THERE WAS A HALF-MOON IN THE CLEAR night sky, casting a pallid blue light across the vast, open stretch of plain and making it seem even colder than it was. And that's pretty goddamn cold, Claire thought, shivering in spite of the rental's blasting heater. It was another minivan, and even with the three of them moving around in the back, checking weapons and loading clips, they didn't seem to be generating nearly enough heat to ward off the icy air that seeped in through the thin metal shell. "Do you have the 380s?" John asked Leon, who handed over the box of rounds before going back to loading up their hip packs. David was driving, Rebecca checking their position on a GPS. If Trent's coordinates were correct, they'd be getting close. Claire looked out at the pale landscape passing by the dirt track, the seemingly endless miles of nothing beneath the wide open sky, and shivered again. It was a barren, forsaken place, the road they were on scarcely more than a dirt track leading in from no- where; a perfect setting for Umbrella. The plan was simple. Park the van a half mile or so from Trent's coordinates, load up with every weapon they had, and slip into the compound as quietly as they could manage...

"... we'll find this entry keypad of Trent's, run the codes through, and go in strong," David had said, "well after dark. With any luck, the majority of the workers will be asleep; just a matter of finding the staff quarters and rounding them up. We'll confine them and have a check around for this book of Mr. Reston's; John, you and Claire will keep watch over our captives, while the rest of us search. It would probably be in their operations room, or in Reston's private quarters. If we haven't found it within, say, twenty minutes, we'll have to ask Mr. Reston direct- ly - a last resort, to avoid implicating Trent. Book in hand, we go back out the way we came in. Ques-tions?"


Their planning session at the hotel had made it sound easy enough and with as little information as they had, the questions had been few. Now, though, driving through an endless, freezing waste and trying to get psyched up for a confrontation - now it didn't seem so simple. It was a scary prospect, going into a place none of them had ever been before and try to find an item no bigger than a paperback novel.

Plus it's Umbrella, plus we'll have to intimidate the crap out of a bunch of technicians and possibly end up having to strong-arm one of the big boys.

At least they were going in well armed; it seemed that they had learned something about dealing with Umbrella, after all - that taking in a shitload of firepower was a very good idea. In addition to the nine-millimeter handguns and multiple clips that each of them would carry, they had two M-16 A Is, automatic rifles - one for John, one for David - and a half-dozen fragmentation hand grenades. Just in case, David said.

In case everything falls apart. In case we have to blow up some bizarre, murderous creature - or a hun-dred of them... "Cold?" Leon asked. Claire turned away from the window, looking at him. He'd finished with the packs, and was holding one out to her. She took it, nodding in response to his question. "Aren't you?"He shook his head, grinning. "Thermal underwear. Could have used these in Raccoon..."Claire smiled. "How could I have used them? I was running around in a pair of shorts, you at least had your uniform."Which was covered with lizard guts before I was halfway through the sewers," he said, and she was glad to hear him at least try to joke about it.

He's getting better; we both are."Now, children," John said sternly. "If you don't

stop, we're turning this car around..." "Slow down," Rebecca said from the front, her quiet voice stilling them. David let up on the gas, the van slowing to a crawl.

"It looks like it's about a half-mile southeast from our current position," Rebecca said. Claire took a deep breath, saw John pick up one of the rifles, and saw Leon's mouth press into a thin line as David brought the van to a stop. It was time. John opened the side door and the air was ice, dry and bitterly cold. "Hope they got the coffee on," John breathed, and hopped out into the darkness, reaching back in to grab his pack. Rebecca loaded up a few medical supplies, and as she and David climbed out, Leon put his hand on Claire's shoulder. "You up for this?" he asked softly, and Claire smiled inwardly, thinking of how sweet he was; she'd been thinking of asking him the same thing. In the days since Raccoon, they'd gotten pretty close - and although she wasn't positive, she'd picked up on a few signals that suggested he wouldn't mind getting closer. She still wasn't sure if that was a good idea -

-and now's not the time to be deciding. The sooner we get this code book, the sooner we get to Europe. To Chris. "As up as I'm gonna be," she said, and Leon nodded, and they climbed out into the freezing night to join the others. David put John at the rear and took the lead himself, forcing all negative thoughts out of his mind as they struck out for where Trent said the test site would be. It wasn't easy; they were going in cold with less than a day's planning, no layout, no idea what Reston looked like or what kind of security they'd be facing -

-the list is endless, isn't it, and I'm still taking them in. Because if we're successful, I can step down.

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Umbrella will be as good as dead and no one will have to look to me for anything, ever again.

That was a thought he could hold on to; a peaceful retirement. Once the monsters behind White Umbrella had been brought to justice, vigilante or otherwise, he'd have no greater responsibility than keeping him-self fed and bathed. Perhaps he'd work up to a house- plant... "I think veer left a few degrees," Rebecca said from behind him, startling him, bringing his focus back around. She'd barely spoken above a whisper, but the night was so cold and crisp, the air so perfectly still that every step taken, every breath exhaled seemed to fill the world. David led them through the darkness, wishing they could use their lights; they should be getting quite close. But even dressed all in black, he was worried they'd be spotted before they could get inside - what- ever that meant exactly; Trent had given them no idea of what the facility would look like. In any case, with barely a half moon they wouldn't see it until they were right on top...


A thickening of shadow, straight ahead. David held up his hand, slowing the others as they moved closer, as he saw a dented metal roof reflecting moonlight. And then a fence, and then a handful of buildings, all of them dark and silent. David dropped into a walking crouch, motioning for the rest to follow suit, holding the automatic rifle tight against his chest. They crept closer, close enough to see the lonely group of tall one-story structures behind a low fence.

Five, six buildings, no lights, no movement - a front, surely... "Underground," Rebecca whispered, and David nodded. Probably; they'd discussed several possibili- ties, and it seemed the most likely. Even in the wan light he could see that the buildings were old, dusty and worn. There was a smallish structure in the front, five long, low buildings in a row behind it, all with sloping metal roofs. It was certainly big enough to be some kind of a testing ground, the larger buildings as big as aircraft hangars, but between the site's place-ment - alone, out in the open in the middle of a desert - and the wear and tear, he'd guess under- ground. Good and bad. Good, because they should be able to get into the compound without much trouble; bad because God only knew what kind of surveillance system had been set up. They would have to go in fast. David turned, still in a crouch, and faced the team. "We'll need to double-time," he said softly, "and stay low. We scale the fence, head for the structure closest to the front gate, same order - I'm on point, John's in back. We have to find the entry ASAP. Watch for cameras, and everyone's armed as soon as we're in the compound."

Nods all around, faces grim and set. David turned and started for the fence, head down, his muscles tight and jumping. Twenty meters, the air biting into his lungs, freezing the light sweat on his skin. Ten meters. Five, and he could see the "No Trespassing" signs posted on the fence, and as they reached the

gate, David saw the sign telling them that they were at the privately owned "Weather Monitoring and Survey#7." He looked up and saw the rounded silhouettes of what had to be satellite dishes on two of the buildings, plus the multiple thin lines of antennae stretching up from one of them. David touched the fence with the barrel of the M-16, then with his hand. Nothing, and there was no barbed wire either, no sensor lines that he could see, no alarm trips.

Obviously, no weather station would have those; trust Umbrella to be as concise in their fronts as with anything else.

He slung the rifle over his shoulder, grabbed the thick wire and pulled himself up. It was only seven feet; he was at the top in five seconds, flipping himself over and jumping to the dusty ground inside the compound. Rebecca was next, climbing quickly and easily, a lithe shadow in the dark. David reached up to help her, but she leapt nimbly to the ground next to him with hardly a stumble. She drew her weapon, an H amp;K VP70, and turned to cover the darkness as David looked back to the fence. Leon almost tripped off the top, but David man- aged to steady him, grabbing the younger man's hand; once he was down, he nodded his thanks at David and turned to help Claire over.

So far, so good...

David scanned the shadows around them as John scaled the outside, his heart pounding, all of his senses on high alert. There was no sound but the gentle clank of the fence, no movement in the black- ness. He glanced back as John thumped to the cold and dusty ground, then nodded toward the front struc- ture, the smaller one. If he were to design a false cover, he'd hide the real entrance somewhere no one would look - in a broom closet at the back of the last building, through a trap door in the dirt, but Um- brella was cocky, too smug to worry about such simple precautions.

It will be in the first building, because they'll believe they've hidden it so cleverly that no one will find it. Because if there's one thing we can count on, it's that Umbrella thinks they're too smart to be caught out...

He hoped. Staying down, David started for the building, praying that if there were cameras watching them, there was no one watching the cameras.

It was late, but Reston wasn't tired. He sat in the control room, sipping brandy from a ceramic mug and idly thinking about the next day's agenda. He'd make his report, of course; Cole still hadn't managed to fix the intercom system, although the video cameras all seemed to be in working order; the Ca6 handler, Les Duvall, wanted one of the mechan- ics to see about a sticking lock on the release cage -

- and there was still the city. The MaSKs couldn't exactly shine if the only colors were tan and brick... have to get the construction people into Four tomorrow. And see how the Avis do with the perches.

A red light flashed on the panel in front of him, accompanied by a soft mechanical bleat. It was the sixth or seventh time in the last week; he'd have to get Cole to fix that, too. The winds sweeping off the plain could be vicious; on a bad day, they rattled the doors to the surface structures hard enough to set off all of the sensors. Still, good thing I was here... once the Planet was fully staffed, there'd always be someone in control to reset the sensors, but for the time being, he was the only one with access to the control room. If he'd been in bed, the soft but insistent alarm currently going off in his private room would have forced him to get up. Reston reached for the switch, glancing at the row of monitors to his left more for form's sake than because he expected to see anything...... and froze, staring at a screen that showed him the entry room nearly a quarter mile above where he sat, in a view from the ceiling cam in the southeast corner. Four, five people, turning on flashlights, all of them dressed in black. The thin beams of light roamed over the dusty consoles, the walls of meteoro- logical equipment - and illuminated the weapons they were holding in flashes of metal. Guns and rifles.

Oh, no.

Reston felt almost a full second of fear and despair before he remembered who he was. Jay Reston had not become one of the most powerful men in the country, perhaps in the world, by panicking. He reached beneath the console, reached for the slender handset tucked into the slot next to the chair that would connect him directly to White Umbrella's private offices. As soon as he picked it up, the line went through. "This is Reston," he said, and could hear the steel in his voice, hear it and feel it. "We have a problem. I want a call put in to Trent, I want Jackson to call me immediately - and send out a team, now, I want them here twenty minutes ago."

He stared at the screen as he spoke, at the intruders, and clenched his jaw, his initial fear turning to anger.

The fugitive S.T.A.R.S., surely...

It didn't matter. Even if they found the entrance, they didn't have the codes - and whoever they were, they would pay for causing him even a second of distress. Reston slid the phone back into its slot, folded his arms, and watched the strangers move silently across the screen, wondering if they had any idea that they'dbe dead within half an hour.

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