NINE

COLE WAS POKING IDLY THROUGH A BOX OF bipolar transistors, thinking that he was an idiot; he should be sleeping. It had to be close to midnight, he’d been breaking his ass all day for Mr. Blue, and he’d have to drag said ass out of bed in another six hours to do the same. He was tired and sick to death of being picked on just because the last happy asshole to go through the Planet with a toolbox had done everything wrong. It’s not my fault, he thought sullenly, that the dumbass didn’t connect the leads on the MOSFETs before he installed ’em. And his outdoor conduits are crappy, he didn’t figure on the Planet’s inductive load… incompetent jerkoff…

Maybe he was being harsh, but he wasn’t feeling particularly forgiving after the day he’d had. Mr. Blue had distinctly told him to get to the surface cams first – and then chased him down and insisted he’d told him to take care of the intercom system first. Cole knew he was full of shit – along with everyone else working at the Planet – but Reston was one of the top guys, a real heavy-hitter, when he said jump, you jumped, and there was never a question of who was right. Cole had only worked for Umbrella for a year, but he’d made more money in that year than he had in the five before combined; he was not gonna be the one to piss off Mr. Blue (so-called because of his perpetual blue suit) and get himself canned.

You sure about that? After all you’ve seen in the last few weeks?

Cole put the box of transistors down and rubbed at his eyes; they felt hot and itchy. He hadn’t been sleeping all that well since coming to work at the Planet. It wasn’t that he was some bleeding-heart type, he didn’t give much of a shit what Umbrella wanted to do with their money. But…

… but it’s hard to feel good about this place. It’s bad news. It’s a freak show.

In his year with Umbrella, he’d wired a chem lab on the west coast for power, installed a bunch of new circuit breakers for a think tank on the other coast, and generally done a lot of maintenance work wher– ever they shipped him. Incredible pay, not too hard, and the people he usually worked with were decent enough – mostly blue-collar types doing the same kind of stuff he was doing. And all he had to do out-side of the work was promise not to talk about whatever he saw; he’d signed a contract to that effect when he’d first hired on, and had never had a problem with it. But then, he’d never seen the Planet. When Umbrella called you out on a job, they didn’t explain anything. It was just, “fix that,” and you fixed it and got paid. Even within the working crews, discussions about the job site’s purpose were heavily discouraged. Word got around, though, and Cole knew enough about the Planet to think that he maybe didn’t want to work for Umbrella anymore. There were the creatures, for one thing, the test animals. He hadn’t actually seen them, or the thing they were calling Fossil, the frozen freak, but he’d heard them, a couple of times. Once, in the middle of the night, a screeching, howling sound that had chilled him to the bone, a sound like a bird, scream– ing. And then there was the day in Phase Two, realigning one of the video cameras, when he’d heard a strange chattering sound, like nails being tapped on hollow wood, but the sound was animal, too. Alive. He’d heard that they were specially created for Um– brella, some kind of genetic hybrids that would be better for studying, but hybrids of what? All of the creatures had bizarre and unpleasant nicknames, too. He’d heard the “research” guys talking about them on more than one occasion.

Dacs. Scorps. Spitters. Hunters. Sound like a fun bunch – for a horror movie.

Cole crawled to his feet, stretching his tired mus– cles, still thinking unhappy thoughts. There was Res– ton, of course; the guy was a grade-A tyrant, and of the worst kind – the kind with a lot of power and not a lot of patience. Cole was used to working with managerial types, but Mr. Blue was way too high on the food chain for his comfort zone. The man was intimidating as all hell.

But that’s not the worst, is it?

He sighed, looking around at the dozen cells that lined the room, six on either side. No, the worst was right in front of him. Each cell had a cot, a toilet, a sink – and restraining straps on the walls and at-tached to the beds. And the cell block was less than twenty feet from the “foyer” of the first environment, where the doors had locks on the outside.

After this one, I do some serious thinking about my priorities; I’ve got enough saved to take a break, get some perspective…

Cole sighed again. That was fine, for later. For now, though, he had to try and catch some sleep. He turned and walked to the door, slapping the lights off as he opened it…… and there was Reston. Hurrying around the corner where the main corridor turned toward the elevators, looking extremely upset.

Oh, hell, what now?

Reston saw him and practically ran to him, his blue suit uncharacteristically rumpled, his pale gaze dart– ing left and right. “Henry,” he gasped, and stopped in front of him, breathing hard. “Thank God. You have to help me. There are two men, assassins, they broke in and they’re here to kill me, and I need your help.”

Cole was as much taken aback by his demeanor as by what he said; he’d never seen Blue with a hair out of place, or without that small, smug smile that was the sole property of the incredibly wealthy.

“I… what?”

Reston took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly.

“I’m sorry. I just – the Planet has been invaded; there are two men here, looking for me. They mean to kill me, Henry. I recognize them from a thwarted attempt on my life not six months ago; they’ve posted a man on the surface by the door, and I’m trapped, they’ll find me and…”

He broke off, gasping, and was he trying not to cry? Cole stared at him, thinking he called me Henry. “Why are they trying to kill you?” He asked. “I was the chair for a hostile takeover last year, a packaging company – the man we bought out was unstable, he swore he’d get me. And now they’re here, right now they’re locking up everyone in the cafe– teria – but they’re only after me. I’ve called for help but they won’t get here in time. Please, Henry will you help me? I… I’ll make it worth your while, I promise you. You’ll never have to work again, your children will never have to work…”

The open plea in Reston’s eyes was disconcerting; it stopped Cole from mentioning that he didn’t have any children. The man was terrified, his lined face quivering, his silver-shot hair sticking up in tufts. Even without the monetary offer, Cole would have offered to help.

Maybe.

“What do you want me to do?”

Reston half-smiled in relief, actually reaching out to grasp Cole’s arm. “Thank you, Henry. Thank you, I… I’m not sure. If you could – they only want me, so if you could distract them somehow…”

He frowned, his lips trembling, then looked past Cole to the small room that marked the entrance to the environments. “That room! It has a lock on the outside, and opens into One – if you could lure them to you, slip into One… I could lock them inside, lock down the entire room as soon as you were out. You could go straight through to Four and out to the medical area, I’d unlock it for you as soon as they’re trapped.”

Cole nodded uncertainly. It should work, except…

“Won’t they know I’m not you? I mean, they’ll have a picture of you or something, won’t they?” “They won’t be able to tell. They’ll only see you for a second, when they come around the corner, and then you’ll be gone. As soon as they get inside, I’ll hit the controls – I can hide in the cell block.”

Reston’s pale eyes were swimming, overbright with unshed tears. The guy was desperate – and as plans went, it wasn’t a bad one. “Yeah, okay,” he said, and the look of gratitude on the older man’s face was almost heartwarming. Almost. If he were a decent human being it would be. “You won’t regret this, Henry,” Reston said, and Cole nodded, not sure what else to say. “You’ll be fine, Mr. Reston,” he said finally, un– comfortably. “Don’t worry.” “I’m sure you’re right, Henry,” Reston said, and turned, and walked into the dark cell block without another word. Cole stood there for a second, then shrugged in-wardly and started for the little room, nervous but also a little peeved. Mr. Blue was scared, but he was still pretty much an asshole.

No “Don’t you worry either, Henry,” or, “Be care– ful.” Not even a “Good luck, hope they don’t shoot you by mistake.” He shook his head, stepping into the small room. At least if he helped out the big Blue he’d probably be able to sleep in, maybe even quit the Planet and Umbrella for good. God knew he needed the rest; he’d been having a hell of a time sleeping…

Rebecca found the camera, at least. A lens no bigger than a quarter was hidden in the southwest corner, just an inch from the ceiling. She’d called David over and he’d covered it with his hand, wishing that he’d done a more thorough check before leading his team inside. He’d been stupid, and John and Leon were almost certainly gone because of it. Claire had found a roll of tape in her diggings, though little else. David taped the hole over, wonder-ing what they were going to do. It was cold, so cold that he didn’t know how much longer their reflexes would still be good. The codes weren’t working, the sealed entrance would take more than they had to open it up, and two of his team were somewhere in the facility below, perhaps wounded, perhaps dying…… or infected. Infected like Steve and Karen were infected, suffering, losing their humanity… “Stop it,” Rebecca said to him, and he stepped down from the table they’d pushed to the corner, half knowing what she meant but not ready to admit it. Rebecca had a way of drawing him out at the worst possible times.

“Stop what?”

Rebecca stepped closer to him, staring up into his face, hooding her flashlight with one small hand.

“You know what. You’ve got that look, I can see it; you’re telling yourself that this is your fault. That if you’d done something differently, they’d still be here.” He sighed. “I appreciate your concern, but this isn’t the appropriate…” “Yes it is,” she interrupted. “If you’re going to blame yourself, you won’t think as clearly. We’re not in the S.T.A.R.S. anymore, and you’re not anyone’s captain. It’s not your fault.”

Claire had walked over to join them, her gray gaze curious and searching in spite of the worry that still pinched her delicate features. “You think this is your fault? It’s not. I don’t think that.” David threw up his hands. “My God, alright! It’s not my fault, and we can all spend some time analyz-ing what I’m accountable for if and when we get out of this; for now, though, can we please concentrate on what’s in front of us?”

Both young women nodded, and while he was glad to have stopped the therapy session before it got started, he realized that he didn’t know what the next thing was – what tasks to give them beyond what they’d already done, how they were going to resolve their crisis, what to say or how to say it. It was a dreadful moment; he was used to having something to fight against, something to react to or shoot at or plan for, but their situation seemed to be static, unchang– ing. There wasn’t a clear path for them to follow, and that was even worse than the guilt he felt about his lack of foresight. And just at that moment, he heard the distant buzz of an approaching helicopter, the faraway thrum that could be nothing else – and although it was a solution of sorts, it was the worst one possible.

Nothing for cover except this compound, and we’ll never make it back to the van, we’ve got two, three minutes… “We have to get out of here,” David said, already running through the things they would have to do if they were to stand a chance, even as they were all running for the door.

The workers were cake. There had been a few tense moments rousing them from their dark cots in the dark dorm rooms, but it had gone off without inci– dent. John had still been somewhat wary of a few of them when he’d first herded them into the cafeteria, where Leon was watching the card-players – in partic– ular, two fairly big men who looked like they might have machismo disorders and a thin, twitchy guy with deepset eyes who couldn’t seem to stop licking his lips. It was like a compulsive thing; every few seconds, his tongue would dart out, flick between his lips and then disappear for another few seconds. Creepy. There’d been no trouble, though. Fourteen men and no one willing to play hero after John had presented them with a little logic. He’d kept it short and simple:

we’re here to find something, we’re not planning to hurt anyone, we just want you to stay out of the way while we get out of here. Don’t be stupid and you won’t get shot. Either the logic or the M-16 had been enough to convince them that it would be best not to argue. John stood by the door back into the big hall, watching the unhappy-looking group seated in the middle of the large room around a long table. A few looked pissed, a few looked scared, most just looked tired. Nobody spoke, which was fine by John; he didn’t want to have to worry about anyone trying to work up a rebellion. In spite of his reasonable certainty that all was cool, he was glad to hear the light tap on the door. Leon had been gone maybe five minutes, but it seemed like a lot

longer. He walked in holding a length of chain and a couple of wire coathangers. “Any trouble?” Leon asked quietly, and John shook his head, keeping his attention on the silent group. “Been nice and quiet,” he said. “Where’d you find the chain?” “Toolbox, in one of the rooms.”

John nodded, then raised his voice, keeping it calm.

“Alright, folks, we’re about to take our leave. Wethank you for your patience…” Leon nudged him. “Ask if Reston’s here,” he whis-pered. John sighed. “You think if he is, he’s gonna tell us?”The younger man shrugged. “Worth a shot, isn’t it?”Stranger things have happened…John cleared his throat and spoke again. “Is a man named Reston in here? We just have a question, we’re not going to hurt you.”

The men stared at him, at both of them, and John wondered, for just a second, if they knew what they were doing there; if they knew what Umbrella was doing. They didn’t look like Nazis, they looked like a bunch of working stiffs. Like guys who put in a hard day and liked to throw back a few beers in the evening. Like – like guys.

And what did Nazis look like? These people are a part of the problem, they’re working for the enemy. They’re not going to help us… “Blue ain’t here.” A big bearded man in a T-shirt and boxers, one of the ones John had been keeping an eye on. His voice was gruff and irritable, his face still puffy from sleep. John glanced at Leon, surprised, and saw that the rookie looked the same. “Blue?” John asked. “Is that Reston?”

A man sitting at the end of the table with longish hair and grease-stained hands nodded. “Yeah. And that’s Mister Blue to you.”

The sarcasm was pointed. There were a couple of dark looks exchanged within the sitting group and a couple of chuckles.

Reston’s one of the key guys, Trent said. And just about everybody hates their boss… but so much that they’d talk shit about him to a couple of terrorists?

Reston must be real unpopular.

“Is there anyone else working here who isn’t in this room?” Leon asked. “We don’t want to be sur– prised…”

The implications were obvious, but it was also obvious that they weren’t going to get anything else from the assembled employees. They might hate

Reston, but John could see from the crossed arms and scowls that they wouldn’t talk about one of their own. If there was anyone else in the facility, which he doubted. Trent had said it was a small staff… which means it was probably Reston who brought us down, which means we could kill two birds if we find him – get the book and get him to start up the elevator again. We lock Reston in a closet, hook up with David and the girls and get gone before anything else unexpected comes up.

John nodded at Leon, and they backed up to the door. John realized that he didn’t want to just walk out, that he felt a kind of sympathy for the men that he’d dragged out of bed. Not a lot, but something. “We’re gonna lock the door here,” John said, “but you’ll be okay until the company sends someone, you got food… and if you don’t mind a little advice, listen up – Umbrella ain’t the good guys. Whatever they’re paying you, it isn’t enough. They’re killers.”

The blank stares followed them out of the room. Leon closed the double doors and started to rig up the makeshift lock, threading the chain through the han– dles and bending the hangers. John walked the few steps to the corner and looked down the long gray hall that they’d stepped into from the elevator. They could continue on the way they’d been going to look for Reston, there was a bend in the corridor not far past the staff housing area…… but he’s not that way, John thought, remember– ing the sound he’d heard when they’d first arrived.

He’s back the way we came, somewhere.

Leon finished securing the doors and joined him, looking a little pale but still game. “So… now we look for Reston?” “Yeah,” John said, thinking that the kid was doing pretty well, considering. Not a lot of experience, but he was smart, he had guts, and he didn’t clutch under the gun. “You holding up?” Leon nodded. “Yeah. I’m just – do you think they’re okay up there?”No, I think they’re freezing their asses off waiting for us,” John said, smiling, and hoped that was the case – that after locking down the elevator, Reston hadn’t released the hounds, or whatever equivalent this place had.

Or called for help…”Let’s get this over with,” John said, and Leon nodded, as they started back down the hall to see what was what.

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