"Breath. Hold. Clench".
"Breath. Hold. Clench".
Jonathan Brand repeated the words over and over again in his head. No matter how many times he did this sort of work it never got easier, so he just needed a mantra to repeat over and over again to make his situation as mundane as possible.
The wind swirled around him in the high steel skeleton of the Middle East's new super skyscraper, a structure that would be, in a few months, attracting the rich and famous from around the world.
But tonight it had attracted a totally different kind of person. Rich? Yes. Famous? He could never afford to be.
He looked through his rifle sight at the room in the opposite building. The man whose life he had to end was in there. The next shot he fired could change the world. "Breath. Hold. Clench", he thought to himself.
As he felt his heart rate slow, he felt a pair of warm hands on his shoulders. It was something he normally welcomed, but not tonight. "Go away, not now!" he snapped.
Regaining his focus he looked upon the lighted room. At first it was empty, but then a door slowly opened. It was him! Really him! The man at the top of the FBI and CIA most wanted lists. A stray thought echoed through his mind. It shouldn't be this easy. But he knew what to do with stray thoughts. "Breath. Hold. Clench. Fire!"
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him".
The President's announcement was followed by a wild cheering from all the other people in the room. He raised his hands to calm the crowd and went on.
"I can now confirm that at 0304 EST, the international terrorist known only as 'Atilla', the prime suspect in numerous terror attacks in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris was shot and killed by a US assassin. His body has been identified and is now in UN custody. The particulars of the incident have not yet been released, but I can say that we should all sleep a little easier tonight. I will now take questions".
Half a world away, the press conference streamed into Jonathan Brand's laptop. In his private room in the UN air base he tried to relax. He recalled the incident of a few hours ago, the terrorist's figure falling down silently in his hotel room, and the feeling of triumphant relief in his mind. But there was one thing he also couldn't escape: it went down far too easily.
He heard a voice behind him, talking to him as if it had just read his mind. "You're being too hard on yourself, Jonathan".
He whirled around to see her figure. A slender young beautiful woman, six feet tall and with hair so blond it looked like it was fire. Today she was wearing a disarmingly simple black dress, but Jonathan ignored both this and her previous comment. "That was you tonight, wasn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"On the tower. Trying to give me a massage".
She could only smile. "What makes you think it was me?"
"Well, you're the only person I've ever known with a tendency to appear out of nowhere".
"And you've never complained about it before".
"Well tonight your over impulsiveness could have cost me the mission". He turned around to his table and continued to pack, but she continued to talk. "Why so grumpy, Jonathan? You've just rid the free world of its most wanted. You should be up there with the President celebrating".
"Assassins don't celebrate. We don't kiss babies and we don't go to ticker tape parades".
She walked up behind him and started to massage his shoulders. "Your loss. You know, you're so tense".
He stood up, knocking her hands away. "I'll relax when I'm back on US soil. Til then, please make yourself scarce. We don't want anyone catching an international hero talking to his imaginary friend, now, do we?"
It was six o' clock on a Saturday morning, but Amelia Strong had been working for two hours already. She was just returning to the lab after the presidential announcement. She was slightly relieved that Atilla had been assassinated, but her work worries were more pressing. Knocking the screen saver off her computer, she continued to crunch the numbers. She was only a few days off her official presentation now, so she had to be right.
She sat there alone. This was how she worked best; no noise, no distractions, and no annoying questions being asked of her. It was because of this that she saw red when she heard the familiar voice behind her. "What was the President saying?"
She span round in her chair. "Like you don't know". The man sat behind her wore a black jacket and trousers and a white shirt. He had long brown hair, and the appearance of a man in his early forties. He also spoke in a British accent, which always reminded her of her grandfather. He smiled at her patronisingly and continued. "Well I know what happened, but I'd like to hear it from you".
She decided to play the game, hoping that it would make him go away. "Someone got shot".
"'Someone got shot'? So the President called a press conference? Does he have nothing better to do?"
Amelia was getting irritated. "It was a terrorist or something".
"And that was why people were cheering? Someone dies and people cheer? A little barbaric, don't you think?"
"Look, Colin, I'm busy. If you want to discuss philosophy why don't you find someone else to annoy?"
"Because I love annoying you. And, please, could you stop calling me 'Colin'?"
"You said you didn't mind".
"I don't mind the name. I apparently have a British accent so you call me 'Colin'. Fine. It's just the way you pronounce it. It sounds like part of the digestive system".
Now she had had enough. "Look, I realise that you really enjoy our little conversations, but today I have far more important things on my mind. I have to get the numbers straight today, or this whole project goes up in smoke. If you have nothing else to do, why don't you find some chains to rattle in a rich man's house?"
"There we go with the 'ghost' theory again".
"Well if you're not a ghost then what are you".
He winked. "Oh, I'm so much more. But if we're honest, you knew that already". And with that comment, Amelia found herself alone again in the laboratory. Silently she cursed him. It would take her a long time to get her focus back.
The flight back into San Francisco had been long, but worth it. Jonathan put his hands to the tiled wall feeling the water of the shower wash every last particle of blood from his body. Now at last he was home.
He left his bathroom with a towel around his waist. He lived alone, but he never knew when he may be being watched. The tall blond woman in his bedroom confirmed that he was right to be cautious. But now that he felt more relaxed, he realised that he could be more playful. "You here to administer some R&R?"
"Jonathan, I'm sorry". Her face was white as a sheet.
"That's a new one for you. You don't normally apologise".
"Please, Jonathan, listen to me". It was then that he realised something wasn't right.
"What is it?"
"Turn on your TV set".
He grabbed the remote and did as he was asked. On CNN, he saw a face he recognised. "Atilla. The guy I killed. So".
She folded her arms and rubbed them as if she was cold. "Turn up the volume".
The newscaster's voice became gradually louder. "… and so either we have a fantastic hoax on our hands, or something has happened beyond our greatest minds' ability to explain. If you've just joined us, the terrorist know as 'Atilla', assassinated less than 48 hours ago, has appeared on live television in the Middle East saying claiming that he's been resurrected".
Jonathan put the television back on mute. "A hoax".
"No, Jonathan. He's alive. I'm so sorry".
"And how do you know that?"
"Because this was always going to happen".
"You're crazy. You're not making any sense. I'm going to call this in, and see what they've got".
She walked up to him and put massaged his neck with her hands. "Please, Jonathan, you can't call this in". He reached up and removed her hands from his body. "And why not?"
"Because you'll get them killed".
"And what would you suggest I do?"
"Get dressed. It's time for you both to meet up. I've written an address and a name on a piece of paper on your coffee table. You've got to go now, Jonathan. Please, if you've ever trusted me, just do this one thing".
"Excellent work, Dr Strong, Excellent". Amelia nodded and left the room. She felt the usual sense of pride in a job well done. As she walked down the long white corridor she removed her lab coat. It was then that she heard the all too familiar voice. "Bravo, Amelia, well done".
She half-smiled when she saw her imaginary friend walking beside her. "Even you can't put a damper on me today. You can talk all you want".
"And that's just what I intend to do. So your engine may actually work".
"Of course it'll work. I never fail".
"But don't you ever think of why?"
"Well, why men need to travel in space. Isn't it a bit dangerous?"
"So's crossing the street, driving a car and going to war. Everything worth doing entails at least a bit of danger".
"Well, I suppose so. But space is such a great unknown, don't you think? Think of all the g's a faster than light craft will pull on the human body. And let's not even think of all the nasty things that are probably out there".
"Such as what?"
"Well, I don't know, you're the creative one, remember. So what are your plans for the rest of the day".
"Think I'll go and get hideously drunk".
Jonathan decided to see this one through. He couldn't explain why. Perhaps it was just the fact that it was the first time he had ever seen her and she wasn't trying to flirt with him. She had accompanied him on so many missions (he still hadn't any idea how), and that didn't seem to faze her. He'd seen enough to take notice when a brave person is spooked, even if he wasn't entirely sure she was a person. It was a long time since he'd stopped trying to figure out what she was. And even if she was an illusion, the paper in his hand was real.
He looked down and checked the address. Realising this was the place, he walked into the small coffee shop and looked around. He read the paper again, and put his hand to his head. "Damn! This is the address alright, but no name!"
It was then that his senses kicked in: not his normal senses, but the ones he developed with the marines, and later the CIA. He knew someone was watching him from behind. He span around just in time to see a dark man with a sawn off shotgun enter the shop. He ducked behind a table as the man levelled his weapon at him.
Faster than his eye could follow, a woman who had been sat at a table got up and turned around. Seemingly from nowhere she produced a pair of hand guns and began to fire shot after shot into the man before he could pull his trigger one.
Glass fell everywhere as the other occupants screamed and ran out of the other exit. After a few moments, Jonathan stood up and walked over to the corpse. He checked the neck for a pulse and couldn't find it. "He's dead. Guess you saved my life".
"You must be Jonathan Brand".
Shocked, he got up and turned to the woman. She was about 30 years old, had short blonde hair and wore a dark green trenchcoat, which had served to conceal her weapons very well.
"And who the hell are you?"
"I'm the person you're here to meet".
He held the small piece of paper to her face. "Well our mutual friend didn't do her job well, she wrote the address here, but forgot to write your name".
The woman smiled. "No, she put it all down".
Jonathan looked at the paper again. "What so your name's 'Starbuck'?"
"It's my call sign. My real name's Kara Thrace. And you're gonna need my help".
"Because it's happening again"