TWELVE

Rebecca could still feel the lingering warmth of Steve’s hand in hers as David, John, and Karen walked around the corner, John grinning broadly.

“Sorry to crash, but we figured you guys could use a little chaperoning,” he said. “Nothing like young love, though, am I right?”

As the three stepped into the room, Rebecca strug– gled to quash the blush she felt creeping up on her, suddenly feeling horribly unprofessional. All they’d done was hold hands, and only for a second, but they were in the middle of an operation, in hostile territory where even a moment’s lapse of concentra– tion could get them killed. John must have picked up on her embarrassment. “Ah, don’t mind me,” he said, his grin fading. “I’m just giving Steve-o a hard time, I didn’t mean any– thing by it.”

David interrupted, shooting John a pointed glance.

“I think we have more important things to discuss,” he said evenly. “We need to update, and I have a few things I’d like to go over.”He nodded toward the journal she still held. “They

found the room, but didn’t touch anything. Did you find anything else useful?”

She nodded, relieved by the news and glad for the change of subject. “It looks like there are only four Trisquads, though the entry that mentioned it is six months old.” David looked relieved. “That’s excellent. John and Karen had another encounter outside of D, managed to get five of them – that means there may only be one team left.”

They pulled chairs away from the small tables that lined the walls, forming them in a loose semi-circle in the middle of the room. David stayed standing, ad– dressing them solemnly.

“I’d like to do a quick recap, to make certain we’re all on the same page before we go any further. In short, this facility was used for T-Virus experimenta-tion and has been taken over by one of the researchers for reasons unknown. The other workers have been killed and the offices purged of incriminating evi-dence. Rebecca believes that the biochemist Nicolas Griffith is responsible, and the fact that the grounds are still being patrolled suggests that he’s alive, some-where in the compound – though I don’t feel we should concern ourselves with trying to find him. We’ve already completed two of the tests given to us by Dr. Ammon, through Trent, and my hope is that the ‘material’ he has hidden for us will be the evi-dence we need to formally charge Umbrella with criminal activity.”

He folded his arms and started to pace slowly as he talked, glancing between them. “Obviously there’s already plenty of proof that illegalities have occurred here; we could leave now and turn the matter over to federal authorities. My concern is that we still don’t have enough hard evidence on Umbrella’s involve-ment other than the computer system’s software and the journal that Steve and Rebecca found, Um-brella’s name isn’t on anything, and both of those could be explained away. My feeling is that we should continue with the tests and find whatever Dr. Ammon meant for us to have before we evac, but I want to hear from each of you about it first. This isn’t an authorized op, we’re not following orders here, and if you think we should go, we go.”

Rebecca was surprised, could see that the others felt the same by their expressions. David had seemed so certain before, so enthusiastic about their chances. The look on his face now told a different story. He seemed almost apologetic about wanting to continue, and looked as though he wanted for one of them to suggest otherwise.

Why the change? What happened?

John spoke first, glancing at the rest of them before looking at David. “Well, we’ve made it this far. And if there’s only one more group of zombies out there, I say we finish up.” Rebecca nodded. “Yeah, and we still haven’t found the main lab, we don’t know why Griffith did this –

–whether he suffered a psychotic break or is actually hiding something. We may not find out, but it’s worth a look. Plus, what if he destroys more evidence after we’ve gone?” “I agree,” Steve said. “If the S.T.A.R.S. are as deeply involved with Umbrella as it looks, we’re not going to get another chance. This may be our only opportunity to dig up a connection. And we’re al-ready so close, the third test is right here – we do that one, we’re one step away from finishing.” “I’m up for it,” Karen said softly. At the strained sound of her voice, Rebecca turned to look at her, noticing for the first time that Karen didn’t look so good. Her eyes were bloodshot, her complexion almost a pallor. “Are you okay?” Rebecca asked. Karen nodded, sighing. “Yeah. Headache.” Must be a migraine, she looks like hell… “What is it, David?” John asked abruptly. “What’s eatin’ you? You know something you’re not telling us?”

David stared at them for a moment, then shook his head. “No, nothing like that. I just – I have a bad feeling. Or rather, a feeling that something bad is going to happen.”Little late, don’tcha think?” John said, grinning. “Where were you when we got into the raft?”

David half-smiled in response, rubbing the back of his neck. “Thank you, John, I’d almost forgotten. So, it’s decided then. Let’s solve our next puzzle, shall we? Oh, Rebecca, take a look at Karen’s eye while we’re at it, it’s giving her some trouble.”

They stood up and moved toward the back of the room, for the table in the northwest corner marked with a blue nine. Steve and Rebecca had already looked when they’d found the room, though there was no clue as to what the test was – a small, blank monitor screen with a ten-key hooked to it sat on the metal table, an enigma. Rebecca motioned for Karen to sit on the chair in front of test ten, the purpose of which also escaped her – it consisted of a circuit board wired to a plank and what looked like a pair of tweezers connected to it by a black wire. She bent down to take a look, frowning. The woman’s right eye was extremely irri– tated, the pale blue cornea floating in a sea of red. Her eyelid had a bruised, swollen look. She turned to ask for David’s flashlight and saw that as he sat down in front of the scheduled test, the screen flickered on, several lines of type appearing in the center of the monitor. “Some kind of motion sensor…” Steve started to say, but David held up his hand suddenly, reading aloud what had appeared on the screen in a rapid, anxious voice.

” ‘As I was going to Saint Ives, I met a man with seven wives, the seven wives had seven sacks, the seven sacks held seven cats, the seven cats had seven kits; kits, cats, sacks, wives, how many were going to Saint Ives?'”

There was a digital readout on the screen, showing

00:49 and counting down. In the time it had taken David to read the question, eleven seconds had al-ready ticked off the clock. David stared at the screen, his thoughts racing furiously as the team leaned in behind him. Tension radiated from them, and David felt a sudden prickle of sweat break out across his forehead. Don’t count, that was the clue. But what does it mean? “Twenty-eight,” John said quickly. “No, wait, twenty-nine, including the man…” Steve cut him off, talking just as fast. “But if they had seven kittens each, that would be forty-nine plus twenty-one, seventy, seventy-one with the man.” “But the message said don’t count,” Karen said. “If you’re not supposed to count – does that mean don’t add, or… wait, there’s the man with the wives and the speaker, that’s another one…”

Thirty-two seconds had elapsed. David’s hand hov– ered over the key pad.

Think! Don’t count, don’t count, don’t… “One,” Rebecca said quickly. ” ‘As I was going to Saint Ives’ – it doesn’t say where the man with the wives was going. That’s what it means, the clue –

–don’t count anyone except the one who was going to

Saint Ives!”

Yes, it makes sense, a trick question…

They had twenty seconds left. “Anyone disagree?” David asked sharply.No answer. David hit the key, entered it…… and the countdown stopped, sixteen seconds to spare. The screen turned itself off. From somewhere overhead, the now familiar chime sounded. David exhaled, leaning back in the chair.

Thank you, Rebecca!

He turned around to tell her as much, but she was already bending to examine Karen’s eye, fixated on her patient. “I need a flashlight,” she said, barely glancing around as John handed his to her. She turned it on, shining it into Karen’s eye as the rest of them looked on silently, watching them. Karen didn’t look well; there were dark circles under her eyes, and her skin had gone from pale to almost sickly.

“It’s pretty inflamed… look up. Down. Left and right? Does it feel like there’s something rubbing it, or is it more like a burn?”Actually, more like an itch,” Karen said. “Like a mosquito bite times ten. I’ve been scratching it, though, that might be why it’s so red.”Rebecca turned off the torch, frowning. “I don’t see anything. The other one looks irritated, too… did it just start itching all of a sudden, or did you touch it, first?” Karen shook her head. “I don’t remember. It just started itching, I guess.”

A look of sharp, almost violent intensity flashed across Rebecca’s face. “Before or after you were in room 101?”

David felt a cold hand clutch at his heart. Karen suddenly looked worried. “After.”Did you touch anything while you were in there, anything at all?” “I don’t…”

Karen’s red eyes widened in sudden horror, and when she spoke, it was a breathless, quivering whis-per. “The gurney. There was a bloodstain on the gurney and I was thinking about…I touched it. Oh, Jesus, I didn’t even think about it, it was dry and I, my hand wasn’t cut and oh my God, I got a headache right after my eye started itching.”

Rebecca put her hands on Karen’s shoulders, squeezing them tightly. “Karen, take a deep breath. Deep breath, okay? It may be that your eye just itches and you have a headache, so don’t jump to conclu-sions here, we don’t know anything for sure.”

Her voice was low and soothing, her manner direct. Karen blew out a shaky breath and nodded. “If her hand wasn’t cut…” John started ner-vously. Karen answered him, her pale features composed but her voice trembling slightly. “Viruses can get into the body through mucous membranes. Nose, ears… eyes. I knew that. I knew that but I didn’t think about it, I… wasn’t thinking about it.”

She looked up at Rebecca, and David could see that she was struggling to maintain her composure. “If I am infected, how long? How long before I become… incapacitated?” Rebecca shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said softly. David felt as though a raging blackness had envel-oped him, a cloud of fear and worry and guilt so vast that it threatened to overwhelm his ability to move, even to think.

My fault. My responsibility. “There’s a vaccine, right?” John asked, his dark gaze darting between Karen and Rebecca. “There’s a cure, wouldn’t they have a shot or something here if someone got it by accident? They’d have to, wouldn’t they?” David felt a sudden surge of desperate hope. “Is it possible?” he asked Rebecca quickly. The young biochemist nodded, slowly at first but then eagerly. “Yeah, it’s possible. It’s probable, they created it.” She looked at David seriously, urgently. “We have to find the main lab, where they synthesized the virus, and quickly. If they developed a cure, that’s where the information would be…”

Rebecca trailed off, and David could see what she’d left unspoken in her troubled gaze; if there was a cure. If Dr. Griffith hadn’t taken the information there, too. If they could find it in time. “Ammon’s message,” Steve said. “In that note, he said we should destroy the lab, maybe he left us a map, or directions.” David stood up, his hope building. “Karen, are you feeling well enough to…” “… Yes,” she said, cutting him off, standing up. “Yes, let’s go.”

Her red eyes were bright with fervent intensity, a mix of despair and wild hope that made David’s heart ache to see.

God, Karen, I’m so, so sorry!”Double time,” he said, already turning for the door. “Let’s move.”They quickly jogged for the front of the building, John’s jaw clenched, his thoughts a grimly determined loop of angry intention.

No way some goddamn bug is taking Karen down, no chance, and if I find the bastard who set this nightmare up he’s Dead, capital D, Dead meat. Not Karen, no way in hell…

They reached the front door and silently drew weapons, checking them, tensely impatient for David to give the signal. Karen, always so cool and collected in times of stress, had a shocked vagueness about her, like she’d just been kicked in the gut and hadn’t yet managed to take a breath. It was the same look that John had seen time and again on the faces of disaster Survivors – the haunted disbelief in the eyes, the slack and terrible blankness of expression that spoke of a yawning emptiness deep inside. It hurt him to see her like that, hurt him and made him even angrier. Karen Driver wasn’t supposed to look like that. “I lead, John in back, straight line,” David said softly. John saw that he looked almost as freaked as Karen, though in a different way. It was guilt gnawing at their captain, he could see it in his reluctant gaze, the tight set of his mouth. John wished he could tell him that blaming himself was wrong, but there wasn’t time and he didn’t have the right words for it. David would have to take care of himself, just as they all would.

“Ready? Go.”

David pushed the door open and then they were slipping through, back into the gentle hiss of waves and the pale blue light of the moon. David, then Karen, Steve, Rebecca, and finally John, crouched and running across the packed dirt of the open compound. There was darkness and the scent of pine, of salt, but John’s soldier mind wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know as they pounded through the shadows. There was only anger, and fear for Karen……making the sudden blast of M-16 fire a total surprise.

Shit!

John dove for the ground as the thundering rattle opened up to their right, saw that they were just over halfway to block E as he rolled and started to fire. Then the air was filled with the blast of nine-millime– ter rounds, crashing over the steady pulse of automat– ic rifles.

Can’t see, can’t target…

He found the muzzle flashes at three o’clock and jerked the Beretta around, squeezing the trigger six, seven, eight times. The stutter of orange-white light blocked the shooters from view but he saw one of the flashes disappear, heard the clatter decrease and a rage overtook him, not the “soldier mind” but a blinding, screaming fury at the diseased attack– ers that far exceeded any he’d ever known. They wanted Karen to die, those numb, brainless night– mares wanted to stop them from saving her.

Not Karen. NOT KAREN.

A strange, feral howl beat at his ears as he pushed away from the dusty earth and then he was standing, running, firing. Only when he heard the shouts of the others, the Berettas except for his holding fire, did he realize that the howl was coming from him. John ran forward, screaming as he fired again and again at the things that meant to slow them up, to kill them, to claim Karen as one of their own. His thoughts were no longer words, just an endless, form– less negative – a denial of their existence and what had created them. He charged ahead, not seeing that they had stopped firing, that they were falling, that the shadows had fallen silent except for the thunder of his semi and the scream that poured from his shaking body. Then he was standing over them and the Beretta had stopped crashing and jumping, even though he still pulled the trigger. Three of them, white where there was no red, decayed flesh bursts covering their pitiful, wasted forms. Click. Click. Click. One of them had a face that was a mass of puckered scar tissue, twisting white risers of gnarled skin except for where a fresh, bloody hole had punched through its forehead. Another, one eye spattered against its withered cheek, pooling viscous fluid in the rotting cup of its ear. Click. Click. The third was still alive. Half of its throat was gone, tattered to pulp, and its mouth opened and closed soundlessly, opened and closed, its filmed dark eyes blinking slowly up at him. Click. He was dry-firing, the scream dying away in his ragged throat. It was the sound of the hammer falling uselessly against hot metal that finally released him from the rage – that, and the slow, helpless blink of the wretched thing at his feet.

It didn’t know what it was. It didn’t know who they

were. Once it had been a man, and now it was rotting

garbage with a gun and a mission it couldn’t possibly

understand.

They took his soul…

“John?”

A warm hand on his back, Karen’s voice low and easy next to him. Steve and David stepped into view, staring down at the gaping, blinking shell of humanity in the shaded moonlight, the last remnant of an experiment in madness. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Yeah, I’m here.” David trained his Beretta on the monster’s skull and spoke softly. “Stand back.” John turned away, started walking back for their last destination with Karen at his side, Rebecca’s slight form in front of him. The shot was incredibly loud, a booming crack that seemed to shake the ground beneath their feet.

Not Karen, oh please not one of us. That’s no way to go out, no way to die…

Then David and Steve were with them and without speaking, they broke into a jog for block E, moving quickly through the emptiness that had claimed the night. The Trisquads were no more, but the disease that made them might even now be coursing through Karen’s body, turning her into a creature with no mind, no soul, doomed to a fate worse than death. John picked up speed, silently swearing to himself that if they found this Dr. Griffith, he was going to be awfully goddamned sorry that they did.

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