The Adversary Online - Michael Walters

They are out on the steppe, miles from home. Miles from anywhere.

It is late afternoon, early spring. The immense sky is clear, just a few wisps of cloud against the rich blue. Everything—even the snow tipped mountains that surround them—is dwarfed by comparison.

The sun is already low, and the mountains are casting vast shadows across the green plain. Behind them, the distant hazy sprawl of the city is still drenched in bright sunlight, windows and towers blinking as they speed toward their destination.

He has been told to keep his head down. But it is difficult not to look around. He has never been this far from the city, never seen such openness, such unfilled space. He has lived on the steppe and the mountains were the boundaries of his world, but he had no idea that, after driving for mile after mile, they would still remain so distant and unreachable.

He looks back at the endless strip of dirt road behind, gazing through the wake of dust at the old car that follows their gleaming truck.

He looks forward along the same road, wondering how far it will be before they reach their goal. And he looks out as they pass an occasional camp, grazing goats and cattle, old men on horseback who watch their passing without evident interest.

There are four of them in the Jeep. He sits in the rear with the boss. The boss’s eyes are closed as though he is sleeping, but he suspects the boss is awake, listening to the aimless conversation of the two in the front. He has never seen the boss sleeping, though clearly he must. He finds himself nodding from the motion of the truck but tries to keep awake by guessing how far they have to go.

On their return, there will be five of them in the truck, so it will be more crowded. He imagines the boss will sit in the front then.

At some point he falls asleep. When he opens his eyes, the sun has almost set and the truck is slowing. It seems they have reached their destination, though when he looks out of the window this place looks no different from the endless miles of empty grassland they have already passed.

The truck pulls to a halt, and the boss instantly opens his eyes. The driver twists in his seat to look back at him. The boss says nothing but nods faintly. This is the place.

Behind them, the car draws to a stop. The boss opens his door, and they all climb out and stand around the truck, as the car driver maneuvers his vehicle around them. He stops, finally, thirty or forty meters away. They watch as the driver climbs out, opens the rear door and pulls out two metal gasoline cans.

The sun has nearly set now, just a brilliant red sliver visible over the mountains. The mountaintops and the western sky glow crimson, and the remaining sky is a deep mauve, the first stars beginning to emerge.

In the far distance, the city is a tiny bundle of smoky light. But otherwise, the steppe seems deserted.

In the dim light, they watch in silence as the car driver systematically pours gasoline across the roof of the old car. The rear door is still open, and he leans inside to pour more of the liquid across the rear seat. When both cans are empty, he throws them back inside the car. Then, as if making a final adjustment, he unscrews the cap of the car’s gas tank.

He pauses and looks across at the boss who gives his usual almost imperceptible nod. It is not clear whether it will be visible to the car driver in the twilight, but it seems that he has received the signal. He begins slowly to walk backward away from the car, watching where the spreading pool of gasoline has begun to seep across the grass. He pauses and pulls something from his pocket. He makes a sharp movement with his hand, and then he tosses a glowing object on to the damp ground at his feet.

He pauses, momentarily, to ensure that the discarded match has ignited the gasoline. Then he begins to walk, much more rapidly, to where the rest of them are standing.

He nods to the boss with a faint smile, and then they all turn to look back at the car. It is almost dark, the clear sky laden with stars, and the spreading wall of flame is dazzling in the gloom. They watch as