Sara heard the distant sounds of a skirmish echoing through the corridor. Silence fell, followed by a door opening and two voices exchanging hushed dialogue. Footsteps approached slowly. She hied back to the farthest corner of the room behind the shabby bed and hunkered down, trying to listen past the thundering of her heart.
The two strangers spoke again, but in so low a key, she could distinguish nothing. After a moment’s silence, there was a faint electronic beeping followed by a loud buzzing. Somewhere nearby, a cell door opened. Sara held her breath. What was happening out there? Was another victim being brought in? She didn’t dare risk a look.
The same beeping and buzzing was repeated six more times. Sara became acutely aware that someone was drawing closer each time a lock was released. The advancing footsteps halted at her door. She waited with bated breath as the electronic beeping sounded again. Her blood ran cold as the loud buzz announced the release of her own cell’s lock.
The door swung open revealing a man aiming a gun into the room. He stepped cautiously over the threshold, surveying the area thoroughly. The low bed offered poor concealment, and it wasn’t long before he caught sight of her. The man studied her for a moment before lowering his gun and calling over his shoulder. “Liu, I found a survivor!”
The man drew near carefully. Sara shrank back against the wall as far as she could. He holstered his gun and raised his hands placatingly. “It’s okay,” he said warmly, his voice a rich, pleasant baritone. “I’m not gonna hurt you. You’re Sara Rios, am I right?”
Hesitating briefly, Sara nodded mutely. The man stood before her now and Sara could see him clearly. He was tall and well-built, clad in black from his leather jacket and fingerless gloves to his sturdy boots. A thigh holster was securely strapped on either leg, each equipped with a handgun. A loaded waist pack was visible beneath the hem of his jacket.
He crouched down before Sara and looked into her face searchingly. Despite her apprehension, she couldn’t help noting that he was strikingly handsome. His walnut-brown hair cascaded down either side of his face in side-cut asymmetrical bangs. His somewhat narrow gray-blue eyes regarded her somberly, but there was kindness in them, and his brow was furrowed with concern.
“My name’s Leon,” he said quietly. “My partner and I are here to rescue you.”
As if on cue, an Asian woman entered the room. She briefly surveyed the scene before holstering her own gun. “Any signs of infection or mutation?” she asked.
“Doesn’t look like it,” Leon replied. He stood up, still watching Sara. “This is Agent Liu,” he informed her. “Liu, this is Sara Rios.”
Sara looked up at Liu, taking her in fully. She was similarly equipped as Leon, sporting a thigh holster and a waist pack. A short-barreled shotgun was fastened around her torso from a sling. Unlike Leon, however, her countenance lacked sympathy, and her bearing was somewhat frigid and haughty.
She glanced down at Sara cocking her head. “Miss Rios, my partner and I are agents with the Division of Security Operations. We’re here to get you out and shut down the organization responsible for your abduction. Can you quickly tell us any information that might shed some light on the operations here?”
Leon scoffed. “Liu, this isn’t the best time for an interrogation; she’s in shock. Let’s focus on getting her out of here. A little sensitivity would be good, too.”
Liu pursed her lips, and shot him a sharp glance. She returned her attention to Sara, looking her over. “Can she talk?”
Leon shook his head disapprovingly.
“Yeah, I can talk,” Sara snapped. “After what I’ve seen and experienced, I should be catatonic.”
Liu raised a brow while Leon looked mildly amused and even pleased at Sara’s sudden rally of wits.
Sara started to her feet, but her legs faltered. Leon offered her his hand, and she gratefully accepted his aid. “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t understand--” A fit of shivering seized her, stopping her mid-sentence. She hugged herself then flushed with embarrassment, realizing how scanty her short, filthy nightshirt was.
Leon quietly removed his jacket and draped it over Sara’s shoulders. “Thank you,” she mumbled, looking at him bewilderedly. He inclined his head and stepped back. As he did so, she noted a holstered survival knife secured around his muscular shoulders. The agents certainly looked prepared. She only hoped it would be enough to survive this place.
Sara exhaled tremulously. “All I can tell you is that they’re using us prisoners as guinea pigs.” She extended her right arm to the agents. “Look.”
Leon took hold of her arm, scrutinizing the trail of bruised needle marks that ran down its length. Liu inserted herself beside him, studying the marks as well. She looked up at Sara, eyes narrowed. “Have you been injected with anything?” she demanded.
“I don’t think so,” Sara replied, trying to steady her voice. “But they’ve taken a lot of blood samples. Everything’s kinda fuzzy; they kept drugging me.” She clutched the jacket around her in palsied fists, her knuckles going white. “They’re turning us into monsters. I saw the prisoner across from me turn into a horrible creature. And the soldiers, they couldn’t kill it with bullets; they had to use a grenade launcher! I swear to God, it’s true.”
“We know,” Liu said calmly. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Are any of the other women still alive?” asked Leon.
A thrill of icy terror shot down Sara’s spine as she recalled the screams resounding through the halls. “I don’t think so,” she said, her voice barely audible. “Except for the girl that mutated, I haven’t heard anyone else in a while.”
“Damn it!” muttered Liu.
Leon’s eyes faltered momentarily in disappointment. He shook his head, the shadow of grief briefly crossing his face.
At that moment, the lights in the corridor dimmed and red alarm lights went off. Voices shouted and footsteps pounded down the hall. The computerized voice blared out: “Intruder alert. Facility lockdown initiated. Neutralization now underway.”
“Damn. They saw our handiwork sooner than I expected,” Liu remarked, her frame tensing.
“Shit. This just got a whole lot harder,” Leon said. He drew both guns and turned to Sara. “Get down; keep out of sight.”
Sara nodded. Shoving her arms into the jacket sleeves, she ducked down behind the bed again, watching anxiously as the agents headed out into the fray. Liu had her shotgun in hand and was blasting at the onslaught of soldiers that were coming their way. Leon was firing away with both guns, looking exactly like a gunslinger from the Old West. It was all over in a matter of minutes.
Agent Liu reentered the cell. “Come on,” she called. “We gotta move!” She took hold of Sara’s arm and pulled her to her feet. Sara gawked at the scene before her as she exited into the corridor. The floor was littered with the bodies of black-clad soldiers lying in puddles of blood.
Leon quickly looted the fallen soldiers for weapons and ammunition. He was now newly equipped with a submachine gun. He handed another to Liu along with a pair of loaded magazines. “We’re still on lockdown. There’s only one way in and out of here. We need a valid passcode to deactivate the system.”
“Hunnigan’s got the facility codes I acquired; the benefit of my being a DSO hacker, ” said Liu. She turned aside, speaking into a concealed earpiece. “Hey, Hunnigan, we’re on lockdown here. Can you get us the deactivation code?”
A pause followed. “7628. Thanks, Hunnigan.” Liu punched in the code.
The lights brightened immediately as the lockdown deactivated, and the door opened. Leon now took Sara’s wrist and pulled her through the door after Liu. Sara trotted behind him, feeling dizzy.
“You have something that belongs to me,” a voice suddenly echoed along the hall.
The trio halted. Liu and Leon readied their weapons for an encounter, but there was no one in sight.
“Cameras? Where?” whispered Liu.
Leon shook his head silently, scanning the area.
“I want it back.” The cold, deep voice flooded the corridor via hidden speakers.
Rage mingled with fear at these words as Sara understood instantly that the speaker was referring to her. She looked up, seeking the hidden camera. A small green light flashing beside an overhead light fixture caught her eye. She touched Leon lightly on the arm and cocked her head discreetly toward the camera.
Leon looked up at it defiantly. “Sorry, pal. No more guinea pigs for you.” He fired at the hidden camera, shattering it into a rain of glass and metal shards.
“I admire your bravado,” the speaker said scornfully, “but you’re not going anywhere. My men are coming to collect my property.”
“I’m not your property, you sick son of a bitch!” shouted Sara.
A loud alarm sounded, followed by the thudding of rapidly approaching footsteps.
“Aw, shit. This just got out of control real fast,” Liu remarked.
“They’re coming from both sides!” exclaimed Sara.
They ran faster, Sara between Liu and Leon, each agent positioned to protect her as they dashed forward. They reached an intersection in the corridor. “This way!” shouted Liu.
They made a sharp left and all but collided with a group of soldiers in red-striped helmets charging toward them. Liu opened fire instantly. Sara ducked down immediately, cowering against the wall, hoping to avoid an errant bullet or blow.
Leon took on the oncoming wave of soldiers coming up the rear. Sara watched him skillfully evade enemy fire and fell two soldiers, alternating between his firearms and an impressive series of kicks and body slams.
Sara was jarred out of her petrification as Liu pulled her roughly to her feet and hauled her forward. They threaded past the dead soldiers. Behind them, Leon finished off his last attacker. At last they came to a door marked Waste Disposal with an access reader.
“We’ve lost the element of surprise. We’d better take a detour here. Kennedy, you still got the keycard?” demanded Liu.
In response, Leon produced the card and tossed it to her. She turned to scan the card. Then a horrific turn of events occurred.
The bodies of the soldiers began writhing and wriggling, their heads swelling and trembling wildly.
“What the hell?” muttered Sara fearfully.
“Shit. They’re mutating. Be careful, Liu,” Leon said.
“I see them, Kennedy,” Liu responded peevishly. She ushered Sara behind her and cocked her shotgun. Leon quickly reloaded his guns, his expression steely.
The soldiers’ helmets exploded open, spraying blood across the walls, deformed heads burst forth. Their suits ripped open, revealing torn, bloody flesh. Their hands elongated, spindly but deadly claws erupting from their fingers. They lifted themselves up from the floor and began advancing on the group.
“Damn! This just keeps getting better,” Leon remarked. He opened fire on the advancing monstrosities.
Shoving Sara out of her petrification, Liu thrust the keycard into her hand. “Open the door!” she ordered. She blasted away the creature closest to her.
Hands shaking, Sara passed the card quickly through the reader. The light flashed red. Read error. “No!” She tried again to no avail. Sara pounded on the door frantically. “The reader’s not working!” she cried. She shrieked as one of the monsters bounded toward her. Liu shot it down.
“Sara, look out!” Leon’s voice rang out sharply over savage snarls.
The warning came a second too late. A bloody appendage entwined around her waist, pulling her to the floor. A scream tore from her throat as she was dragged backwards.
Sara struggled vainly to free herself, still clutching the keycard. Leon chased after the retreating tentacle, slashing at it until it released Sara. Moving swiftly, he hacked it off. Two more shots ended the monster. Leon hoisted Sara to her feet and retreated with her to the Waste Disposal door.
The hall went silent again.
“Well,” Liu panted. “Guess that ends that.”
“Liu, watch your back!” Leon shouted suddenly.
Liu’s eyes went wide in anguished astonishment, and she uttered an agonized cry as a thick tentacle impaled her from behind and erupted from her chest. Blood poured from her gaping mouth as she convulsed in death throes.
Sara was too horrified to scream. Sheer terror constricted her throat.
“No!” cried Leon
The monster lifted Liu into the air then flung her aside like a rag doll. It hissed viciously then roared at Leon. He responded instantly with a volley of bullets until at last the hideous mutant went down, writhing and convulsing in its own blood. Everything then went deathly still.
Sara could only stare at the scene in shock. She shifted her gaze to Liu’s mangled corpse then up at Leon whose eyes flashed stormily despite his composed appearance. Presently, compelled by pity and astonishment, Sara advanced toward Liu.
“Get back,” Leon ordered firmly. “Just keep trying the door.”
Sara balked and looked back up at him inquiringly. He listed his head, eyes narrowed, guns trained on Liu’s corpse. Sara bemusedly turned back to the Waste Disposal door, glancing at him over her shoulder in puzzlement. She froze as Liu’s body began wriggling and shuddering.
Black veins burst over Liu’s face and her eyelids flew open. She rolled onto her stomach, looking up at Leon and Sara out of raven-black eyes. Gurgling and moaning, she struggled to rise. Leon unflinchingly fired two bullets into her head. She sank back down to the floor, black eyes staring lifelessly.
Eyes wide as saucers, Sara stared at Leon speechlessly.
“Shit!” Leon whispered. He lowered his weapons. Fury and grief warred across his features. After hesitating for a moment, he approached the remains of his partner and began gleaning her gear. “I’m sorry,” he murmured ruefully.
Sara scanned the keycard again, trying to avert her eyes from the gruesome scene. Read error. She suppressed a screaming sigh.
A distant growl rumbled through the corridor. “Oh, shit. Now what?” Leon muttered.
Thunderous steps advanced, shaking the very ground beneath their feet. They smelled the creature before they saw it--the horrid stench of decaying flesh. It then bounded into view: a grotesquely disfigured doglike beast of colossal size. Thick, white saliva drooled from its mouth as it snarled at them, eyes glowing bloody red.
Leon faced the monster. “Any time now,” he urged Sara, aiming his gun tensely.
Sara scanned the card once more, uttering a silent prayer. Access granted. “I got it!” she exclaimed as the lock disengaged.
The beast charged at them wildly. Leon grabbed Sara’s arm and burst through the door, slamming it shut an instant before the creature barreled into it.