THE VINDICATOR

Hicks watched one of the monitors thoughtfully. After having spent a few hours doing nothing in particular with Ripley, he had returned to the bridge to make a survey. He wanted to know exactly where he stood.

A few feet behind him stood master sergeant Boulder, watching him. "Something wrong, sir?" he wanted to know, having noted the thoughtful expression on Hicks' face.

"Yeah. Their defense grid is active. They know we're coming," he replied, turning to face the burly, sour-looking man. Boulder lived up to his name, since he looked very much like the stone he was named after.

"That's bad news, huh?" Boulder asked.

"Well, it depends. If I had an illegal operation out here and a warship this size turned up, I would also activate my defense grid. I can't really blame them for it. The only thing is, that we will have to be on our toes a lot sooner than originally planned. Get your people together and prep them, Boulder. They'll have to be alert. I'll activate the ship's defenses."

Boulder swirled around and left the bridge to do as he was told. Hicks knew that his way of dealing with things was uncommon for a lieutenant or any kind of military personnel and he respected Boulder for not making a fuzz about it.

He activated the ship's defenses, raising a highly repellant electromagnetic field around the ship's front. It would repel any missiles the space station could launch and attacking ships could easily be repelled with the highly sophisticated robot-guided missile-launcher and gun-turrets. All he had to do was give the order and the Vindicator would destroy anything within a certain radius that might threaten her.

He watched the indicator-screen, which showed the rising shields and the activation of the robot-units. Finally, everything was glowing in ready-mode. Knowing that the ship from now on would deal with the rest, he went to join the team in the drop-ship bay.

***

Boulder saw him coming and brought the team to attention. The only one not following that order was Ripley.

Hicks surveyed the team for a moment. "As you were," he then said and they all relaxed. "All right, team. This is it. A little earlier than predicted, but we can deal with that, right?" There was an affirmative murmur. "Good. In a few minutes, we will make contact with the station and then we'll see what happens. I just want you all to stay alert and ready for action." He looked around at them for a moment longer, then nodded to the com-tech. "Starling, you're coming with me. The rest of you, stay put. I want to know where to find you."

***

Starling was one of the best comtechs Hicks had ever had the pleasure of meeting. She followed him, walking a few steps behind him, her hands buried in her pockets. On the bridge, she took her seat and put on her headset.

"Put it on speakers," Hicks told her and she switched the bridge-speakers on. "The ones in the bay as well," he added and she did that, too. "Now, make contact. Tell them to surrender peacefully."

"This is colonial marine vessel Vindicator calling space station Madre. You are performing illegal business in this sector and are to surrender peacefully for inspection. Do you copy? Over." Starling's voice was steady and calm and that made the message sound non threatening.

For a moment, all they heard was static, then space station Madre replied. "This is space station Madre. We read you, Vindicator. What is the purpose of this inspection? Over," a male voice responded.

"Space station Madre, you are performing illegal business in this sector. You are to surrender instantly or suffer the consequences. Over."

This was followed by another moment of silence. Then. "Vindicator, we see no reason to surrender to inspection since all our permits are in order. We advise you to report back to Earth to verify this. Over."

Hicks snapped his fingers irritably. "Sneaky," he grumbled.

"Space station Madre. We are an envoy from Earth, acting on Company orders. We have orders for your arrest. This is your final warning. Surrender now. Over," Starling said, glancing at Hicks who gave her a thumbs up.

Another moment of silence, then a different voice, which Hicks identified instantly, took over. "This is Miller speaking. We will not surrender without knowing your orders. We demand that you transfer these to us at once. Any act besides that will result in a counter-attack."

Hicks looked at the speaker for a moment, then flipped a switch on the console in front of Starling. A mechanical voice took over their side of the conversation.

"Attention. This is your final warning. Voice your surrender within T minus five minutes or be destroyed."

"Vindicator, this is not standard procedure. We demand delay. Over," the first voice retorted.

A minute passed.

"You now have T minus four minutes to surrender," the mechanical voice advised them.

"Threatening us into surrender is not going to work," Miller snapped back.

Another minute passed. "You now have T minus three minutes to surrender."

For a moment longer, nothing happened. Then. "All right. We surrender. Turn off your target-computer. We surrender peacefully. Over."

Starling reached out for the switch, which would turn off the target-computer, but Hicks stopped her. "You now have T minus two minutes to surrender," the mechanical voice said.

"Vindicator, we surrender. Acknowledge. Over," the now increasingly nervous voice of the com-tech on space station Madre said.

"Let them sweat for a moment," Hicks said to Starling, who nodded. "You now have T minus one minute to surrender. Fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven ..." the mechanical voice started to count.

"We surrender, Vindicator. Acknowledge. Acknowledge," an almost hysterical voice sounded from the speakers.

Hicks switched the target-computer off again. "You have voiced your surrender. Attack-sequence has been interrupted. Prepare to be boarded," the mechanical voice said.

Starling switched the headset off and looked up at Hicks. "Sir, if I may say so, that was highly irregular," she said, unable to stop a smile.

"Yeah, but don't you just love the feeling of power?" he replied, making a face.

***

Back in the dropship bay, Hicks parted the group into two. Four of the eleven were to stay on the Vindicator, in case of complications. He didn't even have to tell Ripley twice, that he didn't want her on the space station. She volunteered to stay behind, too.

"All right, people. Let's move like we got a purpose," he told the remaining seven.

They filed into the dropship, while the others left the bay. Ripley sat down next to Starling on the bridge, putting her own headset on. Starling winked at her. "Don't worry. They'll do fine. Nobody is stupid enough to resist a commando group like this. Not unless they're suicidal, that is," she said.

Ripley gave her a stern look. "Very reassuring, Starling. Shut up," she then replied, which earned her a big grin from the com-tech.

***

SPACE STATION MADRE

Miller stood in front of his terminal on the bridge, staring at the image of the Vindicator with a sour expression on his face. Now and then his eyes shifted to a big, red button protected by a glass-cover. If everything turned bad, he could be forced to use the self-destruct button, but he would bid his time and see what happened. He actually counted on being able to talk his way out of this mess.

"Sir?" Jones asked from behind him.

Miller glanced at the man with a frown. He didn't like Jones but liking people had never been an issue for him. As long as they did their jobs, he couldn't care less about what kind of a person he had hired and Jones seemed easy enough to control. With a grumble he acknowledged the other man's presence.

"What are you planning to do, sir? You can't let them land here. They'll take over at once," Jones insisted, having made that point several times while the marines had threatened to blow up the station.

Miller turned his sour look on Jones. "I know that, stupid. But it seems we've run out of choices, doesn't it? We have to let them land and we have to let them take over. That's the way the game goes. That's the way of life," he said in a sour-sweet tone of voice, looking back at the monitor. "I won't accept it without a fight, but I fear we're beaten."

Jones' expression had turned even harder than usual when Miller called him stupid. "Sir, if I may make a suggestion." He forced the words out, trying to restrain his anger, but Miller didn't seem to notice the tone of his voice.

Miller had turned fully toward the monitor again and didn't really listen to Jones. "What?" he grumbled, too absorbed by his own somber thoughts.

"If we took some of them hostage, we might have something to deal with. We could threaten to kill the hostages unless they left at once," Jones finally managed to say after having forced some calm into his voice again.

An uncertain look crossed Miller's face as he turned his head to look at Jones. Uncertain because he couldn't believe Jones had just suggested that. "What? Hostages?" he asked. "Are you completely out of your mind, man? Don't you know what would happen if we did that? The Company would just send another ship out here and they would destroy us without any questions asked. The Company doesn't give a shit about their men. Marines can be replaced, you know." Having said what he thought about Jones' idea, Miller again returned his attention to the warship and the dropship that was bound to detach from it sooner or later. "I know I'd hired a criminal. I just didn't think I'd hired a stupid criminal," he added.

At that Jones saw red. He flipped the safety off his pulse riffle and raised it to point at Miller's back. "That does it, sir," he snarled. "You're a dead man in more ways than one."

Miller had heard the click of the safety being switched off and he realized at the same instance that he had gone too far but he didn't believe it could not be corrected. Turning, he raised his hands in a deprecating gesture. "What is the matter with you, Jones? Can't you take defeat like a man?" he asked. "Put down that riffle. It's not going to do you any good. We have to abandon the station for now."

Jones didn't waver and neither did his aim at Miller. "Sorry, sir. But you've just called me stupid for the last time. I have a little plan of my own and I can assure you that basically all people on this station are going to back me up. We're all pretty much fed up with the way you're treating us. So, here's what we will do. We're going to hand you over to the marines, because that's what they want. We're going along with everything they say as long as we can stay here. You see, we'll run this little operation and do what we always wanted to do. Waste the whole fucking nest of your revolting little pets down there. I'm not going to end up being fed to them and neither is anybody else. So, you see, sir, we'll have to get rid of you to do that and what better way than turning you over to the marines." Having said his piece, Jones allowed himself a nasty grin. "You're dead, Miller," he added and pulled out a pair of handcuffs from his pocket.

***

THE DROPSHIP

With space station Madre looming in the distance, the dropship fell out of the Vindicator's belly and with a roar of the engines it headed on a straight course directly toward the station.

Inside the dropship, the team was silent. Hicks was standing in the cockpit behind Denning and watched their approach with a gut feeling that this might go very wrong. One way or another.

The station looming in the distance had the same structure as a heavily armed battle station but Hicks doubted that it actually carried very much fire power. Somebody would have become suspicious a long time ago if Miller had shipped out a lot of artillery to such a remote place. Besides, Bio's had never been in need of artillery as such and therefore was not entitled to any. So, somebody would definitely have bristled if that had been the case. "How much longer?" he asked Denning.

The young pilot glanced at a meter. "Ten minutes, sir," he replied.

Hicks glanced back at the team. All of them were good soldiers with a lot of experience and he would hate to lose any of them. Again he wondered if his decision to ignore the demolition order had been a good one. Ripley was right. It would have been a hell of a lot easier if they had just blown it up right away. But he doubted that he would be able to live with himself, if he knew that he had killed innocent people. And it was very doubtful that all of Miller's employees were in on his little scheme. Eventually he nodded at Boulder to prep the team.

Boulder nodded back to him and then turned his attention to his people. "All right you lazy sons of bitches. Pardon my French, ladies," he said loudly in a friendly yet formidable tone of voice. "Get your lazy buts out of your seats and gear up. We're almost there and we don't want to be caught with our pants down, now do we?"

With a unified yes-sir, they all got to their feet, getting their gear ready, shouldering their riffles and generally picking up on the mood Boulder had started. They started making rough jokes until Boulder asked them to put a sock in it and just get a move on.

Hicks grinned a little wryly at the sound of Boulder's booming voice. He reminded him a bit of Apone. Thinking about his old sergeant, he turned his attention back to the cockpit window. Apone was alive yet completely gone. He'd spent the time from their home-coming in an institution and Hicks had been by to see him a couple of times. But there was no change in the man's condition and Hicks had eventually given up on him. There was nothing more he could do for him.

"Okay, take us directly into the main bay," he told Denning, then turned to join his team. The feeling of being in complete control still had to grow on him but he thought he was doing an okay job. He also knew that if he for one second doubted himself now, the team would wring him up and hang him out to dry. They needed to be able to depend on him now. No matter what happened. And even though he was as nervous as he could get, he had a pretty good grip on himself.

***

The dropship glided effortlessly into the main bay of the space station and settled down before the outer hatch of the bay had closed behind it. The access-ramp of the dropship fell down, braking only an inch above the bay floor. The team with Boulder at point was out of the dropship, forming a half-circle around the ramp before any of Miller's men had managed to enter the bay. The first sight that met the team, when the door into the station finally did open, was one they had not expected.

Hicks stood at the lip of the ramp, staring at the haggard looking man who stood behind Miller. It was obvious that the man was armed and that Miller was either tied or handcuffed. An almost electrical shiver ran up Hicks' back and he made a quick decision.

"Mr. Miller. How good of you to meet us," he said sarcastically, stepping through the row of marines.

The man standing behind Miller urged him forward, smiling the false smile of a barracuda. "You must be the lieutenant," he said. "I'm Jones, second in command next to this scumbag. I can't tell you how glad we are to see you guys. We ..." he began but Hicks interrupted him.

"Mr. Jones. Thank you for sparing us the trouble of having to -- ah -- handcuff Mr. Miller ourselves. If you would just do us the favor of gathering the rest of your staff here so we can leave as quickly as possible," Hicks suggested, smiling in a disturbingly friendly manner.

Jones was dumbfounded for the first few seconds, staring at Hicks as if he had just appeared out of thin air. Then his expression changed and it was obvious that this was not what he had in mind. "Lieutenant. Perhaps we could talk for a moment. I have a suggestion to make which might seem fair to you," he then said.

Hicks narrowed his eyes, staring at the man. He had always been pretty good at analyzing other people and this man did not have a clear conscience, to put it mildly. "Well, we can always talk on the Vindicator. Please, Mr. Jones. Call your staff and make them ready to leave. Time is money," he then replied.

Miller smiled viciously. "Yeah, Jones. Call your staff. You will not be able to convince this man of your devious plans," he snapped.

Jones prodded him in the back, causing him to make a half turn before Jones stopped him. In that brief second where he was fully exposed, Hicks saw the pulse riffle. Jones certainly didn't take any chances. "Miller is not really sane anymore," Jones apologized. "He lost it somewhere along the way."

Hicks nodded, folding his arms over his chest. "Sure. Get your people together, Jones. I'm not saying it once more." As Hicks changed his tone of voice from being friendly to being threatening, Jones became a bit jumpy.

"Lieutenant. Nothing is more our concern than destroying those aliens. We don't want them here anymore than you do. If we could just be allowed to keep the station, we'll move it to one of the neighboring planets, which is very rich in metals. We could use this station to mine those metals. We could use it for a good purpose," Jones said, smiling his barracuda-smile again. "In return we'll hand over Miller. He's of no use to us anyway. And, it was only due to your arrival that I managed to overwhelm him."

Hicks briefly thought about the pulse riffle and nodded again, staring hard at Jones. "Mr. Jones. I am not here to discuss any settlements with you. This station is going to be destroyed as well as the surface of the moon below. The destruction of both is a security measure which has to be taken. There is no discussing it. Sorry." With those words, he waved his team forward and they spread out to gather the few men who had followed Jones and Miller to the bay.

Just then, Miller swirled around, his hands suddenly free, grabbed Jones' riffle and was out the door before anybody had a chance to react. What Jones had not counted on was that Miller had once been a guttersnipe and therefore knew how to get out of basically any kind of restraint. He had done it a million times when he had been a kid and he had not forgotten his childhood scholarship. By taking the riffle, Miller had knocked Jones down and the man was obviously too stunned to react properly.

"AFTER HIM," Hicks yelled and three marines broke out of the group and hurried after Miller. Turning his attention back to Jones, Hicks gave him a sour look. "This had better be an accident, Jones. If it isn't, I'll waste you right now," he snarled.

Jones got back to his feet, looking overly hurt. "I didn't know that he could get out of those handcuffs. I thought he was secured. But, you're men better find him fast. He's getting away," he replied while he straightened his black leather jacket and his black tie.

Hicks rolled his eyes. "Where's he gonna go? This is a space station. A confined area. Unless of course he jumps out of an airlock which would make life easier for us," he wanted to know.

Jones sighed. "Then you don't know Miller, lieutenant. He's a crafty son of a bitch. He's got his private yacht waiting at the other end of the station and believe me. It's ready to go. Not even that monster you came in can keep up with it. It's highly tuned and I should know. I've tuned it."

Hicks tapped the microphone on his headset. "Get to Miller fast. He's got a ship at the other side of the station," he told the three following Miller.

"Sorry, sir. He's locked himself in one of the labs and according to the floor plans we have to get through this door to catch up with him," one of his men replied.

Hicks closed his eyes for a moment, trying not to feel the defeat. Instead he turned back to Jones. "Miller has locked himself in one of the labs, cutting my men off. Can he get on from there?"

Jones nodded. "Yeah. He can get on from there. And furthermore, he will probably take his three most prized possessions with him," Jones replied in a tone of voice indicating that Hicks had just screwed up.

And Hicks knew what those possessions could be. Being a lieutenant Hicks was supposed to stay calm and thereby keep his team at bay, too. Being a human being with too much experience Hicks had no intention of staying calm. With a sudden burst of anger, he grabbed Jones, pushed him back against the nearest wall and lifted him off his feet. "Are you telling me that Miller has aliens in there?" he snapped.

Jones didn't feel so cocky all of a sudden. He was becoming aware of that this lieutenant might very well be unstable. Staring at Hicks with the intention of not showing how nervous this attack made him, he nodded. "Yeah. Embryos. Two warriors and possibly a queen if the scientists finished with her. I think they did," he agreed.

Hicks let go of him and turned to private Graves. "Graves. Get me a line to the Vindicator," he snapped. Graves was quick to carry out the order and nodded to Hicks only seconds later after establishing a line to the ship through the station's com-system. "Starling, do you copy?" Hicks asked.

"Loud and clear. How's it going over there?" Starling's voice rang from the speakers.

"Not good. There's a yacht docked to the station across from the main bay. As soon as it moves away from the station I want you to blow it to smithereens," Hicks replied.

"Copy that, lieutenant," Starling said. The line went dead for a while until it snapped to life again a couple of minutes later. "Sir, if I blow up that yacht, I'll blow you up, too," Starling then said.

Hicks frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, glancing around at his team.

"Whoever is flying that thing, he knows what he's doing. He just took a direct course along the station and as soon as he breaks free, he'll be ready to jump. I can't catch him. Not without risking your necks, too."

Hicks felt the color drain away from his face as he stared ahead of himself with a suddenly intense need to kill somebody. For a long moment he was completely immobile, then he took a deep breath, shaking the anger off. "Starling, I want you to sent a coded communication to Gateway. As a matter of fact, I want you to sent it directly to van Leuwen. Tell him this: Miller has escaped and is probably returning to Earth. He's bringing live cargo with him. He must be stopped," he said in a badly contained tone of voice. "Send it to the ICC-quarantine office, too," he added after a second.

There was a brief moment of silence. Then Starling's voice sounded through the speakers again. "The communication is away. I just doubt that it will reach Earth before Miller does, sir. He just made the jump and with that yacht's capacity, he'll be there at least a week before this message arrives."

***

MILLER'S YACHT

Miller leaned back in the pilot's chair with a content smile. His yacht had just made the first jump on its trip back to Earth and he was going to be welcomed as a hero there. He was certain of that. In a way, Jones' prediction of his insanity had not been far off the mark. Miller had actually gone a little insane.

He reached down beside his chair and lifted a black shock-resistant box up on his lap. He caressed the metal as if it contained the greatest treasure, then flipped the locks open and raised the lid. Inside three jars were contained in the shock-resistant material which flowed like glue around them. He picked up the middle jar, pulling it out of the gluey substance with a slurping sound, and held it up against the light. The embryonic alien queen, which his scientists had managed to breed with the help of an artificial womb, jerked inside the confinements of her prison, eager to get out, and Miller smiled. "Thanks to my brilliant scientists, you'll be able to become a ruler of worlds, my dear," he whispered. His scientists had worked for a long time on breeding a queen without an actual host. It had been difficult but this one was a winner. She'd broken three stasis-tanks until the scientists had come up with this nutritious yet growth-restrictive fluid she was now swimming in and the container was made of three times reinforced plast-steel. The queen jerked again, slamming her wormlike body against the plast-steel. Her white mouth opened to reveal the already silvery teeth, tiny and seemingly harmless. She would be huge once she was allowed to fulfill the cycle of her life and her two warriors would protect her and help her establish a hive like no other before it. A hive on Earth. With plenty of hosts to increase their numbers.

Chuckling under his breath, Miller placed the jar back inside the box and closed the lid. He would be there, on Gateway, watching over her like a god and she would supply him with invaluable material for study. He would make certain that his scientists got back to Earth to help him accomplish that task. Once he had taken over Earth, he would be the supreme ruler in the Galaxy. Sort of like a god.

He rose from his seat and placed the box in a luggage compartment, securing it before he closed the hatch and sat down again. He wanted to enjoy the silence for a while before he slipped into the effortless rest of cryo sleep.

***

THE VINDICATOR

Hicks eyed the view-screen showing the space station with nothing more than contempt. He knew he had screwed up and now the team knew, too. He had told them the truth and their reaction had been understandable yet unforeseen. The fact that he as a lieutenant had disobeyed a direct order was something that most of them could not easily accept. He should have obeyed van Leuwen's direct order and blown the station up. But he had been ruled by his conscience and that would probably be the end of life as he knew it.

Without another thought, he pushed the button that allowed the Vindicator to carry out her orders. Seconds later, the space station was engulfed in a cloud of fire and gas as the nuclear missile blew it all to kingdom come. Immediately following that, the surface of the moon below started showing blindingly bright shapes of mushroom clouds as the warheads hammered into the surface, blowing up the aliens and their hive.

With the goal of the mission reached, he turned around to face the two who were on the bridge with him. Private Lewis and Ripley. He hadn't spoken one word to anybody since his revelation and the few people he had seen worthy to survive, had been placed under arrest and locked up somewhere. Jones was not among them. Jones had died on the station together with all of Miller's scientists and their crazy projects. All in all, he figured that he basically was reaching the number of deaths that he had been accused of causing during that trial way back when.

With a shake of his head, he turned his back to the view-screen and the scene of destruction, nodding briefly to private Lewis who was in charge of getting them home again. Lewis was pale, not looking too happy, but she returned the nod and went to work.

Ripley stood near the door of the bridge, her arms crossed over her chest as she watched Hicks when he walked past her toward the door. He stopped to look at her, to try and figure out what she thought about all this. Somehow, he felt the need to try and explain why he had chosen to do what he had done. Most of all he wanted her to understand why. But then he sighed and looked away. He didn't really want to talk about it yet and he also didn't know what say.

The door slid open to admit him out into the corridor and he walked briskly away from the bridge to find Boulder. He found him in the mess hall and the sergeant didn't look too happy about what had happened, either. "Boulder, I need a word with you," Hicks said.

Boulder nodded and got up reluctantly from his place at the table. "Yes, sir," he said. His tone of voice indicated his inability to forgive what had happened and he actually felt the whole team's dissatisfaction with his decision to disobey orders.

Hicks met Boulder's eyes for a second then glanced away. "I'm resigning my position, Boulder. You're next in train of command. So, the team is all yours," he said, took a brief look around at the others gathered in the room and turned to leave.

Boulder laid a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. "Sir, I don't want the command. You are our lieutenant and even though we don't agree with what you've done, we respect you for your decision. And, let me tell you this. It's not the blowing up of the station or the termination of those people. It's the disregard of a direct order and the jeopardy you put us in as a result. Nothing more."

Hicks restrained his need to turn around and yell at Boulder. He didn't want to be in charge anymore. He wanted to be left alone without having to make decisions that could affect or even kill the entire team. He also felt that he had lost face in front of them and no marine took something like that lightly. Taking a deep breath he turned back to face Boulder. "Well, I think we've got a problem here, Boulder. Because, I don't want the command either. I'm not fit for it. I don't want to have another human life on my conscience and I will if I stay in command. Do you get that?"

Boulder eyed him for a long moment and then his expression turned hard. "You're scared, sir. We're all scared. But you chose to take this command and you're damned well going to do your job right. I am not letting you bail out now so you can feel sorry for yourself. What do you think I would have done if I had been in your shoes? Resigned my command so I could go off and sulk somewhere? You have been in the marines for over ten years and you know the drill. You are staying in command until we return to Earth and you're officially freed of your responsibilities. Sir."

For a long moment Hicks had the feeling of being back in the academy, being verbally beaten into shape by one of his superiors. Then he realized that this was what he needed. Somebody reminding him of his responsibilities and his capacity. With an embarrassed smile he lowered his head. "You're right, Boulder. You're right," he muttered, then raised his head to look at Boulder again. The man seemed to have renewed respect for him. "Let's get this bucket moving and go home," he then said.

***

Sometime later, Hicks was back on the bridge. "Lewis, tell me something," he said while he kept his eyes on the monitor that showed the routines the Vindicator was going through to start her travel back home.

Lewis looked up from her seat on the bridge, wondering what their highly exceptional lieutenant had on his mind now. "What's that, sir?" she asked.

Hicks finally turned to face her and leaned against the console in the process. "What route are we going to take back to Earth? Why does it have to take such a long time?"

Lewis frowned, having a distinct feeling that Hicks was going to ask her to do something out of the ordinary. "The safest routes are for private ships and supply ships. They take between one and three weeks longer than ours. We're taking the route that is next to nothing. We are brushing pretty closely along some black holes and stuff like that. There are more direct routes, but nobody has ever had the guts to explore them properly. Too many ships have vanished by taking a straight line." She hesitated for a moment with the silent hope that he wasn't going to ask her to take a straight line back to Earth. "Why?" she then asked.

Hicks rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Would you be able to plot a direct route to Earth that could cut our time? The faster we get there the better," he then said.

Lewis sighed inwardly, then nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, I would be able to do that. But it's not a good idea. Besides, the Vindicator won't let me. She's programmed to bring us back home and avoid hazardous routes. That's a part of her programmed survival instinct."

Hicks nodded. "Just a thought," he muttered, then turned back to the monitor. "But, the Vindicator's mainframe is after all only a computer. Would you or anybody else be able to reprogram her?" he then asked quietly.

Lewis, who had turned back to her station, closed her eyes for a moment. It wasn't her place to question the lieutenant, but she was starting to have a real bad feeling about this conversation. "I could reprogram her. But it would get me kicked off the force and probably right into jail. I'm not willing to take that risk, sir." Her reply came a bit reluctantly because she wasn't used to ignoring orders. But, as she kept reminding herself, he hadn't really given an order yet.

Hicks nodded to himself. "Sure. Just playing with possibilities, Lewis. Don't worry about it." With those words, he left the bridge and Lewis sighed audibly.

"Playing with possibilities? Like hell you are. You're planning on something more than that," she muttered. She pushed a button that activated the voice-module of the Vindicator's mainframe, which had the pet-name Vi. "Hey, Vi. Are you active?" Lewis asked. She was the only one of the team with a direct access to the computer.

"Affirmative," the soft, female voice of the computer responded. "How may I help you, Private Lewis?"

Lewis grinned a little. "If we needed to return to Earth at a much faster rate than what you can give us now, how should we go about it?"

There was a brief pause, then three of the monitors on the bridge came to life and started calculating different routes. "None are as secure as the one I have planned to take. Why do you ask, Private Lewis?"

"Well, our lieutenant wants us to return to Earth faster than the planned route will allow for. Can you plot a safe, virtually straight line through to Earth? One that will get us there faster?"

"I am not sure I understand the question, Private Lewis. If you are asking me to override my basic programming, I will have to tell you that I cannot do that. I'm sorry."

Lewis shook her head. That computer was just getting too damned human all of a sudden. "Look, just tell me if it's possible and if so, how could it be done?"

"It is possible but the danger would be too great. In order to do it, you would have to bypass my basic programming. But I must warn you. I may lose all my memory if you shut me down. And without my memory, this ship cannot run," Vi replied.

Lewis pursed her lips while staring at the monitor in front of her. "Okay. Thanks for the help."

"I thought you didn't even want to consider it," a voice said from the door.

Lewis turned her chair to see Hicks standing there. "Just playing with possibilities, sir," she replied with a smile.

"Okay. So, theoretically, it's possible. We could alter the programming and get back to Earth within two weeks instead of a month. Right?" he wanted to know as he dropped down on a chair next to Lewis.

"Theoretically, yes," Lewis replied.

"In theory, anything is possible. But the danger is far too great," Vi put in.

Hicks glanced at the console. "Sure it's dangerous. I understand that. But Earth may be in great peril if we don't get there as fast as possible. What does your prime directive say to that?"

"I cannot jeopardize the life on this ship and I would if I took any other route than the ones that are plotted as being reasonably safe. I'm sorry, lieutenant."

With a saying glance at Lewis, Hicks smiled. "So am I. So am I."

***

Three hours later, Lewis had made a small program, which would bypass Vi's prime directive and survival instinct. It would allow them to change the route to a more direct one without having Vi interfere all the time and she would still be there to supervise the whole trip.

Glancing up at Hicks, Lewis leaned back on her seat. "Well, all we have to do now is activate the sucker and we're on our way. The thing is, I don't know what could happen if something goes wrong. We are after all dealing with a semi-intelligent computer system and it may have a top-priority prime directive, which I cannot access and therefore know nothing about. It's not showing up on any of Vi's memories but it may still be there."

Hicks squatted down beside her chair, looking at the glowing text she had entered on the monitor. "What is the worst thing that can happen?" he wanted to know.

"The worst?" Lewis asked and he nodded. "Well, the whole thing might short circuit. Vi might be able to interfere in one way and one way only. By shutting down the whole ship. And, if she does, I have no idea how to get her back on line. It's your call, sir."

Hicks mulled over that for a moment. "What do you think, Lewis? Is it worth a try?"

Lewis met his eyes and felt the need to tell him to bugger off. She didn't want to make a decision like that. But he was right. Earth's future might depend on that they at least tried. If Miller did get the aliens back to Earth, there was no telling what might happen. "I think we should go for it, sir. But it's still your call."

Hicks nodded and got up again. "Yeah, it's my call. And I say we do it." With those words, he pushed the enter button, setting the whole thing into motion. He had informed the rest of the team about what they were going to do and they had more or less agreed that it might be worth a shot.

At first nothing happened as the program ran its course. Then the monitor went dark. "What's going on?" Hicks asked. Lewis pushed a few buttons, but nothing happened. Then the lights went off and were almost immediately replaced by the red, soft glow of the emergency lights. Then the engines died. Within seconds, the whole ship simply stopped. And eventually, even the emergency lights flickered off.

Trapped in complete and utter darkness, Hicks and Lewis held their breaths, waiting for a long moment. Nothing else happened and Lewis finally exhaled. "Well, that's that. We've just dug our grave," she said in the darkness. "The air-circulation system is off line as is everything else. As soon as the air runs out, we're dead."

Hicks blinked and saw nothing. There was nothing but utter darkness surrounding them and he had no idea what to do. "That's not so good," he then said.

"No shit, Sherlock," Lewis replied, sounding miffed. "We shouldn't have done it, is all I can say. We should have taken the ordinary route home and taken things from there."

Hicks sighed. "You're right. But what good does that do now?" he wanted to know.

There was a sound behind them and then cones of light ran over the interior of the room. "What happened?" Ripley asked as she and three of the others came in through the door they had just opened by hand.

"The system's dead. We're fucked," Hicks replied, grabbed the flashlight Ripley was holding and left the computer room.

Ripley looked after him, then sighed. "Lewis, how do we get this thing back on line?" she asked.

Lewis rose from her seat and sneered in the half-light of the flashlights. "We don't. I haven't got the faintest idea. I have never dealt with anything like this before. I don't know shit about artificial intelligence. Nobody ever prepared me for this," she grumbled.

Ripley rolled her eyes. "And feeling sorry for yourself sure is going to help, isn't it? Stop the moaning and help me figure out how we get the ship back on line. There must be a way."

***