FIFTEEN

The winding tunnel seemed to go on forever. Every time they rounded a turn, Rebecca expected to see a sealed door, a slot set next to it for the key card that David carried. As the corners continued, the hanging lights going on for another stretch of tunnel, each as empty and featureless as the stretch before, she stopped wishing for the door. A sign would suffice, an arrow painted on the wall, a chalk mark – anything that would put to rest her growing suspicion that they’d been misled.

Lied to by an Umbrella scientist? Perish the thought…

Tired sarcasm aside, Kinneson had been weird, but had definitely seemed frightened to the point of hysteria. Could he have been confused in his panic, pointed to the wrong passage? Or was the lab just better hidden than they thought?

Or did he send us off on a snipe hunt, some dead-end cave – or even a trap, something dangerous, meant to keep us out of the way while he…

…while he did something to Steve and Karen. The thought frightened her even more than the concept of walking into a trap. Karen was desperately ill, she wouldn’t be able to defend herself, and Steve…

…no, Steve’s okay. He’d be able to take Kinneson in a

heartbeat…

Except that Karen was with him. A very sick Karen,

struggling just to stay upright.

Their jog had slowed to a shag, David and John both breathing heavily, frowns deepening across their exhausted faces. David held up a hand, stopping them. “I don’t think it’s this way,” he panted. “We should have seen something by now. And the piece of paper with the key card said southwest, east – I’m not sure, but I think after that last turn, we’re heading west.”

John bobbed his head, his short, tight hair glisten-ing with sweat. “I don’t know which way we’re going, but I know I think Kinneson’s full of shit. The guy works for Umbrella, for chrissake.” “I agree,” Rebecca said, breathing deeply. “I think we should go back. We have to get to the lab, soon. I don’t think…”

Clank! They froze, staring at each other. From somewhere farther down the endless tunnel, something made of heavy metal had just been moved. “The lab?” Rebecca said hopefully. “Could it…” A low, strange sound cut her off, the words dying in her throat as the noise picked up strength. It was like nothing she’d ever heard before – a dog howling, combined with an off-key whistling whine and the sound of a newborn baby’s desperate cry. It was a lonely, terrible sound, rising and falling through the tunnel, finally building to a warbling, mournful shriek – then it was joined by several others. She was suddenly absolutely certain that she didn’t want to see what was making that sound, even as David started backing up, his face pale and eyes wide. “Run,” he said, training his Beretta on the empty passage ahead of them, waiting until they had stum– bled past before turning to follow. Rebecca felt a burst of incredible energy as adrena– line gushed into her body, sent her sprinting through the shadowy tunnel to escape the rising shrieks of whatever was behind them. John was just in front of her, his muscled arms and legs pumping madly, and she could hear the clattering steps of David on her heels. The howls were getting louder, and Rebecca could feel the stone vibrate beneath her flying feet, the heavy, galloping steps of the shrieking beasts thunder– ing after them.

– not gonna make it –

Even as she realized that they’d be overtaken, she heard David gasp out, “Next turn…” …and as they reached the end of the empty stretch where the tunnel curved again, Rebecca whirled around, raising the Beretta in her sweating, shaking hand, training it back on the last turn they’d taken. John and David flanked her, gasping, nine-milli– meters aimed alongside hers. Twenty meters of blank passage, filled with the now deafening cries of their unseen pursuers. As the first of them tore into view, all three of them fired, slugs ripping into the creature that at first Rebecca thought was a lioness – then a giant lizard –

– then a dog. She caught only a mad, patchwork vision of the impossible thing, seeing parts of it that her mind fit into a whole – the slitted, cat-like pupils. The giant snake head, a gaping, slavering jaw filled with bladed teeth. The squat and powerful barrel-chested body, sand-colored, thick legs bowing in front, mus– cular, springing haunches propelling it toward them at an incredible speed……and even as the bullets found its strange, reptili-an flesh, there was another behind it……and the first explosive rounds that smacked into the thick body of the closest creature knocked it off of its clawed feet, staggered it backward as blooms of watery blood spattered the tunnel walls……and, shaking its head, screaming in ferocious sorrow, it launched itself at them again.

– oh shit –

Rebecca squeezed the trigger again, four, five, six, her mind screaming as loudly as the two monstrous animals that ran at them, eight, nine, ten……and the first went down, stayed down, but there was still the second and now a third, tearing down the tunnel, and the Beretta only held fifteen rounds.

We’re gonna die…

David jumped back, behind the line of thundering fire. An empty clip skittered across the floor, and then he was next to her again, aiming and squeezing, the Beretta jerking smoothly in his practiced hand. Rebecca counted her last round and stumbled back– ward, praying that she could do it as fast as David and saw that the third animal was stumbling back, its wide chest gushing thin streamers of red. It collapsed into the puddle of watery fluid it created and stayed there. Nothing in the tunnel moved, but there were at least two more around the corner. Their wailing cries continued to wax and wane through the tunnel, but they stayed back, out of sight – as if they knew what had happened to their siblings, and were too smart to charge into waiting death. “Fall back,” David said hoarsely, and still aiming at the blind corner, they started to edge backward, the shrieks of the hybrid creatures rolling over them in lonely, terrible waves. Griifith moved quickly away from the door when he heard the key in the lock, not wanting to be too close to whomever Alan had brought along. He had Thur– man already standing ready, just in case there were any sudden moves, but when he saw the young man and his passive partner step into the lab, he doubted he’d have any trouble.

What’s this? A few too many drinks, perhaps? An unseen mortal wound?

Griffith smiled, waiting for him to speak or for the woman to move, his heart full and warm with good humor. It had been so long since he’d talked to someone who could respond without prompting, and the fact that his fine plan had worked made him all the merrier. Behind him, Alan sealed the door and stood blankly, holding two weapons on the unlikely pair. The young man gazed wide-eyed around the labora– tory, his dark gaze settling on the wide airlock win– dow in something like awe. The woman’s head was down, rolling across her chest.

He had the deep, natural tan of a Hispanic, or perhaps someone from India. Not too tall, but sturdy enough. Yes, he’d do quite nicely… and since this might even have been the one to destroy Athens, there was a certain poetic justice being served. The youth’s darting gaze finally rested on Griffith, curious and not altogether as frightened as Griffith would have liked.

We’ll see about that… “Where are we?” the young man asked quietly. “You are in a chemical research laboratory, approx-imately twenty meters below the surface of Caliban Cove,” Griffith said. “Interesting, yes? Those clever designers even built it inside of a shipwreck, or they built the shipwreck around the lab, I forget ex…”Are you Thurman?” Such manners!Griffith smiled again, shaking his head. “No. That fat, hopeless creature standing to your left is Dr. Thurman. I am Nicolas Griffith. And you might be…?”

Before the young man could speak, the woman rolled her head up, a wobbling white face looking around in fixed, helpless hunger.

An infected one! “Thurman, take the woman and hold her,” Griffith said quickly. He couldn’t have her damaging the fine specimen Alan had managed to catch but as Thurman grabbed for the female, the young man resisted, pushing at Louis with fast, angry hands, a sneer of bravado on his face. Griffith felt a pulse of distress. “Alan, hit him!” Dr. Kinneson brought his hand up quickly, crack– ing the struggling youth a smart blow across the back of his skull; he stopped fighting just long enough for Thurman to pull the woman away. “She’s gone,” Griffith said forcefully, wondering why on earth anyone would want to hang on to one of those. “Look at her, can’t you see she’s not human anymore? She’s one of Birkin’s puppets, one of the pathetically altered hungry. A zombie. A Trisquad unit without training.”

Even as Griffith spoke, a fascinating turn of events took place. The woman squirmed around in Thur– man’s grasp and with one quick movement, darted forward and bit into Louis’s face. She pulled back with a thick, bloody mouthful of his cheek and started to chew enthusiastically.

“Karen, oh my God, no…”

For as upset as he sounded, the young man didn’t move to do anything about it. For that matter, neither did Louis. The doctor stood calmly, blood pouring down his face, watching the T-Virus drone lustily swallow the piece of tender flesh. Griffith was trans-fixed. “Look at that,” he said softly. “Not a grimace ot pain, not a flutter of emotion… smile, Louis!”

Thurman grinned even as the woman lunged for– ward again, managing to snag his protruding lower lip. With a wet, tearing sound, the lip ripped away, exposing an even wider grin. Blood gushed. The woman chewed.

Amazing. Absolutely breathtaking.

The young man was quivering, his deep tan under– shot with a sickly pallor. He didn’t seem to appreciate what he was seeing, and Griffith realized that he probably wouldn’t; the woman must have been a friend.

Too bad. Pearls before swine…

“Alan, take hold of our young man, and hold him

tightly.”

The youth didn’t struggle, too absorbed in the apparent horror that he was experiencing. The female got another piece of cheek, and Louis’s smile wa– vered, probably from muscle trauma. As much as Griffith wanted to continue watching, there was work to be done. The young man’s other friends might manage to put down the Ma7s and if they succeeded with that, they might come looking for their bright young man. But by then, he’ll be my bright young man…

Griffith walked to a counter and picked up a measured syringe, tapping the side of it with one finger. He turned to the silent guest, wondering if he should reveal his brilliant scheme for catching his friends. Wasn’t that what “villains” always did in movies? He considered it only briefly, then decided against it; he’d always considered it a foolish plot point. And he was far from villainous. It was they who had invaded his sanctuary, threatened his plans for creating worldwide peace. There was no question who the evildoers were in this story. The young Hispanic was still watching the bizarre luncheon, his mouth literally hanging open in dismay; Karen was swallowing Thurman’s nose, and making quite a mess. He’d have to dispose of her before Louis’s arms gave out, though that gave him plenty of time. Stepping forward quickly, Griffith jabbed the nee– dle into the youth’s burly arm and depressed the plunger. Only then did he struggle, his shocked gaze turning to Griffith, his body twisting and flailing. One of Alan’s arms seemed to give a little, but he had a good, tight hold on the fighting Hispanic. Griffith smiled into his face, shaking his head. “Relax,” he said soothingly. “In just a few moments, you won’t feel a thing.”

Slowly, too slowly, they backed toward the chamber they’d started in, the lizard-creatures following, care– ful not to step into view, screaming their terrible song. John kept thinking of Karen and Steve, led off to God knew where by the Umbrella doc, and wished desper– ately that the monsters would just charge. He felt the moments slipping by, moments that may have already cost Karen her only chance, moments in which Steve might be fighting for his life…

Come on, you stupid shits! We’re right here, free lunch! Come on!

They’d tried yelling, tried firing and stamping their feet, but the creatures wouldn’t take the bait. Once, David had tried to fake them out, the three of them slipping back around a corner and when the big lizards had skulked through the tunnel after them, they’d jumped back around and started blasting. John got a single round into one of them, and they’d seen that there were only two of the beasts left, but both had gotten to cover before any serious damage had been done, and hadn’t fallen for the ploy again. “Sly bastards,” John snarled for about the twenti-eth time, backing up as quickly as he could. “What the hell are they waiting for?”

Neither Rebecca nor David answered, since they’d already discussed it, talking over the creeping shrieks of the stalking monsters. They were waiting for the three of them to turn around. After what felt like an eternity of slow motion, of backing through the empty tunnel one sliding step at a time, they heard the distant, familiar sound of the cavernous chamber they’d left – muffled waves and thundering vibrations as background to the echoing howls.

Thank God, thank God, how long? Fifteen, twenty minutes? “When we get into the open, flank the tunnel,” David said tightly. “I’m going to turn and run, draw them out…”

Rebecca shook her head, her young features pinched with worry. “You’re a better shot than I am, and I can run faster. I should do it.”

They had almost reached the chamber. John shot a glance at David, could see him struggling with the decision and finally he nodded, sighing.

“Right. Run as fast as you can, back for the stairs to the lighthouse. We’ll pick them off as soon as they’re too far along to turn around.” Rebecca blew out sharply. “Got it. Just say when.” John could feel the change in the air just behind him, the drafts that swirled around the underground chamber fluttering against the back of his neck. An– other step and they were surrounded by open space. John quickly side-stepped, standing between the tunnel they’d just backed out of and the one next to it. He saw David get into position, Rebecca standing perfectly still in the mouth of the passage…

“Go!”

Rebecca spun and ran, sprinting away, and John tensed, Beretta held close to his face, listening for the rising shrieks, the pound of feet… “Now!” David shouted, and they both swung into the passage, firing. Crack-crack-crack-crack! The howling monsters were less than six meters away and the heavy rounds smashed into them, great, bloody holes exploding through their rubbery skin, bone and watery red splattering wildly. The shrieks died beneath the thundering bullets, neither of the reptilian things making it as far as the opening. Two strange bodies fell still, crumpling to the stone floor in ragged heaps. As soon as they stopped firing, Rebecca came jogging back into the chamber, her cheeks flushed, her eyes flashing with urgency. “Let’s go,” David said, and then the three of them were running into the passage that Kinneson had disappeared into, the lost time lending a desperation to their flight. John finally let the fear slip inside, giving up the angry frustration he’d suffered through their back– ward crawl.

Karen, be okay. Please, don’t let anything have happened to her, Lopez…

The tunnel turned, angled down, the three of them curving with it, terror for their friends and teammates driving them faster. John swore to himself that if they were all right, if there was still time for Karen, if they could all make it out of this alive, he’d give anything.

My car, my house, my money, I won’t screw anyone else till I get married, I’ll clean up my act and walk the straight and narrow…

It wasn’t enough, and he didn’t know why anyone would want it, but he’d sacrifice anything, do what– ever it took. The passage swerved again, still sliding down and they tore around the corner……and there was a wide open set of doors, a tiny passage between the outer and inner, a giant and dimly lit room behind it. Steve leaned against the frame, holding his Beretta, his face pale and blank. “Steve! What happened, what…” David started, but the look on Steve’s face as he turned to watch them approach, the terrible emptiness there, made them all stop in their tracks. Even as his mind searched to deny it, John’s heart filled with a horrible, aching loss. “Karen’s dead,” Steve said softly, then turned and walked into the room.

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