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Authors: Julie Cross

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BOOK: Vortex
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I tossed the attacker to the ground, then squinted into the sun. My vision started
to return, but fused with large blind spots. I counted the enemies in half a second:
six blurred bodies, against two. I could make out Kendrick’s slim body and long hair.
She scrambled to get up from the ground. One of the thicker bodies dove at her. Instinctively,
I jumped between them and slammed my foot into the attacker’s chest, sending him backward.
The groan of a male voice followed my counterattack.

And that smell … like rusty metal and copper, so strong I could taste it.

The next thirty seconds consisted of flying elbows and fists. Fast silent hits to
various body parts. Luckily, only one of those hits got me. I could already feel a
bump forming on my cheekbone.

Kendrick spun around, taking in the surroundings, not sure exactly what to do next,
now that we had gotten a few of them down. I grabbed the back of her shirt and pushed
her toward the only opening in the fuzz of bodies around us.

“Run!” The word had barely left my mouth when I felt a gun press into the center of
my back. The spots in my vision vanished and I took in the man lying on the ground
and the other four getting to their feet with reluctant movements.

I recognized every single one of them. All EOTs, but not all men. And their faces
had been etched into my mind, but only one mattered right now. Thomas. I could feel
him behind me.

“Hands up, kid, you’re outnumbered,” one of the men beside me said. His red hair caught
my attention, even with my current vision issues.
Raymond … shoe-print guy?
It looked like him, but wasn’t he supposed to be dead?

Slowly, I raised my arms in the air. Kendrick turned back around and lifted her eyebrows
for a split second. I shook my head, but it didn’t do any good. She whipped out her
own gun from the back of her pants, pointing it at the man holding me hostage.

“Drop your weapon!” she said, her voice shaking a little.

“I could do that,” the man behind me answered, his voice alone causing my heart to
race. It
was
Thomas, and now all I could think about was getting to the top of that mountain and
tossing him from it. “Or I could just … vanish with your friend here. And I think
you know what I mean.”

Oh, God … it really is them
. I held my breath, trying to keep it steady. “Let her go.”

“Sorry. Can’t do that,” the girl who looked like Rena said.

Isn’t she dead, too?

And I took notice of the fact that none of the others had drawn weapons … which meant
they might not have any. I counted to three in my head, planning my movements carefully,
then I used my heel to kick Thomas and cause his knee to buckle. At the same time,
I twisted his wrist so the gun pointed upward. As expected, a shot fired into the
sky. Two seconds later I had Thomas on his back, my foot at his throat, cutting off
the air supply to his lungs.

“Go!” I said to Kendrick, not even looking up. Her feet shuffled a bit as she hesitated,
but then she took off in a run. She only made it about thirty feet before collapsing
onto the grass, screaming and clutching the sides of her head.

I couldn’t help her without taking out everyone around me, including the enemy under
my foot.

The man’s features swam in front of me until I could finally focus on them. It was
definitely him … Thomas. He looked a little different, but nearly the same. Maybe
he was older now? Either way, my blood boiled and my pulse pounded into my finger
as it rested on the trigger of the gun. “I never should have let you go the first
time.”

Memories flicked at high speed … Thomas’s impassive face as he raised Holly over the
ledge of the building. Her scream pierced through my ears all over again and it was
all I could hear other than the pounding of blood in my veins.
I can’t let him go again
.

He needs to die
.

“Jackson!”

The deafening scream inside my head turned down a few decibels, along with the growing
fury in my fingertips.

“Stop him!” someone shouted.

“Jackson…” A familiar voice.

The tension flooding through my hand loosened a little. “Dad?”

I shook my head, trying to focus on the person who had just spoken to me. He sounded
like Dad, but didn’t look like him. He moved toward me, placing a hand over the gun
I now held loosely. He whispered in my ear, “It’s just a test … memory gas. What you’re
seeing is altered.”

“But…” I stuttered. “I thought…”

Strong hands gripped my shoulder, turning me around. “Let’s go. The test isn’t over
yet. In fact, since Dad had to ruin the illusion, I think your final exam is going
to be much, much more difficult.”

Chief Marshall. I recognized his voice, but he looked different. Like someone else.
A bag was placed over my head and my arms were tied with rope behind my back. This
time I didn’t resist, still stunned from the realization that I
hadn’t
just been in the middle of an EOT attack. And I knew the final test was coming up,
since we had all nearly reached the end of our training, but I didn’t think it would
be today, especially after being dropped from a helicopter with only a mountainside
to land on. Wasn’t that enough drama for one day?

The next phase of the test involved a long walk to an unknown underground location.
Headquarters were underground, I was used to that. But this place had metal floors
that clanked and an almost hospital-like smell.

Someone pressed me into a large chair and some kind of cuffs encircled my arms, covering
them from my wrists all the way to my elbows. The cuffs squeezed against my skin.

The bag was finally yanked from my head and I saw Kendrick beside me, bound by her
arms to an identical chair. Her knees were pulled to her chest, face pressed into
them as she shook uncontrollably. Her shoulders wiggled back and forth as she tried
to free her arms.

“Just … please … just let me see them,” she said with a shaky voice.

See who? Is she hallucinating fake people, too?

Chief Marshall strode in front of us, pacing back and forth. “Agent Meyer,” he called
to Dad. “Question her while she’s still like this … since the other subject’s data
has been invalidated.”

He turned to glare at me and then stormed out of the tiny room. On the wall just in
front of us a digital clock hung, and when I glanced sideways I realized there were
at least eight identical chairs and a clock or timer in front of each. The red numbers
on mine flashed and eventually stayed, reading
85
.

Kendrick’s numbers were jumping all over the place …
120
 …
152
 …
165
.

Dad glanced at her clock and his forehead wrinkled. He crouched down beside her and
whispered, “Relax, Lily … you’re okay.”

“No … no, I’m not!” She shook her head back and forth. “Just let me go and I’ll come
right back, I swear.”

“Kendrick,” he said more forcefully. “Can you smell the metal? Think about it … you
know what this is.”

She stiffened and then raised her head slightly, wiping the tears on the shoulder
of her sweatshirt. I wasn’t sure what to think. I’d never seen any other agent break
down like this.

The door opened again and Dad stood up and paced the front of the room, like Marshall
had moments ago. “Tell me where you are, Agent Kendrick,” he barked.

I barely listened to his questioning because I was distracted watching the other trainees
being marched in and strapped down just like us. Stewart ended up right beside me.

“How’s it going, Junior?” she whispered to me. “Didn’t wet your pants, did you?”

Mason, Stewart’s official partner, was on her other side. He didn’t look as calm and
malicious as Stewart right now, but he didn’t seem as freaked out as Kendrick had
been seconds ago.
Or me, fifteen minutes ago
.

“So, tell me what you saw,” Stewart whispered loudly to me. “Your credit cards stolen?”

I squeezed my fists together and watched the number
85
on my clock change to
90
, then
95
.

“As you may have noticed,” Chief Marshall said, walking slowly from the door to the
center of the room, “those cuffs around your arms keep a constant measure of each
of your pulse rates. In about twenty seconds, a number is going to flash below your
current heart rate. That is the average resting heart rate Dr. Melvin has recorded
during physical assessments.”

I watched my clock, counting down until the number
63
flashed below my
90
. Kendrick’s target number was
78
and Stewart had the second lowest at
67
.

“You have exactly one minute to lower that number to no more than ten beats per minute
above your individual resting heart rate. Should you fail to do this, a gradual progression
of physical punishment in the form of electric shock and heat will be administered
through those armbands,” Marshall continued with uninterested ease, as though giving
a guided tour of a boring landmark.

I closed my eyes and took in slow deep breaths,
feeling
rather than watching my pulse slow. When I opened my eyes again thirty seconds later,
my number had dropped to
78
.

Stewart stuck her feet out in front of her, crossing her legs and stretching. Her
pulse held steady at
69
. This was why she specialized in both Covert Operations and Foreign Affairs. The
girl was comfortable and relaxed in anyone’s skin, pretending to be anyone or anything.

Twenty seconds later, my number had dropped to
71
. Chief Marshall turned his eyes on me, narrowing them to slits. “Agent Meyer … can
you tell me what prevented you and Agent Kendrick from reaching headquarters in the
allotted mission time?”

“We were attacked, sir,” I said immediately.

“By whom?” Marshall asked, resting his hands on my chair and getting right in my face.

71 

72
 …
73
 …

“I’m not … I don’t know,” I said, scrambling to remember which agents, besides Dad,
had actually been present. I never got a good look at their real faces after the delusional
fog dissolved.

“Think hard, Agent Meyer.”

74
 …
75
 … heat flowed through my arms, not scalding temperatures, but I knew it would get
worse. Kendrick gasped beside me, but when I glanced her way, she bit down on her
lower lip and smoothed her expression, faking calm.

Good. She’s learning.

Her pulse, however, raced, fluctuating from
105
all the way to
125
.

“If Agent Meyer Senior hadn’t stopped you, Agent Freeman might not be alive right
now,” Marshall said. “How do feel about that? How do you feel about having your environment,
your
mind,
altered in such a drastic, consequential way?”

He’s exaggerating. I wouldn’t have killed Freeman
.

My legs were free, so I had to fight the urge to kick him in the stomach. Seriously?
How did he think I felt about it?
Yeah, it was a real blast
. Dad’s face tightened, probably sensing my anger, and he shook his head ever so slightly
at me.

“It wasn’t an experience I’d like to have again,” I answered finally, biting down
the words I really wanted to say.

76
 …
77
 …
78.

Beside me, sweat trickled down Kendrick’s face and she closed her eyes, letting out
short rapid breaths.

Pain shot through my arms, traveling across my entire body. I gritted my teeth, trying
not to make any movement to prove my discomfort. A yelp from one of the agents came
from several seats away.

“Are you going to tell us what that gas was?” Mason asked from two seats over. There
was a definite strain in his voice and I could see from his own clock that he was
struggling just as badly as Kendrick to keep calm. They had definitely taken the mind
games to a whole new level today.

“Yes,” Marshall boomed, tearing his direct attention away from me. “The substance
each of you inhaled today contained a chemical that we have yet to fully identify.”

That was how Dad was able to lure Kendrick out of her delusion … she was specializing
in advanced bio. Dr. Melvin probably had her studying the weird chemical.

“Is this the final test?” someone shouted from the last seat to my right. “Is it standard?”

“No, it’s not, Agent Miller. In fact, our division needed data to use as a beginning
point in our research. The gas is something that exists many, many years from now
and its purpose is to alter an environment or situation using an individual’s own
stored memories. That is the only information Dr. Melvin and I received, and of course
we were curious to see how memories were selected and the effect it had on each individual.
Can anyone think of a reason this substance could be useful to a government agency?”

“Crime scene investigation,” Agent Parker said from Kendrick’s other side.

Just hearing about this futuristic weapon had caused my pulse to race again …
82
 …
83
 …
85,
and the heat reached a nearly unbearable level. Kendrick’s face had gone completely
white. Her numbers climbed to well over
140
and the wrinkle in her forehead told me she was most likely getting electrical shock
as well.

“Yes,” Marshall said. “But something even more threatening.”

“Assassins,” Stewart said. Her number flickered to
70
for a split second and then quickly fell to
68
.

“Very good, Agent Stewart.” Marshall paced for several seconds, causing everyone to
grow more nervous. He stared right at me. “None of us know how this substance will
be used or when exactly, but this is part of our future, that much is guaranteed.
Weapons such as these are not ethical or risk-controlled methods of preserving humanity,
and as soon as Tempest finds out who the person is behind this invention, the individual
will be stopped. That’s a risk and an unfortunate loss we must be willing to take.”

BOOK: Vortex
8.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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