Screams came to my ears as I looked around me. People were crying out in pain. They lay helpless, unable to move as the Disease ran its course through them. They all reached out for me. I backed up in fear and ran. Stumbling over rocks, I fell. I pulled myself up and realized that the rocks I tripped over were pieces of the Force. I looked out of the gaping hole in the wall that once separated the 'pure' Raven City from the 'polluted' Disease-ridden city of Drayton. Staring at the destroyed remains of Raven City's tall, white buildings, I noticed the bodies that littered the streets. I made my way towards the broken city. Her lights had faded out. As I got closer, the bodies appeared to move.
Ravens perched atop the bodies, tearing away at the corpses' flesh. I covered my nose as the nauseating stench of decaying flesh made my eyes water. The ravens stopped feasting on the bodies and looked at me. Thousands of those evil, beady eyes burned through me. I stumbled back as they cawed and flew towards me, landing in a familiar seat. Strapped to it, I felt gravity rush past me. I found myself on a plane similar to the one I was on with Audrey. This plane, however, was twice as big and was packed with about forty or fifty people. The people on the falling plane were screaming and crying as they were jerked around. I managed to arch my neck enough to see the ground below swallow us. Darkness hit me.
"...Nick," Audrey called as I woke up.
I slowly realized that I was drenched in sweat. The dream. It was different. In fact, it's been different every time I've had it. I rubbed my eyes.
"I, um, called Corey once we got here. He's sending a transportation team. They should be here by sundown," I responded drowsily.
"That's in an hour. Where are they meeting us?"
"Entrance to the town facing Deadman's Island."
"How did we get here? Last thing I remember was collapsing after we reached the town."
"I carried you door-to-door trying to find someone with a phone who'd let us stay for a while. The old man who lives here was the only one to let me in."
"Did you show them your badge?"
"No. Was I supposed to?"
"No, you weren't. We don't have the authority to be here. If they know we're CORE agents, they can accuse Raven City of violating the treaty."
"Geez, good thing I used my head. See, I'm not completely useless."
I got up stiffly. My body hurt worse than it did before I slept. It felt like my skin had been shredded by a cheese grater.
"You should really clean that. It could get infected....Here, let me," Audrey offered.
"What's with you?" I countered as I sat back down.
She walked over to the old man and asked him for a bowl of water and a rag.
"I owe you I guess."
"Why do you owe me? You're the one who saved me."
Audrey patted my injury with the wet rag. I hissed in pain.
"Sorry. I owe you because I was wrong. About you. I expected you to be selfish and leave without us on that plane. You helped me save the pilot and flight attendant. Even though they didn't make it, you risked your life for them. You tried to go back for the flight attendant. I—"
"Yeah, why did you stop me? I could've saved her."
"No, you couldn't. Those cannibals were like us. You haven't had proper training in fighting with your abilities, let alone that many enemies. Besides, you were reaching your limit and if they would have smelled or tasted your blood, they could track you for miles."
Audrey's gentle touch made me realize that there was a whole side to her she kept hidden behind her pride. It's a soft, motherly side.
"I, um, thanks. For having my back and supporting me...literally," I said.
"Don't be stupid. If I let you, a rookie, die, I wouldn't be able to call myself a CORE agent," Audrey retorted.
Just like that, her motherly side disappeared and she was back to her prideful self.
"I really do appreciate the concern but don't underestimate me."
"Then don't underestimate me...I'm done. I'm not going to wrap it because the transportation team will have a first-aid kit. You'll live. Regrettably."
"We should probably get going so we can meet them."
I thanked the old man for everything and we walked to the meeting place. Twenty minutes later, a large, black armored truck rolled up. Two men in gear gave us supplies and told us to get in the back. As we rode, one of the men filled us in on Arnold Sek's location and travel pattern. Apparently, it had changed between now and when our plane crashed. He was staying in his sister's house. A witness had seen him enter but never come back out. He's probably hiding there while his sister makes the supply runs for him. I hope he's not one of those psychos that can make bombs out of household items.
"What about the plane crash? Are we just gonna forget that someone tried to kill us?" I interjected.
"Dr. Corey has other CORE agents looking for any of the plane's remains. If it was sabotaged by someone, we should be able to find out who did it and how they got it on the plane. We have it covered, I can assure you...?" the man said.
"Nick," I offered.
"Nick. I have a son named Nick. Mischievous little thing."
"Maybe it comes with the name."
Audrey rolled her eyes. An hour later, the driver announced that we were at Strayfort. Immediately, I looked out the window. I'm acting like a child but these new 'adventures' are thrilling. Strayfort, in whatever glory it held, seemed like nothing more than hut after hut. By hut, I mean the whole wood-with-a-hay-roof thing.
"Corey wasn't kidding when he said they were mainly agricultural," I voiced.
"It doesn't all look like that. This is just where they grow the crops. Strayfort's actually bigger than Raven City. Although, some of their technology is rather primitive. Most of the citizens are considered middle class. There are very few people here. Because of that, we don't get much action out here," Audrey explained.
"Another lecture. You know, you have a bad habit of talking down to people. Is that your pride or your ego?"
"At least my ego doesn't land me strapped to a table after being caught by a second-rate thug."
She had me beat. I didn't respond. I could hear the guys chuckling. I found myself smiling too. Audrey was right about the city's structure. Soon, the huts disappeared, pushed behind us by crowded buildings and busy streets. Strayfort is on a whole different level compared to Raven City. I've never seen so many people and buildings in one place.
"Stop gawking. It's embarrassing. Get used to experiencing new things," Audrey barked.
"Says the girl who experiences new things on a daily basis," I countered.
"Do you always have to have the last word?"
"Do you always have to act like you're better than me?"
"I am better than you."
"Then why is Corey more interested in me than you? You're old news. I'm a fresh, handsome face."
"You're full of yourself. You're not as good as you think you are."
"Is that a challenge?...Don't back down. What, afraid I might kick your—?"
"We're here," one of the guys said.
The truck stopped.
"Alright. You'll be staying on the ninth floor of the Burgundy Hotel. All of your target's files are in the room, as well as a few weapons just in case," the driver instructed as we got out.
I flung the duffel bag they had given me over my shoulder.
"Thanks. Should we expect a team to pick us up when we're finished or are we flying back?" Audrey asked.
"Hah. No planes for a while. All CORE agents are grounded for now. Any transportation vehicles will be examined thoroughly for bombs or any sort of sabotage. Sorry it had to happen to you guys but glad you survived. Good luck!"
"Tell your son, Nick, that CORE agent Nick said to behave," I joked.
"Ha ha. Will do."
The men drove off and I followed Audrey as she pushed past people on the sidewalk.
"Just out of curiosity, how do you always know where we need to go?" I asked from behind her.
"While you were chatting it up with that guy, I was studying a map of Strayfort," she called back.
"Your memory's that good?"
"Yeah. Then again, if you tried studying the files and maps like you are supposed to, you'd be able to do the same."
I caught a hint of irritation in her voice that made me chuckle. I love pushing her buttons. I haven't had this much fun since I convinced CandyMan that I could ship him chocolate from the richest merchant on the west side of the world. I did ship him chocolate...from his own stash. The cliché, 'like taking candy from a baby', is an understatement here. That was my easiest con yet. I had walked past Audrey as I remembered the CandyMan Con, as I called it. Finally, I noticed she wasn't in front of me. Looking back, I saw her about ten feet away looking in a store window. People walked around us and I made my way to her.
"Hey, what's up?"
I followed Audrey's gaze to a long, elegant dress on display. Even I had to admit it was pretty. It was a dark teal color with thin straps winding around the front and back, holding the top of the dress to the bottom. I couldn't help but think about how beautiful Audrey would look in it. I cleared my throat and broke her daydream.
"So you are a girl. I was beginning to think you might be hiding a pair of—"
My sarcasm was rewarded with a punch on my injured arm. I caught my breath as the pain bit me. Audrey continued walking, faster this time. Ten minutes later, we arrived at the Burgundy Hotel.
"Huh. It's not burgundy. I think the owner was color-blind. What would burgundy look like if you were color-blind? Are you color-blind? Maybe I am color-blind. What exactly is color?" I rambled.
"Oh, would you please shut up. You're annoying."
"Thank you. I try my best to please."
Audrey let out a groan and I laughed out loud. We approached the door. It was different. Round. Spinning. People were walking in an out, divided by clear panes of glass.
"What the hell kind of door is this?"
"It's called a revolving door. Just try not to get hit."
Audrey strode towards it and fit in just before the glass caught up with her. I jumped in the first chance I got and ended up squished by the other people in my section. I nearly face-planted the ground as we got out. That's it. I'm never riding that again. It took me a frantic moment of searching before I saw Audrey at the front desk. She waved a key at me and walked off. I jogged to catch up.
"You've got to stop falling behind."
"I was attacked by a killer door. Cut me some slack. I can't believe I got away."
"You know you're not funny, right?"
"And there's my punch line. I'll be here all week."
We got in the elevator and headed for the ninth floor. The elevator stopped at the eighth floor and a guy with a baseball cap stepped inside. He hit was about to hit the button for the ninth floor before he realized it was already lit. Something about this guy feels familiar.
"So, you're a Carolina Panthers fan? Good team," I said.
The guy looked at me briefly before staring straight ahead.
"Yeah, my wife's a Red Sox fan if you can believe it. Doesn't know a true team when she sees one," he responded casually.
I barely caught his words. I was too busy remembering the shaky, scared guy from the airport in Raven City. It's him. It's the same guy. Come to think of it, he was leaving when we were boarding the plane. Could he have been the one to sabotage the plane? The elevator beeped as we reached the ninth floor. The guy got out and turned left. Our room was to the right. Audrey didn't hesitate to head in that direction. I stepped out of the elevator and watched the guy walk to the end of the hall and through a door.
"What made you suspicious all of a sudden?" Audrey said behind me.
"Um, sorry. I thought you'd walk off and leave me again."
"You're the one who keeps staring in childlike fascination. Room is 924. This way."
Audrey opened the door to our room swiftly and threw her bag at the end of her bed.
"You've got to be kidding me."
Two beds were in the room, along with a bathroom and small kitchen.
"So, they want us to share a room? Isn't that a little sudden?"
"I bet it was Rebecca. She probably thinks we're going to end up falling in love and wants to accelerate the process. Meddling as usual."
"I like her style. Subtle, but effective."
I laid on my bed. Audrey picked up a file from a stack on the kitchen counter.
"We have work to do."
"We just got here and I'm tired. You got more sleep than I did."
"Dr. Corey gave us an assignment that needs to be completed quickly. We don't have time to be lazy."
"Well, if he needed it done so quickly, why didn't he just send another team in our place?"
"Two reasons. One, he doesn't like to change his plans. Two, he wants to test you. He wants to know how you turn your abilities on and off, what makes your abilities stronger, and he wants to know if you can adapt to situations and targets."
"And you know that because..."
"He told me."
"Of course he did. Fine, I'm up."
I joined Audrey at a small table and began flipping through Arnold Sek's life.