SUMMARY: When a biological attack hits the United States in 2012, humanity is pushed to it’s limits to adapt. Victims become gripped by a severe allergic reaction to water. A new city is established—the Aquagenic-Mortis Rehabilitation City (A.R.C.)—to contain and protect the infected. Nearly thirty years later, people begin to disappear. A.R.C.-born citizens and possible carriers of an evolving strand of DNA could be the cure to end the disease. People like Noah. Now it’s up to him, one of few immune to the disease, to find out the truth behind A.R.C. and the dark web of scandals that serve as its foundation.
WARNING: This series contains violence and graphic language. It may not be suitable for readers under the age of 16.
Water splattered loudly against the white curve of Noah's sink. The apartment building that he lived in had oddly high water pressure, which was great for aching muscles when he showered, but horrible every time he brushed his teeth. Water gushed from the faucet and sprayed the bottom hem of his shirt. The warm mist would soon cool and leave his stomach uncomfortably chill in the crisp morning air. One of these days he'd remember to get changed after he brushed his teeth instead of before.
While Noah brushed his teeth and listened to the sound of bristles scratching the ick from his mouth, he took a long look at himself in the mirror, as he did every morning. Nothing had changed since yesterday. He still had the same dark blue eyes, the same dark hair and stubble. The same pale face. He was the same as he always was; nineteen and single. He spat foam into the sink, watched it disappear in a swirl and turned off the water. In the suddenly silent bathroom, he started to catch bits of the news he had turned on in the family room. Noah reached for the little tube of hair gel on his sink and listened.
"Twenty years. Twenty years, today, since January 1st, 2012. The day when our lives were so drastically changed. It's almost hard to believe… Dr. Lykehurst, thank you for coming today."
The voice from the news interview was strong, confident and rehearsed. A bold contrast to the weathered voice that followed.
"It's a pleasure to be here."
"A lot can happen in twenty years, don't you agree, doctor?"
"Yes, of course."
"Far more was done in far less, in fact… If you would be so kind, could you tell us what sort of accomplishments have been made since the biological attack in 2012?" the reporter asked.
As Noah ran his hand through his hair one last time, he considered the odd angles it had taken in the mirror. He considered those angles for a full ten seconds before knocking the little tube of gel into the trashcan and turning on the water. He let the water pool into his cupped hands, lowered his head to the sink and attempted to rinse the gunk from it. The sound of the interview drowned beneath the rush of water until Noah finally shut off the tap and reached for a towel.
"Doctor, I won't deny that our adaptation to a life without natural water is commendable, but that is hardly the sort of accomplishment the human race is looking for. What progress has been made towards a cure?" the reporter asked. The tone of a grateful host was gone now, replaced with a professional coolness befitting a predator or a lawyer.
The doctor paused, wary. Noah leaned out of the bathroom to take a look.
"That is a difficult question with an equally difficult answer. Scientists have been studying the structure of the chemical responsible for years now. That isn't to say that there is no cure in sight, but as of right now, the city of A.R.C. is our best protection against natural water."
The reporter held up one hand to pause the explanation.
"So to be completely clear, after 20 years of research, our best accomplishment is something that was completed a little over 19 years ago?"
"Well, it's not that simple‒"
Noah turned off the TV and set the controller back down on the couch. He shook his head, the news report still replaying in his mind as he walked to the kitchen. He grabbed a clean glass from the drying rack on the counter and filled it with water from the sink. He raised his glass, intent on drinking, but paused at the sudden sound of heavy footsteps.
Those footsteps were shortly followed by the crack of wood splintering and a scream. Noah walked back into the family. The TV was still off, its screen a dull black. Noah frowned.
There was another crash of wood, and then another. Noah looked outside his family room window, but the street was barren of police cars. Just black vans and SUVs, each parked slightly on the sidewalk, as if the parking job was sudden.
Noah turned around just as his own door was kicked in with a splintery crunch. Wood sprayed onto the floor of his apartment's entrance, the narrow hall framing the intruders as they entered. Two men, each dressed in thick, black riot gear, quickly walked into the family room. One man motioned for Noah to remain still as the other gave the apartment a quick scan. Beyond the shoulders of the intruders‒A.R.C. Police Department [APD] patches sewn deceptively on their sleeves‒he could see across the hall into the other apartment.
Another man in riot gear was exiting that apartment, and past the splintered remains of the door he could see the young woman he once called neighbor sprawled out on the floor. She was lying in a puddle of water, haloed in flowers and the shattered remains of the vase she had been carrying towards her kitchen table.
One of the men in his own apartment blocked his view before he could register the wounds smoldering on her body.
"We're clear," one man says as he took position beside his partner. The other noded and both turned to look at Noah. His stomach plummeted.
As the barrels of their guns raised to aim at him‒red laser dots swaying on his chest‒Noah's fingers begin to lose their grip on the glass of water in his hand. Water sloshed lazily in the glass as it fell and from the way the two men stiffened before him, one might've mistaken the glass for a grenade.
It hit the hardwood floor with a sudden scream of shattering glass, spraying water onto the ground and across Noah's bare feet. The intruders back peddled quickly and‒
‒The sound of sudden rainfall startled Noah from his dream. He opened his eyes just in time to see the wiper blades sweep the sudden watery haze from the windshield. The world outside the car windows was grey. One by one, the street lamps flickered to life, and the LCD panels built into various crumbling buildings all began to display the same thing; the city of A.R.C. has declared a serious weather warning for the Second District. All inhabitants are strongly encouraged to seek shelter from the rain. The storm is estimated to last roughly 30 minutes. Again, a serious weather warning has been declared for the Second District.
On and on the message played, a constant warning for any wayward soul who wasn't smart enough to check the weather before heading out onto the streets. Thankfully, the sidewalks were barren.
Noah sat up a little straighter and looked at the driver beside him. A man in a large, typical looking raincoat was driving. He was an older guy, probably nearing his late forties, his dark hair flecked with a few strands of premature grey.
"Second District… How long was I out, L'oup?"
To anyone else, L'ouppole would look unfriendly. The corners of his lips had creases because he frowned too much and worry had slightly wrinkled the skin between his brows. He wasn't the sort of man someone with a flier would walk up to. It would be a waste of paper.
Through the rain barreling against the windshield, Noah could make out the large, glass dome of the First District. Water sloshed off the surface of the huge, arching dome and pooled into the moat that separated the Second District from the First.
"Anything new?" L'ouppole asked. Noah shrugged.
"Same old. The guns raise and the glass falls. Nothing I didn't already remember," Noah said.
"You should talk to that doctor woman when you get back to base."
"Two and half years of dreaming and no improvements. I don't think those memories are ever coming back, L'oup, so why waste my time‒or hers‒talking about the same thing as last time?"
"You're a stubborn little shit, you know that?" L'ouppole said. When Noah grinned in response, he merely sneered and pulled the car into a parking garage just shy of the bridge leading to the First District.
Unlike the garages Noah was used to back in the Ports District, this garage was well lit in the darkness. The spaces were clearly painted, the cars were all nicely tended after, for the most part, and the walls weren't covered in paint.
They had to drive the car up five flights before finally finding an vacant spot to park in. Just one flight short of running out of possibilities.
He turned off the engine and both climbed out of the car. Noah stretched, his young muscles moving silently where as L'ouppole's knees cracked when he hefted himself out of the car. Both paused at the sound.
Noah grinned again and L'ouppole waved a finger at him in warning.
"You try to convince me into doing Yoga again, or Tai-Chi, or whatever other mumbo-jumbo tranquility nonsense you've got planned and I will end you," L'ouppole growled.
Noah sighed, "But there is this really cool vitamin I heard about on TV‒"
Noah started walking toward the elevator like there wasn't even a conversation to drop.
"What's the game plan, L'oup?"
"I'm going to go distract the security guard. You go check on whatever that girl's name is‒"
"Like I said. Whatever."
When they reached the elevator, L'ouppole pressed the call button. Noah headed for the stairwell door.
"Stay safe, old man."
L'ouppole gave him a dirty glare in parting and Noah slipped into the stairwell quietly. By the time the door clicked shut, he was already a flight up. Two flights later, he was on the eighth floor.
When he opened the door, he entered the hallway of the apartment building connected to the garage. The walls were nicely painted and the carpets were managed well enough. Noah passed door after door before finally finding room 822, Sandy's apartment. He gave the door three knocks, then another three when no one answered. After that, he pulled out a thin, black leather wallet. There were ten little card pockets in the wallet and of them, nine were occupied. He pulled out a red card with the number 822 pasted on it, and slipped it into the door's card reader. With a click, the door unlocked and Noah let himself inside.
As he stepped inside the nicely furnished apartment, he pressed two fingers against the tiny communicator in his ear.
"Just made it inside. Where you at, L'oup?"
There was a small crackling noise and Noah winced. He swore that this would be the last time he let L'ouppole talk him into using his outdated technology instead of the nice gear from the agency. The static feedback stopped, after a small click and a pop, L'ouppole's voice started to come through.
Through their communicators, Noah could almost hear the sound of the security guard the older man was talking to.
"What are you doing here?" the guard asked.
"Sorry, I was visiting my daughter a few days ago and I left my phone in the lobby. I was told to come here to get it?"
"The lobby told you to come here?" the guard asked skeptically.
Noah started to walk through the apartment as he listened. The hardwood was beautiful here; light and rich looking. The family room alone was easily two times the size of his own bedroom back in the Ports District. Noah sighed.
"Yes, sorry. They said they send the more expensive items from lost and found to you guys," L'ouppole said.
Noah could hear the sound of the guard standing. From the way the chair squeaked, Noah guessed he was heavy.
"Give me a minute while I go check the back office," the guard said. There was the sound of the door clicking closed, then silence.
"You in the surveillance room?" Noah asked.
"Yeah," the older man said. Noah could hear him taking a seat in front of the security feedback system. "What sort of guard leaves a stranger in their surveillance room?"
"What sort of building puts the guard's office in a separate room from the surveillance room?"
L'ouppole let out a short, barking laugh in response. "Touché. Any sign of the girl yet?"
Noah walked towards the kitchen. It was just as clean and unlived in looking as the family room, and just as white.
"Nope. If Sandy was here, she would've had a gun jammed down my throat the second I walked into this apartment without her say so. Something's wrong, L'oup."
"Any sign of a struggle?"
"No. Everything is typical Sandy. Nothing out of order. I don't know… She hasn't contacted the base for three days. Three. That's not like her. She'd tell us if she wasn't going to be home, you know?"
"Not really. I don't know your teammates, Noah," the older man replied.
Noah nodded. "I forgot."
"Don't make a habit out of that."
There was the sound of shuffling, then L'ouppole settled again.
"Sandy?" Noah called into the empty apartment. He walked into the bedroom; nothing. He walked towards her closet and looked inside. On the top shelf, he removed a medium sized metal case. He brought it to the bed and opened it.
All of her emergency items were still inside. The handgun was untouched, as were the fake identifications, money and keys.
"Whatever happened to Sandy, it was either on her terms or she didn't have enough time to grab the kit," Noah said.
"Doesn't sound good, kid."
Noah closed the case and returned it to the closet.
"Definitely not," he agreed.
"You done yet? I don't think this guard is going to be gone forever."
"Yeah, just one more minute. I need to check the bathroom," he said.
"Well get a move on."
Noah walked to the back corner of the bedroom to the bathroom. The door was closed. Noah gave it a quick knock, just in case.
At the force of his knock, the door, which was not completely closed, slipped free from the frame and slowly opened. Besides the slightly off smell, the bathroom within was dark, though the bedroom Noah was in was not much brighter. The shower curtain was drawn, this much he could see in the darkness. He pressed his hand to the wall and felt around for the switch. When he found it, he turned on the lights.
The bathroom was clean. The tile white with a small, purple plush rug. The shower curtains matched. Noah sighed.
"No… It's just as untouched as the rest of her apartment. Though," Noah sniffed, "I think something might've died in her walls or something. It doesn't exactly smell like roses in here‒" Noah stopped. In the small space between the tiled floor and the bottom hem of the shower curtain, he could see small rivulets of water pooling down the side of the tub and disappearing into a crack along the tub's edge. He took a step forward, and then another.
"That's odd," he said.
On the other end of his communicator he could hear a loud set of beeping, then L'ouppole's fumbled curses. Noah ignored them, reached for the shower curtain and pulled it back.
Water sloshed loudly as the curtain moved, but what was worse than the woman lying dead in the bathtub was the sudden wall of stench that jackknifed the air from Noah's lungs. The curtain must have been holding the bulk of the reek back, but now he could smell the definite fragrance of death.
"I‒" Noah swallowed back the breakfast that threatened to rise in his throat, "I found her, L'oup. I‒"
The bathroom was too white. Everything was too bright. Staring at Sandy's lifeless features now‒ smiling, lovely Sandy‒Noah couldn't breathe. She was just lying there, fully clothed, dead, in the tub. The water was all the way up to her shoulders. She should have been floating, but her waterlogged garments anchored her down. The bouncy brown curls Noah once fancied as her best feature swirled sluggishly in the water.
There were no wounds. No bruises. She was just lying there, her skin from the shoulders up untouched. The rest of her skin he couldn't see, except the ends of her long, delicate fingers, peeking out from the cuffs of her sweater. The skin was burned and tattered and‒
Noah lurched back from the tub, fell to his knees in the bedroom and vomited. Somewhere, he could hear L'ouppole talking, trying to get his attention, but he couldn't make out the words. Everything was a low, overwhelming buzz. His fingers could not feel the carpet beneath them, they were so numb. He felt clammy, everything was too hot and too cold; too much.
He sat there on his knees, breathing through flared nostrils until he could finally register a smell other than the putrid one from the bathroom‒his own vomit. From there, the white started to fade. He could see the stain of ick he had made on the carpet and his hands framing the spot on either side. The carpet was soft and L'ouppole was talking. He wasn't loud, but his commanding tone made it feel like he was shouting.
"Noah? I'm coming to get you."
"No," he said and tried to steady the shake from his voice, "No, I'm fine."
"You need to get out of there. You tripped an alarm when you turned on the lights. The APD are coming. I'll meet you at the car, I'll‒" L'ouppole stopped at the sudden sound of the door opening.
"I couldn't find any phones, sir, I'm sorry‒what did you do?"
L'ouppole stood with a creaky pop and Noah could hear the guard reclaiming his seat.
"Oh, I'm sorry. You'll have to forgive me for taking your seat. My knees, you know‒"
"‒Did you touch anything?" the guard interrupted.
"No. I didn't touch a thing."
Noah could hear the guard moving.
"I couldn't find your phone. I'm going to have to ask you to leave now, sir," and with that, the guard dismissed L'ouppole completely. Noah could hear the sound of the door opening again, and the click of the older man's shoes as he walked.
"You okay, L'oup?"
"I saw the footage looking outside, Noah. APD just pulled up. Meet me at the car and we'll get out of here," he said.
Noah stood up and hurried to the closet. He pulled the emergency case down again and quickly pulled out the wad of bills and the gun within, then dropped the case altogether.
"No? This isn't a game, Noah. Meet me at the freaking car."
"If they catch us together, they'll put you down on the Agency Watch List. You can't go to jail. You can't. Plus, they've probably blocked the exit of the garage already."
Noah jogged into the family room. Sure enough, the white walls were washed with the red and blue flashes from the police cars outside. Their lights flickered off of the rain, lighting up the world outside Sandy's apartment. He cursed.
"Noah, this isn't the time‒"
"‒Go to the lobby. Keep up the phone bit you've got going. I'll be fine," he said as he went to the window. Outside, he could see the fire escape and more importantly, the fire escape beyond it leading to the building opposite. The jump was doable and a better bet than trying to make it to the garage unscathed.
"If you get caught‒"
"‒You'd get me out‒"
"‒That's not the point. You can't outrun SUVs, kid, you're going to need a ride."
"I've already got something planned‒"
He could hear the sound of the stairwell door being slammed open down the hall, followed by the rush of heavy footsteps. Noah cursed.
"Got to go."
He reached for the window just as a boot connected with the door. It didn't give out on the first kick, but Noah didn't pause to watch the next kick connect. He threw the window open just as the door crunched loudly behind him.
Noah stopped, one leg thrown over the window sill, one still in. Hunched over, he looked to the three men aiming at him. Red laser dots swayed on his chest. The rain was still falling hard, he could feel it soaking into his clothes, matting one half of his hair to his face. At their shocked faces, he smiled and bolted out the window.
He could hear one yelling into the radio built into their suits.
"We're dealing with a Runner. I repeat, suspect is immune to rain water and is using the fire escapes on the south side of the building."
Noah slid to the edge of the fire escape, climbed onto the railing and leapt across the gap leading to the next fire escape over. The metal clanged hard against the building as he grabbed the railing and hoisted himself over. As he started to open the window, he could see the reflection of the riot officers behind him. One was trying to lean out the window as much as possible without actually leaning out into the rain. With one hand on the sill, the tips of his fingers not covered by gloves were splattered with a few stray drops of rain. The affected skin sizzled and popped immediately, burning grossly where the water touched. The man pulled his hand back, hissing.
Noah climbed in through the window, then quickly shut and locked it.
"He's in the parallel building. Send a team to the South Wing Hotel."
He gave them a little wave, pressed a button on his watch and ran.
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"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011
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"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011