The door buckled dangerously as the monster rammed into it. Leon protectively pulled Sara back further. She stared at it apprehensively, half expecting the door to bust off its hinges, admitting the beast. But nothing happened. A low growl and heavy departing footfalls signified they were safe... for the time.
Leon expelled a relieved sigh. “I don’t think that’s the last we’re gonna see of that thing.”
The first wave of shock just beginning to wear off, Sara turned on Leon. “What the hell is going on?!”
He looked at Sara, his grave expression softening to sympathy. Leon shook his head. “There’s no easy way to explain it,” he muttered more to himself than to her. He was silent for a moment as though choosing his next words carefully. Presently, he spoke. “You and the others were all selected as subjects in a bioterrorist research project.”
“Bioterrorist?” Sara exclaimed.
Leon nodded. “Are you familiar with Devon Ramsey, CEO of Eclipse Solutions Corp.?
Sara swallowed hard, trying to focus. “Uh, yeah. I’ve heard about him on the news. ESC’s got a lot of pull in the medical sector. What’s he got to do with this?”
“The DSO has uncovered secret information that he was once affiliated with an underground bioterrorist group responsible for researching and developing viral weaponry. They designed viruses that created bio organic weapons--B.O.W.s. These viruses genetically altered human beings and animals to become living weapons of mass destruction.
“Ramsey was dismissed from that group, his whereabouts unknown for years until he reappeared at Eclipse. He purchased this old potter’s field, Halcyon Isle, for his research activities. Apparently, he’s picked up where he left off, and he’s working on something called the Phanes Project. I don’t know the exact nature of this project, but whatever it is, Ramsey is looking for a specific type of woman to make it work.”
The room seemed to spin, and Sara struggled to breathe. Her vision dimmed, Leon’s voice fading to a tinny murmur. Without warning, her knees gave way.
“Whoa!” Leon rushed to take hold of Sara who swayed dangerously on the verge of collapsing. He buoyed her up quickly and steadied her. “I’ve got you.”
Sara clutched his strong arms involuntarily, inhaling deeply and trying to compose herself. She looked up into his face. He was observing her intently, and when their eyes met, he looked at her as though he had made an interesting discovery. Immediately self-conscious, Sara straightened herself up and politely but quickly extricated herself from his grasp. She hated feeling vulnerable and helpless.
“Thank you. I’m fine now,” she said, trying to control her trembling voice. She avoided his attentive gaze, pursuing her dark train of thoughts. “God... this is surreal. Why me? Why any of us?”
Leon shook his head apologetically. “It was a matter of convenience,” he said quietly. “You all had two things in common: you worked for companies owned or funded by Eclipse Solutions, and none of you had families to claim you.”
The coldness of the latter fact penetrated Sara’s heart like a steel pick. She smiled bitterly. “Well, that makes sense. Expendability tends to make one a perfect target.”
“Hey. You are not expendable,” Leon said firmly. “Your life matters. Like all the other women--like Agent Liu, you matter.”
His adamant tone made Sara look up at him in surprise. She gave him a small, grateful smile. “Thank you... Leon.”
Leon nodded at her in reply.
“Poor Agent Liu...” Sara whispered. “I’m so sorry about your partner. Were you close?”
“No; I hardly knew her. This was our first assignment together.” He shook his head, his look sullen and distant. “As long as I’ve been doing this, it never gets any easier; losing your friends and colleagues like that.”
“You’ve dealt with this before?” Sara asked incredulously.
“Yeah, it’s been my job--my life--for a really long time.”
Sara stared at him in amazement. “Dear God! How do you endure it?” she asked breathlessly.
His reverie broke, and he looked up at her. He scoffed dryly. “I spend some off-duty time with Mr. Jack Daniel or John Walker,” he replied.
His response was spoken so solemnly and nonchalantly that despite her horror, Sara couldn’t suppress a soft chuckle.
The corners of Leon’s mouth turned up ever so slightly, but the halfhearted smile faded instantly. He proceeded to inspect his weapons and gear. After reloading his guns, he turned his attention to his comm device. “Damn it. No signal.” He put one hand up to his earpiece. “Hunnigan, do you read me? Come in, Hunnigan.” He sighed. “Looks like we’re on our own, at least for now.”
While Leon was thus occupied, Sara finally took in her surroundings and realized that they were in a control room with a large console designed to operate the waste chute and crane. A reinforced glass window overlooked the chute. Sara looked out at the crane and dumpsters below. “Uh, Leon, I don’t see any exits down there,” she said.
Leon came up beside her. “Yeah, there is, but you’re not gonna like it,” he replied.
Sara’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean--”
“Yep. Down that chute.”
Sara’s stomach lurched at the thought. She turned to Leon to protest and found him studying her thoughtfully. “What?”
Leon drew the gun that had been Liu’s and extended it to her, grip first.
“What is this; what’re you doing?” she asked, stepping back.
“I promise I will do everything in my power to protect you and get you home, but if we get separated or overwhelmed, I’d feel better if you could defend yourself.”
Sara laughed mirthlessly and shook her head. “Wait. I don’t know how to handle a gun! The closest I’ve come to shooting anything is playing video games!”
“Okay, well, let’s chalk that up as simulation training,” Leon answered.
Sara stared at him, wondering whether he was joking, but his expression, as he watched her from behind his golden brown locks, was earnest.
“Take it,” he urged her. “It’s not as hard as it seems. I’ll show you.”
Sara reluctantly took the gun, feeling its weight in her hands. She studied it briefly. “It’s got a laser,” she noted.
“Right. That’ll take the guesswork out of aiming. Stand like this when you’re ready to shoot.” Leon pulled out one of his guns and took his stance: legs slightly apart, right foot a little behind the left, frame firm but relaxed, left hand supporting the right in which he held his gun.
Sara imitated him.
“Good, but a bit too tense. Ease up; bend your knees a little.” Leon came up behind her and gently corrected the position of her arms and shoulders. Standing so close to him, his hands guiding her movements, Sara couldn’t help the slight flutter that rose in her stomach. She brushed the thought aside and focused on his instruction.
Leon stepped back and nodded approvingly. He went on to show her how to work the laser and eject and replace the expended magazine. Sara was a surprisingly apt pupil.
“If I have to use this thing, I hope I can actually hit the target,” she said nervously.
“Just remember what I showed you, and you’ll be okay. But I really only want you using it in an emergency,” Leon said. He handed Sara an extra magazine and the ear mount flashlight that had also belonged to Liu.
Sara took the items gingerly, thinking how the original owner had been alive only minutes before. She quietly pocketed the magazine and carefully equipped the light, feeling awkward and a little foolish. After all, she was no cop or agent. Leon, however, seemed satisfied.
“Okay. We’d better move out,” he said. “Remember: stay close.”
“Got it.” Sara followed him through the waste management room. An iron door led them to a flight of steel stairs and down to the disposal chute.
The instant they entered the area, they were assaulted by the foul stench of decaying blood and flesh. Sara coughed and gagged violently. “Oh, God!” she exclaimed in a strangled voice. “What are they dumping in here?!”
Leon looked over the edge of the enormous chute grimly. “Failed experiments,” he replied flatly. “They’ll incinerate them later.” He appeared unfazed by the horrid, deathly odor, but then, by his account, he was no stranger to the situation. He had likely developed a tolerance for it.
“We have to jump into that?” Sara shook her head. “I don’t think I can do it.”
Leon rolled up his sleeves to his wrists and took Sara’s hand. “Don’t overthink it,” he said calmly. With that, he leaped into the chute, pulling Sara down with him, shouting all the way.
The landing was rough and unpleasant, barely cushioned by large black bags, the contents of which Sara didn’t want to know. Leon quickly pulled her up and away from the pile of refuse.
“I can’t believe you did that,” she said testily.
“Just like a splinter: better to just rip it out and get it over with,” Leon said, surveying the area.
Sara frowned slightly, but remained silent, stepping away quickly from the ghastly bundles.
Some yards away from the dump landing was a steel mesh door secured by a padlock. Leon quickly shot the lock off. Carefully, he opened the door and passed through, Sara following closely behind.
The next area was a large room full of debris piled up in corners, empty crates, battered fuel drums and loaded dumpsters. Flanked on the left was the trash incinerator. She caught sight of a wide steel door just ahead of them.
“That looks like it might be our exit... hopefully,” she said.
Leon tried the knob. “Locked from the outside,” he announced. “Fantastic.”
Leon looked around then down at the door. “Door’s got a pretty big grille,” he mused. He bent to study it. “I think we’ve got a little stroke of luck here; it’s loose. We should be able to crawl out of here. I think I can pull it out.”
“Four hands are better than two,” Sara remarked. “Let me help you.”
Sara knelt beside him and they began tugging at the grille. They shook and pulled at it, but progress was frustratingly slow. A slight movement noted out of the corner of her eye halted Sara’s efforts. She turned aside, her gaze fixed on the mound of bags.
Leon stopped and looked at her attentively. “What is it?”
“I could almost swear I saw something move over there,” Sara said.
Leon twisted around, scanning the mound carefully. “Maybe one of the bags fell over,” he concluded. But his tone was uncertain. He returned his attention to the grille, brow furrowed. “Almost got it,” he announced.
Still staring at the pile, Sara rejoined his efforts. With a few more pulls, they succeeded in detaching the grille. “Got it!” Leon declared triumphantly.
As they laid the grille aside, Sara’s sharp ears heard the soft rustle of plastic. She quickly turned to look. A body-sized bag rolled down to the open mesh door.
“Leon!” Sara called warningly.
But Leon was already on the alert. He stood beside her, submachine gun in hand.
The sack writhed and thrashed, and suddenly a long, clawed hand slashed through the tough plastic as though it were mere tissue paper. Having breached its slight prison, the creature within burst free and stood before Sara and Leon in all its hideousness.
The creature’s sinews were fully exposed, blood and slime oozing down its neck and chest while a gaping hole in its abdomen bleed black fluid. A fold of flesh covered the left eye while the right eye had enlarged to the size of a tennis ball. It turned that single eye, yellow and without pupil, on Sara and Leon.
“Sara, get out!” Leon ordered.
Sara didn’t hesitate, she immediately began pushing herself through the door as Leon opened fire. She wriggled her way out and turned back to look through the opening. The sight made her blood run cold.
The ammunition in the submachine gun was spent. Leon tossed the weapon aside and drew the shotgun. But the discarded B.O.W. had other plans. Its mouth gyrated and a thick scarlet tongue shot out knocking him off his feet. He fell with a grunt, the shotgun sliding a foot away from him.
“Oh, God... Leon!” Sara watched in horror as the creature’s arms extended to an impossible length, seizing Leon in a deadly grip that she was certain would shatter his ribs.
Leon struggled, legs kicking desperately. That scene was all too familiar, having ended with Agent Liu’s demise. Sara’s heart sank, but to her utter relief, as the creature lifted Leon higher, he managed a hard kick to its sternum.
The B.O.W. growled and stumbled, its grip slackening. The respite was brief, but Leon quickly followed up his first kick with another, harder one aimed at the creature’s face. It released him at last, and he reeled backward, miraculously managing to maintain his footing. He made a mad dash for the shotgun and headed for the door where Sara knelt, silently willing him to hurry though she knew he could scarcely move faster.
Leon tossed the shotgun through and began burrowing his way out. Considerably taller and broader than Sara, he strained to squirm through. As his torso came free, Sara impulsively snatched his hands and, with some difficulty, pulled him onto the floor. The instant Leon was through, the B.O.W.’S arm shot out, groping for its target.
Leon scrambled to his feet and grabbed the shotgun. He retreated a few steps, shielding Sara with his body. “Move back!” he said.
Sara scurried backward. She gasped in terror as the monster squeezed itself through the door like gelatin. “Oh, God!”
Leon fired a shot at the creature. It howled with rage, its foul blood splattering across the floor, but it reared its head and pounced. Leon shoved Sara back, receiving the brunt of the monster’s attack. Again his weapon was knocked clean out of his hands. He wrestled with the snarling, snapping B.O.W., bracing his arm against its throat, throttling it in an effort to keep its vile tongue and teeth away from him.
For a heartstopping moment, Sara stood transfixed with horror at the scene unfolding before her. The images of the mutated prisoner and Agent Liu flashed before her. Her adrenaline spiked. She wasn’t about to stand still and watch Leon die. She couldn’t witness that again.
Before she realized what she was doing, she raised her gun. “Let him go!” she shouted. Sara pulled the trigger. The recoil stunned her briefly, and the shot was errant. Growling, she corrected her stance and aimed again. This time the laser beam landed squarely on the creature’s head. Sara fired immediately
The bullet struck its target, piercing the fleshy fold that covered one of the B.O.W.’s eyes. It gave a bloodcurdling shriek and reared back away from Leon, who seized the moment to roll out from under it and make a desperate rush for the shotgun. Infuriated and slick with its own blood, the B.O.W. lashed its tongue out toward Leon once more.
Leon ducked and seized the shotgun. He swung it about swiftly and pulled the trigger just as the creature leaped at him again. The shot rang out, and the next instant, the monster’s head exploded in a rain of blood and yellow fluid. The body thudded to the floor, blood gushing from the stump of its neck.
Leon knelt on the floor, breathing heavily as he recovered and wiped the spatters of the creature’s blood off his face. Sara stood transfixed, gun still upraised, her eyes wide and staring at the horrendous carcass before her. Her heart thudded in her chest and her hands trembled as her adrenaline subsided. Sara scarcely noticed that Leon had risen and now stood beside her.
She started though he had spoken softly.
Leon gently pushed her hands down to lower her weapon. She broke her stance and turned to him. His sedate expression brought her to herself. “It looked like an emergency,” she said unsteadily.
Leon smiled at that. “You just saved my life. Thanks,” he said, sincere gratitude sweetening his deep tone. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here before we encounter any more surprises.”
“I’m for that,” Sara agreed.
They hurried on, but Sara couldn’t help casting one final glance at the gory scene they left behind.