“Alright, I think we’re clear. Good work, team,” said Patrick, jumping off of his seat behind the machine gun.
“Holy shit, guys!” said Brandy, surveying the bloody mess that lay before them. “This has got to be a new base-wide record, right?”
“Let’s find out,” said Patrick as he unholstered his pistol and cocked it back. “We’ll break it up into quarters and count while we pick off the stragglers. Where’s Abby?”
“She went to check the civie,” Brian answered, pointing to the car where they’d seen the infected attacking someone. “I’ll go see if she needs any help. There’s no way that girl didn’t get bit and you know how she doesn’t like to handle that.”
“None of us do,” Patrick replied gruffly. He turned and headed off to carefully pick his way through the piles of corpses, counting under his breath and shooting any that were still moving.
Brian jogged down the street and went around the car, finding Abby standing there stiffly, staring with wide eyes at the badly-injured civilian. Coming to stand beside her, his eyes immediately landed on the heavily-bleeding bite mark. “Shit,” he said. “She’s bit. Why don’t you go help with cleanup. I’ll take care of this.” He pulled out his sidearm and reloaded it. When Abby didn’t move, he prompted her with, “Go on, Abby. With a bite that deep she doesn’t have a lot of time.” Still, though, Abby did not move. She simply continued to stare at the unconscious girl as though she hadn’t even heard him. Now annoyed, Brian said, “Alright, fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” And he pointed his gun at the girl’s head. Before he could pull the trigger, Abby grabbed his arm and twisted his wrist, causing him to drop the weapon. It happened so fast he’d barely even seen her move. “What the fuck, Abby?”
“Don’t shoot her,” said Abby, her voice rough and raspy. “I know her.”
“Look at that bite mark, dude. I’m sorry if she’s your friend, but she’s fucking infected,” said Brian angrily.
“She’s not,” Abby insisted. “She’s immune.”
Brian stared at her in disbelief. “Come again?”
“I’m telling you, she’s immune! We need to get her bandaged up and back to base right now or she’ll die.” Saying this out loud brought back Abby’s ability to move, and she removed her backpack and knelt down next to Ellie to rummage for her first aid kit.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me, Abby. You want to bring an infected back to base? Do you want to get us all kicked out of the Fireflies?”
The disagreement had caught the attention of the other members of their group, and they came over to see what was going on. “Everything okay over here?” asked Patrick.
“Abby’s lost her god damn mind,” snapped Brian. “This girl has one of the deepest bites I’ve ever seen, and she’s spouting nonsense about immunity!”
Without looking up from her work bandaging up Ellie, Abby said, “It’s the truth. She’s immune.”
“Okay,” drawled Patrick slowly. “Let’s pretend for a second it’s even possible for a person to be immune. How do you know that this girl is?”
“I know her,” repeated Abby. After finishing with the worst of Ellie’s wounds, she sat back on her heels and looked up at her squad-mates. “You guys know I was posted at Salt Lake, right?”
“Yeah,” said Patrick.
“My dad ran the outpost. He was a doctor. Well one day this girl showed up with an old bite mark on her arm and no sign of infection. They ran some tests and determined it’s true. My dad was hoping to be able to use her to develop a vaccine, but…” She trailed off, looking back down at Ellie and wondering how much to divulge. After a second she concluded simply: “It didn’t work out.”
A stunned silence followed this story, and Abby went back to work while the others exchanged glances with each other. “And you’re sure this is the same girl?” Brandy asked hesitantly.
With a humorless chuckle, Abby said, “Positive.” When she looked up again she could tell they were still unsure. She sighed and got to her feet. “Look, you’re right,” she said to Brian. “This bite is very deep. And I’ve never personally seen her resist infection before, so maybe the whole thing isn’t true.” Although she didn’t say it out loud, Abby didn’t believe that. Her own father had been absolutely certain of the veracity of Ellie’s claims, and she trusted her father’s intellect. “Why don’t you and Brandy go get a truck from the checkpoint and come back here to pick us up. That should take you at least an hour, which should be plenty of time for the infection to set in. If she’s infected by then, we’ll kill her. If she’s not, we’re bringing her to the base. Does that work for you?”
“I can’t believe this shit,” muttered Brian. He threw up his hands in defeat. “Fine. Whatever.”
“Good,” said Abby shortly, again kneeling down at Ellie’s side. “Get going, then. And be quick about it. She’s lost a lot of blood. If she’s gonna make it she needs real medical attention soon.”
“Alright,” said Brandy. “Be careful.”
“You too,” replied Abby.
As Brian and Brandy headed off up the street towards the coastline, Abby returned to her task of looking after Ellie. When Patrick came to sit on Ellie’s other side to assist, Abby gave him a grateful smile. “So she’s a friend of yours?” he asked as he began disinfecting a wound on Ellie’s thigh.
“Definitely not,” said Abby flatly.
“But you know her?”
“Okay… So that means you two had either a fight or a one night stand. Personally I'm banking on the latter.”
Abby laughed and reached across Ellie to slap his shoulder. “Shut up,” she said. “You know I don’t do that.”
“Au contraire, my friend. I’d venture to say you love a good fight more than most.”
With a smirk, Abby said, “Well, we all love what we’re good at, right?”
“Ooh, you’re one saucy girl, aren’t you?”
The minutes ticked by slowly as they waited for the others, both straining their ears to listen for their friends returning with the truck. They could still hear the occasional sounds of infected in the city around them, though they seemed to be mostly calmed down after the earthquake. To be safe Patrick patrolled the area with his rifle in hand, making sure nothing got the jump on them. While he did that, Abby sat with her back against a lamp post with her rifle laying across her lap, ostensibly watching Ellie for any sign of infection, but in reality dwelling on this unsettling turn of events.
What was Ellie doing here? Abby had truly believed that after their last encounter she would never see her again. Ellie had finally seemed ready to put the whole thing behind her and move on, much like Abby had done three years ago in that theater in Seattle. The memory of that night still filled her with so much grief and shame. She’d killed two people without even a thought. She’d held a knife to the throat of a pregnant woman and wanted so badly to cut her open. Thank god Lev had been there to stop her. A lifetime of favors could never repay him for what his presence in her life had done for her. He had saved her soul. She loved that kid with a fierceness she could never express in words. All she could do was hope to convey it in her actions.
She wished Ellie would wake up so she could understand what was going on. If Ellie was here to fight again, Abby wanted no part of it. Clearly there was something about this girl that wouldn’t let her drop it, and Abby pitied her for it. Her own thirst for vengeance after Joel Miller had killed her father had fundamentally changed the core of her being - it had acted as a poison, siphoning off all the good things in life bit by bit. And when she’d finally gotten the revenge she’d sought for so long, she’d been dismayed to discover that it hadn’t been the antidote she’d expected. She’d still lived in darkness, angry and selfish and destructive. It was only after meeting Lev that she’d found her way back to the light.
Now things were so good for her, better than they’d been in years. She loved her life with the Fireflies - she loved the work she was doing, she loved the people she was doing it with, and she loved watching Lev flourish in this place, fitting in with those around him and living as the boy he’d always known himself to be.
No, there was no way she would let Ellie fuck this up for them. If she got even a whiff of an inkling that Ellie was here to perpetuate the terrible cycle of violence they’d found themselves caught up in, Abby would tell the rest of the Fireflies to put her in handcuffs and drive her as far from Los Angeles as they could and leave her there. And if she had to keep doing that every time Ellie showed up, she would. Abby was over it.
When they heard the truck approaching, Abby stood and walked out to the middle of the road to meet it, and Patrick came over to join her. Brandy stopped the truck in front of them and she and Brian both climbed out. “Still alive?” Brandy asked.
“Yeah,” replied Abby.
“Okay,” said Brandy. She glanced over at Brian. “Grab the stretcher. Let’s get her on the truck.”
They brought over the stretcher to where Ellie was still slumped against the car. It was one of the old world models, scavenged from an abandoned ambulance under a parking garage. It took them a minute to figure out how to get the girl onto it without worsening her injuries, but eventually they managed to slide her body onto the yellow transport board with handholds on it that would allow the four of them to safely move her onto the stretcher.
As they were buckling her in, Ellie started to come around. She moaned with pain, her brow furrowed. Brian looked alarmed, as though he expected her to start biting at any moment, but Brandy was more compassionate. “Don’t worry, uh…” She looked up at Abby. “What’s her name?”
Abby swallowed. She’d never said the girl’s name out loud before, and only knew it because she’d heard the sniper she’d so cavalierly shot in the head use it in the theater. “It’s Ellie,” she said to Brandy, and the name felt like sand in her mouth.
If Brandy noticed her hesitation, she did not comment. Instead she leaned over Ellie and continued: “Don’t worry, Ellie. We’re going to take good care of you.”
Blinking up at them through dazed green eyes, Ellie managed, “Fireflies?”
“Yes, we’re Fireflies,” Brandy answered.
As Abby leaned over Ellie’s body to tighten one of the straps on the transport board, she noticed Ellie’s eyes trail to the dog tags that dangled off her neck as she worked. “You too?” Ellie asked.
“Yeah,” said Abby without looking at her.
“Fuck,” Ellie said, and Abby had to bite back a smile.
“Couldn’t have put it better myself.”
Ellie was too busy gritting her teeth against pain while they lifted her onto the stretcher and then rolled the stretcher onto the back of the truck to say anything else. Feeling somehow responsible for her, Abby grabbed Ellie’s backpack and climbed up on the truck bed after her, sitting on one of the benches along the side. She took her rifle off her shoulder and checked that it was loaded as Patrick climbed onto the other side and did the same. Brandy and Brian went to sit in the cab, and then they got underway back towards the checkpoint. No one said anything for the first five miles, with Abby and Patrick keeping a watchful eye on the city around them. Then Ellie spoke in a quiet voice: “You guys got any water?”
Patrick looked to Abby, but could tell by her expression that she wanted him to handle this. “Yeah,” he said, pulling out his canteen. “Nice and slow, alright?” He assisted Ellie in lifting her head enough to take a few sips, then gently lowered her back down.
“Thanks,” Ellie said.
Darkness was starting to fall as they reached the safety of the checkpoint. The gate guards opened up for them at Patrick’s wave, and they continued on towards the medical tent. They parked in front of it and Abby and Patrick hopped off the truck. Patrick went in the tent to grab a medic, but Abby walked around to the open driver’s side window to speak with Brandy. “Go radio the base,” she said quietly. “Get them to put Liz on a private frequency and tell her what we’re bringing in. But make sure you speak directly to her, alright? We don’t want the whole base buzzing about this. We need to at least attempt to have a little discretion.”
“You got it, Abs,” said Brandy, and she got out and started jogging over to the communications tent.
By the time Abby returned to the bed of the truck, the head medic Margie had already climbed up and begun inspecting Ellie. She and Patrick were both hovering over the girl, speaking to her quietly. “And how long ago did this happen?” Margie was asking. She had ever-so-slightly uncovered the bite wound to take a look at it without exposing it to everyone else in the area.
“A little over an hour,” Patrick replied. “Just after the earthquake.”
“And you feel no signs of infection,” said Margie to Ellie. “No fever, no hunger, no pain in your eyes?”
“No,” Ellie responded. “Well, I mean, I’m always hungry. I feel pain everywhere else, but not my eyes. I swear, I’m immune.” In a very weird moment, she found herself looking to Abby for backup.
“It’s true,” Abby chimed in grudgingly. “My dad confirmed it, before he died.”
Margie knew perfectly well who Abby’s father had been, and she was immediately convinced. “Okay,” she said, and she turned to climb down off the truck, Abby and Patrick following closely behind. She led them back into the tent and over to a secluded corner where they would not be overheard. “I can’t treat her here. She needs to be taken to the base,” she said bluntly.
“Is she going to die?” Patrick asked.
“I doubt it,” Margie replied. “But if I unwrap that bite wound with all these people around, we’re going to have a riot. Here.” She took a set of keys out of her pocket and handed it to Abby. “Go directly to the coast and take the medic boat back to the island. Be quick about it, and don’t stop for anyone or anything. If anyone tries to stop you, tell them it’s a medical emergency and you’re taking her to base on my orders. Got that?”
“Got it,” said Abby, dropping the keys into her pocket. “I already sent Brandy to radio Liz and let her know what’s incoming.”
“On a private frequency, I hope,” said Margie dryly.
“Good. Leave immediately. I’m going to radio the base in an hour. If you’re not back by then, I’ll have all four of you assigned to latrine duty until the day you die, you hear me?”
“Jesus,” said Patrick, reaching out to grip one of Abby’s arms and pulling her towards the entrance of the tent. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
They were relieved to see that Brandy was already back at the truck when they returned. “Liz is going to meet us at the beach,” she informed them.
“Then it’s time to go. Chop chop, people,” said Patrick.
After resuming their positions in the truck, they set off down the road towards the coast as fast as they safely could. “Where are we going?” Ellie asked them.
“The island. That’s where our main base is,” Patrick told her.
Surprised, Ellie said, “We’re traveling that far in the dark?”
“It’s safe. We’ve cleared the whole area.”
“What? You’re telling me you guys have killed all the infected in a fifty mile area?”
Patrick shrugged. “What can I say? We’ve been busy.”
As they continued on, Ellie lapsed back into silence, wishing she wasn’t strapped into the stretcher so she could see what the city looked like. If they really had managed to purge the entire route of infected, it would probably be quite a sight to see. And she could hear that there was activity happening all around them everywhere they went. It seemed that the Fireflies were more functional and effective than any other organized group she’d ever come across - at least, in terms of the fight against the infected. Two hours ago she would have been excited to be here, to be a part of whatever was happening here. But now, because of one tiny detail, she was re-thinking her decision to come here.
She found herself wanting to look at Abby, wondering what was going on inside her mind. Abby was resolutely not looking at her, so there were plenty of opportunities to steal a glance. Ellie thought again of what Abby had said to the medic: My dad confirmed it, before he died. That could only mean one thing: Abby’s father had probably been part of the team at that hospital in Salt Lake City.
And it probably also meant that Joel had killed him.
For a moment she was back on that beach in Santa Barbara, feeling the ocean lapping around her. She remembered how understanding had come over her for Abby’s rage, how it had opened her mind to the possibility of moving on from this dark chapter of her life.
Now she realized she’d only had one tiny piece of the puzzle that was Abby. And what this new piece revealed was that Abby, like Ellie, struggled with that primal beast that demanded vengeance. What she had understood on the beach had generated a philosophical empathy, an acceptance of a viewpoint and an opinion that she could imagine someone else taking. But what this new revelation gave her was far more personal, for Ellie herself had lived through it. It was the same thing that had led her to Seattle, and to the total destruction of the life she’d known before.
If there is a god, he’s one sick fuck for throwing us together again, thought Ellie. She closed her eyes and forced herself to think of something else for the rest of the ride.
They arrived at the beach in hardly any time at all, and the four Fireflies transported Ellie to a speedboat docked there that had a big red plus sign painted on the side. Abby took up the steering wheel before anyone else could, desperately needing to put distance between herself and Ellie. The ride in the truck had been extremely uncomfortable for her. She regretted mentioning her father in front of Ellie, and she was certain that the incredibly personal piece of information had been heard loud and clear. If Ellie had even half a brain, she would be able to figure out the whole story from just that one sentence.
At the island Abby pulled the boat up to the docks, killed the engine and jumped across the gap to the wooden planks to tie the boat off. As she finished with that she heard someone calling her name, and she turned just in time to catch an armful of Lev. “Abby!” he cried into her chest, squeezing her tightly. “I was so worried! The earthquake was so big, and then I heard them saying your squad was coming in on the medical boat!” He pulled away from her and turned to look, seeing immediately that the other members of the squad were okay, too. “What’s going on?”
“I sure wish I knew,” replied Abby with a sigh.
The rest of her squad and a few nearby base soldiers were helping to unload the stretcher from the boat. Lev took a step closer, staring in disbelief. “Is that…?” His hand began creeping towards his sidearm.
Abby reached out and put her hand over his, gently moving it away from the gun. “Don’t,” she said softly. “It’s okay.”
“She killed Owen and Mel! And she tried to kill you,” he said angrily. “Twice.”
“And she might try it a third time. But Lev, I tried to kill her, too.”
“Only because she made you.”
“Doesn’t matter. It still happened. And don’t forget, I killed her friends, too.” Abby watched as the soldiers brought Ellie over to Liz, who was standing on the beach watching the scene as it unfolded. “Look, I gotta get over there. Go to the barracks. We’ll talk about this later, alright?” She ruffled his hair affectionately and then jogged off down the docks, rejoining her squad on the beach. “Chief,” she said by way of greeting.
“Welcome back, soldier. I hear you’ve brought me something interesting.” Liz nodded brusquely to her and then turned her attention to Ellie as she was wheeled closer. The buckles that strapped her in had been removed and the Chief reached out to offer her hand. “I’m Chief Elizabeth Starling, but most people just call me Liz. I run this base.”
Hesitantly, wondering if she was making a mistake, Ellie took her hand and shook it. “I’m Ellie.”
“You got a last name, Ellie?”
There was a long pause as Ellie searched the Chief’s eyes, then she said: “Miller.”
Abby’s stomach lurched and she turned away. In her mind’s eye she saw the bashed-in skull of Joel Miller, and heard Ellie’s agonizing pleas for her to stop. The darkness of that night had haunted Abby’s dreams for months, and hearing that name brought it all back in a rush. She knew that Joel was not really Ellie’s father, but clearly Ellie had loved him as though he was, and this made Abby relate to her in a way she’d never quite done before. Knowing this made her realize that Ellie’s hatred for her must be just as strong as hers had been for Joel. That was why Ellie had tracked her halfway across the country to seek her revenge - just as Abby had done for Joel. And Abby could also relate to the desire to claim someone who you weren’t related to by blood but who you loved as if you were as a family member; everyone here on base thought that Lev was her brother. So, all things considered, she and Ellie had a lot more in common than she’d thought.
Over the ringing in her ears she was vaguely aware that Liz was speaking again. “It’s good to meet you, Ellie Miller. We’re going to get you fixed up, alright? My best medic is ready for you in the hospital wing. You three, will you please take her there for me?” She looked at Patrick, Brian and Brandy in turn.
“You got it, Liz,” replied Patrick, and they set off with Ellie’s stretcher.
“You’ll come with me. We have a lot to talk about,” Liz said to Abby, who nodded.
Only once before had Abby made this walk beside the Chief: The night she and Lev had first arrived here. Abby cast her mind back to it as they went, remembering…
Firefly soldiers had seen their approach and were waiting for them on the beach, rifles in hand and pointed at them. Had she not been carrying Lev at the time, Abby would have put her hands up. As it was, the best she could do was say: “We’re not here to fight.”
“Who are you?” demanded one of the soldiers.
“My name is Abby Anderson. I contacted you from Santa Barbara a few months ago. My father was Dr. Jerry Anderson. He ran the Salt Lake outpost before it fell. And this is…” Abby hesitated, then made a snap decision. “This is my brother, Lev.”
The soldiers seemed undecided on what to do about her. One of them turned to another and said, “Go get the Chief and bring her down here.”
“Please,” Abby interjected desperately, “take my brother with you. He needs help. I don’t think he has a lot of time.”
The soldier who had given the order nodded to the other, who shouldered his rifle and took Lev from Abby’s arms. “Abby,” Lev groaned weakly.
“It’s okay, kiddo,” Abby assured him, running her hand through his hair. “We’re gonna be okay.”
“I don’t want to leave you.”
“You’re not. I’m coming right behind you, okay? I promise.” She looked at the soldier and nodded, and he turned and started heading up the trail to the tall, round building in the distance.
A tense wait followed and Abby had felt herself swaying on her feet with her sheer exhaustion. Everything that had happened to her in the past two months had taken a lot out of her, and the fight with Ellie had taken whatever was left. But she held steady and remained upright, unwilling to show any kind of weakness.
Eventually Liz had shown up and stood before Abby, sizing her up. But all she said was, “Come,” and started walking up a different trail they’d taken Lev on without checking to make sure Abby was following.
Abby did follow her, all the way up to the top of the Catalina Casino and into an office with a large mahogany desk. Liz sat behind it and gestured for Abby to take a seat across from her. “You took a lot longer to get here than we thought you would,” Liz said. “We thought you were dead.”
“We ran into some trouble. Got captured by a militia group in Santa Barbara.”
“The rattlers,” Liz supplied. “We know of them. Rumor has it their camp was destroyed by escaped prisoners just a few days ago. Your doing?”
“Not at all. I was tied to a stake and left for dead on the beach at the time.”
Liz raised an eyebrow in question. “Then how did you escape?”
“Um, dumb luck,” Abby lied swiftly. “Guess they fucked up tying the knot. I was able to wiggle my hands out.”
“Hm,” grunted Liz, and Abby could tell she didn’t believe her. “Well, we’re glad you’re here now. I knew your father. He was a brilliant man. I was sorry to hear what happened to him, and to the rest of your outpost. You have my condolences.”
Looking down at her bare, dirty feet, Abby mumbled: “Thanks.”
Liz leaned over the desk, studying her intently. “Only thing is, Jerry Anderson didn’t have a son.”
Abby shook her head. “No, he didn’t. But I’d prefer it if that could be kept quiet. Lev means the world to me, and he’s young and vulnerable. If people think we’re related it might keep them from messing with him.”
“I see no reason why anyone else has to know.”
The Chief gave her a brief nod, then asked, “Is it your intention to join us?”
“Yes, absolutely.” Abby looked around the room and noticed a map of southern California on a table nearby. Mustering her energy, she stood and went over to take a look. “Is this what you’ve been working on?”
Joining her at the table, Liz pointed to a highlighted spot on the map. “We’ve cleared everything inside this circle.”
“What do you mean by ‘cleared?’ Killed all the living infected?”
“And disposed of all the spores. It’s slow work. Some buildings can be salvaged, some cannot. Buildings that cannot be saved are burned down in controlled fires. Buildings that can, we remove the fungus and burn it elsewhere.”
“That really works?”
“It does,” Liz said. “In this area of the city there are many places where you no longer need a gas mask to go inside. They’re completely safe for human habitation. If we can’t purge the infection via a vaccine like your father hoped, then we’ll have to do it the hard way - clicker by clicker, room by room, city by city.”
Impressed by the audacity of the Fireflies to take on such a monumental task, Abby ran her finger over the map and imagined what it must be like to walk through a city with nothing to fear. “I want to help. You’ll let me join?”
With the very first smile Abby had seen from her on her lips, Liz said, “As if I’d say no to the daughter of Dr. Jerry Anderson. Come on. You look like you’re about to pass out. Let’s find you and your brother a hot meal and some warm beds.”
Now Abby followed the Chief on the exact same route they’d taken that night a year and a half ago and sat down in the exact same chair as she had the last time. “Alright,” said Liz as she took her seat behind the desk. “Start talking, Anderson.”
“What do you want to know about?”
“Tell you what,” said Liz. “How about you start at the very beginning, and I’ll let you know when I want you to stop.”