Rebecca pushed herself through the air shaft, ignoring the layers of dust and cobwebs that were collecting on her hair and clothes, ignoring the suffocatingly close walls of thin metal. The map only showed the connecting shaft running between two rooms on the basement's first floor, but there were spaces on the second, sub-basement floor that seemed to be part of the system, too. It seemed likely that one of the shafts vented outside. Billy hadn't been overly enthusiastic--likely wasn't the same as probably, he'd said-- but they both agreed that it was worth a shot.
At least it's not very long, she thought, edging toward the square of light not far ahead. There was a thin metal grille covering the exit, but it popped off with a few taps, clattering to the floor below.
She got a quick look at a big stone room, dank and empty in the flicker of a dying light fixture, then pushed herself out, grabbing the edge of the vent and somersaulting to a crouch. She stood up, brushing herself off, taking in the new room.
Oh, jeez- It was like some medieval dungeon, large, gloomy, a cavern made of stone. The rock walls were fixed with chains, the chains fixed with manacles. There were a number of devices sitting around that she didn't recognize, but that could only have been made to inflict pain. There were boards with rusty nails in them, knotted ropes in bunches, and next to a scum-thick broken wall fountain was a large standing case that looked like an iron maiden. She had no doubt that the dark, faded stains in the crevices of the rough-hewn wall were blood.
"Everything okay? Over?"
She picked up her radio. "I don't think 'okay' is the right word," she said. "But I'm all right, over."
"Is there another air shaft, over?"
She turned, searching the walls for a vent--and saw one, twenty feet overhead. "Yeah, but it's in the ceiling," she said, and sighed. Even if they had a ladder to reach the vent, they couldn't climb straight up. She spotted the room's one door, in the southwest corner. "Where does the door from here lead, over?"
A pause. "Looks like it opens into a small room that leads back into the corridor we came through," he said. "Should I meet you back in the corridor, over?"
Rebecca started for the door. "That makes the most sense. Maybe we can try--"
Before she could complete the sentence, a terrible sound filled the room, like nothing she'd ever heard before but also strangely familiar. It was a high, monkeylike shriek--
--that's it. The primate house, at the zoo.
--that was echoing, howling through the cavernous space, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. Rebecca looked up just as a pale, long-limbed creature peered out at her from the ceiling vent. It bared its teeth, thick and sharp, clutching the air in front of its muscular chest with limber fingers, screeching horribly.
Before she could take a step, the creature leaped from the vent, jumping off against one rock wall before landing on the floor in a squat, on a tumble of thin boards in the middle of the room. It stared up at her, its lips drawn back over its yellowed teeth. It looked almost like a baboon with short white fur, except that there were great tears in the fur, glistening patches of dense red muscle showing through. It didn't look as though it had been attacked, but rather as though its muscles had grown too large for its skin and were splitting through. Its hands were too big, its nails overly long, and they dragged and ticked across the stone floor as it edged toward her from the pile of boards, grinning maliciously.
Slow . . . Rebecca eased her weapon off her hip, as frightened as she'd been all night. Normal baboons were capable of ripping a person apart, and this one looked like it had been infected.
The baboon edged closer--and from overhead she heard another, at least two other voices begin to shriek, the noise getting louder, more of the sick animals approaching. It was close enough now for her to smell, the hot and musky scent of urine and feces and wildness, of overpowering infection.
"Rebecca! What's going on?"
She still held the radio in her left hand. She depressed the button, afraid to speak but more afraid that Billy's shouting would incite the creature, make it attack.
"Sshhh," she said, her voice soft, as much to calm the animal as to shut Billy up. She took a step back, clipping the radio to the collar of her shirt, raising the nine-millimeter. The baboon squatted lower, tensing its legs--
--and sprang, just as she fired, just as two more lithe and screaming forms hopped and capered into the room from the air shaft, one of them striking her head as it fell past, its ragged nails tearing at her hair. The strike pushed her out of the attacker's way, but it also knocked her off balance, her shot hitting nothing but wall, all of them landing on the pile of boards--
--and then the floor collapsed.
There had been no new developments. The strange young man, whoever he was--and Wesker had his suspicions, which he kept to himself--had not appeared again, nor had the image of James Marcus. The cameras didn't seem to be working correctly, either, making surveillance something of a moot point. Many had simply gone black, leaving them nothing to see, to consider.
After several long, boring moments of listening to Birkin talk about his new virus, Wesker pushed back from the video console and stood up, stretching. It was funny--a few years ago, he might have been interested in his old friend's work. Now, with his own departure from Umbrella's folds looming, he found himself unable even to pretend.
"Well, it's been quite a day," Wesker said, breaking through William's obsessive monologue when he took a breath. "I'll be off."
Birkin stared at him, his pinched, pallid face looming ghostly by the white light of the screens. "What? Where are you going?"
"Home. There's nothing more we can do here."
"But--you said--what about the cleanup?"
Wesker shrugged. "Umbrella will send another team, I'm sure."
"I thought keeping the spills quiet was the most important thing. Didn't you say it was vital?"
"Yes!" Birkin was actually angry. "I don't want anyone else from Umbrella coming in. They might start asking questions about my work. I need more time."
Wesker shrugged again. "So, set off the auto-destruct yourself, and tell our contact that it's all taken care of."
Birkin nodded, though Wesker could see the uneasiness that flashed through his gaze. Wesker dodged a smile. Birkin was afraid of their newest contact to the big boys at HQ, avoiding interaction when he could. Wesker couldn't blame him. There was something about Trent, his oddly self-possessed nature--
"What about--him?" Birkin nodded toward the screens. Wesker felt a trace of unease himself, but kept his expression unperturbed.
"A fanatic with a grudge. He's great with video tricks, but I imagine he'll burn as well as anyone else." Wesker didn't quite believe that himself, but wasn't interested in unraveling the mystery. He wasn't a detective in some cheap conspiracy novel, driven by a need to get to the bottom of things. In his experience, anomalies tended to resolve themselves, one way or another.
"If word about what really happened to Dr. Marcus were to get out--"
"It won't," Wesker said.
Birkin refused to be placated. "But what about Spencer's estate, the facilities there?"
Wesker started for the door, his boots clanging across the metal mesh. Birkin followed like a wayward pup.
"Leave that to me," he said. "Umbrella wants combat data, I'm going to give it to them. I'll take the S.T.A.R.S. in, see how real training holds up against the B.O.W.s." He smiled, thinking of the talent on the Alpha team. Strongman Barry, Chris's sharpshooting, Jill and her eclectic upbringing, the daughter of an unparalleled thief ... It would be a most interesting fight. After seeing little Rebecca Chambers in the facility, it was obvious that something untimely had happened to Enrico's team; Wesker could use that, take the Alphas in to "find" the remaining men.
Even if the Bravos manage to get themselves back to civilization, there will be the missing Rebecca to go in search of. The girl was brilliant, but brains didn't equal combat experience. In fact, she was probably dead already.
They left the control room, Wesker striding down the hall, Birkin jogging to keep up. They reached the elevator, still open from Wesker's arrival, and Wesker stepped inside. Birkin stood facing him, and in the brighter light of the corridor, Wesker could see the taint of insanity in the scientist's face. His eyes were rimmed in darkness, and he'd developed a facial tic at one corner of his mouth. Wesker wondered vaguely if Annette had noticed her husband's descent into the deeper wells of paranoia, then decided that she probably hadn't. That woman was blind to everything but the "greatness" of her husband's work. Unfortunate for their daughter, to have such parents.
"I'll set the destruct sequence," Birkin said.
"Time it for morning," Wesker said, flashing a grin. "The dawn of a new day."
The doors closed on Birkin's determined expression, a look of resolve on the face of a sheep, and Wesker's grin widened, his heart light with thoughts of what was to come. Everything was about to change, for all of them.
Billy was running as soon as he heard the animal shrieks, the crash, and was in the corridor when Rebecca's frightened shout crackled from the radio. He ran faster, stuffing the maps in his back pocket, his weapon in hand, cursing himself for letting her go through the air shaft.
There, straight ahead, was the door, not far from one of the giant spider bodies. He barreled into it, slamming against it with one shoulder as he grabbed the latch and lifted. The door crashed open and he was through. The overhead fluorescents strobed, damaged, giving the room an unreal air, some kind of lab, maybe, though there was a mildewed cot in one corner. Doesn't matter, go!
He flew across the room to the next door, Rebecca shouting again, calling for him to watch out, to hurry. As he pushed at the latch, he caught a movement off to one side, turned and saw a decrepit-looking zombie standing in a corner. The lights buzzed on and off, the dying man watching him silently, his ravaged form disappearing into darkness with each flicker. It began to shuffle toward him.
Later, buddy. Billy flung the second door open, ran inside.
Almost immediately, something flew at him, screaming. He ducked, caught a confused blur of red and white, of animal stink, and then the creature--it was a monkey, some kind of monkey--was past him, still screaming. It was joined by two others, the three of them quickly forming a loose circle around Billy, their lanky, muscular arms and legs in constant motion, swiping at him, their diseased-looking bodies dancing closer to him, then away. He backed up, wedged himself into the corner where the door met a rock wall, not wanting to be cornered but more afraid of having his back exposed. The monkeys continued to dance in and out, shrieking.
"Rebecca!" he shouted. "Down here!"
She sounded far away. He saw the hole then, a few meters away. Pieces of splintered board littered the floor around it. He couldn't see her at all.
"Hang on," he called, and turned his full attention to the monkeys just as one of them got in close enough to make contact.
It swiped at him with one overly large paw, its talons raking across the tops of his thighs. It didn't break skin but the next hit surely would. Billy didn't aim, just pointed and fired--
--and the monkey spun back, howling, a gout of dark blood erupting from its chest, but it wasn't dead, it shook its head, stepped forward again, and Billy thought that he was probably screwed, they were too powerful, too organized. He couldn't get any one of them without opening himself to attack--
--except both of the others leaped on the wounded third, tearing into it with greedy hands. The injured animal screamed, struggling, but its blood had inspired a feeding frenzy, the other two ripping it apart in seconds, stuffing great wet chunks of its flesh into their mouths.
Billy had time to aim, and took it. One, two, three shots, and the monkeys were down, dead or dying.
He ran to the hole, dropped to his knees and scurried to the ragged edge, his heart pounding--then sinking, as he saw how far down she was. She was hanging onto a piece of metal piping with both hands, a full floor beneath where he was standing. Beyond that, darkness gaped. It was impossible to know how far she might fall.
"Billy," she gasped, looking up at him with frightened eyes.
"Don't let go," he said, and snatched the maps from his pocket, scanning for her position, for the fastest way to get to her. There was no quick access to the basement's second floor, not from the first. He'd have to go back through the lobby, probably through that dining room door where he'd seen the zombies. The stairs to the sub-basement were on the east side of the house.
"I don't know how long I can hold on," she breathed. Her whisper was magnified through her radio, through his. She'd activated an open channel at some point.
"Don't you dare let go," he said. "That's a goddamn order, little girl, you got it?"
She didn't reply, but he saw her jaw tighten. Good, maybe pissing her off would keep her strong. He was already on his feet again.
"I'm coming," he said, and turned and ran, back through the door to the strobe-light lab. The zombie there had moved, was standing in between him and the room's exit back to the corridor, but Billy didn't bother with the weapon, too afraid for Rebecca to take the time. He put out one arm like a quarterback in the big game and hurtled into the creature, shoving as hard as he could, still running as the zombie reeled back, fell to the floor. Billy was out and gone before its frustrated, hungry cry could reach him.
Down the hall, past the impossible spiders, up the stairs. He ejected the clip in the nine-millimeter, pocketed it, fumbled the spare out and jammed it home as he tore through the lobby. Hang on, hang on. ..
He didn't hesitate at the dining room door, slamming it open, rushing inside. He spotted two of the zombies safely out of his way, blocked by the dining room table. The third was standing near the door he thought would lead him to Rebecca, it was the soldier with the fork in his shoulder, and Billy stopped just long enough to take aim, to fire two rounds into its already oozing head. The first went wide, but the second shot blew a substantial piece of bone out the back of its skull, painting the wall behind it with rotten gray matter. It hung there a moment, the body, and Billy was already past it by the time it hit the floor. Through the door, which opened into a short hall. Left or right? Without a map of the first floor he couldn't know, but the placement of the stairs on the basement map suggested left. With no time to reason it out he hurried on, leading with his weapon, down a few steps and around a giant, hissing boiler. Steam clouded the maintenance room, but he found his way, found another set of stairs, metal and rusted.
At the bottom was a door. He pushed through, remembering from the map that he would enter a large room with some kind of fountain in the middle, something big and round, anyway. There were two smaller rooms to the west, branched off from another short hall, and one of them should be where Rebecca was, the one all the way at the end, maybe--
The big room was cold and damp, the walls and floor made of stone. He ran through, glancing at a large monument to his left, what he'd thought was a fountain on the map. It was some kind of statuary. Blind eyes stared at him from the faces of carved animals, watching him sprint by--
--and there was a shriek from the hall just ahead, a blind corner, but he knew the sound from only a minute before: There was another monkey there. Shit! He'd have to take it out, couldn't risk turning his back on it--
The voice over the radio was desperate, and Billy put on speed, ignoring the part of him that commanded him to stop, to wait for the animal to show itself so that he could dispatch it from a safe distance. He dashed ahead, around the corner, and there was the monkey, terrible, shredded-looking, howling--
--and Billy, who'd run track in high school, leaped. He hurdled over it and came down only two steps from a door, the door, the monkey shrieking in anger behind him. If the door was locked, he was in trouble, but it wasn't. He bolted through, slamming it behind him, dropping and skidding on his knees to the great hole in the floor.
She was there, still there, hanging on with only one hand now, and he could see that she was slipping. He dropped his handgun and shot out his arm, grasping her wrist even as her whitened fingertips let go.
"Got you," he panted. "I got you."
Rebecca started to cry as he rocked back on his heels, lifting her out of the hole, feeling a satisfaction that he'd almost forgotten had existed after all those months in jail--the sure, easy knowledge that he'd done the right thing, and done it well.
Billy pulled her out of the hole, using his body as leverage, pulling her practically on top of him in a rough embrace. Instead of pushing away, she let him hold her a moment, clinging to him, unable to stop the tears of gratitude, of relief. He seemed to under-stand what she needed, and held her tightly. She'd been so sure that she was going to fall, to die, lost and forgotten in some stinking basement, her corpse picked over by diseased animals ... After a moment she rolled off him, wiping at her face with one shaking hand. They both sat on the floor, Billy looking around at the bleak rock walls of another nondescript basement chamber, Rebecca looking at Billy. When the silence stretched too long, she reached out, put a hand on his arm.
"Thank you," she said. "You saved my life. Again."
He glanced at her, looked away. "Yeah, well. We have that truce thing, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," she said. "And I also know you're not a killer, Billy. Why were you on your way to Ragithon? Did you--were you really involved in those murders?"
He met her gaze evenly. "You could say that," he said. "I was there, anyway."
I was there . .. That wasn't the same thing as actually killing anyone. "I don't think you killed your escort earlier tonight; I think it was one of these creatures, and you just ran," she said. "And I know I haven't known you for very long, but I don't believe that you murdered twenty-three people, either."
"It doesn't matter," Billy said, staring at his boots. "People believe what they want to believe."
"It matters to me," Rebecca said, her voice gentle. "I'm not going to judge. I just want to know. What happened?"
He was still staring at his boots, but his gaze had gone distant, as if seeing another time, another place. "Last year, my unit was sent to Africa, to intervene in a civil war," he said. "Top secret, no U.S. involvement, you understand. We were supposed to raid a guerrilla hideout. It was summer, the hottest part of summer, and we were dropped well outside the strike zone, in the middle of a dense jungle. We had to hike in a ways ..."
He trailed off a moment, reaching for his dog tags, holding them tightly. When he spoke again, his voice was even softer. "The heat got half of us. The enemy got most of the rest, picking us off one at a time. By the time we got to where the hideout was supposed to be, there were only four of us left. We were exhausted, half crazy, sick with the heat, sick with--with heartsickness, I guess, watching our buddies die.
"So when we reached the hideout coordinates, we were ready to blow all of them away. Make someone pay, you know? For all that sickness. Only, there was no hideout. The tip-off wasn't valid. It turned out to be some dumpy little village, just a bunch of farmers. Families. Old men and women. Children."
Rebecca nodded, encouraging him to go on, but her stomach was starting to knot. There was an inevitability to the story; she could see where it was headed, and it wasn't pretty.
"Our team leader told us to round them up, and we did," Billy said. "And then he told us--"
His voice broke. He reached out and picked up his dropped weapon, stuffing it into his belt almost angrily as he stood up, turning away. Rebecca stood up, too.
"Did you?" she asked. "Did you kill them?"
Billy turned back to her, his lips curled. "What if I tell you that I did? Would you judge me then?"
"Did you?" she asked again, studying his face, his eyes, determined to at least try and understand. And it was as though he could see it in her, could see that she was working to be open to the truth. He stared at her a moment, then shook his head. "I tried to stop it," he said. "I tried, but they knocked me down. I was barely conscious, but I saw it, I saw it all . . . and I couldn't do anything." He looked away before continuing. "When it was over, when we were picked up, it was their word against mine. There was a trial, sentencing, and--well, then this happened."
He spread his arms, encompassing their surroundings. "So if we make it out of here, I'm dead, anyway. It's that or I run, and keep running."
It all had the ring of truth. If he was lying, he deserved an Oscar ... And she didn't think he was. She tried to think of something to say, something reassuring, that would make things better somehow, but nothing came. He was right about his options.
"Hey," he said, looking at something past her shoulder. "Check it out."
She turned as he stepped by, saw a stack of scrap metal pieces leaning against the far wall--and half-hidden among them, what looked like a shotgun.
"Is that what I think it is?" she asked.
Billy picked up the weapon, grinning as he pumped it, checking the action. "Yes, ma'am, it certainly is."
"Is it loaded?"
"No, but I have a couple of shells, left from the train. It's a twelve gauge." He smiled again. "Things are looking up. We may not make it, but there's a monkey out in the hall that's just begging for a taste of this baby."
"Actually, I think it's a baboon," she said, surprised to find herself smiling back. Then they were both chuckling, struck by the absolute pointlessness of her correction. They were trapped in an isolated mansion, hunted by God knew how many kinds of monster, but at least they knew that the creature in the hall was probably a baboon. Their chuckles turned to laughter.She watched him laugh, all pretense of arrogance, of tough-guy machismo set aside, and felt that she was truly seeing him for the first time, the real Billy Coen. She realized in that moment that she had thoroughly failed her first assignment. He was no more her prisoner than she was his. Assuming they survived, if he ran, she wouldn't be able to bring herself to stop him.
So much for a career in law enforcement.
The thought made her laugh even harder.