After the wounds that she had treated of men and women who had fought in the arena, Will's injuries seemed superfluous and silly. His reaction only made it even more surreal, acting like the world was ending at a couple of busted up ribs, abrasions and such. Yet, the attention that he received was second to none, even though his life was never in peril. She had seen three boys no older than 20 die from wounds that she could've treated with all of this equipment, instead of locking it away exclusively for his favorites. That was the harsh reality of the world that Branch had created, the world that she inhabited and the world that she had to coexist with, if not for her own survival, for Elsie's.
For that, she bit her tongue.
Exhausted, she returned to her room to find Elsie with a coloring book, knowing that Stuart had most likely brought it to her. She didn't even bother asking her. There was still blood staining her hands and clothing, but Elsie had learned to deal with it without blinking an eye. Somehow, the girl had adjusted to her life inside of the tower and the sight of blood.
"Auntie Ruth, look," she held up her coloring book, showing a horse in a field, the grass neatly colored a deep green, the sky a light blue while the horse remained the off-white of the page.
"That's fantastic, sweetie. Have you eaten today?"
"Stuart brought me a grilled cheese with some chocolate milk! It was yummy,” Elsie said.
"I suppose I'll go find some food for myself. Do you want a pudding or anything?"
"Ooh, pudding! Yes!"
"What do you say?"
"Pudding, please," Elsie beamed.
"That a girl."
Normally she would have gotten some different clothes, but she didn't bother. The exhaustion was creeping in, like a spring storm looming on the horizon, as was the fact that nothing that she did seemed to matter anymore. Will Farrington got the best care available, while the poor that fought for their lives—not for their own egos—were the ones that lived and died like slaves. Her job was to patch them up and get them back into the fight, but it felt more and more like she was just putting bandaids on mortal wounds in an attempt to make it look like someone cared.
Every floor had its own designated cafeteria of sorts, where the residents would go for their daily rations. Back before the fall, they had been eateries of varying quality, each a distinct part of the opulence of Las Vegas casino resorts on the strip. Branch's casino was special, featuring cuisine from all around the world, with each floor its own dizzying adventure into culinary expressions for the discerning tastebuds. Their floor featured what was formerly a Moroccan restaurant and still showed signs of its former life in its arches and tapestries that lined the walls. Other than that, it was a collection of tables, a few coolers, and a shelf where prepared food was laid out.
Tensions were usually high among the inhabitants of the tower, at least on her floor, and rarely would anyone even bother to look the other way when she entered. This was supposed to be Branch's new world—his new society—yet these people were all scared out of their minds and kept to themselves. Sure, in the arena, his new elites were boisterous, excited and put on a big show, but the mood otherwise was that of solemn fear. She grabbed an apple from the counter and a cup of chocolate pudding along with a plastic spoon before letting out an exasperated sigh and headed for the door when she felt someone grab her arm.
"I told ya to lie low," Stuart whispered.
"I'm getting Elsie a pudding, Stuart, that's all."
"No, I mean Branch saw ya when they hauled Gabriel back in."
"Aye, that," he said, pulling her over into a booth in the corner. "I calmed him down, distracted him, but shit’s bad."
"Worse than before? It seemed pretty bad before."
"It's always bad, but his mood's all over the fuckin' place. Yer friend, I dunno what happens to him but it ain't gonna be pretty."
"He made his own decisions. He'll be fine. He's survived a lot."
"That's the kicker, innit? We all survived, but we're all fucked."
"I guess so. Is he okay?"
"Can I help him in any way?"
"Can't you at least take me to him? I'm sure he needs to be patched up or at least tended to, right?"
Stuart was many things, but a poet he was not. He never minced words, and his inflection would often give away his intentions more than the words they did. At his core, he seemed like a good person, like a caring person, just broken. That wasn't uncommon these days; to be broken beyond repair, but to let humanity still break through the cracks occasionally. Stuart was different, though. He was relenting, and they both knew it.
The trip down to the basement was an unusually quiet one. There was something vexing Stuart, but for one reason or another, he wasn't vocalizing it. To the casual observer, he had it all right now; power, status, the ear of Jordan Branch, the most powerful man in the world, and the ability to move about freely. Yet there was a pall always obscuring the real him. Was it his brother, who went out into the arena and caved in the skulls of the living and the dead for Branch's personal amusement, or was it the things that Branch made him do? Perhaps both.
"Thank you," she finally said before the elevator reached the basement floor.
"For taking me to see Tom. He's a good man, you know."
"Ain't none of my business, he's a dead bloke for all I know."
"So I'm to say my goodbyes, then, I presume?"
"Fuck if I know," he said, the elevator dinging and doors sliding open. He moved through the basement like it was his own home, comfortable with every nook and cranny. Chances are he could walk through with a blindfold on and not miss a single step. They approached a heavy iron door with a large pad affixed to the wall. Stuart paused and placed his hand on the pad, it scanning his hand before the light above the door turned from red to green. A klaxon sounded, and the door popped open. Stuart taking a grip on it and pulling it open with a deep below, the weight of the door even overwhelming for him.
He motioned for her to go in ahead of him.
"Why thank you, Stuart."
"Just keep it quiet, alright? This here's the boss' lab, got a few cells in there. Usually we just kill anyone that crosses him, but he's got a few pets right now, yer boy included."
"I understand," she said.
The look on his face said that her vocalizing the thought perhaps meant she didn't, but she knew enough to stay quiet until he gave her the go-ahead. A dim room awaited her past the iron door, the walls lined with monitors and equipment. Most of it was recognizable to her as medical equipment, but also alien in how advanced the technology was. This equipment was worlds ahead of anything inside of her office, beyond what she needed to give vaccinations, test reflexes and deal with the chicken pox.
Stuart led her further into the room until there was another door. Behind the door was the glint of metal bars and rough fluorescent lighting. Even after the world ended, fluorescent light still haunted humanity. Inside she finds Tom, leaning against a bench, his midsection wrapped in bandages and his jacket on the bench helping to cradle his head. There is a woman in there with light brown hair and a soft, caramel complexion who appeared to be tending to him.
"Ya got five minutes, 'less the boss comes, then yer fucked."
"Thank you, Stuart," she patted him on the shoulder, feeling a tremor run through his body at her touch. With that, he retreated into the lab, leaving her in the room with the two of them. "Tom, are you okay?"
He shifted, his head turning from left to right.
"He's not exactly a conversationalist," the woman in the cell replied.
"Oh, I know, he's rather difficult, isn't he?"
"You're telling me, imagine being locked up with him."
"I owe him my life, you know."
"Oh?" The woman looked up at her for the first time. "Ah, Dr. Faraday."
"You know me?"
"No, well, sort of," the woman picked herself up and offered her hand through the bars, Ruth taking it. "He's talked about you, however little he's spoken. You and, what's her name, Elsie?"
"It's about all that I've been able to get out of him since they tossed me into here—for being a good person, nonetheless."
"I'm sorry, dear," she said.
"Whatever, this is Branch's fucked up world, isn't it? Oh, right, sorry, I'm Vera."
"It's nice to meet you. I believe that I've seen you around, with Stuart's brother, perhaps?"
"Yeah, I live with Will," she sighed. "That lunkhead is gonna get himself killed someday, especially if I'm not looking after him."
"So you two are..."
"Oh god no," she laughed, "I mean, sort of? I don't know. My talents are needed elsewhere."
"I'm an engineer and they've got me building weapons of crass destruction."
"Oh my," she said, suppressing the laugh, "you are a sharp one."
"I'm glad that someone appreciates it," she looked back at Tom and kicked at his boot. "Have you seen Will in the arena?"
"Yes, I did, quite a spectacle."
"Well, I made that dumb gauntlet that he wears, the one that blows heads up. That's what an aerospace engineer is doing in Branch's post-apocalyptic hellscape, that and occasionally fucking the grand champion of the arena when I get lonely."
"Sorry, I'm just ranting at this point. TK isn't budging and our other friend is passed out."
"Oh, shit," she said, "you uhh, might want to not turn around."
"What?" Instinctively, she turned, only to find herself face-to-face with the horrifying monster from the arena. There he was, slumped over in a cell of his own, a large, hulking mass of viscera and tumors, up close, just as terrifying but somehow more fragile, more human. "... My god," she murmured under her breath.
"I thought he told you..."
"... is he?"
"He's just resting, recuperating, but he's a mess. Poor Demoreo."
"Demoreo? Is that his name?"
"It is, well, at least it was."
"So you knew him before... this?"
"Sort of. I met him here, after Branch had been experimenting on him. Hell, that's how I landed up in here. I had a notebook of our conversations, of his thoughts and memories, and I brought it to his family only for..."
"My my my," a voice broke through, the door swinging open. "This is quite the meeting of the minds," Jordan Branch strolled into the hallway, standing in between the two cells with both Stuart and Viktor flanking him. Stuart grit his teeth at Dr. Faraday and shook his head in shame. That meant that he had been taken off-guard, that he wanted to warn her, but it was too late. "Perhaps it is just a sign of my own poor judgement, letting the three of you live? Are you conspiring against little old me?"
"I didn't know you had any," Vera snapped.
"Oh, this one, quite the feisty one, isn't she? I saw great promise in the both you and Mr. Gabriel, each in your own, unique way. You see, Mr. Gabriel here could have been the crown jewel of my new society. The former action hero making his way through the barren wasteland in search of a new life at Branch Tower. You could have addressed to the people, Mr. Gabriel. You could have helped them to understand what we are building to. Instead, you chose this. As for Ms. Maia here? Limitless potential, a truly brilliant scientific mind, a perfect fit for Branch Tower!"
"Very astute, Ms. Maia," he said. "Yet you squandered that talent and instead opted to live with that brute of a man in Farrington, to make little devices for him. My door is always open to such... talents as yours, yet you chose a different path. All for what, a dead man?"
"For what was right," she said.
"Oh psh now, what does disturbing Mrs. Johnson and her son have to do with right or wrong? Her husband made a valiant sacrifice for the good of mankind, for the cure, for this indomitable plague that impacts us all. Mr. Johnson's sacrifice should burden no one else. I take care of them, do I not?"
"She's a line cook in a cafeteria."
"Precisely! What skills did she have that benefited our little society here? What skill does little Tyler bring to the table that further humanity's struggle to rebuild itself? None. Just like his father brought nothing to the table. This way, at least he could be more, to contribute more. At least the two of you had promised, just like the good doctor over here," he motioned towards Dr. Faraday.
"You made him a monster," she said. "You took his mind from him, his thoughts, his humanity."
"That was never my intent," he said. "Nor is it any of your concern what happens with the Crusher."
"Look at your plaything," TK broke his silence. "He's back there, cowering in the corner. If that is your idea for rebuilding society, then count me out. You should have let me go while you had the chance, Branch."
"Very charming, as always, Mr. Gabriel."
"You are obsessed. Control is all that you care about," Vera said, asserting herself back into the conversation.
"Fascinating theory that you have there, it's a shame that nobody will get to hear it."
"Are you going to have one of your thugs kill me finally? What will Will say about that?"
"On the contrary, Ms. Maia. In case Mr. Gabriel hasn't gotten to hear the news yet; Mr. Farrington was injured in his heroic battle with the Crusher earlier, and I need a new main event attraction for the arena. Who better than the first man to beat the Crusher, TK Gabriel? As for you, well, I have other plans for you, Ms. Maia. Patience, though. Oh, and good doctor, I do believe he'll need some tending to before he can fight. Perhaps even after, that is, if I let him live."
"I won't fight for you," he said.
"So be it. Then you'll die. Save the good doctor some work."