Tag Archives: Sixty Clicks

Desert Steel Chapter 9

-Conversations in the Desert

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

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

Jax shrugged. “Because I want to.”

“But you partnered up with a black man.”

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

“You wearing racist iconography was a joke?”

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

“The joke being neither of you meant it?”

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

“Yeah?”

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

“How’d you get the t-shirt though?”

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

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

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

“And then?”

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

“And that’s when you jumped?”

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

“When’d you meet Drake?”

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

“Umbrage? ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Desert Steel Chapter 8

-Cleave

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The group trudged back into town by high noon. The Sun, at its apex, had burned away every last piece of shadow. Sixty Clicks glowed an angelic white under its harshness. The sand was scorching, so Sebastian and Tanaka carried the children piggyback. Pauly, whose  left eardrum had burst in the blast, staggered on drunkenly, a bloody pus draining from his ear and drying along his neck.

At Sebastian’s suggestion, they circled the town to the South so as to avoid immediate association with the blast. Walking along the main street, the town showed little sign that it had been shaken by a blast, but Sebastian spotted some blown out windows and a randomness to the citizens’ walking patterns that hinted at disorientation.

The group stopped in the centre of the main drag. In one direction, the road narrowed towards its vanishing point and then merged seamlessly into dunes out towards the Portal City. In the other, the road did the same out towards the further outposts. On either side, saloons and general stores advertised on sun-cracked boards, and brothels openly exhibited themselves. Decisions, decisions… Sebastian gave a wry smile as Tanaka, half-jokingly and half-serious, covered the children’s eyes.

Jax, terminally impatient, spoke first. “Why the hell haven’t you guys fucked off yet? We’ve arrived, bugger off.”

Sebastian, who’d expected this, smiled in that self-satisfied way he had for when something he’d predicted came true. “Because none of you have any idea what to do yet.”

“Wipe that smug look off your fucking face. You seem to think you’re so fucking smart, but you ain’t nothing but shit beneath my shoe,” Jax raged, his temper breaking in an instant.

Sebastian’s eyes dimmed and brightened. One light died, and another, colder flame took its place. Sebastian had, like everyone else, an array of hates and pet peeves. Being told ‘you think you’re so smart’ was one of them.

“Am I wrong?” Sebastian asked. His voice was infuriatingly calm, but there was an edge to it, like a razor blade hidden in cotton candy.

“You can’t read fucking minds. You don’t know me.”

“Am I wrong?”

Jax hesitated. “Well… I don’t have any exact plans as of yet.”

“I have no plans,” Tanaka admitted happily.

“I’d rather just stick with you,” Pauly added.

Sebastian’s eyes returned to normal. He smiled. Everyone felt themselves relax, without having realised they had been tense.

“You see?” he said.” We’re better together. No one’s leaving because we all know that. As a group we’re safer.” With this point Pauly was won over. “Without a group, it’s boring, we need company, we need friends.”At this point Tanaka was won over. “And we’re stronger together, we can take on more together.”

“And what, you’re the boss? What makes you so special?” Jax asked sullenly, but he was no longer arguing against staying together, just wrangling over who was  in charge.

Sebastian played his trump card, “Can any of you freely navigate?”

There was silence. No questions. Everyone knew what ‘freely navigate’ meant, even the rookie, untravelled Pauly. Jax smouldered angrily, but he knew he’d lost. And he knew he had to swallow his pride and agree. He needed that kind of skill set with him.

Sebastian continued ,”But of course I respect your experience and advice.” The word he didn’t say was ruthlessness, but it was there in the undertones. He needed someone who would make sure he made the decisions he knew were right, not the ones that were comfortable. He also needed Jax to not be too resentful.

Jax nodded, with only trace amounts of anger remaining. “Alright.”

One, two, and three. All of them won over in less than a minute. Sebastian smiled again.

“Right, well then the first thing we  need to do is deal with these kids. Follow me.”

He lead them down the road, past a general store and two brothels, before turning under the shaded veranda of a large saloon. The shade was blissfully cool, but Sebastian took no time to savour it. He strode confidently through the crowds of travellers sheltering from the heat with glasses of weak ale. He walked straight up to the bar, the rest in tow, and rapped sharply on the top. The bartender eyed him sourly. Four young men, heavily armed, one crimson from the knees down with ichor, were the kind of people that caused trouble. This was no exception.

“We’ll give you the kids,” Sebastian said, “hundred dollars each.”

The bartender froze and eyed the nearby customers, but they seemed either distracted or wasted. He leaned in closer. In the lawless lands of the desert, slavery wasn’t illegal, and was in fact common, but plenty of people drew exception to it. Plenty of heavily armed people.

“Those sick puppies?” he whispered.

“Those cheap, low maintenance workers, yes.”

“They’re sick. Dead men walking.”

“They’ll heal. Or they’ll die. Hundred bucks.”

“U.S.?”

The U.S. dollar, like on Earth, was the most respected and well-known paper currency, and as such was the most abundant. This, in a highly ironic twist, made it worth less than the rarer currencies, such as the Cambodian Riel, of which there were maybe a thousand notes in the entire desert.

“Yes.”

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

“Hundred.”

“Sixty.”

” Hundred.”

“Eight?”

” Hundred.”

“Eighty and a-”

Jax got fed up. “Hundred Motherfucker! Motherfucking one hundred!”

Sebastian put out a restraining hand. The bartender scuttled backwards. The nearby customers started taking notice. Sebastian leaned forward.  “Hundred or we see what my friend will do.”

The bartender looked at Jax, who was breathing heavily. When he was angry, his narrow and pinched features no longer looked like that of a rodent. They looked like that of a demon. The bartender gulped, and nodded. The children were walked around to a backroom. Two hundred dollars exchanged hands. The rest of the group left, but Sebastian stayed behind.

“You see my pants?” he asked.

The bartender nodded. From the knees down Sebastian’s jeans were a crusty crimson.

“That’s the dried crust of a man’s guts and lungs. If you sell these kids off to a prostitution ring for a large profit, and I know you can, I will personally ensure you live twenty days of agony before you die. I’ll be coming back around here, and I’ll check. Do you understand that?”

The bartender nodded.

“Do you believe that?”

The bartender looked into Sebastian’s eyes. They were battleship grey, and glowed with the glint of light off a metal blade. They were the eyes the bartender had always seen when he’d imagined the face and sunken sockets of the grim reaper.

He nodded.

Sebastian emerged to find his group waiting for him under the veranda. Tanaka’s face was wet with tears, and the two others looked mildly embarrassed by this.

“What’s wrong with him?”

Jax shrugged. “Won’t stop blubbing about missing the kids.”

Sebastian was bemused by Tanaka’s tears. They’d met the kids for all of half an hour, during the course of which they’d killed the children’s grandfather. He wasn’t entirely surprised. He’d pegged Tanaka as having a sentimental streak.

“What would you have done?” he asked.

Tanaka’s voice was surprisingly steady despite his tears. “Kept them with us.”

“That’s stupid. We could never have cared for them, they’re safer here.”

“You sold them as slaves. That’s wrong.”

“I gave them a home. I compromised. We could have done worse. Jax would have probably just dumped them on the street.”

Jax nodded in agreement. “I didn’t think of getting money out of them. My mistake.”

Tanaka rounded on Jax, his genial nature slipping away. “Why wouldn’t you shoot them dead on the streets?”

Jax looked at him like he was a moron. “Waste of bullets. Unnecessary hassle. Would create lots of trouble.”

Tanaka threw up his arms in exasperation. “You’re heartless. You’re morally broken.”

“I wasn’t going to kill them though. Who gives a donkey’s ass why I wouldn’t have done so?”

Sebastian smiled, and interjected. “You hit upon a very interesting point there, Jax. In fact, I believe Immanuel Kant was the one who said…”

Jax cut him off. “You’re a fucking Kant.”

The tension in the group dissolved, and everyone laughed, including Tanaka and Jax. Nobody noticed how Sebastian had redirected Jax’s fury to himself and deflated the situation. Sebastian was happy to keep it that way. He lead the group out to the road, and pointed out South.

“It’s six forty five, and there are two towns out that way within a reasonable walking distance.”

Tanaka frowned. “Six forty five? It’s midday.”

“Yeah, I know. I keep to a ten hour day time system.”

Jax, always looking for an argument, put in. “Why the fuck do you do that? Just use a normal watch.”

“Normal watches are useless. Terra Deserta has a twenty six Earth hour day. And I don’t need a watch.”

“How do you know that? How do you keep time without a watch?”

Sebastian shrugged, like it was no big deal. “I counted when I arrived. Twenty six hours. So I decided to do what I’d always wanted to anyway, which was convert time to a decimal system. I counted the time of one day in my head, divided that by ten for hours, an hour section by one hundred for minutes, a minute section into one hundred seconds, and so on.”

Pauly, awed, couldn’t stop himself from staring slack jawed. “Jesus Christ.”

“How accurate are you?” Tanaka asked.

Sebastian gave him a cool, steel blue gaze that gave nothing away. ” To the nearest second.”

The three men exchanged glances which said the same one  thing. ‘Damn.

Sebastian seemingly ignored this, although he secretly felt proud and happy. It was a guilty feeling he’d always tried to bury.

“We’ll just go to the town to our left. It’s three days walking. Get the supplies you need, we won’t share. If you don’t bring enough water, you’ll be left to die. Tanaka.” He turned towards the Japanese man. “Teach me how to draw like you do. If you will” There was a hunger in his eyes.

The fastest man in the east grinned. “You see my hat? It says ‘lightning’. You see my arm? ‘Lightning’. I am Raiden reborn. I was fastest man in Tokyo province. Boss of my high school. You think you can become me?”

“I can try.”

Tanaka’s grin widened. “Good. To try for the divine is the holy purpose of man.” His grin grew wider still, until he looked like the Cheshire cat. “One thousand draws. Good grip, like so.” He demonstrated. “Straight wrist.” He drew slowly, wrist straight, and then pointed. “You see that? Do that. Every day one thousand.”

“Fuck that,” Jax said. He had been wanting to learn too, if only to avoid being completely outclassed by Sebastian, but he backed off at the thought of the workload.

Sebastian just nodded. The hunger still burned in his eyes. Tanaka had seen it in many a man in the desert, usually in those dying of thirst. It was the same thirst here, just as primal, just as insatiable. If this worried Tanaka, he did not let it show. It probably didn’t. Tanaka was cocky. He felt secure enough in his speed and aim to welcome challengers and protégés.

Twenty minutes later (about thirteen of Sebastian’s Terra Deserta minutes), the four were lined up and ready to go. The Sun was probably at its hottest, but they all agreed getting out of town before anyone connected them with the explosion was priority. The path out into the desert was therefore deserted apart from themselves. Everyone else favoured the shade of the verandas or the entertainment and drink of the saloons and other houses of vice. Pauly let out a little snorting laugh. Sebastian turned to him, somewhat indulgently. Conversation and action took effort in the scorching heat.

“What?” he asked.

Pauly looked slightly nervous. “I was thinking about how we’re kinda like the group from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. You know, skipping down the yellow sand road, off to see the wizard, singing.”

Jax remained stone faced. Tanaka snorted. Sebastian smiled. “That’s actually sort of funny. The thought, y’know. Too bizarre.”

Pauly smiled, relieved. In his old social group he’d been afraid to tell jokes, or to show off his sense of humour, for fear of failure and rejection. His true self had always been stifled underneath the facade of muscle and tan and bluff.  “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

This got a laugh. A tired, weak, hot laugh, but that was the best anyone could ask for under the circumstances.

Sebastian took the first step out into the real hinterlands, leaving the relative peace and safety of the Portal City’s sphere of influence. “Follow the yellow sand road, follow the yellow sand road. Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow- sand road!” he sang. His deep and raspy voice sounded awful, cracking, and crushing the notes in his throat. It sounded like an alien language being attempted by a human’s vocal cords. Innocence and singing, it seemed, had no place in Terra Deserta.

Everyone laughed, and followed.

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Desert Steel Chapter 3

-A Chance

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Sebastian awoke under a cloud of starlight. The entire sky was a black canvas dusted with stars, with an especially rich band that coincidently ran directly above and parallel to Sebastian’s reclined body. There was no halo glow by the horizon indicating a departing or approaching sun, but otherwise the time of night was difficult to gauge for there was no moon in Terra Deserta. Perhaps the Sun, a jealous god, had swallowed it whole. Of all things it was this lack of a lunar presence that truly gave Sebastian the pangs of homesickness, and the unbalancing and disorienting feeling of being somewhere truly alien. He stowed these feelings away, for he had no time for such things. It was midnight, or near enough to, and he needed to harness this time free from the harsh interference of the Sun to travel. He knew the time, as he knew his direction, through his truly uncanny mind, which had timed the first day and night in Portal City, and kept time true ever since.

The cold of the night changed the sensory landscape. The sand crunched underfoot, where previously it had hissed and slid, the air was crisp and bitter and burning, his breath sent out plumes of vapour, and his skin, only hours before scorched and hot now stung and quivered under a restrictive vice of cold air. The Sun no longer beating him to his knees, he walked easy under a field of stars.

He didn’t feel easy, however. The sun had broken him down to his primal base, left his starved brain to retreat within itself, leaving nothing but the thought of the next step, of the next dune, but no further. No thoughts about the dune after that, none about the next town, and none about the past either, the last dune, or the last town. Now, revived by sleep, his brain was reliving the past.  He could still feel the huskiness in his throat, the emptiness in his stomach, the tightness in his abdomen, and the heat in his groin. It was something he’d only really felt before when he was sexually aroused. It was lust. It had come upon him as he lay in ambush, the anticipation climbing with the horse’s gradual approach. It wasn’t bloodlust though. His anticipation, his arousal, had not been for the kill. It had been for the thrill, the danger, the excitement of knowing he himself could be dead in a few minutes. It was a sensation he’d come to the desert to both escape and, in some part of him he’d tried to deny, to find. And he’d succumbed to temptation, hadn’t he? Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. Sebastian, an atheist, although by no means militant or gnostic, had strong respect for the teachings of the Christian faith from a philosophic point of view, and that respect extended to the seven deadly sins. Had he been driven by lust, forever marring him with mortal sin, or had he merely felt lust as he undertook a necessary task? He didn’t know, which for Sebastian, a person who was many things but never unsure of himself, disturbed him even more than anything else. He’d looked down on people who talked of finding themselves, or needing to be understood, for he felt the concept ridiculous; he was himself, and there was nothing else to find nor anything more to be understood. But now he, if only fractionally, felt a little lost within himself, and that was more disorienting than the endless yellow-orange dunes could ever be. Sebastian shivered, but not because of the frigid air. The stars above, before filled with a warm beauty, were now twinkling a cold, icy light.

As Sebastian crests the final dune before the town, heat is flowing back into the world, chasing the eerie stillness of the night away with it. A rich yellow permeates the eastern sky, and the stars, one but one, have winked out. The wind picks up again, carrying lighter, finer grains of sand that scour through everything in their path. Sebastian’s cloak absorbs most of this punishment, although his exposed boots suffer small scratches in the leather, and some of the truly minuscule pieces work their way up through the isolated weather system within the cloak, scarring his belt buckle and revolver. The sand grains rub against each other, making a curious squeaking sound. The sunlight, rising to his back, envelopes his silhouette in a halo of light and enlarges his shadow, laying a titanic black smear of shade over the town. His extremities burning as the blood returns, Sebastian takes the time to survey the town.

Its name was Sixty Clicks, owing to its placement exactly sixty kilometres South of Portal City; a claim Sebastian considered dubious. On Earth, markers such as the exact intersection of borders were often found to be off by hundreds of metres. On Terra Deserta, where all anyone could really give in terms of distance was an estimate of how many days travelled, Sebastian reckoned the Town could have been anything from forty to a hundred kilometres out. The town’s unofficial slogan: ‘Start o’ the sticks’ was more accurate, so long as one took ‘sticks’ to refer to the isolated small townships beyond this one, not to a literal forest, as no such thing existed. Insofar as Sebastian knew, there existed no native plants, only imports of hardy desert plants from Earth. It was a prosperous town, in desert terms, due to its position as indicated by the slogan. All travellers heading south for mid to extreme outposts and towns passed through Sixty Clicks, and all travellers needed water and food, so the man who owned the well and the man who farmed cereals and grains, and the man who processed the cereals and grains, and the man raising livestock, and the man butchering livestock, and the man curing the meat all grew, in relative desert terms, fat and happy. But travellers also wanted booze and women and music and cards and a comfy bed, so saloons, hotels and brothels were also doing brisk business, although prostitutes were an expensive commodity, because women were quite rare, women willing to go into prostitution rarer still, and attractive women willing to go into prostitution were as rare as unicorn shit . The kind of woman willing to go into the desert was one not easily subjugated, although of course woman looking for a job in prostitution existed too, and made money hand over fist (in desert terms) in doing so. The whole town was built around a central strip of exposed bedrock, the main drag of saloons, general stores, hotels and brothels making a straight line pointing directly to Portal City, to ensure easy orientation for travellers. Beyond this central strip, more modest houses were sparsely scattered through barely arable soil, where scraggly but serviceable crops were grown, until the dunes began. The buildings were mostly made out of wood, corrugated iron and tarpaulins imported from Earth. Traders of these materials, often black market, were paid in bitcoins, both due to their being untraceable, and as no materials could be passed back through the portals, virtual currencies were the only viable method of payment. There was change afoot, however, as clay and manure were being employed as a form of home grown  construction.

Now the Sun cast off its avatar and graced the town with its own divine presence, drenching everything in a warm earthy orange and banishing Sebastian’s elongated shadow. In a gesture that was oddly playful, Sebastian leapt and tumbled down the dune, landing awkwardly and laughing breathlessly an inch away from crushing a priceless stalk of grain. Gathering himself up, unharmed but sandy, he respectfully walked along the edge of the crop field, carefully placing each foot on a well beaten path left by an attentive farmer. The aforementioned farmer stood tensely at the end of the path, where his shack, little more than some sticks in the  dirt with a tarp over top, was built. He glared sourly and distrustfully at the stranger decorated in stars. He had his own desert steel holstered at his right hip, his hand resting on its butt. Sebastian raised his head so his face wasn’t hidden by the brim of his hat, an action which showed friendliness in Terra Deserta that had already become so ingrained in the older inhabitants that they even did it without a hat on. Sebastian wasn’t anywhere near there yet, but he was sensitive to the local customs and quick to catch on.

“G’day mate!” he rasped cheerily. His throat was dry and his voice rough from days in the desert with little water.

“You a feckin’ Aussie?” the man asked in a high pitched Irish accent. Sebastian usually found the lilting accent pleasant, but it was venomous in this man’s mouth. “I can’t stand the feckers.”

“Nah, mate. I’m a kiwi,” Sebastian replied breezily, not stopping, intent on leaving this man and this conversation as soon as possible. He both feared and yearned for another fight. He needn’t have worried. The farmer knew a man coming down from the east must be the truest of desert steel, a man of the desert who could navigate and live unaided. A mysticism had grown around these people, who technically were only notable for their abilities in navigation. Stories of them having a metaphoric third eye that meant they could shoot and hit anything true, even behind them; of shootouts ten on one that ended with a trail of ten bodies and one man calmly camping out in the desert; of whole towns laid to waste by a single phantom of the sands blowing in from uncharted territory, abounded. The man, with the occasional grumble, scurried fearfully back to his shack, already planning to tell his neighbours over a strong spirit or two how he had courageously stood up to a star studded stranger that came in from the eastern desert. Sebastian, who had been lucky in two fights and honourless in an ambush, was surprised by the fear in which he had been received, something he had never experienced before as a teenager who, although tall, was skinny and unassuming. It was strangely empowering.

Picking his way through two more fields, this time the farmers cringing back in their shacks as he passed with a smile and a casual greeting in a lazy kiwi accent, he reached the main drag, joining a small but not insignificant trickle of travellers, and searched for a message board. After two passes he was still unsuccessful until a friendly, middle aged prostitute pointed him down a broad alley between two saloons. He thanked her with a ten dollar note from his wad of New Zealand dollars- in the multicultural Terra Deserta all currencies were accepted with an improvised exchange rate. He entered the alleyway, signposted in crude lettering as Crossfire Alley, and found the message board nailed up against the saloon’s wall,  right where she had said it would be. He didn’t doubt that this lane, couched between two bawdy saloons and with an information post for bounty hunters, bandits, mercs and the like, lived up to its name, so he made his visit brief. He was aided by the underwhelming message board, which exchanged a few unpleasantries to some unknown peoples, offered uninteresting jobs such as farmhands and bartenders, a thousand different ads looking for prostitutes, and another thousand looking for traffickers of prostitutes. No bounties, no trade jobs… Nothing, in other words, for a man who drifted through the desert far from civilisation, seeking out and escaping the thrill of danger. It was then that a message, scrawled messily on the wood of the frame itself, caught his eye, although that does not best describe it. Sebastian had, in the few seconds spent looking at the board, read every message from the top down to the bottom word for word, before quickly scanning the frame, where he alighted upon the message. On Earth, and in many ways here on Terra Deserta, his brain had been his greatest asset and distinguishing feature. The message read: ‘Bastards mining five hundred metres out West. No reward but if you take out the noisy fuckers I’ll turn a blind eye and you can take as much as you want from them.’

Although Sebastian’s eyes didn’t even flicker while reading over this, a smile did break out on his face. Water wasn’t free in Terra Deserta, even for those freely living and navigating in the desert, and his money was running short. It was little more than a rumour, but it was a chance, and the closest thing to a law in Terra Deserta was that chances don’t come often.

When they did, you had to take them.

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