Morning found Ellie sitting cross legged on top of her bed, her journal open in front of her. Resting on the crease of the journal was her new dog tag. With great care and meticulous attention to detail, she sketched both sides of the tag - her name, her number and the Firefly insignia. She’d had trouble falling asleep last night, spending hours laying on her back in bed, one hand behind her head and the other raised up in the air with the dog tag hanging from its grip. She’d carefully examined the way the light from the moon hit it as it spun in a slow circle - it was far less reflective than the switchblade she’d been studying in the same way just a few nights ago.
Just as she was finishing her drawing there was a knock on her door, so she put the chain around her neck and went to answer it. It was the girl who’d been part of the group that had rescued her after the earthquake. This was the first time Ellie had really taken a look at her, and she realized now that she was quite young, probably no older than sixteen. “Good morning,” she said pleasantly.
“Morning,” Ellie replied.
“Are you feeling better? Your wounds were pretty bad.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Ellie, as though she’d forgotten she’d even been injured. “It was no big deal. I’m fine now.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear it. Liz sent me to come get you and bring you up to the office. Do you need a minute to get ready?”
“No, I can go now. Let me just put my boots on.”
Once they had started off down the hallway together, the girl offered Ellie her hand. “I’m Brandy, by the way.”
Ellie took her hand and shook it. “Ellie.”
“And the two knucklehead dudes in my squad are Patrick and Brian.”
“Brian was the grumpy one, right? The one who kept looking at me like I was gonna start clicking at any moment?”
Brandy laughed. “Yes indeed. That’s Brian. He can be an ass but I swear he’s a nice guy.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Truthfully Ellie was hoping not to have too many opportunities to get to know the members of Abby’s squad because it would lessen the possibility of having to talk to Abby. The fact that Brandy had been the one to come get her was a bad sign, though. She had hoped that having Abby be the first one to find her in LA wouldn’t lead to the two of them having to work together by default, but it looked as though that’s exactly what was going to happen.
She and Brandy walked past the training grounds. When she’d come here with Liz the day before there hadn’t been anyone out there, but there were a few squads running drills now. Ellie watched them as they walked, noticing that all the drills seemed to involve a minimum of two soldiers. “You guys don’t run any single-man drills?” she asked Brandy.
“We do, but Firefly training puts a lot of emphasis on teamwork. No one does anything alone. All the squads have to have an even number of people because out in the field we work on the buddy system. In my squad Brian is usually my buddy, and Patrick usually works with Abby, but really we’re all interchangeable. It doesn’t matter who you go with as long as you always have somebody with you.”
“That’s pretty smart,” commented Ellie. “I know from traveling experience it’s usually nice to have someone watching your back.”
“Have you traveled a lot?”
“Holy shit, have I ever,” said Ellie, and Brandy laughed.
“I’m from the area. I’ve never been outside southern California before. You’ll have to tell me some stories some time.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Ellie in a noncommittal tone.
They arrived at Liz’s office and Brandy tapped on the door. “Come in,” Liz called. “Good. Ellie, welcome. Why don’t you take a seat?”
Ellie looked around the office, her heart sinking as her suspicions were confirmed. Brain and Patrick were already seated there, and leaning against the back wall with her arms crossed over her chest was Abby. She looked absolutely livid. “No, I don’t think I will sit down,” Ellie said bluntly. “If you’re about to assign me to this squad, then I think it’s time for me to go.” She glanced at Brandy and added, “No offense.” And she turned to leave.
“Ellie, wait,” said Liz quickly, standing and crossing the room to put a hand on her shoulder. “Please at least hear me out before you say no. If you hear what I have to say and you still want to slam the door in my face afterwards, then fine. But there is a matter of the deepest importance we need to discuss - something we desperately need you to do.”
Pointing at Abby, Ellie said, “If it involves doing it with her, the answer is no. She killed my friends.”
“And you killed hers,” countered Liz. “But even so, Abby has already agreed to do the mission with you because she knows how important it is.”
When Ellie looked at Abby, she found that Abby was still glaring out the window beside her. “Is that true?” Ellie demanded.
“Yeah,” said Abby, looking as though it caused her physical pain to say it.
“Fucking god damn it,” swore Ellie. To Liz, she said, “This mission had better involve a way of getting rid of the entire fucking plague, because I won’t work with her for anything less.”
“We’ll talk about it,” Liz assured her, guiding her gently towards an empty chair. “Please, sit.”
Ellie plopped into the seat and crossed her arms, much the same way Abby was doing. “So talk,” she snapped.
“Just one more minute. We’re waiting on our sixth.”
“Sixth?” Patrick asked. “Who else is joining?”
There came a soft knock on the door, and then Lev let himself in. “Hey,” he said nervously. “Sorry I’m late.”
With a speed that shocked everyone, Abby lunged across the room and grabbed the front of Liz’s shirt, balling the material up in her fist. With an animalistic yell, she forcefully pushed Liz’s back against the wall and pinned her there. “You BITCH!” she shouted in Liz’s face, emphasizing her words with another slam against the wall before pressing her entire forearm against Liz’s chest. “You fucking BITCH! There is NO WAY I’m letting you do this to him!”
“Abby!” yelled Brandy. “Don’t!”
Patrick and Brian both leapt up and took hold of Abby’s arms, bodily pulling her away from Liz. “Get off me!” she snarled, struggling as hard as she could against them. “Get the FUCK off me!”
“Abby, stop!” Lev’s voice rang clearly over the commotion in the room as he went over to Abby and put his body between hers and the Chief’s. “STOP! I volunteered! It was my choice to go!”
“So what did you do, fucking manipulate him, too? Tell him I was going? Tell him she was coming too?” Abby jerked her head in Ellie’s direction since her arms were still being held by Patrick and Brian.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I told him: The truth,” said Liz breathlessly as she rubbed her chest where Abby’s arm had been pressed against it and leaned against her desk for support. “I offered him the spot, I told him exactly where he’d be going and with who, and he said yes a hell of a lot faster than you did.”
“Of course he did, because I’m going! If you’d had Lev as a selling point for me you wouldn’t have had to try so fucking hard, would you? He may have made the choice, but you’re the one who offered it to him,” said Abby. She finally stopped struggling against her captors, saying, “Enough. That’s enough. I won’t do it again.” They let her go, and she stepped forward to pull Lev into her arms, tucking his head against her chest. “You’re so stupid, Lev. You’re so fucking stupid.”
“You’re even stupider if you thought I was gonna let you do this alone.”
Abby chuckled into his short, fluffy hair, but when she spoke it was clear she was holding back tears. “Yeah, I guess I am.” She kissed his forehead and then released him, turning to face the Chief. “I’m sorry. I still think you’re a piece of shit, but I shouldn’t have attacked you.”
“No, you shouldn’t have. And if you ever attack me again I’ll have you escorted off the island and give orders to have you shot on sight if you try to return.”
“If I ever attack you again it’ll be because I decided it was time for me to leave anyway,” said Abby, narrowing her eyes at her. “So really, the ball’s in your court.” She turned and went back to the corner of the office she’d been in before, shooting a quick glance at Ellie as she brushed past her. Ellie’s face revealed nothing of her thoughts, but Abby didn’t much care to know them anyway.
As the room settled down again, Ellie was a little off-kilter after the events of the last minute. It was obvious that Abby cared deeply for Lev, although that wasn’t news to her. That kind of fierce protectiveness, Ellie had seen it many times before - in Joel. Joel had made it his purpose in life to look after her the way Abby was looking after Lev. It made Ellie feel deeply disturbed to see Joel in the face of his murderer.
“That was an exciting waste of my time,” she said irritably, suddenly desperate to get out of this office and far away from Abby. “What’s the mission that everyone’s so worked up about?”
Liz sat down behind her desk and took a deep breath, mentally putting that unpleasant encounter behind her. “As you know, the Fireflies have been spending our time gradually purging the city, making our way inland. We kill all the infected and we remove all the spores. To the outside world, that’s our main purpose, and it is. But we have been working on something else, too.” She reached down and opened a drawer, removed a folded-up map, and slid it across the desk towards Ellie, who reached out and took it. “We’ve been looking at old newspapers, talking to people who were around during the outbreak, and sending teams out on scouting missions, and we think we’ve finally tracked down the location of Spore Zero.”
“Spore Zero?” Ellie repeated.
“The very first infectious cordyceps spore to ever exist,” Liz clarified.
Looking at the map, Ellie could see that part of it was circled. It was near the center of the continent of South America, close to a city called Porto Velho in Brazil. “Cool,” said Ellie flippantly, folding the map back up and tossing it onto the desk. “And why should I care about that?”
“Because the cordyceps infection has not remained constant through the years. As time goes on it changes, evolves. Any time we see a new strain of the infection, it gets farther and farther from its original form. This is a problem because even if we develop a vaccine from one strain, it’s possible that a different strain could still cause more infections. What we need is the very first strain. If we had that, we would be able to develop a vaccine against the whole species.”
Confused, Ellie said, “Using me, too?”
“No, no,” said Liz quickly. “If we had the original strain, we wouldn’t need you for the vaccine. You see, the remarkable thing about your immunity is that it’s - for lack of a better word - physical. Somehow, after you were bit, your body figured out a way to mutate the fungus into a growth that essentially plugs up the fungus’s path to your brain. We suspect that Dr. Anderson’s intention with your operation was to remove the clump at the base of your brain stem and figure out what triggered it. We don’t know if it was a hormone, or an enzyme, or even divine intervention. All we know is that it works.
“But we also know,” continued Liz, “that we are able to create a vaccine that helps the human body’s auto-immune system to fight off the infection, but it’s still not enough. Eventually the fungus wins the battle in the end. But if we had the original spores, we could give our immune systems the exact weapon it needs to fight off the fungus and win, over and over again, with each and every different strain.”
Ellie took a moment to process this, turning it over in her mind. “And you have doctors… or scientists or pharmacists or whatever, who could do this?”
“Yes, several. There are immunologists down in South America doing preliminary research and experimentation already. But there’s only so much they can do without the samples they need.”
“Then go get the samples.”
“Obviously we would if we could, Ellie. But remember, this is where the outbreak started,” said Liz, tapping the spot on the map. “That means the spores have existed there for longer than they have anywhere else in the entire world. The infected that roam there… defy description. The air is like swimming in spores. Regular gas masks are useless - we have fewer than a dozen sets of military-grade equipment that are capable of protecting humans who enter this zone. And, at a certain point, the masks fail. The spores are so thick that they clog up the filters and the person wearing the mask suffocates.”
“Jesus,” said Ellie, thinking that that sounded like one of the worst possible ways to die. She wondered if, at the end, the soldiers would choose to rip off their masks and breathe in the spores just to draw breath again, or if they would simply let themselves suffocate to death. She shivered and put the thought behind her. “What about sending someone in with like, scuba gear or a space suit? You could give them their own oxygen supply, right? I’ve seen it in movies.”
“And what happens when they run into an infected? They wouldn’t be able to get away fast enough. No, the mission requires stealth and speed.”
“Or maybe a real big gun,” Ellie suggested.
Liz reached into her desk again and pulled out a stack of pictures. “These are the best images we have of the infected in that area. It’s impossible to get a clear picture - all that interference you see is the spore cloud.”
The pictures were so grainy that it was difficult to understand what she was looking at. All Ellie could see was the outline of a house, which she could only differentiate due to it being a darker shade than everything around it. “I don’t see anything,” she said. “Help me out.”
It was Patrick who leaned over to assist, having already seen these pictures before. He took the picture and traced the house with his finger. “It’s this.”
“That’s a house, dude.”
Patrick just looked at her and shook his head.
Ellie sank back into her chair, feeling suddenly weak. “Oh.” Then: “How did it get so big?”
“The infected merge together after some time,” explained Liz. “This one infected was likely more than twenty individual people at the start of the outbreak.”
“No fucking way,” said Ellie.
For the first time since the fight, Abby spoke up. “It’s true,” she said, and Ellie turned around in her chair to look at her. “I fought one infected that was once several different people in the basement of the hospital in Seattle.” Then she huffed and resumed glaring out the window, adding, “While you were a few floors up murdering Nora.”
Liz rose and opened the door to her office. “Leave,” she commanded Abby.
Pushing away from the wall, Abby gave her a sarcastic salute as she walked by. “Aye aye, Captain.”
As Ellie turned back around she saw Lev frowning at his fists where he had them clenched in his lap. He kept looking at the door as though he was trying to decide whether to follow Abby or not. But ultimately he decided to stay, and Ellie guessed it was probably because he knew Abby would want to know what was eventually decided in this meeting.
Refocusing on the matter at hand, Ellie put down the picture she hadn’t realized she was still holding. “So how would this work?” she asked. “The six of us would travel down to South America together, and then they wait around while I go swimming in spores to pick a few mushrooms?”
“Essentially,” answered Liz. “They will be able to come in the cloud with you, up to a point. But I won’t deny that the last part will be you alone.”
“Lucky me,” muttered Ellie. “Sure glad I’m immune.”
“You should be,” shot back Liz. “Most people would kill for a gift like yours.”
Ashamed of her little outburst, Ellie said, “I know. I know. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or whatever. It’s just… I don’t know about this. I mean, you’re talking about months on the road, with Abby of all people, so I can to get to a place where the infected are the size of a fucking house. It doesn’t exactly sound like a vacation.” She paused, turning the task over in her mind. Finally, she looked up at Liz and asked the big question: “How sure is this?”
“At least as sure as your surgery would have been, if not more so.”
Ellie blew out a long, deep breath. “When would we go?”
“Summer is the best time to travel that way, so in about a month. Until then you will all need to train as a unit.” Liz looked at everyone in the room. “You hear me? You need to be a cohesive squad by the time you head south.”
“The person who really needs to hear that isn’t in the room right now,” commented Brian.
“Trust me, she’ll hear it loud and clear, as many times as she needs to so it gets through that thick skull.”
“I’ll help,” said Lev quietly. “I can help with that.”
“You sure?” Ellie asked wryly. “Because I don’t get the impression that you like me very much either.”
“I don’t.” Lev got to his feet and set his jaw in determination. “But I like the infected even less. May I please be dismissed now, Chief?”
“You may. Go talk some sense into that hotheaded sister of yours.”
Lev slipped out of the room and immediately started up the stairway nearby. He knew exactly where he would find Abby. Ever since the sky bridge Abby had been trying to conquer her fear of heights, and upon arriving in Avalon she had taken to sitting up on the roof of the casino any time she needed to be alone. “But,” she’d told Lev, “you can always come find me. I never want to be alone from you.”
At the time he’d pretended to be confused about her phrasing to mask just how much it had pleased him to hear that. Aside from Yara, he’d never loved anyone as much as he loved Abby. She was his safe person, someone he could always count on. She was his family.
And now she was in pain, and they were both about to go on a suicide mission, and the only thing in the world he wanted to do was find her and sit beside her on the roof of the Catalina Casino.
On the top floor of the building he found an open window which led to a fire escape, so he ducked outside and started climbing. And there at the top, standing tall and proud on the roof in the mid-morning sun, was Abby.
“I’m mad at you,” she said without turning around.
“I’m mad at you, too,” Lev replied. “And I have a better reason for it.”
“You do, do you? Let’s hear it.”
He walked over to stand beside her, both of them looking out over the Pacific ocean - of which, thanks to Abby, he was no longer afraid. “What exactly was your plan?” he asked. “You were going to take this mission and then what? Leave me here?”
Finally, she looked down at him. “You have a good life here.”
“It would be shit without you.”
“You’d be fine.”
“Stop trying to tell me how I feel,” he snapped. “You don’t know. And how were you gonna let me find out? Were you gonna leave in the middle of the night without telling me where you were going?”
“Lev, you were out on a mission! I just accepted it yesterday. How was I supposed to tell you before now? And by the way, how did you find out?”
“Liz sent for me. The scouts caught up around section three and brought me back.”
Infuriated all over again, Abby clenched her teeth and her fists and said, “Of course she did.”
“Stop that,” Lev said, slapping her hand so that she unclenched it. “She wasn’t trying to manipulate me. She knew I would want to go with you.”
“Doesn’t mean she should let you.”
“Well I’m glad she offered. I don’t trust that girl.”
Abby laughed sardonically. “That’s good news, since you’re going on a dangerous mission with her.”
“I’m going with you. She’s just… Along for the ride.”
This time Abby’s laugh was more sincere. “Okay, fine,” she said. “Neither of us wants the other to go, but we’re both going. I can live with that. Can you?”
“Yeah,” said Lev. “But I’m still mad you were gonna leave me behind.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just… This mission is important, you know? It’s everything we’ve been working towards. I couldn’t say no.”
“I get it, Abby. I really do. It’s just too bad we gotta bring that girl.”
“She said yes, huh?”
“Not yet, but she will.”
Abby let out a long, slow sigh, and then said: “Good.”
“Yeah, it’s good. We can’t do it without her.” She looked down at Lev and said, “We need to protect her.”
Lev looked at her as though she had completely lost her mind.
“I’m serious, Lev. If anything happens to her, we’re fucked. And by ‘we’ I mean, like,” she waved her arm in a sweeping gesture at the horizon, “all of mankind. Humans will go extinct without that vaccine. It’s our only hope.” Then, as though it pained her greatly, she concluded, “Ellie is our only hope.”
After considering this for a long moment, Lev commented: “Yikes.”
“Yeah,” Abby agreed. “It’s very yikes.”
“Why…” Lev paused to reconsider, then forged on with his question. “Why did she come to Seattle? What did you do to her?”
When he looked up, he saw that Abby was staring at him with that dark expression she wore whenever this topic came up. He had asked before, but Abby had only told him it was “bad.” The last time he had tried had been when he woke up in the Firefly hospital with no recollection of how they had gotten off those pillars on the rattlers’ beach. When Abby had informed him that the girl who’d killed Owen and Mel had come for her again, he’d thought she was making it up. But once he’d realized she was serious, he had wanted to know what Abby could possibly have done to make someone hate her so fiercely for such a long time.
“I was different before I met you,” she’d told him. “Let’s just say that if she had killed me, I’d have deserved it. But she didn’t. I think she’s finished with it now, so there’s no need for you to know.”
But that was no longer true, and they both knew it. If the three of them were going to be working together, Lev needed to know what had happened. Abby was silent for so long that Lev was sure she was trying to figure out some way to put him off the subject again. Instead, she looked away and said, “If I tell you, you’re going to think of me differently afterwards.”
“Abby, I’ve seen you snap necks with your bare hands and I still love you.”
“This is different.”
“Abby,” Lev said firmly, and Abby met his eyes. “You have to trust me. Whatever it is, it won’t change anything.”
Abby sighed. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. Sit down.”
She sat down next to him and told him the whole sordid tale, beginning with Salt Lake City and ending with Jackson. She told him about how she'd shot Joel in the leg and forced Mel to tourniquet it so that she could brutally torture him for hours. Then she explained how Ellie had burst in and begged her to stop, and how she hadn't listened. Instead, she had killed him right before her eyes.
"And then we knocked her out and left," she concluded.
Tears were slipping down Abby’s face and she hastily wiped them away. She focused on the sound of seagulls in the air as she waited for Lev to say something. When he did finally speak, it was to do the same thing he always did - cut right to the point. “Do you wish you hadn’t done it?” he asked quietly.
“I wish I hadn’t done it like that. I wish she hadn’t been there. I regret allowing myself to become a monster. But do I regret killing Joel? No.”
But the way she said it made Lev feel as though she might be lying about that - maybe even lying to herself about it. “Ellie let you live,” he pointed out. “Joel killed your father, so you killed Joel. Joel was a father figure for Ellie, and you killed him. But she didn’t kill you.”
The parallel had occurred to Abby before, but she’d never been sure what to make of it. “Maybe she’s just a bigger person than me,” she said.
“I doubt it. You walked away that night in the theater.”
“Not before killing her friends though.”
“Oh yeah, you did do that.” Lev frowned. “What a fucking mess,” he said.
The comment caught Abby off guard, and she let out a bark of laughter. “I’d say that’s putting it pretty mildly.” Gradually the smile faded off her face and she asked: “So do you think I’m a monster now?”
“No,” Lev assured her. “I think you were a monster then, but not now.”
“It’s always inside me, though. I’m still capable of that kind of… That kind of rage.”
“But you don’t give in to it.”
“I mean, I just attacked Liz.”
“That was different. You were protecting me.”
Unlike with Joel, who I intentionally sought out and brutally tortured before killing him, thought Abby. Out loud she said, “Are we okay?”
“Yeah,” said Lev. “We’re okay.”
“Thank you,” said Abby sincerely. “Can I give you a hug?”
Instead of replying, Lev got to his feet, pulled her up too, and stepped into her arms. She squeezed him tight, and as always he marveled at the feeling of safety he got from her solid strength. It didn’t matter where she went, he would always follow her, because she was his home. His safe place.
For some reason he thought of Ellie at that moment. Had Joel been her safe place, the way Abby was his?
And did she even have a safe place now?