We finally arrived at what I guessed to be an airport. Like Audrey said, we missed our flight. As soon as the concierge lady confirmed that, I got an intense lecture from Audrey about the importance of our assignment. I rolled my eyes. If I had known my mother, Audrey probably would have sounded like her.
"...Are you listening, Nick? This assignment is important. We are going after a suspected murderer. He could kill again. We—"
"Look, not that I don't appreciate you mothering me, but I know. Do you even remember where I'm from? In Drayton, I came across, and conned, 'suspected murderers' every day. Half the people in that city thought I was a murderer. Believe me, if this guy really killed anyone, I'll be able to tell," I retorted.
I plopped down into a hard, plastic chair in the waiting area. Audrey closed her mouth and sad down across from me. She was quiet for a few minutes.
"Did you do it?"
Audrey shook her head.
"I haven't had to yet. I try very hard not to put myself in that position. I don't want to kill anyone. Things will be different on this assignment. You know that, right? You can't kill Mr. Sek, even if he is guilty."
"I said I killed someone but it's not like I enjoyed it....What if he tries to kill someone else, you know, if he is guilty? What then? We can't just let him run loose in Strayfort if that's the case."
"Yeah, if he is guilty and he does try to kill someone, take him out. If we don't have physical proof that he's guilty, all we can do is arrest him."
"Out of curiosity, where do our heightened abilities come in?"
"It helps if they run. If they're in a big city, we can cover more ground with our heightened senses. Also, sometimes our targets can use abilities as well."
"I get it," I concluded, ending the conversation.
Silence passed by us once more. Obviously, Audrey wasn't used to me being silent.
"Strayfort isn't like Raven City or Drayton. The buildings and layout are different. There's more space. That means there are less places for Sek to hide."
"He'll also only go to people he knows. If Strayfort's government puts out a wanted poster or whatever, even Sek's most trusted friends and family won't want to hide him."
"What about the food?"
"Yeah. Is it any good?"
"You're going on your first mission and you want to know if the food is good? Shouldn't you be nervous or concerned...something?" Nick shrugged innocently. Audrey sighed. "Personally, I'd say it's amazing. They grow their own crops. Strayfort is more agriculturally-centered than most cities. Their food is always fresh and flavorful. Oh, that reminds me. We'll be staying with a local farmer and his family. We need to be discrete and undetectable. Try to avoid running into any government patrol units. Some of them hate people like us who 'mediate' between the cities. I guess they think we consider ourselves above them."
"But aren't we above them? I mean, with our abilities, we can do things normal humans can't."
"No. We're human, just like them. Maybe we can do extraordinary things but we are not above them. Keep that in mind, Nick."
An automated voice came over the intercom. Our flight was ready. We grabbed our duffel bags and walked out of the airport building. A man in a hooded sweatshirt brushed past me as he walked into the building. I couldn't help but notice a flash of fear in his eyes as he disappeared.
After handing our bags to a flight attendant, we waited as the pilot verified our badges. I stared at the large, steel bird that was supposed to take us thousands of feet up in the air. My stomach did a nauseating flip. Audrey must have noticed how I felt.
"Have you ever flown on a plane before?" she asked.
"Flown? I didn't even know this was possible. They don't have those in Drayton," I responded as anxiety crossed my face.
"It's not as bad as you think. Most people just have issues with taking off and landing. Unless you're afraid of heights. If that's the case, you're screwed either way."
"No, heights don't bother me. Scaling tall buildings is one of my many talents."
Audrey snorted. The pilot came back and returned our badges. He explained the standard safety rules for flying before allowing us to board the plane. I cautiously stepped inside. This whole thing is made of metal. How do they expect it to get into the air and stay there? I swear, dying in this contraption, hurtling thousands of miles towards the ground, is not how I want to go out. I took a seat and strapped the seat belt tightly around my waist. I could hear Audrey chuckle at my anxiety.
"You can't seriously tell me that you've never felt like this before?" I retorted in irritation.
"The first time I got on one of these, I was so nervous that I threw up all over the floor. Believe me, you're doing pretty good," she responded calmly.
The pilot came over an intercom system and announced that we were taking off. I gripped the arms of my chair. Minutes passed by until a sudden, upward lurch made my breakfast slosh noisily in my stomach. I nearly lost it. That was it though. We climbed for a while before leveling off. My grip loosened and I stared boldly out the window. White clouds strolled by us. I unbuckled and got out of my seat. Far below us, Drayton was getting even smaller. My city. I've lived there my whole life. This is the first time I've ever really left. I've never seen it from above. Looking now, though, I see just how filthy it really is. Black smoke puffed out of buildings where only the ones who could afford it built fires. They cooked warm meals and huddled by it for warmth. Cold meals. Those were the only ones I ate. Body heat. That was the only way I kept warm. Those bastards never shared any of their heat. They only cared about themselves. I also couldn't help but notice, as I stared in awe below me, Raven City sitting in the distance, its white buildings glinting clear light off its windows. Different worlds, but not-so-different people. Strange.
"Nick. I have a few questions," Audrey said cautiously.
"What kind of questions?" I responded as I continued watching landscape fly by.
"What was it like for you in Drayton."
Personal questions. She wants to know more about me as a person. As me. I'm not sure if I want her to know or if I should let her in. It can't hurt, right?
"Drayton's like...Hell. A living Hell."
I could practically see her face grow somber.
"What happened to your family?"
My heart twisted. I really wish you hadn't asked me that, Audrey.
"...The Disease killed them."
"I've only heard about it, but what does it do? I mean, how did people die from it?"
"They inhale it. It also soaks into their skin and attacks their internal organs. I don't know much about our anatomy but I know that the disease poisons the brain. When that happens, it shuts down certain parts, causing people to go crazy from it. If that's not bad enough, the disease kills your skin cells. This means your skin rots and your body decays. A better way of putting it is that you become a literal living corpse—a zombie. It's also contagious. If you touch a person who has it or breathe the same air as them, you can get it too. It wiped out over half of Drayton's population. There's no cure. The Disease made Drayton the way it is today. People panicked when they lost loved ones and, since the symptoms didn't show up for two days, no one knew if they were infected. It was chaos."
"H-How were you not infected by it?"
"Who says I wasn't infected? I hid underground for as long as I could. There were about twenty of us when we found a bunker sealed off from the city. If anyone got sick, we kicked them out. By the time we dared to venture out, the air had been quarantined by some scientists from Raven City. I went above ground. Spent four days there before I got sick. I knew it was the Disease. Fortunately for me, an old man—a former scientist—took me in and tried to cure me. Another week passed and I wasn't dead. It turns out that the level of contaminated air that you inhale, the stronger the effects—that created the Disease. Since some of your people quarantined Drayton, the contamination levels dropped considerably. I got sick but I got better. I didn't die, but I didn't come out unscathed either."
I lifted my shirt. Audrey gasped when she saw the discolored patches of skin on my side. Battle scars.
"I...had no idea that all happened in Drayton. That's why the Force stands between Raven City and Drayton. That's why Raven City is white and 'pure.' Those people didn't get infected and wanted it to stay that way."
"You're not from Raven City or Drayton, are you?" I asked as I turned around.
Audrey looked down at her hands.
"No. I'm from Auralyon. It's not too far from Raven City. I lived there with my older brother. We were slaves. We were kept to work by the rich citizens," Audrey admitted.
"Let me guess. There were only two classes of people: the rich, 'deserving' people who held power and the poor, 'meaningless' slaves who worked for them. You and your brother were the latter."
"Yeah. One day, I couldn't take it anymore. I ran. Somehow, I escaped and was picked up by members of CORE. Dr. Corey took me in and offered me power. All I had to do was take it, he said. So, I joined CORE and accepted the injection that gave me my heightened abilities. I struggled to excel in CORE. I was finally in Dr. Corey's spotlight when—"
"I showed up. I was naturally better than you and that only made you hate me even more. The fact that Corey has taken an interest in me infuriates you," I interjected.
Audrey looked at me in shock. I grinned.
"I'm not stupid. Like I told you before, I'm very observant....Look, I'm not trying to steal your show and be teacher's pet or whatever. I swear."
Silence overtook us for a few minutes. I cleared my throat.
"Now that that's behind us, what do you say we focus on completing the assignment for now?"
"Are you really okay with this? Arnold Sek is a little like you. He has outmaneuvered rich elites by conning and stealing from them. He's pickpocketed on a daily basis. He's a common criminal."
"I guess that means I'm a common criminal too?...Relax, it's fine. If his government wants him arrested, he must deserve it, right? We're after him because he's a suspected murderer. That's cause enough to want him arrested," I concluded.
Audrey seemed satisfied with my response. She leaned her head back and stared out the window of the plane. I, on the other hand, wasn't sure about CORE. I hope this is a one-time thing. If CORE goes after people like Sek—like me—I'm not sure I want a part in that. My thoughts were interrupted by the distant sound of metal grinding against metal. I had the sick feeling that we weren't going to be in the air much longer.