The culvert was ruptured in two, clogged with rubble at the opposite end, and the only way out was to climb up through its broken surface, which they promptly did. When Tess emerged, she looked around and said, "Yeah, this looks right."
They were standing in a low-ceiling room, a concrete basement, with pipes along the walls and above their heads There were metals steps leading up and around the corner. In the other corner sat a pile of rubble with a shovel protruding from it.
"Stay close," Tess said, and Joel wasn't sure if she was speaking to him or the kid.
Joel took the steps, leading the way, his electric torch providing the only source of light. "Well," he said lightheartedly. "At least we're out of the rain."
When he reached the top of the stairs, Tess, seeing only darkness and shadows, asked, "How's it look?"
Getting a handle on their new surroundings, Joel glanced around. This room had a ceiling much taller than the one below and was much larger, and as he turned, it seemed the expanse exceeded the limit of his light. He didn't like what he couldn't see and a howling wind sent chills through his rain-soaked body.
As he approached the walls, he saw wooden pallets and then a doorway, but then quickly registered the pile of rubble at its base, rendering it useless. On instinct he turned to the opposite wall where he found another exit, but this one had been barricaded with crates and shelves.
His immediate impulse was they were trapped, and he could feel his adrenaline working again. He wanted to be shed of the place and fast, but when he turned again, he did a double-take. There was a hole at the base of the wall near the first door, where a dozen cinder blocks had been wrenched free.
He approached, and a wave of relief engulfed him. "I think we can squeeze through here."
Crouching, he led the way, entering the darkness, but voices from above caused him to freeze. "Shit, shit," he hissed. "I got more soldiers."
"Charlie Squad, report!" "Targets still on the loose, sir!"
From his vantage point, he saw soldiers on the ruptured roof above his head peering down with their flashlights into the shadows of the manmade gulley stretched out before him. A long, heavy pipe extended the length of the gulley, disappearing into the gloom.
"I don't think they see us."
They were in a long, narrow basement of a building that had been partially ripped away. Fallen timber pilings leaned upright against the walls, and just ahead, two wooden crates sat crumbled amid the debris. A large tree branch spanned the opening above his head; vines draped from the gap's jagged edges like shabby green curtains. The rocky ground underfoot was littered with weeds.
"Break off pursuit and report back to sector eleven!" "Acknowledged! Get back to your vehicles!"
Joel was relieved to hear that bit of news, creeping to the cover of the crates and then crouch-walking around them. He could hear the rain falling outside, but their path inside the ruined structure was relatively dry. He could sense Tess and the girl following close behind.
He came to a short makeshift bridge of wooden planks and traversed it. "Stay in the shadows," he whispered. It grew dark where the ceiling reappeared, and he felt they were safe enough to flip his flashlight back on.
The wide hallway, if you could call it that, stretched into darkness, and there to his right stood a gaping hole, leading to the outside, cool air buffeting his body. Out of instinct, he pressed forward, ignoring the hole, curious to see what other options there were. Two steps further he saw the end of the hallway, and then the set of double-doors to his left hanging open. Without hesitation he stepped inside.
The band of three had entered a small office with desk and chairs, a sofa against the far wall. Some electrical panels sat protected inside a chain-linked cage.
"All right," Joel sighed, letting his muscles relax.
"Are we safe?" Ellie anxiously asked.
"No," Tess answered abruptly. "They're still around." And then perhaps forgetting the girl was still a child, she added, "Look, take a moment to catch your breath." And then, like the flip of a switch, the Tess Joel knew was back: "Joel, see if there's anything we can use in here."
"Sure thing, boss."
A certain feeling comes over you when your life is no longer in immediate danger, the adrenaline begins to ebb, the heartbeat returns to normal. He knew they all felt it, a sense of relief; it was palpable. They'd managed to dodge a bullet – a close one. He wondered how long their luck would hold as he turned his focus to a search of the room.
He found some loose nuts and bolts on a desk where a weathered bulletin board hung and scraped them with the edge of his palm into his pocket. Next, he went to the lockers along the wall and, opening those one by one, found a broken pair of scissors.
Perfect! he thought, dropping to one knee. He swung the backpack off his back and rummaged through it, removing a small spool of duct tape. He used these to rapidly fashion a shiv. Sooner or later, he surmised, it would come in handy.
Giving the room a final glance, he thought briefly about staying here until daylight, allowing them some much needed rest. But on further reflection he rejected the idea. The room was a dead end, and if someone should stumble upon them in the dark, they'd have nowhere to run.
The fact was, they still hadn't passed the point where the soldiers - or any sane person for that matter - dared to go: the heart of downtown, the hive of the infected. He and Tess both knew it. The dangers they'd encountered thus far were nothing compared to the unspeakable horror that lie ahead.
He exited the double doors and took one last look around the end of the hallway. He saw another chain-linked cage, some pallets, and a stack of damp cardboard boxes, folded flat and wrapped with twine; nothing of value there. It was time to exit this underground chamber.
The hole they had passed earlier led to a tunnel beneath the earth and ended at the opening of a large sewer drain.
"Tess, up through here, through this pipe."
They were close to the surface, water falling through the cracks, icy cold, just managing to land on Joel's neck and run down his spine. He cursed with a shiver as he slipped past the streams and entered the sewer, not needing to crouch. "I think we can make it through here."
The black water was ankle deep and they sloshed their way forward, rounding a bend. "Stay very close, Ellie," Tess reminded the girl.
"Okay," Joel heard the reply. He had to hand it to the kid… after everything she'd been through, she still sounded relatively calm.
The sewer's bend marked the end of the tunnel; it let out into a junction where lights filtered through a grating overhead. This was another narrow passageway with vines hanging from the grates, snaking their way around the pipes lining the walls, with rainwater gushing in along the sides. An exit like the one they had entered was visible on the other side.
The floor gave way about a foot or so and soon the trio found themselves waist deep in water. As Joel led the way across, keeping his arms above water, he spotted headlights shining down from above and heard the motorized sound of an approaching vehicle. "Whoa, whoa, hang on, hang on" he said in a hushed voice.
He watched the vehicle as it passed over the grates above their heads, hearing it screech to a halt. "Jesus," he muttered to himself.
"Gather up. They're calling us back. We're returning to the wall!" "You heard the man. Load them up. Let's go! Let's go!"
The words sparked relief and he felt the tightness ease in his shoulders and back. It was about time these assholes gave up!
Having reached the other end of the junction, Joel hefted himself into the sewer where he saw a metal gate blocking their path. He prayed silently it wasn't locked. "C'mon," he cursed, Give us a goddamn break!
Relieved, he noticed the gate opened from the inside, and with the brute force of his shoulder against the rusted metal, he pushed until the thing gave way. It protested loudly as it grinded against stone, the hinges screeching.
One by one they dropped out of the sewer and at last, the rats in the maze were free…