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The Coded Cardinal
A constant beep filled my mind. It wasn’t loud, and it followed a sort of rhythm. Chunk, chunk, pause, chunk, chunk, pause. I noticed a trickle of air going through my nose. The strange thing was, the whole world was dark. My mind was completely blank, but one word floated out in the black nothingness. I reached, and grasped, and then I remembered. It was my name. I opened my eyes, and the world was filled with light. The room was suddenly chaotic with noise. I was completely confused.
“She’s awake!” someone exclaimed. I couldn’t comprehend anything around me. Everything was a giant blur. I pulled out the nasal cannula that was tickling my nose, and tried to sit up.
“Slow down!” A woman exclaimed, pushing me back down onto the pillows. The room came into focus. Two adults, a nurse, and a man who I assumed was a doctor bustling busily around the surrounding equipment, and a tall teenage boy sitting next to my bed, were in the room with me.
“What’s going on?” I asked sitting up and pushing myself away. For some reason it was really difficult, but they didn’t make any attempt to stop me from sitting up.
“Don’t you remember?” said the nurse. I shook my head.
“I have no idea who you are, or where I am,” I said. The group looked at each other solemly. The doctor stepped forward.
“I was worried about this,” he said, “Do you remember anything?”
“My name is Cardinal,” I said slowly, “But other than what things are, that’s all that I remember.
“Hmm. Cardinal, I’m really sorry about this, and I don’t know if you remember it, because of your amnesia, but you’re paralyzed from the waist down. By the looks of your legs it must have happened a long time ago.” he said solemnly. I was speechless. He looked kind of puzzled when he said, “Yet when Sam found you, you were on the fifth level of the ABI, unconscious on the floor. Do you have any idea how you got there?”
“The only thing I remember is my name. What’s on the fifth floor?” I asked.
The tall boy interjected before the doctor could respond, “That’s irellevent. What we want to know is how an unconscious, malnourished, skinny, cripple got past the most intense security in the ABI.”
“I already told you. I don’t remember anything.” Suddenly I felt a surge of pain and grabbed my forehead.
“What’s wrong?” the boy asked, his face suddenly changing from intense curiosity to worry. The heart monitor that had been going at a constant rhythm began to speed up. Turning to the doctor, he asked worriedly, “What is happening to her?” I began to shake violently. The pain grew and grew and I blacked out.
I began to remember things. Mere flashes of memory. I was lying on a cold metal floor. No, I was strapped to a table with needles in my spine. No, I was shrinking and growing over and over again. I was afraid. I was spinning and spinning, and through the battering noises in my head, I heard someone calling my name.
“Cardinal! Cardinal! Wake up!” the nurse exclaimed. I opened my eyes again, and saw everyone standing around me. The pain had ended.
“What happened?” I groaned.
“You had some sort of panic attack and passed out,” the doctor said.
“I was seeing flashes of things. I think they might have been memories, but I was - I was being tortured. I had needles in my spine, and they were injecting me with something. It really hurt, and it felt - it felt real,” I said.
“Tortured? By whom?” the tall boy asked. I just shook my head. I had no idea who it was. The flashes of memory had been full of panic, pain, and fear, leaving me shaken and disoriented, again. The doctor must have seen the strain on my face and began waving everyone out the door.
“Cardinal needs rest. Let’s leave her be,” he said. I didn’t really want them to go. All three left the room gently shutting the door behind them. I had so many questions that I couldn’t rest. I pulled myself into a sitting position again. I realised that I hadn’t really looked around the room at all. It was clean and metallic. There was medical equipment, a small wheelchair next to the bed that I was lying on, and a mirror with a sink right below it.
Pulling back the covers, I looked down at myself. I was wearing grey sweatpants and a t-shirt. My legs looked almost shriveled and were small and frail. My hair fell in front of my face. It was short, and a bright crimson color. I was kind of upset that I didn’t even know my own hair color. I realized that I didn’t even know what I looked like.
Determined to find out, I tore the heart monitor sticker things off of my chest, wrapped my hands around the folds of my pants, and lifted myself onto the small wheelchair. As though I had done it all of my life, I wheeled with ease to the mirror and looked at my reflection. That boy hadn’t been kidding when he said I was malnourished, and skinny. I was nothing but muscle, skin, and bone. It looked as though the slightest breeze would blow me away. My skin was a dark olive color, my hair stuck out maddeningly in the back, the irises of my eyes were as black as my pupils, and my face was sharp and angular.
The doctor walked back into the room and asked worriedly, “What are you doing?!”
“I just wanted to see what I looked like!” I exclaimed.
“You should be in bed resting,” he said concernedly.
“Isn’t sitting down in a wheelchair, the same as sitting up in bed?” I asked. He tried to come up with a good counter argument, but couldn’t.
“Right,” he said, “I suppose since you are already ready to go, I could go get Samuel to show you around.”
“Who’s Samuel?” I asked concernedly.
“The tall 17-year-old you were talking with earlier,” said the doctor. I relaxed a little. He left the room, and came back with Samuel, the tall boy.
“Are you sure she’s ready to be moving?” Samuel asked.
“She was well enough for your interrogations,” the doctor said slyly. Samuel just nodded.
Turning to me he said, “Let’s go!” He turned back towards the door, and began walking briskly.
“Wait up!” I called. I wheeled as fast as I could to catch up with him. As soon as we left the room, the building was full of noise. People bustled down the hall, looking as though the world would end if they didn’t get the work in their arms done. No one smiled, or stopped to chat. Everyone looked overly worked up, and busy. Turning my attention back to Samuel I asked, “Where are we going? And aren’t you a little young to be allowed to work here?”
“You asked what was on the fifth floor right?” He asked. I nodded. “I’m going to show you.” He looked flustered.
“Why is everyone acting so worried and upset? And why won’t you answer my other question?” I asked.
“Lets just say, you appearing on the fifth level of the A.B.I. isn’t the strangest thing that has happened in the past few days,” he replied, “This is the Alien Bureau of Investigation, and that doesn’t necessarily include things from outer space. Just, you know, foreign to the human race.” I merely nodded again. I had no clue what he was talking about, and he still wouldn’t answer why he was allowed to work here, but Samuel looked too worked up to argue with. We walked and wheeled for what felt like forever, and the suspense was practically killing me.
Finally, we made it to the door. Samuel went through an excruciatingly long process of passcodes. Suddenly, a loud click and the sound of whirring filled my ears as the door slid to the left, revealing a large, empty room.
“What? This is the floor that has the most security?” I asked skeptically. Although it had taken forever, the passcodes weren’t exactly the type of security you’d expect at a place like this. “It’s just an empty room, right?” Samuel’s eyes said otherwise, and a crooked smirk on his face made me feel stupid. “What?” I asked angrily.
“Just wait,” Samuel said. The door closed, tables and chairs rose up out of the floor, and the walls opened up to reveal thousands of bottles of multi-colored liquids. “This is the room where we store everything that we’ve experimented with,” Sam said calmly. “There have been a few accidents in here. Most of which, have resulted in genetic mutations.” I moved towards the bottles in awe to look at all of the colors I had never even thought of.
Pointing to one I asked, “What is this color called?” and knocked it over. Samuel shot out his hand, and it grew longer as he caught the falling bottle. “How did you do that?” I exclaimed.
“I was in one of those accidents,” he said shrugging. “Most people call me Sam Stretch now. My dad is one of the founders of the A.B.I. and he let me come to work with him once. He doesn’t exactly have a desk job, and so now I stay here so I don’t freak out ‘normal people’.” So that explained why he worked here. His eyebrows knit together with confusion, and he asked, “But what do you mean about the color? This bottle is just grey.”
I shook my head. “No. It’s like a mixture of ruby red and gold,” I said. I was so enthralled by the beauty of the liquid inside, that I didn’t notice that we weren’t the only people in the room. A gag was over my mouth, the bottle ripped from me, and my hands tied behind my back before I could shout for help. Somehow two men had made it past the “intense security”. The fatter man of the two threw me on the ground. I struggled, but to no avail. I didn’t stop though. I wiggled and squirmed until I felt the sharp pain in my ribs when the tall, lanky man kicked me.
“Stop squirming!” the squat man with a deep voice shouted.
“Don’t hurt her!” Samuel shouted, tied to a chair by his legs and his arms.
“Why on earth would we do that?” he said sarcastically, “Anyway, she won’t remember any pain unless the test works. It happens every single time.”
“Every single time? How long have you done tests on her?” Samuel asked horrified. Both men laughed, and my stomach twisted in disgust. What was inside of me? I pushed against the bands holding my hands together.
A tinkling laugh came from the corner. An eldritch woman slunk in. She was eerily beautiful, but that made her that much scarier. “It’s no use darling,” she said. Turning to the men she commandingly prattled, “My companions, there is no need to play with the unpretentious critters. Just get the girl, and let’s go.” The thugs nodded obidently. The muscular, squat man grabbed Sam by the back of his shirt, tilted the chair, and started dragging him towards the back of the room.
“I. Can’t. Breath!” Sam choked. The squat man rolled his eyes, grabbed the back of chair instead, and dragged my one and only friend to the wall, whereupon he opened a door blended into the wall. Sam looked as surprised as I was, so the door probably wasn’t supposed to be there. The thug dragged Sam through the door, and out of sight. I was now officially terrified.
“Don’t fret my sweet. Where Sam is going, is the least of your worries,” the woman said sardonically. “What you really should be worried about, is whether or not the test will work.” Turning to the lanky man she pointed to the passage and said, “Bring her down the passage, put her on the table, and make it tight. She won’t escape like last time.” The lanky thug nodded, picked me up, threw me onto his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and headed down the passage, with the woman right on his heels.
We made it to a large room full of shelves, and paper. It had a large table with straps attached to it on the top and the middle in it. It was identical to the flashback I had had. The lanky thug layed me down on my stomach and began fastening and tightening the straps to hold me tightly to the table. Once I was strapped so tightly that I could barely breath, he checked to make sure the woman wasn’t looking, and whispered into my ear.
“I’m truly sorry about this, but if you escape one more time, Asherah will kill us all,” he said with such conviction that I couldn’t help, but believe him. Asherah, the eldritch woman, was ruling by fear, and it was about time her reign ended, but there was nothing I could do strapped to the metal table from my nightmares. Asherah came back over to the table with the bottle that I had thought was so beautiful, but now looked surprisingly deadly. As though it was second nature, Asherah took a syringe with the enthralling liquid, and lifted it inches above my spine. Moving my shirt, she injected it into me, and the change began.
The pain was beyond anything you could possibly imagine. It felt as though my insides were burning, twisting, and shredding. I was shaking horribly, and I couldn’t help but scream. It was agonizing, and that’s when my body began to shut down. I felt cold, clammy, and confused. I was hyperventilating, felt sick and lightheaded, and was losing consciousness. The room flitted in and out of focus. And suddenly everything was dark.
My mind was completely focused. I could hear everything, but see nothing. It was as though I was inside of my body, but at the same time not. And then, I remembered everything. I had been Asherah, Drake, and Max’s lab rat for years. They had said that I was the perfect candidate for the tests, because I was the only one that would be able to endure it. I could barely remember the family I had had before they took me. But, I now know who I am. Asherah had taken my family, and my childhood away, but now I know she had given me a power I couldn’t ignore, and it was about time that I used it.
“I can’t believe it. She’s dead,” Max, the lanky man, said.
“No, you fool. She’s only unconcious. That happens when you go into shock. Check her pulse,” Asherah ordered. Max put his finger to the carotid artery, in my neck, and sighed with relief.
“You’re right. She’s alive,” Max said. I was starting to get feeling back into my legs, but they were too weak from lack of use to do any good. It was time to test out my theory. The transformation began. I opened my eyes, and they were completely black. I began to shrink, as my body became covered in dull orange-green feathers. My mouth and nose, morphed into an orange beak. My wings, tail, and where my hair used to be, were red. I had become a cardinal. I slipped out of the bands, gag, and straps easily. I was literally as free as a bird.
I turned back before flying off to look for Sam. The look on Asherah’s face was priceless, but I was too worried about Sam to laugh. I had to find him before Drake, the squat man, changed him. I searched and searched, but there were a lot of rooms, and Sam wasn’t in any of them. Where are you? I thought. Finally I made it to the last room. He had to be in here. I morphed into a human again, collapsed on the floor, and turned the doorknob. Suddenly, a fist came out of nowhere. If I had been standing up it would have hit me.
“Sam?!” I asked. The door was wrenched open.
“Cardinal how did you escape?” Sam asked surprisedly.
“I was about to ask you the same question,” I said indignantly. Sam opened the door all of the way to reveal Drake tied unconscious to the chair.
“He always was an idiot. Did he untie you?” I asked.
Sam grinned, nodded, and said, “I told him my wrists hurt.”
“You’d think after all of these years working with Asherah and Max to torture me, he might have learned a thing or two. Guess not,” I said cheerily.
“All these years? Your memory is back?” Sam asked surprised. I smiled and nodded.
“So are my legs, but that’s going to take more than a few seconds to fix.” I said ruefully.
“That reminds me. How’d you get down the hall?” Sam asked. I beamed as I morphed into a cardinal again. He stared at me in awe.
“Wow! I would ask how, but we are literally in the belly of the beast, so it’s pretty self-explanatory,” he said. I chirruped, and realised I was laughing. Interesting how similar it sounded to my own laugh. I flew down the hall with Sam on my tail. At the very end, we both stopped, I landed on the ground, and morphed back into a human.
“Now what?” I asked looking up at Samuel.
“Do you want me to carry you?” He asked concernedly.
“I can move just fine on my own, thank you,” I said indignantly. “I meant, how do we get past Asherah and Max?”
“Oh. Um… I’ve got nothing.” Sam said bashfully.
“Right,” I said. We sat in silence for a few moments. “Does it bother you that Asherah didn’t come after me? Where is she anyway?” We looked around the corner, and saw her tied to the table. “What?” I asked bewildered.
“You turning into a bird and flying off gave me enough time to tie her up,” said a voice behind us. Sam and I both whipped around.
“Max!” Sam and I exclaimed together.
“I’m done being Asherah’s slave. I want to come with you,” Max said. Sam and only had to look at each other to agree. I turned back into a cardinal, and we went up the passage to the room full of bottles, through the hallways, to Sam’s dad’s office. Sam and I explained everything that had happened, told him about the passage in the fifth level, and how I had been subject to Asherah’s experiments for years.
“Don’t worry Cardinal. We’ll take care of Asherah and her lab, and help you find your family,” Sam’s dad said. I knew that everything would be okay. Even if anything were to go wrong, I had Sam by my side to help me. Everyone has their challenges, but all you really need to overcome them, is hope, and a few good friends. And that is something I’ll remember forever.