Piper Prescott pulled up to the clinic in her beat-up Toyota as the sun was casting its first rays on the streets of Atlanta. Her bumper stickers made her a target for car bombers—and if not car bombers, then definitely tire slashers—but she refused to peel them off. Front and center on her rear bumper was one that read, in obnoxious red letters, VACCINATE YOUR CHILDREN. Piper didn’t believe in subtlety, in pretty much every respect. She glanced at it on her way in as she sipped her coffee and considered the day ahead. The Shenks were her first patients, which made her think, oh God no. Tammy Shenk brought her kids to the doctor every week for sniffles, paper cuts, and of course, “behavioral problems.” Timmy Shenk had slashed Piper’s tires once.
The thing was, tire slashing she could handle, but death threats were too much. Piper had relocated four times in the last four years because of stalkers and violent threats, all because she’d published a book called AIRE: The Truth about the Ten Percent. Even her publisher had abandoned her. No one wanted to talk about AIRE, least of all suburban moms.
With a spring breeze whistling through the wisteria trees, Piper unlocked the front door and stepped inside. A weekend’s worth of mail was piled up on the welcome mat. She gathered it up—spam, flyers, a coupon sheet. She plucked out a single white envelope—probably a bill, that was all she seemed to get these days—and went straight to her office, which had one window that had to stay closed, because it was next to the dumpster. It was 8:28 AM.
As soon as she sat down, her phone rang. It was Dolly, calling to let her know that the Shenks were in Room 2.
“Which kid is it?” Piper asked.
“Uh, Tess, I believe,” Dolly said. “She’s got a rash. A butt rash.”
“Got it.” She rubbed her forehead as she hung up. At least she was almost done here—not her choice, but her patient base was dwindling, plus she couldn’t afford the overhead. Next month, she was taking a job with a massive hospital system in the Midwest, which meant she had to notify her patients, finalize the sale of the practice, and host a send-off party for the staff. She was sad about it, but her stint in Atlanta hadn’t gone well. People hated her here, the same way they hated the CDC down the road. She was the enemy.
The phone rang again, this time from a number she didn’t recognize. She figured it was a robocall—those, too, were a frequent occurrence in her day-to-day life—but shortly after it stopped ringing, it rang again. Her cell phone, oddly, was silent. The only person that called her on this phone was Dolly, who sat at the reception desk and checked people in.
“Hello?” she said, warily.
“Dr. Prescott,” came the response—dramatic, cocky. Piper felt the coffee in her throat snag there for a moment, refusing to go down. She swallowed hard.
“Sorry, wrong number,” she said.
“Oh, please, I know it’s you,” he said with a laugh—but it wasn’t the kind of laugh that invited you in, and in fact, all Piper could think about was the way Derek Farber had humiliated her in front of a thousand people four years earlier, days after her book had come out. She had been giving a talk called Why Apopka Vaccination Makes Sense at the biggest Infectious Disease conference in the world, when Derek had put her on the spot with a question about Apopka being used as biological warfare. She’d really flubbed that one.
“Look, I don’t know how you got this number—”
“Of course you know how I got your number. I have everyone’s number.”
Dolly was calling on the other line. Piper could hear Tess Shenk crying in a room down the hall. “Did you call to brag, or what?” she asked. “Because I’m pretty busy here.”
“Open the envelope.”
She glanced down at her desk at the white envelope—her name printed in simple font, with no return address. Then she noticed the stamp: it was a rendering of the Apopka virus, with a cylindrical shape and a viral envelope coated in spikes, which were essentially G-proteins. Piper knew for a fact that the U.S. Postal Service didn’t sell stamps like this, because no one, not even science nerds, wanted to be reminded of this particular virus and its aftermath.
No, this was Derek Farber’s own creation. It both impressed and concerned her.
“I really don’t want to,” she said flatly.
“I think you do want to.”
What she really wanted to do was tell Farber to go to hell, but he was already operating well within that space, so she didn’t. She picked up the envelope and inspected the stamp in its upper-right corner, with its elegant rendering of a molecular structure that could, if unleashed upon the world, destroy humanity in a matter of days. The windows were closed, the room stuffy, but she felt a chill roll through her body. She wished she’d gotten a hot coffee instead.
“I have a patient waiting for me.” Another shriek from down the hall, which meant the Shenks’ patience was wearing thin. Piper really just wanted to get in there, deal with the rash, and get out again so she could breathe a little bit. Tammy Shenk scared her.
“It should only take you a few seconds to open an envelope.”
Piper knew that if she didn’t open it, he’d just keep calling. That was Derek’s style—call, pester, harass, until he got what he wanted. He did it in a way that was cunning and aggressive, and that was why he was sitting on top of the tech world, flush with billions of dollars of venture capital. Like anyone else with a pulse, Piper knew about his amusement park, but beyond that, she had tried very hard to purge him from her existence. His antics at the conference had all but torpedoed her academic career.
“Fine,” she muttered, and tore it open. A handwritten invitation on gold cardstock fluttered out. Her name was on the front, and on the back was a small block of text:
“What’s this?” she asked.
“A personal invitation.”
“An email would have sufficed.”
“Oh, well, even I get a little tired of electronic communication.” His flippant tone always got on her nerves as little bit, or maybe it was just his voice—relentlessly confident, like he was incapable of stumbling over words or doubting himself. He knew she was going to say yes, and that was the problem. She wanted to say yes. Every fiber of her being wanted to say yes, not because she liked amusement parks or zombies or overpriced swag, but because Deadland was inspired by the virus that kept her up at night, long after her colleagues had stopped worrying about it. Even though she hated to admit it, Piper and Derek Farber had one thing in common: they were both obsessed with Apopka.
“That’s next month,” she said. “I can’t just cancel clinic—”
“I heard you were selling your practice.”
Piper sighed. She hated him for the intrusion, but also for knowing about her background, her history, and worst of all, the unfortunate course her career had taken. Even the scientific community considered her a pariah these days, with her commitment to vaccination and her defiance of AIRE, with the way she pushed her agenda long after it made sense to do so. Farber had had better luck. So what if his zombie-themed amusement park was based on Apopka? No one really cared about his personal views. Farber was a visionary and a hero.
“Why?” she said. The sigh in her voice sounded pitiful to her own ears—a concession of sorts, like she was admitting she wasn’t worthy of a personal invitation from this man. It riled her to think that, and yet it was true; she was officially a nobody.
“Because I respect your opinion,” he said. “I want to hear your take on the park.”
“I gave you my take when you were designing it.”
Another laugh. “I remember. But hey, maybe you’ll like what I did with the place.”
Dolly was knocking on the door, which was open a crack. Piper looked up. “They’re pissed,” Dolly mouthed at her, then promptly walked away.
Piper put the golden ticket, as it were, back in the envelope and shoved it in a drawer. She finished the rest of her coffee and stood up, cradling the phone in the crook of her neck. A baby was crying down the hall somewhere. The day had officially begun.
“What’s the hitch?” she asked.
“There is no hitch,” he said. “Just come. You won’t regret it.”
Piper had heard that from him before, but this time, she couldn’t resist. On the wall next to the door were all the news articles she had framed, the photos with famous people, her dusty medical diploma. They mocked her now, as if she herself were a relic of another time, another era. Most people believed Apopka was a hoax, and AIRE was the government’s attempt to cull the population. A tiny part of Piper was intrigued by Deadland, simply because it brought those beliefs to the fore. Could it succeed, where she had not?
“I’ll think about it,” she said, and hung up.