FROM THE TERRIBLE, BAKING HEAT OF THE blinding scorpion desert, they stepped into the cold shade of a mountain peak. They stayed by the door, surveying their newest crucible, Leon wondering if they'd be facing Hunters or Spitters in this very gray room. Gray the rock-studded, sharply angled mountain of stone that loomed in front of them. Gray also the walls and ceiling, and the winding path that snaked west, bordering the "mountaintop." Even the scrubby grasses in and around the misshapen boulders were gray. The mountain looked real enough, rough-hewn chunks of granite mixed into cement, dyed to match and sculpted into crags. The overall effect was of a lonely, windswept ridge high on a barren mountain.

Except there's no wind and no smell. Just like the other two, no smell at all. "Might want to put your shirt back on," John said, but Leon was already untying it from his waist. The temperature had dropped at least sixty degrees, al- ready freezing the sweat he'd worked up from Phase Two. "So where do we go?" Cole asked, his eyes wide and nervous. John pointed diagonally across the room, south- west. "How 'bout the door?" "I think he meant which way," Leon said. He kept his voice pitched low, just as the others did. No point in alerting the inhabitants to their position; they'd probably be interacting soon enough. The three of them examined their options, all two of them: take the gray path or climb the gray moun- tain. Hunters or Spitters... Leon sighed inwardly, his stomach knotted, already dreading whatever came next. If they made it out, if they found Reston, he was going to give old Mr. Blue a solid ass-kicking. It went against the belief system that had led him to be a cop, but then, so did White Umbrella's very existence. "From a defensive standpoint, I'd say trail," John said, looking up at the rough surface of the slope. "We could get trapped if we head up." "There's a bridge, I think," Cole said. "I only did one of the cameras in here, that one..."


He pointed up and right, into the corner. Leon couldn't even see it - the walls were fifty feet high, and their monotone color blended into the ceiling. It created a kind of optical illusion, making the room seem endlessly vast. "... and I was on a ladder, I could see over, kind of," Cole continued. "There's a gorge on the other side, and one of those rope bridges going across."

Leon opened his pack while Cole was talking, assessing his ammo situation. "How's the M-16?" "Maybe fifteen left in this one," John answered, patting the curved mag. "Two more full, thirty each... two clips for the H amp;K, and one more gre- nade. You?"

"Seven rounds left, three clips, one grenade. Henry, have you been counting?" The Umbrella worker nodded. "I think five shots, I fired five times."

He looked as though he wanted to say something else, glancing back and forth between Leon and John, finally staring down at his dirty workboots. John looked at Leon, who shrugged; they didn't really know anything about Henry Cole, except that he didn't belong there any more than they did.

"Listen... I know this isn't really the time or place, but I just want to tell you guys that I'm sorry. I mean, I knew something was weird about all this. About Umbrella. And I knew Reston was a serious asshole, and if I hadn't been so greedy or so stupid, I never would have got you into this." "Henry," Leon said. "You didn't know, okay? And believe me, you're not the first to be duped..." "No doubt," John interrupted. "Seriously. The suits are the problem here, not guys like you."

Cole didn't look up, but he nodded, his thin shoul- ders slumping as if in relief. John handed him another clip, nodding toward the path as Cole tucked it into his back pocket. "Let's hit it," John said, talking to both of them but addressing Cole. Leon could hear it in his deep voice, a note of encouragement that suggested he was start- ing to like the Umbrella worker. "Worse comes to worst, we can retreat to Two. Stick close, keep quiet, and try to shoot for the head or eyes - assuming they have eyes."

Cole smiled faintly. "I'll bring it up," Leon said, and John nodded before stepping away from the hatch and turning left. The chilled air was as quiet as it had been since they'd come into the room, no sounds but their own. Leon brought up the rear, Cole walking slowly in front of him. The path was grooved, as if someone had run a rake through the cement before it was dry. With the "peak" to their right, the trail extended about seventy feet and then turned sharply south, disappearing behind the craggy hill. They'd gone about fifty feet when Leon heard the trickle of rock behind them. Loose gravel falling down the slope. He turned, surprised, and saw the animal near the top of the peak, thirty feet up. Saw it and wasn't sure what he was seeing, except that it was walking, skipping down the hill on four sturdy legs, like a mountain goat.

Like a skinned goat. Like... like...

Like nothing he'd ever seen, and it was almost to the ground when they heard a wet, rattling sound erupt from somewhere ahead of them, the sound of a snot-clogged throat being cleared, or a dog growling through a mouthful of blood - and they were trapped, cut off from escape, the terrible sounds coming to- ward them from both sides.

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Getting back into the compound was remarkably easy. Rebecca needed help getting over the fence, but with each passing minute, she seemed to be improv- ing, her balance and coordination sharpening. David was more relieved than he cared to admit, and almost as pleased with Umbrella's guard, or lack thereof. Three men, two at the fence and another at the van; it was pathetic. They'd started back as soon as the helicopter had lifted and headed south, stretching frozen muscles as they moved silently through the dark. When they'd come within a few hundred yards, David had left the others for a quick recon, then come back and led the two shivering women over the fence and into the compound. Before they could take out the watchmen, David knew they needed to get to a safe place out of the cold, to go over their procedure and better assess Rebecca's condition; he chose the most obvious of the buildings, the middle structure. It boasted two satel- lite dishes and a series of antennae, plus a shielded conduit running down one side. If he was right, if it was a communications relay, it was exactly where they wanted to be.

And if I'm wrong, there are two others to check; one will be a generator room, it's bound to have some sort of climate control. I can leave them there and do the sabotage work solo...

They'd scaled the fence from the south, David amazed at how poorly Umbrella had planned for their re-entry. The two men covering the perimeter were stationed at the front and back, as if there was no chance that anyone would enter from another direc- tion. As soon as they were inside, David led them to the far side of the last building in line, then motioned for a huddle, "Middle building," he whispered. "Should be un-locked, if it's what I think it is. The lights will be on, though. I'll go inside, then signal for you to follow; if you hear shots, get inside as quick as you can. Stay close to the buildings and stay low when we cross. Yes?"

Claire and Rebecca both nodded, Rebecca leaning on Claire; other than a limp, she seemed to be doing well. She'd said she was still dizzy and that her head hurt, but the confused and erratic thoughts that had so frightened him earlier had apparently passed. David turned and eased along the wall of the structure closest to the fence, hugging the shadows, frequently glancing back to be sure both women were keeping up. They reached the end facing west and slipped around, David first, checking for the west guard's position. It was almost too dark to see, but there was a density of shadow against the metal mesh that marked him. David raised the M-16 and pointed it at him, prepared to fire if they were seen. Too bad we can't just shoot him now... but a shot would alert the others, and while David wasn't con- cerned with the fence men, the one posted at the van could be a problem; he was far enough away that he might radio before coming in to check.

These two will be easy enough, but how to approach him? There was no cover if the man at the mini spotted them coming... That could wait; they had work to do before worry- ing about the guards. Crouching, David waved Claire and Rebecca across, the M-16 trained on the shadowy figure at the fence. He held his breath as they slipped across the open space, but they managed it with hardly a sound. As soon as they were across, David followed, his years of training allowing him to move as silently as a ghost. Once they were cloaked by the building's shadow, David relaxed a bit, the worst of it over. They could cross to the middle building in the thick black of the corridor between the structures. In less than a minute, they'd reached the crossing point. Nodding at the women to stay back, David went across, stopping at the closed door to their destination. He touched the icy metal of the handle and pushed it down, nodding to himself as he heard the tiny click of the unlocked door.

It's communications, then; the team leader would have left it open for the men posted, access to a satellite uplink in case we returned. A calculated guess, but a good one. It was time to pray for a bit of luck; if the lights were on, opening the door would be like a beacon to anyone even glancing in their direction. The guards had been facing away from the compound when he'd reconned, but that didn't mean much. A deep breath, and David pushed the door open, registering that the light was low as he slid inside and closed it behind him. He leaned against the door and counted ten, then relaxed, inhaling the warm air thankfully as he studied the interior. The warehouse- type structure had apparently been divided into Rooms - and the one he'd stepped into was packed with computer equipment, thick cables trailing across the floor and up the walls, dish connectors... everything that links this facility to the world outside...

David hit the wall switch, turning off the single ceiling light, and grinning, opened the door for Rebecca and Claire to join him.

"Back against the wall!" Leon shouted, and Cole did it before he even knew why. The phlegmy rattling sounds seemed to be coming from somewhere ahead -

- and then he saw the creature coming slowly toward them from behind, making it impossible to retreat, and barely held back a scream. It stopped fifteen or twenty feet away, and Cole still couldn't seem to get a good look; it was just too bizarre. Oh, Jesus, what is it? It was four-legged, with split hooves, like a ram or goat, and was about the same size - but there was no fur, no horns, nothing else that even remotely resem- bled a natural development. Its slender body was coated with tiny reddish-brown scales, like a snake's skin, but dull instead of shiny; at first glance, it looked like it was covered in dried blood. Its head was somehow amphibian, like a frog's - an earless flat face, small dark eyes that bulged out at the sides, a too-wide mouth - except there were pointed teeth sticking up from a protruding lower jaw, a bulldog's jaw, its head also covered in the dried-blood scales. The thing opened its mouth, exposing only a few sharp teeth, upper and lower, none of them in the front - and that terrible wet rattling sound came from the darkness of its throat, the bizarre call matched by others, somewhere on the other side of the artificial mountaintop. The call built, going louder and deeper as the thing raised its head, turning its hideous face to the ceiling -

- and in one sudden, jerking motion, it dropped its head and spat at them. A thick, tarry blob of reddish semiliquid flew at them, at Leon, across the wide open space -

- and Leon raised his arm to block it even as John started to shoot, stepping away from the wall and spraying the monster - - Spitter -

- with bullets. The goop hit Leon's arm, would have hit his face if he hadn't blocked, and in response to the hail of clattering rounds, the Spitter turned and jumped up the sculpted mountain in long, easy jumps that took it to the top in seconds, that didn't denote panic or pain or any stress at all. It loped back about twenty feet, then skipped nimbly back down to the ground, stopping in front of the connecting hatch. As if it knew it was blocking their escape. And it didn't even flinch, holy shit... The multiple cries from just out of sight didn't get any louder, but they didn't retreat, either. The gar- gling noises stopped, one at a time, the lack of targets giving them no reason; suddenly, it was silent again, as quiet as it had been when they'd entered. "What the good goddamn was that?" John said, grabbing another magazine from his pack, his expres- sion one of total incredulity. "Wasn't even hurt," Cole whispered, holding the nine-millimeter so tight that his fingers started to go numb. He barely noticed, watching as Leon touched the thick, wet handful of maroon goop on his sleeve and hissed in pain, drawing his hand back as if he'd been burned. "Stuff's toxic," he said, quickly wiping his fingers on his shirt and holding them up. The tips of the index and middle fingers on his left hand had gone an angry, inflamed red. He immediately stuck his hand- gun in his belt and pulled the black shirt off, carefully avoiding contact with the acidic ooze, dropping it to the stone floor. Cole felt sick. If Leon hadn't blocked... "Okay-okay-okay," John breathed, his brow fur-rowed. 'This is bad, we want out of here as fast as possible... you say there's a bridge?" "Yeah, goes over the, uh, trench," Cole said quickly. "Like twenty feet across, I didn't see how deep it was." "Come on," John said. He started walking toward where the path turned out of sight, striding quickly. Cole followed, Leon right behind. John stopped about ten feet short of the turn and backed against the wall again, glancing at Leon. "You want to cover, or me?" Leon asked softly. "Me," John said. "I step out first, draw their fire. You run, Henry, right behind him - and head down, got it? Get across, get to the door - if you can, help me out -" John's face was solemn. "- if you can't, you can't." Cole felt a by-now-too-familiar rush of shame. They're protecting me, they don't even know me and I

got them into this... if he could do something to return the favor, he would, although he was suddenly quite sure that he'd never be able to even things out; he owed these guys his life, a couple times over already. "Ready?" John asked. "Wait..." Leon turned and jogged back to where he'd dropped the sweatshirt. The Spitter by the hatch stood as silent and immobile as a statue, watching them. Leon scooped up the shirt and hurried back, slipping a pocket knife out of his pack. He cut off the offending sleeve, letting it fall, then handed the rest to John.

"If you're gonna be standing still, keep your face covered," Leon said. "Since they don't seem to notice bullets, you won't need to see, to shoot. Once we're across, I'll give a yell. And if it's not safe, I'll..."

The rattling, peremptory calls had started up again, making Cole think of cicadas for some reason, the almost mechanical ree-ree-ree sound of cicadas on a hot summer night. He swallowed hard, trying to pretend to himself that he was ready. "Outta time," John said. "Get ready to go..." He held up the sweatshirt, then - astoundingly grinned at Leon. "My man, you must invest in a stronger deodorant; you stink like a dead dog."

Without waiting for a response, John put the shirt over his head, holding it open at the bottom so he could see the floor. He jogged out into the open, his face down, Cole and Leon both tensing...... and there was a rapid patpatpatpat, and the black material over John's face was suddenly dripping with great strings of the poison red snot, and he jerked his hand at them...... and Leon said, "Now!" and Cole ran, head down, seeing only Leon's boots sprinting in front of him, a blur of gray rock, his own thin legs as he sprinted. He heard a gurgling cry to his left and ducked down even farther, terrified -

- and there was the thump of wood in front of him, and then he was on the bridge, flat wooden slats rippling underfoot, tied with scrawny twine. He saw the vee-shaped gorge underneath, saw that it was deep, that it had been dug into the earth beneath the Planet, forty, fifty feet...... and then he was back on gray land, before vertigo could even occur to him. He ran, thinking of how wonderful it was that all he needed to think about was Leon's boots, his heart hammering against his breastbone. Seconds or minutes later, he didn't know, the boots slowed, and Cole dared to look up. The wall, the wall and there was the hatch! They'd made it! "John, go!" Leon screamed, taking a few running steps back the way they'd come, his semi up and ready. "Go!" Cole turned, saw John rip off the black hood, saw the handful of Spitters grouped loosely in front of him, six, seven of them, calling once more. John tore through their ranks, and at least two of them spat, but John was fast, fast enough that only a tiny bit hit his shoulder, at least as far as Cole could tell. The monstrous creatures started after him in their jump- ing, hopping movements, not as fast but close.

Run run run!

Cole pointed the nine-millimeter in the direction of the Spitters, ready to shoot if he thought he could get a clear shot, as John hit the bridge...... and disappeared. The bridge collapsed, and John disappeared.

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