Sun beat down on the wide, barren valley known simply as “The Wastes.” Calling it a valley was being far too generous. The closest mountain ranges to the east and west were hundreds of miles apart. This deep into the wasteland, nothing stirred but clouds of dust sporadically whipped into vortexes. Spirals of dust tore across the empty landscape where desert-dwelling animal life hid in burrows and hovels from the heat. For as far as the eye could see, a faded road stretched, marking the vague, nearly forgotten connection the equally forgotten town of Mercy shared with the rest of the world.
Once, Mercy had been a quaint, happy town of settlers fresh from the overcrowded cities on the other side of the western mountains. But that had been before the Collapse. For years, Mercy thrived in the desert off a well tapped into a large aquifer, but the Collapse had increasingly driven families out of the cities and across the frontier. Those who could not afford passage off-world, at least. Despite its desolate geography, Mercy drew more than its fair share of those migrants. Eventually, the aquifer could no longer sustain the sudden boom in population, so once the town’s resources dried up, the desperate refugees simply moved further into the frontier. The only inhabitants in Mercy after that seemed to be wandering groups of bandits and criminals on the run from justice. Which is exactly what drew a weary Brant Hawley down the seldom-used highway.
On the horizon, a large cloud of dust signaled the rare passage of a vehicle down the road to Mercy. This was not entirely unusual, as occasionally people did pass through that way. What was unusual was the breakneck speed at which the traveler drove, and the plumes of dust and sand kicked up behind the vehicles pursuing him. All the vehicles were wire-framed messes, with mismatched parts and hasty welds barely keeping them together. In other words, they were right at home in The Wastes. Brant sat behind the wheel of the front buggy—the one fleeing from the bandits in the other two automobiles. Keeping his eyes swiveling between the gravel road and the mirror showing him his pursuers, he took one hand from the worn steering wheel to glance at his wristwatch. Thirty-seven hours and six minutes. According to the timer running on the digital face of the watch, that was how long he had been awake. His eyes burned and his vision wavered, but he was determined.
With a quick slap to each cheek and a shake of his head, Brant reached to the bucket seat beside him, his free hand gripping a pile of twisted metal gingerly. Even with his thick gloves on, the coil of chains and spikes dug into his palm. He shoved his left knee against the steering wheel to free his other hand and hoisted the metal trap over and out the side of the vehicle. On hitting the ground, springs uncoiled the chain violently, and it spread across the road behind Brant. As the bandits’ cars crossed the chain, metal spikes sunk deep into their tires, wrapping around the axles as they drove. Within seconds, the chains seized both ramshackle cars and brought them to a spinning, screeching halt. Brant could not hear their voices, but he was sure they were shouting curses after him that would make a spacer blush. Gripping the peeling faux leather of the steering wheel with both hands again, he smirked and continued down the bumpy, scorching road to Mercy.
With the excitement of outrunning and outwitting brigands behind him, though, Brant’s thoughts started to return to the reason for his trek into the desert. In his work as a bounty hunter, he crossed all manner of unsavory characters. He had gone after everyone from thieves to murderers, provided the pay was good. By far the most bizarre bounty he had ever taken had been marked only as a “person of interest” to whichever group was in power at the time. This person of interest ended up being a woman who practiced some sort of mystic arts. At least, that was the conclusion Brant came to when she muttered a language he had never heard and threw red sand in his eyes. No one took restraint in energy cuffs well, but her reaction had been truly unique. Along with the gibberish, she had claimed she was opening his eyes, setting him free.
That exchange had been two weeks prior, and Brant had not slept well since. Every time he went to sleep, he had the most vivid dreams. Always the same dream, actually, of being someone else, somewhere else. He woke every time feeling as if he had barely slept at all. But the most chilling part of it all was the growing realization that this other person felt entirely real and was aware of Brant as well. Then, two nights before setting off into The Wastes, Brant lived through the dream man’s eyes as he spoke to a woman in sharp clothes and thin spectacles. Brant had seen this woman before through the man’s eyes. She was called a psychologist in this other world, and the man was seeking help to rid himself of his own dreams of being Brant. This time, the woman spoke of a medication he could take which she claimed would help. Brant would be no more, all thanks to this bottle of pills.
Since then, Brant had not slept. He dared not enter that dream world again for fear that the other him would take the pills and Brant would never wake up again, simply ceasing to exist. Waking from the dream that day, he knew he had to find a cure of his own. Thanks to his experience collecting bounties, he had contacts throughout the region that acted as informants—if he paid well enough. One such informant lived in Mercy. Varo Leeds owned and operated the lone saloon in the town, but he also dealt in concoctions decidedly more potent and less legal. Like everyone who lived in Mercy, he was a criminal. But Brant had never seen a bounty for him, so what did he care? He was no lawman. And if anyone could help Brant, it was his old pal Varo.
As Brant’s dilapidated rig rolled into Mercy, he surveyed the shell of a town. For a mile leading into the town, collapsed and deteriorating buildings dotted the desert. Most were only a pile of rotting wood now, hastily erected years ago by people fleeing the Collapse. A handful still stood, but doors were missing and windows smashed in, whatever valuables the occupants may have left behind surely looted long ago. The surviving settlement itself was no more than a few wooden buildings lining the highway as it passed through the town.
Brant unceremoniously parked his jalopy in front of the building marked saloon in tall, white letters. He had not seen anyone out and about, people likely taking refuge from the blistering heat. Most would be in the saloon at that time of day, and there was no telling how many of them had a grudge against the bounty hunter currently heading for the front door. Brant adjusted the blaster on his right hip, flicking the safety off and undoing the strap that secured it in the holster. Before going in, he paused and looked at the timer on his watch again. It read thirty-eight hours and twelve minutes. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door of the saloon open.
Inside, circular tables dotted the room. Patrons sat scattered throughout the room, sipping on glasses of brown liquids, talking, and playing card games. Brant recognized too many faces, unfortunately. A long bar ran the length of the room down one side, and a heavyset man stood behind it absently wiping down dingy glasses. That face, Varo’s face, he was glad to see. On the bar, a small, round speaker played a tinny rock beat. Despite the rhythmic music, the saloon fell deathly quiet as every criminal present took stock of Brant.
One of the men at a table to Brant’s left moved first, a blaster rising above the table. Brant had his own out in a flash, and with the ease of years of experience, he dropped the man before the outlaw’s blaster had even fired. Seeing more movement, Brant dashed to the bar counter, leaping over it to take cover. Hissing bolts of energy screamed over his head as he pulled Varo down to the floor with him.
“Blast it all, Brant,” the balding man spat, “You couldn’t have picked any other day to pay me a visit? Half of DeLeon’s men are in town today. You look awful, by the way. When’s the last time you slept?”
Brant smiled warmly, “Good to see you too, Varo. But if I let every gang leader that hates me keep me from going places, I’d never go anywhere.”
He popped up from the floor when the blaster fire let up for a second and picked a few more assailants off. They played that deadly game over and over, with Brant taking a couple more down each time he came up from behind the bar. Eventually, the saloon was quiet. Everyone had either fled the building or stayed for the shootout and met a sudden end.
Brant stood, helping his friend to his feet. He holstered his blaster and turned to look around the room, making sure he hadn’t missed anyone who wanted him dead. The two of them were alone, he was sure. Weariness catching up with him again, he leaned on his elbows on the bar and rubbed his eyes. He checked his watch again: thirty-eight hours and nineteen minutes.
Varo spoke up behind him, “Brant, I wish you hadn’t come today. Like I said, Deleon’s got his gang in town, and, well, they paid me pretty well.”
“Varo, what are you talking—” Brant began to say, turning back to face the man. His question was interrupted by the bolt of energy from the stunner in Varo’s hand. He saw the old bartender mouthing words that looked like an apology as he fell to the floor and lost consciousness.
A very groggy man in clean linen pajamas woke in a sweat. His eyes darted around his small apartment bedroom as he repeated the mantra Dr. Sonja had given him: “I am Darrel Higgins. I live in Boston, Massachusetts. I work at Stanley and Cooper Realty. I am loved. I am valued. I am me.”
The words came easier the more he repeated them. Eventually, the panic receded enough for Darrel to pick up his phone. Panic fell on him again as he saw dozens of missed messages and calls, but above all as he looked at the time and date. He had been asleep for almost two days. Thirty-eight hours and twenty minutes, to be exact. His thumbs trembled as he pulled up the number for Dr. Sonja’s office.
“Yes,” he stammered when the receptionist picked up, “I’d like to have Dr. Sonja put in that prescription, please.”