Chapter 8:

House of Cards

By the Shores of Time

Her eyes opened slightly to each gentle step. She glimpsed a woman with green skin humming a gentle melody. She didn’t feel fear, nor did she feel confused as her heavy eyes traced the cloudy skies. Raindrops trickled over her body, casting its cold spell. The last thing she saw was the woman’s green braided hair and her pursed lips.Bookmark here

Slowly awakening again, she found herself laid at the Sanctuary’s entrance. Its tall, rusted gate encircled a sizeable police station. Beams of flashlights revealed her muddied face, blinding her as someone approached. A woman wearing a weathered poncho passed through the armed guards. Her curly hair draped over her hood as she kneeled over Celeste. The woman’s army fatigues and boots revealed their distressed conditions. Her green eyes were the first thing she noticed along with the grave concern.Bookmark here

The words that followed trailed off as the woman looked toward the soldiers. She blacked out again, feeling more at ease.Bookmark here

When she came to, she found herself in a dark room. The struts of an acoustic played next to her, with each note carrying along familiar tune. The fluorescent light overhead dimmed with weak electricity coursing. She felt sore when she tried to move, seeing her clothes drying along the chair. Bookmark here

“You’re awake,” the voice of a southern belle whispered.Bookmark here

Celeste turned to find a freckle-faced, hazel-eyed woman greeting her daze with a comforting smile. Her curly, dirty blonde hair was tied into a low ponytail, reaching halfway down her back. She wore long-sleeved flannel, gathered around the hem as her jeans showed wear and tear. She rested her hand upon Celeste’s after setting down her guitar. Such warmth on her cold skin brought her back to reality, although something was amiss.Bookmark here

“Elizabeth?” she spoke.Bookmark here

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she responded. “Had to take leave from my nursing duties.”Bookmark here

“How—About the others?”Bookmark here

“The others? You came alone. Victoria found you in front of the gates.”Bookmark here

Celeste recalled the green woman, wondering how those memories tied to what happened. Who was she? Why did she save her? Her mind raced, bogged down with overlapping questions. These weren’t questions her friend could answer as she looked at her with concern.Bookmark here

“Celly,” she spoke. “Do you know how long you’ve been out for?”Bookmark here

“A day,” she responded without confliction.Bookmark here

“Well—It’s been over two weeks.”Bookmark here

“W—What?”Bookmark here

“Hey, hey, relax there,” Elizabeth insisted, meeting her bewildered expression. “You need to take it easy. You came up with a slight fever. Sorry if I—Uh, took off your clothes but it would’ve only made things worse.”Bookmark here

“Ah, she’s awake,” another woman spoke from the doorway.Bookmark here

It was the woman that found her at the entrance. Her stern gaze sized up the delirious, bed-ridden woman. She strolled in, glimpsing the nurse before sitting against a table. Her black tank top hugged along her toned body, revealing her scarred arms. Her olive-colored skin lent to her piercing green eyes.Bookmark here

“How are you feeling?” she spoke with a notable, South American accent. “You rested well, I hope.”Bookmark here

“I—Have,” Celeste responded.Bookmark here

“I know you have a lot of questions, but so do I. What happened to Gabriel and Johnny?”Bookmark here

Her memories were hazy as she massaged the side of her head. She remembered seeing Gabriel’s sadness, Alex’s terror, and Johnny’s voracious hunger, but the details became murkier the longer she thought about them.Bookmark here

“I don’t even remember how I got here,” she replied.Bookmark here

“Vicky,” Elizabeth chimed in. “We should give her time to readjust.”Bookmark here

“Right. Well, whenever you’re ready to talk. There’s a lot we need to catch up on.”Bookmark here

Victoria exited the room, leaving a lingering silence. Elizabeth glimpsed the young woman who looked to the side, trying to remember what happened. The nurse had feared the worst after the first few days, especially after Ricardo followed suit. Celeste glimpsed the barren table containing writing instruments. When she looked upon her tired face, she wondered how long she stayed by her side.Bookmark here

“Y’know,” the nurse commented. “I didn’t think you’d go out there.”Bookmark here

“Curiosity, definitely gets the best of me,” she acknowledged. “But, two weeks—What did I miss?”Bookmark here

They locked eyes, confirming the underlying hunch she had since she awoke.Bookmark here

Their footsteps echoed eerily throughout the empty halls, while Celeste glimpsed the vacant rooms. The makeshift sick bay they worked so hard to establish was nothing more than a ghost town. Guards kept a close watch over the pantry since food became scarce. Elizabeth’s silence didn’t make the young woman feel any less uneasy.Bookmark here

They finally reached the rooftop, passing through the few snipers that were available. The fog wasn’t as thick as it was when traversing the infected-dominated streets. They looked below, seeing burials stretching the large field. Some mounds were fresher than others, jogging Celeste’s terror and curiosity. Her voice trembled before she could ask the steeled nurse what happened while she was gone.Bookmark here

“I can’t even begin to explain what happened,” Elizabeth reached for her cigarette as she looked toward Celeste. “People—Just started losing their shit. Just like the first time we left the city.”Bookmark here

“But, no one’s come into contact with them, outside the usual scouts,” she noted.Bookmark here

“Yeah, well, you can argue with Greg and Father Nathanial on that one. Those two are like mixing drinks, bad mix but a pretty funny reaction.”Bookmark here

Celeste tightened her lips, watching Elizabeth chuckle before puffing smoke. Her eyes cast upon the mass graves, recollecting the feelings she felt. Many of them were young, many were already in a family unit in shambles, all clinging to hope throughout the end times. She still felt the blood smudged along her arms, hearing the horrid gasps of the dying. The animalistic snarls repeated in her head, overlapping the terror that echoed throughout the halls.Bookmark here

“Liz?” Celeste set aside her opinion after seeing the pain in her eyes.Bookmark here

“It’s all right,” she nodded. “There’s still something worth protecting here, but our numbers are dwindling fast.”Bookmark here

“We’ll pull through this.”Bookmark here

“You’re sounding a lot like Gabriel, that jackass. It’s not a bad thing. Hell, we bumped heads before, but his heart is in the right place. Thinking about it, I remember when we first met you were always—”Bookmark here

“A coward,” she admitted.Bookmark here

“No,” she flicked her cigarette. “You can’t be a coward if you’ve been forced into situations. Maybe this was a new beginning for a lot of us, or maybe—”Bookmark here

“Strange way to get a second shot, though?”Bookmark here

“Pfft, yeah. You can say that.”Bookmark here

A smile crept along her stoic face while placing an unlit cigarette in her mouth. It was rare to find the head nurse taking a breather. Her long shifts were brutal, but gave her purpose as she tended to once-complete strangers. Though she enjoyed the moment, the pain was still clear. She glimpsed the fresh scars hidden under her cuffs, while Elizabeth chuckled to a random thought. Celeste reluctantly chuckled along while looking off to the misty terrain.Bookmark here

* * * * *Bookmark here

It wasn’t long before they returned to the cool confines of the dimly-lit hallways. She felt the prying eyes of the survivors who skulked in the darkness of their rooms. Whispers and scoffs filled the silence, hearing her name evoked with ill-will. Although Elizabeth provided little information about what happened, she knew the battle-hardened leader would divulge on everything.Bookmark here

As she turned the corner, a sickly man emerged from the side of her eye, startling her as he clung to her shoulders. His heavy bags framed his sleepless blue eyes while his skin looked unhealthy. The once-kempt beard became entangled with the greasy head of hair that reached past his clerical collar. He looked into her eyes, finding the strange lilac tinge in her right. She gently nudged him into the wall, withholding her fright.Bookmark here

“Nathanial!” she trembled with her hand over her heart. “What the hell?”Bookmark here

“What did you see out there?” he asked with a notably brittle tone.Bookmark here

“I—Can’t remember,” she answered as a flood of memories surged upon looking into his mystical blue eyes. “Is everything all right?”Bookmark here

“I just wanted to see how you’re doing since you’re awake.”Bookmark here

“What happened around here?”Bookmark here

“The devil had his due,” he muttered, maintained his unsettling gaze. “I warned everyone from the beginning that guns and walls would not protect us spiritually from the evil that resides in the fog. Like the air we breathe, evil will find a way to enter.”Bookmark here

Celeste withheld her remarks, averting her troubled gaze.Bookmark here

“But, I take it you’re going to speak with Ms. Ramirez?” he continued. “Be careful with what she says, she’s not telling the entire truth.”Bookmark here

“Is this why you’re standing around here?” she questioned, meeting his doe eyes.Bookmark here

“Why do you think she forced Alex out—”Bookmark here

“Because he lost his fucking mind! I know you two worked together, but he’s not a saint.”Bookmark here

“No, but he recognized evil when he saw it.”Bookmark here

The door down the hall opened, with Victoria stepping out to hear the commotion. Nathanial bowed out after exchanging glances as her stern eyes struck fear in his heart. He walked away without uttering a word to Celeste. She turned to see the lieutenant’s nod before stepping back in.Bookmark here

Entering her office, she was greeted with an organized setup, like she last remembered. Seated toward her left was Greg, the elusive scientist. His pale skin and thinning hair glowed against the light coming from the tilted window shades. It also appeared he had done little upkeep from her time away. His hands rattled as he held his clipboard upon his scrawny lap. Celeste noted the lieutenant’s concern or the impression which she gave. The young woman sat across them after closing the door. Her green eyes carried a tired expression underneath the dim light.Bookmark here

“Miss Montedragon,” the scientist greeted. “Glad to see you made it back safely.”Bookmark here

“Thanks Greg,” she smiled.Bookmark here

“I’m sure Liz filled you in on what happened?” Victoria spoke while leaning toward the desk.Bookmark here

“A little, yeah,” she answered.Bookmark here

“Well, we don’t know why so many people got—infected, since none of them ever stepped foot.”Bookmark here

“Then what are you suggesting?”Bookmark here

“Well,” the scientist cleared his throat while straining his eyes on his papers. “There could be a lot of things, but many of them we’ve already debunked. The water supply, the food, our overall sanitation—I mean, heck I even tried frequencies.”Bookmark here

“Frequencies?” Victoria raised an eyebrow.Bookmark here

“Yes, there are some frequencies that impact human psyche—”Bookmark here

“That’s a strange, eh, assumption,” she spoke. “Couldn’t it be something like cabin fever?”Bookmark here

“No,” Greg nodded. “They had clear symptoms of an infected, all down to their behavioral pattern. Had we kept one alive—”Bookmark here

“That would be too risky for your experiments,” Victoria reminded, sending a cold gaze toward him. “We still don’t have an understanding of how this spreads. It’s probably some pathogen—”Bookmark here

“It’s not, however.”Bookmark here

They turned toward him, wondering what he was going to say as he flipped the page. Looking toward each of them, he gulped before opening his lips. Victoria knew little of all the strange experiments he did as he felt her penetrating gaze upon him.Bookmark here

“I collected blood samples on those days,” he stuttered. “None showed anything unusual within their blood. Whatever is causing this—Doesn’t conform to our knowledge of how diseases spread.”Bookmark here

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Celeste muttered.Bookmark here

“Nothing made sense from the beginning,” Victoria conceded. “I just feel like we’re living on borrowed time. Greg, if what you say is true, then we could be stricken with another outbreak. We’ve already lost enough people to this.”Bookmark here

“Then, I’d say,” he answered. “Whatever this thing is, doesn’t care about how many people we’ve lost. Until we figure out what’s going on, it will continue happening.”Bookmark here

The scientist met her apathetic eyes while she retrieved a small flask from the drawer. Setting up two shot glasses, she dismissed the nerve-racked scientist, watching as he closed the door behind him. Celeste waited for the lieutenant to speak as she poured a shot for each. She slid it over, exchanging glances with the young woman who looked on curiously.Bookmark here

“C’mon now,” she smirked before down her shot. “I’m sure you could use a good drink.”Bookmark here

“I’m afraid I’ll pass,” Celeste declined respectfully. “I never liked the taste of it.”Bookmark here

“You said your family came from Colombia, too. I find it hard to believe you don’t drink—”Bookmark here

“Not every Colombian drink.”Bookmark here

“Hmph. You’re right, my apologies… Just thinking about my time as a guerilla.”Bookmark here

“It’s fine, really.”Bookmark here

“Yes, wandering the godforsaken jungle… We’d evade the government troops, using the thicket of the jungle as our cover. Thinking about it now, I wonder what the point was after dedicating your life to a cause you laid your life for. Half a century, just to join the same government that shut you down.”Bookmark here

“Ideas change with time, whether or not we accept it.”Bookmark here

The lieutenant looked her dead in the eye after pouring another shot. Celeste felt she said something wrong as Victoria brought the shot glass toward her. Her stern expression broke down to something akin to laughter after downing a shot. The young woman took a deep breath as the lieutenant continued.Bookmark here

“That is certainly something he would say,” she spoke fondly. “Alas, there is something else I needed to talk to you about.”Bookmark here

Victoria took out a pair of stones, setting it in the center of the desk. Its rocky texture shone golden against the seeping light. It wasn’t long before recognizing the distinct shape of the stone. Victoria examined her reaction as she came toward the stones, holding one in her hand. It resembled half of a heart, revealing traces of gold within the black crust.Bookmark here

“We found it on you when we checked your pockets,” the lieutenant said. “The mine is a bit further than where you guys were supposed to go.”Bookmark here

“There was a factory that had a large depository of these after separating from Gabriel not too long before—And.”Bookmark here

“And?”Bookmark here

“Alex showed up after we lost him the night before.”Bookmark here

“What happened to him?”Bookmark here

“We separated, then—I found Gabriel again.”Bookmark here

Her memories clouded again, barely being able to detail the events that happened. Everything felt like a strange nightmare, full of obscene and strange happenings she read in fiction. She felt Victoria’s warm hands clasp upon hers, easing her tense hands.Bookmark here

“What did you see out there, Celeste?” Victoria asked.Bookmark here

They looked at one another in silence as the lieutenant awaited her response. Her eyes cast upon the broken half of the pyrite, realizing how reluctant she was to speak. As she returned her attention toward Victoria, she came to terms about what happened.Bookmark here

Celeste made her decision.Bookmark here

New characters, different motives
Certainly a house of cards, no?
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