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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 3- By Sean P. Wallace

Chapter 3

            The whiskey went to Dust’s head on the journey back, spurred on by the frosted night air. He’d never had any trouble sleeping on horseback so he was able to sink under the warm alcoholic glow and catch some much-needed rest whilst the uniforms returned him to the Solution.

            Dust was still sleeping when more uniforms knocked loudly on his door. He opened his eyes and looked around, disoriented momentarily. Daylight strutted through the gaps in familiar curtains; he was back in his cell, had apparently slept through Tom and Bill dumping him in bed. Granted it was big enough to hold a herd of cattle and came with furnishings, a real bed and even fancy plumbing but Dust wasn’t supposed to get out and they locked the door so it was still a cell.

            Dust sat up. He didn’t get hangovers any more and so felt as fine as he ever did in a morning. “Yeah?” he asked.

            “Get your ass moving, Dust. The General wants to see you.”

            After taking a moment to stretch and spot where his tattoo was resting – it’d chosen the heel of his foot for some reason – he stood, opened his wardrobe and looked over his array of clothing; twelve sets of off-white cotton shirts, jeans and boots with twelve lots of underwear, each the same as the ones he wore.

            Picking out random lots, he changed out of last night’s clothes. Then he stretched again, taking his time before opening his cell’s wooden door.

            A second door – barred, iron and with runes carved into it – stood behind the wooden one and two uniforms stood behind that. He didn’t recognise the men and that was probably purposeful; Dick Ryman, commander of the Solution, wouldn’t want Dust to have the joy of companionship after he’d skipped out.

            “Come on, scum bag, you’re late,” one of the uniforms said as he unlocked the gate. Both he and his partner carried truncheons and guns.

            Dust merely eyeballed him, this presumably former-military man with his waxed moustache and regulation haircut. The uniform held Dust’s gaze for a moment but soon backed down. Most people did. After this there was a moment of fear between the uniforms; Dust’s reputation worked on most people, even those within the Solution, and neither wanted to provoke a merciless killer.

            To break it, Dust stepped out of his cell. The uniforms seemed to snap back to their duties at this. They grabbed him, each taking a shoulder, and he was marched through the Solution’s main facility. Having been handed the initiative back, it didn’t take them long to act as though Dust didn’t have a choice in the matter again; they pulled him along by his shoulders, yanked him round corners and swore constantly.

            Dust amused himself by imagining what would happen if he just stopped short and made them try to force him along. Seeing them struggle to get Dust to move so much as a muscle, straining and swearing at his strength… He smiled to himself. If it weren’t so close to dawn, if there were more people around, he might’ve done it.

            “What’s funny?” the nervous uniform asked, his voice quivering.

            But then again, maybe not. It’d be pretty cruel on the uniforms, embarrassing them like tha when they were just scared, just doing their jobs, and Dust wasn’t the cruel type. Not really.

            “Nothing,” Dust replied.

            So he followed, let them pretend they had control. After all, maintaining the illusion of control was what the Solution was for…

            And Dick… well, old Dick typified that. Why’d he engage in the pretense of an escort anyway? These men weren’t really in charge and Dust didn’t need guiding; the route from his cell to Dick’s office was ingrained in his memory, just as the way from his cell to the labs was. Dust had done both journeys so many times that they’d only have to look for him in two places if he started sleepwalking. It was practically his life, besides his forbidden trips and the occasional sweet mission.

            Ah, missions. Dust missed missions. In the before he’d had plenty of missions. Now it was only every now and then. He found he longed for the freedom of a well-fed horse and endless lands.

            They got to Dick’s quickly, perhaps because the uniforms were keen to be rid of him. The nervous uniform knocked at the spartan wooden door and stood back, spine straight as a rifle.

            “Bring him in,” growled Dick from within his office.

            The General was not in a good mood. As commanded, the uniforms opened the door and dragged Dust inside.

            Dick’s office was small because he wanted it to be; a proper Southern gentlemen, Dick didn’t hold with a man of station showing off so he had taken a small room in the Solution’s opulent facility and appointed it modestly. A fine but humble desk, cheap carpets and some paintings of his Grandpa on the wall. That was all the man wanted or needed.

            Squeezed into the remaining space was Dick himself. He looked out over the sand as they entered, a tall man with wide shoulders and greying hair slicked back against his head. Dust couldn’t hazard a guess at Dick’s age; he just had that sort of crinkled face that’d likely looked that way since he was twenty. He wasn’t balding. Maybe he never would; he had some of the best genes in the country, came from a proud military line, and none of them seemed to have lost their hair.

            “Leave him here,” Dick said, still watching America. His voice was like Texan oil, slick and glistening.

            Without questioning, the uniforms left. Dick didn’t notice them going, just stood there for a moment longer. In his blue uniform, with his Grandpa staring at those who dared enter this office, Dust guessed Dick was half as as imposing as people must find the Wanted Man.

            Then Dick spun, a gun in his hand. Before Dust could say anything, Dick fired. Dust was quick but not quick enough to dodge the shot entirely; the bullet whizzed past his ear, catching it at the very tip.

            “Damn it Dust,” Dick hissed, “when will you learn?”

            Dust opened his eyes and shook his head. In the confined space, the gun’s roar made his head ring. He put a hand up to his ear and found that it was bleeding. Slowly, he took off his shirt and held it against his head.

            “Ow,” Dust said.

            Dick showed no signs of being affected by the loudness of the shot. Instead he slammed his gun against the desk. “Good, ow. I’d do a damn sight more to you if I could; if you were a normal man I’d have hung you a dozen times by now. God damn you, when are you going to learn? Tell me, Dustin. When?”

            Nobody called him Dustin. Nobody but Dick. “I get bored, Dick.”

            Dick’s eyes narrowed. Nobody called him Dick. Nobody but Dust. “We have offered to get you whiskey, Dustin. And whores. And whatever else you need. Our aim is to study and look after you. But you keep insisting on running away and making a damn mess for us!”

            “Making money for you, you mean?”

            Dick looked at him for a moment, military man eyeing the Wanted Man, and then sighed. “You’re right. I can’t deny you’re technically the Solution’s second biggest donor.”

            Of course the bounties he incidentally collected would never be worth as much as Naismith’s donation but it was still good to hear Dick admit how important his little trips could be. “Then I don’t see what the problem is.”

            “No, you don’t,” Dick sighed. “And that’s the real reason we have to lock you up, Dustin.”

            Dust frowned. This was new territory. They’d had this conversation more than a dozen times and it had never gone like this. “What do you mean?”

            “Sit down, will you?”

            Dust sat, shirtless, the garment still pressed against his ear. His back felt the smooth, cold embrace of the varnished chair.

            “I mean, Dustin, that you don’t understand the wider world. You’re not a part of it any longer, you’re an outsider and you can’t understand normal people. Take your reputation; although the Government of these United States knows that you are not a criminal and are not in league with the Triangle, the people of the United States think the opposite.” He sat back in his chair. “As far as they are concerned, you’re a walking embodiment of the Dixie Problem.”

            He and Dick, they had a somewhat antagonistic relationship. Dust didn’t quite know why but the man rankled him, brought out a petulant side that no-one else saw. Which was probably why he said “Have you tried talking with them? Maybe we could hold a press conference.”

            Dick gave him a look of disdain.

            Dust had the decency to look down. “I’m sorry, that was a bit below me.”

            Dick sat with a sigh. “Alright. Seeing as you’re in a mood today, I’m going to try a new tack.”

            “Which one?”

            “Honesty,” he replied simply.

            Dust eyed him. He seemed genuine, like he wanted to talk. They’d never had a man-to-man talk; just as Dick brought out the worst in Dust, Dust made the General uncomfortable and quick to anger. Probably because the man knew he had no control over Dust.

Sean is an editor, writer, and podcast host at Geek Pride, as well as a novelist. His self-published works can be found at all good eBook stores.

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