If this were a sane world, Dr. Faraday would have never had to see Tom in such a condition. She was a pediatrician, not a trauma doctor. Sure, there were quite a few instances where being a doctor was valuable in the wasteland. People needed to be patched up, and she could give a list of drugs to find when raiding abandoned towns, but not since her clinical rotations had she dealt with the same sort of uncertainty and fear that she had seen since the fall. Yet there she was, standing over him, trying to patch him up to go fight.
"Bill," she called over to the bloated man, his gut looking larger and more grotesque today without his overalls straps up, "this is ridiculous. He's in no condition to fight."
"Ain't my problem," he spat, a stream of black tar on the ground.
"Look at him," she motioned towards Tom, laid out on a bench and doing his best to control his breathing and remain calm, "he's going to die out there."
"Just like many have died before him in the arena. It's a great honor or some shit."
"Can you call Stuart over here?"
"Ain't my problem, Doc."
"Have some humanity, Bill, I..."
"He's right." Tom's arm jutted out, catching her hand while she wrapped up his midsection. "Just doing his job."
"This is insanity, Tom," she rushed to the locker that has been doubling as her medicine cabinet, rummaging around for some painkillers. "I can't give you anything stronger than ibuprofen or you might be groggy out there. I can try to..."
"That's fine." He snatched the bottle from her hands, pouring a few pills straight into his mouth and gulping hard. "I'll deal."
"You are a stubborn, stupid man, you know that?"
"Something like that," he picked himself up, using the lockers behind him to stay steady on his feet. Nothing about this was good.
"Just be careful, okay? Branch wants your head."
"We're all his puppets at this point, Doc."
"Alright, Gabriel, yer up."
Tom nodded at her, gripping onto her shoulder while he walked by. She wanted to believe out of sentiment, not to keep his balance, but neither one would surprise her. Tom was always putting on a show. This was just perhaps his last act. Sending him out into the arena with a bullet lodged in his side and patching him up wasn't anything but cruelty. She leaned up against the wall, looking out into the arena as Tom walked out towards a lone figure in the middle of the killing floor.
"Mr. Gabriel," Branch's voice boomed throughout the arena. "So nice of you to join us."
Tom stopped in his tracks when he realized who was standing across from him. He was shouting something, but the raucous crowd washed it out.
"Come, come, TK," Branch goaded. "You believe you are better than us, better than everyone here in this wonderful arena in my new world. You want to destroy us..." He paused, letting a rolling chorus of boos start. The crowd was behind Branch, looking down into the pit of the arena while stood dumbfounded by the wave of negative reaction from the crowd. It was all a part of the show. "Now, today, right now, is the harrowing of TK Gabriel. You thought you'd get off easy? Of course not, because I, Jordan Branch, am the judge, jury and executioner."
Of course, it was him. He wouldn't have it any other way. All of it was a big, dumb show. He was wearing his suit, along with a long, gilded cape hung over his shoulders. The smile on his face was unmistakable, if not a bit too big, a bit too rehearsed for how he felt. To step into the ring against Tom was a big step for him, especially after he had gotten under his skin, it seemed. That was a good thing, but whatever he had planned would not be a good thing.
"You motherfucker," TK said, his voice being picked up by a boom microphone that a man was panicking to get into place. All a part of the show.
"You think you are so special, TK?" Branch said away from his microphone, only muffled beats being picked up for the crowd. Inside of Bill's den it came through clearly on their speakers. "Tonight I fuck you. Live in front of all to see. They think you are strong, but you aren't. You are just another one of my pawns."
"Bring it on," TK advanced towards Branch. Dr. Faraday could feel the adrenaline pumping through her veins, built on the belief that Tom could do it; he could defeat Branch right there unless Branch had any more tricks up his sleeve.
"Hold it right there, Mr. Gabriel," Branch gripped the microphone tightly, speaking not just to him, but to the entire crowd. They were all in the palm of his hand, both figuratively and literally. "While our epic battle is what everyone wants to see, is it not?" He played to the crowd that cheered at his showmanship. "You see, they know me, TK. They know that Jordan Branch delivers on his promises, just like all of this is my promise to all of them, just like it was my promise to you. A new tomorrow! A future amidst the ruins. Yet you think you are better than all of this, all of us... Just like your friends."
TK's eyes lit up. "What did you do now?"
"Don't pretend like you don't know, Mr. Gabriel. You tried to bring this all down, you tried to ruin all of this. But I knew, oh, I knew all along. Bring out his co-conspirators!"
A small procession of guards emerged from the right gate, the first carrying a long wooden stake, driving it into the ground and tugging on it a few times before giving a nod towards the gate, another two guards walking out with a few huddled figures behind them, followed by another pair of guards. The procession led that girl, Vera, in chains alongside a boy and what looked like his mother. Those had to be Crusher's family that she had heard about.
"That's not right," Dr. Faraday mumbled under her breath, looking around in a panic. "This isn't right, Bill, where's Stuart? I have to talk to him and—"
"Shut it," he snapped. "Yer only here because Stu vouched for ya, ya know that? Otherwise you'd be in chains as well." That hit her, hard. There she was, helpless, watching it all unfold, and she was under someone's protection.
"C'mon, Branch," TK said. "They've done nothing to you. I don't even know that kid or the woman."
"Oh, but you do," he said, once again trying to speak away from the microphone. "That boy we caught in the basement, trying to escape from the lab. His mother, well, that's collateral damage. You think you could take my monster away from me? Fool."
"No. You're the fool."
"Tonight," Branch paced in a circle, speaking into the microphone with much bravado, "tonight I give you a choice, Mr. Gabriel. I'm the big bad wolf, aren't I? I'm the monster. Yet you and these three..." He motioned at the three of them, chained to the post in the ground. "They tried to take all of this away from us. You have a choice now, Gabriel."
"Oh, fuck off already."
"Ah huh, Mr. Gabriel. Listen and listen carefully. You have a choice. You can save your co-conspirators’ lives, or you can clash with me right here. That's a rather simple choice, isn't it?" The crowd was pounding their feet in unison, it gathering up like a groundswell into a rhythmic wave of energy pulsating throughout the whole arena, their chants emerging as "Kill him, kill him, kill him" in unison with the pounding of their feet.
"Save them from what, dying of boredom at listening to you talk?" Vera shouted at the top of her lungs.
"Oh, right," Branch said. "How silly of me, from HER."
A chill ran down her spine, the sound of rattling chains coming from that same door, the guards leading out another figure. She already knew who it was and knew what it did to Tom last time. His wife, the one that he had spoken about when they first met, out there, her decaying, mutated face gnarled at him. "You don't...."
"What's wrong, TK, can't think of a clever one-liner?"
"You don't... fuck with my family."
"It's too late. Time to decide; do you come after me, or do you save these three by destroying her?"
The guards clipped the chain on the shambling monster that was inhabiting his wife's body, scrambling back to the door while she let out a scream. She was yards away from the three captives, who were chained up, all screaming out for him to help them.
"TK," Vera said. "Just get me loose somehow. I'll figure this out, just... They don't deserve this."
Dr. Faraday was in disbelief. That could have just as easily been Elsie, and herself chained up out there, if she hadn't befriended Stuart, if she had spoken out more and stood up for Tom, maybe. A wave of guilt hit her; she should be out there, but she didn't have the guts to.
"So what'll it be, TK? She's heading towards them right now. Save your friends, or exact your revenge on me?"
"Who says that I have to choose?"
"Naturally, I do. Your life, you see, is over either way. So do you save them and die, or kill me and die?"
Of what she knew of Tom, that was what was running through his head right now, anyway. Something about how he left felt like a finality. TK never saw himself walking out of that arena, nor did anyone else. From the moment that he stepped foot onto those sands, he knew it would be his tomb, but he couldn't have guessed that he would have to worry about saving other lives in the process. His side still ached. With every step forward, he was slow, hand clutched at his side. Branch stood a mere matter of feet away from Tom, a smug smile on his face while the shambling corpse of Tom's wife made her way towards the screaming trio chained up to a post, the rhythm of the crowd setting a sort of sick music into motion.
Poised like a cobra ready to strike, Tom lurched back before he was ready to strike, but the piercing screams coming from the prisoners were difficult to phase out. She could see it in his movements; he wanted nothing more than to rip Branch apart, limb-by-limb, but his humanity was rearing its head, like it did out in the wasteland when he saved Elsie and herself. There was still a good man in there beneath that broken veneer of a survivor. If there ever was a situation that seemed impossible, this was it.
"Oh come now," Branch tsked into the microphone. "Is this what the hero would do? Let the innocent die," he said while forming air quotes with his fingers around the word innocent, "just to prove some archaic point? Come now, Gabriel. You know that I've won!"
Another hard swallow.
"Is this what an action hero does in real life? Come on, you worthless, arrogant asshole! You know you want to save the day."
Tom stepped towards Branch, which took Branch by surprise, him stumbling back a step.
"She's getting closer, closer and... for fuck's sake!" Branch shouted, pacing nervously, his face reddening while sweat beaded up on his forehead. "I have given you a choice, Gabriel!"
"And I choose not to play your sick game."
"My game," Branch strode up to Gabriel, getting up in his face, trying to regain his composure. "My game is the only game that there is in town. It's your only option."
"You can't refuse!" He shouted at him, a vein bulging in his otherwise pristine forehead, spit flying from his mouth. "You aren't allowed to refuse!"
Slap. Branch had reared back and slapped him with his gloved left hand, his face a deep shade of maroon while the crowd was calling for Branch to keep going, to unload on Gabriel. TK took a deep breath and turned back to face Branch again. Branch followed with a series of slaps, one, two, three in a row, unable to keep his temper in check anymore. He pulled back for another slap, only for Gabriel to lurch forward and connect with his forehead on the bridge of Branch's nose, sending him reeling back.
He launched at Branch with his fist, aiming squarely for the jaw of the tyrant. In a flash, Branch lifted his cape, it stiffening, the sun glistening off of it and almost blinding her while she watched, mouth agape. Tom hit the cape like a brick wall, stumbling backwards after attempting a strike. Another flash and they danced in the air, creating a bright red streak that cut through the air before staining the sand red. Tom instinctively fell to one knee while he looked up at Branch, laughing maniacally with a small dagger in his hand, blood dripping from it and staining the ground beneath him.
"You fool," Branch spat, the crowd falling silent. "Like it could be that easy."
TK slowly picked himself up, holding his hand over the wound. By the looks of it, Branch had missed the bullet wound but hit just below it, which was still too much for a man in his condition. What was that cape? That is why he felt so comfortable out there with Tom. Gathering himself up, Tom stumbled back towards Vera and the other prisoners, his wife dangerously close to them, hissing and clawing away while they all screamed in horror.
"Yes, run to them, TK, run to them," Branch goaded him. "Before it's too late!"
"TK," Vera was crying out over the crowd noise. "Just get us off of the post, okay?"
"Yeah, I'm trying," he said, "I'll figure something out." From a distance, she could see an idea forming in his mind, the look on his face of concentration. "Hey, you. Yeah. I'm over here."
With that, the undead corpse of his wife paused and turned her mangled head towards him. A part of her broke at the sight of him staring at his deceased wife like that. For all of those years, he rode with her remains strapped to his bike, and this was the result. Unlike the stance he took against Branch, he stood loose while she approached him. From a distance, it seemed like she could feel the emotions that were burning inside of him.
"I've forgotten a lot of things over the years," he said. "I've forgotten to clean up after myself, I've forgotten appointments and today I've forgotten what I wanted to say to you. Jess, I tried. I really tried, but you know that already, otherwise you wouldn't be marrying me today. Lots of people consider you lucky, because you have me. On the contrary," tears were streaming down his cheeks, the crowd quiet while his voice echoed throughout the warm Las Vegas night. "I'm the lucky one, in every sense of the word. Never did I imagine that I'd find someone like you, someone who loved me for who I was, not who they wanted me to be or who I portrayed myself to be.
"You, Jess," he wiped his eyes with the back of his bloody right hand, "you've been my reason to keep going, my reason to have faith that there is more to life than I ever thought. My dearest Jess." TK reached his hand out towards her face, her snarling and nipping at him, him holding steady. "I love you without measure. I will forever walk this Earth knowing that I was the luckiest man that ever lived. Thank you, Jess. Thank you."
His trembling hand reached her face, resting on the hardened flesh of her cheek, the kind of tender touch that came from years of intimacy, although there was a hollow feeling of finality in the air. She snarled again, snapping at his wrist, him pulling his hand away while her hands reached out for him, taking swipes only to narrowly miss. When she came in for another attack, he reached up and grabbed her gnarled hair, using her own momentum to pull her head down while he lifted his left knee up, colliding with a sickening crack.
The monster stumbled back, letting out a distorted scream only to keep coming towards him. He needed a weapon, needed to end this while he still had the strength to continue. To keep distance, he kept using his left leg, slamming the toe of his boot into her stomach only for the boot to break through the flesh and get caught inside. She pushed forward, sending him crashing to the ground, his foot lodged in the zombified corpse of his wife. What was left of her innards was dripping down his leg, spilling out while the wound blossomed. TK retched. Dr. Faraday clutched to the chain-link fence until the metal was digging into her fingers. He kicked his right leg out towards her, connecting on her shoulder and pushing her back just a bit.
He kicked again, only this time her fingers grasped onto his leg. TK continued to kick, her body somehow withstanding natural decay and the force of his blows. That was what Branch did. That was his specialty; turning the dead into abominations. This one could be the end of him. How poetic that would be; dying at the decaying hands of his wife after reciting those tearful words for what was left of the world to hear. With one great push with both legs, he heaved, the sound of cracking and her body giving way to his left boot while it slid from the cavity in her chest, the viscera serving as a lubricant. She fell onto her back, hissing and convulsing in a tantrum.
"TK, I know this isn't the best time, but hurry," Vera called to him.
Fighting through the waves of pain, TK crawled over to the three of them chained to the post, pulling himself up and surveying the chains that bound them. They had sent him out there without as much as a pillow to defend himself with, never mind break those chains. "I can't break this," he said.
"What about the goddamned thing I made you?"
"No charge pack."
"Fucking Branch," she muttered. "That was beautiful back there, by the way."
"Thanks," he said.
"I don't mean to be breaking up this moment here," Tyler's mom said, "but that thing is getting up."
"That thing is my wife," TK said.
"Like I said..."
"TK, it's fine, just... I don't know, if you can't break it, could you slide the chain over the post or something?"
"Without breaking all of your arms? I don't know."
"Oh, this is charming," Branch boomed over the sound system, trying to sound in control but teetering on the edge of insanity. "Looks like dearest wife is getting back on her feet, TK. She looks hungry, what with her guts all spilled all over the place and all."
"Fuck!" TK said, slamming his fist against the chain, then kicking it a few times, to no avail. "Fuck fuck fuck!"
"Calm down, TK," Vera said. "I need you to calm down and think. Think, TK."
"I am thinking. I can't break this chain."
"What if we pulled the post out of the ground?"
"What do you mean?"
"They just drove it into the ground, right? If we all move together, we can feel it shake a bit, it can't be that deep into the ground."
"I... Let me see," TK got down onto one knee, tucking the post under his shoulder while he reached down towards the base, gripping tightly with both hands. With a mighty heave, he pulled, the post budging only a fraction, but enough that she could see it wobbling from behind the fence. With one more mighty heave, it looked like he had it until he collapsed to a knee and clutched at his side.
"TK? TK, what happened?" Vera called back to him.
"I got it to budge, but I'm too hurt. He stabbed me right where I got shot. I can't do it. I just can't... I..."
"Tyler, Shar, look at me, look at me," Vera said. "I'm going to grip onto the post. I need to both of you to do the same, okay? Grip and kneel with me, okay?"
"Okay," Tyler said.
"I guess," Shar added.
"Just trust me with this. TK? TK, are you back there?"
"Yeah, I'm here," he said.
"We're gonna help, but you still need to do the bulk of this and fast, she's almost up."
"Fuck, fuck," he said under his breath, taking another grip on the post while the three of them did the same. "On three, okay?"
"One... Two... Three, HEAVE," he said, the four of them pulling, the post tearing up only for him to once again stumble back and lose his grip. Dr. Faraday gasped at the scene, wanting to shield her eyes but knowing that it was no good. This was happening whether she watched or turned away. "One more time, okay?"
"TK, we gotta do this now. She's up again! Hurry!"
"One last go, now, pull, pull!" The four of them pulled again, this time the post shooting out from the ground, the inertia sending the three of them crashing back onto him while Branch cackled over the arena's sound system.
"Oh, how brilliant!" Branch shouted towards them, rustling his fingers through his usually perfect hair, leaving it a disheveled mess.
"I have to get out there, I have to help them." Dr. Faraday mumbled to herself, surveying the area for any sort of weapon. There was a wrench in her locker with the medical supplies, a holdover from whoever was attempting to handle the wellbeing of combatants before her, but it would have to do. She headed for the mighty door, only for Bill to step in front of her.
"Now where d'ya think yer goin'?" Bill asked.
"They need help, damnit!"
"You do an' I make a call. You don't want me doin' that, do ya?"
"Grr, you monster," she grit her teeth. "That's a child out there! A child!"
"Do you need me to lock you up, doc?"
He snatched the wrench from her hand and slapped it across his palm a few times, testing the weight before holding it up to her cheek, the cool metal smooth against her face. She stood, defiant, while he threatened her. The mighty lummox let out a roar of a laugh while he walked off, leaving her alone once again.
"TK! TK she's coming!"
He slipped out from underneath the pile while Tyler's mother, Shar, was retreating from Jess's corpse, her claws scratching Shar's leg, shredding her pants while thick red lines formed in her wake. Shar let out a scream while TK picked himself up, the post in hand. Smack, he swung the post in an arc; it connecting with his wife's shoulder, sending her back away from the three in chains.
TK gathered himself before launching another attack at the monster that was his wife, this one sending her back again. Finally, he pulled the long post back like a spear, driving it through her stomach and towards the wall of the arena. She clawed at him, snarling in rage, her bones snapping and cracking while she came closer, gripping onto the post and pulling herself towards him. With a jerk, he pulled it free, planting his boot into what remained of her midsection and against the wall again.
"I'm sorry, my love," he said before driving the giant stake straight into her skull. The sickening cracking of her skull and the screech that filled the arena sent chills down her spine. TK fell back, watching as her body twitched, stuck to the wall of the arena and fell silent. Her heart ached, her eyes stung from the tears, sweat, and sand. He was down on his knees in front of her, gripping onto her hand. "No!" He cried out.
"My god," Branch said, feeling his grasp on the crowd slipping. There was more confusion than excitement. Their chants for Branch to slaughter TK had long-since died off instead for small clusters of cheers for whenever TK succeeded. "What a tender, heartbreaking moment that was. Save the weak, slaughter the monster, overcoming your fears and injuries. Truly a moment out of a movie, Mr. Gabriel."
"Fuck you," TK growled like a man possessed. "Fuck you, I'm going to fucking rip you apart."
"C’mon, Gabriel!" A man shouted from the stands.
"So valiant, so dashing," Branch said. TK stumbled back up to his feet, only for Branch to laugh again, staring up at the stands towards where there was a group of people cheering for TK. "Look at you, you are a mess. What a sad sack you are."
"I'm strong enough to end you."
"Maybe you are," Branch said, "but you haven't quite saved your friends yet."
"You piece of shit," TK spoke through the rage.
"Bring them out," Branch said, the door where his wife had emerged from creaking open, a small group of the undead streaming out into the arena, hissing and snarling away. "Oh, it'll be quite the day for you, Mr. Gabriel."
The few guards that were herding the undead huddled around Branch, assault rifles at the ready, keeping the new horde off of their god while he cackled and hurled insults towards TK. TK stumbled back towards Vera and Demoreo's family, looking at them while they retreated to one corner of the arena.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm truly sorry. I did all that I could. I'll keep fighting, but I can't take them all, I just..."
"It's okay, TK," Vera said. "We know."
A mighty roar made the doctor freeze in place. The sound of banging on the door across from the arena gave her pause. She recognized the roar, the power, and the raw rage anywhere. The iron door dented, the roar filling the air again before it burst open; the door flying out like a rocket before slamming onto the ground.
"Dad?" Tyler said. "Dad!"
The Crusher let out a mighty roar as he stomped out into the setting sun over the arena. Hell had broken loose.