Part 1 - The Ghost
xx-xx is in the ‘normal’ or ‘up-to-date’ timeline and oo-oo is for the flashbacks or ‘old’ timeline.
The rocky ground covered with countless pieces of broken glass, the musky smell of blood and dust, the empty building echoing her footsteps, everything was a familiar scene for Karma. It was still the same as the first time she’d come, afraid and in denial, the area unfamiliar territory.
She winced as she stepped on a piece of glass, the loud crunch piercing the deadly silence. Her blood pounded in her ears as her instincts sang ‘DANGER’. The sound rang in her ears even after the silence had come back. She took a deep breath in, then pushed it out. Everything was too loud. They were most sensitive to sound.
She reminded herself that tonight was a charge day and that she wouldn’t be heard. She wouldn’t be hunted. She laughed mentally. How ironic would it be if she died here.
She couldn’t remember if her eyes were open or not, although it wouldn’t have made a difference in the inky darkness that surrounded her. She kept walking, her mind picturing the area as she dodged objects with ease. It had taken her six months, but she could finally navigate without using her flashlight. She was glad she didn’t need it anymore as it reduced the chances of being caught, and being caught was the worse thing that could happen.
She felt her head brush against a pole that she knew had been hanging loose from the ceiling and she stopped to turn her body in another direction. She walked over to the broken chair she knew she’d moved recently. It was better than sitting on the ground where she would usually cut herself by accident with one of the thousand pieces of glass surrounding the area. She had enough injuries without adding glass shards on the list.
She shivered as a cold wind blew through the open window on the wall next to her and whispered across her skin. If she focused long enough, like she sometimes did, she could almost hear it retell the story of what happened here. She rubbed her arms, trying to find any warmth. She’d left her jacket at the Shelter, it was almost summer, but now she was seriously regretting it.
She hesitated to turn her flashlight on. She didn’t need it, but she really wanted to escape the suffocating darkness. She reassured herself she was safe in this small corner of the room. X’s couldn’t fit in small buildings, and they didn’t usually explore places if they knew they weren’t going to find any food. Except Karma was in the building, and for them, she’d taste as good as a Thanksgiving meal. If she valued her life, she would make sure they never found her.
Her logic and will to see won and she turned her flashlight on. She promised herself it was only for a moment. It was better to not use the batteries. They’d been running out of them for a while now, and these were the only ones she had left.
Soon enough she would have to come during the day. Whilst the X’s were more active in the night, knowing that it gave them a bigger advantage as humans couldn’t see as well as they could with their infrared vision, the darkness gave Karma a perfect opportunity to escape the Shelter unsupervised. As soon as she would start sneaking out in the daylight, she would become suspicious. Everyone was scouting during the day and it would be terribly easy for someone to see her slipping away, terribly easy for someone to ask for her and for no one to find her in her room, where she’s supposed to be if she’s not scouting. There wasn’t a single person that wouldn’t report it to Oberon and then it would be game over for her. They’d found her once when she’d been careless and naïve five months ago, and they’d assigned someone to watch her constantly. Luckily, she managed to convince them to leave her alone again, but if they knew she was still doing it, she’d be followed once again and they’d never let her go. She knew what she was doing wasn’t allowed and risky, but she would go mad if she couldn’t come here anymore.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the vivid light the flashlight brought when she turned it on but they finally did and the sight that greeted her was the same as ever.
The corpse’s neck was snapped backwards, its knees were facing the wrong way, its eyes were still open in fear, a last reminder of the trauma suffered. The puddle of blood surrounding the body had dried. After all, the body had been lying there for a long time.
Karma breathed in.
The words were more air than voice, the threat of monsters hearing her still hanging in the air. It didn’t matter, all those times her mother had told her to not talk about the dead. She never said she couldn’t talk to them.
“This last week was good, I’m sorry I couldn’t come earlier. Oberon is pushing us to find an exit. I think we’re all slowly losing our minds. Oberon’s too optimistic, I don’t think we’re ever going to make it out.”
Karma slowly brought up her sweater sleeve to swipe at the tear on her face. She only realised afterwards that she probably only put more dirt on her face than before.
She stared at the shattered body, wishing for better circumstances. When the accident happened, the group had dragged the body as fast as possible into this building. This was the best they could give to the dead. Funerals weren’t possible anymore, the bodies were eaten by the X’s, and when they did manage to hide the bodies, they didn’t have the time and energy to waste into holding a funeral for them. All they’d done was say a couple of words, to wish her luck in whatever awaited people after death and then left to never return.
So Karma had given her mom a proper, lonely funeral and had almost washed her down, tried to erase the marks of violence off of her when she realised that a bloody towel would only attract the X’s to her. So she’d tried to fix the body as much as possible, although it took her weeks to be able to do so as tears would blur her vision most of the time and she’d spend more time retching and crying than actually moving the body. She wanted to give this lifeless corpse of a person she used to know the best and the respect it deserved, but the emotional pain was crippling.
“I’m not sure I can do this anymore,” only the silence answered her, and eventually, she left with her head bowed down, even more afraid and lost than before.
“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.” Karma flipped the bird to the voice. She hadn’t been able to sleep when coming back, the soft breaths of the people surrounding her not loud enough. They were so little now, and the number kept decreasing. No-one wanted to be pregnant when trying to escape.
“What’s the plan for today?” she asked Flair, sinking into the chair in front of her.
Everyone was gathered in the main room, talking to each other about how yesterday they’d found nothing yet again. And the day before. And the day before that.
The main room was probably the place Karma spent the most time in. They’d brought in anything they could find once the X-day happened, preparing this hideout for months of survival. It’d originally been for few hundred of people, but most of them were gone now, their ghosts haunting this place for the years to come. Their moans resonating around the room for all the bad cards they’d been dealt, about how useless their deaths were in the grand scheme of things.
“I think we’re searching the Plaza again,” Flair rolled her green eyes. “I thought we’d deduced that there wasn’t anything after the hundredth time we’d searched the area.” She huffed, annoyed and frustrated. It seemed to be their only mood lately. “I think we should look outside the Gaunt, explore new areas, hell maybe even visit the Ghost towns. I’ve heard the X’s are moving north to the Gaunts because they are getting hungry. The south is practically void of anyone by now.”
“You know that’s dangerous. Ghost towns are full of X’s. There’s no way Oberon would let us.” Karma gave her a pointed look.
Flair looked guilty, “I just feel like we keep taking one step forward, and taking two steps back. We can’t go on like this. We’re running out of resources. It’ll soon be over.”
Karma stayed silent, which seemed enough of an answer for Flair.
“I’m just so-”
Flair cut herself off before she could finish her sentence when everyone suddenly went quiet. Oberon had entered the room, the uneven shuffling of his feet as his left leg dragged behind him loud in the quiet.
“Quiet down, quiet down!” He said uselessly in a normal voice. This was as loud as they could get now. Even though they were underground, they were always in danger of being discovered.
“Today, we’ve decided to re-explore the Plaza and the Senator house again,” Moans and groans were heard but Oberon just ignored them. “And one group will be going out and exploring nearby Ghosts.”
The moans suddenly stopped.
“That team will be Karma, Flair, Carrie, Hail, Spencer, and Pandora.”
The silence was heavy, weighing down on Karma. Her heart stopped beating for a few seconds before she made eye contact with Flair and she sucked in a large breath, practically choking on it.
“The rest, meet up with your normal leaders and go equip.”
Karma and Flair clutched each other’s hands and slowly made their way to the rest of today’s team, hearts pounding. Turns out that you never really get used to fear. It always lingers at the back of your throat, ready to resurface and choke you at any given moment.
Oberon walked over to their huddle, wincing with every step. It’d been a while but his wound still hurt. In a few months, he’d be able to run through the pain and would be right back to scouting.
He slowly made eye contact with each of them before speaking.
“Remember, the goal is to find a portal and to come back alive,” the tone was dark and sombre and made shiver crawl up Karma’s spine. “So just scouting today, stay out the main haunted places and try and find buildings that could be possible refuges. Keep an eye out for resources.”
They all nodded, unsmiling.
“I’m sorry for all of this, but you’re our only shot. We need our best for this.”
None of the warm feelings came with the compliment, only dread and regret. Only fear and apprehension.
“Everybody suit up.”
It was the fourth time that Flair sighed, and honestly, Karma couldn’t relate more. They were all packing their belongings in their own corner. Karma checked her gun, making sure that she had enough melting bullets. Karma found that they worked best against the metal of the X’s. She looked for a knife, pocketing it in her makeshift belt loop she’d sewn just for this purpose. Knives didn’t do much against the monsters, but it was useful in case she needed to cut or chop anything. She also packed her leaky water bottle and a couple of first aid, just some plasters and alcohol.
Karma didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but in the silence of the room, it was very hard not to.
“We’ll be fine, I promise, baby Panda,” Hail told his little sister. “I’ll protect you, okay?”
“I’m tough, Hail,” Pandora replied, voice trembling only slightly. Karma admired her courage. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen years old. It was quite young to be put on such a high danger mission team. She must be either really good or really keen to die. “It’s going to be you asking for my help.”
Spencer snorted really loudly, masking his reaction with an awkward cough. Karma made eye-contact with Flair, who was trying to keep her smile down.
“Ready?” Carrie asked, fiddling with her backpack. She pulled out a torch, clipping it to her belt, fixing it with bobby pins to make sure it couldn’t fall. “Pandora, you’re first.”
The young blonde girl went to get her Helmet, clasping it over her temples, the metal line forming a semi-circle on her hair, similar to a halo. The rest followed with equipping themselves. Karma grabbed a small cereal bar, who’s due date was only just a month ago which was quite lucky to find these days, and stuffed it in her bag to eat during the mission. She could feel that her breakfast wasn’t sitting well in her stomach, and she couldn’t get distracted by headaches during something important like this.
Karma had gone out on missions with some of them separately before, but this was the first time they’d been paired in this formation. Karma was actually impressed at what Oberon had done. There was a good balance of everything, and they weren’t too many, or too little. Karma knew Carrie was wickedly good at remembering roads and routes from the one time they’d gotten lost in the forest on the outskirts of the city after running away from rogue X’s. Karma had been lucky to have been with Carrie at that time and they’d made it back to the Shelter before all the others from that particular mission. Spencer usually organised missions to get food or first aid as he had a list of their stocks and how much they had left in reserve, so he was obviously put on this mission as their leader. Pandora was someone she’d only heard of by reputation. She knew that the younger girl was Hail’s sister and that she was really good at first aid. She was often found helping in the infirmary as well, as her parents had been doctors, and a lot of their knowledge had been passed down to the two siblings. Hail was good with his hands, fixing Helmets and finding ways to use their environment as protection or weapons. Flair was easily the best shooter in their group, and the only one Karma would bet her life on to come out of an encounter with an X alive.
Karma leaned over the map, sketching out a route and looking at previously made blueprints. At least she was glad her drawing skills had a use even during an apocalypse. She’d sketch and draw places they would explore and create maps and blueprints of the area. This helped localise them a few times. She’d gotten the general gist of nearby cities, based on maps they’d found, but so far they had no close up of the Ghost town they would be visiting. Karma packed her tiny pencil and eraser. She was going to have to find new supplies soon. Her heart ached for her acrylic paint, but that was only a dream. She was lucky to even have graphite with her.
The group huddled up, climbing up the stairs, past all the other people getting ready to head out for another gruelling day. The morale was low, and Karma was almost glad to be going out into the danger zone, away from all the blank faces.
“You guys ready?” Spencer asked one last time before opening the doors outside.
Karma looked at her team, all of them nodding in confirmation.
They knew that this would be the last time they could talk until they reached the forest, and even after that, it was going to be tense. This was going to be a long trip and Karma could only hope they’d make it out intact.