"Why do we have to go to this?" Elsie asked, wearing a perfectly sized black dress with her black heels. Dr. Faraday had helped to brush her hair back and did her best to make them both look presentable. She appreciated that there were sweaters for both of them, as she didn't feel comfortable in the black-satin dress that they had picked out for her.
"We just do, Elsie," she said, feeling unsure herself. The invitation itself would have felt benign if Branch's men hadn't slaughtered their entire caravan without remorse. Upsetting Branch seemed like a bad idea, considering their lives were in his hands right now, which was an even more terrifying thought than surviving out in the wasteland like they had. "Just stick by me and everything will be fine."
"I know, sweetie, I know."
A knock came at the door. Elsie jumped, and Dr. Faraday took a deep breath. This would be Clyde again, she presumed, straightening out her sweater. She unbolted the door and swung it open, only to find Tom standing there, in a new set of leather clothing that looked every bit as new as the clothing that was left for Elsie and herself. "Oh, Tom," she said. "I didn't expect you."
"We're going to this thing," he said, "but stay close."
"Okay," she replied, noting his tone was somber and guarded. "Elsie, we should get going here."
The girl gathered herself up, and like a magnet, attached herself to Dr. Faraday's hip. Elsie was still shaken and in a daze, making her pull the poor girl in closer while they walked down the hallway behind Tom. He was never a man of many words, and when he spoke, he whispered. But no matter what, she trusted him. Knowing that he was going to whatever this arena was with them at least gave her some comfort. If it wasn't for him out in front of the building, neither one of them would be alive. Then again, after all that they went through, with all that they lost, was alive the correct terminology anymore? There was no way to be sure.
The great hallways of Branch Tower were lavish to the point of being gaudy. Branch's taste was not for everyone, with the primary tenants of his palate being black, gold, yellow and the occasional dash of red. That meant that the hallways were darker than they needed to be, but gilded wherever gold could be applied. There was no denying that the red carpets were beautiful, but the deep maroon color reminded her of blood and her thoughts immediately went to the steady stream of blood that had dripped out of the bus while she lay there in the sand cradling Elsie while death surrounded them.
A shiver ran through her entire body, Elsie feeling it and looking up at her, only for Dr. Faraday to squeeze her even tighter. They made their way to an elevator where Tom pressed the button and waited with his back against the wall and eyes studying both sides of the hallway. There were a few people lingering about the hall, all of them dressed up in exquisitely made clothing, like they were heading out for a night at the opera. Drinking had already begun, with champagne flutes and wine glasses in-hand, the laughter and chatter serving as the backdrop.
"This all feels..." she started.
"Wrong," Tom finished the sentence for her.
"Yeah, wrong. After what we just saw, after what we've gone through? It's like none of that touches these people. The world never ended, their lives just carried forth into a new setting."
He merely grunted and nodded before the chime of the elevator rang. The golden doors parted and in there stood Clyde, still without an expression and standing as rigid as ever. "Ah yes, I was just coming to retrieve you all. Please, let me guide you the rest of the way."
The butler narrated their journey through Branch Tower, describing the renovations that the building underwent after the fall, the floors that had morphed into supply operations, how the water was processed, and every other minor detail that was of no genuine interest to them. Tom seemed distracted and uneasy, but Dr. Faraday did her best to seem interested while keeping Elsie engaged and not letting her mind wander to her dead family. The girl simply kept quiet, and her face had a constant look of blank horror on it.
Clyde made note of it a few times.
The arena was detached from the main building, with access to it being from the parking structure that was built underneath the resort. Surprisingly enough, there were cars still there, most of them looking to still be in good condition. Clyde led them through the base floor of the parking structure, through the sea of people who were in line to enter the arena and off to the side, through a special, black-and-gold door that had the Branch seal on it. Through there was a red-carpet-lined hallway that led to an elevator.
When they emerged from the darkness of the hallway and the elevator, the only way to describe the wave that hit them was overwhelming. The elevator spat them out into a narrow hallway that led to a set of steps and into a box that hung over the entire arena. Inside that arena was a sports stadium chock-full of humanity, containing more people than she had imagined even survived the apocalypse. Yet there they were, an immense mass of humanity, their murmurs almost deafening after the years of relative silence.
"My god," she said under her breath.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Branch was leaning on the edge of the box, waving a gloved hand towards the crowd, not bothering to look back. Of course, he knew who was approaching. This was his world. "Behold my creation, my world, risen from the ashes of a sad, little world full of sad little people."
They all stayed silent while he marveled at the world that was built in his image. Dr. Faraday did her best to hide her disbelief and disgust. Billions were dead, all because he couldn't let his ego be bruised by a failure to create some superhuman serum and pushed beyond the point of good taste.
"Ah, Dr. Faraday," he outstretched his hand towards her. "How good of you to accept my humble invitation, and you've brought... that girl with you as well."
"This is Elsie," she gave the girl a squeeze, "say hi, Elsie."
"No." Elsie turned and buried her head into Dr. Faraday's sweater.
"I'm sorry, she's just shy is all, this is all rather overwhelming."
"I understand, I understand. It's all quite impressive. Even I'm impressed by what I've been able to build in just a few short years."
"A regular Caesar," Tom muttered.
"Oh Mr. Gabriel, I know you are still leery of this, but you, my friend, are the guest of honor here and my, do you look splendid. In fact, I hand-selected your clothing, ripped from the cinema, you might say."
"So, Mr. Branch," Dr. Faraday interrupted, sensing Tom's growing agitation and afraid of what might happen. There were two armed guards in the box along with them; a blonde man covered in scars and another, taller blonde man who was pacing back and forth. "What exactly... is this?"
"The arena," he smiled gently. "We had it built on right after, well, you know. More and more people were coming to Branch Tower, what with it becoming a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak world. The best and the brightest were what we needed, but sadly, not everyone could live up to that potential. So, judge me not, we devised the arena. While I would love to take in everyone with open arms, there is not enough room for every wanderer or vagabond, especially with so many out there being so violent."
"So you take people in and have them fight to the death?"
"You make it sound so crass and simple, but essentially, yes. Oh, don't make that face, Mr. Gabriel," he looked over at Tom, who was shaking his head. "I'm working on a plan to build additional housing out there for these strays, but until then, we don't have the resources for them all. No offense, Dr. Faraday."
"You are forcing people—people that are alive—survivors, to kill or be killed? I'm not trying to be ungracious here, but haven't enough people died, Mr. Branch?"
"I completely agree, but they come here. What am I to do? Turn them away? We give everyone a choice. Only the strongest remain. In fact, tonight I want you to see our champion. He's a bit of a brute, but I believe that you'll like him, all of you, but Mr. Gabriel in particular. There were no favorites here; he was given the same opportunity that I gave everyone else that wandered in from the wasteland, and my god did he take advantage of it. He's a shining example of how this system works. You look skeptical, but you'll see."
"Ladies and gentlemen," an announcer boomed overhead. "Please welcome the Wizard of the Wastes, the Savior of the Damned, the Ayatollah of Rock 'n Rolla himself, Mr. Jordan Branch!"
"Ahh yes, we are starting," Branch smiled, pumping both fists in the air, the crowd erupting with applause and cheers. There was no way to decide how many people were there, but it sounded like there was an enormous mass of humanity in attendance, cheering on Branch. Branch looked back at them, motioning towards Tom. "C'mon." Tom took a deep breath and walked towards the edge of the box overlooking the crowd. The whole thing was garish and unthinkable. More people than she had imagined even survived the apocalypse were out there and they were cheering for the blood of other survivors to be spilled on that sand pit floor.
"Thank you, thank you," Branch stood before a varnished maple podium with a microphone, motioning with his hands for everyone to quiet down. "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen of my new world, to the arena!" Another cheer broke loose, only for Branch to settle them down again. "Tonight you will be in for some of the greatest action that the world has ever seen. Acts of bravery, heroism, depravity and old-fashioned violence. Tonight, though, tonight is a special night. You see, standing here with me is a very special guest. Standing here with me is hope. Standing here with me is a survivor, the strongest of the strong. Not only that, but standing here is someone that you might remember. Ladies and gentlemen, Jordan Branch is very proud to present none other than Mr. TK Gabriel!"
The crowd erupted, the rumbling of the arena coursing through his veins, his chest pounding from the roar. Tom outstretched his hand, an image of him mirroring him from the other side of the arena, Dr. Faraday seeing herself standing there behind both men, Elsie tucked under her arms and once again could not correlate the connection between her and the image of her the survivor. Branch was beaming, applauding, while he motioned for Tom to take the podium. "Make it brief," he yelled into TK's ear as he approached the microphone. Tom was hesitant at first, glaring sideways at the podium and the microphone before taking a deep breath. In her brief time knowing him he was never one for words, outside of that one night when he told her the story of his him and his wife's escape from their home, the night that she died and he claimed that he also died, reborn as a shell of a man.
"So," he leaned against the podium. "I... I don't know. It really is hell out there..." he said, reflecting on life out in the wasteland, the cheers and applause awkwardly tapering off. Branch tapped him on the shoulder, a sign of impatience. Dr. Faraday was cringing. Tom had mentioned Branch to her briefly, none of it that he mentioned seemed complimentary. In fact, she was shocked that he had even been heading there. He wasn't heading to the Tower for refuge, but something else burned in his eyes. "I can't do this."
Branch's expression was hard to crack; part amused, part angry, and part suspicious of the man. "Thank you very much, Mr. Gabriel. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. TK Gabriel! Now, on with the violence!" That was all that it took to get the crowd riled up again.
Humanity under the rule of Jordan Branch had been transported back in time to an amalgamation of the Roman empire and the worst nightmare of the apocalypse coming to life, such as watching the living batter the living over a space in the tower in their new high society. The not-so-dearly departed were trotted out as a sideshow attraction, subhuman fodder for a violent spectacle. She wondered how many of these people watching had actually been forcedw to survive out in the unforgiving wasteland for long, or if these were only the privileged who hadn't been subjected to all the horrors. Maybe she was just jaded, and humanity had simply defaulted to this level of madness when trying to comprehend their devolving existence. When there weren't smartphone screens to get lost in daily and social networks to share every bit of minutiae, humanity simply craved entertainment in a social setting.
They called two survivors out to the arena, both decked out in what looked like crude leather armor, each with their equally haphazard weapons of choice. A tall, lean-looking man stood barefoot with a two-by-four wrapped in barbed wire while a smaller, more muscular man had a baseball bat with a few railroad spikes driven through it, fashioned it into a cudgel. Branch hungrily licked at his lips while he turned to Tom, looking like a kid on Christmas morning, unable to contain himself. "Oh, this should be a good one," he said.
Tom stood transfixed, unmoving outside of a balled up fist.
"Look at this, there is going to be blood for sure, not like that last one."
"Is there ever mercy in the arena?" Dr. Faraday asked, watching as both men circled around each other, taking tentative swings that missed by at least a few feet.
"Mercy? Why, at times, if both men put up a fight, I suppose."
"Why are they fighting? Are they criminals or something? Did they break the rules?"
"Their crime, good doctor, was surviving."
That stung her harder than he imagined it would. Both men had survived out in the violent wasteland, a place that Branch knew nothing about, and this is how they were greeted when they reached their desert oasis; death. They continued to circle around each other, their tentative blows growing no closer to the mark while the crowd was growing increasingly hostile.
"This is no good," Branch slapped his hand down on his makeshift throne and sprang to his feet. "I'm sorry that you have to see such a poor showing."
"I'd rather..." She was doing her best to shield Elsie from the impending violence and felt relieved that no one was being slaughtered.
"Nonsense, and please uncover her eyes. She needs to understand that the world—my world—can be a brutal place," Branch turned to his podium, clearing his throat. "If you don't wish to fight in the arena, we'll make you fight. You all know what that means!"
A dull chant broke out, it growing louder and louder while Branch cackled. "Crusher! Crusher! Crusher!" the crowd chanted.
"Bring out the Crusher!"
The large metal gate affixed crudely to the arena wall creaked open, the sound of metal on metal filling up the arena in a cacophony with the chants and screams. A figure emerged from the shadows, hulking, disfigured and barely recognizable as a man, but it was a man. Branch was wearing a sick, proud smile while the crowd went crazy. The two men in the arena standing, mouths agape while the beast plodded out into the arena, letting out a mighty roar that sent shivers down her spine.
"What in the...?"
"That, my friends," Branch settled back down into his chair, rubbing his hands together. "Is my latest creation. That is the Crusher."
Another mighty roar shook the arena, both men at a loss for what to do with themselves. The lanky one with the 2-by-4 charged, swinging wildly at the Crusher like his life depended on him and his lucky shot. The crude weapon made contact with the Crusher's left arm, the barbs burying themselves into his flesh, a gasp washing over the crowd. A roar emenated from deep within the beast while the crowd "Ooh'd" over the contact. He did his best to break the weapon free, but the Crusher simply swatted him down with his massive left hand that looked to be about the size of the man's torso. The lanky man lay motionless on the ground while Crusher began charging at the other one.
The man, far from nimble on his feet, stumbled back, tripping and falling onto his ass with the cudgel still in his grip. Crusher closed the distance with a few mighty strides, descending upon the man like a hungry wolf on its prey. Overcome with desperation, the man swung the cudgel, but the mighty beast grabbed it with his hand like a child's toy, yanking it up into the air and bringing the man with it. The muscular man let out a cry before Crusher slammed him to the ground, grabbing him by the neck and draping his body over his shoulders. Crusher chants overtook the crowd, who let out another mighty roar before driving him down headfirst into the ground. The lanky combatant was up and had jumped onto the Crusher's back, Crusher reaching behind him and grabbing a hold of him by the head, holding his body up high while he tried to struggle free before bringing the screaming man's head into his giant maw and crunching down, the body twitching a few times before going limp in his giant hand.
Dr. Faraday let out a groan and pulled Elsie in tighter, diverting her eyes away from the horrific scene, but the sounds were inescapable and bone-chilling.. The amplified sound of that beast feasting on their freshly dead bodies filled the air, accentuated by the foul stench of death. The scene was one that she'd never be able to shake, even after all that she had been through. Branch had somehow made a monster worse than any of the rest of his creations throughout his sordid history, and this one was seemingly for his own perverted sense of entertainment. She snuck a peek back down at the arena only to see what remained of their mangled corpses; the Crusher covered in blood and guts while the crowd chanted his name. Tom wore a morose expression, fist still tightly clenched.
"Quite the scene, isn't it?" Branch commented. "Come now, you've surely seen worse out in the wasteland, haven't you?"
"I've seen some horrible things," TK said, "but nothing this wrong."
"There is a new world now, Mr. Gabriel," Branch said snidely. "We have to adjust to it eventually, all of us. There is no more Hollywood to entertain the masses, the arena is all that we have."
"I'm not so sure that our primary concern should be entertainment right now," Dr. Faraday said. "Survival seems to be the key."
"You try running a new society with no form of entertainment. Rape, murder, looting. It all happened because they were bored. Now they have something to look forward to."
"Now you just entertain them with it, instead of worrying about it happening to them?"
"So be it. It isn't like either of those men were of any value to our new society."
"What about that monster of yours?"
"Demoreo was in terrible shape. You see, there was no way that he'd survive without injecting him with the virus. Did I take some liberties with which strain that I injected him with? Of course I did, but he's not dead. Oh no, he's quite alive."
"He's a monster."
"There were some unintentional side effects, I'll give you that, but he has found new life in the arena."
"Feasting on the flesh of other men for this crowd's approval?"
"We all play our part, Dr. Faraday," she noted that his tone was growing weary. "I'm sorry that you don't seem to approve of my society here, but I thought that Crusher here would excite you."
"Why yes, aren't you curious why I invited you up here? Mr. Gabriel, well, he makes sense, but you? A lowly pediatrician, correct? We don't exactly have access to an array of medical professionals here, and I would love your assistance."
"My assistance? Why?"
"We've had a few, well, unfortunate accidents with a few of our medical staff and haven't had the chance to replace them. So?"
She paused, surveying the gore and the fervor of the crowd, disgusted and fighting her instincts to take Elsie and to run as far as she could from there. "Sorry, it's just a lot to take in is all."
"Don't think too long," he said, "need I remind you that everyone at Branch Tower has a role. Those who can't fulfill their roles are of no use to us... Outside of entertainment."
"Oh," her skin crawled. She couldn't take any chances as to what he was alluding to. It was all very clear. "I have no problems earning my keep, Mr. Branch."
"Splendid. Now, as for my friend TK. Tonight was for you, you know that, right? You are the guest of honor. You should say something to them. What will they think if you don't approve?"
"I don't know," Tom picked himself up and headed towards the stairs. "I don't care, either. C'mon, Doc, let's get out of here."
"Oh come now," she felt Branch's hand reach out and grasp onto her arm. "The main event hasn't even started yet. Look, they are just assembling the ring right now."
"Ring?" Tom turned back, looking down on the crew, erecting what looked like a professional boxing or wrestling ring in the center of the arena.
"Ah yes, you see, our champion has a flair for the dramatic," Branch explained. "A man after my own heart, you could say. He puts on a show for the people."
"Tom," she looked up at him. "Surely we can stay for one more?" Her eyes were pleading with him. She thought she had known fear out in the wasteland, but there was still a sense of sanity, of purpose. This was insane on every level. Upsetting this madman was not a good idea.
"You see, the lady approves."
"Oh," Tom said, quieting down again while the crew finished assembling the ring. Music piped through the loudspeakers and the crowd began to clap, rumble, and stomp their feet. Puffs of smoke arose from the door directly across from their luxury box, the cheers growing louder and louder before a man emerged, not much to look at, just a bit of a bigger guy, almost chubby, wearing a pair of jeans, a soccer jersey that she couldn't discern the team on and a scruffy beard with equally scruffy long hair. On his left hand he wore a red glove, his right had what looked like a mechanical gauntlet, parts of it running into the sleeve of his shirt.
The champion was carrying a large, golden belt over his shoulder, hefting it up high over his head with his left hand, much to the delight of the crowd. She glanced over at Branch, who wore a smirk and applauded while the man entered the newly constructed ring in the middle of the arena. After what they had all just witnessed, this almost felt surreal. The whole thing was ludicrous. He might as well of been zapped directly from the 1980s with the professional wrestling pageantry. None of it made any sense knowing all the death and destruction that existed beyond those walls. Everyone was doing their best to forget that the real world was still out there and that it lay in ruins while they celebrated the continuation of the cycle of destruction.
"That's my brother." The taller guard nudged Dr. Faraday. "He gonna tear that bugger apart, just you watch."
"Oh," she said, "you must be very proud."
"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Champion of the arena, The Fist of the Northern Isles, William Farrington!" The announcer beamed over the loudspeakers, barely cutting through the crowd noise. One thing was for certain, they truly did love this guy, whoever he was. He pumped the gauntleted fist into the air and they all roared louder, a wave of stomps reverberating throughout. "Brrrrrring out the dead!"
A few of the undead bastardizations of Branch's creation stumbled out from the main tunnel, shuffling and moving towards the ring while Farrington laid his championship belt in the corner. There was time, and he wasn't lacking in confidence, so he continued to warm up, stretching his arm out while they lumbered towards his ring. They began clawing their way into the ring, without order, just looking to attack him. He was more than ready. Stomping on the neck of the first one and stopping it cold in its tracks, the body slunk down over the side of the ring into a heap, sending another one stumbling back. One had finally clawed its way past the ring ropes that seemed to be difficult for these shambling miscreants to understand, only for Farrington to wave his hand towards the crowd who rallied behind him more.
He threw a few punches with his left hand, staggering it back into the corner before pumping his fist into the air, the crowd almost on cue shouting, "Take his bloody head off!" along with him. The monster slipped towards him, Farrington holding his right fist towards his side before it came into range, him unleashing a right hook unlike she could ever have imagined. His fist came over in an arc, the gauntlet glowing yellow while it came into contact with the monster, his head instantly bursting like a melon, sending blood and brains all over the gray and already-stained ring. The crowd ate it up, waiting for another to make its way into the ring. Two were in there and Farrington had to think fast, ducking under one while quickly unleashing another right hand on this one's head, it bursting like an over ripened tomato upon impact. He spun on his heel, his fist whistling through the air and landing with a splat, sending a third headless body to the canvas.
"Fucking hell," Tom muttered.
"Quite a scene, isn't it?"
"Does he ever fight, you know, something that can hit him back?"
"Of course, of course," Branch said. "That was just the warmup."
Farrington lifted the belt high above his head, climbing up the ropes and soaking in the adulation from the crowd. They were loving every second of it. Next, emerging from the same doorway that he came through, a lightly armored man was shoved through, stumbling over his own two feet and barely staying up. In his hand was a wrench and by the looks of it, he was scared out of his mind. Farrington goaded him to get into the ring with him, but it looked like this shaking mess of a man had no other choice. Farrington laid the title belt out on the mat in between them while a few of Branch's armed guards pulled the unmoving, decapitated bodies out to clear the area.
The nervous man with the wrench rolled into the ring, picking himself up and staring down Farrington, who remained calm as ever. Farrington was weaponless in comparison, but that gauntlet on his hand was most likely all the weapons that he'd ever need. That wrench in that man's hands was most likely not going to help much. Farrington continued to goad the man to attack, the man finally jumping forward, slashing wildly with the oversized spanner while Farrington deftly ducked out of the way. He swung again, this time towards Farrington's face, Farrington parrying it expertly with the gauntleted right fist, the sound of metal-on-metal clanging loudly, the wrench flying from the man's hand. A knee to the stomach connected, and the man doubled over, Farrington bringing his left elbow down onto the spine of the man who crumpled to the mat in a heap, face down in the gore still in the ring.
"C'mon," Tom muttered. "This is an execution."
"Such are the rules of the arena, my friend. Farrington had this same opportunity."
She grit her teeth while Farrington signaled he was going to slam the man down. He reached down, securing both of his hands around the man's waist, tucking his head between his legs before hefting him up onto his shoulders and sending him crashing down to the mat right on his already injured spine. The man cried out in pain, writhing on the mat, crying for mercy. The microphones surrounding the ring picked up his cries, and they sent a shiver down TK's spine. "For heaven's sake," she said. "He's crying for mercy."
"This is the arena, Dr. Faraday. The rules are the rules. This man has no hope outside of the arena. All that is left for him now is to die."
"Haven't enough people died for no reason?"
"If you want, I can stop this," he said. "But, be warned, Mr. Farrington will not take this offense lightly."
"Stop this," Tom interjected. "Now."
"Fine," he sighed, walking over to the podium. Farrington was standing over the man, fist pumped into the air. "Will, Will," he called over the loudspeaker. "Mr. Farrington."
Farrington froze, looking up towards the box that they were in high above the rest, although still unable to escape the stench and the madness.
"What?" He called it, echoing over the now-hushed arena.
"It appears that Mr. Gabriel and his friends here find this to be a bit... barbaric."
The crowd started booing, one guard bringing a microphone over to Farrington, who snatched it away from him and stomped around the ring. "You telling me some sissy-mouthed Hollywood type ain't okay with this? He ain't okay with me making my living, for making these people happy?"
"He seems upset by it," Branch replied, turning towards Tom.
"This is my ring," Farrington spat. "This is my arena, and these are your rules. If he has a problem with them, he can come down here like a man." Farrington tossed his belt down in the center of the ring, dragging it out like it was on display. The fans all cheering for him while she found herself frozen in disbelief. They had all truly lost their minds. Farrington picked up the man by the nape of his neck, holding him in position while he could barely even keep himself standing, never mind fight back. Farrington reared back his fist, looking right up at Tom, who stood leaning up against the front of the private box staring down at him, shaking his head, mouthing "don't do this" under his breath while Farrington's fist arced over, lighting up and contacting the man's skull, his cries quickly disappearing while his head burst into pieces, the body falling limp onto the already stained canvas and the crowd going wild.
Branch turned to Tom and smiled, shaking his head. They had all lost their goddamned minds.
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- Mr. Liar
Bio: I used to write about professional kickboxing. Trust me, I was good. Now I write science fiction.