Karen driver was a tall, lanky woman in her early thirties, with short blond hair and a serious, businesslike demeanor. Her small home was spotlessly kept and almost antiseptically clean. The clothes she’d picked out for Rebecca were utilitarian and perfectly folded: a dark green T-shirt and crisp matching pants, black cotton socks and underwear. Even her bathroom seemed to reflect her personality; the white walls were lined with shelves, each neatly organized according to purpose.

Scratch a forensics scientist, find an obsessive-compulsive…

Rebecca immediately felt guilty for thinking it. Karen had been welcoming enough, even friendly in a brusque way. Maybe she just hated clutter. Rebecca sat on the edge of the toilet and cuffed the overlong pants around her ankles, relieved to be out of her old clothes and feeling surprisingly clear– headed after a night of broken sleep. David had rented a car at the airport, and in the early hours of the morning, they’d found a cheap motel and stag– gered into their separate rooms, Rebecca too ex– hausted to do more than take off her shoes before crawling into bed. She woke just before ten, took a shower and had been waiting nervously when David knocked at her door. Rebecca heard the front door open and close, new voices floating through the living room. She slipped on her high tops and laced them quickly, feeling her anxiety level jump a notch. The team was assembled. They were that much closer to going in, and though she’d thought of little else since waking up, the realization continued to come as a kind of shock. Umbrella’s surprise attack on Barry’s house already seemed like it had happened in another lifetime, though it had been only hours ago…

… and hours from now, this will all be over. It’s what’s gonna happen in between that worries me. David and his team weren’t there, they didn’t see the dogs, the snakes, those unnatural creatures in the tunnels… or Tyrant.

Rebecca shook the images away as she stood up, scooping her dirty clothes off the floor and stufling them into the empty bag that she’d carried on the plane. There was no reason to assume that the Cali– ban Cove facility would be the same, and worrying about it wouldn’t change anything. She paused in front of the mirror, studying the tense features of the young woman she saw there, and then walked to the door. She headed for the living room, past the sparkling kitchen and around a corner in the hall. She heard David’s lilting voice, apparently summing up the events of the night before.

“… said he’d ring some of the others first thing this morning. Another of the team has a contact in the FBI to use as a go-between and to initiate an investi-gation when we have proof. They’ll be waiting to hear from us when we’ve completed today’s operation…”

He broke off as Rebecca walked into the room, and all eyes turned to her. Karen had pulled a few extra chairs into the room and sat in one of them next to a low, glass topped coffee table. There were two men sitting on the couch, across from where David stood. David smiled at her as both men got up, stepping forward to be introduced.

“Rebecca, this is Steve Lopez. Steve is our resident computer genius and our best marksman…”

Steve grinned, an aw-shucks smile that suited his boyish features perfectly as he shook her hand, his teeth white against his natural deep-tan coloring. He had dark, quick eyes and black hair, and was only a few inches taller than her.

Not much older, either…

His gaze was friendly and direct, and in spite of the circumstances, Rebecca found herself wishing that she’d at least run a brush through her hair before coming out of the bathroom. Simply put, he was hot.

“… and this is John Andrews, our communications specialist and field scout.”

John’s skin was a deep mahogany brown and he didn’t have a beard, but he reminded her of Barry nonetheless. He was massively built, his six-foot frame bulging with tightly packed muscle. He grinned brightly at her, his smile dazzling white.

“This is Rebecca Chambers, biochemist and field medic for the Raccoon City S.T.A.R.S.,” David said. John let go of her hand, still smiling. “Biochemist? Damn, how old are you?”

Rebecca smiled back, catching the glint of humor in his eyes. “Eighteen. And three-quarters.”John laughed, a deep, throaty chuckle as he sat back down. He glanced at Steve, then back at her. “You better watch out for Lopez, then,” he said, then dropped his voice to a mock whisper. “He just turned twenty-two. And he’s single.” “Knock it off,” Steve growled, his cheeks flushing. He looked at her, shaking his head.

“You’ll have to excuse John. He thinks he’s got a sense of humor and nobody can talk him out of it.” “Your mother thinks I’m funny,” John shot back, and before Steve could respond, David held up a hand. “That’s enough,” he said mildly. “We only have a few hours to organize if we mean to do this today. Let’s get started, shall we?”

Steve and John’s banter had been a welcome break from her tension, making her feel like one of the team almost instantly, but she was also glad to see the serious, intent looks on all of their faces as they turned their attention to David, watching him pull out Trent’s information and lay it on the table. It was good to know that they were pros… … but will it matter? her mind whispered softly. The S.T.A.R.S. in Raccoon were professionals, too. And even knowing the kind of research Umbrella’s been doing, will it make any difference at all? What if the virus mutated and is still infectious? What if the place is crawling with Tyrants… or something worse?

Rebecca had no answer for the insistent little whis-per. She focused on David instead, silently telling herself that her anxieties wouldn’t get in the way of her doing her job. And that her second mission wouldn’t be her last. For Rebecca’s sake, David started the briefing as he would have with an entirely new team. As bright as she was, and with her previous experience at an Umbrella facility, he didn’t want her to hold back for fear of speaking out of turn.

“Our objective is to get into the compound, collect evidence on Umbrella and their research, and get out again with as little trouble as possible. I’ll go over every step thoroughly, and if any of you have ques-tions or ideas about how to proceed, no matter how trifling, I want to hear them. Understood?”

There were nods all around. David continued, comfortable that his point was made.

“We’ve already discussed a few of the possibilities as to what may have happened, and you’ve all read the articles. I submit that we’re dealing once again with some kind of accident. Umbrella’s put a lot of effort into covering up the problem in Raccoon City, and while we could assume that they’ve been abduct-ing or killing fishermen who’ve wandered across their territory, it seems unlikely that they’d want to draw that kind of attention to themselves.” “Why hasn’t Umbrella sent anyone in to clean it up?” John asked. David shook his head. “Who’s to say they haven’t? We may find that they’ve already cleared the site of evidence – in which case, we group together with the Raccoon people and our own contacts and start over.”

Again, everyone nodded. He didn’t bother stating the obvious, that the virus could still be contagious. They all knew that it was a possibility, though he planned to have Rebecca address the matter before the briefing was through. David looked down at the map and sighed inwardly before moving on to the next point. “Point of entry,” he said. “If this were an open assault, we could go in by helicopter or just hop the fence. But if there are still people there and we trigger an alarm, it’s over before we even start. Since we don’t want to risk discovery, our best option is to go in by boat. We can use one of the rafts from the tanker operation last year.”

Karen piped up, frowning slightly.

“Wouldn’t they have an alarm for the pier?”

David touched the map, putting his finger just below the notched line of the fence, south of the

compound. “Actually, I don’t recommend using the pier at all. If we go in here, go past the pier…” He traced upward, running the length of the cove. “… we can get a look at the layout of the entire compound, and hide the raft in one of the caves beneath the lighthouse. According to what I read, there’s a natural path from the base of the cliff to the lighthouse itself. If the path has been blocked, we’ll backtrack and come up with an alternative route.” “Won’t the raft attract attention if anyone’s outside watching?” Rebecca asked. David shook his head. The Exeter S.T.A.R.S. had used the rafts the previous summer to approach an oil tanker that had been hijacked by terrorists who had threatened to spill the cargo unless their demands were met. It had been a night operation.

“It’s black, and has an underwater motor. If we go in just past dusk, we should be invisible. The other benefit to this approach is that if the facility looks unhealthy, we can abort until a later time.”

He waited as they thought it over, not wanting to rush them. They were good soldiers, his team, but this was a volunteer assignment. If any one of them had serious doubts, it was better to address them now. Besides which, he was open to other suggestions. His gaze fell across Rebecca’s youthful face, taking in the steady willingness of a good S.T.A.R.S. opera– tive in the quick brown eyes, the thoughtful consider– ation of his plan. He was beginning to like her, for more than just her usefulness to the mission. There was a kind of matter-of-fact openness about her that appealed to him, particularly with all of his recent turmoil over emotional awkwardness. She seemed quite comfortable with herself… David pushed the thoughts aside, suddenly realiz– ing how much stress he’d been under, how tired he continued to be; his focus was suffering for it. Keep it together, man. This isn’t the time to wander. “On to specifics,” he said. “Once we get inside, we move in a staggered line through the compound, sticking to shadows. John will take point with Karen at his back, scouting the area for the lab and looking for some idea as to what’s happened. Steve and Rebecca will follow, and I’ll bring up the rear. When we find the lab, we go in together. Rebecca will know what to look for in terms of materials, and if they have a computer system still running, Steve can get into the files. The rest of us will provide cover. Once we retrieve the information, we get back out the way we came.”

He picked up the poem that Trent had given him,

tapping it with his other hand. “One of Rebecca’s teammates has already had dealings with Mr. Trent. She thinks that this might be relevant to what we need to find, so I want all of you to take another look before we go in. It may be important.” “So we can trust him?” Karen asked. “This Trent’s okay?” David frowned, not sure how to answer. “It seems that for whatever reason, he’s on our side in all of this, yes,” he said slowly. “And Rebecca recognized one of the names on the list as a man who has worked with viruses before. The information looks solid.” It wasn’t a straight answer, but it would have to do.

“Any idea on what the chances are that we’ll contract the virus?” Steve asked quietly. David tilted his head toward Rebecca. “If you could give us some insight about what we may see, perhaps a bit of background…”

She nodded, turning toward the rest of the team.

“I can’t tell you exactly what we’re dealing with. When our team got kicked off the case, I lost access to the tissue and saliva samples, so I didn’t get to run any tests. But from looking at the effects, it’s pretty obvious that the T-Virus is a mutagen, altering the host’s chromosome structure on a cellular level. It’s an interspecies infective, capable of amplifying in plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, you name it. In some creatures, it promotes incredible growth; in all of them, violent behavior. From some of the reports we came across at the estate, I can tell you that it affects brain chemistry, at least in humans-inducing something like a schizophrenic psychosis through extremely high levels of D2 receptors. It also inhibits pain. The human victims we came across hardly reacted to gunshot wounds, and though they were decaying physically, they didn’t seem to feel it…”

The young chemist paused, perhaps remembering. She suddenly looked much older than her years. “The spill at the estate looked like an airborne, but I don’t think that’s its designed or preferred form. The scien– tists were almost certainly injecting it in conjunction with genetic experimentation. And since none of us contracted it and it didn’t spread, I don’t think we have to worry about breathing it in. ” “What we do have to watch for is contact with a host, and I mean any contact, I can’t stress that enough, this thing is incredibly virulent once it enters the bloodstream, and even a single drop of blood from a host could hold hundreds of millions of virus particles. We’d need a fully equipped hot suite and a trained biohazard virologist to pin down its replication strategy for certain, but direct contact of any kind should be avoided at all costs. With any luck, they’ll have died by now… or at least deterio-rated past mobility. The humans, anyway.”

There was a moment of strained silence as they all considered the implications of what she’d told them. David could see that they were shaken, and felt a bit shaken himself. Knowing that the virus was toxic wasn’t the same thing as actually hearing the specifics.

My God, what were those people thinking? How could they live with themselves, deliberately infecting anything with something like that?

On the tail of that thought, another occurred to him: how would he live with himself if one of his team contracted the virus? He’d led missions before in which people under his command had been hurt and twice, before he made captain, he’d been on operations in which S.T.A.R.S. had been killed. But taking a team into an area on his own initiative, where a silent, terrible disease could infect them, where they could die at the claws of some inhuman monster…

… it would be on my head. This isn’t an authorized mission, the responsibility stops with me. Can I truly ask them to do this? “Well, it pretty much sounds like a shit job,” John said finally. “And if we wanna get there on time, we better head out soon.” He smiled at David, an un– characteristically subdued one but a smile all the same. “You know me, I love a good fight. And somebody’s gotta stop these assholes from spreading this stuff around, right?”

Steve and Karen were both nodding, their faces as set and determined as John’s, and even knowing what they would encounter, Rebecca had made her deci– sion back in Raccoon. David felt a sudden rush of emotion for all of them, a strange, uncomfortable mix of pride and fear and warmth that he wasn’t sure what to do with. After a few seconds of uncertain silence, he nodded briskly, glancing at his watch. It would take them a few hours to get to the launch site. “Right,” he said. “We’d best get to storage and load up. We can go through the rest of it on our way.”

As they stood to leave, David reminded himself that they were doing this because it was necessary, that each of them had made up their own mind to participate in the dangerous operation. They knew the risks. And he also knew that if anything went wrong, that knowledge would be cold comfort indeed. Karen sat in the back of the van and loaded clips, the words of the mysterious message repeating through her thoughts as she thumbed the nine– millimeter rounds into each magazine.

… Ammon’s message received/blue series/enter answer for key/letters and numbers reverse/time rainbow/don’t count/blue to access.

She finished another clip and set it aside with the others, absently wiping her oily fingers on the leg of her pants before picking up the next. A welcome breeze whispered through the muggy van, smelling of salt and summer-warmed sea. They’d pulled off the road south of the cove, finding a clear patch to set up not a quarter mile from the water’s edge. Outside, the sun was setting, casting long shadows across the dusty ground. The not-so-distant sound of soft waves against the shore was soothing, a white noise back-ground to the low voices of the others as they worked. Steve and David were propping the raft, while John checked out the motor. Rebecca was assembling a medical kit from the supplies they’d “borrowed” out of the S.T.A.R.S. equipment warehouse.

… the letters and numbers… a code? Does it relate to time? Does counting relate to the sum of the lines, or to something else?

Her mind worked the riddle relentlessly, gnawing at the words the way a dog worries a bone. What did it mean? Were the lines connected to a single concept, or did each represent a separate aspect of a bigger puzzle? Had Ammon sent the message, and if he worked for Umbrella, why?

She finished the last clip and reached for a water-proof carryall, refocusing herself to the task at hand. She knew that her thoughts would return to the strange little poem as soon as she’d completed her assigned detail. It was the way her mind worked; she just couldn’t relax when presented with an ambiguity. There was always an answer, always, and finding it was just a matter of concentration, of taking the right steps in the right order. The semi-automatics were cleaned and ready, lay– ing in a neat line next to the checked radio gear on the floor of the van. They weren’t taking any weapons besides the S.T.A.R.S.-issued Berettas, David insist– ing that they needed to travel light. Although Karen agreed, she was sorry they wouldn’t be bringing in the assault rifles, which were equipped with night scopes. After hearing more of the details about the zombie– like creatures on their ride, she didn’t know how comfortable she felt with just a handgun and a halogen flashlight.

Admit it. You’re worried about this one, and have been since David broke the news. The facts are all out of order, the pieces don’t fit the way they’re supposed to.

It was ironic that the reasons compelling her to crack this mystery were the same ones that made her so uneasy: Trent, the S.T.A.R.S.’s apparent collusion with Umbrella, the possibility of a biohazardous incident in her home state. Who had been bribed? What had happened at Caliban Cove? What would they uncover? What did the poem mean? Not enough data. Not yet.

She’d always prided herself on her lack of imagina– tion, on her ability to find the truth based on empiri– cal evidence rather than wild, unsubstantiated intu-ition. It was the key to success in her field, and though she was aware that she sometimes came across as overly clinica – even cold – she accepted who she was, embracing the kind of peace that was found in knowing all of the facts. Whether it was examining blood spray patterns or measuring angles on an entry wound, there was a deep satisfaction for her in solving puzzles, in finding out not only why, but how. The unanswered questions about Caliban Cove were an affront to her careful thought processes. They went against her grain, smudging her very ordered sense of reality – and she knew that she wouldn’t find relief until those questions were put to rest. She was finished with the weapons. She should check the utility belts again, make sure everything was locked down and ready, and then see if David had anything else for her to do… Karen hesitated, feeling a trickle of warm sweat slide down her back. No one was within sight of the open back door, and she’d already double-checked every flap and pocket on every belt. With a sudden rush of something like guilt, she reached into her vest pocket and pulled out her secret, comforted by the familiar weight of it in her hand.

God, if the guys knew, I’d never hear the end of it.

It had been given to her by her father, a remnant from his service in WWII and one of the few items she had to remember him by-an ancient anti-personnel shrapnel grenade, called a pineapple because of its crosshatched exterior. Carrying it was one of her few unpractical idiosyncrasies, one that made her feel a little silly. She’d worked hard to present herself as a thoroughly rational, intelligent woman, not prone to emotional sentimentality and in most respects, that was true. But the grenade was her rabbit’s foot, and she never went on a mission without it. Besides, she had half convinced herself that it might come in handy one day…

Yeah, keep telling yourself that. The S.T.A.R.S. have digitized anti-personnel grenades with timers, even flash-bangs with computer chips. The pin on this relic probably couldn’t be wrenched out with pliers… “Karen, do you need any help?”

Startled, Karen looked up and into Rebecca’s ear– nest young features, the girl leaning into the back of the van. Her quick gaze fell to the grenade, her eyes lighting up with sudden curiosity.

“I thought we weren’t taking any explosives… hey, is that a pineapple grenade? I’ve never actually seen one. Is it live?”

Karen quickly looked around, afraid that one of the team had overheard, then grinned sheepishly at the young biochemist, embarrassed by her own embar– rassment.

It’s not like I got caught masturbating, for chrissake; she doesn ‘t know me, why the hell would she care if I’m superstitious? “Shh! They’ll hear us. Come here a sec,” she said, and Rebecca obediently crawled into the van, a con– spiratorial half-smile blooming on her face. In spite of herself, Karen was absurdly pleased by the young biochemist’s discovery. In the seven years she’d been with the S.T.A.R.S., no one had ever found out. And she’d taken an instant liking to the girl.

“It is a pineapple, and we’re not taking explosives in. You can’t tell anyone, okay? I carry it for good luck.” Rebecca raised her eyebrows. “You carry a live grenade around for luck?” Karen nodded, looking at her seriously. “Yes, and if John or Steve found out, they’d ride me ragged. I know it’s dumb, but it’s kind of a secret.” “I don’t think it’s dumb. My friend Jill has a lucky hat…” Rebecca reached up and touched her head-band, a tied red bandana beneath mousy bangs.

“… and I’ve been wearing this for a couple of weeks practically. I was wearing it when we went into the Spencer facility.”

Her young face clouded slightly, and then she was smiling again, her light brown gaze direct and sincere.

“I won’t say a word.”

Karen decided that she definitely liked her. She tucked the grenade back in her vest, nodding at the girl. “I appreciate that. So, are we ready out there?” Tiny lines of nervous strain appeared on Rebecca’s face. “Yeah, pretty much. John wants to run another check with the headsets, but other than that, every-

thing’s done.”

Karen nodded again, wishing she could say some– thing to ease the girl’s fear. There wasn’t anything to say. Rebecca had dealt with Umbrella before, and any words that Karen might mouth would be hollow ones, might even seem patronizing. She felt some anxiety herself, she’d be a fool not to, but fear wasn’t a state that she wore often or well. As with most missions, the overriding feeling she experienced was anticipa-tion, a kind of cerebral hunger for the truth.

“Go ahead and hand out the weapons, I’ll get the rest,” Karen said finally. She could at least give her something to do. Rebecca helped her unload the equipment as the sun dipped lower in the heavy summer sky. The winds off the water grew cooler and the first pale stars shimmered into view over the Atlantic. As twilight crept in, they moved down to the water in an uneasy silence, loading their weapons, stretch– ing, staring out at the black waters that eddied and swirled with secrets of their own. When the last of the daylight melted off the hori– zon, they were as ready as they were going to get. As John and David slipped the raft into the lapping darkness, Karen slipped on a black watchcap and patted the heavy lump inside her vest for luck, telling herself that she wouldn’t need it. The truth was waiting. It was time to find out what was really going on.


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