The Last of Us
Based on the story by Neil Drukmann
The Last of Us was written for Naughty Dog on behalf of Sony Computer Entertainment by Neil Drukmann and Bruce Straley. It is a trademark property of Sony Computer Entertainment. This is a not-for-profit fan-work for free distribution through the world-wide web. No infringement of trademark or copyright is intended.
I haven't seen a decent 'straight' novelisation of the game story so far and it was this that led me to start work on this. However, as I continued, I decided that, whilst I will be avoiding OCs, I wasn't content to just turn Neil Drukmann's fine story into a narrative story form. There was one change about which I had lots of ideas. With encouragement of a few other fans of the game, I decided to take this story in this new direction. I hope that I won't be changing any of the key points and themes but I really, really wanted to make this change.
This is it; the chapter where things diverge from canon! I hope that you like where I'm going to take the story. I promise that things will both change and not change but the nature of the journey has taken a sudden turn!
Finally, I have to apologise for the long delay in posting this chapter. My buffer had run out and I was seriously blocked on how to write the fights in the Capitol Building.
Censor – M – Violence, profanity and description of death and disease
Act 1 – Summer
Chapter 8 – Downtown Boston, Part 3 (Over and Under)
"What do we do now?" Ellie's quiet voice somehow echoed in the grand, blood-splattered entrance hall. It was, Joel felt, a very, very good question and one to which he wished he had an answer.
Joel shook his head, not sure if he was angry at this final setback or if he was feeling sorry for Tess's obvious despair at this outcome. The woman was frantically pawing through the fallen Fireflies' pockets. "What are we doing here, Tess?" he asked quietly.
Tess was still frantically searching the Fireflies' corpses. "God… Maybe… Maybe they had a map or something that'll show us where they were going to take her!"
Suddenly, Joel's last strand of temper frayed and he strode up to Tess. Grabbing her by the arm, he yanked her away from the last Firefly before she was able to start her search. "Damn it! How far are we gonna take this?"
"As far as it takes!" Tess shouted in Joel's face. Yanking her arm out of his grip, she turned to the pale Ellie. "Ellie! Where is this 'lab' Marlene told you about?"
"I… don't know! She never said; only said that it was somewhere out west!"
Joel rubbed his face in fatigue as he watched Tess prowl the grand foyer like a caged lioness. "Tess, what are you doing?" Tess stopped her pacing and turned to look at Joel. "This… this is not us."
Tess moved towards Joel and, despite being much the shorter, somehow seemed to tower over him. "What do you know about 'us'?" she hissed. "What do you know about me?"
This time, Joel refused to back down. He folded his arms aggressively. "I know that you're smarter than this."
"Really?" Tess's laugh had an unhealthy edge of hysteria to it. "News flash, Joel: We're a pair of shitty people! It's been that way for a long time!"
"NO! We are Survivors!"
"We're a pair of scavengers living off of the rot of this world!"
Suddenly, the argument was broken by a groan. "Is that her…?" The last Firefly had dragged himself into a kneeling position. He was a mess; there was a deep, bite on his right shoulder and his eyes… his eyes were covered by a filmy layer that was glowing dimly white-gold. "Oh jeez…" Ellie whispered. "He's Infected!"
"Shitty luck, brother," Joel remarked levelly; he and Tess had their guns trained on the man.
"Yeah, that's been pretty much the story of my life," the Firefly sighed with a world-weary smile as he slowly clambered onto his feet. He was breathing deeply and with painful hitches; occasionally he shook his head as if he was having trouble thinking. He gestured at Ellie. "Is this her; the Miracle Girl?" Joel considered lying but there was no profit in it. Besides, it was bad karma to lie to a dead man. He contented himself with a single sharp nod. The Firefly nodded, closing his eyes. Suddenly, he shook his head. "No," he hissed. His eyes snapped open again. "I'm done," he said. "You two… You're the last hope, do you understand? You've… You've got to get this girl to the lab! She's the last hope we have of surviving this… of putting this fucking world back together!"
Tess nodded. "Just tell us where to go."
"Now hold on, Tess…"
The Firefly seemed to suddenly realise that the two smugglers weren't members of the insurgent movement. With a sudden, fluid motion, he was at Ellie's side, her right arm in a vice-like grip, making her cry out in surprise and pain. He yanked up the sleeve of her shirt to expose the bite (God knows how he knew it was there). Joel cocked his revolver. "Let the girl go nice and gentle, brother," he murmured dangerously. "We can do this nice or we can do it messy!"
The Firefly either didn't seem to understand the threat or just didn't care. Instead, he tore aside the collar of his shirt, revealing the full horror of his infection point. The entire area was inflamed blood red with black veins spreading out across half of his chest. Jagged lightning bolts of Cordyceps growth could be seen across his skin. The muscles seemed to pulse and writhe as the fungus fought his immune system for control of his limbic nervous system. "Look at this!" the Firefly snarled in an animalistic way. "Not even five hours ago! I'm already more Runner than man!" He gestured savagely at the Ellie's arm. "Three weeks! Three weeks and there isn't even a sign of progressing infection! For fuck's sake, it's healing! This is real! I don't give a shit if you're Fireflies or not! You are human! This is real and you're the last ones who can turn this into a future of anything but death!"
Tess took a risk and make a show of moving her gun off of target (earning a look of utter disbelief from Joel) and raising both hands in a gesture of submission and peace. "We believe you. I swear that we're going to help but you've got to tell us where to go!"
The Firefly scowled and seemed to be trying to think. He was starting to shiver wildly and was muttering to himself. The CBI was taking hold. "I… West, the girl said; that's right. We were going to go to the next safe-house and get directions to the lab from there! That's right! The safe house; you need to go to the safe house!"
"Where…" Tess's question was cut off by the roar of powerful turbocharged diesel engines.
Joel looked through one of the windows and saw a pair of four-axle trucks and a pair of HMMWVs with machine-gun turrets roar into the courtyard outside, sending up rooster-tails of floodwater with their high-speed arrival. "Form up!" an NCO was yelling. "Charlie Squad, get to the other side, block the exits and start working your way back! Bravo Squad, you're on the perimeter! Alpha Squad on me!"
"SHIT!" The Firefly was suddenly fully aware and focussed. "They found us…! Probably following the trail of all the guys we've lost over the last 24 hours!" He turned his savage, half-Runner gaze on the two smugglers. He virtually tossed Ellie across the room into Tess's arms with such force that the woman was nearly knocked over. As soon as his arms were unencumbered, he moved with inhuman speed to drop a massive wooden bar across the doors to stop them from opening easily. "Get the girl out of here! I'll buy you as much time as I can for you to get out of here!"
"W… Wait!" Ellie turned to the man, compassion filling her young face. "You want us to just leave you here?"
The Firefly turned back to Ellie and, in the semi-gloom of the entrance hall, the light of Infection was clear in his eyes. He smiled ruefully. "Kid, you have no idea… how desperately I'm… holdin' on to my mind right now. I… I can feel this shit crawlin' through my body and my head; tryin' to take me over… tryin' to snuff out my humanity like it was a candle. I won't Turn, kid; I won't even live a minute as one of those… things." Ellie struggled a little; she would have rushed over to try to drag the man away from his position in front of the doors but Tess tightened her grip, stopping the girl from escaping. "C'mon, kid," the Firefly said with a ghastly grin, yellowish, pus-like drool dribbling from his chin. "Make this easy for me!"
"Come on," Tess said, dragging Ellie away.
Joel caught the Firefly's eye and gave him a sharp nod of respect that the other man returned in kind. With a surprising level of calm, the man reached into his shirt, tore off his ID necklace and threw it over to Joel, who caught it and followed Tess (and the protesting Ellie) out of the room.
Marcus Collier, Firefly #000088, turned away as he heard the doors into the inner rotunda slam shut. He calmly raised his Mauser carbine in one hand and his 20-gauge auto-mag shot pistol in the other. In a near trance-like state, he began to recite: "Remember: When you're lost in the darkness, look for the light… Believe in the Fireflies."
"What the fuck? I… I can't believe that we did that!" Ellie squeaked as Joel finished loading a few bits of furniture in front of the door.
"QUIET!" Joel snapped. "Tess…"
Tess shot her partner a quelling look. "We need to get out of this death-trap first. We find somewhere safe to hole up and we'll talk then."
Joel considered Tess's words and, after a moment, realised she was right. As a gesture of peace, he handed Tess a half-full magazine of 9mm bullets he'd taken from one of the dead Fireflies. "Okay, we push forwards then."
The three scaled a long and curved flight of stairs. When they reached the top, they entered a mezzanine running around the top of the entrance hall. There was a sudden crash as the soldiers knocked the barricaded doors down with a battering ram. With a hissed curse, Joel ducked down under the line of the balustrade. There was almost immediately a loud, nearly-animal battle cry followed by the boom of some kind of shotgun-like weapon. Moments later there was a rattle of a submachine-gun and cries of pain. There were the cracks of pistol fire, a shriek of barely-human pain and another shotgun blast before another volley of return fire. Then everything fell silent for a moment.
"Tango down sir! Two friendly KIAs and one wounded!"
"Understood! Continue your sweep! These insurgent filth never travel alone!"
"Yes sir! Phelps and, Del Roy, bring down that door! Get more men in here!"
"Charlie Squad, you are cleared to commence your sweep of the East Wing…"
Joel jumped slightly as Tess tapped his arm. He noted her pointing to the door exiting the mezzanine and nodded in understanding and agreement.
The two smugglers, based on long-fixed habit, quickly searched the one-time council meeting chamber of some sort. Ellie's head cocked as they did so; she could hear the crash of a battering ram. "They'll be here soon!"
Joel stuck the box of 12-gauge shotgun shells she'd found under the speaker's lectern into her pack; even though he didn't have the appropriate weapon for them, they were worth a bit for barter. He looked over at his partner, who had just finished loading her recently-acquired 9mm ammo into her spare magazine. "Tess! Got a way out?"
"Yeah, but you won't like it." She was right, Joel didn't. There was a hole in the left-hand wall; maybe a consequence of the carpet bombing or maybe some relic of the post-Outbreak anarchy. It was matched by a similar wound in the wall of the adjacent wing of the building. It was a heart-stopping four-foot jump, nine feet over the pavement surround of the building.
They all made it, although Joel felt his trailing foot land on empty air for a moment before he tumbled forwards and barely caught himself. Getting' too old for this shit, he thought before moving onwards.
At the far end of this room (a waiting area by the looks of things) was a dead Firefly bearing a treasure. Joel picked up the bolt-action 308-Magnum hunting rifle loosely cradled in the dead man's arms. The weapon was in good order although it was probably recently acquired. The FEDRA-mandated clip-blocking metal plate was still in place, meaning that the rifle had to be manually loaded between shots. Joel pulled back the bolt, catching the loaded bullet as it ejected. A quick look confirmed that the barrel was clear and the sights were still good. He reloaded the weapon.
Tess hissed a warning. "Joel! Soldiers at the other end of the hall!"
Like a lot of the Capitol Building, the two-level gallery was given over to exhibitions about the past of Massachusetts. The display cases were mostly broken and empty, anything of value long since taken by FEDRA or looted by desperate people. Now, as Joel crouched by the entrance, he saw a group of at least five soldiers in their black anti-riot gear moving in and beginning to sweep the gallery.
"What do we do, Joel?" Ellie whispered.
"You stay close to me," he said. He then turned to Tess and handed her the rifle. She didn't look too happy, which didn't surprise him – he doubted she was too good with long-range weapons, having been a city girl all her life. "Tess, you hang back and make sure no-one gets behind us." Joel scowled at the approaching soldiers. "I've got this."
Joel crouched down behind a box covered with a dust-sheet, probably something important and destined for evacuation that was now just left to rot away. At the other end of the gallery, one soldier took up a guard position behind another set of packing crates, one stopped a short-way down its length to cover their colleagues and the rest moved into side-corridors to Joel's left.
Joel ghosted between cover, getting closer and closer to the doorway into the room to the left. He waited for the nearest soldier to enter and then sneaked in behind him. Joel came up close behind the solder, ultra-aware of every noise being made. Somehow, Joel managed to get close enough to suddenly jump up, clap a hand over the man's mouth under his helmet's Lexan faceplate and crush his windpipe with his other hand. The soldier struggled for a few moments before falling still.
"Holy shit…!" Ellie muttered behind him. Joel gestured for silence. Staying low and silent, Joel went through the next door to the left into a longer gallery, running past the side corridor, beyond which was a room that seemed to extend all the way along the side corridor into the main gallery. Joel peeked around the corner and saw a soldier slowly working his way towards them down the corridor, carefully sweeping around him with his Enforcer semi-auto pistol. Beyond him was another soldier, who was standing in the main gallery and covering his colleague's advance.
Joel considered what to do next for a moment. Then he darted back to the door through which he had entered and through the middle display room to the doorway back to the main gallery. He tossed a bottle he'd found on the floor randomly towards the exit to the main stairs. The sound of breaking glass caught everyone's attention. "Shit! What was that?" he heard one of the soldiers blurt out. Joel sneak-sprinted as best as he could down to the other end of the room, grabbing Ellie by the collar as he passed her and yanking her after him.
The room Joel entered was dark and had a huge, ponderous desk in the centre that Joel thought may have once been the seat of someone important. A torch beam shone through the door out into the side corridor and Joel ducked down behind the desk. "Where are you motherfucker…?" a woman's voice muttered as a soldier with an Enforcer with an under-barrel Maglite entered the room. She swept the weapon around. "Clear!" she called before turning her back. That was a fatal move. Joel jumped the desk, knocking various bits of desk furniture to the floor and shoulder-charged the soldier into the wall. She shrieked in pain as he drove his shiv into the join of her neck and head. Letting his victim fall as he yanked out his shiv, Joel grabbed his revolver out of his waistband as urgent footsteps came from the way he and Ellie had just come.
A soldier rounded the corner and tried to get his gun on target but Joel was braced and ready. The first two 357-Magnum rounds shattered the soldier's faceplate and the third slammed into his face, exploding his head like a ripe melon.
In the tight confines of the office, the gunfire was deafening, so Joel didn't hear Tess send a rifle round towards the soldier guarding the exit from the gallery before running for the side room. Just before a hail of returned fire chewed the wall by the door she ducked through into a spray of splinters and plaster dust.
The sudden burst of action seemed to break the soldiers' discipline and the one standing opposite the side corridor charged down it to intercept Tess. A dumb move as he walked right into her sights. Joel heard the rapid series of pops as she emptied her Walther into the man. Even with his body armour, that number of shots chewed through the Kevlar and into his chest, sending him down.
A sudden silence fell. Ellie was crouched near Joel behind the desk with her hands pressed over her ears. He touched the girl's shoulder; she looked up with a start but nodded in relief when he gestured towards the door out into the side corridor. The two emerged just as a frazzled-looking Tess appeared at the far end of the corridor, reloading her Walther.
Silently, the woman handed the rifle and its remaining ammo back over to Joel, who quickly reloaded. Looking around the corner, he saw the final soldier, hunkered down behind a row of packing crates. Joel ducked back just before a 357-Magnum round tore a fist-sized chunk out of the corner of the wall.
Long years of co-operation had taught Tess and Joel teamwork. The woman pulled a brick out of her backpack and lofted it across the gallery. It struck the wooden balustrade of the upper level with a loud crack, drawing the soldier's attention up and to the left. Joel turned the corner and sent three rounds from his revolver towards the soldier's head, at least two clipping his helmet and staggering him.
With no time to reload, Joel snatched his club off of its strap and charged the dazed soldier. The first impact exploded the already-shattered Lexan of the faceplate. Joel put his boot in the man's chest and pushed, knocking him on his back. Joel stepped forwards, pushing the man flat with a foot on his chest and drove a second blow into the man's unprotected face, which collapsed in a spray of bone and blood.
The two smugglers and their charge gathered around the corpse of their last fallen foe as Joel completed the laborious task of reloading the rifle. "How do we get out of here?" Ellie murmured. In reply, Joel jerked his head towards the stairs.
"There's bound to be more of them down there and we're running low on ammo," Tess remarked darkly.
"It's the only way; we need to get downstairs and out the far entrance of the building." He shot Tess and Ellie a grim smile that communicated a confidence he didn't feel. "We'll just do it quiet, this time!"
The way down to the lower floor wasn't easy. One flight of the wooden staircase had succumbed to neglect and rot and had just simply collapsed. The only good thing to say about it was that one of the more intact 2x4s served to give Tess a close-quarters weapon. Joel slowly closed his revolver's cylinder after loading his last 357-Magnum bullets.
The three crouched in the doorway leading into a big hall, beyond which… "That's the way out," Joel declared quietly. "Tess, stay with Ellie and both of you stay back in cover. We don't know how many of them there are through there."
Joel didn't like the odds and he didn't like the way that there was practically no cover except a few display cases. The only thing working on his side was the relatively low light level. As Joel peeked over the top of the display cases, he could see at least one soldier standing a couple of rooms away in the exit from the building, looking very alert. "They have to come through here to get out!" Joel heard someone call out. "Move forwards; comb the area!"
The big Texan looked over to his travelling companions and made a savage gesture for them to come over. He then quickly crouch-walked over to the further of the two corridors through to the entrance area. The corridor was dark and narrow; perfect for ambush and Joel intended to use it.
In the near-darkness, Joel had to try to 'see' with his ears as a soldier nearly-silently worked his way down the corridor. "We're gonna get you…" the soldier murmured as he walked past the cabinet Joel was crouched behind. The man never realised he was in danger until the smuggler's club was suddenly slid across his throat, yanking him back and crushing his windpipe until the final darkness fell.
"Report!" a voice crackled over the soldier's radio.
"South corridor clear!"
"North corridor report!" Naturally, the recently-choked man didn't reply. "North corridor report! Shit! Converge on the north corridor!"
Another soldier jogged in; in the darkness, he tripped over the corpse Joel had just put onto the floor. "Shit! Man down! Man…!" Joel kicked at the man's face as hard as he could, feeling bone and tooth give way as his boot connected with the man's jaw. Grabbing the solder by the back of the head, he drove his forehead into the sharp corner of the cabinet, finishing the matter.
"Freeze Fu… UGH!" Joel whirled to see another soldier in the entrance from the rear gallery slump as Tess yanked her butterfly knife out of his throat. Tess shot Joel a slightly mocking smile before gesturing Ellie to go into the corridor.
Any hope of stealth was now lost. Joel could hear the urgent debate of the surviving soldiers in the entrance hall's about the next move after the loss of their colleagues further into the building. Finally, an officer, probably the guy who led the assault on the other end of the building, took charge over the radio, telling them to hold the exit and that he was bringing reinforcements along the upper level.
With a grimace, Joel led the way into a cross corridor, dividing the building and crossing over three entrances to the main entrance foyer ahead. Joel slowly worked his way down, quickly ducking across every doorway until he reached the last entrance way. Just across the way, he could see the entrance into a side room that, hopefully, might get them up to the end of the building whilst staying out of the last soldiers' lines of sight.
Joel paused, listening to the guards' tense conversation. "Okay, stay sharp guys; there are at least three of them left!"
"I heard one of them was a kid!"
"Does that matter? You heard the report! There are five dead and one wounded upstairs!"
"Yeah! Add onto that those three who just went quiet now!"
"Jesus! Well, after today, this Firefly bullshit will be behind us!"
Joel considered his options. One guard was standing right in front of the doors out onto the street; two others were in flanking positions, moving around restlessly.
"Fuck this! I'm not waiting for those shits to think of a way to pick us off! Talbot, sweep the cross-corridor! Harmon, take another look through the library!"
They were out of time. Practically on all fours, Joel snuck behind a set of sofas under dust covers to the side door that Joel bet was the 'library'. Indeed, there were book cases dividing the room in two along its length but Joel saw a soldier (not wearing armour for some reason, possibly someone hurriedly taken from a police patrol) walk behind one as he swept the room. Joel dived into cover behind the far bookcase as Tess and Ellie pressed up against the other. Joel waited as the soldier came out into the open in between the two cases. He caught Tess's eyes and saw that his partner had this one. Tess slid like a snake around the corner of the book case and swung her 2x4 like a pro, catching the man on the nape of the neck. As he measured his length on the floor, Tess sprang, pushing him flat with her left boot and brought her bludgeon down on the back of his head, caving in his skull.
Joel would later kick himself for watching Tess in action rather than the door. As it was, the first warning he had of trouble was Ellie's sudden gasp and her lightning-fast dive for the wall with the doors as another guard appeared in the doorway through which they'd entered. Joel lunged for the same wall but, fortunately for him (but less so for Tess), she was in full view as the guard stepped through the arch, distracting him from looking for anyone else. The woman backpedalled behind a bookcase barely in time to avoid a brace of shots from the guard's revolver. "Son of a bitch! Man down! Get back here you fucking c…!"
There was no time to be subtle. As the soldier charged into the room, Joel lunged towards him from behind, clapping a hand over the man's mouth and drove his shiv into the man's throat. The abused blade snapped but it had done its job as the man's corpse sunk lifelessly to the ground.
"Talbot! Harmon! Talk to me! Sound off!" The last guard was now fully alert. "Shit! Lieutenant! I'm the last one left here!" There was a crackle of radio traffic. "Copy that! Shit! Shit!"
Joel finished scavenging bullet from the two soldiers' revolvers, his mind racing. The door opposite the exit offered some cover but Joel wanted to avoid a face-to-face gunfight with a man who had armour. He turned to Tess, who was holding a bright. He made a jerking gesture with her chin. She went to the other door and tossed the brick across the room.
With a curse, the soldier's attention jerked towards the sound. Joel leant around the corner and sent two shots from his revolver towards the man's head. His helmet took the first shell, staggering him but the second struck the Lexan faceplate, shattering it. The man got off a shot that came so close to Joel's head that he heard it zip by. The distraction made Joel's third shot hit the man's throat armour. Joel corrected his aim. The fourth shot buried itself into the forehead of the man's armour but the fifth landed between his eyes, sending him down.
"By pairs! Go! Go! Shoot anything that's fucking standing up!"
Tess's eyes went wide as she heard the cries and racing boots coming from the interior of the building. She pushed Ellie past Joel towards the exit. "Go! Get moving!"
Joel sprinted after his two travelling companions. "Low! Stay low!" he snapped as he charged down the entrance stairs in their wake. The three hurdled over a concrete lane divider in the knee-deep water as they heard urgent cries of "Man down! Man down!" and "After them!" from inside.
Ellie pointed frantically ahead of her "Look! Stairs!"
An entrance to the subway! "Get going!" Joel roared. "Get in there! Don't look back!"
"There they are!" Joel heard someone shout behind him. He heard the 'crack' of pistol fire and a shot kicked up a spray of water to the left. Another ricocheted loudly off of the entrance to the stairwell. "They're heading into the subway! Shoot them!" There was a roar of a turbocharged diesel engine and the sound of a light machinegun firing.
Joel followed Tess and Ellie down the stairs, jumping the first few flights that had been drilled away in an attempt to stop Infected using the subway system as an underground pedestrian route though the city. He charged towards the bottom and turned a blind corner just in time as a hail of 22-calibre NATO rifle bullets turned a turnstile to his left into flying steel confetti. "Goddamn it!"
"They're following us!" Ellie's shriek was just this side of hysterical.
"No shit, you little snot!" Tess yelled back. "Keep running!"
The three dived down the corridor towards the platform and Tess suddenly stopped dead, practically throwing herself onto her back to do so; the corridor ahead was filled with… "Spores! Ellie! Wait!" The girl disappeared into the subtly glowing gold miasma. "Shit!"
"They're heading for the platforms! Seal off the exit and start sweeping towards them!" Joel shot Tess a grim look as they pulled on their gas masks and dove into the spore cloud. There was no time to do cross-checks; they'd just have to trust that their luck might suddenly turn good for once.
Combined with the slight dulling effect of the gas masks' eye-pieces, the spores gave everything a spooky, indistinct feel. It was like stepping into a bank of thick, toxic smoke that you only wish would kill you.
As she and Joel entered the platform area Tess gasped in as a surprisingly strong hand suddenly grabbed her wrist and dragged her down into cover behind an L-shaped pair of benches.
"No target; I repeat, no target."
A pause and then a reply: "Copy that; all exits are covered. Sweep the platform areas and then hold position and wait until we sweep in to meet you."
Ellie gestured towards the train sitting rusting into oblivion a little further down the platform. "As far as I can tell, there's just the two soldiers; over there!" she whispered.
Joel had other things on his mind as he looked into the girl's unprotected and remarkably untroubled face. She showed no sign of difficulty breathing and there was none of the wracking cough that people being attacked by spores suffered. "How are you breathing in this shit?" he muttered.
The girl shot him a level look, a slightly mocking smile touching her lips. "Immune, remember? See, I wasn't lying to you!"
Joel shot Tess a look. It was hard to see his partner's eyes through the eyepieces of her gas mask but Joel had the feeling that she'd look vindicated. He couldn't blame her. This was for real!
Suddenly a third soldier jogged past from the way they came, making all three duck down. "Any sign?" one of the soldiers at the far end of the platform called out hopefully.
"Nothing! Place is deserted."
"Fuck! This place feels like fuckin' Clicker Central Station!" Joel couldn't blame the soldier for that opinion. There were huge sporocarps growths in various parts of the walls and ceilings, so old that no sign of their former hosts were visible. Frankly, the place didn't feel like anything made by man anymore but something that had grown as part of a very, very alien world.
The soldier in charge clearly wasn't planning on stretching this out any longer. "Look, search the waiting area and then let's get the fuck out of here before something hungry comes over for a bite to eat!"
Joel frowned and looked over at Tess. The woman nodded and then crouch-walked off towards the far end of the waiting area. Meanwhile, Joel hunkered down lower as a soldier walked closer and closer. As he turned the corner to look behind the benches, he was confronted by the sight of Joel and Ellie. "What the…?" was as far as he got as Joel's powerful hands closed around his head and drove his forehead against the corner of one of the benches. There was a crunch of shattering bone.
To the left, Joel caught movement out of the corner of his eye as Tess sprang out of cover and carved open the other soldier's throat with her knife.
One left. Joel snuck forwards as best as he could as the third and last soldier jumped off of the front of the last train car and began to work his way up along the track. The way ahead was blocked by partially-collapsed tunnels and abandoned trains. Pulling out his club, Joel walked in the man's wake, carefully matching the man's pace so that there was no sound betraying his presence.
"Shit, this place gives me the creeps…" the soldier was muttering to himself. "Just… just get this shit done and you'll be out of here before you know it!"
Joel caught up with the man and delivered a mighty overhand swing with his club to the side of the man's helmet. Hardly fatal but it staggered him and left him wide open to the second blow to the centre of his gas mask-covered face. The soldier went out flat at Joel's feet and the big man drove his club down with an overhead swing into the covered face. There was a loud crunch, the head broke off of Joel's club and the man stopped moving.
Joel stood in the light streaming down from a ventilation aperture above, listening to the sound of frogs and other pond life chirping. His eye caught the light as Tess snapped on her torch and led Ellie over to the platform edge. "The other entrance tunnel's blocked," Joel's partner reported. "We know there's military back the way we came, so the only way out is forwards." She gestured to the trains blocking the tracks heading in the other direction.
With a gasp, Joel surfaced on the far side of the tangle of train cars in the nearly-totally flooded tunnel. The track bed was now flooded up to what would be platform height and even above it in some places. Given Ellie's lack of any ability to swim, it was making it difficult to make progress down the tunnels. "Tess? Ellie?"
"We're here!" Ellie appeared around the far corner of one of the train cars along with Tess both splashing loudly through the ankle-depth water. "There was a walk-way we were able to use!" Joel hauled himself onto the engineering catwalk that had just saved them the trouble of figuring how to get the girl through the flooded section of tunnel.
"Y'know," Tess murmured, "I just about remembering riding on this line when my elementary school class visited the Capitol Building. Seems like a whole different lifetime…" Joel knew that feeling a bit too well for his own comfort but didn't feel the need to say as much. There seemed little point mourning a world dead and gone so long now that, to someone like Ellie, it was little more than archaeology. He and Tess had to focus on survival. He guessed that he'd also have to think up something to do with Ellie. Speaking of which, where was she…?
"Hey guys!" Ellie's voice echoed from further along the catwalk, where it was finally above water level. "Check this out: Dried dead guy!"
Indeed it was; not Infected either. Joel and Tess briefly assessed the body with professional eyes. Joel found a note lying beside the corpse. Joel frowned and wondered what the hell had happened here. Someone trying to get into the zone – hardly old news – but the contact had never turned up! There was something about that name that rang a bell too but he couldn't quite put a finger on it.
"She's not leaving us, is she?" Ellie sounded nervous. Joel looked up. The corpse had been at the entrance to a side-tunnel that extended into an entirely-flooded depth. Tess had just dived into the tunnels and was diving down into its depths. He watched as the beam of his partner's torch disappeared from sight. "Tess is just checking it for a way out."
"Yeah, but I can't swim, remember? If the way out is down there… Well, how do I get through there?"
"Can you hold your breath?"
"Then you focus on that and we focus on towing your dead-weight ass through the tunnels." Joel didn't expect it but that actually earned a snort of laughter from the girl. Maybe she wasn't such a whiner after all?
Ellie went back to the corpse and quickly came up trumps. She stood up, a small plastic cylinder in her hands. "I wonder if…" a bright beam shot out of the Maglite's side-mounted illuminator; Ellie swung the torch beam around." Cool! It works!"
Joel was just finishing attaching the torch to one of the straps of Ellie's backpack when Tess appeared out of the water. "Find anything?"
"Just the last resting place of Shiyad, Jiang, Firefly #000178. Those guys get everywhere and tend to be dead when we find them." Tess looked over at Ellie and noted the distress on the girl's face. She considered an apology but she guessed that Ellie had to get used to the idea that she wasn't ever seeing Marlene again. She turned back to Joel. "I also found some of those bits and pieces you collect for your tinkering," she added, dropping a bag of parts into Joel's hands.
The three companions continued to the end of the maintenance catwalk that extended into a train station. Park Street Station, as mentioned in that smuggler's note. Joel vaguely wondered if they'd find the corpse of the 'Frank' for whom the other guy had somehow died waiting. "The exit is over there," Tess remarked. "How do we get the girl over to the other side?"
Joel considered that for a moment then saw something further up the flooded track-bed. "Hold on, I got somethin'." Joel jumped into the water and, with powerful strokes, swam over to a wooden cargo pallet that was bobbing in the waters. He manoeuvred it around and pushed it over to the platform edge and gestured to it.
"You're… fucking me?" Ellie squeaked.
"Hey, you're getting over the easy way," Tess remarked with an insolent shrug before jumping into the cold, filthy water.
Gingerly, Ellie boarded her makeshift conveyance and hung on for dear life as Joel began to manoeuvre it over to the other side. Ellie practically leapt off it onto the relatively secure ground of the platform. "Joel, the platform is too slick!" Tess called out. "I can't get leverage to haul myself up!" She was right; this could be a problem.
"Hey! There's a ladder!" Ellie called out.
Joel nodded in approval; the girl was showing the sense she needed to survive. "Good, tip it up and lower it in end first!"
Within a few moments both smugglers were out of the water. After a pause whilst Tess wrung out her dripping hair, the three proceeded past a corpse that had been turned into a sporocarps farm in a blind corner, up a set of partially demolished stairs up into the bright, open, spore-free air.
"Tess, we need to talk." Tess looked up at Joel. The three travellers were taking stock, eating some rations and making sure nothing had been lost or damaged during the log sojourn in the tunnels. Tess stuck her Police Special into her waistband and looked at her partner. "We need to decide where we're going next," Joel continued.
"We're going to Tommy's." Tess declared. "He used to run with the Fireflies. He'll know where we need to take the girl."
Joel's hand cut through the air like a sword. "No, you listen to me!" Tess raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Tess, maybe this is real but you're foolin' yourself if you think that whatever shit flowing around in that girl's body is enough to fix the world! Truth told…" he sighed. "Truth told, I don't think anything can. Now, the last time I talked to Bill, he told me that there are a few independent quarantine zones down Georgia way or the Carolinas that ain't beholden to no one – FEDRA or Firefly. If we can get into them, there won't be any risk of anyone finding the girl is Infected – they don't have the tech to discover shit like that. I figure that it won't take us long to set up a network and contacts in a place like…"
"JOEL!" Tess's shout was loud enough to attract Ellie's attention. "Joel, listen to me, this is bigger than us and what's convenient for us, okay? I don't give a shit if you don't want to face up to Tommy or whatever it is that's your reason for being so fucking stubborn about this!" Joel folded his arms and stood tall in a defiant manner. Tess stepped up to him and got into his personal space. "Joel…!" her voice and the look in her eyes was pleading and desperate. She held out her hands as if she were cradling something… her heart maybe? "Joel, this… whatever this is between us…? Fuck it, it must mean something to you? It must make you feel some kind of obligation?" There were tears in her eyes! Joel couldn't remember the last time Tess cried in his presence…! Hell, he wasn't sure that it had even ever happened! "Joel, I want all of this… all this shit that is my life to mean something! I don't want my gravestone to have to read: 'Theresa St Clair – She was a selfish bitch who smuggled shit!'"
Joel sucked in a deep, long breath and looked away, unable to confront the plea in her eyes. "This is your crusade, Tess, not mine."
"Joel… I will do this on my own if that's what it takes but, for God's sake… please don't make me beg but I will if I have to!" The woman sucked in a sob. "Please, if you've ever held me dear in any way, help me!"
"Enough!" Tess jumped at Joel's soft but hard tone. "The thing is…! Shit. Okay. I'll do this much; I owe you that much. I'll get you and the girl to Tommy but not one fucking step further, Tess!"
Utterly to the big man's surprise, his partner placed a gentle kiss on his lips. "Thank you!" Damn...! First tears and now the most genuine smile he'd ever seen! Seems like it was a day for firsts when it came to Tess!
"Um… Joel…?" Joel turned to look at a very, very nervous and shame-faced Ellie standing right behind him. "Look… I… I couldn't help but overhear. I… It's probably suicide but give me a gun and some ammo and I'll head off on my own to look for the Fireflies and you can go back to the Zone! I don't want to be the cause of problems between you and Tess…!"
Joel snapped Ellie a stern look making the girl spring back a pace. "Okay, let's get one thing straight. What is between me and Tess is between me and Tess. It is none of your damn business to worry about, try to 'fix' or…" the big man shook his head. "Actually, let's just do a deal. Let's keep each other's personal lives out of this trip, yeah?
"Secondly, as of now, Tess and I are the last two living people on Earth who you tell about your 'condition', no matter what happens. Best you can hope for is that someone will think you're insane! Worst case, they kill you on the spot!
"Lastly, if you thought the shit we went through to get this far is bad, it's nothing compared to what's waiting for us out there. You do what I say, when I say it. We clear on that?" Ellie nodded. "I want to hear it, girl."
Ellie sighed in a resentful and long-suffering way. "What you say goes."
"You two finished your bonding moment?" Tess teased as she walked back over, stoppering a water bottle as she did so. "Joel, we're in your territory now. My knowledge pretty much ends when we're more than four hours' walk from the QZ. Where do we go?"
Joel already had decided that. "No matter where we're ultimately going, we need to see Bill. Tommy's camp is damn near twenty-five hundred miles from here and the East Coast is lousy with bandit clans. If we want to maximise our chances, we're going to need fast transport. Bill can contrapt almost anything out of parts. Even if he don't have a working car, he can find one or help us build one."
"To Bill's place then," Tess declared and then paused. "You know where that is, right?"
"A few miles north; it's going to be a tough march to get there before sunset and we want to do that. Infected roam the countryside at night and they're not the worst things that wander around out there."
Joel turned in the indicated direction and began to walk. He turned back to the woman and girl who were the catalysts for this sudden change in his life. "Let's get a move on."
To be continued…