April 3rd, 2005

"Oh..." A woman's weak sob cut through the frigid air of a room far below the ground. She was beginning the painful process of waking up. Her entire body ached; every muscle resisted her movements. A quick look showed her slender arms were covered in shallow cuts, dried blood, and bruises. Her clothes had a few ragged tears. And perhaps worst of all was a familiar, moist thickness deep within her chest: the illness she had been on her way to beating had taken hold of her again. As she tried to come to terms with her body's pains, the beaten young woman began to wonder how long she had been out of commission.

The room she inhabited was completely concrete, obviously a cell of some kind. She was not restrained in any way, and, standing, discovered that the chamber was about six paces long from rear wall to metal door and four from side to side. There was a thin padded mat in a back corner with a frayed, dirty blanket. The meager rectangle of cloth was of the bleak shade of gray associated with prisons and the homeless. Occupying the other back corner was a large metal pot that was apparently to serve as a toilet. Water dripped from overhead pipes. Little illumination came from a window set high in the door; a tiny, bare bulb served that purpose. The light bulb threw weak beams onto the walls and floor and showed stains that could have been anything from rust to blood to chocolate pudding thrown in a food fight. Estella Sera decided that they were certainly not the latter, at the very least. She sat upon her mat, put her head gently against the wall, and watched water drip from the ceiling into a small pool on the floor. As the young woman absorbed her surroundings, salty tears falling from her gray eyes gathered similarly in the hollow of her neck. This was most certainly not good.

Wesker. Wesker must have brought her here. But where was Carmen? Surely someone would have to come and feed her; she might be able to get information from them...

"Miss Sera." That smooth voice; that perfect, practiced Spanish accent he used whenever he decided to speak to her in her native language. She closed her eyes, hoping that what she had heard might be a product of her imagination. But the cell door opened, letting in a draft of chill air and the noise of what sounded like a particularly nasty bar fight from down the hallway, and a hand suddenly closed around her upper arm. Estella could not help but tremble; however, Wesker did not haul her roughly to her feet, as she expected.

"I was beginning to wonder when you would wake up. I have something I am... eager to show you." She ventured a glance at his face: his features remained stoic as ever. Now she was jerked violently from the ground, the sudden movement forcing a pitiful whimper from her lips. Wesker couldn't conceal the hint of a smirk that crept onto his face, though Estella was forced to the door faster than she could take note of his expression for a second time.

A large, bearded man that had been waiting outside of her cell shut the door with a slam and began to follow the pair down the hallway. Wesker had her cross her arms behind her back and kept a firm grip on each just above the elbow. She was pushed on ahead of him. The corridor was lined with doors, each exactly the same as her own, and the cries drifting from behind them ranged from wordless sobs to angry screaming. Men and women wailed: there were curses and threats in some cases, shouts of pain in others. Some begged for death, some simply for a meal or better blanket. A few of the prisoners—for that was what they must be, she assumed—yelled for release. And some just shrieked. Shrieked and shrieked, their insane calls filling the very space around them with a tuneless chord that reverberated through her skull and threatened to split her mind in half. She wanted them to stop; they drowned out all the worldly, still-human moans from the others and turned the hallway they walked into a torture chamber for a fragile mind, a mind that was lead to imagine things not quite human lurking behind the closed cell doors. Things not whole, not right... she wanted to add her own screaming to the madness... she wanted to just scream until everything stopped...

Wesker seemed impervious to the lunacy in the corridor, though by the time they had reached the door at the end of the cell block Estella was shaking badly. Wesker typed a series of numbers into a nearby keypad and shoved her through the opened exit, stepping through after and still followed by the bulky man. Once they were on the other side, the blond pressed a button that caused the door to slide shut with a hiss. The noises were suddenly cut off, and the young woman let out a sigh of relief.

"The more... superstitious of my employees don't call that the 'Hall of the Damned' for nothing, I suppose," Wesker said, his tone conversational. He jerked his head in the direction of the tall brute behind him and Estella noticed that the man looked uneasy, like he had just walked over a pit of burning coals and wanted to be as far away from the heat as possible. "They do that when they hear the door open. I apologize for any inconvenience." He began to lead her from the prison by pushing her on from behind as before, down another concrete corridor that was dimly lit and very damp. "I had expected you to come to earlier. When your former location was required for other things, I had no choice but to move you." Estella did not speak, but her mind had recovered from the shock of the prison hallway and formed a question: where was Carmen?

Wesker seemed to read her thoughts, however. "Your sister is in quite a different place, I assure you. I couldn't submit such a young girl to horrors like that, now could I?" The answer was obvious, though Estella kept her mouth shut. Besides, there was no way for her to see the sadistic little smile that had formed upon the man's lips.

Suddenly, Estella drew in a sharp breath as her chest contracted painfully and she began to cough. Wesker, still gripping one of her frail arms, held up a gloved finger to stop the man behind them. The violent tremors wracked her whole body, and after a few moments her chest, abdomen, and throat were aching with the effort of ridding herself of the liquid in her lungs. Though she was frightened of Wesker, at the very least Estella was grateful that the bruising grasp he had on her arm kept her from falling to the floor. When her coughing subsided, stars swam before her eyes and her breath was short. But the blond man began to push her on again, his pace unmerciful.

The trio took an elevator to the fourth floor, made several turns along a winding hall, and then climbed a flight of stairs. Along the way, Estella noted that they passed a fair number of white-jacketed men and women. She guessed they were scientists by their clipboards, identification badges, and busy, self-important expressions. Others they saw were obviously guards, men and women who were armed and mean-looking. One woman they encountered caught Estella's attention as she was led along by Wesker. Asian, with chin-length black hair and stunning gray eyes, she wore a red turtle-necked tank top, black dress pants, and stiletto heels. Wesker nodded at her in recognition and the woman returned the gesture, locking eyes with Estella momentarily. Nothing about her fit in with the rest of the employees that roamed the halls, save her cool gaze; indeed, she seemed aloof and above the rest of them. Estella shivered.

But for the most part, the three of them were hardly given a glance. As they reached a door in a much emptier corridor, Wesker signaled for the other man to leave. Once he and Estella were alone he punched a code into a keypad identical to the one in the cell block.

The code ends with a three, Estella observed. She had no clue why that might be significant at all, but she tucked the information away in her mind, in case it just might be useful later.

Wesker led her into a well-sized, though not extravagantly large, room. The wall opposite the door was covered in monitors, in front of which a high-backed leather office chair sat. On her left were a desk and several filing cabinets, on her right was a wall with a few bookshelves and a door. It was through this door that the blond man took her, into a short hallway. She had a brief second to notice five doors before he turned to the left and pushed her through the first. The corridor they now traveled was short and clean, heavy metal sliding doors on either side of them. He stopped and turned her to face him.

"I would like to ask you, for the first and last time today, what else was in the box your brother sent you." She searched his face for a moment, confused, before remembering their discussion the last time she had been conscious. Fear clawed at her insides; she knew she would not be able to give him the answer he wanted and dreaded the consequences.

"Nothing," was her answer. Estella's voice was hoarse. "I gave you everything." His silence scared her, and her muscles tensed, expecting a blow. But nothing came, and his face remained blank of expression.

"Perhaps you have forgotten."

"No! I swear, I'm telling you the truth." After another brutally soundless moment, a small grin crept onto his face. She became absolutely terrified.

"I think you need to speak to your brother. Maybe he can remind you."

"My... brother?" The woman's eyes were wide. "But Luis is dead." Wesker laughed. She flushed and attempted to step back out of his grasp, but his grip merely tightened around her arm until she let out a small cry of pain. The man continued to laugh; after a few moments her struggling gave way to tears and she simply stood there, crying as he laughed at her, his hands digging new marks into her arms.

He abruptly pulled her to one of the doors and took a card from an inner pocket of his expensive jacket. This he swiped through a scanner before entering a code into the numerical pad on the desired door. Wesker pushed her into the room revealed, and she turned to face him. His face still bore the lines of his lunatic smile, and he was shaking his head slowly.

"I don't tolerate liars. Perhaps you will be more inclined to tell me what I need to know after spending some time with your dear brother. I would be careful, though, it's been a while since he's been fed." His madly grinning face was the last thing she saw before the door shut.

This room was white, even complete with padded walls. A rattling sound, like that of heavy chains, sounded from behind her and she slowly turned. The sight before Estella prevented any noise from leaving her body. She backed up against the door and sank to the floor.

A man was chained to the wall opposite, heavy cuffs about his wrists. His head was bowed, face covered on the left side by lank black hair. The right side of his head was shaved, black stitches holding a flap of triangular-shaped skin over a slightly concave part of his skull. He was horribly emaciated, a pair of loose, stained white pants clinging to his jutting hips. Worst of all was the stomach area. Bloated and misshapen, the abdomen had obviously been ripped open and then stitched back up. Dark red blood had crusted around the torn skin. Estella drew in a deep and raspy breath; the man gave a low moan upon hearing the noise and moved his arms weakly. The chains rattled.

"...Luis," Estella breathed. An amused chuckle sounded from a hidden speaker overhead.

"Indeed." Wesker's voice. "With the technology at hand, repairing abdominal wounds is no problem, though the spine was a bit tougher to mend. He still hasn't regained the use of his legs, you see." Luis gave a grunt at the sound of the voice. Estella ignored Wesker and began to crawl forward, her eyes only on the thing chained to the wall. Luis's head lolled drunkenly back, the unblinking, cloudy orbs that were his eyes taking her into account. A thin reddish fluid drizzled from his mouth onto his bare chest.

Seated in his chair in front of the wall of monitors, Wesker leaned forward. This was the moment he had been waiting for.

Estella reached Luis. She was close enough to touch him, close enough to smell the overly sweet, thick, and ultimately rotten stench coming from his wound... the scent of unwashed hair and urine that emanated from his grimy, pallid form. She forced herself not to break down. Where was the man that would come home and brag about the women he had met? The man who would tease Carmen about her male friends, who would surprise Estella by picking her up and spinning around until she was yelling at him to stop, who would throw his jacket on the floor no matter how many times she told him to put it away, who would protect them and take care of them... where was her brother?

"Luis." She put forth a faltering, shaky hand an attempt to place it upon his cheek. Those unnaturally wide, glazed eyes watched her from a head that was still tipped back against the wall. They darted between her nearing hand and her face, rapidly back and forth...

...Until her fingers actually met his flesh. The second she touched him he became a monster, springing from the wall to lash out with his teeth. With a scream she fell back, narrowly avoiding a bite. He watched her like an animal now, no more of the lazy lack of expression previously shown. His once-handsome face was twisted in a snarl; his breathing was throaty and ragged.

My brother is dead, Estella realized. The thread of wild hope that managed to creep into her mind now died violently. Another glance at the hostile face before her sent her over the edge, and she began to cry loudly.

Wesker smiled at the display onscreen. Perfect! Sera did not even recognize his own family, and if he did, he still seemed unable overcome his animalistic instincts. Now, if only they could fix the little problem of his near-complete immobility. And there was still that setback that plagued every test subject in this project. But that was why Estella was there. Sooner or later she would crack, he was sure of it. Wesker began writing in a notepad he took from his pocket:

Sera does not recognize familiars. Should continue as planned; no more doses of solution #35 necessary. Spinal repairs finished within the next 2 days so he is ready for the 17th. Run tests 14A and 23C; steroids may be needed to assist in growth/repair of muscles.

He closed the notepad and stuffed it back into his pocket before taking the microphone before him.

"Miss Sera... if you ever feel the need to tell me what I wish to know, I'm sure you can figure out how to contact me." He then got up and left the room. There was so much to do and so little time to do it!

April 10th, 2005

Billy sat up and rubbed his neck stiffly. He didn't even remember falling asleep. One moment he had been sitting cross-legged in front of his coffee table with Rebecca and her friend Brandon, going over piles of papers. Next thing he knew, he felt like he had been hit by a bus. The entire left half of his body was asleep, and he tried to stretch his stiff limbs quietly as he looked at the clock. Last time he had checked, it had been 11:30 or so, and they had already been talking and going over files for a good four hours by then.

Shit, he thought. 2:15. He had been sleeping, slumped on the floor, for almost three hours. He ventured a look around. Brandon had fallen to his right, his head propped at an odd angle on the armrest of the couch. He still held a paper in his hand. Rebecca had fallen asleep practically on top of him, her head resting on his side. Billy couldn't help but smile slightly at her ruffled appearance: flushed cheeks, several strands of brown hair hanging haphazardly over her face, and a tee-shirt that had rumpled up on one side to expose a flash of pale stomach. He was happy that she was sleeping so soundly, though; for the past week her sleep had been fitful at best. Every night he could hear her tossing and turning, even from his room, and her wordless cries went straight to his heart. She had been a real trooper, though, throwing herself aggressively into the work of uncovering the mystery set before them. The damage had been done, as she said, and now she was going to deal with her choice. Billy couldn't help but feel that her family's fate had been partially his fault, as well. After all, he had originally tried to convince her not to go to that ridiculous ball. But there had been no outbursts of emotion after the initial breakdown. Rebecca's work, with the help of her friend Brandon, had been the driving force that kept her sane. He truly had to admire the woman.

Billy sighed. They obviously weren't going to get anything else done for now. She needed to sleep comfortably, but he didn't want to wake her up. Thus, after a brief moment of thought, he decided that for tonight he could sleep on the couch. She would stay in his bed. Standing slowly, with a silent curse at the pins-and-needles feeling that flooded through his leg, he limped to the couch.

Rebecca's ninety-something-pound frame was no problem for the ex-marine to lift, and he did this carefully so as not to awaken her. After all, he had lifted her once in order to save her from dropping into a hole that went to only God knew where... he mused on that incident for a moment as he made his way to his room, enjoying the feel of that woman sleeping safely in his arms. After they both had regained their breath, and Rebecca had lied to her superior about not having found him, she had asked the truth of him. Did you really kill twenty-three people? The question came back to him as clearly as though she had just asked him that day. Her innocence... that willingness to believe whatever he told her. But her inquiry had brought on painful flashbacks, and he had avoided giving a straight answer. He didn't think he could have dealt with exposing her to some more of the world's cruel truths just then. Not when they already had a mansion full of zombies to worry about. Billy couldn't help but shiver at the thought of the mansion, and Rebecca stirred slightly.

They were at his bedside, and he gently laid her down atop the unmade bed. He was reluctant to leave as he watched her sleep. So peaceful, so pure, so beautiful... he was tempted to crawl into bed beside her.

No. Billy was by no means innocent, and with virtually any other woman, he would have thought nothing of getting in bed with her. But Rebecca was different. He would do no such thing, no matter how pure his intentions, without her agreement. Of course she was attractive—very attractive—but that was beside the point. And he couldn't think of the words to describe the feeling he had about this, but he knew she was just... different than any other girl he had known. The feeling in his gut was not so much one of lust, but a sort of overpowering desire to simply be there with her. And that feeling was rapidly growing stronger and more complex. Billy would never have admitted to it, but the ex-marine and all-around tough guy had a very large soft spot.

He was surprised to find his face warm as he pulled a blanket over the girl's prone form. She shifted and smiled faintly in her sleep, and for an instant he was overwhelmed with emotion. His hand moved lightly across her forehead, brushing away wayward strands of hair, and he placed an affectionate kiss there. He made a point of not lingering after the gesture, but simply leaving and returning to the living room with an attempt to keep his mind blank of any sentiments.

Brandon was awake, sitting up on the couch and stretching his neck in an attempt to get rid of what must have been a very painful cramp. He looked up when Billy entered the adjacent kitchen and went to the refrigerator for a beer. When the man came back to his living room, the college student was sorting through papers and absentmindedly placing them in separate piles based on content. Billy took a seat in his rocking chair. There were a few minutes of silence in which Brandon shuffled paper and Billy sipped from the long-necked bottle in his hand.

"She's really something, isn't she?" Brandon finally said. Billy's eyes narrowed at the blond, who was staring down at the files on the coffee table.

"What do you mean?"

"Becca. She's really something." Brandon looked up, staring into the distance for a brief second before meeting Billy's eyes. "I know you agree."

"I don't know what you're talking about," the ex-marine said sullenly. It was of extreme annoyance to him when people could voice his own thoughts better than he could.

"Right. Billy... I've been madly in love with her since I met her. I recognize the symptoms," Brandon said, smiling knowingly. Billy looked away. "Anyways, she's really—she's really a good person. I'll admit I was hurt to find out she was lying to me, but..." he sighed. "You've got one hell of a good chance with her. She obviously adores you. I can tell. So please... um, just be good with her, okay? Don't... don't make her hurt more than she already does." When Billy turned his gaze back on him, he was surprised to see the shine of tears in Brandon's eyes. Now the younger man looked away, giving a humorless chuckle. There was an awkward pause.

"You really don't mind if I stay for the night?" Billy considered kicking him off the couch for a moment, and then shrugged. He could brave the night in his chair.

"Sleeping bag's on the end of the couch."

"Thanks, man." Brandon unrolled the sleeping bag, covered himself, rolled over so he was facing away from his companion, and went silent. Billy finished his beer, but rather than get another, sat in stony silence upon his chair and thought. He finally fell asleep an hour later, the empty bottle tumbling from his hand and rolling along the floor before coming to a halt on one of the papers that had fallen upon the rug.

Rebecca's eyes fluttered open, and for a moment she wondered where on earth she was. The walls of the room were a deep, calming blue. Dim light poured in from a curtained window behind her, showing pieces of high quality but mismatched furniture. A dresser, nightstand, desk with computer...

I'm in Billy's room... in Billy's bed, she thought, sitting up. "What the heck?" she voiced aloud. Rebecca did not even recall falling asleep the night before. However, the bed was very comfortable so she wasn't about to complain, and she raised her arms over her head to stretch before flopping back onto the pillows. There were two doors set in the wall across from her. The one on the right led to the hallway, the one on the left was for the bathroom. The latter door opened suddenly.

"Thought I heard you," Billy mumbled around his toothbrush. The ex-marine had obviously just gotten out of the shower, if one judged by the amount of steam that billowed from the small bathroom. He stood before her clad only in a pair of blue jeans, hair dripping and uncombed.

"Yeah, I'm awake," she replied. At that moment someone could have thrown a live grenade at her and she would not have done a thing. Rebecca was too busy staring at Billy's shapely body as he leaned against the doorframe and watched her with an amused expression in his eyes. That amusement—the fact that what she was thinking of him must have shown on her face and his obvious pleasure in her flustered expression—snapped her out of her near-slack-jawed stare. "I don't remember falling asleep last night."

"Well, you did. We all did," Billy explained. "I let Brandon sleep on the couch, I took the chair." Rebecca cocked her head and smiled at his display of kindness.

"Thanks." Billy shrugged and went back to brushing his teeth in front of the mirror. Rebecca was unwilling to get up, but her growling stomach finally forced her to rise. She went to the kitchen to look for something to eat, and found Brandon sitting at the table, digging through his backpack. There was a place set for each of them.

"I thought you might miss... these... if I can find them," the blond said, reaching into the very bottom of his bag. "Ah! Tada!" Brandon said as he produced a large, somewhat squished, box of Lucky Charms. Rebecca smiled in delight.

"Of course! I remember the last time we had breakfast together," she bubbled happily. She and Brandon had made it a ritual to have breakfast—Lucky Charms being her favorite kid's cereal—and watch cartoons together almost every Saturday morning. It was childish, maybe, but fun nevertheless. And a great way to forget the cares of the past week. Brandon poured them each a bowl and they began to eat, chattering. Billy entered a moment later, fully clothed in a form-fitting white tee-shirt and hair back in a small ponytail, and silently raised an eyebrow at their antics as he went to make himself some toast.

After Rebecca had seen that the breakfast dishes were put in the sink, the three of them gathered about the coffee table once again. The morning's lighthearted mood gave away to a distinctly gloomy feeling as Brandon brought out the papers from last night. Rebecca was reading, for at least the fifth time, a newspaper clipping regarding the attacks on campus a week previous:

On the afternoon of April 3rd, the revelation of the violent attacks on several students in the Mid-Town campus of the University triggered an aggressive riot. Four students and two staff members were injured as outraged students stormed the Student Center Building and tried to break into the crime scene in an attempt to have their questions answered.

"We should have handled this better," University Representative Ryan Brown said. "We told them what happened, but we didn't want to spark a panic, so we didn't give any details. Apparently, that was a mistake."

At approximately 10:30 P.M. on the night of April 2nd, an apartment in the Northeast dormitory building was broken into by three heavily armed men, according to witnesses. Security systems had been tampered with and cameras were temporarily out of order, and because of the late hour, there were few students in the halls. The apartment was the home of students Elizabeth Randon, 23, Belle le Meunier, 26, and Becca Coen, 24. Shots were heard, bringing several students out of their rooms. Alex Smith was one of the first on the scene.

"I ran inside and the place was just shot to hell. The window was broken and I looked outside and there were three men—well, people, I guess, I couldn't tell because they were all wearing these black masks—rappelling down the side of the building. That room is seven stories up, but they got down really fast. There was a vehicle waiting there for them, and they left just like that."

When police arrived on the scene, they found Randon dead of severe brain damage due to gunshot wounds. Le Meunier was immediately rushed to nearby Saint Joseph's Hospital in a comatose state, but died shortly after due to severe internal bleeding and organ damage. Coen was not present due to the fact that she has been missing for several days; it is presumed that the intruders had something to do with her disappearance. All witnesses were immediately taken to the police station for questioning and were not released until late the next day. The room was closed off as a crime scene, and armed police officers were posted in every building. Students were told only that the women were attacked, and after a day of not having their questions answered, they rioted.

"We were tired of being told it was 'being taken care of,'" one of the rioters told The Herald. "We wanted to know what had happened and why there were cops everywhere and how much danger we were in."

Police and University officials still have no idea what instigated these violent attacks. Efforts to locate Coen have been stepped up, to no avail.

"We are trying our hardest," Police Chief Mitch Sanders says. "We'll find her and then we have some questions for the guys who did this."

When asked if there are plans to strengthen security on campus, Brown is quoted as saying, "I do hate to have so many armed men around. It's frightening for everyone. Rumors have been spread that we're going to try and call in the National Guard for help, and I have to say that even though it's a total rumor, it's appealing. I don't want to put the students in any more danger."

A memorial service is to be held next Thursday at Our Lady of Faith church for the murdered women.

"Becca? Are you with us?" Brandon asked. Both he and Billy were staring at her. She carefully placed the clipping on the table.

"Yeah. Sorry." She stared blankly at the picture above the article for a moment: her former home, the doorway cordoned off with yellow tape. She could just see the broken window and bullet holes that peppered the wall. And the bloodstains. Her friends were dead. Her family was missing. She struggled to control herself for a moment.

Easy, she thought. You know what needs to be done. She looked back up to the two men who were staring at her intensely. Her face was set in a hard look of determination, her gray eyes cold. "Let's review the facts." Brandon gave a tight-lipped smile.

"Gladly." The blond shuffled through his papers for a moment, looking for a certain page of information he had printed out. "Alright, here they are:

I looked up Chayliss&Rather online, and I found one official website. Nothing else official, just a few stories regarding some donations and charity work they had done, a few mentions of some medical devices they've pioneered, blah blah blah. The site was nothing but a fancy layout and a little message saying that to get in you had to provide your name and five-digit ID number. So I typed in Rebecca Chambers and ran a program that generated every possible five-digit combination and tried it, but you don't have an ID. Obviously. I put Chayliss&Rather into a search engine again, trying to find the name of an employee, but nothing showed up. So I ended up trying it with Mr. Chayliss's name and once again every possible five-digit combo, but nothing. So either he can't get into his own website, or—"

"Or he doesn't exist," interrupted Billy from his rocking chair. Brandon nodded.

"That's what I thought, strange as it sounds. So I tried the name of the guy who wrote up your invite and I had a bit more luck; he got me into the site. But there was nothing there, really. I think it was just set up in case someone somehow got in. There was a list of foundations they had donated to, and an 'official' statement from Mr. Chayliss: 'The Better Tomorrow is almost upon Us.' Which is suspicious, but I have seen weirder.

At the bottom of the page was another place to enter a password of some sort. So I ran my program again, came up with a password, and got myself into another page. This one didn't look anything like the last two, though. It was plain, none of that fancy crap; it didn't even have the Chayliss&Rather logo. Just four links. 'Accounting enter here,' 'Research enter here,' 'Security enter here,' and 'Management enter here.' So, I started with accounting. The fact that Chayliss's secretary was able to get in where he wasn't struck me as bizarre, but what came next was even more suspicious. I'm no accountant by any means, but when I checked the page brought up by 'Accounting,' there was a huge-ass list of old stock market crap that went all the way back to the 1960's. There was other stuff, too, more recent; only as far as I could tell, it was all about how Chayliss&Rather was slowly and secretly getting money funneled into their account from the old accounts and financers of another company. And you had a hunch about who that was, didn't you, Becca?"

Rebecca slowly nodded. "Umbrella." Brandon nodded back.

"Chayliss&Rather was getting all the money from Umbrella's old stock and other accounts. Mind you, after you said your friends helped bring Umbrella down, their stock plummeted and they were basically dead, as far as business went. But there was still all the money made previously that had been kept in secret accounts across the world, and then Umbrella's heads had invested in stock from other companies as well and everything they made off of that was going into Chayliss&Rather's funds too. This made Mr. Chayliss, as you might guess, a very rich man. Funding turned up from every imaginable corner and was being poured into Chayliss&Rather." Billy shook his head slowly.

"So you're just saying that all Umbrella's money is going to this other company, right?" Brandon nodded.

"Every last little bit of it. And that's not the half of the weirdness. I next checked out the 'Security' page. There was a schedule. Looked to me like a work schedule and records for well over fifty people, and I'm going to assume they're guards working at the mansion mentioned in the invitation. Everything was done by initials and ID numbers. There were two team heads, initials of A.W. and J.K. Mean anything to either of you?"

Billy and Rebecca both shook their heads. They had reached the point where they had left off the night before, and both were listening attentively as Brandon told his tale. The previous night they had talked a lot about Rebecca and Billy, who finally explained to the confused hacker what had gone on during the year of 1998. He had been more than a little surprised to learn the truth about his friend.

"Oh well," Brandon said with a sigh before continuing. "Either way, their initials were links, and I followed them. Both required a password, which I found, but the pages that came up didn't seem relevant to anything. Just lists of locations, and some strange numbers. One thing that both of them shared was this place in Spain. I don't remember the name of it, though," he said, digging through his papers. "It seems they were both there at the same time, only doing God knows what. J.K. has a little note next to his name: 'deceased,' but he shows up later, apparently having gone to California for something after he... died." Brandon scratched the back of his head.

"Does it give a cause of death?" Billy asked, his interest suddenly sparked by a fleeting thought that he could quite not place his finger on.

"No. At any rate, that doesn't make any sense to me and I don't think it's really too significant." He searched his papers again until he found the correct one. "Aha. Alright, I then went to Research. This is where I began to worry. Research did not list any specific... experiments, I guess, but it had a few honorary mentions, if I don't say so myself. 'Raccoon City—complete. Failure. Total sanitation necessary; all evidence destroyed. Paris—incomplete. Failure. Interrupted before procedure could be initiated.' Chicago—terminated... New York—terminated... Cairo, Munich, Sydney... all these cities, all of the experiments terminated. I did some research on Umbrella, and after your friends successfully exposed it all their operations went bust and they abandoned labs all over the world. The most recent listing, however, was not terminated. It said, 'Chayliss Mansion Test' and it had a countdown timer. I think Umbrella's been undercover all this time, getting itself back together and getting back to work, and this is some sick experiment and whoever goes to that 'ball' is going to end up a test subject for something," Brandon said. There was dead silence.

That was what Rebecca dreaded. Her idea had been that Umbrella was somehow involved in the whole thing. And after all, if she had been one of the people to help bring the massive enterprise down last time, why would they not take their revenge by tricking her into taking part in their experiment?

"Does it say anything else?" she asked. Her throat was dry, and she forced herself to swallow.

"Well, there's a link to another page called 'New Developments.' Thing is, I can't hack it. I thought my program could crack any password, but apparently it can't." He sighed and his expression made him look like a pouting child. Rebecca nodded.

"Did you check out the 'Management' page?" Billy asked. Brandon nodded and began shuffling through his papers again.

"I don't think you'll be surprised to learn that Chayliss's secretary's password was the one that opened that. I needed another password there... another one I can't quite get to. I'd need more time to work on it. My idea is that there's more than one person using those ID numbers—security personnel for the mansion go to the security page, and they can only see what the head honcho thinks they need to. The accounting department can get to their crap, research can get to what they need, and the manager must control who has all these passes. But he's got a damn good security program running on his page. I think if I can hack that one, I can figure out what's really going down." The three of them went silent for a moment, each deep in thought.

"Our information still has a lot of holes in it, doesn't it?" Rebecca finally asked. Brandon gave her a rueful little smile.


Billy had been sitting quietly, hunched over with his elbows on his knees and rubbing his jaw line with a thumb as he thought. He had an idea. And he had given it a lot of consideration. But what came out of his mouth surprised them all.

"I think we should get a team together and storm the place." Brandon and Rebecca looked at him as though he was insane. "I'm serious. Rebecca, you and me know how Umbrella is. They love their big mansions, and every one of them seems to have a lab underneath. If this company really is Umbrella, or if it's run by the same assholes, then I doubt they'd be able to break that habit. Whoever goes to that fucking ball is in serious danger. And if Umbrella's up to their shit again then we need to take them out before things get out of hand." His voice had taken on a low, harsh tone as he spoke, and his hands clenched into tight fists. His companions stared at him for several moments before Rebecca finally replied, her words hushed and contemplative.

"You know, that might actually be a good idea. Brandon, can you modify your program somehow and get into that website?"

"With pleasure," Brandon replied, digging through his backpack for his laptop. "It might take me a day or two, but I'll try it."

"Good. I want names of everyone who was invited, and I want to know what sort of experiments they're talking about." Brandon nodded and turned on his computer, immediately getting to work. Billy was staring at Rebecca incredulously. He had even thought of his own idea as crazy, and had never expected her to consider the plan.

"So, for this team, who do we have that we can get together?" she asked. Billy thought for a moment.

"I have a few friends from the Marines I think I can count on yet," he answered. She nodded.

"I can try and get in contact with Chris and Barry and Jill again," Rebecca said. "I think they would want to know about this. Hey Brandon, we're going to need a map of the mansion, if you can get one. I should also try to reach the anti-Umbrella team that formed right after the Raccoon City incident."

"Uh huh," he responded, already deep in his work. Billy stood and started for his bedroom.

"What are you doing?" Rebecca asked.

"I'm going to e-mail my people." She nodded and began looking through Brandon's files as if this was no big deal, but he was worried. These people... he hadn't seen them in years. They thought he was dead. He hoped they would have believed him innocent, but... people changed. Billy also didn't know how to explain what he needed. But he had a good idea of who to ask, at least; there were three people that owed him their lives, or at least a considerable favor, and if they ever planned to pay that debt back, this would be a good place to start. Taking a seat before his computer he began to type out a message, though he was not even sure his friends had the same e-mail addresses they had seven years ago. Maybe they all went and got themselves killed since I left, he thought with a touch of grim humor.

So intent on his work was he that he did not even notice when Rebecca shut the bathroom door to shower. But finally, after almost an hour's worth of thought, he had this message to send to his old friend Teri Korger:

Listen up, Korger. I don't know what you heard about me, but I'm damn sure it's not true. Remember that time back in Africa when I spotted the sniper and pushed you out of his way? I've still got the scar on my own arm if you need a reminder. I need your help now. I can't really explain it, but there's two people here that would do a better job than me. And you're going to have to see some of this shit to believe it, trust me. All you need to know now is that it's a life or death situation. I know it's fucked up for me to appear like this, but nothing about this situation isn't fucked up and I wouldn't ask if I didn't really need it. So what do you say? Willing to help out the man that saved your ass?


One down, two to go, Billy thought.

After he finished sending his e-mails, he sat back down in the living room to wait a while before looking for replies. Rebecca, finished with her shower, had her laptop out now as well, and both she and Brandon were typing away. She gave a frustrated sigh.

"I couldn't get a hold of any of them by phone," she said, holding up Brandon's cell phone. "I didn't use mine cause I was worried someone might be tracking it, but it wouldn't have mattered because they all seem to have changed their numbers. I'm not surprised, though," she said miserably, more to herself than either of the men. "I'm going to try e-mail. Brandon, how's it coming?"

"Tough," he grunted. He then said no more.

By five o'clock that evening, Rebecca was staring blankly at the news on TV. There was a report on the attacks at the college, and she was watching with dull eyes. Nothing new. Brandon was still stationed in front of his computer. He hadn't moved from that spot all day, he was so intent on the task put before him. Billy was buzzed and trying not to nod off in his chair. He had checked his e-mail twice, but nothing yet. All of them were beginning to lose hope. Downing the last of his beer in a single swig, Billy placed the empty bottle among the others on the coffee table and decided to check his messages again.

Third time's a charm, right? he thought as he seated himself in front of his computer. The day had grown windy and gray, and the first drops of a rain shower begin pattering at the windows as he clicked the small envelope icon at the bottom left corner of the screen.

Two new messages.

His heart sped up as he realized who they were from: Teri and another friend, Eliza Black. He opened Teri's first, apprehensively, dreading what he might read.

Holy shit. I can't believe it. They told me you were fucking executed, man... and now you just come back and expect me to help you? You're not even going to explain what the hell you got in trouble for? Fuck. But you're right; I owe you no matter how much you screwed up, and you know I'll help you. Tell me where you're at and I can be there in a few days.


Billy let out a sigh of relief and clicked on the other email.


For your information, you did not "save my life." I could have survived that grenade, no problem. And did you even know if the pin was pulled? I mean, sure, it exploded when you threw it back, but that doesn't mean a thing. Maybe it was defective. I know what this is about... just cause you're good in bed you think you can go around asking girls favors. Ha.

Seriously, though—where have you been? I heard they sent you to the chair. No one said why, though. I've missed you; things just haven't been the same without Coen around to screw them up. I can be there as soon as you need me, just tell me where "there" is. By the way, Sam changed his email. I'll get a hold of him for you; I'm sure he'll help. You were planning on asking him, right? And did you get a hold of Teri?


A broad grin crept onto his face. Two out of three wasn't bad at all. And that was certainly Eliza, all right. A friend since high school, they'd had their romantic trysts back in the day... but had turned out to be nothing more than good friends. And if Eliza could get a hold of Sam Kowalczyk for him, he felt anything was possible. They were his best friends; the ones he trusted most. It was a shame they had not been there on his last fateful mission. They would have backed him up and he wouldn't have gotten in the mess he did...

...I also wouldn't have met Rebecca. His stomach did a flip, but he did his best to ignore it and get to work on his messages. After sending his replies, he made his way to the living room—still grinning like an idiot.

"They said they'll do it," he heard himself say as he entered the darkening room. Rebecca looked up at him from her place on the floor, unable to believe this little bit of good luck. The expression of joy that swept across her face temporarily cleaned away any traces of pain from the last weeks, and Billy smiled a little wider. This was his own first real smile in a long time, as well. Rebecca leaped from the floor and bounded across the room into his arms. She hugged him tightly around the middle, all the while giggling. He let out a short laugh and returned the embrace. But after a moment of rejoicing, he took her shoulders gently and pushed her back to look down into her face.

"Have you gotten a hold of anyone yet?" Her smile faded and she shook her head.

"Changed their e-mail addresses, too. I suppose Brandon could find them for me, but he's busy and I don't want to risk being found out. I have some friends from training I could try to get a hold of, too; I bet—"

"SCORE!" Brandon shouted from the couch. He was smiling and waving his fists wildly in the air. "Take THAT you FUCKERS!" he screamed. Billy frowned at him; they were in an apartment, after all, but Brandon took no notice. He stuck his face in front of the computer screen once more and began reading, and any traces of elation were instantly wiped away. "Becca," he finally said, his voice tight, "you said you knew Chris Redfield, right?"

"Yeah, why?" she asked, moving behind him to peer at the screen.

"Here's a guest list. Look," he said, pointing at the screen.

Adly, Sheldon


Boudette, Gracelynn


Burton, Barry


Chambers, Rebecca


Dees, Maria


Dees, Sarah


Dees, Thomas


Grasely, Chelsea


Hamilton, George


"Hey, I wasn't done yet," Rebecca protested as Brandon scrolled down.

"I know. But I want to check out the other things I got in to. You can look later. But this is what I wanted you to see." He pointed. "'Redfield, Christopher, attending.' Right before 'Redfield, Claire.'"

"His sister," Rebecca said quietly. Brandon nodded absently.

"Are they the only ones you know on this list?"

"No. Right after Claire's name: Kevin Ryman. He was a cop; I met him a few times. And Barry Burton, Jill Valentine... I knew them, too. S.T.A.R.S. members. Um... I met Leon Kennedy once; Sheldon Adly sounds familiar too."

"Noticing a pattern?"

"All of the people I knew were from Raccoon City, or involved in one of the mansion incidents."

"Maybe this is a list of survivors," Brandon said. Rebecca's eyes went wide, but Billy raised an eyebrow.

"Then why isn't my name on the list?"

"You died," both Brandon and Rebecca said, not looking up.

"You started completely over, right?" Brandon said. "You dropped everything that had to do with your old identity?" Billy nodded.

"Borrowed some money from a good friend and ran off. And he died a while ago."

"That's where Becca went wrong," Brandon said. "She was still using her old accounts, taking money out gradually, among other things. I looked her up the other night. An amateur could have done it; that's why Umbrella sent the invite to her original name. They didn't even think your new ID was anything to bother with, it was so easy to see through they must've thought it was a joke or something."

Rebecca frowned. "Well, that's partly to blame on Chris then, not just me." Brandon gave a half-smile at her protest.

"Alright, you can look at this list later. I want to check out the New Developments page. They had some tough shit on this one and I've been working at it all day. I want to see what's up." Both Billy and Rebecca were standing behind the hacker as he typed in the password obtained through a day's worth of programming, trial-and-error, and lots of plain old stubbornness. They were greeted with a plain blue web page, the familiar Chayliss&Rather slogan of "The Better Tomorrow is almost upon Us" the only thing gracing the top of the page. Brandon began scrolling down, entering a password where it was needed, which got them another plain blue page. But this one had no more places to enter any pass. The screen simply showed a blank blue expanse. Brandon frowned in frustration.

"What the hell is this?" he asked. "God damn it! Why won't it work?"

"Let me try something," Rebecca said. She used the finger pad and clicked at the very end of the page, holding the button down as she scrolled up. Highlighted, they could now read the hidden text that was the same color as the background. Brandon grinned foolishly.

"I'm so used to complex codes, I can't figure out a simple thing like this," he apologized. Rebecca placed a hand on his shoulder. "Such a last-ditch effort, too... it looks like an address for something," he said, copying the highlighted text and pasting it in the address bar. They reached a page that asked for yet another password, and Brandon picked one from a long list now stored on his computer. The secretary's ID worked once again to get them into a page full of pictures and links to reports. They began reading... and were horrified at what they discovered. Rebecca put a hand to her mouth. Brandon's face went ashen, and Billy shook his head.

"Those sick bastards," he finally said, disgusted. "I can't believe it, I just can't believe what they're going to try and do... what they're going to use those people for..." he muttered. "What they wanted to use you for. Again." His voice was soft, and both he and Brandon watched as Rebecca's petite form began to tremble. Billy covered her small, cold hand with his own and held it tightly. The blue glow of the screen cast an eerie pallor over her face and she closed her eyes.

"Brandon... thank you so much. I think it might be better now if you went home and forgot you ever saw me." Her voice trembled, but Brandon nodded.

"I was never here." He hastily began packing his things, excluding his computer, and before leaving he instructed her on how to use his program if she wished to do further research.

"I'm sorry, but I think I've put you in danger," she said, hugging him tightly before he left.

"I'd do anything for you. You know that." Rebecca smiled at him sadly.

"Please be careful," she said as he went to the door.

He winked in response. "Don't you worry, little lady."

Little did she know, that would not be nearly enough to keep him safe.

"You've got to be kidding me." A woman with unruly, chin-length chocolate-brown hair shook her head. As she crossed her arms under her chest, the charms on her lengthy necklace jingled. She gave a frown.

"No, I'm not. I swear, Lynn, you'll be gorgeous. This is a formal thing, and black is so chic. We're going to do this right, get you new make-up and contacts and everything..."

"Erik! I can't wear that dress, it's so... dressy. I don't do dressy. And besides... it's sleeveless. You know I don't go for anything sleeveless, either." Her protests sounded weak even to her own ears.

"We can get you a wrap, or something."


"Gracelynn! Stop arguing. This is a formal event and I'm going to see to it that you dress accordingly, for once. For-mal," Erik said, placing emphasis on each syllable with a smack to her forehead with his open palm. "Besides. It's a gorgeous dress, so classic. You know you love it."

The young woman frowned. Her friend was right, as much as she hated to admit to this. The dress was a floor-length number, of the darkest black, and made with a shimmery material that rustled when she tugged on the skirt. The off-the-shoulder straps were made of sheer black material that draped elegantly over the shoulders of the mannequin and about the low neckline, gathering right above the bust, where the folds were pinned with a simple brooch that was either the largest diamond Gracelynn had ever seen, or a very good imitation. The skirt was full, and the entire thing reminded her of Belle's yellow ball gown from Beauty and the Beast, her favorite childhood movie. The dress had such a classic look to it. Beautiful. She considered the evening gown upon the mannequin for a moment before heaving a sigh.

"And you were serious when you said you would pay for this all?"

"Honey, my uncle just died and left me a pile of cash. I'm almost rich! And besides, if it means I can get you in a dress—" Lynn punched his arm.

"Your rich uncle died and all you care about is the money?"

"He was a prick anyways. Mom said after he found out I was gay he was going to cut me out of his will, but he died the next day." Lynn smiled up at her best friend and roommate. After the breakup with her last boyfriend—which had been difficult beyond belief; she'd had a relapse into depression—he had been there for her nonstop. He'd even offered her a room of his spacious apartment after her ex made her leave. And now he was playing the part of fashion expert, helping her buy a dress for the upcoming ball... she appreciated the help, because both of them knew she would have gotten lost looking for one by herself.

"Alright, that's settled. Excuse me!" Erik called, pointing at a saleswoman to get her attention. "We'll be taking this one; can you hold it for us while we run down the street to get shoes?" The woman nodded.

"Erik, that one on the mannequin isn't going to fit me."

"Oh, please; you're a lot skinnier than you make yourself look with all those layers you wear. Now, let's find you some shoes. I think we can go to Storrie's down the street," he said, grabbing her hand.

Upon entering the well-lit and obviously expensive boutique, Erik let out an excited "Ooh!" and led her to a display.

"These... are... perfect!" Lynn gave him a blank stare.

"Erik. I'm five-eight. Those shoes have five-inch heels."

"So? They're amazing."

"I don't want to be over six feet," she said forcing the shoe from him. In her opinion, the heel seemed sharp enough to be used as a weapon—or in the very least, a creative can opener.

"But guys love tall girls!" he protested.

"How would you know?" She got a grumble in response.

A half hour's time had them settled on a pair of "reasonable" three-inch heels that matched Lynn's dress nicely. She attempted to walk in them, but managed only five wobbly steps before tripping over an exposed electrical cord and falling to her knees.

"Well, we have a week to work on this," Erik said with a sigh. "Now, let's get these and go buy your dress. We've got a lot left to do today."

Late that same night, Gracelynn lay in bed. Her thoughts eventually drifted to the upcoming ball. Chayliss&Rather, according to the invitation she had been sent, was a leading developer of new technology and was always on the lookout for new talent in their advertising department. She was a year short of finishing school for a degree in graphic design and had thus far found some occasional odd work as a freelance ad artist. But this could be her chance to meet someone who could really get her career started! She planned to bring a portfolio of her best work, just in case. Lynn rolled onto her back and attempted to clear her mind of those hopeful thoughts so she could sleep.

She turned her head to the side, where a beam of moonlight slipped in between the curtains and turned her exposed arm a deep cream color. The limb was criss-crossed with a network of long, thin scars, as was the other arm still under her blankets. They appeared as a sort of thick spider web or bizarre road map, the newest lines a product of the relapse after her breakup. Even those were over a year old, but they showed clearest of all. Therein lay the reason she worried about the lack of sleeves on her dress. The inevitable questions were nearly unbearable; yet at the same time, she felt a sick sense of pride when ever someone nearby set him or herself to discreetly studying her bare arm. She took to wearing long-sleeved shirts under her other clothes to avoid both the questions and that perverse love of attention. Best to battle the demons down and face them another day.

Lynn tucked her arm in close to her body and was asleep within seconds.

A tall, sixteen-year-old brunette pushed a few strands of hair behind her ear nervously as she stepped into her home. Nobody seemed to be there. The silence actually hurt, cutting into her senses like a dull knife and leaving a deep rift in her anxious mind that she couldn't think around. There should not have been silence; this was one of the weeks when her divorced parents' shared custody situation regulated that her three younger siblings joined she and her three-year-old half-sister at their mother's house. Hell, if anything, silence should have been welcomed. But not this silence. Not the death-quiet that filled each room and hit her like wave after wave of pounding water as she opened the door.

A moment of blind panic took her as she realized that the house was dark as well. Outside, the storm clouds covering the sun made the hazy air dim, but inside, there was a pitch-blackness unexplainable. And it was hot, much hotter than even the eighty-five-degree humidity outside. She groped for the light switch. There was a pained groan from the direction of the living room as light filled the home.

"Alyssa? Is that you?" the girl stepped forward hesitantly, relieved to find that someone else was there, confused and slightly frightened at the circumstances. After all, today had been anything but normal.

"Lynn... shut off the light," a young girl said, her voice thick. Gracelynn was shocked to find her younger sister covered in blankets, shaking, soaked in sweat. Every curtain was shut and the thermometer registered at ninety-five. Alyssa let out another groan as Lynn clamped a hand to her forehead and gasped.

"You're burning... fucking burning," she said, drawing her hand away from the inferno that was her sister.

"I'm cold," the younger girl said, eyes squinting to see her older sister's face clearly. "The light... sounds... they hurt," she muttered through dry, swollen lips.

Realizing that turning the heat down would only make her sister suffer more, Gracelynn removed her tee-shirt and stood before the sick girl in a black tank top, pondering what to do. Sweat trickled town her neck; this was due to the fact that the thermostat was set so high, but to her it seemed as if the heat emanated from the sick young girl herself. She chewed at her bottom lip in thought. Their mother and siblings weren't home yet, hadn't called... she would have to try and bring her sister's fever down herself. If her temperature didn't fall, she may have to call the hospital.

...Hospital? she thought, a moment of clarity seizing her. Gracelynn's hand rose to her flushed face and pressed over her mouth. Oh God... the hospital. Why hadn't she thought of that?

...Because it was too horrible to bear thinking of.

"Alyssa, I'm going to take off your blankets. Deal with it for a moment." She ripped the covers from her sister and tossed them to the floor. The young girl let out a hair-raising wail and then dissolved into shaking, hiccupping tears. Her sister ignored her for a moment and frowned, not immediately spotting what she expected... there! Upon the arm closest to the couch, half-hidden under a partially rolled up sweatshirt sleeve, was a cloth bandage. Blocking out her sister's cries of protest, the elder girl attempted to pull the sleeve up. Alyssa suddenly kicked out with such force that Gracelynn stumbled back into a chair, eyes wide.


"Back off," the girl growled, voice raspy. "It... it hurts." She began moaning again, giving an agonized cry as she turned into the couch and cradled her arm. Her older sister stared, half angry, half ready to burst out in tears. She noticed a pair of scissors sitting on a nearby desk, and she took them to the couch.

"Alyssa." This time, her voice was gentle, thick with forced comfort. "I need to see. I'll cut your sleeve so it doesn't hurt." Her sister slowly turned over, eyes shining with tears. The sleeve was cut away to reveal a bandage stained with blood and sickly yellow fluid. The flesh around the bandage had a pale, soft look, as though the young girl's arm had been soaked in a tub of water for too long.

"It was just sort of itchy before," Alyssa said groggily.

Itching... uncharacteristic behavior... rotten look to wounds... injuries that won't stop bleeding... Gracelynn ran through the symptoms she had been taught of the epidemic rampaging through the area lately. Earlier that week there had been a massive assembly in the auditorium of her high school where they had all been taught the tell-tale signs of the deadly new virus. Several people she knew had been hospitalized due to such symptoms. And now...

"Oh... oh fuck," she stammered as the bandage upon her sister's arm fell away. The stench that rose from the wound was more stifling than the heat of the house, and she forced herself not to throw up as she began to retch. A sort of resigned look settled over her sister's face, and the girl closed her eyes before taking a deep breath and speaking carefully.

"It wasn't this bad when the nurse saw it."

"What happened?"

"A dog. On the way to school." Gracelynn stopped her examination of the wound.

"You mean after I—"

"Yeah." There was a horrible second in which Gracelynn realized how truly foolish that morning's argument had been. Their fight hadn't been worth kicking her sister out of the car and making her walk... not worth this

"I'm sorry," she finally managed. She bent her head lower under the pretense of studying the wound so that Alyssa would not see her face contorted in a tremendous effort not to cry.

"It's all right."

"Isn't the nurse supposed to send you to the hospital to make sure you don't have rabies or... something?"

"There were already seven other kids when I got there. And more came... she wrapped it up and told me she would call me back down when she had time cause some of them were pretty sick. And then school got called off. Besides, she said it looked like a normal dog bite, wasn't too deep..." her sister gave half a smile and closed her eyes. Speaking coherently seemed to require tremendous effort on her part.

"Yup. Normal dog." Gracelynn returned the smile, even though her sister's eyes were shut. The wound was still trickling blood, though there seemed to be no blood left in the girl's arm to bleed. She could just make out make out the dog's tooth marks upon the inflamed flesh. Yellow pus had dried around the shallow punctures, but was still oozing from places where the pressure of the swelling had simply ripped the weakening skin. The smell reminded Gracelynn of when the Intro Anatomy class down the hall from her own Biology classroom had spent a week dissecting human hands. Here, though, there were no rubbery fumes of formaldehyde to assure her that the person was dead and would feel no pain. Her sister was, after all, still breathing, no matter how shallowly.

The only bandage big enough in the house to re-dress Alyssa's injury was a stretchy cloth one the family usually used for sprained ankles or wrists. Gracelynn paused to consider a tube of antibiotic, but grabbed a fresh bottle of rubbing alcohol and several towels instead and dashed for the living room.

"This got infected really fast," she said firmly to the half-conscious girl. Her strong hope that a mere infection was the cause of the problem made her voice calm. "This is... well... hold on."

Alyssa, having grown up and gone through numerous cuts, scrapes, and accidents with that phrase, used her good right hand to clutch her sister's bare upper arm with all her strength. Gracelynn placed a towel under the injured limb, uncapped the alcohol bottle, and with a grimace began to pour. She gritted her teeth as the young girl screamed and squeezed her arm, but continued douse the wound in the clear liquid. Her eyes widened momentarily as bits of flesh began detaching as the fluid gushed over them.

Once that painful task had been completed, she patted the girl's arm dry and wrapped the wound—this proved difficult because the chunks of skin that fell off at her touch were much larger than those removed by the alcohol. She wondered if Alyssa could even feel that, or if she was choosing to pretend she couldn't.

"Alright." Gracelynn's voice was still certain. Despite the symptoms, despite the horrible things that had happened more and more often in the past few weeks, she had hope. Infections could get bad in a few hours, she had read... and some spider bites caused flesh to decay and burst just as her sister's had. Maybe she had been bitten by a spider without realizing? Besides... of all the people taken to the hospital in the last few days none had returned. That simply couldn't happen to her sister; she was sure everything would be fine. Her mother would come home soon, take proper care of Alyssa, and she would heal within a few days.

"Water," the girl on the couch croaked. Her blankets now remained off; apparently she was hot. "Too warm... need water. Hungry."

"I'll get you water," Gracelynn said, rushing to turn down the thermostat. "No food now. Not till you feel better."

When she put the glass of water into her sister's outstretched, sweaty palm with the advice to take small sips only, she was surprised at the rate at which the water disappeared. "More," the young girl gasped, letting the glass fall to the floor. Her eyes were clamped shut, hands alternately gripping and letting go of the sofa material in some sort of unknown agony. Her face was wet and pale. "Food."

"Yeah." Gracelynn picked up the glass and made her way to the kitchen, throwing a glance over her shoulder. What else was she supposed to do, other than care for the girl as best she could until her mother came back?

She glanced at the phone, sitting discreetly in its cradle. Her sister needed help. Or at the very least, Gracelynn needed to know how to take care of her. She picked up the handset and, hesitantly, began to dial. 911 was not a number she often called willingly; in fact, she avoided calling if she could. But now she waited anxiously as she listened to the ringing on the other side.

Odd, she thought after several rings. They usually pick up sooner, don't they? After seven rings, however, a weary-voiced operator answered.

"911, what's your emergency?"

"My sister is... well, she was bitten by a dog, and it's really infected."

"Infected." The operator seemed bored, as though she had heard this too many times and was quite ready to call it quits.

"Well, yeah. I got home and she had a really high fever and she's got a nasty bite on her arm that keeps leaking blood and this pus-like stuff, and—"

"What steps have you taken?"

"I put alcohol on it and wrapped it up."


"Um... yes." The tone in the female operator's voice made Gracelynn embarrassed that she had never taken a first-aid class.

"I see. And when was she bitten?"

"About two or three hours ago, maybe."

"Do symptoms include any of the following: itching, a bad odor about the wound, excessive bleeding, thick and milky fluid discharge, blackening of the wound, unusually pale skin, flesh that seems to fall apart on contact, hot and cold flashes, sudden hunger or thirst, disorientation, loss of motor functions, speech, sight, shallow breathing, and high fever?" The phrase was more a statement than question, and her tone of voice was automatic.

"Yeah, almost all that." Gracelynn's heart sped up as she heard a long, shallow gasp from the living room, but she stayed rooted to her spot.

"How long ago, did you say?"

"Almost three hours! Now please, I don't know what to do, can you send an ambulance or something?"

"No." That was the equivalent of a nasty punch to the stomach.

"I don't... what?"

"No," the woman repeated calmly, using the same bored, seen-it-all-before monotone. Her voice was patient and practiced; obviously she had much experience explaining this to panicked people of late.


"I'm sorry ma'am, but all our ambulances are currently in use. The patrol cars are out as well, though I can add your name to the waiting list—"

"I don't have time to wait! What about... other towns, or something? Can't someone send help?"

"I'm sorry ma'am. All options have been discussed, and those in higher positions of authority have ruled that it wouldn't be practical." Gracelynn stared blankly at the tile counter in front of her. This was simply... impossible.

"What should I do?" The voice she used was quiet, restrained. She was too shocked to say anything else. The woman's voice took on a tone that was almost sympathetic.

"Get out of there. Find a safe place to stay." There was quiet, and then, "God bless." The dial tone sounded as the woman on the other end hung up. Gracelynn gently returned the phone to its cradle and stared at the receiver as though it would bite her.

All busy. How is that even possible? How bad is this fucking virus... cult... thing? She instantly reprimanded herself. Her sister had some sort of bad infection. Not the death-plague that made people insane and, as was rumored, turned them into psycho cannibals of the sort that had prowled the woods earlier that month. She would carry her sister to the damn hospital. They would just have to make room for her.

Wait... the car! Gracelynn nearly laughed at herself. She could pack her sister into her car and take off. The girl quickly jotted a note to her mother, in case the rest of the family returned while they were gone.

"Alyssa, I'm going to take you to the hospital," she said, re-entering the room. "I left mom a note so—" she stopped cold, mid-sentence, at the site of her sister sprawled upon the couch. The girl's eyes stared at the ceiling, the dim light of the overhead fixture reflecting off the frosted-glass orbs that no longer moved. The wounded arm was draped over her stomach; her other hand clutched at the couch cushion. Her mouth was slack, overly pale lips parted slightly. The sweatshirt-clad chest no longer rose. Gracelynn knelt at her side, eyes wide in indescribable dread and disbelief.

"Alyssa. Stop playing around." She poked the girl in the side, snatching her finger away quickly when her sister's flesh gave too easily. "Alyssa... fuck, come on!" Hot tears filled her eyes, and she blinked them away. "Stop it! Come on... it's not funny..." She set her head upon the girl's chest, unable to stop the frightened tremors that wracked her body as she waited for the stupid child to breathe. Gracelynn was convinced she was holding her breath. The dead-fish eyes were only a trick of her strained mind...

Five minutes later and she ceased listening for a breath. She sobbed noisily over her dead sibling's body.

"Fuck!" she screamed, sitting back on her knees. In a sudden and violent outburst, she grabbed the thing nearest—a toy truck—and threw it into a wall. Her rage did not end there; she picked up a nearby wooden bat that had been left out by one of her brothers and swung hard at a bookshelf unfortunate enough to be close. Books, framed pictures, and various trinkets flew as the wooden shelf splintered on impact. She watched, suddenly startled, as the cracked and lopsided bookcase toppled over. Gracelynn paused for a brief second, as if unsure what had happened, and then resigned herself to weeping as she sank to the floor. The bat slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor as she cradled her knees in her arms.

She had no idea how long she sat prone, her mind completely blank; she only knew that time seemed to jerk forward. When she next looked up the clock told her it had been almost twenty minutes. Gracelynn felt as though only a few seconds had gone by.

What had made her look up, anyways? Ah... that noise. A wordless sort of vocal sigh that issued from the couch. She frowned, stumbling to her feet as she sniffled and wiped her eyes.

"Alyssa... is that you?" A grunt, and it was easy to tell that something on the couch moved. A heavy thud. Gracelynn assumed that somehow, her sister's body had fallen off the couch.

"Alyssa?" the name caught in her throat; she was afraid to speak it because she might or might not have gotten a response. However, as the form of a child rose from the other side of the couch, everything she had learned from the Outbreak Awareness Seminar melted from her thoughts. "Alyssa!" she exclaimed, stepping forward. "You must have passed out. I thought you were... dead; stupid me, I—" her joyful rambling was cut off by a noise that could not possibly have come from her sister. The sound she heard was the guttural, throaty rasp of a starved and crazy dog before the pounce.

"Alyssa?" She took a step back, her foot crunching the broken glass of a picture frame as she did so. The pale girl advanced, dragging her feet on the carpet, arms limp. She was studying her older sibling with those wide, milky eyes

(dead eyes)

as though she had never seen a human being before. A clumsy dragging foot caught on a couch leg, and Gracelynn could not help but automatically reach out and catch her as she pitched forward. The younger girl instantly lunged for the nearest bit of flesh, narrowly missing as Gracelynn stepped back and pushed her away. Her teeth caught on the fabric of her sister's tank top, tearing a jagged hole near the bottom. Her footing still lost and balance off-center, Alyssa fell forward. Gracelynn took another step back, nearing the wall. However, her sister did not move.

"Alyssa?" The elder girl's voice shook with alarm, and when her sister remained motionless, she took a tentative step forward... and the seemingly lifeless girl began to drag herself along the floor. With a frightened scream, Gracelynn backed away. Alyssa clawed her way to her feet, inching toward her sister, who was rapidly finding herself backed into a corner. The child made a sudden leap, and bracing against the wall, Gracelynn kicked her away.

Oh God, why is this happening? There is no way... fuck... what can I do can I save her? Why? She can't be doing this there is no way in hell...

"Alyssa, stop!" Her shout was frantic as her sister lurched to her feet once more. The child took no notice; she simply found her balance and jumped again. Gracelynn dove clumsily out of her way and Alyssa slammed into the wall. Several hanging pictures fell on and around the attacking girl.

The bat.

Alyssa was gaining her feet again, not seeming to notice the

pick up the bat oh God don't make me do this

torn area on her forehead from a fallen picture frame. She staggered forward again,

please don't make me I cant hurt her

teeth bared, and Gracelynn ducked lightly out of her way. The bat she'd used to destroy the bookcase was hardly inches away, and her fingers closed on the wooden object as Alyssa made another clumsy dive. The child was snarling, eyes glazed over, saliva dripping from her open mouth and blood thickly falling from the wound upon her head.

The eyes... it was those goddamned dead fish's eyes that made Gracelynn realize she would never have her sister back. Those fucking glazed-over, fog-filled eyes, no trace of the former warm, light brown they had been... but cold, dead, and alien. They were the last thing Gracelynn saw before she swung the bat, screaming—

"ALYSSA!" Gracelynn woke to the sound of her own horrified voice. Her entire body shook violently; sweat dripped onto her cheeks and followed the tracks made by her tears.

"Oh... oh God," she whispered pitifully before letting out a choked sob. The room lit up as Erik charged in, half-clothed and fully awake. She looked up at him, sitting in a shoulders-hunched, defeated position that he knew all too well.

"I dreamed again," she managed.

"Yeah, I thought so... oh honey, shh, calm down now. I'm here." The tall young man sat at her bedside and took her into his arms.

Leon was alone; therefore when he awoke to his own cries of terror, he had no one to soothe him. So, after calming himself enough to find his lamp and illuminate the room, he stumbled out of bed. The man ran a weary hand through his pillow-tangled hair as he made his way to the kitchen.

Damn... Not including the months after Raccoon City and the week after he had watched "Jaws" as a kid, these last few days had gotten him the worst sleep he'd ever had.

As the agent reached in his refrigerator for a can of Pepsi, he found himself thinking of Estella. She played a role in his dream now as well: he carried her dead body with him as he searched the streets for a way out, before Luis showed up. Remembering her presence mere days before made the house seem too quiet.

"...Fuck it." Leon reached further back into the fridge and brought out a can of beer. Heavy drinking was a habit he had forced himself out of after Raccoon. That vice was trying to creep back up on him since his mission in Spain and he'd been trying to repress it, but one couldn't possibly do him any harm after a dream like that.

Besides, he reasoned as he flipped the tab back and took a long, burning swallow, at least I've left the vodka under my bed alone for a long time now.

Music. That was what he needed. Something he probably would never have admitted to in male company was his love of Sarah McLachlan's voice and the comfort it gave him. He had several of her albums on his computer, and he began humming his favorite tune softly as the machine booted up. As the first piano chords washed over him he let out a relieved little sigh, simultaneously feeling both ridiculous and comforted.

With nothing better to do, he moved the mouse to his e-mail icon. The agent had few nearby friends, Claire and Chris Redfield kept in rather irregular contact with him, and only occasionally did a family member send a message. Thus, Leon was surprised to find an email from an unknown address that didn't appear to be an advertisement of some sort. He clicked the subject-less mail, apparently sent from a library. As he read, his mouth worked to form a word of some sort, but even that basic skill escaped him as he read again:


His eyes rook the note in once more, hardly glancing at the reminder at the bottom of the message in place of any signature that told him he would be unable to send a reply. He read it another time and, of course, the message stayed the same. "Watch your back."

As he stared blankly at the screen, his song ended and the next track on the play list began: "Adia." He continued to gape, the change in song barely registering until his weary mind caught something. Leon listened closer to the familiar lyrics and after a moment, his head shook in total disbelief.

"I don't believe it. No fucking way." He had an idea of the sender. It was just too much of a coincidence... eerie, really. The similarity between the names... the reason the song had caught his ear in the first place! And who else could it possibly be?

"Well, if it isn't the bitch in the red dress."

Krauser's sneering voice came to him so clearly that he jumped.

What the fuck.

"Ada... what the hell do you mean?"

Leon stared at the message upon his screen a moment longer. Suddenly, the vodka under his bed seemed very inviting.

Next Chapter: Plans for an impossible rescue... despair and uncertainty... an inescapable passion. Arrival and a long-awaited event.