I still remember it all like it was yesterday. The day I learned my family was gone. Not a day goes by where I wish I was there to save them.
The lone dimmed room was far too silent for the mercenary known as Marquis. The lone metal desk with stools welded into the floor sitting on both sides made it all feel like an interrogation room. The metallic interior walls were covered with an aged coat of chipping paint as a poor attempt to make the place look like a room of an average house. But it was clear that whoever owned this place had long since given up making it look homely.
Mark was beginning to feel a little naked in his cooling sweat-soaked white guayabera coupled with his dark jeans and leather riding boots as he sat on one of the stools. The room was somehow getting drafty, making Mark wish he at least still had his coat. Those stuck up pricks from the Contingency confiscated his hat, coat, and munitions as a means of ensuring “everyone’s safety” while onboard. But despite being the one called in after going through arguably the toughest brawl in his life, he knew damn well that whoever these people were didn’t trust him. Not that he blamed them. Couldn’t they have at least “contacted” him after a couple long nights at the inn?
Marquis thought such things while thinking back to his journey. The things he had to go through that lead him here. The life he had lost that lead to him becoming a sand covered killer. His eyes unintentionally stared into the stool across from him as his mind drifted off. A loud distinctive sound came from the door of the room as it’s lock clicked and jiggled to life, breaking the deafening silence. The lock was loud enough to snap Mark into reality as he heard an impatient voice from the other side.
“Damn.” said the voice. “I wish they would fix these at some point.” After what sounded like a few moments of struggling, the lock finally activated and the door was pushed open. When the door opened all the way, a tanned white man wearing what looked like a tight dark blue tracksuit that reeked of cheap cologne walked in holding a clipboard with a screen and no pen. The suit he wore had a gold pin on its left breast that resembled a cupped hand holding a morning star in its palm. The man looked at Mark not with fear, but rather excitement. “Ah! Why hello Mister Johnson!” said the Contingency pigeon.
“It’s Gunslinger Johnson.” corrected Mark.
“Ah yes!” said the man. “I forget you prefer to be referred to by that title.” Mark wasn’t entirely up for a session of hollow flattery. So he decided to cut to the chase as to why he was there. The hunter spoke up in his gruff voice.
“So what’s this again about a job offer?” The Contingency officer lightly chuckled to himself while sitting down across from Mark at the metal table. The Contingency man’s eyes lit up. He tucked the clipboard and pen under his arm while placing his free hand on the right side of his chest. His face looked like he was pretending to be offended, but couldn’t quite keep up the authenticity.
“We haven’t even fully exchanged names and you already wanna know how to get out of here?” Mark wasn’t impressed with the brief display of pampered bravado and decided to shut him up with a simple, yet effective rebuttal.
“You really think they call me the Gunslinger because I wanna make friends?” The man across from him put up both hands defensively.
“Alright, alright,” he says. “I see that you are a man who likes to cut to the chase.” He paused for a moment before speaking again. “Very well then. I suppose we’ll just get right into it.”
The man pulled out his clipboard while brushing and tapping his fingers against its screen. As the lights stopped flashing against his face, the man grabbed the board and faced its screen in Mark’s direction. Mark squinted his eyes at the screen as it adjusted into pictures of barren skyscrapers and marketplaces. The plastic clipboard showed looping video feeds of abandoned cities with tilted traffic lights and symmetrical cement roads littered with the rusty wreckage of rudimentary cars and caleys. All of which were covered with a thin sheet of snow. Mark even recognized some. Commodores and Saratogas just to name a couple. There wasn’t any sign of human life, making the hunter more curious about his mission.
“Now what’s this all about?” asked Mark. “Sure don’t look anything like Secunda to me.”
“And you would be correct, Gunslinger.” replied the man. “What you are seeing is a place very similar to Secunda in some ways, but very different in others.” The man took a brief pause before pointing a finger at the pictures. “What you are looking at is Dema.”
“Dema?” Mark repeated. “You mean the planetary ghost town?”
“The one and only.” Mark raised a brow in confusion upon hearing this.
“Why you want me to go there?” he asked. “There hasn’t been a spec of life lingerin’ over there for decades.” The Contingency informat was momentarily silent before responding.
“Unfortunately that isn’t entirely true.”
“Like hell it isn’t,” replied Mark. “Last I heard was that there was some big sickness that put the whole damn place under planetwide quarantine.” The man was far more silent than he was earlier but still spoke up.
“That,” replied the man. “was only half of what happened.” The hunter’s brow furrowed.
“The hell are you talkin’ about?” asked Mark. The officer across from him pressed his plastic board into the table, its bottom somehow submerging itself into the metal of the table while its screen still faced the hunter, affording the officer freedom with both hands before speaking.
“While it is true that a sickness broke out there, we are the ones who know the full picture.” Mark huffed to himself, folding his arms while leaning back in his chair, expecting to be waterboarded with a shit load of delineation.
“So I take it you’re gonna tell me all about what happened there since it’s where I’m heading off to?” asked Mark. “And You’re expectin’ me to just smile and nod?” The Contingency officer began to grow impatient with the hunter’s brash predilection of wanting to be a douche. So he decided to give it to him straight.
“As opposed to wandering around with your head up your ass with no sense of direction only to get potentially eaten by a group of cannibals? Yeah.” Mark’s head perked up a little, squinting as he looked the officer dead in the eye.
“All right then, Sherlock,” said Mark. He then opened his arms and hands, gesturing his fingers at the table. “The floor is yours.” The officer gave a relieving sigh.
“Well, despite being a former commerce world, Dema has functioned normally for as long as we can remember.” The officer briefly stopped before continuing. “But one day millions of people just… snapped.”
“So everyone just went crazy and started killin’ left and right?” asked Mark. “Like a light switch?” The officer shrugged to himself.
“Essentially, yeah.” Mark looked at the footage of Dema on the screen across from him, taking it all in while assessing the potential dangers that may lie behind the miles of crude cityscapes.
“Any idea what caused it?” asked Mark.
“Not a clue,” answered the officer. “All we know is that an advanced form of psychopathy started appearing in a few individuals here and there. Before we knew it, it was everywhere.” Mark remembered hearing about how Dema use to be a center for trade in the Commerce Grid. Anyone could come or leave. If someone hopped into a ship carrying something, they could easily--
“Well, you did manage to cut off all means of leaving the place, didn't cha?” asked Mark.
“Technically yes.” Mark was almost relieved.
“So what’s stoppin’ you from dropping a hydro bomb on the place? Sounds like a pretty easy fix if ya ask me.” The officer rolled his eyes to himself over Mark’s overly simplistic way of thinking.
“We didn’t want to jeopardize the entire damn planet if it meant destroying any possible cure.” Mark leaned back further in his chair to further illustrate his boredom.
“So I’m guessing you found one?” The officer perked up on his own side of the table.
“Actually yes!” replied the officer. “That’s actually the primary reason we called you here.” The footage on the clipboard flashed to a geographical map of Dema. Mark noticed nearly the entire map was covered in a dark grey with white spots in varied size sprinkled across the surface connected with lines. He then noticed a clutch of red dots appear and approach the largest of the white spots before the officer continued to speak. “During an excavation in what they call the Badlands, a team of ours assisted a large group of people who haven’t yet turned to cross the border to one of the planet’s safe zones. But by the time everyone made it to the border wall, only one of them passed through.”
“Did the others not make it on the way or somethin’?” asked Mark.
“Quite the opposite, actually.” answered the officer. “Most of the group had made it together by the time they reached the border. But when the wall analyzed the group, only one showed no signs of the sickness and was let through. The rest were left behind to fend for themselves.” Mark failed to see how this could tie into a possible cure.
“So why does that matter?” he asked.
“It matters because no one who has ever left the safe zones has ever come back normal.” This only left Mark with more questions.
“Well, what pushed this kid leave in the first place?” The Contingency officer aimed a sporadic finger at Mark’s direction.
“That’s just it,” the officer pointed out. “He never did. Up until now, this kid has never lived a day in his life inside the safe zones. Sixteen years exposed to whatever the hell is out there without a single symptom of the sickness is a pretty clear sign that this kid isn’t normal.” The officer dropped his hands to his hips, shifting his voice to a more relieved tone. “It’s a good thing our excavation team found him when they did. We were this close to closing shop and giving up on the entire operation.” Mark was almost shocked to hear that.
“So you were just gonna up and leave the rest to die?” The officer lightly shrugged at Mark’s question.
“Well, the remaining Dema residents that aren’t afflicted have never been very cooperative.” Mark found it very hard to believe the ‘there’s nothing more we could do’ cop-out.
“You fellas have more numbers and firepower than all the commerce worlds combined. You expect me to believe that this is beyond something you can handle? Or is the Contingency running out of soldiers?” The officer began to grow increasingly more defensive as he spoke in a more coarse tone, slightly leaning forward.
“As hard as it is to believe, we have other things to deal with other than constantly monitoring restless pilgrim planets every fucking day. A lot of our forces have been on the front lines dealing with a very rough assorted consortium in a neighboring galaxy. We’re trying to arrange some kind of peace talks.” The officer briefly stopped and leaned toward Mark a little, cupping his mouth with one hand while lowering his voice. “But between you and me, I think they’re planting saboteurs in our ranks.” Mark straightened up on his side of the table.
“So you want me to take on this job by divin’ into a whole world full of lunatics just to deliver you this kid that may have a cure to the sickness?”
“And due to dealin’ with far bigger fish, you want to send in some lowly mercenary rather than waste any more good men in case this whole thing winds up being a goose chase?” The officer was quiet for a moment before speaking up.
“Well, you said it. Not me.” Mark grumbled to himself before looking back to the officer.
“Y’all are a bunch cheap bastards, y’know that?” The officer rolled his eyes at the statement.
“Oh please,” he said. “You’re not giving yourself nearly enough credit. Plus you and I both know that this isn’t your first rodeo when it comes to dealing with the unnatural.” He was right though. Mark’s experiences on his home of Secunda definitely showed plenty of weird things the universe had to offer. The hunter gave off a defeated sigh.
“How much will I be getting paid?” The officer reached a hand in front of the clipboard screen and tapped his fingers against it to change the video feed. The screen flashed from Dema city footage to the inside of a small safe containing many credit chips and treasures inside, answering the hunter’s question. The sheer amount made Mark’s eyes widen.
“Enough that if you succeed, you won’t have to ever work for as long as you live.”
“Well, damn.” said a surprised Mark. “I guess this really is serious.” The hunter performed one last instinctual look around the room. “When am I being sent off?” The officer gave a content smile as he straightened up on his side of the table.
“We have a transport waiting for you as we speak.” He said. “Once there, we will drop you off at Dema with an automobile packed with its own auto driver. We even furnished it to make it look like a Dema exclusive in the hopes that you’ll blend in. We’ll inform you more once you’re planetside.”
“Anything else I should know at this very moment before heading out?” asked Mark.
“Yes, actually.” the officer answered. “We want to make sure your mission will be a success. So we’ll need you to make a quick pit stop and pick up a local chaperone to assist in bringing the kid to their planned destination.” Mark raised his brow, unimpressed by what he heard.
“You want me to pick up a babysitter for the kid?” The officer slowly got out of his seat.
“I like to think of it more like an extra muscle.”
“Do you have anyone in particular planned?” asked Mark. “Or do I need to scoop up some random asshole from the streets?” The officer held a clenched hand to his mouth to stifle the rising chuckle.
“Oh, we already have someone in mind. Don’t you worry about that.”