One minute, irons was standing in front of her, staring into her eyes with a terrible, wrenching sorrow...... and in the next, he was gone. Yanked into a hole in the floor by an arm that she only caught a glimpse of, a muscular, dripping arm with foot-long claws. It whipped out of sight, taking Irons with it into the darkness below. There was another scream from the creature, a powerful, lusty howl that was matched and then surpassed by the intensity of Irons's terrified shriek. Frozen by the piercing screams, Claire could only listen, shock and relief and fear for herself battling through her as the horrible cries swept up through the open hole, pounding her ears in the cold, dismal dungeon that Irons had created...... until his cries burbled to a stop, only a second or two later and the slurping, meaty, wet noises began. Claire moved. She scooped up the handgun that Irons had dropped and ran around the table in the middle of the room, not wanting to be grabbed and pulled under like he had.

It killed him, it killed him and he was going to kill me...

Advertisement

The reality of what had just happened, what would have happened, hit her all at once, turning her limbs into rubber. Claire forced herself a few more steps away from the open pit and collapsed against one sweating stone wall, taking in great, whooping breaths of the bitterly scented air. He had been planning to kill her, but not right away. She'd seen the way his mad gaze had crawled over her body, heard the eager anticipation in his crazy laugh. There was a low, grunting sound from the corner, a bestial sound, the growl of a well-fed lion. Claire turned, raising the heavy gun, astounded that she could feel any more horror...... and something burst up from the hole, some- thing with flailing arms, and Claire fired, the shot going wide. A glass bottle on a shelf exploded as the thing hit the floor...... and it was Irons, but only half of him. He had been neatly bisected, cut in two by the thing that had snatched him; everything below the fleshy waist was gone, trails of torn skin and muscle hanging down over the oozing pool of blood that had replaced his legs. Claire backed toward the door, the weapon still trained on the opening and heard the creature, the monster scream again, an echoing howl that faded away, falling away into some distance that she couldn't imagine. A second later, she couldn't hear it at all; it was gone.

Sherry's monster. That was Sherry's monster.

She edged slowly toward the mangled corpse of Chief Irons, toward the empty, yawning blackness of the hole, but it wasn't all blackness. She could see light filtering up from somewhere, enough to see that there was another floor below, what looked like the metal grid pattern of a catwalk and a ladder leading toil.

A subbasement... a way out?

-- Advertisement --

She stepped back from the opening, her thoughts racing and disorganized, trying to absorb the infor- mation along with what Irons had told her. Chris wasn't in Raccoon, the S.T.A.R.S. were gone - a wonderful, terrible relief, because it meant he was safe, but also that he wasn't about to come running in to save the day. There had been a spill at Umbrella, which explained the zombies, at least, but what he'd said about Birkin, about Birkin's virus... was that Sherry's father?

And maybe the zombies are the result of some laboratory accident, but what about all the other things, Mr. X and the inside-out men?

The way Irons had ranted about Umbrella sug- gested that while the accident was unexpected, the pharmaceutical company wasn't some innocent vic- tim. What had he called it? "T-Virus," she said softly, and shivered. "There was Birkin's new virus, and there was the T-Virus..."

The zombie disease had a name. And you didn't name something unless you knew something about it, which meant...... which meant she didn't know what it meant. All she knew was that she and Sherry needed to get out of Raccoon, and the subbasement might be a way. It wasn't a dead end, the monster that had killed Irons had gone somewhere...

... and do you really want to follow it, with Sherry? It could come back - and if it actually is looking for her...

Not a happy thought, but then, neither was hitting the streets, and the station was already crawling with God knew what other creatures. Claire checked the clip of the weapon Irons had held on her, counting seventeen bullets. Not enough to face off with the things in the station, but maybe enough to keep a monster at bay... It was a chance, but she was willing to take it. Claire took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly, collecting herself. She needed to keep it together, for Sherry's sake if not for her own. She turned, looking down at the mangled remains of the police chief. It was a terrible way to have died, but she couldn't find it in herself to feel sorry. He had been ready to rape and torture her, he had laughed when she'd pleaded for her life, and now he was dead; she wasn't happy about it, but she wasn't going to shed any tears, either. Her only feeling about it was that she should cover him up before she brought Sherry down with her; the girl had seen enough violence for one lifetime. You and me both, kiddo, Claire thought tiredly, and started to look around for something to drape over the dead Chief Irons.

Leon caught up to her in the cold industrial hallway that led to the sewer entrance, a few steps up from the flooded subbasement. She'd run ahead to plant the keys that would get them into the sewers, not wanting to have to explain how she'd come by them; she'd just managed to toss them into the boiler room before his footsteps sounded on the metal steps behind her.

At least I don't have to fake being out of breath...

Ada could see by the look on his face that she needed to smooth things over; she started talking the second he stepped into the shadowy corridor. "I'm sorry I ran," she said, offering him a nervous smile. "I hate spiders." Leon frowned, studying her - and looking into his searching blue gaze, Ada realized she was going to have to do better than that. She took a step closer to him, not close enough to be invasive but enough so that he could feel the heat of her body. Maintaining eye contact, she tilted her head back to emphasize the height difference between them; it was a little thing, but in her experience, men generally responded well to the little things. "I guess I'm just in a hurry to get out of here," she said quietly, losing the smile. "I hope I didn't worry you."

He dropped his gaze, but not before she saw a flicker of interest - confused and self-conscious, but definitely interest. Which made it all the more sur- prising when he stepped away.

"Well, you did. Don't do it again, okay? I may not be much of a cop, but I'm trying - and God only knows what we're going to run into down here." He met her gaze again, speaking softly. "I came with you because I want to help, I want to do my job - and I can't do that if you go charging ahead. Besides," he added, smiling a little, "if you run off, who's going to help me?"

It was Ada's turn to look away. Leon was playing it straight with her, openly admitting to his fears and his response to her not-so-subtle flirtation had been to step back and tell her that he wanted to be a good cop.

Interested, but not a fool for his tool... and man enough to tell me that he's unsure of his abilities.

She was forced to smile back, but it was a shaky affair. "I'll do my best," she said. Leon nodded and turned to inspect the hallway, letting the conversation drop - much to Ada's relief. She wasn't sure what she thought of him, but was uncomfortably aware that her respect for him was growing; not a good thing, considering the circum- stances. There wasn't much to see in the damp, poorly lit hall; two doorways and a dead end. The boiler room, where she'd tossed the keys - or plugs, rather - was directly in front of them, the sewer disposal entrance in a back comer; according to the sign on the wall, the other door opened into a storage closet. Ada followed as Leon walked to the closest of the two doors, the storage room, hanging back as he pushed it open with his Magnum and stepped inside. Boxes, a table, a trunk; nothing important, but at least no creepy-crawlies. After a quick search, he stepped back into the hall and they moved toward the boiler room. "How'd you learn to shoot like that, anyway?" Leon asked as they stopped in front of the door. His tone was casual, but she thought she detected more than

casual curiosity. "You're pretty good. Were you in the military or something...?"Nice try, Officer.

Ada smiled, falling into her carefully rehearsed character. "Paintball, believe it or not. I mean, I went target-shooting some when I was a teenager, with my uncle, but never got into it much. And then a few years ago, a friend at work - we're both buyers at an art gallery in New York - dragged me to one of those weekend survival retreats, and we had a blast. You know, hiking, rock-climbing, stuff like that - and paintball. It's great, we go up every couple of months... although I never thought I'd have to use it for real."

She could actually see him buy it, see that he wanted to buy it. It probably answered a few ques- tions that he'd been hesitant to ask.

"Well, you're better than a lot of the guys I gradu- ated the academy with. Really. So, you ready to get on with this?"

Ada nodded. Leon pushed the door to the boiler room open, scanning the ancient, rusting machinery in the wide empty space before ushering her inside. She made a point of not looking down, wanting Leon to find the small wrapped package that she'd tossed in a few moments earlier. She hadn't gotten a good look before. The room, shaped like a sideways "H," was fitted with corroded railings and two massive old boilers, one on either side. Fluorescent lights sputtered overhead, the few that still worked casting strange shadows across the metal pipes that ran down the water-marked walls. The door that led into the sewer system was in the far left corner, a heavy-looking hatch next to an inset panel. "Hey..." Leon crouched down, picking up the bundle of plugs that would open the hatch. "Looks like somebody dropped something..."

Before Ada could go through the charade of asking him what he'd found, she heard a noise. A soft, slithery noise, coming from the area in the right back corner, neatly blocked from view by one of the boilers. Leon heard it, too. He stood up quickly, dropping the bundle and raising the shotgun. Ada pointed her Beretta toward the sound, remembering how the door had been slightly ajar when she'd come up from the subbasement.

Oh, hell. The implant.

She knew it even before it crawled into sight - and was shocked anyway. The little bugger had grown, and it had grovmfast, easily twenty times its former size in half as many minutes - and it was still growing, apparently at an exponential rate. In the few seconds it took for the creature to move into the middle of the room, it went from the size of a small dog to the size - and bulk - of a ten-year-old child. The shape had changed, was changing, too. It was no longer the alien tadpole that had chewed its way out of Bertolucci. The tail was gone, and the creature that inched its way across the rusting floor had developed limbs, stretching arms folding out of its rubbery flesh. Claws popped out of the tan and swimming skin that swirled over its body, accompa- nied by a sound like gristle being punctured. Muscu- lar legs unfurled, liquid that snapped into sinewy shape as its stuttering crawl became smoother, almost feline... The shotgun and Beretta sounded at the same time, a string of massive blasts peppered with the higher whine of the nine-millimeter. The creature was still shifting, standing, mutating into a humanoid shape and its response to the booming shots that smacked into its twisting flesh was to open its mouth and vomit, a grunting projectile scream of rotten green bile that hit the floor and started moving. The stream that gushed from its wide, flat face was alive and the dozen or so crab-like creatures that tumbled out of the monster's gaping mouth like liquid seemed to know exactly where the threat was to their fetid, mutant womb. The skittering, multi-legged animals swarmed toward Ada and Leon in a silent wave as the implant monster took one massive step forward, pulsing cords standing out on its impossibly long, thick neck. Leon had the heavier firepower. "Got 'em!" Ada shouted, already targeting and shooting at the closest of the tiny, bilious green crabs. They were fast, but she was faster; she pointed and squeezed, pointed and squeezed, and the baby monsters exploded into small fountains of dark, ichorous fluid, dying as silently as they'd come. Leon blasted again and again with the shotgun, but Ada couldn't spare a glance to see how he was faring with the mother beast. Five of the crawling babies left, three more rounds and she'd be dry...and she heard the shotgun clatter to the floor, heard the deeper but less powerful fire of the.50 AE rounds resounding through the metal room as she picked off" two more of the spidering creatures, and her weapon clicked empty. Without stopping to think, Ada let go of the Beretta and dropped to the floor. She grabbed the shotgun by the barrel, rolling up into a crouch beneath Leon's line of fire, and swung the weapon down, hard. Two of the mutant animals were smashed into goo by the heavy stock, but the third, the last of them, sprang forward in an unexpected burst of speed and landed on her thigh, catching hold with needle-sharp claws. Ada dropped the shotgun, crying out as the animal scuttled up her leg, the warm, damp weight of it making her frantic with disgust.

Off get it OFF...

She fell backwards, slapping at the creature that had already reached her shoulder and was skittering toward her face, toward her mouth...... and then Leon was grabbing her, roughly pulling her up with one hand as he snatched at the animal with the other. Ada stumbled against him, clutching at his waist to keep from falling. The bug clung tenaciously to the tight fabric of her dress, but Leon had a good grip. He tore it away, shouting as he flung the flailing thing across the room.

"The Magnum!"

The weapon was stuck in Leon's belt. Ada jerked it free, saw the creature land near the giant, motionless heap that had birthed it, blasted to death by Leon...... and fired, managing to get a clean shot despite how off-balance she was, how deeply unnerved she was by how close she'd come to being implanted. The heavy round clanged against the floor, rust chips spattering up and the creature was blown into an ugly stain against the back wall. Obliterated. Nothing moved, and the two of them just stood for a moment, leaning against each other like survivors of some sudden, terrible accident - which, in a way, they were. The entire firefight had taken place in less than a minute, and they had come out unscathed, but Ada wasn't going to kid herself about how close it had been, or what they had just managed to destroy.

G-Virus.

She was sure of it; the T-Virus couldn't have created such a complicated creature, not without a team of surgeons - and they'd seen it growing; how big, how powerful would the creature have become if they hadn't walked in when they had? The beast might have been some early G-strain experiment, but what if it had been the result of a leak? What if there were more of them?

The sewers, the factory, the underground levels -

-dark, shadowy places, secret places, where anything could be growing...

Whatever the situation, the trip to the labs wasn't looking like a walk anymore and Ada was suddenly very glad that Leon had decided to come along. Since he was so goddamn insistent on going first, if some- thing attacked, she'd have a better chance of surviv-ing...

"Are you okay? Did it hurt you?"

Leon, one arm still supporting her, looking into her eyes with a heartfelt concern. Ada realized that she could smell him, a clean, soapy smell, and pushed herself away. She handed the Magnum back to him and straightened her dress, studiously inspecting it for rips to avoid looking at him.

"Thanks, I'm fine. Don't sweat it."

It came out harsher than she meant it to, but she was rattled, and not just by the implant's vicious attack. She glanced at him, and wasn't sure how to feel when she saw that her response had caught him off guard. He blinked slowly, and a kind of coolness settled into his gaze, indicating a strength of character that she hadn't bothered to give him credit for. "Paintball, huh?" he said mildly, and without an- other word, he turned to pick up the package she'd planted. Ada stared after him, telling herself how absolutely ridiculous it was to care what he thought of her. They were about to embark on a journey in which she might have to desert him, or watch him sacrifice his life in order to save her own...

... or kill him myself. Let's not forget that, friends and neighbors. So who gives a shit if he thinks I'm an ungrateful bitch?

Straight up. She should thank him, for reminding her. Ada stooped down to retrieve the shotgun, feeling like she needed to do a better job of keeping her priorities straight and feeling an emptiness inside that she hadn't noticed in a long, long time.

-- Advertisement --