Albert Wesker opened the sliding door and stepped out of the helicopter, adjusting his mirrored sunglasses as he did so. The wind caused by the spinning blades whipped his clothes around, the steady roar drowned out any other sounds, and the bright August sunshine hurt his eyes even behind the sunglasses. He stepped onto the circular cement landing pad, tucking his briefcase under his arm, and cautiously moved to the edge of the platform.
No one was waiting for him, which seemed odd. The reception area at the end of the landing pad was empty, leading to a walkway through a thickly-wooded area toward the mansion where his training would begin. Looking around, he took in the view of the picturesque Arklay Mountains. The lab was secluded; that much was obvious. The closest populated area (amusingly named Raccoon City) was almost fifteen miles away, one of the reasons they had sent a helicopter to get him.
Turning around, he saw the helicopter already lifting back into the air. He wondered if it had even touched ground when it dropped him off. The pilot had demonstrated no desire to stay even a second longer than necessary, which Wesker also found odd. He felt like a soldier being dropped deep behind enemy lines, with the helicopter anxious to get back to safety as soon as possible. He watched as the chopper disappeared over the trees and stood alone on the landing pad, wishing absentmindedly that he had been given more specific instructions
"Good afternoon," someone said, startling him. A elderly gentleman stood at the edge of the reception area, hands folded in front of him. He wore a plain brown suit of a style long since out of fashion, and his thin, wire-rimmed glasses hid small, intense eyes. Wesker did not know how the man could have snuck up on him so effectively.
As if reading his mind, the man said, "Sorry if I spooked you. I have a habit of doing that, I suppose. Would you like to come with me, or would you rather continue to sight-see?"
Wesker reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "I'll come with you," he said unnecessarily, stepping off the pad. He shook a cigarette out of the pack and stuck it in his mouth, offering one to the man beside him.
The man declined politely. "No, thank you. I quit many years ago. It's an awful habit, you know."
"Yes, I do," Wesker said, lighting up.
As they walked down the path toward the mansion, the man did not introduce himself, nor did he need to. Wesker knew him well already from his pictures in the Umbrella recruitment materials sent to him upon graduation of college. His name was James Marcus, and he was the head researcher at the lab. It was actually only a training facility, but the research done there was very real, and Marcus was the man in charge of the entire operation.
Wesker did not expect to be there long. At the age of nineteen, Wesker had already completed his undergraduate studies and was far along in what would normally be considered graduate work , if Wesker had bothered to apply to graduate school. He had completed high school at fourteen, a verified child prodigy, and spent two wasted years at Harvard before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had majored in biology and chemistry and eventually created his own major, biochemical engineering, much to the discomfort of his academic advisors, who thought they knew what he wanted more than he did. His core studies included advanced biology, genetic research, and chemical theory. His senior thesis and research project detailed how a virus, such as the common cold, could he genetically tampered with to make it harmless to humans.
What his professors did not know, and what Umbrella did, was that Wesker had actually successfully made those genetic changes. He had sent proof of his work to Umbrella in lieu of a more typical application for employment. They hired him immediately, and so here he was.
"How old are you, young man?" Marcus asked conversationally.
Wesker blew out a trail of smoke that disappeared in the calm breeze. "Nineteen." He said it without pride, but with a hint of contempt. How many people were sent to this laboratory before they hit their twenties? He glanced sideways at Marcus and tried to guess the man's age. Sixty, perhaps? Sixty-five? How old had he been when Umbrella first hired him?
"You certainly have accomplished much in your few years," Marcus said. "I hope your age does not ostracize you from the rest of the trainees here. Everyone here is an equal, you understand, regardless of their prior achievements. I expect nothing less than complete cooperation between you and your fellow scientists."
"And how long will I stay here?" Wesker asked. "How long until I qualify for my own research team and laboratory time?"
"As long as I say you do," Marcus replied simply. "On average, it takes four or five years of work here before I feel someone is prepared for advancement."
Wesker had expected such a response, but he chuckled softly at it anyway. There was no way he was working for five years as some lackey underling. He did not come here to do grunt work until he was twenty-four. If he had wanted that, he would have gone to graduate school and gotten his Ph.D. the old-fashioned way.
"You don't intend to wait that long, I suspect?" Marcus asked.
Wesker puffed on his cigarette one last time and flicked it into the woods. "Well, no disrespect intended, but I think I'm better qualified than most of the people your company accepts for employment."
Marcus nodded solemnly. "I'll grant that, but you are by no means unique. You are not the only genius on these grounds. You may be a step above many, but there are some individuals here you will certainly find to be your mental superiors."
"That's possible," Wesker admitted, "but only because they're older than I am. How many nineteen-year-olds do you have working here?"
"None," Marcus said.
Wesker nodded. "I think that speaks for itself."
"Not necessarily," Marcus said.
They left the shady cover of the trees and finally reached the mansion grounds. Wesker found himself on a wide cement patio bordered on both sides by an elaborate iron fence. A fountain sat in the center of the patio, spraying water into the air. Potted plants and cement benches lay along each side, and wide steps at the end led up to the mansion itself. Wesker had seen pictures of it in the recruitment materials, but in person it was so much more magnificent.
If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn the mansion was a historical relic from the times of the American Revolution. It was a masterpiece of classical architecture, with wide bay windows and intricate gables and borders along the outside walls. Wesker could only guess at the number of rooms the place contained, and had an imaginative vision of secret passageways and staircases hidden within the walls. It was the kind of awe-inspiring mansion that they simply didn't build anymore.
"Welcome to the Umbrella training facility," Marcus said.
"Not bad," Wesker said to himself.
They traversed the wide patio and headed for the rear entrance. Marcus held the glass double doors open politely and Wesker went in, stopping just a few feet inside. He found himself in a conference room much smaller than he had expected, with seats for only about twenty people. Wesker had envisioned hundreds of new employees studying and working there, with a lecture hall as large as the ones he'd seen in college. It was apparent that this class of trainees would be smaller, and therefore more competitive, than Wesker had thought. Each seat had a wide desk with a computer screen built in, the monitors currently showing the Umbrella logo, a circle divided into eighths and colored in alternating bright red and white. At the front of the room was a large mahogany lectern in front of a wide projector screen.
"This is where most of the training will take place," Marcus was saying. "Your first few classes will be on the rules and regulations of the Umbrella Corporation. The non-disclosure agreements, employee handbook materials, research divisions and work classifications, that sort of thing. It will take about a week to cover it."
"And then what?"
"And then some examinations to help isolate your skills and weaknesses. We work very hard to make sure our employees are given positions in accordance with their natural abilities. We aim to maximize everyone's potential."
"What if my potential lies in researching my own work and pursuing my own interests?"
Marcus smiled thinly. "Well then, I guess we'll have to let you do that, won't we?"
Wesker couldn't tell if the old man was patronizing him, or just being sarcastic. It was possible that he wasn't accustomed to new students displaying such brazen confidence in their own abilities, but Wesker was not about to humble himself to gain the old man's favor. He had faith in his intelligence and the fact that Marcus was not going to let him go to one of their business competitors. Marcus had to know what a valuable employee Wesker could be, and if the price of his employment was putting up with his tremendous ego, then so be it.
"Have you had dinner yet?" Marcus asked, abruptly changing the subject.
"Actually, I haven't."
"Let's stop by your room so you can drop off your things, and then we'll head to the cafeteria for something to eat."
They walked through another set of double doors to a large, open lobby. A brilliant golden chandelier hovered over their heads, adorned with dozens of small light bulbs disguised as candles. Steps carpeted in red velvet led up the right and left to the upper wings of the mansion, and the tile floor beneath his feet was waxed to a glimmering shine so clear Wesker could see his reflection in it. Momentarily, he was once more overcome by the artistic beauty of the building. It was decorated like a royal palace more than a training center and biological laboratory. Accidental visitors to the building would probably expect to find elegantly-clad noblemen and women, not scientists in bland white lab coats.
"The brochure really doesn't do this place justice," Wesker said.
Marcus nodded, his hands folded behind his back. Wesker could envision him appreciating the beauty of the mansion like a car enthusiast basking in the glory of a fully remodeled classic Corvette. Or perhaps, swelling with pride the way the father of a sports star might. It was hard to tell what the old man was thinking.
"We may be scientists, but that does not mean we have to abandon beauty," Marcus said. "After all, science and culture are not mutually exclusive. I have a great love of both architecture and sculpture. You'll see works of art decorating the walls here."
"Most research labs are pretty sterile by comparison."
"Exactly. Wouldn't you rather work and live here than in some bland, white-washed cubicle stinking of disinfectant?"
"You offer a compelling argument," Wesker admitted.
"Your room is this way," Marcus said, heading up one of the sets of stairs.
Wesker followed him up the stairs and down a long hallway with beautiful wood-paneled walls and plush red carpet. All the doors were thick oak with gleaming brass doorknobs. Small end tables furnished the hallway in places, with old-fashioned lamps sitting atop intricately-laced doilies. And as Marcus had said, there were paintings along the walls, some of which by artists that Wesker had heard of.
"How many people are training here right now?" he asked.
"The current class of trainees is fourteen, which is a little below average. There are about fifty other scientists who've completed their training but still work here."
"How many of them live here?"
"Most of them. All new employees are required to stay here for the length of their training, and maybe thirty of the rest live here as well."
"That surprises me. Any particular reason so many decide to live here?"
"The answer should be obvious," Marcus said, stopping before one of the doors along the hallway. "If you dedicate your life to your work, wouldn't you want to live right where that work is done? Let's say 'convenience' for lack of a better word."
He opened the door and ushered Wesker inside. "This is your dormitory room, for the first few days at least. Once you've settled in and met some of your classmates, you can change rooms if you like."
The room was small but clean, and like most of the rest of the mansion, full of shining oak and mahogany furniture, including a bed, desk, and dresser. Wesker tossed his briefcase on the bed, since that was all he'd brought with him. According to the employment packet he'd received, he would be assigned everything he would need upon his arrival at the mansion, including essentials like clothes and work materials. All he'd actually bright with him were some personal papers and the clothes on his back.
He and Marcus headed back down the hallway and down the stairs to the main lobby. Wesker stuck his hands in his pockets and contented himself with admiring his surroundings. Despite his early misgivings, he was already feeling right at home here. Any company wealthy enough to make a simple training facility look like a king's palace was exactly where Wesker wanted to be.
"Do you have any other questions, Albert?" Marcus asked.
Wesker winced at the sound of his first name. "Please don't call me that. Call me Wesker. Even my parents don't call me Albert."
"What do they call you?"
"They call me by my middle name."
After an expectant pause, Marcus asked, "And your middle name is?"
"Just call me Wesker."
Marcus smiled. "All right, Wesker. Do you have any other questions?"
"Yes, actually. Why are you giving me the tour yourself? I expected some low-level office assistant to meet me at the helicopter, not you."
"I handle everything myself," Marcus explained. "I don't hire underlings to do my work for me. In fact, there are no office personnel here at all."
That genuinely surprised Wesker. "No paper-pushers?"
"None. The only people in this building are scientists. Oh, we have a live-in janitor and a few permanent security officers, but that is all."
"Who does all the paperwork? Who answers the phones?"
"Everyone is required to do all their own paperwork, but don't worry too much about that. There is less than you think. I feel that paperwork is a waste of time, so I don't require too much of it. As for the phones, security takes care of it."
"Places like this always have office workers, I'm surprised that it can function without any," Wesker said.
Marcus shrugged, apparently unconcerned. "I'm sure that other installations are loaded with them. Some Umbrella facilities have almost as many office personnel as they have scientists. But I think it's unnecessary, it only creates a meaningless bureaucracy within the company. Too many office workers creates red tape and roadblocks. I don't want anything to get in between a scientist and his science."
"That's exactly the way I feel," Wesker said. "I guess I'm just surprised that anyone in a position of authority feels the same way."
"Don't forget that I'm a scientist too," Marcus said. "I'm a scientist first and an administrator a distant second."
As they passed though the main lobby, Wesker noticed a large painting hanging above the far wall. It was a head-and-shoulders portrait of James Marcus himself. He hadn't noticed it before because it was above the doorway to the conference room, which they had entered from. When Wesker glanced at it, Marcus laughed softly.
"The one concession to my ego," he admitted. "I run this entire facility, you know. It doesn't hurt to cater to your vanity every now and then. As long as you keep it in perspective."
Wesker shrugged. "Doesn't bother me. You deserve it. Everyone gives in to vanity in one way or another."
"I've noticed that you still wear those sunglasses, for example," Marcus said.
Wesker smiled and adjusted them. "You'll never see me without them."
They walked through another doorway into a large dining room area. At one end of the L-shaped room, there was a large rectangular table covered with a white tablecloth and surrounded by enough chairs for twenty people. At the other end of the room were a few smaller plastic tables and chairs and a pair of vending machines. Through an open doorway, Wesker could see the large adjacent kitchen beyond.
Sitting at one of the plastic tables, munching on a candy bar with a text book opened in front of him, was one of the other trainees. It was the first other person besides Marcus that Wesker had seen since his arrival. He was a skinny young man with greasy black hair that dangled over the sides of his face as he read.
Marcus introduced him with a smile. "Wesker, meet William Birkin, one of the other trainees in your class."
The young man looked up as Wesker approached, his arm outstretched to shake hands. It was only then that Wesker realized just how young he was. He looked like a gangly teenager, with fresh pimples dotting his forehead and the innocent expression of youth in his gentle brown eyes.
"Young William here is only eighteen years old," Marcus said. "He's the youngest trainee we've ever had."
Suddenly, Wesker's initial sense of confidence and power drained from him like water down an open drain. "Pleased to meet you," William said, shaking his hand. But Wesker found that he had lost his voice.