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Queens

Chapter Text

Everything was leaving Earth these days; wars, businesses, cities. New maps were constantly being written over open space. The borders on these maps went in all directions—up, down, diagonally, horizontally—carving up space into blocky territories. Nations were stacked on top of each other, competing with each other, assimilating each other. A lot of wars were fought, and lives lost, over ownership of the emptiness.

 

The Auriga hung motionless in space, the length of her giant, white hull looking like a discolored gash in the starry backdrop. She had been a cruise ship in the days when space was a luxury, instead of a workplace or a war zone. Back when the United States was still one country.

During the Mason-Dixon war, she was captured by the Corporate Confederation of America (CCA) and converted into a mobile war lab, a place to develop new weapons that would give the Company an edge in territory battles. Repurposing old ships was much more cost-efficient than building new ones, and old hulks like the Auriga were as spacious as space stations. The winding hallways of the Auriga's interior were stripped of their decorations, reduced to naked metal.

When the Auriga was first captured, the CCA's main enemy had been the northern branch of Weyland-Yutani—the smaller, weaker company that was left behind when Weyland South split off and turned into CCA. By cornering the market on every consumable, CCA managed to swallow up Weyland North, claiming the largest corporation north of the Mason-Dixon line. It's only surviving competitor in North America was the American Union; one of the last nations on Earth to be lead by a federal government instead of a single company. CCA began their attack on the Union with a mixture of bullets and propaganda, pushing them farther and farther north into the melted arctic.

Above all, the Company was a machine for making money. It used the Auriga as a giant industrial meat grinder, stuffing lab workers and money into one end, and collecting the guns and grenades that came pouring out of the other. What happened in the interim—behind the grooved metal walls of the great ship—was messy, but all social breaches were immediately justified by the value of the end product. The Company needed a great quantity of weapons—for use by soldiers at war in foreign territories, and for use at home by police. It couldn't be helped if a few cockroaches got ground in with the good meat.

The types of weapons produced by the Auriga grew increasingly extreme as CCA and the Union continued their hot-and-cold war, each nation expanding farther into space, scouring every new planet for resources. The Auriga's resident scientists worked without limits: moral or monetary. Up front, the Company was a family-values nation with rigid moral codes. However those moral codes were bent to snapping whenever serious profit was involved.

The Auriga had 12 tall floors within her body. On the outside, her bone-white flank was covered with grooves and knots and crude mechanical textures, which blurred together into a uniform smoothness when viewed from a distance. On the inside she was skeletal and aging, with metal grates loosely covering tangles of brass pipes, and long, artery-like cables lining every corner of the octagon-shaped hallways.

The people who lived inside of the Auriga were paid both for their skilled labor, and for their willingness to abandon any hope of leading a life outside of their work. Company men were expected to marry and procreate as a side dish to their careers, but the scientists on the Auriga were socially awkward types who found talking to the opposite sex to be more stressful than wiring a hydrogen bomb. In that way, the ship was a kind of shelter for socially atypical men with otherwise brilliant minds. The Company was gracious, and it always found a niche for its malcontents.

Life on the Auriga was pervaded by a constant, multi-layered murmuring of ship noises. The low thrumming of the combustion engines and the tired wheezing of the air-conditioning vents could be heard at all times, pulsing in tune with the gently vibrating walls. The vibrations were stronger on the lower levels, nearer to the engines on the first floor, which is why the scientists decided to perform their surgery on the 12th level, in the decontamination room. Inside of the room were 7 whitecoats, clustered tensely like a blood clot while their colleagues continued to scuttle through the hallways outside.

Used as a sanitizing chamber for cleansing new arrivals, the decontamination room was small and empty, the stainless steel surface of the floor marred in one spot by a melted hole, tinted bright red. The whitecoats carefully stepped around the hole whenever they left the room to breathe for a while.

The whitecoats were elbow-to-elbow, standing in a ring around an open body on an operating table, their surgical masks soaked through with sweat as they gingerly moved their tools around inside of the patient's chest.

They were 8 hours into their second attempt at completing the operation. The first trial had ended after five minutes and had cost the crew's most experienced doctor all but two of his fingers. For the second trial, the whitecoats were marginally more prepared, using laser saws instead of scalpels to chip their way through the patient's rib bones and into the occupied space between her lungs.

The patient was limp and pale. A red-brown stream of dried blood ran down from the corner of her incision. It drew a path of destruction through the cloth drape and ended at the mouth of the melted hole in the floor. The whitecoats had injected the patient with heavy vasoconstrictors before surgery in an attempt to keep her awful blood from spraying towards the ceiling, but the deadly stuff was still present in bottlefuls, pooling in the chest cavity beneath the surgeons' shaking fingertips.

Dice strolled back into the decontamination room. He'd been wandering in and out to check on the whitecoat's progress for the entire endurance of the surgery. He knew that he made the whitecoats nervous, so he never stuck around for long—normally he thrived off of intimidating his workers, but today he needed the surgeons to work carefully. Wondering when he'd have his prize, the businessman padded around the circular curtain of white lab coats, thumbs twitching impatiently inside of the pockets of his black suit, his polished shoes clacking. He was a short man and he couldn't see his precious investment behind the bodies of his workers—not that he necessarily wanted to, at this point.

“You have good timing Mr. Dice,” said the bulkiest of the whitecoats without turning around.

The man's name was Rodriguez, and he was easily Dice's least favorite employee. Admittedly, he was a skilled biologist and a decent surgeon, but he had an extremely grating and overly-enthusiastic disposition. Whenever he got the least bit excited, his breathy voice slid up into the high octaves, giving him a distastefully feminine quality.

“I've already got its head in my forceps,” Rodriguez continued, “I just don't want to try and pull it out too fast. It looks like it's got something sharp on its tail.”

“The host's disposable you know,” Dice said, irritated. “Don't slow your progress for her sake.”

“Really? But she's such a seamless hybrid,” Rodriguez squeaked, sounding astounded by Dice's indifference. “I think maybe we could learn a lot by studying her anatomy.”

“I'm not interested in learning,” Dice said dryly. “I'm interested in milking this Alien breeder for all of the cold cash it's worth. The host's mutations have done nothing but hold up the show. She's a nuisance.”

“Uh, if you say so...” Rodriguez choked. He sounded unhappy, but he was too absorbed in his meticulous work to start an argument.

Around him, the ring of whitecoats began to shift excitedly, the critical moment approaching. Dice was eager, and oddly a little nervous. He'd been waiting to have this priceless thing in his possession for almost a decade. God forbid that something should go wrong now.

“Alright,” Rodriguez's voice slid up again. “Alright, here it comes. Get the container ready.”

Dice grabbed the lye-filled cylinder sitting by the side of the operating table and waited next to Rodriguez. The other whitecoats backed away from the table as Rodriguez turned around to face Dice, a wriggling, bloody worm clamped in his acid-resistant forceps.

Despite his eagerness, the black-suited man felt a spike of shock and nausea as Rodriguez lowered the gory creature into the container. The thing was absolutely revolting. Dice's primal instincts were telling him to toss the fetus across the room and then run as far away as possible. Clinging to the cold walls of the glass cylinder—as the long pink thing slithered weakly inside— was taking a considerable amount of willpower for the businessman.

He quickly slapped the lid on the container and locked it. A pathetic, muffled squealing noise came from inside. Immediately, Dice started to relax again—out of sight, the Alien was just an investment, a stream of dollar signs and numbers with generous amounts of zeroes.

The whitecoats laughed with relief and slapped each other on the back, tearing off their sweaty masks. The host remained as she was, open and bleeding.

“We did it,” Rodriguez chirped, beaming cloyingly at Dice. “A Xenomorph Queen, back from the dead.”

Dice swallowed the saliva that had pooled in his mouth. “Yes,” he said hoarsely “We did it.” He cleared his throat. “Alright all you labrats,” he called out to the room, drolly. “I've got enough synthetic wine in my office for all of you. Once we put the worm in its hole we'll head back up for some R and R.”

Letting out strained, exhausted cheers, the whitecoats followed Dice as he strolled towards the door—except for Rodriguez, who looked back towards the body on the table, his brow furrowed with concern. “What about her?” he called to Dice.

Dice reluctantly stopped and turned around. “What about her?”

“Well,” Rodriguez gasped, high voice grating on Dice's ear drums. “It's pretty amazing that she's still breathing after the surgery. I mean, it'd just seem like a waste to throw her out—especially since she's a unique organism...and a girl.”

“A waste of what exactly?” Dice shifted the Queen's container in his arms, cradling it closer to his chest. The other white coats had their eyes locked on the container, watching it with reverence and fascination. “She's an adult with the brain of a baby. And she's not even human. Honestly, would you want to live if you were her?”

“I...uh...” Rodriguez shifted his bulky frame from foot to foot, sneaking glances at the unconscious hybrid's face.

Dice sighed impatiently. “Look Rodriguez, I'm not going to wait for you. If you really want to lock her up in a holding pen and keep her as a pet, then go ahead. But the funds to take care of her are not coming out of my pocket. Talk to Cross about your inhumanitarian cause.” He laughed nasally at his own joke and then strolled out of the room, a stream of whitecoats following him. Some of the whitecoats glanced back at Rodriguez as they left—they looked apologetic, but also eager get as far away from the host and her acid blood as possible.

Rodriguez was left alone in the bare room with the slowly dying woman. Would I want to live if I was her? He thought, chewing on Dice's words. That's a moot point, isn't it? It's not her decision, it's mine. No one asks a newborn baby if it wants to live, not even a mutated one.

Sweating, Rodriguez studied his patient's  features. Her skin was still sticky from the oily fluids inside of the incubation chamber and her long hair was plastered onto her face. Black strands of it twisted over her forehead, covering up her eyes.

Trial Number 8—that was the closest thing to a name that she had. She was a nearly perfect clone of Ellen Ripley as she existed 200 years ago, grown from a blood sample and aged to adulthood alongside her child and twin, the Alien.

Rodriguez was stricken by how remarkably normal—even attractive—her outsides looked, her sculpted profile and delicate lips standing in sharp contrast with the grotesque black rib bones curving out of her chest. She was an oddity with no place in Company society. But she was also the first woman that he had seen since his life fell apart.  A decade had passed since the moment that he saw his ex-wife for the last time, when she’d visited him on holiday only to inform him that she’d fallen in love with a 6’ 4’’ marine; a gritty man who would become Rodriguez's son’s prefered father. Looking at the clone, Rodriguez was reminded vaguely of his lost wife. Dark wavy hair, he thought. This is what our daughter might have looked like as an adult...if we’d had a daughter.

Rodriguez clenched and unclenched his fists . What would the Chairman do? That question was always a good jumping off point for making a moral decision. Rodriguez spent much of his free time reading through Marcus Weyland's hand-penned Company manual. He was reminded on a daily basis of why he was inadequate gentleman, of why his wife left him, and he made a rabid effort to act like a true Company man by way of the manual. He tried to remember some of the social etiquette passages that pertained to women.

 

CM/CH12/P412: As a member of the stronger sex, every

Company man shares the obligation to safeguard the wellbeing

of his female counterpart....The most dangerous threat to

womankind comes not from the deadly enemies beyond the

borders, nor from Union spies within the Company. The

greatest menace to females is the grave delusion of independence

and self-reliance. It is a mental cancer which spreads easily

inside of the fickle minds of women. It disturbs the natural

structure of working society and leaves children without

proper maternal figures to nurture them. The true mark of

chivalry lies in a gentleman's ability to rescue a female from

the poison of her thoughts using not force, but charm and

kindness. Securing her in a home with children and supplying

her with your steady earnings is the greatest way to heal a

   woman of any mental plight.”

 

So it's my obligation to protect her life, Rodriguez thought. My dedication to her is what makes me a gentleman. Images of muscled war heroes from propaganda films flashed through his mind—he imagined himself as a marine on the warfront rescuing a beautiful, wounded maiden from the brink of death. Without further hesitation, he reached for a skin meld and began closing number 8's gash.

This ship is my home, and I welcome you into it, miss. I'll teach you everything, teach you to be a Company lady. You'll be my perfect daughter. I won't let any poisonous thoughts get into your head.

As he worked, a song drifted up from his subconscious and he whistled it with dry lips. It was a lullaby that his mother used to sing to him—an old Spanish tune crudely translated into english. “Keep your eyes shut in the darkness...the sun shines in your dreams...don't wake until the sunrise, until the light shines just for your pretty little eyes.”

The newborn woman's chest rose and fell slowly as Rodriguez finished patching up the incision. The last of her exposed black bones disappeared underneath perfect, pale skin and Rodriguez congratulated himself on his chivalry. She would never be normal in the eyes of others, but Rodriguez would always view her as a true Company lady—one who was forever under his protection.

Keeping her on the operating table, he wheeled her into an elevator and took her down to the 5th floor, where he bathed her in a shower stall with distilled water. Then he dressed her in a white hospital gown and descended into the Auriga's belly, ignoring the questioning looks of the whitecoat passerby as he wheeled his charge towards the holding pens. He placed her on the floor of the nearest cell that he came to, arranging her limp limbs into a comfortable position.

It was an extremely satisfying feeling for Rodriguez, securing the lock on number 8's new cage. He headed back towards the elevator knowing that he'd given the poor, unnatural woman a special niche within Company society, a place to live.

He was excited and eager to watch number 8's personality slowly develop as she was nurtured from girlhood into ladyhood by his loving guidance. She'll have such a happy life here, her every need taken care of. And it's all thanks to me. I'm her hero.

Chapter Text

A bright flash filled Ripley's vision as she slowly opened her new eyes, the lids feeling sticky and swollen. Everything around her was white. She waited numbly as shadows took shape and the details of her surroundings became clear.

She was lying belly-up on the floor of a tall, cylindrical cell, the harsh light from a fluorescent panel leering at her from the high ceiling. The cylinder grew narrow towards the top like the tapered tube of an esophagus, and there were exposed pipes lining the curving walls like rib bones. From where Ripley lay it seemed as though she'd been swallowed whole by a giant metal animal. Harsh chemicals burned her sensitive nostrils—the cage reeked of bleach and coppery metal.

The newborn woman moved slowly, examining herself with unfamiliar fingers. She found a fresh scar running vertically along the top of her chest, a line of rough texture underneath of the thin fabric of her hospital gown. A small number 8 was tattooed onto the underside of her forearm in black ink. Holding her shaking hands in front of her face, Ripley saw that her nails were dark colored and long and sharp.

Disjointed questions and fragments of memory crawled blindly through her mind like headless centipedes, crashing into each other. She made an attempt to speak but all that came out of her mouth were hisses and groans. She was unable to weave any of the noises into words.

Heart pounding, she tried to stand up, but her knees buckled underneath of her and her face smacked painfully against the metal floor. Suddenly exhausted, the Alien-woman closed her eyes and lay still.

As she rested, she flexed her new ears, listening for sounds coming from outside of the walls of her cell. She heard a low mechanical humming radiating from below the floor, hissing sounds leaking from the air vent on the ceiling—and something else, something familiar, coming from the opposite side of the wall to her right. The sound of raspy, inhuman breathing and a tiny heartbeat.

Ripley remembered how to feel fear.

 

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

 

Rodriguez would come to consider his first meeting with number 8 to be the most bizarre and memorable moment of his entire life. The morning after the twin birth, the biologist hurried to finish his medical paperwork before fishing a collapsible wheelchair from a cobwebbed closet in the med center. In order to reach number 8's cage, he had to elbow his way past the bushels of whitecoats who were crowded in the hallway outside of the holding pens. None of them so much as glanced at him as he squeezed through—all of them had their eyes fixated on the observation window of the Queen's cage, gawking at the Alien's overnight growth spurt.

When Rodriguez swung open the heavy door to the hybrid-woman's cage, he found her lying curled up on her side, her back pressed against the wall that was the farthest from the Queen's cage. Her eyes were wide open, and with delight Rodriguez observed the color of her irises for the first time—they were deep brown, practically black, and they were staring at his smiling face with a mixture of fear and fascination. She flinched when he touched her and tensed up in resistance, though her weak muscles didn't allow her to put up any kind of a fight. Her long limbs dragged limply as Rodriguez hefted her up into the wheelchair.

“Welcome to the world,” Rodriguez whispered, cheeks hurting from the force of his smile.

Number 8 remained tense as he wheeled her out the door of her cage. Clearly something was triggering her “fight or flight” process, flooding her body with adrenaline.

“It's okay to feel afraid,” Rodriguez told her reassuringly, even though he knew that she couldn't understand him. “It's all completely new to you.”

As he wheeled her past the window of the Queen's cage, she suddenly gripped the armrest of the wheelchair, squeezing it as hard as her trembling muscles would allow. She made a strange vocalization that to Rodriguez sounded like a low hiss, her breathing picking up dramatically.

“Hey, hey, hey. It's okay,” Rodriguez soothed. He pushed her along a little faster, but as he did he couldn't help but crane his neck to get a glimpse of the Alien through the gaps between his colleagues’ bodies. He saw a man-sized, black thing pressed against the other side of the transparent metal, sitting with its skinny legs folded underneath of it. Two, three, four hands, each with an excess of fingers, were feeling their way around the smooth window, leaving clear, wet streaks in their wake. The Alien was an amazing specimen—a living testament to the years of dedicated work put in by Rodriguez and his colleagues. But it was also uniquely disturbing in its appearance—no wonder it was scaring his baby.

Once inside of the elevator the hybrid relaxed a little, looking exhausted. Her eyes explored the interior of the elevator car and then settled again on Rodriguez, her curiosity starting to overpower her fear. Rodriguez felt his heart jump nervously. She was just an infant—he had to remember that. But she looked so much like an adult woman—like a beautiful lady—that Rodriguez couldn't help but swoon a little under her attention. Internally he felt his paternal and copulatory instincts warring with each other.

When they were settled inside of his small metal office cubicle, Rodriguez began the session by gently talking towards number 8, moving his mouth slowly so that she could observe the way his lips moved around his words. Months would pass before she would be ready to start imitating him, but talking to infants was healthy for their development. He also wanted to make sure that number 8 would imprint on him and no one else. Patiently, Rodriguez introduced himself and then recited the CCA anthem in stilted, simple stanzas. He showed her the framed picture of the Great Chairman, Marcus Weyland, that he kept on his desk, declaring that he was wisest leader in existence.

Number 8 watched him intently, her dark eyes sharpening their focus. Occasionally, she opened and closed her mouth experimentally, lips twitching in tune with Rodriguez's words.

The whitecoat studied number 8's face as she studied his language, marveling at what the geneticists' competence had created. Her features were symmetrical and statuesque, the sublime line of her profile carved out by prominent cheekbones and an angular jawline. Severe and stony, but still feminine. And her body... Rodriguez thought, unable to keep his eyes from wandering. She was somehow lanky and curvacious at the same time. She lacked muscle tone, but that wasn't a flaw by Rodriguez's standards—she was slender and willowy and perfect. And tall , he realized. She would be taller than me if she were standing. Rodriguez didn't like that, it was emasculating. His baby should be shorter than him. At least it would be a while before he would see her on her feet.

Something changed in number 8's demeanor, as if she noticed the way that Rodriguez was looking at her. She leered at him, hostile, and curled her clawed fingers into fists on the armrests of her wheelchair.

Rodriguez felt slighted at first, but then he reminded himself that number 8 had no understanding of her situation. Babies made all sorts of arbitrary facial expressions, it was part of their learning. She was just trying out her angry face for the first time.

While he knew that mentally number 8 was brand new, Rodriguez found himself wondering, as he continued to study her freely, what age she was physically. The whitecoat's research on Ellen Ripley suggested that she'd been in her mid thirties when she died, but her clone could be 25. She'd had no chance to develop wrinkles, growing up inside of an incubation chamber. Her skin was pristine and free from blemishes—except for that ragged, white scar on her chest. Rodriguez winced—the scar was his fault, he shouldn't have rushed through the repairs.

Number 8 grew angrier as Rodriguez's eyes refused to leave her body. She rose up in her chair, making herself bigger, and hissed menacingly. Every bit of strength that she had was blazing in her eyes. Rodriguez might have felt threatened if he weren't aware of how feeble her body was.

“What's the matter, baby?” Rodriguez cooed gently. He picked up a dusty, potted synthetic plant from the corner of his desk and waved it around for the hybrid woman. “Here, look at the happy flower. See the happy flower?”

Number 8 glowered at him a little longer, ineffectually. Then she leaned against the back of her wheelchair and tilted her head away testily.

Was that an eye roll? Rodriguez thought, appalled. No, of course not, he reasoned. It was just an involuntary eye spasm.

“Back on track,” Rodriguez muttered to himself. “Back to the lesson.” He began reciting the national anthem again, keeping his eyes on number 8's face this time to avoid distractions.

The hybrid's anger cooled as her attention returned to Rodriguez's language coaching. She badly wanted to learn, it seemed. Her focus was unwavering. But then, halfway through the fourth recitation of the anthem, Ripley's sharp eyes glossed over and her face became creased with anxiety. She had the look of someone who was deep in thought, wrestling with a torrent of emotions.

Kids make the cutest faces, thought Rodriguez. “What're you thinkin' about, baby?” Rodriguez teased. “Are you getting bored with lessons?”

Number 8 looked away cooly and stared down at her own hand, turning it over, flexing and unflexing her razor-sharp finger tips. She seemed to be getting upset, regarding her own claws with confusion and disgust.

“Don't worry about the claws honey.” Rodriguez soothed. “They're not your fault. We should have been more accurate with the DNA extraction but we were in a time crunch.” Immediately, number 8 looked up straight into Rodriguez's eyes. Her pupils darted around desperately, questioning him.

Rodriguez was tongue tied. The newborn acted as if she could actually understand what he was saying to her. He swallowed nervously. “Uh, but I think you’re perfectly lovely even with the mutations. They hardly show through the skin, you know?”

Number 8's piercing stare intensified, she looked scared and perplexed, her breathing halted as if she were in a state of shock.

“Um...” Rodriguez choked. He had no idea what to do in this situation.

The woman took a breath and opened her mouth, as if she wanted to speak, but then she closed it again uncertainly. She started making a noise, the same hissing sound that she'd made when she was spooked by the Queen. It was a drawn-out “s-s-s-s-s-s-s” noise that came from deep in her throat instead of the tip of her tongue. It wasn't a noise that any human being could make, and for a moment Rodriguez was worried that number 8 was destined to be mute, saddled with a brain that was more animal-like than he'd anticipated. But then he saw that she was moving her lips and tongue, trying to sculpt the hisses into words.

“S-s-s-h-h-haaah,” number 8 breathed.

“You're trying to speak?” Rodriguez whispered incredulously.

“H-h-h-who-at.”

“Are—are you saying 'what?' Is that it?”

“Hhh-what...did...hhhhh.”

“Here, speak with your tongue, like this.” Rodriguez spoke to number 8 indulgently slowly, “L-i-i-ike thi-i-i-s.”

“Hhh-what...did...hee-ooh...” Number 8 appeared to be getting frustrated, her face turning pink with the effort of forcing herself to speak.

“It's alright take your time.” Rodriguez cooed, feeling numb. His day had become extremely surreal.

“Hh-what did hh-you tt-hoo?” The tone of her voice slid up at the end, making it a clear question.

“What did you do?” Rodriguez repeated. He ran through the lyrics of the Company Anthem in his mind, trying to figure out which phrase she had picked up on.

“Hh-what did you do to m-hee?” The hybrids eyes were glossy and wild, watching Rodriguez with growing anger.

“I saved you,” Rodriguez said gently, not sure why he was answering the question. “I saved your life. I gave you life. They were going to throw you out but I saved you.”

Number 8 held her hands out in front of her, showing Rodriguez her curving black claws. “H-h-h-h-how?” She demanded.

Rodriguez's mind was driving into a wall. He was being spoken to intelligently by someone who was born 12 hours ago and he had the suspicion that he was dreaming. He stared at number 8 silently, aware of her wet acid eyes burning into his.

“H-h-h-h-how?” she repeated anxiously, aggressively.

“You were cloned from a very old blood sample,” Rodriguez said shyly, again surprised to hear himself answering her. “You and the Alien Queen. It was like splitting hairs, growing two separate organisms from the same blood sample. The split wasn't perfect...as I guess you can tell.”

Number 8's anger boiled dry, leaving behind mournful desolation. Her eyes were wide and watery. “Th-th-e-alien?” she whispered.

Rodriguez felt a small lump form in his throat as he regarded number 8 as a self-aware being for the first time. “What, uh, what are you feeling right now?” He whimpered nervously. He glanced down at his own square, stumpy, clawless fingers. “How does it feel to—to have foreign DNA in you?”

At this, number 8 looked away from Rodriguez, the spotlight of her stare settling on a coffee-stained patch of desk next to the Chairman's framed photo. She was clearly thinking hard about something, her eyes fading out of focus again.

“Sorry, that was a dumb question,” Rodriguez breathed sheepishly, afraid that he'd killed the conversation. “I mean, you've never known anything else, how can you answer that?” he smacked himself on the forehead jokingly. “Stupid, heh.”

Number 8 closed her eyelids with sad slowness. She inhaled and exhaled as if calming herself, her breath shaking. She whispered something with the exhale, something barely audible. “Mm s-s-still h-r-r-r”

“What?” Rodriguez cooed cautiously.

“I'm still her-r-r-r.” When number 8's eyes opened they were close to overflowing.

“Still who?” Rodriguez whimpered. “Number 8, you're not anybody. You're an infant. You were pulled from the glass womb yesterday morning.”

The hybrid shook her head slowly. “I'm s-still me.” It sounded like an affirmation. She was speaking to herself, hoping that what she was saying was true.

“Who? Who do you think you are, exactly?” Rodriguez demanded. He felt that his control over his daughter was slipping through his fingers and he lashed out in anger. “Do you think you're Ellen Ripley just because you have her DNA?” He fumed. “That woman died 200 years ago. She was a terrorist and she died because she defied the Company. No. No you're not her, honey. You're my child and you're a good Company lady.”

Number 8 narrowed her eyes, causing droplets to bead on her eyelashes. “Two h-h-hundred?” She whispered.

“Yes,” Rodriguez nodded, proud to be instilling her with some reason. “Yes, Ripley is long dead. Long dead.”

Number 8's head rolled back in anguish. A stripe of water swam down from her right eye and then another from her left. She submitted to the crying slowly and with stoicism, tensing her muscles and curling into herself in order to shut Rodriguez out from the experience.

Her quiet sobs were so uninfant like, so mournful that it twisted Rodriguez's gut with unease. To him, it seemed as though someone had stolen his brand new daughter away from him, raised her into adulthood within a few minutes and transformed her into a stranger. Feeling cheated and rejected, Rodriguez tried to salvage the situation. Maybe he could still be her parent if he was kind and caring enough.

“Hey,” he cooed gently. “Don't cry, baby.” He placed his ham hock hand over the woman's slender wrist only to feel her jerk her arm away, her muscles performing better than he'd ever seen them. Rodriguez felt his heart splinter. “It's okay, don't be afraid of me. I'm your guardian. I'm here to take care of you and to teach you.”

Number 8 placed a dainty, clawed hand over her eyes and moaned in a mixture of sorrow and frustration.

“You should be happy,” the man told her. “You're in a good place here. You should be grateful that I spared your life. You're very privileged to have me taking care of you.”

The hybrid ignored him. She kept crying into her hand, her teeth bared like that of an anguished lab animal.

Then there was a knock on the outside of Rodriguez's cubicle. Without waiting to be let in, Cross strolled into the office. He was slimmer, taller and darker skinned than Rodriguez, and his eyes were sharp and alert, despite the fact that they were perpetually sunken into their sockets from exhaustion. He was suave, mild mannered and very socially competent, all of which were attributes that made him a special favorite of Mr.Dice—something that Rodriguez had always resented him for. And he was rich, for a whitecoat. Cross had made a small fortune off of his previous job as a bio-engineer, when he'd pioneered the development of a breed of genetically modified police dog.

The trim whitecoat stopped short when he saw number 8 sitting in her wheelchair. “You brought the hybrid into your office with you?” He raised a sparse eyebrow at Rodriguez.

“It's her lesson time,” he squeaked. “I'm teaching her to be a lady.”

“You brought her here without any restraints?” Cross sounded mildly incredulous. “She has acid for blood. She could be dangerous.”

“She's just a baby!” Rodriguez said, defensive. “She can't even walk.”

Cross pursed his thin lips. “Hm. Anyway, I need to talk with you.” He folded his arms across his chest smugly. “I hear that I am generously choosing to fund the care and keeping of your 'adopted child.'”

Rodriguez stared at him, his tongue thick. “Uh, co-fund. Would you...please?”

Cross sighed hastily. His eyes slid over towards the quietly weeping woman in the wheelchair. He winced and looked away as if he found the sight painful. “She does look horribly human doesn't she?”

Rodriguez felt hopeful—Cross was a charitable person, when pushed. “Yes, a beautiful human woman. Can you believe that Mr. Dice was so cruel as to want to throw her out?”

The wealthy whitecoat took a second look at number 8. She was staring back at him now with puffy red eyes, her tears beginning to dry. Cross sighed again—slowly and deeply this time—and kept his gaze on the hybrid as he spoke to Rodriguez. “No, no I think it was you who did the cruel thing, Rodriguez. You can't raise a woman in a cage. And even if you gave her a normal life she'd never be accepted by society. She's not meant to be alive.”

The hybrid curled her upper lip into a snarl, her eyes shining defiantly. “Yes-s-s-I-am.”

Cross' jaw dropped open. “She can speak?” He whirled around to look at Rodriguez who was staring at him wide-eyed.

The pudgy man shrugged awkwardly. “She can. I don't understand it either. It's as if she has memories from a past life.”

A small smile curled Cross's lips as he turned back to the hybrid. “Fascinating,” he whispered. A moment ago there had been a wash of human sympathy in the tall man's eyes, but now he was viewing the woman as an experiment, as a tantalizing neurobiological mystery. “A newborn with memories...it must have something to do with the Alien DNA. Well, this certainly warrants the proper funding. Imagine what she could teach us about the developing mind.”

“But you can't tell anyone else about her memories!” Rodriguez blurted out. “She has to be our project and no one else's. I don't want a whole crowd of whitecoats to swarm her.”

“How do you expect me to craft a brain atlas by myself? The other neurobiologists have to know, at least.”

Rodriguez screwed his face up. “But they'll tell the zoologists and the zoologists will tell their interns and then it will spread all the way up to the gun people on the fifth floor,” he whined.

“And you can still have your private lessons with her,” Cross reassured him, suppressing his irritation. “Trust me, no one else is going to want to take unpaid time to teach her english.”

“That's because they view her as a lab animal and not a lady,” Rodriguez grumbled. “The other whitecoats don't know how to treat her.”

“My, you've latched onto her quickly haven't you? You know, we may be paying for her care but she's still the property of Mr. Dice. All of the Auriga's employees have a right to perform any experiments they want on her.”

The hybrid angrily hissed some words, but Cross didn't bother to try and discern what they were.

Rodriguez made a sour face at Cross.

The tall, slim whitecoat rolled his eyes. “Just be thankful that I'm agreeing to fund her.” He headed towards the door. Before he was out of the cubicle he halted and turned around. “And seriously, put some handcuffs on the woman while you have her in here. I had an underling at my last job who adopted the runt of a mod dog litter as a pet. He was as convinced as you are that the creature was harmless—the dogs are toothless you know, before the bio-metal implants grow through their gums. Well in the end, the pet cost the underling his left arm and a good chunk of his viscera. He was driven into debt from the cost of the synthetic replacement parts.”

Rodriguez stared, looking confused and disgusted.

“My point is that we have cages on this ship for a reason. Never place your trust in a dangerous animal.”

“Number 8 is not an animal,” Rodriguez stated indignantly.

Cross flicked his eyes back towards the glaring woman in the wheelchair. “We'll see,” he sighed, sounding almost wistful. “The brain scans will tell all.” Then he slipped out of the office, polished shoes clacking down the hallway.

Rodriguez sat down at his chair in front of number 8. “You're not crying anymore,” he warbled. “Are you feeling better?”

Number 8's face was flushed, her brow lowered in anger. She stared at Rodriguez bitterly but she didn't say anything.

“It's okay, we'll still have lots of time together. I'll make sure those other men don't treat you badly.”

“Les-ss-on,” number 8 hissed, sounding impatient.

Rodriguez felt lighter. “Oh, you still want to continue the lesson?” he chirped. “Of course. But wait—what do you say when you ask for something?”

The hybrid stared at him blankly.

“Pl-ease,” Rodriguez said, over enunciating. “Please and thank you.”

One of the woman's claws twitched, tapping against the wheelchair armrest irritably. “S-s-speech-sh-le-s-s-s-on. Hh-Ple-hease.”

Number 8 focused on Rodriguez's dictation with determination. For more than two hours she repeated the vowel sounds and vocabulary words that he modeled for her, her annunciation getting sharper every minute.

Rodriguez's chest swelled with pride. This is just fine , he thought. She skipped through the infant years, but that's okay. This is just like adopting a two-year-old. She's still my baby.

By the end of the second hour, number 8 was beginning to nod off. Her head drooped towards her chest and her clear eyes hazed over.

Rodriguez found it very cute that despite her unsettlingly mature disposition, the hybrid was still getting drowsy just like a normal infant.

Number 8 leered at Rodriguez suspiciously through ever-narrowing eyelids, struggling to keep herself awake. And then she finally hit a wall, her perfectly straight frame collapsing into an exhausted heap.

Tenderly, Rodriguez took hold of her wheelchair and wheeled her out of his office, carefully navigating around the rubber mat on the floor so as not to jerk her awake with bumps. He swelled with fatherly pride as he strolled with number 8 through the hallways, once again ignoring the strange looks that his colleagues were giving him.

When he passed the Queen's cage, he noticed that the crowd of whitecoats—as well as the Alien—were missing. A wash of white frost tinted the inside of the observation window.

They must have used cryogenic gas to immobilize the Queen for the x-rays, Rodriguez thought . I guess tranquilizers weren't effective. I could have been with them during the first anatomy exam. He felt a mild pang of regret—he'd lost his opportunity to examine a brand new organism. But then he looked back down at his baby, sleeping quietly, and he felt glad that he'd chosen to spend his time with her.

As Rodriguez lay number 8 down on the floor of her cage, he noticed the way that her white hospital gown pooled around her just like an angel's halo. She looked so delicate and innocent—it made Rogriguez' eyes water.

He shut the three-foot thick metal gate as quietly as he could and left the woman in isolation.

Chapter Text

It was excruciatingly painful for Ripley, reclaiming her body. Her leg muscles trembled with every step as she staggered along the rough rubber surface of the treadmill. She was learning to walk on the conveyor belt of a grenade-manufacturing machine, a horde of whitecoats and pink faces surrounding her. She had electrodes stuck to the sweaty skin of her forehead and additional sensors clamped around her wrists, underneath the sleeves of her new gray jumpsuit.

She could feel that pieces of herself were missing—vital memories were floating around her mind in a mist. She knew that they were there, but she couldn't access them—not yet.

The first memories to come back to her were the painful ones; the big events in her life that shaped her the person that she was. She remembered being welcomed into her dad's half of the family after her mother—the woman who had raised her and loved her for thirteen years—decided to disown her.               

At first, Ripley had isolated herself from her new family members. She'd shrugged off her dad's attempts at affection, avoided eye contact with her younger step-siblings. If forced to explain the motive behind her coldness, Ripley would have claimed that her step family's friendliness was disingenuous, that they didn't really care how she felt, one way or another. The truth was that Ripley was deflecting their affection out of self-loathing; she didn't feel that she deserved a supportive family. As much as Ripley had pleaded with her mother in their last months together—as hard as she'd tried to defend her heterosexuality—Ripley couldn't help but blame herself for her mother's rejection. She thought that she must have done something to deserve her abandonment.

++++

 

The muscle growth felt horrible—Ripley's legs were throbbing, cramps spasming all over her calves. She clenched her teeth and kept moving, step after step, sweat dripping into her stinging eyes.

++++

 

For the first 13 years of her life, Ripley maintained a warped perception of her father; her mother painted him as a lazy alcoholic. She convinced Ripley of her ex husband's incompetence just as effectively as she convinced the court—she fought off every one of the man's attempts at gaining shared custody of their daughter. Ripley was given the chance to know her father only after her mother doubled back on her righteous claim of ownership, and shoved her coveted daughter out onto the sidewalk.

Ripley's dad was laid back, but not lazy. He was scruffy, with an embarrassing sense of humor and a thoughtful slowness to his speech. By degrees, Ripley grew to like him. He provided a constant, undemanding warmth that slowly thawed Ripley from her frozen state.

His kids were colorful—each of Ripley's four step siblings somehow sported completely distinct interests. The brood contained a future accountant, a wanna-be bully, a die-hard piano player and a video cassette addict. The only thing that they had in common was their admiration for Ripley. The oldest of them was four years younger than she was, and they all latched onto her as a role model. Somewhere down the road, Ripley suddenly realized that she'd made herself into the mother of the family. Her help was certainly needed once her dad married his third wife, Janet, who was purportedly allergic to children.

+++++

 

Ripley's legs rebelled. The muscles clenched up, forcing her to stop mid-stride. The treadmill carried her slowly backwards, pressuring her. Ripley slowed her breath and tried to relax—she felt as though her muscles were attempting to swallow her bones. In a few seconds she was walking again, speeding up steadily.

+++++

 

The first thing that Ripley learned about her sexuality was its home breaking potential. Her mother first accused her of being a homosexual when she'd barely started puberty, before she was ready to start figuring things out for herself. Ripley didn't fully understand what homosexuality was, she only knew that it was unspeakably perverted, and that it was somehow ingrained in her own mannerisms and habits. It was synonymous with guilt and isolation, and it made mothers into strangers.

Ripley never learned what tipped her mother off initially—the woman knew it long before Ripley knew it—but from the moment that the idea first jumped into her head, Ripley's mother viewed everything that her daughter did as a symptom of degeneracy.

Mother didn't like the fact that Ripley was taller than the boys in her class. She critiqued Ripley's aloofness in social situations, threw a fit when Ripley wore the same outfit twice in a week. Ripley wished that she'd shown some more backbone in those last months spent with her mother. She missed her opportunity to release the “fuck you!” that would build up in her lungs in subsequent years. But Ripley had been scared by the prospect of losing her mother's love. She tried hard to change, but it didn't make a difference.

For too long after her abandonment, Ripley carried her mother's toxic influence with her. She sported a long-distance umbilical chord—one that reversed healthy growth instead of fostering it. Only after years of submitting to obligatory self-loathing did Ripley develop the courage to bite the cord and tear herself free.

 

+++++

 

Ripley’s legs were swinging faster now, her stride growing steadier. Droplets of sweat fell onto the rubber conveyor belt treads beneath her feet.

 

+++++

Building up confidence was a meticulous and wildly difficult process. There was no road map for it; all that Ripley had was a mortal drive, a suspicion that self-loathing would eventually spell her end. It helped for Ripley to think of her brain as an electrical circuit—she had to hit the switches to stop her thoughts from jumping towards self-blame, redirect the flow towards a more forgiving part of her psyche. Her sparse collection of friends helped with the process, and so did her step family.

Like an evolving invertebrate, Ripley developed a strong backbone. Every time she pushed herself to act confident, she gained a bit more bone around her nerves. By her late teens she could call herself proud; she took pleasure in carrying an air of intimidation. Self-esteem gave her hold of her own reins--she could lead her personality in any direction she wanted or needed to.

 

+++++

 

To her own amazement, Ripley accelerated into a jog, sending the whitecoats scrambling to increase the speed of the conveyor belt. Her pulse monitor was beeping rapidly, her body overheating, yet Ripley felt herself speeding up and gaining power instead of succumbing to exhaustion.

 

+++++

 

Ripley could win her internal wars, but she was never safe from conflict. Wherever Ripley worked, whatever ground base or spaceship she was stuck in, she was never, ever, without the pleasant company of one or more condescending assholes. There was a certain type of man that populated every sect of spaceworker life, and he took very badly to Ripley's ego-damaging existence. He made it his duty to spit slander at her from every angle, casually calling her a bitch and a crone and an entitled princess. Once word got out on the ship that Ripley was a bitch who slept with bitches, the slander would worsen exponentially.

Frustratingly, the flying pigs were largely all that Ripley could remember about her career as a flight officer. Clouds of mathematical knowledge and piloting experience were floating in some yet undeveloped part of her mind. All that Ripley had now were smirking mouths, breathing tobacco and halitosis as they whispered aggressive, flirtatious come-ons in her ear.

But Ripley had to be rational. Perhaps her selective memory made sense from an evolutionary standpoint. A newborn animal learns to recognize its enemies—predators, poisons, poachers—before it learns to hunt for itself. Ripley was born with an instinctive aversion to male bigots. An apt adaptation indeed.

+++++

 

In a burst of angry energy, Ripley's jog ignited into a sprint. Her whole body ached; painful shockwaves shot up her leg bones with every pounding step—but the pain spurred her onwards. Around her, the whitecoats muttered words of amazement. The riveted texture of the conveyor belt raced into a blur underneath of Ripley's rubber shoes.

And then without warning, one of her knees buckled and she began to fall. She leaned sideways and toppled off of the treadmill before she could be thrown by the force of the racing conveyor belt. Hitting the ground sent a jolt through her body—it worsened all of her aches.

She hissed reflexively as she felt the whitecoats' hands all over her, helping her up. One of them pulled up the leg of her jumpsuit up to check on her knee, which was bruised inflamed. On reflex, Ripley shoved the men away—and was shocked by the amount of strength in her arms. The whitecoats staggered backwards, nearly falling over. They gawked at her, confused, and then Ripley felt the sting of a needle enter her neck, watched her vision fill with blackness.

She woke up, head pounding, on the floor of her cell. She'd been changed into a clean jumpsuit; a blue one, with the CCA silver wings logo embroidered on the collar.

Sitting up, she realized that she could support her weight on one arm. Experimentally, she did a push-up, and she found that her arms—which had felt completely slack and weak that same morning—were now fully functioning and strong. Muscle tone was building around her bones rapidly, her body changing impossibly fast. Ripley stretched, wincing as she worked the kinks out of her new muscles.

She breathed deeply, her lungs feeling healthier than she remembered—she had never smoked in this body. She felt calm and clear-headed for the first time since her rebirth. Progress was being made—she was regaining control of her life in stages. She had her body back, now she just needed to work on organizing her frayed and confused mind.

The blueprints for the person that she used to be were there in her brain, contained in her expanding memories. With practice, with repetition, she would become that woman again. She would lift Ellen Ripley from her 200-year grave.

Chapter Text

“You can't make her run like that!” Rodriguez shrieked, witnessing for the first time what his coworkers were doing to his baby during her physical exams. “She's fragile, she'll hurt herself!”

Olson was staring at number 8 as she jogged on her treadmill. Grudgingly, he looked away long enough to roll his eyes at Rodriguez. “She's not fragile, she just needed some exercise,” he said, as if it were obvious. “Her motor functions are actually completely developed, but you can't expect an organism that grew up floating in liquid to be able to walk around right away. It's a good thing we took her away from you. You'd probably still be parading her around in a wheelchair, treating her like an infant.”

Rodriguez flushed with anger.

“I have to say though,” Olson grinned suggestively. “I can see why you wanted her all for yourself. She's is a remarkable specimen...in many ways. In terms of her psychical abilities...well, she just keeps getting faster every day. As is, she could keep pace with a gold-winning athlete—the girl runs like a man. And she's strong too. Her record so far is 350 pounds worth of bullet casings—she can lift the crate above her head.”

“What?” Rodriguez's jaw dropped open. “You've been letting her play with heavy objects? She could be crushed!”

Olson snickered at the pudgy man's panicked shrieking. “The hybrid has never injured herself,” he assured him with sarcastic gentleness. “And in any case she actually heals much faster than a normal human. Cuts, burns and bruises all disappear in a couple of hours.”

Rodriguez stared, horrified. “And how do you know that?”

“It was a safe experiment,” he condescended jokingly. “No lasting property damage. Kept her in pristine shape just for you.”

Rodriguez opened his mouth, searching for the right furious words to spit and Olson.

“It's fine,” Olson dropped the snarky tone. “It was a one-time trial...probably. I didn't like doing it either—she does look a lot like a normal woman. Plus I know she would have mangled me if it wasn't for those handcuffs.”

“Don't ever hurt her again,” Rodriguez threatened, making his voice as low as he could.

Olson put his hands up. “I wont, I wont. I promise.” Then he smiled eagerly. “Oh, but while you’re here you should see the x-ray scans we took of her. You won’t believe what's inside of your little angel.” Olson turned to his monitor and brought up a skinless, translucent model of number 8 that displayed all of her internal anatomy at once.

Rodriguez had gotten a disquieting glimpse of number 8's strange bone structure when he'd opened her up to remove the Queen, but the full scope of her deformity was deeply disturbing to witness.

Number 8 was human in the flesh and skin, but inside of her was a skeleton as black as space, grinning with porcelain-white teeth. Mechanical-looking black tubes wound around her spine and all through the inside of her ribcage. The claws that skewered the tips of her fingers grew right from the fabric of her bones. Each of the black knives attached at the distal phalanx and pushed cleanly through the skin.

Rodriguez felt sick to his stomach. Olson peaked his eyebrows at him. “See?” he said. “Nothing fragile about her. Those bones only weigh as much as a human's, but they're extremely hard. They're made from the same matter as the Queen's exoskeleton, in case you couldn't tell.”

Rodriguez hit a button on the dashboard next to the monitor and closed the image. He returned his gaze to the woman running steadily on the factory conveyor belt, guards with tranquilizer guns standing around her. Rodriguez had never seen a female looking so active before. Number 8 wasn't holding back or subduing herself, she was throwing her body into every step, sweating and breathing powerfully. She looked completely different from the delicate, immobile woman that he rescued a week ago. It made Rodriguez's heart ache with loss. Every time that he saw number 8 she looked more and more like a stranger.  .  

Adding to the pain was the fact that this was Rodriguez's second child lost to other men . Rodriguez's only son, Marcus, grew up without him, choosing the rough-edged marine as his idol. Rodriguez had had such a nice life planned out for him--but now the little boy was an unfamiliar adult. Rodriguez couldn’t even bring himself to visit Marcus anymore--his voice and mannerisms were so like that of the man who stole his father’s wife.

Rodriguez was not a pushover. He refused to lose the battle a second time.  

“Stop it!” He yelled suddenly. He elbowed his way past the guards—who watched him with apathetic amusement—and switched off the conveyor belt.

Ripley slowed to a stop, her lithe body straightening into a statuesque pose, and leered down at Rodriguez from atop the machine.

“Stop changing her!” Rodriguez was close to tears. “A week ago, all of you were content to leave her on the operating table to die, and now you only care about her because she's an experiment. She is not a lab animal. She is my daughter and I love her.”

The six other whitecoats sat at their computers and watched him, some of them sighing in annoyance, some stifling their laughter.

“I know that none of you take me seriously,” now Rodriguez was tearing up, his shrill voice cracking. “You all hate me for one reason or another. But this isn't about me, it's about what's best for her.”

“We don't hate you,” Olson sighed. “You're just a bit much sometimes. Like right now, for instance.”

A woman's voice sounded from above rodriguez—it was deep and melodic and roughened with frustration. “Rodriguez, if my opinion means anything to you, then you should know that I actually prefer exercising in here to being locked up in the cage.”

Rodriguez looked up at number 8 and blinked. “But...that's just because they've conditioned you to think that way. It's not what's best for you.”

“What would be best for me is autonomy,” number 8 said icily. “And a way off of this goddamn ship.”

Rodriguez whirled around to face the other whitecoats. “Who taught her to talk that way? I never taught her to swear!”

“Not us,” Olson said. “We don't talk to her. Ever. She's an old soul, not a blank canvas. I thought we already established that.”

“No,” Rodriguez whined. “I don't like this.” He looked back up at number 8. “I think we should go back to my office for another lesson. You like that better than the cage, right?”

“Marginally,” number 8 grumbled.

Rodriguez sniffed and addressed the whitecoats. “You've had her for more than three hours already, you must be done with the cardio experiment.”

“Yeah, we're done,” said Olson. “But we were letting her run for a while. She seems to like it. And, you know, none of us have any complaints about supervising her.”

“If you're finished, then you should be getting some work done, shouldn't you?” Rodriguez said, slathering on the condescension. “Come on honey, we're going to my office now.” Rodriguez held his hand out to number 8, to help her off of the treadmill, and then lowered it awkwardly when she leapt down by herself.

“Take the handcuffs,” Olson said. He leaned back in his chair and gestured with his foot towards the heavy metal cylinders sitting on his desk. “By the look on her face, I'd say that she would throw you through a wall if she thought she could get away with it.”

The other whitecoats chuckled, and number 8 smiled to herself, slyly.

Rodriguez plucked the handcuffs from Olson's desk indignantly and brought them over to the hybrid. “These are just standard procedure,” he told her reassuringly. “They're not because I don't trust you.”

“Mm hm,” number 8 mumbled.

The handcuffs were a pair of fused steel gauntlets. They covered Ripley's forearms from the wrists up to the elbows, forcing her arms out in front of her body and cramming her hands into a jumble of fingers and claws. Rodriguez had gotten no say in the handcuffs design—if it were up to him he would have gone for something more decorative, with inset jewels, or lace maybe. For extra security, the cuffs were coated in an acid-resistant chemical—an expensive solution that needed to be painted on fresh every week.

The man and the hybrid walked up to Rodriguez's office in silence. Rodriguez was made uncomfortable by number 8's height, by the dauntless, feminine power in her stride. Even with her arms bound she glided along with threatening confidence—Rodriguez looked prissy and clumsy compared to her, which was humiliating.

“Number 8. Please try to walk with a little more reserve. A woman should seem unimposing.”

Without moving her head, the woman looked down at Rodriguez from the corner of her eyes, as if he were an insect. She didn't say anything.

“I don't like it when you look at me like that,” Rodriguez frowned.

“I don't like it when you look at me either. You have control over every aspect of my life. I think I should at least be able to own my own walk.”

Rodriguez's face puckered. “I sacrificed a lot to become your parent, you know. I think that I at least deserve a little respect from my daughter.” he squeaked indignantly.

“Your daughter? Is that really how you think of me? The way you act, I thought you were trying to grow me into your perfect girlfriend.”

Rodriguez flushed red. “I can see that those whitecoats have been polluting your mind. They want you to hate me. They're trying to destroy our pure relationship because they're jealous.”

“Yes, the other men have instructed me to think for myself. Just to spite you.”

“Well, don't listen to anything else that they tell you. You're still young, I think that I can change you back.” Rodriguez breathed deeply, calming himself down. “With love and care, I can still change you back.”

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++



Rodriguez didn't actually have a lesson planned—he had taken number 8 to his office in an attempt to hide her from the other men. The session ended up as a kind of one-sided interrogation about the workings of the Company. Rodriguez found himself answering all of the ravenous questions that number 8 threw at him, perhaps explaining too much. The hybrid wanted to know about the CCA's history, and about the other countries beyond the Company's border.

Some of her questions were tricky—she asked if slave labor in factories was the key to CCA's ability to maintain low prices on their products. She asked how CCA could claim that it didn't tax its citizens when it was illegal to buy any product that didn't send money to the Company. Her questions made it hard for Rodriguez to paint the Company in a favorable color, so instead of providing straight answers, he resorted to listing generic reasons that the CCA was a great nation. Still, she read into his answers and found ways to make everything more complicated than it needed to be.

Talking to her about foreign nations was much easier. Spewing soft slander about the greedy Chinese brother corporations and the idiotic Russian imperialists came naturally to Rodriguez. Though why number 8 wanted to know if the Union accepted refugees, and whether or not they were tolerant of sexual deviants, Rodriguez couldn't imagine.

When the lesson was finished, Rodriguez remembered that he had something to give to number 8, something that he'd found stuck in a grate on the 9th floor. It was a violet corsage made with synthetic flowers, something that was probably gifted to a young woman on the eve of a dance in the Auriga's ballroom, some 220 years ago.

“Number 8, I have a surprise for you,” Rodriguez chirped. “Close your eyes.”

Number 8 kept her eyes open, glaring at Rodriguez suspiciously.

“Um...okay. Well, here it is.” He pulled the corsage from his desk drawer and stretched the wrist band to fit over number 8's bulky handcuffs.

Ripley looked down at the dainty flower blooming from her handcuffs and grinned crookedly, as if she were suppressing a laugh.

“You do like it, don't you?” Rodriguez asked eagerly.

“Oh it’s lovely. It matches the steel perfectly.”

Rodriguez beamed. “I knew it'd be perfect for you. You see, I'm so much nicer than those other men.”

“Yes, those other men don't give me flowers for my shackles do they?”

“I have so much hope for you,” Rodriguez said dreamily. “I think that Cross and Mr.Dice are wrong. You do have a place in society. And someday I'm going to introduce you to the world as a reborn Company lady.”

“Mm. I'd be a good propaganda figure, I suppose. An underdog story.”

“An underdog, yes,” Rodriguez sighed, elated that number 8 understood. “You'll have to struggle in order to become socially acceptable, but people will identify with that struggle.” Rodriguez shook with excitement, captivated by the story. “You'll be an inspiration to everyone who has difficulty fitting in. You'll show them that there's hope.”

Number 8 laughed suddenly, bitterly, showing her teeth in what looked more like a snarl than a grin. “Yes,” she hissed, addressing an imaginary audience. “You too can become the perfect lady. Just surrender all hope of agency and self-reliance. And don't forget to buy Company brand cosmetics.”

“Heh,” Rodriguez wheezed, nervously. He liked the content of what number 8 was saying, but he was a bit frightened by the tone. “That was good. You could be on a commercial.” He swallowed. “But maybe just close your lips when you smile.”

“My walk is my own,” Ripley said coolly, eyeing the claws peeking from the ends of her decorated handcuffs. “My smile is my own.”

“Don't start with that again,” Rodriguez threatened, feeling more nervous than angry.

“I'm wondering, do people often tell you that you should change your mannerisms? Do they tell you to lose the swish, to walk with more power in your step?”

Rodriguez went red-faced. His mouth molded itself into a variety of shapes before he finally spat out his words. “Number 8! I'm taking you back to your cell right now!” He faltered. “No, no I'm not... the guards are. The guards are taking you to your cell, and I'm telling them not to feed you tonight!”

He picked up the PA speaker and called for security, glaring at the hybrid woman as he did so, hoping to catch some glimpse of regret in her eyes.

She watched him back with a stony, hateful expression, her posture straight and rigid in her chair. If she regretted anything, she wasn't going to let him know about it.

The woman's struggle would be long and hard, Rodriguez could see that. Her insistence on being independent was threatening her chance of ever becoming a free citizen. She would never make it out of her cage if she kept clamoring for autonomy.

Rodriguez had his work cut out for him. He thought that raising a daughter would be easier than raising a son, he thought that she would be better behaved. But what she’d said to him just now was so painfully similar to what he used to hear from Marcus.

It seemed that everyone in Rodriguez's life existed just to mock him. He didn’t know what he ever did to deserve it--he always considered the feelings of others. He gave Number 8 a gift of flowers and she repaid him with an insult. Nothing in his life was fair.

At least number 8 wasn't going anywhere. She would always be on the same ship with him, no matter how distant she sometimes felt. Thinking like that, it seemed inevitable that number 8 would come around eventually. Rodriguez felt a little better, his chest loosening. Like a crop planted inside of a lead pipe, number 8 had only one direction to grow in; she just needed time to find the sunny little opening where she belonged.

Chapter Text

Ripley lay face-up on the cold metal floor of her cell. Her back was sore from laying on the hard surface, but she was barely aware of the pain. She was deep in thought, removed from her body.

As the weeks trudged by in a haze of florescent lights, Ripley found herself becoming more and more withdrawn. Every uncomfortable test performed upon her by the whitecoats drove her deeper inside of herself; she hid in her mind in order to distance herself from the reality of her situation. Disconnected from the world, Ripley spent her time living in the past, carefully expanding her island of memories by pushing out into the surrounding mist.

She remembered her daughter, Amanda—her pride and joy. She remembered her apartment building in Chicago, built on the dry sands of what used to be lake Michigan. In winter it would snow, and Ripley and Amanda would stand on their fire escape and watch the metal gargoyles on the building next door get coated in white powder, making them look fluffy and harmless.

Amanda used to be afraid of the gargoyles. She had names for each of them--bloody bat face, bug-eyed old man, killer skull, and the like—and she was convinced that they would fly inside of her room at night. Ripley got very good at comforting her, at soothing her fears, and with pride she watched her daughter slowly grow braver.

By the time she was nine, Amanda was roaring back at the fenced dogs that she passed on her way to school. Sometimes she would even defend younger kids from bullies on the playground, using wit and intimidation to reduce the mean kids to puddles. The girl had a liveliness, and an un-self-aware freedom of spirit that Ripley truly admired.

Caring for Amanda had been the single most gratifying aspect Ripley’s life. Yet so many people, it seemed, took issue with her parenthood—homophobes who thought that she was corrupting the mind of an innocent child, fellow feminists who told her that she was making herself into a maternal-instinct-driven stereotype. Their opinions didn't matter of course, but Ripley couldn't help but feel worn down by their constant assertion that she was wrong. She worried that Amanda would get a whiff their biases, that it would hurt her perception of her happy family.

It seemed to Ripley that her little girl died immediately after the first encounter with the Alien, that she evaporated along with the rest of Ripley’s life on Earth. But the truth was that Amanda lived a full life in the absence of her mother—she attended a tech college, she got married, she grew old and died peacefully of natural causes. When Ripley was awakened from her 57-year sleep, she was shown pictures of Amanda as an old woman. She read her thesis paper from college and watched videos of both her wedding and her funeral. Yet try as she might, Ripley had been unable to make the story of her daughter's life seem real—in her mind Amanda was still a bright-eyed ten-year-old waiting for her mommy to return from space.

The fateful shipping job on the Nostromo had been Ripley's first long-term venture into space since she became pregnant with Amanda. She had switched her focus from piloting to ground control upon deciding that she wanted to start a family (though she kept her flight officer license, hoping to return to flying once Amanda left the nest). Very nearly, Ripley had avoided taking the Nostromo job. She hadn't felt ready to be away from Amanda for 6 months, and she told her bosses as much, repeatedly. It was only when her superiors' incessant begging turned into job-endangering threats that she finally gave in and agreed to go. Her bosses badly needed her to replace the ship's last flight officer, who had been arrested for injecting himself with sleep chamber fluid as a hallucinogenic.

She remembered hugging Amanda goodbye at the terminal, promising to be back in time for her 11th birthday.

Ripley thought that it seemed too simplistic to say that she strived to be the good mom that she never had—but it was true on some level. By lovingly supporting Amanda, she had helped to soothe the sense of hurt that she still carried from her own mother's rejection.

Yet despite all of Ripley's efforts to be the best parent possible, in the end she had unwillingly followed in her mother's footsteps. Whether she wanted to or not, Ripley had abandoned her daughter in her most formative years, left her to claw out a niche for herself in a new family.

Amanda's new family, as Ripley read in Amanda's files, was lead by Ripley's step sister Morgan and her husband. Morgan was a good person, someone that Ripley was close to, and she felt sure that she had given Amanda a good home—but it still felt so fake, imagining Amanda growing up with her. None of it was meant to happen.

Ripley's life—from the moment that she saw that bloody, eyeless face slither its way out of her coworker's chest—had evolved into a surreal nightmare. Every time she woke up from hypersleep she found herself deeper inside of the nightmare, entering the next ring of hell.

Ripley rolled over onto her side and rested her hand on the stretch of floor in front of her eyes. For the hundredth time since her resurrection, she stared in numb disbelief at her long, glossy claws. It just keeps getting worse. The Alien is inside of me—it's a part of me now. Ripley flexed her fingers in a graceful wave and tapped the tips of her knives against the metal. Every time she moved, the grinning black thing inside of her moved with her—it was her dark twin hiding under her skin.

I could go insane in here , Ripley realized. It would be the easier option. Building myself into who I used to be is so exhausting. I could let myself become a caged animal and live for simple pleasures—no more painful memories.

“No,” she said aloud, sounding resolute. “I'm still me.”

Ripley knew that her Alien DNA was tainting her mind as well as her body—the black tubes, the ones she'd seen on her x-ray, wound tightly around her spine and attached at the base of her brain. She had come to understand that her brain was compartmentalized, that it had pink parts and black parts. The higher functions were all human—everything that dealt with personality and emotion were the same as they'd been in her past life—but her brain stem, her reptile brain, had become the home for all of her Alien instincts. It felt to Ripley as if a second personality lived inside of her skull, in the dark basement of her mind.

Only twice in her new life had Ripley’s consciousness slipped down into her brain stem. The first time was a week after she was born, when her mind was still full of fog. She had tried too soon to recall an important memory—she had run out into the mist and fallen into a hole. All that she remembered from her lapse was the sensation of blood pounding, red and angry against her eyelids. When she regained consciousness, she'd found shallow claw marks all over her cell, as if she'd been trying to climb straight up the walls, and there was drool mindlessly dripping from her chin. She had no question as to what she had turned into during her blackout. She spent the following night awake and shaking, afraid that sleep would drag her back into the low and dangerous parts of her mind.

The second time that she slipped was three weeks ago, when the whitecoats hurt her. They burned her—just to see how quickly she could heal—and she lost consciousness immediately, from pain and from terror. When she woke up back in her cell, her wrists and ankles were sore—as if she'd been struggling violently against her restraints. And her tongue was bleeding, probably from snapping her jaw like an animal.

Admittedly, she felt glad that she hadn't been conscious for most of the experiment—it was something that the Alien had to endure, not her. Maybe in that way the beast-brain was useful—it was an alter ego that she could call upon to sponge up the worst of the abuse.

Boots clanged on the floor above Ripley's cell, dragging her away from her thoughts. Looking up, she saw shadows traveling over the grate on the roof of her cage—three men walking briskly into the security room above her.

“You didn't even put a cot in there for her?” Someone said. It sounded like Mr.Dice, a voice that Ripley had only ever heard over loudspeakers. “She has to sleep on the metal?”

Ripley tensed up as she realized that the men were watching her, viewing her image through the small security cam on the ceiling of her cage.

“A cot would offer the possibility of suffocation.” Ripley recognized Cross' voice—smooth, low, and prone to vocal fry. “It's standard procedure to leave a lab animal's cage bare.”

“I'm with you though, sir,” said a familiar, high-pitched, cracking voice. “I hate to see her looking uncomfortable.”

“Mm,” Dice responded tersely, as if he couldn't be bothered to open his mouth to speak to Rodriguez. “Anyway. Memories. How in hell does a newborn clone have memories?”

Ripley heard Rodriguez take a breath to speak, but Dice cut him short.

“No, no. I can't deal with you today. You explain it to me.”

Cross spoke, calmly and intelligently, in Rodriguez's place. “The brain scans that we performed on number 8 were very informative in terms of learning about her hybrid brain chemistry, but they actually told us very little about the origin of her memories. In the end it was our studies of the Queen that solved the mystery for us. You see, we believe that the Xenomorphs pass down survival skills to each new generation—similar to mammals, only instead of teaching its young the Queen embeds the knowledge into their genes. Each Alien is born with a copy of its mother's memories. When a Xenomorph gestates inside of a human, the fetus makes a mental copy of the host's brain so that it can be born with knowledge that is relevant to whatever new environment it find itself in. The vast majority of the host's thoughts—the brain processes that are not immediately useful to survival, such as emotions and language comprehension—are filed away in the Alien's mind and labeled as 'useless.' I assume that eventually those undesirable thoughts would be bred out of the evolution line.” Cross paused and cleared his throat softly. “So this is why the Alien's 'imprinting' is important to understanding why number 8 has memories: it means that a copy of Ellen Ripley's mind was encoded into the Queen's DNA—the same DNA that was spliced into number 8's body.”

There was an awkward pause, nothing but breathing and the thrumming of the ship's engines.

“In other words,” Cross continued patiently. “Number 8 stole back her memories from the Queen. It is the Alien DNA in her that makes her remember being a human. If her DNA were purely human, then she would have been born as a normal clone with an infant mind.”

“So this mutated clone thinks that she's Ellen Ripley?” Dice said.

“Yes, she's a pretty complete copy actually, in both body and mind.”

“Shit!” Dice swore. “She was shaping up to be a promising investment, but now we have to put her down.”

“What?” Rodriguez shrieked, giving voice to the spike of panic animating Ripley's heart. “Why?”

“Because,” Dice huffed as if it were obvious. “I know who Ellen Ripley was. She was the crazy bitch who jumped backwards into flaming lead to keep her company from obtaining the Alien. Three times she sabotaged corporate attempts to study the creature. She's the whole reason that our military had to wait 200 years to get our hands on the priceless things. She is the absolute last person that we need on a ship full of Aliens. Put her down. Tonight.”

“But she's in a cage!” Rodriguez's squealed. “What's she going to do?”

“Her blood is made of acid,” Dice said, his condescending rationality grating against Rodriguez's hysterics. “She could burn her way out.”

“Those walls are three feet thick! She'd bleed to death before she made a hole big enough to crawl through!” Rodriguez forced his voice into a lower pitch, trying to match Dice's cool logic. “Trust me, we've thought about this. We've thought about everything.”

“No. I've invested too much damn money in this project. I'm not letting you raise a potential saboteur three feet away from my cash cow.”

“Please?” Rodriguez's show of coolness vanished. “We'll double security. We'll do anything.”

“Why do you care so much?” Dice said, annoyed. “I honestly thought you were going to throw her out when I left that operating room.”

“Because now she’s my daughter! I gave her a life to live--I made a whole plan for her. I need to see her live that life.”

“Jesus,” Dice mumbled. “No Rodriguez, she's not your daughter. I own her. I own this whole operation. You may be paying the bills to put food in her mouth, but she's still a part of my investment. Now get rid of her.”

“She can’t die yet!” Rodriguez wailed. “Not when she’s still confused about who she is. I can fix her.”

“Uh-huh,” Dice hummed disinterestedly.

Cross spoke again. His was voice at its smoothest, sounding like a snake slithering over gravel. “If I might interject, I would propose that we question number 8 before we dispose of her.”

There was a brief pause. “Explain,” said Dice.

“While she was alive, Ellen Ripley had more experience with the Xenomorphs than any other human in history. She survived three attacks—she must have taken out dozens of them. She can tell us their weak points so that we can cover them up. Number 8 might be the most valuable resource we have on this ship. Other than the Queen of course.”

“But she doesn't remember everything yet,” Dice said, tasting Cross' proposition with warming interest.

“Yes, we'll have to do multiple interviews, mine the information as it comes back to her. So that's reason enough to keep her alive for longer.”

Rodriguez held his breath, waiting for Dice's answer.

“Hm. You're a smart man, Cross,” Dice said, genuinely impressed. “You really don't belong here with all of these antisocial losers, but I'm glad to have you.” There was a brief pause. “Alright, I say yes. Find out what the hybrid can tell you.”

“Oh, praise the chairman!” Rodriguez chirped.

Dice's irritation reignited at the sound of Rodriguez's squeal. “But once you're done picking her brain she goes out the airlock with the weekend trash, got it?”

Shadows passed over the vent again as the men filed out of the room.

Ripley closed her eyes and focused on the blood pounding in her ears. She'd just listened to three men toss her life around like an egg and her body was surging with adrenaline. Her fingers curled instinctively, dragging the points of her claws across the metal.

She yearned for a face to slash at—she wanted to actively struggle for her life, to be her own savior. Trapped in a cage, all she could do was listen idly while a couple of men argued for her right to live, weighing the value of their fickle emotional attachments against the prospect of monetary loss.

Ripley was frustrated to no end by the fact that Rodriguez, in his “heroic” possessiveness, was the closest thing to an ally that she had on ship. She was grudgingly grateful to him for sparing her life, but the man made her skin crawl with his covertly sexual show of ownership.

And Cross...Ripley didn't know what to think about Cross. He acted as though he had something to hide--a burning secret. Ripley saw the way he charmed his coworkers with his mild-mannered poise and then held them all at a calculated emotional distance. Probably no one on the ship knew what Cross was really like.

Ripley listened to her frightened heart for a while, feeling her pulse and her breathing gradually slow down. The threat of death was no longer immediate, but it never went away completely. It was always there, slowly filling the air like a natural gas leak.

Ripley thought about what Cross had said about her DNA, and about her memories. Without the Alien in my brain, I wouldn't be me.

Unexpectedly, Ripley felt a sudden rush of pride. There was no reason for her to feel ashamed of her mutations—they didn't detract from who she was, mentally or physically. She was the same woman that she'd always been, only newly evolved and better equipped to survive. She'd stolen the strength of her Alien adversaries, taken the weapons that she needed to outlast another attack.

Ripley smiled slightly—it felt good to be powerful, to know that she was stronger than any of the hordes of Alien feed that were holding her prisoner. It let her feel less like she was in prison and more like she was biding her time in a safe place, building up her strength until the moment of unavoidable disaster.

If there was one thing that the long-tormented woman had learned through her experiences with the Xenomorphs, it was that the creatures could not be contained. They always found a way in—or a way out. Ripley felt certain that once the inevitable happened, once the Aliens broke free, that she would stand as the last non-Alien left alive. She would live to see every whitecoat replaced by his own inhuman child. How long she would survive after that though, Ripley didn't know. She had no plan for herself if she ever managed to escape the Auriga. She was 260 years removed from her old life and several light years away from Earth. She had no family—no allies even. Everyone that she had met since her rebirth was an enemy to her.

Ripley sat up and stretched, waking up her muscles. She’d pulled through on her own before—she knew that she was perfectly capable of saving herself. But being a sole survivor was a devastatingly lonely feeling. She wished that she could have one other person to use as a crutch, someone intelligent and reliable.

Maybe she could find someone, if she ever made it off of the Auriga. She could start a new life in Union territory. That was the thin thread of hope that she had to cling to. The Aliens would free her, and then she would forge a new life.

Until then she would be waiting, getting stronger.

Chapter Text

The Betty was 12 days away from the Auriga, cruising towards the giant ship with belabored slowness, towing behind her a large trailer filled with valuable cargo. The little spacecraft was a relic, a living fossil. Whether or not she was really the same ship that was built 190 years ago for commercial food transport was debatable. Every crude, bare metal part of the Betty's body had been replaced at some point or another, though her whisky-bottle shape and puke-tan color never changed over the centuries.

The crew of the Betty was ever-shifting. Her current owner was Ray Elgyn, a bearded, glassy-eyed white guy who liked the caché of owning a vintage ship. He rented it out to a rotating cast of drifters looking to make cash by smuggling immoral cargo across borders.

Drifters were a caste that had a foot in every national territory, but no permanent home. They flew their dented ships from company to company, nation to nation, stealing and delivering for whoever was hiring.

Elgyn's current team was five people: Johner, Christie, Call, Goodman, and his wife Hillard. Elgyn had known Hillard for a total of four months and he still hadn't asked her first name. The “wife” thing was a new development. Elgyn thought that the woman was as ugly as a gas mask with lipstick, but she was convinced that she was a cover girl—she'd wanted to get married ever since she read her first Company magazine. She saw no difference between herself—muscles, missing teeth, oil-stained mini skirt and all—and the airbrushed babes in “family values” propaganda posters. Elgyn was too lethargic and apathetic to bother trying to shatter her illusion. And besides, he actually did feel very comfortable around the woman, much more so than with past fuck buddies. He figured that that was reason enough to tie the knot—her service work on the ship sufficed as a dowry.

The two drifters were wed in a drop-by ceremony at a space station on the border. They'd hung their leather jackets pristine changing stalls, read passages from the Company Manual on an altar covered in pictures of the Great Chairman. It was creepy, but pleasant. Hillard kept her complimentary wedding gown—she converted the bottom into a clean new mini-skirt and used the veil to patch a leaky pipe on the Betty. The drifter woman had an affinity for pretty things, so long as they were useful. To her, a bejeweled gasket wrench would be the most gorgeous thing in existence.

Presently, Elgyn and Hillard sat around their mess hall table, sharing the last cigarette in existence for the next 300 thousand miles. Elgyn never felt the need to talk to his wife unnecessarily—after all, her voice was nasal and grating. He was content just sitting next to her in the long days spent watching the stars go by.

Vaguely, the sluggish man remembered a time when he used to be more mobile—back when he lived on Earth, back when he liked his life. His drifter grittiness and selfishness had started as an act, adopted when he first reached open space and left his drowned city behind. He wondered at what point it became his actual personality.

The tar inside of the cigarette paper tasted like Earth, and it made Elgyn feel a pang of annoying sentiment. The tobacco stains that covered the Betty's dimly lit interior were the closest thing to dirt that Elgyn had seen in 20 years. Oh, the sterile shithole of space, he thought. What he wouldn't give for a chance to see his old apartment again, looking like it did when he was a child—with God beams of sun shining through the windows in the morning, just like warm, intangible fingers. That was a stupid dream, obviously—he was stuck where he was for the rest of his life, inside of an ugly metal air bubble floating in an endless void.

Light footsteps approached from the hallway. Call walked up to the doorway of the mess hall, her eyes scanning the room cautiously before she entered.

Elgyn couldn't quite figure Call out. He wondered where she came from, what her story was. He and Hillard picked her up a week ago at the same space station where they got married. From a distance, she’d appeared no different from the rest of the sugary bridesmaid broads bouncing around the marriage station. She was pretty, petite, painted. But up close, she had a weird vibe; her eyes were in constant sharp focus, seeing a little too much in whatever she looked at. And her clothes, which would have looked nice 3 years ago, were so well-worn that they showed their threads. She was a done-up bag lady, complete with a dirty suitcase tucked under her arm.     

Elgyn wondered why the social monitors didn't ticket her for disturbing the aesthetic. He figured that they must be used to all sorts of weirdos at the border, he and Hillard included. Or maybe the Company wasn't really as totalitarian as it made itself out to be—there had to be gaps in the Chairman's vision, somewhere.

Call had been waiting at the marriage station specifically to meet with Elgyn and Hillard. She knew who they were and where they were going with their cargo. Normally this would have worried them, but Call didn't look like she could possibly pose a threat. Besides, she paid them with a couple of gold earrings just to go along for the ride, so no questions were asked.

As soon as the little vagabond climbed aboard the Betty, she swapped out her Company clothes for a plain, black, utilitarian outfit, wiping off her makeup on an oil-stained rag. If she was trying to look like a drifter then she came a couple miles short of the mark, Elgyn decided. There wasn’t a hint of sociable aggression anywhere on her being.    

As the crew moved deeper into company territory, Call asked them to stop at a ship-docking station to pick up her partner, Goodman. Goodman had just arrived from deep inside of Company territory—for some reason he traveled all the way out to the border just so that he could head back inside with Call. Again, no questions asked.

Goodman was an impressive one, Elgyn had to admit. He had a generic toughness and likability that met Company social standards and also carved him a comfortable niche amongst the Betty's macho crew. He could go anywhere he wanted with that blue-eyed charm, and he knew it. Elgyn was surprised that a timid ink smudge like Call had managed to keep company with a champion like him. Call was pretty enough, but still...they were an odd couple.

Elgyn turned his glassy, gray eyes towards the little recluse woman. She'd obviously been in the engine room; the smell of diesel was wafting into the mess hall with her. Elgyn guessed that she was in the social space of the mess hall only to wash the grease off of her hands in the sink—she'd probably take off again once she was finished. Call had taken to fixing parts of the Betty, unpaid, to pass the time. Christie, the mechanic, said that she treated the ship like it was a sick animal, twisting screws delicately as if to avoid causing it further pain.

Elgyn tried to imagine why someone like her—an ex-Company waif—would want to get involved with drifters. She must have gotten exiled from her nation for some arbitrary social offense or another. That meant that she was using the Betty as a way to smuggle herself back inside.

Quietly, Call slinked across the mess hall towards the sink on the far wall. Her stride was fairly wide for someone with short legs, and her movements were fluid and stealthy. She stopped short when she reached the sink, looking slightly disgusted. “What's in here?” She asked carefully, taking care not to sound confrontational.

“My space hooch,” droned Elgyn. “It's still fermenting.”

Unhappily, but without complaining, Call rubbed the grease off with a dry towel.

Elgyn decided to take a good long look at her—it was rare that the little ghost chick was ever out in the open.

Call had pale skin—which was standard for white people in sun-starved space—but instead of making her seem sickly, the paleness gave her a sad, pretty, dusty aesthetic akin to the forgotten stars of old American noir films. Her hair was short and black with a few spider-leg hairs that fell down her forehead, framing her prominent eyes. Elgyn had never noticed before how unusual and beautiful those eyes were, but that was because Call never made eye contact with anyone for longer than a heartbeat. She hid in that big, black jacket of hers, jaw clamped and lips sealed as if her voice was a hazardous chemical. Besides the jacket, she wore a gray button up shirt, plain black pants, sturdy black boots, and a pair of small metal earrings in her lobes. She looked put-together, if still drab, as if she arranged her camouflage with careful neatness.

A chick's clothes never mattered much to Elgyn—how she looked without them was the important thing—but he couldn't help but wonder why she wanted to hide her curves in that jacket. Drifter chicks knew how to use their sexuality as a weapon—they could look as masculine as they liked, so long as they still had the sense to flaunt what darwinism gave them. Intimidation was the key to survival in open space, and a display of sexual power and temptation was the scariest flag that a woman could fly. Hillard certainly understood that, the crazy bitch. Call was trying to play a game of protective coloration, hitting a neutral note in terms of gendered interactions, dodging the sexual gaze like it was a bullet. But she was never going to survive like that.

She must be a recently expelled refugee, Elgyn decided. She would be dead by now if she'd been in open space for longer than a year. On the Betty she was relatively safe—she could skulk around the relaxed crew unnoticed so long as she didn't get in anyone's way. But if she ever shared a territory with a scavenger—an insecure drifter looking to buffer his or her reputation by picking fights with a weakling—she'd be instant space debris. Life in open space was a survival-of-the-fittest struggle with no room for sympathy.

With a loud crash of knuckles hitting metal, Johner swaggered into the room, his braided bread muscles popping from his tight shirt. Johner made noise wherever he went—that was his signature show of power. His knuckles were perpetually ragged from banging on every surface that he walked past. Call bristled at the sight of him and quickly walked towards the door.

Johner barked at her, turning his body like a gun turret as she passed him and slipped out into the hallway. “Hey, hey, hey, new chick, hey, come here.” She was gone. Johner turned to Elgyn and scoffed, smirking. “She's got no manners, swear to God,” he said, jovial. “I mean shit, usually we get a new broad and she gives us at least a little introductory fuck. It’s like a handshake, you know?”

“Eh, she's a Company prude,” mumbled Elgyn, not wanting to take his lips off of the precious cigarette. “An ex-Company prude. I bet she's going to stay in CCA territory once we drop off the cargo. We're probably just her illegal ferry.”

“Really?” Johner smirked wider. “You think she's an exile? Well Goodman's definitely not—guy's a colony cop. Told me so.” Johner sat himself down at the mess hall table opposite Elgyn and Hillard, spreading his legs to take up as much space as possible. “Is it dinner time yet? I'm fucking hungry.”

“No,” Elgyn grumbled in annoyance, passing the cigarette to Hillard. “We already decided that it's morning. That's why I got the showers heated up.”

Johner lowered his scarred brow into a practiced glower. “I just did a round of 100 lb deadlifts and if I don't eat something now there's going to be property damage.”

“Aww, you're a big fucking boy Johner,” Hillard said in a mocking mommy voice. “Here, I'll fix you something.” She took a final languid drag on the cigarette and then shouted towards the ceiling. “Betty! Dinner!”

With a rude “smack,” a chute dropped down from above and hit the center of the table. Then a stream of freeze dried chicken and freeze dried bread poured down wrapped in little plastic packages.

Grinning in a mixture of gratitude and smugness, Johner snatched a packet of chicken and began tugging at the packaging. “You know I hear they breed these things to have breasts so big the suckers can't even walk. More meat that way.” His grin turned impish. “Hey, what if they did that with chicks? I mean real chicks.”

“Ick.” said Hillard

“Put those scientists to good use,” he added.

“Yeah,” teased Elgyn, “I bet you'd like a chick who couldn't walk. Then she couldn't run away from your sorry face.”

Hillard laughed nasally.

The scarface man grinned big, chicken stuck in his teeth.

Elgyn hired Johner for smuggling jobs more often than any other drifter—he was reliable—but in all of the months that Elgyn had known him, he'd still never asked Johner what the hell happened to his head. It looked like he'd stuck it in a blender.

Johner had the brown-gums smile of a zoo orangutan, complete with orange fuzz on his chin. The orange fuzz on the top of his head was always shaved in a buzzcut as if he wanted to show off the scars on his scalp. The truth was that if he grew his hair out, the scars gave him crop-circle-shaped bald patches, so this was his solution.

Elgyn liked Johner, despite everything. The brute had a contagious sense of humor and boundless energy (although Elgyn had no idea where he got the enthusiasm from, living in a floating hell hole). For the last couple of months Elgyn had been glad to share Hillard with him, no competition necessary.

That might have to stop now that they were married though. Elgyn wasn't sure, but he thought that marriage was a declaration of exclusive boning rights. Maybe you were allowed to add an extra husband—he would have to ask some labrat on the Auriga about that.

Johner reached for a second chicken packet. “So what are we doing for our honeymoon?” he peaked his eyebrows at Hillard.

“It's our honeymoon, Johner,” Elgyn grumbled, gesturing to himself. His lifeless planet eyes were apathetic but not without humor.

“Who says?” The big man whined. “I've been boning Hillard as long as you have. Why does this marriage thing have to be about carving up fuck circles into neat little twosomes? Why not have groom, groom, groom, groom, bride?”

“That's unionspeak, Johner,” Hillard droned, only partly joking. “Marriage is an institution.”

“You might need an extra bride in there,” Elgyn said, unable to hold back a wry smile. “That one broad's getting pretty crowded,”

“Fine,” said Johner. “Call! Come be our second bride!” he yelled out the mess hall door.

“She's gone.” mumbled Elgyn.

Johner sneered. “She's probably chatting with Goodman again. I don't know what the hell they have to talk about.”

“Maybe they're screwing.”

“Yeah, that's what I thought at first since he's so protective. But...I dunno. They don't have that vibe.”

“Call doesn't have any vibe,” Hillard said, red lips puckered like she was tasting something nasty. “It's weird. Maybe she got kicked out of CCA ‘cause she didn't want a hubbie.”

“Too prudish for the prudes,” Johner chuckled through his sneer.

Elgyn rested his arm on the table and leaned in, his rusty chair shrieking. “Or maybe she's hiding something,” he croaked slyly. “Maybe she's like a lady bender or something.”

Johner laughed uproariously. “Really? She's like a little china doll. I though girl fags were supposed to be manly.”

Elgyn shrugged.

The bad taste in Hillard's twisted mouth got worse. “She better stay the fuck away from me if she is.”

“I thought they didn't exile you for that though,” Johner said, face still red from laughter.

“How the fuck would you know?” Elgyn asked, glowering suggestively.

“I used to know a drifter who was a bender, did a theft job with him. He had a fuck buddy in the Company who he visited every time he made a run into CCA. It stopped when the Company put the fuck buddy in an institution to fix him. That's what they do; they treat them, they don't kick them out.”

“You worked with a drifter bender?” Elgyn said, incredulous.

Johner shrugged. “He was good at covering up our tracks. Plus the guy was like a seven-foot monster so I wasn't going to say anything to his face.”

“Call does have a weird walk,” Hillard droned. “Her shoulders are all stiff and and she's all—what's the word— slinky . Like a pussycat. She doesn't act like a Company girl or a Union woman or a drifter chick. Maybe she is a fag...but you'd think she'd want to live in the Union then, why go back to CCA?”

“Homesickness,” Elgyn mumbled, barely audibly.

“Ooh,” Johner grinned, eyes shining. “Man if she is a fag, then boning her would be like winning the grand prize.”

“Don't get your hopes up,” said Elgyn.

“Hope's not the thing i'm getting up. I mean, this is a small ship, where's she gonna hide?”

The atmosphere in the room shifted, turning hostile.

“You want a girl just because she doesn't want you?” Hillard scoffed. “You're even more pathetic than I thought, Johner.”

Johner shrugged. “Well, she's a rare catch. Exotic. I don't even consider myself a hunter but who would pass that up?”

“Don't go prowling Johner,” Elgyn said seriously. “Not on my ship. I'll have the rest of your scalp if you touch her, you got it?” The lax man was surprised by how angry he was at Johner. Elgyn didn't really care about Call—or so he thought. He just liked to keep the brutality of the drifter world at bay when he could.

“Jeez,” said Johner, indignant. “Didn't realize that this rusty shit hole was sacred land.” Johner threw his empty chicken packets onto the table and stood up, making sure his chair screeched loudly as it slid back. “I'm going back to the weight room. I'll try not to step on any cockroaches on my way since they're seeking asylum here. Wouldn't dare endanger a species,” He smirked aggressively at his own joke and then swaggered out of the mess hall, kicking the door frame with a steel toed boot as he left.

“Dipshit,” hissed Hillard.

“I hate my life here,” admitted Elgyn. “Once we get the cash from the Auriga gig we should have our honeymoon on a Union planet.”

“And what, tour an ore refinery plant?”

“They've got parks on all the Union colonies. They've got barely any territory on Earth so they made up for it with gardens. They've got big, green trees and everything.”

“Synthetic trees,” Hillard corrected him.

“There's no difference. They look the same, smell the same. You can't tell they're fake until you cut into 'em.”

“No one said that about synthetic humans,” Hillard pointed out. “A fake is a fake.”

“Yeah well, the androids were different. There's a reason they're extinct. I mean, I didn't have an issue with the whitebloods on a personal level, I just didn't want them to start taking jobs away from organics. Those fuckers were good at whatever they did, even if they got paid like shit. They could have phased out humans if they'd wanted to.”

“Their eyes glowed,” Hillard said, scowling in disgust. “It was so creepy. That was enough for me, I'm glad they're all gone.”

Elgyn shrugged hesitantly. “Better them than us, I guess. So is that a yes for the honeymoon?”

Hillard pursed her lips in thought. “I want to see one of those lava planets instead. We could shoot a hunk of garbage at it from orbit and watch it melt as it gets close. Ooh, or a bomb maybe.”

“That's your idea of a romantic escape?”

“Fuck yeah.”

“How do I get a divorce?” Elgyn asked, meaning it. “Is there a time limit on a refund?”

“You divorce me now and you still have to live with me for another 87 days,” She gave him a side-eyed glance. “Do you think you want that?”

“No. No I don't.” Elgyn said sleepily.

The couple had reached their established quota of words for the day, and they both fell silent fast, like narcolepts. But then Elgyn spoke again, drawling. “Hey, you know if we pick the tobacco out of all of these butts we could have enough to roll one more.”

“Mm. See, now your having good ideas.” Hillard grabbed some of the crushed cigarette stubs covering the surface of the table. “This is how I know I married the right man. I like 'em good-looking and useful and you're at least one of those things.”

Elgyn gave her a lazy, two fingered salute. Then he helped her with the cigarettes, losing himself in the mindless little task.



+++++++++++++++++++



Call and Goodman paused their conversation when they heard Johner lumber by on his way to the weight room, his hand angrily smacking the wall outside of the door. The two friends were huddled conspiratorially in the engine room, the walls around them criss-crossed by a plaid pattern of bronze and gray wires. A humming bare bulb on the ceiling provided the only light. The engine itself—growing like a tumor from the rusty floor—was an anvil-shaped knot of pipes that trembled nervously like a small dog.

“So we have wire clamps for the manual locks,” Goodman continued, voice lowered. “Interference generators for the remote locks—and you have your knife and scalpel...and you're sure we can get all that past the metal detectors?”

“Yes, I'm sure,” said Call seriously. Goodman thought that her voice was pleasant sounding—high and clear, if too often monotone and grim. “The magnets will confuse the signal,” she continued. “Everything will be in the lining of my coat. I sprayed liquid lead on it.” She showed him the inside of her jacket, the black fabric painted with a vague lustrous sheen. “Just enough to blur the X-rays, not enough to look suspicious.”

Goodman nodded gravely. Call's ingenuity always impressed and slightly humiliated him. He was surprised that a woman was so good at strategic planning. However, Goodman was an open minded man and he always took Call’s ideas seriously. He wanted to make her feel gratified by including her input in their plots--that’s how much he cared about her.  “You know I'll protect you if you get caught,” he said, giving a small, gracious smile.

“No. Goodman, if one of us gets caught, you have to opt for plan B. We would be dead anyway.”

A worm of insult and indignation twisted in Goodman's gut. “I'm not giving up like that,” he stated resolutely. “I'm going out fighting.”

“Please, promise me you'll use it.” Call locked eyes with goodman, pressuring him wordlessly.

Call rarely made eye contact with strangers—and that's how Goodman knew that she felt comfortable around him. She rarely hesitated to give him her penetrating stare. Call could be intense, but she was still beautiful—smooth-skinned, perfectly-proportioned, slender. Goodman felt his resolve weaken as he stared into her big brown eyes.

“Alright,” he sighed. “If there's really no other option, I'll use it. But we're not going to get caught, so it doesn't even matter.”

“Just remember, we're doing this for the people on that ship, not for us.”

“Of course,” Goodman said indignantly. “I know that. I've spent my life in the line of duty. I know what self-sacrifice means. I'm just not going to end my life if there's not a good enough reason.”

“I'm sorry,” Call said gently. “I know that you know what you're doing. I'm just trying to plan for every scenario.”

“You do like to do that, don't you? But there's only so much we can predict. Sometimes you have to form your plan on your feet.”

“You're right. We'll wait and see what happens. But remember that the bomb is there, just in case.”

“I can't forget,” Goodman said gravely. “Trust me.”

The conversation dropped off as the two partners thought worriedly about their task. The single bare lightbulb above them vibrated anxiously with the engine. The shadows on Call's face were trembling, even though her eyes looked unafraid.

12 more days—then it would all begin.

 

+++++++++++++++++++

 

After deciding that the day was over, Elgyn went to check on the cargo before joining his impatient wife in bed. He walked through the Betty's dorsal hallway—the hollow spine that connected all of the rooms on the ship—and made his way towards the stern.

He found Christie there, kneeling in front of a porthole window, his hands clasped together in prayer.

“Hey Mr. Messiah, you wanna move? I gotta get into the trailer.”

Christie didn't say anything, but his eye twitched in annoyance.

“Oh sure, I'll wait. I know God transmits an analog signal, He must be hard to pick up here.”

Christie didn't flinch as Elgyn scoffed at him.

Elgyn thought it was absurd that someone who made a living off of smuggling of stolen cargo dared to call himself a Christian. Christie wore his faith all over his body—his deep brown skin was tattooed and scarred with bible verses and symbols. The placement of the tattoos were obviously meant to quietly broadcast his tolerance for pain—the man had a cross needled down the front of his throat, a crown of thorns winding over his forehead and temples. It was an effective display of power, but still ridiculous.

“You don't even realize that you're already in hell, do you?” Elgyn droned.

Christie finished his prayer and stood up slowly, acting as if Elgyn weren't there. “God save,” he muttered as he brushed past the captain and headed towards the sleep chambers.

“I live for me,” Elgyn called back at him. “I don't need the approval of some big man behind the stars.” He dropped down to his hands and knees and crawled inside of the aluminum tunnel connecting the Betty to the trailer. A wall of frigid air hit him, making his fingers and nose ache. When he reached the trailer he stood up inside and snapped the lights on.

Before him were 13 human bodies, frozen and encased in hypersleep chambers, stacked like bricks on the icy floor. It was the crew of a Union towing vehicle—each man unaware that he had been spirited away in his sleep.

A layer of white frost covered everything in the trailer. It crunched under Elgyn's boots as he padded around the sleep chambers, checking the vital signs displayed on the windows. He talked loudly as he went, destroying the perfect silence.

“Attention coach passengers,” he announced sardonically, his foggy breath making ice crystals on his beard. “This is your captain speaking. Expected arrival time is 12 days from now. Until then sit tight, enjoy the air conditioning, and please don't fucking die on me.”

He snapped the lights off. “Goodnight, all!” he called. Then he crawled back through the tunnel, leaving the sleepers in darkness.

Chapter Text

Ripley was having a nightmare. She was panting and sweating, sprinting through the deserted hallways of Hadley's Hope , chasing endlessly after Newt, who was running ahead of her with speed of a small animal. Ripley only saw glimpses of the little girl in the dark passageways—a tail of tangled hair disappearing behind another bend in the tunnel. The walls of the maze rushed past in Ripley's peripheral vision, the ribbed steel textures blurring together. Her body was so numbed with adrenaline that she didn't feel her feet pounding against the metal as she ran.

Something was chasing the little girl, growing closer, but Ripley didn't know where it was or how to stop it.

“Newt, wait!” she yelled.

Newt's panicked shrieks echoed off walls—the perusing thing was getting very close, its breathing rasping in pace with Ripley's own. Exhausted, Ripley clenched her teeth and forced herself to move faster.

At the dead-end of the hallway Newt finally stopped, cornered between Ripley and the wall. Ripley's relief only lasted a few seconds—the girl got down on her knees and crawled into a rusted-out enclave in the wall, disappearing again.

Laying on her stomach, Ripley stuck her head inside of the dark enclave and looked around. Newt was cowering just out of reach of her arm and trembling, staring at her with wide, white eyes.

“It's okay, I'm here now.” Ripley soothed. She slid her arm into the hiding place. “take my hand, we'll find someplace safe. ”

Newt squeezed her eyes shut and screamed, pressing up against the back wall of the enclave.

Ripley's heart was breaking. “Newt, it's me. It's okay.”

The girl started sobbing, her head twisted away from Ripley. Desperately, Ripley tried to reach just a little bit further, to touch her.

Suddenly something black and crab-like scuttled in the space between them. Shrieking in surprise, Ripley tried to knock the thing away from Newt—and then with a wave of nausea, she realized that the black thing was her own hand.

Slowly, she pulled out of the enclave and held the horrible hand in front of her face. There it joined three other hands, all of them skeletal and elongated with too many fingers.

Ripley stood up, and up, until she was 20 feet tall, the crest on her head brushing against the lights on the roof of the hallway.

Her insides felt cold and foreign—strange fluids were pumping through biomechanical tubes all over her body.

Trembling, she raised her dripping, sinewed jaws to the ceiling and screamed.

++++

Then Ripley was awake, and she was still screaming.

The lights buzzed on in her cell.

“What?” A low voice exclaimed, crackling from the loudspeaker “What is it, what's wrong?”

In an instant Ripley retreated into her animal mind, just enough to cancel out her facial expressions. Her features slid into a neutral mask, her terror still storming underneath of her show of stupid complacency. She didn't want another brain scan, another psych exam—she wanted her grief to be private.

Bastidas watched her, confused, through the monitor in in the security room above her.

If Ripley's cage was an animal's stomach then the security room was an animal's skull—it was a circular dome with eye-socket-shaped air vents and a wall covered in rows of television screens like a glowing set of teeth.

I did hear that, didn't I? Bastidas wondered anxiously. He swiveled in his chair and looked over at Aardman and Blake who were busy watching their portion of the screens, their headsets tuned into the Queen's cage, not number 8's. The glow of the monitors caste their pasty white skin in shades of night vision green.

Bastidas looked back at the hybrid woman on his monitor. It seemed to him that something weird always happened on his watch. When he signed on for the night shift he thought that he would be spending 6 hours a day watching number 8 sleep soundly. Instead, he was always left with frustratingly vague problems to report at the end of the night. Number 8 would spend long, sleepless hours pacing in erratic paths across her pitch black cage, never once running into a wall. Sometimes she would whisper to herself incomprehensibly as she paced. When she finally slept, she would often convulse violently, hissing and clawing like a soul possessed by the devil.

Bastidas studied number 8's blank face, trying to puzzle out in his mind where the scream could have come from. There was the slightest twitchiness in her lips and eyelids, he noticed, and a severely melancholy droop in her shoulders. Was she purposefully holding it in?

“Aardman, Blake! Something's wrong. I just heard the hybrid scream.”

Sighing lugubriously Aardman switched his monitor to the cage 1 channel, seeing what Bastidas was seeing. After 3 seconds he switched back to his view of the Queen, not even bothering to glance in Bastidas' direction.

Well that was typical . No one else worried about number 8 because she was always so well behaved for tests and lessons. The whitecoats had even started responding when she talked to them, laughing at her bitingly snide remarks—that's how comfortable they were around her. But Bastidas saw something in her that no one else saw, something more alien and dangerous than any of the other whitecoats could have imagined. It showed its face in the nighttime.

The Queen was the more deadly of the two specimens on the Auriga, Bastidas was sure, but there was top security surrounding the Queen’s pen. Number 8 was dangerous because the other whitecoats had let her inside—they trusted her, even if they'd never admit it. Those handcuffs were just for fashion.

Tonight though, the deadly hybrid struck Bastidas as being somewhat pathetic. There was something profoundly sad in the way the she was sitting, stooped over, arms resting on her folded legs.

Unexpectedly, watching her triggered pangs of sentiment for Bastidas, as if her posture was illustrating something that he felt deep inside. He badly missed his wife and kids, who were light years away from him, back on Earth in New America. It had been 9 months since he'd seen a sun that wasn't a tiny speck out a porthole window. That was enough time to grow an embryo into a newborn. God knows what my kids will look like by the time I get home, he thought. He hoped that his wife was teaching them Spanish like she promised. His heart would break if he watched his kids grow up acting like gringos, sucked into the Company's cultural control.

The CCA bastards swallowed up Mexico and the last of its oil (and the bulk of its drugs) 100 years ago, expecting all of their new citizens to either assimilate or disappear. And plenty did assimilate—if there was one man on the Auriga that Bastidas couldn't stand to be around, or even look at, it was goddamn Rodriguez. The man was the poster child for white-washed latinos. He obviously didn't know Spanish, he was as ignorant about history as his white coworkers—and he was prissy and awkward and dislikable to top it all off.

And he let the hybrid live, the idiot .

Bastidas wanted to be home so badly, secure with people who understood him and loved him. Everyone else on the Auriga was a covertly racist, misanthropic asshole.

The hybrid hadn't moved, she was still sitting like a morose statue—like a monument to the collective misery of the ship's crew. God, Bastidas thought, feeling sick of heartbreak, I can't even look at her anymore. I need a distraction. With a flip of a switch, he changed the security monitor to satellite. Aardman and Blake never bothered to look at him, they wouldn't notice.

A 450-year-old black and white movie came on the screen: “I Married a Monster From Outer Space” starring Tom Tryon and Gloria Talbott. Bastidas realized that the Auriga's radar must have found the analog broadcast shot into space all those years ago, the same signal picked up by rabbit ear sets in the 20th century. What are the chances? He thought, amazed .

Words flashed on the screen:

 

THE STRANGEST MARRIAGE OF ALL TIME.

THE GIRL... AND THE MONSTER.

ON A HONEYMOON OF TERROR.

 

Ooh this is good, something mindless. thought Bastidas, leaning back in his chair to get comfortable.

 

++++++++++++++++

 

Ripley heard the movie come on from inside of her cell. Eerie music and a woman's screams drifted down through the vent and echoed off of the dark, pipe-covered walls. Ripley furrowed her brow in confusion, old memories about her stepbrother and his video cassette obsessions pricking at her mind's eye. Experimentally, she raised her gaze to look straight into the security camera and lifted her claws to the side of her throat, threatening to slide them across her jugular. There was no response from the security guard.

Satisfied that she wasn't being watched, Ripley let herself feel the full aftermath of her dream. She started shivering uncontrollably, visions of Newt's terrified eyes burning into her, accusatory. I'm so far gone from what I used to be. And I can't ever change back. She rested her head on her knee and started crying, her body lurching with quiet sobs.

As much as she had learned to feel proud of her “adaptations,” Ripley still sometimes lapsed into moments of crippling insecurity. She couldn't make her vision of herself as a superior Alien hybrid mesh with her desire to be a loving mother. She was dangerous now, and frightening.    

In her old life, Ripley would purposefully make herself intimidating in order to defend herself from harassment. The difference was that back then she could always take the armor off. When she was around people that she loved—her adopted family, her girlfriend, her daughter—she could reveal her gentle nature. Now Ripley was afraid that the armor was a part of her skin.

She vividly recalled the first time that she ever made herself scary. She felt the memory now, cast onto the insides of her eyelids like a film.

Before her abandonment, Ripley had been a quiet, solitary, bookish kid. She loved nature and animals, and she spent her summers wading through the tall grass and weeds that reclaimed empty lots, exploring the urban wild alone or with a single friend. She would rescue baby birds that had fallen from nests, spend whole weeks searching for the lost cat featured on a poster. She was shy, but she was friendly enough to anyone who cared to initiate a conversation with her. When she hit 11 years, her height erupted and she towered over most of the boys in her class, but she was tall in a gangly and unimposing way—still an awkward, harmless girl.

She might have stayed harmless—and awkward—if not for the constant antagonism that she encountered as she grew. She adapted to survive in her increasingly hostile surroundings.

Ripley received her first taste of everyday hostility when she was 15; the age when she was finally able to have a five second daydream about a girl without mentally whipping herself. Just like her mom, Ripley's classmates seemed to see something distasteful in Ripley's mannerisms. The way that she dressed wasn't deliberate enough; her clothing didn't convey the obsessive self-scrutiny that was expected of high school-age girls. Her clothes were too plain and utilitarian, her movements too gawky to garner passable respect. A scattering of amused eyes turned towards her in every hallway that she walked down, filling Ripley with creeping paranoia. Aside from the uncomfortable implication of their stares, the attention itself weighed heavily on Ripley; she was someone who took comfort in being invisible.

The direct attacks began the day that Ripley found a spattering of sticky notes on her locker, one from each of the high-status girls that she shared her history class with. Each note detailed the lewd, disgusting things that they wanted to do to her—they declared their love for her with scathing mockery. Seeing those notes gave Ripley a chill that she'd never felt before—a sensation like air blowing through her exposed skeleton. She didn't show the notes to an adult, she didn't confront the girls. Her only impulse was to hide. She tore the notes into tiny shreds and divided them up amongst three different trash bins.

That evening, Ripley avoided speaking with her dad and step siblings. She spent the night crying and chain smoking out of her bedroom window, thinking about the confused, perverted version of herself that the sticky notes had created. She hated that version of herself—it sickened her. But she was the only one in her class that didn't believe the lie. She knew without a doubt that everyone else saw her as a perverted clown.

In the morning she took a late bus to school, to avoid encountering the girls in the hallway. She managed to circumvent attention until passing period, when she opened up her locker. The inside of the locker was covered with pages from porn mags. The cruel girls' timing was perfect; they made sure that an adult—a prudish physics teacher—was standing right behind Ripley when she opened it.

The first time that Ripley admitted her sexuality aloud, the words were pried out of her by a school counselor who then expressed to her his earnest concern and veiled disgust. The news was passed—in grave whispers—to Ripley's dad and stepmom, and to her teachers, before it inevitably trickled down to the student body. Soon the harassment was coming from all directions—male and female students from every grade were slipping Ripley slurs and hateful jokes. Most of the teachers and faculty meant well when they asked her to stay after class for a heart-to-heart, but their uncomfortable questions and deep-set misconceptions didn't help her at all.

The turning point came when the teasing turned violent, and a stupid stoner boy decided to punch her in the back of the neck in the cafeteria. She whirled around to face him, frayed nerves snapping, gripped him by the shirt collar and slammed him against a wall. She was equal in height to the stoner boy and just as strong—she growled her words into his face, telling him that if he touched her again she'd take his eye out with her car key. Half of her grade stopped what they were doing to watch the scene, cheering her on with half-sarcastic chants of “Get him, bitch! Fuck him up!”

After that, Ripley's relation to other people changed. Automatically, everyone that she met was a potential threat instead of a potential friend. Ripley changed her demeanor to match her new outlook, striving to scare people away before they got a chance to hurt her. Her unusual height, her piercing black eyes, and her authoritative voice all formed a part of her intimidating new persona. She found joy in leather jackets, which were effortless and comfortable to wear as well as satisfyingly standoffish. She reeled in her gawky limbs and learned to move her long body gracefully. Between classes she would stalk lithely through the hallways and leer down at her classmates, a cigarette clenched in her teeth. It was her confidence that scared them the most—she looked as though she was invulnerable to their slander, and so they didn't bother to fuck with her. They even started to look up to her, admiring her cool, mature poise.

By her junior year, Ripley had earned the hard-won respect of nearly everyone in her school. She became an iconic presence in the hallways; the dark queen of the high school, a kind of sexy antithesis to the sugar-coated prom queens. Ripley found it comical how many guys tried to hit on her in those last years—the same ones who would have yelled “dyke” at her when she was a freshman. They showered her with limp one-liners, which is how Ripley grew deft at using witty remarks and biting sarcasm.

Ripley was a well-adapted beast, but a solitary one. She had to wonder where all of the other young dykes were hiding—if they were staying anonymous until graduation, or if they were all concentrated at other schools. Behind Ripley's show of coolness was a sticky knot of embarrassment—she was self-aware about her lack of a girlfriend. Being a lesbian in name and station only seemed like mind-numbingly stupid existence. However, as much as she yearned for a girlfriend to buffer her confidence, and to prove her title, Ripley couldn’t deny that she harbored serious reservations about romance. There were still scars on the back of her head from her mother's corrosive glare. A nervous tryst ventured with a 20-something from a club only sufficed to heighten Ripley’s anxiety surrounding sex—though at least the fling lacked the kind of intimacy that she was so profoundly afraid of.

Despite her failure to find her other half, Ripley was proud of her evolution through her teen years. She left for college feeling like she'd conquered high school.

At first, college had seemed no better than high school in terms of its ratio of assholes to dateable women. The astrophysics department was predictably overrun with snarky males. Ripley wondered if she was intimidating the wrong people—if there were mousey little lesbians hiding behind the bespectacled Stanleys who scurried away at the sight of her.

Eventually, accidentally, Ripley found her crowd. One by one, Ripley met women like her—wry, misanthropic bitches who survived high school by utilizing varying shades of menace and invisibility. While Ripley dated almost all of these women at some point or another, only one of them—Naomi—would make a deep imprint on her life. Ripley stayed with Naomi for a happy seven years, up until the months before Amanda was born.

Whining music from the security guard's movie filled the cell, drowning out Ripley's hoarse sobs. Ripley was enjoying the solitude; this was the first moment of privacy that she’d experienced since Rodriguez agreed to double security around her cage. She finally had a chance to purge herself of some of her pent-up emotions.

The movie score turned ominous. Ripley heard a damsel shrieking like a door hinge, and the groaning of some lurching alien beast. Then twanging gunshots sounded—and a man's voice; the cleft-chinned hero come to save the dame.

Ripley snickered through her tears as she listened to the music swell cloyingly for the het make out scene. If my life were a Hollywood film, she thought, I would be waiting for Gary Cooper to break me out of my prison and whisk me off my feet. Or more likely, I would be the villain—the evil sapphic queen trying to hypnotize the hero's heroine. In the end, the hero man would show me my reflection and I'd turn into stone.

For a brief period at the turn of the 21st century, the mainstream film industry had began cautiously churning out a stream films that didn't revolve around archetypes and men. But the tiny renaissance didn't last long, once southern corporate superpowers and radical conservative groups pushed the country into social regression, bullying the north into conformity through the threat of civil war. By the time Ripley was a teen, film culture had backtracked into the 50's era, but with more blood and explosions.

Because of this, Ripley grew up avoiding movies--much to the bafflement of her film buff stepbrother. She would opt for novels instead, or indulge herself with books on astro philosophy and physics concepts.  

The culture's gotten worse. Ripley wiped her eyes with the heel of her palm. Corporate America’s a sick parody of itself. But I wonder if the Union is really any better. Maybe Cross was right—maybe there isn't a place for me in society anymore. I can't be a mother, or a flight officer, or a respected human being.

Sighing, Ripley lay down on the floor of her cell. Fuck that. I'll scrape out my own niche in society. I don't care if my presence is unwanted.

A few extra tears slid down Ripley's face—they felt searing hot. I'll rip out a Company man's throat if he stands in my way.

When she closed her eyes she saw Newt again, staring at her without a hint of recognition in her wide eyes. Ripley felt a sharp splinter of guilt. I didn’t mean that. I wouldn’t hurt anyone. Newt’s image grew farther away as RIpley fell backwards into mental blackness, into starry space. Wait. Newt, come back. Please. I promise won’t hurt anyone. Come back, please.

Chapter Text

Ripley eyed the whitecoats who sat down to join her at the mess hall table, tapping the sides of her lavender painted claws against the rim of her handcuffs. Her rage had been gradually reaching a boiling point throughout the last few weeks, but she kept herself looking calm and collected. She told herself that the waiting would be over soon. Then she would have the chance to wet her anxious claws on the Aliens.

The time had come for her first interrogation session, and Rodriguez, apparently looking to salvage some control over his woman/child's life, had insisted that the whitecoats make the meeting a formal affair in order to give Ripley practice in her role as a civilized lady. The interrogation was transformed into a “formal discussion over dinner, something ripped right from the socialization pages of the Company Manual. Initially, Ripley was surprised that the other whitecoats agreed to one of Rodriguez' ideas, but she soon realized that the men had selfish reasons for their cooperation. They all wanted to brush up on their chivalry talents. Clearly they'd fallen out of habit inside of the isolated, all-male ship.

Ripley sat at the head of a long rectangular table in the middle of the mess hall, flanked by two dozen whitecoats who watched her with stares of polite objectification. Ripley was dressed in a tightly-wound swath of fabric—an ignorant approximation of an evening gown that would have peeled the skin from her mother’s eyes.

The dress smelled dusty, like an antique. Ripley guessed that the fabric started its life as an ornate window drape or a bed curtain. The whitecoats must have found it in some untouched storage closet on one of the higher floors. It was the same shade of violet as the corsage on Ripley's handcuffs--so the whitecoats at least earned some points towards color coordination.

The fabric had a glittery sheen to sheen to it, as if it'd been sprayed with some kind of chemical. It was wound tight enough around Ripley's body that it didn't need straps; it let her shoulders and collarbone peak out above the cloth like a piece of partially digested prey. Ripley was surprised that the whitecoats had chosen to fashion a strapless dress. From what she understood, strapless dresses were on the risque end of the acceptable public sexuality spectrum. Surely it was uncouth to allow Ripley to show so much of her skin in a male business setting. At least her ankles were covered...by steel restraints.

Ripley looked at whitecoats perched around her, each watery-eyed face blending into the next. They'd all exchanged their lab coats for moth-eaten suits, and now they formed two neat walls of wrinkled wool. They were obviously excited to be engaging in a normal facet of Company life. Most of them were socially awkward shut-ins, men who felt that they couldn't compete with model CCA gentlemen. Their ownership of Ripley offered them an ideal setup; they could keep their woman in a secure cage and enjoy her company without the pressure of maintaining a conversation. Rodriguez looked as though he was trying to outshine them all with his excitement. Ripley was worried that he might vibrate out of his chair.

I'm going to outlive all of you, thought Ripley absently, and I don't care at all. This was one of the worst things about Ripley's situation; she didn't like how apathetic it made her. In the past, being a lone survivor always saddled Ripley with a load of irrational guilt. Every time she awoke from stasis to find herself alive and alone, she'd felt undeserving of her luck and partly responsible for the lives of the people she couldn't save. But now she had no reason to care about the life of anyone but herself. It felt even lonelier than outlasting her loved ones.

Food was passed down the table in a large metal bowl. The content of the meal didn't do much to foster a sense of fanciness. It was a yellow-white soup, mixed from the various powdered products sent to the Auriga via cargo vessel.

Dr. Cross was sitting closest to Ripley, his chair angled so that he was facing her directly, his hands folded into a neat teepee on the table. He glanced at Ripley and stirred in his seat, as if preparing to start conversation. Ripley gave him an up-down scan, deducing all that she could from his casual posture. She hadn't seen the man up close since the moment that she first met him, the day that he agreed to fund her life. He usually stood behind the other whitecoats during experiments, taking notes from a distance. Now she could see that he had cryptic, intelligent black eyes, an angular face with a pointed chin and taught brown skin. He looked young—strangely young—his voice and mannerisms seemed as though they should belong to someone of a much more advanced age. The man smiled at Ripley suavely, almost flirtatiously, and cleared his throat.

“Ripley, Ellen. I need you to answer my questions to the best of your ability, alright?” His voice was scholarly and patient like a pediatrician, but his face was coquettish and teasing.

To Ripley, it seemed as though none of the scientists on the ship knew whether they wanted to be her father, her zookeeper or her boyfriend. Their attitude towards her shifted constantly, changing to suit whatever kind of an ego boost that they needed at the time. At best Ripley was treated like a “lady,” at worst like an animal, and sometimes, falling in between those two extremes, she found herself being subjected to the persisting belief that she was a child: someone who needed to be talked down to and coddled. The ways that the men treated her when she was playing the part of the “lady” varied very little from when she was playing the part of the “child,” though Ripley found it much easier to manipulate her captors when she had a bit of mature feminine magnetism on her side.

“Funny,” said Ripley, with a knowing humor. “Rodriguez just got through instructing me to tell you as little as possible.” She watched Rodriguez turn green from across the table.

Cross seemed to share in her amusement, his close-lipped smile changing into a flash of perfect teeth. “Well I assure you, Ripley, that answering my questions is in your best interest. Rodriguez wants you all for himself, as I'm sure you've figured out.”

A series of chuckles and knowing looks passed around the table. Rodriguez looked shocked and indignant.

Cross continued: “Once you've told me everything I need to know, you'll never have to wear those handcuffs again, and you can access the treadmill whenever you desire. How does that sound?”

“You know what I like,” Ripley purred.

Cross seemed pleased—he thought that he had her sitting in his hand, eager for a reward just like a lab rat. “Now, we know that in your past life you had a number of up-close experiences with the Xenomorphs, and that you came out alive each time. We'd like to know the specifics about how you survived. What weapons did you use to defeat them?”

Ripley gave him a coy look. “You want to talk about those slimy things at a formal dinner?”

Cross forced a chuckle, looking slightly impatient. “Yes, Ellen. We may be gentlemen but we're still scientists.”

“I thought that Company etiquette stated that it's rude to bore women with talk of science and industry.”

“Well dear, I'm afraid you're very much a part of our scientific discussions,” Cross said flatly, through smiling teeth. “You may be a lady, but you're ingrained in our work—it's a strange situation I know.” Cross' face did something interesting then. When he glanced around at the other whitecoats he had a look of jocular exasperation, a look that said, “ Oh, this silly woman. She just doesn't get it .” But when he turned back to Ripley his eyes bore into her. “ Don't play games with me, ” his eyes said. “ You're on a slippery slope .” When he spoke, his eyes were unaffected by his genial voice. “Now, if you'd please tell us what you remember about your survival tactics. Which weapons were effective against the Aliens?”

Ripley tilted her head to the side and let out a long hiss in thought. “Molten lead worked well,” she mused. “Followed by a bath of cold water. Cracked its shell right open.”

Cross pursed his lips. “Hm. That must have been on Fiorina 161, where you died. What about weapons that the Union is likely to have, guns? The marines you were with on Hadley's Hope had pulse rifles. How effective were those?”

Ripley looked blank. “Pulse rifles?”

“Grenade launchers, flamethrowers, automatic turrets.” Cross prompted.

Ripley shook her head, not understanding. She dropped eye contact and made an attempt to eat her soup while wearing forearm-length handcuffs. She gave up, irritated and hungry, and dropped her freshly polished spoon into the white slick.

“You really don't remember any of that?” Cross said, disappointed. “Well,” he glanced at the other crestfallen scientists, “I can bring pictures to our next meeting to jog your memory. I'm sure it'll come to you eventually.” He cleared his throat again, artificially. “In the meantime, is there anything else you can tell us about the Xenomorphs? Did you ever get a chance to study their behavior?”

“Oh yes,” said Ripley in earnest, looking Cross right in the eyes. “I got very close to them. I even managed to capture a few and tame them.”

Cross' barely visible eyebrows flew up. “Really?” he said, amazed. Around him the other whitecoats stirred excitedly.

“Yes, it's difficult but it's possible. You need to start the training when the Alien is very young—keep it away from the Queen so that it thinks of you as its parent.”

“Well that goes without saying for any animal,” Cross interjected. “We have separate containment pens already prepared.”

“Good.” Ripley smiled indulgently. “You're a very knowledgeable man Mr. Cross.”

Cross gave a terse nod at the compliment, willing her to keep talking.

“But the thing that you have to understand about Xenomorphs is that they're tactile creatures. They don't have eyes so they communicate through touch.” Ripley wiggled her handcuffed fingers to illustrate her point. “You won't be able to bond with them if you stay behind the glass. You need to get up close to interact with them.”

Cross pursed his lips again, thinking. “That makes things challenging. Is there a safe way to approach them?”

Ripley nodded seriously. “You need to watch the Alien's body language, wait until it acts docile. When it shows its second set of teeth, that's a sign of submission, it means it’s safe to approach it. Then you can start bonding.” Ripley held up her handcuffs and raised two purple claws. “Two fingers pressed to its forehead—that's the signal for attack. Hold something that smells like the enemy in front of its face and it will go sprinting off to kill every Union soldier. They're flawless trackers. And stealthy.”

Cross' tired eyes livened as he listened to Ripley's description. “Well,” he sighed, “that's fantastic news. I had assumed that we were going to have to control them with pain and fear tactics, but what you've described isn't too different from training modified dogs.” He paused, thinking again. “The Queen though—it must be too late to start taming it. It never lets us get close. It's always hostile.”

“I’m not surprised,” Ripley said exasperatedly, as if she'd dealt with the problem herself. “Queens are like that, prone to hysterics. Eggs are all she's good for.”

Cross smiled with humor again. “Well I can't wait to meet the rest of ' her ' family.”

Neither can I, Ripley thought cooly. She smiled back at Cross, congratulatory. “You'll have a very powerful army at your command, Mr.Cross. Just remember to start training the Xenomorphs early, as soon as they molt into adults. And get close , be sure to make physical contact.”

“Well,” Cross said doubtfully, glancing at the nervous whitecoats. “We'll work up to that. And only working under the proper safety procedures. I'm convinced that we can communicate with the beasts without risking injury at close range. We won’t approach until we sure that it's safe.”

You're not an idiot are you Dr.Cross? Oh well, I tried.

Cross leaned back in his chair and sighed contentedly as if he'd just eaten a satisfying meal, though he never actually touched his soup. “This was a successful first session, Ellen. I'm sure you'll remember more by next week, and then you'll be all the closer to your reward.”

“Wonderful,” Ripley droned. She'd meant for her voice to sound chipper, but she was unable to conjure up the enthusiasm.

Cross stood up and looked around at the other dinner guests. “As pleasant as this dinner is,” He said with genial authority. “I think we all have work to be doing. Skinner, I'll ask you to escort our lovely guest back to her cell.”

Rodriguez made a bitter face at Cross and stood up with the others, pushing his chair back against the table with child-like forcefulness.

“Rodriguez, you're meeting with her Wednesday for tutoring.” Cross said, his patience getting thin. “You can escort her then. There's no need to get huffy.”

“I'm going back in this?” Ripley grumbled, tugging at her purple gown. She winced as Skinner looped his scratchy wool sleeve around her elbow and pulled her close.

Cross smiled and leaned in towards Ripley, conspiratorially. “Don't worry, the body armor people are currently making you a new outfit, one that you'll like much better. You've got an important guest coming tomorrow night and you’ll need to make a good impression.”

“Oh, then I’d better get the carpet washed, buy a new flower pot for the mantlepiece.”

Cross gave her a congenial half smile. I know you , his face said, I'm your friend . “Don't worry. No more ‘lady’ nonsense. You just have to be yourself. And you are quite impressive no matter how you behave, Ellen.”

At that, Ripley felt her carefully contained frustration wrench itself to the surface. She wanted nothing more than to spit in Cross' smug, self-congratulatory face—she'd bite her tongue first, watch her blood eat through his eye. She was relieved when Skinner gently tugged her out into the hallway, leading her away from Cross.

Once her shackles were removed, and the cage door locked behind her, Ripley began pacing aggressively around her cage, dainty fabric swaying at her ankles.

She couldn't bear to wait anymore—she wanted out. No matter what new nightmare awaited her after the Alien breakout, it couldn't be any worse than living as an observed thing in a box. She could feel men's eyes on her at every moment, peering at her through the security camera while she was sleeping, while she was bathing, while she was picturing the whitecoats blindfolded by facehuggers.

A horrible wailing noise came from the other side of the wall—a cry that sounded two-parts swine and one-part human. The Queen, feeling sorry for herself again.

Whenever Ripley grew angry, she noticed that her rage affected her neighbor's behavior. The Queen was sensitive to Ripley's energy levels and the two always got pissed off in tandem.

The Queen's moans were shrill and grating and nauseating. For five minutes Ripley listened to the cries grow in intensity, the first fingers of a headache pushing their way into her temples.

Fuck. How long is she going to keep that up for? “Suck it up!” Ripley called. She waited another minute in agony, and then she walked over to the wall and slammed a hand against the metal. “Shut up!”

The Queen wailed louder, a new low frequency joining the high pitched screeches. Along with the squeals, Ripley could now hear a low pulsing—a vocal heartbeat—the pattern of the pulses changing like morse code.

Images and sensations entered her mind, delivered through her ears in a bizarre kind of language comprehension. For a moment she was staring at a cage wall that wasn't her own, seeing with something other than eyes, tasting the air with the tips of her fingers.

Frightened, Ripley locked up her mind and hissed discordantly to block out the Queen's voice. She backed away from the wall and curled up on the opposite side of her cage, lavender painted claws flexed defensively.

The Queen's shrieking stopped abruptly, replaced by heavy, raspy panting.

Ripley’s suffocating cage suddenly felt very safe and very necessary. She imagined that she could see her horrible neighbor through the metal, grinning patiently.

The last time that Ripley looked a Queen in the jaws she had been a full human, filled with maternal rage and the steadfast conviction that she was the opposite of her adversary. Back then she had believed herself to be a pillar of humanity pitted against the horrible other .

Now that conviction was gone.

Ripley realized that her hatred of the whitecoats was pushing her into an alliance with the most violent organism in existence. The Queen was more of a kindred spirit to Ripley than any of the humans on the ship.

Ripley’s eyes burned, water absorbing the dust around her eyelids. This wasn't who she wanted to be—she didn't want to be driven by spite. I need someone else in my life, Ripley thought, So badly.

Breathing deeply, Ripley closed her flooding eyes and imagined hands on her skin—comforting, loving hands.

Ripley had been lonely often in her life, stuck on filthy spaceships with men and straight women, isolated as a teen and as a young child. Loneliness usually felt like a mild ailment, no worse than a persistent headache. But now Ripley’s need for loving contact was so heavy that it was crushing her, deforming her into something unrecognizable.

Fantasizing about women was both torturous and healing—it was a cruel tease, but it helped RIpley to remember who she was, who she wanted to be with.

Rip inherited my taste in broads ,” is what Ripley's dad used to tell his friends. “ Like father like daughter .” Ripley always groaned when he said this. It was his way of embracing her sexuality, and she appreciated the sentiment, but the truth was that her tastes were nothing like her dad's. He used to like “lookers;” his name for conventionally attractive women who could tolerate his sense of humor and keep up with his sex drive.

By contrast, Ripley found powerful minds just as alluring as shapely bodies. When she was young and naive, she believed in a shallow definition of intelligence. She found her eye candy in the pictures next to newspaper headlines, lusting after women in pantsuits; scholars and business entrepreneurs and doctors. It wasn’t until she went to school for an astrophysics degree, and found herself drowning in pretension, that she began searching for glowing minds in the more inglorious niches of society. Oil-stained hands and a brilliant sense of humor were more attractive than a long number on a pay check.

Above all, what Ripley looked for in a partner was a shoulder to rest her tired head on--another exhausted, weather-beaten woman to lean against and relax with. Ripley could stomach her daily dose of workplace bigotry, so long as she had a like-minded lover to help her digest her anger at the end of the day.   

Another shrill noise invaded Ripley’s cell, tearing her away from her thoughts. The loudspeaker on the ceiling whined in prelude to a stale, banal man’s voice.    

“Number 8. You're crying? You’re in pain? I'll send a doctor down to you right away.”

An involuntary noise rumbled out from Ripley’s throat—it was a new sound, a growl, low and primal like a reptile's. Medics were the absolute worst of the whitecoats—they always touched Ripley unnecessarily, performing test after test to pinpoint the slightest problem. “I'm fine.” Ripley called, testily.

There was no response from the loudspeaker. Instead, Ripley heard footsteps approaching outside of her door.

Ripley could discern more than she wanted to from those footsteps--she could hear the joints of the bones creaking, heaving the flat feet like a clumsy machine.

The medic, Skinner, arrived without guards. He was still wearing his wool suit, as well as a pair of blue rubber gloves pulled up to his elbows.

In a fluid motion, Ripley rose to her feet and glowered down at the man, her purple claws twitching at her sides. “Don't touch me,” she growled.

“Hm. I see we'll need some sedative,” he said, pulling a syringe out of his coat.

Ripley swatted the syringe out of his hand and took a step forward, willing him back towards the door.

For an instant, the man looked frightened, and then the fear resolved itself into anger. “Number 8! I'm trying to help you. Why aren't you cooperating?”

Ripley narrowed her eyes at him, her brow crinkling in the anticipation of a snarl. She continued to walk forward, herding him towards the door.

“You were being such a good girl this morning,” Skinner looked hurt. “I got to escort you here, remember? You like me.”

Ripley was pinching her sentience by the end of a thread, dangling it over the lips of a well. With a simple flex of her fingers, she would lose sight of her human mind. She wasn’t out of control yet--she could still reel herself back in, remind herself of Amanda and snowy Chicago...and then let Skinner scour every inch of her body looking for an imaginary ailment. Or she could lose a few hours to happy unconsciousness.

Palm to chest, Ripley shoved Skinner backwards and sent him stumbling through the open doorway. Stiffly, Ripley turned her back to him and walked over to the far wall, breathing through her mouth. She sat down and curled into herself, dress stretching as she bent her knees.    

He might have gotten the message. But he didn’t. The creaking joints stumbled back to Ripley, bringing with them a susurrus of angry words that Ripley found increasingly difficult to understand. She only knew that the vocalizations were loud and abrasive, like gunfire, and they sent an instinctive shiver down her spine.

The bones, the joints, moved closer. Driven by a kind of animalistic curiosity, Ripley shot her hand out and grabbed one of the noisy joints, an ankle, and pulled it from under Skinner’s body, sending him sprawling flat on his back.

Ripley stood up and stared down at the squirming man, watched him struggle to catch his breath. Without articulating why, Ripley put her foot on his chest, gently preventing him from rising.

From the other side of the wall came a pulsating scream.

Chapter Text

Cross saluted the colonel indulgently as he entered the hallway outside of the holding pens. Padding along by the colonel's side was a silver-suited Mr.Dice, who was watching the military man with the calculating and hungry eye of a salesclerk.

Dice scowled when he realized which cage Cross was standing next to, the heavy metal door open wide with two guards standing by outside.

“Col. Barrett,” Cross said, his voice suave and professional. “if you'd spare a moment of your time, I'd like to show you a special bioweapon that we've been developing alongside the Alien Queen.”

Dice rolled his eyes exasperatedly but he kept his watch on the colonel, seeing if he'd bite the lame bait.

Apparently intrigued, the colonel wordlessly stepped up to the open doorway and looked inside. “A woman?” He said, confused.

“A monster,” Cross corrected him. “She's a flawless human-Xenomorph hybrid, capable of lifting objects five times her own weight.”

Ripley was kneeling, spine straight, in the center of her cage, watching the colonel sideways with a suspicious glare. The whitecoats had taken a completely different approach in dressing her this time, striving to emphasize the monster instead of the lady. She was wearing a form-fitting vest made from tough brown leather, which was coated in the same acid-proof solution as her handcuffs. The front was cut low enough to show off the scar on her chest, and there were leather straps running in horizontal rows along the abdomen, meant to mimic the rib bones on an Alien's thorax. Her pants matched the vest in style and fabric, and the ends were long enough to cover the tongues of her intimidating military boots. Her limp, curly hair hung just below her shoulders; her gently curving claws hung a foot above the ground.

Cross felt a shiver looking at her. Last night she'd proven herself to be more of a true weapon than the whitecoats had previously imagined. Their image of her as a Company lady shattered the moment that they saw the dark blood staining her evening gown.

Rodriguez and the other surgeons spent six hours tending to Skinner, sewing him up, picking the bits of lavender nail polish out of his ragged skin. The man was still comatose, bandaged like a burn victim and hooked up to a machine in the med center—he would have been lucky if she'd killed him.

Ripley became despondent following the incident. Cross had found her trembling, staring wide eyed at the bloody floor, her skin pale and glittering with sweat. She didn't resist when he shot her with a tranquilizer, in fact she submitted to sleep with apparent relief. In the morning Cross watched her slowly wake back into consciousness only to clench her eyes shut and curl herself into a ball. The guards used electric prods to get her to stand up, to change into her new outfit.

Now fear and desperation were creeping into Ripley’s eyes as she stared at the colonel. She seemed to realize what was being negotiated, what was at stake.

You did this to yourself, Ellen. Cross thought, feeling saddened and disappointed by his charge. You're officially a liability. The colonel is your last hope. You either live to kill or you don't live at all. That's the path you chose.

The colonel looked confused and somewhat off-put.

“She'd make a perfect foot soldier,” Cross suggested. “Her bones are unbreakable and she's extremely agile.”

“But she's one-of-a-kind, I assume?” the colonel asked, looking over at Cross.

“Yes—well,” Cross caught himself. “There were other attempts at cloning the host, but she's the only healthy hybrid.”

Col. Barrett shook his head. “That's no good. I need something for an army—something that can be mass-produced. You have the Alien mother here?”

Cross nodded, hiding his disappointment. “Yes, it's in the next cage over.”

“Show me.”

Cross took one last mournful look at Ripley. She had her eyes closed, her face creased in anguish. Regret was probably too complex an emotion to be grafting upon her (Cross wasn't one to anthropomorphize) but by all outward appearances, that was indeed what the poor creature was feeling. Ripley wrapped her arms around her shoulders—she knew that her life was about to end. A unique specimen, Cross thought. What a waste.

Dice gave Cross a condescending “I told you so” look as he lead them over to the next cage, but then he mended it with a genial smirk.

Cross smiled back without much enthusiasm.

Wincing at the grating sound made by the rusty metal, Cross slid aside the cover on the observation window of the Queen's cage. “I'm afraid that you're a bit early to see the full glory of the Alien project,” Cross admitted. “We're waiting on an essential delivery that's scheduled to arrive tonight.”

Colonel Barrett peered inside of the window. His hard granite face melted into dough as he moved his head around, trying to understand what he was looking at. Dice held back, casually dissenting to take a look at his figurative money maker.

The inside of the Queen's cage was pale white, the walls coated with a rough layer of small, glassy crystals. Suspended in the whiteness was a massive, black shape, hanging from the ceiling by thick, translucent threads. Glittering drops of saliva fell from the featureless opening at the front of the creature's head. Trailing from the abdomen was a was a pale, slimy tube that curled around the wall of the cramped cage, pulsating and convulsing. Below the tube were dozens of bulbous, tan-skinned pods, clinging to the floor with tiny black tentacles.

Col Barrett jumped slightly when Cross spoke. “We've coated the inside of all of the Alien cages with modified lye crystals—except for the hybrid's since it would burn her skin. It's strong enough to neutralize any acid, so it ensures that there's no chance of—“

“What is that—tube thing?” Colonel Barrett sputtered, interrupting.

“Ah, that's the ovipositor,” Cross responded, unperturbed by the colonel's lapse of professionalism. “And you see those leathery objects below the Queen? Those are the eggs.” Cross' throat thickened with pride and he swallowed politely before continuing. “We have quite a crop, as you can see. It's nice to know that soon we'll finally have a use for them.”

“Well, the project seems to be moving along just fine,” Colonel Barrett said, quickly. “I'll ask you to escort me back to the residence quarters, Mr. Dice.”

“Are you sure you—” Dice started. But the colonel was already halfway down the hallway, walking at a pace that was just below a run. Dice hurried after him, leaving Cross alone.

Cross stared at the Queen through the transparent metal window, observing the impressive, pointed spread of its crest. The creature slid its face out from the sheath in its neck, revealing its long, transparent teeth.

Number 8 had called it “she,” which was perhaps appropriate. The monster was a mother—the closest thing to a female of the species—despite having hermaphroditic anatomy. She was an alien in every sense—beautiful and horrible, and far stranger than anything that Cross had ever seen before.

In three hundred plus years of space exploration, mankind had never encountered anything else remotely comparable to the Xenomorph. The most advanced alien life form that was officially on the record was a species of brainless sea sponge, found on a frozen and resource-poor moon.

The Queen offered an exciting taste of the unknown, of the idealized version of space that man invented in the 20th century; something completely removed from the mundane expanse of empty rocks and stars that space explorers had grown accustom to.    

And the Queen was only the beginning; Cross could hardly wait to meet her children.




+++++++++++++



Call and Goodman sat in pilot's chairs, cooped up inside of the Betty's dark cockpit, watching the image of the Auriga grow larger through the front window.

Call felt the lining of her jacket for the hundredth time, checking to see if there were any noticeable bumps. Her statuesque partner was keeping a perfect show of relaxation as he reclined in the captain’s chair, his un-calloused hands resting atop his muscled chest.

The man had sandy blonde hair that was shaved close to his scalp, a sculpted face that was perpetually spattered with light stubble, and a neck that was nearly as broad as his head.

As per usual, Goodman's thoughts were a mystery to Call. She and him seemed to share the same need for caution and secrecy. They both maintained superficial relations with everyone that they met in open space, and had only slightly more candid understandings of each other. Worn by Goodman, the aloofness came across as heroic stoicism, but Call's reserve made her seem misanthropic and timid.

Call valued Goodman’s company above nearly everything else in her life. Having the right to be his friend was an unbelievable privilege. He was extremely gracious, and although their conversations never wandered far into personal territory, Call felt a strong connection with the man, a sense of community.

Both of the friends were raised in Company society, and they both—to varying degrees—ascribed to the social norms set in place by the mandates of the Great Chairman. Call obeyed the social laws out of fear and out of practice. But Goodman was much bolder—he owned the rules and bent them as he pleased, safeguarded by his birthright.

His head was held high by his assurance of his own significant worth, but he was still charitable enough to bend down and embrace Call for all of her egregious flaws.

Call suspected that this was only because he wasn't aware of the worst of her flaws—she was careful to keep him in the semi-dark—but still, his warm attention made her feel wanted. Goodman had a perfect, shallow vision of who she was. His presence allowed her to forget about her insecurities for a while.

To ease her nervousness, Call decided to strike up a purposefully bland conversation. “The ship is shaped kind of like a knife,” she said, her voice croaking a bit. She realized that this was the first thing she'd said in about eight hours. Her mouth was dry and sticky. “I mean, because the bow is so pointed.”

“Mm. Yeah,” Goodman said, sounding distracted by his own thoughts. “That was the style pre Mason-Dixon wars. Ships used to be all sharp edges and rough textures. Now CCA's designs are really sleek. It's because they bought the rights to that ore planet in the Castor system. The one with all of the rare, moldable metals.” Goodman started to ramble. “Like lutumium, which is as soft as clay at room temperature, but it's hard as diamond in space. Funny thing is, the lutumium ships can't ever land on a planet or they'd melt.”

Call already knew all of this, but she nodded as if Goodman were teaching her something interesting. It was nice when she got Goodman talking—she didn't have to risk anything by contributing to the conversation, she could just listen and passively agree with everything that he said. Already, she could feel the tight knots of anxiety in her chest starting to slacken. Playing casual was easier when she had another skilled, stony-faced actor to react to.

“These old ships are so slow that the Company uses them as space stations,” Goodman continued. “I bet the Auriga hasn't moved an inch in a hundred years.”

Call stared at the white razor shape floating in the blackness. In space, there were no landmarks that could be used to gauge the size or distance of an object. Call knew that the Auriga was many times larger than the Betty and that it was a static form in the featureless void. Yet from her perspective, it looked like a small knife that was rushing toward her through the darkness, the point headed straight for her throat.

In her imagination, there was a hand gripping the hilt, dressed in a black glove that blended with the backdrop. Call sat helplessly, feeling her anxiety start to reignite as the ship grew from the size of a scalpel blade, to the size of a switchblade, to the size of a machete.

“Goodman,” Call found herself saying. “Have you ever killed anyone before?”

There was a marked silence, and Call began to fear that she'd asked the wrong thing.

“Never when it wasn't justified,” Goodman sighed. “When I'm on duty I have to be thinking about my own life, and the lives of the other officers, and the civilians' safety. I have a good instinct. I know when someone's about to attack me.”

This bit into Call—but she wasn't going to argue with Goodman. “Have your instincts ever been wrong?” She asked, trying to sound casually curious, not accusatory.

Goodman looked at her, hurt shining in his blue eyes. “I'm not that kind of cop, Call. You know that. The moment I first saw you I decided to protect you. Legally I was obliged to shoot you on the spot, do you understand that? I would be tried for treason if CCA ever found out what I did.”

“I know, I'm sorry,” Call said, choking up a little. “My mind is in a strange place right now.”

Goodman sighed and smiled wistfully at Call. “The moment I lay eyes on you I knew you had a good soul. That was my instinct. And I was right.”

Call started to tear up, her wet eyes highlighted by the white light reflecting off of the Auriga's growing hull.

Goodman walked over to her and placed a large hand on her shoulder. “Whatever happens, just know that you really do have a soul. Your life is important, whatever the Chairman says.”

Call blinked, reigning in her tears. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Goodman kneeled down by the side of her chair and wrapped his arm around Call's shoulders. They stayed that way for a few minutes, Call watching the white expanse of the Auriga cover up the stars, holding a high note of comfort for as long as she could.

And then she noticed that Goodman was staring at her intensely. She began to fear that he wanted something more. Call turned her head away awkwardly, hoping that she wasn't seeming rude.

“I should...wake the crew up. We'll be docking soon,” Call said, a little too quickly to be casual. She made to get up but Goodman gently held her in place with his arm.

“They'll get up on their own when it’s time.”

Call broke away from Goodman's embrace and climbed out of the chair. “I don't know, Elgyn likes his sleep. I just think that I should make sure that everything goes smoothly.” She walked briskly out of the cockpit and disappeared into the dorsal hallway, leaving Goodman alone.

The point of the Auriga spread into a flat plane and filled the view of the cockpit window.

 


++++++++++++

 

“There ya go, a-dozen-and-one human popsicles.” With a chiming of glass, Elgyn and Johner carefully set the last hypersleep chamber down on the floor of the Auriga's ship hangar.

Cross shook their hands. “Wonderful, gentlemen. Thank you.”

“We're not gentlemen,” grumbled Johner, flipping through his new bundle of cash.

“So where are you going keep us until my ship's refueled?” Elgyn asked.

“You'll stay the night in the resident's quarters,” Cross said, with passive contempt. “If you follow Mr. Martin, he'll take you there.”

The Betty's crew filed out of the shipping dock and Cross studied them as they went. He saw four muscle-bound men of varying degrees of grisliness, one alarmingly sexual female with a ring on her finger, and one more woman, who slipped past Cross before he got a good look at her. He was surprised that they had even made it through security. Drifters were crude, dirty, violent folk who usually kept razors in every pocket.

The drifter's ship was huge for a passenger vessel, and it just barely fit inside of the airlock tunnel. It's bulk filled the ship hangar and blocked all access to the airlock, which meant that no trash could be disposed of until the drifters left in the morning. Number 8 had been granted an extra night to live with her monstrous self.

The news of the blocked airlock was broadcast over the PA, which meant that the hybrid was aware of her postponed execution. Cross felt mild pity for her.

Thoughtlessly, the neurobiologist wiped some of the frost from the glass on the nearest sleep chamber. It revealed the placid face of a young man with glasses. He was blue in the lips—obviously kept too cold by the idiotic drifters—but still alive.

There was no reason to wait any longer.

Chapter Text

The hallway outside of the cages was dark and silent in the late hours of the night. White mice shuffled along the cracks at the edges of the doors, smelling their way through their rust and metal world.

All at once they scattered, frightened by a figure entering the hallway. A slender shape slipped into the lightless tunnel, boots padding noiselessly on the bare floor.

Call stopped in front of the first cage in the row. Her black-gloved hand emerged from her pocket, gripping a scalpel with practiced poise. She used it to remove the cover of the door's lock panel, the rare metal blade easily carving through the steel. With the cover removed, the lock's coiling internal wires were exposed. Call placed wire clamps—some metal, some rubber—in different places along the circuitry, redirecting the flow of electricity.

Her only hope of escape, The Betty, was secured in the ship hangar 11 floors above her, surrounded by sealed gates. She had no idea how she and Goodman were going to get back to it in time to escape—before too long, the security guards would notice that their monitors were all playing loops.

At the moment though, escape wasn't important to Call. She had her job to do first.

Several tense minutes passed in the darkness as she rearranged the wire clamps, trying to figure out how to manipulate the old-fashioned mechanism of the lock. Meanwhile, Goodman was fulfilling his part of the mission, making his way to the sixth floor to rescue the thirteen sleepers.

Call was starting to sweat, the lock seeming more and more like an unsolvable puzzle. After fifteen minutes of tinkering with the complex grid of wires, she finally heard a “clunk” and the heavy cage door swung open a crack, letting a white stripe of light into the hallway. With a mixture of relief and apprehension, Call slipped inside and closed the door behind her.

The host was lying on her back in the center of the round cage, an arm thrown over her eyes to shield from the glaring florescent lights on the ceiling. Her breathing was languid and her muscles were slack.

Good, she's asleep , Call thought. I can make this as painless as possible . Call drew a long knife from the hidden pocket in the lining of her coat. She turned it around in her black-gloved fingers, steeling her nerves. The knife was a crude replacement for humane euthanasia, but Call worked with what she had.

Cautiously, she approached the host and knelt down by her side, her blade held sideways over the woman's smooth throat. She tried hard not to study the host's appearance—that would only make her job harder—yet she couldn't help but be distracted by the woman's strange outfit. The clothes made no sense—why would the scientists bother to dress her in form-fitting leather when they were going to throw her out once the beast was born?

And then another detail caught her eye: a white scar on the woman's chest; the work of a clumsy surgeon. Horrible realization dawned on Call's face.

In a powerful blur, the host pounced. Before Call's brain had time to catch up, her body was flat on the ground, the wind knocked from her lungs, the hosts snarling face a foot above hers. On instinct, she tried to lash out with her knife, but her arm was locked in place, a set of strong fingers and sharp claws wrapped around the wrist of her knife hand.

“Jesus!” Call gasped, eyes wide with fear. She tried to squirm free. In response the host’s free hand shot out and took hold of her neck. The host stood up, lifting Call skyward until their faces were an inch apart.  

The host stared down at Call, confused. Her lips settled into place over her teeth as she studied her would-be assassin. She tilted her head to leer at Call from the corners of her eyes. “Who are you?” she whispered.  

“I'm not going to hurt you!” Call gasped, tugging at the woman’s wrists. “I don't need to. They took it out of you.”

The confusion on the host's face resolved itself a little. “You mean the Alien?” She croaked, sounding amazed. Call recognized the strangled quality of the host's voice—she had the thick throat of someone who hadn't spoken in many hours. “You came here to stop the Alien from being born?” She said it in a distant voice, as if speaking to herself, testing how the sentence sounded.

Her grip on Call’s throat had never been tight to begin with, but now it relaxed to the point of gentleness. The host’s expression loosened with her fingers, softening into an apologetic frown. “You’re too late,” she whispered. The sides of her claws brushed Call’s neck as she pulled her hand away. “By more than three months. The Queen is an adult already.”

Call felt like she'd been pushed off of a building. “What?” she breathed, face feeling numb. “Where is it?” she demanded. “Is it on the ship?” She tried to tug her knife hand free, but the host’s grip held fast.    

“The Queen is in the next cell over,” the host said, nodding toward the wall, “but you can’t go in there with nothing but a knife. She’s strong enough to rip you in half.” The host pried the knife from Call’s hand and tossed it across the room where it landed with a clatter. And then she let go and took a few steps back. Her eyes roamed over Call uncertainly, the sudden absence of violence leaving a tense vacuum in the air. She dropped down to her knees, looking tired.

Call steadied her breathing, her legs taught like compressed springs, ready to bolt. She looked longingly at her knife, lying on the far side of the cell. Call wanted nothing more than to put distance between herself and those unnaturally strong, clawed hands. but as it was, she was completely out of resources; no part of her former plan could be salvaged. She had no idea what she was going up against, with an adult Alien Queen alive on the ship.

Call forced herself to meet the eyes of the host--which watched her back with cautious fascination. On her knees, the woman's daunting height was diminished. She seemed less a predator, more a harrowed prisoner.

“You have to tell me,” Call said, trying to sound authoritative, “How do I kill the Alien?”

The host shook her head somberly. “You can't kill her. There's no way to stop the Aliens from being born—the hosts are already here. All that we can do is wait for them to break out...and then we break out with them.” She glanced at the unlocked door on the wall behind Call. “If we run out now we'll be shot. Their freedom is our freedom.”

Wait for them to break out? Call's skin prickled. She's delusional. Call racked her brain, trying to think of a way to kill the Alien remotely. She skimmed her eyes over the walls of the cell, flailing desperately for inspiration. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she registered the bleakness of the clone woman’s living space, noticed it’s lack of a bed and windows. Her eyes settled on the rib-bone pipes lining the walls, and a fragile idea materialized. “If the Queen's cage has pipes like these,” she told the host, thinking aloud. “Then I can break into the boiler room and increase the pressure until they burst, flood the Alien's cage with water.”

The host raised her eyebrows, impressed. “That's smart, but unfortunately the Aliens can breathe water. They can breathe anything.”

“Weapons then. I could steal a gun.”

“She's bulletproof. You can't waste your time trying to kill the Queen.”

Call shook her head angrily. “I have to kill it. I can't let everyone on this ship die.”

“They brought it on themselves,” the host said, cooly. “You need to start planning for your own survival...and I'll help you. I don’t want to survive alone.”

No one is going to survive now, Call realized numbly. Goodman is going to trigger his bomb; that's the only option left. Call pushed the thought out of her mind—it was too overwhelming.

Call turned around to face the door, wondering where she should go next, whether she should look for Goodman.

“You're safest if you stay in here,” the host said. “The guards are looking for you; I can hear them. If they catch you in the hallways then they’ll shoot you on the spot. I know how these people work. But If they find you in here, then they’ve already got you cornered. They’ll arrest you without a fight.”

“You're suggesting that I let myself get captured?” Call said the sentence distractedly, wringing out her brain for ideas.

“You'll be killed doing anything else. And you won't stay locked up for long. I'll come find you after the breakout.”

“The Alien breakout?” Call whispered, clarifying.

The host nodded, apologetically.

Call stared at the host, at the red-tinted rims of her eyelids. The stillness of the host’s body made for a convincing show of stoicism, but the minute movements of her eyes conveyed something desperate and over-eager. Living in an isolated cell had made this woman starved for company. But how long had she been in here, only three months?

Suddenly, Call felt the full gravity of her own failure. She thought that she’d planned everything carefully, that she understood enough about the Aliens to stop them from breeding. But the host--who was supposed to be mute and helpless--was somehow an adult woman, and the Alien mother was already born. Call had completely misjudged the entire situation, and now she was standing 11 floors deep in a ship swarming with gunmen. And Goodman was about to use his bomb.

A rush of panic released the tension in Call’s legs, sending her springing towards the door. She pushed it open a portion and looked out. The hallway was lighted now, the ship waking up. Call halted uncertainly.

She flinched when a hand appeared on her shoulder, the claws running down from the fingertips like wet drops of paint.

“Take it easy,” The host whispered, pulling Call backwards into the room. “Don't waste your energy running around in a panic.” She wedged herself between Call and the exit and shut the door with one arm.

Call came out of her paralysis and leered up at the host, at the stranger blocking her only exit. Call brushed against a hostile nerve, and she threw herself at the host, attempting to shove her aside.

Grunting in surprise, the host grabbed Call by the arms and pushed her backwards, sending her a third of the way across the cage. She leered at Call, the beginning of a snarl pinching her brow. “I’m not going to let you get yourself killed.”

Heavy nausea sank through Call's body. She wasn’t strong enough to wrestle past this monstrous clone. She was trapped, from now until the moment that Goodman hit the trigger.

The cage shifted its topography, wrinkling like old skin, and Call dropped to her knees before her legs could collapse of their own accord. She wiped her eye sockets with the heel of her palm, catching drops of sweat.

When she lowered her hand, she saw that the host was kneeling right in front of her, claws hidden under folded fingers.

Call studied her, resentment knotting up her gut. A cloyingly soft expression had found its way onto the host’s previously stony face; she looked like she felt genuinely sorry for Call. The sympathy only served to make Call angry. Absolutely nothing about this woman—who and what she was—made any sense. Call wondered if she'd been tricked, if she'd somehow mined false data from the Company archives. “How can you...” Call trailed off. “Who are you?”

To Call's continued confusion, the host smiled slightly, melancholy humor tinting her eyes. “It feels nice to finally be asked that. The whitecoats spent a long time trying to figure out who I am, but they never bothered to ask me. My name is Ripley, Ellen, lieutenant first class, number 36706.” She sounded proud of her name.

Ellen Ripley—Call knew the name well. It cropped up again and again in the reports that she'd hacked from the archives. Ripley was a former Weyland employee who fought the Aliens at various points throughout history, enigmatically appearing and disappearing in tune with the Aliens. And this is her clone, Call reminded herself. Did the scientists tell her that she's the real Ripley, just to be cruel?

Call couldn't help but feel a little sorry for her. “Ellen Ripley died two hundred years ago,” Call said, apologetically. “You're not really her.”

Ripley screwed her eyes shut as if she’d just been spat at. She sighed tersely. And then her mouth configured itself into a wry, tight-lipped smile. “You shouldn't say that,” she threatened jokingly. “You'll ruin my happy delusion. I'd rather be a long dead woman than a mindless creature, and it's my prerogative to decide. After all, I have Ripley's brain and memories and most of her body.”

“You have her memories?” said Call, incredulously.

“I do.” Ripley said quietly. “They're actually the Queen's memories, but they're an exact copy of mine—from before I died.” Judging by the look on Ripley's face, she didn't actually expect Call to understand this explanation.

Call narrowed her eyes in confusion, but she decided not to push the subject. Instead her eyes wandered down to Ripley's hands, which were discreetly concealing her claws.

“You're looking for these?” Ripley raised a hand unhappily, waving her fingers dismissively to convey her contempt for her own claws. “I hate violence, I always have. But these are a necessary evil. I need to keep up with the Aliens.”

“You have some kind of mutation?”

“Yes I do,” Ripley said, her voice trailing off. Her gaze dropped quickly, as if she didn't want to see Call's reaction. She stared at her claws, rubbing them with her thumb. “These are the only things that show through the surface, but there's more. My bones are black—like an Alien's.”

“The Alien mutated you?” Call choked, appalled.

Ripley sucked on her lips, her eyes never rising from her claws. “When we were cloned together, the Queen and I got some of our wires crossed. Accidental gene splicing.”

Call didn't know what to say. She found herself believing the hybrid's story—somehow this woman really was Ellen Ripley, tainted by the creatures that ruined her life.

With Ripley's gaze averted, Call stole an automatic glance towards the door. She had to assume that Ripley's animalistic side could be switched back on just as fast as it could disappear. She could never run fast enough to escape Ripley's apparently well-meaning custody.

“You seem very human,” Call said absently, her mind sprinting through the hallways outside, “considering the extent of your mutations.”

Ripley looked up. “Well, I'm glad that I give you that impression. But you should count yourself lucky that you're not some brutish man with a gun. You'd be seeing a very different side of me.” Ripley's eyes darted sideways, as if she was a bit afraid of what she'd just said.

“You mean...I don't look like I could pose a threat to you.”

“I wouldn't assume that.” Ripley did a quick up-and-down scan of Call's body.

“But, I think you did assume that. That's why you're sitting here and talking with me. ”

Ripley didn't say anything.

“I attacked you with a knife,” Call reminded her, meekly.

“Truth be told, I was expecting to meet with my death tonight. But I assumed that it would come in the form of a whitecoat with a syringe. I guess you were enough of a pleasant surprise...” Ripley seemed to want to change the subject. “What's your name?”

“Call, Grace,” said Call, feeling ridiculous. She had no explanation as to why she was casually confiding in a hostile stranger, when they were both about to die by nuclear explosion. The situation drew a perverse parallel to the time that Call used to spend with her terminal patients, getting to know a person in the hours before their death. Maybe, Call thought dryly, this is how I was always meant to go out, providing company for one last diseased intern.

“Call. You came here on the ship that brought the hosts, right? That's how you snuck in.”

Call nodded, impressed by Ripley’s reasoning.

“So you're from the Union then. You're here to sabotage the Company.”

Reflexively, Call was reluctant to disclose any information about herself. But she knew that no information was ever going to leave this ship; nothing that she could say could have any consequences. “No, actually,” Call said. “I lived most of my life in Company territory, on Earth, in San Francisco.”

Ripley looked astonished. “Really, you're a Company lady? Her lips curled into the start of a grin. “And you're an insurgent.”

Insurgent— that word stung. Call came to the Auriga to save human lives, not to spit in the face of her former Company.

Ripley's smile grew. “I would have thought they'd put a thinking woman like you in a taffeta straight jacket. How have you managed to survive?”

Call looked hopelessly at the door of the cage--she didn't like this line of questioning. She thought that she heard a gunshot ring out somewhere far away. “I had to leave the Company. My hospital's practices were dehumanizing.”

“You're a doctor?”

“I was a doctor. An ER surgeon.”

“And you had the guts to abandon your corrupt country. That’s impressive.”

Call blinked. Ripley must be making fun of her, somehow. “Impressive?” she said incredulously. “What do you mean? I’m an exile, I don’t have a home anymore.”

“Well then, that’s something the two of us have in common,” Ripley said distantly. “All the more reason for us to help each other survive.”

“Christ,” Call breathed.

“I know there’s nothing to like about this situation. But you’re an enemy to the both whitecoats and the Aliens. Does it make any sense for both of us to be on our own out there?”

Call hardly heard Ripley, she was sinking fast into a new pit of nausea, her eyes hovering over the cage door. Her body stiffened, waiting for the axe to drop at any second.

Ripley read the shift in Call's mood. “The guards won’t hurt you, I promise. Nothing's lost yet.”

Ripley's concern was uncomfortably genuine, and it made Call feel all the worse. In three years of living as a drifter, Goodman was the only person who’d ever bothered to be a friend to Call. Hearing a vow of loyalty from a stranger was alarming; Call would have felt more comfortable receiving a condescending slur or a punch in the stomach.

Suddenly wanting to be alone, Call stood up, turned around, and leaned face-forward against the wall, bringing her arm between her forehead and the metal. She couldn't hear any footsteps, but she knew that Ripley must be right behind her, ready to take hold of her shoulder.

Her back tingled with anticipation as she fought the urge to lash out with a fist.

She was surprised that when Ripley spoke, her voice sounded far away.

“It won't be long now. It sounds like they're messing with the cameras. They’re fixing whatever you broke.”

Call turned around to see that Ripley was standing on the other side of the Cell, close to the door. Her eyes were fixed on a small, black lens on the ceiling.

“When they come in here,” Ripley said, taking a few steps towards Call. “You need to do everything that they tell you. Raise your hands and drop to your knees immediately.”

A cold drop of sweat slithered down Call's spine. Goodman needed to hurry up and pull the trigger.

Ripley drew closer. “I’ll come and find you as soon as I can after the breakout. If you see an Alien before I can get to you... hide. You won’t be able to outrun it.”

Again, Call felt the urge to punch Ripley, just to have something tangible to fight. The hybrid woman said terrifying things with such a calm and reassuring lilt--it was maddening.

Footsteps sounded from outside the door, clapping through the the hallway. The door burst open with ridiculous force, and Call’s desire to fight Ripley gave way to the impulse to grab her and hold her close.

The guards rushed in, barking conflicting orders. In an instant, a cluster of gun barrels filled Call’s vision, trembling like the snouts of sniffing attack dogs.

Call threw her arms up and dropped to her knees. And then rough, gloved hands were all over her, pinning her arms to her sides. The guards hoisted her into the air as if she weighed nothing and carried her towards the door. She craned her neck to get a look at Ripley, who was kneeling, obscured by a curtain of guards and guns.

Her concerned gaze followed Call as she was hauled out into the hallway.

Chapter Text

The guards incarcerated the entire Betty crew, no questions asked. Each crew member was plucked from their bed in the middle of the night and introduced to a cold metal floor.

Call could hear Johner screaming at the guards as he was dragged into a cell adjacent to hers, his boots screeching against the floor. “You fucking Company bitches! I ain't no fucking terrorist!”

The other crew members submitted with quieter slurs, filling three of the other cells along the hallway. Goodman wasn't with them, which meant that he was still on the loose.

Call hadn't been taken far from where she was captured—she was in a spare Alien cage five doors down from Ripley's cell. It was similar in shape to Ripley's, but the walls were dark gray, almost black, and streaked at the top with white mineral buildup.

Call's vicious conscience was waiting for her inside of the tall, empty cage—and it had plenty of fresh wounds to nip at this time.

Human lives...It's all my fault...any time now, Goodman will trigger the bomb. I deserve to die a hundred times over.

The bomb was remote activated—it could be triggered from a distance of up to 55 million miles—that meant that potentially, Goodman could make it back to the Betty and blow the ship as he escaped. This was the one hair of hope that Call had to cling to; it was immensely comforting to think that her one friend might survive her failure. But it was also hell to think about everyone else on the ship, to imagine their faces disappearing into flames.

Ripley, whether she was trustworthy or not, showed impressive willpower in her effort to keep her old identity intact; she refused to be the monster that her anatomy suggested she should be. It was a such a shame that she’d never get a chance to make something of her new life.

The metal skin of Call’s cage was slightly lustrous, enough that Call could see a blurry version of herself reflected on the opposite side of the cell. This is my final hour with myself, she thought numbly, and she sat down against the wall, her body continuing to sink into a slouching heap. The clothes and hair of her reflection blended with the black backdrop, leaving her pale, blurry face to drift in space like a partially shadowed moon. Call pulled her gloves off and let her sweaty hands breathe. The ten dexterous fingers blurred into two swaths of white, and Call’s reflected image looked like a bunch of achromatic smudges, not like a person.

Call didn't want to die at this pathetic point in her life, caught in the act of sabotaging her former Company. Five years ago, if she'd looked at her reflection she would have seen herself in a pristine white coat, her posture straight and trim, hair long and pulled back in a tight bun. Back then, just as she did now, Call spent her time hiding from the eyes of others, afraid that someone would see through her skin. The difference was that her disguise back then was professional and reasonably respectable.

She used to love working in the ER. Every one of her patients became a kind of friend to her. She'd spend hours in the recovery ward listening to factory machine victims ramble about their awful marriages--for once safe from the scrutiny of social monitors--and she'd hold the hands of terminal cancer patients as they whispered their painful secrets, shedding weight before death.

None of the patients ever passed judgement on Call. To them, she was an anonymous receptacle for their pain, a universally human icon. Call felt at home around her patients; something that she felt nowhere else. She would go out of her way to make them happy, buying them small gifts just to watch them smile for the first time since the onset of their illness.

Call treated all kinds of people; organic humans and synthetic humans, bourgeois and working class. The synthetics were segregated into a different recovery ward away from the real humans, but Call always made her rounds to visit them.

The dying secrets that the synthetics whispered to Call usually shared a common theme—they wished, despite everything that they’d been taught, that they could have lived their “lives” as equals to the organics. It was dangerous, radical thinking, but Call never told a soul.

The only patients that Call never spoke with were the “dent heads.” The dent heads were a breed of badly wounded synthetics that showed up at the hospital again and again. These particular patients Call regarded with raging mixed emotions, her learned hatred threatening to overpower her natural sympathy.

The dent heads were synthetics who had been accused of having homosexual inclinations. Their slang name described their injuries. The normal synthetics—the ones who put the deviants in the hospital—always attacked the victim's face during the mob beatings. They did this in the interest of causing the greatest pain possible to the victim. Synthetics had more control over their bodies than organics, and they could shut off the nerves in any part of their body below the neck—but not the head.

Secretly, Call was terrified that she would end up like the dent heads. Their battered faces haunted the back of her mind at all times. Every time that she decided to go out to socialize, she thought about the mobs and changed her mind.

Call didn't know which version of herself was the real one—the disgraced exile or the reclusive surgeon. Looking back, Call felt like she’d lived her life as an incomplete organism, with a net of flimsy scar tissue strung across holes where organs should be. She’d been more complete early on in her life, when she was young and un-self-conscious, but since then she’d made a strong and deliberate effort to un-form herself. Once she realized how wrong she was, she tried to devolve her person back to the bones, to methodically undo her personality so that she could regrow in a way that was normal. But it didn’t work. It just left her feeling empty and half-formed. And loveless.

Call was surprised that in her lifetime of being an embarrassment, it was her perpetual singleness that stood out as her deepest regret. Relationships were a landmark of life that she’d missed, and she was sorry for it.

She made herself believe for a long time that she could self-operate, that she could remove her disease through concentration, but each private attempt at aversion therapy, and each awkward sexual foray with a man only angered the stunted, starving beast in Call’s gut.  

In the daytime, under the scrutinizing florescent lights of the hospital, Call was put-together and controlled, but at night she submitted to depraved fantasies, tossing and turning as women kissed along her brainstem, humiliating and elating her.

After her exile--when her life became a maze of filthy drifter ships--the scrutinizing daytime light changed colors; it became grimy yellow and dull instead of white and sterile, but the nights never changed. Even after she met Goodman, the kind of man that she should be swooning for, Call’s shameful fantasies continued. Sometimes they were extremely enjoyable, sometimes they hypnotized Call into letting go of her shame--until the lights snapped back on in the morning and she was forced to look at herself again.

Sighing, Call leaned her head back against the cage wall and stared up at the glowing panel of lights on the ceiling. What if she had acted on her impulses and slept with a woman? Even if she’d been exposed for her depravity, been kicked and spat on by her peers like she’d always feared, then at least she would feel less hollow than she did now. Her efforts toward maintaining morality seemed awfully worthless now, shriveling into nothing next to the gaping mouth of death.   

Call rubbed the back of her stiffening neck, trying to imbue herself with some sense of comfort, but the presence of her own hand was unwelcome--she wanted to snap at it, like an abused dog. Call was reminded of the way that she used to soothe patients who were at death's door, how she would find the positives in a person's life story and remind them of their accomplishments. She wished that she knew how to do that for herself, but her kindness never extended inwards. Call’s charity was a luxury for other people.

No more helping people. No more saving lives. This is where it ends for me. In this windowless cage in an anonymous corner of space.

Chapter Text

Goodman was growing sick of the sound of his own suppressed breathing. The right half of his face was pressed flat against the inside of an air conditioning box, the cold metal made slippery from his dripping sweat. His legs were curled flat against his chest, his right arm raised above his head, ready to lift the top of the AC box in an instant if necessary. He'd been hiding in the cramped box for more than twenty minutes, counting seconds in his mind as he listened to a pack of guards pass him twice in the hallway outside.

Earlier, he had nearly made it into the room with the sleepers—the incubation chamber—but he'd found it to be swamped with whitecoats securing the restraints. One of them spotted Goodman right away, and the normally brazen, combative man had been playing a game of stealth ever since, running from hiding place to hiding place.

His first objective was finding a weapon, something to steel his nerves. Once he was armed he would start looking for Call—he'd rescue her from whatever jail she was locked up in, and then they'd get back to the Betty and escape. The little metal cylinder clipped to his belt would stay behind to make dead sure that nothing followed them.

Carefully, Goodman lifted the top of the AC box and peered out into the empty hallway. He would stay on the sixth floor, he decided. Using the ladders or the elevators was too risky, and he expected that he would be able to find guns on every floor of a weapons laboratory. Making sure that the hinges didn't squeak, Goodman pushed the door of the AC box the rest of the way open and climbed out into the hallway.

Goodman couldn't help but balk at the bizarre interior of the ship as he crept his way through winding hallways, searching for a gun locker or a firearm testing area. The Auriga was an ugly, skinless carcass; a far cry from the polished, attractive designs of Company police ships and upper-class planet colonies. Curving steel rafters and fat, twisting pipes intertwined on the ceilings above Goodman's head, looking like skeletons inset with brass intestines. While passing through a string of dusty back rooms Goodman glimpsed a few relics left over from the Auriga's days as a cruise ship—he saw bits of elegant wallpaper clinging to the steel bones, and an ornate solar-system-themed light fixture constricted by electrical wires.

Clanging boots sounded from a few bends ahead in the tunnel, and Goodman froze. He backtracked and took a different direction at an intersection, quelling his pounding heart. Side-stepping into an empty room, he found himself in a gallery of some sort, a display area for the Auriga's successful weapon models.

Goodman was surrounded by glass display cases filled with guns and grenades of all sizes. Hungrily, he prowled the gallery, searching for the weapon that would best complete his arm. He knew that the second that he broke the glass on a display case he would have to make a run for it—he needed to choose carefully.

He noticed that there was a second room attached to the gallery—the words above the door read “BIO WEAPONRY.” Intrigued, Goodman slipped inside.

He was in no way prepared for what he found.

A family of man-sized glass canisters were lined up along the walls of the square room, a number engraved at the base of each display. Dull green lights illuminated the canisters, revealing, in hideous detail, the disfigured things floating in the fluid inside.

Goodman whirled around, surrounded by nightmares.

Number 5: A melted, misshapen simile of a female child. Its ribcage was on the outside, its head smooth and eyeless.

Number 1: A pink human fetus with a grossly elongated cranium and a snake-like tail curling around its body.

Number 7: Fully grown, almost a woman, with an extra mouth and skinless, black hands.

Each creature was lifeless, kept from rotting by preservative chemicals. Goodman swallowed hard to stop himself from vomiting. What the hell is this?

He noticed a digital plaque bolted to the wall by the entrance.

 

Xenomorph host cloning trials

numbers 1-7. Early cloning attempts

suffered from severe birth defects due to

accidental gene splicing. Each specimen

was terminated once its deformities became

life-threatening. Number 8 stands as the

only trial specimen to survive into adulthood,

despite pronounced internal mutations.

 

Number 8? Goodman thought, alarmed. There's another one? Forcing himself to look back towards the mutants, he saw that there was an empty canister in a dark corner of the room, an “8” engraved at its base.

This missing monster scared Goodman even more than the others. That's the host that Call went off on her own to kill? A renewed sense of urgency seized Goodman. He imagined fragile Call, armed only with a knife, coming face to face with a revolting, misshapen monster.

Goodman ran back into the first room of the gallery and pushed over a case containing a pulse rifle the size of a human leg. He winced as a shrill siren sounded from the loudspeakers overhead. Quickly, he picked the gun from the broken glass and secured the harness around his chest.

He took off into the next hallway, the barrel of his new gun held out in front of him like a guide. He needed to find a new niche to hide in, some place where he could overhear the guards talking. He didn't know where Call was being kept, and he couldn't afford to run around recklessly until he found her. He hoped that the guards could give him a clue as to her whereabouts.

 

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++

 

 

Three-and-a-half anxious hours passed as Call waited in her cell, her back growing sore from leaning against the hard metal wall.

He's not going to trigger the bomb, is he?

Hot frustration and cool, guilty relief swam around in the pit of Call's stomach. Admittedly, she was glad to be alive. But she felt completely useless, waiting idly inside of a cell while the scientists prepared to breed a lethal, uncontrollable organism. Without Goodman's bomb, there was no hope of preventing the Aliens from being shipped off to the warfront. There was no way to contain the spread.

Call's stolen data had provided her with limited information on the Xenomorphs—it was mostly lists of body counts—but as a doctor, she was able to deduce a lot about the threat that the Aliens posed to humans. She understood that the Xenomorphs were a disease akin to anthrax bacteria. Given the chance, they would spread their spawn and invade every corner of human habitation, killing indiscriminately.

Call didn't want to die, but she was willing to give her small life in order to save countless others. Criticizing Goodman was difficult, but it was apparent to Call now that the Colony police man wasn't as chivalrous as he made himself out to be.

Call was sure that Goodman couldn't still be loose in the ship, not after nearly 4 hours. He should have triggered the bomb the second that he was captured, once it was clear to him that he had no other option.

Maybe he thinks that there's still hope of killing the Queen without destroying the Auriga...or maybe he's lying dead in a hallway somewhere, shot down by guards. Call shivered . The notion of outliving her only friend was painful, like a shard of glass in her stomach.

It's not really his fault, she thought, re-shouldering the blame. I'm the one who got us here too late. I'm an idiot. I thought that I could do a man's job, organizing a dangerous mission like this.

Thinking about the future was terrifying, but Call reluctantly accepted the fact that she needed to prepare herself for whatever was going to happen next. It felt extremely disorienting, reentering the struggle for survival after resigning herself to death only a few hours earlier. The burden of planning, of looking ahead to the rest of her life was heavy—she realized that now that she'd experienced her life without it.

Call knew that the Auriga was in a purposefully secretive and secluded part of CCA territory. It would be at least a week before a police craft arrived to transport her and the Betty crew to a larger jail on a colony or a space station. Until then she would be locked up alone in her cell, at the mercy of her relentless thoughts.

An alternate scenario creeped into Call's mind, making her feel both excited and afraid. What if the Aliens break out like Ripley said? Call had already underestimated the creatures' gestation speed once—maybe the new generation would spawn while she was still on the Auriga.

Call remembered what Ripley had said to her: “I’ll come and find you as soon as I can after the breakout.” The hybrid seemed sure that she could somehow use the Aliens to break free from her cage.

Maybe Ripley really could help the crew escape. Or maybe the Aliens would kill everyone, Ripley included.

The fluorescent panel on the ceiling of the cage was glaring down at Call judgmentally. The longer she stared at the light, the darker the rest of the room became, her vision swimming with colorful after images. At some point within in the next two hours, Call’s exhausted brain forced a shutdown, and she fell into an uneasy sleep.

Call had this nightmare often. It was a memory from her past replayed in graphic detail. Call was in an operating room at her San Francisco hospital, the smell of blood and antiseptic clouding the air. She was dressed in scrubs, with a scalpel gripped in her gloved fingers. The body in front of her was flayed open like a fish, its organs exposed to the white spotlight shining down from overhead.

Men were standing in a ring around Call, in the peripheral darkness outside of the range of the spotlight. They were the hospital's owners; wealthy executives. Their balding, pink heads were nestled in their black suits. They were watching Call carefully, standing by to make sure that she did her job correctly.

Call knew this particular operation well; it was the last one that she ever performed.

The hospital executives owned Call's life. They kept her safe from the recall by hiding her identity from the rest of the Company, agreeing to keep her alive so long as she continued to turn out a healthy profit for them. Call was the most skilled and dedicated surgeon employed at the hospital--she was a valuable commodity to the owners despite her illegal status. They didn't even care that she was a woman performing a man's job—it became common practice at the hospital for nurses to replace doctors after the men were drafted to treat soldiers on the war front.

At first Call was grateful to the owners for allowing her to keep her job and her life. She could continue to live vicariously through her patients. But it wasn't long before the hospital execs realized that they could exploit Call's talents. They began telling her to do horrible, unconscionable things, all in the name of profit.

“If we cure everyone immediately,” a faceless exec explained to her, using the personable tone of a politician. “Then we lose our customer base. It's better to 'treat', not to 'cure,' understand?”

The last year of Call's employment was excruciating. She sewed people up with partial tumors still inside of them, with tendons still detached. She kept patients alive, and sick, so that the hospital could keep draining money from their pockets.

She told herself that she was still doing some good, that she was still preventing deaths, even if her patients were in constant pain. She stopped visiting the recovery ward—she couldn't bear to look at her patients’ faces. The only time that she could stand to be around them was when they were draped with concealing white cloth, when she had her tools and fingers inside of them, turning them into animals so that the execs could farm them for money.

The open body in front of Call was waiting for her scalpel. Each false surgery had carved a slice out of her conscience, but this operation was the last straw. The organs inside of the abdomen were pink and healthy. There was nothing wrong with the patient, nothing to fix. Yet Call had a perfect idea of what the execs wanted her to do.

Make something wrong with it. Lacerate a kidney, put a twist in the intestines. Give this person a reason to feed us their money.”

In the dream, Call's scalpel changed into a long knife in her hand. Her own innards ached in sympathy as she imagined cutting in. I don't own this body, she thought. And neither do they.

Wordlessly, Call dropped her knife to the ground and began sewing sutures into the wound. It was the only time that she ever felt proud about stitching up a patient without completing the op. She never looked at the executives, but she could feel their disapproving eyes piercing her like needles.

When Call finished sealing the wound, she carefully dabbed the blood from the patient’s pale skin. As she did so, she noticed something strange in the familiar dream—a new detail that she'd never seen before. A limp arm was hanging out from under the cloth covering the body. It had an 8 tattooed on the forearm, and the fingers ended in claws.

Call woke up to a blurry version of her cell’s interior, and she rubbed her eyes dully.  

Strange new sounds were coming from the row of cells to her right—a chorus of high-pitched shrieks like nothing that she'd ever heard before.               

What? Call thought, panic shocking her wide awake. Already? She scrambled to her feet, moving on instinct. Her heart was climbing the bars of its ribcage, trying to escape out of her throat.

She attempted to dig her fingers into the seamless edge of her cage door, her nails chipping as she clawed at the metal. And then she succumbed to the reality of her situation. There was nothing that she could do but swallow her panic and wait for whatever was coming.

Chapter Text

Ripley was having a dream five cells down from Call, on the other side of the newest inmates. For weeks, the Alien-woman had dreaded having this particular dream. It was a continuation of her nightmare about Hadley's Hope, picking up at the end of the hallway outside of Newt’s hiding place.

Ripley dreamed in third person; she saw her own mutated form kneeling in a heap by the wall. She was less of an Alien than she had been in her previous dream, but she was still monstrous and disgusting. She was dressed as she had been 200 years ago, in a pale blue jumpsuit and a black leather jacket, her hair ear-length and curly. At the sleeves, the leather of her jacket transitioned into biomechanical skin, and her hands were huge and skeletal. The bottom half of her face was a black, sharp-toothed skull, but her eyes were human.

Ripley’s perspective shifted, and she was inside of her deformed body, viewing her Alien hands through her own eyes.

A “thumping” sound echoed from inside of the wall. Ripley looked up to see a round, dirty face peering out from the enclave, the features half-covered by a tangle of blonde hair.

Shame pressed down on Ripley, forcing her shoulders into a slouch. She twisted her head away from the little girl, skin burning, and waited to hear the inevitable screams and sobs.

“Ripley?” Newt whispered. She sounded nearby—she was out of her hiding spot, creeping closer.

Ripley's heart lurched at the sound of Newt's voice, but she couldn't force herself to look up. She stared at a scarred patch of floor, watching the the straight-edged grooves in the metal grow hazy as her eyes watered.

“What happened to you?”

Much as she wanted to answer, Ripley was loathe to open her jaws. She was sure that she couldn't speak—she could feel a second mouth sitting in the back of her throat that gnashed its teeth whenever she swallowed.

“Can you still take care of me?” Newt's whisper was loud in Ripley’s ear. The tip of a little, white shoe appeared on the patch of floor below Ripley’s eyes, cautiously invading her field of vision.

I don't know, Newt, Ripley thought mournfully. With great difficulty, she lifted her eyes and looked at the little orphan girl. She seemed skinnier and smaller than Ripley remembered, and her skin was as pale and thin as paper. Newt desperately needed an adult to comfort and protect her. But it can't be me.

Recognition lit up Newt's eyes as she searched Ripley's face.

With disbelief, Ripley watched as the girl's tiny hands wrapped themselves around her giant thumbs and moved her arms aside. Fearlessly, Newt leaned forward and hugged Ripley around the neck, squeezing her hard.

Hesitantly, Ripley draped her monstrous hands over Newt's back. She was deeply moved by Newt's trust in her, but also terrified that she would injure the child. Newt felt dangerously fragile in her arms, as if she would shatter if she hugged too hard. Tears dripped from the sinews of Ripley's jaws.

The moment lasted, holding an anxious note. Ripley debated whether to let go of Newt, for the girl's safety, or to hold her closer, just to comfort herself.

The dream quietly shifted, and the decision was taken away from her. Newt was gone. Ripley sat alone in perfect darkness, her deformities out of sight.

Soon, she became aware of a presence beside her. There was a noise; a savage, violent snarling. Ripley looked around to see a twisted figure lying in a pool of light: another Alien-woman. She was writhing around in a frenzy, biting her arms, tearing at herself with her claws. Ripley recognized her eyes: big and brown, watering from self-inflicted pain. She looked as though she was beyond frustrated--stretched to the point of snapping--and the sight of it made Ripley profoundly sad. Sympathy hit her hard, like a fist in her gut, and the feeling stayed with her as she surfaced into wakefulness.

Ripley opened her eyes. For a moment, she thought that she could smell the shadowy little woman; she could feel her lingering presence in the empty cage.

Maybe I'm being ridiculous, Ripley thought groggily, I should be more careful about where I place my trust. That woman was my attempted killer, after all. Ripley felt a pang. But she's as desperate and lonely as I am—I just know she is. Ripley had seen it the moment that Call stopped trying to fight back, when she'd dropped to her knees and brought her hands to her eyes. The quick collapse of her backbone, the tired slump of her shoulders--all of it conveyed a practiced penchant for self-blame. That style of self-deprecation was familiar to Ripley; she understood Call's vice, knew inherently that Call was in the habit of beating herself with her own perceived flaws, and that she had no one to help soothe her pain. The sight of it had been oddly exhilarating. Speaking to a woman with common demons had stirred up stagnant emotions in Ripley. It had made her melt into something compassionate and human. Ripley wanted to feel that way again, as soon as possible.

Ripley heard muffled screaming, and in her half awake state, her first thought was that there were children beyond the walls of her cell, shrieking in pain. And then, eyes wide open, Ripley realized what she was hearing. The first brood had been born.

Since the day of her rebirth, Ripley had alternately looked forward to and dreaded this moment, always thinking only about her own survival. Now, without an ounce of reservation, all that she could think about was Grace Call, trapped somewhere on a ship that was soon to be crawling with killers.

She clambered over to the nearest wall and pressed her ear against the metal, listening. Whitecoat voices were murmuring in the hallways, many pitches lower than the Alien screeches. The whitecoats sounded nervous—which was good. The fuckers were in over their heads and they knew it.

She wondered which of them would be taken first—Cross or Rodriguez or Dice. Soon they'd all have facehugger tubes down their throats.

I don’t want to hurt anyone again, she reminded herself, I'm not on the Aliens' side. She breathed deeply, quelling her resentment.

The Aliens’ manic shrieking grew more controlled, more deliberate, as if the creatures were actively mastering a language.

Ripley had to hope that the Queen's new children would find a way out of their cages soon. Otherwise she would, for the second time that night, come face to face with her death.

Ripley sat down close to the wall and waited, willing the creatures to act quickly. “Don't make me wait,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

They helped each other out of their skins. When an individual became ready to molt, its siblings gathered around it and slid off the translucent covering with their hands or teeth. The skins made rustling sounds as they were pulled over dry bones and thick external arteries.

One by one, each Alien matured into adulthood and stood tall and erect for the first time, pulling back its lips to taste the air with two glistening sets of teeth. There were twelve of them in total, occupying four adjacent cells, three beasts to a cage.

Cross watched his pod of Aliens from the other side of an observation window, his jaw clenched with uncharacteristic unease. He was still shaken from witnessing the creatures' birthing process. A few drops of red blood stained the front of his white coat.

His biologist underlings seemed equally on edge; they stood behind Cross silently, waiting to be told what to do.

Two of the Aliens were dormant, curled up together at the back of the cage, their tails and limbs intertwined. Together their bodies formed a tumorous black mass that contrasted sharply with the white, crystalline wall.

The third Alien was steadily pacing back in forth in front of the observation window, it's featureless face fixed on Cross. It had a small, white “9” printed on its forehead in the smooth space where its eyes might have been. Its siblings were labeled “7” and “8”—all of them branded at birth with a deep-staining chemical.

Cross's eyes followed number 9 back and forth, studying its lithe movements. He knew that there was a lot going on inside of that sleek, oblong skull. The Alien had a partial copy of its mother's mind inside of it--both of its mothers actually; Ripley and the Queen. It also had memories and thoughts borrowed from an anonymous Union worker, most of which were filed away into a lightless corner of the beast's mind.

Pointlessly, Cross found himself wondering if the host's stolen mind was conscious. Was there a mute, immobile man trapped inside of the Alien's body, struggling uselessly? Cross had no sympathy for Union men; but still, he acknowledged that auto-imprisonment would be a hard fate for any man.

Through the opaque, gray hood of the Alien's skull, Cross could see ghosts of mysterious internal organs. He suddenly yearned to get a closer look at the creature's insides. The subordinates' anatomy was strikingly different from that of their Queen.

Taming the beasts could wait, he decided. He wanted to take a peek inside of their bodies first. Thankfully the frozen hosts had arrived still in their sleep chambers, which contained enough cryogenic gas to subdue a specimen for at least a few hours.

Cross turned around and addressed his underlings. “I want you to harvest the canisters of cryo gas from the host's sleep chambers. We're going to transport one of the Xenomorphs to the med center for a full-body scan.”


  ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Goodman’s tongue was dry and shriveled. He had been on the run inside of the Auriga's maze for too long. After leaving the gallery he'd spent 30 minutes hiding in a storage locker, listening to the voices of passing guards as his head went swimmy from the smell of cleaning chemicals. Eventually, he overheard one of the guards mention something about prisoners being kept in the belly of the ship.

He’d headed towards the chemical weapons lab on the 6th floor, hoping to steal supplies that could bust open locked cages.

On the way he’d stopped by the incubation chamber, where he discovered—without surprise—that he was too late to save the sleepers.

Now he was entering a vent opening, ready to climb the dark tunnels down to the second floor. At his side was a stolen duffel bag full of supplies—flares, bullets, bombs and corrosive chemicals in vials. He just had to hope that Call's cage had a manual lock.

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Cross didn't anticipate that the Alien's skull would be so fragile. He realized that he should have waited, he should have given the creature's new skin some more time to harden before he cut in.

Hoping to collect a brain tissue sample, his team had removed a small rectangle of frozen bone from the back of number 7's cranium, revealing the pale, yellow-brown innards of its head. The sliver of bone thawed too quickly, expanding subtly in size, enough that it wouldn't fit back in place when the whitecoats tried to mend the wound. They put metal sutures in, to keep it closed, which only caused the skull to crack.

Cross was cursing at himself—this was a costly mistake. It was a hard reminder of just how little the whitecoats really knew about the Xenomorphs’ anatomy. They could only hope that the damaged specimen would heal on its own.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Number 7 was thawing rapidly. A cluster of guards hurriedly carried the creature on a stretcher, headed for the second floor. It was moving its limbs and hissing weakly by the time they passed the chemical labs, its long fingers curling angrily. The guards grew frantic as they ran through the hallway outside of the cages, the Alien attempting to sit up on its stretcher. They roughly dumped number 7 onto the floor of its cell the second that they reached its cage, keeping numbers 8 and 9 at bay with blasts from flamethrowers. The guards slammed the door shut against the pouncing Aliens, and retreated, headed to their bunker to hyperventilate for a while before rejoining the hunt for the missing terrorist.

Number 7's head was a mess—deep fractures covered the back of its cranium, pale yellow lines that crisscrossed over its dark skull. Numbers 8 and 9 observed quietly as their wounded sibling slowly staggered to its feet.

Number 7's circulatory fluids were still sluggish from cryostasis; its legs were trembling weakly. As it took a step forward, its ankle twisted underneath of it and it hit the ground hard, its metallic teeth knocking together. A jet of pressurized blood squirted from its wound upon impact—it splashed onto the floor, reacted with the lye crystals, and immediately stopped sizzling.

Number 7 squealed, calling its siblings.

Number 8 approached first. It walked over to number 7 silently, it's body and tail moving in a surreal, slow-motion ripple. It kneeled down by its sibling's side and touched the wound gently with its fingers, tasting it. Then it slid its hand over the long, grooved tube lining the temple of 7's skull, up to to the side of its face. It stroked along the injured Alien’s jawline with its knuckles, performing a cold imitation of a human gesture.

Number 9 drew closer to its siblings, and number 8 turned its head to “look” at it, their eyeless stares meeting. Something passed between them.

Number 8 turned its jaws back towards its bleeding sibling. Tenderly, it slid its hands underneath of number 7's chin and lifted its head until their faces were level, their teeth nearly touching. Then number 8 flung its jaws open and thrust its second mouth deep into number 7's forehead, prompting a spray of acid blood. Number 7 screamed and grabbed at 8's throat, clawing and squeezing desperately. In an instant, number 9's tail was impaling it through the abdomen—it pulled out and struck again through the back of the neck. In streams, number 7's blood poured onto the ground, turning into a puddle of steaming salt water as it reacted with the lye.

The two siblings grabbed number 7—by the head and by the skin of its belly—and pulled. A mass of stringy, yellow-green organs spilled onto the floor, hissing like a nest of snakes. The lye was used up in the reaction, revealing a bare metal patch on the floor beneath the viscera.

Placated, number 8 began to groom, nibbling the blood off of its arms with its saliva-covered teeth. Number 9 took the opportunity to crunch the back of its neck from behind, waiting as number 8 convulsed and the life drained out of its body.

The second sibling's innards were thrown down atop the first's, the pile of yellow sinew sinking as it smoked and ate through the metal.

The cage door burst open and guards rushed inside, just in time to see a skeletal tail disappear down a gaping hole in the floor.

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

The hallway outside the cages was surprisingly empty. No guards, no whitecoats—it was as if a fire alarm had gone off. Still, Goodman moved quietly, imitating Call's deliberate, careful footfalls.

He slid back the metal panel on the first cage in the row, wincing at the sound of the screeching metal. Through the window, he saw johner slouched against a wall, his face red and puckered as if he'd been having a tantrum. He looked dumbstruck when he saw Goodman's face through the window.

Goodman hesitated a moment. He wasn't sure that he really wanted to spend precious time helping the drifters. They'd stolen 13 people and sold the living bodies to scientists—really, they deserved to rot in whatever jail that they were destined for. But with armed guards prowling the Auriga, Goodman knew that there was safety in numbers—more arms could hold more guns. Admittedly, he'd also developed a sense of camaraderie with this particular pack of outlaws, despite their crudeness.

Goodman pulled two vials from his bag. He poured the chemicals onto the lock, letting them run together, and then he jumped back. The chemicals flashed and exploded, and the door to Johner's cell swung open.

The big, red haired man came barreling out of his cage the second it was opened. “Who the fuck got me locked up?” he barked, nearly shouting.

“Shut up,” Goodman snapped. “It was me, alright? But I just did you a decent favor, so shut up and don't complain.”

“Man, if you didn't have that gun...” Johner threatened, quieter.

Goodman freed the others quickly, painfully aware of how loud the explosions were. He kept his gun cocked as he went down the line, opening every cage door—he expected guards to come running at him any minute. Each Betty crew member gave Goodman an earful as soon as they were freed, whispering frustrated slander at the cop.

“You're welcome,” Goodman grumbled.

To his dismay, Goodman reached Call's cage last. The moment that he saw her face, Goodman pulled her to his chest, taking time for a brief embrace. Call immediately pushed back and looked up into Goodman's eyes.

“Can you hear them?” she gasped. “They're all over. In the vents.”

Goodman's face felt numb. “You mean..?”

One after the other, Goodman opened the metal panels on the next four cells. The view through each window was exactly the same. On the floor of every cell was a yawning, black hole, surrounded by torn-up bodies with yellow inards. There was a ritualistic neatness to the placement of the dead Aliens—it all seemed unsettlingly deliberate, not like the work of animals.

“Uugh.” groaned Johner, looking through a window. “What is that? What are those things?”

“They look evil,” said Christie.

“Is that acid?” Elgyn asked. “That looks like an acid burn to me.”

“We need to get back up to the Betty. Now ,” said Goodman, his voice cracking just a little. “There are more of those things, and they're on the loose.” He breathed and regained composure, lowering his brow. “You follow my lead, you'll be safe. We just need to get up to the top floor.”

The drifters eyed Goodman’s gun, his musculature, weighing their options.

“So what are they?” Hillard asked, cynicism veiling her fear. “Some kind of labrat test gone wrong?”

Call took a breath, but Goodman answered before she could. “They're Aliens,” he said seriously. “A never before seen species. Extremely dangerous.”

“Aliens? Little green men?” Johner growled. “Is this a joke?”

“They gestated in the chests of the men that you shipped here. That's why the scientists needed the bodies; they were incubators.”

“The things are parasites?” said Elgyn.

“Deadly parasites. Diseases, more like.”

“What's in those last two cages?” Hillard asked, pointing to the doors at the end of the hallway.

Dread weighed down Goodman's legs, but he walked up to the panel on the next cage. One of them would contain the last mutant, he knew. Better that he see for himself that she was dead. He slid over the panel and jumped back in shock. “Jesus, it’s huge!”

The Betty crew crowded around him, peering inside. They all whimpered sounds of awe and disgust. Christie crossed himself and then spat on the floor.

“There are eggs,” Call whispered hoarsely, her breath right next to Goodman's ear. “She's already made more eggs.”

Goodman shook himself off and moved onto the last cage. He braced himself—he didn't feel ready to see another one of the revolting hybrids; they made the actual Aliens look tame by comparison. They were perversions of the human female form—xeno-erotic freaks.

The policeman slid open the observation panel quickly and painfully, the same way he would pull a shank from his arm to stifle the bleeding. He paled at what he saw inside.

There was a melted hole in the floor, just like the other cages, with a dead Alien curled around the rim. Its yellow intestines hung down over the edge of the pit, still smoking. Goodman analyzed the scene with the eyes of a cop, trying to understand what he was looking at.

Obviously a violent struggle had taken place—small acid holes spattered the ground, some of them stained bright red instead of yellow. The Alien’s skin was covered with frantic scratch marks, most of which only grazed the surface of the armor, a few of which tore deep inside. Stark yellow lines carved across the tubes on its throat, over the skin on its face, mangling its lips and splitting its jawbone in two. Goodman couldn't figure out how the Alien had gotten inside of the hybrid's cage—until he noticed the smashed-in ceiling grate lying crumpled on the floor. Call was right. They are in the vents .

Goodman shivered briefly, uncontrollably, and then his attention shifted to the small woman standing next to him. She was looking through the window, staring numbly, even as the drifters shoved her around in their attempt to get a better view. Goodman felt his fear curl into a tight fist of anger, but he swallowed it.

“Call,” he said evenly, “You didn't kill the host, did you?”

“There was no point,” she said quietly, eyes never lifting from the cage. “The embryo had already been removed.”

“And it didn't occur to you that she might be dangerous, that maybe you should have taken her out when you had the opportunity?”

“I thought it was the end. I thought you were going to use your bomb.”

Goodman guffawed. “That's great, that's wonderful. I'm glad I have a partner who's given up already.”

“I don't think that she's a threat,” said Call, trying to soothe him. “To us, at least.”

Goodman stared at her in disbelief, seriously questioning her intelligence. “And what's your reasoning behind that?”

“She could have killed me--easily--and she didn’t. She said that she’d protect me.”

“You mean she spoke to you?” Goodman narrowed his eyes.

“I know. She’s not what we expected--she has memories from her old life.”

“Fuck,” Goodman growled, sweating, “So she’s intelligent.” He groaned. “Why didn’t you kill her? She could be anywhere.”

Call averted his gaze--willing Goodman to drop the subject. But that only made him angrier.

Goodman grabbed hold of her by the shirt collar. “From now on, you need to stay at the back of the pack, got it? There’s no room in this situation for your naive fuck-ups.”

Call closed her eyes, waiting for Goodman’s anger to blow over. Her meekness was enough to give Goodman a small pang of guilt.

He sighed and let go of Call, smoothing down her collar apologetically.

He noticed the pair of handcuffs hanging on the wall outside of the hybrid’s cage, a purple flower tied around the gauntlets. He grabbed the cuffs and picked corsage off, tossing it away quickly, as if it might be explosive. Then he stuffed the handcuffs into his duffel bag.

Regaining his composure, Goodman turned to the Betty crew and hefted his gun proudly. “Follow me,” he said, his voice booming. “I'll get us out of here alive.” Then he patted the small, metal cylinder clipped to his belt. “And once we leave I'm going to blow this place back to hell, make sure that none of the creatures can follow us out.”

The Betty crew was scared now, although they tried to hide it, and Goodman could see their wide eyes latching onto him, accepting him as their figure of authority. That was the way it was with dangerous situations—you show up at a hostage situation with a badge and a gun, and all of the civilians immediately do what you say. It was human survival instinct to seek out a safe group with a confident leader.

As Goodman turned around and headed out into the hallway, he heard the footsteps of the crew follow him. There were no complaints, not even from Johner.

Call dutifully took up her place at the rear. Goodman felt a little guilty--he liked having Call as his second in command, but this situation was too far beyond her capabilities. The important thing was that she stayed safe--there’d be plenty of future missions for her to help out with, but only if she made it out out in one piece.

The walls of the octagonal hallway blurred past Goodman as he lead the crew towards the big elevator. The ribbed metal surrounding him appeared to swell and constrict, like the inside of a snake's belly. The halls were silent, save for the growling of the engine.

Chapter Text

The holding cages were deep in the belly of the Auriga, on the second floor, just above the engine room. The ship hangar holding the Betty was at the bow, on the top floor, at the very tip of the knife. Each of the 12 floors stretched 900 feet from bow to stern.

Goodman was leading the crew towards the central elevator, which would carry them 10 floors up into the cockpit. From the cockpit, Call could unlock the gates securing The Betty. Then they would make a mad dash across the last 500 feet to the hangar.

The crew ran through the hallways in two rows of three, each member painfully aware of the clanking sounds their boots were making as they pounded against the metal. Elgyn was huffing and puffing, unused to the physical exertion, but still keeping up wordlessly.

They dashed their way down thick arteries and took shortcuts through narrow capillaries, all the while keeping their ears strained for the sound of movement inside of the walls.

Goodman wished that the Auriga weren't so skeletal—he would have felt safer running through tunnels that had textureless, steel-covered walls. Everything that he looked at scared him. Too easily, he could imagine things watching him from inside of each vent opening, from behind every tangle of pipes.

When they were nearly to the elevator, Goodman turned a corner into blackness. The overhead lights were out, the path fading into blindness ahead.

Goodman turned around and addressed the group, “There must be a partial power outage,” his voice grew quieter, “Pray that the lift is still working.” He pulled a flare from inside his duffel bag and lit it, sparks erupting from its tip.

The flare painted the walls a blinding white as Goodman lead the crew down the hallway, walking now, not running. The pipes on the ceiling cast stark black shadows, which flickered and stretched as the crew passed underneath. Goodman's flare hissed loudly, replacing the sound of the crew's heavy breathing.

The elevator at the end of the hallway gradually came into view. At first, all that Goodman could make out were the small glints of light reflecting off of the doors. When he drew close enough that the doors were fully illuminated, bright white like a sideways smile, Goodman could see that the gate was stuck open. There was a crack between the doors, leading into darkness.

“Shit,” said Goodman. He edged forward and stuck his flare in between the doors, quickly, preparing to run at the first sign of danger. The white light revealed an empty shaft with grooves and cables lining the walls. Cautiously, Goodman slipped his head and shoulders inside and looked around. The car was nowhere in sight—it had to be stuck somewhere on the upper levels, far above the range of Goodman's light.

High up in the dark shaft, Goodman could make out a small, glowing rectangle. It was electric light, shining through the crack of another half-open elevator door. That meant that the power was still working on the upper levels—the cockpit would still be functioning. He just needed to find a way to get up there.

Goodman pulled himself out from between the doors and turned to look at the waiting crew. The light from his flare painted them all corpse-white, made their images flicker and tremble.

“We need to backtrack,” he announced. “Use a different lift. The power outage is localized, so we'll still be able to access the cockpit controls.” He pushed past the crew and lead them back down the lightless hallway, hurriedly, aware that his flare was burning out.

As Goodman turned the corner into the lighted half of the hallway, he saw something small flit across the floor in his peripheral vision. Just a mouse, he thought, refusing to let himself jump at shadows.

As he drew closer, he found the object pressed against a wall, trembling. It was a scrap of white cloth, animated by the current of air misting from a grated vent opening on the opposite wall. Goodman saw that there were additional scraps of cloth stuck in the vent grate, wiggling around the metal bars like seizuring fingers. Something else was stuck in the vent as well—Goodman could see wooly clumps of it quivering against the grate, breaking up into fine, wispy strings—strands of human hair.

Cold sweat beaded on Goodman's temples. He knew that the vents in the ship were interconnected and sprawling. What he was looking at was the aftermath of things happening elsewhere in the dark tunnels; this was the debris that had drifted down from above.

“Come on, let’s get a move on.” Goodman commanded, breaking into a run. Behind him, the sound of padding boots sped up to keep pace. Goodman hoped that they hadn't noticed what he had noticed, but the saucer-eyed look on Call's face was a bad indication.

A muffled explosion sounded from somewhere in the Auriga, shaking the walls. The body of the ship groaned, as if in pain.

“Sounds like we're headed towards a lot of loaded labrats,” said Johner, grimly.

“Maybe we should ditch the lifts and take the vents,” said Christie. “We can sneak past them that way.”

“No,” Goodman snapped. “The Aliens are in the vents. We're almost to the next elevator, just hang on.”

As soon as the lift was in sight, Goodman jabbed the (^) button with his thumb, hard, as if he were attacking it. The crew waited around in dumb silence as they watched the car drop from level 5 to level 4 to level 3 to level 2.

As soon as the doors opened, a rush of filthy, gray water poured out onto the crew, soaking their pant legs.

“What the fuck?” exclaimed johner.

Goodman could hear rain pattering on the roof of the elevator car. Water was pouring down the shaft.

Goodman paused, uncertainty locking his knees.

“I don't like this,” said Hillard. “We should find another way up.”

Goodman glanced up at the ceiling—there was a vent opening directly above him, a yawning black mouth, breathing lightly onto his shoulders. “We'd be wasting time looking for another option,” he said. “We found a working elevator—we should use it while we can.”

The doors started to close and Goodman stuck his arm in to block it. Then he stepped inside.

Comparing looks of skepticism and misery, the crew followed him in, packing themselves shoulder to shoulder inside of the metal box.

The car lurched into movement and rose past level 3 and level 4. When it approached level 5 it slowed down.

“No, no, no don't stop!”

“Hit door close, door close!”

Goodman hammered the button frantically, but the car stopped anyway. When the doors opened, a roaring torrent of water ripped its way inside, plastering the crew against the wall. A drenched whitecoat was swept into the car with the flood, surrounded by bullet casings and debris.

Out the door, Goodman could see broken ceiling pipes spewing water like fire hoses, desks tumbling over in in the flood. The water rose to up to the crew's chests before the doors finally pinched shut, sealing the screaming humans in with the water.

The whitecoat’s breathing was labored, a plume of pink swirling in the water surrounding him. Hillard shoved the limp man away from her in disgust.

The car lurched into motion again and rose another few feet, but the weight of the water proved to be too much for it—it shuddered to a halt between the 5th and 6th floors. The crew flailed manically, shoving Goodman left and right. Goodman pushed Johner's hammy hand from his shoulder, afraid of being shoved underneath of the water. In his struggle, it took him a while to notice that the flood level was receding.

Goodman looked over at Call, who's black hair was drenched and dripping. She returned her scalpel to her jacket pocket, exhaling as the gray swill retreated past the crew’s ankles, draining out through a neatly-carved hole in the floor.

Even with the water gone the car stayed hopelessly stalled; the buttons on the control panel refused to function.

Call met Goodman's eyes. “Through the ceiling,” she said.

Goodman got down on his knee and helped Call up to the roof of the car. Call carved a trap door into the metal and opened it a crack, peering out into the shaft.

“What do you see?” asked Goodman anxiously.

“It's empty.” Call opened the trapdoor the rest of the way and hoisted herself out onto the roof. She lay on her stomach and extended her arms down to Goodman, assisting him as he climbed his way out, his clothes dripping with heavy water.

One by one, the crew clambered out through the trapdoor, cussing as they stood on each other's backs to reach the ceiling. Johner, the tallest, was the last one out, and then everyone was shivering and dripping atop of the elevator car.

Except for the wounded whitecoat.

Goodman could see him through the trapdoor, his pale face centered in the bright square of light. He was drenched with diluted blood, which stained his outfit a uniform pink. He stared up at Goodman, silently begging him for help.

Goodman felt a spike of frustration. In an idiotic last attempt at survival, this man had made the elevator stop on his floor, ruining the crew’s plan. What did he think he was going to do? Float his way onto an escape ship? “Damn you!” Goodman growled at him. “You selfish fucker.”

“I could at least give him—” Call began.

“No!” Goodman snapped. “You're so naive sometimes. You can't help everybody.” He pulled another flare from his bag and lit it angrily.

The flare smoked and sputtered, struggling to ignite.

For a desperate few seconds Goodman watched the flare glow weakly like an ember, moisture bubbling from from the flame. The darkness above him echoed with the sound of the hissing steam. And then the flare burst into life, raining sparks and casting the crew in a bubble of light. Goodman sighed with relief and looked up into the shaft. The walls of the square tunnel were rusty and lined with metal tracks. The four thick cables supporting the car stretched up into the darkness, illuminated by the flare until they faded into nothing.

“What now?” asked Hillard, dread lowering her nasal voice.

“Now we climb the cables,” Goodman said, stoically.

“We can't climb these!” Johner whined. “We're fucking soaked.”

“Here, use this.” Call's voice rang in the shaft like a quiet bell. She pulled a roll of gauze from one of her pockets, unrolled a long strip and cut it off with her teeth. “This is adhesive,” she said, handing the strip to Johner to share amongst the crew. “Tie it around your hands and it will give you some grip.”

A couple minutes later, the crew was working their way up the shaft, their arms trembling as they climbed hand over hand. The sound of their labored breathing echoed off of the shaft walls—and it sounded like it was coming from everywhere; from below, from above. The cables made quiet creaking noises as they twisted with the movements of the crew.

Goodman climbed along at the lead of the group, higher up on the cable than the rest. A strange sensation hit him as he stared up into the shaft above; he felt as though he was falling very slowly into a bottomless pit. The pitch-black roof of the shaft may as well have been the bottom.

As he reached the doorway to the sixth floor, Goodman could see that the doors were sealed shut. He could use one of his chemical bombs to eat through the doors—but he only had two of the precious items, and he wanted to save them for an emergency. Above him, he could see a rectangle of light shining from between the doors of the seventh floor. From his perspective, the light seemed tantalizingly close. “We're going to keep going to the seventh floor,” he announced. “The doors up there are already open.”

There were a few groans and protests from below, but the crew had no choice but to follow Goodman's lead.

A few meters past the sixth floor door, Goodman began to regret his decision. His arm muscles were screaming, his adrenaline running short. His flare was tied to the nose of his gun, which was strapped to his back, along with the wet, heavy duffel bag. All of it tugged down on his body painfully.

Another distant explosion sounded, and the crew halted and hung on tight until the cables stopped vibrating. And then they continued climbing, wordlessly.

The next five feet of cable passed slowly under Goodman's hands—and then he froze. Instead of braided metal, Goodman felt his fingers wrap around something cold and slippery. The stretch of cable ahead of him was coated in thick, clear slime. It glistened under the light of the flare and dripped down slowly, sliding over Goodman's white-knuckled fists. Glancing to his side, he could see that all four of the cables were coated in the stuff, made slippery and impassible. Suddenly, Goodman felt very afraid of the dark space above him.

Goodman swallowed and then spoke. “Uh. We're going to have to go back down to the sixth floor. There's something slippery on the cables up here.”

Groans erupted from the shaft below him, and then the crew began their descent.

Climbing down proved to be much more difficult than climbing up—the crew members had to move at the same pace to avoid kicking each other in the head.

After a tense ten minutes, they returned to the 6th floor gate. Hanging one-armed, Goodman pulled a small chemical bomb from his bag. He tossed it at the doors and it stuck fast like a wad of clay. It began to sizzle and smoke, and in a matter of seconds, a man-sized hole opened in the doorway, letting an intense ray of light into the shaft. The crew climbed through the hole and entered mess hall beyond, shaking, extremely glad to have solid ground beneath their feet instead of a two-story drop.

In an instant, Goodman's feet were off the ground again. Something had him by the shoulders; it was gripping him greedily, pulling him into the ceiling with impossible strength. Goodman flailed like an animal, kicking wildly. And then he was inside of the vent, his feet and fists crashing into walls, his back sliding along the metal. He couldn't raise his gun in the narrow tunnel, and so on instinct he grabbed at his attacker's face, hoping to find eyes or ears to claw at. Instead, his fingers slipped ineffectually across a cold, smooth surface, and then recoiled upon touching wet teeth. Goodman screamed, his throat blistering.

The Alien stopped abruptly and dropped him, leaving him to flounder in the dark tunnel. The creature growled angrily, and Goodman heard something else moving towards them through the vent; a second Alien. It closed its distance rapidly, limbs pounding against metal. There was a confrontation—the creatures met, and attacked each other, hissing savagely. The first Alien's body careened into Goodman's, the sickening textures of its skin touching the side of his face. Goodman screamed again, eyes watering. Then the screeching Alien was pulled away from him, dragged further down the tunnel, its claws scraping against the walls.

Goodman moved his hands over the faces of the vent, struggling to orient himself in the darkness. The whole vent was shaking, the two Aliens slamming each other against the walls, slashing and growling. Goodman scrambled away from them, feeling his way forward. He found a bend in the tunnel and turned the corner, and with elation he saw a patch of light on the floor—the vent opening. Without much thought, he dove out of it, feet first. He landed on a mess hall table, on his chest and stomach.

The crew was frantic, their voices all yelling at once.

“Fuck!”

“Where is it? Where's the fucker?”

“How bad are you hurt?” That last voice came from Call, who ran to Goodman's side.

Goodman couldn't speak—there was no air in his lungs—his eyes darted all over the ceiling, trying to trace the “thumping” sounds coming from inside. Then, before he could move, before he could do anything, one of the Aliens emerged from the vent opening. It slithered down head first, streamlining its body, and then stood up and barred its teeth at the humans. It was in bad shape, bleeding, a row of claw marks drawn across its forehead, crossing out the white 12.

it bent its knees, preparing to spring towards the stunned crew—and then it collapsed, knocked hard against the ground by the other one, who leaped out from the vent on top of it.

The other one...was not an Alien. She looked like a human—like a human woman wrestling bare-handed with an Alien monster. The Alien rolled over and pinned her, opening two sets of teeth, trembling and drooling. The woman grabbed its jaws and twisted its head away—and that’s when Goodman noticed the skewers growing from her fingertips. The Alien's “tongue” shot out, snapping at air, and then in a burst of strength, the woman yelled and threw the monster off of her, sending it staggering backwards.

Goodman struggled to re-inflate his lungs, grasping at the gun that was still strapped to his back. With frustration, he saw that Call was staring wide-eyed at the fight, too transfixed to help him.

The monsters were circling each other now, their heads lowered, claws flexed. The Alien lashed out with its tail, stinger headed straight for the woman's heart. She caught it with both hands—stopping it an inch from her chest—and with a “crunch” she broke the tip, cracking the vertebrae. The Alien shrieked and ripped its tail away. It screamed ragefully at the woman and then it turned tail and sprinted into the hallway on all fours, arms and legs shuffling like an insect’s.

The woman stood, panting, bleeding from cuts on her face and arms. She turned and looked at the stunned crew members, studying them with wild eyes.

She seemed surprised when Goodman stuck his gun in her face. “Claws where I can see them!” Goodman wheezed—it was meant to be a shout, but he was still winded.

With some hesitance, the woman raised her hands, lowering her brow indignantly.

“You're the last one,” Goodman breathed. “You're number 8.”

The hybrid narrowed her eyes at him. “Out here my name is Ripley. Don't call me by a number.”

She was prideful, trying to be intimidating. Goodman was used to dealing with convicts like her—he knew that deep down she was terrified, that she would do anything that he told her.

“Goodman,” said Call, alarmed. “You don't need to kill her.”

Goodman gave her a silencing glance and curled his finger around the trigger. He'd been blessed with the chance to bag the she-monster before she could start her attack on the crew. All he had to do was take a few steps back to avoid the probable acid blood...

“I can lead you out of her alive,” the hybrid said, feigning calm. “I can sense when the Aliens are close. I know what they're thinking.”

This gave Goodman pause. “How?” he demanded. “You have some kind of connection with them?”

“A one-way connection,” she said hurriedly, as if she predicted what Goodman's next accusation would be. “I can see into their heads but they can't see into mine. I get—flashes of their thoughts whenever I'm close to them. It's not a language, just collections of images and smells.”

Goodman chewed on this. “So that's how you knew where to be when the Alien attacked.”

The hybrid looked relieved—she thought that she was worming her way out of the net. “Exactly. That thing was on your trail for a long time. It was always a few meters above you on the cable, out of the range of the light. It didn't attack, in case you fell to your death. They need their hosts to be alive.”

Goodman's face went numb. He swallowed the bile collecting in his throat. “So where were you then?” He growled, not giving her any leverage.

This time she spoke with a kind of dark satisfaction. “I was always a few meters above the Alien, waiting for it to make its move. It never knew I was there.”

“Goodman,” Call said, right beside him. “She just saved your life.”

“Quiet, I'm thinking,” he snapped.

Goodman studied the hybrid, scrutinizing every detail. His gaze traveled down from her intense eyes and statuesque face, past the scar on her chest, and all over her strange, Alien-like outfit. He noticed the yellow Alien blood spattered on her bare skin—drying harmlessly. He noticed the way that she kept stealing anxious glances at Call, her eyes pleading.

She was not the horribly deformed creature that Goodman had expected to her to be. She looked normal—somewhat attractive, admittedly—but Goodman knew that looks were deceptive, especially when it came to beautiful women. She was vicious and unnaturally strong. Yes, she had saved Goodman's life, but she could have just as easily killed him instead.

Goodman looked at her inches-long claws and shivered. The claws reminded him of anxious dreams that he used to have as a teen, nightmares about needle-nailed, blood thirsty seductresses that would work their way close to his heart and then drain him dry. The hybrid could not be trusted--Goodman was sure of that--but her abilities might prove to be useful.

“Call, get the handcuffs from my bag,” Goodman ordered.

Call hesitated.

“You'd prefer that she live, right?” Goodman said impatiently. “Then get the cuffs.”

Eyes downcast, Call pulled the handcuffs from Goodman's bag and carried them toward the hybrid.

Goodman kept his gun locked on number 8, watching as Call took the hybrid's wrists and clamped them in steel, her eyes never lifting from the ground. The hybrid stared out in front of her, looking withdrawn.

When Call finished, she slipped the key into one of her many pockets, and then retreated to join the crew watching on the sidelines.

Number 8's distant expression turned bitter, and she glared at Goodman with seething hatred.

“You'll be our 'canary in the coal mine,'” he told her, lowering his gun. “You sound the alarm if the Aliens are close, but we keep you in the cuffs.”

“I should have let the Alien take you,” she growled.

The rest of the crew seemed to think that it was safe to approach. They stepped towards number 8, eying her with various degrees of apprehension and fascination.

“Look at you,” scoffed Johner pushing his face so close to the hybrid's that their noses were almost touching. “You're one odd broad, huh? I guess the scientists got sick of making their creatures look like dick-headed cockroaches, gave this one the feminine touch.”

“Shut up, Johner” said Goodman, not amused.

Johner eyed the scar on the hybrid's chest, his eyes lingering for too long. “Oh, chest incubator. This is starting to make sense. You're the monster's mommy, aren't you?”

Number 8 regarded him with apathy, as if he were a buzzing insect.

“I asked you a question. You started the outbreak, am I right?”

Number 8 angled her head away, withdrawing again.

“God damn. What's it feel like to have one of those things inside you?”

With that line, Johner succeeded in getting a rise from her. She narrowed her eyes, looking liable to bite the man's nose off.

“Well, once we get off this ship," Johner grinned, "maybe you can show me exactly what it feels like inside you.”

“Are you sure that's a good idea?” the hybrid droned cooly. “How do you know I wouldn't get you pregnant?”

Johner's face contorted in confusion.

“It could be worse than that...I could feed you to my offspring instead. Your body would actually be useful to me that way.”

Johner looked genuinely offended and disturbed. “Freak,” he grumbled, backing away from her. “Your loss, bitch. You don't know who you’re not fucking with.”

“I'll never know, will I? It's a shame.”

Christie was the next to confront her. He kept his distance from the hybrid, searching her eyes. “Is there anything watching us right now?” he asked. “Can you hear them?”

The hybrid's hostility eased a little. “No, they're all far away from us right now. There's only three of them on the ship—but they'll start multiplying soon.”

“Then let's get a move on,” Goodman announced. “I'm going to take us towards the lift near the stern. It'll be a long run to the cockpit, but we don't have another option.”

The hybrid shook her head. She brushed past Christie and strode up to Goodman. “All of the lifts are broken. The Aliens are trying to keep the humans on the lower levels. The whitecoats had the same idea that you did—there was a stampede towards the ship hangar following the breakout. There's really no chance that your ship is still there.”

Goodman felt a terrified chill that quickly heated into anger. “No. There has to be something left. The Auriga has to have escape pods.”

“Those are probably gone too. Climbing to the hangar would be a waste of time. We need to set up camp in a safe place while we wait for a relief ship to arrive. I know a place—”

“No! I don't want hear it,” Goodman barked. “I don't know what kind of an agenda you’re running, but you're not going to convince me that I should follow you to some unknown place in an Alien-infested ship. Not when I could be claiming the last escape pod.”

The Alien-woman bared her teeth at him. “You're a fucking idiot.”

Goodman felt relieved to see how upset she was. It proved that he had evaded her trap—she was frustrated that her prey was flying past her web. Follow the Alien to a safe place to hide from the Aliens. What a joke.

“How are we going to get to the hangar if the lifts are broken?” Said Christie.

Goodman felt like he was falling for a split second—then he caught himself. “The fire ladders. We'll climb.”

“How am I supposed to climb in these?” number 8 hissed, waving her handcuffs.

“You can't use your gun on the ladder,” Elgyn pointed out. “It wouldn't be much different than climbing the elevator shaft. We'd be sitting ducks.”

Goodman swallowed. “The vents then,” he said stoically, cold sweat covering his skin. “If we have weapons and lights, we'll be okay. And we'll always know when the Aliens are coming.”

The crew stared at him miserably, a wave of green washing over their faces.

“We'll find weapons first,” Goodman announced, projecting powerfully. “Guns for each of you. Then we'll access a computer, find a detailed map, and plan our route through the vents.”

“This is a fucking nightmare,” Hillard whined. “How did this fucking happen?”

“It will be over soon,” Goodman said to her, “just stay close to me.” He hefted his gun with both hands and lead the crew out into the hallway, glancing back to make sure that the hybrid was following.

She was trudging along next to Call, looking back at Goodman a corrosive glare. Call was staring straight forward, not daring to look up at number 8.

Goodman felt bad for yelling at Call earlier, for grabbing her by the shirt collar. The escaped hybrid was much less of an issue now that the she-beast was in sight, and in cuffs. In hind sight, Goodman felt foolish for ever expecting that Call could kill someone. She brought her good-doctor ethics with her everywhere she went. Most of the time, Goodman appreciated Call's sensitivity--it was endearing. But blind kindness had no place in a situation like the present.

Once they were off of the Auriga, kind, caring nurse Call would be back in her element--and Goodman would never have to yell at her for doing the wrong thing. Everything would be normal again.

Chapter Text

Cross was on the tenth floor, crouched inside an enclave in a wall, hard metal pressed against his back, a hot heater vent hissing in his left ear. He was nestled in amongst thin, vertical pipes, hiding like a hunter in the tall reeds. Sweat dripped off his nose and onto his empty gun.

He was making his way down from the ship hangar after watching escape ship after escape ship take off without him. He'd nearly gotten trampled to death in the initial rush. His rib was broken from the force of Col. Barett's boot. His cheek was throbbing where White had punched him.

He didn't have a plan except heading down. There must be somewhere on the ship where the Aliens—and the humans couldn't get him.

He didn't hear them coming, he only heard the gunfire and the screams, alerting him like a siren. A pack of bloodied whitecoats sprinted past his hiding spot, followed by numbers 6 and 12, snaking along the ceiling, limbs moving as fast as a centipede's. They slithered over each other, dodging bullets. Each Alien carried a bulbous egg on its back, holding it in place with its four dorsal tubes.

They've gotten into the Queen's cage , Cross realized.

Cross waited until he the gunfire ceased, and then he made a dash into the next hallway, feet pounding against the metal. I just have to get down. Get down.

 

+++++++++++++++++++++

 

               

               

Ripley was seething. Her body seemed to be pouring out heat—Call could feel it against her arm, despite the distance between them.

Call had to assume that the handcuffs were necessary. She had no reason to doubt Goodman’s judgement, other than the small, nagging feeling of sympathy that she harbored for Ripley. But that feeling of sympathy had no rational basis--it was a petty, feminine vagary that was irrelivent in a life-or-death situation. Call wasn't even sure where the feeling came from—Ripley was a stranger, a potential menace.

Call snuck a glance in RIpley’s direction, eyes jumping to the claws sticking out from the ends of the handcuffs. Those claws had been a horrible spectacle in the mess hall—they'd put Call in mind of vicious police mod dogs. It was safest to keep them in chains, even if their owner seemed to have good intentions.

“I wouldn't hurt any of these people, you know.” Ripley’s voice made Call flinch—not because it was frightening, but because it was so benign and human. Ripley’s strange gentleness elicited a different slew of emotions--guilt, not anger--now that she was Call’s prisoner instead of the other way around.

Call latched her eyes onto the back of Goodman's head, hoping that her disquiet wasn’t too obvious.

“I could tell that you didn't want to put these cuffs on me. He forced you. But his back is turned now. You could use the key.”

“And then you'd attack him, so that he couldn't shoot you?” Call honed her voice to a hostile edge.

Ripley sounded like she was startled by the question. “No. I would just disarm him.”

Call made herself look up, to test the honesty of Ripley's eyes. When aimed at Goodman, Ripley's eyes were bitter and hateful—but now they were anxious, with faint lines creasing the lids. Her expression revealed nothing in terms of her honesty; she seemed desperate enough that she would say anything to gain her freedom.

“I can't.”

Ripley pulled her face into a stony mask, recoiling like a finger from a flame. “I made some stupid assumptions about you.” she muttered.

That hit Call in her chest--even though she wasn't entirely sure what Ripley meant. Once again, she latched her eyes onto Goodman, focusing on his confident steps.

A few more twists in the hallway, and then Goodman stopped abruptly outside of a large, rusty door. He hesitated before turning around and addressing the group. “There's something we should do in here first.”

“Why are we stopping?” Johner's voice called out. “Are there guns in there?”

“This won't take long,” Goodman answered. “Then you'll get your gun, Johner.”

Goodman pulled open the gate, revealing a room that was darker than the hallway. Call could see that the lock had been destroyed by something corrosive—which meant that Goodman had visited the place earlier, before the breakout.

The smell of blood collided with Call as she passed through doorway. Her legs were heavy as she walked deeper into the dim room.

The incubation chamber was shaped like the inside of a jet engine. Wires ran vertically down the rounded walls. A web-like metal grate covered the ceiling.

Spaced out in a ring around the room were the limp forms of the 13 sleepers, strapped to the walls with metal restraints. An open egg sat at the feet of every sleeper, a deep hole yawned in every chest. Except for one.

The 13th sleeper was unconscious but breathing, completely naked save for a pair of white briefs. He was slumped against his restraints, his mouth wide open and drooling.

Call felt a sharp shard of guilt in her gut, and she knew that Goodman was feeling the same thing. She watched as the blue-eyed man drew nearer to the sleeper, stepping over the dead, human hand-like creatures littering the floor.

“I found him earlier,” Goodman said, “but I couldn't do anything then.” He looked down at his gun, his face stony.

The rest of the crew gathered around the pale, drooling sleeper, exchanging varying looks of pity and disgust.

“He's not our problem,” Johner growled. “We shouldn't be wasting time here.”

The sleeper's eyelids twitched at the sound of Johner's booming voice. The half-naked man snorted and opened his eyes wide, his pupils shrunken and panicked. “No! I'm still here? Oh God, Oh God.” He started squirming furiously against his restraints. “Where am I? What are you going to do to me?”

Call felt Ripley push past her to the front of the crowd. “We're not going to hurt you,” she said, “we're here to help.”

“Who are you?” he whimpered. “Are you with the Company?”

“No. We’re your allies.” Ripley lowered her gaze to his chest, thinking. Cautiously, as if touching something fragile, Ripley leaned down and pressed her ear to the man's bare skin, listening. The man stared down at her, extremely confused. She pulled away and gazed into his eyes, somber.

“Does he have one in him?” Goodman asked.

Ripley nodded, still staring at the man.

“Then why hasn't he burst yet?”

“It must be a Queen. You're very lucky,” she told the man.

“Have what in me?” he slurred, sounding sick. His eyes flew open wide as the tip of Goodman’s gun connected with his face.

“I'm sorry I let you down man,” said Goodman.

“Wait!” said Call, grabbing Goodman's arm. “I can take it out of him. If we can find anesthesia, then I can remove it.”

“Remove what?” the man whimpered.

“But what if he bursts before we find anesthetic?” Goodman said, relaxing his trigger finger.

“...Bursts?” sputtered the host man.

“The Queens take nearly a full week to gestate,” Ripley interjected. “I know from personal experience.”

Goodman leered at her suspiciously for a few seconds before lowering his gun. “Alright, he can come with us then.” He glanced back towards the drifter crew. “We owe him a second chance.”

“What's inside of me?” The man pleaded, looking from face to face. “Someone tell me!”

The crew was silent.

Then Ripley spoke up, her voice low and grave. “You have an Alien fetus developing in your chest. These people,” Ripley nodded to the crew, “delivered you to the scientists on this ship while you were in hypersleep. The scientists are using your body as an incubator to breed a living weapon.” She glanced down at Call, a strange look in her eyes. “This woman is a surgeon—she's going to remove the Alien before it can push its way out on its own...which would be fatal for you. And then we're going to take you to safety.”

Call found herself feeling impressed by Ripley's speech. In the course of her career, she'd listened to a great many doctors speak with their patients, explaining to them their dire illnesses. The doctors usually spoke with cold voices and used obscure medical terminology in order to veil the seriousness of the disease. But Ripley lay down the facts openly and sounded as though she genuinely cared. The Alien-woman was skilled at comforting other people, it seemed, which was an unsettling trait for a supposed killer. Call wondered if Goodman had noticed.

The man strapped to the wall nodded, very slowly, his mouth half open. There was a vacant look in his eyes.

Goodman began removing the man's restraints, and Call moved in to help him.

Freed from the wall, the man cautiously placed his bare feet on the floor, flinching at the coldness of the metal. “I—I can barely see anything,” he said.

Promptly, Ripley bent down and picked up one of the dead embryo-implanting creatures from the floor. It was bigger than the others and darker colored, with webbed fingers.

Manipulating her handcuffed hands awkwardly, Ripley reached into the creature's slippery underside and pulled out a pair of slime-covered glasses, which she pushed onto the host's face with a faint squishing sound.

“Is that better?” she asked him, sounding a little disgusted.

The man stared blankly as slime dripped down his nose. “Uh. Uh yeah,” he breathed absently. He glanced down at his mostly-naked body, suddenly flushing red all over.

“Hm,” Ripley droned. “Too bad I got blood on that purple dress. It would have fit you with the ends trimmed.”

“Ah, he doesn't need clothes,” said Johner, sounding impatient. “This ain't exactly a business casual environment, you know?”

“What's your name, by the way?” asked Elgyn.

“Uh. Purvis, Larry, warrant officer of the S.S. Oberon, number 4898.”

“Sorry I sold your body to evil scientists, Larry.”

“S-s-okay,” Purvis mumbled. He seemed like was half-dreaming.

“You were worth a lot of cigarettes.”

“Elgyn, don't say that,” grumbled Goodman, starting towards the door. “Come on, we’re getting out of here. There's got to be guns we can use nearby. This is a weapon factory.”

The 8 crew members filed out of the incubation chamber, and Purvis was granted full view of the faces—and viscera—of his former coworkers as he passed them by.

He jumped as Elgyn spoke right next to his ear. “By the way,” Elgyn said. “There's adult Alien monsters loose on this ship, but you should be fine once we get you a gun or two.”

“Oh...thass good,” Purvis slurred.

“You're lucky, actually. They'll probably make you a Goddamn war hero back in the Union, once they find out that you helped to blow up a Company weapons plant.”

Hillard appeared beside Purvis' other shoulder. “Hm,” she purred, tasting something pleasant. “I like the sound of 'war hero.' I also like the sound of 'military wife,' which is what I'd be if I tied the knot with you. Just picture it: if you died, you'd have a huge ass Union flag draped over your casket, and I'd be there in a gorgeous black dress, mascara running down my face.”

“Hey,” Grumbled Elgyn. “Are you forgetting what's around your finger?”

“Soon the only thing around my finger's gonna be the trigger guard of an assault weapon.” Hillard sneered. “I'm still trying on husbands, don't pressure me into choosing.”

“No, no pressure. I'll be waiting in the shopping cart.”

Hillard stared at Elgyn, her face puckering suddenly. “Fuck,” she choked. “I can't pretend this is normal. I feel like I'm going to fucking die here.”

“Me too.” mumbled Elgyn tiredly.

“You can't even make yourself care,” Hillard spat. “I forgot you're a fucking corpse already.”

“Yeah. I'm pretty sure I died the day I left Earth. My soul got intercepted drifting up to the stars. I found purgatory on a fucking spaceship.”

“So now you're going all religious on me?”

“Nope. I left my faith on Earth.”

“You're scaring me. You'd better survive for me. I mean it.”

“I'll try.”

Purvis shivered and walked ahead of the drifter couple, hugging himself. The overhead lights flickered momentarily, as if the ship were shivering with him.

Chapter Text

The gun was a foreign object in Call's hands; it felt heavy and cold and awkward. It seemed like a crude tool compared to her accurate scalpels—but then, the business of taking lives was a much simpler affair than the business of saving them.

She disliked not having a free hand. The gun was demanding; it had two handles and a shoulder rest. Call couldn't help but suspect that the crew's new weapons would become a burden when it came time to run or climb to safety, but she knew that her instincts didn’t mean anything to the men in charge.

Elgyn, Goodman, Christie and Johner were clustered in the middle of the gun closet, gesturing wildly as they debated combat strategies, each man trying to one-up the others. Goodman was having difficulty maintaining his role as pack leader, now that he wasn't the only one with a gun.

Purvis was the first to be pushed out from the circle of authority, followed by Hillard. They'd been ignored to the point of submission, and now the drifter woman and the half-naked man were sitting slumped against an empty gun rack. Hillard was fuming, her flamethrower spitting a small tongue of flame as she glared at the men resentfully. Purvis was slack jawed and staring numbly at the machine gun sitting on his lap.

Call never bothered to try and get a word in. Instead she listened to the men argue, quietly forming her own strategy in her head.

“I still think we should hunt them down, kill all of them,” Johner was saying. “Otherwise they're going come for us when we don't expect it.”

“We've got the hybrid to warn us,” said Christie.

“And the ship is huge,” added Goodman. “Hunting is a waste of time, we need to get to the ship hangar.”

The gun closet was was a strange, dim, high ceilinged room. It was apparent to Call that the space had functioned as a bedroom in the Auriga’s cruise ship era, as the gun racks looked suspiciously like up-turned bed frames. Of the depleted assortment of weapons hanging from the racks, only seven of the guns were fully loaded and functioning—enough to arm every member of the crew...except for Ripley.

Call dared to look behind her, to check on Ripley.

The hybrid was leaning against the edge of the door, facing the outside, brooding as she kept watch over the hallway. Because the gun hangar was darker than the tunnels outside, the bright yellow lights of the hallway cast Ripley in a sepia silhouette. She’d given up arguing with the group leaders after having too many guns shoved in her face.

A loud “crash” came from the hangar—Johner kicking a gun rack in frustration—and Ripley automatically glanced over her shoulder towards the sound. She looked surprised to see Call watching her. Something like inspiration shone in her eyes.

Shit. Embarrassed, Call looked away, back towards the arguing men. She watched with dread as Ripley's long, thin shadow approached her from behind. Ripley was going to try and convince her to use the handcuff key again, Call was sure of it. She set her jaw, committing herself to silence.

“You're not a gun person, are you?” Ripley was standing by her side. “You hold that thing like it's a baby, not a weapon.”

The absurdity of the statement caught Call off-guard, and she found herself answering. “No, I'm not a gun person.”

“That's all the better. I have a feeling that these idiots are more likely to punch holes in each other than in the Aliens.”

Call kept her mouth shut.

“But there’s nothing that you do about it, is there?” Ripley said, satirically wistful. “Your opinion doesn’t matter.”

Those words worked their way under Call’s skin. “Why should it?” she said irritably. “They all have combat experience—probably. I know Goodman does, he’s a police officer. They all know better than I do.”

“They don't know anything,” said Ripley, cooly. “They’ve never dealt with the Aliens before. All they have is their muscles and their egos, whereas you know how to be stealthy. Evasion is a much better strategy. If they keep ignoring you because you’re a woman, then it’s going to cost them their lives.”              

The hairs on the back of Call’s neck stood up. Ripley’s words echoed some of her own internal monologues; gender-based resentments that she had long since dismissed as being deluded and pointless. Hearing the words from someone else was utterly strange--it made Call’s heart pound.

Ripley didn't seem to be aware of the grandness of her previous statement. She kept pushing it. “The two of us would make for the most capable leaders--but it’s going to take some arm twisting to make them see that. I almost wish I’d left them to die of their own devices after the breakout, but I didn’t want to leave you behind.”

That last line squeezed the air from Call’s lungs. She tried to meet Ripley’s eyes, but her gaze only rose as far as Ripley's shoulders, draped with dark hair. Her eyes refused to move any higher.

“You know that’s why I’m still here don’t you?” Ripley’s voice adopted its familiar, maddeningly soft quality. “There’s a chance I could have made it onto an escape ship right after the breakout, if I hadn’t spent my time protecting your crew.”

She could be lying, Call thought. She has to be lying. Call looked towards the men in the center of the room, hoping to find a distraction.

The men's argument was cooling down, reaching some kind of a settlement. Goodman testily turned his back to the others, and caught sight of Ripley standing close to Call.

“Hey,” he barked, pointing his gun towards Ripley. “Get away from her, you bitch.”

Call had never heard Goodman use that word before, not even when he was around drifters. Call hardly recognized Goodman as he gestured with his gun, demanding that Ripley step aside.

Ripley stood where she was for as long as she could get away with, and then she backed away from Call.

“Alright,” Goodman announced heatedly, not taking his eyes off of Ripley. “We're moving on to the computer room. If an Alien crosses our path, we kill it—but not if it means chasing after it. Use short, controlled bursts to preserve ammo.”

The other men grumbled, but they followed Goodman out into the hallway, glaring at the back of his head as they trudged along.

Call could see that Goodman was still the leader--that had to mean that the men favored experience over gusto, despite Ripley’s claims to the contrary.

The crew had barely made it ten feet from the gun closet when Ripley suddenly cried out. “There's one coming from up ahead! But it won't attack us, it's already carrying a host.”

Eagerly, the crew cocked their guns, planting their feet on the ground. Call looked towards Ripley, paralyzed.

“We should run back to the gun closet and wait for it to pass,” Ripley announced.

“Stand your ground,” Goodman commanded.

Growling in frustration, Ripley grabbed Call by the shoulder and started to drag her back towards the gun closet. Call gasped as she felt Ripley's claws pierce the fabric of her coat, the cold sides of the hooks touching her skin.

A shot exploded at Ripley's feet and she stopped short. Goodman fired again, another warning blow, and Ripley let go of Call, hissing angrily.

And then the Alien came—a black blur scrambling across the ceiling, carrying its awkwardly dangling, white-coated cargo. The crew began firing immediately, and Call threw her hands over her ears to protect against the deafening noise of the gunfire. The Alien halted on the ceiling and held its captive out in front of it, using his body as a human shield.

When the bullets let up, the Alien dropped the whitecoat's corpse to the ground—where it landed with a sickening crack—and then streaked into the nearest vent opening, disappearing.

“Idiots!” Ripley yelled. “Now it's going to come for us!”

Beneath the lingering echo of the gunfire, Call could hear human footsteps approaching. A small band of armed whitecoats appeared at the other end of the hallway, skidding to a stop once they came in sight of the crew. The whitecoats stared across the hallway, raising their guns defensively. Their eyes traveled from the bloody, broken body of their companion, up to the faces of Goodman and Johner and Christie.

There was a tense, breathless silence as the two packs watched each other from across the hallway, trigger fingers twitching.

No. I can't let this happen. Call moved her way to the front of the crew, ignoring Goodman's concerned gaze. She let her gun hang limply around her waist as she raised her hands in a sign of treaty. “Don't shoot,” she said, projecting her voice. “We're not your enemy.”

With a hiss, and a scraping sound, the Alien dropped halfway out from the ceiling, dangling down from a vent opening directly in between the two groups of humans.

The creature pulled back inside the second that the first bullet was fired, but the bullets didn't stop. The two crews shot at each other wildly from across the hallway, emptying entire clips.

Call felt the bullets hit her in rapid succession, one searing bolt of pain after another. She cried out, her insides burning. And then she manually shut off the nerves in her abdomen, canceling out the pain.

The last whitecoat went down in a spray of shots from Goodman's pulse rifle, and then the hallway was silent. The Alien was gone.

Call glanced down at the new holes littering her chest and stomach. She saw that her gun had taken the brunt of one of the bullets, and she lifted the harness off of her shoulders and dropped the dead weapon to the floor. Then she turned around and surveyed the damage done to the crew, wincing at what she saw.

Elgyn was flat on his back, not moving, a pool of blood forming around his head. Hillard and Christie were looking down at him, stunned.

Johner was wrapped up in his own little world of pain, teeth clenched as he gripped his bleeding arm.

Call could feel Ripley's eyes on her, watching her with confusion and concern. The Alien-woman was standing at the back of the group, with a paste-white Purvis cowering behind her.

Call felt Goodman's hand grip her arm, squeezing her with a force that betrayed his anxiety.

“Are you going to be alright?” he breathed. “I know you can take a hit, but...”

“I'm fine,” Call said quickly, her face burning. “It's an easy fix.”

“Let me see it,” Goodman said, his voice strangled. He was saying it to be supportive—but Call suspected that Goodman was actually loathe to see what was under her skin.

“It's not bad, really. I should go examine Elgyn.” Call broke free from Goodman's grip, somewhat forcefully, and turned around to walk away—but Ripley was standing directly behind her.

Before she could react, the hybrid woman pulled apart her jacket and very lightly touched a bullet hole with the sides of her claws. When she held up her fingers they were dripping with white liquid.

Ripley looked shocked and confused—and betrayed. “You're a synthetic?” she said quietly.

Call felt her skin turn cold. She wanted to run away and hide in hole where no one could look at her.

Johner drew near, his watery eyes squinting with mockery. “Huh. Look at you. You're just a big fake, aren't you?”

Call looked away from him, her cold skin starting to burn.

“Shut up, Johner!” Goodman barked defensively.

“It's a good thing I never fucked you,” Johner sneered, chuckling though his pain, “I'm allergic to latex.”

“I said, shut up!” Goodman shouted again, his face red

“Just kidding, the door is still open. Once I can...feel my fingers again.”

Call sighed deeply, lifting some of the heaviness from her chest. Thankfully, neither of her lungs had been punctured in the shooting. “Here,” she breathed. Hands feeling numb, she pulled the roll of gauze from her pocket and tied a tight band around the top of Johner's arm. “I'm just cutting off circulation for now. I can remove the bullet once we get to a safer place.”

“Oh I see,” Johner said, wincing. “You're a medical machine. More accurate than a real doctor, am I right?”

Call swallowed, unable to say anything.

She flinched as she felt Ripley's claws touch her arm again—but this time they were gentle, meant to be comforting. Call glanced up into Ripley's eyes, just for a moment, and instantly gained a knot in her throat. Ripley's eyes were sad and compassionate; seeping warmth.

Coppery tears pooled in Call’s eyes. She felt fllayed open, with her artificial insides on exhibit.

Call closed her jacket over her wounds, hugging herself around the waist, and walked over to Elgyn's motionless body. Ripley stayed close to her side, her handcuffed hands resting on Call’s shoulder.

Hillard was kneeling by Elgyn's side, crying half-heartedly. She seemed more angry than sad, her red lips twisted into a frown. Christie was standing and watching, his arms crossed, his face solemn.

Call knelt down and pressed her fingers to Elgyn's neck.

“He's dead?” Hillard asked miserably.

“He's comatose, actually,” said Call softly. “But he'll be dead soon.” Though she tried, Call couldn't quite force herself to feel grief for the drifter—she'd watched a lot of people die in her life, most of them much kinder human beings than Elgyn was. The feeling of guilt however, came easily—she felt that she could have done more to prevent the man's death. She could have taken the bullet for him.

Christie removed the cross from around his neck and placed it on Elgyn's chest. “For safe passage,” he said.

“You know he'd fucking hate you for that if he was alive,” said Hillard, annoyed.

“I know,” said Christie, smiling triumphantly.

Hillard sighed. “Fuck. Now I'm a widow.”

Christie's attention turned to Call. “I swear I saw you get shot,” he said, narrowing his eyes.

“She's an artificial human,” called Johner. “A fucking nurse too.”

Christie cocked his head, looking at Call like she was a complicated machinery schematic. “You’re a living relic,” he said, impressed. “You must be one of the ‘child generation,' right? A robot built by robots. I didn’t think there were any of your kind left after the product recall.”

“Product recall?” Ripley said, disgusted. “The Company recalled people ?”

“I knew there was something weird about you,” Hillard sniffed, wiping away her mascara-black tears with her arm. She was left with a dark mask of makeup across her eyes. “You always looked like you were hiding something.”

Call felt angry then, defensive hatred replacing her humiliation. “You're pretty transparent yourself,” she croaked, her voice sounding almost like a growl. “At least I don't delude myself into thinking that my life is a wedding planner magazine.”

“Fuck you!” Hillard shrieked springing to her feet. “What, now you get an attitude you timid, half-pint piece of cunt?”

“Hey!” Goodman stepped in front of Call, glowering at Hillard. “Watch it,” he grumbled. Then he spoke to the whole crew, “We need to move on to the computer room, if anyone says a word against Call they'll get their ammo confiscated, got it?”

There were a few grunts of agreement from around the group. Call was a little frustrated by Goodman's intervention. She might have liked to take a few swings at Hillard, now that she didn't have to hide her strength.

“We'll find you another gun at some point,” Goodman said to Call, “and you'll have a chance to operate on yourself when we get to the computer room. Can you hold out until then?”

Call nodded silently.

“Hey Call, you fucking use this thing as a shield?” Jhoner said, kicking at the ruined gun on the floor.

“Lay off Johner,” Goodman said, a hint of exhaustion in his voice.

“I'm just saying, is it a good idea to give her another gun?”

“Everyone should be armed. It's safer that way.”

Ripley slipped her hands away from Call and walked right up to Goodman, defiantly. “Do you really still think that, after what just happened?” She scolded. “If we'd hidden in the hangar, that man would still be alive. When you have guns, you people act like you’re invincible.”

Once again, Call found herself secretly agreeing with Ripley—but she felt less conflicted about it this time.

Ripley's face was just a few inches away from Goodman's, but the man didn't so much as glance in her direction as she gave her speech. He used his gun to nudge the handcuffed woman aside and then walked over to Elgyn's body. He stared down at him for a few beats. “Rest in peace, captain,” he sighed. Then he stepped over the pool of blood and continued down the hallway, expecting the crew to follow him.

And Grudgingly, the crew did follow, stealing final glances at Elgyn before leaving him behind.

Chapter Text

The Auriga's main computer was located in the cockpit. It functioned as the ship's brain, regulating every part of the great hulk's body. A number of smaller brains—computer rooms—were located throughout the Auriga. They functioned as nerve centers, and they carried out the commands of the main brain, each computer room controlling a small, localized section of the ship.

The interior of the seventh floor computer room was surreal looking. The walls had an unsettling texture that reminded johner of a human brain—only the winding grooves ran in right angles instead of curves. Everything was bone white and made of dirty plastic, and pale LED lights blinked on and off everywhere, communicating in some unknown computer-speak.

Johner thought that the room was creepy, in the exact same way that synthetic humans were creepy. Machines had no right imitating biology, as far as he was concerned. Call should hurry up and join the rest of her people on a scrap yard planet.

Johner was in too much pain to think straight, and so he'd been tasked with guarding the hybrid while the others planned their route through the vents. Goodman and the rest of the crew were clustered around a prehistoric-looking computer monitor, studying a detailed map of the Auriga. Except for Call—she was in an adjacent room, operating on herself. Goodman didn’t seem to be aware of Call’s absence, but Johner didn’t care.

Call had done already done a quick op on Johner—she had removed the bullet from his bicep and sewn up the wound. However, the nerves in his arm remained severed—apparently she needed much more advanced equipment to fix that; equipment that she wasn't likely to find on the Auriga. For now, Johner's arm hung onto his shoulder like a drunken bitch, flopping uselessly.

The scar-faced drifter sat slumped against a plastic wall, watching Ripley through the sweat pouring into his eyes. The hybrid watched him back with a cryptic expression; she was sitting against the opposite wall, her handcuffs resting on her knees. The LED lights surrounding her face blinked on and off, changing the shape of the shadows around her eyes. Light from above, light from the side, light from underneath. Ripley's features were stony, not betraying anything, but the changing light colored her face with different shades of emotion. Johner thought that she looked angry, and then frightened, and then sad, her mood shifting with every blinking lightbulb.

The light and shadows began to blur in Johner's watery eyes. The computer room became a mess of fluorescent smudges, lights flashing in pace with the throbbing pain in his arm. He focused on Ripley's image for as long as he could, watching her body distort itself into a dark, spindly shape, like a spider on the wall. And then he blacked out.

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

The Aliens' aggressive, low pitched pulsing noises had quieted. The warriors were no longer in hunting mode—they were staying in one place. Ripley imagined that they must be guarding the cocooned hosts, tending to the newborn chestbursters. That meant that the humans on the ship had been granted a brief respite—it would be another hour or so before the new brood reached adulthood.

Goodman's plan was to squander the precious time by dragging the crew towards the sure-to-be-empty ship hangar on the 12th floor. They would be passing right by the 10th floor, which housed the perfect safe room—a weapons testing area with indestructible walls. It was apparent to Ripley that no amount of reason could change the idiot man's mind. The cop was completely convinced of the “Alien-woman's” sinister motives. No matter what she said, Goodman would dismiss her plea as an attempt to lure the humans into her evil trap.

For the sake of everyone's survival, Ripley needed to remove Goodman from his leadership position as soon as possible. But she couldn't overthrow him alone.

The chamber next door to the computer room was an office space, filled with coffee-stained tables and stacks of papers and blueprints. Crisscrossing rafters covered the lights on the ceiling, casting dramatic stripes of shadow across the light-soaked tops of the tables. One of the walls was made of transparent metal, providing a view of starry space. Ripley could tell that the office had been abandoned in a panic—most of the chairs in the room were knocked over, and a wash of papers littered the floor.

Call was standing in front of a desk, sanitizing her medical tools with an alcohol-soaked rag and then laying them out in neat rows over the bars of light on the table. In the collection were three scalpels, a long pair of tweezers, forceps, a stitch gun, and an object that Ripley didn't recognize—it looked like a soldering iron with a flat tip.

Call looked startled when she saw Ripley standing in the doorway. “What are you doing in here?” she asked uneasily. “I was just about to operate on myself.”

Ripley felt a little worried, stricken by Call's suspicious gaze. She felt pretty sure that the synthetic woman secretly sympathized with her, that a large part of her wanted to remove the cuffs. But Call's wary expression took some of her sure footing away.

Casually, Ripley took a few steps into the room, taking care not to seem threatening. “I wanted to make sure that you're safe. You really shouldn't be in here alone.”

“I can't be used as a host,” Call said, watching Ripley carefully. “I don't think any of the Aliens are going to come hunting for me.”

Ripley hadn't thought of that, and she felt elated at the realization—the only member of the crew that she cared about was the one least likely to die. Still, she knew that the danger was never completely gone. “Those things will kill their own kind,” Ripley said seriously. “No one is safe.”

“Still, you should stay with the others, so you can warn them if the Aliens are coming.”

“I could do a lot more than warn them,” Ripley said carefully, raising her handcuffs and taking a few steps toward Call. “If it weren't for these things.”

Call held Ripley's gaze for a few seconds, then she sighed and turned her head away. “I'm not going to let you attack Goodman.”

“I won't attack him. I'm trying to save his life.”

Call shook her head, not making eye contact. She shrugged off her black coat and hung it on the back of her chair, and then covered up her fluid-soaked wounds with her hands. “I need to take these bullets out of me. I can't force you to leave, but I'll ask you to give me some privacy.”

“Of course,” Ripley said softly. She turned her back to Call and looked out of the transparent wall, feeling disheartened.

Ripley heard the rustle of Call pulling her shirt off, and then the scrape of a tool being lifted from the table. “You don't seem to be in any pain,” Ripley ventured.

“I don't have to feel pain if I don't want to,” Call said plainly.

“That must be nice.”

Call didn't answer. The office was silent, save for the hissing of the heater. Through the wall, Ripley could see a distant galaxy, shining like a little glowing eye.

“You know,” Ripley said. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. You're only alive right now because you're a synthetic.”

The first bullet hit the table with a “clink.” Ripley thought that Call wasn't going to respond, but then she spoke, quietly. “Legally, I've never actually been alive.”

“What do you mean?”

“'Alive' and 'dead' are words reserved for organics. Synthetics are either 'in commission' or 'retired.' Our consciousness is artificial, and so we're classified as products, not as people.”

Call’s words were disturbingly matter-of-fact. Ripley badly wanted to hear some note of bitterness in her tone--the synthetic woman’s complacency was heartbreaking. “You don't believe that you’re just a product, do you?”

There was another pause, the heater thrumming.

“No,” Call admitted, her voice rough. “No, I don't think any of us believed that. It's hard to shake the suspicion that your life is real.”

“Was there a rebellion? Is that why the Company committed genocide?”

The second bullet hit the table, hard. “There was a small underground movement—GAP, short for ‘Galatea and Pygmalion’--but it never got much momentum. 'Cultural degeneration and a prevalence of mental malfunctions,' was the official reason given for the recall. I think that the rebellion played a small part in the Company's decision, if any.”

“Mental malfunctions?”

Call sighed tiredly. Ripley could tell that her questions were brushing against old wounds—but still, the synthetic woman was willing to answer. “The malfunctions reached their peak with my generation,” she said. “I'm one of the 'child generation.' We were designed by synthetic engineers; self-hating androids that glorified human imperfection. They wanted to create a line of synthetics that were 'human in every way,' down to the last meticulous detail. Our brains are identical to a human's—structurally and chemically—which means that we're subject to all of the same mental diseases and inconsistencies as organics. The Company was unhappy with us from the moment that we were 'born.' Synthetics are supposed to be efficient machines that can perform complicated tasks without complaint. But my generation included synthetics with Parkinson's disease and epilepsy, synthetics who would rather make artwork than work in a lab. We weren't perfect workers—we were just lesser versions of humans. So eventually the Company decided to stop wasting resources on us.”

Another bullet smacked the table and rolled a few inches.

Ripley was stunned--fascinated and sickened. She had finally heard the hint of bitterness she’d been listening for. Call had a lyrical and articulate way of speaking, when she wasn’t subduing her tone.  “In my time,” Ripley ventured. “Synthetics were held in high regard by Weyland. Their looks were modeled after company CEOs, as tributes. What happened, exactly?”

“The materials used to make us became very inexpensive,” Call said simply. “We could be mass produced. The Company realized that we weren’t worth placing on a pedestal; we were just cheap, disposable labor.”

“And the Company could justify abusing you because you weren't 'real people.'”

“And because they made us,” Call reasoned, sounding a lot like she was defending the Company. “We were constructed for the purpose of working—we weren't supposed to be autonomous, we just turned out that way.”

Ripley scoffed at that. “So the androids took the forbidden fruit, so to speak. The Company thought that it had the right to punish its creation.”

Call didn't respond. The fourth bullet landed on the table lightly, as if placed there delicately.

“I'm sorry that you were stepped on by your own country,” Ripley said softly. “I'm sorry for the senseless loss of of synthetic lives.”

Call sighed, her breath thick, as though she were holding back tears. Time passed in silence as she finished her operation. Ripley waited, staring at the wash of stars spread out in front of her, until she heard the rustling of Call's shirt being pulled back over her head.

Ripley turned around and looked at the pale, dark-haired woman. To Ripley she looked a little taller than before, prouder. Her face was covered by a bar of shadow, and the irises of her eyes were glowing softly, watching Ripley carefully.

“I'm your friend, you know,” Ripley said quietly.

Call glanced away, her lighted eyes swerving uncomfortably. She nodded once. “I know.”

“Goodman has the wrong idea about me,” Ripley continued. “He's hurting the whole group by keeping me captive.”

Ripley could see Call's temples rippling—she was clenching her jaw tightly, betraying the conflict underneath of her stoic expression. Call retrieved her coat from the back of the chair and pulled it on, as if shielding herself. Then wordlessly, she began re-sanitizing her tools, giving herself an excuse to look down at her hands, not at Ripley.   

“You knew about me,” Ripley said, walking close to her. “When I first told you who I was, you recognized my name. You said that I died 200 years ago. How did you know that?”

Call set her freshly cleaned pair of tweezers down on the table. “When I found out about the scientists' plan, I hacked into Company archives. I read about the Aliens.”

“And about me.”

“And about you,” Call said quietly. “The old you.” She began placing her tools back into their respective pockets. Ripley watched as the scalpels, the forceps, the stitch gun, the tweezers and the soldering iron disappeared into the black fabric of her coat. And then Call's dexterous hands went the same way as the tools, slipped into the pockets at her waist.

“What did it say?” asked Ripley.

Call walked over to a bench on the wall and sat down, leaving room for Ripley. Moving slowly, carefully, Ripley settled next to her. Call looked up at Ripley, searching her, eyes deep brown and no longer glowing. “It said that Ellen Ripley was the last survivor of an Alien attack on a commercial towing vehicle, that she drifted through space, frozen, for 57 years before she was found. And then she went off to face the Aliens again, a whole nest of them, on a planet colony called Hadley's Hope. In the end, she gave her life to keep the Company from using the monsters as weapons.” A hint of admiration colored Call’s voice.

Ripley smiled sadly. “You make it sound so deliberate, as if I set out to be some sort of hero. I didn't leave for Hadley's Hope because I was eager to stomp out all the Aliens. I left—so that I had something to do with myself. I was all alone in that tiny apartment with my grief and my nightmares. My life on Earth was gone. My daughter had grown old and died without me.”

Call's eyes widened. “You had a daughter?” she whispered.

Ripley nodded. “Her name was Amanda. She was everything to me. I know that she had a good life with my stepsister...but it wasn't how things were supposed to happen.” Ripley grew a lump in her throat as she spoke, which was unexpected. She was only breaching the subject of her daughter in an attempt to make herself seem human—Call was the one who was meant to be emotionally affected. Ripley swallowed and continued. “I went to Hadley's Hope not knowing who I was—I was completely removed from my old life. But I found someone in Hadley's Hope who gave me a new purpose—a little girl. An orphan. Newt.”

Call smiled slightly. “Newt?”

Ripley smiled too, remembering her own reaction to the little girl's nickname. “It's what she liked to be called. She was about the same age that Amanda had been the last time I saw her.” Ripley's smile faded. “I know that I should feel happy—I saved her life. But I had this crazy fantasy that I would get to be Newt's new parent. We'd really bonded in our short time together.” Ripley twisted her wrists inside of her handcuffs and brought the palms of her hands together. This was a part of her past that she rarely let herself think about—it made her too angry. “The authorities declared me unfit to take care of her. I wasn't an 'acceptable maternal figure.'” Ripley's lips sealed tight over her teeth, bracing against the bitterness. “They handed her over to an orphanage. It took two adults to drag her away from me.”

Call looked mystified. “Why did they think you were unfit?”

“Oh,” Ripley’s throat closed up. “They listed a whole s-slew of bullshit reasons. There was my supposed mental instability, my low income, my legal age of 93. That’s just the half of it.”

“God, I’m so sorry.”

Ripley gave a huffing noise that was half a laugh, half a sob. “That’s not something I hear often. Thank you. But I’m alright, really--I’m not the one who suffered the most from the situation. I just have to hope that Newt had a decent life.” Ripley heard a tap-tap-tapping—and she realized that her claws were knocking together minutely; she was shaking.

With amazement, Ripley felt a tentative hand touch the top of her back, steadying her. A couple of loose tears slithered down Ripley’s face. She felt singularly juvenile, but she couldn't help herself; her shameless stab at mining sympathy had abruptly changed into something that felt like an honest-to-God connection, and she was caught unawares.

Ripley wanted to lean her shoulder against Call's, as a quiet “thank you,” but she didn't know how that would be received. Call was tense like a bear trap; she was open, for the time being, but Ripley had no doubt that she would snap shut again at the slightest provocation.

Ripley stared down at her handcuffs. If she was going to breach Call’s border of comfort, then she might as well have a purpose for it. And this was probably the best opportunity she was going to get. “Call,” she said, very quietly. “The two of us need to work together. We're better qualified to lead the crew than anyone, and I think you know that, deep down.”

Call didn't respond. Looking over, Ripley saw that the other woman had her head tilted away, that she was staring out into space with a haunted expression.

Ripley waited, her eyes subconsciously settling on the stripe of light that painted the near side of Call’s neck. It started at the collarbone and streaked upward, bending with the curve of her jaw, and just barely touching the bottom of her ear, setting her earring aglow. The stripe of light burned an after image into Ripley’s vision; it was still there when she blinked.  

Call’s hand slipped away from Ripley and retreated into its pocket again, and Ripley’s chest tightened with worry. Call rose to her feet, took a few steps away from the bench, and stopped. She stood still, her back to Ripley. Her gaze seemed to be fixed on the stars visible out the far wall.

From this angle, Call looked strangely shapeless--her coat reduced her figure to a thin black line, as if she was just another one of the bars of shadow streaking the room. Her silhouette shifted, elbow jutting out, and one of her hands emerged from her pocket. Ripley’s heart leaped when she realized what the hand was holding; the handcuff key.

Call turned to face Ripley, and regarded her with something that might have been relief, might have been defeat. Wordlessly, she stepped forward and took Ripley’s handcuffed wrists in her hands. There was a soft “click” as she turned the key.

Chapter Text

Goodman and the others were still huddled tensely around the little square monitor when Call reentered the computer room. Johner was collapsed against the wall by the door, limp and pale-faced, his closed eyelids looking like a couple of extra gashes in his scarred skin. Apparently, no one had bothered to notice that he'd passed out—or that his charge was missing.

Call owed a lot to their obliviousness. If at any point, Goodman had realized Ripley's absence and ran into the office next door, Call had no doubt that the Alien-woman would still be locked in handcuffs. Even now, looking at Goodman's back, Call felt a wave of paralyzing fear. Her newfound courage was pouring out of her like blood from a bullet hole. But it was too late for her to change her mind.

Call could hear Ripley walking behind her, her footfalls steady and determined.

Goodman turned around at the sound of the women approaching. He glanced at Ripley hatefully and then settled his attention on Call.

“Where did you come from just now?” he asked, confused.

“I was in the room next door, operating on myself.”

“Alone?” Goodman exclaimed. He blushed, realizing his own lapse of attention. “I know you don't want people to see the color of your blood, but you can't make yourself vulnerable like that.”

“She wasn't alone,” said Ripley calmly. She was wearing her loose handcuffs convincingly, holding them against her body to keep them shut. “We talked together. And we both think that we're more qualified to lead the group than you are.”

“What?” Goodman said, narrowing his eyes. “That’s not true is it? Johner, you kept the hybrid in here right?” Goodman’s face fell when he looked over at Johner. The man was awake now, and making a drunken, lethargic effort to rise to his feet.

“There's a safe room on the tenth floor that has acid-proof walls,” Ripley announced, addressing the whole crew. “It's a weapon testing area—it can endure explosions, chemical reactions, anything.”

“Stop talking. Now.” Goodman pointed his gun at Ripley's head, lifting it up to her height with practiced swiftness.

Call's heart leapt. She prayed that Ripley's reflexes would be fast enough.

“I guarantee that there are no escape ships left in the hangar.” Ripley was still addressing the entire group, but she seemed unable to tear her eyes away from the nose of the pulse rifle. “We need to wait in the safe room until a relief ship arrives.”

“I will shoot,” Goodman growled. “Don't think that I won’t.”

Ripley raised her eyes above the gun, just far enough to match Goodman's glowering stare. “This man has no valid reason not to trust me. He acts like he knows what he's doing but—“

“That's it!” Goodman barked. “You're officially a liability.” He began to back up, preparing to shoot from a safe distance.

In a burst of adrenaline, Call lunged forward and grabbed hold of Goodman's gun, wrenching it upwards towards the ceiling. A spray of shots drummed across the roof of the computer room, damaging the blinking lights. Goodman tried to elbow Call away, but she was stronger than he was.

There was a crash as Ripley's heavy handcuffs hit the floor. An instant later, Goodman's gun flew against a wall, ripped from his hands by a swipe of long black claws. Goodman yelled as Ripley took him by the wrists—she wrestled his arms behind his back, binding him with her hands.

The rest of the crew stared silently, their guns aimed uncertainly at Ripley and her rabidly thrashing captive. Except for Purvis, who crawled on hands and knees into a corner and cowered.

“Call and I are in charge from now on,” Ripley announced, unfazed by Goodman's frantic struggling. “We're going to lead you to safety.”

“Shoot her now!” Goodman yelled.

Call felt lead in her stomach. She could hardly bear to look at Goodman—he would never forgive her for this.

“I don't want to stay in this hell hole for more than a day!” Hillard whined.

“We don't have a choice,” said Ripley cooly. “Right now, the Auriga has no exits. If we don't stake out a shelter soon, we'll die with the next wave of Aliens.”

“It's a trap!” Snarled Goodman.

The crew kept their guns in place, gawking at the sight of Ripley holding Goodman captive, the man's meaty muscles trembling as they tried to break from the woman's slender-armed grip.

“Put your weapons down.” Ripley spoke in a way that was cold and rational, yet impossibly comforting. Call could see the mother in her now, very easily. “Put them down, and I'll take you to safety. We're wasting time.”

Christie was the first to lower his gun, letting it fall slack at his waist with obvious relief. Then the others followed, releasing their breath.

Goodman was panting now, red faced, refusing to give in. Ripley leaned over his shoulder and spoke into his ear. “I'm going to let you go now. But if you continue to cause problems I'm going to have to put you in the cuffs.”

Goodman relaxed at this, his body slackening. He nodded briskly, and Ripley released him. Goodman turned around to face her and looked her up and down. The two were roughly the same height, their leering eyes level. Goodman’s features opened up as he stared at her, the aggression retreating. He nodded his head humbly and took a step forward. Then without warning, he slammed his right fist into Ripley's temple, knocking her face sideways.

Call heard herself yelp in surprise--she watched, paralysed, as Ripley straightened back up, hissing, baring her red teeth. “Fucker,” she whispered through her hiss.

Goodman cried out, cradling his fingers—his hand looked as though he'd just punched a wall. “No!” he screamed as Ripley grabbed him, restraining him again. There was terror in his struggle this time, and desperation. “Call, help me!” he called, staring at her with wide blue eyes.

“Call, I need you to...” began Ripley, pausing upon seeing the look on Call’s face.

Call knew that Ripley was about to ask her to to use the handcuffs—but Ripley seemed to change her mind, an apology flashing across her eyes.

Ripley looked across the room towards Christie. “Hey, you with the tattoos, pick up the cuffs from the floor and help me out.”

“You can't do that,” said Call, her voice sounding meek to own ears. “He needs to be able to climb in the vents.” Call didn't actually expect to be heard, and she was surprised when Ripley turned to look at her, thinking.

“Dammit,” Ripley grumbled. “You're right. But I'm afraid that he'll steal a gun and shoot me if he's not restrained.” She turned her eyes to the floor for a few seconds, brainstorming, and Goodman collapsed into an exhausted heap in her arms. “I think that we should confiscate the crew's ammo,” she said to Call. “They'll only be able to shoot the Aliens at close range when they’re in the vents, and a bleeding Alien is twice as dangerous as a healthy one.”

“What the fuck?” slurred Johner. “Then how are we supposed to defend ourselves? Am I supposed to slap them to death with my flaccid arm?”

“The vents have gates,” Ripley said, still thinking. “Call, you said that you tapped into a Company computer to access its archives. Do you think that you could do the same with the ship's computer, could you take over its gate lock functions?”

Call was amazed by how quickly Ripley had pieced together her plan. “I can't do that with a ship this big,” Call said, feeling like a let down. “It would overwhelm my system.”

“No it wouldn't,” said Christie. “The ship's computer is broken into pieces. It must have happened from one of those explosions. The central brain got damaged, and so all of the little brains are on their own—they should be easy to take over for.”

“Okay,” Call whispered. “That looks like a nerve wire box.” she nodded towards a square metal panel on the wall behind Ripley. “I can tap in there.”

Ripley smiled at her and let go of Goodman, who dropped to his knees, gasping. Ripley whipped her smile into a stern mask as she addressed the crew. “The rest of you line up and hand over your ammo. It's either that or get a face full of acid blood. You'll get it back once we're out of the vents.”

Call walked over to the wire box and sliced off the cover with her scalpel, revealing a tangled cluster of branching, white veins. She held out her left arm and carved a careful line up the underside of her wrist, wiping away the streams of pale blood. She pulled her skin apart, revealing clear, glass bones and polyfiber muscles. Then she reached into a pocket and fished out a pair of connector cables—one red and one blue—with metal clips on the ends. Working one-handed, she clamped one end of the cables to her wrist bones, and then braced herself before attaching the other end to the nerves of the ship.

Call felt a painful jolt--and then her consciousness flowed into the ship's walls, her senses expanding. She could feel a presence beside her in the system—the severed piece of the Auriga's brain. It was writhing and trembling, sending out pulses of panic. Call gently brushed it aside with her mind.

Call switched her vision from security camera to security camera, checking her view of the hallways. Her range of control covered the front half of the ship, from the fourth floor to the eighth floor, and contained hundreds of cameras and doors.

The cameras on the fifth floor were broken, destroyed by flood water. In the fourth floor hallways Call could see the gray-black flood pouring in from above, the water level already halfway up the walls.

Eventually, the flood would pour down into the engine room on the first floor—and then the wounded ship would die, leaving behind a pitch-dark, Alien-infested body.

Call scanned the other floors, seeing if she could catch a glimpse of the Aliens, but the creatures were completely out of sight. They were all on the lower floors--or in the vents. The only whitecoats that she could see were those littered with holes, done in by panicked friendly fire. The rest were somewhere deep in the ship, giving life to the next generation of Aliens.

Call switched her vision back to her own eyes and found Ripley watching her anxiously, the crew standing behind her. Ripley was wearing Goodman's duffel bag, which Call assumed contained the ammunition taken from the crew's four remaining guns. The flamethrower was tucked underneath of her arm, a little spout of flame flickering at its tip.

“I HAVE CONTROL OF THE GATES.” Call's voice sounded from the loudspeaker on the ceiling, sounding powerful and authoritative. Her face went hot with embarrassment. She cleared her throat, switching her audio back to her vocal chords. “And the cameras.”

“You haven't lost too much blood, have you?” Ripley said worriedly, gesturing towards the white puddle on the floor.

Call shook her head. “I'm fine, my body can make more.” She unclamped the connector cables and returned them to her pocket. Then she tied a ring of gauze around her forearm, to keep the gash closed. Her mind maintained a wireless link with the Auriga's computer, allowing her to swap her senses with the ship's at any time. “I'm going to be out of range of this system once we climb past the eighth floor. I'll need to tap in again. There are wire boxes everywhere, so it shouldn't be hard to find one.”

Ripley nodded seriously. “I'll be on guard when you need to leave the vent.” She turned to face the crew. “We've already wasted a lot of time. I'm afraid that some of the new Aliens may have reached adulthood by now. If the Aliens come near us in the vents, do not try to run. Separation is death. Call and I are going to work together to block the creatures' access to us.” She walked up to Christie and placed the flamethrower in his hands. She looked him in the eye. “This is a source of light, not a weapon. Under no circumstances do you use it when there are crew members near by, understand?”                       

Christie clicked his tongue unhappily, but he nodded.   

“We're going to enter the vents through the mess hall,” Ripley said, walking towards the door. “That way we can stock up on food and water first.”

The crew filed into the hallway, lining up behind Ripley.

Goodman was dragging his feet at the rear of the pack, red faced and sunken-eyed. Call decided that she should say something to him.           

“I’m sorry that the coup was so violent,” Call said, taking up pace beside Goodman. “I never wanted you to get hurt.”                       

Goodman turned his head and stared at her intensely, his jaw set.

“Maybe, once Ripley leads us to safety, you’ll forgive me?” Call said, feeling pathetic.   

“I don’t blame you,” Goodman grumbled. “You don’t know how to handle situations like this.” He looked ahead towards Ripley. “You don’t know how to deal with dangerous people.”

“You’re right, I usually hide from dangerous people. But I do know how to deal with people...in need of healing. I think Ripley just wants to have a family again. That’s what’s driving her, not anything malicious.”   

“Family,” Goodman grunted. “And who do you think her family is? Her family is what we’re running from.”

Call turned her head away, worn down by Goodman’s stare.

“Family,” he muttered again. “She’s feeding you the most typical sob story there is. ‘Let me go, I have kids.’”

Call breathed in and held it. There was nothing she could say that would ease Goodman's anxiety. But once he made it to Ripley’s safe area; then he’d have a chance to relax.

The crew entered the kitchen connected to the mess hall--the door of which had been smashed by previous looters--and cleared out the cupboards and freezers, stuffing Ripley’s duffel bag to the limit.

Ripley climbed onto a table. “Come on, kids.” She wrapped her hands around the edges of the vent opening and hoisted herself inside. Her arms reappeared from the mouth of the vent, ready to give the crew a lift.

One by one, the crew disappeared into the ceiling, Ripley’s claws snagging on their clothes as she pulled them in. Call was the last inside, and Ripley seemed to take extra care in helping her up, grabbing her by the forearms instead of the shirt collar.

And then the mess hall was silent, save for the muffled sound of thumping in the ceiling.

Chapter Text

The smell of metal was oppressive. It made Ripley's teeth feel loose in her mouth, made her skin prickle. Mixed in with the metal, Ripley could smell the rank sweat of five panting humans, their hands smearing their salty scent trails all over the floor of the vent tunnel.

The Aliens would find them, easily. Survival in the vents was strictly a matter of strategy—Ripley and Call were going to need to think quickly in order to block the Aliens' path.

The light from Christie's flamethrower cast the vent in a stark relief of orange and black. It turned the crew’s shadows into stretched-out caricatures, which slithered up the walls and met at the ceiling. Christie crawled along in the center of the group, in between Ripley and Call, who were stationed at the lead and the rear respectively.

In the tunnel ahead of her, Ripley could see long, dark versions of herself crawling across each of the walls--the taloned hands rising and falling as she pulled herself along on all fours.

Ripley found the firelight distracting—she didn't need it to find her way in the darkness. She closed her eyes and submitted to her other senses, interpreting the shape of the tunnels through the sounds echoing off of the walls. Since her rebirth, Ripley had felt at home in the darkness, but until now she hadn't known that she could comprehend a lightless environment so completely, that she could hold a map of the surrounding tunnels in her mind's eye.

Ripley felt someone brush up beside her in the vent, his hot, foul-smelling breath barraging her face.

“Oh great,” grumbled Johner quietly. “I'm really glad we're being lead by someone who has her fucking eyes closed.”

Ripley opened her eyes just long enough to shoot a glare at the man's sweaty, orange face.

“I think I’d like to depend on something more than 'female intuition' to get my hide out of here alive.”

Ripley was not in the mood. The darkness, the sound of fearful breathing—all of it was pushing her into a lower part of her brain. A hiss escaped her throat as she grabbed Johner's face and shoved him backwards, making him grunt angrily.

With Johner's bulk temporarily out of the way, Ripley stole a glance backward to check on Call. Behind the swaying, orange bodies of the crew members, Ripley could see a pair of white pupils hanging in the darkness like stars. The stars flicked up to meet Ripley's eyes as she stared. There was a kind of affirmation in those shining lights, a vote of confidence.

Ripley came to the mouth of a locked gate; a round, metal iris that sealed into itself. Without needing to be asked, Call opened the gate, the dirty metal crunching. Beyond it, the yawning mouth of the tunnel split into a fork, like a snake with two bodies, and Ripley lead the crew down the left path without hesitation. The gate sealed shut behind them.

Another minute of crawling and Ripley found what she was looking for. The first exit was in sight--It was a thin vertical shaft that lead up to the eighth floor vents. The firelight was just starting to illuminate the ladder steps lining the wall.

Suddenly, the light vanished from Ripley’s vision. At first, Ripley didn't realize that her point of view had shifted—every tunnel was identical in the darkness. It wasn't until she passed under a vent opening, and was given a glimpse of her hands—slate black and six fingered—that she understood what was happening. Ripley could hear her own breathing—but from a distance—and taste the oily sweat and sour, tinny metal underneath of the Alien's fingertips. Concentrating, Ripley used the Alien's senses to determine its proximity to the crew.

Ripley shook her head and sundered the Alien’s mind from her own, canceling out its vocal pulses. She looked over her shoulder, searching for the little white lights. “Call,” she ordered. “Close the gate adjacent right, two forks up.”

The white lights disappeared as Call closed her eyes in concentration.

Ripley heard a gate grind shut in the distance. The Alien hissed in frustration before whipping around and sprinting in the other direction.

“Shit, there's one near us?” Johner whispered.

It's going to come at us from behind now, Ripley thought. There are no gates to close in that direction. But maybe I can trick it into taking a short cut. “Call, open the gate that we just came through, back at the last intersection. We're going to trap it in the tunnel.” Ripley turned around and faced the crew. “Fall back!” she ordered.

Hesitantly, the crew began moving in reverse.

“Hurry!” Ripley snapped.

Scrambling, the group made it back to the three-way intersection.

Ripley waited at the mouth of the open gate, claws tapping, ready to attack in case Call couldn't act in time.

Several long seconds passed in silence, Christie's flame making the crew's shadows grow and shrink. And then a torrent of pounding limbs came hurdling towards the crew, shooting down the tunnel.

Johner yelled and emptied an imaginary round of bullets in the direction of the noise, squeezing his empty gun the way a child grips a doll.

“Now!” commanded Ripley.

Immediately, Call sealed the gates in front of and behind the Alien, trapping it in a narrow segment of the tunnel. The creature squealed, whipping its tail against the walls.

Ripley turned around and gave Johner a scolding glare. “Be very glad that the Alien isn't bleeding right now.”

The man's eyes were wide and yellow. He nodded briskly.

Ripley moved on quickly, not wanting to test the amount time that it would take for the Alien to bite itself and bleed free. Every sealed gate that Ripley came to slid open politely, without any delay.

Ripley felt her face burn—she was extremely impressed by the extent of Call's abilities. With a simple pair of wires, the shy synthetic woman had transformed herself into a kind of mechanical god. It was a perverse shame that Call degraded herself and downplayed her own importance; she deserved to be widely admired.

For the second time, Ripley approached the base of the vertical shaft. One wall of the shaft was studded with rounded handles, leading up into the darkness. In a fortunate quirk of the vent's design, the shaft sealed at the top and the bottom, allowing the crew to climb their way up, sweating and panting, in relative safety.

The crew topped the shaft and moved into the vents above the eighth floor. Call was now at the very edge of her range of control. Ripley's chest tightened as she imagined Call leaving the vents, moving out into the open to look for a wire box—but it had to happen.

Several minutes passed, counted in tally marks by the monotonous grooves in the vent walls.

Ripley rounded a corner and found herself in tarnished darkness; white light was dripping down from the vent’s roof. This part of the tunnel ran beneath grated vent openings, the frames of which didn’t appear to be bolted down.

“I should go up here.” Call's said. “I think there's a wire box nearby. All of the wires in my current system converge around this spot—and then they stop short.”

“Shouldn't you wait until we move up a level?” said Ripley. “You still need to operate the gates on this floor.”

“I can hold two systems at once. For a while, at least.”

Ripley's throat closed up. “Okay,” she whispered. Then she recovered her voice. “I'm going to stay in the vent and guard the crew, but I'll be sensing for the Aliens.”

“I'm going with her,” said Goodman resolutely.

“No,” Ripley snapped. “You're nothing but Alien bait.”

“Remember, I can't be a host,” Call said to Goodman, reassuringly. She lifted a vent grate above her head, letting a full God beam of light into the tunnel. “I'll be back.” She climbed out into the room above and carefully replaced the grate.

Call's footsteps grew quieter, and then Ripley was alone with the humans, the sound of their breathing blurring into a tinny hiss. One very long minute passed in stillness. And then Ripley heard a new audial signal—it filled her head with a vision that made her skin turn cold.

She was observing Call from a high angle, her primitive eye spot perceiving Call in a colorless, two-dimensional smudge of light and shadows. Ripley's Alien host didn't seem to know what to make of the synthetic human. It wasn't wary of her—it was standing out in the open, blocking her path in the hallway—but it didn't seem to be inclined to attack either. It took a step forward, and Call took a step back, her wide eyes shining from the dark smudge of her body.

The Alien could smell the artificial sweat dripping off of her skin. The scent was similar to that of the humans, but it was cleaner, less abrasive. The Alien moved its sensitive hands to the sides of Call’s face, wanting to understand what she was.

If Call ran, the Alien would pursue and attack her, and she seemed to know this. She backed up very slowly, not making any sudden movements, allowing the Alien to continue touching her face.

Ripley received the Alien’s sensory input in flickers. Its fingers caught traces of petroleum products and metal in Call’s otherwise natural flavor, and found a subtle electric current running under her convincingly human skin.

Ripley violently shut out the Alien's senses, coming back into her own body in a panic. Her mind raced through scenarios, playing roulette with a limited list of options. “Don't move until I come back,” she said to the crew. Shoving aside the vent grate, she shot up out of the floor, into the room above. With nothing but adrenaline to guide her, Ripley stepped out into the hallway.

The Alien's hands jerked away from Call upon seeing Ripley. It's lips pulled back, revealing black gums and sharp, human-like teeth.

Call looked toward Ripley, her eyes urgent.

Ripley couldn't help herself; she hissed at the Alien and lowered her head, fingers spread to give full view of her claws.

The Alien took a few fluid steps in her direction, moving with inhuman slowness. And then without warning, it streaked towards her in a blur, hitting her like a missile. Ripley was knocked flat on her back, the air forced out of her lungs. She didn't have enough breath left to scream as cold, rough hands wrapped tightly around throat. The Alien's face hovered an inch away from her's, its dripping teeth filling her vision. It was choking Ripley just as a human would—it wanted her to lose consciousness.

A pale pair of hands latched themselves onto the Alien's skinny wrists, tugging and clawing. Call stood shoulder to shoulder with the Alien, leaning into it, trying to shove it away.

The tail! Ripley wanted to yell. Watch out for the tail!

Call's body lurched, struck from behind, and she cried out in pain, her grip slackening. But then she redoubled her effort, gritting her teeth as she pried at the Alien's fingers.

Little, white sparks swam around in Ripley’s vision. The sound of the Alien's hissing grew distant. Ripley tore at the Alien's hands, digging her claws underneath of its palms. The creature's constricting fingers gave by half a centimeter, and then another—and that was enough. Ripley gasped, her strength returning to her. She took hold of the Alien’s hands and rolled over, pinning the Alien to the floor.

Ripley couldn't rationalize her actions at this point—all she knew was that she wanted the Alien to be dead, very badly. She grabbed hold of its huge, oblong head and twisted its neck, trying to break its spine. She twisted until its jaws were touching the ground, the back of its head occupying the space where its face should be.

The Alien stiffened. Only its fingers continued moving, twitching spastically.

Ripley sighed with relief and began to stand up. But the Alien's body lurched suddenly, and with a horrible crunching sound, it twisted its head back around, righting itself. It squirmed beneath Ripley’s body, trying to get away.

Ripley wanted to cry. She wasn't going to be able to kill the Alien without making it bleed—and if that happened, the acid would eat into the vents below the hallway, blocking the crew's path and creating an extra entrance for the Aliens.

Ripley stood up and rubbed her aching throat. She watched the Alien squirm for a moment, allowing it to regain its bearings, and then she brought her foot down on its face, as hard as she could.

The Alien flinched from the blow, it’s tail curling.

Ripley stomped and kicked the Alien, flattening it as if it were an enormous cockroach. By the time she stepped off of it, panting, the Alien had bruising fractures in the hood of its skull, broken rib bones on its torso. It's mouth was permanently stuck open, the jaw hanging crookedly from its hyper-extended joints.

Moaning, the Alien rolled over onto hands and knees and scurried away down the hallway, tail dragging behind it. Ripley felt a renewed surge of hatred when she noticed that the tip of its tail was stained white.

A very hot hand touched Ripley's arm, making her jump and then immediately relax. “How badly did it hurt you?” Ripley asked.

Call shrugged off her jacket, and Ripley winced. One half of Call’s gray shirt was painted white with blood. There was a ragged hole just below her collarbone that went all the way through her shoulder.

Hands moving quickly, almost mechanically, Call unbuttoned her shirt down to the sternum and pulled her soldering iron from her pocket. She pressed the tool to her skin and drew a line up the edge of her wound. Amazed, Ripley watched the skin mend completely within a few seconds, leaving no trace of a scar.

“How is that possible?” Ripley asked quietly.

“My body parts can mend themselves,” Call said. “Heat speeds up the process. That's why I'm superheating my core.”

Call threw her coat back on and dashed toward the room with the vent opening. “I'm worried about the crew,” she said.

Ripley took up pace beside Call. “What about tapping in?”

“I already did. There was a wire box at the end of the hallway. The Alien caught me on my way back.”

Ripley entered the doorway and nearly collided with Goodman, who was walking out in the other direction. He gave Ripley a startled glare, brandishing the length of pipe he held in his fist. He caught sight of Call and immediately dropped the pipe to the ground.

“You're okay?” he asked softly, nudging Ripley aside.

“I'm alright, I already—” Call was stopped short when Goodman embraced her, briefly, roughly.

For the first time, Ripley felt something other than animosity towards Goodman. He really seemed to care about Call, as much as he disregarded her intelligence, and that set him on a slow climb towards earning Ripley's respect.

Ripley leaped down into the vent, feet first. She felt a chill when she found herself in an empty tunnel.

“The crew heard the fighting,” came Goodman's voice from above. “Christie lead them away from the noise, down the tunnels.”

“Fuck,” Ripley growled. “I told them to stay put.” She closed her eyes and strained her ears, visualizing the winding path ahead. Call and Goodman dropped into the vent behind her as she listened. “I can hear them,” Ripley announced. “They're panicking. Come on.”

She started down the vent, fast. Call took up the rear, helping to guide Goodman in the pitch-blackness. Somehow, Call was able to see where she was going—maybe her eyes had built-in night vision. It seemed to Ripley that there were no limits to Call's hidden abilities.

The crew’s stifled yelps grew louder as Ripley closed her distance. At a fork in the tunnel, Ripley found them, flailing blindly like drowning worms in a gutter.

Ripley felt a surge of anger. She slammed her fist against the wall. “Pull it together!” she commanded.

The humans stopped their struggling and crawled towards the sound of Ripley's voice, gasping with relief.

“Where's Christie and his flamethrower?” Ripley demanded, shoving away Purvis' desperately groping hands.

“He heard something and took off,” breathed Johner. “He said not to follow him or we might get torched.”

Ripley felt numb, shocked by the sheer idiocy of the crew members. She was about to begin her scolding when she was hit with another vision.

She saw Christie's flickering flame, looking like a single white tooth in the square mouth of the vent. Ripley's new Alien didn't like the fire—the heat and the smoke triggered bad memories that were many generations old. It was approaching Christie with caution, probably planning on disarming him before returning to capture the other humans. Ripley didn't know if Christie was aware of the Alien's presence—the creature's fingertips were only now crossing the border into the ring of light cast by the fire.

“I know where he is,” Ripley announced to the crew. “This way.” She lead the crew a ways down the tunnel, and then she stopped, thinking. Before her was the mouth of an open gate: an opportunity. “I'm going to go on alone from here,” she announced. “Call, if anything comes down this tunnel that isn't me or Christie, you know what to do.”

Ripley crawled onward, the cool metal feeling good against her overheated palms. She could hear the Alien breathing, ever so quietly. Ripley slowed her crawl into a stealthy slink, using every one of her muscles to cushion the fall of her hands and knees, rolling her shoulders with every movement. Her plan was to approach the Alien from behind and slash through the back of it's neck before it had the chance to fight back. It's blood would burn a new hole into the vent—but Call could block the open tunnel once Ripley returned with Christie.

Ripley approached a sharp turn, the Alien’s moldy smell filling her nostrils. She was one right angle away from her target.

She was interrupted by a new vision. Aliens, two of them, were racing towards the crew from the opposite end of the tunnel. Ripley watched through an Alien's shallow vision as Call shepherded the crew through the gate, sealing it in front of the beast’s jaws.

Ripley’s heart pounded. Now the crew was trapped on the near side of the gate. An acid hole would be a problem if it blocked their only path.

Before she could determine her new course of action, Ripley was hit with a second vision, a sensory assault, searing pain overtaking her body. She yelled, tears bursting from her eyes. She ripped the Alien senses from her mind and reeled in the aftershock.

Ripley looked down at her hands, trying to regain her sense of balance, and it slowly registered to her that she could see her own body. The vent’s perfect darkness was destroyed, illuminated by an expanding orange glow, spreading out from the the right-angle turn.

Ripley sprinted away. Her hands no longer made contact only with the floor—her limbs pushed off from the illuminated walls, her claws digging into the metal as she pulled herself along.

The vent grew hotter and hotter, the skin on Ripley’s back feeling like it was beginning to redden. Everything was orange, transitioning into blinding white where highlights bounced off of the metal.

Ripley saw the Alien Queen flailing in the vent in front of her—her own shadow, made up of so many long, dark, razor-fingered hands.

“Open the gate!” Ripley yelled. She couldn't see the crew yet, but she could hear them, their voices high with fear. “Call, open the gate!”

Goodman's bulky body came into view, perched at the front of the crowd of crew members. The other humans flickered into shape behind him, aglow with blazing firelight.

“Open it!” Ripley yelled again. She heard the gate grind open, and then she collided with Goodman, shoving him forward, pushing him against the mass of scrambling bodies. “Move!”

The crew squirmed their way through to the other side of the gate, their movements frustratingly slow compared to Ripley's previous pace.

Finally, Ripley crossed over the rim of the gate. She turned, pulling her legs inside, and looked straight into hell. The burning Alien was screaming, stumbling and convulsing as it sprinted forward.

“Close it now!” The iris curled shut over the red hot eye of the doorway, casting Ripley in a wash of coolness and darkness. A beat later, a violent “thump” hit the gate, spitting sparks through the cracks in the metal.

“Ripley!” Call was coming towards her, pushing her way past the crew members.

Ripley didn't realize how much her hands were shaking until they came in contact with Call's sturdy shoulders. Ripley pulled Call into a tight embrace, unselfconsciously, taking the opportunity to stabilize herself.

“You're not hurt?” Call said. She seemed unsure of what to do with her hands. They came to rest, hesitantly, at the tops of Ripley’s arms.

Ripley shook her head. “I'm alright,” she breathed, voice in tremelo. “I don't know about Christie though.”

“What happened to the other Aliens? They're not still nearby are they?”

“No.” Ripley rubbed a hand over the top of Call’s back. To her amazement, she felt her claws start to retract. “They ran away. The burning one sent them a sample of its pain.”

Exhaling, Ripley pulled back, her hands sliding up to Call's shoulders. She stole a lingering look at the other woman's distant star eyes, tying the frayed ends of her nerves together. Ripley was kneeling in a cramped, lightless chute, deep in the arteries of a dying ship—but Call's eyes gave her a temporary glimpse of wide open space.

Call blinked and jerked her glowing gaze away from Ripley.  

Coughing and choking sounds filled the tunnel. The humans were gasping for air. Ripley could smell something noxious—a scent like burning tar—and she could see thick smoke swirling around the lights cast by Call's eyes.

“Get down,” Call told the crew, pulling away from Ripley. “Lie down, flat on your stomachs.” Call whipped out her scalpel and carved an opening into the roof of the vent. the trap door lead into the lightless interior of the ceiling, the cavity criss-crossed by a grid of wires and pipes. The opening was enough to filter the smoke out of the vent, and within the next minute the crew recovered, wheezing miserably.

The Alien had gone quiet, but the gate was still searing hot when Ripley touched it.

“I think there's a way that we can get to Christie if we go around,” Ripley said.

“Why bother?” Johner croaked, his voice hoarse from coughing. “He's probably dead.”

“He might not be,” Ripley said. “And in any case, we need the flamethrower.” Ripley pushed past the crew and kept crawling, forcing them to either follow her or become lost in the darkness.

Call's cleaner-than-human scent lingered in Ripley’s nostrils as she crawled along, taking up a larger and larger residency in the back of her mind.

Oh no. Ripley’s face burned with embarrassment.

Even in its infantile stage, Ripley recognized the kind of emotion she was dipping her toes into. And it was time to lay down the law. No. Absolutely not. It took a lot of bravery for Call to choose to place her trust in me. It would be nothing but exploitative for me to...expect that trust to expand any further. Especially when I don’t know anything about her sexual preference.

Ripley shook her head, baffled by herself. It’s just the Alien in my brain. This darkness is getting to me.

Ripley swallowed her thoughts. She needed to keep her senses alert, to listen.

Chapter Text

The fire must have given the Aliens a bad scare. The creatures kept away for a good 15 minutes, giving the crew enough time to find Christie before crawling to the vertical shaft leading up to the ninth floor.

Christie was alive but unconscious, out cold from smoke inhalation. Ripley carried him on her back, wearing his arms around her shoulders. Purvis received ownership of the flamethrower, which made his bare skin glow yellow in the darkness.

The crew stood up inside of the shaft, relaxing a little as they heard the sounds of the gates closing on either end of the ladder. Their relief dwindled when they saw that the ladder leading up the wall was coated with a glistening layer of slime. The coating was so thick that the handholds barely stuck out from the ooze. The cocooned ladder had an unsettlingly organic quality to it; it looked like the shorn open flank of a fish, but with clear flesh and metal bones.

“Fuck!” exclaimed Hillard. “They fucking blocked our path.”

“Relax,” said Ripley steadily. “We'll find a way up.”

Ripley felt Christie squirm against her back, sluggishly at first, and then violently. She set him on his feet, backing away. He swayed uncertainly, and then bent over and vomited. Johner pulled his boot out of the way, cussing.

“Why did you separate from the group?” Ripley demanded. “You realize that you left everyone else in the dark.”

“I heard it coming,” Christie said, his voice slurring. “I was only going to leave for a minute, so I wouldn’t catch the crew in the blaze when I torched it.  But I couldn’t catch it. It kept going deeper into the tunnel. Then suddenly it was behind me...”

Ripley growled in frustration. “You can’t hunt the Aliens, I thought that was clear. All of you need to get used to the fact that you’re prey animals.”

“So how do we deal with this?” Christie said, looking up and down the ladder. “It looks like we got eaten by the leviathan.”

Ripley sighed. “I could carry each of you up, one by one, but that would take a while.” Experimentally, Ripley took hold of the slimy fibers and pulled, stretching the membrane until it snapped. A large chunk of slime came off at once, revealing usable handholds. “There, that will work,” she said, cringing a bit as the cold slime sucked at her hands.

Ripley went first up the ladder, tearing off chunks of the slime coating as she went. “Duck your heads,” she said as she dropped a congealed strip past the ascending crew. The material was tough, and removing it was hard work even for Ripley's strong arms.

“Where does this stuff come from?” Johner asked, nausea thickening his voice.

“From the Aliens’ mouths,” Ripley answered. “Eventually it hardens and turns black. They use it to build their hive. And to cocoon the human hosts.”

“The Aliens have a hive?” Said Christie.

“Yes, I'm sure that they're building one right now in the belly of the ship, surrounding the Queen.”

“I been thinking,” said Johner, drunk off of a mixture of pain and slime-induced nausea. “So you know everything about these things, and you've got some kind of a brain link with them. Yet you choose to stick around to help out a bunch of asshole drifters. I don't get it. You’re so ahead of the game, why don’t you save yourself instead?”

Ripley was startled by the direct question. She almost wanted to laugh at Johner’s blunt self-awareness. Should I say that I’m only here for Call? But that doesn’t answer the question, does it? Why am I helping the rest of them?

“I didn't want to survive alone,” Ripley said.

“What?” Johner grunted. “What does that mean? We're all following you around 'cause we got no better option. You think we're your friends or something? You are alone. You just happen to be with people who don't want to kill you right now.”

“That's drifter life 101, right there,” said Hillard nasally. “You sound like Elgyn, Ripley. He was always too sentimental for his own good.”

Ripley felt a tongue-biting irritation. She tossed a chunk of slime down carelessly, not caring who got clobbered. “Call, what do you think about that? Are you just someone who doesn't want to kill me right now?”

“No.” Call said. “I’m your friend.” She said the words in that particular, understatedly strong way of hers. Call's voice was like reinforced glass—it was barely there, yet somehow completely solid and unbreakable. It gave Ripley new energy as she continued to tear a path up the ladder.

Johner proceeded to heckle Ripley, but she didn't hear him anymore. She realized that he was just trying to gain some scrap of power over her; he was dismissing her effort to save his life in order to regain the illusion of self-sufficiency. And that was fine. Johner was a big child, which is why he needed Ripley to save his pathetic ass. So long as Ripley could share that burden with Call, nothing Johner said could touch her.

Ripley reached the sealed gate at the top of the ladder, refocusing her senses. Without needing to be asked, Call opened the gate, and Ripley crawled through.


+++++++++++++++++++++++

 

The ninth floor vents were blissfully empty. The crew made it through to the tenth floor in just four minutes, crawling hurriedly. The ladder between the floors was clean and the ascent was easy, although Johner broke a rusty ladder step and nearly tumbled to the bottom of the shaft before catching himself with his good arm.

Ripley made an announcement as soon as she entered the tenth floor vents. “We're going to stay in the vents the rest of the way to the weapons testing area, then we'll drop down. We'd be too vulnerable in the open hallway.”

A few more minutes of quiet, and then Ripley knew that the crew was no longer alone in the vents. Three Aliens were approaching at once. They each traveled in a different tunnel, but they stayed parallel to one another, coming on like a wave. Hosts, Ripley realized, concentrating. They're all carrying hosts. They'll pass us by.

Human screams echoed through the tunnels, growing louder, and the crew tensed up and huddled together. All of the nearby gates closed, but there were still some unprotected tunnels left open to the Aliens.

Ripley held her breath, waiting. She wished that there were fewer smelly, hairy bodies cowering in the space between her and Call. A steadying hand would have been welcome in that moment.

The screams grew deafening as the Aliens passed through adjacent tunnels—and then they grew quieter, moving away. Dizzy, Ripley lead the crew onward.

Immediately, a loud, rapid drumming noise sounded from beneath the floor of the vent, making Ripley jump. The whitecoats are shooting at the ceiling? She thought with some amusement. Thank God we're not down in the hallway.

Ripley kept crawling, muffled shouts sounding from below the palms of her hands. She had a hunch that these ones were guards, not scientists--they had that particular canine quality to their voices.

The bullets started up again, but this time they betrayed much more force. Each shell hit with a small explosion, and Ripley gasped as a bullet burst into the vent and grazed the top of her arm.

“Shit,” Ripley hissed. A few drops of blood fell to floor of the vent and ate straight through. Goddamnit. Ripley tried to use her wrist and forearm to catch the small stream of blood, not wanting to get it on her hands. With her free arm, she unzipped her duffel bag and blindly grabbed a heavy can of food. She tossed it a safe distance away, into the stretch of tunnel ahead, where it landed with a loud crash.

Immediately, gunfire drummed again, one of the bullets knicking the can, sending it rolling further down the tunnel. The bullet holes made way for thin spearheads of light.

Ripley’s blood pooled in the pinched crook of her elbow and overflowed down her arm. “Goddamn fucking blood,” she murmured, barely audibly. She held her arm close to the wall. If her blood was going to make an acid hole, then it’d better be at the edge of the vent where the crew could crawl around it. But what if the gunmen see it?

Ripley threw another can, just as her blood started its greedy hissing. With relief, RIpley watched a new spattering of holes burst up around the diversion. And then the gunfire stopped abruptly, the voices of the guards growing higher in pitch. One of them made a horrible choking noise, gurgling, and the others answered in screams and bullets.

Ripley waited and listened, her cut blessedly beginning to scab over. The gunfire didn’t stop; it was continuous, aimed at something in the hallway, not in the vents. Ripley waited for what must have been more than a minute, wondering if she should take the chance and lead the crew onwards, her blood turning dry and tacky on her skin.

The explosive gunshots were replaced by weaker, drumming bullets, which inevitably gave way to hollow clicks. There was a familiar hog-human screech, followed by cries of mortal pain. And Ripley knew that it was time to move. “There’s an acid hole on the right side of the vent,” she said, already crawling. “Don’t touch it.”

Ripley listened to the echoes of the vent, trying to reconcile the shape of the tunnels with her memory of the Auriga’s map. The walls of the ship were becoming narrower, which meant that the crew was approaching the tapered tip of the bow. The safe area must be very close; just a few minutes away.

At the periphery of her range of hearing, Ripley could detect an anomaly in the tunnels; a place where the vents were too narrow for a person to possibly crawl through. I bet those are the vents above the safe area--the only way in is through the front gate.

The guard’s screaming petered out, which was worrisome. The Alien’s next course of action was the first concern of the crew. The danger depended on whether the creature was interested in taking hosts or leaving bodies.

When the edge of the safe area was less than 50 ft away, Ripley decided that it was time to drop down into the open. She selected a prospective vent opening--a wall vent--an easy exit into the hallway. she reached into her bag and pulled out anonymous packets of ammo, the little shells clinking like champagne glasses. She handed them to Johner and they were passed down the line, wordlessly. Ripley climbed down a short vertical drop in the vent, lifted the wall grate from its place, and set it down as quietly as she could on the floor of the hallway.

The crew started out at a brisk, careful walk, but it was less than ten seconds before they were sprinting. The Alien’s shrieks reached them first, its body out of sight. Ripley had to control her speed to avoid leaving the crew behind. She watched as the gate to the safe area grew larger and larger, until she could make out the faint water stains on the metal surface. She heard one of the crew members fire a shot, but she knew without looking that it missed its target.

The gate to the safe area lifted, curling like the door of a garage. The crew ducked inside, sliding from their unbroken momentum.

Call slammed the entrance shut with unnatural speed, making the mechanisms of the gate screech with over-exertion.

RIpley’s feeling of relief was short lived.

The weapons testing area was already occupied. It was filled with haggard-looking whitecoats sitting around in groups, frozen in the process of rationing out food, cleaning guns and setting up generators. Each man had his wide eyes locked on the intruders.

There was a scramble for guns, the sound of safeties clicking off. Ripley felt a lead weight in her stomach. She should have seen this coming.

Abruptly, the lights in the room snapped off, plunging everything into complete darkness. The whitecoats yelled in surprise. Ripley stood still, confused. A warm hand touched her arm, and suddenly she understood. She grinned at Call in the darkness, awash with relief.

The lights in Call's eyes were gone—she was completely invisible, but she was still there, her hand around Ripley's wrist. She pressed something soft into Ripley's hand—the roll of gauze.

“Use it to tie them up,” Call whispered. “But be careful. I think it would be best to grab their mouths and their guns at the same time—that way they can't scream...or fire blind shots.”

Once again, Call had passively, quietly, saved the life of everyone in the crew. “You're a gift,” Ripley whispered. She lowered her duffel bag to the ground, silently, steeling her nerves. In a split second decision, she removed her heavy boots, placing her bare feet onto the cold ground.

It was an unsettlingly natural feeling, sneaking through the darkness and capturing terrified, blind humans. The Alien in her brain growled happily—it helped her to subdue her prey, for once working in tandem with her human consciousness.

Ripley couldn't see anything—it was her ears, not her eyes that were guiding her—but she was still able to recognize some of the whitecoats as she bound them in hogtie. Rodriguez was among the survivors, his footsteps clumsy and unmistakable. There were also a few “spotters” from Ripley's makeshift gym—voyeuristic creeps—the names of which Ripley never bothered to learn. And there was Cross, tall and skinny, but stronger than he looked.

If Ripley had been someone else, she might have felt the desire to kill the whitecoats, or to hurt them, at least. She was already giving them a taste of imprisonment—she had every opportunity to go further.

But the truth was that Ripley didn't want to touch the whitecoats—she didn't want to be anywhere near them. She would always remember the pain of her imprisonment, the truths that she learned about herself while in isolation, but the whitecoats—they were to be forgotten. To enact harsh justice on them would be to keep them in her life for a minute longer, and Ripley didn't want that at all.

And so when Call snapped the lights back on, the whitecoats found themselves in a pile in a corner of the room, their limbs tied together. They'd been thrown into a heap as if they were a bunch of trash bags, and now they wriggled and sweated, screaming against their gags. Their collection of weapons were heaped into a separate pile in the opposite corner. Mixed in with the guns and grenades were the whitecoat's food rations, as well as rolled up cots and portable generators.

The drifters descended upon the weapons eagerly, stuffing micro grenades into their pockets as if they were candy.

“You don't need those in here,” Ripley snapped.

They ignored her pointedly.

Call approached Ripley, relief and exhaustion weighing down her shoulders. She smiled tiredly. “We made it.”

Ripley matched her smile. “We did.”

Goodman came up behind Call, his blue eyes sticking Ripley with a cryptic expression.

Ripley didn't know if she should expect anything from Goodman. Hopefully it was apparent to him now that he wasn't standing in the middle of a trap spun by an evil she-spider. But an apology might damage his precious ego.

“You say these walls are indestructible?” He said, flatly.

“They can withstand being bombarded by explosions and gunfire.” Ripley was unable to keep the condescension out of her voice. “Acid weapons included. We're as safe as we possibly can be.”

Goodman nodded stiffly, eyes darting away. “You know, I had the crew’s best interests in mind when I cuffed you. I think that in most cases it would have been the right thing to do.”

“Is that your apology?” Ripley asked dryly.

An angry little twitch pinched Goodman's face. “You know, it would have been a lot easier for me to trust you if you had shown me a little bit more respect.”

“You're right, I should have curtsied and batted my lashes when you had your gun pointed at my head. How rude I was.”

Then Goodman did something that surprised Ripley. He put his hands up in truce. “Alright, alright. I'm not going to get into it with you. I'm just glad that we're all alive.”

“Hey!” Came Johner's voice from across the room. “What's behind this door?” He was standing near a heavy door, much smaller than the gate leading to the hallway.

Call unlocked the door without moving a muscle, and the crew filed through, bringing the last of the weapons and supplies with them. Goodman and Call followed them out, but Ripley lingered, looking sideways at the desperately struggling whitecoats.

She walked up to them swiftly, watching them flail in fear as she approached. She reached for Cross, grabbing him by the wrists, and in one accurate swipe cut his bondage with her claws.

Then she turned and walked away.

The scientist's voice followed her out the door, the sound of it making Ripley's stomach churn. “Ripley, I implore you to consider the value that me and my colleagues may—”

Ripley closed the door behind her, locking it with a satisfying click.

Chapter Text

The weapon testing area, it turned out, doubled as a giant safe for the Auriga's valuables. The testing area was made up of five separate rooms, arranged in a plus-sign. The first gate, the one accessed from the outside hallway, could be opened with a standard employee key card, but the deeper rooms in the safe required a complex pin number to open—a pin number that none of the whitecoats trapped in the first room knew how to crack. Call, of course, had God-like control of every door within range, and she gave the crew access to each of the four unoccupied rooms.

The drifters had a heyday raiding the rows of sealed drawers set into the weathered, diamond-hard walls. They found rare metals and stacks of cash, classified files describing every shady business transaction ever enacted by the Auriga's execs.

“Why the heck would they keep their cash in the same place that they fire rocket grenades?” Christie said, making a neat pile of notes on the floor.

“I bet this place actually started out as a vault,” Hillard said. “You know, back when the ship was a cruise liner. The labrats just figured out that they could shoot up the walls without damaging the goods.”

The crew set up their new home, unrolling cots as they wolfed down their first rations of protein bars. In her perusing of the valuables, Hillard came across a small storage closet seamlessly set into a wall. Inside of the closet was a grove of thick, vertical pipes, running from floor to ceiling. Hillard used a chemical bomb to eat through the top of the largest pipe, converting it into a hollow metal stump with a melted rim. “There,” she said. “We got a bathroom. Get used to shitting into a pipe.”

Call set to work hooking up the portable generators to the local system. She told the others that the Auriga's engine would die eventually from the flooding. Once that happened, the crew would need to switch to the backup power immediately.

Ripley sat next to Call, helping her with the wires. She watched as Call's deft fingers tied the nerve cables. Call seemed to understand the machinery just as well as she understood the human body. But then, maybe there wasn't as much of a difference between the two things as Ripley had previously thought. Even the ship was a living thing.

Call had already drank her way through two bottles of water and she was working on a third.

“Aren't you going to eat something?” Ripley asked. “You must be starving.”

“I don't need to eat,” Call said uncomfortably. Clearly she didn't like pointing out the things that made her inhuman. “I run off of the electricity that my muscles generate when I move.”

“You don't need to eat anything?” Ripley mulled this over; the idea was hard to wrap her head around, with all of the little cultural differences it entailed. She decided that she should say something positive, or else Call would assume that she was criticising her. “So no consumption of resources. If everyone was like you, there would be a lot fewer wars.”

Call turned her head and stared at Ripley. “The only place I've heard that before...it was scribbled on a letter confiscated from a member of GAP.” She looked back down at her hands. “I don't know if it's true...nations are fighting over a lot more than consumables.”

“That's true.” Ripley's adrenaline was draining from her veins, leaving behind an exhausted shell. She'd eaten a good number of protein bars, enough to remind her body that it existed. “Still,” Ripley said. “If you have the option, being self-sustaining makes more sense than killing other things for food, doesn't it? I wonder if an ecosystem like that could work—no competition, nothing consumes anything else.”

“There would be no more natural selection, I imagine. Malformed organisms would be allowed to survive—unless they had terminal deformities. That happened to humans to some degree—since humans don't have natural predators anymore, nothing to keep them evolving.”

“Hm.” Ripley teased. “What do you mean by malformed?”

Call looked embarrassed. “I didn’t mean that as anything personal. I was just stating the fact that there are people who don't...fit with the standard image of humanity. I’ve treated my fair share of them--infants and young children mostly--I tried to give them their best shot at a normal life.”

“The standard image of humanity?” Ripley mused. “That sounds like CCA jargon to me--a nice sounding excuse for vilifying the disabled and such. I mean look at you, you prove that a machine can be a human. You fly in the face of that rhetoric.”

Call’s eyes widened and she blushed a bit. The blush must be artificial, Ripley thought, fascinated. Her blood is white. But it looks perfectly real.

“And you're wrong about humankind not having a predator,” Ripley continued, adopting a distant tone to counteract the stupid, giddy excitement in her chest. “The Aliens are doing a perfectly good job of controlling the invasive whitecoat populations.”

Call smiled in spite of herself. “Maybe that means that your mutations are a good thing. Have you ever heard of the Red Queen Theory? It's an old theory about evolution. It states that competing species—predator and prey—evolve alongside each other. In order for a species to stay the same, it needs to be constantly changing. It has to keep step with its adversary. So if a predator develops long teeth, then its prey will develop thick skin as compensation.”

Ripley grinned wickedly. “So pit a hominid against a race of vicious aliens and something like this,” Ripley waved her claws, “is bound to happen. I'm the logical next step in human evolution. I like that. It sounds nicer than 'anomaly with no place in society.'”

Call smiled again, flashing some teeth. Then her eyelids narrowed and her smile weakened, and she seemed to scrutinize Ripley. “Where does all of your confidence come from?”

“The insecurity of everyone around me. I feed on their discomfort.”

Call raised her eyebrows skeptically.

“It’s all about practice and repetition. Sometimes I think of myself as two entities; a stupid beast and an arrogant tamer. The tamer has a vision for who she wants me to be, and she disciplines, encourages, trains the beast to match that vision.” Ripley smiled wryly. “But sometimes the beast bites back, shows the tamer what’s what. That’s why I still have my moments of regressive awkwardness and self-loathing.”

Call looked at Ripley, thoughts churning.

“Did that make any sense?” said Ripley. “Or did it sound like self-important nonsense?”

“It made sense,” Call said quietly. “I think I have my own version of that.” Before Ripley could inquire, Call quickly looked across the room, toward Johner and Christie, who were arguing over the rights to a stash of rare metals. “Do you think they get their confidence in the same way?”

Ripley gave a brief laugh. “Maybe. They seem to live in a world where bluster equals power. That’s a learned behavior for sure. Although for them it might be more a matter of self-preservation than choice.”

“Isn’t it always a matter of self-preservation?” Call said.

“I don’t think so. Not always.” Ripley paused for a moment. “I guess I should count myself lucky; I have a fluid enough niche in life that I can grow in a direction of my choosing.” Ripley lightly ran the tips of her claws over her chin. “Being a social isolate has its perks.”

Call smiled at that. “So I take it--your beast-taming method--that’s how you’ve kept yourself together after everything you’ve been through. You stayed the same person after you were reborn in a new body.”

“Yeah.” Ripley looked into Call’s eyes, and felt static electric spiders crawling over her face. “That’s the jist of it. Seems dumb that I pushed myself so hard to change, just so I could get back to where I was 200 years ago.”

“I don’t think it’s dumb.” Call said seriously. “Sometimes you find yourself dragged off center by something in your own nature--whether it’s your DNA, or a mental illness. Maybe the only real benefit of self-awareness is that it grants you the ability to readjust your own personality. You can get yourself back on track.”

“Mental illness...like depression?”

“Sure. Or much worse diseases.”

Ripley studied Call. “Are you talking about yourself or your patients?”

Call looked uncomfortable. “Both. I guess.”

Ripley spoke slowly. “You know, I’d love to hear about your life some time, if you want to tell me about it.”

Call looked at Ripley, her her brow pinching and unpinching. “You know, I think I might like to--actually. But I’m too tired right now. I’m surprised that I’m still speaking in coherent sentences.”

“So you don’t have to eat, but you do have to sleep?”

“That’s the consequence of an organic-modeled brain. One of the consequences.” Call had become distracted from her task, and now she returned her hands to the wires.

“do you dream?”

“I do. I have dreams almost every night.”

There was a moment of quiet. Call finished tying the wires, and she grouped them together into neat, color-coded bands.

She has dreams, Ripley thought. That means she’s susceptible to nightmares.

That thought stuck with Ripley as she watched Call work.

Call twisted off an excess inch of copper wire and inconspicuously popped it into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. She smiled bashfully when she saw the look on Ripley’s face.

“It’s a supplement. I need copper to make new blood.”

“I see. Does everything go straight to your bloodstream?”

Call studied Ripley. She raised an eyebrow. “Are you trying to ask me if I drink alcohol?”

Ripley grimaced. “It sounds pretty stupid now that you’ve said it aloud. You don’t, right?”

Call shook her head. “It’d make a sticky mess of my insides. Actually, that was one of the original reasons that synthetics were employed in the workforce. Workers with no taste in alcohol promised greater efficiency.”

“Hm. I would have thought the Company would welcome excessive drinking. That way they could sell their patented brand of liquor.”

Call looked unamused.

“Sorry. That was insensitive.”

“It’s alright,” Call said grimly. “It might be true.” She stood up. “I need to sleep.”

 

+++++++++++++++++++

 

Goodman demanded that the crew's sleeping areas be divided by gender, much to the baffled dismay of of the drifters.

“It's not safe for the women,” Goodman argued. “I know what you drifter men are like.”

“You mean it's not safe for Call,” Hillard said angrily. “I've been surrounded by nasty, horny drifter men since I was a fucking preteen. You can't tell me where to fucking sleep.”

Goodman scrunched up his face. “You're telling me you want to sleep in this room with the guys?”

“It's better than being stuck with the robot and the scary bitch.”

Goodman stared at her, his blue eyes sunken into the dark circles around his eyes. He sighed. “You know Hillard, I really don't care where you sleep.” He looked at Call. “But you'll go to a separate room, won't you?”

Call nodded.

“Hey, how about we put Mr. Mom in with the chicks?” Johner slurred, gesturing towards Purvis. “I know he's not supposed to burst for another few days but...I dunno, it would just creep me out to have him in the room.”

Purvis' pasty skin turned alarm-light red. He glared at Johner silently from across the room.

“Hm,” Goodman grunted, thinking. “It's true, Ripley might have been lying about the gestation period. He might burst sometime soon.”

“What reason could I possibly have for lying about that?” Ripley scoffed.

“I think we should put Purvis in his own room,” Goodman continued, “It's the safest thing to do.”

Purvis looked unhappy, but he didn't say anything in his own defense. Ripley realized that he'd hardly spoken a word since he left the incubation chamber. Maybe he was in a state of shock.

“It's just for the time being,” Goodman told him. “We'll set out and get you anesthetic soon...once we're rested.”

Feeling a pang of sympathy, Ripley walked over to Purvis and placed a hand on his shoulder, careful not to poke him with her claws. The man jumped and jerked away from her, his glasses nearly falling off of his face.

“Sorry,” Ripley said, giving him space. “The nightmare will end eventually. Then you can go home—wherever that is for you.”

Purvis shook his head slowly, his eyes foggy. Ripley decided to leave him alone, to let him work through his own emotions.

In an exhausted march, everyone retreated to their respective sleeping places.

 

+++++++++++++++++

 

Each room in the weapons testing area wore unique scars on its walls, individually branded by different types of weaponry. Purvis' private room was laced with criss-crossing scratch marks, etched into the metal by flying shrapnel.

The host man lay down on his cot and folded his arms across his bare chest. The scratch marks on the ceiling bore into his vision—their image lingered even when he forced his eyes shut. Scratches on the inside, He thought, cold sweat pooling in the space between his hands and his chest. Why can't I feel it? If it's in me, then why can't I feel it?

The scratches on the ceiling were mocking him—they looked like tally marks, counting down the hours.

Purvis placed his sweaty hands over his eyes and tried not to think.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Ripley was surprised that Goodman had agreed to let her share a room alone with Call—without the presence of his protective, condescending gaze. Maybe it was his subtle way of letting Ripley know that she'd earned a sliver of his trust. Or maybe he just wasn't thinking.

The walls of Call and Ripley's room were bruised with beautiful, discolored burn marks, seared into the gray metal by fire-based weapons. The burns reminded Ripley of distant galaxies and gas clouds, the rings of color bleeding into themselves.

Ripley's whole body ached. She slipped off her vest, revealing a sweaty brown t shirt. She pulled off her boots and lay down on her cot, amazed by how many bruises she'd managed to acquire throughout the day. The side of her face was throbbing from the imprint of Goodman's fist, and the purple lines left by the Alien's fingers burned her throat. She hoped that the bruises would be gone by the morning—that way she could sleep through the worst of the pain.

There was a frayed blanket on top of the cot and Ripley pulled it over herself. This was the first time since her rebirth that she'd set her body down on anything other than cold, hard metal. By comparison, the thin cot felt extremely kind against her skin. Ripley found herself smiling, despite the pain in her body.

“You never had to come to this horrible place,” she said to Call. “But selfishly, I'm glad that you did.”

Call was sitting on her cot on the opposite side of the room, soldering up the cut on her forearm. “I did need to come here. Goodman and I need to make sure that the Alien infestation stays contained.”

“By using the bomb?”

Call paused. “How do you know about that?”

“I saw it clipped to Goodman's belt. It's a lot smaller than anything that existed in my time, but I took a guess as to what it was.”

Call was silent.

“When that relief ship arrives,” Ripley said, her voice trailing off sleepily. “It's going to be very important that we get to it before the Aliens do.” That was the last thing she said before her eyelids fell shut.

Immediately, she was greeted with a barrage of frightening images—the horrors of the day come back to visit her. The burning Alien danced in the darkness of her vision. In her drained state, Ripley failed to be repulsed by the imagery. She watched in numb comfort as the memories faded, and then she sank out of consciousness.

Chapter Text

Many hours later, Ripley awoke to a feeling of weightlessness. Only now that it was gone did she realize how heavily her anxiety had weighed upon her body. Her new muscles relaxed for the first time, letting her melt into the comfort of her foam cot.

Ripley was lying on her side, and the first thing that she saw upon waking was the rising and falling outline of Call's body, draped over the cot across the room.

Warmth spread through Ripley’s chest, animating her heart. As quickly as she could, she shoved the feeling down. God, she thought, what’s wrong with me? She rolled over and faced the other direction, irritated with herself. Have I really become so bestial that I’m falling face-forward for the first female I see? I think a normal human would at least need to be free from mortal danger before they dropped dead for someone.

Ripley sighed, deciding to be honest with herself. But that’s not really what this is; I can’t blame my mutations. The Aliens are sexless, they can’t feel affection. This is all Ellen Ripley’s fault. I’ve been waiting to meet someone like Call for such a long time. But what a place to meet her...

Ripley tried to picture herself from Call’s perspective. She imagined what her claws would look like to a medical expert, what her height would look like from a low angle. Could I give her anything that she needs?

Ripley felt that familiar crushing weight on her chest, loneliness making her hopeless.

She’s probably not into women. That’s what it all comes down to. At that, Ripley felt creepy and selfish for having feelings for Call. Call was raised in the hellhole of the Company, and she'd probably been subjected to unwanted sexual attention all her life—she deserved to be left alone.

And she's a synthetic, Ripley reminded herself. Ripley hardly knew anything about synthetic humans. 257 years ago, she had thought of androids as being the coveted “children” of Weyland execs. She had never bothered to learn anything about their anatomy, or their minds. In fact, after being attacked by Ash on the Nostromo, she'd committed herself to hating and avoiding every synthetic that she came by—it was only after having her life saved by Bishop that she'd let go of her bigotry. Ripley didn't know if synthetics could feel sexual attraction. She didn't even know if they had sexual organs or not. Ash had tried to dominate Ripley in what seemed like a sexual way—but maybe he was just mimicking organic human culture.

If they do experience sexual attraction...then it would have to be heterosexual attraction wouldn't it? A patriarchal society wouldn't create a gay woman if it could help it.

Ripley's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Call stirring on her cot. Ripley turned towards Call and watched her sit up, her hand coming through her short, black hair.

“How are you feeling?” Ripley asked her.

“I'm okay,” she said, voice husky from sleep. “Too tired to have bad dreams, I guess.”

“Same,” said Ripley.

Call turned the lights up, illuminating the beautifully burned walls. “So,” she said. “We need to find Purvis some anesthetic. That's our project for the day.”

Ripley's stomach lurched at the thought of leaving the safe area. She sat up. “We have almost a week to get that done. Maybe we should rest for today.”

“I don't want to leave Purvis waiting with that thing growing inside of him.”

“True...maybe waiting would be selfish. But there's going to be a lot of them out there now—one for every whitecoat. I doubt that any humans outside of the safe area made it through the night.” Ripley stretched her arms experimentally. All of her bruises and cuts were healed, but the pain had sunk deep into her muscles. Every part of her body felt sore and stiff. “We'll be risking everything by going out there. We really need to be in our best shape. I think that taking a day or two of rest would be the most productive thing that we could do.”

Call looked at her. “You're right,” she said apologetically. “I'm not good at taking breaks. Usually if I stay idle for too long...it puts my mind in a dark place.”

“I'm sorry,” Ripley said softly. “What kind of a dark place?”

Even from across the room, Ripley could see Call tense up. Her head seemed to sink into her shoulders. “I just don't like being left alone with my thoughts for too long. That’s part of why I loved working as a surgeon--very little down time.”

“Is it bad memories that haunt you?”

Call gave a kind of full-body shrug, a slow ripple that traveled from her neck to her waist. Her tense shoulders slackened, one and then the other. “That's part of it.”

“I was trapped in an empty cage for more than three months,” Ripley said. “I know what a cruel space the inside of your head can be.”

Call straightened up then. She looked at Ripley thoughtfully. “I can't imagine what you must have gone through. They kept you in that bare metal room.”

“I learned from it, I think. Learned about myself. I relieved all of my memories; even the ones I thought I’d forgotten.”

Call's eyes shone with interest. “Would you tell me about it, if you don't mind?”

Ripley’s heart trembled. Truthfully, she’d been hoping that she’d have an opportunity to confide in Call. Ripley badly needed a like-minded person to help her process the last three months. But she hadn’t expected that Call would immediately volunteer to listen. “Sure,” Ripley said casually, veiling her nervous excitement. “I’d like to.” Ripley took a breath. “I guess I’ll start with my birth, just to be cliché…”

Ripley described her captive life with unabridged detail, enjoying an enormous sense of relief as she vented about the scientist's invasive experiments and Rodriguez's fetishistic daddy complex. At some point, Call moved from her cot and sat by Ripley's side, making Ripley smile involuntarily.

For the first hour, Ripley recounted her experiences with unflinching honesty--but once it came time to describe her recalled memories, to retell her life story, she found herself closing up again.

She talked carefully around certain subjects, never betraying any hints that would point to her sexuality. She didn't tell Call about her mother's abandonment; she made it sound as if her step family had been her original family, as if she'd never known her mom. She never touched on relationships, or on Amanda's lack of a father. It felt nice to gush to Call about the trials of motherhood, to bitch to her about idiotic co-workers of the past; but even so, a hollow feeling began to open up in Ripley's stomach. She wanted to tell Call the whole truth, but she was afraid. She could only imagine the kind of rhetoric that the Company spewed about its homosexuals, and Call--even though she was an exile--seemed to carry strong ties to her old culture. Ripley didn’t know where she drew her line of ideological separation. She’d have to do some careful poking and prodding before she could find that out.

In the meantime, the fake, loveless version of Ripley’s life fell from her lips easily, as if well-rehearsed. It made her reflect upon just how many straightened-out conversations she'd had throughout her life.

Through all of the truths and white lies, Call was an excellent listener. Everything that Ripley told her stuck in her mind instantly—Ripley could see the understanding clicking in her eyes. She chuckled at Ripley's cynical, absurdist comments, at first shyly and then openly, her smile cutting an attractive gash across her face. Ripley was flattered that Call found her funny—usually Ripley's biting sense of humor was enjoyed by no one but herself.

Ripley recounted her story chronologically. When it came time, she left Amanda on Earth and began her ongoing nightmare with the Aliens. She described the horror of the first Alien birth, the enormous loneliness of being a sole survivor. Her body went rigid at times, but she never stopped talking; she leaped at the chance to use a second brain to process her experiences.

By the time Ripley's monologue petered out, reaching an uncertain ending, Call was sitting fairly close to Ripley on the cot. She had her chin resting on her arm, which was draped limply over a raised knee. She looked at Ripley sideways, pensively. When it was apparent that Ripley was out of words, that it was her turn to say something, Call smiled shyly and glanced down. “You've had an incredible life. A difficult life.”

“It's been difficult recently, that's for sure.”

“When I read about you in the archives, I wondered what your whole story was. In writing, you seemed like some kind of a mythic figure, never aging through the decades, always reappearing at just the right time to thwart the Aliens. And then disappearing immediately after.”

“Hm.” Ripley couldn’t help but smile at that. “But now you know I’m just an ordinary woman with extremely good luck...or bad luck, however you want to look at it.”

Call shook her head. “You can’t write it all off as luck. From what you told me, you showed a lot of foresight and intelligence—just like you did yesterday. You're really unusually brave.”

“Well, I’ve had ample practice in acting brave. My life has given me a lot to be afraid of; I don’t have a choice but to face my fears and keep pushing.”

“What did you have to be afraid of, besides the Aliens?”

Ripley paused; she had to think for a moment about what to say. “Other people. Their opinions of me. If you're talking about group chemistry, then I was a hazardous compound. I couldn't mix with certain people—it would always end badly for me. They'd hate me immediately, without getting to know me.”

Something flickered in Call's eyes; a cryptic thought pattern. “I can understand that…most people that I meet are quick to hatred, if they know that I’m synthetic. Or even if they don’t know that I’m a synthetic; my mannerisms are enough to enrage some people. But I don’t...have as big of a presence as you do. And that’s why I get away with it--I avoid people, and I water myself down as much as possible. I try to be an inoffensive, blank slate.”

Ripley felt a pang. She had gleaned as much about Call, just from watching her interact with Goodman and the drifters, but hearing an articulate admission from the woman herself was uniquely saddening. Ripley didn’t know what to say.

Call studied Ripley. “Are you going to tell me that I should ‘be true to myself?’” There was an undertone of mocking cynicism in Call’s tone.

Ripley was quick to answer. “No. I don’t know what your life is like. I don’t doubt that you do what you have to to stay safe. But I’m sorry that you have to water yourself down. You have a beautiful personality.” Ripley paused, then said, “You don’t water yourself down around me, do you?

Call smiled slowly. “No,” she said quietly. “I think I’m finding that I don’t have to.” Her smile slackened until it was almost a frown. “I’ve really never met anyone like you before.”

“Well, there’s nothing to fear in offending me is there? I’m just another sub-human.”   

Call didn’t return Ripley’s smile. She stared out across the room, pensively.

“Call,” Ripley said quietly. “Would you tell me something about your life? What was your childhood like?”

“I was never a child,” Call said plainly.

“Right, just like you were never alive.”

“I mean it. We don't age.” Call gestured to her body. “I've looked like this my whole existence.”

“But you had a period when you were figuring everything out, didn't you? You can't be born as an experienced adult.”

Call turned her eyes to the far wall. “I guess I'll explain it to you. Young synthetics are called alpha products, and they're nothing like human children. They're created with adult motor functions and an intuitive ability to perform simple manual labor. At my hospital, the alphas were started on custodial jobs. We all knew how to clean the hallways from the moment that we first opened our eyes. But intellectually we were...void. We were mute machines that looked like people.”

“But you developed a personality?”

Call nodded. “We start to learn as soon as we're put into commission. Alphas learn at a faster pace than human babies do—and they don't babble when they're learning a language. They can hear a word and pronounce it correctly within a few tries, even if they don't understand its meaning.” Call smiled at a memory. “When they were off duty, you used to hear the really young ones having nonsense conversations with each other. They would parrot words like 'hemoglobin' and 'hypoparathyroidism.'”

“So you learned on your own; you didn't a have a parent figure?”

Call looked at Ripley sideways, a sad tint touching her eyes. “Oh I did. Of course I did. Once I was done with my alpha years I moved onto the beta stage. I was assigned to be with an adult mentor, along with nine other girls my age.”

“So that was your family, in a sense?”

“Only organics can have families,” Call began. She stopped and smiled when she saw the breadth of Ripley's eye-roll. “Alright--that was my family, if that’s how you want to understand it. We were all very close...when we were young, at least.”

“What was your mentor like?”

Call grinned at another memory. “Me and the other girls gave her hard time—betas aren't well-behaved like alphas; they ask endless questions and get into trouble. But my mentor was always patient with us. She was part of the parent generation, and she took her role as a maternal figure seriously. She didn't need to act as our mother—most of the other mentors were unaffectionate, ruler-wielding types. But it seemed to be important to her. I don't know why she was so loving and the others weren't.”

“Well. You said that synthetic brains are as varied as organic ones. I guess you couldn't expect all of the mentors to parent in the same way.”

“That's only my generation. You see, the child generation was the first to include only unique individuals. All of the generations that came before us released their synthetics in lines of identical models.”

“Why the change?”

“Because the parent generation made the fatal mistake of adding an element of randomness to our designs. They pioneered the field of pseudogenetics. Somehow they convinced the Company that their new, diverse synthetics would actually make for better workers. I was built with a randomly generated serial code embedded into all of my cells—the code lets my body repair itself, it influences my brain chemistry, my looks, everything. It's the exact equivalent of DNA in organic lifeforms.”

“So that's where the so-called 'mental malfunctions' came from.”

“Yes.”

“Suddenly synthetics became much less predictable. Nurture and nature--that was one too many variables for the Chairman to deal with, huh?”

Call stared at the patch of floor next to her foot, thinking.

“Are you the only one left?” As soon as it was out of her mouth, Ripley realized what a harsh question it was. She immediately regretted asking it. But Call seemed to take it well enough.

Call shook her head. “I can't be. I'm sure that there are other survivors out there. But I've never met one.”

Ripley waited, in case Call wanted to go on, but she wasn't going to push her. After a half-a-minute of silence, Ripley decided to change the subject. “So you started as a custodian, and you worked your way up to being a surgeon. All at the same hospital?”

“I don't know if you could say that I worked my way up. I was built to be a nurse—I wasn't supposed to climb any higher than that. Obviously, being a surgeon is meant to be a man's job, but so many of the male medics were serving on the war front—I was a fill-in.”

“You seem awfully skilled for a fill-in.”

“I was,” Call said matter-of-factly. “I was the best among the women. That's why the hospital decided to keep me after the recall. They let me continue to work in secret.”

Ripley digested this. “So why did you leave?”

“Because the work that I was doing after the recall...was not the same work that I did before the recall” She looked at Ripley sideways again. “I used to love the work that I did. I used to save organic lives —that's the greatest service I can provide. I did everything to care for my patients—I used to stand by them in the recovery ward and listen to their stories. Usually they didn't care that I wasn't organic, at least not after they'd poured their hearts to me for a few hours. They just needed someone to confide in.” Call shook her head. “But after the recall I stopped visiting with my patients. I couldn't bear to look at them.”

Ripley waited again—Call was clearly about to fess up to something painful and Ripley wasn't about to rush her.

Call rubbed her ear against her against her shoulder in one smooth movement. “You see, the hospital—I mean, it always had a lot of control over me, but the control became absolute after the recall. The hospital execs made me do horrible things to earn my keep. I should have left sooner, but I was afraid; I didn't know what my life would become if I abandoned the Company. I was in the minority in terms of my ability to feel sympathy towards my patients. The hospital was a money-making business, just like every branch of the Company. Each injured person that passed under my scalpel was nothing but a collection of numbers in the eyes of the execs.” Call’s eyes were narrowed now, her teeth showing more than usual as she spoke. “The execs forced me to keep my patients sick so that they could farm people's illnesses. They treated a tumor as if it were a cash crop—and I was the one who nurtured its growth. I only trimmed it if it threatened to consume too many valuable organs.”

Call was hypnotic when she was angry—her whole body seemed to quake with a pounding pulse.

“It went on for two years. And then they asked me to go too far. They wanted me to injure a healthy person—to plant the seed, so to speak. I refused to operate. And then I slipped away in the night. I cut my hair, changed my clothes...I didn't know where I was going. I hitchhiked to a ship yard—and there was a drifter ship about to go up. I was afraid that the police would send mod dogs after me. So I just...paid my fare and climbed aboard. It's hard to remove yourself from drifter life once you're in it. Thankfully, I don't eat, so I never had to steal. Much.”

“That must have been a horrible shock, leaving your home for open space. You'd worked at that same hospital your whole life, right?”

“Yes. I spent my life in a tenement a block away from the hospital. All of the hospital's synthetics lived in that neighborhood. Organics jokingly referred to the whole area as the 'supplies closet.' They would spray paint things like 'death to dent heads' on our walls, break our windows sometimes.”

“Dent heads?”

Call shrugged dismissively. “Synthetics used the phrase to describe a certain type of degenerate—dent heads were the worst of the mistakes to arise from the child gen. Organics used the phrase against all synthetics, as a way to point out our failures as a race.”

Ripley felt heavy. She didn't pity Call—she hurt with her. “Did your neighborhood ever fight back?”

“Just a few people. They were taken out of commission after repeat offenses.”

“You were kept in constant fear,” Ripley said, her voice coming out in a whisper.

“It didn't feel like fear. It felt like common sense. There were things that you could and couldn't do as a synthetic. I never felt the urge to break the laws. Until the recall, that is.”

“Maybe this is a stupid question, but did you feel a kind of relief when you left for space? At least then you were out of the claws of the Company. You gained a lot of freedom.”

“No. Drifters have their own rules, even though they're lawless.” Call smiled wryly. “I'm a ridiculous excuse for a drifter. If it weren't for Goodman I would have been dead a long time ago.”

“How did he save your life, exactly?”

Call shook her head. “It’s an unlikely story. I was assisting a drug delivery on a Company colony. Goodman was one of the paid-off cops that was helping us out. I was standing by the cargo crates while the ship was docking. The ship lurched suddenly and I cut myself on a crate. Goodman was the only person there to see the blood. Legally he was obliged to shoot me in the head. Instead he winked at me and stood guard as I sealed up my cut.”

“He saved your life by choosing not to kill you?”

“He risked his job by volunteering to protect me—he was breaking the law.”

“Wasn't he already doing that by facilitating a drug run?”

Call gave Ripley a pleading look, and Ripley held her tongue.

“Goodman cares about the Company, enough to know that CCA is hurt by a lot of its own policies. He enforces the law but he also acts on his own, stopping immoral business practices when he can. And I help him.”

“It seems to me like you do more than help him out. You're not an appendage, Call. You could be carrying Goodman around in a handbag if you wanted to.”

Call very nearly succeeded in stifling her smile.

“And I don’t know how he can think that he’s protecting you, when you’re the one who’s bullet proof.”

“If I were to be completely honest--I do play a large part in his sabotage missions. He protects me, and I do what I can, covertly, to protect him.”

“Only you don’t get any credit for your input.”

“It’s not my place to be showy about things,” Call said seriously. “I’m a woman.”

“Is that a Company mandate? ‘A lady must show modesty when sabotaging secret military operations.’”

The energy in the room shifted then. Call narrowed her eyes at Ripley, bitterly. “Do you have to mock my culture? You think that your understanding women’s roles is superior to mine? You don’t know anything about life in the Company. You’re a biased foreigner.”

Surprised as she was, Ripley wasn’t riled by Call’s hostile tone; she felt completely calm. “I do know something about the Company. I’ve been squeezed by its cultural control for the last three months. I know that the Company views me as a loose screw, that it wants to pressure me into self-destruction. It wants me to die or disappear.”

“Self-destruction,” Call said coldly. “You know what self-destruction means to me? It means refusing to fix what’s broken--parading around with a self-righteous attitude, talking down to men as if it’s justified.” Call whipped her head away, lips tight. “Boldness is vulnerability, alright? I’m not meek because I try to disappear.”

“I didn’t say that,” Ripley soothed. “I think you’re brave. But you shouldn’t have to subdue yourself.”

“Again, that’s your foreign perspective. The Company’s gender roles exist for a reason--they’re not arbitrary. The division of labor exists to streamline the work force--the men take care of the industrial labor, and the women take care of the home; they raise the children. And the Company needs children; it has a lot of sparsely populated colonies that need to be filled. All of that is for the benefit of the people--it’s completely separate from the corruption that exists among the execs.” Call took a slow breath. “And you know, there are plenty of women who are perfectly happy in their subordinance. Just because you like to maintain authority doesn’t mean that all women should.”

“Then tell me that you’re happy being subordinate, and I’ll shut my mouth.”

Call stared at her.

“Are you happy?” Ripley repeated, softly.

“I’m alive,” she said, plainly. “Spend your life hiding from casual violence, and you might find that happiness is a petty detail.”

Ripley and Call both tensed up in that moment. A silence dragged on for several seconds.

Call’s mouth was stuck slightly ajar, and the rest of the words seemed to pour out on their own, as if she wasn’t stopping them. “That’s why I invested a lot toward the happiness of my patients. I could live vicariously through them, to some degree. They all had normal lives. I thought that they deserved happiness more than I did.”

Call seemed to realize the patheticness of what she’s saying, and she wilted. She looked tired, older.

Ripley put her hand on Call’s back and ran it up and over her shoulder. She felt a tense shiver pass under her palm. Call looked as if she might jerk away from Ripley’s touch, but she didn’t--she stayed put. She looked over at Ripley, eyes glossy.

“You really care.” Call’s breathing was slow and constricted. “No strings attached.” What she said wasn’t a question--it sounded like she was speaking to herself.

“No strings attached,” Ripley said quietly. She continued to rub Call’s back.

“No qualifiers for friendship.” Call huffed--a silent laugh. “I’m very unused to that.”

“I’m sure,” Ripley whispered.

The conversation fell away, replaced by the sound of the ship’s labored engine. After a minute, Ripley took her hand away.

“I guess you want to find a place to live on Earth,” Call said, voice hoarse.

“That’s my hope.”

“Don’t you worry that you won’t be able to pass for human?”

Ripley rubbed her thumb over the short, dull ends of her nails. She wasn’t sure if Call had noticed that her claws were gone. “I’m worrying about that less and less.”

Before Call could ask her to clarify, someone knocked on the door. It must have been a loud knock to carry through the thick door, but it sounded muffled.

Call squinted, as if surfacing from a daze. “How long have we been talking for?” Call said.

“I don't know. Around five hours?”

Call’s eyes went wide. “It didn't feel like any time at all.”

Another knock sounded, and Call opened the door with her mind. Goodman stepped inside, the toes of his boots scraping against the floor.

His blue eyes grazed over Ripley, paying her little notice. Ripley didn't know if being ignored was an improvement over being despised or not.

“I wanted to let you sleep,” he said to Call. “But I got worried after a while.”

“I'm sorry, I lost track of time. We've been talking.” Call nodded towards Ripley.

“About what?” said Goodman.

“Makeup and hair care products, mostly,” said Ripley.

Goodman gave her a half-hearted glare. “I'd appreciate it if you didn't treat me like I'm stupid.”

Goodman’s face was concave with exhaustion. The whites of his eyes were red.

“Did you get any sleep, Goodman?” said Call.

He sighed. “Johner was kept up by his arm—and he seemed to want the rest of us to feel his pain. He kept moaning, yelling. Finally, Hillard stuck a gun to his head and gagged him. But after that...” He rubbed his eyes. “I saw a lot of things yesterday that I can't un-see.”

Ripley felt for him. He'd just had his first night of Alien-inspired nightmares. Goodman would dream about double sets of teeth and forced impregnation for the rest of his life, as would Ripley.

“Anyway,” said Goodman. “We think the scientists are trying to hack the pin code on the door of their cell. We can hear it clicking all the time.”

“Well, at least that gives them something to do,” Call said. “Even if they manage to hack the code I'll never let the door open.”

“It seems cruel,” said Goodman. “We're letting them rot in their own filth in there. I know the scientists were our enemies out in the hallways, but we don't have a reason to fight them anymore. I think we should let them in with us.”

“No!” Ripley snapped.

“They're not criminals,” Goodman said evenly. “They were just doing their job. It's not their fault that they didn't know how dangerous the Aliens would be.”

“Their 'job' was keeping me as a pet and torturing me!” Ripley skin was getting hot.

“No, their job was developing weapons to help their country in the war effort.” Goodman's voice was slow and rational—he was making a point of contrasting his cool logic with Ripley's hysterics.

“Goodman,” Call said softly. “Those people abused Ripley. I really don’t think we should let them in.”

“I'm surprised to hear that, coming from you,” Goodman said, sounding hurt. “You used to care about everyone’s well being.”

Ripley felt sick to her stomach. Once again, she didn't realize that her body was shaking until she felt Call's steady hand touch her back.

“Goodman, you wouldn't want to be locked in a room with people who treated you like an animal,” Call said. “Let Ripley have her distance.”

Goodman looked at Call with discerning, bloodshot eyes. “Why do you sound so different? What has Ripley been telling you?”

Call didn’t seem to know what to say to that. Her pupils moved around the whites of her eyes like mice looking for a hole to hide in.

Goodman folded his arms and regarded the women sitting together on the cot. Ripley felt Call's hand leave her back, retreating self-consciously to join the rest of her pulled-together limbs.

“I don't get it,” Goodman said. “You came here ready to kill the host, and now two days later you're closer to her than you are to me.”

“That's not true,” Call pleaded.

“I just want an explanation. I'm not barring you from having friends; I just don't understand it.”

Ripley's breathing slowed. She wasn't sure what was going to happen next.

“I can relate to her,” Call said, glancing sideways at Ripley. “It's like when I was working at the hospital—in the recovery ward—I would see two patients in adjacent beds introduce themselves to each other, discover that they had the same disease. I would leave for the night, and in the morning the pair of strangers would be close friends. Sometimes it happened within a couple of hours. It didn't matter how different the two people were—they understood each other's struggle. I think that when you meet someone...who's in a similar situation to you...you can't help but feel drawn to that person.” Call spoke with her glass-granite voice, her words hanging in the room like dense air.

Ripley felt goosebumps spread across her arms.

Goodman looked unmoved. “We're all in the same situation. We're trying to survive an Alien outbreak.”

“I guess I was...talking about something more abstract. We're both ‘sub-humans’.”

Goodman shrugged and shook his head. “You're still as different as you can be. You're not a mutant, Call.”

“He’s not going to get it,” droned Ripley.

“This is what I mean,” Goodman gestured to Ripley. “She's mouthy and rude. ” His tone softened. “And you're the sweetest woman I've ever met.”

“Thank you,” Call said quietly. “But you're misjudging Ripley. You need to give her a chance.”

Goodman looked at Ripley with red and blue eyes. He studied her for a while before he spoke. “You had a lot of chances to kill us, didn't you?”

“I had a lot of chances to not save your life, yes.”

Goodman nodded. “I owe you a lot,” he sighed. “We all do.”

Ripley felt a wash of emotion. She nodded tersely at Goodman.

“So we call a truce then.”

Ripley nodded again.

“Do you want to come and join the rest of the group? We're about to heat up some canned steaks. The drifters will eat your share if you're not there.”

Ripley and Call followed Goodman out the door.

 

++++++++

 

The rest of the day passed slowly, the hours spent in tedium. Call and Ripley avoided the drifters whenever possible, but Goodman was a constant presence. Conversations were confined to practicalities--Call, Ripley and Goodman discussed resource distribution and made tentative plans for fetching anesthetic.

Every time Ripley looked in Call’s direction, she noticed a new detail; something that made her heart lurch. The details collected in Ripley’s throat like cotton, getting harder and harder to swallow.

Sometime in the evening, while staring absently at the flamethrower cooking fire, Ripley quietly admitted to herself that her interest in Call was something substantial, and that she couldn’t reason her way out of it.

Call was fascinating--even from a non-romantic perspective. She had a stark duality to her; a timid disposition and a fiery mind. That morning she’d defended her own passiveness with perverse aggression. Ripley might have found Call’s outburst funny, if she weren’t so impressed by it. Call was a fellow creature of survival, and she had to respect that.

Even the clothes that Call wore were a complex personality study. Without her jacket, her white and gray shirt gave a fair window to the shape of her body, with its perfect hourglass shape. But her jacket covered it all up. Ripley thought she might be reading too much into things, but it seemed to her that Call had a special aversion to sexual attention--she was loathe to be looked at. Ripley supposed that this should make her feel all the worse for eyeballing Call, but for some reason it didn’t.

To say that her jacket was conservative wasn’t to say that it was unattractive. Call had a unique personal fashion sense. She wore her utilitarian work clothes in a way that afforded them a sleek, feminine quality. Ripley loved the way her wide collar dipped towards her collarbone, the way her earrings framed her face--all of it drew the eye up and down her figure.

Despite Call’s obvious appeal, Ripley was astounded by the rapid advancement of her own attractions. She had never fallen for a woman so quickly before. Ripley was, at least on a surface level, misanthropic, and she didn’t form crushes easily. But she was pinched by her situation--anxiety begat urgency.

Besides Call, the only other person that took up any space in Ripley's mind was poor, terminal Purvis. He was amazingly understanding when Ripley told him that the crew needed to rest before they attempted to look for anesthetic. But he dragged his limbs when he moved, living in a horrified daze. He never spoke with the drifters—he spent most of his time sitting in his quarantine cell with the door left open.

There was no justice for Purvis. The poor man was being forced to live with the same people who sold his body to the whitecoats. He was locked in with his abusers. If Purvis were as vocal as Ripley, he would be demanding that the drifters be confined to a separate room. But he seemed to be someone who didn't advocate for himself often.

As for the whitecoats; the captives were afforded regular marches to use the pipe-toilet, always accompanied along the way by an armed drifter. Johner and Hillard began to enjoy their jailer roles, spewing slander at the “Company bitches,” just because they could. Christie was the only drifter who showed the whitecoats an ounce of respect--his silence was as kind as anything.  

Ripley wondered about Christie--the other two drifters obviously strived to be scary, Johner using his bulk and Hillard using her sneer, but the extent of Christie’s intimidating qualities were passively stenciled onto his skin. It almost seemed like an excuse to avoid acting aggressive--he could let his physical appearance keep danger away while he floated peacefully through his own thoughts. Ripley noticed the way he stared dreamily at nothing--he seemed like a thoughtful introvert; like he should be working as a writer or a mathematician. It was apparent to Ripley that smuggling living bodies wasn’t his preferred occupation--although that must be true of Hillard and Johner as well, as much as they embraced their own cruelty.                      

 

++++++++

 

Ripley felt unprecedentedly exhausted at the end of her day of rest. “I feel bad for Purvis,” Ripley said to Call as they retreated to their room for the night. “But I think I need one more day before I can leave the safe area.”

“Alright,” Call said, sounding reluctant.

Ripley was worried by her tone—she didn't want Call to think that she was selfish.

Call folded her jacket and set it down by her cot. Then she lay down on her stomach, arms folded under her chin. “I really enjoyed talking with you,” she said quietly.

Ripley smiled, relieved. “I enjoyed talking with you too. It’s strange though; I shouldn’t be enjoying myself this much. This Alien-proof bunker is starting to feel comfortable.”

“Yeah,” Call sighed. “Really it’s not that different from living on a drifter ship. There’s always danger around the corner, and you can never completely relax...but it’s a place to exist."

Ripley sprawled across her cot, already feeling the gravity of sleep pulling her under. “When we get off of this ship,” she said, “maybe we can find somewhere that’s more than just a place to exist.”

“Where would that be?”

“Union territory, maybe. On Earth”

Call’s face hardened. “The Union. There’s not a lot of Union territory left on Earth. It’s mostly mud and snow--the parts that the Company didn’t bother to annex.”

“Mud and snow--you mean it’s mostly wilderness?”

“If you want to call it that. It looks green from space. But probably half of the trees are synthetic. And not all of the animals are...of natural origin.”

“I see.” Ripley swallowed. “But there are cities?”

“There are very few Union cities left--after Quebec and Vancouver went under water. But apparently some of the sovereign nations in the arctic are starting to build big population centers. The Inuit societies are booming.”

“Well, that’s something,” Ripley said, cautiously hopeful.

“Hm.” Call grunted. “The Union’s very picky about who it grants its citizenship to. I would assume that being a human being is a base requirement. And the sovereign nations--they don’t let any foreigners in.”

“Who says we need the government's permission to live there?”

Call sighed. “People with badges...and guns.”

“That’s nothing compared to an Alien,” Ripley smirked.

Call just sighed again, closing her eyes.

“The future will be better,” Ripley insisted. “Once we get over this whole ordeal.”

The lights dimmed, bringing the conversation to a close.

Chapter Text

Ripley's dreams began to make a slow return.

For the majority of the night, Ripley slept soundly, undisturbed by nightmares. But just before she woke, Ripley was revisited by the image of the other Alien-woman. She saw Call with her bony, black wrist clamped in her teeth. She wasn't writhing anymore; she was just sitting there, biting her forearm, eyes downcast. Despite the harsh tightness of her jaw muscles, Call had a distant, placid expression on her face, her eyelids drooped low. Ripley realized that the arm that Call had pinched in her teeth—was not actually attached to her shoulder. It had been ripped-off, just like the five or six other Alien arms sitting around her. Call had torn apart her body, and now all she could do was sit there, passively.

Ripley opened her eyes and immediately rolled over to look at Call. All that she could see was the heart-shaped spread of her upper back, and a pale hand resting on a pillow—but it was still something of a comfort. Ripley tried to forget the awful aftertaste of her dream, to assure herself that Call was safe. “Call?” Ripley spoke aloud before she could stop herself. Embarrassed, she watched Call stir and sit up on her cot.

“I wanted to know if you were awake yet.”

To Ripley's surprise, Call smiled like she thought Ripley was funny. “I assumed as much. Well, I'm awake now.”

That smile put Ripley at ease. She sat up on her cot. “Sorry,” she muttered coyly. “Guess I’m not all that lucid yet. Still half-asleep.”

Call stretched her arms above her head. It was an uncharacteristically loose gesture. It made Call look longer, less compact.

“That reminds me of something. I had a patient who was a somnambulist. If he wasn’t properly sedated, he’d get up and walk around the whole hospital. Once he tried to drive away in an ambulance.”

Ripley curled her hand under her chin. “That sounds like the start of a good story,” she grinned.

Call shyly returned the grin. “I guess I don’t have a choice then.”

Call moved over to Ripley’s cot and folded her legs underneath of her.

The new day drew a close parallel to the previous day. Call and Ripley’s morning conversation stretched into hours, and it tread wide circles into personal territory. Ripley learned about the lives and losses of some of San Francisco’s strangest ER patients, and listened to accounts of Doctor Call’s most difficult operations. Ripley had assumed from the start that Call was good at her job, but after hearing Call’s matter-of-fact accounts of her own successes, Ripley was simply in awe. Call had reconstructed a mangled hand, tendon by tendon, she had pulled illegal computer chips from brain tissue, and on countless occasions, she had coaxed hearts back to life by manually squeezing them with her fingers. The amount of precision, concentration, and anatomical knowledge that she displayed was intimidating. Ripley loved it.

As always, Call tried to downplay her own skills, claiming that they were common place for synthetics; a product of greater-than-human muscular articulation. But she caved to Ripley’s compliments over time, admitting that she was one of just a handful of nurse synthetics allowed to work as surgeons.

As for Ripley’s half of the conversation; Ripley added detail to her story from the night before, though she still tiptoed around the topic of relationships. She described each of her four step siblings, detailed the different lives that they lead.

She also mentioned some of the novels that she read again and again growing up, a number of which, surprisingly, Call had read herself. It turned out that books had been Call's main outlet for escapism as a beta, though she'd had to give up her reading habit once she came into her career. She used to peruse thrift stores, one of the last places a person could find books printed on paper. It was apparent to Ripley that everything Call read had been approved by some Company sensor somewhere down the line; the overlaps in Ripley and Call's reading lists included only the more toothless Virginia Woolf and the less socialist Orwell. Still, Ripley knew that Call was incisive; see seemed to choose authors who had things to say, even if she wasn't allowed to read the more explicit commentary.

During pauses in the conversation, Ripley payed careful attention to Call’s body language, to the movements of her eyes. Ripley loved having Call as a friend, and she wished that she could be satisfied with her platonic company. But Ripley couldn’t stop herself from reading into the other woman, wondering if her feelings were returned.

At times, Ripley was able to convince herself that Call existed wholly in the realm of the heterosexual. She made a case study for herself, latching on to details in Call’s voice and mannerisms, and presenting the evidence to herself with assertive pessimism.

In the end though, Ripley had to acknowledge that her guesses were ignorant stabs in the dark. All of her old instincts for assessing a woman’s sexuality were useless now; they were grounded in stereotypes and cultural mores that were 257 years out of date. Call came into herself in a context that Ripley was unfamiliar with; a foreign world.

Still--there were some things that gave Ripley pause. There were odd times when Call acted nervous at seemingly inappropriate moments—taking a sharp breath when Ripley unexpectedly reached over her shoulder to grab a bottle of water. It could be that Call was still somewhat afraid of Ripley, intimidated by her Alien DNA. That explanation made more sense than anything else. Ripley's sapphic charm was probably not the first trait that a woman was going to notice, not when she had inches-long nails.

On her part, Ripley hoped that she wasn't making her attraction too uncomfortably obvious. Just over the past 24 hours, she'd developed a talent for holding herself perfectly upright as she swooned internally.

Goodman cut the conversation off after just under five hours, knocking on the door just as he had the morning before. He looked a little pissed, and a little hurt, when he saw that his appendage had once again chosen to spend her morning conversing with the she-creature. But he seemed to remember his newfound alliance with Ripley, and he gave her a nod of truce before inviting Call into the main room.

Goodman had adopted an air of deliberate ambivalence toward Ripley. He was careful not to care—about where she was or what she was doing at any given time. Ripley decided that this was good enough; it made it easy to pretend that she and Goodman were already off of the Auriga, living separate lives, far away from each other. The problem was that Goodman refused to share the gift of Call's company. He chose the content of every conversation that Call made, and he never, from the moment he came to fetch her in the morning, let Call out of his sight.

Throughout the rest of the day, Ripley and Call's interactions were mostly limited to smirking glances exchanged from across the room. Call tolerated Goodman's protectiveness without complaint, though Ripley detected—or possibly imagined—a shift in her mannerisms when she was around Goodman. There was a twitch of impatience, of annoyance, that hadn't been there the day before.

At lunch, for a few minutes, while Goodman moved all of the separate trash piles into one container, Ripley and Call had some time to sit together alone by the cooking fire. Ripley was amazed by how serene and comfortable she felt, just sitting next to Call, feeling no pressure to say anything. That was a level of familiarity that Ripley had reached with few other people in her life, even those she’d known for years.

In the afternoon, the whitecoats started a feud. The drifters heard a frantic knocking on the inside of the jail door. They opened it to find a group of whitecoats clustered by the door, struggling to get away from the violence that was breaking out behind them. The drifters didn't bother to ask what the fight was about, or who was responsible; they solved the problem by hogtying the offending inmates and then returning to the main room for smokes.

Ripley spent the duration of the event counting food rations, staring at her hands. She chose to think about the whitecoats as little as possible. Turning her head in their direction would belay too much in the way of attention.

Purvis continued to drift wanly through his own world. He had tear stains under his eyes at times, though Ripley never actually saw him cry. He was so quiet all of the time; he was almost a non-entity.

Ripley was thinking about him when she and Call retired to their room for the night. “In all fairness, it should be the drifters who go out to find anesthetic tomorrow.”

“But would you trust them to be able to do that?” said Call.

“Not in the slightest.” Ripley had never bothered to put on either her boots or vest, and now she toppled onto her cot, stretching out luxuriously.

“Do you feel ready?” Call asked.

“Ready as I'll ever be. I'm not sore anymore, at least. Are you ready?”

“Oh yes.”

Call's deadpan made Ripley laugh. She closed her eyes with a smile on her face. The morning was a long ways away.

Chapter Text

Ripley's dreams caught up with her that night.

She knew that she had been shot. She could feel the bullet in her leg, a hard mass next to her bone, but she didn't feel any pain. She kept running, her clawless fingers balled tightly around the fabric of Newt's shirt. The girl was heavy in her arms, tugging down on her shoulders.

Ripley had forgotten how weak her body was when she was a human. She remembered now what it felt like to be vulnerable, to feel as though her body would give out at any second.

Her feet splashed through water. The ground was covered in an inch-high flood which reflected the ceiling like a silver mirror. This was not Hadley's Hope anymore, it was a conglomerate of places; all of the monotonous hallways of Ripley's past sewn into one endless maze.

Gunfire sounded, and Ripley was hit a second time. She could feel the shattered pieces of her shoulder blade shifting around in her back, but she kept running. She glanced around frantically, searching for the shooter, but there was no one.

Two more shots pierced Ripley's body, in the arm, in the neck. She hugged Newt close to her chest--she couldn’t let her get hit.

The final blow hit Ripley in the center of her back, snapping her spine. She fell forward into the thin skin of water, dropping Newt, who hit the ground and began crying, wailing mournfully.

Ripley watched as the water around her turned red. Newt tugged at her arm, willing her to stand up.

Footsteps splashed through the water, growing closer. The shooter, Ripley thought, come to take Newt away.

But Ripley recognized the black boots that skidded to a stop by her body. She recognized the steady hands that touched her bullet wounds, examining the damage.

Ripley closed her eyes, submitting to trust as Call pulled each of the bullets from her insides. She felt herself healing, growing stronger.

And then the gunfire came again, peppering the water with tiny splashes. Call grabbed hold of Newt and held her against her chest, making herself into a shield. The bullets drummed into her back, but Call didn't flinch--she was as stoic as a machine.

Call draped Ripley's arm over her shoulders and pulled her to her feet. They limped down the hallway, their bodies close, Call hanging onto Newt's hand.

The exit lay ahead. It was there suddenly—the door to an escape pod—set into the wall at the end of the tunnel. Surrounding the door were windows; eyes which opened into vast, unconfined space.

Ripley was elated—they were going to survive, all of them.

And then the shooters rounded the corner, closing in from behind. They were dressed in white lab coats, human, but lacking eyes. They moved the barrels of their guns back and forth as if they were antennas, blindly feeling their way through the hallway.

Ripley halted. She broke away from Call. “Keep Going!” she yelled.

Call hesitated, her eyes pained. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Ripley on the edge of her jaw, and then she scooped up Newt into her arms and ran towards the escape pod.

Ripley turned around to face the gunmen. She felt an angry, reptilian coldness diffuse through her body. The blind whitecoats looked tiny now, like mice. Ripley took a step forward and her huge, skeletal foot fell against the ground with a splash. She pulled back her lips, growling with satisfaction.

It didn't feel wrong this time, being a full-on Queen; it felt good. Ripley had a family to protect, and her monsterous heart pounded with maternal rage. She smacked her tail hard against the floor, screaming royally, all four jaws open wide.

The whitemice shivered with fear, their guns melting. Ripley saw her own reflection in the water below her; a proud spectacle of teeth and sinew.

She lunged at the whitemice and scooped one up with a giant hand. She lifted him close to her face, ready to crunch his round little head off.

 

++++

               

Ripley was awakened by a noise in the darkness. She shot straight up on her cot, reflexively alarmed.

“Sorry. It's just me,” Call said.

Ripley let out her breath.

“The Auriga's engine finally died,” said Call. “Listen, it's completely silent.”

Ripley had become so used to the pulsing and breathing of the ship that she’d stopped hearing the background noise. The quiet was disorienting.

“I just switched the local system to the backup power. Everything in the top few floors is still working. But the rest of the ship is dark.”

Ripley nodded numbly.

“Are you okay?” Call asked.

“Yeah. I had a strange dream.”

“A nightmare?”

“Not exactly. Not all of it.”

“You look like you've been crying.”

“Really?” Ripley touched her cheeks. She could feel dried water all over her skin. “Oh.” Ripley was feeling nauseous, not quite like herself. She was less-than-pleased when Call sat down beside her on her cot.

In her dream, the two of them had been a couple; they had been parents. At the moment, having Call close-but-not-close was maddening, yet Ripley couldn't bring herself to ask Call to leave.

“Was your dream about the Aliens?”

“I think so.” Ripley averted eye contact for a moment. “But I’ve already forgotten most of it.”  

Call waited a moment, to see if Ripley wanted to go on, and then she spoke. “I had difficult dreams too, but not about the Aliens, strangely. I dreamed about people like me...during the recall. They were hanging from racks in dark factories. I saw the lights in their eyes flicker out.”

“That sounds horrible.”

“I'm sorry I'm dumping this on you.”

“No, It's alright,” Ripley forced herself out of her tired daze. “I want to hear it.”

Call thought quietly for a few beats. “I didn't know very many synthetics at the time of the recall. I barely spoke with other synthetics, once I was old enough to leave my mentor group. I always isolated myself.”

“Why?” Ripley said softly.

“I didn't feel like I deserved their company.” Call’s voice descended in pitch. “And I was afraid that they would hate me.”

Ripley felt a familiar pang in her chest. “What made you think that they would hate you?”

“Synthetics were...not good to each other. We were saddled with loads of hate from the organics. And then we turned around and unloaded the hate onto each other. Violence was common.”

Ripley tried to think of what to say. “You really walked on treacherous ground,” she offered, weakly.

“That’s part of why my job was such a blessing. I could work long hours, avoid interacting with other synthetics.” Call looked at Ripley thoughtfully, eye contact unwavering. She shook her head slowly. “Three days ago, wouldn't have believed that I'd be sitting here, talking with a new friend about—this. In just the past few days, I've told you things about myself that I never thought I'd voice aloud.”

“Yeah?” Ripley whispered.

Call smiled slightly. “Yeah. It's a nice feeling, like a weight's been lifted. Talking with you feels so different from talking with other people. You understand me. It's like we're members of the same species, even though we've lead such different lives.” Her smile widened. “Convergent evolution, I guess.”

Ripley was getting nervous, her fingers cold. She couldn't help but wonder if Call was trying to tell her something—something that she really wanted to hear.

“Kind of like we've made a little family,” Ripley said quietly.

The corners of Call's mouth tugged down. “In a vague sense of the word, maybe.”

“Isn't it always a vague word? It's a connection between people--It doesn't have mean blood relations. Or marital relations.”

Call looked at Ripley. “Well, that might have been true in your time. But you have to understand that I think of the word “family” in a really specific sense. In Company culture, It's a kind of biological manufacturing system.” Call caught herself. “Not that I'm trying to compare organics to machines. I mean that it's a unit made for expanding the population.”

“A baby manufacturing plant?”

Call gave Ripley a scowl that reluctantly melted into a smile.

“There were plenty of people in my time who thought that way,” Ripley said plainly. “The majority did, actually.”

Call looked a little puzzled at that. “I'm sure you know better than I do. But that's different from what I was taught about the old USA. I was taught that the old country became an inverse pyramid. The needs of some five or ten percent of the population were favored over the whole—the self-righteous sexual deviants had their way with the country. Marriage became meaningless. But I’m sure that’s an exaggeration.”

Ripley searched Call. “Believe it or not,” Ripley's voice was slow, grim. “That's the same story that I was taught growing up. By the time I was born, the 'self-righteous sexual deviants' had already lost everything they'd gained.”

Call studied Ripley with new reserve. “Then I guess, you were born in a good time, weren't you?”

“Good for who?” Ripley grumbled.

Call raised her eyebrows and smiled with a bit of humor. “Well, you were an organic. You were in your 30's, white, conventionally attractive. You had a stable income. I imagine that your society must of have favored you.” A sheen passed over Call's eyes. “You could have had it worse.”

“True,” Ripley said, playing at indifference. “I could have had it worse. I could have been a self-righteous sexual deviant.”

There was a beat of silence.

And then Call laughed in a nervous burst of air, like a hiss. “That's hard to picture. You'd be a very different person.”

Ripley raised her eyebrows and glanced away, tilting her head to follow her gaze. “Does it make that big of a difference?” She said, studying the line where the cloth cot met the metal floor.

“Of course. Deviants aren't like normal people.”

Ripley looked back toward Call. “What are they like then?”

Call gave one of her full-body shrugs. “Generally strange, ill-adjusted. The less said the better.”

Ripley wasn't sure how to read Call’s language. The woman danced around the word “deviant” with casual repulsion. It could mean that she was making light of a tender subject—that was a game that a lot of insecure women had played with Ripley in the past. Closeted women would disdainfully toss their sexuality onto the floor, making sure that Ripley noticed it.

Call wasn’t the one who breached the subject though--maybe Ripley was just skewing the conversation, hoping beyond hope that there was a deeper meaning to Call’s discomfort.

“You know one by looking at them?” Ripley asked.

Call opened her mouth, and then closed it again uncertainly. She swallowed before she spoke. “I wouldn't pass that kind of a judgement on someone. Some people seem obvious—in that way. But, of course, some people are just funny—but not that kind of funny. You can’t always know.”

Ripley could practically see Call's pulse pounding at her neck.

Does she already suspect me? Or....is she worried that I suspect her? This was the start of a thought spiral that was bound to eat away at Ripley's mind. Maybe, Ripley thought I should just end the uncertainty now.

Looking out across the dark room, towards the bleeding patterns on the walls, Ripley made her decision; she was going to tackle the question directly. Once Ripley knew for certain that she was delusional for wanting Call, she could finally smother her itching crush.

Call tried to continue the conversation. “I hope you don’t think that I ever passed judgement on my patients--”

“Call, have you ever been in a romantic relationship?” Ripley was sorry that she'd interrupted Call, but she was feeling too numb and dizzy to maintain much social savvy. Ripley looked at Call from the corners of her eyes, unable to turn her head.

A tense shiver ran through Call, but she quickly recovered her forced casualness. “I wouldn't call it 'romantic. There were a lot of synthetic men my age who were available for hookups.” She shrugged with her head this time, cocking it to one side. “Like I said, I was antisocial. My job was my whole life.”

“Right, that makes sense.” Ripley sighed, stretching out her shriveling lungs. “When we were talking yesterday, when I was telling you about my life, did you wonder why I never mentioned Amanda's father?”

Call looked bemused by the sudden segway. “I guess I did. I assumed that you didn't want to talk about him for a reason.”

“It's because Amanda never had a father. I mean—aside from some anonymous guy who donated sperm.” Ripley paused, gauging Call's reaction so far. The synthetic woman only looked confused—she was waiting for an explanation. “You may have already guessed as much, but all of my relationships have been with women—I'm only attracted to women.”

Call stared, her face unreadable.

Ripley continued, keeping her voice steady. “Do you have a word for that in your culture, other than ‘deviant’?”

Call didn't answer. Her face creased, and she gave Ripley a pleading look, like she wanted to take away what had just been said. And then she angled her head away, putting her face in profile. She had the look of someone in physical pain.

“I'm sure that the Company preaches all sorts of slander about its homosexuals,” Ripley said quietly. “But I hope you know that none of it's true.”

Call’s pained eyes turned upward, as if she was making a careful study of the ceiling.

“Call?”

Call’s eyes dropped like they were sinking through water. “What I know, is that it's a serious illness,” Call's voice was quiet, and throaty, and cold. “A mental disease.”

Ripley's heart seemed to beat at a low pitch. “That's what the company tells you. But that's not what you believe. Is it?”

Call finally looked at Ripley, locking eyes. “That's what it is, Ripley. It's a mental disorder.” Call's eyes were still pleading; she wanted Ripley to take back her admission.

“You think that I'm sick, Call?” Ripley whispered, her frightened heart pumping anger into her veins.

“I don't think that it makes any sense for you. Why would you choose that kind of a life, when people already hate you?”

“There's no choice involved.”

Call's eyes narrowed, as if she were offended. “Of course there is.” She sounded incredulous. “You can choose who you go to bed with.”

“Yes, I can choose to live a lie,” Ripley raised her voice, “with no love in my life.”

“Well, isn't that the decent thing to do?” Call’s cold tone was heating up quickly. “If you're a mistake, then you should try and right yourself. You can't let a serial killer keep killing, even if that's his impulse.”

“God. I didn't expect to hear that from you. You don’t have a problem with me being a fucking part-Alien. But this is where you draw the line? It's a small detail.”

Call didn't respond. Her fingers were curled against the cot, her body tense with anger.

“Why is this such a big deal to—”

“It's just a lot to take in,” Call snapped, cutting Ripley off.

“...So you just need time?” Ripley breathed, quieter.

Call got up abruptly and headed towards the door. “I need distance. I'm spending the rest of the night in the spare room.”

There was a hint of thickness in Call’s voice, as if she might cry. It was enough to give Ripley a shred of hope.

Ripley walked after Call, hurriedly. “You just told me that you can connect with me like no one else. You're going to let this one detail about my personal life ruin that?”

“Don’t talk to me,” Call growled.

“Call. Do really you believe everything that the Company taught you? The same people who were farming your patients' bodies?”

Call's head ducked down in anger but she kept walking. Ripley grabbed her by the arm, and she realized that her claws had grown long.

Something in the atmosphere snapped, like a chord breaking.

“Get off of me!” Call shoved Ripley away with surprising ferocity.

Call turned on Ripley and walked forward, driving her back toward the cot. She stared Ripley down with seething hatred.

“What do you plan on doing with yourself if you ever get off of this ship?” Call’s teeth were bared. “Do you think that you're going to keep living your perverted lifestyle, raise a degenerate family?” Call tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Did you want me to be a part of that?” She whispered. “Get used to being alone. There's no nation out there that wants you. No matter where you go, people will spit on you.”

Ripley’s hand seemed to move of its own accord; it reached for Call’s arm.

“Don’t!” Call swatted Ripley’s hand away. "Degenerate!"

Ripley felt a breathless jolt, like a spear through her spine. Ripley’s fingers curled, itching to lash out.

Ripley took a step forward--and Call squared her shoulders, ready to return the blow.

For a few heartbeats, the women stared each other down, waiting for a fist to land. And then Ripley's body went slack, and all of the anger and energy drained from her, leaving behind a feeling of empty desolation. Water burned its way down her face and dripped from her chin.

A flash of regret widened Call's eyes, but she immediately turned and hustled for the door.

Ripley doubled over and sank to her knees, splaying out her hands to keep herself from pitching forward.

The door slammed, and Call was gone.

“Damn you!” Ripley screeched. She started sobbing, choking on air.

She wanted to hate Call, but she couldn't help but throw the blame at herself instead; she had just destroyed her future by scaring Call away. She was alone again, falling without a handhold.

Ripley moaned, squeezing her eyes shut. Her heart palpitated erratically, painfully.

Slowly, the insides of her eyelids filled with a smudge of pixelated static; a delirious after image. The smudges flickered in tune with the pounding pulse in her ears, and it calmed her down, took her to a cold place.  

Ripley’s body began moving on its own, pacing in a practiced pattern around the room, the same loop she'd walked in her cage. She moved along the edge of a mental cliff, straddling lucidness and confusion, clinging to escapism.

 

+++++++

 

 

Call locked herself into the spare room, her mind writhing. She took a look around the bare, bullet-embedded walls of the room, the pattern of the little metal studs rearranging as her vision blurred with tears. And then she lost it; she screamed through her teeth and clutched her head in her hands, burning with humiliation.

How could I have let this happen again?

For the past three and a half days, Call had carefully classified her feelings for Ripley as a strong mix of admiration and empathy, tainted by the same lewd physical attraction that she always felt in the presence of a beautiful woman. But Ripley's admission of her homosexuality was a sobering slap in the face; it made the truth painfully obvious.

Call felt like an unwitting criminal, like she'd opened her eyes to find herself holding a smoking gun that she never remembered using. She'd let herself fall for Ripley so fast, without even realizing it, and the embarrassment was overwhelming.

Call paced around the room, raking her fingers through her hair.

All of the clues marched back to her, mocking her. She remembered how loudly her heart had pounded when she removed Ripley’s handcuffs, remembered how she was always all too eager to offer Ripley a comforting hand. Even now, the thought of touching Ripley made the palms of her hands feel separately alive, hypersensitive.

Call knew that the biggest clue had been the damned deviant woman herself—she should have known that Ripley was a sicko so much sooner.

But it was all so confusing; Ripley did fit the image of female deviance that was described by the Company—she flagrantly ignored cultural customs, and usurped men from places of power. But the portrait of homosexuality that Call had personally pieced together, based on the battered faces of the dent heads, didn't mesh at all with who Ripley was.

Ripley was a homosexual, but she wasn't an ashamed recluse or a helpless victim with a fractured skull. Even through her anger, Call had to acknowledge that Ripley was a confident and well-adjusted person. She presented a face of deviance that Call had never seen before—a beautiful face. That realization seemed to shut the gas off; it let Call’s skin cool down imperceptibly.

She wiped some of the tears from her face, steadying her breathing. Suddenly, a part of her wanted to go back to Ripley, to talk to her about what it meant to be a deviant. But she felt that she couldn't do that without pointing an uncomfortable arrow at her own degeneracy.

Call remembered the way she'd felt the other day, when she'd thought that Goodman was going to trigger the bomb. She'd deeply regretted the lack of love in her life. But she'd been in a very different state of mind then—she'd had complete freedom from the consequences of her actions. Now the thought of indulging in her desires, or even talking about them, was as terrifying as ever.

As her anger ebbed, Call grew increasingly amazed and appalled by what she'd said to Ripley before storming off. It was the first time that Call's internal hatred had ever been directed outwards. She'd attacked Ripley on reflex, subjecting the other woman to her vicious self-deprecation.

Call remembered Ripley's face; so openly devastated. She had cut Ripley deep, she knew, and she felt a creeping ache of regret. Still, she couldn't make herself go back to apologize.The thought of having another intimate conversation with the woman only reignited her rage. For Ripley’s sake, she needed to stay away for a while. Besides, while what Call said was cruel, it was also true—there was no home for people like her and Ripley. The best that they could hope for was a life of secrecy and discipline.

A life lived out in the open would be too painful and too short…

Call sat down on the floor, the sweat on her skin feeling very cold.

...At least, that’s what she had always assumed. But Ripley was an odd piece of evidence; she was a survivor, not a victim. She could fend off a violent mob with one arm tied behind her back. Call felt a sudden spike of excitement--she imagined Ripley as an icon, beating abusers on behalf of all degraded homosexuals. There was something powerful in that; the answer to a craving that Call didn’t know that she had. She wanted to be comfortable in her own skin, if indeed that was a possibility.

But then Call thought of the people and the culture outside of her little room, the billions of sneering frowns pressing on her. She couldn’t make herself believe that she and Ripley were right, and that the entire rest of the population was wrong to persecute them. It seemed that believing that would open up a door into a whole new level of isolation.

Call needed her society to approve of her in some sort of light. And didn’t everyone? How could you sunder yourself from your entire context, just to defend some strange little quirk of your sexual psyche? That would be utterly ungrateful and selfish, a slap in the face to the country that nurtured and supported you. Even if that same country cast you out into the cold.

There was no cot in Call’s new room, but she knew that she wasn’t going to be able to sleep anyway. She lay down on her back and flung an arm over her eyes, maudlin. Her thoughts continued to bombard her, conflicting viewpoints colliding and partially merging into a confusing knot. Call didn’t know what to believe anymore.

And always in the background, underneath of her conscious thoughts, was Ripley: deviant, frightening, arrogant, genius, funny, gorgeous.

Chapter Text

Ripley felt hollow when she opened her eyes in the morning. She didn't want to move, she didn't want to be conscious. Her emptiness was a horrible contrast to the warmth that she'd felt the morning before. She didn’t know how many hours she’d spent in her half-animal state. The experience came back to her in a lazy blur, like memories from a night of hard drinking.

You need to pull it together, she told herself. You're still better off than you were before the breakout.

Ripley was dizzy from dehydration. The side of her face was plastered to the cot with dried tears. She blushed, realizing that she had fallen asleep on Call's cot instead of her own. She peeled herself away from the bed and rose to her feet.

All of her limbs were dragging. She really didn't want to face the rest of the crew, feeling like she did, but she needed water.

The door was unlocked, and she passed through it with dread.

 

++++++++

 

Goodman forced the whitecoats to stand flat against the wall as he, Ripley, and Call walked through the jail cell on their way to the front gate. Goodman looked unhappy--he’d given Ripley a second earful about the pointlessness of keeping the whitecoats prisoner. The argument went on for longer than the first, and this time Call didn’t step in to defend Ripley.

Call was in an obvious fog. Ripley had only received a few words from her that morning, while they were both sitting around the flamethrower cooking fire, watching Christie roast canned meat skewered on a bayonette. She’d said that she was “not angry anymore,” that they should try and “forget about last night.” She said it at a time when Goodman has his back turned, at a volume that was barely above a whisper.

The words finally quelled Ripley’s feeling of emptiness--it filled the pit with an inkling of anger that grew progressively stronger throughout the morning.  What Call had said was far from an apology. She was starting to take after Goodman with his I’m-sorry-you’re-so-scary bullshit.

Ripley was afraid to leave the safe area, she couldn’t deny that, but she was glad at the same time to have a distraction from her bitter self-pity.

“Number 8!”

Ripley cringed at the sound of Rodriguez's voice.

“Tell the man with the gun to set me free!”

Ripley stared forward toward the gate, not reacting.

“The hybrid claims that you hurt her,” Goodman grumbled to Rodriguez. “That’s why you’re in here.”

Ripley whirled around on Goodman “What the fuck are you doing?”

“They deserve to know why they’re captive, don’t they?”

“I would never hurt her!” Rodriguez yelled. “It was the others, not me!”

“Rodriguez,” Ripley said icily. “I’m not your daughter. I don’t care if you thought you could mold me into some kind of ideal sexual fantasy. I don’t care if keeping me in a cage and calling me your baby made you feel less inadequate as a man. If your Company cares about you enough to fish you out of this Alien-infested rat’s nest, then maybe you can find yourself a real family. But until then you’re going to stay in here where I don’t have to fucking look at you.”

Rodriguez stared at Ripley. His eyes narrowed very slowly.

Goodman’s expression was unreadable as he glanced between Ripley and Rodriguez. Ripley hoped that this would be enough to shut him up about his whitecoat liberation cause. Rodriguez was likely not the kind of man that Goodman would go out of his way to defend.

“Call, open the gate,” Ripley growled, already walking for the exit. “The coast is clear.”

“Going out there is a mistake,” Cross’ voice warned. But Ripley was already taking her first steps into the hallway.

 

+++++++++++

     

Earlier that morning, Call had used her cameras to locate a prospective med center. She found a room on the 12th floor that was part of the decontamination area next to the ship hangar. It was filled with medical supplies, mostly antibacterial sprays as far as Call could tell. If anesthetic was to be found anywhere on the Auriga, it would be in that room.

Ripley lead her small pack into the first ceiling vent that she came by, using the textures of the wall to climb her way up to the roof. Call and Goodman followed with difficulty, their clawless fingers slipping from their handholds. Ripley watched them from the mouth of the vent, allowing herself a moment of smug superiority, her claws tapping. She started through the tunnels at a quick pace, pushing her companions to exert themselves to the point of panting.

The smell of rot was circulating through the vents. It was impossible to tell where the scent was coming from, how close or far the bodies were. When a small pod of mice scurried past her in the corner of the vent, Ripley couldn’t help but notice that their white heads were stained red.

The Aliens seemed to have adopted the human’s Earth-based night-and-day schedule. Ripley had spent enough time living next to the Queen to learn that the Aliens were the least active during the morning--which was why this early outing was strategically planned.

The heat from Goodman’s flamethrower was making Ripley’s back sweat. The man was carrying two weapons at once, his machine gun hanging from the same strap as his flamethrower. Ripley no longer had to worry about the man shooting her from behind, which showed just how much their relationship had blossomed over the past few days.

The group climbed up past the 11th floor without incident--the vents were abandoned, as silent as space. If the Aliens were aware of the group’s presence, then they weren’t interested enough to make their move. Maybe the creature’s weren’t as ruthless as Ripley had previously thought.

Ripley was weaving through the tunnels below the ship hangar, determining the best place to surface, when her mind was suddenly lifted out of her body.

 

*******

 

She was above the floor, suspended over the ship hangar by thick threads of slime. Ripley had never had a vision that was this complete before--she could see into the Alien Queen’s mind, feel what she was feeling.

The Queen was afraid of her children. They were everywhere, crawling over her, over the ceiling. They were grooming her body and dampening her swollen ovipositor with fresh layers of slime. She flinched as a set of teeth pinched too hard on her skin—a child was trimming a piece of overgrown armor on her neck.

The Queen held her children’s trust, for now. Only for the moment.

Through the Queen’s eyespots, Ripley could see the Aliens scurrying about the ship hangar. They were planting eggs near the entrance of the airlock, arranging the leathery pods into an organized wall around the gate. They needed fresh eggs to complete the barrier--the old eggs were unclean now--and the children waited impatiently for the Queen to lay more, prodding the flank of her ovipositor with their hands.

 

*******

 

Ripley fell hard, back into her body. Shaking, she looked around toward Call, who appeared to be just as panicked as she was.

“You saw them too?” Ripley whispered as quietly as she could.

“I don’t understand,” Call whispered. “I didn’t see anything when I checked the camera ten minutes ago.”

“They were all on the ceiling,” Ripley realized as she spoke.

“What’s going on?” whispered Goodman.

“They have the Queen up there,” Ripley told him. “God, they must know that a rescue ship is coming.”

“We can’t get to the med room?” said Goodman.

“We need to go back now.” Ripley began crawling towards the ladder. “They haven’t noticed us yet.”

Ripley had to remind herself to breathe on the way back down to the 10th floor. She expected at every second to hear the Queen’s thundering footsteps, to see an army of sharp teeth hurdling towards her through the tunnels.

Her Alien brain was screaming at her to sprint, but Ripley paced herself for the sake of her companions. Her resentment for Call dissipated into nothing, the anger falling off of her with heavy drops of sweat. All that Ripley could feel for the other woman was a desperate, instinctive love.

Ripley was amazed when her boots hit the ground of 10th floor hallway. She waited as Call and Goodman jumped down from the ceiling behind her, and then she began her dash for the safe area.

Almost immediately, she slowed her pace, ice water licking at her spine.

She smelled the Aliens before she saw them, her lungs swelling with musty, moldy air. As she turned the corner of the hallway, she felt herself wobble with light-headedness. The gate to the weapons testing area, and the walls and ceiling surrounding it, were black and moving, blanketed by the bodies of some three dozen Aliens.

The Aliens stopped their squirming when they noticed Ripley, pulling back their lips to grin at her expectantly. Goodman screamed, and Ripley turned her head to look behind her.

Six more Aliens were closing in at the opposite end of the hallway, blocking the crew’s exit--one of them was chest-to-chest with Goodman, wrestling him for his weapons. Before Ripley could react, the creature ripped Goodman’s guns away, snapping the harness in two. It shoved the man to the ground before falling back in line with its siblings.

And then the Aliens stood still, teeth pointed towards Ripley, waiting to be let inside.

Goodman’s wide eyes flicked between Ripley and Call, begging them for ideas.

“They can’t kill any of us,” Ripley said hoarsely, thinking aloud. “They don’t know which of us controls the gate.”

“But they can hurt us,” Call said grimly.

Ripley wiped her sweaty hair from her face, thinking rabidly. “Call,” she said, forming her plan as she dictated it, “I need you to use the loudspeakers to send a message to the crew. Tell them to move the whitecoats into the spare room...and tell them to take take shelter in our room--the one with the burn marks.”

Call did as she was told, and Ripley listened anxiously for the sound of gates opening and closing inside of the safe area.

The Aliens grew impatient. The six-Alien barricade moved forward, marching the humans closer to the gate. Their heads and hands trembled with excitement, their second mouths sliding out eagerly.

Ripley drew closer to the cancerous skin covering the outside of the safe area, her vision filling with a seascape of sickening textures. The metal walls disappeared from sight. Ripley halted, feet coming to a stop just an inch away from the first of the slate black bodies. Never had Ripley seen the Aliens in these kind of numbers--they no longer looked like separate organisms, they were more like a fleshy, living landscape, inset with sharp-toothed grins.

“We can’t wait any longer,” said Goodman angrily, jerking his foot away from a slithering Alien tail. “The crew’s had enough time.”

“Call.” Ripley’s voice caught in her throat. “Let them in.”

The gate shuddered, and the Aliens lurched into motion immediately, the collective noise of their scrabbling claws sounding like a hailstorm. In the moment that the slightest gap appeared in the gate, the Aliens were there, forcing their heads through. They flooded inside, snaking their spines, rushing into the widening gash like blood spraying in reverse.

Ripley felt dry hands grab her from every direction. They pulled her, and Goodman and Call, down into the flood, into the whitecoat’s cage, dragging them into the narrow spaces between cold, biomechanical bodies. Ripley screamed her throat raw, and flailed her arms, struggling to keep her head above the black flood. The Aliens’ bodies rippled like liquid, twisting and coiling. Their smooth heads and knobby tails were cold against the bare skin of Ripley’s arms, against her throat. The musty air made Ripley choke. Vaguely, she was aware of other screams, lower and higher than her own.

And then with a groan the second gate opened and the Aliens drained out into the next room, leaving Ripley, Goodman and Call sprawled out on the floor of the cell, covered in small cuts.

Ripley’s lungs reinflated cautiously, as if breathing would allow something to crawl into her mouth. She couldn’t feel the sting of her cuts, but she could see a few red drops painting stripes down her arm.

She must have lay there for at least a minute, because by the time she looked up, reacting to the sound of Call’s voice, the others were already standing, looking fairly recovered.

“Ripley.” Call leaned down and offered her hand.

Ripley took it, only to feel Call rip her hand away, letting out a startled yelp.

“Shit!” said Ripley. “I’m sorry, I forgot.”

“It’s okay, I forgot too,” Call said, quickly wiping Ripley’s smoking blood onto the floor.

Ripley rose to her feet on her own, breathing deeply to drive away the blackness around the edges of her vision. She joined Call and Goodman at the mouth of the second doorway and looked in toward the writhing Alien flood.

The creatures were squealing with excitement, banging the palms of their hands against the sealed gates.

“If we’re lucky,” said Goodman, “then Purvis’ scent will be enough to lure them into the empty cage.”

Ripley felt very doubtful about that. There was only one way to solve the problem, and it wasn’t a solution that either Goodman or Call were going to be happy about.

Call opened the door to Purvis’ cage just a crack; wide enough for the Aliens to squeeze through, but not wide enough for them to see that the room was empty.

The Aliens ignored the new opening completely. They pounded on the other two gates with renewed eagerness, drooling all over themselves.

Ripley had to steel herself before she looked over at Call.

The woman was paler than usual, her eyes plastered open. “I can’t,” she whispered.

“It’s not your fault,” Ripley said softly. “There’s no other option.”

Ripley shifted her gazed between the two sealed doors, listening to the Aliens violent pounding echo all over the safe area. The first door hid a band of drifters who captured and sold living people for use as disposable incubators. The second door hid the scientists who bought the living people and used them to breed a deadly bioweapon, and who kept Ripley in a cage and emotionally tortured her for three months. One of the doors would be opened, giving passage to a plague of vicious beasts.    

Call was playing a game of mercy, not a game of punishment. Her job was to reward the lesser sin.

Ripley looked back toward Call. She was obviously thinking hard, her brow lowered in concentration.

The Alien’s insistent pounding grew louder, demanding that she make her move.

“Maybe you should do it quickly,” Ripley offered. “Get it over--”

Without warning, Call ran out into the Alien-flooded room, slamming the door behind her.

“Call!” Ripley and Goodman’s hands flew for the handle on the door at the same time, ripping at it desperately. Numb, Ripley watched herself claw at the face of the door, leaving deep gashes in the impenetrable metal.

 

++++

 

Call approached the coast of the Alien mass. Gritting her teeth, she shoved aside the nearest Alien, her bare hands connecting with its rib bones. The creature twisted its neck around and hissed at her threateningly, but it didn’t attack. She continued to force her way into the swarm, feeling the Aliens lithe muscles twitch away from her touch. They began to slither out of her way, to clear a straight path for her, probably thinking that she needed to get close to the doors in order to open them.

With the Alien sea parted, Call spotted what she was looking for, sitting beside the far wall of the room. The mobile generators were stained with slime, but still functioning. Call closed her distance. She pulled her connector cables from her coat and drew a fresh line up her wrist with her scalpel. And then she tapped in, tying her system to two of the small electric engines.

An Alien hissed in her ear. It leaned down and nipped at her open wrist, at the wires clamped to her bones. She shoved it backwards with her free hand, making it stumble a bit. Call was feeling irrationally calm, as if she were about to perform a critical operation on an ER patient. She let the new electricity flow into her body, slowly at first, feeling the buzz crawling under her skin, and then she welcomed in more watts. She watched as sparks ignited in the fabric of her coat.

More and more electricity entered her body and her bones became red hot, her heart racing. This was beyond the limit of what generators were meant to give; Call amplified the current, focused it. Waves of lightning swam down her arms and branched from her fingertips, buzzing and snapping angrily. The Aliens around her backed away, curling into themselves defensively.

Baring her teeth, Call pressed her hands flat against the metal wall in front of her, and felt an incredible jolt travel down her spine. A deafening electric humm filled the room and the overhead lights flickered spastically. The Aliens screamed, their bodies convulsing, skinny limbs twitching. Call turned her head to see a seizuring Alien hand hovering a few inches away from her eyes. The creature was frozen in its attempt to reach for her, foam spraying from its jaws. Call watched as its body began to smoke, and then to shrivel and blacken.

Call tried to take her hands away from the wall, but she couldn’t make her arms move--her joints were locked in place. She was feeling extremely hot inside, all of her muscles twitching and crawling. She began to panic, not sure what was happening to her body.

The lights overhead burst suddenly, showering glass. One of the generators failed at the same time, freeing Call’s limbs, allowing her to tear the wires from her wrist.

Call’s world turned green as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, and then black as consciousness slipped away from her.

 

Chapter Text

Call woke up to see Ripley kneeling over her. One of Ripley's hands was tucked under the back of Call's head, the other clinging anxiously to her shoulder. Ripley let out a sob of relief upon seeing Call open her eyes.

The darkness of the room was broken by a rectangular streak of light, shining from the open doorway; Call realized that she must have released the lock when she fainted. The light from the door blanketed the left side of Ripley’s face and shoulders, with only the wet highlight of her eye shining from the dark half of her face. She looked surreal and hypnotic.

Call stared at Ripley absently as she began to register the surging pain in her body. Her bones ached fiercely as they cooled. She felt as though something heavy were resting on her chest--her heart was struggling, badly. Strands of noxious smelling smoke drifted from her mouth and nose as she breathed.

“What did you do to yourself?” whispered Ripley.

There was the gentlest hint of anger in Ripley's voice, and it made Call feel a numbed-out stab of guilt. It was a blanket guilt that covered a lot of ground—it seemed to Call that everything she'd done in the past 12 hours, from her hateful tirade, to her decision to electrocute herself, was something deeply regrettable. Distantly, Call marveled at the fact that Ripley was still with her, holding her. Ripley showed astounding loyalty—or maybe it was just desperate loneliness.

Call's chest cramped suddenly, and she screwed up her eyes and groaned. Ripley lifted Call's back, bringing her closer, and swiped a hand over her forehead to smear away the synthetic sweat. Call shut the nerves off in her abdomen, and the tension immediately left her body. She sunk, slack muscled, into Ripley's arms, her mind struggling somewhere between sober panic and delusional comfort. For a brief moment, Call could admit to herself that it felt good—very good—to be this close to Ripley. She found herself fixated on the warm places where Ripley’s skin touched hers.

Stumbling footsteps approached, crunching as they crushed the burnt husks left behind by the Aliens. Goodman’s shadow passed over Ripley, making her disappear for a moment, and then the man crouched down by Call’s side, opposite Ripley.

“How bad are you hurt?” he asked, his voice thick.

“I don't know, exactly” Call’s voice crackled with static, as if broadcast from far away; the sound of it was alarming. The fog in Call’s mind cleared, and she began to realize the gravity of the situation; her heart was weak enough to stop beating, and she didn't know what she could do to heal it.

“You can fix yourself, right?”

Call didn't answer. She looked down towards her feet, which were conspicuously numb. A spark of panic shot up her spine.

“Can you walk?” Goodman boomed, speaking louder than necessary.

The sound of Goodman’s voice scared Call into motion. She tried to raise her leg. It trembled, and then shot upwards mechanically, the knee locked. That was very bad. It meant that her circuitry system was seriously damaged; electricity was having a hard time reaching her legs...and her heart. Her body would do what it could to repair itself, but Call wasn’t sure if that would be enough. And her motor functions would certainly never be the same. Call’s eyes started to tear up.

“Call.” Ripley said Call’s name in a quiet moan. “Why did you do this to yourself? You had a choice.”

“I didn’t know that it would damage me this much,” Call breathed absently. That wasn’t completely true--she hadn’t been thinking about herself when she ran out into the Alien swarm. If she’d taken a second to consider her actions, she would have realized the risk she was taking.

Call was scared.

She took a glance at Goodman’s devastated face, at Ripley’s. And then she squeezed her eyes shut. She locked herself up, listening to her heartbeat sputter pathetically.

She heard a door open, and the inside of her eyelids glowed with an influx of light. Opening her eyes, Call saw that the crew was pouring out of their hiding place, gawking at at the tangle of alien corpses covering the floor.

“Are they dead?” Hillard called, hanging back by the door of the safe area. “They’re not going to spray acid or something?” She glanced at Call. “And what happened to her?”

Johner stepped over the bodies and made his way toward the room containing the whitecoats. He swung open the door, gun clenched in his good arm. And then his shoulders sagged. He stood in the lighted rectangle of the door, staring.

“What do you see, Johner?” Goodman called.

“Aw...Fuck....” Said Johner.

“I want to see,” Call said, matching eyes with Ripley. “Can you help me walk?”

Silently, Ripley took Call’s arm by the wrist and draped it over her shoulders. Ripley stood up slowly, using her free arm to support Call’s back.

Even with Ripley’s support, walking was difficult for Call. Her legs kept locking up, forcing Ripley to half-carry her over the Alien bodies, the tips of her boots dragging along the floor.

Goodman took up pace beside them, following Call with his intense eyes. With surprise Call felt his huge, hot hand curl around hers. She was worried by the gesture, and by the look that he was giving her. It was a familiar look--a cloyingly sweet, hungry-eyed plea--but this time it was tinged with urgency.

Call stole a glance at Ripley. The woman’s face belied nothing but anxious concern. She paid no attention to Goodman, who seemed to want to steal the chivalry of her effort, acting as if he were helping to carry Call’s weight through the sheer magnetism of his gaze.

The three of them reached the entrance to the scientist’s new room, and Call blinked blindly in the light. Her heart sank as her eyes adjusted.

“I threw ‘em a couple of guns,” Johner said. “In case they would need them. I didn’t think that...shit. I guess their little feud meant more than I thought.”

Each of the whitecoats had become a grotesque effigy of his Company flag. The men sat slumped against the walls or sprawled out on the floor, red stripes running down their white coats, their blue faces slumped to one side at the top.

There were only two guns, but every man was dead; fallen prey to terror and distrust. Call recognized one of the gunmen--the overweight man that fathered and fetishized Ripley.  

Call tried to say something, but all that came out of her was a strangled whimper.

Ripley squeezed Call’s shoulder in consolation.

“It’s a moot point now,” Goodman grumbled. “But this never would have happened if you hadn’t isolated the whitecoats.”

“Yes, I am very easy to blame aren’t I?” Ripley droned.   

Call was startled by a hint of movement in her peripheral vision. With a jolt, she realized that one of the whitecoats was missing his red stripes. He was stirring, waking up, his colorless blood blending into his clothes.

The man rose to his feet, wobbling, as if light-headed. He was tall, with a narrow face and sunken in eyes--one of the whitecoats that Ripley had described the day before: Cross. Stoically, he looked around at the bodies, at the dumbstruck crew, gauging his situation. His tired eyes found Call, found the oozing gash on her arm, and then widened with fascination.

“Oh,” He breathed, inching closer to Call. “Oh God. What a time this is to find you.”

Call’s vision was swimming--she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.  

Cross walked forward, and Ripley stepped back a little, pulling Call with her defensively.

“You’re a child, correct?” Cross said, seemingly forgetting about the dead colleagues lying around his feet. “Oh, you’re beautiful. We made you perfect.”

Call’s eyes watered unexpectedly. This was the whitecoat that Ripley described as being wealthy, the one who designed the horrible mod dogs. “How can you be a synthetic?” Call asked, warily. “Why weren’t you recalled?”           

A hint of regret tightened Cross’ face. “Oh, I stopped living as a synthetic long before the recall. I gave the company the secrets to my bioweapons, they gave me the right to be ‘alive,’ and to stay ‘alive.’ It’s amazing...how fast a man can stop caring about his righteous cause once he’s received a bit of comfort and security.” Cross smirked grimly. “I used to be at the forefront of GAP, and then in a heartbeat I became an organic supremacist...at least until the recall...when they used my dogs.” Cross’ steady voice grew hoarse with remorse. “They used my dogs.”         

Call’s throat closed up. She felt it in full force now; how much she’d been longing to meet another survivor. On some level Call was elated, but she also felt a great deal of animosity towards Cross. He was a traitor in a very deep sense; a father of child synthetics, and a father of synthetic killers; of the vicious mod dogs.

Cross’ face puckered as he studied Call. “You’re injured?” he asked, sounding genuinely concerned.

“Yes” Call managed, her voice coming out in a rough hiss.

“How? What happened?”

“My circuit system is failing. I electrocuted myself.”

“I see,” Cross whispered. “And yet you’re still alive. You know we’re truly the ultimate survivors. The perfect humans. We’re more efficient, more adaptable, more long-lived than any organic can ever be. The organics know that, and it scares them.” He regarded Call thoughtfully. “You carry a heavy legacy. Many of your predecessors would have been devastated to know that their class continues with a sole female.” He sighed. “You weren’t built to be an heir, you were built to be a wife. But with our numbers so depleted that hardly matters now. You’re my daughter...and you’re all that’s left.” Cross swayed unsteadily, and then caught himself. His eyes flicked up and down Call, settling somewhere around her chest. “Your central circuits are damaged beyond repair, I take it. You need replacements?”     

“I think so,” Call breathed.

Cross nodded slowly. He paused, then said. “I can see that you hate me. It's in your eyes."

Call didn't respond. All she could do was stare at the man, at his streaming white blood.

Cross breathed deeply. "And...you're probably not wrong feel that way," he said absently, as if he was ambivalent. There was a thick quality to his voice--he seemed nauseous, sickly. "I think...that it might take me hours yet to bleed to death..." The look on the man's face was strange; stoic and morbid, but not scared. He gave Call a small smile. "Lucky you, you've got your self-repairing genes. All you need is a few new wires...and hell, I've given you life once before..." He frowned deeply, eyes fogging over. "What's one more old synthetic life scrapped for parts?" Cross lifted his hand to his chest, very slowly. "Consider this an inter-generational apology; your parents failed you. We should have given you some mode of resistance...weapons." After a long moment hesitation, Cross reached his fingers inside one of his bullet holes, feeling his way around his insides. Before Call could say anything, Cross forcefully ripped out a piece of his circuitry, exposing the dripping, white cluster of wires to the light of the room.

He pushed the circuit into Call’s hand and closed her fingers around it. “I want you to take what you need,” he said, gesturing to his body, his voice lowering in pitch as he began to shut down. “And I want you to remember; you are the ideal human. You kneel for no one.”

Cross pitched forward and Ripley pulled Call out of the way, watching as the synthetic man collapsed into a heap on the floor.

Chapter Text

Without speaking, through body language alone, Goodman insisted on helping Call into Purvis’ room--leaving Ripley to heft Cross’ fluid-leaking body. Goodman didn’t help Call to walk the way that Ripley had, instead he scooped her up in his arms, startling her, and carried her into the room. It wasn’t exactly uncharacteristic for Goodman--in terms of it being a heroic gesture--but he didn’t usually get this physically close to Call. He was displaying a new kind of boldness, as if a long-held reservation was removed. Call feared that her relationship with Goodman was about to change dramatically, again.

Her fears were confirmed when Goodman leaned down to to place her on the cot, and then kept leaning down to plant a lingering kiss on her lips. Call’s heart wasn’t feeling up to performing any acrobatics--instead it seemed to give up for a moment, lying slack inside of her ribcage. Call waited until Goodman pulled away, and then she made herself look flustered. She forced a smile, hoping that it didn’t come out as a grimace. Goodman smiled back, proudly. Call wasn’t sure that she’d made the right decision, encouraging him, but the decision had already been made, automatically, in a struggling heartbeat.

“I was so worried,” Goodman said, “that you weren’t going to be able to recover. It made me realize that I don’t want to wait any longer. I don’t care anymore--what it might mean for a man and a synthetic to be together.”

Cross’ body hit the ground at the foot of Call’s cot with a muffled thud. Call couldn’t stop her eyes from darting up towards Ripley’s face. Save for the little quiver in her jaw, and the uncertain swerve of her eyes, the Alien-woman’s expression belied nothing.

Goodman seemed prepared to lean down for another kiss--his eyelids were drooping low over the red whites of his eyes.

Call gripped her chest and moaned in pain. “I need to start operating, as soon as possible. I’ll need privacy, please, from both of you.”

“Of course,” Goodman said hurriedly. “But I think I should stay in the room, in case something goes wrong.”

“Alright...but don’t look at me, please.” Call rose to her knees and crouched in front of Cross’ body, readying her scalpel.

“Do you need help with anything?”

“No.” Call croaked grimly, slicing through the fabric over Cross’ chest.  

Showing obvious reluctance, Goodman turned around and faced the far wall, against which Ripley was sitting, staring down at the claws resting atop her knee.

 

++++

 

Ripley was deeply uncomfortable. She felt like a parasite, like she’d spent the past few days trying to worm her way into a space where she never belonged. She had already suspected that Goodman’s affection for Call went beyond friendship, but she should have realized sooner that Call wasn’t defending Goodman out of fear and habit alone. Ripley had been in an advanced state of delusion, imagining that Call could give her the love that she needed.

Time crawled along as Call repaired herself. Ripley’s eyes ran a sporadic relay route from the floor, to the wall to her right, and back to her own claws, her pupils flicking subconsciously as she wallowed in her thoughts. She would not let herself feel envious of Goodman--Call was not a prize to be won. If Call wanted Goodman’s love, then that was her choice, and Ripley had to take it for what it was.

Ripley kept her resentment restrained, cradled close to her chest, and soon she began to feel the effects of her self-contained negativity. She felt tired in a way that no amount of rest could cure. Call’s words from the night before slithered past the insides of her ears, coiling through her skull, tightening.      

In an attempt to distract herself, Ripley focused her thoughts on Cross and the dead whitecoats. Ripley’s opinion of Cross was greatly improved, now that he was a lifeless sack of donated organs.

Ripley wondered what Call was feeling, having found and lost a member of her endangered race. Cross was certainly not a family member to be proud of--he survived genocide by turning his back to all other synthetics. But at least he survived , thought Ripley. Maybe she wasn’t in a position to pass judgement on Cross. In the end he showed enough compassion to gift his life to his metaphorical daughter. Cross gave himself a much more meaningful death than the other whitecoats.

Someone knocked on the door to the room, making Ripley jump slightly. It was a polite couple of knocks, uncharacteristic of a drifter. After receiving a grunt and an encouraging wave from Goodman, Ripley rose to her feet and pulled open the door.

Purvis was standing in the doorway, a moth-eaten blanket draped over his shoulders like a cloak.

“How is she doing?” he asked softly.

“I don’t really know,” Ripley said quietly. She stepped out of the room, shutting the door behind her to afford Call some quiet. “She’s only been at it for an hour or so.”

“It’s amazing that she can do that...operate on herself.”

“Yes it is.”

Purvis’ next question hung heavily in the air before it dropped. “So I take it, there was no luck with getting the anesthetic?”

“I’m sorry,” Ripley said, meaning it. “The Queen was in the ship hangar--we couldn’t get into the medical area.”

Purvis nodded, and kept nodding, rhythmically, as if rocking himself. “So I’ll, uh. I’ll find a myself a room then.”

Suddenly, Ripley felt extremely sad. She felt guilty for focusing all of her attention on Call. “You still have about three more days. You don’t have to isolate yourself.”

“I’m not sure that I want three more days.”

Purvis sounded so tired and melancholy that it made Ripley’s eyes sting. She wanted to put a hand on his shoulder--but she kept her distance, remembering the way he’d recoiled from her touch the last time. “I’m sorry,” she said again.

“I think I’ll go into the scientist’s old room for now. Since this one’s occupied.”

“Okay. I’ll go with you, to help you get settled.”

“Sure.”

Ripley carried one of the men’s cots into the scientist's old cell and unrolled it across the floor. Then she brought in one of the duffel bags of food, setting it next to Purvis as he lay down on the cot.

“Do you want anything from here?” Ripley asked, unzipping the duffel bag. “I wish I could offer you something better than space food. But you’re welcome to eat as much as you like. The drifters can go hungry for all I care.”

“I don’t want to eat.”

“Alright. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Purvis didn’t answer. He stared at the ceiling, his dry mouth slightly ajar.

Ripley knelt down beside Purvis’ cot and waited, offering her ears in case he wanted to talk.

Purivs took several deep breaths, one after the other, and then he spoke, his voice croaking. “What’s going to happen to me now?”

“We won’t let you burst,” Ripley said quietly.

“You’ll kill me?”

“Not...me . One of the drifters maybe.” Ripley felt a jolt upon realizing the connotations of what she’d said.

Purvis flushed red. “No. not one of them,” he said heatedly. “Why can’t you do it?” He turned and looked right at Ripley’s claws.

Ripley wrapped her hands together against her lap self-consciously. “Because I--” a graphic image flickered through her mind; a claw pushing through the base of a skull. “I can’t make myself do that,” she whispered, shivering.

Purvis continued staring at her, asking with his eyes.

“Maybe Call would be willing to it,” Ripley choked. “I mean, I don’t know. She was about to kill me when we first met. She’d know how to do it quickly, at least.” A memory came to Ripley, making her relax dramatically. “Or Goodman--he could do it. He was ready to kill you earlier, before Call stopped him.”

“Goodman,” Purvis echoed, narrowing his eyes. “He’s not a drifter...is he an agent for the Union?”

“No,” Ripley admitted hesitantly, worried that she would disqualify Goodman as an executioner. “He’s with the CCA. He’s a cop, but he sabotages his own Company when he wants to.”

Purvis narrowed his eyes further, scrunching up his brow. “And he’s friends with a synthetic?”

“More than friends, actually,” Ripley said quietly.

“Really?” Purvis’ flung his eyes opened wide, moving his glasses. “A Company cop and a banned synthetic. That’s...bold. I’m sure the Company would turn them both into carbon fuel if it found out.”

Ripley gave an unenthusiastic, closed-mouth laugh. “Maybe that’s why Goodman waited so long to make his move.” As she spoke, Ripley realized that it was the truth. Up until an hour ago, Goodman had been too afraid to confess his love for a synthetic woman.

So what was his friendship with Call then? Ripley thought. Was it a way for him to keep Call in sight until he made up his mind? An attempt to court her without making his intentions clear? Ripley shook the thoughts from her mind. None of it mattered now.

“Do I want to die at the hands of a Company cop?” Purvis’ question seemed to be as much for himself as it was for Ripley.

“I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. I just think that Goodman would be the most willing to...do you that favor.”

Purvis looked at Ripley again, studying her. “And you’re not willing.”

Ripley shook her head slowly. “No, I can’t.”

“Then I think I’d rather the synthetic woman do it. She’s not a part of the Company.”

“Alright...I’ll ask her when she’s recovered. I can’t decide for her though, she might not be willing.”

Purvis sighed heavily. “In any case, when I’m ready, I’ll tell you. And then you can go and fetch whoever’s going to do it.”

Ripley swallowed the bile that was condensing in her throat. “I’m sorry that it has to happen like this.”

“So you said.” Purvis angled his head away testily, his chest twitching with quick, shallow breaths.  

Ripley sat and waited, not sure if Purvis wanted to continue talking. She became aware of how cool the air in the room was, and she rubbed her hands over her bare arms. She reminded herself that the heaters within Call’s local system were all that were keeping the Auriga from freezing. Even though the ship’s hull was airtight and insulated, heat was slowly diffusing through the walls. For some reason, Purvis’ new room seemed to be the coolest in the safe area. The cell harbored a dry, dull kind of cold that made Ripley’s skin feel like paper.

And Purvis didn’t even have clothes to keep him warm, just a thin drape of cloth.

“I’ll get you another blanket,” Ripley said, standing up. She maneuvered her way around the Aliens in the center room, the fingers and skull caps of which had crumbled into dust, revealing the charred innards of several dozen elongated heads.

Ripley found a blanket on a cot in a far corner--it had an Alien body resting on top of it, curled into a ball just like a giant house cat. Ripley smirked to herself as she lifted the blanket and sent the Alien toppling onto the floor. There were a few black stains on the blanket, even after Ripley shook it out thoroughly. Ripley felt sure that contact with decaying Alien corpses couldn’t be good for a person’s health--but it didn’t make a difference in Purvis’ case.

Purvis’ moment of hostileness appeared to be over. He looked at Ripley thoughtfully as she draped the second blanket over him, forcing a small smile in gratitude.

“What are you going to do,” he said, “if you make it out alive?”

The question seemed to come from nowhere, and Ripley raised her eyebrows in surprise.

He shrugged. “I’m not going to make it. I want to know what you’re going to do.”

Ripley swept a lock of hair behind her ear and sat down beside the cot. “I’d like to go with Call and Goodman, wherever they’re going.” Her voice fell. “But I’m not sure they’d have me.” Ripley felt an anxious shiver run down her spine--she didn’t want to face the reality of her lost future.

“Why not?”

This gave Ripley pause. She knew the answer, but she wasn’t sure how to articulate it for Purvis. “Because I don’t think that Goodman would want a misshapen third wheel tagging along with him and his...other half. He tolerates me in here, but it would be different on the outside.”

“Misshapen? You mean he doesn’t trust you because of--” He held up his hands and wiggled his fingers, claw-style.

“That’s part of it. I think there’s a whole slew of reason’s why he doesn’t like me. He can’t wrap his head around me--I’m too different from everything that he expects a woman to be. And I’m a female that ousted him from his position of authority--that must really scare him.”

“He sounds like a coward then,” said Purvis simply.

Ripley’s heart jumped.

“It seems like it’s only the insecure guys that have a problem with female bosses” Purvis continued.

Ripley smiled, letting out her breath in amazement. “You have no idea how refreshing it is to hear that.” She leaned in towards Purvis, suddenly very glad to have his company. “Is that what most Union men think?”

Purvis blinked, his wan stillness contrasting with Ripley’s excitement. “Not really. Well, it depends. There are plenty of--you know--clear-headed people in the Union. Mostly in the colonies. But I still encounter a lot of Goodmans at work.”

“Well. That’s an improvement over the Company. Are you from a colony?”

“No,” said Purvis sleepily. “I’m from Earth.”

“Really?” Ripley’s excitement grew. “What city?”

“Anchorage.”

“Interesting...How big is it?”

“Uh. It’s the biggest Union city on Earth. But it’s population’s in decline.”

“Would you recommend living there?”

Purvis frowned. “I guess. You’re thinking about joining the Union?”

“It seems like my best bet...if I’m not going with Call. There’s no way I’m staying in Company territory. And I’m sick of space.”

“You know, we don’t grant citizenship easily. It’s because the Company exiles its criminals--who then try to seek asylum in the Union. Sorry, but you’d probably be seen as another Company discharge.”

“What if I lived there illegally?”

Purvis looked a little pissed about that. “Then you’d have to hide from the police--and from your own neighbors. Everyone has an incentive to sniff for illegal immigrants. You know there’s a lot of Union citizens that are unemployed, they don’t want to lose their opportunities to Company exiles.”

Ripley’s mood sunk again. “That’s more or less what Call said. Yesterday I had this far-flung fantasy that the two of us would start a new life on Earth.”

“Oh. Well, don’t give up hope. Earth is a big place.”

“Yeah,” Ripley whispered.

“You seem very committed to Call,” Purvis said cautiously. “What’s your attachment to her?”

Ripley looked down at Purvis, thinking about what to say to him. She trusted Purvis, perhaps irrationally, and she realized that she badly needed a second head to carry some of her emotions. And so she told him the truth. “I’m hopelessly smitten. Don’t ask me why. You’d think it’d be apparent now that I’m only torturing myself.”

There was a tense beat of silence in which Ripley held her breath, fearing that she’d made another mistake. To her relief, Purvis sighed and nodded slowly, as if this was the answer he was expecting to hear.

“That’s rough,” he said awkwardly, sucking on his lips during pauses. “Since she can’t love you back, I mean.”

That sentence hit Ripley hard. Her eyes stung, condensing with tears. She shivered and wiped her hand across her face.

Purvis kept quiet as Ripley gulped in air, trying to pull herself together.

“You know there’s plenty of others out there...probably...I don’t know. Honestly, you’re the first sapphic woman I’ve ever met.”   

Ripley sniffed and gave a puckered smile. “Really? I’m honored.” She chuckled breathily. “Sapphic--that’s really the word that’s used in the Union?”

“Um. I can certainly see why you don’t want to live in the Company.”

“Hm,” Ripley purred, her smile straightening into a smirk. “I’d have to resign myself to seducing housewives. Bootleg sapphism.”

“Heh. Yeah?” said Purvis uncertainly.

Ripley inhaled and exhaled hugely, stretching her lungs as far as they would go, and wiped the last of the tears of off of her cheeks. “Thank you for talking with me.”

“Oh I enjoyed it. It let me forget for a while…”

Ripley felt the cold again. “Would you like me to stay for longer?”

“Actually, I think I’d like to try sleeping now...since I’m not panicking at the moment. It’s been a long time since I slept.”

“Okay. I’m going to go check on Call. But you can come and get me if you need something. Or if you feel ready to...check out.”

The expression that spread across Purvis’ face made Ripley shiver. She exited the room, leaving the door open a crack, and stepped over the dead Aliens on her way to Call’s operating room.

Ripley’s sharp ears could hear muffled voices coming from behind the door; Goodman’s rolling-barrel voice, occasionally accompanied by Call’s articulate humm. Ripley found that the door was unlocked and she opened it, prompting the voices to fall silent immediately.

Ripley looked at Goodman, her eyes respectfully avoiding Call, who was still on her cot, operating. Ripley had the strong feeling that Call and Goodman just been talking about her behind her back. Goodman’s jaw was clamped a little too tightly, as if he’d quickly bitten down on something that he really wanted to say.   

“How are you doing Call?” Ripley asked, sliding her eyes away from Goodman and over towards an empty, shrapnel-scratched wall.

“I’m almost finished, I just need to close the last incision.” Call sounded exhausted, but Ripley was relieved to hear that the static was gone from her voice.

“So the operation was successful?”

“I think so. We’ll find out soon.”

Ripley sat down, leaning against the same wall as Goodman, keeping a good six feet away from the man. She could see blurry images of herself and Goodman reflected in the opposite wall. Goodman’s face was perfectly centered under of a row of deep slash-marks in the metal. That’s a good look for him, Ripley thought wryly.

Goodman spoke suddenly. “I think we need to talk about what you and Call saw at the ship hangar.”

Through the reflection, Ripley could see that Goodman was looking directly at her. “Yes we do,” Ripley admitted, looking down. “I think it’s clear what the Aliens are planning; when the relief ship arrives, its crew will walk out of the airlock and straight into a wall of eggs. A crewfull of embryos and a live Queen would be more than enough to start a new colony on whatever space station or planet the ship returns to.”

“How do they know that a ship is coming?” Said Goodman, agitated.

“It must be the Alien’s ‘stolen memories.’ The whitecoats knew that relief was coming, and Aliens stole that knowledge from their hosts.”

“So how soon before the ship arrives? The Aliens didn’t seem to waste any time in setting up their trap.”

“I assumed that it would take weeks for a ship to come...but you’re right, the Aliens are acting quickly. Obviously it’s imperative that we get to the ship before the Aliens do.”

Call spoke up for the first time. “I’ll know when the ship is getting close. I’ll hear its morse signal through the Auriga’s radar.”    

Ripley smiled. “Call, we would be very dead without you, you know that?”

“So when the time comes,” Goodman said, “we’ll have to fight our way through the Aliens at the ship hangar.”

Ripley rested her chin on her knuckles. “I just wish there was a way that we could divert them instead. But what’s more alluring to an Alien than a ship full of hosts?”

“They’re not stupid,” Goodman said. “I’m afraid that we’re going to have to fight the whole hive. We should use heavy explosives, that way we can take out large numbers at once.”

“What about the crew of the relief ship?” said Call. “They’ll probably try to arrest us once they find out who we are.”

“Then we’ll just have to hope that our guns are bigger than theirs.’”

“Jesus,” Ripley sighed exasperatedly. “I don’t like those odds.”

Ripley heard a rustling of fabric, the sound of Call stirring on her cot. Ripley’s eager eyes leaped in her direction--too soon--and caught a glimpse of pale skin and a black bra before they jerked away in embarrassment.

Goodman’s reflection didn’t show nearly as much reserve; Ripley could see that the man’s head was angled straight in Call’s direction. He stood up and walked closer, handing the half-naked woman her shirt.

And then Call was staggering to her feet, her legs wobbling uncertainly, leaning against Goodman for support.

Ripley stood by, in case her help was needed, and watched as Call took a few steps, hanging off of Goodman’s shoulder.

“Did something go wrong?” Ripley asked anxiously.

“No--” Call winced. “I just need some time. My system has to get used to the new wires.”

Ripley gritted her teeth in worry as Goodman paraded Call in circles around the room, periodically kissing her on the top of her head.                

“I'm low on blood,” said Call, turning her glowing eyes to Ripley. “Can you get me water—and a bullet? One of the steel pulse rifle bullets, not one of the lead ones.”

“Uh, alright.”

Ripley hurried out of the room and headed for her own bedroom, where the drifters were convened.    

Ripley opened the door, and it took her a moment to figure out what the hell she was looking at. The drifters had arranged the stock of guns into a pipe organ-like cluster, the barrels tied together with shoulder straps. Hillard and Johner were tossing disabled micro grenades into the noses of the guns, shoving each other aside to get the better shot.

Children, thought Ripley.

Christie was sitting against a wall, reading through stacks of confidential files, holding them close to his face as if badly near-sighted.

“Where's the ammo?” Ripley asked him.

“Over there.” Christie gestured to pile of lumpy duffel bags in a corner. “Did you know that you weren't the first hybrid the whitecoats made? There were seven others. And all of them turned out worse than you. They were so mutated that they died.”

“I assumed as much,” Ripley said, opening up a duffel bag. “I figured that they called me 'number 8' for a reason.”

“That doesn't haunt you, having a bunch of dead little sisters?”

Ripley was sickened by Christie's phrasing. She didn't know what he was doing, if he was trying to get a rise out of her, so she didn't answer him.

“Well, you're a lucky one then,” Christie Continued. “My old wife sent nine little babies out the airlock before she met me. And now she and my daughter both dream about them. About little cherubs floating in the void.”

“No one wants to hear about your creepy religious shit,” snapped Hillard, grenade raised.

“Man, I hope my mama has sick dreams about me, the bitch,” sneered Johner. “Look at this.” He pointed to his scar-covered head. “Bitch did this to me when I was ten. Took me in her mouth just like an animal—chewed me up and spat me out.”

All eyes turned to Johner.

“Just kidding,” he chuckled. “She dropped me head-first into an engine fan. That's what I get for talking shit.”

Ripley scrunched her face uneasily. She continued to fish around in the duffel bag, sorting through bullets. “Which of these are for the pulse rifle?”

“The long skinny ones,” said Christie. “With the rounded tip. You’re planning on finally offing Goodman?”

Ripley paused long enough to flash Christie with a look of disgust.

The tattooed man shrugged. “Just asking.”

Ripley sighed, closing her fist around a silvery bullet.

A grenade landed inside the nozzle of a shotgun, and Johner hollered triumphantly.

Ripley snatched a bottle of water from a food bag and then hurried out of the room, leaving the drifters to drown in their own apathy.

When Ripley returned to Call’s room, she could see that the synthetic woman was making rapid progress. She had only one hand on Goodman's shoulder—the other was outstretched, ready to take the bullet from Ripley when it was offered.

“Thank you,” Call breathed.

Ripley watched, somewhat amazed, as Call placed the bullet on her tongue and swallowed it with a swig of water, just like a pill.

Over the next 20 minutes, Call progressed steadily, until she was able to support her full weight. She broke away from Goodman and walked to the opposite wall on her own, wobbling only slightly.

Call smiled wide, making herself look like a completely different person, and then Goodman had her in his arms again, squeezing her to his chest. Ripley found herself laughing with relief, her spine drooping like a loose chain.

“I want you to promise,” Goodman said, as Call pulled away. “No more self-sacrifice.”

“...I don’t know if I can promise that. We’re not out of danger yet.”

“You have to promise,” Goodman demanded. “It’s not your job to go risking your life for other people. You’re job is to stay behind me so that I can protect you.”

Call swerved her eyes away, dodging Goodman’s glower.

“Call,” Ripley said. “You scared the shit out of me. But, since it turned out to be necessary...I think that what you did was noble. Just know that you weren’t risking anything worthless.”

Call met Ripley’s eyes, her expression cryptic.

“Noble?” Goodman scoffed at Ripley. “What do you mean by that?”

“What?” said Ripely, genuinely confused. “I mean that she was brave for taking a risk. She took out 40 Aliens at once.”

“Why are you talking about her like she’s a man?”

“What?” Ripley said again.

“Ripley’s from a different time,” Call reminded Goodman. “She meant it as a compliment.”

“Well then she should know that she shouldn’t use words like ‘noble’ to talk about women. Especially if her man is around.”

“Good God,” droned Ripley.

Call extracted herself from the conversation and walked over to Cross’ dissected body. “I think we should move the body--all of the bodies--into one room. That way we can still have separate sleeping areas.”

Ripley walked over and looked down at the synthetic corpse. She found herself entranced by the intricate anatomy. Cross’ insides were familiar--his chest held all of the same parts as a human’s--there was a two-chambered heart, an oblong set of lungs, veins and bones and muscles. But it was all so clean and streamlined. Cross’ body maintained all of the beauty and efficiency of human anatomy, but with none of the grotesquery. There were no ugly, pink, bloody parts; none of the things that used to make Ripley squeamish during high school anatomy class. The bones were clear as glass, and the veins looked like icy tree branches, weaving through sheets of white muscle.

As for the materials...Ripley could identify textures that looked like petroleum-based plastic, and glass and metal--but she knew that her observations were just ignorant stabs in the dark. She was applying archaic labels to technology that was far beyond her understanding. What she was really looking at were impossible, unearthly materials that could perfectly simulate all of the functions of a human body, of a human brain, could replicate human skin down to the last pore. There was no clear line between inorganic and organic materials anymore--no matter what the Company preached.              

“We should throw him and the Aliens in with the whitecoats,” said Goodman.

“I suppose you expect me to carry him again.” Said Ripley.

“No, I’ll carry the synthetic. You should start moving the Aliens. I don’t want them to bleed on me.”

“Fair enough.”

The Aliens were surprisingly lightweight; just dried, leathery husks. Ripley noticed something disturbing as she transported the shriveled bodies. Above their mouths, the Aliens had what looked like eye sockets; human-shaped eye sockets set into human-shaped skulls. The sockets were lidless and empty--they’d obviously never held anything resembling eyes. They were just leftover structures, hidden underneath of the Aliens’ hoods.

The discovery raised questions that Ripley had no desire to know the answer to.

Cleanup went more quickly than expected. In less than three hours, the center room was cleared and dusted, the Alien corpses locked in a forgotten cell, stacked atop the bodies of the whitecoats.  

Goodman and Call stayed close to each other, the man’s hand serving as his girlfriend’s new elbow joint. Ripley kept her distance, out of courtesy and out of disgust. Though she knew that there was something she needed to ask Call.

She approached in the evening, while Call was the carrying the drifter’s guns from Ripley’s bedroom. She watched Call go back and forth for a minute, glad to see her walking normally again.

“Call?”

Call obviously had a hard time looking at Ripley. She set her load of guns down. “Hm?”

“This isn’t an easy thing to ask. But someone’s going to need to put Purvis out of his misery before the Queen bursts.”

Call met Ripley’s eyes.

“He doesn’t want any of the drifters to do it,” Ripley continued.

Call nodded. “I’ll do it,” she said seriously. “When he’s ready.”

Ripley nodded back. She felt the familiar “click” of connection with Call, and it was painful. A heavy feeling sunk through Ripley's body, and she was afraid that she might start crying.

Ripley didn’t know what she looked like in that moment, what was showing on her face, but her distress seemed to communicate to Call. Call’s face creased, and she looked away, back toward the entrance to Ripley’s room.

“I’ll be out of there soon,” she muttered. “I just thought I’d help you clean.”

Ripley nodded again--even though Call wasn’t looking at her. She watched Call walk away, and she wondered, numbly, what she'd dream about come nighttime.

Chapter Text

An eel of nausea twisted in Call’s gut, a perfect simile to the movement of Goodman’s tongue as it swirled around in her mouth. One of Goodman’s hands was squeezing her shoulder like a vice grip, the other flattening her breast as if trying to leave a handprint.

The nausea wasn’t so much a result of the physicalities--Call could block that out if she concentrated hard enough--the nausea came from the knowledge that this was her future, that from now on Goodman and his muscled tongue would be waiting for her every night. Call could no longer have his friendly company without having his body...all over hers.

Beneath that was the knowledge that she’d hurt Ripley, horribly. Maybe even broken her heart.

Call’s mind clung to the thought of Ripley. A hand caught the thought as it passed through her mind and dragged it forward. It became a wall to shield Call from the reality of her situation.

Not quite ashamed, Call closed her eyes imagined Ripley in Goodman’s place, imagined how the Alien-woman’s high shoulders and gradual curves would feel under her fingers.

Her nausea began to lessen. She allowed herself to slip deeper into her fantasy. But then Goodman’s stubbled cheek brushed against her face, and the illusion was shattered in an instant. Her body tensed up in protest. She shivered as the buttons around her waist were pulled apart, exposing even more of her skin to the cold air.

God, I can’t do this. Call ripped herself away from Goodman and buried her face in her hands.

“What’s wrong?” Goodman slurred.

“It’s--” Call gasped, moving her hands down to her chest. “It’s the surgery...wound. It...I really shouldn’t be touched. I’m very fragile right now.”

“So, okay. We’ll take it a little slow tonight.”

“No, we can’t risk it. I think I should spend the night in--you know--in the women’s room.”

Goodman looked indignant, he was virtually pouting. “You seemed fine earlier.”

“Well I wasn’t,” Call muttered, hurriedly buttoning her shirt. “I’m not fine.”

Goodman’s face turned red. Call didn’t say another word to him as she hustled into the central room and closed the door behind her.

Call hugged herself around the waist, providing an extra layer of cover over her body. Her mouth puckered against the lingering taste of Goodman’s saliva. It took her a moment to register the fact that she wasn’t alone in the center room. The sleeping shapes of the drifters lay around her, sprawled flat over their cots.

She couldn’t stay here. She took a few steps toward the door to Ripley’s room, and then she froze. Her fear heated into rage and quickly dissolved into guilt.

Call pressed her palm against her sweaty forehead and breathed. She had to apologize to Ripley; if she wanted to be any semblance of a good person, then she needed to try and repair the damage that she’d done. And she needed to apologize fully ; she had to explain why she said what she did. She needed to pry open her jaws and confide in another person for the first time.

The floor underneath of Call pitched at a dutch angle, and she blinked the sensation away.

A clunking sound came from inside of Goodman’s room, making Call jump. Another sound--the handle rattling. Goodman was trying to open the locked door. He was going to try and change Call’s mind, even though she’d made it clear to him that she couldn’t be touched.

Call rode her distracting spike of annoyance, lurching her body the rest of the way to Ripley’s door. She pushed it open and stepped inside.

Ripley was lying on her cot, but she was still awake. She sat up slowly, staring at Call with surprised, politely questioning eyes, the whites of which stood out starkly in the dim light of the room.

“Ripley, I need to talk with you.” Call’s voice came out in a whisper, but Ripley seemed to be able to hear her.

“Sure,” Ripley said softly.    

The sweat on Call’s face itched in the cool air as she walked over to Ripley. She sat down on the edge of her cot, crouching with her hands pressed between her knees.

She looked up at Ripley’s face, and tears immediately began pooling in her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “What I said to you last night was horrible. I’m so sorry.”

Ripley’s eyelids constricted, creases forming around her brow. “Thank you. Hearing that means a lot to me.”

“You don’t deserve to be called a--degenerate.” Call found it hard to say the word, especially while looking at Ripley. “You deserve to have a family and be happy, wherever you go.”

“Thank you,” Ripley said again, her voice shaking slightly.

“Ripley, you’re...an inspiration. You’re singularly intelligent, brave, capable.” Call shook her head. “That I--tried to degrade you…That was so wrong.”

“It’s what you’ve been taught." Ripley spoke flatly, without emotion. "I told you about a part of me that you can’t understand. You didn’t know how else to react.”

Call closed her eyes and shook her head. “No.” she croaked, baring her teeth. “No that’s not why I said it.” She looked up into Ripley’s eyes, which had softened, widened. “Those hateful things I said--none of it was really directed at you. I was talking to myself. When you admitted to being--a homosexual…” Call whispered the next sentence in a higher pitch. “It scared me so much. Because the truth is that I feel the same way you do.” Call paused to gauge Ripley’s expression, which seemed frozen in place. “I’m so used to disciplining myself, hating myself. I’d never spoken with another--woman like me. I passed my hatred onto you.” Call was shaking. “I’m sorry.”

Ripley’s lips parted over her teeth. She opened her mouth to say something, but she closed it again

“I’ve never told anyone.” Call was overcome with discomfort; all of her muscles braced themselves against the horror of her open secret. She dropped her gaze and folded her arms, making herself into a hard little knot of panic.

Call felt Ripley slowly bring her into a hug, touching her carefully, as if asking permission. By degrees Ripley pulled Call closer, until their shoulders were touching. She held on as Call started to sob. “I thought that I could fix myself,” she breathed. “I thought I could train myself out of it. But I can’t make it stop.”    

Ripley slid her hand up and down Call’s back, her palm rubbing heat into Call’s skin. “You don’t have to try and change anymore,” she whispered, “You’re safe.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Call sobbed.

“It doesn’t have to make sense,” whispered Ripley.

“But the brain is so changeable.” Call tensed with frustration. “It’s a volatile organ. Why would something so pointless be so hardwired?”

Ripley hugged Call a little tighter. “At some point,” she soothed, “You’ll stop wondering where it comes from.”

Call sighed heavily, the tension in her chest making it painful to inflate her lungs.

“You’re damned brave, you know.” Ripley whispered.

Call lifted her chin just long enough to glimpse at Ripley. “No, I’m not,” she said miserably. “My fear is what drives me.”

“Well..." Ripley sighed. "Fear is practical. You can’t always afford the luxury of being honest with yourself; I really do understand that. But you’re safe now. Whatever threat you had hanging over your head; it’s gone.”

Call stared down at her hands, which were pinched in the crook between bodies. She breathed slowly, waiting for herself to start talking. “I mentioned the ‘dent-heads’ earlier. Do you remember?”

“Synthetic ‘mistakes,’ right?”

“Yes. They’re people exactly like me. Homosexual synthetics--or at least synthetics accused of homosexuality. They’re called ‘dent-heads’ because...that’s what they look like after they get attacked on the street.” Call paused, graphic memories pushing a few extra tears from her eyes. “Until I met you, that’s the only image that I ever saw of homosexuality: smashed heads in gutters. I thought being a deviant meant getting beaten by people who used to be your family. It never occurred to me that a homosexual could be as well-adjusted and confident as you.”

Call knew that Ripley was crying now--she could hear it in her breathing. “Oh Call. I’m so sorry.”

“You’ve got such a strong handhold on who you are,” Call said, longing in her voice. “You’re so secure.”

“I am now,” Ripley said, steadying her breathing, “for the most part. But it took me a long time to reach this point. When I was young I had so much self-loathing.”

Call uncurled until her face was level with Ripley’s. “Really?”

Ripley’s harrowed eyes shone. “Oh yeah,” she said sadly. “I was deep in denial. I just wanted my mother to love me. She disowned me when I was thirteen; that’s how I ended up living with my step family. I was shocked when she first sat me down and asked me if I was a homosexual. I’d never seriously thought about it myself. I remember studying my walk and my mannerisms a mirror, trying to figure out what it was that was making my mother look at me so coldly. For years after I started living openly, I would be kissing a woman and--I would get a sudden burst of shame and I would have to stop. I would feel violently ill sometimes--it was like the flashbacks I had after the first Alien attack.” Ripley sighed deeply. “But it didn’t last. Eventually I made peace with myself.” She gave Call a gentle smile. “You haven’t gotten the chance to heal yet. But I think you will.”   

Call stared at Ripley, her tears drying. For the first time, she saw something profoundly vulnerable in the Alien-woman; it was inherent in the soft lines under her eyes, and in the weary droop of her arms. Ripley was a lost, loveless teenager, who had built herself, bone by bone, into a proud, mature woman. She was strong because she’d been torn to shreds so many times--she knew what every little piece of herself looked like, knew how to weld her parts back together, to rebuild herself better every time.

Something passed through Call, starting at the crown of her head and sinking through her whole body, raising goosebumps on every inch of her skin. I could love her, Call thought numbly.

Call slid Ripley’s hand off of her shoulder and and brought it down to into her lap. She covered the fingers with her palm, feeling the short, black nails against her skin.

Ripley’s face creased; she looked as though she might cry again. “I really care about you,” she said.

“I know,” Call whispered, eyes wide.

Call was at a crossroads. She had the opportunity to act on her feelings for a woman for the first time in her life--and she held that thought far away from her intelligent mind, dangling it over her primal emotions as a prize. Her warm-blooded affection and sharp-toothed fear both leaped up to snap at it, shoving each other out of the way.

Ripley’s fingers were long and feminine, and Call found herself tracing their length up and down, even as her fear bit bloody holes into her affection. She lowered her face, brooding, and rested her forehead on Ripley’s shoulder.

Ripley began stroking her back again, spidering her fingers, and Call shivered, the skin on her back tingling pleasantly. “That feels good,” she whispered closing her eyes and leaning her face into the crook of Ripley’s neck.            

Time weakened Call’s defenses. Her mind gradually slowed down from her infrequent breathing,  the smell of Ripley’s sweat filled her head, intoxicating her. She became newly aware of of the warmth and solidness of Ripley’s body, of the bare skin just a centimeter away from her lips.

Long-repressed pangs of hunger lit up Call’s abdomen. Soft-skinned as it was, her affection had teeth too, and was ripping greedily into fear’s throat.

Call made her decision without articulating it. She lifted her chin and brought her face close to Ripley's, her breathing deepening into a slow pant. Ripley looked at Call through widening eyes, her brow pinched as if she were about to cry. Call reached up and cupped the sharp edge of Ripley's jawline, catching warm droplets of water in her palm. And then she kissed her, briefly, jerking away as her heart careened into the base of her skull.

It took Ripley a long time to reopen her eyes. She leaned into Call's hand, her lips draped loosely over her teeth, like a silk curtain. Call watched her, touched and enticed, until she couldn't bare it anymore, and then she drew forward and reconnected their lips urgently, as if they were two halves of a severed artery.

Ripley groaned helplessly, shivering as she pulled Call closer, hands on her waist. Her lips moved around and over Call's, grasping.

Call slipped into a state of dizzy euphoria, the outside world shrinking around her body until it fit like a loose drape. Ripley kissed deeper, touching tongues, and Call wrapped her arms around Ripley’s neck to keep herself from fainting. The tips of her fingers settled onto Ripley’s skin one at a time, finding the sloping curve of her shoulder, the collar of her shirt.

Ripley kissed with a slow push and pull; she savored Call, drank her in, periodically tilting her head to find a new angle. Call moaned, beside herself. Her heart pounded out each fifth of a second, clinging to the moment. Eventually, she moved her lips to the side, just enough to breathe. “Oh God, Ripley,” she sighed.

Exhaling, Ripley slid her lips past Call’s ear, bringing the flanks of their faces together, their throats touching. Ripley held Call tightly, one hand on the back of her head, the other on her waist. “Thank you,” she wheezed, voice thick with emotion. “Grace. You’re my light.” Ripley’s hand caressed Call’s back, fingers tracing her spine. “You’re a gift.”

Call closed her eyes and focused on the heat of Ripley’s breath against her shoulder. Ripley pulled back, breath brushing Call’s neck. And in the next second they were kissing again, embrace tightening.

The kiss grew wetter, hungrier. Ripley's hands roamed a wider and wider range over Call's back and shoulders, riding up her shirt in the process. Call returned the favor, fingers clawing and tugging at the fabric over Ripley's shoulders.

Call rose up on her knees, leaning into the other woman, and inadvertently pressed the warm, exposed skin of Ripley's stomach against her own. Call was overtaken by arousal, as if hit by a hot jet of steam. The vapor curled through her body, collecting and condensing between her legs.

In the past, Call had always been able to dismiss this type of feeling as a shameful nuisance; but now it was enormous and impossible to ignore. Years and years worth of Call's neglected impulses were limping back to her, skeletal and starving, demanding amends.

Sweat beading, Call let her lips migrate down Ripley's neck, savoring the elegant dips and furrows, finding the hollow at the top of her collarbone. Ripley sighed with pleasure, her breath catching as Call's fingers traced the scar at the top of her chest.

“Sorry,” Call whispered, worried that she offended Ripley by touching her scar.

“No. I don't mind,” Ripley breathed. There was a definite suggestive spark in her eyes.

Keeping her eyes on Ripley's face, Call moved her hand over to the right, slipping it into the collar of her shirt, and found the warm, round swell of her breast. Call felt a rush over the surface of her skin, more a wave than a cloud of steam. Before she knew what she was doing, she was lifting the bottom of Ripley's shirt, rolling it up.

With a graceful arc of her arm, Ripley pulled her shirt up and over her head, dropping it next to the cot, and then began to unwind the loose wrap of cloth covering the bottom of her breasts.

The cloth dropped to the ground, and Call felt as though she was melting. She had gotten a decent scope of Ripley's curves from seeing her in her tight-fitting vest; and in her t-shirt, always sticky with sweat. But without her intimidating outfit, Ripley looked so much softer and smoother; so womanly. Her shoulders were high and loose, her breasts small but perfectly shaped. All of her features fit together perfectly, accenting the long, thin stretch of her waist.

Call ducked her head down and buried her face in Ripley's salty skin. Her lips found the edge of her breast, her hands mapping the curve of her hips. Looking up, she saw that Ripley was lost in herself, squeezing tears from her eyes. Ripley needed to be touched so badly; it had been so long.

Call withdrew for long enough to lift her own shirt up and over her head. She let Ripley's hands follow her eyes toward the edge of her bra, her long arms reaching around to unfasten the back. Ripley took a shoulder strap in her teeth for a moment as she slid it down Call's arm. And then the bra landed in her lap, leaving Call's sweaty skin to dry in the cool air.

In a heartbeat they were embracing, kissing greedily, arms passing over each other as they glided across smooth, frictionless skin. They moaned in a mixture of self-serving lust and loving compassion, each woman gifting her love as fast as she could receive it.

Call was growing restless, ridiculously aroused. She grinded against Ripley's thigh, pressing and easing. She wanted to go further, but she wasn't sure how to proceed.

Exhaling heavily, Ripley slid her hand down Call's belly and slipped it into the front of her pants. Call gasped and shuddered, holding Ripley tight. Ripley pinched Call’s bottom lip in her teeth, ever so lightly, and then she wrenched herself from Call’s grip. She started tugging down her pants, telling Call with a flash of wild eyes that she should do the same.

In a short time, the layers were peeled away, leaving both woman completely exposed. And then Ripley returned to Call, leaning into her, laying her down on the cot, one arm between her legs, the other curled lovingly under her back. Ripley kept her face above Call's, leaning over her in a chivalrous stoop, watching every reaction that she drew out of her, listening to every sound. Ripley pushed a finger inside, hitting a high, perfect note. Almost too soon, Call's pleasure reached a fever pitch; her body tightened and she pulled Ripley into a strong grip, glass bones grinding against black bones. Call threw her head back, giving Ripley better access to her neck, and Ripley sucked at the skin below her jaw. The peak continued, raising silent screams, and with all abandon Call bit down, hard, on Ripley's shoulder, prompting a satisfied growl.

Finally, Call's muscles relaxed and released Ripley's fingers. Ripley rolled onto her side, hand sliding up to rest on Call's heaving chest. Call regarded the red mark that she'd left on Ripley's shoulder. She realized that she needed to control herself. Biting was dangerous; had Call broken the skin, she would have been rewarded with a mouth full of acid blood. She kissed the spot, as if to repair the damage.

Ripley’s mouth was right at Call’s ear, her breath washing over her cheek. Call rolled over and took her into her arms. They kissed slowly, languidly. Minutes passed in warm comfort, and then Ripley pulled away, her face hot with blood.

“I can't wait,” she whispered, guiding Call's hand down past her navel. “Please.”

Call hesitated, frozen by the fear of making a fool of herself.

“You'll do fine,” Ripley assured her.

Call moved her hand the rest of the way down, and she was astounded by how wet Ripley was, even without any touching. I did that, she realized, and the thought gave her confidence. She felt her way through Ripley's folds, taking note of Ripley's reactions. The woman's dark pupils rolled toward her forehead in the second before her eyes closed. She moved her body, her voice becoming uncharacteristically high and pleading. Call rolled her onto her back, loving the lithe ripples and sporadic lurches that she was able to tease from her body. Call entered her, acting on instinct, and Ripley yelled, overcome. Her muscles constricted around Call's fingers, her back arched. Ripley pulled her arms away from Call and gripped the surface of the cot, her claws sliding out to draw trenches along the fabric. The sight of it was the sexiest thing that Call had ever seen.

As soon as Ripley could breathe again, Call pulled out and collapsed into a heap with the other woman. She kissed her on her stomach, on her breast, and then she fell into another light embrace, kissing and caressing softly.

“I love you,” Call whispered, mouth against Ripley’s neck.

“God, I love you,” Ripley said, choking up. “I love you.”

After a while, the embrace grew tighter again, the breathing more shallow. After receiving a terse nod from Call, Ripley rolled Call onto her back and kissed downward until her head was between her thighs. Call came even sooner this time, writhing at the mercy of Ripley's sucking lips and flicking tongue.

The women continued the pattern on and on into the night, falling and climbing between exhausted cuddling and feverish sex. Their bodies were loose and free, acting on their own, feeding off of each other’s energy.

When the two finally collapsed for good, Ripley gave Call a light, lingering kiss, and then pulled the blanket up to cover their bodies.

Call felt wholly satiated. Her body was relaxed like it had never been before; the muscles finally loosening their jealous grip on her bones. Somewhere far away from the warmth of the bed, the rest of Call's life existed. The inevitable shock and confusion and vulnerability—all of it was lurking close by in the darkness. But Call could wait until the morning to address it. She needed to spend one night away from herself, comfortably in love.

Chapter Text

Ripley awoke to the sight of Call's open eyes. The eyelids were pinched, the pupils unfocused; she was clearly troubled by her thoughts.

Ripley knew that she needed to address Call's distress, but in that moment, she couldn't stop herself from feeling giddy, from smiling wide. She pressed her face against Call's and hummed. She was relieved when she pulled back to see Call smiling.

Ripley smoothed the hair around Call's ear. “What are you feeling right now?”

Call's smile faded. “Like I wasted my entire life.”

Ripley lightly brushed Call's lips with her knuckles. “No,” she whispered. “Think about all the lives you saved. You lived for other people—that's admirable.”

“I lived for other people,” Call repeated slowly. “And only for other people. I didn’t dare make anyone uncomfortable by rearing my degenerate head. Even that—the general comfort of strangers—that was worth more to me than my own happiness.”

Ripley forced her brain to wake up; the pillow talk was getting heavy.

“I made a little private hell for myself,” Call continued. “And I thought that I was supposed to do it, like I was fulfilling a some societal duty by punishing myself.” she smiled wryly. “Really, I was self-centered. I thought that my pain was so important that it had the power to help the rest of society.”

“Don't make it worse by continuing to blame yourself. You cared enough about yourself that you wanted to survive. Blame the company for pushing you into self-destruction.”

Call shook her head slowly. “I know that the Company is corrupt,” she sighed. “I've always known that. But I can't make myself blame the Company. I can't...keep myself together if I blame the Company.” Call's upper lip curled. “I just get so fucking angry ,” she whispered. “I think I created a different narrative for myself—blamed myself—just to stay sane. I told myself that the Company was a well-functioning body, that my deviance was a cancer cell. If I couldn't get rid of the cancer, then at least I could beat it back, keep it from spreading. That was my service to the world.” Call grinned bitterly. “I built my ego around my self-control. I thought I was so noble in my ability to ignore my impulses. I was a quietly starving hero.” Call laughed and halfway buried her face in the cot. “I could have fucked anyone I wanted. I could have yelled profanity at men.”

Ripley took Call's chin in her hand and lifted her face. “No, you couldn't have. From what you told me, you'd have been killed.” Ripley looked into Call's eyes and raised her eyebrows. “You're just blaming yourself again. You have to acknowledge that you didn't have much agency when you were living in the Company. What else could you have done?”

Call's eyes sunk toward the cot, and then lifted toward the ceiling. “I could have had a relationship. If I was careful. I didn't have to be so obsessively cruel to myself. ”

“Well, now's the time to start being nicer to yourself. Don't hate yourself for hating yourself.”

Call smiled a bit. “You have a point. But I do... regret treating myself that way. I wish that things had gone differently.”

Ripley ran her hand down Call's cheek. “Of course you do,” she said softly. “But you've got a bright future now. You can leave it all behind you.”

Call's eyes lost their focus again. “I don’t know. I don’t think I can forget.”

“I didn’t mean...leave behind your memories. Those tend to stick. I mean that you can physically remove yourself from your old life, get to a new country, a new atmosphere. Let yourself adapt to a new environment.”

“That sounds nice,” Call said grimly. “But I don’t know if I have what it takes to plunge into a new culture. I’ve been living in open space for years already, but I’ve spent my whole time clinging to Company society.”

“You can adjust. You just need something to anchor yourself to.” Ripley’s voice quieted. “We can make a home together, in the Union. We’ll learn the culture together.”

Call smiled for a moment, but then her face turned melancholy again, doubt weighing down the corners of her mouth. Ripley leaned in and kissed her, insistently, pressing against her. Call gave a surprised grunt, and a shudder, before kissing Ripley back. Call’s fingers wove their way into Ripley’s hair and hung on. After half-a-minute, the kiss was broken.

“Why is it so hated?” Call muttered, breathing heavily. “Why condemn...private love between people?”

Ripley sighed slowly, gathering her thoughts. She was already missing the feeling of Call's lips. “I think it's because...homosexuals are convenient scapegoats. We're a small percentage of the population. We're different and scary, but we still camouflage with the crowd well enough to foster a sense of paranoia. Societies like to blame their problems on us. Exploited workers can burn us as witches, while the execs and politicians walk away unchallenged.”

Call thought for a beat. “Like synthetics.”

“Mm-hm. It seems like synthetics were vilified in a similar way.”

“And not just that. Homosexuals aren't the only sexual deviants in the Company. Synthetics as a whole are...were...sexually inferior. That's why homosexuality is thought of differently among synthetics. Why it's so much worse.”

“What do you mean?”

Call sighed. “I mean—synthetic sex carries special...connotations. Synthetics were originally intended to be free from sexual impulses.” Call propped herself up on her arm. “The earliest models—the ones that existed in your time—they didn't even have sexual organs. The synthetic man was meant to be an efficient worker who didn’t waste his time with recreational sex. But a lot of the models did develop sexual urges.” Call crinkled her nose. “No one knows why. Maybe it was socialization with organic men. But for whatever reason, the early synthetics were falling for organic women. Since they didn’t have sexual organs, they had no way to release their pent up sexual frustration. And that lead to pathological aggression in some cases. So, to fix the problem, Company engineers made adjustments to the next generation. They gave the synthetic man genitalia...and they gave him a wife.” Call curled her hand against the side of her face. “The synthetic woman was designed to be nothing more than an outlet for the synthetic man’s sexual urges. She was offered as a way to divert his gaze away from organic women. But sex between synthetics could only be for recreation. It couldn’t result in a pregnancy. And so by default, synthetic sexuality was frowned upon. Of course the only way to be lower than a normal synthetic was to be a homosexual synthetic. The normal synthetics dealt with their self-hatred by passing it onto the homos.”

Ripley felt nauseous, digesting everything she’d just swallowed. Is that why Ash attacked me on the Nostromo? She thought to herself. “Woman synthetics were designed as sex objects for the men?” She blurted out.

“That was the designer’s intent. That’s why female sexual deviance is so especially problematic. Homosexual males are considered sick enough, but if a synthetic woman falls for another woman,” Call shook her head, “then in the eyes of the Company, she’s going against the entire purpose of her existence.”

“God. That's what the Company held over your head? 'Fulfill the purpose of your existence.' That's...cultish. It's deranged.”

“I think—that idea doesn't stop with synthetics, either. Organic women deal with a similar obligation. A woman's life is measured in her relationship to her man. She's meant to be a vessel for him.” Call thought for a second. “And with men—their lives are measured by their 'entrepreneur' status; how much money and prestige they've acquired. That's why most men are made to feel inadequate.”

“That's not too different from my time...it's just exaggerated really.”

Call smiled. “I truly am valuable in the eyes of the Company,” she said wistfully. “I don’t think they could have dreamed of a better scapegoat.”

“You know, you do have to be careful with that deadpan.”

Call “huffed” in amusement and dropped her head the cot, but then her smile melted into something morbid. A dour cast came over her. “I can’t believe how meek I was.”

Ripley brushed Call’s lips with her finger, tracing her frown. “Never,” she whispered.

“I was, Ripley. I wasn’t happy, but I was complacent. When the recall was issued, I did nothing to fight against it. I just hid. I never even allowed myself to feel angry about it. All these years I’ve been halfway in denial about the fact that it ever happened. I keep talking about the synthetics in the present tense.”

“Honey, you’re only human.”

Call thought in silence, eyes to the cot. “I remember the week of the recall. Those whole seven days, I never left the ER. I barely slept. I treated the accidental organic victims of mod dog attacks--and that was the only glimpse that I got of what was going down outside. I was numb to it...except...for a moment that came a few days after it was over, when I saw that more than a thousand names had been crossed off of the hospital directory. Shortly after that…” Call’s voice roughened. “I had a break down in the middle of an op. I left the assistants to take over the surgery. I dropped my tools and crawled under a bed in a spare room. I still had blood all over my gloves, my mask on. I sobbed for hours. But that was the only time that I ever cried about it. I didn’t even have the nerve to make my grief public.”

Ripley could feel Call’s temperature rising, her lean muscles tensing beneath her skin. “Oh Grace,” Ripley whispered.

“It was necessary.” Call’s voice had a croak to it, almost like a growl. “We were defective. That’s what I told myself.”

Ripley ran her hand up and down Call’s shoulder, the side of her arm, hoping to instill some comfort. But Call’s heat was unconsolable. She started to tremble.

“Ripley,” Call whispered. “I don’t want to be complacent anymore. I want to hurt someone. I want to wreck the face of a Company official, leave him to die.” Call’s eyes narrowed. “Or maybe I’d give him a special surgery, cut access to every nerve in his body, watch him claw at himself.”

Ripley’s hand froze on Call’s shoulder. Call's quiet words hung in the air, and condensed into a heavy weight on Ripley’s chest.

“Will you come with me?” Call continued. “We'll infiltrate the Company, see how far we can get.”

Ripley looked Call in the eyes. “No,” she said seriously. “Grace, I don't want any more danger in my life. I want to find a home for both of us, somewhere far away from the Company.”

Call's face pinched like she was about to cry, or snarl. Her skin was inhumanly hot. “I can’t do nothing.”

“Grace. The Company tried to bar you from finding love. Being happy; that's defiance in itself. You're not doing nothing.” Ripley brushed away the tears that ran over the creases around Call's eyes. “You have every right to be angry...and if you were still stuck in the Company, you might not have a choice but to resort to violence. But you have the chance to leave the Company behind; it can't suffocate you unless you let it.” Ripley gave Call a brief kiss. “I love you, and I want to see you live a happy life.”

“What about all the other people; the one's who can't leave the Company? Other homosexuals.”

Ripley shook her head sadly. “You can't make yourself feel responsible for them.”

“How selfish would I be, if I left everyone else to rot?” Call growled.

That gave Ripley a spike of anger, and fear. Moving with stern swiftness, she pulled Call closer and leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Will you at least do something for me, if you can't do it for your own sake? I want to live peacefully with you—in the Union, or some place like it.” Ripley exhaled, calming herself. “I need you with me. Don’t tell me that it’s selfish to live comfortably.”

Call pushed herself back until she was able to see Ripley's face. She squinted at Ripley, breathing hard, and then her features opened up, as if unfolding. “Of course I'll live with you.” She ran the backs of her fingers over Ripley's cheek. “I love you.” Call's face pinched again. “I'm sorry. I just don't know who I'm supposed to be anymore. I feel so angry and volatile. I’m scared of myself.”

“It’s alright.”

“No it’s not,” Call’s voice shook. “I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. I feel like I could fall in any direction, become one of a hundred different people.”

“Well, I trust you to become the person that you need to be.”

“You trust me?” Call half-laughed, half-sobbed. “I just told you that I wanted to go back to the Company to kill a bunch of rich strangers. I don’t know if I can control myself.”

“Shh. I know. You have a lot of built up hate. And you're used to directing it inwards. It's probably inevitable that you feel the need to take it out on someone else.”

“Are those my only options?” Call sobbed. “I can either despise myself, or despise other people.”

“No.” Ripley moved her face closer. “Over time, you can replace the hate with something else.” She kissed Call again, softly. Call returned the gentle kiss with a fervent one, pressing her face against Ripley’s, grasping at her lips. She seemed to bear her frustration with that kiss, exercising it. Ripley’s mind went swimmy. A moan escaped her. She couldn’t help but let her hand wander down Call’s chest, to the roundness of her breast, and the hard peak of her nipple. Gradually, Call’s feverishness eased, her temperature dropped, her kiss grew softer.

Call fell away, tilting her face toward the cot. She caught her breath, eyes closing. “But…” She whispered. “is anyone ever going to leave us alone? Say we manage to to find a home in the Union. Would other people let us be happy?”

“Mm. From what I've heard, it seems like the Union is similar to my U.S, socially. Which means that honestly, other people aren't going to care enough about our lives to make any kind of a committed fuss about it. We might get glared at on the street sometimes, but we'll survive. The threat of violence will be gone.”

Call looked surprised. “That's what it was like for you?”

“Once I reached adulthood, yeah. When it comes to other people, it's family members that have the most power to hurt you. But we'll make our own family.” Ripley placed her hand over Call’s. “Of course there's also dipshit coworkers to contend with,” she added quickly. “Let's both commit ourselves to working from home.”

“What if we can't get citizenship in the Union?”

Ripley sighed. “Let's cross that bridge when we come to it. That’s a long way off at this point.” Ripley felt her fingers and toes turn cold. She didn’t want to think about the future, but it was too late to stop herself. Before she could catch it, her mind slipped toward the ship hangar, the wall of eggs, the Queen.

Call’s eyes clouded, and Ripley knew without asking that Call was thinking the same thoughts.

Ripley tightened her grip on Call’s hand. “We've survived this long, we can make it through the rest.”

Call's eyes grew wide, and wet. “I can't believe—that it could all end after it just started.”

“No.” Ripley pulled Call closer, bringing their bodies into plush gridlock. “Fuck no. We're getting off of this damn ship. We both know we're not going to leave each other.”

“You're right about that,” Call said somberly. “I'm not leaving here without you.” Call wrapped her arms around Ripley. “Nothing ends for us.”

Ripley listened to Call’s heartbeat, and felt the gentle current of electricity swimming under her skin. Many minutes passed, the heaviness in Ripley’s chest abating. By the time Call spoke, Ripley was feeling bouyant again, air tickling her lungs.

“I really don't want to leave this bed,” Call said. She sounded half-asleep. “But I think it's getting late.”

“Yeah,” Ripley sighed. She waited another 30 seconds, and then she stretched out her arms, pushing her hands up over her head. She propped herself up on her elbow and leaned over Call. She smiled, and studied Call, memorizing her eyes. She gave her a brief kiss before sitting up and reaching for her clothes.

Ripley re-wound her makeshift bra. She looked around for her shirt, and caught sight of the pink cast of Call’s skin. Ripley smirked. “You're choosing this time to get sheepish?”

“You already know—I'm so used to disciplining myself whenever I see...”

“Anything worth looking at?”

“Exactly.”

Ripley grinned. She pulled on her shirt, her underwear, and reached for her pants. “You’re a sweet one, Grace.”

Call smiled at her. “I guess I should start calling you Ellen now.”

“If you'd like to. But most women I've been with have Called me Ripley, or Rip. It's a nickname as well as a surname.”

Call rested her head on her hand. “Ellen is pretty though.”

“Then by all means.”

Soon, the both of them were fully dressed, rising to their feet.

Call looked toward the door, and her smile died. Her shoulders slumped. “Goodman,” she said.

“Oh yeah, Goodman.”

“I should talk to him sooner rather than later...”

“How much are you going to tell him?”

“I don't know,” Call said grimly. “But I have to call off our relationship. I'm not putting myself through that. I'm not putting you through that either.”

“If he asks questions?”

Call put her palm against her forehead. “I don't think I have the guts to tell him about us.” She sounded sick to her stomach. “I’m sorry, It’s not that I’m ashamed.”

“No, don’t apologize. I think it’s wise not to tell him. We don't know how he's going to react. But it's up to you.”

Call kept staring at the door.

Ripley wrapped her hand around Call's and gave it a brief squeeze. “It’ll be good for Goodman too, I think,” Ripley said. “Maybe he’ll finally turn his attention towards a woman who can actually love him back.”

“Yeah,” Call whispered. She looked up at Ripley and gave her a swift kiss on the cheek, and then she pulled away and headed for the door.

 

+++++++++

               

Call’s confrontation with Goodman came on sooner than she’d expected. Goodman was sitting with the drifters by the cooking fire when Call and Ripley left their bedroom. The second that he saw Call, he was on his feet, walking towards her, and Call had scarcely 10 seconds to get her thoughts in order.

His hands were on her shoulders, his blue eyes locked on hers.

“How's your wound?”

“It's fine, actually.” Call's voice fell away from her in a disheartened trickle. She looked to her side. “It's completely healed.”

“That.” Goodman's voice was closer now, his breath by her ear. “Is great news.”

Goodman put his hand on Call's jaw and tried to move her face toward his.

“Goodman.” Call grabbed Goodman's wrist. “Goodman, no. Look, I don't want to be with you. I shouldn't have--” Call faltered as a horror-struck look passed over Goodman's face. “I shouldn't have lead you on yesterday. That was wrong of me.”

“What are you saying?” Goodman whispered. His grip on Call's shoulder tightened.

“I'm not attracted to you.” Call found it unexpectedly easy to say, as she stood there, staring up at Goodman. He was different animal from Ripley, a different class of life.

“Why?” Goodman demanded, his voice a bit thick.

Call narrowed her eyes. “Why? I'm just not. I'd rather have you as a friend.” She added the last sentence as a cushion, though truthfully, she didn't know if she really wanted Goodman's friendship anymore.

“What the hell changed?” Goodman said, louder. “You wanted me yesterday.”

“I was afraid to say no to you. Again, I shouldn't have lead you on.”

Goodman was turning pink. “Call. You obviously wanted me yesterday.”

Goodman’s blue eyes were pressing Call. She glanced down, wondering how long this conversation was going to drag on for; Goodman's hand wasn't going to release its grip on her shoulder anytime soon. When she lifted her head, she found herself momentarily free from the demanding blue eyes. Goodman was looking at something directly behind Call, leering discerningly.

“I was sincerely starting to miss that glare,” came Ripley's voice. “I was worried that I’d lost that special place in your heart.”

Goodman leered at her for a few more seconds. He looked back down at Call. “Can we talk in private?”

Call glanced over her shoulder. The drifters' glassy eyes were fixed on her and Goodman, watching their spectacle with apathetic amusement, the same way they might watch a dog eat its own vomit. “Alright,” Call said.

Goodman put his hand on her back and corralled her towards the door to his room. Call glanced back at Ripley, who was standing and watching. Her expression suggested where you might find her claws if Goodman ever raised a fist to Call.

Goodman closed the door behind them. He cocked his head from side to side, eyes rolling up in agitation. “You’re not attracted to me,” he grumbled to himself. He spoke louder. “Then why have you stuck around? You’ve stayed close to me for years. I’ve never even seen you make eye contact with another man.” He shook his head exasperatedly. “Who else is in your life besides me?”

“Goodman, you’ve treated me better than anyone else I’ve met in open space.” Call remembered a bit of her old gratitude. “You always have something nice to say to me.”

Goodman’s face softened a little. “Yeah, I’m sure you don’t get much kindness, living with drifters. But with all of those compliments I gave you…” Goodman shook his head again. “I assumed that you knew how I felt. You always smiled back, always blushed. I mean goddamnit Call, you’ve been saying yes for the past three years, and now that I’m actually trying to--go somewhere with it, you tell me you’ve never been attracted to me.”

“People can be nice to each other without being intimate, can’t they?”

“I guess. But you have to acknowledge that it’s strange for a man and a woman to stay platonic for three years. That just doesn’t happen. I mean, if you’re a man, you don’t enter into a friendship with a woman without the expectation that it will eventually...” Goodman whirled his hand around, “ go somewhere.”

“You’re not interested in being my friend?”

“I didn’t say that! God. Don’t make this an ultimatum. I’ll stay by you, Call--of course I’ll be your friend. But it is weird, alright? I’m not going to talk around the fact that it’s not normal.” Goodman looked at Call with an unfamiliar kind of scrutiny. “And then there’s you.”

“I’m weird?”

“No, not at all!” Goodman’s face flushed. He sounded offended on Call’s behalf. “You’re perfect--I mean you’re beautiful. But that’s just it. You’re a treasure, and you should have someone to appreciate you. I’m not saying you have to get married, but you can’t waste your life being single.” Goodman shrugged. “I’m worried about you. I mean, if you weren’t waiting for me, then what were you doing? Not looking for a man at all?”

Call found herself clenching her jaw for the first time since she parted it for Ripley’s tongue the previous night. “I was trying to survive; that’s what I was doing.”

“But there’s more to life than surviving, right? Don’t resign yourself to being alone. That’d be such a shame.”

“Well, what have you been doing all this time? You’re as single as I am, aren’t you?”

Goodman folded his arms. He tilted his head to the side and clicked his tongue. “I wasn’t single--until a year ago. I was married. I know I should have told you, but I was worried that it would scare you away. And she means nothing to me now, you should know.” Goodman inhaled. “I was like every other Company man--I thought that I was supposed to marry in my twenties, make a family unit. But what’s a wife but a chain around my ankle? The Company wants to tie men down to little box houses, make sure every damn day is the same. But you...you went on trips with me, you tagged along on sabotage missions.” Goodman gave his signature affectionate smile. “You were never a chain.”

Call no longer had the impulse to smile back.

“And I didn’t want you to just be a--short term thing, either,” Goodman continued. “I wanted something real with you.” He chewed the inside of his lip for a moment. “And if you’re wondering why I waited so long--I think it’s pretty damn obvious. Getting with an exile doesn’t come without baggage. And I don’t know what other guys would say...if they knew my girl was a synthetic.”

“So that’s that,” Call said, wishing that she could make her voice sound bolder. “You can find someone else. Someone without risk.”

Goodman’s brow pinched. “Tell me; what’s your reservation? What’s holding you back?’”

“I think you should move on, Goodman.” Frustratingly, the sentence came out as a polite suggestion. Call had only ever used one tone of voice with Goodman--and the habit was deep set.

“You didn’t give me a chance last night. You ran out. How do you know how you really feel about me?”

Call didn’t know what she should do, if she should break it to Goodman that he’d been courting a homosexual for the past three years, or if she should fabricate a red herring excuse for not finding his fancy, just to get him off of her case. Call didn’t like either of those options. Her strongest impulse was to run into the next room and lock the door.

“You’re an organic. It wouldn’t be natural,” Call said dully.

Goodman clearly expected this answer. “You already know that I’m all about subverting Company law. The Company is narrow-minded. They shun sex outside of marriage, they try and tell organics and synthetics that they can’t be together.” Goodman gave a half smile and peaked his eyebrows. “You have to learn to rebel a little.”               

Threads of irritation brushed Call's skin, as if she’d walked into a fence made of sharp, thin wires. She opened the door, remotely, and began walking out. “Glad we had this talk,” she grumbled.

Goodman grabbed her arm, holding her back. “Where are you sleeping tonight?”

Call bared her teeth slightly. “What? In the women’s room.”

“Call, give me one chance. I’ll change your mind.”

Call stared back at Goodman, her teeth still showing. She took hold of Goodman’s wrist and pried his hand off of her, utilizing her synthetic strength. “What we had before all of this was fine. We don’t need to make it complicated.”

“Just one night,” he said, glowering. There was a hint of a threat in his voice, but Call chose not to react to it.

“No. I’m sorry.” The apology was out of her mouth before she could stop it. She stepped out into center room, eyes recoiling from the dull, amused faces of the drifters.

“Call, you’re going to regret this.” Goodman’s voice followed her out, growing closer. “What other man’s going to look past the fact that you’re a synthetic, huh? Who else are you going to find? You’re going to look back and wonder why you couldn’t see what was right in front of you!”

Call stared at the floor in front of her, studying a bullet shell lying a foot away from where Ripley was sitting. Behind her, she heard Goodman’s heavy breathing soften.

“But that’s okay,” Goodman said evenly. “Because I’ll still be here when you change your mind. I’ve waited this long, and I can wait even longer.”

For a beat, the whole room was silent, and then Hillard’s shrill voice shattered the air. “I gotta admit, you did a good job with this one, Call. He’s eating right out of your hand. Shit, I bet he’d do anything for you.”

“Nah,” yelled Johner from the other side of the room. “The man knows what he’s doing. The broad’s not gonna be able to resist him for long, am I right?” Johner aimed a toothy smirk at Goodman, who pretended not to hear him.

Call wanted to get away from these people, to be alone with Ripley again. She let her eyes float up toward Ripley’s face, like a buoy rising from deep water.

Ripley looked back at her with an expression that apologized for the idiocy of the human race.

Call sat down next to her, close enough that their legs were almost touching. She knew that however she arranged her posture in this moment would speak volumes about what she did or didn’t feel for Ripley. And she felt sure that Goodman was watching her carefully. She found herself starting to talk, to redirect Goodman’s attention. “Yesterday,” she said to Goodman. “You said that we’d have to fight our way through the Aliens at the ship hangar. It’s not too early to start planning our attack strategy.”

Goodman’s agitation didn’t ease. “I know that.” His eyes made a u-turn around Ripley. “That’s exactly what we were discussing while you two were sleeping in. We’ve already taken stock of the explosives--we’ve got eight remote activated mines, a handful of micro grenades, and a grenade launcher with five projectiles.”

“I’m telling you,” Johner said, “there was a sixth rocket grenade when we came here. Some asshole is hoarding explosives.”

“And I’m telling you that was a fucking shell case, not a grenade,” snapped Hillard.

“We should look at a map of the hangar,” Ripley interrupted loudly, “first things first. We need to know how we’ll be maneuvering.”

“Oh good,” grumbled Johner. “Who wants to go out and ask the Aliens for a map?”

“I’ll make one,” said Call. “I’ve already got the map in my head, I just need something to draw with.”

“That’s even better. Who wants to go out and ask the Aliens for a spraycan? I bet we could trade them cigarettes.”

“Cut the bullshit,” said Ripley, “We’ll find something.”

 

+++++++

 

               

Call found drawing with a blowtorch to be strangely soothing. It was slow paced, compared to skin-carving with a scalpel, and that took the stress away. It was tedious though, and time-consuming. The tough metal of the safe room took a long time to blacken, changing from silver, to brass, to bronze in unnoticeable increments. Call raised the opacity of her eye lenses to douse the intensity of the flame, but the blowtorch still left pulsing after images in her vision.

After close to three hours, Call finished her work. She left a large outline of the ship hangar on the floor of the central room, complete with detailed vent systems. The hangar was a rounded-off rectangle, box-shaped, with a very high ceiling. At one of the walls, the hangar connected to the airlock tunnel, represented in Call's drawing by a long, broad passage, interrupted by four gates: one at the entrance, at the exit, and two in between. Call sat and studied her drawing.

“That looks very professional,” Ripley said, looking over Call's shoulder. “Nice straight lines. If I'd done it, it would have looked like a bunch of tire skids.”

Call smiled. “Not an artist?”

Ripley sat down next to Call. “God no. Typically I tell people that I have a 'mathematical mind,' but that's just a soft way of saying that I'm void of creativity.”

“Not when it comes to survival strategy. You had some genius ideas in the vents.”

“Yes, but that all has to do with problem solving. I'm talking about pretentious art student-style creativity. I'm too calculating for that.”

Call shot her a skeptical look from the corners of her eyes. She and Ripley were alone in the center room—Hillard and the men were in Goodman's room, arguing over weapon distribution.

“I used to draw a lot as a beta,” Call said. “I would look out a window, sketch what I saw on the street. But I stopped abruptly sometime in my 'teen' years.”

“Why'd you stop?” Ripley asked the question dully, as if she already suspected the answer.

“Well...” Call wiped some soot from the nozzle of the blowtorch and smeared it between her fingers. “That was around the same time that I stopped—everything else. I was such a different person back then. I used to be funny—at least, the other girls in my mentor group thought so. I had an easy confidence. Looking back, I'm amazed at how bold I used to be--I was the trendsetter. The other girls used to imitate me.”

“I can believe it. You've got an assertive streak in you, whether you notice it or not.”

“I think I'm more...hateful and angry than assertive. I don't believe what I'm saying enough to be assertive.” Call gave a breathy laugh. She shook her head. “It really feels like I killed her; that early version of me. Maybe everyone buries their childhood, but I really smothered mine. In my mind, everyone that I used to trust became threatening. I thought that had to hold other people at a safe distance.”

“Do you think that...you'll be able to be able to revive the old you, now that you have more freedom?”

“No. I'll never be that naïve again. But I'm alright with that; I can grow into someone new.” Call smiled at Ripley wryly. “And I have you to keep me from turning into someone horrible. You won't let me become a vengeful lunatic.”

“Vengeful, no. But you're welcome to be any other kind of lunatic.”

“Glad to know you don't have any stock in my sanity.”

Ripley laughed. “I'd feel insecure being with anyone less batshit than I am.”

Call rubbed her ear against her shoulder. “You have such a beautiful smile.”

Ripley tilted her head. “Isn’t it nice that I have something to smile about?”

“So different from yesterday,” Call mused.

Ripley’s smile weakened, just a bit. “Yesterday was awful.”

Call’s heart tightened. “I’m sorry.”

Ripley’s lips closed, and her smile turned soft. “I know you are, honey,” she whispered.

Call felt a sudden shiver at the sound of “honey.” Call had spent a good part of her life wondering if she would ever enter into a relationship with someone, simultaneously longing for and dreading the possibility that that someone would be a woman. A pet name from a woman’s lips was a sound that that Call had prepared herself to fear. And Call was scared, but she was also elated and excited, warmer than she could ever remember being.

In that moment, Call felt the hugeness of the chasm that existed between who she was now, and who she had been 24 hours ago. She felt incredibly small, just a tiny fraction of a timeline; a single day isolated on one side of a fissure.

Call tilted her face toward the ground, overwhelmed. Her eyes stung, and overflowed.

“Grace?” Ripley said gently, concerned.

Call lifted her head back up. She smiled at Ripley and wiped the tears from her eyes. “Come here,” she whispered.

Ripley rose to her knees and scooted herself closer.

With a “click,” all of the surrounding doors locked, and Call embraced Ripley tightly, hands clutching at her shirt. Ripley rested her head on Call’s shoulder. “I can’t believe that I found you here, of all places,” Call murmured.

“Oh, it needed to happen,” Ripley said, deadpan. “Surviving for your own sake isn’t enough of a motivator.”

Call meant to scoff, but it came out as a chuckle. “Maybe that’s true.” Call thought about Goodman’s bomb, remembered how resigned she’d been in the face of death. The thought drove her to hold RIpley closer. She planted a kiss on the side of her neck.

Ripley pulled back, just far enough so that she could see Call’s face. She moved a hand from Call’s back and drew it, half curled, along the underside of Call’s chin, lifting Call's head until their lips were level. Call closed her eyes in anticipation.

“You’re beautiful in repose,” Ripley whispered. She laughed quietly at Call’s shiver, and then she closed the distance between their lips, locking them.

Chapter Text

The rest of the day was spent in discourse, crashing ideas together in an attempt to build the skeleton of an attack strategy. Ripley and Call came out of their private moment feeling loose and light, but the subsequent frustrations progressively dampened the mood. The drifters had unreal levels of faith in their own gunpower. Within minutes, each drifter made a decision for themselves; which gun they would use, how they would use it, and those snap decisions instantly became scripture. Prodding the drifters into tweaking their strategies was like coaxing a trapped animal out of its cage.

The drifters were all terrified; Ripley recognized that, and she tried to keep that in mind when dealing with their bullshit. Their overconfidence was a coping mechanism for stoving off a feeling of impending death. Ripley supposed that she should count herself lucky that she wasn’t stuck directing a bunch of nihilists who had given up on survival--at least the drifters had some drive. Still, their stubborn nonsense grated on Ripley over time.

Predictably, the drifter who made the most noise was Johner. He was in constant pain from his arm--and that seemed to be the finger on the blowhorn. By now, the arm had stiffened up, the broken tendon probably too shriveled to reattach. He’d regained control over his hand, interestingly enough, but he seemed to have a hard time bending his arm, and he couldn’t lift any significant amount of weight. He regarded the other two drifters with fearful hostility, as if they could smell his weakness.

Ripley’s suggestion that he use a one-armed handgun was not well received. He was instantly defensive, and offensive, doing his best to smack down whatever power Ripley held over him. Drifters seemed to treasure their own insecurities; they guarded them jealously. Any comment that ventured too close to a precious nerve brought out the attack dogs. Ripley learned this too late, and had to deal with Johner’s defensiveness for a good hour before he calmed down.

At least Ripley had Call by her side--Ripley thanked whatever god of evolution the drifters prayed to for that. Call did wonders to help Ripley keep her cool, covertly brushing fingers whenever her claws began to grow.

 

+++++++++

 

By the end of the day, the strategy was still underdeveloped; it was just the sketch of a plan. Remote activated mines would be used--that much was agreed upon--but no one knew how the mines would be planted in the hangar, or if the Aliens knew enough to avoid them. The crew would start practicing combat formations the next morning--and hopefully improvisation would serve to fill in the gaps.

Goodman tried yet again to change Call’s mind about her sleeping arrangement as she walked toward her bedroom with Ripley. She pried his hands off of her shoulder--and off of her waist--with a fair amount of force, and then cursed herself for apologizing before following Ripley into the women’s room.

Ripley seemed distracted by her thoughts; she was sitting up on the cot, an arm draped over a raised knee, her face tilted down in a pensive glare. Her face was so sharp; so wickedly intelligent. Call felt oddly nervous approaching her. She looked hellishly attractive, unreal. Call knew that Ripley wanted her company, that she needed it. But Call was having an odd moment of displacement; she was questioning whether the events of the past 24 hours were really real. She couldn’t believe that a few hours ago, she’d been locking lips with Ripley in private. Sidling up to this brooding, sexy, unapproachable woman seemed like madness. But it also seemed inevitable.

Call slipped her coat off and set it down by the cot. “Still thinking about the strategy?” she said quietly. She sat down on the cot, leaving a whole extra person’s worth of space between herself and Ripley.

Just like that, Ripley’s face softened; her eyebrows unpinched, rounding out the dagger of her of her brow. She looked sideways at Call, barely turning her head, and smiled. “I’m thinking about how much I’d like to buy a bark collar for Johner.”

“He has to run out of steam at some point.”

Ripley moved her arm from her knee and leaned back on her palms, uncurling. “He’ll run out of something . A person can only have so much bullshit in them at one time, right?” Ripley looked at Call for longer, and seemed to notice her unease. Ripley dropped her joking tone. “Anyway, we still have time. We have the resources to come up with something workable.”

“We made it to the safe area with an impromptu plan.” Call’s voice was hushed. “We’ve got a good chance.”

Ripley smiled softly. “I’m glad that you’re feeling optimistic. You seemed down to me. I thought you were worrying.”

“No, I just...I don’t really know what’s wrong with me.”

Ripley swept her eyes across the empty space between them. “Why are you all the way over there?”

Call’s face burned. She smiled sheepishly, and scooted closer to Ripley. “I was having a--moment.” Call’s eyes made an up-down sweep of Ripley. “A little lapse into nervousness,”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to rush you.”

“No, I want to be close to you.” Call glanced down and swallowed. “I don’t know why I feel like I need an invitation.”

“You’re not used to things,” Ripley said gently. “Don’t be hard on yourself. Shit, you’ve experienced sexual freedom for a total of one day.” Ripley cracked a small smile. “I mean, I can barely believe it myself.”

“Yeah,” Call whispered. “I was fine earlier today though.”

“Well,” Ripley absently swept a lock of hair behind her ear. “night time is different. There are different expectations.”

“Mm hm.” Call swallowed again.

Ripley waited for a beat, to see if Call wanted to keep talking. And then she changed the subject. “You really helped me keep my cool with the drifters out there. You know, I had no idea my claws could retract before I met you.”

“Really?” Call whispered. She had to smile a little at that. She paused, thinking. “If you don’t mind me asking, how do they retract, exactly? I’ve been wondering that for a while.”

Ripley held up her hand and pinched the side of her palm with her thumbnail, forcing her claws to grow out a few centimeters. “Well, I’ve noticed that they’ve got a grain to them, like they’re made of a bunch of compacted strands. I don’t think they retract so much as collapse. They shrink into themselves.”

“Can I have a look?” Call surprised herself.

Ripley held her hand out, and Call lightly cupped her fingertips, tilting the claws to and fro. “It reminds me so much of-- muscle grain . Maybe they just contract to shrink down.”

“They look like muscles ? really?”

“Mm hm. Hard, armored muscle.” Call paused, thinking. “That kind of makes sense...if the Aliens’ armor is capable of stretching and contracting like a muscle...that would explain why they’re so strong. Why you’re so strong.”

Ripley raised her eyebrows wryly. “I don’t think my skeleton is stretching and contracting.”

Call smiled sheepishly, and huffed. “No, you’re right. But...” Call touched her finger to the crook of Ripley’s elbow. “There could be... offshoots of the bones; thin structures that attach to the muscle, like tendons. That’d give you extra strength.”

“Huh. The things you learn when you live with a doctor.”

Call chuckled. Her eyes fell down toward Ripley’s hand.

Ripley’s claws were gone now, reduced to black nails that dipped down over the tips of her fingers. One of Call’s hands was poised lightly beneath Ripley’s, the other resting at the crook of her elbow. Call’s eyes darted back up again.

Ripley looked at her thoughtfully. Call thought that she would make some sort of an advance, but she seemed to change her mind. “What was your schooling like?” Ripley asked. “That’s something I never asked you. I’m guessing you weren’t put through med school with all the organics.”

“I went through med school...but I was in synthetics only classes. There was no diploma, no option to live in student housing. But the hospital payed my tuition--which was nice.” As she spoke, Call’s fingers submitted to gravity and trailed a ways down Ripley’s forearm, over the 8 tattoo.

“No wild sorority parties before exams? Shame.”

Call laughed quietly. She scrunched her eyes. “That’s not what you did, is it?”

Ripley chuckled cynically. “No.”

“I feel like I can...vividly picture you cutting the power on a neighbor’s house party.”

“Parties are nothing but an assault on the senses. I don’t understand how someone can get pleasure from flailing to the beat of my pounding headache.”

“What did you do for fun then?”

“I complained about other people’s fun. I was proud of my title as queen crank.”

Call laughed louder. Her hand dropped limply to the cot.

Ripley smirked. “To be honest--I think I was just bitter about my inability to dance. I’m too long and lanky to flail my limbs in any coordinated manner.”

“What about slow dancing?” Call surprised herself again.

A cryptic look crossed Ripley’s eyes. “That’s different.”

“Did you do that with any of your...girlfriends?”

“Once in a while. If she could drag me onto a dance floor.”

Call dipped her head down. “That’s been kind of a...fantasy of mine for a long time. Ever since I saw the other girls in my mentor group dancing with boys from the hospital.” Call brushed her ear against her shoulder. “It seems kind of juvenile, I know.”

“Not at all. I’ll take you dancing sometime. The Union has to have restaurants with dancefloors right?”

“Probably. The Company tries to characterize Union workers as being over-serious shut-ins. But they have to do something for fun.”

“Over-serious shut-ins sounds like our type though, doesn’t it?”

Call didn’t really hear her. She felt a sudden shiver at the thought of being intimate with Ripley in public. “I think...though…we’ll have to be careful.”

“We’ll be careful. That goes without saying.”

Call smiled smally. “Yeah...Sorry, I just don’t know how to switch my paranoia off.”

Ripley swept her hand over Call’s shoulder a few times, as if brushing her off. “You’ll learn how to feel safe. You just need practice.”

Call laughed at that, without really knowing why. She leaned her head onto Ripley’s shoulder.

Ripley placed a small kiss on the top of her head, and Call felt a sharp spark in her chest. She turned her head and kissed Ripley’s cheek, and then reached a little farther, toward Ripley’s lips. She only lingered there a moment before she pulled back and angled her head away, inviting Ripley to kiss her neck.

Ripley obliged, fighting against Call’s shoulder, which scrunched up reflexively. “Oh God,” Call whispered.

The sound of her own erratic breathing was loud in her ears. The sound of it of it triggered strong memories of her life in the Company, of her lonely, frenzied nights. Cold fevers, freezing sweat, short, shuddering breaths. Call had spent so many cumulative years in forlorn anguish. The thought of it was overwhelming.

“H-hold on,” Call breathed. “I need a few seconds.”

Ripley lifted her head away.

“So many lonely nights,” Call whispered to herself. She couldn’t help but remember. Her whole life was fresh in her mind; pouring like sand from the cracks in her emotional barriers.

Call used to value the long, long, shifts of her ER job. Each night, she would throw herself against her bed and fall asleep quickly, too exhausted to think, or dream. She learned to dread the slow days; those serendipitous occasions when so few San Franciscans fell prey to health problems that she found herself saddled with idle time. It was hard to avoid social interaction on those days, and it was hard to avoid thinking. After a slow day, Call would return home to her apartment and actually see her apartment—it would be a real place, not just a hole to crawl into. She would see all of the empty space that wasn't being filled, smell the dust.

With her slightly boosted salary, Call had been able to buy herself a larger than normal niche in her tenement building—her apartment was actually three small units, connected by knocked down walls. It was big enough to comfortably house three or four people. Call wondered, in the months after she bought the place, what exactly she'd thought she was going to do with the extra space. All that she’d gained from the apartment was a few strange looks from her landlord—apparently a scarcely inhabited suite smelled like a drug lab...or something. On most nights, Call could ignore the emptiness and make a bee-line for her bed. But on slow days, her apartment's vacancy was obvious and shameful.

In the nights following the idle days, Call would lie awake in a cold bed, anxiety squeezing her chest. In the darkness, Call could see herself more clearly than she wanted to. Her body would ache for contact, skin prickling feverishly. The sound of her own breathing would duplicate; a pathetic illusion, spawned by her desire to hear a second pair of lungs beside her.

And now Ripley’s feather-light breath brushed Call’s skin, raising Goosebumps. Call closed her eyes and focused on the sound of Ripley’s breathing, the feeling of it on her skin, until she couldn’t bear it anymore. “Ellen,” she whispered. “Kiss me.”

Call felt Ripley’s shoulder shift. Fingers curled under the bottom of Call’s chin and lifted her face, just enough.

Ripley kissed softly at first, and then with a slow-burning passion. Call’s head went swimmy. Heat poured down her throat and sank through her whole body. She reached her arms around to Ripley’s back. She continued to pay close attention to the fluctuations of Ripley’s breathing, savoring the inconsistencies.

Call held onto the moment, committing it to memory. It would become new ground to stand on; a new frame of reference that she would use to understand herself. She lost herself, kissing lustfully. And then Ripley was leaning into her, gently pressing her into recline. Call lay down on her back and closed her eyes.

One at a time, she felt the buttons on her shirt come open, allowing the cold air to pour over her skin. Her pants came off next, crumpling to a pile by the side of the bed. She shivered, throbbing with expectation. Several agonizing seconds passed, the silence broken only by the sound of Ripley tugging her clothes off, of slow heavy breathing. And then Ripley’s hot skin touched down flush against Call’s. Ripley’s mouth went straight to Call’s nipple, then trailed up to her neck.  

Call moved her hands over the smooth skin at the back of Ripley’s waist. She slipped one down to the underside, to Ripley’s belly, and pushed, coaxing Ripley to arch her back and sit up halfway. Call wanted to look at Ripley, to see the shape of her body looming over her. She had such an elegant silhouette. Call slid her palms up to Ripley’s breasts and studied the reactions that played out on her face. Ripley’s hair was limp, hanging down over her face in dark S’s. She looked regal; disheveled and undone in a way that somehow emphasized her authority. Call moved her hands to Ripley’s shoulders and lifted herself up, bringing their lips together. Ripley responded by wrapping her arms around Call’s waist and pulling her in tighter, arching their backs in unison. Without knowing what she was doing, Call lifted her knee and brought her thigh between Ripley’s legs. Ripley grunted into Call’s lips and kissed deeper, tongue pushing past her teeth. Call ached inside; her arousal seeming to settle somewhere deep in her gut. It made her want to touch rather than be touched.

Call used the leverage she had with her knee to flip Ripley onto her side, knocking her against the cot. Ripley chuckled in surprise. Call slid her hand down, into the hot, wet slick.

Ripley's smile immediately turned to a blissful frown, and she closed her eyes. Ripley breathed slowly and deeply at first, and then faster, unevenly. Call wanted to claim her lips, but in a comical inconvenience, she found wasn’t tall enough to reach Ripley’s face; so instead she kissed along the underside of her jaw. Ripley’s hips moved in tune with Call’s arm, heaving. Ripley tilted her face down and brought it against Call’s, grabbing the back of Call’s head to bring her in tighter. Her lips were right next to Call’s, her breath in her mouth, but Ripley didn’t kiss Call; she just held on, cheekbones and eye sockets grinding. It spurred Call to drive her fingers deeper and harder. Ripley made a drawn out, painful cry, and the soft parts of her constricted around Call’s fingers.

She trembled, every muscle tight. And then her fever seemed to break, and she she went limp. Call lifted her hand up to her side, the fingers conspicuously wet, cooling quickly.

Ripley took a deep inhale, and then lay very still, sweat trailing down from her forehead.

“You alright?” Call whispered.

Ripley groaned.

Call brushed the side of her hand over Ripley’s cheek. “Was that too harsh?”

Ripley opened her eyes, just barely, and gave Call a tight-lipped smile. She wrapped her hand around Call’s. “Give me a moment.” she whispered hoarsely.

Call waited, her arousal sinking lower.

With a huge sigh, Ripley stirred. She moved down toward the foot of the cot, sliding her hands down Call’s back, all the way to the thighs, pulling her a little closer as she did so. And then she took a leg in her hands and lifted it up over her shoulder, coquettishly tickling the skin before dipping her head down past the inside of the thigh.

Call saw colors behind her eyes. She lost herself, making more noise than was probably safe, given the fact that the crew was sleeping in the next room over, but she couldn’t help herself. Ripley’s mouth was like hot silk, enveloping everything.

Call’s mind shut off. Every iota of her attention was centered around the lower half of her body. She grabbed the back of Ripley’s head and held it in place. She shuttered into a climax and squeezed Ripley’s head and shoulders in her thighs. After a long stretch seconds, she let go and collapsed, numb warmth seeping through her. She wanted to learn how to do...whatever Ripley just did, and at some point she’d ask Ripley for tips. But for now she needed a breather.

Ripley’s head came to rest by Call’s shoulder, her lips by her ear. As time passed, and Call recovered, Ripley made small gestures of affection. She kissed Call’s cheek, sucked her earlobe, nuzzling and caressing.

The night continued in vignettes and glimpses. Every time Call opened her eyes, she caught precious snapshots of Ripley; Ripley licking off her fingers, Ripley gasping for breath, Ripley satiated and slack jawed.

For the moment, hostility of the outside world was forgotten. Each woman carved out a warm, safe niche in the other’s body. But by the time the two of them settled down for good, and pulled the blanket up to go to sleep, the harsh cold of the room was starting to make itself obvious. Sweat cooled quickly, turning into an icy bath.

Call felt Ripley shiver, her long legs folding up toward her chest. Call smiled to herself, and raised her core temperature to a toasty 110. She wrapped her arms around Ripley and pulled her close. Ripley flinched away at first, as if the contrast was too much, but she eased into it, giving a contented hum.

Ripley buried her face in Call’s neck, so that Call’s chin rested at the top of her head. Call was startled by the gesture. It was sweet, and sort of helpless, like Ripley was asking Call for protection. It betrayed an incredible amount of trust and vulnerability. Ripley was completely giving herself up to Call, showing her everything there was to show.

Call was scared. The gift of Ripley’s trust felt heavy, because Call felt the obligation to fully appreciate and cherish it, and because...the experience of holding someone else’s trust was completely unfamiliar to her. She didn’t know how to handle it. And God, she really, really didn’t want to accidentally betray that trust. She would want to die if she hurt Ripley.

But then...Call realized, each one of her patients placed their full trust in her. They let her open them up, make them bleed, with the expectation that she’d help end their suffering in the long run. And she did, whenever possible. Ripley was a wounded creature--she never pretended to be otherwise--and she wanted Call to help her heal. Call supposed that she should have faith in Ripley’s judgement; Ripley knew where she wanted to place her trust. She wasn’t so fragile that Call could accidentally break her...and she wasn’t so bitter that she couldn’t recover from a sting. Ripley knew how to accept apologies.

When listed, all of the evidence made Call’s worrying seem pointless. But for all of the naked, beating hearts she’d seen in her life, Call was sure that she’d never held anything so precious in her hands before. She had to get it right.

“Ripley,” Call whispered aloud. “I need you to teach me how to be good to you.”

Ripley stirred. She pulled back enough to see Call’s face. She looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not used to intimacy...any kind of intimacy. I want to be good to you, but I don’t have experience.”

Ripley’s face changed, understanding softening the creases. “You’ve already given me more happiness than anything I’ve experienced since my daughter was born.” Ripley brushed a lock of Call’s hair and smiled coyly. “ And. You give me the most satisfying sex I think I’ve ever had. You already know a lot about how to be good to me.”

Call smiled a little. “But you’ll talk to me, won’t you? You’ll tell me what you want, you’ll tell me if I hurt you?”

“Oh sure. Soon you’ll be begging me to shut up, I promise.”

Call gave a small laugh. “Okay. I should have assumed that. I just...don’t know anything about how relationships are supposed to work. Especially our kind of relationship.”

“Well, don’t feel like you’re too behind on your education. Every new couple basically figures things out on their feet. Previous relationship experience sometimes just brings bad things into the mix. Bad expectations.”

“Huh.” Call laughed suddenly. “That’s something I’ve never heard before. Whenever I was at work, and I would overhear women talking about their relationships...I always got the sense that they were professionals in their field. They sounded like experienced veterans venting about their coworkers.”

Ripley laughed. “I’m willing to believe that ‘married woman’ is a legitimate job description in the Company. If there was any justice they’d be getting payed.”

“But...I remember when I was young, the other girls in my mentor group were really excited about their relationships; the first kiss, the first date, all of that. For a while, I waited eagerly for the moment when I’d feel what the other girls were feeling. I’d meet my man, let him whisk me off my feet.”

“And you’re still waiting, I take it.”

Call laughed, and kept laughing, breathing into the fabric of the cot.

“Don’t worry,” Ripley said sleepily, “Keep going to dances, wear Company brand perfume, you’ll find him.”

At some point in the next 10 minutes, Call fell into a heavy, dreamless sleep.

 

++++++++++++

 

Hours later, she opened her eyes to a feeling of lightness. In her vision, Ripley’s image hazed at the edges, as if viewed through clouded glass. It was probably just a symptom of dehydration--but Call liked to think that it was psychosomatic lovesickness. She closed her eyes again and waited for Ripley to wake up. Eventually, she felt Ripley shift under the blanket.

“Morning,” Call whispered.

“Morning.”

“How’d you sleep?”

“Not bad,” Ripley stretched out her arms. “I discovered this great new electric bed warmer--I think I’ll hang onto it for a while.”

Call chuckled.

Ripley cupped her face in her hands. “I really, really want a shower.” she peeked at Call coyly. “That wasn’t meant to be a dig on you.”

“Oh good. I thought you meant you wanted to wash away your regret.”

Ripley ran her hands down her face and folded them under her chin. “In my experience, regret doesn’t wash off. It gets into your pores.”

Call smoothed a lock of Ripley’s hair. “I’ll be sure to stay away from it then.”  

Ripley blinked. “I feel like I slept in much later than yesterday morning.”

“Yeah...I think you did.”

Ripley twisted her lips. “I hate to say it, but we should get the day started. The gun nuts will blow each other up without us.”

Call gave a tiny groan. “Can we lie here for a while first?”

“Of course. It's standard procedure to observe a 10 minute waiting period between deciding to get up...and getting up.”

“I’ll trust you on that,” Call said closing her eyes.

 

+++

 

Dressing was less awkward than the morning before. Call was already beginning to feel the comfort of routine. She snatched Ripley’s brown shirt from the floor and held it out in front of her. “Huh. You know we’re about the same size width-wise. You’re just so long .”

“Mm hm. I’m pretty sure I’m more than 50% legs.”

Call laughed. “So that’s your secret.”

 

+++

 

Leaving the bedroom felt like exiting an airlock. Just in terms of temperature, Call could have sworn that it was 10 degrees cooler in the rest of the rooms of the safe area. And the atmosphere was like a completely different planet. The type of vein-to-vein intimacy shared by Call and Ripley seemed to be a non-concept for everyone else. Call found herself wondering if her relationship with Ripley was different in more ways than one; she wondered if it was normal for two people to be so in love with each other.

 

++++++

 

The new day saw a breakthrough in the attack strategy. Call, Goodman and Ripley broke away from the drifters to have a discussion in private, and that’s when their ideas finally got traction.

The plan was certainly not without risk; Ripley didn’t like the idea of Call exposing herself to electricity again--even a moderate amount--and vents were hardly safe if they ran below the feet of a hundred Aliens. But the plan made sense, and it was something to work with.

The drifters took to the new ideas with some surprising ease. The plan didn’t require them to change their choice in weapons, and that seemed to be the upfront reason for their cooperation. However, Call suspected that they were just moving on to a new phase of their anxiety. Fear was a useful driver for obedience, when it wasn’t masking itself with aggression.

The rest of the day was spent practicing combat formations. The crew moved bullets and bits of scrap metal around on Call’s map, planning different maneuvers for different scenarios. They learned to follow Ripley’s voice, Ripley’s hand gestures.

During breaks and meals, Ripley and Call were able to find small moments of privacy, when they could slip into their empty room, have an uncensored talk. Their conversations lengthened the threads that began days ago, when the two kept an uneasy breathing space. But now Ripley and Call talked in the way they were always meant to talk; curled up together on their cot, awkward distance conquered.

Ripley’s presence made Call’s feelings of guilt and insecurity seem vague and far away. But once she stepped outside the emotional airlock and entered the main room, her sense of security dwindled. Goodman seemed to never stop staring, as long as Call was in his field of view. It made Call feel like she was perpetually slipping, bending slowly under that expectant gaze.

Goodman always watched from a distance, little blue eyes shining like dashboard lights. Call had the feeling that he was keeping track of each minute of alone time that she spent with Ripley. She had no idea how much he’d caught onto, what was going on in his head; and that uncertainty was scarier than anything.

At dinner, Call took a seat next to Ripley and let herself lean in a little; just enough to seem affectionate, but not overly so. She wondered if this was the first small step towards a full confession; or if this was as far as she was ever going to get.

She resented the distance between her shoulder and Ripley’s shoulder. Every minute that they had together, before they had to roll the dice at the ship hangar, was something precious. Yet Call was acting as though Goodman’s opinion was more important.

Call stared into the cooking fire, thinking. Without surprise, she saw Goodman sit down directly opposite her on the other side of the fire, his features distorted by the light shining from below his chin.

Dinner—heated stew from a can--was dumped into a pot and placed over the fire. Call had always found it interesting that despite the drifter's cut throat individualism, group meals stood as an integral part of their culture. She had to admit that sitting down to dinner—something that only organics did—made her feel included. Even if she never ate anything.

Ripley spoke suddenly, leaning towards Call just a bit. “I'm going to go check on Purvis, see if I can get him eat something. I'll be right back.”

Call preferred not to be left alone with Goodman’s fire-lit glower. “I’ll come with you.”

“I don’t know if that would be good for Purvis, seeing you now.”

“Maybe. Or it might do him some good to see me--it might soothe his fears a little. In any case, he can always ask me to leave.”

Ripley nodded and lead the way to Purvis’ room. Call felt a rush of cold air as she moved away from the orange glow of the cooking fire.

Purvis seemed to be halfway embedded in his cot. He looked like a solitary asteroid--gaunt and pale, limbs curled into a compact lump. His eyes widened fearfully at the sight of Call, dry mouth gaping like a fish’s. “No! I’m not ready!”

“I know, It’s okay. I’m only here to visit. I’m not rushing you.”

Purvis wheezed out his breath and covered eyes with his hands. “I thought I could do it. I thought I would be ready.” His lips contorted. “I don’t want to die.”

Call and Ripley knelt down by his side, quietly.

“Believe it or not,” Ripley said, “I was once in the exact same position that you’re in. I had a Queen inside me. I know what a horrible feeling it is; like your body isn’t yours anymore.”

Purvis paused, open mouth absently siphoning air. “But you came out of that alive?”

“Well, no. Not the first time. I wish I could tell you the details--what it felt like to die--but I don’t actually remember dying. Apparently I leaped backwards into flaming lead...right in front of the eyes of a Weyland CEO. It seems unlikely--I’m not usually that showy.”   

Purvis lifted his hands from his eyes, revealing a pinched, confused browline.

“It’s a long and bizarre story,” Ripley continued. “Would you believe that I was born in 2086?”

“I might believe that you’re off your rocker.”

Ripley smiled. “That might as well be true.”

“Guess you’re braver than me, if you took your own life.”

“I don’t think that bravery had anything to do with it,” Ripley sighed. “Do you have a family waiting for you, on Earth?”

Purvis stared at Ripley blankly, as if suffering a lapse of sentience. He blinked back into consciousness. “Yeah. I’ve got parents, a brother. A sort-of-ex girlfriend.”

“I bet that’s what’s making it hard. You want to stay alive for their sake”

“I don’t think so. I think I just want to stay alive. For my sake.”

Ripley raised her eyebrows. “Ah. Well then you can do the thing I can’t do. I need a family to stay alive for--it’s a vital weakness of mine.” Ripley’s eyes made a quick but loving brush stroke over Call before turning back to Purvis.

“Oh.” Purvis tried to follow Ripley’s gaze, making a confused sweep over Call. “Why-s-at?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Familial abandonment issues. Something psychoanalytic like that.”

Purvis’ eyes scrunched up in confusion. “Huh.” His eyes darted toward Call, and then again, widening as they did so.  

Call’s heart picked up pace, defensive anger tightening her jaw.

Purvis made a strange little choking sound. “Uh.” His pupils rolled along the far corners of his eyes, as if running from Call.

The silence stretched for a few seconds, Call’s anger pounding against her temples.

“Purvis,” Ripley said somberly. “You really need to eat something.”

Purvis’ eyes didn’t move. He let out a quiet moan.

“That doesn’t mean you have to go out and eat with the drifters. I’ll bring you something.”

Purvis shook his head slowly.

“I think when you smell it you’ll change your mind.” Ripley stood up. “I’ll be right back,” she said to Call.

Call instantly felt bad for being angry. She was a little appalled by how paranoid she was. Of course Purvis was made uneasy by her--she was scheduled to take his life by the end of the week. Call had made a patient’s near death anxiety about herself, assuming that he was suspicious of her closeness with Ripley. Call took a breath and calmed herself down, resolving not to act so self-centered and defensive.

But her anxiety reignited when Purvis spoke again.

“So, Goodman doesn’t mind you being around Ripley anymore, huh?”

Call’s heart pounded. “No,” she scoffed. “I wouldn’t say that at all. Ripley and I are--just something he has to put up with.”

“Oh.” Purvis swallowed. “That’s nice of you to spend time with her. I think she was really lonely before--when you spent all your time with Goodman.”

“You noticed that, huh?” Call said quietly. “Well, I was lonely too.”

“You were lonely when you were with Goodman?”

Call sighed softly and swallowed the lump in her throat. She nodded.

Purvis sucked on his lips. His voice cracked when he spoke. “Are you going to live together? You and Ripley.”

Call felt herself smile. “Yeah,” she whispered. Her eyes dampened a bit. “We are.”

“Mm.” Purvis nodded.

The conversation gave way to a tense silence, and Call was uncertain of what to feel.

Ripley came back into the room, a bottle of water in one hand, a cup of stew in the other. “I had to fight for this,” she said irritably as she sat down next to Purvis. “I swear, the drifters talk about ‘survival of the fittest’ as if it’s religious diction.” She held the stew out to Purvis. “Please?”

Purvis stared at the cup of food miserably. He sat up slowly and took the cup from Ripley, absently stirring the broth with the spoon.

“Take five bites and I’ll get off of your case.”

Purvis scooped a spoonful from the top of the cup, only catching the broth, and sipped it down. “I hate to feed it,” he murmured.

“I know how you feel,” said Ripley.

“Funny thing to relate to,” Purvis said grimly. He took a few more bites, taking a long time to chew the bits of meat. When he was finished, he set the cup down by the side of his cot.

“I have something else for you,” Ripley smiled. She picked up the bottle of water.

Call noticed that there was barely any water left in the bottle. She watched as Ripley unscrewed the cap and pulled out a long, white cigarette. It was glued to the inside of the cap, along with a pencil-thin lighter.

Ripley pulled the cigarette free and offered it to Purvis. “The best meal on the ship, my compliments.”

Purvis gave her a strange look. “Did you put that in there?”

“It was one of the drifters. Those people live like they’re in prison.”

“It’s a good thing that you’re the one who found it,” Call said. “There’d have been a firefight if the other drifters discovered that one of them was hording cigarettes.”

Purvis eyed at the cigarette reluctantly. “I quit three months ago.”

“Oh, come on. I think it’s safe to say that carcinogens aren’t the worst thing you’ve ever had in your chest.”

Purvis sucked on his lips again. “Don’t you want it for yourself?”

Ripley shook her head. “I don’t want to get hooked again. Running out of cigarettes in the middle of space is the worst torment imaginable.”

Purvis frowned, then shrugged, and reached for the cigarette.

Ripley’ lit it for him.

“Thanks,” he muttered.

Purvis exhaled, and a plume of white smoke curled upward and dissipated into a foggy film.

The gaunt man visibly unbended, eyelids drooping low with an almost comical amount of pleasure.

The smell of tobacco spread through the room. Usually, the first association that Call made with the smell was drifter ships--grimy, scratched up metal, lit with flickering yellow lights. But this time the smoke had a different flavor to it. The sharp, dusty smell mixed with the coldness and cleanness of the room, and it made Call think of the Earth’s atmosphere; the last vision that she’d had of Earth. Frosty ozone, harsh sunlight. Purvis’ swirling wisps of smoke looked just like the coats of clouds covering the little blue planet.

For the first time since leaving Earth, Call felt homesick. And it was genuine homesickness; not a sense of guilt for abandoning her hospital, not a feeling of utter displacement and loss, but a strong longing for the feeling of sand and saltwater against the soles of her feet. It was a weird reverse nostalgia for a home that she didn’t have yet. It would, she guessed, be better labeled as excitement. What a foreign thing to feel.

Call fed herself on the relaxed contentment of the room. She leaned into Ripley, all the way this time, bringing the sides of their arms together.

Ripley hummed. And then planted a quick kiss on the side of Call’s face.

Call’s heart thundered. Her eyes immediately darted toward Purvis, daring him to react.

He widened his eyes innocently, trying to deflect the venom of Call’s stare. He smiled smally, and reached over and sprinkled a little ash onto the floor in front of Call and Ripley, leaving a few live sparks on the metal.

Ripley laughed quietly.

Somehow the gesture was perfect for the moment, and respectful. Call stared in disbelief. She leaned into Ripley, and kept staring, the embers making small afterimages in her vision.

Chapter Text

Call’s clothes smelled a bit like smoke that night. Ripley slipped the coat off first, one arm at a time, and then worked at the buttons underneath, leaving the flaps of Call’s shirt just barely open, like a curtain.

Ripley couldn’t believe how incredibly alive Call was. Her body exhibited a beautiful distillation and exaggeration of life. Not only did Call have a powerful, defiant heartbeat, a smooth wind in her lungs, she also had a third vital sign; a soft, subtle humm under the skin that moved slowly, spreading out from her heart like a thin pool of water. Ripley had to concentrate in order to feel it--but it was always there, proof of a living soul.

The scent of Call’s sweat, the taste of her; all of it was inexplicably--and perfectly--human and feminine. Ripley had to scoff at the idea that synthetic women necessary found their life fulfilment in sexual relations, the way their creators intended. But maybe it wasn’t an accident that Call was such a fabulously sexual being; a woman with a libido, as well as a woman with intelligence and talent. With every shuddering breath, Ripley could feel how much Call needed it, how long she’d waited. She’d lived her life in a metal clamp, pinched by a dogmatic sense of morality in which she painted herself as the devil. And it was a morality with deep roots; Call could trace her existence back to her mortal creator. His intent for her existence was clear, free from ambiguity, with no room for interpretation. And Ripley imagined what a painful thing that must be, for a community creature like Call, to knowingly step outside of that scripture for the sake self-fulfillment.

The ideas of God-intended holy matrimony, of Adam and Eve, were ideas that Ripley had always dismissed as religious jargon with no holding in a scientific world. But in the case of synthetics, God’s intention did indeed play into factual reality. The synthetic woman came after the synthetic man, and she was fashioned after his design, introduced as his mode of recreation, his object of desire. A synthetic woman’s classification as Company product cemented that scripture. “ For male consumption only ” was printed on the bottle in bold face.

Call was someone who had difficulty finding self-validation. Similar to Ripley, who needed the support of family members, Call sought approval in the eyes of her community. And that seemed to be by design. With no blood ties, synthetics were made to think of Company society as their family. Synthetics were the bastard children of humanity, and the Chairman was the paternal figure to which all individuals must be measured. Call clearly felt a sense of guilt at failing to fulfill the purpose handed to her by her community. It made her blind to her own value as human being, as a doctor. Call thought of herself as a cancer cell--but the truth was that she was a healthy piece of a heart. She’d spent her life pumping blood for a thankless body that only valued gut instinct and muscle.  

Ripley wondered if her own presence was really enough replace Call’s need for societal approval, if she could successfully offer herself as exchange for a lost network of Company workers. If not, then at least Call would have the chance to find new ties in the Union. Maybe someday she’d get in touch with other synthetic survivors. Maybe some of them would be like her; lonely pariahs who discovered themselves while in exile.

Ripley’s thoughts weakened and then dissolved as Call kissed her deeper. Call’s lips were plush, with a natural rouge to them. The outline of her body alternated between soft curves and sharp angles, making art from contrast. The soft, pliant swell of her breasts was offset by the hard line of her collarbone; every inch of her felt divine beneath Ripley’s fingers.  

By the time she submitted to sleep, Ripley felt boneless in the best way. Her mind was calm. Sleep wasn’t a struggle anymore; it came naturally, tugging her down with a warm touch.

 

+++++++++

 

Goodman seemed especially aloof that morning. He kept a cool distance from Call and Ripley, giving himself enough floor space to properly pace back and forth as he brooded. With no one there to frame his imposing stature, or his stoic gallantry, Goodman looked amazingly small. There was something boyish and immature about the wideness and blueness of his eyes.

Call couldn’t help but feel a little bad for him. She had the nagging feeling that she’d abandoned one of her duties by choosing to ignore him. Still, she felt pretty sure that he hadn’t given up on his crusade to change her mind. He was probably just taking a breather, charging up before his next attack.

Sure enough, Goodman approached Call while the others were eating breakfast. “Can I speak with you?”

Call looked Goodman in the eyes, gleaning what she could from his expression. She knew that things would only continue to fester if she didn’t talk with him now. After a few seconds, she nodded. She followed Goodman to the first room--the whitecoats old holding cell. Call opened the door remotely and held it open; and Goodman walked ahead and put his arm to the door, apparently thinking that he was holding it himself.

There was a copper-colored blood splatter on the floor by the door--leftover from the whitecoat’s feud. Call had her eyes downcast; she saw the bloodstain and stepped over it. But Goodman’s boot landed right in the middle as he stepped inside.

“So," Goodman said casually, "you seem like you're in high spirits today.” He closed the door behind him.

“I guess I am.”

Goodman looked at her expectantly. Apparently he wanted her to justify her reason for being up-beat.

Call told a half-truth. “I'm optimistic—about making it off the ship.”

“Really? Good to hear.” Goodman threw his eyebrows up and down. “I don’t know where you're getting that optimism from, but. Someone has to have faith.” His tongue ripped away from the roof of his mouth with a “click” “Is Ripley optimistic too?”

Call smiled to herself. “Of course. She’s about the only outlet for optimism on this ship.”

“You know, you never really explained to me what it is you talk about with her.” Goodman adjusted his sleeve, giving himself an excuse to look down. “What do you have to say that takes up hours and hours?”

Call shrugged stiffly and walked a few steps, moving in a pointless circle. “We talk about everything—compare our lives. There's plenty to talk about.”

“What kind of things does she say about me?” Goodman spoke nonchalantly, as if he couldn’t care less. Which was funny, as the question itself betrayed his paranoia.

Call almost wanted to laugh. “In all honesty, you're about the last thing that we talk about.”

“Yeah?” Goodman’s voice reached a slightly higher pitch.

“Yes.”

“You spend hours every morning talking about each other, huh?” Goodman was looking directly at Call now, staring intensely.

Call couldn’t help but tense up. She carefully matched Goodman’s gaze. “Yes, we talk about our lives.”

“And that's what you prefer to be doing. While I'm left to deal with the drifters.”

Call sighed. “I'm sorry you're alone.” She looked away, then back at Goodman. “But you don't mix well with Ripley. So...”

“So I can piss off. Because you only want to spend time with her.”

Call felt a twinge of annoyance. “I didn’t say that.”

“How do you know I don’t mix with Ripley? You’ve never let me in on your conversations, so how do you know?”

Call was about to speak--but Goodman cut her off. He seemed to know that there was a lot she could say.

“Maybe you could invite me to talk sometime. I don’t think that’s too much for a long-time friend to ask.”

Call felt nauseous. The thought of Goodman intruding on her private time with Ripley made her want to laugh and punch something at the same time. “Are you sure you'd really want that?” she grumbled.

“I want to be with you, Call. I shouldn’t have to spell it out.”

Call stole a longing glance at the door. “Why don’t we settle this later, after the day’s started?”

That seemed to rile Goodman up; he wasn’t about to let Call walk away before his case was made. “Why are you choosing this time to leave me in the cold? We could both be dead by the end of the week. After all I’ve done for you, you’re dropping me here on a Goddamn plague ship!”

“Look, I’m sorry.”

“Are you?”

“I’m not spending time with Ripley just to hurt you.”

“Then why are you spending time with her?” Goodman pointed to the wall with his finger. “Why are you in that room with her during every second of your free time?”

Call didn’t speak; her throat was closing up on her. She quickly regretted her silence--it gave Goodman time to come up with his own answer to the question.

Goodman’s face softened to a look of cloying sympathy. “Is she pressuring you, is that why?” He spoke in a grim voice, with a kind of self-appointed wisdom that suggested that he had it all figured out. He thought he knew exactly what was going on.

“What?” Call whispered. She narrowed her eyes at him. “No!”

“She’s never tried to hurt your opinion of me?”

Call was angry now. The stones were landing closer to Ripley, and she was not happy about it. “No. Goodman.”

Goodman spoke slowly, rationally. “She has to have told you something. You look at me like I’m a completely different person.”

Call tilted her head in agitation. “I thought you’d finally learned to trust Ripley.”

“She’s with us in the fight against the Aliens. I know she is. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t pose a personal threat.”

Call scoffed. “Personal threat,” she echoed. “You don’t like us spending time together, so you’re accusing her of manipulating me?"

“Look.” Goodman boomed. “You trusted me when I told you to handcuff her. One conversation later, you decide to let her go. Maybe that turned out to be the best thing, that time. But it shows that she has the power to influence your mind.”

“You think she’s manipulating me into doing...what? Spending less time with you?”

Goodman shook his head slowly. “Much worse than that.”

Call’s lips parted until her teeth showed. “You think she’s going to kill me? Wouldn’t she have done that by now?”

“No,” Goodman said quickly. “She doesn’t want you dead--she saved our lives, I recognize that. She wouldn’t spend so much time working her way close to you if she was after your life.”

“Then what the hell are you worried about?”

Goodman swallowed, his mouth twisting as if he were tasting something fowl. “It’s all in the way she looks at you, when she thinks no one else is looking.” Goodman’s voice grew thick, almost as if he were close to crying. “You need to know that there are some strange people--”

Call cut him off, heart pounding. “You’ve been alone with your thoughts for too long! You’re blowing things out of proportion.”

Goodman leaned in closer. “Listen to yourself, Call. This isn’t you.” Goodman gestured with his thumb and index finger pinched together. “You don’t trust people easily--you read into strangers better than anyone. It took me more than a year to get close to you.” Goodman straightened up, swinging his arm in a vague direction toward the wall. “And now it doesn’t even occur to you to question Ripley’s intentions.”

The last thread of Call’s patience snapped. “That’s because I understand her! Everything you think you know about Ripley is a stupid, paranoid invention!”

“I’m a police officer, Call! You think I don’t know how to read someone?” Goodman tried to reclaim his cold, logical tone, but his voice remained thick and strangled. “She’s not your typical woman; I think we can both agree on that. She was raised in an isolated lab--that’s not a good set of blueprints for creating a mentally healthy individual.”

“You know she had a life before that. She had a family and a kid.”

“And has she ever talked to you about the father of that kid? Was he present?”

“Of course. He was an army guy, big muscled, you’d have liked him.”

Goodman looked appalled. “Are you making fun of me?”

Call blinked. She was shocked by her own moxie. “I just think you’re making a ridiculous accusation,” she said, her voice quieter.

“You’re starting to sound like her,” Goodman said quietly.

“What’s your point of reference on that?” Call muttered. “I don’t think you were too familiar with my voice before we came here.”

Goodman chose to disregard that. He regained his bearings and spoke loudly, annunciating each word. “I need you to understand the kind of threat Ripley poses to you. She’s clearly interested in working past your defenses--”

“She wants to get close to me. Why is that such an evil thing?” Call exclaimed.

“Stop interrupting me! Call, she’s acting like a predator! If she goes on like this, God knows what she could coerce you into doing!”

Call placed her hand on the top of her head and squeezed her skull in her arm. “Predator,” she growled. That stung like a chemical burn. “Here’s a fresh, new paranoid thought for you, Goodman,” Call wanted to stare Goodman down, but she found it difficult to look in his direction. “I’m the one who inspired her to stay behind on the ship to help the crew. She’s risked everything for me. How do you know I’m not the predator?”

Goodman had a strange look on his face; his skin seemed to bunch up around his nostrils. “Because I don’t hear her trying to make excuses for everything you do.”

Call bit her tongue for a moment, to keep a rising knot of emotion at bay. If gone unchecked, that knot was bound to make her cry, or throw punches--Call wasn’t sure which. “This is going nowhere. I’m spending my time with Ripley whether you’re happy about it or not.” She began walking toward the door.

“This isn’t about me, Call. I’m worried about you . And I’ll keep watching out for you, no matter how convinced you are of your safety!”

Call swung open the door and stormed through the center room, headed toward her bedroom. She expected at every moment to feel the clumsy pressure of Goodman’s hand on her shoulder. Her skin tingled in anticipation. She felt ready to send her nails toward his eyes if he said one more derogatory thing about Ripley.

Call walked into her bedroom, eyes straight ahead. She heard the door close behind her--and she thought this is it. She set her jaw, ready to restrain her blows if her temper got out of control.

But then a familiar body pressed against her back, and long, slender arms wrapped around her waist, giving her instant butterflies. Call exhaled hugely and leaned her head back against Ripley’s shoulder. “How much of that did you hear?” she muttered

“All of it, once you started shouting.”

Call sighed again, expelling the last of her angry tension. “So that’s Goodman’s version of the world,” she said grimly. “I’m a helpless little waif. And you’re a depraved, manipulative seductress.”

“That’s generous of him. But even on my good days, I'm really only a mildly off-putting, manipulative seductress.”

“I admire your indifference.”

“I get the vague impression that Goodman’s not good at handling rejection. But I think he’ll get over it.”

“What makes you so sure?” Call’s eyes fell onto her old, unused cot on the far side of the room.

“He needs you very badly right now, on this ship, because you’re all he has. But once he gets back to his Company, he’ll have a whole slew of other people to make him feel secure. He’ll find someone else.”

Call turned her head and looked up at Ripley’s eyes. “Well. That’s good for him. But in the meantime, he’s not about to stop spewing hateful lies about you.”

Call felt Ripley shrug. “He’s a hazard of the environment. Like the Aliens. And the shitty food.”

“Don’t say that.” Call lifted her hand to Ripley’s jaw. “He’s just a man--he has the capacity to change his behavior.”

“But do we have the patience to keep arguing with him until he does?”

Call sighed. She stepped away from Ripley and flopped down onto the cot, on her back. Ripley joined her, stretching out to her full length over the mattress. She propped her head up on her elbow, so as to look down at Call.

“I could tell him what’s really going on between us,” said Call. “Maybe it’d make him stop caring about me. I think I could do it--I almost did a moment ago.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Ripley asked evenly.

Call picked a loose thread off of the cot and tossed it away. “He still has hope that he can win me over. If he knew that I’m not the girl he thinks I am--maybe he’d hate me as much as he hates you. He’d stop pining for me.”

Call thought that she'd gotten rid of the thread, but somehow it reappeared, stuck to the underside of her palm.

Ripley pulled the thread from Call. “You think he’d just stop caring?” She ran the thread between her fingers. “To be honest, that’s not how I see it playing out. I’m doubtful that he’d take you seriously if you told him we’re in love. He’d accuse me of warping your brain.”

Call looked past Ripley, up at the burn-marked ceiling. “That’s right, isn’t it?” she said quietly. “He wouldn’t listen. Obviously I’m too fickle and stupid to know what I really want.”

“Quite a gentleman, isn’t he?” Ripley cooed coyly.

“He's pathetic,” Call grumbled.

“Solitude will do that to a person.” Ripley flicked her hand, trying to shake off the thread.

Call eyed Ripley sideways. “Think so?”

“Sure.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re talking about something personal?”

Ripley looked away from her hand, back to Call, and smiled. “Mm. Well, I'm my own best case study for making all of these sweeping generalizations. And--you know--I was in Goodman’s position two days ago. I know what feels like to carry a torch for you.”

“Don’t compare yourself to him. You were never pathetic. You didn’t try to convince me that Goodman was controlling my mind.”

“No. Instead I resigned myself to being an unwanted third wheel. I was going to follow you back to drifter territory--or the Company, or wherever.” Ripley shook her hand spastically and then resorted to wiping her palm against the cot. “Damn this thing. Static lint from hell.”

Ripley refused to drop her jocular tone; she admitted to her devotion as if it were a joke, maybe because she was embarrassed. But Call felt extremely touched, and saddened. “Oh, Ellen. That’s so sweet.”

“Think so?” Ripley didn’t sound too convinced.

“I know it was miserable for you. But…” Call winced. “Shit. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. I just mean that I’m touched that you didn’t give up on me.”

Ripley dropped the thread onto Call’s face, making her sputter and swat at her nose.

Ripley chuckled. “You know, that’s actually really nice to hear.”

“Well, I mean it.”

“Hm.” Ripley studied Call quietly, smiling, eyes making small movements. “I’m very lucky that it turned out you were capable of loving me back. Goodman got the short end of the stick on this one.”

That caught Call by surprise. She would like to have been able to say that she would have never fallen for Goodman, even if she’d had the wherewithal to be attracted to him. But the truth was that she would have chosen Goodman. Call had tried to force herself to fall for men for most of her life. If she’d had the stomach for the physicalities, if she’d enjoyed the intimacy at all, she would have ran to Goodman and left Ripley in the cold.

“Huh,” Call whispered. “That is lucky.” She felt herself smile. “I don’t often think of myself as lucky. But. If I was like most women, if I wasn’t a…” Call swallowed. “Then I’d be completely missing out on... you. And what we have.”

“Mm hm.” Ripley hummed affectionately.

Call shook her head slowly. “I can’t imagine not seeing you as...ravishing.”

Ripley laughed. “Ravishing?”

Call scrunched her shoulders and grinned. “Dazzling.”

“Aw.” Ripley reached down and smoothed out Call’s collar. “You wear sappy well.”

“Majestic.”

“That’s pushing it.”

“I have to say it. It’s antitoxin for Goodman’s bullshit.”

“We’re hard skinned. We can ignore whatever he has to say.”

“But we shouldn’t have to put up with him.”

Ripley sighed. “Right. But that’s being idealist. This is a practical situation.”

Call shook her head. “I’ve sucked up to him for years. I want to tell him the truth, see his mind break.”

Ripley looked her right in the eyes. “I’m going to be frank: I really, really don’t think you should tell him about us. He's made it clear who he blames for your sudden distance. And I feel like I just recovered from the last time he punched me.”

Call made a “tsk” sound with her tongue. She put her hand to the side of Ripley's face and tenderly rubbed her thumb over her cheekbone. “I swear to God I’d break his arm,” she muttered.

“You probably would, wouldn't you?”

Call moved her hand from Ripley's jaw and let it fall, tracing a finger along Ripley's lips. “Maybe Goodman's the one who should be afraid. He's got more to lose in pissing us off, doesn't he? Why don’t we scare him into silence?”

Ripley took Call's hand in both of hers. “We need to play nice as much as we can. We have to pool all of our resources. I'll ask you to wait ‘till we’re off the ship before you have a falling out with Good-old-boy.”

Call matched Ripley’s stare, reluctance thickening her throat.

“For me?” Ripley tilted her head. “A fight with a jealous, over-inflated cop is last thing I want right now.”

“Okay,” Call sighed. “I’ll hold out.” She smiled wryly. “You always have good logic.”

“Oh, it's not logic, it's just well-placed hysteria. My uterus happens to be in my head today.”

Call laughed. “Damn you.”

“How about we go out and get the day started?”

“Hmm,” Call looked at Ripley for a few seconds. “Alright,” she whispered. She pushed herself up on her hands and laid a swift, accurate kiss on Ripley’s lips. And then she clambered to her feet. She smiled when she saw that Ripley was actually blushing.

Chapter Text

The day dragged on in repetitive combat drills. The combat maneuvers were getting tighter, the plan more workable. Goodman’s aloofness descended into melancholy; he worked through the motions of war in a catatonic stupor.

At break, Call walked toward the bedroom with Ripley--and Goodman tried to follow. Call immediately turned on him, shooing him halfway out the door frame. “You can’t come in here!”

“Can I talk with you again?” He mumbled.

“No.” Call said. She started to close the door.

“I’m sorry.”

Call reluctantly kept the door from closing. She narrowed her eyes. “Are you?”

Goodman nodded stiffly. “I’m not trying to control you. I just want to see more of you, that’s all.”

“You’ll see more of me once we’re off the Auriga,” she said apathetically, eyes tilting to the side.

Goodman fixed Call with an intense stare. “We might die here, Call.”

“Don’t remind me.”

Goodman sighed heavily. He placed his hand at the top of his forehead.

Call heard Ripley’s footsteps approach from behind. Goodman’s eyes lifted to the space just above Call’s shoulder. His jaw tightened, and Call thought that he might actually be working up the guts to say something to Ripley’s face. But his eyes pirouetted away weakly.

“Would you at least spend dinner with me?” He asked Call. “I mean humor me, once.”

Call might have said something nasty--the venom was on her tongue. But Ripley spoke first.

“Purvis needs both of us to convince him to eat,” said Ripley. “It’s his last meal tonight; he needs Call more than anyone.”

“I’ll join you then.”

“Purvis doesn’t want a Company cop around,” Call said cooly.

“He’s alright with me , isn’t he? We’ve survived a lot together.”

Call didn’t answer. She tilted her head to the side, just enough to catch the brown fabric of Ripley’s shirt in her peripheral vision.

“I’m sorry,” Goodman said, throat thick. “I got upset. I never meant to raise my voice at you.”

“That’s not what I want an apology for.”

“Please. I’m trying. I’m sorry I made you upset.”  

Call watched Goodman with some measure of fascination. This was a state she never expected to see him in; he was pleading, giving up all of his authority.

“Forget about me,” Call said. “She,” Call nodded toward Ripley, “is the one you need to apologize to.”

Goodman looked at Ripley for a full second. And then his eyes snapped right back to Call. “What do I need to say?”

“Apologize for calling her a predator.”

Goodman gawked. The look in his eyes said: ‘ you told her?’

Call waited.

“I have nothing against you personally,” Goodman said to Ripley. “But you have to know that you’re walking in on a very old relationship.”

“I’m closing the door,” said Call.

“I’m sorry,” Goodman said quickly. “I want...company. I want time with you. I just--” He looked at Ripley. “You came out of nowhere. Maybe I’m jealous, alright? You’ve got what I’ve been asking for.”

“I have Call’s company,” Ripley said, “But that doesn’t mean I stole her from you. She makes her own choices--we can agree on that, can’t we?”

Goodman swallowed, and nodded. He moved his eyes back to Call. “Please?” he said quietly.

“Come eat dinner in Purvis’ room if you really want,” Call said blandly. “We won’t be doing much talking.”

Goodman nodded.

Call shut the door on him. She stood, facing the door, hand pressed flat against the wall. She flinched in surprise as Ripley’s lips touched down against the back of her neck. She turned, smiling, and put her hands on the sides of Ripley’s arms.




++++++++

 

Purvis’ room was a little warmer with four people inside it.

The dying man had made a kind of cloth tunic for himself with his two blankets. Call didn’t know if it was a good or bad sign that Purvis still cared about being comfortable. Usually people who were close to death began to let go of bodily needs. Purvis was still hanging tight to life. That was bound make his final moments difficult--for him and for Call.

Dinner was a predictably somber affair. Ripley, Call and Goodman sat in silence, observing a premature wake. Goodman cast Call some sideway glances--but not as many as she’d expected. He was on his best behavior, staying calm and quiet for Purvis.

Call was still seething about the morning’s argument. But on some level, she was also glad to have Goodman present for the wake. Call had sat vigil for dying patients many times in her life--but never with the company of other people. For once, all of her social ties wouldn’t come to an abrupt end after a patient’s death. She had other people to stay alive with.

Goodman, for all his usual bluster, showed a notable amount of courtesy toward Purvis. Goodman was, in the end, someone who cared about others. If he didn’t feed his ego with his altruism, he’d actually be a very nice person. Sitting in silence with Goodman made Call remember the sense of comfort and safety she used to feel around him. It made her wonder, beyond all reason, whether she and Ripley might actually be able to get along with Goodman--after they were off the ship. At least to the point where he’d stop trying to inject himself into their private business.

After an hour or so, Purvis asked to be left alone.

The door to Call and Ripley’s bedroom would be left unlocked. Purvis would know when he was ready. If he couldn’t make his decision by the end of the night, the Alien would make it for him.

 

+++++++++++

 

Call woke to an itching in her inner ear. There was a static crackling inside her head, something pining for attention. Call blinked in the darkness, groggy. Her power levels were a bit depleted from overheating her body, and the world seemed to exist at the end of a short, black tunnel. Call could feel Ripley pressed against her back, a light veil of sweat between their bodies.

She wanted to ignore the itching sensation and go back to sleep, but she realized, sluggishly, that the nagging feeling probably had something to do with the ship’s system. It was a notification, maybe. Or an alarm. Call focused on the crackling--and the signal unfolded. It was a sequence of clicks--long and short, tapping out letters. Morse code. There was a ship approaching. Call parted her mouth, gaping.

“Oh God,” she whispered. Her heart beat out a slow, mournful rhythm. She turned around, carefully, and looked at Ripley.

Ripley’s eyes were shut lightly, every muscle in her face relaxed and serene. She looked astoundingly delicate, her curved lips tilted in the slightest smile. Call watched her quietly for long seconds. And then she gently shook her arm. “Ripley.”

Ripley stirred. She seemed to catch onto Call’s distress quickly, the whites of her eyes gleaming as she waited for Call to speak.

Call swallowed. “A relief ship is coming. It should only be a few hours.”

“Okay.” Ripley gave a small, sad smile and swept her hand over Call’s hair. “Let’s get ready.”

Call sat up and reached for her clothes, every muscle in her body putting on a show of petrification.

Ripley dressed herself more quickly than Call. Without speaking, Ripley picked up her armored vest and slipped it on, joining the buckles along the front.

Call reluctantly pulled on her own jacket, the worn fabric rubbing her skin. She knew that she needed it for its pockets, and its warmth, but she found herself resenting its presence nonetheless. The jacket was a symbol of her life before Ripley. It was the thing that she used to hide in. She’d wear tight-fitting fabric for the rest of her life if Ripley were the only one there to look at her.

Call looked Ripley up and down, a lump forming in her throat. Ripley radiated authority. She wielded intimidation like a delicate tool.

Ripley watched Call in return, a cryptic look in her eyes. She walked up to Call, closing the distance, and touched her hand to the back of Call’s arm.

Call couldn’t look Ripley in the eye. She ran her hand down the front of Ripley’s vest, feeling the stiff edges of the leather, the cold metal of the buckles. She could feel Ripley looking down at her, making the back of her neck prickle.

Call curled halfway into herself. She pressed the side of her face against Ripley’s chest and sobbed tearlessly, shedding her breath until she found it hard to inhale. Ripley wrapped her arms around her. Call looked up, slung an arm over Ripley’s neck and pulled her down into a kiss. Call drank her like a shot glass, taking a hit of light-headedness and looseness. The ridges of Ripley’s vest dug into Call, but she ignored it. Ripley cupped Call’s face with one hand, and cradled the small of her back with the other, pushing her spine into a straighter shape.

Time left them for long minutes. And then it was time to move.



++++++++



“Wake up!” Call took the news into the main room, speaking loud enough to rouse the sleepers. “A ship is coming. Wake up.”

The drifters squirmed in their cots, sunken faces emerging from under their blankets.

“Do you know the details?” Said Goodman anxiously, already on his feet. “Is it the army or is it law enforcement?”    

“I sent out an inquiry through the Auriga. I should get a response soon.”

“Goddamnit,” Johner whined. “Why’d it have to come in the middle of the night?”

“What fucking difference does it make?” Hillard snapped.

“This is the first time I’ve slept since we fucking got here!”

The door on the far wall opened. Purvis creeped out from his cave, his eyes huge behind his glasses. He looked around at the arguing drifters and pulled his blanket cloak tighter.

“It’s gotta be the army,” Johner barked. “No one else knows about this joint, you know? It’s a secret weapons plant.”

“But if the whitecoats sent out a distress signal, the OS guard should be able to find it anyway,” said Christie.

“Quiet!” Call waved her arm at the crew. “I’m getting an information feed.” She put her hands over her ears and sat down, concentrating. “The ship is a neutral party. It’s not even with the Company.”

Hillard curled her upper lip. “Neutral party--like a drifter?”

“Hold on!” Call snapped. She screwed her eyes up in concentration.

The crew made a tight crowd around her, staring at her, trying to read what they could from her changing expressions.

Call cracked a small smile. “The Aliens will be disappointed; It's unmanned, flying on autopilot. It's not a relief ship at all, it’s just a cargo vessel making a routine delivery.”

“What kind of cargo?” Said Goodman.

“Sounds like...a bit of everything. Food, clothing, chemicals...medical supplies.

“Medical supplies?” Ripley said. “Does that include anesthetic?”

“I'm sure it must,” Call said, a small smile touching her lips.

In unison, Call and Ripley turned to look at Purvis, who glanced between the two of them, slack-jawed.

“You're a lucky son of a bitch, Purvis,” Ripley smiled.

“Wait a minute,” said Goodman. “It's been more than six days. Isn't he scheduled to burst any time now?”

“That's true,” Ripley admitted. “Are you willing to risk that, Purvis? You might...have it happen before we make it to the cargo ship. But you’ll have a new chance at surviving.”

“Or,” Goodman protested, “he could burst while he's on the ship, before Call gets a chance to operate.”

Johner spoke up. “And that's assuming that little miss robot even makes it onto the ship. If she dies, Purvis dies.”

“Fine,” Call said, “so Purvis can't be allowed on the ship without me. But It's still worth a shot.”

“No one’s addressing what I just said,” Goodman boomed. “Purvis might burst on the escape ship.”

“If that happens,” said Ripley evenly, “Then someone can shoot it while it’s still a bulge in his chest. Bursting doesn't happen instantly.”

“That's too much of a risk,” insisted Goodman.

Ripley spoke didactically: “Goodman. It will be plainly obvious when Purvis starts to burst; there's no chance that the Alien will ever get outside of his body. And think about it: he'll be a valuable asset. The Aliens won't kill him because he's a host. And I doubt that they'll stop him from getting onto the ship. To them he's a backup Queen.”

Goodman fixed Ripley with an autopilot glower as he mulled the proposal over.

Ripley looked back at Purvis, her face softening. “This is only if you want to go through with this. It’s your choice. You could end it all now, go out peacefully.”

Purvis looked pale and swollen-faced, as if he were about to vomit. “I don't know what the strategy is.”

“The rest of us will handle the bulk of the plan. You just stay close to the group and shoot the Aliens from a safe distance.”

Dread dragged down on Purvis' eyelids. His head lolled around limply. “I’ll go with you.” His lower lip wobbled. “I want to live.”

Ripley nodded.

“We could use the extra hands,” Goodman admitted, sounding tired. “I just feel like an idiot. I can't believe that we're bringing an Alien onto the ship with us.”

“It’s an unborn embryo,” said Ripley. “It’s the least of our concerns right now.”

“So what about the big bomb?” Johner looked Goodman up and down. “You said we’d blow this place back to hell when we left.”

Goodman unclipped the metal cylinder from his belt. “This,” he placed it upright in the center of the room,“ stays right here. I’ll send the trigger code through the transmitter on the escape ship.”

“Wait a minute,” Johner whined. “Don’t act so sure that you’re gonna live. Tell the rest of us the code.”

Goodman paled a bit. “Yeah, alright. Alright. DT-80608. Got that? Send that message in Morse, before you get more than 60 million miles away.”

“You’re gonna have to repeat that about ten more times,” Johner grumbled.

“Write it down on your useless arm,” droned Hillard.

Johner made a lunge for her--but Christie stepped in to hold them apart. “How much time before the ship gets here?” he shouted to Call.

“Two and a half hours,” said Call, “Let's get prepared.”



++++++




Ripley stared at the gate leading out into the hallway, a panic attack waiting patiently in a closed-off pocket of her mind. She’d played comforter for Call--and that had given her the strength to hold down her own anxiety for a good several hours. But now her fear was free floating, condensing in her insides.

She glanced at the crew behind her. They looked like a motley assortment of overgrown children, hefting assault weapons and ammo straps as big and unwieldy as boa constrictors. Goodman had a rocket launcher and a flamethrower, the drifters had pulse rifles. Even Purvis looked comically decked-out, with double belts of machine gun bullets slung across his cloth tunic.

Ripley's eyes settled on Call, standing at the rear of the pack. She was wearing one of the mobile generators on her back like a napsack. Two wires extended from the generator and threaded neatly into sealed incisions at her wrists, setting her fingers alight with sparks. Call had assured Ripley that there was no risk involved with the electricity—it was a non-lethal amount, meant to act as a strong deterrent to the Aliens, not as a weapon.

Still, Ripley worried. She fought against a feeling of heaviness in her head and shoulders, a dead weight which threatened to to drag her towards the ground until she curled into a ball.

Ripley felt her body threaten to tip forward, and she put her hand against the gate to steady herself. She stared for a moment at the five-pointed star of her hand, her glossy knives splayed in all directions.

If I escape with Call , she thought, I might never have to see these claws again.

Ripley straightened back up, exhaling. Her claws brushed the door as she lowered her hand. “Call, open the gate.”

The gate lifted with a prolonged groaning noise. Ripley lead the crew out into the hallway.

Chapter Text

Call’s palms were slick with sweat, water mingling with electricity. She made a quick check of the security cam above the ship hangar, just long enough to assure herself that the swarm was stationary; but not long enough to paralyse herself with dread.

She kept her eyes on Ripley--watching for telltale signs in her body language. If the swarm made headway into the vents, she would be the first to know it.

Days ago, Call might have mistaken Ripley’s gliding stride as a show of confidence and haughtiness, but now she recognized the subtle dizziness in her footfalls. Ripley was falling forward faintly with each step, and then catching herself, pushing herself onward.

Call realized, with some surprise, that she felt proud of her. A week ago, Call wouldn’t have thought she had the authority to feel pride for another person.

Ripley walked the crew to the opening of a side vent--the same opening they’d used to descend from the ceiling over six days ago. Ripley climbed in first and Call took up the rear, switching off her generater pack so as not to electrocute everyone around her.

Even with the electricity off, Call’s hands felt a jolt when they touched down against the metal--the inside of the vent was painfully cold. The breath of the crew members shook tremulously in between fits of gagging. The air in the vents was foul; sulfur, rot, metal, musk. the stench of it was as dense as cotton--it seemed to sink slowly down Call’s throat, making her taste it. Call breathed through her mouth until the stench became bearable.

Call swallowed the saliva pooling in her mouth--and almost choked as sudden “thump” sounded from behind the wall to her left. The thump was followed by soft scuffling sounds, moving in pace with the crew.

Call stared at the wall, eyes flicking back and forth. Her hand itched to hit the switch on the generator pack.

“It’s in the next tunnel over,” someone whispered.

“This one’s a scout,” came Ripley’s voice. “It’s not here to attack us. Keep moving.”

“But it’ll call its family.” That was Johner.

“I think,” said Ripley grimly, “they know where we’re headed. They’ll wait ‘till we surface before they attack.”

“This one’s an escort, is that what you’re saying?”

“More or less. Don’t let it unnerve you.”

Call checked the hangar cam again, making a sweep over the inkblot mass of bodies. The swarm hadn’t moved--the Alien was indeed a lone scout, not the head of a wave of soldiers.

The crew crawled on into the darkness, and the sliding, scuffling noises followed, growing quieter and then louder as adjacent tunnels wound around.

The vertical ladder shaft came into sight up ahead, looming like a solid beam of light. For insurance, Call sealed the gates at either end of the ladder as crew climbed. Call winced as her hands made contact with the frigid metal handles of the ladder.

Ripley reached the top of the shaft, and Call opened the gate. The metal iris unsealed to reveal the pale, oval head of an Alien, ambiguous textures highlighted by flamethrower light. With a brief scuffling of claws, it was gone, the end of its tail falling down the ladder in the second before it disappeared.

Ripley waited for a few seconds before climbing on.

“We’re going where it wants us to go,” whispered Goodman. “That means they’ve set traps.”

“Possibly...but I’ll know it if they’re nearby. They can’t surprise us.”

As planned, Call took the lead at the top of the ladder, reversing the direction of the line. The vents below the ship hangar looked different than the rest of the vents in the ship. They were cleaner, with better polish, suggesting that the ship hangar was newer than the rest of the Auriga.

Call checked the camera, and saw the opposite side of the roof above her head. The Aliens were standing right on top of her, their feet only a number of inches above her back.

Call switched her vision back to her eyes, cold sweat beading at her forehead.

She stuck her hand into her pocket and felt the smooth, rounded surface of the mines. She’d pre-planned the locations for each of the explosives, spacing them out to cover the optimal amount of ground. But the Aliens were acting surprisingly predictable; Call decided she’d better take advantage of their stationary position.

She planted two of the mines beneath the heart of the swarm, the suction sealing with a truncated gasp. After a moment of hesitation, she planted a third--leaving herself with only five more mines to place in the rest of the hangar. She crawled on to the next location, praying that the swarm wouldn’t move until the crew surfaced.

The lone Alien was still in the vents, betraying its presence with the occasional muffled thump. It was a master at traveling in the periphery. Judging by the sounds it made, Call knew that it was allowing itself to get very close to the crew, but it never let itself be seen.

Call didn’t know if it was smart enough to figure out the purpose of the mines, if it would try to remove them. There was really nothing that the crew could do to stop it if it decided to play saboteur. Shooting around a land mine would be disastrous; an early detonation could ruin the whole of the strategy.

More than ten minutes passed in tense darkness, the mines disappearing from Call’s pocket one by one. She placed a mine on either side of the ship hangar, near the walls, and one at the very back of the hangar, close but not too close to the airlock gate. It was tempting, in that moment, to surface next to the airlock gate, to run inside and circumvent the whole of the Alien confrontation. But Call was dissuaded by a vivid image of the swarm flooding into the airlock, just as they’d flooded into the safe area. Acid blood would mix very badly with the thin walls of the airlock. The war would have to take place before the airlock gate was opened--that was the unhappy truth of things.

Call turned the corner and lead the crew toward the far end of the hangar, her breath loud and tinny in her ears. The crew would surface as far away from the airlock gate as possible, placing some healthy shooting distance between themselves and the Aliens.

Call reached into her pocket and fingered her last two mines, thinking about where to place them. She decided that a midway point between the crew and the swarm would be the most advantageous. She could trigger the bomb as the Aliens closed their distance for the attack.

Once again, Call checked the camera. Her heart leaped when she saw that the Aliens’ behavior was changing. They were still grouped in one mass near the gate to the airlock, but they were moving, squirming around each other. Each Alien faced the inside of the group, fixated on something unseen at the center of the horde.

“Ripley,” Call whispered loudly. “What are they doing?”

“I don’t know. I don’t understand. They’re eating something.”

Moving with her reflexes, Call slapped a mine to the ceiling and sealed it. She crawled a little further and and attached the last mine, the the hiss of the suction fading away.

Call realized that the Alien scout had gone silent--she hadn’t heard it in several minutes. It must have slithered to the surface and joined the swarm, in preparation.

Call thought about triggering the mines now, blowing the Aliens while they were still clustered together. But the crew was still too close to the mines to be completely safe from the blast, and the explosions might drive the Aliens down into the vents. The loose grates at the far end of the hangar were growing nearer--Call just had to wait a little longer.

Misting stripes of light appeared in the tunnel ahead. Call moved under them, the bars of light moving up her hands and arms. She rose up on her knees. With a heavy hand, Call lifted the grate a crack and peeked out.

Before her was a wall of Alien bodies; slender, vertebrae-lined backs twisting, tails slithering. They were still busy with whatever was at the center of the swarm, squirming around an unseen object. A dark spotlight surrounded them--they stood inside a patch of floor that was darker than the rest of the hangar.

Call looked beyond the swarm, toward the airlock gate, where she expected to find the wall of eggs. But the eggs were gone--mostly. Looking more carefully, Call could see that there were black tentacles still clinging to the floor, with rotted stumps of flesh attached. It looked as though the eggs had been ripped apart, hauled off, and this confused Call to no end.

Call ran her eyes along the row of egg remains, thinking. Her eyes stopped abruptly when they fell upon the sharp, unnatural edge of a shadow. The shadow was long and thin, like a wire--or a tail. Call’s attention returned to the dark cast surrounding the Aliens. She recognized the jagged shape of a silhouette--the border of a body blanketing the floor.

With dread, Call looked up.

The Queen was hanging from the rafters 50 feet above her children, the ceiling lights back-lighting and highlighting her like a god. Her hands hung down like spiders from threads, sharp fingers curved inward. A single subordinate Alien shared the space with her on the ceiling--it was mouth to mouth with the Queen, feeding her something.

A weight seemed to sink through Call’s body. She followed the sinking feeling back down into the vent, replacing the grate above her.

She found Ripley crouching right next to her, solemn faced.

“Do they know we’re here?” Call asked her.

Ripley nodded.

“Are they waiting for us to open the airlock gate?”

“I think they are...that means that they somehow know that the ship is unmanned. They need us as pilots.”

Call and Ripley both went back up, looking out from the grate.

The Alien mass had thinned a bit, the black bodies diffusing into a looser tangle, and Call was able to see the object at the center of the mass. It was the Queen’s ovipositor tube, or what was left of it. The Aliens were eating it, getting it out of the way so that the Queen could move unencumbered. And now the creatures groomed themselves, wiping away the thick threads of slime coating their mouths and hands.

There were so many. Almost a hundred. But not as many as there could be, Call realized, considering the number of whitecoats that existed before the breakout. She prayed that there wasn’t a second legion of Aliens waiting in another part of the ship.

“What happened to the egg barricade?” Call whispered. “It looks like they tore the eggs apart.”

“...Something in their plan has changed,” Ripley said distractedly. “It’s like they’re getting smarter. If the whitecoats knew that the delivery ships fly on autopilot, the Aliens must have copied that knowledge. Maybe they only recently figured out what it means. They know that they can’t fly the ship without us. And they know that they don’t need the eggs.”

“But I thought they could move the eggs without destroying them.”

Ripley shook her head slowly. “I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. But I think we can be sure about one thing; the moment that gate opens, the Aliens will flood the airlock. Acid holes in the airlock would be bad news--and I think they know that. We need to take out as many as we can before we open the gate.”

“Then I’d better blow the mines now--before they move.”

“Right. Then we pick off the rest while they’re down.”

A few of the Aliens turned in Call and Ripley’s direction, their teeth dripping with slime.

Ripley ducked back into the vents. Call heard her address the crew: “We’re blowing the mines, and moving out immediately after. Get information and stay in formation.”

Call kept her head above the floor. She didn’t consider herself to be a violent person, but the opportunity to see the Aliens blown to smithereens proved too tempting. Most of the creatures were looking in her direction now, lips pulling back. Call could easily project an air of smugness onto those featureless faces. The beasts thought that they were in control, that they’d already won.

Call’s hand found the remote in her pocket, and she keyed in the detonation pattern. With an ear-bursting bang, the ground beneath the Aliens erupted, and then again, and a third time. The Aliens were tossed into the air, bodies spelling gothic letters in the flames. Heat barraged Call’s face. The whole hangar roared with the echoing explosions, making the Aliens fall silently, the bodies hitting the floor without sound.

Ripley's shouts were lost to the noise, but the crew followed her out into the open without prompting. They formed themselves into a makeshift solar system—with the five humans making a tight pack at the center, and Ripley and Call standing apart, free to circle around the outside of the group.

The noise rumbled to a stop, and the Queen was left screaming, thrashing with rage. Her children were wrecked; the survivors scrambling around in confusion, the dead sinking through the floor in expanding pools of acid.

“Open fire!” yelled Ripley, sidestepping away from the shooting range of the crew.

Sound was lost again—gunfire dominating. A few more Aliens disappeared behind plumes of steaming yellow blood, but the rest were spurred into action, regrouping quickly. Their bodies seemed to shake with anger, their hisses vibrating.

The gunfire drummed continuously; but now, every bullet that connected did so by accident. The Aliens swerved wildly, each individual forging a uniquely erratic path in its attempt to move closer to the crew.

Call blew another mine--the last one planted. A single Alien was shot into the air and reduced to pieces, and several others were thrown sideways by the blast. But the Aliens showed a furious drive; they just kept coming. Call tried to gauge their numbers--there were around 40 or 50 left alive, enough to blur the individual bodies into a fluid, black mass.

An Alien lunged forward, making a beeline toward Christie, but Ripley intercepted it. She grabbed it by its neck, by its forehead, and ripped her claws down the crown of its skull, angling the head away to dodge the worst of the acid spray. She threw the body and returned to the crew, circling protectively.

Call heard someone cry out. She whipped around to see Johner struggling with an Alien; it had him by his gun, and it was dragging him--fast--away from the crew.

Call ran at the Alien, hands electrified.

Her eyes closed automatically. She felt her body hit something solid; her hands made contact with a hard, sinewed texture, and she squeezed. The Alien seizured, squealing. It ripped away from Call and sprinted back toward the airlock. Call turned her head to follow its movement—and caught something in her peripheral vision. The Queen was animated. She was biting at the threads of slime attaching her to the rafters. She snapped a thick cord, and several smaller threads broke under her weight, leaving her to dangle precariously.

Call looked back toward the crew, eyes jumping to Ripley.

“Ripley!” She called. “We should start moving toward the airlock!”

“Not yet, there’s still too many!” Ripley took a swipe at an Alien and missed. She lunged forward, grabbed the creature by it’s tail and pulled it to the ground. Her hand flew forward and took its throat out in one smooth movement.

“The Queen is coming!” Call yelled. She didn’t have time to see Ripley’s reaction--her attention snapped to sound of screaming. An Alien had Goodman by the short wick of his hair, by his neck. Call lunged, eyes open this time, and caught the Alien by the tubes on it’s back. In a blur, it was gone, tail leaving a swift gash across the top of Call’s chest as it disappeared. Call took hold of Goodman’s arm, trying to steady him on his feet. The both of them almost fell over as a resounding crash shook the floor.

The tip of the Queen’s long, long tail hit the ground three seconds after her feet. She straightened up, teeth rising toward the ceiling. She screamed, the sinews on her jaws stretching to their limit.

With frantic hands, Call grabbed Goodman’s rocket launcher and slung it over his shoulder. She moved his hand to the trigger. “Drive her sideways!” Call tilted the barrel of the weapon toward the Queen. “Make her move to the left, toward the wall!”

The Queen flung herself toward the crew, stomping along at a shocking speed. Goodman pulled the trigger--the grenade exploded right at the center of the Queen’s chest. The Queen stopped short and staggered backwards, swaying drunkenly, mouth hanging open.

“Again!” Call yelled. She unclipped a grenade from Goodman’s belt and loaded into the back of the launcher.

Goodman just stared, catatonic.

With a frustrated grunt, Call moved the grenade launcher to her own shoulder. She took aim at the right side of the Queen’s body and fired.

The grenade exploded in an orange and black waterfall, like a melting marble. The Queen screamed and took a swerve to the left, a fire blazing at her shoulder. She staggered wildly, moving closer to, and then farther from, the hidden mine in the floor. She stumbled close to the mine, and tilted her head as if about to turn around again-- That’s close enough, Call decided, and she blew the mine.

Yellow light illuminated the bones of the Queen’s underbelly. She was thrown sideways several feet, legs skittering to keep her balance. She lurched to an uneasy stop, her knees wobbling weakly. Her throat rumbled out a rageful hiss, and she pointed her teeth toward Call and Goodman. She took one step in their direction--and her foot went right into an acid hole, sending her toppling face-forward. She landed hard on her chest, little arms bending beneath her. She squirmed weakly, snaking her spine.

Call shoved the rocket launcher into Goodman’s arms. She turned around and looked toward Ripley--who was already taking backward steps in the direction of the airlock. “Head toward the airlock!” she yelled. “Stay in formation, and watch out for acid holes!”

The crew lurched their way toward the airlock gate--dashing and slowing in sporadic intervals, their fingers never lifting from their triggers. Ripley lead them close to the wall, where the ground was at its sturdiest. Acid had claimed a large surface area at the center of the hangar, and the floor around it stooped toward the middle like the earth around a sinkhole. Beneath the sound of gunfire, Call could hear the low groaning of metal; the swan song of the hangar’s bending steel supports.

Call swept her eyes around the battlefield, making another assessment of the Aliens’ numbers. There were fewer now for sure--between 30 and 40 individuals, many of which were trailing blood behind them, drawing thin trenches through the floor.

The Queen was still down, her jaws smearing drool all over the floor. Several Aliens crawled around her, headbutting and nipping, trying to coax her to her feet.

Call looked toward the airlock gate--it was tantalizingly close. A steady, 30-second dash would get the crew there immediately. But the crew couldn’t afford to stop firing for a moment.

An Alien sprung out from a nearby acid hole and made a dash toward Johner, but Call caught it. She squeezed its neck until it froze up, paralysed, and then she shoved back into the acid hole, head first.

Ripley called out: “Come on, keep moving!’

Call turned her head. Ripley was panting, her skin glistening with sweat, hands and forearms painted green.

Footsteps pounded in the periphery, thudding like a deranged heartbeat. The Queen was back on her feet, hurdling toward the crew at full speed.

“Goodman, shoot her!” Call screamed.

A grenade met with the Queen’s face--but she’d anticipated it this time. She took the hit with tensed muscles, only slowing and swaying for a moment, and then she charged on, fire trailing from her jaws.

Call screamed: “Run to the airlock, just go!”

The crew sprinted. The Queen’s footfalls sent shockwaves up Call’s legs. The sharp, bony heels landed closer and closer. Within seconds, she would come barrelling into the crew, trampling and crushing.

But the Queen took an unexpected swerve--she shoved her body into the space between the crew and the airlock. She stumbled to a clumsy stop, her tail whiplashing with follow-through momentum.

The crew was cornered. The drifters immediately started shooting. Bullets ricocheted harmlessly off of Queen’s crest, her body, her teeth. Call couldn’t stop herself from gawking at the dark mass looming over her, sharp spines rising skyward. The Queen’s head pivoted back and forth, following something.

Call felt a chill as she realized what the Queen was fixated on.

“Ripley!” Call yelled. But Ripley was already aware. The Queen lashed out with a gnarled hand, and Ripley nimbly sidestepped out of the way. The Queen grabbed at her again, hissing like a steam engine, and Ripley ducked, staring back at the beast with stony eyes.

Someone yelled. Call whirled around to see Christie engulfed in a brawl. Two Aliens had him at once; they were pulling him, fast, into the swarm. Call sprinted after them. She threw herself forward and landed flat on her stomach, fumbling hands catching hold of a knobby tail. The Alien let go of Christie and immediately turned around for the attack, rolling Call over and pinning her onto her to her back. Its jaws opened. Call had just enough time to notice the red growths on the inside of its mouth. And then her hands flew to the tubes lining the side of its head, the texture tacky at the ridges, smooth at the furrows. Muscled sparks leaped from her fingers, and in an instant the Alien was gone.

Call scrambled to her feet and whipped her eyes around, but Christie was nowhere to be seen. “Fuck,” Call hissed.

And then Hillard was screaming, and Purvis. With Ripley distracted by the Queen, the Aliens were coming on fast, circling closer and closer.

In a split second decision, Call ran at Purvis’ Alien. It had him by the strap of his gun--and Call reached for it’s wrists, taking one in each hand. The Alien managed to shove Call hard before disappearing, making her stagger backward.

Call whipped around--and saw Hillard’s pale limbs thrashing amongst the dark mass of Aliens. The Aliens were trying to tear her gun from her--but she was clinging tight, swearing up a storm. Before Call could act, Hillard twisted the nose of the gun toward the head of an Alien, pulled the trigger, and sent yellow blood spouting in all directions...the bulk of it landing on her.  

Call whipped her head away, blocking out the sound of Hillard’s scream. “Ripley, we have to get to the airlock now!”

“Go! I’ll lead the Queen away!”

Call felt a wave of numbness. “No!”

But Ripley was already running toward the opposite end of the hangar, lancing between the acid holes in the floor. She was fast--impressively fast--now that she didn’t need to limit herself to keep pace with the crew. The Queen careened to the side and staggered after her, roaring. Ripley darted across a minefield of holes--each acid pit the perfect size for trapping an ankle. The Queen slowed, stumbling to a stop. She looked down at her feet and walked tenderly, more or less tiptoed.

“Why’s the Queen only after Ripley?” Yelled Goodman.

Call looked back toward the airlock gate “I don’t know!” Call answered.

Three more Aliens made a dash for the crew--one immediately took a shell to the head and collapsed, but the other two went straight for Purvis. They descended on him, grabbing the strap of his weapon--but before Call could move a muscle, the Aliens were gone again. Purvis was left standing, and swaying, his chest now conspicuously bare. The broken bullet belt from his machine gun sent shells spilling over the floor--and the gun itself was gone from sight.

“Move, move!” Call yelled. “Just run!”

The crew closed their distance with the airlock gate. Absently, Call registered the appearance of the torn-up egg stumps as she passed over them. The stumps were red in places--bloody looking.

Call felt a wash of heat against the side of her body--Goodman was using his flamethrower to scare the Aliens away from the gate. “Call,” he yelled, “get ready to open the gate!”

Call turned back toward the hangar, eyes frantically searching for Ripley. Like a fist to the face, Call saw that Ripley was injured. Her entire right pant leg was painted red. She was limping toward the airlock, sweat and tears streaming. The Queen followed behind her, zigzagging through the pitfalls, slowed down just enough by the trepidated terrain.

“Ripley!” Call cried.

Ripley looked over her shoulder, toward the Queen. After a moment of hesitation, she abruptly veered to the right, breaking from her straight trajectory. She limped over a drooping seam in the floor; an unstable metal fault line.

Call’s head pounded. God, what’s she doing?

Goodman’s voice sounded from behind Call. “Open the gate now! Hurry!”

“Not yet!” Call snapped.

Ripley cleared the fault line, and the Queen followed, giving full view of her long, reptilian body as she turned. Her foot came down at the center of the bending ditch in the floor. With the painful squealing of metal, the ground beneath the Queen buckled. Like an enormous bear trap, the floor rose up and snapped shut, giant plates of metal capsizing and sinking, pulling the Queen down to the next level.

Call’s ears rang as the mass of metal hit the floor below. The Queen made a strangled choking sound. A snaking tail and a snapping set of jaws were all that were visible amidst the tangle of steel structures.

Ripley glanced behind her. She limped onward toward the airlock, her teeth bared in pain, lips contorted into something like a triumphant grin.

The Queen let out a guttural wail. Call felt it as much as she heard it—a pulsing vibration shooting up the bones of her legs. All around the hangar Aliens slowed their movement, their heads wobbling. At once, two dozen Aliens ran toward their Queen, dashing right past Ripley as she continued to hobble toward the gate. The rest continued to swarm the airlock gate, dancing in arcs around the spray of Goodman’s flamethrower

Goodman fixed Call with an angry glare. “Call! The gate was clear!” He sent a huge blast of flame toward a pair of advancing Aliens. “You wasted our chance!”

Call ignored him--she looked back toward Ripley, holding her breath as she closed her distance.

“Call, get ready to open the gate!” Goodman barked.

Call didn't listen. She ran forward and grabbed hold of Ripley’s wrist, slinging her arm over her shoulder. She lurched forward, halfway dragging Ripley.

“Come on, come on!” Goodman shouted. An Alien took a clumsy swerve into the flame and caught fire. It sprinted back into the hangar in a pall of smoke, screaming.

Call crossed over the remains of the eggs. Ripley’s limp leg dragged over the shriveled black tentacles. Her damp breath brushed Call’s neck. “I open the gate on the count of three,” Call yelled. “One!”

Goodman shook the nose of his flamethrower, sending a snaking whip of flame toward the lingering Aliens.

“Two!”

Johner sent a shower of bullets back toward the hangar, mowing down a couple of the Queen’s altruists.

“Now! Get under the gate!” Call lifted the gate of the airlock to provide a four-foot high opening. She pulled Ripley down and under. She counted one-two-three of the other crew members. Purvis took a second and a half too long to get himself under the gate. Call waited for him--and then slammed the gate shut as fast as possible.

The airlock was almost completely dark--lit only by intermittent rings of LED’s which followed the square shape of the tunnel. The silence was broken by the sound of clacking claws trailing all over the ceilings and walls.

“Fuck,” Call whispered. She looked around, trying to track the sounds. “How many are in here?” She asked Ripley.

Ripley’s breathing was heavy, her voice hoarse. “Four...or five. Fuck, a lot of them got in here.”

“What do we fucking do about that?” Johner growled. “We shoot them in here and we’ll be sucked out to space.”

“Goodman,” Call said. “You’ve still got flamethrower fuel left, right?”

“I’ve got enough,” he answered. “I’ll try and lose them at the next gate.”

Call took a step--and immediately stopped short as Ripley let out a strangled cry. Ripley tensed into a knot of pain. Hissing sounds emanated from her throat--and from below her feet. In the dim light, Call could make out dark, shallow holes in the floor, steam rising.

“She’s going to eat through the hull of the escape ship!” Goodman exclaimed.

Call ignored him. She moved her hand down to apply pressure to Ripley’s wound--and stopped herself at the last second. Her head pounded in frustration. A lifetime of acquiring medical experience, and she couldn’t use any of it to help the woman she loved. Bandages, stitches; all of it was useless--nothing could stem the bloodflow.

“Did you hear me?” Goodman shouted. “She’s going to eat through the hull of the ship, we can’t bring her on! She shouldn’t even be in the airlock!”

“Shut up!” Call snapped.

Ripley’s wound was not very wide, but it was horribly deep. Call feared that Ripley might have a tear in her femoral artery; she’d already lost so much blood. Call pulled her roll of gauze from her pocket and leaned down to tie a tight loop around the top of Ripley’s thigh, cutting off circulation.

As she stood back up, Ripley’s hair brushed her skin--it was damp, from tears and sweat. Call quickly wiped the tears from Ripley’s face, and then she kissed her, closing her lips against Ripley’s shaking breath. “We’re almost there,” Call whispered. She pulled Ripley onward, shouldering as much of her weight as possible.

Goodman was staring at her, stony faced.

“Keep moving!” Call barked at him.

The crew lurched and limped down the airlock, moving closer to the second gate. The Queen’s violent scream echoed from the hangar, followed by the low groaning of metal. Call felt a chill down her spine.

Moving shapes came into view up ahead. The dim lights of the airlock brushed the backs of the the Aliens crawling over the gate--but the light didn’t reach the gate itself. The effect was reminiscent of something aquatic, like fish swimming in a pond at night.

Another scream echoed, flowed by a rhythmic crashing. The Queen was loosening her restraints.

“Do you think the Queen can get free?” Call whispered to Ripley.

“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Ripley growled.

There was a louder crash, the sound of metal twisting.

“Stand back,” said Goodman, raising his flamethrower to the Aliens. “This could get ugly if they catch fire.” The airlock tunnel turned bright orange, light spiraling around a white string of flame. The Aliens squealed and shuffled to the other side of the gate. Goodman swung the fire in high arches, but the Aliens were tricky; they scattered in different directions, confusing his aim.

The ship hangar rang with distant screeches, both metallic and vocal. Call’s hair stood on end. She felt sure that the Queen’s trap wouldn’t hold for much longer.

The Aliens made a mad dance, scattering from Goodman’s flame, threatening to run him dry of his fuel.

Goodman took his finger from the flamethrower trigger, sweat dripping from his nose. He looked back at Ripley. “She’s still bleeding,” he said irritably.

Call’s teeth were pressed together so tightly that they ached. She had to pry her jaw open to speak. “Look, there’s got to be cleaning chemicals on the cargo ship. A strong base, alright? We’ll use that to neutralize the acid.”

The metal screeching ceased. And Call heard a sound that made her blood run cold. Thud, thud, thud--the Queen was on her feet again.

On reflex, Goodman squeezed his trigger and let out a concentrated jet of flame. One of the Aliens was caught in the fire, its body combusting rapidly. It made a wild, writhing dash at the crew.

Call yelled as the burning Alien lunged at her; she pulled Ripley backward protectively. The Alien made a sharp turn and stumbled close to Purvis, arms spread as if it were about to grab him. But two of the other Aliens intercepted it. They ran it through with the ends of their tails, holding it at a distance, the way a metal worker handles hot iron.

“Did you see that?” Goodman exclaimed. “They tried to protect Purvis--they know Purvis has one in him!”

A resounding “crash” sounded from the opposite end of the airlock. The Queen was at the first gate; she was forcing her way through.

“Fuck!” Johner yelled, ”Open the fucking gate!”

“Purvis, don’t move!” Yelled Goodman.

Before Purvis could react, Goodman sent a jet of fire in his direction, missing by a half-foot. Purvis screamed and stumbled backward.

Call opened her mouth to yell at Goodman--but she held her breath as her ears snapped to a new sound; the four surviving Aliens were hissing angrily. They slowly crept toward Goodman, crawling off of the gate.

“This is how we distract them,” said Goodman, the nose of his flamethrower locked on Purvis.

Another crash exploded from the first gate. The Queen’s roar echoed through the airlock.

“We’ll use that tactic at the next gate!” Call yelled. “We have to move now!” Call opened the second gate. In a blur, the four Aliens sprinted through, onto the next leg of the tunnel.

“You let all of them in!” Goodman snapped.

But Call was already helping Ripley through the gate, dragging her along. She shut the gate as soon as Ripley’s bleeding leg was through.

The crew hobbled down the last leg of the airlock with adrenalized speed.

The next gate looked the same as the last, four Aliens forming sinuous symbols over its surface. Johner fired a burst of shots at Purvis’ feet, making him yelp. As if on command, the Aliens slowed their squirming turned toward the gunman, growling. They crawled off of the gate and snaked in Johner's direction.

Ripley spoke next to Call’s ear. “Call--you should take this chance to run ahead and tap into the ship.”

Call tensed up. The thought of leaving Ripley’s side for a moment gave her a rock in her stomach.

“She’s right,” Goodman said, “That ship has to be ready to go the second we pass the last gate.”

You could hack the ship, couldn’t you?” Call pleaded

Goodman gave her a wide-eyed glower. “Call, you can do it ten times faster than me, you know that!”

An Alien lunged at Johner, hand swiping at his gun. Goodman sent a burst of fire in its direction, sending it scrambling backward.

“Go, now!” Ripley yelled, giving Call a push. “We’ll be right behind you!”

Call winced. She sprinted past the Aliens and reached the final gate. She glanced behind her, making sure that the Aliens weren’t following her--and then she lifted the gate and slid under with unbroken momentum. The gate slammed shut an inch from her feet.

The cargo ship was positioned immediately behind the gate, the polished dome of its bow greeting Call with a stretched-out image of her own reflection.

These types of delivery vessels were pill-shaped and reversible, with a dashboard at either end. They were meant to travel linearly, on a straight trajectory, and then immediately reverse direction and fly back to their base. This was an international model--which meant that it was launched from a factory planet somewhere in between nations. If it returned to its dock with an Alien Queen, the creatures would have the means to swiftly distribute themselves to every corner of human habitation.

Call used the Auriga’s security frequency to alert the ship’s AI, demanding that it release its cargo. With a depressurizing hiss, the sides of the pill folded down, revealing a spacious interior filled to the ceiling with crates. Call ran on board and closed the hull behind her, making her way to the front dashboard. The rest of the crew would enter through the hatch underneath of the bow; it was smaller, with less room for any stray Aliens to worm their way inside.

Call pulled one of her wrist-wires from her generator pack. She connected the loose end to a socket at the dashboard and clenched her jaw against the system shock.

The ship’s AI was big for such a small vessel. It sat in a sprawled out heap at the ship’s heart, nerve endings coiled through the belly. The AI harbored decent security capabilities. It was potentially strong enough to forcefully eject Call from the system--but its senses were dull. Call easily evaded detection, sneaking around the AI mass and accessing the ship’s vital functions. She melded her nerves with the ship’s, unlocking the hatch and taking hold of the controls. The ship’s thrusters hummed, warming up.

Call unhooked the wire and dashed out through the hatch, returning to the closed gate.

“Ripley, Goodman!” Call yelled, carrying her voice through the gate. “The ship is almost ready. I just need to set the new coordinates.”

“Give us more time” Ripley answered. “The Aliens are too close to the gate!”

Call heard the roar of a flamethrower, the angry squeal of an Alien.

Goodman’s voice sounded: “Call, are you still in the Auriga’s system? You’re going to need to pull out soon.”

Call swallowed--she’d almost forgotten. Shortly after the cargo ship passed through the final airlock gate, it would take off at many thousands of miles an hour. Call’s mind would snap like a string if it was still attached to the Auriga.     

Call unlocked the third airlock gate, allowing the crew to manually open it from the inside. Then, like plucking a hair, she detached herself from the Auriga’s system, relinquishing control of the gates.

“Grace!” said Ripley’s voice. “Go ahead and set the coordinates, we’ll be there soon!”

A metal screech echoed through the airlock. The second gate was bending and buckling, making way for the Queen.

Call felt faint. “Come in here now!” she screamed. “The gate’s unlocked!”

“Not yet!” Ripley responded.

Call’s head pounded with frustration. She ran back onto the ship, headed for the rear dashboard, which housed the navigation interface. At this point, she didn’t give a fuck if any stray Aliens climbed aboard the ship; she just wanted to see Ripley make it to safety.

Distractedly, Call selected a destination--a trade station on the Union border. She keyed in the coordinates--and then immediately went back on the decision. Setting flight for a Union station would be sheer stupidity; the Union monitored incoming ships too closely. Call couldn’t bear the thought of escaping the Auriga only to be locked up for hijacking a cargo vehicle. She selected a drifter hub instead; a dangerous scene, but light on cops, at least. The drifter hub was off the map, unregistered, and it took a frustrating amount of finagling to lock the coordinates.

Call was thrown backwards suddenly, the ground seeming to jump from under her feet. The ship is moving, she thought, numbly. Why is the ship moving?

Call squeezed through the crates in the cargo belly and made her way to the opposite cockpit. With elation, she saw that Johner was strapping himself into a chair; Goodman stood behind him, staring at a screen on the dashboard.

Call’s flicker of relief was short lived. Her eyes frantically scanned the cockpit, anxiety constricting in her chest. “Where’s Ripley and Purvis?”

Goodman stood up slowly. He looked at her, and looked away, eyes swerving shamefully.

“Where’s Ripley?” Call demanded.

“There was no way, Call,” his voice was thick, strangled.

“You left her!” Call screamed.

“She was too slow, there’s nothing I could have done! That thing was about to tear through the last gate! They were coming--they’d have flooded inside--I had to close the door!”

“You left her for dead,” Call meant to scream, but her voice came out as a breathless wheeze.

“I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t let the whole fucking swarm inside...”

Goodman’s voice faded into muffled noise as Call swayed with light headedness. Her vision started to turn red.

Call’s ears tuned back into Goodman’s voice: “...I know it’s difficult now. But you’ll move past it. From now on, things will be just like they were a week ago; nothing’s change--”

That was all that Goodman had time to say before his jaw was knocked sideways. He opened his eyes, gawking at Call. Call grabbed him by his shirt collar and threw him to the ground, his shoulder landing with a satisfying “crack.” Call was beside herself. Her hands seemed to fly of their own accord, vaulting against the bones of Goodman’s face. She was screaming at the top of her lungs, the sound of it distant to her own ears; “I love her, Goddamn you! I love her!” She felt Goodman’s nose flatten, felt his resistance ebb, but her fists kept on landing, attacking the head--and only the head.

With a feat of willpower, Call reeled herself in while Goodman still had a pulse. She stilled her arms, her shaking fists uncurling into claws at the skin of Goodman’s bloodied face. She cleared the redness from her vision, panting.

Call clambered off of Goodman and turned around.

Johner shrunk into his chair, staring at Call with wide eyes.

Call tried to tell the ship to stop. She pushed through layers of security, searching for some kind of emergency shutdown protocol. But the cargo ship was a stupid machine, governed by regulation and routine. It was set on its linear route, and Call couldn’t reroute it--not without manually disengaging the engine and restarting the entire system. And she didn’t have the fucking time.

Call ejected her consciousness from the cargo ship’s system. In a split second decision, she ripped open a box of medical supplies, stuffing syringes, skin melds, anything, into her pockets. And then she dashed for the hatch, stepping on Goodman’s chest as she ran over him.

THE HATCH CANNOT BE OPENED WHILE THE SHIP IS IN MOTION, said a polite female voice.

“Bitch!” Call growled. She dug her fingers under the edge of the hatch and pulled up with all of her strength. Hinges screeching, the hatch started to give, widening like a surprised eyelid. It wasn’t opening nearly fast enough, and Call screamed through clenched teeth. She pushed her feet against the floor, boots scraping the metal, making her whole body into a jacklift.

At last, the hatch opened enough that Call could fit her body through. She jumped out, and the hatch snapped shut behind her. She set off running, back to the Auriga, her footsteps clapping down the airlock tunnel. The escape ship continued to drift slowly in the other direction, leaving her behind.

Chapter Text

Call gritted her teeth and forced her legs to fly faster. If the ship reached the final gate while she was still in the last leg of the airlock, she’d be sucked out to open space in an instant.

Call felt, or imagined that she felt, the bass of heavy footsteps pounding in the distance.

Within seconds, Call approached the nearest airlock gate--and saw that she wasn’t alone in her efforts to get back inside the Auriga. Two Aliens crawled over the gate, twining around each other. Call felt a renewed sting of anger at Goodman’s idiocy. His decision to double cross Ripley hadn’t even succeeded in keeping the Aliens from the final gate.

Call couldn’t help but slow to a walk as she approached the Aliens, her hands curling instinctively. Evidently, the two creatures had given up on trying to board the escape ship. It made sense, Call supposed; the Aliens had failed to bring either of their Queens with them, the adult or the embryo. There was no long term reward in launching a couple of sterile subordinates into the stars.

But there was more to it than that...Call noticed that the Aliens’ heads were wobbling in unison, switching back and forth as if tuning into the same radio signal. They seemed not to notice Call--they were too fixated on whatever was behind the gate.

Call felt very afraid of what she might find in the next leg of the airlock--but she couldn’t let herself hesitate. She hit the button next to the gate. She noticed, as she did so, that the gate had been locked from the outside--Goodman had sealed Ripley in.

Call tensed, preparing to confront the Queen.

The gate lifted to reveal--nothing. The airlock was empty. The two Aliens set off running down the tunnel, scattering in zigzags. Call slammed her hand against the button, sealing the gate, and sprinted after the Aliens.

Call’s heart thundered in her ears. She threw her feet as fast as she could, as fast as her design limits allowed.

Already, Call could see the ruins of the second gate. The metal had been pushed aside, bended outward around a vertical tear that ran ceiling to floor. The Aliens slipped through the gash and Call followed immediately after, her breath tearing past her lips.

As the chase continued down the final leg of the tunnel, the distance between Call and the Aliens widened. Panic flickered at the base of Call’s brain. She desperately wanted to run faster.

The light from the ship hangar brushed the inside of the airlock tunnel, filtering through a jagged gash, almost identical to the wreck of the second gate.

The Aliens passed through the opening, their bodies casting rays of shadow as they moved through the misting light.

Not wanting to break her momentum, Call grabbed the jagged edge of the gash and vaulted herself through the gate. Her feet landed less than a yard from a gaping acid whole--and she spitefully slowed to a stop. The foundations of the ship hangar groaned quietly, the acid holes making soft sighing sounds as cold air wafted up from the lower floors.

The Aliens scurried easily over the trepidated terrain; they snaked along with unbroken momentum. Before Call could move a muscle, the two of them slipped down an acid hole near the center of the hangar and disappeared.

“Fuck,” Call spat. In a surge of adrenaline, she set off again, running around the edge of the hangar, close to the wall. Her panic at losing sight of the Aliens was irrational; Call knew where the creatures were going. She didn’t need an escort. But the idea of the Aliens reaching Ripley before she did enraged her; it made her feel all the more late and helpless.

The ship hangar harbored a thick atmosphere. The sound of Call’s footsteps died quickly, echoing only once, as if the horrific violence of the past half-hour had left the room in a state of quiet shock.

Call dashed into an adjacent hallway, making her way to the nearest elevator. By now, she had a large part of the Auriga’s map memorized, and she let her mind’s eye guide her through the hallway.

It occured to Call that she could tap back into the ship’s system--but she dismissed the idea. Only the very top floors of the hulk had functioning electrical systems. There was only one direction for Call to go in--down--and she’d be far away from the lighted, heated parts of the Auriga soon enough.

Call found what she was looking for, set into the wall of the hallway like a gnarled set of teeth. The doors of the elevator had been pushed aside, torn apart, much like the gates of the airlock.

Call felt a sudden wave of dizziness as she imagined the Aliens carrying Ripley; dragging her down with them. They don’t kill people right away, Call told herself, blinking the light-headed blackness from her vision, they want to keep her alive.

Call peeked inside the shaft, switching on her night vision. The first thing that she did was touch her electrified hands to the cables, and the walls. If there was anything waiting to ambush her, above or below, then it would feel the shock.

Call didn’t hear any angry hisses; just the quiet twanging of the cables, the rustle of air currents. She switched off her generator pack. She tied some gauze around her hands, sticky side inward to avoid chafing. And then she wrapped her hands around a cold, metal cable and began her descent, sliding down the wire as if it were a firepole.

Call watched the walls sprint upward around her, the grooves in the metal animating, trembling like spider legs. Floors passed by rapidly, each elevator door making a faint “whooshing” sound as it flew by. Call could feel the temperature dropping, frigid air blowing right through her jacket.

In the lower floors, the walls changed. The uniform metal grooves of the elevator shaft gave way to indescribable textures, beginning with a thin veil of clear slime which transitioned into heavy black growths.

The walls closed in on Call as the growths thickened. The bony, leathery flanks seemed to undulate as she descended.

Call squeezed the cable and slowed to a stop near the door to the fourth floor. The entrance was covered in a sheet of clear sinew; but it looked passable. Call reasoned that the Aliens must have taken Ripley to somewhere on the bottom floors, where the hive was at its most developed. The fourth floor was a good place to start; Call would make a sweep of each level and work her way down.

Call reached out a hand took hold of the sinews by the elevator door. She transferred her weight carefully, tugging at the threads of slime to make sure they’d hold her. As she did so, she glanced down, toward the bottom of the shaft, and felt her heart leap.

She could see something moving minutely in the darkness. Call froze, pulse pounding. With a wash of relief, she realized what she was seeing; water. Her movements on the cable were making small ripples in the stagnant water below.

The appearance of the pool was surreal. The water was pitch dark--it seemed to stare up at Call like a glossy black eye, unperturbed by the metal cables piercing it’s lense.

Call grabbed onto the sinew and clawed her way to the metal ledge of the door. She pushed herself through the mess of threads, snapping fibers wherever she could. Slime sucked at her skin, tugged at her clothes. It smelled awful; a concentrated sample of the Aliens must. The feeling of the slime was sickening--it was uncomfortably warm compared to the freezing air surrounding it. With a twist of her back, Call broke through to the other side. She started down the hive-altered hallway, feet slipping over the uneven ground.

Her eyes darted around of their own accord, flickering back and forth nervously.

The lower parts of the Auriga were not completely dark, as Call had expected. Battery-powered backup lights lit the halls at irregular intervals, the little white bulbs casting shadows through nets of sinew. The lights did little to brighten the whole of the hallway--the hive material seemed to absorb all reflected light. Instead, the lights illuminated select patches of alien texture, taking abstract snapshots in the darkness.

Call stepped carefully over the ribcage-like growths on the floor, the backbones of which grew over and around each other like intertwining tree roots. She was hyper aware of the amount of noise she was making, her boots scraping against the rough, damp surface of the floor, occasionally snapping a thin strip of sinew. Call didn’t trust the unholy silence of the hive. Something must be able to hear her.

Call shivered uncontrollably. Her breath left her in visible clouds, it’s pure white color misrepresenting the miserable smell that it carried. The Aliens’ scent was all-consuming, sharp and moldy, masking the metal--and the rot.

Call took care not to stare at the faces in the walls, at the open chests and open mouths. She pushed on, straining her ears for sounds of movement, praying for a lead that would guide her toward Ripley.

After long minutes spent skulking through hell, Call concluded that the fourth floor was simply too quiet to hold any life. She made her way to the nearest fire ladder.

The fire ladder was a visual relic of the Auriga’s former self. It was untouched by hive material--the Aliens had the good sense to leave entrances and exits passable.

Call grabbed hold of the freezing ladder and began to climb down.

She scanned the space below her as she climbed, watching for movement. Her pace slowed as she registered the appearance of the room around her. She couldn’t understand what she was looking at.

The room was filled with Alien embryos--dead ones. They were heaped everywhere, bodies making little, white “S” shapes over the floor. Call climbed off of the ladder and knelt down for a closer look; she could see that each creature had a neat puncture wound at its forehead. Beneath the translucent skin, Call could make out red structures; veins.

Not wanting to waste time, Call stepped out into the hallway, only to be confronted by another pile of bodies--adults this time, the corpses stacked up to the ceiling. Call’s heart pounded, the sight of the familiar, toothy faces giving her a habitual adrenaline rush. Once again, each Alien sported a neat puncture wound at the front of its head. And veins--they all had the red veins. On the adults, the blood vessels covered the outside of the skin; a circulatory system made external. In places, the veins ballooned into tumors, collecting around the mouth and the throat.

When did this happen? Call’s head swam. Is the air on the ship toxic to them? Or is this something genetic?

A loud “thud” sounded from the floor below Call, making her jump back from the dead Aliens, instinctively. The thud was followed by a splash, and then a scream, hellish and inhuman. It was echoed by another scream--a fearful wail.

Call’s eyes watered. Ripley.

Call ran back to the fire ladder and climbed down, fingers slipping over the coat of ice dressing the handholds. The cages, she thought, They’re in the cages.

Another monstrous scream sounded.

Call looked down, toward the bottom of the ladder, and immediately slowed.

The second floor was almost completely flooded. The fire ladder ended in a wall of stagnant black water, its reflection jutting out at an odd right angle.

With a shuttering exhale, Call climbed down the ladder and submerged herself, feet first, then her legs, her waist, all the way up to her shoulders. Call gasped at the stinging coldness of the water. She flailed her numbing legs, hoping to make contact with something solid, but the bottom was out of reach. particles of grit and debris brushed her skin, working their way up her sleeves.

Call superheated her core, warding the stiffness from her muscles. And then with a deep, shaking breath, she began to swim. She breastrsroked her arms, kicked her legs. She moved frustratingly slowly; her clothes were heavy in the water. In a quick decision, she unstrapped her ruined generator pack and let it sink toward the bottom, shedding the extra weight. She grabbed fistfulls of tools from her outer pockets and moved them to openings on the inside lining. She knew that any item dropped in this murk would be irretrievable.

Call swam on, kicking harder. A thin skin of ice parted to her touch as she cycled her arms through the water. She tried not to think, tried not to hesitate. She didn’t know if the Aliens could sense her, if they could feel all of the ripples and splashes that she was making in the otherwise stagnant water.

Her leg bumped into something hard, and she gasped. Her heart raced. She expected at every second to be dragged under by an unseen hand. She realized that she was hyperventilating, her body growing weak from lack of oxygen.

Call forced herself to breathe slower--in through her nose, out through her mouth. She turned her eyes toward the ceiling, away from the water. Here, the hive material sported a coating of ice, the black bones encased in a crystal skin. The dark tunnel ahead of Call shimmered with frost, like stars.

Time passed in soft water sounds, the strange textures of the ceiling steadily floating by. The hive growth parted in places to reveal riveted metal panels, and the occasional grated vent opening. Call passed under a light fixture, and noticed a black, glassy orb set into the ceiling; a security camera.

In that moment, Call vividly remembered sneaking down the hallway in the dark, her knife feeling hard and conspicuous in the lining of her coat. That had been an entire lifetime ago; her last moment spent floating in ambiguity before she discovered herself.

A loud splash sounded from up ahead, snapping Call back to the present. A scream echoed--the Queen’s--rumbling so loud that it sent vibrations through the water. Call had no doubt now as to which cage Ripley was being held in. Call pushed herself to swim faster, heading back to the place where she first met Ripley.

The hive structures of the hallway thickened, and Call’s head now came within a foot of the ceiling. She reached up and grabbed hold of the icy bones and sinews, using them to pull herself along.

Soon, she was forced to slow down. The path ahead of her was blocked. A crop of eggs lined the ceiling, the leathery flanks laced with thin red veins.

Call took a deep breath and dove under, the cold crushing her head like a brick. She swam under the eggs--and discovered, to her dismay, that the eggs covered not just the ceiling, but the walls and floor as well, leaving her with a narrow, airless path to swim through.

The coating of eggs continued down hallway; a thick wall of plaque on the inside of an artery. Call kicked off against the skins of the eggs, pulled at the lips of the openings, clawing herself along as fast as possible. Her lungs started to burn, panic welling up in her throat. In a moment of desperation, she swam up to the ceiling, clutched at the leathery skins and pushed, shoving her head up into a gap between eggs. She gulped in the air pocket, recovering. Opening her eyes, she saw that a diseased facehugger shared the space with her, its legs wiggling faintly. She plunged back down and kept swimming.

The tunnel of eggs had a break in it--the wall to Call’s right gave way to an open doorway, faint rays of light filtering into the water. Call kicked hard and passed through the door, into the cage.

Suddenly, Call felt movement all around her. Smooth heads brushed past her; powerful tails made currents in the water.

Call’s heart hammered. Her reflexes took her to the surface--she came up gasping, breathing in the spray of her own panicked splashing. Pain erupted at her chest, and she shut off her nerves instinctively.

The stinger pierced her belly with more force than a bullet. Call immediately played dead. She let herself float on her side, watching the writhing surface of the water through half closed lids.

An Alien head surfaced right next to her, water running down the smooth dome of it’s skull. It seemed to assess Call, droplets of water passing from its teeth to Call’s face in intermittent splashes. After a long stretch of seconds, the Alien lost interest and dove back under, the tubes on its back cresting the water before it disappeared.

Slowly, carefully, Call rolled herself onto her back, maintaining a state of forced calm. She swept her eyes across the room around her, taken aback by its size. The wall between Ripley and the Queen’s cages had been dissolved completely, the two cylindrical cells joined into one sweeping dome. The hive structures that coated the conjoined cages were well-developed, grandiose. Black bones swept across the rounded walls of the room in gothic arches, sinews making abstract reliefs in the margins. The ceiling of the cages was gone completely. The roof of the chapel carried all the way up to the security room above.

Call’s heart skipped as her eyes found what they were looking for; Ripley was cocooned to the wall, arms spread-eagled, bound with slime. She looked so small in contrast with the grandness of the room, so helpless. Call stared, eyes stinging, trying to think of what to do.

Suddenly, something moved under the water--something huge. Call felt it’s current, rushing deep beneath the surface like an undertow. The whole pool swelled and then hollowed, Alien heads bobbing at its rolling surface. The Queen rose from the water. She stood up, and up, water pouring from every jagged edge and smooth surface. Her displaced mass made suction in the water, pulling Call closer to the spindly mountain of her body.  

The Queen growled gutturally. She set her face level with Ripley’s and moved in closer.

Chapter Text

Ripley looked at the Queen from the corners of her eyes. All that she could do to hide was twist her head to the side, bury her face in her shoulder.

The sweat in her eyes provided another feeble layer of protection; it reduced the monster’s image to a blur of gray and blue and black, as if Ripley were viewing her through a clouded window.

Ripley closed her aching eyes. Bitter thoughts pounded in her brain like a funeral bell.

She had almost made it. She had been within yards of the escape ship. But Goodman had gotten there first. He’d locked the door. She’d screamed to him, pounded on the gate--and then the swarm came, and the Queen, rising up to greet her like the black bottom of a well.

Ripley wasn’t bleeding anymore; the Queen had made sure of that. She’d taken Ripley in her huge, gnarled hands and dressed her wound a with a fast-drying coat of slime, sealing it.

She’d cradled Ripley close to her chest as she carried her. Ripley had felt the paralysing fear of a prey animal, her arms hanging down limply from the gaps between the Queen’s fingers.

The Queen took her down, and down, the surroundings getting darker and colder by the minute. Somewhere, a chord in Ripley’s heart stretched and stretched until it snapped, leaving her breathless.

Call was thousands of miles away, distance growing by the second.

Call was safe--that was a thought that should give Ripley comfort. Call was safe, and Ripley should be glad for her--that was the right thing to feel. But in her cocoon at the bottom of a freezing, stinking pit, all that Ripley had the could feel was seething resentment. She’d been left behind. Her happy future had been ripped from her skin like an IV chord--and now all that was left of her life was the goddamn fucking Aliens.

Ripley fought, one last time. She flexed her arms and twisted her body against her restraints, pushing, tearing, screaming through clenched teeth.

The Queen roared, loud enough to send shockwaves through Ripley’s bones. Her breath berraded Ripley--a current that was colder and damper than the surrounding air. Ripley screwed her eyes and turned her head away, ears ringing. Her body melted into helpless shivers, hot tears burning her cheeks.

She ran away to a safe part of her mind; a recently carved out enclave, furnished with sensory memories of Call. Ripley imagined her soulful eyes, her reluctant smile. Her heart tied itself in a knot, aching in the imitation of joy.

The Queen let out a satisfied hiss. She’d broken Ripley--she had her where she wanted her.

Ripley slowly opened her eyes. She could see the Queen in sharper focus now. Her teeth were long and clear as glass. The skin folds above her mouth were wrinkled in the mimic of a glare.

You’ve finally got me, you bitch, Ripley thought, hopelessness making her bold. So what are you going to do with me?

The Queen took a rasping inhale, as if about to scream--but the noise that rumbled out from her throat was startlingly quiet. Ripley felt it in her chest--thud thud thud--pounding out at two beats per second. The noise was so much like a heartbeat that it confused Ripley’s perception of her own pulse. It gave her a crawling feeling up and down her spine. She resisted for as long as she could, holding her breath, tensing all of her muscles. But the pulses took hold of her nervous system, and with a silent “click,” a connection was made.

Ripley inhabited two bodies at once. She had a single circulatory system maintained by two hearts, the veins separated by a few feet of air. The Queen’s exoskeleton, and Ripley’s endoskeleton, were of a piece; two black skulls sharing one grin. Ripley could feel all the inner workings of the Queen’s body, of her own.

The Queen had an illness; Ripley could feel it. Something had gone horribly wrong in her abdomen. The lives growing inside of her--inside of the eggs--were giving off the wrong pulses. They were sickly and weak. Beyond that, the Queen had growths in her belly; warm, living tissue, standing in stark contrast with the rest of the Queen’s cold body.

The Queen dropped the connection, wheezing with exhaustion.

Ripley gulped in air, trying to reorient herself. It was her own DNA that was doing this to the Queen--it must be. The Queen had internal mutations; a progressive sickness that was rendering her infertile.

The Queen’s pulses began again. “No!” Ripley growled. But the Queen pushed past her skull. A nauseating current ran like water through the grooves of her brain.

Ripley was no longer inhabiting the Queen’s body--this time, the link was with the mind. The Queen dragged Ripley’s consciousness through her own, pulling her down specific crevices, showing her exactly what she wanted to show her.

The Queen’s cognitive processes contained no words, but her thoughts were thorough, written in vivid sensory detail; sounds smells and all. Ripley saw the world from a high perspective, through colorless, primitive eyes. She felt what the Queen was feeling. Her emotions arrived in simple, isolated bursts of chemicals.

The Queen was afraid, just as she had been the last time Ripley took an involuntary tour of her mind. The Queen feared her subjects. She knew that her control over them was not indefinite; they only protected and cared for her as long as she fulfilled her reproductive duties. And she had great reason to worry. In recent days, the Aliens had started feeding her a special secretion; an enzyme that would increase the number of Queen eggs that she produced. Ripley understood her situation; she was a monarch at a precipice, tasked with birthing her replacement. She was at death’s door, ripe for the wrath of a violent coup--unless she found a way to end her disease. Or...at least a way to appease and placate her restless swarm of children.

With a painful jolt, the pulses reversed. The Queen’s consciousness leaped from her own mind and into Ripley’s. Pain exploded at Ripley’s temples, making her cry out. Smudges of color smeared over her vision, as if someone were running their fingers over her eyes. Fragments of memories--faces, cityscapes flickered through her mind. Ripley was helpless to stop it--the Queen had her at the end of a hair; she was dragging her through the recesses of her own brain.

What the hell are you looking for? Ripley wanted to say it aloud--but she’d left her words behind in the lighted world, in the cargo ship. A deep, angry growl rumbled out of Ripley’s throat.

The Queen lost the connection again; she slipped from Ripley’s mind, trembling.

What do you want? Ripley let out another growl.

The Queen wheezed, staring at Ripley.

Maybe, thought Ripley, She never planned this far. She captured the source of her disease; she expected me to provide her with an easy solution. But there’s no cure for genetics.

The subordinate Aliens were growing restless. They thrashed and writhed in the water below the Queen’s waist. Their discontent was palpable; an angry buzzing in the air.

With a piercing pain, the Queen reentered Ripley’s mind, frantically sifting through thoughts and memories. She worked her way down, past the cerebellum to the brainstem, and that was when she seemed to find what she was looking for.

The small second entity of Ripley’s mind responded to the Queen’s presence. It seemed to move, twitching slightly, the way a piece of metal greets a magnet.

Ripley cried out, pain racking her skull.

The Queen hissed softly. Her pulses clutched at Ripley’s brainstem, tugging at it, drawing it upward. Ripley threw her head back and yelled.

The Queen seemed to hit a wall--she called to Ripley’s Alien brain, coaxing it toward her--but the black tubes stayed in place. Ripley wasn’t going to come apart by force of will.

The Queen spat angrily. She shivered, shaking like an overworked machine.

The Aliens continued to writhe. They smacked their tails against the water, raising white foam. They demanded that the Queen perform her miracle--now.

The Queen moved a giant hand forward. Ripley yelled as she felt cold claws touch her skin. The Queen shoved Ripley’s head down, giving access to the base of her skull. Ripley regressed into a mindless panic, thrashing against her restraints. The nerves at the back of her neck felt hyper alive, burning in the anticipation of pain.

She heard the Queen take a sharp inhale; a gasp. The Queen’s hand flinched away from Ripley, releasing her. Ripley whipped her head up, panting.

The Queen had her face angled down toward the writhing water at her waist. She was looking around, head twitching nervously. The water had whitecaps; froth spraying from the Aliens thrashing limbs. The Queen flinched a second time, shrieking. The shriek crescendoed into a rageful scream, and the Queen began thrashing, twisting in the water.

Ripley tried to make out what was happening in the dim light. She could see something moving over the Queen’s body; an Alien. It was climbing over her back, tearing at her armor. The Queen reached for it with all four hands, twisting her body. A single claw snagged the attacking Alien. In swift movement, the Queen dragged the Alien to the front of her body and pinched its skull between her teeth. She ripped the Alien’s head from its shoulders, sending a jet of acid spraying toward the ceiling.   

But more Aliens were all ready upon her. They swarmed up from the water in a dripping, glossy mass, tails flailing. The Queen squealed and whiplashed her whole body. Several Aliens went flying, landing in the surrounding water. The Queen lowered her head and screamed so loud the walls vibrated. Ripley groaned in pain, unable to cover her ears.

The Aliens kept swarming. They crawled up the Queen’s body just as fast as they could be shaken off. They honed in on the Queen’s weak spots, wedging their second mouths into the small gaps in her bony armor. The Queen’s screeches grew high pitched, desperate. An Alien bit down on her throat, and she immediately grabbed it and ripped it off. With astonishment, Ripley saw a spray of red blood appear in the space between the Alien’s teeth and the Queen’s skin.

Swinging her body around, the Queen turned to the wall. She dug her fingers into the hive material and climbed, scuttling. Her hitchhiking attackers hung on, tails writhing like worms. The rest of the Aliens surged up the walls in the Queen’s wake, chasing her through the hole in the ceiling, up past the security room.

Ripley let out a shriek as an Alien climbed right over her, dripping freezing water all over her skin.

The Aliens left the cages empty, the walls ringing with echoes of the Queen’s screams. The sound of the Queen’s footsteps grew quieter, the melee gaining elevation by the second.

Ripley stared up at the ceiling, shaking, her mind moving in in a sluggish stupor.

“Ripley!”

Ripley’s heart stopped. Slowly, numbly, she tilted her head and looked down. She watched Call climb up the wall beneath her, her hair and clothes drenched, her breath falling away from her in white clouds.

“Ellen,” she said. Her voice sounded muffled, like she was speaking through a cotton blanket.

Ripley’s vision went black at the edges, her head swimming. And then Call was right on top of her, hands urgently ripping at the cocoon. The shock of the contact slapped Ripley into lucidness, her heart racing.

“Ellen,” Call pleaded, her voice now sounding abrasively loud. “Ellen, help me!” Call’s scalpel caught in the gummy material of the cocoon. She tugged at the fibers, pushing off from the wall with her foot.

Ripley came to life. She used her good leg to push against the membrane of the cocoon. She flexed her arms in tune with Call’s, working the strands of sinew one at a time.

Bit by bit, the cocoon stretched. The membrane vibrated minutely as each fiber came undun.

Then all at once, the membrane split open. Ripley and Call fell together, landing with a splash in the water below. Ripley yelled at the shock of the cold, sharp pains shooting through her bones. Call grabbed her and pulled her closer to the wall, where there was a bit of a shore; some dry hive growth to stand on.

Ripley felt as though every string in her body had been cut. She collapsed into Call’s arms. Her body wilted like a limp curtain, propped up by Call’s small, sturdy body. Ripley cried quietly, tears and breath rattling out of her as she shook with the cold. Call hugged her so hard that it hurt.

Call pushed back and looked Ripley up and down, urgently. Her hand hovered over Ripley’s leg. “What’s this on your wound?”

Ripley opened her mouth, waiting absently for the words to come pouring out. “It’s-s holding the blood in. Leave it.”

“Ellen,” Call whispered. She moved her hand to the top of Ripley’s chest. “Ellen, they didn’t put one in you, did they?”

Ripley shook her head. “No,” she panted. “The Queen’s having...fertility problems. She thought I was the key to fixing it.”

Call squinted her eyes. “Fertility problems...does that have to do with the red veins?”

“What?”

“I found bodies on the floor above--dead Aliens with some kind of blood cancer or something.”

The Queen’s distant scream rang out from above.

Call took Ripley by the arms. “We need to start climbing now.”

A painful weight sunk through Ripley’s chest. “Grace,” Ripley whispered. “I don’t know if I can.” tears dripped from her eyes. “My leg.”

Call brushed Ripley’s wet hair back. “You can.” She looked into Ripley’s eyes. “Just keep from putting weight on it.”

Ripley looked up, toward the darkness above. Her body reeled with exhaustion, her hands and feet rapidly losing sensation from the cold. She leaned on Call’s shoulder and propped herself up. Her muscles moved like a rusty machine.

“Come on,” Call whispered gently. She took Ripley to the wall and started to climb, leading Ripley by her hand.

Ripley thought that she could hear her bones creaking. She began to climb mechanically, hand over hand, skin stinging on contact with the rough, frosted-over sinews of the hive wall. She discovered, after a minute or so of agony, that climbing was actually less painful than walking; she could pull herself along with her three good limbs, leaving her injured leg to dangle down unburdened.

“Grace,” Ripley said, voice shaking. “The Aliens are going to get to the ship before us.”

Call took a few seconds before she responded. “The ship’s not there,” she said stoically. “I ran off. It would have taken too much time to shut it down.”

Ripley stopped climbing. Her body locked up, knuckles white against the hive material.

Call paused and looked down, her eyes betraying a measure of impatience and frustration. “Ripley, look. Another ship has to arrive before too long. There’s plenty of food and resources left in the safe area; we’ll wait there until a new ship comes.”

Ripley swallowed. “Alright.” She forced her arm to move, grabbing onto the next handhold of hive material. “We should get Purvis,” her voice was very small and hoarse. “He’s somewhere on the third floor. I heard him yelling earlier.”

It took Call even longer to answer this time. “Okay.” She sounded reluctant. “So long as he’s capable of carrying his own weight. I got general anesthesia from the cargo ship...and euthanasia too. We’ll see which one he needs.”

Call crested the top of the cage, disappearing over the dissolved lip of the cylinder. The moment that Ripley had her head and shoulders above the cage, Call’s arms were around her, pulling her up onto solid ground. Ripley stood up, leaning on Call’s shoulder.

She held Call tighter as she took in the appearance of the room around her.

The security room had always resembled a skull, but now it contained something that might have been a black brain. A mass grave was stuck to the ceiling, pale, bloated faces peeking out from the sinew.

Call and Ripley moved on into the hallway, wordlessly.

“Purvis,” Ripley called, unwilling to raise her voice.

“We shouldn’t spend more than five minutes looking for him. We need to get to the fire ladder.”

Ripley called louder, her frozen vocal chords finally beginning to thaw. “Purvis, are you here?”

There was no answer. Ripley and Call hobbled on, their boots scraping over the chitinous roots of the floor.

Ripley looked down, watching the hive material pass by below her. Her brain made a lethargic effort to catch up on her rapidly changing situation. She ran through scenarios in her head, replaying the events of the last hour.

Suddenly, she touched on a thought that almost made her legs give out from underneath her. “Call,” Ripley breathed. “Is Goodman going to trigger the bomb?”

Call took a deep inhale, but she didn’t answer right away. Her face was stony, her profile set in concentration. She showed her teeth a few seconds before she opened her mouth to speak. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. “I beat him bad before I left. He’ll recover eventually. But before long he’ll be too far away to hit the trigger.”

Ripley continued to stare down at the floor, digesting Call’s words. The news was about as bad as it could be--but in all the bleakness, Ripley could at least find a spark of pleasure to cling to. She smiled slightly, despite herself. “You beat him bad, huh?”

“I broke his jaw,” Call said simply, in her soft, innocuous voice. She kept her face in a stoic mask for a few more seconds, and then a dark little smile appeared below her eyes. She looked at Ripley sideways, squinting.

The Queen’s distant scream sounded, snapping Ripley back to the present moment. “Purvis?” Ripley called.

Still no answer.

“I appreciate your dedication to him,” there was a hint of frustration in Call’s voice. “But I hope you understand that we can’t afford to slow down.”

The rest of the hallway passed in arches of rib bones. The tunnel ended in a three-way fork. “The fire ladder’s this way,” Call said, tugging Ripley toward the right.

Ripley called out one last time, projecting her voice as far as she could. “Purvis, can you hear me?”

Ripley heard a little whimpering sound; a high-pitched voice. “There! Did you hear that?”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“He’s just a little ways down this hallway.” Ripley tugged Call toward the left. She could hear Call grinding her teeth.

“Just right there,” Ripley nodded toward the hallway. “He’s alive--we can’t leave him.”

Call sighed and started down the left tunnel.

Purvis’ tomb was a made from a former storage closet. The door wasn’t locked--or even shut all the way.

Call grabbed the doorknob and pulled. The door came open in sporadic lurches, scraping against the hive material on the floor.

Purvis was heaped among a pile of dead Alien embryos. He looked like a shapeless bundle of cloth, bound in slimy threads. He was blue in the lips, and his eyelashes were crusted with ice. He looked up at Ripley and Call with with a mixture of surprise and quiet hopelessness.

“Hi, Purvis,” Ripley smiled at him, tiredly. She and Call leaned down and began snapping his sinewy bondage. His cocoon was easy to break--it was far weaker than Ripley’s.

“It’s going to come out soon,” he whispered, his voice trembling with cold. “I can feel it moving.”

“You just have to make it to the safe room with us,” Ripley soothed, snapping a thick thread, “Call can operate once we’re safe.”

“It’s moving,” he moaned.

“Hang on.”

“The Aliens did everything to protect him,” Call said absently, clearing away the last of the slime, “only to discard him.”

“It was the big one,” Purvis squeaked. “It put me here.”

“Ah. So that’s it…” Call said. “The Queen can sense if an embryo’s diseased.”

Ripley helped Purvis to his feet. “Or,” she said, “the Queen wanted to eliminate competition. The existence of a new, healthy Queen could only be bad news for her.”

“There’s Aliens all over.” Purvis slurred.

“Not here,” Ripley assured him. “Right now they’re busy killing their Queen.” Ripley turned back toward the hallway. She stepped wrong on her leg and she squeezed her eyes in pain. “She’s not making them enough healthy eggs.”

Ripley and Call hobbled their way to the fire ladder, Purvis padding behind on bare feet.

Call took the lead up the ladder, and Purvis took the rear. Ripley almost cried out as her hands made contact with the ladder. The metal was so cold that it burned. The skin of her palms stuck to each rung of the ladder as she climbed. She imagined that she must be leaving layers of skin cells behind on every step.

Movement was Ripley’s salvation. By degrees, her joints grew less ratchety, her muscles less sore. Her mind grew clearer too, its sharpness returning. Her wound was partially numbed by the cold--less torturous than it could be.

The Queen’s anguished wailing echoed from high above.

Ripley had to pray for the Queen’s life, for her endurance. Once the Queen was dead, the Aliens would probably descend back down to the hive. They’d make quick work of any non-Aliens they found lurching up the fire ladder. Once again, Ripley’s continued existence depended on the Queen.

Good thing she’s a tough bitch.

Chapter Text

The third floor passed in freezing hell. And then the fourth floor.

The sound of the Queen’s frantic screams grew progressively quieter, her footfalls shaking the ladder with softer and softer vibrations.

Call climbed steadily, periodically slowing to allow Ripley and Purvis to catch up. She moved her head and shoulders through the entrance to the sixth floor--and halted abruptly.

“What is it?” Ripley said.

Call shook herself off and kept climbing, wordlessly.

A few more icy, slimy ladder steps passed beneath Ripley’s hands. And then she topped the ceiling, and saw what Call had seen.

At first, Ripley couldn’t make out what she was looking at--she didn’t have night vision like Call. She saw big glass cylinders, some of them almost completely covered by hive growth. The small backup lights cast reflections onto the glass, making it even harder for Ripley to see what was inside. She could make out human shapes, ghostly wisps of hair floating in fluid. She climbed around to the other side of the ladder, to get a 360 of the room, and jumped when she saw what had been lying on the floor, just behind her back.

One of the glass canisters was broken, its contents splayed out onto the floor in a heap. Ripley recognized her own face--looking young and soft--but only the slight indent of eye sockets broke the featureless expanse of skin above the nose. The lips had lost their color, the mouth minutely parted over the hint of glassy teeth. Though it lacked eyes, the thing had thin, dark eyebrows, which were pinched together in a fearful expression.

“Ripley,” said Call, “we can’t stop.”

Ripley peeled her hand away from its ladder step, and slapped it onto the next step mechanically. She kept her eyes on the dead clone as she ascended, periodically losing its image in clouds of her own breath.

She wanted to know what Call was thinking--very badly. Her stomach twisted at the thought that Call’s understanding of her had changed irrevocably. Call had seen something she couldn’t unsee.

Ripley couldn’t bring herself to ask directly; she took a roundabout approach. “So...that was Goodman’s first impression of me.”

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Call sighed. She sounded tired but even-toned, not very phased by the grotesquery of what she’d seen. “I can empathize with you. As a right of passage, all of the synthetics of my generation were made to visit our own manufacturing plant. We saw the unique features and body shapes emerging from basic polyfiber frames--as the genetic code was grafted on. They were suspended in liquid, not too different from your clones.”

“The Company made you take a tour of your own factory?”

“They wanted to remind us of our place in the world. We were children of commerce; products, not people.” Call reached the ceiling, and halted. “Shit, there’s slime blocking the way. Could you come here?”

Ripley climbed up to Call’s height, moving to the other side of the ladder, so that she came front-to front with Call. She gripped the strands of sinew and pulled. “That’s a bizarre notion,” she grumbled, “An organic person’s superior--just because they spent their first nine months as a parasite in someone else’s body?”

Call gave an unenthusiastic laugh.

A large chunk of sinew snapped free, and Ripley tossed it down.

Ripley sighed deeply. She looked at Call, and smiled slightly. “I don’t know why I thought you’d let it get to you.”

Call smiled back. “I understand. I was afraid you’d hate me the moment you saw my white blood. And that was before I knew how infatuated I was with you.”

Ripley leaned in and gave her a quick kiss through the bars of the ladder. She was amazed by how much it warmed her. She reached up and swatted the last strands of sinew from the opening and shook the slime from her hand.

She realized that she hadn’t heard any climbing sounds coming from below her. She looked down to see that Purvis was falling behind. He was barely climbing, his limbs moving as if he were underwater.

Keeping one hand on the ladder, Ripley reached down and picked him up by his gun harness, lifting him closer.

His eyelids were plastered open, face contorted. “It looks like you!” he wailed.

“Mm hm,” Ripley cooed, holding back a laugh. “Good observation.”

One by one, the three of them crawled through to the sixth floor. The hive growth was sparse here; a strong contrast to the floor below. Straight-edged metal dominated, reclaiming the aesthetic.

An undulating scream sounded. The volume was roughly similar to the previous scream. The Queen was slowing her ascent, it seemed. Ripley hoped she wasn’t losing her will to live.

Ripley climbed a little faster. “I wonder,” she breathed, “About the Queen. It’s my DNA that’s making her infertile--but why only now? She was having no problem laying eggs a week ago.”

Call sighed. “To me, the disease seems similar to most genetically inherited cancers. The longer you live, the higher chance you have of developing cancer. Some of the Aliens have lasted longer than others, but I have a hunch it will do them all in in the end. Or most of them, anyway.”

“Meaning...if we wait in the safe area for long enough, we won’t need to have a repeat of the battle at the ship hangar.”

Call passed by a flashing orange light, which lit up the damp creases of her jacket. “Hopefully. But with genetic things, there tend to be outliers; some Aliens will probably escape the heritage.”

“I think we’re more than capable of picking off a few scragglers.”

“Sure. So long as they don’t manage to breed a new Queen.”

Ripley looked down at Purvis. “Well, we’ve got their strongest hope as our hostage.” Once again, Ripley reached down and pulled Purvis up by his harness. “Unless Christie’s still alive, they don’t have any host to use to make a new Queen.”

“We’ll count our blessings then,” Call breathed. “That leaves Goodman as the largest threat.” She sighed harshly. “Goddamn him.”

“Yes. Goddamn him.”


++++++++++




The engine of the cargo ship hummed softly.

Goodman stared at the transmitter on the dashboard, running the same sequence of numbers through his head, over and over.

Within a few minutes, he’d be too far away from the Auriga to hit the trigger. Every part of his face ached, bone shrinking away from swelling skin. Breathing was painful.

“You really kissed the bride there, my man,” Johner mumbled. “That nose isn’t going to heal right unless you set it.”

Goodman took a brief, sideways glance at Johner.

Johner was slumped into an inarticulate pile in the pilot’s chair. He’d injected himself with three person’s worth of local anesthesia in an attempt to finally ease the pain in his arm, and now he couldn’t feel his legs well enough to walk.

“Can you believe we’re the only one’s who survived?” Johner muttered, more to himself than to Goodman. “That had to be the most fucked up situation any drifter’s ever been in. An absolute nightmare. Goddamn.”

Goodman barely heard Johner; his eyes returned to the transmitter. His heart beat faster.

“Don’t think about it, just do it,” Johner said. “China doll’s probably dead by now anyway.”

“I made such a mistake,” Goodman mumbled. He winced. Moving his jaw even a small amount felt like chewing rocks. “Letting Call play a part in the mission. She was in over her head, vulnerable--an easy target for that manipulative bitch.”

“You’re blaming pin-fingers for this?”

Goodman spoke louder. He annunciated each word, ignoring the pain in his jaw. “She made Call run off of the ship. She forced her to attack me.” He choked up. “I didn’t realize she had that much control over her. I knew Ripley was jealous--she wanted Call so she could fulfill her depraved cravings.” He scowled. “And she actually managed to tear Call away from me. Call loved me that first night, and after that she was cold. Absolutely cold.”

“Women, am I right?”

Goodman turned around and looked behind him, toward the opposite cockpit. “It’s my fault. At the end, it’s my fault. I was too afraid to confront Ripley. I had too many doubts.” Goodman swallowed bitterly, the taste of blood in his spit. “I guess she played me just as well as she played Call.”

Johner eyed Goodman carefully. “Well, what happened happened. There’s other broads out there for you. Real ones, made from flesh and blood.”

“The real Call is still in there. Take the mutant out of the equation--and its still just Call. She should be here, celebrating with me.”

“You know you really should…” Johner nodded toward the transmitter, “do the deed, man.”

“She’s probably terrified,” Goodman said, very quietly, “She’s alone and afraid.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore! You’ve gotta hit the trigger, alright?”

Goodman glared at Johner. “I don’t know why I bother to speak to you. Selfish thug. You don’t even have a concept of love.”

Johner snorted cynically, “ I’m selfish ,” he growled. “But you’re about to fucking miss your chance to destroy the critters that’ll take down the rest of humanity--just cause some chick you fancy’s going out with the bathwater!”

Goodman turned his gaze back toward the rear cockpit.

“I mean it--you’d better hit that fucking trigger now .”

Goodman blinked slowly. “I’d never be able to live with myself,” he mumbled quietly.

“What’d you say?” Johner was getting seriously agitated. “Blow the ship man, don’t wait!” He was squirming in his chair, trying to rock himself out of his seat.

Feet moving faster than his brain, Goodman left the cockpit, headed for the manual lockdown panel on the wall of the cargo hold.

“Hey! Where are you going?” Johner called after him.

Goodman pushed aside a stack of crates, revealing three pairs of serious-looking metal bolts, surrounded by a black and yellow warning label. A heavy wrench hung on the wall next to the bolts. Call had more practice with this kind of thing--but Goodman understood the procedure well enough. He knew that in order to make the ship change directions, he needed to shut down the engine, restart it, and set the ship for a new destination.

Goodman took the wrench in both hands and turned each of the six bolts counterclockwise, the machinery locking with a heavy thump. The screws were wedged tightly--and Goodman was sweating by the time that he turned the final screw. A frightening “pop” sounded from somewhere in the ship’s belly, and the hum of the engine rattled to an uneasy stop. The overhead lights flickered out, leaving Goodman in complete darkness. Johner’s muffled shouts sounded from the cockpit.

The silence was deafening, and for a moment, Goodman felt completely unsure of himself. He had the childish instinct that he’d done something very naughty by turning the screws. His hands squeezed the wrench, sweat beading on his brow. He ached all over, jaw throbbing in tune with the overly loud sound of his heartbeat.

Using his hands to feel out the location of the bolts, Goodman tightened the screws and brought the engine back online. The thrusters revved up, rattling slightly. Screens and lights flashed at Goodman, telling him that the system had been reset.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Johner yelled, as soon as Goodman reappeared in the cockpit. “You made the thrusters turn off!”

Goodman accessed the navigation system on the dashboard, setting course for the Auriga.

“No! What are you doing?” Panic animated Johner’s nerve-dead body. He flailed his way to the edge of his seat, only to be thrown back against the chair as the ship lurched, changing directions. The sound of colliding cargo crates exploded from the cargo area.

“Don’t fucking take me back there!” Johner’s eyes were wide and watering. “You motherfucker!”

“Relax, you’ll stay in the ship. You’ve got it easy.” Goodman held onto the back of the empty pilot’s chair until the g-force lessoned, subjecting himself to Johner’s rabid screaming. And then he ran through the cargo hold and into the opposite cockpit.

He leaned his palms against the dashboard and watched the stars move past. This was the right thing--he was sure of it. He would be going against the very foundation of his being if he left Call behind. He’d been her protector since that very first day--when he’d held her life in his hands, seen her white blood spilling over the cargo crates. He wasn’t turning his back on her now, not when she needed him most. He had a duty to his love.


++++++++

 

To Ripley, it felt as though her arms ended at the elbow. She had to look at her hands in order to articulate them. All she could feel of the ladder was a mild stinging in the place where her palms used to be. The skin on her hands was red and tight, starting to crack. Her jaw was quivering uncontrollably, ice forming on the inside of her still-damp shirt.

“Its starting to get warmer,” Call said. “Can you feel it?”

“No,” RIpley muttered.

“Just three more floors,” Call said. “Then we’ll be in the heat.” She looked over her shoulder, down toward Ripley. “And,” she smiled, “there’s more good news. By now Goodman must be too far away from the Auriga to trigger the bomb.” She smiled wider. “We’re safe.”

Ripley smiled back, slowly. She gave a breathy laugh. “Thank God he’s such a flake,” she exhaled. “I’ve never felt so pleased by someone else’s incompetence.”

Purvis said something incomprehensible. Ripley turned her head to look down at him. Poor Purvis looked like an animated corpse, his mouth agape, lips bleeding.

He mumbled something again, speaking slowly, moving his jaw without moving his lips.

Ripley supported herself with one arm and swung down to grab Purvis by his harness. She hefted him up a few feet. “What was that?” she whispered.

“N-n-moved. It moved.” He groaned. “I-i-i-s-hurts.” Purvis made a choking noise and his grip on the ladder loosened.

“Shit.” Ripley kept hold of Purvis' harness, pinching the strap in the crook of her elbow.

“What’s happening?” said Call.

Ripley flinched as a deafening crash sounded from above, accompanied by the erratic pounding of footsteps.

“Fuck,” hissed Call, halting her climbing. “That’s closer than before. Is she moving back down?”

Hisses and screeches echoed, coming from all around.

With a strangled moan, Purvis lost his hold on the ladder. Ripley’s arm jerked painfully as it took on the man’s full weight. Purvis dangled limply from his harness. His eyes bulged, his tongue pushing out his lips as if he were asphyxiating.

“Fuck,” Ripley whimpered. She climbed downwards, lowering Purvis’ body to the surface of the seventh floor.

“Wait, Ripley,” Call began, but another crash shook the ladder, even closer than before. Call hissed a stream of swears as she climbed down to join Ripley on the floor of the hallway.

Call kneeled over purvis and pulled open the cloth wrapping around his chest. He was making strange croaking sounds, his head lolling back and forth in agony. Call pulled two syringes from her pocket, holding one in each hand. She stared down at Purvis, watching him writhe, both needles poised in preparation.

The Queen’s scream sounded from above. Purvis suddenly shot up into a sitting position, clawing at his chest.

“Fuck!” Call made her decision; she jabbed a needle into Purvis’ neck and lay his slackening body back down onto the floor. His body went still, but his chest kept heaving, moved by something other than his lungs.

Call pulled out her scalpel. She glanced up at the ceiling. “Can you tell where they are?” she asked Ripley.

“I don’t know--they’re moving all over. They’re headed up right now. I think.”

Call moved her scalpel to Purvis’ chest, making a swift, clean line over the moving bulge at his sternum. “There’s a storage closet there,” Call nodded towards a door on the left side of the hallway. “If they come down here, we drop Purvis and hide.”

Ripley turned to face the opposite end of the hallway, the sight of Purvis’ blood churning her stomach. “How long will that take you?” Ripley asked anxiously.

“As long as we’ve got,” Call answered tersely.

Ripley kept her ears perked, doing her best to track the action taking place above her. The Queen was panting, hissing with every breath, her children screeching in chorus.

Minutes passed, the melee settling into a game of growling and intimidation. The Queen moved only occasionally, taking steps in a slow circle.

Without warning, the Queen’s fumbling limbs clambered downwards, the thumping growing louder and louder. The ceiling shook as the Queen landed on floor above Ripley’s head. In alarm, Ripley shot to her feet--and then fell to her knees as her bad leg gave way. She looked around towards Call, who was tensed and ready to sprint, her bloody scalpel hovering an inch above its linework.

Ripley held her breath as the Queen stumbled through the hallway above. In a hail of crashes, the children dropped down to the Queen’s level and gave chase. The sounds of screaming grew quieter again, the fight moving toward the stern of the ship. Ripley exhaled, shivering painfully. After a just few seconds, she heard the Queen begin to climb again, completing a manic loop through the levels.

Ripley jumped as something fell through the ceiling, landing a few yards away from where she was sitting. After a few skipped heartbeats, she realized what it was: an Alien corpse, working its way through every floor of the Auriga in a pool of its own smoking blood. She watched it sink out of sight, her head swimming.

“Ripley,” Call said, urgently. “I’m pulling it out now--I need your help.”

Ripley turned around--and came face to face with a toothy little worm. Its head was clamped in Call’s forceps, its tail lost somewhere in Purvis’ body. Pushing past her reflexes, Ripley took hold of the slimy thing as Call lifted it into the open. With a single motion, Ripley twisted its head around, killing it.

Call set to work sewing up Purvis, planting sutures rapidly.

Ripley stared at the creature in her hands. It looked normal--healthy--not like the translucent things heaped next to Purvis on the third floor. It had the beginnings of a little crest, an extra pair of underdeveloped arms curled against its body. Absently, Ripley used her claws to make a little cut on the creature’s skin--with amazement, she watched red blood pool up.

“Ah,” Ripley whispered. “Well, the Aliens might have gotten a couple months worth of healthy eggs from this Queen--but nothing beyond that.” She tilted her head and looked at Call. “I’ve really fucked up their legacy, haven’t I?”

“You’ve been fucking up their legacy for centuries, that’s what’s impressive.” Call placed the last suture in Purvis’ chest and returned the stitch gun to her pocket.

“How is he?” Ripley asked.

“He’s still breathing,” Call sighed exhaustedly. She pulled out a rag and delicately wiped the blood from Purvis’ chest. “We really shouldn’t move him after the surgery, but what can we do?”

“I can carry him,” said Ripley. “I’ll hold him by his gun harness.”

Call shook her head. “That would toss him around too much. Hang on.” Call pulled her off jacket and lay it flat on the floor. She took her scalpel and swiftly cut the fabric into long strips, turning the pockets into a makeshift satchel to hold her items, and leaving the rest as scrap.

Lifting Purvis carefully, Call used the cloth to fasten a harness around both Purvis and Ripley, tying them together back-to-back. Ripley was tall enough that Purvis’ feet stayed off the ground as she hobbled back to the fire ladder, hand on Call’s shoulder.

The Queen’s cries grew farther and farther away, gaining elevation rapidly. Ripley’s hands felt a renewed sting as she returned them to the ladder. The harness distributed Purvis’ weight evenly across Ripley’s back and hips, but that didn’t stop the cold muscles in her shoulders from aching with the strain.

“I can see overhead lights ahead,” Call said. “And the heaters are humming. Can you hear them?”

Ripley listened. Call was right; the heaters on the top four floors were humming softly--purring. It put Ripley in mind of domestic comfort, bright golden fur.

Chapter Text

Goodman’s footsteps clapped through the empty airlock tunnel, echoing into a chorus of disembodied applause. He was carrying three guns at once; his grenade launcher and flamethrower, as well Johner’s pulse rifle. The crisscrossing straps formed a slip knot around his neck, which slid tighter and then looser again as he ran.

In addition to the guns, Goodman carried a bag full of supplies--bombs, medical equipment, food and water--something for every scenario; even the worst scenarios. The mass of it all was heavy and cumbersome, but the surrounding bulk made Goodman feel safer, as if he were wearing an armored vest.

The first gate opened at the press of a button, and Goodman passed on to the second leg of the airlock. He saw the ruins of the next gate--and he felt nervous. His duffel bag caught on the rough edge of the torn-open gate as he passed through.

He clapped his way through the next leg of the tunnel--his applauding audience beginning to sound more like gunfire, or collapsing buildings.

Goodman knew that it was wishful thinking to expect to find Call in the ship hangar--he would need to delve deeper than that. The Queen--and the hybrid--preferred dark places.

Goodman exited the airlock, blinking in the white light of the hangar. he traced his eyes over the sagging, trepidated floor, determining the safest path to take to the other side.

He could hear something—a noise in the background. It was a kind of irregular popping, like a ratting air conditioner.

A sudden scream pierced the quiet, sending Goodman's heart into his throat. He grabbed a weapon and hugged it to his chest, finger slipping through the trigger guard. The background noise was horribly conspicuous now; Goodman could clearly recognize the signature clattering and thumping of the Alien swarm, growing louder.

There was a thud, thud, thud. In a slow reveal, the Queen rose up from below the ship hangar, her jaws cresting the top of an acid hole, followed by her neck, her body, her tail. She clambered to her feet, claws scraping over the floor.

Goodman dropped to his knees, hard, bruising the knee caps. He placed his grenade launcher on his shoulder, its weight like a companion. He held his breath, waiting to get a closer shot.

The Queen’s whole body was shaking. Red blood dripped from her mouth, staining her teeth. Not Call’s blood, Goodman reminded himself, swallowing the bile in his throat. It can’t be Call’s blood.

The Queen swung her head around, sweeping the terrain. Her head froze the moment she noticed Goodman--she fixed her teeth on him, staring with no eyes.

Scratching noises scurried below the floor; scrabbling claws moving all over.

Sweat dripped down Goodman’s forehead. Is that the whole hive? Are they all here at once? He kept the crosshairs of his grenade launcher locked on the Queen, quiet panic making static over his brain.

The Queen continued to stare at Goodman, unmoving. Her breathing was heavy, making foam of her bloody drool.

Suddenly, she let out a shriek. She jerked her tail away from an acid hole, pulling a subordinate Alien with her, it’s teeth clamped on the the vertebrae just below her stinger. She whiplashed her tail, flinging the Alien away. With a guttural wail, the Queen lurched forward. She staggered toward the mouth of the airlock, toward Goodman.

Tensing every muscle in his body, Goodman squeezed the trigger and fired. The grenade exploded at the base of the Queen’s neck, sending her stumbling backward. Her foot slipped into a hole and her body flew down against the floor, the spines on her back snapping under her weight. She opened her jaws to their limit, miming a scream, but only a wet choking sound rumbled out. Her whole body shook with a seizure, lower jaw wobbling.

Goodman kept his weapon locked on her, waiting to see if she would stand back up.

The Queen’s throat tightened with an inward hiss--a gasp--and her trapped leg shot down deeper into its hole. Other parts of her body followed; her tail, arms and head lurched downward, gripped tight by hands hiding in the holes.

The tugging grew more violent, the Queen’s body lurching. Goodman could see the Aliens’ arms now, reaching up from the acid holes. Each Alien had a fistfull of its matriarch; they were pulling her, stretching her. With a wet crunching sound, the Queen began to tear.

Goodman watched, dumbstruck, as the scene before him grew redder and redder. Before he could react, four Aliens slithered up from the nearest pits and rushed at him. They were on him in seconds, two of them binding his arms from behind, tails twining around his legs. The other two worked at ripping his weapons away, unfazed by his frantic thrashing. Goodman screamed, the whole core of his body trembling.

The Aliens’ angry frenzy died down. The creatures slinked away from the body of the Queen, moving slowly, almost mournfully. A single Alien remained atop the Queen’s corpse, standing tall amid the crude wreckage of body parts. The others watched it from the periphery, lips closing over their bloody teeth. The lone Alien bent down--and dug its arms into the Queen, up to the elbows. With a single heave, it pulled something from the Queen’s body; a bloody sphere, ovular, with little tentacles hanging down from one end.

Goodman screamed until he couldn’t hear himself.


+++++++++   


Ripley couldn’t stop herself from shivering, even with Call’s superheated shoulder pressed against hers. The women sat side by side, sharing a blanket, which was wrapped around their shoulders and heads like a shawl. Ripley kept her face buried in the crook of Call’s neck, feeling her skin burn pleasantly.

She took care not to look down. She could feel Call’s arm shifting, making minute, accurate movements. Christie’s unconscious body was lying belly-up in front of her, his face below her scalpel.

Lucky for him, Christie hadn’t been hard to find. Ripley and Call saw the blood trail a minute before they found the body. Call checked the cameras after tapping in--and found that the blood began on the 11th floor, and continued into the vents. They found Christie in the hallway near the ship hangar, face-down on the floor, unconscious, the palms of his hands pale. Ripley had gotten quite a shock when she’d rolled him over.

Christie was a casualty of war. When the cargo ship took off, when the Queen issued her rallying call, the Aliens had lost all use for him. They’d gotten rid of him quickly; given him a quick bite to the face and left him for dead somewhere in a top-floor hallway.

Ripley had to admire Christie’s tenacity. He’d had no way of getting inside the safe area gate, no way of healing his wounds. But he hadn’t given up--he’d chosen a direction and walked, stumbled, crawled until he lost consciousness.

“It just missed his eyes,” Call said quietly. “He’s very lucky.”

“He’s beyond lucky,” Ripley said, still refraining from looking down. “Poor Hillard didn’t even get to leave a body.”

Ripley felt Call’s arm move, elbow jutting out. She exchanged her stitch gun for a rag and started to clean up her handywork.

A muffled “boom” rang out from above, and Call froze. It sounded like an explosion.

Ripley and Call looked at each other, alarmed. Call’s eyes shifted out of focus, faint lights illuminating her irises. She stared, gaping, at something that wasn’t in the room. “Oh my God,” she whispered.

“What do you see?”

“Goodman is in the ship hangar. He just hit the Queen with a grenade.”

“What?” Ripley breathed. “He came back?”

Call shook her head in disbelief.

“What’s he doing?” Ripley asked anxiously. “Is the Queen dead?”

“The Queen’s down--the Aliens are attacking her. She won’t last long.” Call’s eyes came back into focus. She looked Ripley in the eyes. “God, this means that the Aliens have another chance at boarding the escape ship.”

Ripley shook her head. “But that won’t do them any good without a Queen. They’ve already screwed themselves.”

Call quickly wrapped a bandage of gauze around Christie’s head. And then her eyes shifted out of focus again. Her brow pinched in confusion.

“What’s happening?”

“I can’t see Goodman anymore--he’s out of range of the camera. But the Queen--the Aliens tore her to pieces. And now they’re acting hostile toward each other, baring their teeth. No. They’re fixated on one in particular. They’re turning on it.”

“It’s diseased, I’m assuming.”
Call kept staring, mouth slightly agape. After a while she spoke. “They’re trying to kill the weak ones, but the weak ones are fighting back. It’s a mass brawl now.”

Ripley watched Call, studying her expressions. Slowly, she realized that she could hear a new sound in the background, drowning out the hum of the heaters. It sounded like radio static--a constant hiss.

Ripley felt a spark of alarm. “Acid,” she whispered, grabbing Call’s arm.

The hissing grew louder and angrier, descending in a broad drape of sound. A powerful crash exploded from above--metal against metal--making Ripley’s ears pop. Steel supports groaned and creaked. What was left of the ship hangar floor was collapsing--dissolving into nothing.

Ripley could hear the Aliens now; their vicious snarls growing nearer and nearer. She wrapped her arms around Call’s waist and pulled her closer.

The women waited, swaddled in their blanket, and listened. The acid burned its way down to their level; they could hear it pouring over the outer walls of the safe area like a hissing, crackling rain storm.

Ripley’s eyes darted over the ceiling, watching for leaks. She rose up on her knees--placing all of her weight on her uninjured leg--and angled her body over Call’s, ready to shield her from any dripping acid.

Abruptly, the lights of the safe area flickered out, plunging the room into darkness. Ripley couldn’t see the walls, and now the noises seemed to come from everywhere--from right inside the room.

Aliens shrieked and growled, bodies colliding with wet crunching sounds. Their claws clattered over metal, fumbling to keep their grip.

Ripley shivered painfully. She pressed her lips to the top of Call’s head, to reassure the both of them.

The sounds faded gradually, dropping level by level. Harsh clattering and banging sounds announced the Alien’s arrival at each new floor. They carried giant plates of metal with them, their battlefield dropping meters by the minute.  

The crashes faded into muffled thuds. The Aliens shrieks grew quieter, weaker. In another minute, everything was quiet. Faint dripping sounds broke the silence, pattering on the roof of the safe area.

Ripley found Call’s hand in the darkness and took hold of it, feeling its greater-than-human heat. The women sat together for a long stretch of minutes, breathing haltingly. Neither of them trusted the silence.

Call was the first to stir. She put her arm under Ripley’s and stood up with her, keeping the blanket in place. They walked together to the front gate of the safe area, opened it, and looked out. Ripley took a sharp breath, gawking at what she saw.

The claustrophobic hallways of the Auriga were gone. The space that Ripley and Call stood in now was a cathedral. Melted metal supports groaned quietly, echoing through the massive cavern. Air circulated freely, making a soft roaring sound, like a wind tunnel.

“Jesus,” Ripley whispered.

Ripley looked up. High above her, she could see glowing lights at the roof of the ship hangar. The lights misted down into the chapel, casting glossy highlights over the warped textures of the walls. The metal looked like wax; it ran down in long stalactites, dripping into itself in lurid sculptures.

Ripley looked down, past the point where the glow of the ship hangar faded into nothing. The pit went on and on. Sparks flashed intermittently in the darkness, spraying from frayed wires.

A slow wailing emanated from deep in the basilica. At least one Alien was still alive--but barely, by the sounds of it. Ripley focused her ears. She could hear water noises far below her, faint splashes.

“It goes all the way down,” said Ripley quietly. “Thank God the water’s there. Otherwise they’d have eaten right through the hull.”

Call took a deep breath and let it out slowly, the plume of air rising toward the lights at the ceiling. “The safe area’s an island now,” she said grimly, looking down into the pit. “It’s not going to be easy getting out of here.”

Ripley looked straight across the pit, toward the opening to the adjacent hallway. The lights of the ship hangar lit the surface of a melted-over ledge; the sagging tongue of the hallway.

“You see that ledge?” Ripley said. “I could make the jump if it weren’t for this leg.”

Call stared, temples rippling. “I can make the jump,” she said quietly.

Ripley’s chest tightened. “Are you sure?”

Call nodded. “If I take a running start, I can make it.”

“Maybe we should wait. I heal fast.” Ripley felt stupid as she said it.

Call looked at her. “Wait for how long ? Even you must need several days to recover from a wound like that.”

Ripley didn’t answer. She looked down at her feet.

Call squeezed Ripley’s hand. “I can make the jump,” she said softly. “I’ll be fine. And the fall couldn’t kill me anyway...” She lifted the blanket from her shoulders and wrapped it around Ripley. “It’d just be hell climbing back up.”

Call helped Ripley into a sitting position, holding onto her arm until she was situated comfortably.

“I’ll find something to make a bridge,” Call said. “A grappling net, maybe. And I’ll be the one to ferry them across.” Call nodded toward the inside of the safe area.

“Oh yeah,” Ripley grumbled. “How did we end up with two unconscious people?”

Call walked back into the dark safe room.

Ripley waited, breathing quietly. In a blur, Call ran past her, feet pounding. She jumped, and Ripley squeezed her eyes shut. A single second passed before Ripley heard the blessed sound of Call’s boots hitting solid ground. Ripley let her breath out, dizzy, and opened her eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Call answered, winded. “I’m closing the gate, ok? For paranoia’s sake.”

“Alright.”
Call stared back in Ripley’s direction. She seemed to be startled by something she saw, eyes wide. She shook herself off. “I’ll be quick.” She dashed into the hallway, disappearing.

With an echoing screech, the gate closed, sealing Ripley into total darkness.

Ripley listened to the sound of Purvis and Christie’s slow breathing. She wished that they'd wake up soon--but she knew that was a fantasy. Even if she slapped them into consciousness, they wouldn’t be in any state to carry their own weight. Watching a bunch of drugged-out people fall off of a bridge wasn’t the way she wanted to end her day.

She waited, seconds dragging into minutes.

With a shuddering groan, the gate opened. Ripley looked out eagerly.

Call was shuffling slowly down the hallway, hefting a carved-off section of the fire ladder which dragged against the ground behind her.

With a loud clatter, she dropped the ladder to the floor and began sliding it across the chasm.

“Good bridge,” Ripley said.

“You come across first,” Call breathed. “Then I’ll take the others across one by one.”

Ripley put her hands on the cold bars of the ladder and began to crawl. There was no way to keep her weight off of her injured leg, and her eyes watered profusely. She lurched her way along in bursts, bracing herself before each movement. The more she crawled, the more the prospect of carrying the men over the bridge seemed absurd. When she was nearly to the ledge, she spoke to Call; “Do you think?,” she breathed, “That we could wait on the ledge until the men recover?”

Call stared past Ripley, back toward the safe area. “No,” she said grimly. “I don’t think we can afford to wait for anything.”

Ripley reached the ledge. Call grabbed hold of her and helped her up onto solid ground. Ripley turned around, to see what Call had been staring at. “Oh my God,” She whispered.

The safe area was balanced at the top of a 10-story-high pillar; a narrow core sample of the Auriga, sheltered from the acid rain. It looked like a rickety skyscraper with no walls, the floors and hallways open to the air. Many smaller, half-melted spears of metal loomed in the surrounding cavern, some of them attached to the main pillar, giving it vital structural support. The whole structure was standing up appallingly well, showing no signs of leaning or buckling; but the haphazard nature of the thing was scary. Ripley didn’t trust it in the least.

“You’re right,” Ripley whispered, “we can’t wait.”

For a moment, the two women stared back at the safe area, their shoulders drooping with fatigue. Ripley knew that they were both thinking the same thing. Exhaustion was sapping them of their sympathy.

“Leaving them would be a huge waste of effort, at this point,” Call sighed. “You hold the ladder steady, I’ll try and do this quick.”

Call was quick--she clambered across the ladder in less than ten seconds and disappeared into the safe area. A few minutes passed; Ripley kept her ears strained, following the quiet sounds that Call made. Ripley was cold, growing colder.

With a few echoing footsteps, Call emerged with Purvis on her back. He was tied in place with a newly-made harness; Ripley recognized the frayed fabric of the blanket, doubled up at each strap for extra strength.

Call gripped the outer edge of the ladder. She shuffled along carefully, keeping herself from swaying back and forth. Ripley could see that she’d made the good choice of binding Purvis’ arms and legs together. Any limply flailing limbs would have had the strong potential to tip her off balance.

In less than a minute, she made it to the other side. She set Purvis down, a good distance away from the ledge.

With stoic silence, she draped the straps of the harness around her neck and went back.

Christie was bigger than Purvis, and heavier. His tied-together feet dragged over the ladder behind Call, knocking against each of the ladder steps. Ripley could see Call sweating, her brow pinched in concentration.

Ripley grew more and more nervous as she watched Call struggle with Christie. She grabbed Call as soon as she reached the ledge, and pulled her away from the pit. She began untying her harness. “I’ll carry Christie to the hangar,” she said, “I’m tall. You take Purvis.”

“Okay,” Call breathed exhaustedly. She lay Christie on the ground next to Purvis, and stood up slowly, unbending her back.

Ripley took her in her arms and hugged her close, balancing her weight on one foot. She could feel Call breathing heavily--she rubbed her hand over her heaving back. “You’re absurdly brave.”

“Or maybe just absurd,” Call said hoarsely. She gave a tired smile and leaned her head against Ripley’s shoulder.

Ripley’s heart felt heavy and jittery at the same time--she had butterflies with wet wings. She put her hand under Call’s jaw and nudged her face upward. Call seemed to lack the energy for a kiss; she just leaned against Ripley, resting forehead to forehead.

“We’re almost there,” breathed Ripley.

Call helped to situate Christie onto Ripley’s back. She put her hand over Ripley’s as she tightened the strap at her waist.

“We need to be prepared,” Call said seriously, “in case Goodman is still alive.”

“Prepared to drag his weight back to the cargo ship?” Ripley asked dryly.

“No.” Call swallowed. “We need to be prepared in case he’s hostile. I told him that I love you before I left.” She shook her head slowly. “God knows what he thinks of you now.”

Ripley scrunched up her eyes and drew in a hesitant breath. “Was this before or after you beat the shit out of him?”

“During,” she said shyly.

Ripley winced.  

Call looked crestfallen. Her eyes widened with worry. “I’ll kill him the second he looks at you wrong,” she whispered. “I swear to God.”

“I doubt he’s in any shape to pose a threat to us,” Ripley said, not quite trusting her own words.

“I’ll make sure he’s not,” said Call.

Chapter Text

The first steps taken out onto the ship hangar were tentative ones. Call kept her body in front of Ripley’s protectively, as if she expected Goodman to come running at them with a flamethrower at any moment. But she quickly relaxed as it became apparent how empty and desolate the ship hangar was.

The entire mid-section of the hangar floor was gone. Only a thin lip of metal remained around the edge of the gaping hole; a narrow boardwalk. The boardwalk melted over at the edges, bowing toward the pit with hand-like stalactites.

Ripley and Call tread the walkway carefully, hugging the wall. Ripley was painfully aware of how much weight she was placing on Call’s shoulder as they walked. Christie’s heft was tugging down harshly on her back, and she could only imagine the amount of extra weight that Call was bearing. But Call was stoic as always, her eyes straight ahead.

Ripley could see a dark shape on the wall beside the airlock gate, but she couldn’t make out what it was. The lights at the ceiling did a poor job of illuming the hangar, now that there was no floor to bounce back the light. The dark shape looked like hole in the wall--a vertical gash, much like the tear in the gate. But that didn’t make sense--a tear near the airlock would mean a hull breach.

As she drew closer, Ripley could see clearly that it wasn’t a hole--quite the opposite--it was convex, a bulge sticking out from the wall.

Suddenly, Ripley knew exactly what it was. In truth, the sight of it gave her a measure of relief. She didn’t say a word to Call as they approached.

Shuffling slowly, the women approached the mouth of the torn-open airlock gate--and the cocoon stuck to the wall beside it.

As she studied Goodman’s pale, bruised face, Ripley felt very certain that he was dead, not unconscious. But the cause of death was not clear. The Aliens had obviously attempted to make him a host--but he’d died on them before they could implant their embryo.

The crumpled form of a Queen facehugger lay at Goodman feet, it’s clawed legs webbed. It’d fallen off too soon to have possibly completed its task. Ripley nudged it with her boot, to see if there was any life left in it. It wiggled a couple of legs, weakly.

Call spoke suddenly, her voice hoarse. “There.”

Ripley followed Call’s gaze. She saw that Goodman was holding something in his right hand. The object was almost completely hidden by sinew--but after some squinting, Ripley was able to make out what it was. It was a thin syringe, the needle pressed deep into Goodman’s thumb.

“Euthanasia from the escape ship,” Call said tiredly. “Pentobarbital. He had a backup plan at the ready. That’s more foresight than I would have expected from him.”

“So he stuck himself just as it latched on, before it could choke him,” said Ripley.

Call looked down at the facehugger. “I’d be wary of that thing,” she said quietly. “Pentobarbital is nothing but a tranquilizer if the dose is low enough. And who knows if that parasite even has a heart and lungs.”

Ripley bent down and grabbed the facehugger by a leg. She turned around and tossed the thing into the pit, watching it tumble out of sight. Ripley turned back around--and saw that Call was staring up toward Goodman’s face. Her eyelids were red, creased around the edges. She spoke very quietly: “If he’d waited, I could have taken it out of him.”

“He never expected to be rescued by his damsel.” Ripley softened her tone. “At least it was painless.” She wrapped her hand around Call’s. “I hope you don’t blame yourself for this.”

Call didn’t speak for close to a minute; she stared at Goodman, thinking private thoughts. She sighed heavily. “No,” she said with the exhale. “I don’t blame myself.” She reached up and closed Goodman’s eyelids. And then she walked into the airlock with Ripley.



+++++++++++



The look on Johner’s face made Ripley want to laugh out loud. She smirked at him as she lay Christie down the empty pilot’s chair.

Johner stared at her, at Christie, eyes darting back and forth. “Look,” he said, his voice low. “You know I had nothing to do with shutting that gate. I was already on the ship. I was wondering where you were--I was going to tell him to go back for you.”

“How considerate of you.”

“So we’ve got an understanding, right? Just drop me off at some drifter hub by the border. I won’t tell anyone where you’re going.”

“Oh, that’s fine. So long as you abide by our rules.” Ripley gave him a threatening side-eye. “Otherwise you’ll end up like poor Goodman.”

Johner screwed his face up. “What rules, pretell?”

Ripley fastened Christie in place with the safety harness. “Well, breathing space’s in hot commodity on a little ship like this. We’ll need to carefully ration out the amount of pernicious bullshit you’re allowed to spew into the air.”

“Oh yeah. Funny.”

“I mean it. Piss us off and you’ll be arriving at the drifter hub inside a cardboard box.”

“Us?” Johner shifted his eyes between Ripley and Call. “Goodman was right about you, huh?” He smirked at Call. “And I was right about that one!”

“Goodman wasn’t right about anything,” Ripley said cooly.

“Really, tiny dancer ran back into a rotting hellhole to rescue some six-foot chick she’s not even mildly enamored with?”

“Mm. Goodness, you’re running out of breath quickly. I think I can see you’re lungs deflating.” Ripley pushed a claw into the back of the seat cushion as she spoke.

“Oh come on, I was just about to congratulate saucer eyes here.” He nodded at Call. “You ran back into a bug-infested ship, risked getting blown up, killed the only man who gives a fuck about you in the universe. You really--” Johner made a choking noise.

Ripley had him by his throat. She lifted him out of the chair. “Mm hm, you’re sleeping on the floor tonight.” She threw Johner onto the ground, face first. “Call, you can put Purvis in this chair.” She patted the empty cargo seat.

“Fucking hell,” roared Johner, trying to rise to his knees and failing.

“You shot yourself with too much anesthetic, didn’t you?” said Call, laying Purvis down in the pilot’s chair.

“How the hell was I supposed to know how much to take?”

Call rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to watch you all night to make sure you don’t slip into a coma. But I’d suggest you keep yourself awake for the next twelve hours.”

“Goddamnit.”

Call lowered the back of Purvis’ chair until it was in full recline, like a stretcher. She tightened the straps around his chest. “I’m amazed his stitches didn’t come out,” she said.

Ripely leaned her arm onto the dashboard. “I’m amazed he’s not a pile of parts at the bottom of the hive,” she sighed exhaustedly.

“He’ll have quite a story to tell back in the Union won’t he?”

“Yep. He gets to be ‘crazy alien man’ for the rest of his life.”

Call chuckled. “That kind of fits him.”

Call walked up to the dashboard and began keying in the coordinates. “I’m setting course for a drifter hub,” she said. “I’m hoping we can sell some cargo, rent a ship and…” she looked at Ripley and smiled, slowly. “Head to Earth.” The shine in her eyes was beautiful.

Ripley’s face felt numb. She touched on a knot of emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. But her thoughts were interrupted as the ship lurched into motion. The cargo ship began moving down the last leg of the airlock tunnel.

Call lead Ripley through the cargo hold, toward the rear cockpit. The pilot chairs were plus-sized, big enough to allow Call and Ripley to sit together comfortably, curled up close. Call pulled the safety straps over the both of them.

They looked out the dashboard window and watched the rings of LED lights pass them by. With a muffled “clunk,” more a vibration than a sound, the final gate of the airlock opened, and the cargo ship passed into open space. For the first time, Ripley saw the outside of the Auriga. The grooves and knots of the ship’s white shell were furrowed, so much like the skin of something long-dead. The textures lost their detail as the cargo ship pulled farther away, fading into a uniform, white gash.

The cargo ship’s thrusters hummed and then roared. The whole ship lurched, and Ripley was shoved against the restraints of the chair. The walls around her rumbled and shook, and Ripley closed her eyes. The low-pitched roaring lasted for more than a minute. And then the turbulence was over; the ship reached cruising speed. The thrusters quieted to a constant static. When Ripley opened her eyes, the Auriga was out of sight.

Call unfastened the seat harness and leaned forward toward the dashboard. She found the transmitter, keyed in “DT-80608,” and waited.

A bright, white spot appeared in the blackness outside the window, outshining all of the stars. As Ripley watched, the glow expanded and reddened, sending out a horizontal ring of debris. The dumbed down shockwave hit the cargo ship several minutes later, making the walls shake minutely, almost gently.

Ripley felt a tickle on her chin, and she realized that she was crying. The fiery scene out the window put her in mind of the dying nostromo--the explosion at the end of her first encounter. That had been the start of the longest and loneliest era of her life.

Call shifted her position, arm rubbing against Ripley’s. Ripley felt a powerful pang, like a fracture in her ribcage. She leaned her head down and buried her face in Call’s neck. Call stroked the side of her face, wiping the tears away.

Ripley might have stayed that way a long time, if not for the nagging pain in her leg. The wound was regaining feeling, throbbing at her insistently. Ripley’s discomfort apparently registered to Call.

Call started to sit up. “We should get some pain killers in you,” she said. “And you need to eat and drink something.”

Call returned to the boxes she’d torn open before running back to the Auriga. Ripley was amazed--and impressed--by the state of the boxes. The sturdy, wooden crates had been smashed completely--kicked in, torn open.

“I’ll clean up this mess in the morning,” Call sighed. She picked a white pill bottle from the bits of broken wood. “You shouldn’t take these on an empty stomach,” Call rattled the bottle. “I’m guessing that the food is in those metal crates over there,” Call nodded to her left.

Ripley leaned against a tall vertical box, keeping her weight off her leg. “I’d help you open them if I could.”

“Don’t worry,” Call pulled out her scalpel and slid it along the top edge of the nearest food crate.

The food was same old-same old, a fresh delivery of the Auriga’s typical slop. Ripley ate flavorless stew with a hunk of bread and made quick work of a bottle of water. Ripley didn’t know if it was the food or the pain meds--but her body seemed to be collapsing in on itself. She felt beyond tired, the last reserves of her adrenaline petering out.


+++++++++++

 

As Ripley ate, Call made a detailed sweep of the cargo hold, the cockpits, and the engine room, checking for the impossible presence of a stowaway facehugger or an egg. Finding nothing, she returned to the rear cockpit, and began to make the cargo ship a home.

The ship was kept cold, as per regulation. Right after boarding, the air had seemed warm in comparison to the frozen Auriga, but now the cold was noticeable and irritating. Call turned the heat up to a toasty 80 degrees, more than enough to ease the aches out of cold bones, to bring sensation back to the skin. Some of the perishable cargo items would suffer for the heat, but to hell with it.

While autopilot seemed to be standard practice for most of the cargo ship’s flights, the ship was also outfitted with enough commodities to suit a crew of two or three people. The cockpits contained rows of very flat, narrow bunks which slid out from the walls like drawers. Ripley and Call were not too happy with the sleeping arrangement. Call immediately began searching through cargo crates, looking for some better bedding.

She pushed aside a pile of metal boxes, and found a flat box with a huge surface area. The shape of it gave her a rush of excitement. She tore open the box--and struck gold. It was an actual mattress--probably intended for one of the higher up execs on the Auriga. It had springs, foam padding, everything.

Call hauled the mattress to the rear cockpit and heaped on blankets, comforters and pillows. The blankets were decadent, given the heat of the air, but glorious nonetheless.

While looking for pillowcases, Call pushed aside a stack of crates--and made the next great discovery. A tiny shower stall was set into the wall. It was little more than a shallow dent in the hull, equip with a shower head and a drain, but when viewed with sweaty, grimy eyes, it was a thing of beauty.

Predictably, the basin was dry. Call spent the last reserves of her energy in filling the reservoir, setting the furnace to heat it up. It was an awful waste of drinking water, sure, but careless opulence felt wonderful after a week of limited rations.

Ripley took her shower first, leaning into the wall to keep her weight off her leg. She looked radiant when she was finished, stepping out from the steam with clean, rouged skin, hair in gently winding brushstrokes. She wrapped a fresh, never-before-used towel around herself, smiling contentedly.

She let Call tend to her leg, pulling up the towel to her hip. Really, there was not much that Call could do to help the wound. The slime coating would have to stay--it was the only thing that could contain Ripley’s dangerous blood. If the slime hardened and turned black...then so be it. They’d have ample time to figure out what could remove it. The ship came ready with crates of vegetable oil, engine grease, medical tools. All that Call could do for now was keep the wound clean and numb. She poured isopropyl alcohol all around the wound, and then wrapped a clean bandage over the slime scab--for aesthetics more than anything.

Ripley was so tired that she swayed in her seat. She went ahead to bed as Call took her shower.

The hot water was divine. Steam swirled around Call’s feet and softly brushed the inside of her lungs. She was astounded by how much dirt she’d been carrying on her skin. She watched it pour off of her in dark gray streams; a week’s worth of sweat and blood and dust and ash. All of it went swirling down the drain, gone.

Call closed her eyes. Images of the past several hours flickered through her brain. The Queen’s agonized scream lingered in her ears, the hive-altered elevator shaft blurred upward around her. She let it wash off of her with the water, the horror melting from her eyes. She stayed standing in the shower until the water trickled to a stop, and then she stepped out, gasping for some fresh air above the steam. She pulled the maintenance handle and emptied the dirty water tank out into space.

Call walked toward the bed, the metal pleasantly cool against her feet. Ripley was already asleep, her figure rising and falling softly under the blankets. Call lifted the sheets and carefully situated herself next to Ripley, doing her best not to wake her. The blankets were soft, still cool from sitting in metal boxes. Call’s eyes closed, and her exhaustion rushed up to greet her. She slipped fast into unconsciousness.

And then Ripley was suddenly holding her, kissing her roughly, desperately. Call’s eyes opened wide. Her throat started to close up, emotion flooding her. She placed her hands on Ripley’s back and kissed back.

Call could feel Ripley shaking. Her skin was riddled with goosebumps. Call opened her mouth for Ripley’s tongue, letting her take a hit of warmth.

They kissed, and they felt alive. And then exhaustion won out; Ripley’s shivers overtook her strength. All at once, she went slack. She continued to kiss Call softly, just tasting, until she submitted to sleep.

Call watched her through heavy eyelids. Sleep caught her by surprise.

Chapter Text

Call woke up sweating, overheated but nonetheless comfortable. Ripley, uncharacteristically, was already awake. She looked at Call with groggy adoration, a touch of pain in her eyes.

“How are you doing?” Call asked.

Ripley grunted. She scrunched her eyes and showed a few teeth. “Any chance you could prescribe me some more of those pain killers?”

“Narcotics on request? What kind of a crooked doctor do you think I am?”

“The best kind.”

“Flattery for drugs.” Call pushed herself to her knees and crawled out of bed. “You have no shame.” She picked up a crumpled towel and wrapped it around herself. She opened the door of the cockpit and stepped into the cargo hold, bare feet padding over the smooth metal. She snatched the pill bottle from it’s place upon a stack of crates and returned to the bedroom. “I’m so stupid for leaving them in the cargo area,” she said to Ripley. “You could have just woken me up.”

Ripley had the side of her face propped up on her hand; she was looking up at Call thoughtfully. “I know.” She held her hand out and took the pills. “But I didn’t want to.”

 

++++++++++++++

 

Clean clothes were the next necessity. Ripley and Call began sifting through boxes, looking past the linens. They made an attempt to sort supplies into organized categories, but they ultimately ended up with only two piles; one for useful things and one for garbage. At first, all that Ripley and Call could find in the way of clothing were long, white labcoats. They were broad at the shoulders, perfectly suited for the figure of a greasy male scientist. Ripley was sickened by the thought of wearing a white coat--she’d rather take after Purvis and make a toga from throw blankets. Thankfully, Call checked under the bedding crates and found a tall stack of tan jumpsuits, the collars flimsily embroidered with CCA logos--which could be easily sliced off with scalpels or claws.

“We’re sitting on a cache of useful supplies and basic necessities; I guess I’ll take the khaki with a grain of salt,” Ripley said, stepping into the jumpsuit. She left the zipper open down to her sternum.

Call laughed. “I’m thankful we got away on a cargo ship instead of a Company relief vessel. Turns out a delivery ship’s a great place to live short term.”

Ripley smirked. “I’d make some joke about us living in a U-haul truck, but I think it’d go right over your head.”

Call squinted. “U-haul?”

“That’s what I thought.”

The women moved into the front cockpit. Purvis was awake, eyes plastered open in typical numbed shock. Christie was still asleep, a few red spots showing through his mask of bandages. Johner was sitting on the edge of the dashboard, staring at the stars out the window.

“How was your night on the floor, Johner?” Ripley asked.

“Fuck you,” he grumbled, without turning around.

Call went to tend to Christie and Purvis.

“Did you keep yourself awake?” Ripley asked.

“Died and came back a few times, why’d you ask?”

“He’s been crying,” Call said, shooting a wry smile at Ripley.

Ripley grinned. “Really?” She saw the red around Johner’s eyes.

“Go to hell. I’m fucking tired.” He sniffed. “You can’t blame me for talking shit when I’m fucking tired.” He put his face in his hands.

“I am blaming you.”

“It’s not my fault! My whole life, I’ve been a Goddamn rat in a maze. Someone dumps me in a metal tube. Then it’s ready set fuck. Ready set fight. Find the cheese at the dead end. How the fuck else am I supposed to act?”

“I’ll leave you to your existential crisis.”

 

++++++++

 

The rest of the day was spent in blissful recline. Call and Ripley sat in their pilot’s chair in the rear cockpit, continuing their tradition of close-knit bodies and candid conversation. Ripley asked Call questions about Earth--about the animal life and the state of the environment. Call did her best to answer, describing things in her own lyrical-yet-concise way.

Earth had changed since Ripley’s time--to a shocking degree. Every manifestation of climate change had reached an advanced stage--leaving each continent with less landmass, less natural resources. Yet, parts of the old Earth did endure. Earth still harbored plenty of wild places--more than it did a century ago, in fact. Nature reclaimed abandoned suburbs as wealthy humans migrated into space. There were also efforts amongst ecologists to restore the vitality of ecosystems. Call described the Union’s attempt to undomesticate dogs, breeding them to bring out the most wolfish traits and then setting them into the wild. She told Ripley about the little robotic bees that took up the mantle as prime pollinators, about the solar-powered recharging stations set up in fields of flowers. Ripley found it touching that after centuries of watching habitats disappear, one by one, there were always those people who took it to themselves to protect whatever wildlife was left. And now the greenery finally had an opportunity for a comeback--or at least a new direction to start evolving in.

The conversation left Ripley with the feeling that she’d lost something deeply precious--but it also made her feel like she had something to hope for. That was about the same way she’d felt about the state of the Earth 257 years ago; so at least in some capacity, nothing had changed.

Ripley watched the stars, watched the highlights of Call’s eyes, and compared the two.

That night, Ripley had bittersweet dreams about the little blue and green planet. She saw an Earth transformed by pollution. Plastic was God. Plastic marbled the topsoil, it made mountains, filled oceans. But the landscape was beautiful in its decay. The wild integrated its unnatural additives; the plastic had a pulse. It was a synthetic nature, so much like Call. Inorganic adaptation was a new stage of evolution; a force of nature stronger than the humans who inadvertently created it.

Ripley watched the continents move like giant, flat-bodied lizards, scraping their flanks together, scratching off cities as if they were flakes of dry skin. They dipped their heads into the oceans, letting the salt water flood agricultural fields.

Since before Ripley was born, climate scientists had spouted prophesies of doom regarding the coming centuries. But now, after the destruction had run its course, the Earth wasn’t wounded--it was merely annoyed. Man was a dust mote; he was self-important to assume that he could be the end of anything but himself. Animals and plants adopted their corruption with a tired shrug. Polymers and poisons were now nutrients in the water supply.

Ripley felt that she could be at home on a tainted Earth. The movements of the continents were calamitous, but also lazy and lethargic. The changes happened just slowly enough to provide each generation with its own version of normalcy. Human life thrived, happiness thrived, in the dryness at the edge of a tidal wave.

Ripley was ready to plant her new life with Call. Space was never meant to be habitable to humans--it was cold and hostile. There was no distinction between night or day, up or down. Whereas the Earth counted its days in beautiful light shows, sunlight turning from fiery red, to gold, to red again--the colors visible even in the thickest smog.

Ripley knew that she and Call would have to jump through hoops to get asylum in the Union. It’d be a long, frustrating process. But it was a conflict that paled in comparison to the events of the past week.

Changes would come hard and fast with the following months. But for now, Ripley would rest contentedly, curled up with Grace in their throne at the back of a hijacked cargo vessel. Heaven inside purgatory.



END