means they’re that Timmy and Gwendolyn.”

“Employees of Mikhail, right?”

“Let’s just say if we kill them, the only question left will be how many pieces we’re buried in. Mikhail’s a sadistic bastard. Maybe one of the worst crime lords of PC.”

“If that’s true, why didn’t they say so?”

“Because he doesn’t want anyone to know about him or Mikhail wanting Ansar,” Sebastian said, staring at Timmy. “But Mikhail’s changed his mind. Maybe he got impatient. Hence the bounty posters. Ain’t that right?”

Timmy looked back at Sebastian with earnest, innocent eyes. “Ansar’s a bad man. We need to take him alive so justice can take its course.”

“Is that right?” Sebastian asked. He asked nothing further.

They walked on until the blazing sun left and the pale blue sky slipped on night like it was a comfortable black velvet dress.

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Desert Steel Chapter 23

-Realisation

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“I spy with my little eye, something starting with ‘D’.”

“Is it ‘dunes’?”

“Yes! Okay, your turn.”

Timmy and the woman were leading the pack. They’d found Ansar’s and Pauly’s footprints, as well as a chunk of bread one of them had dropped. The tracking was easy, but Timmy and the woman were still allowed to lead the way. This was because they were unbelievably annoying, and no one wanted to walk beside them.

Tanaka leaned in close to Sebastian and whispered. “If I wasn’t trying to become good, this’d be the point where I shoot them dead.”

Sebastian emitted a short laugh, but nothing else. He was lost in thought, as he always was when the monotony of walking took hold.

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

“Is it the ‘sky’?”

“Yes! Okay, your turn.”

Jax, making no attempt to conceal his words, said. “Since I don’t give a flying fuck about being good, this is the part where I do shoot them dead.”

If the two ahead heard him, they didn’t show it. Jax snorted, disappointed.

“Why are we bothering with this anyway? Let the guy have the cry baby.”

“Three reasons, Mr. Gentleman,” Sebastian replied. “First, the four hundred litres currency equivalent. Second, it’s a little something called ‘setting a precedent’. By saving Pauly, our partner, now when he is in danger or captured, we are setting a precedent for our group to always save our members. That way, if you are ever captured you have the assurance that we, including Pauly, will come to save you, because we have set that precedent.”

“If I’m captured, let me die,” Jax said sullenly.

Sebastian sighed. “Third, Mr. Gentlemen, we’re doing it because it’s the good thing to do.”

Jax rolled his eyes. He looked at Tanaka. “Nothing to preach, Nip?”

Tanaka shrugged. “You want to know something?” Jax rolled his eyes again. Tanaka continued, ignoring him.  “That it was the good thing to do was the last of my thoughts. First, I thought of revenge because Ansar had dared to try cross us and get away. Then I thought of the money. The good thing to do came third. But that it is the good thing is the motive I acted upon. I’m no saint or hero, but maybe, if everyday I consciously do good, even if only a little, I’ll be a hero one day.”

“Conscious incremental good to overcome self is path to divine,” Sebastian said, summarising Tanaka’s speech. “Your lucky numbers are 4, 8, 19, 27, 34, 10.”

Jax laughed. Tanaka looked confused.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“It’s like the quote from a fortune cookie,” Jax explained.

“Ohhhhh,” Tanaka said, giggling. “That is quite funny.”

They strode on, the two in front still playing their infernal game of ‘I spy’. Sebastian hung back with Tanaka.

“Can I talk for a sec?” he asked.

“Sure,” Tanaka said, grinning. “Anything.”

“When I said that I had Ansar, I meant it literally. All I had to do was pull the trigger and I’d have killed him, but I couldn’t do it.”

“Why are you telling me?” Tanaka asked.

“I had to tell it to someone, and it wasn’t going to be Jax.”

Tanaka glanced at Jax, who was giving Timmy’s back the finger. “Fair point.” He swung his earnest, dark eyes back to Sebastian. “If you were hoping I was going to say that this shows your inner good, you’re mistaken. True ‘goodness’ can only be gotten from a position of strength. That’s why I trained my gun draw until my fingers bled. What you showed there was weakness, and Pauly is paying for it.”

“I know,” Sebastian said.

“You can’t let weakness make your decisions for you.”

“It won’t happen again,” Sebastian said. His eyes were brushed gunmetal.

“I know it won’t,” Tanaka said matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t have you as my leader if I didn’t. Your weight is many times heavier than even mine.”

“My weight?”

“Sorry, did that not make sense? I’m trying to say your problems are more than mine.”

“My burdens, maybe.”

“Sounds right.”

“I didn’t talk to you just to confess that, though. I need to sound something off of you to try figure it out.”

“Sound?”

“Basically, talk to you about a problem to help myself figure it out.”

“Sound away.”

“The thing that bothers me is that I told Ansar to freeze. He knew I was less than four metres away. It was a shot I couldn’t miss. Yet he kept on walking. Didn’t even glance back.”

“Did he somehow know you wouldn’t shoot?”

“No way I can see, unless he’s smarter than me, which I think is near impossible.”

“Don’t you think that’s arrogant?”

“No.”

Tanaka smiled. “I agree. No point overestimating him.”

” Right. So where does that leave us. He might have known there was a chance that I wouldn’t shoot. There are plenty of people who hesitate when it comes to killing people. Does that mean he just gambled on that chance? It’s on hell of a bet. What does that say about him? Does he get off on the thrill of it?”

“Possibly. I’ve met these kinds of people before. Terra Deserta attracts them like moths to a flame.”

“More like flies to a dung heap.” Sebastian said, winning a snicker from Tanaka. “I rate it as more likely. There’s one other possibility, however.”

“What’s that.”

“He doesn’t mind if he dies.”

“What’re you guys talking about?” Jax asked.

Sebastian started. He’d been so caught up in his train of thought he hadn’t even noticed Jax approach.

“What kind of man Ansar is,” he said.

“So? What kind of man is he?”

“A dead one,” Tanaka said. “We’ll catch him.”

“Yeah, we will,” Sebastian agreed, but his voice was distant. Something he’d said earlier was coming back to him:

‘There isn’t a town out his way reachable in a day’s travel, unless they loop back.’

And Tanaka just then:

We’ll catch him.’

“Wait a minute,” Sebastian muttered. “St-”

“Stop!” Jax shouted, anticipating Sebastian. He recognised the expression. Sebastian had realised something important.

Timmy stopped. “What are you doing? We’re wasting time.”

“When the man says stop, you stop,” Tanaka growled, instantly transitioning from friendly to threatening. He’d crossed his arms. He’d raised his head, showing the ‘M·O·T·H·E·R·F·U·C·K·E·R’ on his brim. It could be funny the first time, but after a while the effect of constantly seeing the insult was actually off-putting.

“We have to turn around,” Sebastian said.

His two partners froze.

That’s what you had to say?” Jax asked. “Well now I’m regretting stopping them for you.”

“Save the snark for when we really need it,” Sebastian said. “I’m serious.”

“Why?” Timmy asked.

“Ansar’s looped back around.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

“What’s his objective here? Come on, think about it.”

“To get away, obviously.”

“Right. But what does that entail? It’s not good enough that we follow his tracks. We need to follow his thoughts too.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“To get away, he needs to reach a town so we lose his footprints. He’s got a prisoner, alright? That slows you down, no matter how good you are. Doubly so, when it’s someone as big and slow as Pauly. He was also caught unprepared. He didn’t know he was going to have to run out across the desert that very instant.”

“He’s a successful fugitive. He’d have emergency supplies ready at all times.”

“Not for two people, though. He’s having to split his supplies in half.”

“So?”

“So, how close is the nearest town in this direction?”

“Four days, I think.”

“Four days, with a prisoner slowing you down and low supplies. Which gives us four days and three nights following his footprints to catch up. Odds are we would. Except you’re wrong. The nearest town isn’t four days away. The one we just came from is less than half a day’s walk away. He loops back and leaves along one of the busy paths, erasing his trail.”

“Shit, you’re right,” Jax exclaimed. “Fuck.”

“It’s not all bad, though,” Sebastian said. “If we’ve realised in time, we actually get a shortcut to his destination. Depending on whether he cut straight back or took a wide loop and when, that could mean we even end up back there before him.”

Timmy nodded. “I can’t fault your logic.”

“Then don’t,” Sebastian said. He was already turning back, Jax and Tanaka in tow.

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Desert Steel Chapter 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 21

-Reunion

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“Fuck!”

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

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

“Fuck!”

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

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

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

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

“What?” one asked incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jax froze up. “No.”

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

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

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

“My role isn’t a errand boy.”

“It is when the other role is gunslinger.”

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

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

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

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

“Had who?”

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

“Before the sandstorm?”

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

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

“So I could catch Ansar.”

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

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

“What happened then?”

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

“Well now what?”

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

“Are you…”

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

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

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

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

All three of them laughed.

“Anything happen?”

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

“Casualties?”

“What’s that?”

“You hit anybody.”

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

“Possibly?”

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

“Alright. Where’s Pauly?”

“No idea. Haven’t seen him.”

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

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

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

“Well that ain’t good,” Jax remarked.

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

“Well now what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanaka stared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timmy extricated himself from the woman’s hug.

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

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

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

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

Sebastian kept silent.

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

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

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

Sebastian turned back. “Oh?”

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

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

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

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

“Find him?” Sebastian asked.

“No. And I don’t think we will.”

“Why not?” Sebastian asked sharply.

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

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

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

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

“What now?” Tanaka asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Save your breath.” Sebastian said.

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Desert Steel Chapter 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 19

-Stalemate

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Into the last hours of their journey, Sebastian found a dune that lay in the right direction and stretched on for kilometres. He lead them along the spine of the dune, but kept about two metres from the very top. This was so to remove their silhouettes from the horizon. The heavy wind from the North sent sheets of sand over the crest. It was like being in the tube of a wave. His navigation turned out to be spot on. The dune tapered and terminated right into the central strip of the town.

The town was called Dune’s End for this reason. It was a trading town, existing only for supply restocks on trips to further towns. It’s location by the dune aided navigation. This made it ideal for its purpose as a throughway and point of orientation. Reflecting its lowly status, there was really nothing there. A strip of stores all offering different supplies. No competition. No signs of residential housing. The population was the travellers, and the caterers.

What a throughway like this did have in its favour was an abundant message board. All news and information flowed through this town, and all towns like it. Sebastian went straight for the board. Unlike the last time, he found this one within a minute, nailed up against the side of the town’s General Store. As expected, it was laden with papers and graffiti.

“What do we want?” Sebastian asked.

“A mansion filled with clean water and ice cream.” Pauly replied.

Sebastian chuckled. “No, more specifically. What work do we want to take on?”

“That one!” Jax and Tanaka said at exactly the same time, pointing.

Sebastian kept his face turned away from the board. He’d already read it through. “Is it the bounty poster for ‘Ansar Aslakhanov’?”

“Yes. By far the most cash,” Jax said.

“Yes. Catching criminals is the most heroic job,” Tanaka said.

Sebastian’s smile got smug. “Sounds like we’re all agreed, then.”

“Uhh… Not exactly,” Pauly said.

All three faces, sun and sand scorched, swung towards him. He withered under their gaze, but he kept talking. “The highest bounty means the highest risk, right? Why don’t we go low? Just enough to cover our needs.”

“High risk, high reward. Only pussies don’t have the balls for them. Are you a pussy?” Jax asked.

Tanaka was visibly disgusted. “That is not what a hero would say,” he admonished.

Sebastian just smiled. “It’s three against one, I’m afraid.”

Jax reached up and plucked the poster from the board. It was printed on white paper in black and white. It had the title: ‘WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE’. There was the photo of a man smiling like he knew a joke no one else did, a reward and the name: ‘Ansar Aslakhanov’. The reward was ‘Four Hundred Litres of Water or Cash Equivalent’. The currencies in Terra Deserta were measured against the ‘Water Standard’. This was how much water that money could buy. In the bigger towns, and Portal City’s sphere, efforts were being made to standardise this amount. Out in the outer settlements this wasn’t the case, but four hundred litres was still a high amount. Down at the bottom it said: ‘Reward given upon delivery to Mikhail or his affiliates at Mikhailsburg.’

“Why’d you do that?” Tanaka asked.

“So no one else can see the poster and take our prize,” Jax replied.

“The safety of the public is the greater good than our reward. We should want as many people as possible to see the poster.”

“Not this shit again.”

Jax’s words matched Sebastian’s thoughts. He stepped in before an argument overflowed.

“What does Ansar look like, Tanaka?” he asked.

Tanaka faltered. “Average face, crooked nose?”

Sebastian took the poster of Jax and showed it to Tanaka. “This the face you had in your head? Would you have recognised him in the street?”

“No.”

“So we need the poster,” Sebastian said. Tanaka nodded, mollified. They didn’t need the poster, in truth. Sebastian’s memory was excellent. He had Ansar’s face burned into his memory. His real reason was the same as Jax’s. Sebastian was morally flexible, and giving himself an edge was well within his limits. He rolled up the poster and slid it into the bags attached to the back of his trouser belt.

“Let’s go get some water first.”

They walked up the street towards the water store they’d seen. Water stores, as the name suggested, sold water in towns where there was no oasis, or where oasis access was monopolised. They sold it from large barrels, pouring out a prepaid amount into any container of the customer’s choice. The monopolies they held in smaller towns lead to brutal prices. The term ‘water store prices’ was common place to describe anything exorbitantly expensive.

They walked up the street, four abreast, with plenty of space between each other’s shoulders. In this smaller town, this practically blocked the road heading North. Sand blew around their feet and down the road. About halfway there, maybe twenty five metres from the store, a man stepped out.

He was average height, maybe five foot ten inches. He wore an elaborately embroidered shirt that Sebastian could best describe as a waistcoat. Its colours were fantastic and flamboyant. This contrasted with the rest of his clothing. He wore trousers of dull muddy tone, and boots of the same. He had a cloak of heavy cloth in mustard yellow. His hat was a leather bushwhacker hat, with gun shells sown with leather straps into the side of the crown.

His face was grizzled. His nose had been broken and fixed crooked. A few scars shone white against olive skin. He hadn’t shaved in a while, and a chin strap and moustache was emerging. There was no doubt about it. It was Ansar Aslakhanov. Sebastian thought he saw both signs of Slavic and Turkic ethnicity in the face, although he’d be willing to admit the name had biased him.

Before Sebastian could react to this new information, three people beyond Ansar burst out of hiding, guns raised.

“Freeze!” one screamed. They were positioned so their fire would triangulate on Ansar from three directions, but weren’t so far apart that they might hit each other. It was a clean ambush.

Ansar raised his hands. He showed no surprise or fear. He was unhurried, almost lazy in his movement. “You won’t shoot me,” he said. He didn’t have the stereotypical heavy Russian accent Sebastian had been subconsciously expecting. Instead it was a pleasant, smooth and musical voice.

“Fuck yes we will,” the same person screamed. Whoever he was, he was hyped up on adrenaline, but controlled. That suggested experience.

“One of you misses, you hit the innocent bystanders beyond me. One of you hit, and the bounty is voided. You need me alive.”

The speaker cursed. The guns stayed up, but the intent was dying. Ansar was serene. He turned so he fully faced Sebastian. He started to walk away. None of the three shot him. Sebastian drew his gun. To his right, Tanaka reacted and drew his even faster, beating him to the punch.

“About that…” Sebastian said, the smugness lacing his voice. “Our bounty said nothing about taking you alive.” Ansar’s controlled face flickered, although it wasn’t fear that lay underneath. It was something else Sebastian couldn’t pin down. “I’ve never been called an innocent bystander before” He added.

Ansar backed up a few paces as Jax and Pauly also drew up their weapons. He was now standing at the centre point between the two groups.

“You shoot him, and we’ll shoot you!” The spokesperson for the other group shouted.

“You shoot him, and we’ll shoot you!” Sebastian shouted back. There was a silence, only interrupted by the footsteps of those not involved scurrying away. Soon, the street was clear of people.

“It seems we have a stalemate,” another voice from the ambushers said. This voice was calmer, friendlier, more reasonable. More so than it had any right to be, Sebastian thought.

“Seems so.”

“Well, let’s be reasonable here. We can’t stand out here forever, now can we?”

The man’s matter-of-fact, patronising voice rubbed Sebastian the wrong way. He didn’t let it show. He just smiled, his eyes cold. “Actually, I think we can. I’m not budging until you’ve dropped your weapons and given us Ansar.”

“Now that I cannot do.”

“Then we wait.”

“Now hold on there…”

“I am. You hold on there until you give up. I’ll be waiting.”

“This is ridiculous. We cannot stand here forever. We need food, water, sleep. Your bluff is hollow.”

“I stand by what I said, and so I stand.”

“Come now. Men, talk some sense into your leader. You, with the tattoos. Surely you can see that we need to negotiate.”

Tanaka grinned. “Maybe, but I’m a moron delinquent, what do I know? I trust my leader, no negotiation.”

The man sighed loud enough for them to hear, and fell silent. The wind howled straight down the road. For twenty full minutes they stood in stalemate, Ansar in the middle. Sebastian raised his head and felt the air. Things seemed ripe. It should come soon. With his free hand, clumsy with tape, he rummaged in one of his belt bags for his goggles.

The man finally lost his patience and spoke up again. “How long do you expect to maintain this charade?” He asked kindly, like he was speaking to someone mentally ill. Maybe he thought he was.

Sebastian head throbbed. It sometimes did ever since his concussion in the fight with Hadrian, but only for a short moment. He waited for the pain to clear before replying, which suited him fine because he wanted to leave the guy hanging anyway.

“Until.”

“Until when?”

“Just until.”  The wind howled. Sebastian made sure he memorised the street layout and Ansar’s positioning. From then on it was a gamble. Heads or tails, left or right. A fifty: fifty chance, except Ansar had all kinds of biases, all the way down to whether he was left or right handed. And although the expectation would be left or right, the problem was two dimensional. There was a full three hundred and sixty degrees of options. There was even the unlikely but possible action of trying to run through one of the groups. Three dimensional, even, once one considered the slim chance of him climbing a building. But all these other options were improbable. The amount of calculations would paralyse Sebastian, so he kept it simple. Left or right. Fifty: fifty. Not great odds, not bad odds. He flipped a coin in his head, and prepared.

“This is unnecessary,” the man was saying. “We can work this out.”

Sebastian ignored him. His ears told him what he had been waiting for was about to arrive. He smiled smugly, and visualised his path.

Whatever the man was going to say next was drowned out by the howl of the wind and the buzz of the sand. The entire town was engulfed in a cloud of angry orange. Sand ripped through the air in dense clouds, slashing everything. Visibility dropped to a metre.

The sandstorm had come to Dune’s End.

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Desert Steel Chapter 18

-Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck off!”

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

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

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

“That’s fucking sad.”

“I had fun with it.”

“Yeah…”

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

“Mister Gentleman.” Sebastian teased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you watch anime?”

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

“It’s the written comic book form.”

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

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

“Yeah…” Pauly agreed.

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

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

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

“Can’t I be both, Mr. Gentleman?”

“Don’t call me that!”

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

“Fuck off!”

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

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

“Make nice,” he said.

Sebastian glanced up and smiled. “Be serious.”

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

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

“Properly!” Tanaka commanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No more fighting,” he announced.

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

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

“Speak for yourself, faggot.”

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

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

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

“You, Tanaka, are one of a kind.”

“I know.”

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

“Show me your gun draw.”

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

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

“Faster now. As fast as you can.”

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

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

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

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

Sebastian nodded.

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

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

“Again,” he said.

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

And again and again and again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone gaped in awe.

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Desert Steel Chapter 16

-Awakening

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Sebastian awoke with a thumping headache. His mind was a tempest of incoherent events. There’d been a… fight, and they’d… lost? No, he’d lost, but they’d won. The memories came rushing back in a flood, and Sebastian felt relief. Not because of the victory, although that pleased him. He was relieved because his mind was still working. His memories still there. His intelligence and memory were his prize possessions. He didn’t know if he could handle losing them.

The room was pleasingly dark and cool. He was reclined in some sort of armchair covered with a plush down duvet.  He did a brief check of his injuries. His nose had been set, and was held in place with duct tape. Sebastian touched it tenderly with his left hand. It seemed to be set straight. Sebastian pulled his right hand out from under the covers. His ring and pinkie had been taped together. The hand looked normal otherwise. He elected not to touch it. Looking at his hand drew his attention to his arms, which were bruised all the way up to the elbow. He traced his face with his hands. His lip was split but scabbing over. His face was swollen, his left eye still sealed shut. He hoped his eye would open and his depth perception return before he needed it.

“You should see the other guy.”

The voice surprised him, and he couldn’t stop himself from flinching. A quick search turned up Hadrian, who was slouched at the sofa. His arm was up along the top of the sofa. In the murky darkness, Sebastian took a while to see the arm was in a splint. He’d only recognised Hadrian by his body. His face looked like a misshapen tumour it was so swollen and bloodied.

Sebastian was silent for a moment, a whole queue of questions battling to be asked. At last he settled for:

“What time is it?”

“Evening,” Hadrian said. He smiled, or at least Sebastian thought he did, the swelling was obscuring. “Time for the after-fight party.”

Sebastian, who hated parties with a passion, snuggled deeper into his comfy chair. “Where you would normally be?”

Hadrian laughed. “With a titty in one hand and a beer in the other. Toast of the town. Instead, here I am, in a dark room with a bum arm. Oh how the mighty have fallen.”

Sebastian grunted noncommittally to this. He changed the subject. “It’s entertainment, right?”

Hadrian laughed again. He had a relaxed air of extreme confidence. “Yeah, you’re a sharp one. Big money, too. Kids lap it up, their parents shovel out the cash. They pay a lot to give their darlings one slice of joy in this damned desert. We used to do staged stuff with our own team, like in wrestling, but it got dry. So we switched to genuine fights with strangers.”

“Do you take bets?”

“Yeah. Makes up about half our revenue, I think. You lot were hundred to one against.”

“Good job to have,” Sebastian observed.

“Definitely. I get the good cuts of food to keep my muscle mass up, and the chicks that are here can’t keep their paws off me.”

“When you win.”

“Whenever. You seeing this body? Except, of course, when my face is this much of a mess.”

“Sorry.”

Hadrian laughed again. “No worries, mate. That’s showbiz.”

The phrasing caught Sebastian’s ear. As did the accent. “Are you Australian?”

“Yeah. Are you a kiwi?”

“Yes.”

“Sheep-shagger.”

“Fuckin’ Aussie.”

Hadrian gave another peal of laughter. His laugh sounded like wind chimes in a gale. Sebastian decided his guard was far enough down.

“Do you really kill the losers?” he asked with practised disinterest.

“Nah. We just say that to get you riled up.”

Sebastian nodded. His smile was smug and self-satisfied. There was silence for a moment.

“What if I’d said we did?” Hadrian asked pointedly. “What’d you do?”

“Hrm.” Sebastian replied. He became lost in thought. The dull thump of party music permeated the thick walls.

“Well that’s comforting,” Hadrian said, before erupting into another round of laughter.

Sebastian gifted Hadrian a weak smile. In truth, he didn’t know what he’d have done. He didn’t have the moral assuredness of Tanaka, nor the moral apathy of Jax, nor even the moral cowardice of Pauly.

“So where are we?”

“A cellar,” Hadrian replied. “Nice and cool and quiet. You want to know what sucks about injuries out here though?”

“Sure.”

“No ice packs, so swelling takes forever to go down. The world is robbed of my beautiful face for far too long.”

Sebastian, who thought that Hadrian’s face, unlike his body, was distinctly average, said nothing.

“Your boys will be out there enjoying the party too. I’m sure Mister ‘Rightning’ is out there stealing all my girls.” Hadrian’s voice wasn’t bitter. His jokes were gently mocking instead of mean spirited.

Sebastian’s thoughts turned to his team for the first time since he’d woken up. He felt a guilty twinge.

“My guy get his knife back?”

“Braveheart? Yeah. All weapons were returned. Yours are on the table there.” He indicated with his good arm.

Sebastian saw that they were, both his knife and revolver. He leant over, pleased to note his head didn’t hurt from this, and picked up his gun. It was loaded.

“You’re kinda lax with security aren’t you? It’ll bite you in the arse one day.”

“What do you mean?” Hadrian asked.

“You keep us in a cell with only one guard, who fell asleep. Which can lead to… incidents. You held us at gunpoint with rifles pressed right up against us. With those long barrels do you have any idea how easy they are to grab and disarm? And after having beaten me seven shades of blue, you’re sitting here unarmed while I have a loaded revolver.”

Hadrian waved away the concerns, completely unfazed. “Nah, mate, no worries. You seem a good sort.”

Sebastian was astonished. He felt embarrassed for even thinking of these points. Then he burst out laughing. The mirth rasped against his dry throat.

“Good luck, man,” he said once his chuckles had abated.

“I don’t need luck. I make my own.”

Sebastian managed to quell his amusement this time. “You could at least have shifts for the guards.”

Hadrian shrugged his perfect shoulders. “Erica’s the one who takes care of that kind of stuff.”

Sebastian cycled back through his returned memory. “That the black chick?”

“Yeah.”

“Prison guard’s got to be the worst job in the group, and she seems to have something against Amy.”

“Not my problem. I don’t worry about that sort of things.”

“Aren’t you the leader?”

“Obviously. Alpha male numero uno.”

“Then it is your problem.”

It was Hadrian’s turn to be non-committal and silent. Sebastian decided he’d done his good deed for the day.

“I’m thirsty and hungry. Do we injured just languish back here with nothing?”

Hadrian’s pulpy face shifted to what may have been a smile. “Course not.” He chucked two objects that had sat by the foot of the sofa over to Sebastian. Sebastian just managed to catch them with his good hand. The first was a can of beer, the second something soft and warm wrapped in cloth.

“Careful, I’m injured!”

Hadrian ignored this protest. “It’s only room temperature, but it’s better than if it was left out in the desert. It would be boiling if we did that. Enjoy it. This is what being a pro fighter can get you.”

Sebastian unwrapped the second package. It was a home-made pie, maybe even made in Terra Deserta from locally grown ingredients. He took a bite. The crust was irregular and overly thick, the meat unrecognisable, and the gravy lukewarm. It tasted like heaven. His face split into an irrepressible smile.

“I know right?” Hadrian said. “It’s shitty by Earth standards, but it’s ambrosia over here.”

“Mmhmm.” Sebastian agreed. He took another ravenous bite.

“Y’know,” Hadrian said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen the smile reach your eyes.”

Sebastian’s smile didn’t waver, but the bombproof shutters slammed down in his eyes. He took his third bite, finishing off the pie. “Tasty.”

Hadrian smiled cryptically. “I do know why Erica and Amy are fighting,” he said, changing the subject.

“Really? Why?”

“Steve and Erica are an item. Erica is very jealous, Amy got a mite too friendly when she and Steve shared a shift.”

Sebastian gave a smug smirk, then asked, “Is ‘too friendly’ a euphemism for…?”

“Nah. All she did was chat with him. Which you’d do if you’re on a six-hour guard shift.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Hadrian shrugged. “To show you I’m not oblivious.”

“What do you care?”

“You seem a cool dude. I don’t want you to think I’m an idiot. I’d like to be your mate.”

Sebastian stared, deadpan. Finally, he said “Good one,” although he didn’t seem to mean it.

Hadrian gave the same cryptic smile as he had before. “Drink your beer. Let’s have our own little party right here.”

Sebastian cracked open his can. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

He’d just taken his first sip when screams and shouts rode in over the distant music. Both he and Hadrian burst to their feet. Sebastian’s twisted knee ached, but not badly. They exchanged glances, and rushed out the door.

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Desert Steel Chapter 14

-The Fight Part 2 (Stubbornness)

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“ROUND THREEE! SHIVA VERSUS…. THE STAR. STUDDED. STRANGERRRRRRRRRR!!!!!”

In this type of situation, Sebastian would normally feel that primal keening for danger. He didn’t this time, maybe because he saw there was no hope of victory. Sebastian raised his guard. He drew on his crystal clear memories of martial arts manuals he’d read on the internet. They dissolved away when he got hit in the face, hard. Sebastian smiled wryly, and jumped back. Just as when against Jax, Hadrian charged in, keeping the intensity up. Unlike Jax, Sebastian held him back with a low, straight kick to the hip that killed the momentum. Sebastian let out a deep breath, for what felt like the first time in ages. Then he stepped in hard and fast, and gave a punch that stretched his reach to his limits. He was taller than Hadrian, and had long arms, so he could use his reach to his advantage. Hadrian ducked under it, stepping in himself. He landed a counter that made Sebastian’s teeth clack together.

Sebastian staggered back into the ropes. He didn’t bother to raise a guard, and instead tried get some breath back. He calculated correctly, because Hadrian had lost interest and turned back to the crowd.

“You don’t have to try too hard, you know.”

Sebastian turned and looked down on Tanaka’s round face. “Huh?”

“Just go down in the next phase,” Tanaka said. “I’ll handle him.”

Sebastian shook his head. “I’m never going to give less than everything in a fight for my life. And neither should you,”

If Tanaka had a response Sebastian never heard it, because he was grabbed and lifted away from the ropes. Hadrian had returned to the fight. Sebastian was hopeless in Hadrian’s iron grip as he was thrown down into a suplex. Knowing this, he tensed himself and rode out the impact. He rolled away the instant the grip loosened. He got to his feet unsteadily. Hadrian was up in a gymnastic kip-up. Sebastian put up his guard again. Hadrian changed tactics, and started launching high kicks. Sebastian tried block one, but it blew right threw his defence and cracked him across the cheek. He gave up on defending, and instead launched another one of his long reach punches. On only one leg, Hadrian couldn’t dodge. Sebastian’s fist smacked him in the jaw.

Sebastian felt a warm glow of victory. This was the first time Hadrian had been dealt a proper blow. It vanished as Hadrian’s kick connected, sending him tumbling. He landed face to face with Tanaka.

“Just stay down,” Tanaka said. He wasn’t concerned for Sebastian. Just cheery and confident.

Sebastian shook his head and got back up. The world spun. Things weren’t looking good. He bit down on his cheek, focussing on the pain. The world stabilised.  Sebastian didn’t bother with his guard, it was worthless. Hadrian was weakest when launching an attack. This was going to be a good old-fashioned slugfest.

Hadrian launched a hook, and Sebastian fired back another long reaching punch. Both made their marks. Hadrian’s crushed Sebastian’s ear and sent him reeling sideways. Sebastian’s hit Hadrian’s cheek bone. Sebastian’s hand stung like crazy. He hypothesised he’d broken a few bones, but he ignored it. He threw another punch, the other hand, same style. It connected again, opposite cheekbone. At the same time Hadrian’s fist pulverised Sebastian’s nose. Blood gushed down over his mouth and onto his chest. Sebastian ignored it. Another round of blows were exchanged. Sebastian’s lip was split, Hadrian’s face paint smeared off on one side. Another round. Sebastian left eye was bruised. Hadrian’s cheek bone was suffused with a purple hue. He was beginning to show damage. Hadrian broke off from the fight, and moved over to his corner again. Sebastian made no move to follow him. His left eye was swollen shut, his nose broken and bleeding, his lip split and bleeding, and his right hand broken.

The bell rang. It was the end of the round but Sebastian stayed standing, for fear he’d never be able to get back up again if he sat down.

“Just tap out.”

Sebastian turned to Tanaka. “No.”

“It’s just a fight.” Tanaka whined. He was no longer calm and confident.

Sebastian leant over the rings. His face was hideous, and not just because if its wounds. “It’s real life. It’s my life. It’s our lives. It’s never ‘just a fight’.”

Sebastian returned his attention back to Hadrian. His depth perception was gone and he was dizzy. He got ready for another round of fighting. The bell rang.

Hadrian had had enough of the slugfest, because he attacked straight away. He delivered an eye-wateringly fast high kick that attacked from Sebastian’s blinded side. Dazed as he was, Sebastian didn’t even react as the kick hit his temple dead on. Sebastian stumbled. His vision was greying out. As he half-fell, half-walked, he blacked out several times, only to wake himself up. By sheer miracle, he managed to plant a foot to stabilise himself. He placed it oddly though and as his body weight came upon it his knee twisted. The pain kick-started his consciousness. He came rushing back, and managed to put a steadying hand on the ropes. His head felt like it was in a vice.

“You… you don’t need to stay up,” Tanaka pleaded to him. Sebastian ignored him, feeling guilty about exploiting Tanaka’s sympathetic nature.

The whole world buzzing, Sebastian got back on two feet and weaved a path to Hadrian. He placed his hands on Hadrian’s shoulders. He looked like he was about to collapse and Hadrian didn’t attack. In fact, he looked mildly worried. Without warning, Sebastian headbutted Hadrian as hard as he could. The sudden movement of his head felt eerie and wrong. As soon as he heard the crunch of bone on cartilage, a wave of nausea overwhelmed him. He staggered away from Hadrian, who was clutching his nose, and dry heaved over the side of the ring.

Hadrian’s nose appeared to be broken, although it wasn’t bleeding. He touched it, winced, and then exchanged worried glances with the cowbell man. His opponent was deteriorating. He seemed to be clinging to the fight by sheer stubbornness alone. This was going far beyond the parameters he wanted in a fight. He was saved from indecision by the Japanese captive banging on the ring.

“Forfeit,” he yelled. “He’s done.”

The crowd started booing again, as with the last forfeit. It was less than before, however. This fight had been getting far more brutal and far less pretty.

Hadrian was relieved. He’d been losing control of the fight.

“No.” The words cut through all other noise. They were unyielding. The bloodied, battered man was back on his feet, fists up.

“You’ve forfeited,” Hadrian said, in disbelief.

“He doesn’t get to decide that. You don’t get to decide that.” The man’s words were slurred from concussion and blood. The crowd started to cheer, a little hesitantly. “I alone decide. I’m not leaving this ring until I can’t stand.”

Hadrian was trapped, he realised. The crowd was getting behind the man’s resilience. He couldn’t force him off the ring. He just had to end this fast. He nodded to Adil, his man with the cowbell. He didn’t want it said he gave the man no warning. The bell rang, and he planted his hardest punch into the man’s head.

For Sebastian, it was as though the world had ended with a clap of thunder. He was unconscious the whole way down, and didn’t wake up until he’d bounced twice on the plywood floor. He was on his stomach, staring at his corner. He pushed himself up on his knees, every part of his body rebelling. His eyes met with Tanaka’s once again. Tanaka was as white as a sheet, all his confidence and cheer gone. He was blinking back tears.

“Just stay done. Please. I can win. You don’t need to.”

A whole speech bobbed up out of Sebastian’s magma lake. About how he had to, because he couldn’t trust Tanaka to win. About how Tanaka’s lack of seriousness meant he hadn’t earnt the right to win for his team. But he didn’t have the energy, and he felt these words had already been communicated to Tanaka.

What Tanaka needed to understand was the emotion behind them.

Sebastian spat in Tanaka’s face, a mix of phlegm, blood and a small touch of bile. It landed squarely on his forehead and ran down his nose and onto his cheeks. He recoiled in shock and revulsion.

Sebastian, using the ropes as support, got back onto his feet, and planted them.

Hadrian observed his hand in mute amazement. He’d been going for the temple, the softest part of the skull, but the man had turned and taken it on the brow. As a result, he was still standing and Hadrian’s hand had broken. Hadrian didn’t know if the move had been intentional or instinctive. He didn’t know which made the man more dangerous. Whatever. He’d been careless. This time, he’d put the guy down for good.

Sebastian didn’t bother throwing a punch as Hadrian approached. He was far too unbalanced. He did try shove him away when Hadrian grabbed him, but the strength was gone from his arms. He fell helplessly when Hadrian pulled him over. Once he felt the pressure around his throat, he finally realised what was going on. He punched up at Hadrian’s chest, the hits awkward because of the angle. Over and over again he punched. His fists bounced off Hadrian’s chest. The grey tunnel returned to his vision, closing up until his view was a needle point of light. Then that too winked out. His arms finally fell.

Hadrian breathed out a relieved breath and dropped the limp body. The man had fought until the very end. It was crazy- the man’s final punches had been weak and ineffectual- but for a moment Hadrian had feared he would lose.

“WHAT A MATCH! GIVE IT UP FOR LORD SHIVA AND THE STAR STUDDED STRANGER!!!”

The crowd applauded as Sebastian was lowered down from the ring. The wheeze as he breathed through a broken nose and blood was the only sign that his collapsed form wasn’t dead. Tanaka knelt reverently by his side. He still hadn’t wiped the spit from his face. It sat red and vivid against his light olive skin. He wiped tears from his red-ringed eyes and ran his hand through his hair. The combination of grease and sweat slicked it back, keeping it out of his eyes. He was determined. He was serious.

He stepped into the ring.

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