The dream, the dream, the dream… running madly, Sarah in his arms, flames whipping at his sides, and something behind him, something hideous and black, something inescapable, chasing him, desperately trying to reach her, to lay its icy finger upon her. And Joel runs and runs, screaming in desperation, desperate to keep Sarah safe…
And then he's out, he's free, the blackness is gone, and he's panting and sobbing tears of joy, holding onto this precious life, the center of his universe, and he gathers himself, releases a sigh of welcomed relief, looks down at her, at what he's holding, looks down at the thing in his arms… and the horror of it all snaps him awake with a jolt…
His eyes flutter open and he registers the room, the sofa beneath him, the gentle rain outside, and he feels the chill in the air, welcoming it, and slowly his senses ease him back to reality.
Joel's body relaxed, sucking in a deep breath, grateful for the hellish nightmare to be over.
"You mumble in your sleep," came the soft voice nearby.
Ellie sat bunched up on a cushioned chair, facing a window, looking out across the city sparsely populated with light. "I hate bad dreams."
At last they had something in common. Joel sat up on the sofa, running a hand over his eyes, wiping away the last remnants of his nightmare. "Yeah, me too," he agreed with a sigh.
The rain outside was coming down hard, and the sound of it eased the melancholy within him. He rubbed his chin, relieved to be back among the living, and he rose, feeling an unconscious urge to join the other spark of life near the window beside him.
Ellie spoke to him over her shoulder: "You know, I've never been this close. To the outside."
Something began to nag at Joel, a concern he wished wasn't there, something that threatened his wound, but he couldn't let it go. He walked over to the lantern on the end table and turned up the flame.
"Look how dark it is," spoke the girl behind him. And then in a voice that appealed to a need deep within him, she said, "Can't be any worse out there."
He straightened, fighting within himself, fighting to retain his indifference, but she wouldn't relent. She rose and looked at him with the innocence and vulnerability of youth, and asked, "Can it?"
She was seeking comfort, but Joel didn't want to give it. He didn't want to be her provider of comfort, or of anything else for that matter. He turned to look at her, torn between concern and detachment.
"What on earth do the Fireflies want with you?" he asked against his better judgment.
Before Ellie could reply, the door to the apartment opened and there stood Tess, looking chipper and quite satisfied. "Hey," she said.
The two turned to look at her as she closed the door behind her. "Sorry it took so long. Soldiers are fuckin' everywhere."
The first words from Ellie's lips were, "How's Marlene?"
Tess gave her a reassuring nod. "She'll make it." And then she approached Joel, and with a look of satisfaction, said, "I saw the merchandise. It's a lot."
She let the news register a moment and then motioned to the kid beside her. "Wanna do this?"
"Yeah," Joel lied.
The three of them entered through a door to the adjacent room with Tess leading the way. The sound of pounding rain filled the silence.
In the next room, Tess walked to the corner windows and took a moment to scan the outside. Joel's curiosity was still eating away at him and he went to Tess to help ease it. "Don't you think it's a bit strange that they're having us do their smugglin'?"
"Marlene wanted to do it herself. We weren't their first choice, or the second for that matter. She's lost a lot of men. Beggars can't be choosers."
It still didn't feel right, but Tess's reassurance managed to do its job. Feeling deflated, Joel sighed and said, "Yeah, let's just hope there's someone alive to pay us."
"Someone'll be around."
Joel caught a glimpse of a yellow notepad lying on the table. He picked it up and glanced at it. It was a ledger Tess kept detailing what they had managed to smuggle in from outside the city: pills, weapons, food… at the bottom of the last entry she'd scribbled, "I know what you're thinking: weak as shit delivery. Bill promised he'd do better next shipment."
It seemed to Joel that their deliveries were yielding less and less. He wondered what they would do when Bill, their contact with the outside, ran dry.
Against the wall behind Tess was a sagging, empty bookcase which she slid to one side, revealing a gap in the wall where the plaster and panels had been ripped free: a hidden entrance to the tunnel leading to the outside. One by one, they scooted through the narrow gap.
The room they entered was cramped and walled with bricks on three sides. There was a wooden elevator beside a large motor on a wooden platform with a yellow operating switch affixed to the wall. Oil drums stood rusting nearby the adjacent window. Beside the gray motor sat a generator and attached to it was a power cable leading to the elevator's electrical circuit.
Joel went to the generator and grabbed the pull handle. It didn't give easily but he managed to start the device on the third pull. It gasped and sputtered, then, finding its rhythm, chugged along loudly. He joined the others on the elevator's surface and pushed the glowing green button. A horn sounded, and, with a jolt, the lift began to descend.
"Who's waiting for us at the drop-off?" Joel asked, raising his voice above the din.
"She said that there's some Fireflies that have traveled all the way from another city. Girl must be important." She turned and addressed the teenager standing quietly beside them. "What is the deal with you? You some big-wig's daughter or something?"
Apparently, Joel wasn't the only one curious.
Ellie merely shrugged and said, "Something like that."
The trip down was short and abrupt, and now they were surrounded in almost total darkness. Joel flipped on his flashlight, the light of which revealed a hole in the brick wall of where they now found themselves.
Ellie's voice sounded behind him: "How long's all this gonna take?" Her tone revealed the uncertainty of what lie ahead.
"If everything goes as planned," Tess answered, "we should get you to them in a few hours."
They were in the basement of the building with pipes running overhead, a concrete floor beneath their feet. Joel saw water heaters rusting against the wall, and meters and circuit breakers hanging on the walls with conduit running in all directions.
"Ellie," Tess said, making sure she had the girl's attention. "Once we get out there, I need you to follow our lead and stay close."
"Yeah," Ellie sighed. "Of course."
Joel saw what looked like a map lying on the floor. He walked over, picked it up. It was a map of the city, with hand drawn lines in purple ink showing the heaviest areas of military presence, along with the routine paths of patrols. He pocketed it, knowing it would come in handy.
He turned and headed toward the three-foot, jagged hole in the wall, just big enough for them to crawl through. On the other side, a red glowing light burned ominously. Joel entered, feeling his heartbeat quicken.
There was corrugated steel flooring under his feet. Broken and sagging wooden beams formed the narrow walls. The short, cramped tunnel looked as if it would collapse at any moment. There were orange glowing lamps along the way, providing light. Joel made his way, crouching, to the end where the tunnel emptied to his right. Relieved, he stepped out and stood, now in a larger room where broken bricks and concrete dust covered the floor.
There was a metal ladder covered in rust leading up.
"Climb up and check if the coast is clear," came Tess's urgent voice behind him.
Joel ascended to the top, about ten or twelve feet, and pushed the metal panel concealing the opening aside. He stuck his head out; the area was dry, positioned under a low canopy, but the rain continued to fall outside. He saw the beams of flashlights scouring the gulch which lay ahead.
"Now hold up," he whispered to Tess below. "There's a patrol up ahead."
He maintained his vigil, keeping low, until the beams moved away.
"All right," he said. "We're good. Come on up." He climbed up, waiting for the others to follow.
Ellie was next and hesitated as she reached the outside, unsure of what to expect. "C'mon, kid," Joel encouraged her. Then he went to the metal plate just as Tess emerged from the gap.
"Watch your step," he warned them, sliding the cover back into place. The rain made the rocks slippery; a broken leg or twisted ankle was the last thing they needed.
Joel left the cover of the canopy to join Tess and Ellie who were out in the open, standing in the rain at the base of the gulch, staring forward. "This rain ain't gonna do us any good," he said.
As they dropped to the rocky floor below, Ellie voiced the wonder before her eyes. "Holy shit… I'm actually outside."
The three walked along the gulley's bottom. Up ahead, a semi-trailer with its backdoors open stretched haphazardly down the ridge. Joel made his way for it, knowing that through its empty container was the entry point to the gulley's ridge. On its side was painted a large red lobster bracketed by the name of the company that once owned it.
He climbed into it, glad to be free of the rain and flicked on the flashlight. It was empty save for a few wooden crates fastened at the far end. He walked the length of it, with Tess and the girl in tow.
"Up this way," he said and quickened his pace. The rain drummed on the roof creating a serene sense of calm. Once they were safely past this, he told himself, they could scurry like rats and leave the city and its soldiers behind.
He reached the top end of the trailer and, sensing no presence, hopped out. He was about to acknowledge their luck when suddenly the butt of a rifle appeared out of nowhere and struck him in the head, just as a voice ordered gruffly: "Get off!"
Joel fell to his hands and knees in pain, stunned by the blow.
Another soldier appeared, and she pointed her weapon with its attached beam of light to the other two stragglers emerging from the shadow of the trailer.
"Don't do anything stupid," she advised, her finger poised on the trigger.
Ellie raised her hands and complied, with Tess behind doing the same.
Joel struggled to regain his senses. He saw the look in Tess's eyes, knew she was calculating the odds. As for Ellie, her face had turned white with fear.
"Move," the other guard ordered. Joel looked at them from the ground: there were two of them, male and female, in full riot gear and heavily armed. His heartbeat raced…
The female gave the orders fast and abrupt. "Turn around. On your knees."
Ellie obeyed as Tess stepped down from the container, holding her hands up high, and Joel knew her mind was working overtime.
"You scan 'em. I'll call it in," the female guard told her partner.
"All right." He pointed his pistol with both hands at the last of them, Tess, and told her to put her hands on her head. Joel felt the tension ease a bit, and as Tess complied, the other guard jumped on the radio to report their findings.
"This is Ramirez at Sector Twelve. Requesting pickup for three stragglers." The radio crackled a response and then the woman said, "Understood."
The guard next to Tess shoved a scanner against the base of her skull and as he did so, she managed to catch his eye.
"Look the other way," Tess tempted him. "We can make this worth your while."
"Shut up," he told her. The scanner beeped and flashed green. He then moved to Joel and performed the same action. "I'm tired of this shit," he said, and he sounded it.
Beep. Greenlight. On to the next, but Joel could sense the teenage girl beside him growing nervous, jumpy. He hoped to God she wouldn't flee…
"What's the ETA?" the guard with the scanner asked, as he pressed the device against the base of Ellie's skull.
"Couple a minutes."
"Oh man, oh man," Joel heard Ellie mutter, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the knife emerge.
"Oh shit!" cursed Joel under his breath.
The teenage girl spun on her knees and jabbed the blade of her knife deep into the soldier's thigh and Joel thought later on she had actually uttered the word, "Sorry!"
Ellie lunged for the gun in his hands and they struggled, and in a heartbeat, Joel was on his feet. The guard wrestled the gun freed himself and walloped Ellie hard in the face, sending her reeling backwards. As he leveled the gun to shoot, Joel pounced, launching himself into the soldier's side just as the round went off.
The other guard wanted to shoot, needed to shoot, but she didn't have a clear target, couldn't see that well in the rain, and she was confused as who to shoot, not sensing Tess lower her arms...
But she should've opted for Tess, for in the next instant the straggler had her pistol out and was on one knee aiming the barrel right at her head. She planted two bullets squarely in her target's skull.
Joel had his knee on the struggling guard, could hear him gasping in fear, not wanting to die, but he twisted the man's grip inward and pulled the trigger and the bullet caused him to fall silent. Joel tossed the weapon away in disgusted relief.
"Oh..." exclaimed Ellie, "oh, fuck." She backpedaled her way against a nearby crate lying beside the trailer. Trying to catch her breath, she exclaimed, "I thought we were just gonna hold them up or something."
A flashing red light caught Tess's eye and she picked something up from the ground.
It was the scanner.
She looked at it bewildered, and her face turned pale. "Oh shit," she muttered, and it was the way she said it that grabbed Joel's attention. Turning to face her, she said, "Look," and tossed the scanner to Joel.
Joel looked at the flashing red panel and could not believe his eyes.
"Jesus Christ," he muttered, registering the cold bitter truth. He looked around until his eyes fell on the girl. "Marlene set us up?" he asked in stunned disbelief.
Ellie's jaw was working but nothing came out. Joel's voice grew menacing as he turned to confront her: "Why the hell are we smuggling an infected girl?"
Ellie shook her head in alarm and said pleadingly, "I'm not infected..."
"No?" Joel asked angrily, tossing the scanner beside her. "So was this lying?"
"I can explain…"
Tess, a smoldering gun in her hand, advanced toward her, her eyes narrowing. "You better explain fast."
Ellie anxiously pulled the sleeve of her right arm back, revealing scarred bubbles of raw flesh, the nasty telltale signs of infection. "Look at this," she implored them.
"I don't care how you got infected," Joel said, waving the scarred tissue away with his hand. In his mind, the girl was already dead. The revelation sickened him and he turned his face away.
"It's three weeks old," Ellie exclaimed.
"No," corrected Tess. "Everyone turns within two days, so you stop bullshitting." She pointed the gun at her for emphasis.
"It's three weeks." She was desperate to convince them. "I swear." And then, sensing an opening when no response came, she said, "Why would she set you up?"
Joel looked at Tess and they held each other's gaze a long moment, trying to make it all fit. The girl was right, there was no logic in Marlene wanting them dead. It just didn't make sense.
"I ain't buying it," Joel said finally, walking away, and just at that moment he caught sight of a pair of headlights barreling through the rain in their direction. "Oh, shit," he gasped. "Tess, run," he said, and realizing she was lost in thought, yelled at her in the rain. "Run!"
Tess went to the girl and ushered her to her feet. "Go! Go! Move!" she yelled, and together they raced after Joel, following him around an abandoned truck and down a dark crevice in the gulley.