The Cloud

Chapter 1

The Cloud

by: Firreus
A/N: This is an entry into AwesomeOK1's Hunger Games Competition

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As I was bound and gagged, the masked men place bags over the heads of my parents as they forced them to kneel. I was grabbed by my hair and made to watch as the bandits kicked and beat them with no regard for their lives. I could hear my father grunt under the bag, trying to stay strong while my mother let out whimpers of pain and cried under the torture. This only prompted them to hit her harder and made her shriek louder. At last, I couldn't take any more of the ghastly occurrence before me and begged for them to stop. I was met with a blow to my skull, blood trickling from the point of impact. One of them kept my head in place and they proceeded to bring my parents upright. They aimed the guns at the back of their heads, cocked them...

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And I woke up. As I opened my eyes to the gloominess of the dawn, I felt something crawling on my face. Panicking, I rushed to wipe it off, sitting up to realise that Darren and Andre were snickering nearby, their eyes covered by matching brown fringes.
"Thanks for the notice boys." I remarked, adrenaline invigorating my senses.
"As they say, early bird catches the worm." Darren jested.
"That was a centipede you idiot." Andre mocked, whacking Darren on the back of the head.
"There's a difference?" He replied. I didn't really want to wake up to the arguing of the twins, so I quickly interrupted.
"The only worms I see here are you two." I growled, disapprovingly.
"Hey, you looked at peace in your sleep. Didn't want to bring you back from the dream world." Darren said.

"Well any world is probably better than this one." A voice from behind stated. I turned around to meet the hazel eyes of Serena. She was a small woman, but kept a high posture nevertheless as if to make up for her lack of height. Her shiny red hair was windswept and not at all tidy; it showed how hard she had been working for the past few days. "I don't know about you," she continued, "but Mars is looking to be a better place to live than this cesspool." Andre stood up, marching to confront Serena.
"Well I'd rather breathe polluted air than no air at all!" He replied. "Why don't you trying thinking positive for a change?" He promptly received a slap across the face.
"Because unlike you, I can accept my fate instead of placing my trust into blind hope!" She rebuked.
"And you've been nothing but a pessimist and a nuisance from day one! Remind me whose idea it was to let you join this group?" To be honest, I didn't want to hear any arguing from anybody.

"Can you two stop your bickering? We won't get anywhere with your constant arguing!" I pointed out. The two simply stared at each other for a few seconds. Tensions were thick and the air was thicker.
"In the end, we won't get anywhere at all." Serena claimed, grumping off. I turned to face Andre, a droplet of sweat trickling down his face. The two had been at odds for days now, making a commotion of every little mishap. Everyone was getting tired of their rivalry. I wasn't sure how much I could take either.
"Just drop it, man. I'm tired, not because I just got up." I spoke. He turned his gaze away from mine. He was 19, just three years younger than me, but he could act like he was five at times. "I got up to another one of your little wars. Why not call a ceasefire? It's long past the time for fighting." He ignored my eye contact, looking at the barren ground instead.
"She just... she gets on my nerves. Doesn't she annoy you as well, Kiernan? Back me up on this." He said. While it was true that Serena was a pushover, she hadn't particularly done anything to annoy me.
"I'm not taking sides. I won't choose between you or her."
"Oh yeah? Then what if comes down to confronting that... that Cloud, huh? If we were in danger, who would you save?"

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Now he was placing me on the spot. I wonder if the people who decided to launch that damned weapon were placed too. Two months ago, the government authorised testing of a nuclear-based weapon. They isolated human society from the test site, making sure nobody would be affected. But there was a grave miscalculation on their part. Who would've known that the lethal cloud of radiation that followed would gradually consume the entirety of the globe? It was as if the cloud, seemingly inanimate, had taken a form of sentiency, moving wherever it pleased and draining the life force of the planet to sustain its own destructive desires. The first few days were spent attempting to quarantine or possibly eliminate the threat altogether. But that's all we had. It got so badly out of control, it was deemed unstoppable. But that was just the main cloud. Smaller, less adverse effects spread worldwide; the environment decayed, habitats were rendered inhabitable and the ecosystem was ultimately destroyed. Now we sit and wait to die. Or at the very least, prolong our already guaranteed death sentence.

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"I wouldn't save anyone. We're dead anyways." I replied, grimly thinking ahead to the moment the Cloud would consume us.
"Oh no, not you too? Why has everybody given up on life so readily?/We don't know/ we're going to die! Maybe they've been working on something to counter it or we could be immune, maybe-"
"Enough!" Darren interrupted. Andre spun around to meet the sorrowful expression of his brother, sadness evident in his eyes. "I'm your brother, Andre. We've been through so much together and we've always had each other's backs since day one. The day we were born! We've overcome so much..." He placed a hand on Andre's shoulder, looking into his face. "But we can't overcome this. You know it. I know it. Kiernan knows it. The world knows it. Better to accept our fate now than die blindly." They pulled in for a hug, holding each other as tightly as the bonds that bind them as brothers. I didn't have any siblings of my own, so I almost felt envious watching them. I saw Darren's face overlap his brother's shoulder, signalling me to leave them in peace. Without any words, I obeyed.

I left my little piece of land to survey the entire campsite. On the opposite side was the children's corner, where I saw the little kids play. That's the innocence, more rather ignorance, of children for you. Directly next to them was a devoted and aged nun going by the name Marissa with her shrine and religious keepsakes, living out her final days praying to God for peace in Heaven. If only we had peace on Earth before, none of this would have happened. A few feet away was Serena's tent. I didn't see her anywhere so I assumed she was inside; I didn't want to disturb her either. Sitting right outside and slumping near a rock was Old Man Barlow. He was a bum and a drunk who couldn't care less about the world's end. Then right next to my tent were two displaced families: the Harlands and the Rockforts. All of them but Danny Rockfort were good people, in my opinion. They enjoyed their privacy, so I stayed away from their tents.

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Nothing seemed to be out of place. In fact, the most normal thing I could see was the presence of the lingering cloud of death that stretched out across the western horizon. At least I would live to see one final sunrise. If today was the final day I'd spend on Earth, I would spend it with who I could only assume to be the last people on Earth. I passed the children's game, their attention focused on the soccer ball, making my way towards Marissa. I wasn't raised a Christian, but maybe some religious fervour and doctrine would help ease my fears.
"Hello Sister Marissa." I called out, bowing my head in respect.
"Ah, hello child. A most blessed day to you." She greeted. She gave a wrinkled smile, her head bowed. As I neared her, I took note of the many religious symbols near her. There was an altar to her God which she kneeled before and by her side was a thick leather book I recognised as the Bible she had talked about in a few sessions I spent with her. I saw a cross with the figure of a crucified man and a long, narrow thread bearing numerous white crystalline beads. These trinkets I did not recognise.

"Well, the sun is out, at least. I suppose I should be thankful towards... your God for that?" I asked, still uncertain as to whether this God truly did exist.
"Oh yes, of course. On the first day, God proclaimed "Let there be light." and there was light. It is this light that shines upon His Earth today." She proclaimed.
"Then tell me, why does God not assist mankind in its endeavours today? Has He abandoned us?" She paused, looking down at the small altar and muttered an inaudible prayer.
"Perhaps," suggested Marissa, "this is His punishment on mankind, that it be His divine will to see us scolded for our sins against His creation." To hear her preach only perplexed me further, creating a mixture of confusion and anger in my head.

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"But does God not love us? If we are His favoured people, why does He not save the faithful?" I realised the stupidity of my question, for I was not among the believers.
"He shall save us in death. He cannot shield us from the dangers of radiation." I suppose that's what hazmat suits suits are for. "But He will protect us from the unholy influence of the devil and we shall join Him in the Kingdom of God."
"But why would he bother creating mankind if we would only serve to bring about the destruction of-"
"I do not know!" She shouted, almost breaking down. "I do not have the answers to the questions you ask, child. I apologise for my sudden outburst. I just..."
"You don't have to worry, Sister. I too am afraid." I said, trying to ease her fears. Strange, I came to her in attempt to relax my own. "At least you may rest in peace with the knowledge that you are saved." At first, there was silence. A peaceful sort, a holy sort.
"Thank you." Marissa whispered. She continued to kneel before the altar, uttering her prayers while she could. I decided it best to leave her in peace.

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As I turned away, I could see Barlow downing yet another bottle of scotch. I figured it best to knock some sense into him so that he wouldn't miserably fall flat on his face running. It wouldn't help anyways, but it would've been... personally satisfying to see the wretch sober for once.
"Hey Barlow!" I called, getting his attention. Or at least trying.
"Wha-? Marissa, is that you? I knew you couldn't resist my - hic - charms. Come to old Bar-" He rambled. "Oh. It's you. What was it now, Hearan, Pieran...?"
"Kiernan, you damn fool." I snapped.
"Oh yeah," he confirmed, "that's right." He reached into the cooler for yet another bottle, which I promptly snatched. "Hey, give me that back! That's my drink. Unless you wanted to share, you could've - hic - just asked."
"I don't want one of your damned drinks, I want your attention." I waved the bottle in the air, as if to bait him into taking it off me.

"And you have it! Now give me my attention back." He flung his arms out, but I easily backed away.
"Look at you. You're pathetic. I find it amazing how you've survived this long."
"I know! The drink should've killed me long ago!" He erupted into a raucous laughter, the sickly scent of both unhygienic practices and alcohol-infused breath filling my lungs. It made me want to vomit. All over Barlow, preferably. Then that would just add to more of the smell... Without warning, I felt an impact on the back of my head. I checked to find the soccer ball rolling at my feet, dusty and bruised from days of being kicked. I saw one of the kids, Robert Harland, run over to us.
"Excuse me sir, could we please have the ball back?" He asked with an innocent tone. The ball had stopped by Barlow, who began to hold it in his hands.
"Why are you kids playing?" He asked, a sudden sense of sternness in his voice,
"Because it's fun...?" The boy whimpered.

"Fun?" Barlow stood up, a feat I almost though impossible. Surprisingly, he towered above us despite having such a skinny frame. "And you don't reckon watching that cloud over there in the horizon is fun enough for you?" He struggled over to the boy, some deranged sensation overwhelming him. "I think you should broaden your horizons! Enjoy the day while you can, because you won't experience anything like it! This won't help either." He stared down at the ball, pulled out a pin and punctured it, air whizzing out of it rapidly. He tossed it aside. "I hope you realise how important your life is sonny Jim, because in a few hours, you'll be dead! That's right, dead!" I couldn't tolerate this anymore. Without thinking, I smashed the bottle over his head and wrestled the old man to the ground. Robert and the others promptly ran away to their parents.

"What the hell do you think you're saying?" I demanded, grabbing his vest. "That is not the way you treat a little boy! He's just a child, for crying out loud and you're scaring him!"
"That Sister claims we're all children! We're no different!" I delivered a swift fist to his face, shutting him up.
"Well you're a monster! You don't even deserve to live!" Then I lost control. As I shook and strangled the man, I was forced off. I turned to meet Darren and Andre, clearly concerned.
"Woah, easy there dude. Don't want anybody dying." Andre said.
"Yet." Darren finished.
"Has your brain been saddled by all those radioactive particles in the air? You need to realise what's best! I know you know we're all doomed, but the sooner you realise everybody needs to accept that fact, the better!" Barlow exclaimed. I didn't want to waste time on a drunkard like him. I didn't even want to think.

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"Hey, everybody!" A voice called. It was Nolan Harland, who stood side by side with Max Rockfort. Their wives, Sarah and Debra respectively, stood behind them, heads rested on their shoulders. "You might want to check this out..." The way he delivered the line, I wasn't certain I wanted to check it out. Nevertheless, I walked over with the twins to see what was going on. As I looked out to the horizon, I was rendered speechless. The Cloud was upon us. It was our time. Much sooner than I expected. "How it approached so quickly, I don't even know. All that I do know is..."
"It's here." Sarah finished. It was unsettling. One moment, I'm dealing with a petty nuisance. The next, I face a grand threat. To see it in person... it was a large, dark cloud of immense size, blackening the day, swallowing its prey and dooming us all. "We need to go." Sarah suggested, tugging at her husband's sleeve.
"You do that. I'm going to see this through to the end." Darren stated, his brother nodding behind him.
"I'm joining the two. They know what they're on about." Barlow muttered. The children were all crying, clearly terrified for what would ensue.

"What? You're not even going to try and run?" Max gasped. "You're all fools, the lot of you! If I can avoid death, I will!" He grabbed his children and turned away, running as fast as he could.
"Yes, I agree with him. You're not getting anywhere like this!" Nolan convinced.
"Exactly the point." I explained, stepping forward to confront the Cloud. I stared the man in the eye, silently taking his acknowledgement of our situation. He took his family and calmly walked away, as if they were in no rush to avoid the danger. While I was turned, I saw Marissa still praying. Maybe she would find peace. Perhaps the futility of her faith wouldn't save her. I didn't know. Because I wasn't God. As for Serena, I couldn't see any trace of her. I didn't care. I turned around to come face to face with the Cloud once again. It overshadowed me greatly, soon to overwhelm me. Then everybody else. I closed my eyes...

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As I watched the blood pour out of the skulls of my parents, I too suffered the same torture. They kicked me, punched me, did all they could to make me suffer. Yet, in those moments of pain and agony, images of my family back when they were alive flashed through my head. They were happy. They were at peace. And I would soon join them. Eventually, the bandits had their share of fun with me. They took a gun, cocked it back and aimed. I'm coming, Mom. I'm coming, Dad.

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And the Cloud took me.

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