At the bottom of the crevice, Joel turned and looked up the craggy surface covered with thick vines. He heard the military vehicle grinding to a halt not far from where they had fled. Soldiers disembarked, and he heard their voices above.
"Holy shit," a man exclaimed.
Tess was wasting no time in making a hasty retreat, heading under a collapsed walkway where a gap between empty oil drums offered an exit. She ducked underneath, into the stream of rainwater rushing by.
Joel followed, but not before hearing a woman's voice call it in. "I got two dead uniforms. I repeat, I got two casualties in Sector Twelve. Requesting immediate backup."
"Shit!" he cursed. "They're gonna be out in numbers."
"I know," Tess replied. She eagerly took the lead. "Follow me," she said, her voice calm and steady. "Quickly."
They were in a rocky ravine of debris and she took cover behind an old air conditioning duct stretched out before them. The remains of a burned-out vehicle lie just up ahead.
Joel lifted his head and saw an armored Humvee emerge from the fortified gate of the concrete wall surrounding the zone; there was a searchlight atop the vehicle. The towers on the wall to his right had searchlights too, and their white circles of light were now scouring the area, looking for them, as horns sounded in alarm.
Joel crept up to the wrecked car, making sure to stay clear of the lights.
"All right, Ellie," he heard Tess say. "When I give you the signal, we run."
Joel made a beeline for a trench to his left, hoping its narrow walls would provide better cover, anxious to move away from the well-lit gate. Behind him, the footsteps of Tess and the girl as they hurried to keep up.
He jumped down, splashing into knee-deep water. It didn't look like the soldiers had made it this way, and so he hurried toward the dark shadows where, suddenly, a beam a light swept by.
He crept up to a corrugated panel topped with barbed wire and waited, and from this angle, he could see the searchlights on the towers scanning for them. The zone wall was well-lit, a good reason to stay as far away as possible. He watched a circle of light roam across the ground in front of him. The incessant lights were everywhere: the towers, the vehicles, the muzzles of weapons held by those on the ground searching for them.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw Tess run forward, hurtling over another chunk of debris blocking their path, and now the edges of the trench closed tighter, offering a better chance of concealment. Heavy pipes jutted from the edge of the crevices above them, water gushing through.
Up ahead lie the open end of a drainage pipe, big enough to squeeze through, and he pushed his way forward. Suddenly, there were footsteps on the ledge just above him and he saw the beams of their rifles race over the rocky wall beside him.
The area ahead was a scattered maze of fallen containers and oil drums, fallen street lamps and twisted metal; a battle-scarred warzone. Their pursuers were closing in on the gap under the bridge leading out from the compound.
"Ellie," Tess heaved. "It's gonna be another sprint. You ready?"
"Sure," she replied, catching her breath. "Yeah."
As they entered the narrow gap beneath the heavily armed bridge, Joel saw a myriad of roaming beams crisscross in the darkness. "Goddammit," he gasped. "They're everywhere."
They reached the pipe which sloped upward and he ushered the females through, making sure they wouldn't be seen. Then he entered the pipe and followed them to the other side, underneath the bridge. They were a little further, he thought, from the fortified walls. If they could just get past the reach of those spotlights, they might stand a chance…
The three emerged from the pipe where the trench widened and branched. There was another concrete bridge above them to the left, much higher, with fallen rubble underneath, and Joel heard footsteps rushing overhead.
"Soldiers," Tess alerted him. "Right there."
"I see 'em," he replied in a hushed whisper. "I see 'em."
The bright lights of the soldiers shot down from above, always moving, searching, but luckily their angle failed to spot the trio plastered with their backs against the edge. All it took was one pair of anxious eyes to spot them and their little expedition would be over.
"They must've gotten through. Check the trenches!"
That was the last thing they needed, Joel thought, as he had hoped their attention would stay on the ravine. They were outmanned and outgunned, and he still wasn't sure the risk was worth it… not with the girl being infected. The girl's words still hung in the air:"Three weeks." How was that possible?
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Nothing mattered except getting out of this mess alive. If they were found, he knew what would happen, and so he set himself with grim determination to make sure that didn't happen.
Above and to the right, a soldier suddenly appeared, pointing his flashlight down, scanning the trench. Joel held Tess back with his arm, becoming statues, gluing themselves to the inside of the crevice. Then, just as quickly, the light moved away.
"I don't see anything down there. Are we sure they came this way?"
"Unless we're told otherwise, we just keep scanning."
Joel relaxed and scampered along the trench, edging up to one of the concrete trellises of a fallen bridge. Using it for cover, he peeked around and saw another soldier on the ledge above him looking almost straight at him. He jerked himself back in the shadows. "Stay down. Don't let 'em see you," he whispered to the two behind.
He wanted to wait until the guard above him moved off, but he couldn't take the risk of being spotted from behind, so as soon he saw the soldier glance away, he darted into the murky shadows ahead. He heard Tess hiss, "C'mon, kid. Follow Joel."
They were rats trapped in a maze, but, like rats, they were good at moving undetected, and that's exactly what they did. They scurried to a point under another guard, where the jutting ledge beneath the boots would keep them unseen. Sticking to the far wall, they crept along, over the rocky floor of the trench. There was a bend to the right and they headed straight for it.
"You see anything?" Joel asked, his heart racing.
"Clear back here," came Tess's winded response. "How's it look up ahead?"
"So far, so good."
There was a hole in the wall of a building where the gulley ended, a way inside the heart of its ruined remains. Water ran past him and down the entrance, and when he peered down, he saw a swirling pool of black and prayed it wasn't deep.
Joel jumped, into the water, falling several feet. The pool was waist high - cold! He made his way, paddling with his arms, to a ledge where a wooden floor had once existed. He climbed the broken ledge, scurrying up to grab hold of another ledge just above it.
They were now in the demolished remains of an apartment building where the walls had been partially ripped free. He looked up, relieved to see nothing but dark sky. They had managed to put the towers and their search lights behind them. The way ahead was all up, leading to the street, and he made his way quickly, glancing back now and again to make sure Tess and the kid were close behind.
He had begun to pick up his pace, but then a sound made him immediately duck for cover. "Shh, shh, shh," he whispered. "I hear 'em up ahead." He saw the roaming beams of light. Shit! More soldiers were in there with them.
"Ops said they took out a couple of our boys."
"It's gotta be those fucking Fireflies retaliating."
"We'll be done with them soon enough."
Tess told Ellie to hold up as Joel crept forward, toward the moving beams of light. "Shit. Stay down," he hissed at them over his shoulder.
God, if we make it out of here alive, it'll be a miracle. Their only advantage was the abundant amount of cover the walls provided, a row of jagged teeth. Joel was using the fang of one now, keeping himself glued behind it, staying low.
The soldier moved off and Tess encouraged the girl to scoot. "Go. Go."
He felt lucky to have Tess behind him looking after the girl. He had to remain focused, and he couldn't afford to worry about the soldiers and keep the kid out of trouble. They were in the thick of it now, and one misstep was all it took.
He made his way to a set of stairs on the side of the hollowed-out tenement that rose to a ledge where a second floor had once existed. The rain gushed in waterfalls all around them from the floors above.
"Fuck it! Let the clickers get 'em."
That's good, thought Joel. He was willing to take his chances with clickers over these armed assholes anytime. If the soldiers retreated, he just might be able to get them out of this mess alive. With their voices receding, Joel fell into a sprint, heading deeper inside the war-torn remains.
At last he stumbled upon a metal door that lifted via a chain on its side and he sighed heavily in relief. "Maybe we can get through here," he said, ushering the others to draw close.
He gripped the chain, pausing a moment to make sure no other sound was nearby, and then began to pull. The door was heavy and screeched as it rose. He grimaced from the effort but continued to pull as quickly as he could. "Down through here," he said, motioning to the opening under the door.
"Okay," replied Tess. She ushered the girl through. "C'mon, Ellie."
"Okay," the girl replied, breathing heavily. She followed Tess under the narrow gap Joel had created.
Tess's fingers appeared, helping to hold the door in place so he could follow. He slipped through and she let the door close, and luckily the sound was masked by a crack of thunder overhead. Joel turned to get a handle on their new surroundings as the three huddled behind a nearby barrier.
They were now in the outskirts of the city, with tall buildings looming ahead in the distance. The rain continued to fall, the sky occasionally lit up with lightning as thunder boomed. Joel saw the ragged edges of what used to be an apartment building lining the street ahead. An old police cruiser sat covered in rust, and beyond that, more beams of light.
"Soldiers!" Joel cursed under his breath. Just when he thought they were shed of them. Several uniforms fanned out at the end of the street, fifty or so yards away, moving toward them.
"Oh shit!" cried Tess. "Another patrol. Everybody get down."
They had to move fast, to get to the security of the hollowed-out building to his right, so Joel took the lead, racing with his back bent low, ducking behind the abandoned squad car. He saw another opportunity and made his way to a wrecked Humvee a little further ahead.
"Yes, sergeant! C'mon! Follow my lead. You, check those buildings!" "Roger!"
If they could get through the remains of the apartment complex, with its many walls and shadows, they stood a good chance of slipping past the unsuspecting guards.
The front of the tenement was no more than fragments of brick where the roof had been torn apart. Free-standing pieces of furniture - table and chairs - were the only remnants of the previous dwellers that survived. Joel rushed inside, seeing the sweeping flashlights to his left.
He paused to catch his breath. Across the street, he saw guards positioned on the balcony of another ruined building facing them, their flashlights focused away, in the direction they had come.
Ellie, seeing flashlights all around, shuddered in fear. "There's so many… How are we supposed to get past 'em?"
Joel scooped up a brick, heading for the dark shadows deeper inside what was left of the building. "They ain't spotted us yet," he said. "Let's go around."
He paused by a window and peeked out. "How's it look?" whispered Tess, close behind.
"There's too many, Tess."
Just then, the sound of boots crunching on gravel a few yards away made them freeze. "Oh shit," Ellie gasped. "They're in here with us."
Tess placed a hand on Joel's back and whispered, "See if you can distract them."
"All right," he nodded.
He snaked around a corner quietly, took aim, and hurled his brick over the sound of the approaching footsteps. They saw the beams of light turn away in unison. "What was that?"
A suppressed build-up of air escaped his lungs as he watched the lights move off. They pressed on, creeping silently deeper inside the shadows, staying as far away from the street as possible, using dressers and sofas and tables for cover.
"I see more lights," Ellie whispered, and they froze.
Soldiers were headed their way and Joel cursed again. They'd managed to paint themselves in a corner with nowhere to hide. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Tess pointing to his right. "Up there," she whispered.
He turned and looked and saw it. A gap in the wall leading out. Another heavy sigh escaped his lips and he carefully scrambled up and over debris, slipping quietly out the gaping hole.
"All right," he gasped, landing outside the building in a crouch. Now they were back outside, no longer trapped.
The three snuck behind the cover of a nearby delivery truck half buried in rubble. The street beyond them sloped sharply down, ending in a ledge formed where the ground beneath the pavement had given way. Beyond that lie more darkness.
Ellie, seeing where they were headed, asked, ""Are they gonna follow us down here?"
"We ain't stickin' around to find out," Joel replied gruffly. The rain was falling much harder; thunder and lightning roiled overhead. He was drenched to the bone. Carefully, he slid over the edge and waited, with Tess and the girl joining him at his side.
"Stay low, keep quiet," Tess said to the girl, finger to her lips. They huddled in the shadow of the ledge, waiting and listening…
"All clear, sergeant! You see anything up there?"
"Negative! It's all clear. Hold your positions! We wait for the other squad."
Joel let go a sigh and turned to the sloping rubble of highway that dropped into darkness before them. He signaled for them to advance with him leading the way.
They carefully made their way down a rocky gorge where the street had collapsed, and thick vines had grown over the edge. They entered an underground jungle of rock and overgrowth. A flood of rainwater rushed past their ankles, and around rain cascaded in rivulets down the sides. Joel reached another ledge and paused to catch his breath.
"That was too damn close, Tess," he cursed, and then, under his breath, he muttered, "You better be worth it, kid." He flipped on his torch and eased down another ledge, descending lower into the abyss. In the dim beam of his flashlight, he saw multiple avenues of escape, all disappearing into inky darkness. "Tess, you got any idea which way?"
"Uh… it looks so different," she replied, wiping the rain from her eyes, squinting to see.
His beam caught sight of something… the broken entrance of a concrete culvert jammed into the base of the gorge. It looked large enough for them to pass through. "Hang on," he said, heading down. "Let's see where this leads."
"Yeah, this looks right," Tess affirmed. To Ellie she said, "Stay close."
They huddled close together and followed Joel into the narrow sewer, hoping to find a path which led to the heart of the city...