Factions Chapter 1

2 Years Ago

Alex blinked, her lids fluttering open. She groaned. The first thing she noticed was the green haze hanging in the air. It floated and shifted in the glow of the street lamps, hanging like heavy smog. The second thing she noticed was the feeling of asphalt beneath her. It was hard, and there was a small pebble digging painfully into her ribs. And was that the sound of… water? She moved a leg, realizing as she did that her clothes were wet. What the heck happened?

She turned her head slowly, blinked and tried to open her eyes a little wider. When she did, pain pierced her skull, prompting another moan. She reached up, gingerly touching her head, checking for injury. Nothing. Her gaze caught on her arm and she frowned.

Squinting, she brought her arm closer. What the hell?

Her arm looked as though her veins turned black. They almost looked like tribal tattoos. She turned her wrist, holding her arm out so the light shone on it. One of the dark lines flickered, glowing iridescent green for a moment before fading back to black again.

Her heart began to thump erratically in her chest, and she dragged herself to a sitting position to look around. She squinted against the sprinkles of water in the air that mingled with the smog, and waited for her vision to focus. When it did, her eyes widened in horror. She was two blocks from her house, in the middle of the main road downtown. How’d I get here?

The thought barely finished forming in her head before she jackknifed to her knees, vomiting onto the ground beside her.

Wiping her mouth, she risked a glance up again in the hopes something had changed, and a whimper escaped her lips. Her eyes glazed over with shock as she stared at the street around her.  A car was smoking, its horn blaring obnoxiously. The front end was planted into the brick wall of a local restaurant. Other cars had veered off the road all over the place, and the drivers were still inside them, slumped over, not moving. Water was shooting up from pipes busting up out of the ground and protruding through crumbled walls of several buildings. The spray mingled with the green smog, creating a fine mist that triggered goosebumps along her skin.

All she could remember was that she’d been headed downtown for something, and she walked instead of driving. Thank God for that.

She looked down the road. Water was flooding down the sewers and shooting from a couple roofs of the local shops, the cascade tinged with that iridescent green stuff floating along the top. She glanced down at her arms. Like the green she just saw flicker along her veins. She swallowed hard, then looked up again, continuing to take stock of her surroundings.

There were several people lying in the street, and one couple was slouched over in chairs along the sidewalk where they’d been sitting outside, enjoying the balmy weather with their dinner. Their clothes were soaked, the woman’s hair plastered to the side of her face, hiding her slack features. Alex climbed to her feet and dragged her hand across her mouth to dry it. She stumbled as another stabbing pain pierced her skull, and cursed under her breath as she barely caught herself from falling.

She shuffled to the sidewalk, using a street pole to hold her balance. Her hand came away feeling damp, and she glanced at it with disgust. It glowed green briefly, and then looked as though it was covered in soot. She wiped it on her jeans in haste.

She could try to avoid the water, but she didn’t think she’d have much luck. It was everywhere. Her clothes stuck to her skin, and another wave of gooseflesh rose, causing her teeth to chatter. She kicked at the water, and it rippled with that green glow once more. She stepped back in a hurry, sloshing more water that flickered green and then faded out, before the water turned dark. “Crap! What is that stuff?”

In her rush backwards, she almost stepped on someone else lying on the sidewalk, their eyes staring at nothing. A sob stuck in her throat as what she was seeing finally began to register.

People everywhere.

Dead. Still and dead.

Her chest heaved and she began to hyperventilate, her breath moving in and out in ragged, unsteady pants.

Breathe, Alex! Breathe!

A sudden wail pierced the night air, breaking through the sounds of the obnoxious car horn and her own labored breathing. Alex’s head jerked up, her senses on high alert. She squinted through the haze. It was a woman, about half a block down under the next street lamp, on her knees next to a man, shaking him. Despite the distressing picture, the sight of the woman still alive sent a surge of hope through Alex.

Her parents. Her parents could still be alive. And her brother.

Alex hesitated, torn between wanting to help the woman, and going home. Fear for her family won out and she began to move, jogging as fast as she could manage down the street, headed in the direction of her house. Her progress was slowed by the slosh of the water swelling up through the drains and standing in puddles along the way.

She pressed her lips together and focused on the horizon, trudging through and refusing to look at all the bodies she passed or think about what was in the water. Whatever was in it had obviously been toxic. She just prayed that it’s effects were over, and she wasn’t exposing herself even more. There was no way to avoid it, the stuff was everywhere. It’s like every water line and pipe in the city had been hit with some massive force that exploded, causing them to break through the ground and roadways, and bust through the walls and ceilings of every structure in town.

Occasionally she caught movement, as others who apparently survived—like her—began to awaken. When they did, all she could hear were their cries and screams behind her as they realized their loved ones were dead. Alex’s eyes welled with tears, another panic-stricken sob catching in her throat.

“Please God, let my family be okay,” she prayed, moving her lips with the words and looking skyward.

She ran faster, ignoring the pain in her head and the weird, woozy feeling she couldn’t seem to shake. After what felt like ages, she finally made it to her house. She ran up the steps and tried to open the door but it was locked. Glancing down, she patted her pockets, realizing she didn’t have her keys. Must have lost them in the street somewhere. She began to pound her fists against the wood. “Mom! Dad! Are you okay? Open the door! Jericho? Are you in there?”

Water was flooding down the porch steps, and she could see a couple pipes busted through the walls of her living room through the small window next to the door. A choking sound escaped her lips, and she banged louder, her shouts becoming more frantic.

Pausing for breath, trying to gather her thoughts, she finally remembered the spare key her parents kept in the little fake sprinkler head along the driveway, and jogged down the steps to grab it, ripping it out of the mud and twisting it open. She threw the casing down and ran back up the steps to the front door, her hands shaking as she tried to insert the key into the lock. She fumbled, her hands slippery. Dropping the key, she cursed, slapping her wooden nemesis with terrified frustration.

Alex finally managed to slide the key in the hole and turned it, flinging the door open with a loud crash. “Mom! Dad! Are you here? Where are you?” She ran through the house, trying to flip on lights as she went, her heart racing. They flickered, some of them working, some of them not. No one was on the first floor, so she ran to the stairs and began to climb up, avoiding the jutting pipes cracking through the drywall. With every step, her pace got slower and slower. Dread over what she was going to find permeated every cell of her body. Eventually, she made it to the top of the landing and walked down the hall.

She reached her parents room and twisted the knob, holding her breath. She opened the door, but couldn’t see anything in the dark. She could hear the water squish in the carpeting beneath her feet. “Mom?” she whispered. “Dad?” Nothing moved. No air stirred. She felt along the wall for the light switch, and flipped it on, grateful when it worked. She stumbled backward with a gasp. “No!”

She clutched the door frame, feeling as though she’d been kicked in the gut. Even though she’d half-expected it, seeing it was something altogether different. She propped herself against the door jamb as she stared at the still figures of her parents, lying together in their bed. They could almost be sleeping.

Except they weren’t. They were lifeless. Their skin had a dull tinge to it, with those dark-colored veins running just beneath the surface. Broken piping jutted from the walls, still spraying water, soaking everything in sight.

Bile rose in her throat, and she ran for the bathroom, barely making it in time. She coughed and choked as her stomach tried to expel contents that no longer existed. When she was done, she slumped against the porcelain, her shoulders heaving with sobs of grief and confusion. What happened? Who did this?

Why?

Several minutes passed before she calmed enough for coherent thought to begin again. Jericho. Her brother’s name rippled through her mind. Oh my God, Jericho!

Alex leaped to her feet and tore down the hall to her little brother’s bedroom. She threw open the door and slapped her hand against the light switch. It flickered, but didn’t come on. She flipped the switch for the closet light, which worked.

Turning around, she fully expected to find him lying there, as lifeless as her parents, but his bed was made and he was nowhere to be found. Like everywhere else, pipes and drywall could be seen bulging and crumbling, the weight and damage from copious amounts of water taking their toll. She turned in a circle, breathing hard, her hands clenched into fists as she looked around the room, her heart thudding frantically. He’s not here. He’s not here, Alex, she reassured herself. Then where is he?

A friend’s house.

Right.

She remembered a vague conversation with her parents before she left to go downtown earlier, about Jericho staying over with a friend tonight. But which friend?

She ran back to her parents room once more, looking around for her mom’s cell phone, praying it would work despite the water. She found it and it did. Scrolling through the text messages, looking for details on her brother’s whereabouts, she closed her eyes in relief when she found what she was searching for.

George’s house. He went to his friend George’s house.

Alex ran back downstairs and swiped her parents car keys from the hook by the kitchen. Then she took off in search of her baby brother, sending up another prayer to God that he was okay and that she would find him. Alive. Her lips tightened grimly. He’s alive. He just has to be.

***

She ended up having to ditch the car half way to George’s, and make her way on foot. The roads were just too clogged up with wrecked vehicles and bodies. She put a fist to her mouth and bit down hard, swallowing back another sob as she trudged in the direction of George’s house, her jaw set in dogged determination.

Oh God, bodies everywhere.

The survivors, few that there were, were walking around the streets in a daze, unable to comprehend all the death and destruction surrounding them. She could still see the weird green glow in the standing water, but noticed in some places the water looked dark and brackish. She also realized that the soot-like substance she’d noticed on her hand earlier was appearing on the ground and on the sides of the buildings where it looked as though the water was beginning to dry. Once again, she wondered what the hell happened and what this stuff was. She passed a building that had a fire hydrant imbedded in the wall, and in the place the hydrant had occupied, water was gushing up in a slow trickle. At least it wasn’t spraying like a geyser the way it had been earlier.

The green, smoggy haze seemed somewhat dissipated now too, though it still lingered thick in certain spots. Despite the damp chill in the air, she was panting and sweating by the time she reached George’s house, and she didn’t even bother banging on the door. She flung it open, thanking God that it wasn’t locked. People in this town still seemed to think it was safe to leave their cars and homes unlocked at night. Except her parents. Her parents always locked everything up tight. She shoved the memory of her parents aside to be dealt with later. Gotta focus on the task at hand, Alex.

“Jericho? Jericho! Are you here? Jericho, where are you, buddy?”

She ran through George’s house, flipping on any lights that worked and flinging open doors in search of her brother. Their home was flooded just like hers. She finally found George’s parent’s room. They, like her own parents, were lying in their bed as if they were merely sleeping. At least that’s what they would look like, if it weren’t for their pallor and the dark-colored veins marring their skin. Just like Mom and Dad. Alex stopped for a moment, wheezing and trying to calm herself as another flood of grief and terror gripped her. The hope of finding her brother alive was dwindling with every passing second.

“Jericho?” she called out again. “Jericho! Are you here, buddy? Call out to me if you’re here!”

She stood still and listened to the deafening silence in the house, broken by the sound of trickling water. The horns blaring and people screaming that assaulted her ears on the way here drifted only very faintly through the walls and windows of George’s house. She strained her ears, listening harder. She thought she heard a stirring from one of the bedrooms across the hall and gasped when she heard a muffled cry. Leaping into action, she bolted across the hall and flung open the bedroom door, slapping around for a light switch. It flickered, buzzed, and then stayed steady, illuminating the bedroom in front of her. Alex nearly collapsed with relief when her gaze landed on her brother sitting up in the bed, holding the lifeless hand of his friend as he tried to shake him awake.

“Jericho…” I whispered.

He looked up at me, his face soaked with tears and his eyes wide with fear and confusion. “Alex? Alex, he—he won’t wake up. I shook him, but he won’t move. And everything—everything is getting all wet.”

Alex strode across the room and snatched him up out of the bed, pulling him away from the body of his friend and into her arms, hugging him fiercely. “I know, buddy. I know. George is gone, buddy, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened, but everyone—“ I swallowed hard, barely able to force the words out, “—everyone is gone. Even Mom and Dad.”

He didn’t respond at first, and she just hugged him, silently thanking God that he was alive. After several moments, Jericho’s arms wound their way around her neck and he hugged her back as his smaller frame began to shake with sobs.

She soothed him as best she could, letting him cry and get it all out. “Shhh…shhh… it’s going to be okay, buddy. We’re going to get through this. I promise, it will all be okay. Shhh…”

She stared into space, her own eyes bone dry with shock and fear and grief. She was a liar. She didn’t know if anything would ever be okay again. But she knew, beyond all doubt, that nothing would ever be the same.

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By C.B. Stone

C.B. Stone is author of the Unbelief trilogy, the Absence of Song trilogy, and more trilogy-like works. She also occasionally indulges in sushi and chocolate. OK, perhaps occasionally isn't the right word. Often? Every opportunity presented? ::ditches 3rd person voice:: Drat... OK, my name is C.B. Stone and I am a choc-o-holic and sushi addict. Feel better now? You know you're with me.

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