SPACE STATION MADRE

Miller stood beside Dr. Ottawa's desk, looking down at a pile of paper there. The doctor was busy with a patient, but eventually found time for him.

"Mr. Miller," she said, drying her hands after washing them. "What brings you down here? Are you sick?"

Miller shook his head, eying the good doctor for a moment. "No, not sick. Just curious. What was wrong with Burke?"

Dr. Ottawa dropped the towel and picked up a file. "It was some kind of viral infection. Probably it had something to do with the -- uh -- presence of the alien queen in his body. Most of the fluid, which the alien takes from its host, is replaced with silicon and this substance seems to have -- well, if not created then at least hatched this virus. It's not infectious, though."

Miller nodded. "I see. Tell me more about it. What does it do?" he wanted to know.

The doctor gave him a scrutinizing look. "It causes a condition similar to the stomach flu. It's much more violent, though, but doesn't last very long. The virus goes into a sort of dormancy after approximately twenty-four hours and stays that way. I have a sample of Burke's blood here and I've taken tests every twelve hours since he got better, but the virus shows no sign of reviving itself," she explained. "The only thing I don't understand is, that it took the virus so long to break out," she added.

Miller sat on the edge of the desk and picked up the file, which Dr. Ottawa had dropped. Leafing through it, he merely scanned it. He didn't understand half of what was written in it. "I see," he eventually muttered again. "So, do you have theory on the reason for the delay?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact I do. I think the virus has been encapsulated in the silicon and, as the body slowly breaks it down, the silicon releases the virus. Simple as that. I just have to prove it, too."

Miller handed her the file and rose again. "Good work, Doc. Good work. Keep it up." With those words, he left medical again and went back to the bridge.

Dr. Ottawa looked after him, then shook her head. If it was up to her, she would already be on her way back to Gateway. Working for Miller had its benefits, but she was also responsible for keeping a journal over everything that happened on the station. Van Leuwen had placed her on the team to keep an eye on things. She was not to reveal herself under any circumstances. She was only there to record what went on. She only hoped, that Miller never found out. She had no great desire to end up on the surface of the moon with no place to hide. Shuddering at the thought, she went back to work.

***

Miller sat down on his chair on the bridge, looking a little concerned. Certainly Burke had been a lot of help to him, but the man had more or less outlived his utility value. Besides, he had started to bitch a great deal and Miller did not like it when people mouthed off. Especially not, when those people worked for him.

Leaning forward, he pushed a button, then leaned back again. Shortly after, the call was answered. Jones turned up.

"You called?" he asked, stopping behind Miller's chair.

"I did indeed. Jones, I'm sort of fed up with Burke. He's been causing me nothing but trouble lately. I think it's time he -- met his offspring," Miller replied, not looking at Jones. He didn't have to look at him to see the smug smile. Jones had disliked Burke from the beginning. "Take him on a little trip and, be sure that he doesn't come back."

"Yes, sir," Jones replied, turned and left again.

Miller remained seated, staring ahead of himself with a thoughtful expression. He had, at one time, considered offering that Ripley-woman a job. She was said to be the one with the greatest knowledge about those aliens. But, she was just so god-damned righteous, that he knew how she would have reacted.

With a sigh, he returned his attention to the moon below. He had started to think that maybe Burke was right. Maybe, Bishop had blabbed and maybe the Company did know where he was. He would have to take steps to prevent them from interfering. They would have to be big steps, he mused, but they were necessary.

***

Burke looked up from the book he was reading, when somebody knocked on his door. "It's open," he called.

Jones stepped in, briefly looking around. "Mr. Burke. I must ask you to come with me," he then said, looking directly at Burke.

Burke didn't feel too good about that. There was something threatening in the way Jones said that. "What's going on?" he wanted to know, keeping his distance.

"Nothing much. Mr. Miller is just fed up with you. You're going for a ride," Jones replied, unable to keep a smile of his lips completely.

Burke was out of his chair at once, backing away. "Don't even think about doing this, Jones. I know Mr. Miller wouldn't want you to do that. He still needs me," he said, still holding the book in his hand.

Jones had his hands in his pockets and looked a little bored by the whole thing. "Correction. He did need you earlier, but your -- what did he call it? -- utility value has just expired. You're in the way," he said. He didn't approach Burke or make any threatening moves. After all, if Burke did manage to get by him, where would he go? The station was owned by Miller. Nobody would be able to help him. Nobody.

Burke felt panic rise in him and felt the strong urge to just get Jones out of the way. If he only knew how. His eyes darted around the room and finally came to rest on the rather heavy book he was still holding. Looking at it for a moment, he calmed down again. He knew what to do.

He looked at Jones again, a lot calmer than before. "Well, if that's the way he feels, then I think he should tell me himself. I won't take your word for it," he said.

Jones felt his calmness slipping. The fact that Burke so suddenly changed his disposition was odd. "Well, he doesn't want to see you. You'll have to take my word for it, because it's the only word you'll get," he replied, taking his hands out of his pockets.

Burke relaxed completely, not appearing to be a threat at all. When Jones started to approach him, he suddenly brought the heavy book up and hurled it at Jones with all of his might. Jones went down for the count, a bleeding gash on his forehead. Standing over him, Burke looked down at him, his jaw set. "That's what you get for threatening me," he muttered.

He picked up his jacket and hurried out of the room. His first thought was to head straight for the bay, but then he thought about something else. He changed his course and ran toward medical.

Dr. Ottawa looked up when he barged into her office. "Mr. Burke. What an unexpected surprise," she said sourly.

Burke grabbed her arm, pulling her off her chair. "We've got to get out of here right now. Miller has just ordered to have me executed. It won't take long before he's onto you, too," he snapped.

Dr. Ottawa looked at him for a moment, then she nodded. Despite the fact that she couldn't stand him, she appreciated that he didn't want to leave her behind. "All right, let's go," she replied.

Together they ran down the corridor that led to the bay. Since no alarms had sounded, Burke expected that Jones was still unconscious. They made it to the bay without trouble and, to Burke's immediate surprise, there was nobody in the bay. He picked out the first of the patrol-ships and started for it. But, Dr. Ottawa stopped him.

"Not that one. The last one over there has cryo-units. Let's take that one," she said.

Burke nodded and they ran toward it, still fearing that they might still be stopped. They weren't.

They made it inside and Burke hurried to close the hatch and seal it from the inside. First then did it actually occur to him, that he had no idea how to fly the thing.

Dr. Ottawa headed for the cockpit, not waiting for him. She seemed very determined, so he followed, hoping that she could fly it. Somehow, he doubted it. It was beyond him, that the Company hired female pilots, but he was willing to set aside his opinion, if it meant getting away from Miller.

Dr. Ottawa stopped inside the cockpit and turned to face him. "Well, get us out of here," she said, waving at the pilot's seat.

Burke looked at the controls, then back at the doctor. "I can't fly this," he said almost indignantly.

Dr. Ottawa raised an eyebrow. "You were planning to get out of here, but you can't fly a ship? What the hell is the matter with you, Burke? Can't you for once in your miserable life do something right? Ever since I met you the first time, you've done nothing but mess things up," she yelled, angry and afraid. Since Burke made no attempt to say anything or to defend himself, she dropped down on the pilot's seat and started switching the engines on. She wasn't good at it, but she could fly a ship like this. "Damn son of a bitch. Behaves like he owns the fucking world," she snarled under her breath, trying to calm her jumpy nerves by being angry.

Burke took the seat next to her, feeling very awkward. He should have thought about this a little earlier. But, then again, he hadn't expected Miller to tire of him so soon.

Dr. Ottawa put the headset on and switched it on. At once, a voice blared at her to shut down the engines and leave the ship at once. "Put a sock in it, buster. Either you open the bay doors or I blast them," she said, sounding very angry and very serious.

The voice on the other end ceased instantly. Then a very familiar voice came on the line. "Dr. Ottawa, I don't know what Burke has promised you, but I can assure you, that if you just shut down the engines and come out of the ship, nothing will happen to you. Burke has obviously lost his senses," Miller's voice said.

Instantly, Dr. Ottawa hesitated. She had always had a great deal of faith in authority, but she was starting to doubt it. But, obviously not enough, since her anger drained away.

"Come on, Laura. You know I'm a man of my word," Miller added.

Burke grabbed her arm. "Don't listen to him," he hissed. "He's stalling time. Let's get out of here. Right now."

Dr. Ottawa looked sideways at Burke, then nodded. "Miller, I'm not coming back. Sorry. I want to return to Earth and that's it," she said into the microphone. With a flip of a switch, she activated the guns. "Open the bay doors or I will, so help me God," she added.

For a long moment, there was complete silence. Then, Miller cleared his throat. "All right, Laura. All right."

The bay doors started to part and Laura took the ship out of the station. It drifted slowly away from the station, but suddenly changed course and flew under the station and headed toward the surface of the moon.

Burke grabbed the arms of his chair, beads of perspiration breaking out on his forehead. "What are you doing?" he screamed, unable to control his voice.

Laura guided the ship closer and closer to the surface and then straightened its course, when she was about fifty meters above the surface. "Call it life insurance, Burke. In case that Miller had thought of blowing us out of the sky," she replied.

They flew close to the surface until they were out of reach of the space station and then left the atmosphere of the moon again. By then, the three remaining patrol ships had set out after them and the chase started.

Laura turned out to be a hell of a lot better pilot than she had thought. She managed to dodge the missiles, the others fired at them and even put a lot of distance between them and their pursuers.

Finally, the others started to fall further and further behind and Laura smiled, feeling triumphant. "We've lost them. Now, let's get the hell out of here," she said.

Burke, who had been hugging his chair for dear life, managed to relax a little and smiled back at her nervously. "Good thing," he added.

Seconds later, the homing missile, that one of the other ships had fired, finally caught up with its target. The ship blew up in a cloud of vapor and debris and neither Burke nor Laura ever knew what hit them.

***

Back at the space station Madre, Miller leaned back in his chair, sighing. "Well done, Jones," he said into the headset, he was holding up against his right ear with one hand. "Come back home. We've got a lot of work to do yet."

***

NEAR THE ALIEN MOON

The Vindicator had almost reached her destination, when she woke up the team. The opening-cycle started two days before the estimated time of arrival.

Hicks was the first one up. He stood on the cold floor beside his unit, stretching a little life back to his slightly numb body.

Ripley sat up slowly, taking her time to wake up properly. The rest of the team was out and about within short time and they all marched up to their lockers. Most of them were quiet, having not yet shaken the deepsleep completely.

Ripley walked past them up to her locker, listening to the few words they did say. Nothing terribly exciting or frightening. She felt more like a part of this team than she had with Hicks' old one. But, then again, she had been given the chance to get to know these people. Hicks had been the only one among his old team remotely interested in making her feel just a little welcome.

"Sleep well?" somebody asked.

Ripley turned to face Valenz. "So and so. You?" she asked back.

The smart gun-operator flexed her fingers while she pulled on black, tight-fitting gloves and grinned. "Sure. I always get my best sleep in the freezer. Keeps me from getting up and wandering aimlessly around during sleepless nights," she replied. She tightened her belt around her already thin waist. "I suffer from insomnia. Being forced into it with regular intervals is good for my system," she added.

"Let's hustle, people," Hicks interrupted, calling out to everybody.

***

Thirty minutes later, they were all in the mess-hall, eating breakfast. Ripley looked around at them, surprised at how much tension there could be in one room. There was no elation, nobody cracked jokes. There was no resemblance to her first trip out with a marine team. But, then again, this was no routine mission. These men and women didn't know what to expect. Naturally, they were tense and uncertain. She only hoped that they wouldn't be, if it came down to a fight.

Hicks, who sat next to Ripley, pushed his food around on the plate, not eating. He was tired and he felt too tense. The only hope he harbored was, that this whole thing would soon be over with. He had decided to let the team eat in peace before going over the final details. There was just one thing that bothered him. Previous to breakfast, he had been on the bridge to check for messages and he had found one, too. The message had been sent directly from van Leuwen and was a direct order to just blow up the space station Madre. Hicks, however, was not about to do that. He did not kill people without warning. Glancing at Ripley, he noted her attention to the team, and looked around himself. They were all awfully quiet.

"What's this graveyard-mood all about?" he asked, looking around at them. "This is not a trip to hell. It's a plain arrest. Nothing more, nothing less," he said, trying to make himself believe it, too.

The mood rose a little and before long, the others did start cracking jokes, turning each other on. Hicks nodded to himself and returned his attention to his tray.

"That was a good move," Ripley told him quietly.

"Yeah, I know," he replied, eyeing his food thoughtfully. "I don't want this crap. It looks like it's been digested already," he added loudly, causing Ripley to make a face.

"Go ahead and spoil our appetite, boss," one of the men said, pushing his tray away.

They started beefing about the food, making jokes about other things they allegedly had eaten and, again, the mood rose another notch. Hicks wanted them to ride high, when they took over the station. Nobody should have the slightest flicker of doubt about, what they were doing.

After listening to them for a while, Hicks got up and dumped his tray in the disposal-unit. Then, he headed for the bridge to be alone for a while.

Ripley watched him go, feeling that something was wrong with him.

"What's up with Hicks?" Valenz asked, obviously having noticed it, too.

Ripley turned to face the other woman, then shrugged. "I'll be damned if I know. I'll try to find out," she replied and got up, too.

"Hey, why's everybody running out of here?" Jansen asked, the second smart gun-operator.

"Mind your food, dope," Valenz retorted, thereby diverting his attention.

In the meantime, Ripley left the mess hall and went in search of Hicks. She found him on the bridge, sitting on one of the few chairs, his feet resting on the console in front of him.

"Hi," she said quietly, dropping down on the chair next to him.

He didn't immediately acknowledge her presence and kept staring into space.

"What's up?" she tried again, hoping that he wouldn't keep her in suspense for too long.

Running both hands through his hair, he inhaled deeply. "There was an order waiting. A demolition-order. I've chosen to disregard it," he finally said, the expression in his eyes still far away.

"Does that mean trouble?" Ripley asked, eying the blank monitor in front of him for a moment.

"Under normal circumstances, yes. But, now, I'm not too sure. It depends on a lot of things," he replied.

"Like what?"

He pulled his feet off the console and straightened up on the chair. "Whether this is considered to be 'normal circumstances' or not. Anyway, I am disregarding that order, whether van Leuwen likes it or not." He got up, looking down at the monitor. "I've erased it," he added.

Ripley shrugged. "That's okay with me. But, what about the team? Are you going to tell them?" she wanted to know.

Hicks shrugged back. "Why? What's the point? I'm supposed to be in charge, right?"

"Well, if you carried out the order, it could save us a lot of trouble, Dwayne. If we -- demolished the space station, we'd be home again a lot sooner."

"Yeah, I know that. But there are a lot of people on that station and my bet is, that not all of them are completely on Miller's team. I don't see why we should waste them if they've done nothing. Besides, Miller would get off too easy if we just blew them up. Know what I mean?" He turned to face her, looking down at her. "I just can't kill people who might be innocent. That would put me in the same category as Miller and van Leuwen both. I don't want that."

Ripley nodded. "I see your point. We'll do it your way. I like that better, anyway."

***

Later, the team was gathered in the dropship bay and Hicks was standing in front of them, feeling awkward. The position as lieutenant wasn't something you just jumped into and took control of. There was still a lot to be learned. "Okay, guys and girls. This is what's going down. We give them a chance to surrender peacefully. If they refuse that chance, they asked for it. I doubt that they will, though. We go in, take over the station and place Miller under arrest. If any of them try to resist arrest, you are hereby allowed to use any measures necessary to ensure peace. I don't want any desperados in there, though. I want you to think before you act and, under no circumstances are you to accept any bribes or threats from anyone. Got that?" The team agreed. "Good. Any questions?"

Jansen raised his hand. "What about those -- aliens?" he wanted to know.

"As I explained on Gateway, we'll blow up the moon if we have to. Steps will be taken to make sure that those things don't spread."

Private Perkins raised her hand. "What if they attack us? I mean, before we can take over?" she wanted to know.

"We blow them out of the sky. We are authorized to do that. If they think we're kidding around, we'll show them otherwise." Nobody else seemed to have any questions, so Hicks told them to take a couple of hours to relax. "We'll be there tomorrow evening. By then, I want all of you to be ready to kick ass if necessary. Work out or whatever you want to do. From now and until 12.00 a.m. tomorrow, your time is your own. I want you in here at 12.00 sharp tomorrow."

The team spread out and eventually, they all vanished to other parts of the ship. Hicks still stood in the same spot, staring ahead of himself.

"What are you thinking?" Ripley wanted to know.

"That I need a cigarette," he replied, pulled one out of his pack and lit it. Inhaling deeply, he glanced at her. "Let's do something constructive," he added.

"Like what?" she asked as he slipped an arm around her shoulder.

"I don't know. Do you have any suggestions?"

Ripley grinned, fully aware of what he was insinuating. "We don't really have the privacy for that, do we?"

"Sure, there's a private cabin for the lieutenant and, since I'm the lieutenant, I guess I can use it."

Together they left the dropship bay and headed for the cabin.

The others did whatever they thought would keep them occupied. Most of them worked out in the small gym, which was standard equipment for every warship this size.

***

SPACE STATION MADRE

Jones had taken over guard-duty, something he did very rarely. He had a strange feeling that something would happen soon and he wanted to be there when it did. He had not been in the control-room for more than an hour, when the proximity alert started blaring. He straightened in his chair, checking the source of the alert. About half a day's travel away, a ship had just turned up on their outer border. Jones instructed the computer to identify it and the answer was both disturbing and fascinating.

Jones smiled a little, feeling a rush of adrenaline. "At last," he muttered. Ever since he had been hired by Miller, he had hoped for some action. A military vessel of that size would be a worthy adversary. Looking at the technical data for the ship, as it came in, his hopes rose. "Nice going, van Leuwen. Sending us a real warship. Maybe even with a lieutenant, who's worth something," he added.

Leaning a little to his left, he called up Miller's quarters.

***

Half an hour later, Miller stood in the control-room, staring at the technical data on the monitor. He was not happy about what he saw. "A military vessel. Just what we needed," he grumbled. He was tired and in a bad mood.

"A military vessel is no match for this station, sir. You said so yourself," Jones replied, leaning back in his chair. He felt completely confident in the ability of the station's defenses.

Miller gave him a sour look. "Jones, use the inside of your head for a minute. There is no way we can attack or even engage in a fight with that ship. Not because we can't deal with her, but because if we do, the whole damned Marine Corps is going to be breathing down our necks within a very short time. The problem is that they know where we are."

Jones sat up straight, suddenly feeling a little flustered. He had already worked out how to blow the Vindicator out of the sky and now Miller told him, he couldn't. He thought about that for a minute. "Well, then we'll have to move. We blow up the Vindicator and move operations to a new spot. No big deal," he replied. He had it all worked out and he wanted a fight. He wanted it badly.

Miller rolled his eyes. "And, how do you suggest we do that? Go down there and tell the queen we need to move her home somewhere else?" he asked almost kindly.

Jones stopped breathing for a second. He had completely forgotten about the army of aliens down on the moon. "Well, we could leave them and start over someplace else."

Miller's patience snapped at that. "With what, Jones? We need another queen and there is only one down there. Are you really this dumb or are you just pretending?" he yelled, driving a fist into the side of Jones' chair.

Jones rose, looking at Miller with an expression that could kill. "Mr. Miller, if you please, all these men on this station are under my command. I hired them, they obey me. I wouldn't be too confident about being able to run this operation without me, if I were you. I don't give a hoot about what you're planning to do with your alien population down there. I couldn't care less. But, if it even once has crossed your mind to try and get rid of me, think again. If anyone leaves here, it'll be you," he said calmly. He had himself perfectly under control, because he knew that he was right. Miller could do nothing without him. Nothing at all.

Miller stared at Jones for a moment, then nodded. "No reason for fear, Jones. I wouldn't dream of getting rid of you. Without you, this operation would never have happened. I just lost my temper there for a minute. You know how important these aliens are to me. No offence," he replied, sounding as if he had scared Jones.

Jones had his own private opinion about that, but he didn't plan on doing anything about Miller right now. The man was, after all, paying him for his work. Very handsomely, at that. "None taken," he said after a moment. "So, we don't attack the Vindicator. What do you suggest we do, then?" he added.

"Well, let's see what they want first. Maybe they're just out on a routine inspection. Who knows?" Miller said, shrugging. With those words, he turned around and headed back for his quarters. There was, after all, a few hours left, before the ship came within hailing-distance. He needed to get a little more sleep before that.

Jones returned his attention to the communications-station, a sinister look on his face. The former anticipation was gone. Whatever happened, it would not be good. Besides, if the Vindicator with all of her weaponry was just out on a routine inspection, she would not have come here. This moon was not registered as having a space station.

***