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By S. D. Perry
Pocket Star BooksCopyright © 2004 S. D. Perry
All right reserved.
The helicopter spun through the darkness over Raccoon forest.
Rebecca Chambers sat up straight, willing herself to look as calm as the men around her. The mood was solemn, as dark and clouded as the skies whipping past, all jokes and jabs left behind at the briefing. This wasn't a training exercise. Three more people, hikers, had gone missing -- in a forest as large as the one surrounding Raccoon, not that unusual -- but with the rash of savage murders that had terrorized the small city over the past several weeks, "missing" had taken on new meaning. Only a few days earlier there'd been a ninth victim found, this one as ripped up and savaged as if it had been run through a meat grinder. People were being killed, savagely attacked by someone or some thing around the outskirts of the city, and the Raccoon police weren't getting anywhere. The city's chapter of S.T.A.R.S. had finally been called in to investigate.
Rebecca raised her chin slightly, a pulse of pride edging through her nervousness. Although her degree was in biochemistry, she'd been tapped as Bravo team's field medic, joining the team less than a month earlier.
My first mission. Which means I'd better not cock it up. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, working to keep her expression casual.
Edward shot her an encouraging smile, and Sully leaned across the crowded cabin to reassuringly pat her leg. So much for looking cool. As smart as she was, as ready as she was to begin her career, she couldn't help her age, or the fact that she looked even younger. At eighteen, she was the youngest person to be accepted into the S.T.A.R.S. since its creation in 1967...and as the only female on Raccoon's B team, everyone treated her like their kid sister.
She sighed, smiling back at Edward, nodding at Sully. It wasn't so bad, having a handful of hardass big brothers watching out for her -- as long as they understood she could take care of herself when the need arose.
I think, she silently amended. It was her first assignment, after all, and though she was in good shape physically, her combat experience had been limited to video simulations and weekend missions. The Special Tactics and Rescue Service wanted her in their labs, eventually, but field time was mandatory and she needed the experience. Anyway, they'd be sweeping the woods as a team. If they did run across the people or animals that had been attacking Raccoon's citizens, she'd have backup.
There was a flicker of lightning to the north, close, the subsequent thunder lost to the drone of the 'copter. Rebecca leaned forward slightly, scanning the dark. It had been clear all day, the clouds rolling in just before sunset; they were definitely going to go home wet. At least it would be a warm rain; she supposed it could be a lot --
She'd been so focused on the coming storm that for a crazed split second, she thought it was thunder, even as the helicopter tipped wildly and dropped, a terrible rising, clattering whine filling the cabin, the floor vibrating beneath her boots. A hot smell of burned metal and ozone singed her nose.
"What happened?" someone shouted. Enrico, riding shotgun.
"Engine failure!" The pilot, Kevin Dooley, shouted back. "Emergency landing!"
Rebecca grabbed a strut and held on, looked to the others so she wouldn't have to watch the trees rushing up at them. She saw the grim, determined set to Sully's jaw, Edward's clenched teeth, the look of anxiety shot between Richard and Forest as they grabbed for struts or handholds on the shuddering wall. In the front, Enrico was shouting something else, something she couldn't make out over the scream of the dying engine. Rebecca closed her eyes for a beat, thought of her parents -- and then the ride was too wild for her to think, the crack and crash of tree branches battering the helicopter too loud and jarring for her to do anything but hope. The 'copter spun out of control, whipping around in a tilting, sickening, lurching circle.
It was over a second later, the silence so sudden and complete that she thought she'd gone deaf, all movement stopped. Then she heard the tick of metal, the strangled last gasp of the engine, and her own thundering heart, and realized that they were down. Kevin had done it, and without a single bounce.
"Everyone okay?" Enrico Marini, their captain, was craned around in his seat.
Rebecca added her own shaky nod to the chorus of affirmations.
"Nice flying, Kev," Forest said, and there was another chorus. Rebecca couldn't have agreed more.
"Is the radio down?" Enrico asked the pilot, who was tapping at controls and flipping switches.
"Looks like everything electrical is fried," Kevin said. "It must have been lightning. We weren't struck directly, but it was close enough. Beacon, too."
"Can it be repaired?"
Enrico addressed it as an open question, looking at Richard, their communications officer. Richard in turn looked at Edward, who shrugged. Edward was the Bravo team's mechanic.
"I'll take a look," Edward said, "but if Kev says the transmitter's toast, it's probably toast."
The captain nodded slowly, absently brushing at his mustache with one hand as he considered their options. After a few seconds, he sighed. "I called in when we were hit, but I don't know if it went through," he said. "They'll have our last coordinates, though. If we don't report in pretty soon, they'll come looking."
"They" was the S.T.A.R.S. Alpha team. Rebecca nodded along with the others, not sure if she should be disappointed or not. Her first mission, over before it started.
Enrico wiped at his mustache again, smoothing it down at the corners of his mouth with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. "Everybody out. Let's see where we are."
They filed out of the cabin, the reality of the situation hitting Rebecca as they gathered together in the dark. They were incredibly lucky to be alive.
Struck by lightning. On our way to search for mad killers, no less, she thought, amazed at the very idea. Even if the mission was over, this was hands down the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her.
The air was warm and heavy with impending rain, the shadows deep. Small animals rustled through the underbrush. A pair of flashlights clicked on, the beams cutting through the dark as Enrico and Edward moved around the helicopter, examining the damage. Rebecca fished her own flashlight out of her bag, relieved that she hadn't forgotten to pack it.
"How you holding up?"
Rebecca turned, saw Ken "Sully" Sullivan grinning down at her. He had his weapon out, the nine-millimeter's muzzle pointed to the overcast sky, a grim reminder of why they were there in the first place.
"You guys really know how to make an entrance, don't you?" she said, smiling back at him.
The tall man laughed, his teeth very white against the darkness of his skin. "Actually, we always do this for the new recruits. It's a waste of helicopters, but we have our reputation to maintain."
She was about to ask how the police chief felt about the expense -- she was new to the area, but she'd heard that Chief Irons was notoriously stingy -- when Enrico joined them, pulling his own weapon and raising his voice so everyone could hear.
"All right, people. Let's fan out, investigate the surrounding area. Kev, stay with the 'copter. The rest of you, keep close, I just want this area secured. Alpha could be here in as little as an hour."
He didn't complete the thought, that it could be a hell of a lot longer, but he didn't need to. For the moment, at least, they were on their own.
Rebecca slid the nine-millimeter out of its holster, carefully checking the magazine and chamber as she'd been taught, raising the muzzle to avoid inadvertently aiming at anyone. The others were moving out to either side, checking weapons and turning on flashlights. She took a deep breath and started to walk straight ahead, swinging the flashlight's beam around in front of her. Enrico was only a few meters away, moving parallel to her position. A low mist had cropped up, wafting through the underbrush like a ghostly tide. There was a parting in the trees about a dozen meters ahead, a path big enough to be a narrow road, though it was hard to tell for the mist. It was quiet except for a rumble of thunder, the sound closer than she would have expected; the storm was almost upon them. She swept the beam across trees and darkness and trees again, then a glint of what looked like --
Enrico stepped to her side, and within seconds, five more beams of light had jerked toward the gleam of metal she'd seen, illuminating what was, in fact, a narrow dirt road -- and an overturned jeep. Rebecca could see mp etched on the side as the team moved closer. Military police. She saw a pile of clothes spilling out from beneath the shattered windshield and frowned, stepping in for a better look -- and then she was holstering her weapon and fumbling for her medkit, hurrying over to kneel next to the crashed jeep, knowing even before she sat back on her heels that there was nothing she could do. There was too much blood.
Two men. One had been thrown clear, was crumpled a few meters away. The other, the fair-haired man in front of her, was still half under the jeep. Both wore military fatigues. Their faces and upper bodies had been badly mutilated. There were massive tears through skin and muscle, deep gashes across their throats. No way the crash had done all of it.
Rebecca reflexively reached down and felt for a pulse, noting the chill of the flesh. She stood and moved to the other body, again checking for any sign of life, but he was as cold as the first.
"You think they're from Ragithon?" someone asked. Richard. Rebecca saw a briefcase near the pale, outstretched hand of the second corpse and crouch-walked to it, half listening to Enrico's answer as she flipped the case's lid.
"It's the closest base, but look at the insignia. They're jarheads. Could be from Donnell," Enrico said.
A clipboard was on top of a handful of files, an official looking document attached to it. There was a small headshot in the upper left corner, of a handsome, dark-eyed young man in civvies -- neither of the corpses looked like him. Rebecca lifted it out, reading silently -- and then her mouth went dry.
"Captain!" she managed, standing.
Enrico looked up from where he was crouched, next to the jeep. "Hmm? What happened?"
She read the pertinent parts aloud. "'Court order for transportation...prisoner William Coen, ex-lieutenant, twenty-six years old. Court-martialed and sentenced to death, July 22nd. Prisoner is to be transferred to the Ragithon base for execution.'" The lieutenant had been convicted of first-degree murder.
Edward pulled the clipboard from her hands, saying what was already formulating in Rebecca's mind, his voice heavy with anger. "Those poor soldiers. They were just doing their jobs, and that scum murdered them and escaped."
Enrico took the clipboard away from him, scanning it quickly. "All right, everyone. Change of plan. We may have an escaped killer on our hands. Let's separate and survey the immediate area, see if we can't locate Lieutenant Billy. Keep your guard up, and report back in fifteen, regardless."
There were nods all around. Rebecca took a deep breath as the others started to move out, checking her watch, determined to be as professional as anyone else on the team. Fifteen minutes alone, no big deal. What could happen in fifteen minutes? Alone. In the dark, dark woods.
"Got your radio?"
Rebecca jumped and turned at the sound of Edward's voice, the big man standing directly behind her. The mechanic patted her on the shoulder, smiling.
Rebecca smiled back at him, though she despised being called "kiddo." Edward was only twenty-six, for God's sake. She tapped the unit on her belt.
Edward nodded, stepping away. His message was clear, and reassuring. She wasn't really alone, not as long as she had her radio. She looked around, saw that the several of the others were already out of sight. Kevin, still in the pilot's seat, was going through the briefcase that she'd found. He saw her and snapped her a salute. Rebecca gave him a thumbs-up and squared her shoulders, drawing her weapon once more and heading out into the night. Overhead, thunder rumbled.
Albert Wesker sat in the treatment plant's Con B1, the room dark except for the flicker from a bank of observation monitors, six of them, each changing view on five-second rotations. There were shots from every level of the training facility, the upper and lower floors of the factory and water treatment plant, and the tunnel that connected the two. He gazed at the soundless black-and-white screens without really looking at them; most of his attention was focused on the incoming transmissions from the cleanup crew. The three-man team -- well, two and a pilot -- was en route by 'copter, and mostly silent; they were professionals, after all, not given to macho banter or juvenile jokes, which meant Wesker was hearing a lot of static. That was all right; the white noise went well with the blank and staring faces he saw on the monitors, the ravaged bodies slumped in corners, the men who'd been infected shambling aimlessly through empty corridors. Like the Arklay mansion and labs only a few miles away, White Umbrella's private training grounds and connected facilities had been hit by the virus.
"ETA thirty minutes, over," the pilot said, his voice crackling through the dimly lit room.
Wesker leaned in. "Copy that."
Silence again. There was no need to talk about what would happen when they reached the train...and though the channel was scrambled, it was best not to say more than was necessary, anyway. Umbrella had been built on a foundation of secrecy, a characteristic of the pharmaceutical giant that was still honored by everyone in the upper echelons of management. Even in the company's legitimate dealings, the less said the better.
It's all coming down, Wesker thought idly, watching the screens. Spencer's mansion and the surrounding labs had gone down in the middle of May. White Umbrella's take on it had been "accidental," the lab locked down until the infected researchers and staff became "ineffective." Mistakes happened, after all. But the training facility nightmare that was still playing out in front of him had followed not a month later...and only a few hours ago, the engineer of Umbrella's private train, the Ecliptic Express, had pushed the biohazard panic button.
So, the lockdown didn't work, the virus leaked and spread. It's that simple...isn't it?
There were a handful of infected grunts in the training facility's dining room, one of them walking in looping circles around the once-handsome table. He was leaking some viscous fluid out of a nasty head wound as he staggered along, oblivious to his whereabouts, to pain, to everything. Wesker tapped at the control panel beneath the monitor, keeping the surveillance from moving to the next picture. He sat back in his chair, watching the doomed walker as he circled the table yet again.
"Sabotage, maybe," he said softly. He couldn't be sure. It was set up to look natural -- a spill at the Arklay lab, an incomplete lockdown. A few weeks later, a couple of missing hikers, likely caused by an escaped test subject or two, and a few weeks more, infection at a second White Umbrella facility. It was highly improbable that one of the virus carriers would just happen to blunder their way to one of Raccoon's other labs, but it was possible...except now there was the train to consider. And it didn't feel like an accident. It felt...planned.
Hell, I might have done it myself, if I'd thought of it. He'd been looking for a way out for some time now, tired of working for people who were obviously his inferiors...and well aware that too much time on White Umbrella's payroll wasn't good for the health. Now they wanted him to lead the S.T.A.R.S. into the Arklay mansion and labs, to find out just how well Umbrella's war pets fared against armed soldiers. Did they give a shit if he died in the process? Not so long as he recorded the data first, he was sure.
Researchers, doctors, techs -- anyone who worked for White Umbrella for more than a decade or two had a habit of winding up missing or dead, eventually. George Trevor and his family, Dr. Marcus, Dees, Dr. Darius, Alexander Ashford...and those were just some of the bigger names. God only knew how many of the little people had ended up in shallow graves somewhere...or turned up as test subjects A, B, and C.
The corner of Wesker's mouth twitched. Come to think of it, he had a fairly good idea of how many. He'd been working for White Umbrella since the late seventies, most of that in the Raccoon area, and had watched the docs run through quite a few test subjects, many he had helped procure himself. It was well past his time to get out...and if he could get the data the big boys wanted, he might just be able to throw himself a little bidding war, a going-away present to fund his retirement. White Umbrella wasn't the only group interested in bioweapons research.
But first a cleanup for the train. And this place, he thought, watching as the soldier with the head wound tripped over a chair leg and went down hard. The training facility was connected to the "private" water treatment plant by an underground tunnel; it would all have to be cleared.
A few seconds passed, and the soldier onscreen staggered to his feet again, continuing on his mindless quest to nowhere...and now there appeared to be a dinner fork sticking out of his upper right shoulder, a little souvenir from his fall. The soldier didn't notice, of course. A charming little disease. It had been the same kind of scene at the Arklay labs, Wesker was sure; the last few desperate phone calls from the quarantined lab had painted a vivid picture of just how effective the T-virus really was. That would have to be cleaned up, too...but not until after he got the S.T.A.R.S. out there for a little training exercise.
It would be an interesting match. The S.T.A.R.S. were good -- he'd handpicked half of them himself -- but they'd never seen anything like the T-virus. The dying soldier on the screen was a prime example -- hot with the recombinant virus, he went on with his endless tour of the dining room, slow and mostly brainless. He also felt no pain -- and he would attack anyone or anything that happened across his path with no hesitation, the virus continually seeking new hosts to infect. Although the original spill was allegedly airborne, after this long, the virus would only be spread by bodily fluids. By blood, or, say, a bite...And the soldier was just a man, after all; the T-virus worked on all manners of living tissue, and there were a number of other...animals...to see in action, from laboratory triumphs to local wildlife.
Enrico should have the Bravos out by now, searching for the latest missing hikers, but it was doubtful they'd find anything where he was planning to look. Sometime soon, Wesker would see about organizing an Alpha-Bravo camp-out at the "deserted" Spencer mansion. Then he'd wipe out the evidence and be on his merry, wealthy way, to hell with White Umbrella, to hell with his life as a double-agent, playing with the petty lives of men and women he didn't give a shit about.
The dying man on the screen fell down once again, dragged himself to his feet, and soldiered on.
"Go for the gold, baby," Wesker said, and chuckled, the sound echoing out through the empty dark.
Something moved in the bushes. Something bigger than a squirrel.
Rebecca spun toward the sound, aiming the flashlight and nine-millimeter at the shrub. The light caught the last of the movement, the leaves still shaking, the beam from her flashlight trembling along with them. She took a step closer, swallowing dryly, counting backward from ten. Whatever it was, it was gone now.
A raccoon, is all. Or maybe somebody's dog got loose.
She looked at her watch, sure that it must be time to head back, and saw that she'd been on her own for just over five minutes. She hadn't seen or heard anyone else since she'd walked away from the helicopter; it was as though everyone else had fallen off the face of the earth.
Or I have, she thought darkly, lowering the handgun slightly, turning to check her position. She'd been heading roughly southwest from the landing point; she'd continue on a few more minutes, then --
Rebecca blinked, surprised to see a metal wall beneath the flashlight's beam, not ten meters away. She played the light across the surface, saw windows, a door --
"A train," she breathed, frowning slightly. It seemed like she remembered something about a track up here...Umbrella, the pharmaceutical corporation, had a private line that ran from Latham to Raccoon City, didn't they? She wasn't too certain on the history -- she wasn't a local -- but she was pretty sure the company had been founded in Raccoon. Umbrella's headquarters had moved off to Europe some time ago, but they still owned practically the entire town.
So what's it doing sitting up here, dead in the woods at this time of night? She ran the light up and down the train, saw that there were five tall cars, each two stories high. Ecliptic Express was written just below the roof of the car in front of her. There were a few lights on, but they were faint, barely casting through the windows...several of which were broken. She thought she saw a person's silhouette near one of the unbroken ones, but it wasn't moving. Someone asleep, maybe.
Or hurt, or dead. Maybe this thing is stopped because Billy Coen found his way onto the track.
God, that was a thought. He could be inside now, with hostages. She should definitely call for backup. She started to reach for her radio, then paused.
Or maybe the train broke down two weeks ago and it's been here ever since, and all you'll find inside is a colony of woodchucks. Wouldn't the team have a laugh over that? They'd be nice about it, but she'd have to endure weeks, maybe months of gentle ribbing, calling for backup over a deserted train.
She checked her watch again, saw that two minutes had passed since the last check...and felt a drop of cool liquid splash on her nose. Then another on her arm. Then the soft, musical patter of a hundred drops against leaves and dirt, then thousands as the sky opened up, the storm finally beginning.
The rain decided it for her; a quick look inside before she headed back, just to make sure everything was the way it was supposed to be. If Billy wasn't around, she'd at least be able to report back that the train appeared to be clear. And if he was...
"You'll have to deal with me," she murmured, the sound lost to the growing storm as she approached the silent train.
© 2004 Capcom Co., Ltd. © 2004 Capcom U.S.A., Inc. All Rights reserved.
Excerpted from Zero Hour by S. D. Perry Copyright © 2004 by S. D. Perry. Excerpted by permission.
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