Copyright to Jonathan O'Donnell - Protected under UK and International Copyright Laws, any reproduction, copying or publishing without the Authors express consent is strictly prohibited.
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Joanna opened the cracked wood door to the shop; inside the small shop, tightly packed shelves teetered on the edge of collapse in every direction. Shelves protruded from every wall and were even over the doors and windows. Display stands and shelving that had seen far better days cluttered the centre of the floor on the threadbare carpet. It was an obstacle course of sorts just to make it to the counter at the far end. The smell was unusual, old, something that was most unfamiliar to Joanna growing up on the new world of Mars. As she approached the counter, a black curtain hiding a door behind it was swept aside. The shop assistant, with grey hair and warm brown eyes with wrinkles etched by experience, smiled at her pleasingly.
“Yes young lady, how may I assist you this fine New York day?” His accent was unusual, palms were up and welcoming, his fingers patched with plasters.
Joanna stepped forward to the glass counter. Joanna felt at ease with this man, he posed no threat, well not to Joanna’s attuned senses. She swung her bag off her back and pulled out a note. She laid it gently onto the glass counter. His eyes followed her hand and they widened considerably as he realised a thousand credits sat on his counter. Three months profit sat there tantalising him. She smiled and her eyes met his and he smiled, he leaned forward placing one hand on the note.
“What would you like to know?"
Joanna pulled a piece of paper from her breast pocket and she placed it into his hand. He stepped back and studied the piece of paper for a few seconds, turning it in each direction assessing the image printed on it. Joanna noticed the thousand credits and disappeared. He rotated it to ensure he had observed every detail of the three dimensional image, satisfied he passed it back. His eyes met hers; they had changed, no longer soft but wide and fixed. He was no longer welcoming but seemed tense and he shifted from foot to foot. Joanna noticed beads of sweat tickle down his temples.
“This is dangerous young lady, the information you seek will lead to death. Mark my words”. Joanna just stared at him; her lack of response to his warning told the assistant what he needed to know. He shrugged and went into the back room. Joanna stepped to the side, so she could observe both doors and waited silently. Her hand in her rucksack, fingers wrapped around the hilt of her laser, finger on the trigger, ready and on guard; on Earth she could trust no one not even this apparently benign assistant. A few moments later, he brushed the curtain aside. Looking into her eyes, he smiled once again. Joanna looked down to see a plain folded sheet of paper on the desk.
He tapped it with his finger; “good luck,” turned and disappeared once again behind the curtain.
Joanna slipped the paper silently into her pocket, released her grip on the laser, and left the shop. Looking left, then right, Joanna crossed the road towards a small garden where a building had once been, a bench beckoned to her. Joanna sat down and pulled the paper from her pocket. Silently she read the scribbled writing on the note.
An address, nothing more, nothing less, she turned it over and still that was all. ‘Not much,’ she thought but it was at least a starting point. On its own, it meant nothing, but it was a lead, another step closer to finding James. Joanna took a lighter from her pocket and burned the paper. She watched the paper turn black and the ashes blow away. She stood slinging her rucksack onto her back; she saw a row of Taxi’s bobbing for fares and headed towards them.
Her taxi stopped near the entrance to the warehouse and Joanna opened the door and clambered out; Joanna’s height proving a persistent hazard on this dwarf like world. She paid the driver and closed the rear door. She heard the cabs engine roar to life behind her and the wheels spin as it left. ‘Subtle matey’ she though, she wondered if perhaps hiring transport would have been easier and more discreet at moments like this. Joanna stood in the middle of a concrete parking lot, devoid of transports except for one burnt out wreck, rusting and glassless in the far corner. The road to the address had been pot holed, puddled and uncomfortable to drive down, and it was clearly infrequently used.
She swung her rucksack off her back and took out a scanner. It whined and whirred as she turned it on, its sensors capable of picking up any heat source within five hundred feet. She scanned her location in detail, sometimes swinging the scanner back over some points two or three times. The warehouse was the key, the only source of major heat signatures, if she ignored the rats and cats of course. Switching the scanner mode to sound she held it to her chest to erase her own breathing and heartbeat. Then again, she scanned the location. This time the results were far different. Rats and cats abound, but heavyset men with large lungs surrounded her, the scanner could tell how many and based on the sounds how large the person was. She put the scanner back into her rucksack and removing her combat belt, she put it on. She then removed the laser she had fingered in the shop just thirty minutes before. Joanna holstered her laser, hearing the comforting click of it locking into place.
Joanna paused, closed her eyes, visualising the interior of the warehouse, the heat signatures and where her possible opponents could be. When her eyes opened, all she could see was the door to the warehouse. With a skip, she began to move, then jog and into a sprint. Earth’s gravity pressed down on her, slowing her natural Martian movement. Two metres from the door she leapt feet first and hit half way up. The jarring impact sent a shockwave up her thighs and into her spine, her bones were not as dense as a Terran, thinner and rubbery. The door broke in two and folded. She landed on her side, rolled to her left into the shadows and up onto one knee, her laser drawn. She listened silently, ears attuned to any movement. Giving her eyes time to adjust to the interior. Joanna closed her eyes while her hearing guarded her. Then as she opened them, the warehouse came nicely into focus, dimly lit by large broken windows, a small room to the rear and a collapsed floor above. She knew that in the darkness of the ceiling beams hid potential assassins.
Joanna’s laser swept the scene, her eyes looking for the slightest movement. Seeing none through the gloom she closed her eyes again, she calmed her mind and waited. She knew that somewhere in the rafters two men were waiting. They knew she was inside, but they knew she was in the shadows. If they had heat sensors it would aid them not, her suit blocked any heat source from her body. Silently Joanna waited. Her breathing slowed, her muscles relaxed, the muzzle of her laser cold, expectant. An assassin involuntarily twitched his leg, sending dust cascading to the floor, it was a fatal error. His body hit the floor a moment later; his head with a neat one-inch hole drilled through it. The second man panicked and jumped down and ran towards a side door. He did not make it. Joanna opened her eyes, stood and walked slowly and carefully towards the back room where the final heat signature had been detected. From under the door light seeped across the floor. Silently Joanna moved, stepping between rubbish and broken glass. She paused at the door, taking a moment to check her six, the laser with its barrel still warm, followed her eyes as she slowly turned around, scanning the entire building once more, her eyes checking the rafters for any movement. Satisfied that the only assassins left were the ones that waited for her outside, she turned to the door, her left hand reached down and turned the handle, she pushed it open and stepped back behind the wall. With one swift movement, she stepped inside, laser at the ready. She scanned the room quickly, plain and white tiled. There was a stench in the air that reacted badly with her stomach. Then her eyes froze, her face changed, her mouth dropped open and her eyes opened wide. Her body suddenly felt weak, light headed, she dropped to one knee. She closed her eyes as her hands began to shake. Her laser fell from her hand and chinked as it bounced off the tiled floor. Her mouth dry, she willed herself to stand, to move, every muscle fought against her, her mind swirling, somehow Joanna made it across the floor.
Joanna reached up and touched his lips. She expected no response. James’s eyes opened and he looked down, her hand jerked back in shock, but then Joanna smiled up at him, her eyes were bloodshot and full of tears, her cheeks flushed red, her mouth as dry as a Martian sand storm.
James spoke with what little control he had, "You came!" His voice weak, phlegm streaked with blood flowed from the side of his mouth.
“I came!" She replied softly, her voice trembling.
She ran her hand over his bloodied cheeks. She looked behind him, seeing a rope, untying it she lowered his shattered body slowly to the floor. As his stumps touched the tiles, he let out a pathetic whimper. She knelt beside his broken body cradling his head. Blood still pumped slowly from his thighs from where his legs would have been. Rope roughly tied around his limbs failed to stem the flow. Joanna ran her hand through his hair, her fingers paused when she found a soft spot, it felt like a partly broken hard boiled egg; the blood warmed her fingers, and she felt sick. His face was bruised and swollen; tears welled up in her eyes and sprinted down her cheeks. She kissed his forehead.
“You asked me to come, so of course I did my love."
She took a tissue from her pack and gently wiped his face. He managed a smile. He forced himself to speak.
"I am so sorry to drag you into this, but I needed you. When it all went to pullacks, all I could think of was you."
Closing his eyes, Joanna waited, hoping, praying they would open again. They did.
“You must go Joanna, they will be back soon!" He coughed, the pain causing his face to twist. “I am finished, but you must do something for me and something for Mars and for all of us”.
Joanna nodded; she kissed him again. He smiled as her soft lips left his,
“Go to the telephone booth, you will find something critically important. Get it to my brother as soon as you can baby."
She nodded. Stroking his face, “I will my love, I promise!"
He smiled. His face became pale, beads of cold sweat streamed down his forehead. He spoke once more, his eyes looking deeply into hers.
“I love you; I want you to know that I always did love you. I never wanted to leave. I wish I had another chance."
She held him close to her, his face against her chest. His eyes opened wide, he looked up into her green eyes. She looked back, his dark beautiful eyes looking into her soul, oh how she had missed those eyes.
“It is ok, we here together right now”. She said softly. His eyes focussed on her one last time, and then silently the pupils opened wider. He was gone. Her cry of pain echoed throughout the warehouse. Life had lost all meaning! Nothing mattered to her anymore. She sat and held his shattered, wrecked body tightly against her, not wanting to let him go ever again.
Joanna did not know how long she sat crumpled on the floor with James pressed to her. It felt like hours. The sunlight streaming through the windows of the warehouse had traversed the room. Eventually Joanna forced herself to move, to let go.
Her fist clenched forcing the blood from her hand; she looked into his eyes and gently kissed his forehead, then carefully and slowly laid his body down. Her fingers closed his eyes; she took a deep breath and began to think. Her knees were as weak as they had been on Mars when she had first met him. Joanna roughly rubbed tears from her eyes and walked stumbling from the room picking up her laser as she left. Her body felt so weak and her mind spun relentlessly. She stopped and leant against the wall of the room. Joanna taking a moment, just to refocus, to clear her mind. However, like a cat her reflexes were sharp, her body a machine of alertness. Even in this the worst moment of her life, her body was attune to the danger.
‘What do you mean you lost her? How could you lose her? Stupid funts, Idiots! Find her, track her.'
The suited men cut communications.
‘Well we have screwed up now,' the taller one said shaking his head.
‘Let’s try that shop she went it, the system says it is a front for crime information.' The smaller one replied.
‘Well, we better do something, or we will be transferred to the moon chasing homeless urchins!'
Stepping through the door back to the main warehouse floor, Joanna caught sight of a man edging around the door to the warehouse, his hand held a laser. She reacted as her training allowed. Pulling her laser from her belt, and firing instantly, the man’s body fell forward against the frame and then spun onto the floor, a smouldering gaping hole through his head. Alert and focussed she ran forward, as a second man rushed through the door; he too was cut down, his cries of agony cut short by a second deadly beam through his right eye. Joanna again moved quickly, reaching the door of the warehouse. She paused, reloaded her laser. She took two smoke bombs from her belt and tossed them through the door. Joanna counted to three and then moved.
Diving through the door into the smoke, she rolled, stopped and fired, then rolled again, firing left and right. Her senses heard a hover cars engine, she moved towards the sound, zig zagging all the way. She hoped her assailants were not using sound scanners. Through the gloom, her eyes fixed quickly on the only visible threat! The hover car, engine humming, the door open and a thickset driver sat at the controls. He froze as his eyes fixed on Joanna. His scanner slipped from his fingers as he slowly raised his hands. His eyes transfixed on the barrel of Joanna’s Laser.
Joanna walked towards the hover car, pausing just few feet away. With a wave of her barrel, she beckoned him out of the car. Dutifully and slowly, the thickset man slowly climbed out. His eight-foot frame towering over Joanna, ‘Martian’ she though. He looked down at her, his hands held high either side of his head, a laser strapped to his belt. Joanna smiled at him, he smiled back, then his face twisted and contorted as he fell against the car and thumped onto the concrete. His left knee sporting a new neat pinpoint hole. Joanna knelt next to him and placed the laser under his nose. She was angry, in touch with her violent dark side.
“Who are you? What are you doing on Earth?" Her voice trembled with anger as she struggled to control the adrenaline pumping through her.
His face grimaced, “None of your funting business,” he cried, “stupid bitch! You are just the walking dead and you don’t even know it!"
That was the last thing he said to Joanna or anyone ever again.
As his still steaming brains dripped off the bodywork of the hover car Joanna climbed into her newly acquired ride. She looked back just once at the warehouse before she drove off, leaving smoking, charred bodies still twitching behind her.
Joanna flew directly to the communication booth from which James had called her for help; she paid little respect to Earth’s hover car laws. Determined and focussed on one thing only, completing James’s last request. She landed next to the communication booth, there was no time to waste, and whatever James had been working on, it was big, and it was essential to the futures of both Earth and Mars.
‘The warehouse had been a trap, to lure her or someone else.' She was in no doubt about that. Her training’ experience and skill had kept her alive. ‘Nevertheless, if they could get to James, they were more than capable of getting her too!' She jumped from the car leaving the engine running and the door open.
‘If they were after what James had, I need to act quickly.' She thought, she knew her advantage was small, ‘minutes or seconds. They would trace the stolen hover car, they would find her and then they would not make the same mistake of underestimating her a second time. Every single second counts now, no hesitation, and no time to feel’.
Drawing her laser she yanked the door of the booth open, inside a short man squealed with shock, Joanna grabbed his shoulder, yanking him clear of the booth and sending him tumbling across the pavement. Joanna’s eyes scanned the booth.
‘Where is it James? Where would you hide it?'
Her eyes looked up at the light above her, ‘That’s it.'
Her fist punched through the glass and it shattered, showering her in small beads of glass. A small silver cylinder landed on the floor at her feet, she grabbed it with her bleeding hand. She looked at it, storage unit, and secret service issue. She opened it and found what she had expected, a micro communication disk. Joanna holstered her laser and placed her thumb on the back of the disc and her little finger on the front. The disc bleeped three times; satisfied she pocketed the disc and jumped back into the humming hover car. She could already hear sirens in the distance. ‘No time, no time! Move, move!' She barked at herself.
Abandoning the hover car a block from the booth in a back road. Joanna cut through Central Park. She kept to the busy paths full of tourists, hoping she would blend in, her laser now packed in her rucksack and not readily accessible. However, Joanna knew that Martians rarely blended in on earth, their towering height always drew stares and finger pointing from children. Joanna followed the winding paths, turning corners and dodged around children playing. Occasionally she left the paths to go through some bushes. She paused behind large copse of trees, checking her ‘three’, ‘six’ and ‘nine’ constantly. Out of breath Joanna took a break in a thicket of bushes, she checked her map. ‘If she could get across the park, into a cab, then a ‘Magna-train’ to Texas, she might be able to get off world on a freighter.'
Joanna took a deep breath of the thick Earth atmosphere and jogged up a grassy hill. As her eyes looked over the hill, she suddenly skidded to a halt.
A man was walking up the hill towards her, the muzzle of his laser pointed directly at her. Joanna’s mind worked quickly assessing the situation. She looked to her right, another man stepped forward and then another to her left. Behind her, she could hear more heavy steps, many more were approaching. She counted seven in all. Joanna’s mind raced, back to her training days at the academy. She was desperately trying to work out a successful kill formula for seven assailants, on a grassy hill, with a laser packed in a rucksack. Her mind could not find one, each scenario ended with them standing over her lifeless body. The problem was her laser, buried deep in her rucksack, and it was that one thing that prevented any successful outcome. The man stood just ten feet from her, short, but smartly dressed.
“The disc please?" The man seemed most amused; his smirk irritated her, his hand held out.
Joanna reached slowly into her pocket, and tossed the disc onto the grass in front of him.
He reached down to pick it up, Joanna saw her chance, the muzzle momentarily moved from her to the ground.
This was it, her chance; she swept the rucksack from her back and reached into it to grab her laser. He reacted fast, actually much faster than she had expected. He lifted his laser and fired. Luckily he missed, his shot passed over a crouching Joanna. She raised her laser and pulled the trigger but something was wrong. She could feel herself firing, but the visuals did not match. She watched as her laser spun in the air, her fingers still pressing the trigger. The laser still firing, scorching the ground in strange patterns in front of her. The pain registered up her arm a moment later. Her arm severed, just below where her protective body suit ended just above the elbow. Joanna had not time to let out a cry of pain, as the twitching fingers of her severed hand lay on the grass and blood pumped from her arm. A second burst of laser fire hit her in her back, the intense heat scored through her suit, painful but not deadly. Joanna her senses still sharp, ducked and rolled forward, grabbing her laser with her remaining good hand and sweeping an arc of fire around her. She managed to hit two of them, cutting them down; their heads bounced down the grassy hill as their bodies crumpled to the ground. Another laser blast grazed her head, removing some skin on the left side of her face, her ear had been vaporised. Pain scythed through her like nothing she had ever known. She lifted her laser again and cut down one more. Nevertheless, it was hopeless, Joanna knew it, and two final beams cut at her. One removed her laser and the fingers that held it, the other sliced across her stomach. The suit protected her from most of the intense heat but the pain from her arms and head combined was too much and she crumpled forward. Blood poured from her wounds.
'Sir we have found her, she has been spotted heading across Central Park. What do you want us to do?' The short man looked at his taller colleague.
'Get your funting asses over there and help her you dolts!'The response was loud enough to crackle the speaker. Without hesitation, they lifted off in their hover car. They were a minute away.
As Joanna lay on the ground, the grass and mud turning red with her blood her remaining ear could feel the approaching boots. She felt a boot in her stomach; the man flipped her onto her back. She looked up into his eyes, they were cold eyes.
‘This is it!’ she thought.
She met his stare with her own, her eyes strong and unflinching her hatred powerful even in her final moments. The man with the boot moved away and another took his place. He knelt down beside her,
“Morning!" his smile was repulsive, his teeth dirty and uneven. His face had a waxy shiny texture. Her dislike was instantaneous.
He tapped the muzzle of his laser on Joanna’s missing ear. “Nasty that!" he said grinning. Joanna heard the others laughing as the pain seared from the muzzle’s touch.
“Now lass, I will only ask you this once. Did you copy that disc?"
Joanna shook her head; her eyes stared back into his. Words could not describe the look, but it would have made an angel shiver with fear.
“Good girl." he stood up, fiddling with his laser.
“You can join James now!" He aimed and fired.
Sweat poured down his brow as he ran with the two suited men through the park. As he cleared a thicket, the grassy hill came into view. He had to leap over a dismembered head. He paused, drawing his laser. The tall and short suits also drew their lasers. Slowly the three of them made their way up the shallow hill. Then he saw Joanna’s body.
“Damn!" He broke into a sprint and fell to his knees beside her crumpled shattered body. Her injuries were horrific.
“Secure the site and get an Ambulance. Pronto!” he barked at his men.
He brushed the hair from Joanna’s face. Using his sleeve he wiped the blood from her cheeks. His heart sank.
“I am so sorry Jo; I failed you and James." he said
He leaned forward to pick up her laser. He stopped, he looked at her again. He leaned in closer, his ear brushing her lips.
With a renewed urgency, he made the most important call of Joanna’s life.
Denny climbed into his hover car on the edge of the park. He took out the disc and placed it into the monitor. He selected ‘Load’.
The screen flickered, ‘Disc Empty’, displayed on the screen.
“That lying bitch!” he barked.
He pulled the door shut and made a scrambled emergency call. Everything had become very complicated and now all their plans had to change, and fast.