COLE HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO STUMBLE after the killers, choking and nauseous, his heart sick with dread and hate. He'd been abandoned to death by Reston, the man had even encouraged the assassins to kill him - he no longer knew if they even were assassins, he didn't know who the "stars" were sup- posed to be - he didn't know anything except that his eyes were burning and he couldn't breathe.

At least make it fast, let it be fast and painless...

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Through the hatch into One, the door snapping closed behind him. Cole fell back against the cool metal, struggling to catch his breath, gummy tears leaking from beneath his closed lids. He didn't want to see them pull the trigger, he'd rather not have to suffer suspense before he died; dying was plenty enough.

Maybe they'll just leave me here.

The small hope that the thought brought him was stamped out immediately as a big, rough hand latched on to his arm and shook him.

"Hey, wake up!"

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Cole reluctantly opened his watering eyes, blinking rapidly. The big black guy was staring down at him, looking mad enough to start hitting. His rifle was pointed at Cole's chest.

"Want to explain what the hell this place is?"

Cole shrank against the door. His voice came out in a stammer. "Phase One. F-forest."The man rolled his eyes. "Yeah, forest, I got that. Why, though?" Jesus, he's huge! The guy had muscles on his mus- cles. Cole shook his head, sure that he was about to be severely beaten but not sure what the man was asking. The other one took a step toward the two of them, looking more upset than angry. "John, Reston screwed him over, too. What's your name again? Henry?"

Cole nodded, desperate not to piss anyone off.

"Yeah, Henry Cole, Reston told me you were here to kill him and he told me to stand in there, he was just going to lock you guys up, swear to God I didn't know he was gonna do this..." "Slow down," the smaller man said. "I'm Leon Kennedy, this is John Andrews. We didn't come here to kill Reston..." "Shoulda, though," John rumbled, looking around them. Leon went on as if he hadn't spoken. "... or anyone else. We just wanted something Reston is supposed to have, that's all. Now - what can you tell us about this test program?"

Cole swallowed, wiping at the water on his face. Leon seemed sincere...

... and what are your options here? You can get shot, get left behind, or work with these guys. They've got guns, and Reston said the test specimens were designed to fight people and oh shit how'd I wind up in this mess?

Cole looked around at One, amazed at how different it seemed now that he was locked in, how - menacing. The towering artificial trees, the plastic underbrush and fallen synthetic logs - with the subdued lighting and humidified air, the dark walls and painted ceiling, it almost felt like a real forest at twilight. "I don't know a whole lot," Cole said, looking at Leon. "There are four phases - woods, desert, moun-tains, city. They're all big, each one's like two football fields, side by side, I forgot the exact measurements. Word is that they're supposed to be suitable habitats for these hybrid test animals; they're even gonna stock them with live food, mice and rabbits and such. Umbrella's testing out some kind of disease-control thing, and the test animals are supposed to have similar circulatory systems to humans, something like that, it'll make good study material..."

He trailed off, noticing the look that the two men exchanged when he'd started talking about the test

creatures. "You really believe that, Henry?" John asked, not looking pissed anymore, his expression neutral. "I..." Cole said, then closed his mouth, thinking. About the incredible pay and the don't-ask policy. About the questions from whoever was supervising on any given job...

"Are you happy working here? Do you feel that you're getting paid enough?"

... and about the prison cells... and the restraints. "No," he said, and felt a rush of shame at his deliberate ignorance. He should have known, would have known if he'd had the guts to take a closer look.

"No, I don't. Not anymore."

Both men nodded, and Cole was relieved to see John alter the position of the gun slightly, pointing it away. "So do you know how to get out of here?" John asked. Cole nodded. "Yeah, sure. All of the phases have connecting doors, in alternating corners. They're all latched shut, no keys or anything - except for the last one, Four, it's bolted on the outside." "So the door we'll want is that way?" Leon asked, pointing southwest. They were in the northeast cor- ner. From where they stood, the far wall wasn't even visible, the fake woods were so dense. Cole knew there was at least one decent-sized clearing, but it would still be a hike to get through. Cole nodded.

"Can you tell us about these test animals? What do they look like?" John asked. "I never saw 'em, I was just here to do the wiring -

-cams and conduits, like that." He looked between the two men hopefully. "But how bad could they be, right?"

The expressions on their faces weren't encouraging. Cole started to ask what they could tell him when a loud, metallic clattering filled the moist air, like a giant gate being raised. It came from the back, the west wall, where Cole knew the animal pens were kept and a second later, a shrill, piercing shriek cut through the air, a long and warbling note that was quickly joined by another, and another, and then too many to tell apart. There was a beating sound, too, so huge that for a moment, Cole couldn't place it - and when he did, he felt a little like screaming. Wings. The sound of gigantic wings beating the air.

They were fifteen feet off the ground, atop a double row of wooden crates in one corner of the warehouse.

Even the slightest movement made them sway a little, which made Claire deeply uneasy.

Not enough that John and Leon are gone, or that we're hiding from a bunch of Umbrella goons. No, we have to be stuck on Mount Precarious in a pitch-black icebox. One of us sneezes too hard and we all go down. "This sucks," she whispered, as much to break the tense silence as to vent. The helicopter noise had stopped, but they hadn't heard anyone outside yet either. She was surprised to feel Rebecca's body quaking next to hers, and to hear a muffled giggle; the young biochemist was trying to suppress it, and wasn't having an easy time. Claire grinned, absurdly pleased. A few seconds passed, and Rebecca managed to say, "Yes. You're so right," and then they were both choking back laughter. The boxes teetered gently. "Please," David said, sounding edgy. He was on top of the second stack of crates, on Rebecca's other side. Claire and Rebecca quieted down, and again a waiting silence fell over them. They were in the northeast corner, both on their stomachs, handguns pointed toward the wall across from them in the general direction of the other door. David said there were two; he was facing south, covering the one they'd entered by. The tension-breaking giggle fit had relaxed Claire a little. She was still cold, still afraid for Leon and John, but their situation didn't seem so terrible. Bad, defi- nitely, but she'd been in much worse circumstances.

In Raccoon, I was on my own. There was Sherry to watch out for, we had Mr. X on our trail, we had a shitload of zombies to wade through and were totally lost. At least now I have some idea of what we're up against; even an army of gun-toting creeps isn 't as bad as not knowing what's what...

Outside of the warehouse, a noise. Someone was pulling at the door that she and Rebecca were cover-ing; a quick, rattling shake and then silence again -

-except Claire thought she heard footsteps now, pad-ding against the ground outside.

Checking doors. And if David's lock-rigging isn't convincing, or they happen to look closely...

At least it was David covering them; he was amaz- ing, cool and efficient, and with as quick a mind as she'd ever encountered. It was like he knew just what to do - instantly, no matter what happened. Even now - David had said that they'd probably be doing a straight-across sweep, starting at one end or the other and checking each building in teams. Military strategist, no kidding. Claire ran over what he'd told them again, not so much a plan as a what-if list. But still, just having something to concentrate on was a relief.

If only one team comes in, three or less, we stay quiet, don't move until they leave, head to the door across from where they entered and wait. When we hear them on the other side, we head out and run for the fence. If they come in and spot us, we shoot; we pick off the others one at a time as they come through the door, then climb down, then run. If there are two or more teams, wait 'til David throws the grenade and then shoot; same if they've got night-vision, the grenade'll blind 'em. If they manage to return fire, we climb down the back, use the crates as cover...

The other variables disappeared as she heard the other door being shaken. Shaken and then kicked. Thunk! The door blew open, a square of pale light appear-ing in the blackness. The bright beam of a flashlight pierced the dark, flitting across a wall of boxes, then turning back toward the door. A soft click - and then a whispered curse. "What?" A different voice, also whispering. "Lights are out." A pause, and then, "Well, come on. They're probably in the other one anyway, they didn't get all the way through the lock on this one." Thank God. Way to go, David. The two were going to search, but they didn't suspect their presence. A second beam appeared, and Claire could see the vaguest human shapes silhouetted behind the two powerful lights, both of them men by the voices. They started to move forward, the beams dancing over the stacks of boxes and crates. Stay quiet, don't move, wait. Claire closed her eyes, not wanting for either of the men to feel watched; she'd heard once that that was the trick to hiding. Not to look. "I'll take south," one of the voices whispered, and Claire wondered if they had any idea how well sound carried in the open space. We can hear you, numbnuts. A funny thought, but she was scared. At least the zombies hadn't had guns... The lights split, one heading away from them, the other turning in their direction. It stayed low, at least; whoever was holding the flashlight apparently didn't realize that people could climb boxes.

Fine by me, just hurry up and get out of here, let us sneak out of this without having to fight! David said that they'd come back for John and Leon when Um- brella had cleared out; he said they'd probably post a guard, maybe two, but that taking out a guard would be a lot easier than taking out an entire squad -

-and a light was shining in Claire's face, the blinding beam hitting her eyes. "Hey!" A surprised shout from below, and then bam, a shot fired, and she felt as much as heard something beneath her give, as Rebecca gasped, as the tower of boxes tipped backwards. Claire's back hit the wall and she grabbed at the shifting crate they'd been lying on, a chorus of shouts coming from outside, the orange burst of thundering muzzle fire coming from David's weapon...... and with a shuddering crash, all the crates went tumbling down, and Claire plummeted into the dark.

When he heard the mighty flap of wings and the shrieking cries, John felt his skin go cold. He didn't like birds, never had, and to run into a flock of Umbrella birds, in a sterile, surreal forest... "Balls," he said, and raised the M-16, pressing the plastic stock tight against his shoulder. Leon's was also pointed up, the ceiling at least fifteen feet above where the tallest trees stopped and painted a deep twilight blue. The trees ranged in height from ten to maybe twenty-five, thirty feet and at the very top, John saw that there were perching "branches" grafted on, each as big around as a basketball.

Bird's gotta have some pretty big goddamn feet to need that to land on...

The piping screams had stopped, and John didn't hear the beat of wings anymore, but he wondered how long it would be before the birds decided to look for prey. "Pterodactyls, gotta be," Cole whispered, his voice cracking. "Dacs." "You're kidding," John breathed, and could see the skinny Umbrella worker shake his head in his periph- eral vision.

"Maybe not real ones, it's just a nickname I heard."

Cole sounded distinctly terrified. "Let's head for that door," Leon said, alreadyedging into the false, shadowy woods.

Amen to that.

John started after him, ten, fifteen feet, trying to look up and watch his step at the same time. He tripped almost immediately, one boot kicking against a molded plastic rock, and barely caught himself from going into a full sprawl. "This ain't gonna work," he said. "Cole, Henry?" He glanced back and saw that Cole was still hud-dled against the hatch, his pale, weasely face turned up to the sky.

- ceiling, dammit

Leon had stopped and was waiting, peering up into the spaced branches. "Gotcha covered," he said. John walked back, angry and frustrated and seri- ously uncomfortable; they were in a tight spot, David and the girls could very well be fighting for their lives on the surface, and he wasn't going to waste time coddling some freaked-out Umbrella hump. Still, they couldn't just leave him behind, at least not without making an effort. "Henry. Hey, Cole." John reached out and tapped his arm, and Cole finally looked at him. His mild brown eyes were positively glassy with fear. John sighed, feeling a little pity for the guy. He was an electrician, for hell's sake, and it seemed that ignorance had been his only real crime.

"Look. I understand you're scared, but if you stay here, you're going to get killed. Leon and I have both had run-ins with Umbrella pets; your best chance is to come with us - and besides, we could use your help, you know more about this place than we do. Okay?" Cole nodded shakily. "Yeah, okay. Sorry. I just -

- I'm scared." "Join the club. Birds give me the creeps. The flying part's cool, but they're so weird, got those beady eyes and scaly feet - and have you ever seen a buzzard? They got scrotum heads." John mock-shivered, and saw Cole relax a little bit, even trying on a quivery smile. "Okay," Cole said again, more firmly. They walked back to where Leon was standing, still watching the air above.

"Henry, since we got the guns, how 'bout you lead?" John asked. "Leon and I will keep watch, and we'll need a clear route so we won't have to worry about tripping over stuff. Think you can handle it?"

Cole nodded, and though he still looked too pale, John could see that he would hold together. For a while, anyway. Their guide stepped in front of Leon and headed roughly southwest, weaving a crooked path through the strange forest. Leon and John followed, John realizing pretty quick that having Cole lead didn't make much of a difference.

If you don't look where you're going, you're going to trip, John thought wearily, after the sixth time he ran into a fallen "log." No way around it. The Dacs, as Cole called them, hadn't put in an appearance or made any other sound. Just as well; John thought walking through a plastic forest was enough for them to handle. It was a bizarre sensation, seeing the realistic-looking trees and undergrowth, feeling the moisture in the air, but also being aware that there were no smells of earth or growing things, no wind or tiny sounds of movement, no bugs. It was a dream-like experience, and an unnerving one. John was still edging forward, his gaze fixed on the crisscross of branches overhead, when Cole stopped. "We're... there's kind of a clearing here," he said. Leon turned, frowning at John. "Should we skirt it?" John stepped forward, peering through the seem- ingly random scatter of trees to the opening ahead. It was at least fifty feet across, but John would rather they go out of their way; being dive-bombed by a pterodactyl didn't sound like fun at all.

"Yeah. Henry, veer right. We're going to..."

The rest of his words were lost as that high, war-bling screech blasted through the unnatural forest, and a brown-gray shape dove into the clearing and flew at them, extending talons a foot across. John saw a wingspan of eight or ten feet, the leathery wings tipped with curved hooks. He saw a screaming, toothed beak and a slender elongated skull, flat black eyes the size of saucers, glittering -

-and he and Leon both opened fire as the creature hit the line of artificial trees in front of them, its huge claws gouging into the solid plastic. It held on, spread-ing its vast membranous wings in a struggle to bal- ance -

- and bambambam, holes punched through the thin flesh, streamers of watery blood trickling down from the openings. The animal screamed, so close that John couldn't hear the bullets, couldn't hear anything but that quavering, high-pitched shriek - and then it dropped, landing on the dark floor, pulling its wings in...... and walking toward them on its elbows, like a bat, moving jerkily through the shredded trees, shrieking in short, sharp barks of sound. Behind it, another dropped into the clearing, gusting odorless wind across them as its wide wings folded closed, its long, pointed beak opening and revealing nubs of grinding teeth.

This is bad, bad, bad...

The lurching animal was less than five feet away when John drew a bead on the bobbing head, on the shiny round eye, and pulled the trigger.

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