Prepare for Part II with our comprehensive The Last of Us story recap
The Last of Us Part II is upon us. Forgotten what happened in the original, or just need a refresher? Then you need our comprehensive The Last of Us story recap.
The Last of Us Part II is upon us. Forgotten what happened in the original, or just need a refresher? Then you need our comprehensive The Last of Us story recap.
The Last of Us, first released on the PlayStation 3 in 2013, is widely regarded as one of the finest AAA video games ever made. In a space filled with bombast and overwrought plot, The Last of Us is a game crafted from subtlety and beautiful characterisation.
Its sequel picks up years later from the original, following the story of Ellie into an even more dangerous, post-apocalyptic US. But it’s been a while, and if you’re patiently waiting for The Last of Us Part II to launch on June 19, 2020, then you might want a refresher on the events of the original game. We’ve got you covered, friend.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us. There won’t be any spoilers for The Last of Us Part II, but you know, implicit things like who survived the original will be included.
Joel comes in from work and finds his daughter, Sarah, asleep on the sofa. It’s his birthday and she’s been waiting up to give him his gift: a new watch. She jokes that she saved up money from selling drugs to buy the watch, then falls asleep on Joel, who carries her upstairs to bed.
Sarah wakes up in her bed a few hours later. There are sirens outside and she is afraid. She gets out of bed and calls for her father but he doesn’t respond, so she goes to look for him.
In his bedroom, she sees a news report on television of people attacking each other, of national guard on the streets, then an explosion cuts the broadcast short. Looking out the window, Sarah can see the explosion, fire and smoke in the distance, in downtown Houston. More sirens pass by on the road outside the house.
Sarah continues downstairs looking for Joel, calling out for him. He’s nowhere to be found. When she looks in the study at the back of the house, Joel comes in through the patio doors. He looks visibly frightened and tells Sarah to get away from the windows, while he grabs a revolver from the desk drawer in the study.
Suddenly, a man bursts through the patio doors. He’s visibly distressed, almost snarling, and charges at Joel. While Sarah screams, Joel fights off the man, their neighbour, and shoots him, dead. They rush out the front of the house to leave the city, when Joel’s brother, Tommy, pulls up. He’s seen similar attacks by infected and the brothers vow to get out of town, hitting the gas onto the highway while Sarah, wide-eyed in the back seat, watches emergency service vehicles and chaos unfold around them.
As they reach the highway – where everyone else has the same idea – they find it gridlocked, and try to find another route. With a deafening crunch, the car is t-boned and rolls over into the road. Sarah loses consciousness.
Joel wakes up. He rescues Sarah from the back seat of the car, her leg broken and unable to run, carrying her away from the wreck. Tommy leads as they make their way through crowds of panicked people, as more people, infected like their neighbour, rush into the crowd, a mass of arms and teeth and fury unbidden.
Chaos reigns, with terrified people and terrifying infected scattering around them, and Tommy is separated from Joel and Sarah. They make their way to the highway, where they’re accosted by a national guard trooper. The trooper calls in that he’s found a man and a little girl, then receives an order over the radio: nobody is allowed to leave the city, in order to contain the infection. As Joel tries to reason with him, he opens fire, and Joel and Sarah tumble down a slope.
The trooper stands over them and raises his weapon, ready to fire. His head erupts in a flash of brains and skull as Tommy runs in with revolver in hand to his brother’s aid. But Sarah has been hit, in the chest. Kneeling in the dirt Joel applies pressure to her wound, but she slips away.
Twenty years have passed, and Joel is waiting in a grungy apartment in the Boston quarantine zone, visibly agitated. Tess, his business partner – their business, smuggling – enters the apartment, visibly aggravated. She was jumped by a couple of goons representing a criminal named Robert; they won’t be hassling her again.
But before dispatching them, Tess learned that Robert has their merchandise, a cache of weapons. They decide to pay him a visit and retrieve their property.
As they progress through the quarantine zone they see members of the Fireflies, a resistance movement, caught by the violent military police who guard the quarantine zone and enforce the lockdown. An explosion rocks the checkpoint, which brings curfew early; Joel and Tess will need to take the less trodden path to leave the quarantine zone.
Tess leads Joel to a smuggler’s tunnel where they’ve stashed some equipment – rucksacks, torches, gas masks, pistols and a handful of rounds – and they make their way under the cordon around the quarantine zone. Stumbling upon an area filled with spores of the Cordyceps fungus that has devastated much of humanity, they find a number of clickers – humans who have so much fungus growth that they can no longer see, but hunt using a sort of echolocation – and a man, trapped under falling debris, with a crack in his gas mask.
Exposed to the spores, the man knows he will soon turn; nobody lasts longer than two or three days once bitten by the infected or exposed to the Cordyceps spores. He pleads with Joel and Tess to put him out of his misery and prevent him from turning into one of the infected. Joel has to decide whether to spare the man his horrific fate or spare the rounds.
Arriving at a complex of warehouses at the docks, Tess and Joel sneak in – taking out a number of Robert’s guards – before flushing out the man himself. Robert runs, while Joel and Tess give chase through the alleys between the warehouses. Cornered by a locked gate, Robert tries to sprint past Tess, but she brings him down with the crunch of a swinging pipe to the knee.
Joel and Tess interrogate Robert rather violently and, with the help of a broken arm, learn that Robert sold their guns to Marlene, the local leader of the Fireflies. Tess shoots a pleading Robert, and the pair resolve to retrieve their weapons from the Fireflies. They don’t have far to go, as Marlene, with a gunshot wound to the abdomen, stumbles around the corner.
Marlene tells them they can have their guns back if they do something for her: smuggle something out of the city. Before Joel and Tess agree, they’re interrupted by the military police, searching for Marlene and other members of the Fireflies. On the spot, they agree to help Marlene escape and – if she shows them the merchandise – they’ll consider smuggling her package out of the Boston quarantine zone to get them back.
Fleeing the docks and travelling across the rooftops, Joel and Tess help Marlene escape the military and make their way to an office where a teenage girl is waiting. She pulls a flick knife on Joel, thinking he’s a threat, before Tess wrestles the knife under control and Marlene defuses the situation.
Ellie, the young girl of 14 years, is the “package” that Marlene needs smuggling out of the city. She needs to be taken safely to the Fireflies outside the quarantine zone, but Marlene – seriously wounded – is unable to travel with them. Tess agrees to help Marlene back to her base of operations to get medical assistance, but mostly to check on their merchandise, while Joel smuggles Ellie out of the quarantine zone.
Joel and Ellie make their way to an apartment building near a spot to cross the barricades, then hole up, bickering, waiting for the cover of darkness. Waiting for Tess to return.
Tess arrives after nightfall and the trio make their way to a section of sewer tunnels to escape the quarantine zone. As they climb through the wreck of an articulated wagon, Joel is accosted by two soldiers. All three are forced down to their knees for a search and an infection check. The soldiers scan Tess and Joel, but before they can see the results of Ellie’s scan, she pulls out her flick knife and stabs the soldier in the thigh. Acting quickly, Joel tackles the soldier to the ground, while Tess shoots the other solider. He executes the soldier with the scanner.
Tess sees the results on the scanner and hands it to Joel, but the result is plain: Ellie is infected. While Tess and Joel argue over why Marlene would set them up, make them smuggle an infected girl through a checkpoint, Ellie reveals that she was bitten three weeks ago, that she is infected but did not turn. That’s thought to be impossible. Everyone who gets bitten turns within a couple of days. Before they can decide what to do next a heavy military presence arrives, and the trio has to sneak and fight their way to the crossing.
The soldiers are recalled and they’re clear of danger, so Ellie reveals Marlene’s plan: she believes Ellie’s immunity to be the key to stopping the Cordyceps infection. The plan was to smuggle her out of Boston and to a Fireflies laboratory “out West somewhere,” where they can hopefully develop a cure.
The smugglers are split: Joel doesn’t believe in a cure and wants to abandon it as a misadventure; Tess, meanwhile, thinks that if there’s even a possibility of a cure, they are duty-bound to at least try. She also understands Joel’s reluctance to spend time with a teenage girl and reconcile his paternal instincts after losing Sarah. Nevertheless, they head off towards the Capitol building to meet up with agents of the Fireflies, fighting through the subway system, office buildings, and a museum – each filled with spores, the infected, and danger.
Arriving at the Capitol building they find the Fireflies dead, killed by gunshots rather than the infected. Joel is even more keen to abandon the endeavour, write it off as a failure, and return to the Boston quarantine zone. Tess blows up at Joel and insists that they press on and deliver Ellie to the Fireflies so that everything they have done is not in vain. It’s then that she reveals she was bitten. Tess is infected, destined to turn, and doesn’t want her sacrifice to be a waste of life.
Before they have time to debate it further, more soldiers arrive, outside the steps of the Capitol building. Tess pleads with Joel to take Ellie and escape, to follow through with what they started together, while she stays behind to hold off the soldiers and buy them time to escape.
It is, as Tess hoped, a fatal stand. As they escape via the balcony of the Capitol building, Joel and Ellie see her body, bloody and lifeless in the entrance hall. At least she won’t turn, become one of the infected. But it is down to Joel to deliver her other dying wish.
Some time later, Joel and Ellie arrive on the outskirts of a small town. The town is the home of Bill, a supplier of merchandise to the smuggling operation, and someone who owes Joel and Tess a favour. The immediate plan is to visit Bill, call in those favours, and hopefully get a vehicle to make their cross-country easier. In the longer term, Joel plans to visit his now-estranged brother, Tommy – who used to be a member of the Fireflies – and use his contacts to hand Ellie over to the resistance movement.
But before then there’s the small matter of reaching Bill; navigating through his labyrinth of defences, explosives, traps, and, of course, the ever-present infected.
As they make their way through the town, Joel trips one of Bill’s traps: a leg snare strung over a ceiling rafter, using a refrigerator as a counterweight. He’s suspended in the air, like a carcass on a butcher’s hook, while the infected run towards the source of the commotion. Upsidedown and disoriented, Joel fights off the infected with his revolver while Ellie works to cut him down from the counterweight. She drops the fridge and Joel to the ground with an unceremonial thump, before they are overrun by infected. As Joel fires desperately to keep the infected back, a masked man bursts through the door, slicing the infected with a machete. It’s Bill, coming to check why so many of his traps had been sprung. He leads Joel and Ellie to safety in a nearby building.
Bill and Ellie take an immediate dislike to one another. Bill is wary of strangers and wants to know why Joel isn’t travelling with Tess. Ellie, meanwhile, is a sarcastic, headstrong teenager, intent on pushing boundaries. In exchange for permanently clearing his debt of favours, Bill reluctantly agrees to help them find a working car. But first, they need to retrieve a working battery from a crashed military vehicle, as none of the cars in the town currently run.
Arriving at the crashed vehicle, they find the battery already taken. Somebody else had the same idea. After being overrun by infected, they escape into a nearby residential area and, when searching the area for supplies, they find a truck with the missing battery already installed. Bill’s former partner, who had upped and left Bill, had planned on using the truck to escape. He didn’t make it.
With Joel and Bill pushing the truck and Ellie in the driver’s seat, they have to fight off more infected as they try to get the vehicle started. As the truck reaches a steep hill, Ellie is able to get the engine turned over. It gratefully sputters, back from the dead. They leave Bill to his town, his fortress of solitude, and head off to Wyoming in search of Tommy and the Fireflies.
After driving over 500 miles, and Joel nearly letting his guard down with Ellie once or twice, the pair find themselves on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The freeway is completely blocked with wrecked vehicles. They have little choice but to pick their way through town.
Suddenly, a man, appearing wounded, jumps out in front of the truck, pleading with them to stop. Joel recognises the danger, the charade, and accelerates towards the man. The trap is sprung, and a group of men jump up from behind barricades and open fire on the truck. Joel loses control and crashes into a store.
After fighting off the group of men, Joel and Ellie make their way through a garage door and find themselves staring at a makeshift butcher’s slab. The group of men are hunters, flagging down travellers, killing them, collecting their possessions, carving them up for food. Ellie asks Joel how he recognised the trap; he tells her that he’s done similar things in the past, things that he’s not proud of.
They need to get back out of town, and with a large iron bridge the only landmark to work with, they make their way towards it, dodging the hunters at every turn. They own this town. Everyone Joel and Ellie meet is a threat.
The pair are separated in a hotel building. Joel falls down an elevator shaft into the hotel’s basement, his fall broken by six feet of stagnant water, the basement filled with infected. As they work their way back towards one another, Joel fights a group of the hunters in the hotel’s kitchen and restaurant. With the men dispatched, he climbs up a ladder to resume the search for Ellie, when he’s jumped by a hunter and disarmed. The hunter is holding Joel’s head underwater. He’s panicking, gasping for breath, reaching for a weapon with which to defend himself.
A gunshot echoes through the hotel restaurant. Ellie stands over the dead man with a smoking pistol, as Joel lies on the ground, fighting to get his breath back.
As Ellie is visibly shocked and sickened by what she has just done – this is the first time she has killed someone – Joel snaps at her, berates her for picking up the gun, says that he was lucky his head wasn’t blown off.
“You know what? No.” Ellie says. “How about, ‘hey Ellie, I know that wasn’t easy, but it was either him or me, thanks for saving my ass’. You got anything like that for me, Joel?”
“We gotta get going,” is all Joel can offer in return.
Moments later, Joel and Ellie find themselves on a scaffold, looking out over a group of hunters standing between them and the way forward. Joel plans to drop down and pick them off, but Ellie protests: they’d stand more of a chance if he let her help. And, this time, he does. After an impromptu lesson on how to handle a rifle, Ellie prepares to give overwatch to Joel, a teenage sniper, the beginnings of a life of death and responsibility.
“And just so we’re clear about back there,” Joel says, turning to Ellie as he climbs down from the scaffold. “It was either him or me.”
“You’re welcome,” Ellie responds, but Joel’s already gone.
After clearing the area of hunters, with Ellie’s support, they continue on towards the bridge. But before long they run into the hunters’ secret weapon: a stolen military vehicle, armour-plated and with a rotating .50-calibre turret on top.
Darting through buildings and down alleyways to evade the turret, they run into Henry and Sam, two brothers who were separated from a larger group. They’re also trying to get out of Pittsburgh to regroup with their friends, at an old radio tower to try and contact the Fireflies, but they’ve been penned in by the hunters.
Joel and Henry reluctantly agree to work together, but it’s the change in Sam and Ellie that is most marked. They so rarely see kids around their own age. It’s cheering to see them bonding over shared experiences, asking questions about what life was like before the Cordyceps pandemic struck. On their way through a comic book store, Sam picks up a toy robot to take with him. Henry chastises Sam for bringing along something childish and with no value towards survival. Sam, protesting that he has plenty of room in his pack, drops the toy on the floor and the group presses on.
Waiting for the cover of night, Joel and Henry find an area of the hunters’ defences that are lightly defended, killing the guards and making their way over the wall and wire. However, before they can escape, the armoured car appears, separating Joel from Ellie, Henry and Sam. Henry apologises to Joel, saying that he has to put Sam first, and leaves him behind. Ellie, rather than escaping with Sam and Henry, decides to stay with Joel. They flee the armoured car and head towards the bridge.
Arriving at the bridge they find it destroyed, leaving Joel and Ellie penned in between the armoured car and a jump into the icy waters of the Allegheny River. And Ellie can’t swim. Before Joel has a moment to think Ellie instinctively jumps into the river, forcing him in after to save her from drowning.
The pair are dashed against a rock and Joel falls unconscious.
He wakes moments later, on the banks of the Allegheny, with Sam, Henry and Ellie standing over him. Joel grabs his pistol and threatens to shoot Henry for abandoning them back in Pittsburgh, but quickly learns it was Henry who fished them from the river.
Bridges mended, the group head towards the radio tower through an underground pumping station, a location that was once the home of families with children. It seems almost normal, aside from the subterranean setting. Ellie and Sam play a game of football in front of a goal, painted on the wall. Venturing deeper they realise the station houses only the infected, and the corpses of those who took their own lives before being overrun. In a room filled with the bodies of children, and one adult, a message spray-painted on the floor reads:
“THEY DIDN’T SUFFER”
Further into the pumping station, the group are separated, leaving Joel with Sam, and Ellie with Henry. The two groups fight their way through and meet up again near the entrance, with Ellie proudly telling Joel she took out some infected on her own. They find themselves trapped against a door that’s barred shut from the outside; Joel and Henry fight to keep the infected back while Ellie and Sam crawl outside to open the door from the other side.
The door opens, and Joel and Henry gratefully spill out into the fresh air beyond. As they re-barricade the door, Sam notices a deterrent, spraypainted on the outside wall:
Do NOT open”
The group set off on foot towards the radio tower and find themselves in a small town at the foot of the structure. Passing through the town, it’s another opportunity for Ellie and Sam to bond and learn things about the world before. They play darts, discuss music, and react in disbelief at the notion of the ice cream truck. It seems so alien and frivolous to them, in a world driven only by survival.
As the group passes between a group of houses a rifle round cracks through the air and over their heads, forcing them into cover behind a ruined car. The hunters have a sniper positioned in a house at the end of the street, so Joel sets out to flank them, to clear the way for Henry and the kids. Arriving in the upstairs bedroom, Joel stabs the sniper to death, then heads to the window to signal to the group that it’s safe to proceed. From his vantage point, however, he sees a group of hunters pouring into the street. Joel takes up the rifle and begins picking off the hunters from a distance, while Henry, Ellie and Sam defend themselves down at street-level.
Before long, the armoured car arrives, pinning Ellie, Sam and Henry down in the street below. Someone appears from the top of the turret and starts throwing Molotov cocktails. Joel seizes the opportunity and shoots the gunner while he has a flaming bottle in hand. The Molotov drops inside the armoured car and, after burning for a moment, the vehicle explodes.
The group is far from safe, however, as the commotion has brought dozens of infected down on them. With Joel picking off as many as he can, they fight their way up the street to the sniper’s nest, then they escape through the back fence towards the radio tower.
Holed up at the radio tower, the group takes a moment to grab some respite, to eat, chat, relax, and get some sleep. Sam takes himself off into a room alone, so Ellie takes an opportunity: she presents Sam with the robot from the comic book store, the one Henry had made him leave behind. Nobody saw her pick it up, and as long as Henry never sees it, he won’t know it’s there.
Ellie shuts the door behind herself and leaves Sam to sleep. After she leaves, he throws away the robot, dismissing it as childish, before looking down at an infected bite on his shin.
In the morning, Joel and Henry are cooking breakfast when Ellie wakes up. Henry says he’s letting Sam sleep in for once, so she goes to wake him up. Overnight, Sam has turned and, now a snarling mess, attacks Ellie. Joel goes to rescue Ellie but Henry pulls a gun on him, trying to defend his brother, before ultimately mustering the courage to shoot Sam himself. Broken, as Joel tries to talk him down, Henry takes his own life.
Months later, Joel and Ellie have travelled almost 2000 miles from Pittsburgh to Wyoming. They’re still searching for Joel’s brother, Tommy, and an introduction to the Fireflies. The last Joel heard, Tommy was living in Jackson County, Wyoming, but in order to get there, they need to cross a river. They find a set of sluice gates at a hydroelectric dam and use them to cross. In a rare moment, a softening of his grizzled exterior, Joel rewards Ellie’s teamwork with a high five.
Nearby, over on the other bank, they stumble on the grave of a child. Ellie retrieves the robot doll from her rucksack and expresses her regret, that she forgot to leave it on Sam’s grave. Joel, typically, doesn’t want to talk about it, insisting that things happen and they move on.
Returning to the matter at hand, they have no way around the compound for the hydroelectric dam and look for a way inside. As they approach the gates, a set of rifles appear from the high wall, enquiring as to whether they’re lost. Joel explains that they didn’t realise the dam was occupied, and they’re just passing through. Before the lady on the wall asks where to, Joel’s brother, Tommy, appears at the gate, to vouch for them and to embrace his brother.
Tommy and his new wife, Maria, are trying to get the hydroelectric plant operational again to provide power for the nearby settlement in Jackson. They’ve had it working a few times, but keep suffering turbine failure. Maria takes Ellie off to get something to eat, affording Joel and his brother some time to catch up. After offering a photo of Joel and Sarah together, which Joel refuses, Tommy insists they talk while they work, as he needs to go and oversee the turbine repair and startup.
After a few nervous minutes, the turbine starts up and the plant is generating power again. With that pressure alleviated, Tommy takes Joel aside to talk about what brought him all the way from Boston to Wyoming. He explains that he’s looking for the Fireflies, about Ellie’s immunity, and the possibility for a cure for mankind. Then Joel lets slip his true motive for visiting Tommy: not just to ask him to locate the Fireflies, but to ask him to take Ellie there in his stead. His brother understands how difficult it must be for Joel to travel with a girl about Sarah’s age, but he has his own responsibilities now; to his wife, and to the people of Jackson.
Before the issue can be resolved, a group of local bandit raiders attack the plant, forcing Joel, Tommy, and the plant’s workers to defend themselves. As they race back across the plant they find Maria and Ellie pinned down, trapped inside a small office, with raiders approaching on all sides. Between them, with Maria and Ellie holding their own, they manage to fight off the attackers. With the danger cleared, Tommy talks it through with his wife and gets her blessing to take Ellie to the Fireflies. But as they’re preparing horses for the trip, Ellie overhears Joel talk about leaving her with Tommy and takes off on one of the horses.
When Joel and Tommy realise Ellie has left they mount up and give chase, tracking her through the forest, fighting their way beyond a bandit camp and to an old farmhouse, where they find Ellie’s stolen horse tied up outside. Fearing the worst, Joel calls into the house; Ellie replies that she is upstairs. He finds her in the bedroom of a teenage girl, reading a diary she’s found in the house, untouched and preserved like a time capsule, a monument to middle America.
“Is this really all they had to worry about?” Ellie asks, with intense scorn. “Boys. Movies. Deciding which shirt goes with which skirt. It’s bizarre.”
Joel doesn’t have any intention of indulging Ellie and – after scalding her, reminding her how important her life is – ushers for them to leave. She tells Joel that she overheard him talking with Tommy, that she knows he couldn’t wait to get rid of her. Joel attempts to deflect Ellie’s questioning and tells her that she’s better off with Tommy than him, that they’ve been lucky so far, but they’ve had too many close calls. Joel turns to leave, considering the discussion closed, when Ellie says something that stops him in his tracks.
“I’m not her, you know. Maria told me about Sarah, And I–”
“Ellie,” Joel replies, sternly. “You are treading on some mighty thin ice here.”
“I’m sorry about your daughter, Joel, but I have lost people too.”
“You have no idea what loss is,” he says.
“Everyone I have cared about has either died or left me. Everyone – fucking except for you.” She shoves Joel in the chest. “So don’t tell me that I would be safer with someone else, because the truth is I would be more scared.”
“You’re right,” Joel responds. “You’re not my daughter, and I sure as hell ain’t your dad. And we are going our separate ways.”
Before they can continue the discussion any further, Tommy rushes upstairs, rifle in hand. They are not alone. A group of bandits have followed their tracks to the ranch, seeking revenge on Joel and Tommy for killing their man at the plant, and at the camp. Joel clears the house while Tommy hangs back to guard Ellie.
With the bandits dispatched, the group step carefully outside the house and back to their horses. Joel offers Ellie, sullen and visibly upset, a hand up onto her horse. She declines and, as the sun sets, they make the uneventful ride back towards Jackson. On a couple of occasions, Joel looks like breaking the silence but chooses not to. As they arrive in the hills overlooking the town of Jackson, well-fortified and with the electricity on, Tommy brings the horses to a stop. He tells them the kids will be watching movies tonight. Joel asks Tommy where the lab is; at the University of Eastern Colorado is the response.
He tells Ellie to give her horse back to Tommy and asks if he can keep his. He signals for Ellie to get on the back of his horse before he changes his mind. Joel tells Tommy that he’s afraid of Maria and doesn’t want to upset her, but his face tells a different story: he doesn’t want to let Ellie go.
Tommy tells them there’s always a place for them at Jackson, then Joel and Ellie set off for the university.
Arriving at the entrance to the University of Eastern Colorado by horseback, we find Joel explaining the rules of American Football to Ellie. The pair have evidently cleared the air since the breakdown in communications near Jackson. Perhaps getting everything out in the open was the best way to move forward.
Unfortunately, there’s no sign of the Fireflies at the university. Or at least, as Joel explores the campus on foot while Ellie stays on the horse, there’s nobody to be found today. There is plenty of evidence that the Fireflies were here, and not that long ago. On a balcony near the entrance, he finds the remains of a lookout post; gates and shutters have been left locked, with generators rigged up to open them.
Joel presses on through a student accommodation block to find the path to a generator on the other side of a locked shutter. Inside he finds a collage of life, of the students who lived there two decades prior, and of the survivors who holed up there more recently. Climbing through the basement of the halls of residence, he finds the air thick with spores and the area filled with infected, a Terracotta Army of clickers, statues in the fog of fungal spores and, near the exit, a bloater – a person whose infection has progressed so far they’re covered in dense armour plating.
He sneaks through the basement and shuts a stairwell door behind himself as the bloater gnashes at his heels. Ellie, hearing the commotion from outside, calls out to Joel, to see if he’s OK. He appears above ground, much to Ellie’s relief, and connects the generator to open the shutters. Reunited, he climbs back on the horse and they press farther into the campus. Moments later, they are surprised in a more pleasant way than usual: they startle a troop of monkeys, who scatter across the quad. Ellie shrieks in delight. That’s quickly followed by a second positive, a series of Firefly logos spraypainted on the side of a building en route to the science building.
Finding no obvious way into the science block, which has clearly been heavily fortified by the Fireflies, Joel inadvertently smashes through some gates with a runaway dumpster, then he and Ellie use it as a platform to climb into the building. Inside, they find plenty of evidence of activity, including kitted-out laboratories, generators and rigged-up work lights, but again, no sign of the Fireflies.
As Ellie strolls through the lab, calling out for the Fireflies and musing on whether extracting the cure will hurt, Joel urges her to be quiet. It seems they’re not alone. Perhaps not all the Fireflies have packed up and left. As they climb up to the next floor the noise in the distance grows closer, then as the pair turn quickly, a work light is knocked over. They proceed quietly, weapons drawn, only to find the troop of monkeys scavenging through the bins in the lab.
Pressing through the lab, they find evidence that suggests the scientists have moved on to a new location, as the university has become more prone to attacks and difficult to defend. A voice recording reveals one scientist elected to set the monkey test subjects free. They rewarded him with a bite and infection with Cordyceps. In the next room, they find the result: a corpse with a gunshot wound to the head, self-inflicted.
But before he took his own life to prevent turning, the scientist left another voice recording – a lengthy, maudlin, self-indulgent voice recording – which indicates the location of the new lab: Saint Mary’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, around 500 miles away. As they discuss their next destination, Joel spots a flashlight across the courtyard, then he drags Ellie to the floor to dodge a gunshot.
A group of men are making their way into the science building, which is Joel and Ellie’s cue to leave. Armed men pour onto their floor and block the exit, leaving Joel with no choice but to pick them off, one at a time. He creeps through the laboratory, using the counters and consoles for cover until they make their way back to the stairwell.
Turning for the exit, one of the men rushes at Joel and they both tumble over the railing to the floor below. The assailant’s head is dashed on the floor, while Joel lands on his back with a piece of rebar puncturing his abdomen. He’s unable to get up as Ellie climbs down to help, and together, they pull, hard, to free Joel from the rubble. He rises with a scream, losing blood fast, and they move to escape.
Ellie helps Joel into a room for respite and, after a graceless tumble through a window, they cover behind a counter as one of the men comes in at the far end of the room. Joel tries to stop her, but Ellie sneaks around the counter to flank on their attacker. Already faint from loss of blood, Joel leans out from behind the counter and opens fire as Ellie attacks from behind.
They need to move, and quickly, but Joel is staggering from counter to wall, barely able to stand. In the entrance foyer, Joel stops for a breather against a desk.
“Behind you!” He shouts to Ellie.
She turns around to face Joel, thinking that he’s calling for her to turn and face him, but two men are running down the stairs behind her. Joel raises his gun to open fire but blacks out momentarily and slips to the ground. Ellie opens fire on the assailants, dropping one immediately, before the telltale click: her clip is empty. She fumbles to reload a magazine as the second attacker bears down on her, striking her across the face with a metal pipe and knocking her to the floor. Staggered, Ellie wheels around and shoots at point-blank range, then turns her attention back to Joel.
Ellie helps Joel back to his feet, but his vision is fading in and out and he’s struggling to make any progress under his own steam. She helps him to another counter near the door, then holds it open and calls for Joel to walk through. He spills through the door and tumbles down the stairs outside, surprising one of the bandits who is stealing their horse. Thinking fast, Ellie shoots the man, then leads the horse over to where Joel lies on the ground. Helping him up onto the horse, they flee the university campus.
Moments later, Joel loses consciousness and falls from the horse.
“Get up, get up, get up,” she pleads, panicked, shaking Joel by the lapels.
“You gotta tell me what to do…
“You gotta get up…
The winters are harsh in Colorado. Snow lies thick on the ground as a rabbit emerges from its warren. A single arrow strikes the rabbit and it dies instantly. Ellie picks up the animal, retrieves the arrow, and hands the rabbit from her horse’s saddle.
“Oh, this won’t last long,” she says, to nobody in particular. Joel is nowhere to be seen.
Ellie spots a buck in the distance and ties up the horse so she can give chase without startling the animal. She steps on a fallen twig, however, and the large deer runs off into the forest. Ellie draws her bow, softens her step, and tracks the animal through the snow.
After creeping through the snow for a few minutes, Ellie finds the deer in a clearing and knocks an arrow. She draws the bow, feels the tension for a moment while she sights the shot, then lets the arrow fly. The deer is struck, startled, and darts off, farther into the forest. She finds it again soon after and lodges a second arrow in the buck. The buck is bleeding now, painting a crimson trail on the crisp, white snow. This is no longer tracking: it’s join the dots.
After a long walk through the forest – the deer travelling a surprising distance with two arrows in its hide – Ellie traces the trail of blood to a logging camp. The deer has stumbled into a clearing between the tumbledown shacks, its body giving way on the hard, cold, snow-covered floor.
She goes to finish the deer off, an arrow drawn, but finds it already dead. But before she can even begin to contemplate how to get the massive buck back to her horse, she hears something. Wheeling around, bowstring still taught, two men step out from behind a tree, palms aloft. A softly spoken, bearded man indicates that he just wants to talk. Ellie, moulded by this world, defaults to threats of violence if they come any closer.
The softly-spoken man introduces himself as David. His companion is James. He tells Ellie that they’re from a group nearby, with families, women and children, who are all very hungry. Ellie replies that her group is all women and children too, which is not entirely untrue, being a party of one.
David suggests a trade for some of the deer meat, and begins listing potential bartering chips: weapons, ammunition, clothes–
“Medicine!” Ellie jumps in. “Do you have any antibiotics?”
David says that they do, and suggests Ellie follow them back to the camp to make a trade. Ellie digs in her heels and refuses. She’s not following a couple of strange men anywhere. She makes a counter-proposal: James can go to their camp and retrieve the antibiotics, while Ellie keeps David hostage at the end of an arrow. David a agrees, and sends James off with a simple shopping list, of two bottles of penicillin and a syringe.
With James gone, Ellie relieves David of his hunting rifle. She slings her bow on her back and reverts to the rifle, a much easier way to hold a hostage without testing your triceps. David suggests that they move inside, out of the cold, and Ellie agrees. She insists David bring the buck inside so they don’t lose it to other wild animals or the infected. David builds a small fire and tries to engage Ellie in small talk, but she won’t give him anything; not even her name.
Before David can press the issue further, they’re disturbed by a clicker that rushes into the shack. Before Ellie can act, David shoots the screeching monster with a pistol. He had a second weapon all along, deceit that’s not lost on Ellie. He asks for his rifle back but Ellie refuses. He has his pistol, after all. One of the infected comes through the window and Ellie saves David. He remarks that she’s a better shot with the rifle than he is.
They cover up the buck and barricade the doors before waves of infected break against the walls, crashing through the windows, reminiscent of so many zombie movies. With the infected continuing to come, drawn by the gunfire and screaming, they abandon the buck and head further into the complex.
Ellie holds off a group of clickers while David pushes a dresser in front of the doors, then they head up onto a catwalk, looking for a way out. Ellie falls through the rickety floor and finds herself separated from David and surrounded by infected. Following lessons she has learned from Joel over the past half-year, she moves stealthily through the infected, throwing bottles to distract, sneaking by quietly, taking down with her switchblade if there’s no other choice.
She climbs back up to David and, working together to boost to high places and reach ladders, just as she would with Joel, they make their way to the back of the maze of buildings. They find themselves boxed in once more, defending their position against more waves of the infected, including an enormous bloater. David has never seen one before, but Ellie knows what to do. In many respects, she’s the better fighter; smarter and tougher, if not as physically strong due only to her size.
Arriving back at the buck, thankfully untouched by the infected who were more interested in moving targets, David tells Ellie he thinks they made a good team. Ellie, echoing her conversation with Joel in the teenage girl’s room, says they got lucky.
David, however, believes there’s no such thing as luck, that everything happens for a reason.
“Now, this winter has been especially cruel,” he begins. “A few weeks back I sent a group of men out to a nearby town to look for food. Only a few came back. They said the others had been slaughtered by a crazy man and, get this, he’s a crazy man travelling with a little girl.
“You see?” He says, casually pointing a knife at Ellie. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Ellie trains her rifle on David and, at that moment, James arrives back with the penicillin, pointing his gun at Ellie. David defuses the situation and tells James to throw Ellie the medicine. James says that the others won’t be happy, but David seemingly isn’t concerned.
She picks up the medicine and runs back to her horse, leaving the buck to David and James.
A short time later, as dusk falls, Ellie arrives in a small village. She leads the horse into a garage and pulls the roller door shut behind them, then heads down into the basement. There she finds Joel, pale and shivering, on a bedroll on the floor. She pulls back his blanket to check the stitches on his abdomen – not bad for a first attempt – and injects Joel with the penicillin. Covering him back up under the blanket, she curls up beside him on the floor, her backpack as a pillow, and rests a hand on Joel’s shoulder as she drifts off to sleep.
Waking with a start the following morning, Ellie hears David’s men outside. She realises that he let her leave with the penicillin so they could track her back to Joel by daylight. Rather than let them find Joel, she plans to draw them away, mounts her horse, and sets off from the house.
One of the men grabs her and she stabs him in the throat. The commotion grabs the attention of the rest of the men, who debate what to do; they need to stop her, but David doesn’t want Ellie harmed. In the end, they decide the former outweighs the latter and open fire on Ellie as she rides off down the street.
Ellie’s plan is working, but as she rounds a corner they shoot her mount. Horse and rider tumble down a steep incline to the path below, leading to a group of cabins by a lake. She creeps through the houses, taking out the men with her bow and knife if she can’t find a way through, and winds up in a hotel, the Bear Creek Lodge. As she pushes open the front door to escape, David grabs her from behind. He wraps his arm around her neck, choking her to sleep while telling her that he’s trying to keep her alive.
She wakes up sometime later, in a cage in a darkened room where David’s friend, James, is performing some butchery on human corpses. As Ellie rattles the cage door, trying to find a way out, James leaves the room and is replaced by David, carrying a tray of food. She refuses to eat, but he assures her that it’s just the deer meat. She calls him a fucking animal, then tears into the plate of food nonetheless.
David asks what that makes her and Joel, killing dozens of his men. Are they animals, monsters? Ellie replies that they gave them no choice, but David sees it the same way: that they have no choice but to kill and eat people to survive.
Ellie asks what’s next for her; if she’s going to end up on the butcher’s block, on the menu, cut up into tiny pieces. David says he’d rather not and if she would only give him something, some information to give to the others, he might be able to persuade them to spare her life. He tells Ellie that she’s special, and places his hand on hers, on the bar of the cage.
“Oh,” Ellie says, understanding at that moment his predilection, before gently placing her other hand on top of David’s. His face softens and she seizes her chance: she grabs his fingers and bends them backwards, then pulls David towards the bars to reach for the keys on his belt. As she fumbles around for the keys, he grabs her arm outstretched and bashes Ellie’s head against the cage door until she relents.
“You stupid little girl,” David spits, holding his mangled hand. “You are making it very difficult to keep you alive. What am I supposed to tell the others now?”
“Ellie,” she replies. “Tell them that Ellie is the little girl that broke your fucking finger.”
Joel wakes up, groggy and sore, in the basement where Ellie left him. He calls out for her but she doesn’t respond, so he stumbles to his feet and gathers his things; his backpack and weapons, some ammunition, assorted other supplies. Finding no sign of Ellie as he staggers through the house, he heads outside, calling her name as he lumbers down the street where she made her daring escape.
He happens across a group of men and kills several before two of them grab him. Joel knocks one unconscious and overpowers the other, dragging them both into a nearby house.
One of them wakes, tied to a chair, to find Joel mercilessly beating the other on the floor. He turns his attention to the man in the chair and demands to know where Ellie is, whether she’s alive. When the cannibal plays dumb, Joel drives a knife into his knee, threatening to pop the kneecap clean off if he doesn’t answer his questions. He gets the man to mark the location of David’s town on the map, saying that his friend had better agree. He marks the map and Joel breaks his neck.
Joel turns to the second man, tied up and beaten on the floor, who is crying out in panic. Why did he kill him when he co-operated? Why should he tell Joel anything after seeing that?
“That’s alright, I believe him,” Joel says, before smashing his skull with a metal bar.
Ellie is woken in her cage by James and David, dragging her to her feet towards the butcher’s slab. She kicks and struggles, biting David on the wrist before they pick her up and slam her down onto the table. They hold her still and David raises a cleaver. He tells Ellie that he warned her, that he tried to help but she left them little choice. Ellie is unclear whether this is a scare tactic or if they really plan to chop her up into little pieces, so she rolls the dice, on the secret she’s been keeping from the world.
“I’m infected! I’m infected!” She shouts. “…and so are you.”
David doesn’t believe her, but Ellie insists he rolls up her sleeve and checks the bite for himself. He drives the knife down into the butcher’s block near her head and she flinches. Rolling up her sleeve he finds the bite, scarring over and starting to heal.
“Everything happens for a reason, right?” She says, with a smirk.
As David and James are arguing, over whether the bitemark is real, how she should’ve turned by now, whether it’s some kind of trick, David steps away from the table to look at the bite on his wrist. Ellie may not have turned, but can she still transmit the Cordyceps brain infection that she carries?
She seizes the opportunity amidst the confusion, grabbing the cleaver and driving the blade into James’ neck. He staggers, blood pulsing from the separation. She rolls off the table and David opens fire with her pistol, but Ellie is a small target and too fast for him.
She grabs her switchblade from a nearby shelf and vaults out of the window, into a snow-covered alley below. A snowstorm is swirling and, as David snarls at the window above. He can’t see Ellie through the veil of white as she sneaks away down the alley.
As Ellie skulks through the alleyways and between buildings she overhears David talking to his group, telling them that Ellie is infected. Someone volunteers to take the children to a safe place; he wasn’t lying about that after all. He instructs the others to find Ellie and they fan out through the town.
Agitated and alone, Ellie winds her way through the down, dodging David’s patrolmen where she can, killing them when she must. A knife in the neck works best if you can sneak up from behind; a revolver round to the face if you get trapped. Ellie will do either, will do whatever it takes to escape. She has no idea which way to go, however, with only the light of burning barrels lighting the way through the gloom and the snowstorm.
Heaving her cold, tired bones up onto a dumpster and through an open window, Ellie finds herself in the back of a deserted restaurant. Nobody is in sight so she takes a moment to catch her breath, to collect supplies and herself, before pressing on into the snow. As she opens the front door of the restaurant to leave, David bursts through, bundling Ellie onto the ground. He knocks an oil lantern over in the fracas, setting the doorway alight, then locks the door for good measure. Ellie seizes the chance and runs back into the restaurant, but with the back window too high to climb through, there’s no way to escape without David’s keys.
As Ellie crouches, flitting between the tables and booths, David stalks her through the dining area. She steps on a mess of broken crockery, the telltale crunch of porcelain underfoot is as loud as an explosion, and David rushes towards the sound. Ellie manages to scamper away, but it gives her an idea.
She picks up a bottle from the floor and throws it down one of the rows of booths. As David heads towards it, she sneaks up behind him, jumps on his back, and stabs him in the chest. He throws Ellie aside and wheels around, opening fire with his pistol as the girl disappears behind another booth.
“That was good, kid,” he says, holstering his pistol and pulling out a machete.
Things have become very personal for David and he plans to end things face-to-face. Ellie sneaks up behind him again and stabs him in the back, then runs back into the heart of the restaurant, now rapidly filling with smoke. David decides to change tack, moving from the archetypal horror movie monster – I’ll just slowly, menacingly walk after you and I’ll eventually catch you – to something more akin to Ellie’s own movements. He’s hustling, low and quiet behind the tables and benches, skirting rapidly around the restaurant floor, hoping to catch the girl off guard.
But Ellie has learned from Joel and, with a lot of patience and caution, manages to tiptoe up behind David once more. She throws herself at his back and pulls her switchblade towards herself, plunging it into his chest. He staggers, grabbing Ellie by the neck and throwing her, hard, into the ground, then collapses, banging his head against a counter.
They both lie dazed, on the floor of the restaurant, as the flames creep towards them.
Outside, a visibly-struggling Joel has found his way to David’s town, to Silver Lake, searching for Ellie. Furious and fearful of what has become of her he fights his way into town, killing several of the town’s guards before finding Ellie’s backpack in a storeroom, alongside boxes filled with clothes and personal effects. He pushes his way through a perspex curtain and finds what he feared: human bodies, hanging from butchers hooks in the ceiling.
He leaves the butcher’s shop and spots the burning restaurant. That can mean only one thing: Ellie. Only Ellie could cause that kind of chaos. He rushes towards the burning building and looks for a way inside.
Ellie wakes up, dazed and winded, on the floor of the restaurant. David is stirring too, but she can see his machete, glinting in the firelight, just out of reach under one of the benches. She sets off at a crawl to retrieve it, still disoriented, but David is upon her. He kicks her in the stomach and she spills from all fours and onto the floor. He tells Ellie that it’s OK to give up, that there’s no shame in it, but she hauls herself back up onto her forearms, at a crawl now, striking out for the machete once more.
He kicks her again, then drops on top of her, astride her, with his hands around her throat, squeezing the life from her. She reaches up, fumbling with her outstretched hand in the direction she hopes to find the machete when her fingers touch something, solid. She grasps it tight and swings with everything she has, striking David in the forearm.
He recoils in pain and rolls onto his back, affording Ellie the opportunity she needs. Without a moment’s hesitation, she jumps up, kneeling over David, raining machete blows down on him with terrifying ferocity.
She strikes him, over and over, hacking away at his lifeless body, when Joel runs in behind her. He wraps his arms around her, to drag her away, to let her know it’s safe, but she kicks and screams and fights back. Then she realises who it is and sinks her head into his chest, sobbing, as he tries his best to comfort her. She zones out as Joel tells her everything is going to be OK, lost in the noise and violence and fear, then he helps her to their feet and they turn to leave.
The handle of the machete, dripping in blood, stands proud, its blade embedded in the ground where David’s head used to be.
It’s a very different Ellie who approaches Salt Lake City with Joel a couple of months later. She’s quiet, distracted, distant. Meanwhile, Joel has become chatty and effusive – at least, by his gruff standards – trying to engage Ellie and bring her back out of her shell. Even the promise of guitar lessons goes unanswered, when she was so interested in Joel’s musical ambitions back at the University of Eastern Colorado, how he skipped college hoping to become a famous singer.
“Huh? Oh yeah, sure, that sounds great,” she replies. It’s hard to tell whether it’s just that her heart’s not in it, or if she even hears the question.
As they proceed on foot along the ruined freeway, past the campervan of a family that didn’t make it, Ellie spots an advert for an airline on the side of a bus. She had a dream about flying the other night, that she was on a plane full of people with no pilot in the cockpit, trying to prevent the plane from crashing. It’s not a cheery dream, but Joel is just pleased she’s talking to him. With St Mary’s Hospital glistening in the springtime sun, almost within spitting distance, they clamber off the freeway and into a bus depot.
The depot, fashioned into something of a quarantine zone checkpoint with steel fences, is littered with the remains of humanity. Not death and corpses, or the infected, but suitcases, clothes, and all the other once-useful detritus that has been rendered useless by the near-total removal of mankind. Ellie sits on a bench, shoulders slumped. Joel asks if she’s doing OK, says that she seems quiet; all she can do is apologise, even though that’s not what he meant.
There’s no way through at ground level, but Joel spies a ladder up on the level above. It’s a typical puzzle the pair have solved together: he boosts Ellie up, she drops the ladder down for him to follow. He crouches under the ledge, hands clasped together, but there’s no Ellie. He looks back to find her still sitting, on the bench, staring into the middle distance.
He calls her name, twice, before Ellie responds. She trudges over to fulfil her role, as she has done so many times before, but with much less gusto. Clambering up to the balcony, she grabs the ladder and prepares to drop it down to Joel, then something catches her eye. She drops the ladder, almost hitting Joel, then heads off at a sprint, leaving him behind. He calls after, concerned, but she’s gone. He hurries up the ladder and heads off after her, calling for her to wait.
“Oh… you gotta see this!” She shouts, disappearing around a corner.
Joel gives chase, always two steps behind Ellie but seeing glimpses of something, shadows and movement outside the windows, before she dashes off again. Several corridors and flights of stairs later, he catches up with Ellie slowing to a careful, deliberate walk as she enters a room with the wall missing and nature spilling in from the outside. Quite literally, in fact: an enormous giraffe is craning its extensive neck into the side of the building to eat the trees and vines that are growing from it. The best leaves are always the hardest to reach, after all.
“Shhh, don’t scare it,” Ellie pleads.
“I won’t, I won’t,” Joel replies, padding quietly over to the magnificent animal.
The giraffe, clearly with memories still of its human keepers at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo, is more than happy for Joel to pet it on the neck. Joel, for his part, doesn’t seem to think it’s any stranger than stroking a horse, albeit two stories up. He gestures for Ellie to come over and she walks gingerly over to the unusual pair.
“Hey there,” Ellie says, reaching up to pet the giraffe on its cheek.
“So fucking cool,” she says to Joel, as the giraffe turns its head to leave, in that dramatic, aloof way they do.
She gives chase as the giraffe wanders off and climbs another flight of stairs, with Joel once more scrambling to keep up with her sudden exuberance. Bursting out into the sunlight on the roof of the building, Ellie finds an even more magnificent sight: a whole herd of giraffes, with adults and babies together, grazing through the nature-reclaimed ruins of Salt Lake City. She leans on the short wall around the edge of the roof to watch the herd, as Joel sidles up behind her.
“So,” Joel begins, “This everything you were hoping for?”
“It’s got its ups and its downs,” she replies. “But you can’t deny the view though.”
Time ceases to matter. Burdens are lifted. Ellie’s PTSD flutters away, at least for a moment, on that rooftop, looking out at those giraffes. They stay there for some time – it could be minutes, it could be hours – watching the herd of animals in their element, plucking every leaf from the trees and the bushes and the vines in what was once a baseball field.
After a time, the giraffes move on, and it’s time for Joel and Ellie to do the same; they have a hospital appointment to attend.
Climbing down from the roof and out of the bus depot, the pair find themselves in a makeshift triage camp, a huddle of tents and equipment long-abandoned. Joel opens up to Ellie for the first time, talking about his history and the time he spent in one of those camps. Ellie asks if that was after he lost Sarah, which it was, and she expresses how sorry she is for Joel’s loss. It’s the first time they’ve been able to talk about it without descending into a fight, a sign of how the two have grown in each other’s company.
As they make to leave the camp, Ellie stops Joel. She has something to give him: the photo of him and Sarah, the one that Tommy tried to give him back in Jackson, Wyoming. They’re both smiling. Sarah’s wearing a football strip and holding a trophy aloft. She stole it from Maria, another case of Ellie’s sticky fingers trying to do the right thing.
“Well, no matter how hard you try, I guess you can’t escape your past,” he says. “Thank you.”
From there, the path to the hospital takes them into a tunnel. What at first seems like easy-going soon takes a turn, with the tunnel filled with all manner of infected, including a plethora of clickers and several bloaters, a terrifying brute that, thus far, they’ve only faced singularly. It’s a challenging route through the horrors of the tunnel, and near-impossible to sneak through with getting their hands dirty, but Joel and Ellie make it past the infected relatively unscathed, only to be faced with yet another barred door, a chain-link gate fastened shut from the other side.
There’s a gap above the fence, so Joel boosts Ellie up and over, but as she goes to open the door, one of the infected inside – that looked like a corpse, in amongst the trash – wakes up and attacks her. Joel shoots the infected through the fence and Ellie barely even bats an eyelid, just pressing on and opening the door so Joel can come through. The restorative power of the giraffes is quickly forgotten when one returns to the horrors of the real world, it seems.
After one more puzzle, involving ferrying the non-swimming Ellie across a stagnant pool so she can retrieve a ladder for Joel, they find themselves on the other side of the tunnel and facing a torrential current, a powerful underground river coursing in their way. It’s unclear whether this was originally a river or canal of some sort, or whether over 20 years the flow and erosion have caused a dramatic shift in the environment, but the presence of buses and trucks floating in the torrid waters is unsettling. But it also presents an opportunity, a way for Ellie to cross without having to get wet. Even if there was a pallet around, it’s doubtful Joel could safely guide her across a current so forceful.
They pick their way across the flotsam of vehicles and tumbledown structures and, with the lighter Ellie now at the lead, she jumps deftly from a ventilation duct to the side of a bus, wedged in the channel. As Joel follows the bus begins to groan, the extra weight and movement shaking it loose from whatever had beached it on the bottom of the concrete rapids. Ellie jumps from the bus to the platform on the other side, but Joel is heavier, slower, and a couple of steps behind. As he grasps for the edge of the platform the railing gives way and Joel tumbles back onto the bus. Its movement inexorable, the grind of steel frame against concrete wall agonising, the bus slides away from the platform, and Joel with it.
He jumps for Ellie’s outstretched hand but falls backwards onto the doors of the bus, which buckle, swallowing him whole into the belly of the vehicle. With the bus filling with water and bouncing in the deluge Joel tries to clamber back to the front along the railings and seats, but it lurches, knocking him off balance and washing him away in the onrushing water.
He hits the back of the bus, hard, then notices something above him: Ellie is trying to pry open the rear doors of the bus. She came back to try and save him, even though her life is the one that really matters. With an enormous joint effort and energy rapidly sapping, the doors crumple open, but before Joel can climb out, the bus rolls and Ellie is thrown into the icy torrent. Joel loses sight of her as the doors snap shut and the bus fills under the weight of the water.
The change in pressure causes the doors to open and Joel is able to escape his steel cage. He swims out of the bus, already out of breath and hurting, looking for a way to surface, when he spots a shape in the distance. Swimming towards it, his fears are realised: it’s Ellie, bobbing lifelessly underwater.
With one final effort Joel darts toward Ellie, wrapping his arm around her and dragging them both to the surface. He hauls Ellie out onto a slab of concrete but she’s not breathing. Panicked, Joel begins CPR, pushing hard on Ellie’s chest.
“C’mon,” he pleads, over and over. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon–”
“Hands in the air!”
“She’s not breathing,” Joel responds, looking up to see two Fireflies advancing on him, weapons drawn.
“Hands in the fucking air!” Repeats the guard.
“C’mon, Ellie,” Joel pleads, before one of the Fireflies hits him in the head with the butt of his weapon. He blacks out.
Joel wakes in a hospital bed, flanked by an armed Fireflies guard to his left, and Marlene on his right.
“Welcome to the Fireflies,” Marlene says. “Sorry about the… they didn’t know who you were.”
“And Ellie?” He asks, urgently.
“She’s alright,” Marlene responds. “They brought her back.”
Joel sinks his head back onto the mattress in relief, barely listening to a word Marlene says. She asks how they made it all that way, just the two of them, when Marlene barely made it there unscathed with a whole troop of Fireflies.
“It was her,” Joel says, a trace of a smile on his lips. “She fought like hell to get here. Maybe it was meant to be.”
He heaves himself up from the bed and asks them to take him to Ellie. Marlene shakes her head and says she’s not Joel’s problem anymore. When Joel insists, Marlene shoots a glance at the armed guard, then tells Joel the truth: Ellie is being prepped for surgery.
Joel and Ellie always assumed that the cure would come from her blood, but the reality is much more severe. The Cordyceps infection has mutated on her brain and failed to spread as it normally does, the source of her immunity, but in order to extract a potential cure from it, they’ll need to remove the Cordyceps infection from her brain. The guard silently steps closer to Joel.
“But it grows all over the brain.”
“It does,” Marlene says, solemnly.
“Find someone else,” Joel demands.
“There is no one else,” she replies.
Joel lunges towards her and the guard kicks him in the back of his knee, wrestling him into submission. Marlene tells Joel that whatever he thinks he’s going through, it’s far worse for her. She’s known Ellie since she was a baby, she promised her mother that she would take care of her. But it’s not about Marlene, or Joel, or even Ellie. It’s about a potential cure for all of humanity. She says there is no other choice.
“Yeah,” Joel responds. “You keep telling yourself that bullshit.”
Marlene instructs the guard to escort Joel from the hospital and tells him to shoot if the smuggler tries anything, then leaves them to it. As the guard forces Joel out of the room and down the corridor, he spots his bag, of equipment and weapons, sitting on a counter. His mind made up in that moment he turns on the guard, disarming him, slamming him into the wall and striking him across the temple with his pistol.
Joel lowers the pistol to the guard’s stomach, beneath his bulletproof vest, and demands to know where the operating theatre is. The guard declines to respond, so Joel shoots him once, in the belly. He repeats the question and, in the face of stony silence, repeats the response. Growing impatient, Joel presses the muzzle of the pistol into the wounds. The guard caves and tells Joel what he wants to hear: the operating theatre is on the top floor, at the far end of the hospital. He slumps to his knees and Joel shoots him in the head, before grabbing his bag and running off into the hospital.
The Fireflies respond in force to the sound of gunshots, with guards fanning out across the ward, making Joel’s usually stealthy approach much more difficult. These are highly trained soldiers with body armour, helmets and assault rifles. They’re far more difficult to sneak up on or subdue than a disorganised mob or shambling infected.
He wends through the maze of interconnected rooms, picking off guards quietly where possible, but before long he’s spotted and a firefight breaks out. All bets are off at this stage. Joel grabs an assault rifle from a fallen guard and sprays anything that moves with automatic fire. With stealth out the window and time of the essence, he uses improvised explosives – Molotov cocktails and nail bombs – to disperse the Fireflies and makes his way to the staircase, barricading the door behind to prevent pursuit.
Another floor, another flight of stairs, another pile of dead Fireflies. Joel’s sense of self-preservation has escaped him, replaced instead by the paternal instinct to protect Ellie and his incandescent rage towards Marlene and the Fireflies.
Joel finds the operating theatre at the end of the paediatrics department, on the top floor, as the guard promised. Unsure of what he’s going to find, he pushes the door open, revolver in hand. Behind the door, he finds a group of doctors and nurses huddling around an unconscious Ellie, just about to commence the fatal surgery. One of the surgeons wheels around to face Joel, scalpel in hand, and he opens fire. The other medical staff scatter, cowering around the walls of the operating theatre. He disconnects Ellie from the anaesthetic and monitoring equipment, scoops her up in his arms, and turns for the door.
Back out into the corridors and looking for an escape route, Joel flees the scene. Behind him, the Fireflies are massing, discovering what happened in the operating theatre and realising their one chance, their one hope slipping through their fingers. Finding flashlights and boots and muzzle flashes at every turn Joel fumbles around in the darkness, with the net closing around him with every second that passes.
Then suddenly he sees a light at the end of the tunnel, literally: an open elevator at the end of the corridor. He sprints through the door as fast as he can, hammering the button to close the doors as a group of Fireflies arrive in the corridor, a moment too late to stop him.
The doors ping open in the parking basement revealing Marlene, blocking Joel’s path, pointing a pistol at him.
“You can’t save her,” she says, calmly. “Even if you get her out of here, then what? How long before she’s torn to pieces by a pack of clickers? That’s if she hasn’t been raped and murdered first.”
“That ain’t for you to decide.”
“It’s what she’d want. And you know it. Look,” Marlene says, opening her palms and pointing the pistol away from Joel, trying to defuse the situation. “You can still do the right thing here. She won’t feel anything.”
Time skips to Joel, behind the wheel of a car on a highway, with the buildings of Salt Lake City disappearing in his rearview mirror. He looks pensive, closing his eyes as he recalls the encounter with Marlene back at the hospital.
Looking behind him he sees Ellie, still dressed in her hospital gown, coming around from the anaesthetic on the back seat of the car. Joel tells her to take it easy, that the drugs are still wearing off.
“What happened?” She asks.
Joel takes a moment, then draws a deep breath, speaking slowly.
“We found the Fireflies.”
He casts his mind back to Marlene again. She steps towards him, palms open, inviting a dialogue; then we’re back to the car.
“Turns out there’s a whole lot more like you, Ellie. People that are immune. It’s dozens, actually. Ain’t done a damn bit of good, neither.”
Back in the parking garage. Marlene steps closer then, suddenly, a gunshot. She recoils, stunned; then we’re back in the present.
“They’ve actually st–” He pauses, to collect himself. “They’ve actually stopped looking for a cure. I’m taking us home,” Joel says, as Ellie rolls over and falls straight back to sleep.
Joel flashes back to the parking garage one final time. He stands in the elevator, holding Ellie, with a smoking pistol in one hand. He loads Ellie into the back seat of a car, then, before jumping into the driver’s seat, turns back towards the elevator. Marlene is crawling toward him on the cold concrete floor, bleeding heavily.
“Wait!” She pleads, panting heavily. “Let me go. Please.”
“You’d just come after her,” Joel replies.
They both know it’s true: she would just come after Ellie, try again for a cure. He shoots Marlene in the head.
The car has given out not far from Jackson, Wyoming. Ellie is sitting in the front seat, idly tracing her fingers over her scar – the source of so much optimism – as Joel works under the hood, trying to get the car going. It’s no use. They’re walking from here. They climb through a barbed-wire fence into a wooded clearing, with a sprawling mat of purple flowers blooming all over the ground and underfoot.
“Don’t think I ever told you,” Joel says, “but Sarah and I used to take hikes like this. I think the two of you would’ve been good friends. Think you really woulda liked her. I know she woulda liked you.”
It’s a simple thing, but it represents a remarkable piece of honesty and vulnerability, and a testament to the changes Ellie has wrought on Joel.
“Yeah,” Ellie replies. It seems curt, especially when Joel is finally opening up to her, but she’s still suffering from PTSD and other things are playing on her mind.
They walk along the banks of a small river, that turns into a beautiful waterfall. Joel climbs up onto the opposite bank, but the tree trunk he used falls down; time for one final moment of teamwork before they can call it a day. Before they can rest. He pulls Ellie up onto the bank, but she calls for him to wait.
“Back in Boston,” she begins. “Back when I was bitten. I wasn’t alone. My best friend was there. And she got bit too. We didn’t know what to do, so, she says ‘let’s just wait it out, y’know, we can be all poetic and just lose our minds together’. I’m still waiting for my turn.”
“Her name was Riley and she was the first to die. And then it was Tess. And then Sam.”
“None of that is on you,” Joel says.
“No, you don’t understand.”
“I struggled for a long time with survivin’. And you, no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for. Now I know that’s not what you want to hear right now but it’s–”
“Swear to me. Swear to me that everything that you said about the Fireflies is true.”
He takes a beat to collect himself.
Ellie ponders Joel’s answer for a moment, before responding.
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Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.