"SHIT," JOHN BREATHED, NOT EVEN AWARE that he'd spoken as he raised the M-16 and open- ed up. - bambambambam -

-and the first of the scorpion-things let out a strange, dry, hissing sound, like air being let out of a giant tire, as the bullets hammered into its curled body. A thick white fluid burst from the wounds that had opened in its insectile face, a face of drooling tusks and spider's eyes, a face with a black shapeless hole for a mouth. Writhing, claws raised, it fell on its side and twisted wildly, digging its own shallow grave in the hot sand. Leon and Cole were both shooting, the thunder of the nine-millimeter drowning out any more hissing, producing even more of the pus-like blood in the second and third of the Scorps. The white liquid spewed out in glurts, like puke, but there were three more of the creatures coming down...... and the first one, the one that John had drilled full of holes, was getting up. Getting up unsteadily, but getting up all the same. The openings were oozing with that viscous white goo - and even as it took its first step toward them, John saw that the liquid was hardening. Plugging the wounds as efficiently as plas- ter filled a hole in a wall. "Go go go!" John shouted as the other two crea-tures, taken down by Leon and Cole, started to move, their wounds already scabbing over. The second threesome was halfway down the dune and closing fast.

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Gotta get out.

There were still two more "environments," and they'd already blown at least a third of their ammo; this ran through John's mind in the split-second it took him to spray the Scorps with a hail of bullets, as Leon and Cole ran east. He didn't even try to take any of the six down, he knew it wouldn't make a difference. The line of explosive rounds was to hold them back until the other two men were clear, his mind grasping for a solution as the impossible animals waved their jagged claws, scrabbling against the shifting sands and spurt-ing more of their bizarre epoxy.

-grenade but how do I get them all, how do we avoid taking shrapnel -The closest of the Scorps was perhaps a dozen feet in front of him when he turned and ran, moving as fast as he could through the blazing heat, his adrena-line up and raging. Leon and Cole were fifty meters ahead, stumbling through the sand, Leon running sideways, watching front and back, sweeping with his semi. John risked a glance back, saw that the scorpion creatures were still coming. Slower than before but not faltering, their waspish bodies dripping white, their bizarre elongated claws raised and snapping. They were gaining speed, too, faster with each skitter- ing step, a pack of undead bugs looking for lunch -

- pack, in a pack

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They might not have a better chance. John dropped the rifle, the sling hanging awkwardly around his neck, and jammed one hand into his pack, still managing a decent run. He came up with one of the grenades, jerked the pin free, and turned, backing up in a shambling jog. He tried to evaluate the distance, the M68's process running through his frenzied mind, the Scorps sixty, seventy feet behind.

-impact fuse, armed two seconds after it hits, six-second backup -"Grenade!" He screamed, and threw the round canister up, praying that he'd judged it right as he turned and lunged, the grenade still ascending as he dove into the side of the sand dune. John swam into it, pushing with all his considerable muscle, burrowing into the hot grit blind and breath- less. The sand was cooler underneath, waves of the unpacked stuff pouring across his face, trying to force its way into his nose and mouth, but he couldn't think of anything except pulling his legs in - and what the blast-projected slivers of metal could do to human flesh. One final, desperate kick and - KA-WHAM -

- there was a huge shift all around him, an incredi- ble pressure slamming into him and into the moving wall he was embedded in. He felt the weight on top of him press down, forcing the air out of him, and it took all he had to force one hand up to his face, to cup it over his mouth. Breathing shallowly, he started worming his way back out, wriggling and kicking.

Leon, did they get down in time, did it work?

He fought against the still sliding currents of pol-ished granules, taking one more breath before using both hands to swipe at the heavy sands. In a few seconds he was out, rivulets of grit streaming off of him, his irritated eyes watering. He wiped at them one handed, raising the M-16, looking first at the threat...... which wasn't a threat anymore. The grenade must have landed right in front of them; of the six mutant scorpions that had been pursuing them, four were in pieces. John saw a still-twitching claw lying across the sand in a puddle of white, a tail with stinger still attached sticking out of the side of the dune, a leg, another leg; the rest was unrecognizable, great hunks of wet mush splattered in a rough semi-circle. The two Scorps at the rear of the pack were still whole, but were definitely not going to get up again; the bodies were intact, but the eyes and mouth, the strange mandibles, the faces were gone.

Blown all to shit, in fact. No amount of white goop in

the world's gonna plug that up...

"John!"

He turned, saw Leon and Cole striding back toward him, expressions of amazement on both their faces. John allowed himself a brief moment of completely unchecked pride, watching them approach; he'd been brilliant - timing, aim, everything.

Ah, well. The true soldier takes no accolades for a job well done; it's enough that he knows it...

By the time they reached him, he'd managed to get over himself; thinking about their situation was enough. They were in a psycho testing ground being put through their paces by an Umbrella madman; their team was split up, they had limited ammo, and there was no clear way out of it.

Pretty much, you're screwed. Patting yourself on the back is kinda like giving aspirin to a dead guy; pointless.

Still, seeing the faint hope on the other men's flushed and sweating faces... hope could be mis- guided, but it was rarely a bad thing. "There could still be more of them," he said, wiping sand off of the M-16. "Let's get out of here..."

-clickclickclick-That sound. All of them froze, staring at each other. It wasn't close, but somewhere over the dune, there was at least one more Scorp.

David had spotted a moving light, maybe a quarter mile southwest of their position, but it had come no closer; if it wasn't for the cold, Claire thought she might feel relieved. The chances of anyone finding

them in the endless miles of dark were somewhere near zero; the Umbrella guys had blown it. Even with the helicopter's searchlight - which they apparentlyweren't going to use - it'd be pure luck if they ran across the three of them... although maybe it'd be lucky for us. Maybe they'd have blankets and coffee, hot chocolate, spiced cider..."How are you, Claire?"

She made an effort to keep her teeth from chatter- ing, but it failed. It had been at least an hour, probably more. "Pretty goddamn cold, David, and yourself?" "Same. Good thing we dressed warm, eh?"

If it was a joke, she wasn't laughing. Claire snuggled closer to Rebecca, wondering when she'd lose all feeling in her limbs; as it was, her hands were numb and her face felt like it was freezing into a mask, in spite of near-constant changes of position. David was on Rebecca's other side, the three of them huddled together as tightly as was humanly possible, spoon fashion. Rebecca hadn't woke up, but her breathing was slow and even; she was resting comfortably, at least.

That's one ofus... "Shouldn't be much longer," David said. "Twenty, perhaps twenty-five minutes. They'll post a man or two, then go." "Yeah, so you said," Claire said. "How do you figure the time, though?" Her lips felt like popsicles. "Perimeter search, perhaps a quarter-mile 'round - assuming they have six or less men still able-bodied, I'm estimating four." "Why?" David's voice shook with the cold. "Three sent to the back door of the building, two men down inside and from the sounds, I'd say there were three to seven at the front. Eight or twelve men; any more, and they wouldn't have all fit in the helicopter. Any less, they wouldn't have been able to cover both entrances." Claire was impressed. "So, why twenty to twenty-five minutes?" "As I said, they'll cover a certain distance all the way around the compound before they give us up. The size of the compound, tack on a quarter- to a half-mile, and how long it takes an average man to walk a fourth of that distance. We saw that light perhaps an hour ago, and since they most likely would have each taken a direction and searched that single seg-ment... well, twenty to twenty-five minutes. That's including the time it would take to look through the van, as well. That's my guess, for what it's worth."

Claire felt her frozen lips attempting a smile.

"You're bullshitting, aren't you? Making it up." David sounded shocked. "I am not. I've gone over it several times and I think..."I'm kidding," Claire said. "Really."A short silence, and then David chuckled, the low sound carrying easily through the cold dark. "Of course you are. Sorry. I think the temperature has affected my sense of humor."

Claire alternated her hands, slipping the right one out from beneath Rebecca's hip and sliding the left one under. "No, I'm sorry. Shouldn't have inter-rupted. Go on, this is really interesting."Not much else to say," David said, and she heard the soft, rapid chatter of his teeth. "They'll want to get medical attention for their wounded, and I doubt Umbrella wants one of their helicopters to be seen flying around the salt flats by the light of day; they'll leave a guard behind and go."

She heard him shifting, felt Rebecca's body move as he altered his own position. "Anyway, that's when we'll move. Back to the compound first, a bit of sabotage - and then we'll just see what turns up..."

The way his voice trailed off, the forced good humor in his tone that barely covered the despera- tion - both told her exactly what he was thinking.

What we've both been thinking. "And Rebecca?" She asked gently. They couldn't leave her, she'd freeze, and trying to infiltrate the compound again, trying to take out a couple of armed men while carrying an unconscious woman... "I don't know," David said. "Before she... she said that she might recover within hours, given rest."

Claire didn't respond. Stating the obvious wouldn't help anything. They fell silent, Claire listening to Rebecca's soft breathing, thinking about Chris. David's affection for Rebecca was plain; it was like the love between a father and daughter. Or brother and sister. Thinking about him was one way to pass the time, anyway.

What are you doing right now, Chris? Trent said you were safe, but for how long? God, I wish you'd never been assigned to that Spencer place. Or Raccoon, for that matter. Fighting for truth and justice pretty much eats it, big brother... "Not falling asleep, are you?" David asked. He'd asked her that every time they stopped talking for more than a minute. "No, thinking about Chris," she said. Forming the words was a chore, but she figured it was better than

letting her mouth freeze shut. "And I bet you're starting to wish we'd gone to Europe after all."I do," Rebecca said weakly. "Hate this weather..." Rebecca!

Claire grinned, not really able to feel it and not caring. She hugged the girl as David sat up, digging for the flashlight - and though she was freezing, though they were cut off from their friends, cut off from escape and facing uncertain odds, Claire felt like things were definitely starting to look up.

The call came just after John blew up six of the Arl2s. Reston had been wishing for popcorn up until then; the Scorps' defense systems were working just as the projected numbers had suggested, the exo damage repairing even faster than they'd hoped. What they hadn't counted on was how very fragile the connective tissue between the arachnid segments actually was.

One grenade. One goddamn grenade.

The desire for popcorn was as dead as the Arl2s. There were still two left, scuttling around in the southwest corner, but Reston no longer had much faith in the 12s - and although that was important information, he wasn't so certain that Jackson would be pleased with him for obtaining it.

He'll want to know why I didn't take away their explosives first. Why I released all of the specimens. Why I didn't call Sidney, at least, for counsel. And no answer I give will be sufficient...

When the cell phone rang, Reston jumped in his chair, suddenly certain that it was Jackson. That ridiculous notion was gone by the time he picked up the phone, but it had given him pause - and made him quite glad that his test subjects wouldn't survive Three.

"Reston." "Mr. Reston - this is Sergeant Hawkinson, White Ground Team One-Seven-Oh." "Yes, yes," Reston sighed, watching Cole and the two S.T.A.R.S. people regrouping. "What's happen- ing up there?" "We..." Hawkinson took a deep breath. "Sir, I'm sorry to report that there was an altercation with the intruders and they've escaped the premises." He said it all in a rush, obviously uncomfortable. "What?" Reston stood up, nearly tipping his chair over. "How? How did this happen?" "Sir, we had them trapped in the storage building, but there was an explosion, two of my men were shot and three more were critically..." "I don't want to hear it!" Reston was furious, unable to believe that he had such incompetents working for him. "What I want to hear is that you did not just fail miserably, you did not just let three people slip past your 'crack' teams, and that you did not call to tell me that you can't find them!"

There was a moment of silence at the other end, and Reston just dared this screwup to mouth off, to give him any more reason to make his life a living hell. Instead, Hawkinson sounded properly contrite. "Of course, sir. I'm sorry, sir. I'm going to fly the helicop- ter back to SLC and bring back some of our new recruits to extend our search parameters. I'm leaving my last three men to stand watch, two at the com-pound's east and west, the third at the escape vehicle. I'll be back within - ninety minutes, sir, and we will find them. Sir." Reston's lips curled. "See that you do, Sergeant. If you don't, it's your worthless ass."

He flipped the talk switch and tossed the phone back on the console, at least feeling as though he'd done something to facilitate the process. A good ball- squeeze worked wonders; Hawkinson would crawl over broken glass to get results, which was exactly how it should be. Reston sat down again, looking at the test subjects as they slogged their way over the sand dune. Cole had a gun now, and was leading them toward the connecting door. Reston wondered if John or Red had any idea how useless Cole was. Probably not, if they'd given him a weapon... When they hit the top of the dune and started down the other side, the two Scorps finally moved in. In spite of his earlier resolve, Reston watched closely, holding on to a shred of hope - that it would end there, that the men would be stopped. It wasn't that he had any doubt about the Ca6s in Three, they certainly wouldn't survive those...... but what if they do, hmm? What if they do, and they make it to Four, and they find a way out? What will you tell Jackson, what will you tell your guided tour when there aren't any specimens left to observe? Then it will be your ass, won't it?

Reston ignored the whispery little voice, concen- trating on the screen instead. Both Scorps were going in fast, claws and stingers up, their lithe, insectile bodies set to attack -

- and all three men were firing, a silent battle, the 12s dodging and feinting, then falling beneath the stream of bullets. Reston's hands were in fists, though he didn't notice; his attention was entirely on the two downed Scorps, waiting to see if they'd be ready to attack again before the men reached the door -

- except John and Red were moving toward the animals, pointing their weapons -

- and shooting out the eyes. They did it quickly and efficiently, and although both Scorps were mov- ing again as they headed for the door, the blind creatures could only flail about in the sand. One of them managed to find a target; with a limber curl, it drove its extraordinarily toxic sting into the others back. The poisoned 12 whipped around and stabbed the first through the abdomen with one jagged claw, impaling it; it writhed weakly, alive but unable to move or see - bound, dying, to its dead brother. Reston shook his head slowly, disgusted at the wasted time and money, at the millions of dollars and the man-hours that had gone into developing the inhabitants of phases One and Two.

And Jackson will want that information. Once the test subjects are dead and their friends caught, I'll be able to put the right spin on things; with some of our backers coming in, such a poor performance from our "prize" specimens could be costly. Better to know now...

Yes, he'd be able to pull it off. Now Red was unlocking the connecting door that would lead them into Three; unless they had a case of grenades, they would be dead in minutes. Reston took a deep breath, remembering who was in control, who was calling the shots here. Hawkinson would handle the surface situation, Jackson would be pleased, the three musketeers were about to be blinded, trampled, and eaten. There was nothing to worry about. Reston exhaled heavily, managing a somewhat un- easy grin and forcing himself to relax into his chair, dialing up the screens that would show him the Ca6 habitat. "Say good-bye," he said, and poured himself an- other brandy.

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