Tag Archives: Tanaka Daisuke

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 21

-Reunion

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“Fuck!”

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

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

“Fuck!”

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

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

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

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

“What?” one asked incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jax froze up. “No.”

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

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

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

“My role isn’t a errand boy.”

“It is when the other role is gunslinger.”

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

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

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

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

“Had who?”

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

“Before the sandstorm?”

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

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

“So I could catch Ansar.”

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

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

“What happened then?”

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

“Well now what?”

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

“Are you…”

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

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

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

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

All three of them laughed.

“Anything happen?”

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

“Casualties?”

“What’s that?”

“You hit anybody.”

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

“Possibly?”

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

“Alright. Where’s Pauly?”

“No idea. Haven’t seen him.”

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

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

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

“Well that ain’t good,” Jax remarked.

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

“Well now what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanaka stared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timmy extricated himself from the woman’s hug.

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

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

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

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

Sebastian kept silent.

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

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

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

Sebastian turned back. “Oh?”

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

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

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

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

“Find him?” Sebastian asked.

“No. And I don’t think we will.”

“Why not?” Sebastian asked sharply.

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

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

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

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

“What now?” Tanaka asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Save your breath.” Sebastian said.

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Desert Steel Chapter 18

-Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck off!”

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

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

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

“That’s fucking sad.”

“I had fun with it.”

“Yeah…”

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

“Mister Gentleman.” Sebastian teased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you watch anime?”

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

“It’s the written comic book form.”

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

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

“Yeah…” Pauly agreed.

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

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

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

“Can’t I be both, Mr. Gentleman?”

“Don’t call me that!”

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

“Fuck off!”

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

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

“Make nice,” he said.

Sebastian glanced up and smiled. “Be serious.”

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

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

“Properly!” Tanaka commanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No more fighting,” he announced.

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

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

“Speak for yourself, faggot.”

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

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

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

“You, Tanaka, are one of a kind.”

“I know.”

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

“Show me your gun draw.”

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

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

“Faster now. As fast as you can.”

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

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

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

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

Sebastian nodded.

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

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

“Again,” he said.

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

And again and again and again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone gaped in awe.

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Desert Steel Chapter 15

-The Fight Part 3 (Raijin)

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There was a hushed silence as Tanaka entered the ring. In part it was because of the impressive but disturbing display the last fight had been. It was also, however, because of Tanaka’s demeanour. The cheery and confident delinquent with the sunny smile was gone. A wrathful god, marked with blood and spit, had emerged. Hadrian felt a terrible unease in his stomach. He knew instinctively that this man was different. His men had sensed it too. They stood around, unsure whether to start the round. He nodded to the Dwayne, the announcer. Dwayne hesitantly raised the megaphone up.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! IT’S THE FINAL ROUND!! GIVE IT UP FOR LORD SHIVA AND RAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIJINNNNNN!!!!!”

Adil rang the bell.

Tanaka had had a whole plan laid out for his fight. He was going to announce to the crowd that he was the holy lance of justice. He was going to give Hadrian one minute to attack him, before he would take him down in one hit. He was going to tell Hadrian this on the stage for the whole crowd to hear. His final move would have had a grand declaration, and been as showy as possible. He discarded that plan.

He was on Hadrian in an instant with a flurry of blows. His fists were blurs, spamming Hadrian’s defences until they broke through. He varied the attacks and their angles. His body jived and twisted, dodging any attempted counters. Hadrian tried to strike but he was beaten back under the cumulative weight of the blows. He couldn’t tell how many times he was being punched. It was like trying to punch a cloud while dodging lightning strikes.

He gave up on punches, and went for a kick instead. Tanaka leapt over the leg and delivered a spinning jump kick of his own. It nearly unscrewed Hadrian’s head. He went down and Tanaka straddled him. Tanaka began pounding Hadrian’s head ferociously, alternating between fist and elbow strikes. Hadrian tried struggle at first, but his strength was waning.

Adil rang the bell without being prompted by Hadrian. Tanaka disengaged immediately. He wasn’t out for vengeance. He was out to win, and he needed to stay inside the rules.

Hadrian got up and strode over to Adil. His face was a mess, but his displeasure shone through.

“The crowd will notice that round wasn’t as long as the others,” he said. He could feel Tanaka’s red-rimmed eyes burning into the back of his head.

Adil looked worried. “But the fight!”

“The fight is lost, no matter how you delay it. We’ve unleashed a demon.”

“Should we forfeit?”

“No. This is the climax. I’ll just have to face him.”

Adil nodded, and rang the bell once Hadrian was back in position. Tanaka didn’t charge in this time. He waited, his arms raised in a unorthodox guard. Sebastian’s spit was smeared across his face like war paint. Hadrian charged in, swinging a big haymaker.

Tanaka caught the outstretched arm, locked it, and brought his elbow down. Hadrian’s arm cracked and bent the wrong way. The crunch was sickening. He howled and collapsed, clutching the broken arm. Tanaka let him fall, and walked over to his corner.

Jax nudged Sebastian with his foot.

“Hey,” he said.

Sebastian groaned but stayed unconscious. Jax shook him.

“Hey,” he said, louder.

Sebastian’s eyes fluttered open.

“My head hurts,” he groaned, his eyes misty. Then they focussed sharply, and scanned the area. He managed to see Jax looking down on him, not unkindly, and Pauly, who was smiling with unfettered relief, before a hot spike of pain seared his brain. He squeezed his eyes shut until the pain passed.

“I think you need to see this,” Jax said.

Sebastian allowed himself to be helped up into a sitting position. Tanaka was approaching to their corner of the ring. Hadrian… Hadrian was lying on the ground, his arm clearly broken and his face a pulpy mess. Relief washed over Sebastian, followed by surprise. Tanaka’s appearance was shocking. His fists were red with blood. His orange-blonde hair with the black roots was slicked back, looking like a flame with a black heart. His eyes were red-rimmed from crying, and were now ferocious and stern. Blood and phlegm was smeared on his forehead, nose and cheeks in an inverted Y. Most shocking of all was his face. The ever-cheery, open, friendly expression was gone. In its place was a cold and dead mask.

Without a word, Tanaka prostrated himself to them, first kneeling and then bending forward until his forehead touched the ground. He held the position while speaking to them, his head still lowered. Hadrian’s men, who’d been entering the ring, hung back confused.

“I, Tanaka Daisuke, beg your forgiveness! I treated things like a game and did not consider the consequences!” he shouted.

Sebastian smiled wryly, or at least thought he did under his injuries. Tanaka was earnest, at least.

“Why are you talking so weird,” Jax asked. “Just say sorry like a normal person.”

Tanaka stayed down, his face hidden.

“And yeah, you were a complete fucking idiot. You ran into an ambush, shouting your head off. You tried shoot someone with a pistol that was too far away. You thought a fight to the death was some kind of silly fucking joke.”

Sebastian smiled and let Jax blow off his steam. The rant grew in colourful curses before he cut Jax off with a wave of his hand. It was all he could manage but Jax went silent.

“Anything you’ve got to say?” he asked Pauly.

Pauly scratched his head. “Nah. I think Jax covered it and then some.”

Sebastian felt sleepy. He quelled the sensation. He had to get this right.

“Tanaka, wipe the stain off your face… But never forget why you got it.” He then realised Tanaka was second-language English and probably didn’t understand the symbolism. “You’re forgiven.”

Tanaka’s head shot up, grinning ear to ear. “I beat the shit out of him, didn’t I?”

“Hell yeah you did!” Pauly whooped.

Tanaka jumped up onto his corner pole and raised one finger to the sky. “I, Tanaka Daisuke, am Raijin, the holy lance of justice! I will be a hero one day!”

The announcer took his cue.

“THE NEW CHAMPION BY DECISIVE KO… THE RAGIN’ RAIJIN, THE HOLY LANCE OF JUSTICE…. TANAKAAAAAAAA DAISUUUKEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

The crowd cheered.

Sebastian gave up, and let sleep envelop him.

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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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Desert Steel Chapter 10

-Blunderer

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Three days and two nights of walking and resting lead the quartet over one final dune, revealing a medium sized oasis town known as Hovetown Left.

Jax pushed the brim of his hat back to give himself a better view. He wiped the sweat from his brow.

“Well fuck me sideways,” he exclaimed,” you can navigate. We’re not gonna die.”

Sebastian only gave a grunt at this jab, and surveyed the town.

The town had the designator ‘left’ because it was the left town heading South from Sixty Clicks. The meaning of Hovetown was unknown to all but its founder. He couldn’t be asked because he was knifed to death in its only brothel a month after its inauguration. Where Sixty Clicks had grown fat on the trade and travellers its position supplied, Hovetown Left had only grown pleasingly plump. Its sibling rivalry with Hovetown Right meant the trade carrying through into the outer settlements was split in half. Its further out location meant it hadn’t benefitted from Sixty Clicks’ ‘PC tourists’. PC tourists were visitors from Portal City who travelled out to towns just clear of Portal City’s influence, enjoyed the true poverty and deprivation, then returned to Portal City where the Portals meant a steady train of Earth goods and technologies, not to mention wifi connections.

As a reflection of its economic standing, the main drag of Hovetown Left was narrower, and didn’t line up perfectly with the straight line of the Sixty Clicks approach. Any traveller at this point would need to at least be able to orientate without relying on a road. The buildings were squatter, most not two stories. The verandas lining the shops and houses were smaller too, not having to accommodate as many pedestrians. In Terra Deserta, where all materials were expensive, construction was generally kept to a bare minimum. The oasis was off to one side, couched by a titanic dune, and walled up by a defensive cluster of housing on the other. The wet ground offered around the oasis had no buildings. The land was too precious for that, crops took up every usable inch. All in all, a pleasant town. It had what Sebastian thought was the right balance between wealth and isolation, and with the cherry on top of a natural oasis.

Something seemed off, however. Sebastian’s instincts were tingling with anticipatory fear. The wind was getting stronger, and the orange tinged sand was being kicked up. It hung in the air like a visual representation of malaise. This leant the view of town a sepia tone that was reminiscent of old photographs. It wasn’t truly obscuring, however, and Sebastian could clearly see the street and houses. Finally, his conscious mind fell in line with his subconscious and he realised that the town was empty. Even excluding travellers, locals should have been visible walking, playing or farming. Hovetown Left was a ghost town.

“I don’t like the look of this town,” Sebastian said.

“W-why?” Pauly said, nerves jangling.

Sebastian pointed, his index finger tracing the path of the main strip. “No people about. I think we should recon. Tana-”

The words died in his mouth. Tanaka was no longer on the top of the dune with them. He was instead bowling down the side, kicking up a trail of dust.

“Fucker!” Sebastian shouted, frustrated and surprised. “Jax, Pauly, move down the backs of the buildings, I’ll try catch Tanaka.”

Half of this was hard to hear as he was already rushing down the dune, eating a fair portion of Tanaka’s kicked up dust. Spitting out a gritty paste of dehydrated saliva and sand, he didn’t have time to see if his order had been followed. He was livid, in the oddly calm way he had. Where others’ rage may have been akin to violently boiling water, his was like a placid lake of magma. Tanaka might have had faster hands, but he had shorter strides and Sebastian was closing the gap fast.

“Tanaka!” Sebastian called, trying to avoid being too loud.

Tanaka ignored him, and halted a bit of the way into the main drag. He threw back his head and bellowed, “Is there anyone in need of aid!? I am here to help!”

Sebastian ground to a stop just at the mouth of the town. “Tanaka you dumbass!  Don’t go yelling in a potentially hostile environment?”

“It’s fine, I can handle any problems,” Tanaka replied. He cupped his mouth. “I am Tanaka Daisuke! I will be a hero one day! Believe it! I am here to help!”

His voice echoed around the town. There was no reply.  Sebastian strode up to meet him.

“We’re getting out of here,” he said. His tone did not leave room for argument.

“Hold it.” The calm voice carried in the oddly still town. “Hands up.”

Sebastian did as the voice said. His eyes bounced around like the balls in a pinball machine, searching for the source of the voice. What he saw was even more disheartening. He counted six figures lying prone along the rooftops on the left, armed with rifles, and seven on the right doing the same.

Tanaka threw his cloak back, clearing the path of his hands to his revolver.

“Thirteen people,” Sebastian hissed, “It’s a no go.”

Tanaka winked, and wriggled his fingers.

“You can’t pull it off. The range is too far, the distance between targets too great, and your gun only carries six bullets.”

“Don’t you think I know that!” Tanaka shouted, “but when it’s a challenge like this I can’t back down. It’s got my blood boiled up! A true hero never backs down!”

Sebastian punched him, hard, in the cheekbone. Tanaka went down, startled and hurt. Sebastian wound back for a kick, one of the armed men on the roof crying protest, but it was a feint, his feet stomping onto the ground and becoming a launching pad for a lunge to safety. A rifle shot rang out but missed, kicking up the sand at his feet. If it had been Sixty Clicks, with its wider road, Sebastian would have been a goner, but he successfully reached a pile of barrels by a support pole of one of the verandas. Another shot from across the street splintered one of the barrels but Sebastian was miraculously unharmed apart from some superficial scratches.

He was breathing heavily now, those moist lusty breaths he got when things got dangerous. One of the ambushers on the near roof got onto the veranda and tried to peek over the edge, but Sebastian was ready and a shot sent them scuttling back. Sebastian decided things were getting too hot on the street, but he didn’t want to risk another run in the open so he hunkered down as more shots slammed into his rudimentary cover.

His needed distraction came in two ways. Jax and Pauly, hearing the shots, had emerged from a gap between two buildings down the way, opening fire on the far side of the road, and Tanaka had recovered and was emptying his gun at the roof just above Sebastian. All these shots were meaningless in terms of lethality, the distance making them harmless, but the flashes, the bangs and the smoke were about as good as a distraction could get.

Sebastian took the chance and burst through the shop door, knocking off the cheap lock. He came up to a stumbling halt just short of sending a small child tumbling. The child was staring with opened-eyed fascination, while his mother pulled him close to her, shivering with fear. Sebastian scanned the room quickly. There were several adults, some with young children, but no visible threats. He relaxed a little and drew his gun. All the adults recoiled. All the children gaped.

“Move to another room,” he said, his voice hoarse. The adults obeyed, herding the children, some of whom resisted, into a backroom behind the stores counter. Sebastian moved clear of the windows, and began searching for a way onto the roof, but he could find none. Shots and shouts carried in through the open door, but he couldn’t tell what was happening.

He found a back door, and poked his head out. It looked clear, which was as good as he was going to get, so he exited. The back of the building offered a lot of potential for climbing, with thick slatted boards and crates and rubbish piled up beside it, but the climb would be slow, noisy and exposed.

Sebastian started moving along, deeper into town, until he reached a building he deemed far enough clear of the ambush point. He climbed up this one, getting splinters from the worn, low-quality wood in his fingers. He dragged himself onto the roof on his stomach, and lay flat for a moment, waiting for someone to spot him, but no one did. He got up to a crouch, and surveyed the situation from this better vantage point. He could run along the rooftops now to the ambushers, but it was essentially open ground to close and he’d probably get shot dead. Probably. Sebastian considered the option for a while longer, and then discarded it.

“Starboy! We got the others! If you don’t turn yourself in within the next thirty seconds we kill one of them! Then, you have another thirty seconds, or we kill another!”

It may have been the same voice as before, it may have been another. It didn’t matter. Sebastian peeked over the roof’s edge just to see if it was a bluff, but Jax, Pauly and Tanaka were all lined up with rifles to their heads. This didn’t surprise Sebastian much. Tanaka had used up all his bullets and would have been left standing in the open like a berk. Jax and Pauly clearly hadn’t realised that there were ambushers on their side of the road, leaving them open from above.

Sebastian breathed out one hot, angry breath, the only visible sign of frustration, before standing up and climbing down onto the veranda then dropping onto the street. He raised his hands and walked slowly and reluctantly over to the rest of his group. There were five attackers holding them at gunpoint, all disparate in dress. Once he reached them, one of his attackers, a woman if he was judging her feminine face correctly, disarmed him and carried away his revolver and knife. Sebastian took in the faces of his gang. Pauly was scared, no surprises there, and Jax enraged, ditto. But Tanaka was an infuriating calm. Sebastian’s placid lake of magma didn’t begin to boil, but it got a hell of a lot hotter.

All four of them were marched over to a building that must have normally functioned as the town’s jail. It was squat, its walls thicker and better quality than the others. The windows were small and barred. Inside, the room was divided by a bar wall with a hefty lock on its door, a desk and sofa on the near side, and two bunk beds and a porcelain potty on the far side. One after the other they were shoved inside, under watchful eyes and steady guns. The door swung shut with a solid clang. The key turned, the lock falling into place with a heavy thud. One of the captors, the one with the shoulder length auburn hair Sebastian had pegged as a woman, sat down on the sofa, her rifle cradled between her legs. The others left. And that was that.

Sebastian and his group had been captured.

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Desert Steel Chapter 9

-Conversations in the Desert

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

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

Jax shrugged. “Because I want to.”

“But you partnered up with a black man.”

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

“You wearing racist iconography was a joke?”

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

“The joke being neither of you meant it?”

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

“Yeah?”

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

“How’d you get the t-shirt though?”

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

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

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

“And then?”

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

“And that’s when you jumped?”

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

“When’d you meet Drake?”

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

“Umbrage? ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Desert Steel Chapter 8

-Cleave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I wrong?”

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

“I have no plans,” Tanaka admitted happily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those sick puppies?” he whispered.

“Those cheap, low maintenance workers, yes.”

“They’re sick. Dead men walking.”

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

“U.S.?”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Hundred.”

“Sixty.”

” Hundred.”

“Eight?”

” Hundred.”

“Eighty and a-”

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

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

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

“You see my pants?” he asked.

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

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

The bartender nodded.

“Do you believe that?”

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

He nodded.

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

“What’s wrong with him?”

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

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

“What would you have done?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How accurate are you?” Tanaka asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“I can try.”

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

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

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

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

“What?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone laughed, and followed.

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