Suddenly Joel and Tess were alerted to a presence hiding in the darkened alley behind them.
"You won't have to look very far," a soft voice spoke nearby.
As the woman emerged from the shadows, Joel recognized the face immediately.
"There you go," he said matter-of-factly. "Queen Firefly."
It was Marlene, a face familiar to most everyone in the quarantine zone, a face that sparked awe in some, resentment in others and hatred in the ones desperately trying to hold onto power. An innocent, infamous face villainized by the military's many WANTED posters plastered throughout the city.
To Joel, the sight of the young black woman sparked only curiosity. He knew who she was and the cause she stood for - and why the military hated her - but his own personal feelings toward her were ambivalent.
Marlene wore a blue denim jacket over a maroon sweatshirt. She was a thin woman in her early thirties with an impressive stature. A bloody hand stretched across her stomach concealing a nasty wound.
She waved her other hand vaguely at them. "Why are you here?"
Tess acknowledged the leader of the Fireflies with a nod. "Business," she replied.
These were two strong-willed women, each impressive in their own right. They stood facing each other, sizing one another up.
"You aren't looking so hot," Tess said, indicating the wound.
Marlene bent her head down to concede the truth, then she quickly dismissed the comment and glanced around her.
Without a word, Tess stepped aside, allowing her to see the body that lay at her feet.
Marlene released a sigh of disappointment with a shake of her head. "I needed him alive."
Tess didn't care. "The guns he gave you," she calmly explained, "weren't his to sell, and I want them back."
Marlene looked at the ground and shook her head. "Doesn't work like that, Tess."
"The hell it doesn't."
"I paid for those guns." Marlene said, advancing, looking Tess squarely in the eyes. "You want 'em back? You're gonna have to earn 'em."
To Joel, this was a showdown between two equally-matched, independent women. Tess turned and looked over her shoulder at Joel, who was still leaning patiently against the wall.
He gave her a slight nod to indicate it was her call.
"How many cards are we talking about?" she asked impatiently.
Marlene sighed with exasperation. "I don't give a damn about ration cards." She took a brief moment to size them up and apparently come to a decision. "I need something smuggled out of the city. You do that," she said with a nod, "I'll give you your guns back, and then some."
Tess turned to look at Joel.
Joel pushed away from the wall and approached, his arms folded across his chest. "How do we know you got 'em? Way I hear it, the military's been wiping you guys out."
"You're right about that," she conceded. She then straightened and said, "I'll show the weapons."
Just then, the sound of a voice on a megaphone caused them to jump. It was the military, and they were nearby.
"Search the area!"
"Yes sir," followed a faint reply.
"I gotta move," Marlene said, alarm in her voice. "What's it gonna be?" She was edging back to the shadows, preparing to flee.
Joel looked at Tess and knew they had to make a decision.
"I wanna see those guns," Tess replied anxiously.
"Follow me." Marlene said, turning to head back into the shadows of the alley.
The alley opened into a back lot behind the wharf. A large blue tent stretched across one corner and Joel saw several empty bunks peeking out from the shadows - sleeping quarters for the men guarding the docks. Elsewhere were pallets, carts and a couple of blue port-a-potties way past their prime.
"Find the door!" came a voice closing in.
"We gotta get out of here, now!" Tess hissed.
"They locked it," replied another irritated response.
"You want this deal," Marlene spoke as she turned a corner, "we gotta move."
The two followed Marlene through a narrow gap between a building and a high brick wall. From his point of view, Joel thought the area was inescapable: a tall metal fence surrounded them. He saw stairs materialize to his right, rising to the platform above them, which Marlene and Tess ascended, and Joel jogged to catch up.
Marlene seemed to know where they were headed, so Joel allowed himself to follow, but suddenly he found himself facing a locked gate beside a large mesh-wire fence.
"Through here," Marlene said, dodging to her left around a large wooden crate, revealing a route Joel hadn't noticed. "I know a way around this. C'mon."
Marlene vaulted over a table covered in a blue tarp, knocking over empty paint cans as she went. To her left were wooden crates stacked four or five high, forming a crude set of steps. At the top of this makeshift stairway extended a fire escape with a ladder just barely within reach.
She moves pretty good for being wounded, Joel thought as he followed her up. He found his admiration for the woman stirring but he quickly dismissed it. He didn't need anymore friends.
With one hand on her wounded side, Marlene leapt and grabbed the ladder. She tugged it down and rapidly ascended.
Joel followed her up. He glanced down to see Tess climbing right behind him. He hoisted himself onto the fire escape catwalk and hurried his pace, trying to keep up with the resistance leader ahead.
Another set of metal stairs appeared, leading up, and up Marlene ascended, agile like a cat. Joel found himself becoming winded, using the teal-colored railing for support, wondering where the wounded woman found her strength.
As he reached the top of these stairs, he saw razor wire bunched up on the protective railing blocking access to a nearby roof tiled with shingles. They were now standing on the tall ledge of a building with the cityscape stretched before them.
It was hard not to be awed by the incredible sight: the landscape of a city lying in ruins. In the distance was a ragged-topped skyscraper leaning on another for support. The sky to the east hung gray and ominous. It was if a pallor of death had settled over a dying metropolis. To Joel's right the skyline ended as the city meet an unseen ocean.
Marlene stood at one corner of the ledge, beside yet another fence topped with wire, looking out across the rooftops, anxiously scanning the horizon. There was a certain hopelessness reflected in her sagged shoulders.
Joel approached, and then he jumped as an explosion in the direction of Marlene's gaze erupted a few blocks away. A huge red fireball blossomed and he felt the tremors ripple beneath his feet.
If Marlene had a reaction, she didn't show it.
As he watched, he saw bright flames quickly become engulfed by a pillar of black smoke rising to the sky.
"Holy shit," exclaimed Tess, just coming up. "Is that your people?"
"What's left of them," Marlene replied, and then added with tinge of hopelessness, "why do you think I'm turning to you guys?"
She scampered down from the ledge and walked along the edge of the adjoining rooftop, displaying no fear. "This way."
"So why now?" Joel asked, standing perilously close to the edge, looking down at the street below him.
"We've been quiet. Been planning on leaving the city but they need a scapegoat. They've been trying to rile us up." She led them on a path across the shingled roof which slanted downward.
"Looks like they did," Joel said.
Something in his tone must've struck a nerve because she turned and gave him a look. "We're trying to defend ourselves," as if that needed explanation.
It looked like she was walking off the edge of the roof with nowhere left to go, but suddenly she turned to her left, ducking around a corner. Joel saw the hidden passageway that lead through an open window surrounded by brick.
She dropped several feet down, with Joel and Tess following close behind.
They were now in a warehouse with brick walls filled with wooden crates and metal shelves. What was left of the sun poured in through the two open windows above. Joel glimpsed a few miscellaneous nuts and bolts on a table and snatched them up for possible use later.
He heard Marlene grunt before calling out to him.
"Joel, gimme a hand with this."
Marlene was standing next to a heavy galvanized door painted in blue that slid on a track affixed to the wall. She was hunched over in pain, holding her side. He knew she was suffering badly, and he admired her refusal to give in to the pain.
He went to the door and took up a position beside her. Together they pushed the door open, grinding it along its tracks. There was no doubt about it; the door was heavy. He grunted as the door begrudgingly gave way. As they pushed with effort, it scraped loudly across the concrete floor.
With the door now open, another hidden passageway was revealed, and beyond that entrance lay darkness. Marlene hurried through, not stopping a moment to catch her breath.
"Hey," Tess asked with concern. "How you holding up?"
"I'll live," came the exhausted reply.
They descended down a series of steps into a wide hallway with concrete-tiled floors and gray brick walls. The air had grown noticeably colder; Joel realized they were in an open-ended throughway and close to the sea. The place reeked of dead fish and rotting wood. All around them were various crates and piles of debris.
Marlene took a position behind a wooden crate and peered around its corner, pistol in hand. "Hold up," she said, her voice low. "Soldiers."
As Joel and Tess crept beside her, he could see at least one of them: a uniformed guard strolling casually in front of a door on the far other side. They were separated from the guard by a concrete bank surrounded by water. The sign above the door near the guard read: NO THOROUGHFARE in faded letters.
Joel quickly surmised they were hunched under a bridge with a channel of water running between them and the exit.
"That's the way out," Marlene whispered. "The door under the bridge."
"I ain't a big fan of these odds," Joel said, hoping to find another way around.
"We can sneak by them," Marlene assured him, "even though I know that's not your style."
Tess must have caught the look in Joel's eyes. She quickly interjected, "We'll see how it goes," and then she gave Joel a resigned look and sighed. "Let's get moving."
Moving single file, Joel crouched behind Marlene and Tess, following them out into the open throughway, leaving the cover of the crates behind.
Marlene, taking the lead, ducked for cover behind a low wall of containers. "We need to get to that door."
There were several long, waist-high crates strewn about that offered concealment and they used them to advance to the edge of the channel. The sun was resting on the horizon, creating long shadows that helped them remain hidden.
Joel rounded the corner to his left and saw Marlene waiting patiently beside a set of concrete steps leading up to the platform of the bridge above them. He quickly jogged to join her and just as he reached her, she turned and took the lead, scampering up the stairs.
They reached an open landing where another set of stairs carried them to the top. They were now outside, next to a white-bricked building with open doors and windows. Metal lamps hung from the walls. Marlene sat hunched below a low wall of crates with Joel slowly advancing toward her. Up ahead, an armed uniform guard patrolled, his back to the them.
Joel froze when he heard the voice of an unseen soldier standing some distance away. The words came out menacingly.
"You picked the wrong day to screw with us."
Another man's voice responded, weak with defiance.
"Go fuck yourselves."
"Damn," came another voice, much closer, from the open doorway just to Joel's left. "We missed all the action."
"Justice waits for no one, private," replied another soldier in the same vicinity.
Marlene hissed a command to Joel: "I'll get this one. Go around and get the other."
Joel could feel the adrenaline pumping through his veins as he scooped up a brick lying on the ground. He ducked through the vacant doorway and through a narrow hallway, staying crouched the entire time.
"Ah, whatever," replied the unseen soldier.
In a narrow hallway, a desk sat between him and the open doorway leading to the room with the soldiers and he silently vaulted over it. Then he saw the unsuspecting guard standing aimlessly with his back to the hallway.
In a flash, Joel had his arm around the man's throat in such a way that it choked his ability to speak. He caught a glimpse of Marlene driving a shiv into the neck of the guard on the other side. Their timing couldn't have been better.
Joel used his two-handed grip, one crushing the brick against the windpipe while the other bent the head forward. A death gasp followed, and in seconds Joel was dropping the lifeless body at his feet.
"Good," Marlene said approvingly. "Stay quiet."
Joel stayed crouched and made his way past more metal desks through the empty room to another room visible just ahead. He was careful not to let the paper trash covering the floor rustle and give away his position.
"Okay," sighed Marlene. "Watch yourselves."
He heard Tess quietly remark behind him, "They're out in numbers today."
He entered the room, staying low. Two windows on his right faced outward. Standing just outside the farthest window was an unsuspecting guard wearing a cap; a broad-shouldered man with fingerless gloves and a pistol in his right hand.
Joel slipped silently through the open window where tall weeds had sprouted through the broken pavement. Shadows from the tall buildings to his left helped keep him concealed, and there was a large, drab olive-green shelter to his right.
Unseen, he crept up to the soldier standing idly before him.
Grabbing his pistol, Joel wrangled the guard, jabbing the muzzle against the man's temple, steering him toward some nearby cover: a stack of crates wrapped in a tarp and bound by ropes.
"Easy buddy," the man said on impulse. "We can work something out." But Joel wasn't in the mood to negotiate. He dropped to one knee, drawing his prey down with him, and used his grip to end his enemy's life. Then, using the covered tarp as concealment, he moved to its edge and peered around the corner.
Another unsuspecting guard patrolled the perimeter.
Christ! Joel thought. How many of these bastards were there?
His arms were beginning to tire and he wasn't sure how many death-grips he had left in him, but when it came to his friends in uniform, he always seemed to find the extra strength he needed.
Just then he caught sight of another armed guard moving on the bridge. Joel lifted himself to get a better look: the armed soldier stood facing three captives who were bound and on their knees. They each bore the familiar Fireflies emblem: a yellow banner with the stenciled logo pinned around one arm of a green jacket.
Joel watched with simmering anger as the man executed his prisoners, each with a single pop of his pistol to the head.
"Good riddance," the man said, casually turning to join the others, the barrel of his gun smoldering at his side.
Joel registered his enemy's number and position: two of them, spread out evenly. He glimpsed a third descending the steps on the far side. With their attention diverted, he knew it was time to move. He quickly approached and grabbed the first man, choking the life out of him - easy - with the rage burning inside him. He then crept and rushed the next man and dispatched him in the same brutal manner.
As the third man's head appeared bobbing up the steps, Joel drew his handgun, aimed and fired, blowing the cap off the soldier's head, along with half its contents.
Tess was behind him and couldn't help but praise his accuracy.
"Looks like you are good for something." she chuckled.
Standing near the bridge, he saw Marlene race past them, toward her fallen comrades. She stopped when she registered their faces.
"Goddamit," she said, appalled by what she saw. "They got Warren." She stepped back and shook her head with dismay. "Goodbye old friend."
Joel's impatient eyes scanned the area. The three of them were out in the open, vulnerable. "We should go, Marlene. There's bound to be more soldiers on the way."
The emotionless woman quickly recovered. "You're right. Let's move." She led the way down the wooden steps. "Not much further now."
They were now standing before the door which had been their goal since entering the throughway. A red AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY sign hung on the wall beside the gray door.
"Go on," Marlene said, motioning to the door. "Get inside."
They entered the room in a hurry, and turning to look over her shoulder, Marlene saw a pair of heavy metal lockers standing next to the entrance. Tess instinctively caught on, and together the two women pushed the lockers, making them jack-knife in front of the door, blocking the entrance.
Marlene doubled over in pain from the effort as Tess looked on. There was frustration in her voice as she asked, "Where are we going, Marlene?"
With a grimace, Marlene straightened. "This way," she said. "It's not far now."
They were in a warehouse of sorts, with pallets and crates and machinery stacked along the walls. At the opposite end of the room was an empty doorway with a sign above marked EXIT.
Joel and Tess followed Marlene out and Tess, sounding guilty for being callous, asked, "How you holding up?"
"I'm running on fumes," she panted, "but I'll make it."
They entered another small room with another doorless exit.
"The place is right up ahead."
Just as they passed the second exit, that familiar, uncaring, female voice-recording sounded overhead: "Attention. Curfew is now in full effect. Anyone caught outside without proper authorization will be arrested and prosecuted."
Tess said what Joel was thinking: "Shit. We need to hurry."
They walked past an alley whose open end was blocked by a chain-link fence. Marlene guided them through yet another doorless entryway in the side of a red-bricked building covered in graffiti. This room was much smaller and cramped, dark and cold. Joel felt his survival senses begin to tingle.
"What the hell are we smuggling?" he asked with agitation.
"I'll show you," Marlene replied, and there was something in her voice that filled him with apprehension.