They walked back down to the lobby floor, Billy glad that she'd agreed to keep cooperating. This place, whatever it was, was definitely bad news. She was inexperienced, but at least she wasn't nuts.

"We should split up," Rebecca said.


Billy barked a laugh, one entirely devoid of humor. "Are you nuts? Haven't you ever seen a horror movie? Besides, look what happened last time."

"We found the key to that briefcase, if I remember correctly. And what we need now is a way out of here."

"Yeah, but alive," Billy said. "This place has hostile territory written all over it. I suggested a truce in the first place because I don't want to die, get it?"

"You've taken care of yourself pretty good so far," she said. "I'm not saying we go get in trouble. Just open a few doors, is all. And we've got radios now."

Billy sighed. "Didn't the S.T.A.R.S. teach you about teamwork?"

"Actually, this was my first mission," Rebecca said. "Look, we take a look around, call if we find anything. I'll head upstairs, you check down here. If the radios fritz out, we meet back here in twenty minutes."

"I don't like it."

"You don't have to. Just do it."

"Sir, yes, sir," Billy snapped. She wasn't lacking leadership tendencies, he'd give her that--although maybe it wasn't so hard to order a convicted felon around when you worked for the law. "How old are you, anyway? I'd like to know I'm taking orders from someone more mature than your average Girl Scout."

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Rebecca shot him a scowl, then turned and went back up the stairs. A few seconds later, he heard a door close.

Well. Billy looked around the lobby. Eeny, meeny, miney.. .

"Mo," Billy said, turning to the left wall. He'd didn't want to go it alone, he'd rather have backup, but it was probably better this way; if he found an exit, he could take his walk, after all, call her to say good-bye on his way out. Leaving her behind wouldn't make him feel so hot, but she could hole up and wait for rescue; she'd be all right. He had to keep his continued health in mind; if any other S.T.A.R.S. showed up, or the RCPD, or the MPs, he'd be on his way back to Ragithon in a heartbeat.

He pushed the thought away as he stepped up to the door. He'd been pretty screwed up since the sentencing, filled with rage and anguish in equal parts. Since the jeep wreck he'd been able to put his date with death out of mind, a necessity if he wanted to be able to think clearly. He had to keep it up.

"Let's see what's behind door number one," he mumbled, pushing the nondescript door open--and tensed, raising the handgun, taking aim. It was a dining room, one that had once been quite elegant. Now there were two, three infected men wandering around the trashed dinner table in the center of the room, and all three were turning toward him. They all looked like zombies, their skin gray and torn, their eyes blank. One of them had a fork sticking out of one shoulder.

Billy quickly closed the door and stepped back, waiting to see if any of the creatures could manage a doorknob, the emptiness of the lobby weighing on his back like a cold stare. After a few beats he heard a shuffling against the wood and then a low, frustrated cry, the sound as mindless as the zombies seemed to be.

Well. The house, training facility, whatever it was, had been infected just like the train; that answered that question. He grabbed the radio, hit the transmit button.

"Rebecca, come in. We got zombies here. Over." He thought about the giant scorpion-thing and shuddered, hoping that zombies was all they had.

There was a pause, then her youthful voice crackled out. "Copy that. Do you need help? Over."

"No," Billy said, annoyed. "But don't you think we should reconsider our plans? Over?"

"This doesn't change anything," she said. "We still have to find a way out. Keep looking, and let me know what else you find. Over and out."

Great. Wondergirl was sticking to the plan. So, door number two, unless he wanted to take his chances with three of the things. He turned and walked across the room, telling himself it would be a waste of ammo, which was true. It was also true that he didn't want to shoot sick people, no matter how deranged . . . And that the zombies were seriously freaky, and if he could avoid them, he would.

He pushed the second door open, held it, his senses on high. It opened into a plush hallway that led along to his right, turning not far ahead. There was no sound, no movement, and it smelled likedust, nothing more ominous. He waited a moment, then stepped inside, letting the door settle closed behind him.

He crept down the hall, his steps muffled by thick carpet, leading around the turn with his weapon, letting out a breath when he saw that it, too, was clear. So far, so good. The hall continued on, turning again, but there was a door on the left he could try.

Billy pushed the door open--and smiled at the empty bathroom, at the row of sinks that he could see from the door.

"That reminds me," he said, stepping inside. He checked the room quickly; sinks lined two walls of the u-shaped room, four toilet stalls lining a third, discreetly out of sight from the door. As nice as the house was, it did seem to be abandoned, perhaps recently; one of the stall doors was hanging off its hinges, the toilet seat fractured, and there were a few odds and ends scattered across the floor, empty bottles, potted plants, unlikely debris for a bathroom. There was even a plastic gas tank in one of the stalls. On the other hand, there was relatively clean water in the bowl . . . Which, considering the urgency of his visit, was good enough for him.

He was just zipping up a minute later when he heard someone step into the bathroom. A single step, then a long pause ... Then a second step. Had he closed the door? He couldn't remember, and silently cursed himself for the slip. He pulled his weapon and pivoted on the balls of his feet, moving silently, easing the stall door open. He couldn't see the door from where he was, but he could see part of the room reflected in a long mirror above the sinks. He kept the handgun level and waited.

A third step, and again silence. Whoever it was had wet feet, he could hear the soles of his or her shoes coming off the floor with a squelching sound--and on the fourth step, he saw a profile in the mirror, and stepped out of the stall, feeling a strange mix of horror and relief as he readied himself to fire. It was a zombie, a male, its face slick and blank, its eyes trained on nothing as it swayed slightly, balancing to stay upright. They were awful--but at least they were relatively slow. And much as he didn't like the job, killing them was surely a mercy.

The zombie took another step, moving into Billy's line of fire. Billy took careful aim, sighting just above the thing's right ear, he didn't want to waste a shot--

--and the zombie turned suddenly, quickly, faster than it had any right to move. It crouched slightly, stared at Billy through one blood-burst eye, the other looking at the wall, and reached for him, still two meters away--

--but its arm was stretching, thinning out as it snapped toward him like a rubber band, the fabric of its wet, colorless shirt stretching with it.

Billy ducked. The thing's hand sailed over his head and slapped against the stall door with a wet smack, then retreated, pulled back to the inhuman body that somehow looked like a zombie.

On the train, like Marcus--

It was close enough that he could see the movement of the creature's clothes, the strange rippling effect as its arm snapped back into place. Leeches, the goddamn thing was made out of leeches, and as it took a step closer, Billy stumbled backward into the stall, firing into its wet and meaty face.

It hesitated, black ooze sliding from the wound that appeared just below its left eye--and then the wound disappeared, the faux skin gliding over it, the leeches resituating themselves. Healing themselves.

It took another step forward and Billy kicked the stall door closed, slamming it and holding it with one boot, running through ideas and discarding them just as fast.

Call for Rebecca, no time, keep shooting, not enough bullets, run, it's blocking the way--

Billy hissed in frustration--and his frenzied gaze fell on the red plastic gas can on the floor. He threw himself forward, blocking the stall door with one shoulder as he dug through his right front pocket. There, under one of the rifle shells--He pulled out the lighter he'd taken from the train, thanking God for it, and bent down, scooped up the gas can, the loose handcuff banging against the plastic. It wasn't quite half full. Jesus, I hope that's gas--

The stall door was struck as though by a battering ram. Billy bounced off, then threw himself forward again, unscrewing the lid of the container with one shaking hand, his shoulder aching. The creature was strangely, horribly silent as it again charged the door, slamming into it hard enough to dent the metal.

The dizzying scent of gasoline filled the tiny stall. Billy snatched at the toilet paper roll on the wall, jerked it free--and the door smashed open, blown off its hinges by another powerful, inhuman blow. The creature stood there, swaying, its one strange eye finding Billy, targeting him. Billy upended the can as he pushed himself to his feet, sloshing gas on himself. He thrust the can forward, pouring it onto the thing's chest.

The reaction was immediate and repulsive. The body began to writhe, to tremble, and a high-pitched squeal erupted into the room, not one voice but a thousand tiny creatures screeching as one. Thick, dark fluid began to run from seemingly every pore of its face and body.

Billy gave it a solid kick, and it staggered backward, still cohesive, still squealing, the sound piercing in the small room. He didn't know if the gas alone was enough, and wasn't going to wait and see. He flipped the lighter open and spun the wheel, holding the roll of toilet paper over the flame that sputtered to life. A second later, it was aflame.

Billy jumped out of the stall and dodged around the shrieking monster. As soon as he was past, he pivoted and threw the flaming roll of paper. It hit the leech-man just below its breastbone--and the squealing cry intensified for one horrible, deafening second as flames roared over him, enveloping him, before he collapsed into a thousand burning pieces. A black, burning puddle took shape on the tile floor, the tiny cries dying out in a matter of seconds.

A few straggling leeches crawled away from the fire, but they were disorganized, randomly sliding up the walls, slithering past his feet. Billy backed away from them, from the bubbling, dying fire, shoving the lighter back in his pocket as he neared the door.

Back in the hall, he took a deep breath, blew it out, and reached for the radio. He no longer cared what Rebecca's plans were; they were going to regroup, ASAP, and get the hell out of this place if they had to dig through the walls with their bare goddamn hands.

December 4th When we first started, I had my doubts--but tonight, we celebrate. We finally did it, after all this time. We're calling the new construct virus Progenitor, Ashford's idea, but I like it. We'll begin testing immediately.

March 23rd Spencer says he's going to start a company specializing in pharmaceutical research, maybe branch into drug manufacture. As always, he's the businessman of our group. His interest in Progenitor is primarily financial, it seems, but I'm not going to complain. He wants to see us succeed, which means he'll keep us well funded; as long as he's writing checks, he can do what he likes.

August 19th Progenitor is a marvel, but its applications are still so unsure. Just when we think we have the amplification rate documented, when we have a half dozen tests all showing the same results, everything falls apart. Ashford is still banking on working the cytokine numbers, coming at it backward, but he's dreaming. We need to keep looking.

Spencer keeps asking me to be the director of his new training facility. Maybe ifs because of the business, but he's becoming intolerably pushy. In any case, I'm considering it. I need a place to properly explore new possibilities for this virus, a place where I will not be interfered with.

November 30th Damn him. "let's have lunch, James," he says, old comrades and fond memories. It's bullshit. He wants Progenitor ready, now. His "friends" in their White Umbrella clubhouse, with their ridiculous spy games for the rich and jaded-- they want something exciting to play with, to auction off, and they don't want to wait for it. Fools. Spencer thinks that this will all come down to money, but he's wrong. That's not what any of this is about, not anymore; I don't know that it ever was. I have to strengthen my own position, guard my queen, so to speak, or I could be steamrolled.

September 19th At last, at last! I engineered a plasmid with leech DNA and then recombined it with Progenitor-- and it's stable! It was the breakthrough I've been counting on. Spencer will be happy, damn him, though I'll only let on that some progress has been made, not how much, not how. I've named it after him, my own private joke. I'm calling it T, for Tyrant.

October 23rd I can't think of them as human beings. They're test subjects, that's all, that's all. I knew the research would have to come to this someday, I knew it and--and I didn't know it would be this way.

I must keep my focus. The T-virus is magnificent; they, these subjects should be honored to experience such perfection. Their lives pave a road to a higher awareness.

Test subjects. That's all Pawns. Sometimes, pawns must be sacrificed for the greater good.

January 13th My pets have been progressing. With their own DNA in the recombinant virus, I thought I could predict how infection would change them, but I was wrong. They've begun to colonize, like ants or bees. No individual is better than any other; they work together, a hive mind, coming together for a higher purpose. My purpose. I didn't see it at first, I was blind, but this is vastly more rewarding than the work on humans. I must continue those tests, however--I can't let on that I've discovered the true meaning, the value of T and what it represents. Spencer would try and take it, I know he would. My king is in the open.

February 11th They've been watching me. I go into the lab, I see that things have been moved. They try and hide it, make everything look as it did, but I see. It's Spencer, damn his soul, he knows about my leeches, my beautiful hive, and this-- this persecution won't end until one of us is dead. I can't trust anyone . . . Albert and William, perhaps, my castles, they believe in the work, but I may have to eliminate some of the others. The game draws to a close. He'll try for my queen, but the win will be mine. Checkmate, Oswell. It was the last entry. Rebecca closed the journal and set it aside, next to the chess set that was centered on the desk. When she'd found the hidden cache, she'd thought the rudimentary maps had been the prize. There were two, one that showed what appeared to be three floors of the building's basement, including a few unmarked areas that perhaps led outside. The other seemed to be upstairs, a room labeled observatory next to a wide, open area marked breeding pool. But the small, leatherbound journal, dusty and crinkled with age--she didn't know how old, exactly, but one of the entries about working with the leeches had "1988" marked in an upper corner--had been the real discovery. Written by James Marcus, presumably, apparently the creator of the T-virus, the same virus that turned men into zombies, that had infected the train and probably half of Raccoon forest, if the recent murders were any clue.

Rebecca gazed blankly at the room's strange decor, the giant chessboard that dominated the floor, her mind working. He'd obviously been crazy by the end, his ramblings about chess, about the "true meaning" of the virus. Maybe running experiments on people had driven him over the edge.

Her radio signaled. She'd no sooner pushed receive before Billy's breathless voice blared in her ear.

"Where are you? We need to regroup, now. Hello? Ah, over."

"What happened? Over."

"What happened is that I ran into another one of those leech-people in the can, and it very nearly whacked the crap out of me. Zombies we can handle, but these things--they eat bullets, Rebecca. We don't have enough ammo to hold more of them off. Over."

"They've begun to colonize, like ants or bees." Who was controlling them? Marcus? Or had they developed their own leader, a queen?

"Okay," Rebecca said. She picked up the basement and observatory sketches she'd found, stuffed them into her vest as she stood up. After a second, she grabbed the journal, too, slipping it into a hip pocket. "Uh, meet me on the landing, where that picture of Marcus was. I may have found a way out, over."

"On my way. Watch your back, over and out."

She hurried out of the room and down the hall, moving quickly. She hadn't gotten far in her exploration, just an empty meeting room and then the office with the chess sets; thankfully, she hadn't run into anything hostile. Billy was right about the leech-men, there was no way they could handle more of those. In fact, it seemed likely that the only reason the collection of leeches on the train had stopped attacking them was because they were called off. She'd had vague hopes of staying in the nice, safe house until help arrived, but after reading Marcus's journal, hearing that the training facility was infected--they needed to get out.

After all she'd already been through tonight--the forced helicopter landing, the train, Billy, the crash, now this--she kept expecting the cavalry to ride in, for someone else to take over, to send her home to a warm dinner and bed so that she could wake up tomorrow and start her normal life again. But it seemed instead that she was being drawn even deeper into the mystery of Marcus and his creations, of Umbrella and its evil experiments.

The young man had moved to a place where the hive could comfortably gather, a large space, warm and moist and far from the possibility of daylight. The many surrounded him now, singing their tuneless song of water and darkness, but he was not soothed. He'd watched with cold fury as the girl--Rebecca, the killer had called her, and his cursed name was Billy--stole Marcus's journal, slipping it into a pocket before leaving the office. This wasn't why he'd had the desk opened for her, not at all. The map of the observatory, she was supposed to take only the map.

The two met now in front of the portrait doorway, both speaking at once, surely relating their findings, their murderous exploits. He could see the thief and the killer on a video screen at one side of his new environment--a lower level of the treatment plant--but he could see them better through the dozen pairs of rudimentary eyes watching them, the children peering out at them from the shadows. The minds of the many were powerful, able to send images to one another, to him; it was how they could work together so effectively. Rebecca and Billy had no understanding of how vulnerable they were, of how easily he could reach out and take their lives from them. They survived still only by his grace.

A thief and her murdering friend; Billy had killed a collective. He'd burned it. The few survivors were still straggling home to their master, their poor bodies scorched, showing him the death of the whole by their lack of cohesion. How had he dared, this unimportant man, this insect?

Rebecca held out the maps and they both studied them, too stupid, surely, to know what was expected of them. The observatory was the key to their escape, but they would undoubtedly try the basement first. It was just as well. He was no longer so sure he wanted them to go free.

They started down the stairs, disappearing from the screen, from the many's sight, but only for a second. As the couple came back into view through another camera, they stopped, staring down at the litter of arachnid bodies, dead and curled on the floor. There were four of the giant spiders, all killed mere moments before, eliminated so that Rebecca and her friend might avoid their poisonous bite. The spiders were another experiment, one doomed to fail, too slow, too difficult to handle, but lethal enough for the young man to have been concerned. He was sorry, now; watching the thief and murderer die would be his pleasure, in spite of what it did to his plans for Umbrella. The couple moved on, unaware that they were being watched by the creatures that had killed the spiders, who nested in the swollen, segmented bodies even now.

What to do? Killing them would fulfill a need in him, the need to avenge the lives of the children, the need to assert his control. But exposing Umbrella was the priority, bringing the company to ruin by laying open its stinking heart . . . which Billy and Rebecca would surely do, if they survived.

The pair followed the corridor to its end, then through the door of a long-abandoned office. After a brief consultation with their map, they continued on into a dead-end room where live specimens had once been kept. The cages were long gone, the room empty now. The young man wasn't sure why they had chosen a dead end--until he saw them move to the northeast corner, both of them looking up at the dark rectangle near the ceiling.

The ventilator shaft. It wouldn't have been labeled on the map; perhaps they believed it to be a way out. In fact, it led to--

The young man shook his head. Dr. Marcus's private chamber, the room where he'd once "entertained" certain attractive young test subjects. Why couldn't they simply leave? They'd find nothing in the private room, nothing--


The ventilator shaft was connected to another live specimen area, one that wasn't empty. And the creatures there hadn't been fed in days. They would very, very hungry by now. All he'd need to do would be to have the many unlatch a gate or two ...

Rather then consider them an integral part of his plan, maybe he should think of Billy and Rebecca as test subjects. They might die--which, in truth, would probably only delay Umbrella's exposure for a short while; he was impatient, but he had to consider the entertainment value. Or, they might survive. In which case, they'd have an even greater story to tell.

The young man smiled his blade of a smile as Billy gave Rebecca a boost, lifting her up to the ventilator shaft. She crawled inside, disappearing from view. Wouldn't they be surprised, if a few of the leftovers from the primate series showed up to play?

Around him, the children cooed, the walls, the ceiling dripping with their slippery fluids. Surrounded by the many, the fate of Umbrella in his hands--and now two little soldiers for him to test, to enjoy watching as they pitted their abilities against the remnants of Umbrella's bio-organic weaponry-- he was happy. Would they live or die? Either way, he would be satisfied.

"Open the cages, my darlings," he murmured, and began to sing.

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