Warm winds blew in from the west, kicking up sand, serving as another obstacle in their path for the convoy of the damned that Dr. Faraday found herself wrapped up with. Refugees during any other period of human history would’ve been taken in and shielded, but in the wasteland there was no such luck. The convoy was a ragtag group of the elderly, the sick and children, with a few of the more able-bodied taking their place around the fringes of the caravan to protect from any raiders or the undead. They had been referring to themselves as a convoy, but the remnants that had made it this far were halved from even a few weeks prior. That last raid on their camp had decimated them and forced them on their long death march towards Branch Tower.
Convoy members had come from all over; anywhere in the west that didn’t get hit as hard from the dead rising or the bombs that burned anything in their path, leaving nothing but rains of ash and sickness in their wake. There was an older couple—well, older that they were in their 60s, considering Dr. Faraday herself was 73—but they were from Oregon, they had brought their dog with them, a Corgi named Petey that was shot through the skull by a raider crossbow at their last camp. Fergie had taken that hard, it being the last blow she could handle before shutting herself off from the world, leaving her husband Bert to be strong for her. Now he was outside of the old, broken-down bus with a rusted hunting rifle in his hands and he was all alone. Fergie had fallen from a cliff two weeks back in what they were calling an accident, even if the look in Bert’s eyes told a different story. The fight left her as soon as Petey passed on. Sometimes it was the little things.
That’s how bad things had gotten.
The convoy was now just the old converted school bus and two old police cruisers. Nothing else remained in running condition, or had to be gutted along the way for spare parts. An excited rumble rippled through the bus, a few of the children rushing towards the left side of the bus, crawling over anyone in their way. Gasps and shouts filled the air inside of the stuffy old bus while the kids lined the windows.
“What’s going on?” Dr. Faraday turned to Rachel, a mother of two little girls who clutched at the windows.
“Oh Ruth, it’s marvelous,” Rachel was gazing out the window with her youngest, Betty, perched on her knee, also transfixed by the view. Elsie, her other daughter, patiently awaited her turn.
“What is, my dear?”
Dr. Faraday picked herself up from her seat, feeling the pain in her joints while she straightened herself out and moved towards the left of the bus. This was it, this was what their journey was all about; getting to that damned tower. The Tower was hope to these people; the last hope left in that blanched world, devoid of anything but desolation. Branch Tower was the last bastion of humanity, they said. It became folklore out in the wastes that billionaire Jordan Branch hid away in his old resort-casino in the remnants of Las Vegas, working with a medical team, working on a cure for the undead plague.
Granted, that all seemed silly, with the undead hardly serving as a problem, considering most disintegrated into dust along with the rest of humanity when the bombs dropped. But there it was, standing there in all of its glory. The stories talked about lush green gardens tucked away inside, offering a refuge for anyone who could make it through the wastes.
Branch Tower stood like a mirage in the middle of the reclaimed desert. Only a few memories of the lascivious past that was the Las Vegas strip jutting through the sand and kipple. Somehow, the building was unscathed. Constructed next to it was an enormous structure of some sort, fashioned from what looked like scrap metal and stray concrete. The closer that they got, the more the excitement spread throughout the bus. They had all convinced Dr. Faraday that they’d need her at Branch Tower. All of it was part of the fantastical dream that the team of researchers looking for a cure needed someone with her experience. She had done her best to tend to the wounded and sick in their group, but she was a pediatrician in her past life, which meant a cursory understanding of ailments and illnesses, but not the research-based expertise they’d need to formulate a cure for Branch’s sickness that he spread. She was a good sport, though, so she went along with it. A breeze from the window felt nice on her face, a cool reprieve from the heat of the bus. Her polyester pants and blouse weren’t breathable, either.
“We stopped.” Dr. Faraday tried to get a better view, patting two of the children on the shoulder so that they’d moved aside. “Thank you, children, let Auntie Ruth have a look.”
“What’s going on out there?” Rachel asked, bouncing the now-fussy Betty a bit and cooing at her like nothing was wrong.
“It looks like a few of the men are talking to some men in armor and—oh god…”
A few pops rang out, screams coming from the front of the bus. Ruth looked back out the window only to see two of their men were down, the guards grabbing their weapons while the men on the ground writhed. One guard placed his foot on one man’s chest—it looked like it was Bill Parker—then pop. Another shot went off, this time the gun pointed at his head. His body stopped twitching. The mood on the bus took a sharp turn, the adults pulling the children from the sides of the bus and doing their best to shield them from the horror—at least this latest horror.
Ruth was in a trance, unable to look away from Bill Parker, laying there in an expanding pool of his own blood. He was a fine young man; his wife was in the front of the bus with their son, trying to cover his face while her own was blank and expressionless. More screams emerged, then a rattling before the familiar hisses and groans of the undead hit her like a tidal wave. The panic on the bus turned into terror when the two tower guards retreated behind the thick metal doors they have come from, leaving a swath of the undead rushing towards the men and women surrounding the bus. She saw Bert fighting one off, smashing in its face with the butt end of the rifle while another gripped onto his arm, like it was pulling him down into the abyss. He fought on, but soon there were three, then four on top of him, overwhelmed.
A few of the men on the bus braced themselves against the door by the front, doing their damnedest to keep those doors shut. The battered old bus couldn’t take much in the way of punishment, nevermind a horde of the undead scraping, clawing and smashing at it. What remained of the door was folding in, two of the men with their backs pressed against the fold, doing their best to keep it from bursting open. The roar of an engine from the south made her eyes scan the horizon, turning to get a glimpse, only to see a glint of light in the distance. A lone rider rushed in towards the scene, shots firing at the undead.
It couldn’t be him, could it?
“Tom,” she murmured under her breath.
The screams from both inside and outside of the bus were blood curdling, soon joined in the chorus by the blast of a shotgun and the roar of the bike’s engine. Dr. Faraday tried to follow along through the bus windows, but everything was moving so quickly. She was the bike stop short, the back wheel jumping out and a spike from the rear axle impaling one of the undead while the man all-clad in black leather dual-wielded two handguns, unloading careful shots into the heads of the undead who had turned their attention towards him.
A cry rang out from the front of the bus, followed by a clamoring and a crack, signaling that the door had given way despite their best efforts. Now they were fighting for their lives while the undead rushed over them. The children were crying, screaming, everyone was squishing towards the back. Dr. Faraday reached for Rachel, “we have to get out of here!”
“Where?” she shouted over the ruckus.
“The back, come on.” Dr. Faraday pulled at the handle to the back door, freeing it with a mighty tug that made her knuckles burn. The door flew open while the mass of humanity from the bus was pressing up against her, all of them trying to escape the undead. Screams had turned into death throes as the undead were piling in. Blood was spraying against the windows, and chaos had taken control. She grabbed at Rachel’s eldest, Elsie, snatching her up in her arms before the force against her back was too much, flinging her from the bus, with Elsie in her arms, Rachel and Betty tumbling out after.
A sharp pain shot through her right arm where Elsie was, Dr. Faraday trying to claw herself out from under Rachel and the few others that had fallen from the bus, only to see her wrist twisted back at a terrible angle. The bone wasn’t exposed, but that was a compound fracture. She had to forget it, had to look for the girls. Clouds of sand kicked up, screams, shouts and roars filled the air, making it warmer than imaginable while the whizzing sound of bullets cut through it all.
“Elsie!” she called. “Where are you?”
“I’m here, Auntie Ruth,” the girl called out, gripping onto Dr. Faraday’s shirt.
“Hold on, sweetie, we need to find your mom and your sister and get away from here.”
The dust was obscuring her vision, but it wasn’t difficult to see the bus shaking and the blood dripping out of the back door like someone had left a faucet running. Doing her best to cradle her arm and hold Elsie close, she reached around, “Rachel! Betty! Where are you?”
Before she could react, there was a great weight on her shoulders, pinning her down and making the world turn dark. Elsie was screaming, but she couldn’t budge with the weight of the thrashing body on top of her. The sounds were gruesome, crunching bones, tearing flesh and the quick shuffling of feet kicking up all around her. There was a man on top of her being torn apart, but with one arm she couldn’t do a damned thing, nor could she breathe. The pressure was overwhelming. A loud blast rang out and the screech of what sounded like a wounded animal pierced through her already ringing ears, then another blast and the body on top of her grew lighter.
The world returned in an instant. Every dusty breath of air that she could gasp in felt fresher than any air that she had ever breathed before, the light from the sun as blinding as it was refreshing. The sounds had died down a bit before the sound of a few more blasts shot out over her head. A few more screeches filled the air and a thud before it the calm hit. A black form stood above her, a hand reaching down and grasping at her bad arm while she recoiled.
“Ah!” she cried out. “It’s broken! Be careful.”
“Told ya this was stupid,” the man muttered, her vision focusing to see the man that they knew as the rider helping her up.
“Tom,” she whispered, “Tom, where’s Elsie?”
“I’m here, Auntie Ruth.”
“Oh Elsie, where’s your mother and your sister?”
“I wouldn’t look,” he said.
“Oh… Oh my god,” she sat up, looking out over what looked like nothing more than a killing field. There she sat, the lone survivor with little Elsie by her side, ensconced in Tom’s arms amid the decimated caravan and the twice-dead, riddled with bullets. “They’re all…”
The doors to the Tower burst open, a line of guards filing out with assault rifles in hand and adorned with heavy armor, making them look like futuristic marines that would fight off an invading alien force. They stood at the ready, guns trained on Dr. Faraday, Elsie and Tom, who was down on one knee, Dr. Faraday resting against his knee while his right hand kept a gun pointed at the guards.
“Bra-vo,” a voice came from behind the line of guards. The sound of gloved hands clapping gave way to a man emerging from the shadows. This man stood about average height, with an average build, but was wearing a crisp pinstriped suit with a yellow tie and pocket square to accent his immaculate, unmoving blonde hair. Over all of this, he wore a gilded cape that made him look like some sort of supervillain. “Mr. Gabriel, I presume? I’m quite impressed with this performance. Yes, impressed indeed.”
“They’re all… dead.” Grief overcame the good doctor, the man’s even demeanor somehow making the whole thing feel more shocking. “Why?”
“Oh come now,” he continued to move forward, ignoring the gun that Tom had pointed at him. “Simple precautions against groups of armed people who come to my home and demand entry.”
“These were the sick, the elderly, women and goddamned children!”
“Oh, I’m sure, but really,” he turned towards Tom, “this is the star of the show, is it not? Mr. T.K. Gabriel himself, in the flesh, and my what a performance that was. Look, you even saved the old lady and the little girl. What a hero.”
“But… Why?” She held Elsie tight with her one good arm, doing her best to ignore her broken right one. Elsie shivered and stared off at the remains of her mother and sister, a dead look in her eyes. “This poor girl is in shock. You killed her family!”
“Oh hush,” Branch chided, pulling his handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbing his forehead with it. “What a lovely day it is out here in the wasteland, these people here attempting to sully this fine day. Mr. Gabriel, I assure you, no one is here to harm you, you can put the gun away.”
“Nope,” he replied.
“You consider me a monster, don’t you? For allowing this all to happen. Somehow, this beautiful chaos, this tremendous disorder and blood staining the hallowed ground of Las Vegas Boulevard South disgusts you. Yet, this all had to happen.”
“Just like your virus and the bombs?” Dr. Faraday couldn’t hold it back any longer. If he would kill her, he would kill her, she decided.
“Those were…” he dabbed at his forehead again and groaned, visibly agitated. “Those were government-sanctioned experiments. I have a Nobel Peace Prize. You know that, woman, don’t you? I’m a goddamned hero! Just because one little thing…”
Branch caught his breath.
“I don’t have to explain myself to the likes of you. We’re working on a cure here, didn’t you hear? This is my paradise in what is left of this world; the last refuge in the wastes and you are here, judging me on my doorstep? Tsk.”
“How much blood is on your hands?”
“I don’t expect you to understand, but this man,” he slapped Tom on the shoulder. “This man here, he understands, I bet you. Oh, I’m sure that he’s lost plenty, just like the rest of us, but look at him, the dashing hero all clad in leather like the hero from one of his films. And it wasn’t just for show, was it? Look at this chaos! My gods, this man is for real. Tom Cruise had nothing on you, you know that?”
Tom grunted, holstering his gun, but keeping his hand on it.
“There, see, was that so hard?”
Tom nodded at the line of guards, Branch laughing.
“Of course, of course,” he turned towards the guards, “gentlemen, please, take Mr. Gabriel’s personal effects into safekeeping and start cleaning up this mess. No need to keep those guns pointed at these fine folks.”
“Not uh,” Tom sprang up, Dr. Faraday almost falling over while he bound for his bike, pushing one of the heavily armored guards off of it, sending him crashing to the ground. He writhed like a turtle on his back inside of that heavy suit of armor, unable to pull himself up.
“Oh come now, Mr. Gabriel, no harm will come to your personal items here.” Branch glanced at the bike and the large blue tarp wrapped with electrical tape and bungee cables. “Whatever is there.”
Tom had rolled into their camp a few months prior, back when they still had a camp out by Death Valley Junction. He was worn to the nub, beaten up, had bruised ribs and his left knee had a knife gash in it, but he said little. She had been the one to patch him up, which gave her time to get to know him, unlike the rest of the camp. Everyone had referred to him as the rider, him refusing to give a name or mutter more than a few quiet words here and there to anyone. But Dr. Faraday could get a bit more out of him. The only subject that was off limits was the package on the back of his bike. No one could touch it or even know what was in there.
“We have a room prepared for you, actually. You could be a vital part of our new society here.”
“And them?” He nodded at Dr. Faraday and Elsie.
“Oh, them,” he tapped his chin. “I suppose if they need lodging I can find a place for them.”
“She’s a doctor,” Tom said, “and a damned good one at that.”
“Pediatrician,” she corrected, “but yes, I’ve been tending to the sick and wounded.”
“Ah, well, doctor…?” He looked down at her, offering his gloved hand.
“Faraday.” She held out her left hand, keeping her right arm tucked in close. An odd energy enveloped him in full dictator gear with his fake smile. “Dr. Ruth Faraday.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure,” he looked back at Tom, inspecting him like a child would inspect a new toy. “My gods, are you a specimen? Come, come, get in out of this sun. Never much cared for Vegas, myself, but you’ll take what you can, the apocalypse and all.”
He moved towards the door, urging them to follow. Tom reached down and helped Dr. Faraday to her feet, Elsie picking herself up and the doctor gripping her hand tightly with her left hand. The girl was looking back at her mother and sister, unmoving in a grisly scene. Dr. Faraday paused and looked down at her, “C’mon, hun, I know, but we’re going inside now. It’s safe there. Just trust me.”
“Me too, darling, but we’ll look out for each other, okay? Plus, Tom here won’t let anything happen to us.”
“Ah yes,” Branch paused at the door, “while that display was quite graceful, you’ll need to disarm, Mr. Gabriel.”
Tom grunted, shaking his head.
“I insist. This is my society, and my rules, mind you. Don’t worry, you’ll get them back, just like everything else.”
“Oh, you will,” the automatic doors parted before them, a rush of cold air greeting them along with soft music being piped in throughout the immaculate lobby. What once was a casino and hotel now served as Branch’s personal home, so the lobby went from the home of slot machines to a reception area with a bold, steel desk with the name “BRANCH” emboldened onto the front, greeting them coldly. Inside, a large tree reached up into the ceiling, surrounded by a stream with a wooden bridge over it. Somehow, the garishness of the lobby as opposed to the desolate wasteland littered with bodies was revolting.
“Here,” Branch stopped at the desk, grabbing an apple from a bowl and tossing it to Tom. Tom snatched it out of the sky and inspected it for a long moment. “Yes, it’s fresh,” Branch boasted. “We grow our own food here. Anything that you could wish for is here. There’s even a pasture on one of the upper floors where we raise cattle. I don’t much care for that floor, but it does the job, I suppose.”
Tom took a bite of the apple, the juices running down his mouth before he looked down at the girl and handed it to her, tousling her hair. “Here.”
“Thanks.” The girl accepted it and stared at it as if it were alien, giving it a careful inspection and looking up at Dr. Faraday for approval.
“You should try it.” She was weary. All of this, inside of this building, from that man. That man who had just ordered a public execution of all of those people outside.
“Amazing, isn’t it? You are just in the lobby, my friends. There is so much more to see, so much that I’m just salivating, thinking about showing it all to you, to sharing my world, my vision with you.”
“Those people didn’t fit into it, I gather.”
“Oh, Mr. Gabriel, you have much to learn. Much, much to learn. I suppose you are tired. Roxanne here will check you into your rooms.”