MILLER'S YACHT
- NEAR EARTH

A slight malfunction in the program that guided Miller's yacht caused his cryo tube to remain functional and hence he was not woken at the appropriate time. All other parts of the order he had entered in the board-computer did work properly and thereby sealed his doom. The autopilot switched off as soon as the vessel was within reach of Earth's gravitational pull, which would have enabled Miller to manually land the yacht, and that caused it to nosedive toward the surface with ever increasing speed.

To avoid a headfirst crash and thereby casualties, the yacht was blown to bits by Gateway before it could become a true danger. Nothing but bits and pieces of metal plummeted to Earth, surprising a few pedestrians walking down a street in Los Angeles, who were not prepared for a shower of fist-sized pieces of metal and plast-steel.

One other thing reached Earth in one piece. A black, shock-resistant box. It hit the ground in an alley between two factories and due to its construction, it remained in one piece and perfectly sealed. At least until it was found by a bum, who considered his options at finding liquor inside, decided they were good and opened the box upside down. Three jars plummeted out of the box and splintered into a thousand pieces, spilling their contents out on the ground. The bum stared at the three embryos squirming on the ground until the biggest of them suddenly lunged itself at him, digging amazingly powerful teeth into the soft flesh of his throat. Howling and screaming, desperately trying to prevent the horror from killing him, the bum staggered further down the alley, attracting very little attention as the embryonic alien queen slowly but surely ate her way through his throat.

Having brought down her first victim, the young queen sent out a high-pitched screech, unheard by the human population of the city, which attracted the embryonic warriors. Together, they fed on the still twitching body of the bum and then crawled off to find a place to slough.

***

SOMEWHERE IN SPACE

Lewis and Ripley made it down to the main engine room after having crossed through several other potential rooms. Without the computer-schematics of the ship they had to guess at the location of the main engine room and that had taken time. But eventually they found it and with it, the power panel, which controlled and distributed electricity to all parts of the ship. Lewis handed her flashlight to Ripley and started going over the panel, which took up the better part of a wall.

"This is going to be fun. Nothing is labeled and if I turn the wrong switch first, we'll blow ourselves to hell. I need to find the main switch before I try anything else," she said and grabbed the flashlight back.

Ripley took the panel from one end while Lewis took it from the other. After looking for a while, Ripley stopped at an exceptionally large switch. "Could this be it?" she asked.

Lewis looked over at it and nodded. "Not only could. It is. Way to go, Ell," she replied. Again she handed her flashlight to Ripley, closed both hands around the lever and pushed it up. The second it clicked into place, the whole ship woke up. All the lights flickered back on and the engines, so close now, roared into life. Lewis looked up at the lights embedded in the ceiling and smiled. "Looks like Vi just shut us down until we got our senses together. I'd better go check her out and see if she's still ticking. We're not out of trouble yet."

Ripley and Lewis were met by the others on the bridge and Lewis soon established that Vi had indeed only shut them down. By doing so, she had also erased Lewis' program and that seemed to be the main reason for the shut-down. In an attempt of self-preservation Vi had done the only thing possible.

Ripley was as relieved as the others, but it worried her that Hicks hadn't shown up. She went in search of him as soon as she knew there was no more danger and found him in the dropship bay. "Hey, Dwayne. What are you doing here?" she wanted to know.

"The same thing I'm always doing in dropship bays. I'm thinking, Ellen. This wasn't such a hot idea. And the next time I do something like this, we might not be so lucky that Lewis will be able to get us back on line. I don't think I should ever have agreed to take this command," he said.

Ripley stuffed her hands into her pockets and sighed. "What the hell is the matter with you? What is it with all this self-reproach? Are you having a depression or something? Talk to me, damn it."

He looked at her from where he was standing with an expression of pure self-loathing on his face and Ripley instantly knew that he was having a depression. A major one. And if she didn't talk him out of it, he might do something stupid. "Nothing's the matter with me, Ellen, except that I had coped with the thought of never going out again. And here I am. Out on another hopeless trip which will probably mean the end of life as we know it. I'm sorry if I seem a bit depressed about that but that's just the only damned way I can feel about it."

Ripley took a deep breath, trying to ignore the stinging sarcasm in his voice. "I should never have called you. I should never have gotten you into this. Marlee said you were scared. I just didn't realize how much. I'm sorry, Dwayne. I shouldn't have called you," she said. She somehow knew that he would not allow her to take the blame for this one but the truth was very simple. It was her fault. She had called him even though she knew that it would probably convince him to come along. She had more or less twisted his arm on this one and he hadn't even noticed.

He stared at her for a long moment, not sure how to react to this. Then he slowly nodded. "Yeah, you did kind of force me into this one, didn't you? -- Well, there's no sense in crying over spilt milk. We're on a one-way trip to hell now and there's nothing we can do to stop it."

Ripley's expression changed a bit at his words. "If you're going to keep up this mood of yours, Dwayne, I won't talk to you again. You were the gathering force on Acheron when everything else broke down. I know you're scared and I know you blame yourself for the fact that Miller got away. But those guys back at Gateway aren't stupid, you know. And van Leuwen knows Miller. When they see him coming, he's history. I'm sure of it. So, would you please spare me the wretchedness? I want to get some sleep before we reach Earth," she eventually said, not really caring if it pushed him over the edge. Deep down she didn't believe that it would. He was feeling sorry for himself right now, but he was also a tough guy mentally and she doubted that anything could really rattle him.

Hicks eyed her for a moment, then sighed. "You're probably right. I'm overreacting here. Earth is probably fine and I'm just jumping at shadows. Let's get some sleep,” he replied and took a step toward her.

Ripley stopped him, though. “Dwayne, it’s not your fault, okay? I know how hard it is to convince yourself of that. I’ve been there. But I also know that this is not your fault,” she tried to soothe him.

For a moment, he just eyed her, then he nodded and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Right. And the Pope isn’t Catholic either, Ellen. Let’s just forget about this crap and go to bed. I think that a month worth of deepsleep may change my view on things,” he replied and guided her toward the exit.

“It better,” she muttered and gave him a wry grin.

***

Half an hour later, the entire team had turned in and the Vindicator was back on her steady, ordinary course toward Earth. It would take her just about three and a half weeks to reach her destination from her current point in space.

***

ONE MONTH LATER

At the top of the stairs the building seemed to be as quiet as it should be during the night. But it didn't take long before the first sounds of something approaching reached the upper landing of the 134 storey high building, scratching sounds like the sounds bugs made when they crawled across a smooth, hard surface. Except these sounds were a lot louder than those of any ordinary, earthly bugs.

Something moved on the landing. Hudson rose out of the shadows and stepped up to the banister to take a look down the well. He leaned out over the banister and tried to see how far his pursuers had gotten. The building had so far been untouched but now the aliens were on their way. They had pulled the same stunt here as they had on Acheron. They had cut the power to the building and everything was drenched in shadows, bathed in a red glow from the emergency lights.

"Where are they?" Marlee whispered behind him.

"Too close," Hudson replied, grabbed her arm and pulled her through the pressure door that admitted them to the final storey and the access to the roof. He sealed the door, knowing that it wouldn't keep the aliens at bay for very long. But at least it would give them a few minutes head start. He knew that there was a helicopter out on the roof but so far he had been afraid to stick his head out of the access hatch since the roof was probably swarming with bugs, too. "Let's find a place to hide," he said while desperately trying to think of a place where the bugs couldn't get to them. "A place for you," he added when he realized that he would never fit into the air ducts in this building. Marlee was somewhat smaller than him and could easily fit but he would have to find a different place to hide.

He was already reaching out for one of the air duct grating's when Marlee grabbed his arm, holding him back. "You're not going to leave me behind," she hissed through clenched teeth. "I won't have it. We've come this far. All we need to do is get to that damned chopper and we're safe. Now, let's find that damned hatch and take a look."

With those words she stormed away, agile despite her progressed pregnancy. "Marlee. Wait," Hudson hissed, afraid to raise his voice. He didn't know what kind of sense those bugs used to track people down, but he was certain that sound was one of them. He rushed after Marlee and caught up with her when she stopped to inspect the hatch leading out onto the roof. "We can't just barge out there. What if they're out there?" he hissed at her, waving his pulse riffle, which he had found in a crashed shuttle, toward the hatch.

Marlee turned to face him, her expression as stern as her voice. "I don't care, Will. If we have to die, I want to die fighting. They are not going to take us alive. Either of us," she replied darkly, then turned to the hatch. Just then, banging noises reached their ears, making them aware of that the aliens had reached the upper landing and were working on the door. Without further hesitation, Marlee pushed the hatch open and jumped out onto the roof, swinging her riffle into position.

Hudson followed her closely and at the same moment saw that the roof was deserted. "We're clear. Let's get to the chopper before those bastards figure out where we are," he said, grabbed Marlee's hand and headed toward the helicopter at the other end of the roof.

They had barely made it half way before the first alien popped into sight. It raced out of the hatch and Hudson wasted it before it even came within spitting distance of them. He gave Marlee a push toward the chopper and turned back to open fire on the other aliens, which came swarming through the hatch. Marlee didn't run away though. Instead she turned and opened fire herself. Eventually, the aliens stopped filing through the hatch and Hudson grinned for a second. Then aliens started climbing over the edges of the roof.

Covering their retreat to the chopper back to back, they finally made it there. Hudson ripped the door open and climbed through from the passenger side to the pilot's seat to start up the engine. "Marlee, come on," he yelled when the blades started rotating over their heads. Marlee sent another burst of shells out over the steadily increasing masses of the aliens and threw herself into the chopper just as it started to rise. She pulled the door shut behind her. She strapped into the seat while Hudson punched the accelerator and the chopper roared away from their former home.

He guided the chopper as if he had been born to do just that. He had learned to fly the military version of the same chopper and at the moment he was slightly upset about that this wasn't the military version. If it had been, he would have been able to blow those bugs to Kingdom Come.

Marlee leaned back in her seat and tried to relax. After fighting to get out of the building for three days and being constantly on edge for almost three weeks, she found that she couldn't quite remember how to relax. She watched while the city below them raced by and wondered how many more were stuck down there. Probably most of the population of L.A. Thoughts of various kinds had bombarded her during the last couple of days. Thoughts of what had gone wrong, who had screwed up and why the aliens were suddenly spreading across the country like wildfire. Nobody had given any kind of explanation for what was going on. Nobody had been seriously worried about the increasing violence, which had caused quite a few people to vanish. Not until the sightings of the aliens had started three weeks ago. They had simply started to pop up everywhere and within no time at all, they had taken over the city. Their numbers increased on an hourly basis and a communication from Gateway had instructed people to get out of the city and, if possible, out of the country as well. That had been two weeks ago. One week later, the advice had been to find a way to get as far away from America as possible. Three days ago, the communications from Gateway had stopped. Obviously, Gateway had given up on them.

Marlee turned her head to look at Hudson, who was concentrating on flying the chopper. He hadn't said a word and that in itself was unusual for him. "Hey. We made it," Marlee eventually said.

Hudson glanced at her with a somber expression. "Not yet we haven't. We need to get off this blasted world. Right now. I'm not risking another run-in with those things. Next time, we might not be so lucky."

Marlee had tried to keep her spirits up, hoping against hope that Ripley and Hicks would return and give them something to hold onto. But they hadn't heard from either of them and now it was too late. Their best shot was to find a shuttle somewhere and get to Gateway. Gateway would probably not even let them land but they had to get off the planet. Hudson was right about that. "Yeah, I know. But do you really think they'll let us land?" she wanted to know, already knowing the answer.

Hudson refused to respond that. He felt bad enough as it was and thinking about that those morons on Gateway, who would probably just blow them to bits if they tried to come near, did nothing for his moral. He flipped the radio on and Marlee took over, looking for some station that was still broadcasting within the area of L.A. For a long while, nothing came through. Then the crackle of the static was drowned out by a voice of some kind of doomsday preacher. Marlee hurriedly pushed the dial again and it searched on and finally found a very unsteady station.

"... everywhere. People still ... city should try .... out. Sunlight .... become them, so ... leave under .... cover of ... sun. ... military ... given up on L.A. ... no help ... or anybody on ...way." The broken message was hardly understandable but it was obvious that this was not an authorized station.

"Try to tune into it a little more," Hudson said. Marlee fiddled with the dials for a moment and did get a better broadcast through. The voice came through fully yet faint.

"I repeat. The aliens are everywhere. People still stuck in the city should try to get out. Sunlight does not seem to become them, so leave under the cover of the sun. The military has given up on L.A. and there's no help to be had from that corner or anybody on Gateway. There are still shuttles in the spaceports in and around L.A. and we suggest that you try to get to them as quickly as possible. If not for anything else, just try to leave the United States. Get as far away from this country as possible. The aliens are spreading with the speed of light and the latest news is that all islands within a 20 kilometer distance from the shores of America and Canada are going to be infested within the next two months. At least that is what the scientists calculated at Barnes Institute before the aliens wiped it out."

Hudson changed their course slightly while he made a face at that piece of news. "Switch it off," he grumbled, lowering the helicopter until it was brushing closely along the first tower buildings of San Diego. Marlee switched the radio off, looking a little perplexed. Somehow the seriousness of the situation had not really sunk in until now. Hearing on the news how bad it was in L.A. was one thing. Hearing predictions that America and Canada both couldn’t be saved was something completely different. "San Diego has an airfield somewhere near the city. We might get lucky and find a shuttle there," Hudson interrupted her train of thoughts.

Marlee nodded, glancing down at the city they were brushing over. The aliens had so far stuck to Los Angeles and its immediate surroundings, but it was only a matter of time before they ran over any obstacle preventing them from leaving the city and took over the rest of the world. She figured that as soon as the second queen was born, the already alarming rate of their distribution would grow to catastrophic numbers. In only three weeks, a city with the considerable size of L.A. had been taken over by a handful of those things, which had naturally multiplied rapidly. Given two more months and they would have conquered the entire country if they were not stopped. "Do you think the military is going to do something about L.A.?" she suddenly asked Hudson while the chopper slowly descended toward the airfield he had talked about.

"Do what? There's nothing they can do. They might as well just evacuate the whole fucking planet at once. That would make things a whole lot easier," he grumbled. His mood was not of the best and hadn't been very good for the past couple of weeks. His main concern was that he wished he'd gone out with Hicks. At least his friend would know what to do. And Ripley would not have passed those rumors off as nothing. She would probably have gone hunting for those damned things herself.

"They could nuke the city," Marlee's voice cut through his thoughts. "Not that it would be very good for the surrounding cities. But they could do that, couldn't they?"

He glanced at her, then set the chopper down without answering her question. Nobody had asked them any questions when they'd approached the airfield and nobody came running to meet them at first. When someone finally did, Hudson realized why it had been so easy to get to the airfield. Six aliens came storming toward the chopper and it was at the last possible moment that he managed to restart the engine and get airborne again. "Fuck," he hissed as he looked down on the jumping black shapes on the ground. So, they had spread further than L.A. already. He could see the shuttle from where the chopper was hovering and he wanted nothing more than to set the chopper down right on top of the aliens and make a run for it. But there was no telling how many of the aliens were hiding in the buildings or even in the shuttle. The access hatch to the heavy vessel was open and Hudson supposed that somebody had already tried to get away from here only to be attacked by the aliens moments before they had reached safety. "Do we have more ammo?" he asked, a sudden idea making him feel hope again.

Marlee searched through the small backpack he had been carrying and held up two clips for the pulse-riffles. "About 198 rounds," she then said.

A grin spread over Hudson's lips. "Right on. I'm going to land on top of this sucker and we'll blow our way through them if we have to. Once we've secured the shuttle, I'll tip it and drop the chopper before we take off. Dwayne taught me how to do that once."

Marlee started to load the riffles while Hudson guided them toward the shuttle. She then flipped the safety off both riffles and gave Hudson a nod. They were hovering over the shuttle and at her mark, he set the chopper down. Marlee kicked her door open and jumped out onto the roof of the shuttle, ready to drop any alien that might turn up. Before she had a chance, though, the aliens already came over the edge and Hudson changed his mind.

"Get back inside," he yelled. Marlee threw herself back into the chopper as the first alien raced toward them. It didn't get very far, though. The rotating blades neatly decapitated it and its still twitching body was simultaneously thrown off the shuttle's roof. The chopper took off, rising straight into the air and the suddenly started to shiver. Almost unable to hold it straight, Hudson knew what had happened. The decapitation had corroded the blade and hence the chopper would not be able to stay airborne for very much longer. "Fuck it," Hudson hissed. "Get ready to fight. This baby is going down," he said to Marlee.

Once again the chopper set down on the roof of the shuttle and two more aliens lost their heads because of the blades. The fourth one wasn't that stupid and it ducked under the rotating blades and ran for the cabin. Marlee caught it in mid-stride and due to the power of the blast, it was thrown off the shuttle. "One down, two more to go," Marlee yelled as Hudson opened fire on another one coming from the other side.

"Heehaw," he howled, getting carried away by a rush of adrenaline. "Come get some, you son of a bitch," he added as another alien climbed up on the shuttle. He caught it right in the chest and it went down, arms flailing.

Then everything went quiet. The engine of the chopper finally stopped and the more or less corroded blades slowly ran out of motive power. The silence following that was almost overwhelming. Both of them stood with their backs to the chopper, watching and waiting. Finally Marlee thought they had waited long enough. "Okay, we wasted them. Let's get inside the shuttle and get moving," she said and started toward one side of the shuttle. She slipped down it with ease and landed on her feet. She heard Hudson chuckle under his breath. "This ain't funny," Marlee said, smiling despite her nervousness.

Hudson dropped down beside her with a big grin. "What do you mean, this ain't funny? I haven't had so much fun since I left the corps. God, I miss those times," he said, grabbed Marlee's hand and pulled her with him toward the entrance to the shuttle. Once inside, he activated the hatch and it slid shut just in time. A new bunch of aliens were already racing toward the shuttle.

With a few little adjustments and a quick check of the shuttle's insides, they were ready to leave ground. Hudson punched the thrusters on the right side of the shuttle and tipped it slightly to the left. The chopper tumbled off the shuttle and crushed three aliens. Then he activated the thrusters on the left side, too, and the shuttle took off without further problems. Hudson held out his hand and Marlee slapped it. "Wow. We're hot, mama," he yelled, giving vent to his high spirits. "We really kicked some alien butt down there. Yes. We are the toughest."

Marlee watched him for a while with a smile on her face. He was damned good when he really got going. And he was going like crazy right now. "Hey, Will. Now we made it," she then said.

Something in her tone of voice made Hudson's rampaging mood drop down to a more temperate level. He grinned broadly at her, sweat glistering on his face. "Yeah, mama. We sure did," he agreed and steered the shuttle in a straight course toward Gateway.

***

THE VINDICATOR
- IN THE VICINITY OF EARTH

Waking up after almost a month worth of deepsleep, Hicks again had the feeling that he had lost some of his life on the way. He had never been fond of the freezers and he never would be. With his thoughts distracted from the feelings he had harbored before going into deepsleep, he closed the Velcro of his sneakers, wondering if he would have a lot of explaining to do. Van Leuwen would probably love to use the opportunity to kick him right into jail or at least permanently off the corps. But that in itself didn't really matter to him. As soon as he had put his disturbing thoughts of a devastated world to rest, van Leuwen could do with him whatever he saw fit.

He rose from the bench that ran between the lockers, pulled out his jacket and put it on. As soon as they reached Gateway, he would instantly ask to be released from duty and hence didn't bother dressing up as a marine. He tightened his belt another notch, briefly reflecting on the fact that he had lost weight. Then he was interrupted.

"Lieutenant Hicks, would you please come to the bridge. There's something going on," Lewis's voice rang from the speaker. With a bad feeling brewing in the depth of his mind, Hicks hurried to the bridge.

***

Ripley, Boulder and Starling were there, listening to something coming in on the sub-space radio. Starling waved him over.

"Listen to this, sir. A shuttle is approaching Gateway and they don't want to let her land," she said.

The crackled voice of a very upset man rang from the speakers. "God damn you. You've got to let us land. My wife is sick and needs medical help."

Gateway's response was immediate and very unsympathetic. "You know the rules, sir. Return to Earth or be destroyed."

Hicks frowned, sending a glance toward the view-screen showing Earth. Everything looked perfectly calm. "Put it on screen, Starling," he then said. Starling fiddled with her console and the view on the screen shifted to Gateway and the hovering shuttle.

"We're not returning to that hellhole. We're coming in," the man's voice from the shuttle rang.

Gateway's reply was swift and startled the gathered on the bridge of the Vindicator. The shuttle was blown up and the radio went dead. Hicks gapped at the scene, not believing what he had just seen. "What the hell are they doing?" he muttered. Then he turned to Starling. "Get me a line to Gateway," he added. Starling almost immediately gave him a thumbs-up.

"Gateway, this is Colonial Marine Vessel Vindicator. We just intercepted your destructive reply. What the hell is going on?" he demanded.

There was a brief silence. Then. "This is Gateway, Vindicator. Where do you come from?" they wanted to know.

Hicks frowned, sending a questioning glance to Ripley who shrugged in return. She was as shook up by the destruction of the shuttle as he was. "The Borodino sector. We've just come out of cryo-sleep. What is going on here?" Hicks replied, his bad feeling starting to blossom.

"Vindicator, we advise you to find another place to dock. Earth is under strict quarantine. Nobody is allowed to land or leave the planet. Nobody is allowed to dock to or leave Gateway. Nearest base is Lunar Station."

Starling looked up at Hicks for a moment, then turned her attention to the door as it opened to admit the other marines. "Why is Earth under quarantine, Gateway?" Hicks wanted to know with a slightly trembling voice.

"We are having trouble with an alien infestation. There is high risk of contamination. Turn around and leave, Vindicator. Do what's best for your crew."

At the words alien infestation the color drained away from Hicks' face and for a minute Ripley feared he might faint. She felt like it herself. But it had to be a whole lot harder on him, since he felt responsible for letting Miller get away. She reached out to grab his arm, but he shook his head at her.

"Sir, another shuttle is coming in," Starling interrupted.

Both Hicks and Ripley stepped forward to stare at the view screen. "Identification?" Hicks asked, but Starling shook her head.

"None, sir. Must be another escapee. What should I do?"

At that, Gateway took contact with the shuttle over an open channel. "Unidentified shuttle. Return to Earth or be destroyed. You are not allowed to leave the planet."

There was a brief moment of silence, then a very familiar voice cut through the speakers. "Gateway, we are clean. I repeat, we're clean. You've got to let us land. We don't have fuel enough to return to the surface. Acknowledge."

Ripley grabbed Hicks' arm. "That's Hudson," she said and he nodded.

"Yeah, I know. Starling, get in touch with him. Tell him to land in our bay," he said.

Starling turned her head to look up at him. "What if he isn't clean? Him and whoever he's got with him? We're risking infestation if we let him land," she said.

Hicks returned her stare with a very cold one of his own. "Get in touch with him and let him land, Starling. That's an order," he replied sharply.

Instinctively, Starling complied. She turned back to the board. "Unidentified shuttle. This is the Vindicator speaking. You are cleared to land in our bay. I repeat. You are cleared to land in our bay."

"Thanks, Vindicator," Hudson replied, sounding very relieved.

"Vindicator, by letting a ship from the planet land in your bay you risk contamination. We cannot allow that," Gateway interfered.

Hicks leaned over Starling and flipped a switch. Every piece of weaponry on board of the Vindicator was suddenly trained on Gateway. Then he picked up a headset and put it on. "Gateway, this is Lieutenant Hicks of the Colonial Marines. If you take any action to stop the shuttle from landing in our bay, we will counter attack instantly. Do you copy?" Hicks knew as well as everybody else on both the Vindicator and Gateway, that the colonial marine vessel was far superior when it came to weapons. With the Vindicator's defense systems running high, Gateway would not even be able to put a scratch in her hull. But the Vindicator would very easily be able to eradicate Gateway with a few strategically placed missiles.

"We copy. I've been instructed to tell you that you will face a court marshal when this is all over. You are jeopardizing your entire crew and any planet you might set down on," the speaker at the other end said.

"What exactly is going on down there?" Hicks replied, completely ignoring the other man's words.

There was a brief silence, then the man at the other end cleared his throat. "I'm not at liberty to say, sir," he then said.

Hicks reached up and removed the headset, then turned to Starling. "Haul the shuttle in. The faster we get them inside, the better their chances are," he said, turned and left the bridge.

Starling looked after him for a moment and then looked up to meet Ripley's eyes. "What am I supposed to do?" she wanted to know.

Ripley put a hand on her shoulder. "Just do what he says for now. I don't know what his plan is, but I bet he's got one."

***

Hicks stood ready in the bay when the shuttle was pulled in through the dropship hatch. The grabbles reached down to pick it up and transferred it to the other side of the bay, where it settled neatly beside the two drop ships. The hatch of the shuttle started to open before it had set down and Hudson jumped out and turned to help Marlee down, too. Then both of them turned to face Hicks.

"Man, it's good to see you. You're always there on time," Hudson said, grinning broadly.

"Not really on time. Are you okay?" Hicks replied, eying them thoughtfully.

Hudson and Marlee nodded as one. "Yeah, man. We're fine. No sweat. How about you?" Hudson wanted to know.

Hicks shrugged. "We're okay. What the hell is going on down there?"

Hudson and Marlee glanced at each other, then Marlee took a step forward. "The aliens. They're everywhere. Don't know where they came from, but they've infested L.A. for sure. On the news they said it was contained to L.A., but we took off from San Diego and they were already there. The city itself looked kind of dead when we flew over it. So, my bet is that America is shot. And the rest of the world will soon follow. People flee the country and some of them are infected. You know how it goes."

The news was more devastating than Hicks had expected it to be. He had expected it but it still hit hard. "My fault," he muttered, forgetting all about his friends. "All my fault." With those words, he turned and left the bay again just as Ripley and a few of the others turned up to greet their unexpected guests.

***

After a few hours, where Hicks had seemed incapable of taking any action at all, Ripley had told Starling to move the Vindicator out of harm's way. The ship was in stationary orbit on the other side of Earth, holding up pace with Gateway. That way, they would never catch up to each other unless the Vindicator changed her speed.

Ripley was sitting in the mess hall with Hudson, Marlee and a few of the others. "So, how bad is it?" she asked Shaw.

Stephen Shaw had made a survey over Earth on Ripley's insistence, using the Vindicator's equipment and whatever signals he could pick up from the surface. "Bad. The aliens have spread to most of America and are apparently starting to spread to Canada, too. The islands within a range of 20 clicks from the shores close to L.A. are infested as well. Aliens have also started to rear their heads in Europe. Mainly in France and the Netherlands so far. But, my guess is, it won't take long before they've just about made it everywhere." Shaw looked at Ripley for a long moment, then sighed. "Sorry it couldn't be better news," he then added.

Valenz snorted angrily. "Not your fault. It's nobody's fault but Miller's. If that sick bastard had not started to toy with those horrors, none of this would ever have happened," she grumbled.

Boulder had been listening to the exchange of maybe's and what-if's and he was just about sick of it. "Well, there's got to be something we can do for those people. We're marines, God damn it. We were sent out to deal with a problem and that problem has not yet been dealt with."

Ripley looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "True. We do have a problem on our hands here. But I just can't see how we're supposed to deal with it. What do you think, Boulder?"

The burly man made a face. "Well, I would prefer to leave that decision up to our lieutenant, but apparently he's withdrawn from the world," he countered, his tone of voice expressing his annoyance at that.

"Yeah, man, what was that all about anyway? What is it that's supposed to be his fault?" Hudson wanted to know, looking at Ripley.

She thought about the reason for a while, then sighed. "We received direct orders to blow up Miller's space station while we were still in transit. Hicks ignored the order, which resulted in Miller getting away. So now he blames himself that Earth is infested," she said and met Hudson's eyes.

For a moment, nobody said anything. Then Hudson made a face. "Hell, that's not his fault, is it? He just did what any good lieutenant would have done. That Miller was a crackpot isn't his fault," he then said and Marlee agreed by nodding.

"Yeah, that's right. Somebody ought to tell him that," she added.

Ripley looked from one to the other, then nodded solemnly. "I'll go talk to him. Maybe I can make him understand."

***

Hicks was sitting on a chair on the bridge, his feet resting on the console in front of him, while the speakers blared about disasters and devils. Ripley reached past him and switched the radio-receiver off, then grabbed the back of the chair and turned it around.

Looking up at her with an indifferent expression on his face, Hicks didn't smile or make any attempt to be happy about seeing her. "What do you want?" he asked instead.

Ripley bend forward, put her hands on the arms of the chair and looked into his eyes. "I want to know what the hell you're doing," she countered, staring at him with a hard expression. "You've got a responsibility. I know that I dragged you into this. But you said yes. You accepted and I don't remember twisting your arm on this. I didn't force you to accept it, did I?"

His look hardened to match hers. "Well, I didn't see you doing much to discourage me at the time."

Ripley knew that being hard on him was not a nice thing to do considering his present state of mind, but she had realized some time ago, that it would be the only way of making him see. "You took the responsibility of being a lieutenant for a team of marines and you haven't lived up to that, have you? Every time something goes a bit wrong, you stick your head in the ground and refuse to take responsibility. Would it have made you feel better if Boulder had been in charge and had made the same decision?" she snapped.

Hicks slapped a flat hand down on the arm of the chair, leaning forward. "That's just the point, Ellen. He wouldn't have. He would have obeyed orders. He would have blown that station sky high," he snapped back.

Ripley let go of the arms of the chair, straightened and took a step back. "No, he wouldn't. He would have done exactly what you did. Anybody with a bit of sense would have. You never obey orders blindly, Dwayne. You question something like that. Whatever the cost might be. You made a decision and it went wrong. That is not your fault. You couldn't have known," she said.

Hicks got up, giving her an angry glare. "I should have known, Ellen. I should have. I have been in the corps over ten years. I know how devious people can be. I should have counted on it and I didn't. I messed up and now I only have the whole damned human population on my conscience. How the hell do you think that makes me feel?" he snarled, making a sweeping gesture with both arms.

Ripley watched him for a moment, knowing exactly how he felt. "I don't believe you just said that," she replied calmly. "You are not to blame. If anybody has to be blamed, it's whoever detected that signal from Acheron that very first time and had the board computer of the Nostromo programmed to respond to it. That's who you should blame. Nobody else. If you start blaming yourself, you might as well blame me, too. I am as responsible for this as anybody. I should have kept my mouth shut when I returned to Earth that first time. I should have made up a crazy story, taken my six months of mental evaluation and then be done with it." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she looked at him again, meeting his stunned stare. "That's right. I have lived with that guilt for far too long. I never wanted to admit it to myself before, but now I've said it. I've felt guilty for what happened on Acheron. Both times. I should have done more to warn you guys, but I didn't. I didn't think it would make any difference. And it probably wouldn't have. But I didn't try. I didn't even try."

The feelings that swept Hicks at what she said made him realize that he had been wallowing in self-accusation. It may have been his fault because he had ignored an order, but Ripley was right. He had done what anybody would have done. He had questioned an order which at that time seemed insane. There was no way he could have foreseen what consequences it would have. As if all the air had suddenly gone out of him, he sank back down on the chair, the realization of his innocence taking a weight of his shoulders which had threatened to crush him.

Ripley looked down at him, knowing that he had finally realized that she was right. She reached a hand out and ran it through his hair. "You see that I'm right, don't you? I don't run around blaming myself for it even though I've felt that I was to blame. Now I know I'm not. It's difficult to place the blame for something like this. Miller is guilty as hell but he's obviously dead. Van Leuwen might be guilty, too, but that doesn't change anything. As long as he realizes that he is wrong. If he doesn't, we'll put him out of commission," she explained, digging deep down into her own feelings and finding that the feeling of guilt she had battled for so long had becoming something less. It was still there, gnawing at her subconscious, but she would never let it regain its hold on her. She had been able to push it away and Hicks would be able to do that, too.

***

The marines gathered in the mess hall looked surprised when Hicks came in, followed closely by Ripley.

Valenz gave him a wry smile. "Well, look at who we have here. If it isn't our lieutenant. How're you doing?" she asked him.

Boulder rose from his seat, wondering what came next. He swore silently that if Hicks again tried to resign his commission, he would deck him. He did not want to be left in charge of this mess.

Hicks managed a brief grin. "I'm okay," he said and put an arm around Ripley's shoulder. "Thanks to this lady here I've become aware of that I've been behaving like a jerk. Sorry about that, gang. I was gone for a while, but I'm back now if you still want me."

The general elation this caused was answer enough for Hicks. He was back on track and he was damned well going to do something about this bug-plague on Earth. He just didn't know how, yet.

***

The bridge was generally deserted, when Hicks ordered Jones to bring the Vindicator back on line with Gateway. First increasing the ship's speed, Jones broke the steady orbit the ship had maintained for some time and she quickly caught up with Gateway.

The space station looked as calm as ever, but Hicks had a very good idea what was going on over there as he watched the tranquil looking station on the main-screen.

Starling entered the bridge after Hicks had called her and looked slightly surprised at the sight of the space station. "What's up, lieutenant?" she wanted to know.

"Get in touch with Gateway and tell them that I'm coming over with a few of the team," Hicks told her, never once looking away from the screen.

"Aye sir," she said and dropped down in front of her station. Within seconds, she had established contact. "Gateway, this is the Vindicator. Lieutenant Hicks and a few marines are coming on board. Over," she announced.

"Vindicator, we cannot allow that. Any attempt to approach the station will result in the destruction of your shuttle. Over," Gateway replied.

Starling shrugged at Hicks, when he turned to face her. "Tell them that if they will not let us land, we'll blow them to Kingdom Come," he said calmly.

Starling gave him an unsatisfied look, but turned back to her console. "Gateway, if you do not let the shuttle land, we will blow you to Kingdom Come. Over," she repeated Hicks' words.

A brief silence followed that while the man they were speaking to obviously conferred with one of his superiors. Then he returned. "We cannot let you land because of the jeopardy you will put us in. You might be infected. Over," he replied.

Starling again looked up at Hicks to receive further orders. Hicks picked up a headset and put it on. "This is lieutenant Hicks speaking. None of us are infected. We've got an alien expert on board, who can verify that. I need to speak to Mr. van Leuwen in person. Over," he said.

Another moment of silence followed that, then a rather downcast voice answered. "All right. But, you are the only one who will be allowed to land and you will have to submit to a screening when you come on board. Over."

Hicks nodded to Starling, who acknowledged that and broke the connection. Then she turned to Hicks. "Do you think it's such a good idea to go over there alone, sir?" she wanted to know. "They might kill you on sight."

Hicks nodded thoughtfully. "I'm aware of that. If I don't get back to you at regular intervals over this," he said, holding up a portable com-unit, "you have orders to blow up Gateway. I don't give a shit how many people you waste. Just blow them up." With those words, he left the bridge and a very stunned Starling behind.

***