L.A.

Hicks stood still at the foot of the ramp of the dropship, waiting patiently for the androids to tell him the area was secured. For a moment he missed Ripley's constant distrust in everything around her. She'd gotten him out of a fix more often than not and it had mainly been because she was so suspicious. But then he thought what could happen, what he had been afraid would happen, every time she went with him and he ended up thinking that it was for that best that she'd stayed behind. He didn't want to lose her to the aliens.

"Sir, the area is secured," one of the soldiers said, coming down the ramp. "We also have an approximate fix on where they could have gone."

Hicks nodded, again looking over at the abandoned, demolished dropship, in which Marlee had escaped. "Right. Let's move it. We don't want to be here any longer than we absolutely have to," he said, waving the other soldiers outside. Stepping aside, he waved them past him. "Lead the way," he added.

***

The tall, windowless buildings looming above them could scare the crap out of anybody. Hicks didn't get scared so easy. Never had. But this place, his home, made him feel that he wanted to be anywhere else but here. He trotted after the soldiers leading on, wondering if anything made an impression on these guys. Their expressions never changed. Naturally he could see the need for the lack of feelings in the androids, but usually they were equipped with the most basic emotions on a low level to make the humans around them feel more comfortable. These guys were not equipped with even that. Their faces seemed to be made of stone and even though they looked so human, they had this eerie feel of the alien about them. They had been built to fight the aliens. Many of the characteristics of the aliens had probably been incorporated into their behavioral structures and that made them so damned scary to be around. Hicks knew that they would protect him at all cost. He was safe enough. But there was nothing he could say to these guys. He could not have a conversation with them and he felt slightly out of place with them.

They entered a building and methodically started going through the ground floor. Then they split up. Five soldiers went for the basement, five for the first floor, five for the second and the remaining five with Hicks tagging along, went for the third floor. The building wasn't very tall and with the effectiveness of these soldiers, they would soon be done. Hicks actually hoped that they would find nothing, but he was certain that they would find Marlee. Her PDT had already given them a sense of direction. All they had to do was follow the tracker and they would find her. Nevertheless they had decided to examine the whole building. Hicks held the tracker up and studied the readout. Somewhere on the next floor was where they would find Marlee. And she wasn't moving.

While the soldiers searched through the third floor, Hicks took the stairs up to the fourth floor and stopped just inside the corridor. He held up the motion tracker hanging over his shoulder and could only detect the dots representing the soldiers moving on the floors below. Then he held up the tracker again. Four meters to the right was where he would find Marlee. A gust of wind blew through the corridor from a broken window at the end, raising dust. The dust particles hovered in the air for a moment and the sank down again only to be swept up by a new gust of wind. Every step Hicks took in the direction the tracker guided him in was difficult. The thought of what he would find there made him feel sick already. But then he realized that it wasn't so much the thought as the sickly sweet smell in the air. Up ahead a demolished door frame told a sinister story and Hicks hesitated a few steps from it. The wind blew through the corridor again, bringing the now thick smell of rotting meat with it. He closed his eyes for a second, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief he had put there earlier without really knowing why.

Just then one of the soldiers turned up behind him. "Sir, you should not be here alone," he suggested, looking past Hicks at the demolished door. He took a step toward it, his pulse riffle pointing at the opening. Another step brought him up to the edge of the door opening and he scanned the inside of the maintenance closet. "It's clear, sir," he then added, stepping aside to let Hicks pass by.

Hicks pressed the handkerchief over his mouth and nose, closing out most of the sickening smell, as he slowly made his way down the short corridor. He stopped at the sight of the two limp forms on the floor at the end of the corridor and stood there staring at them. His eyes began to water from the gaseous air in the maintenance closet as he went down on one knee. There was no doubt about their identity even though the weather had been very hot and humid and the bodies were decomposing rapidly. This was Marlee holding her daughter in a death grip. Both of them had holes in their heads and the gun was still lying in Marlee's right hand. For a moment longer Hicks watched them, then he rose, turned and strode out of the closet again. "We've found them. They're dead. Let's head back," he said, trying to sound more confident and controlled than he felt. Whether he managed it was uncertain and actually irrelevant. The soldiers would not bother thinking ill thoughts of him if he broke down. They didn't care. They were not programmed to care. "Right," he muttered, letting the handkerchief sail to the floor. One look back over his shoulder convinced him that he wanted to leave this place as fast as possible. He just wanted to get out of this place of utter destruction.

***

GATEWAY

Back on Gateway, Hicks did not feel like talking to anybody. But he had to. Hudson and Ripley were waiting for him and he found it even harder to face them than he had originally thought. Hudson took one look at his friend and knew that the answer to his question was a negative. Marlee was dead. The next question was regarding Mary and that had to be a negative, too. At least due to the way Hicks looked.

"What?" he asked, wanting to hear Hicks say it. He wanted to know for sure. "Did you -- find them?"

Hicks nodded, trying to clear the lump in his throat. Having to tell Hudson straight out that he had lost them would mean hurting him worse than anything could. "Yeah. We found them," he said, trying to avoid saying more than that.

"And?" Hudson pressed, staring pale and calmly at him.

"They're dead, Will," Hicks eventually said and turned his back on them. Having to face the pain in their expressions was the same as confronting the pain he himself felt. And he wasn't quite ready to do that yet.

"How?" Hudson wanted to know. His voice was as calm as his expression. Mainly because it hadn't really registered with him yet. He didn't want to register it. He wanted the hope to live on. But it dwindled away to nothing.

"Suicide. Marlee probably killed them both to keep the aliens from getting to them," Hicks explained, still with his back to them.

Hudson emitted a strange sound which made Hicks turn back to face him. He was having trouble suppressing his feelings as tears gleamed in his eyes and his expression was tight enough to crack. Ripley stood beside him, staring at Hicks with a calmness that was almost frightening. With a sudden burst of emotion overwhelming him, Hudson swirled around and stormed out of the bay. Ripley remained, staring at Hicks for a while longer until it dawned on him that she seemed to be in shock.

Grabbing her shoulders, he looked into her eyes. "Ellen?" She didn't respond to his voice. She just kept staring at him in that calm, frightening way. "Ellen, snap out of it." He tried to sound harsh, demanding, but somehow it didn't come out right. He was hurting, too, and he found it hard to suppress it.

Tears rose in her eyes, but only one of them broke loose. It trickled down her face as she blinked, almost in slow motion, and then shook her head sadly. "They all die," she whispered. "They all die." With those words, she turned around and left the bay as well, leaving Hicks behind to figure out what she had meant by that.

***

Ripley slowly walked down a corridor, sensing and seeing nothing. All she could think of was that people she got attached to died. All of them. That thought brought about a change in her, which had actually been under way for quite some time. Hicks had held out a lot longer than the others, but his turn would come. He would not survive her bad luck, either. On Acheron he had almost died and then they had barely known each other. Now they were having a relationship. She stopped dead in her tracks, for the first time really thinking about that relationship. It had been natural to her that they had stuck together, but now she realized what it was that Hicks wanted to talk to her about. He wanted to discuss the feelings, the future of their relationship. Shaking her head sadly, she decided right there and then that there would be no more relationship. He would die if she stayed with him. She would rather leave him and know that he would continue to live than stay with him and see him die. Decisions like that were hard to make, but she had started to believe firmly that the aliens’ existence was to punish her for something she didn't know she'd done. She was not allowed to have a life. She was not allowed to love anyone. If she did, they died. So, in order to avoid having to love again, she decided to leave Gateway, go to Lunar Station and on from there. Maybe she could find a position in one of the colonies where she didn't have to be close to people. A position which would give her enough to keep her alive, make her work so hard that she wouldn't have time to think. The most prominent wish she had at that moment was to stop her mind, to erase the memories.

Determined to carry out her latest plan, she headed for the bay where the survivors were being loaded onto ships that went to Lunar Station. There was nothing on Gateway she wanted to take along and nobody she wanted to say goodbye to.

***

Hudson stood staring at the ship which would leave for Lunar Station, wondering for a brief, rational moment if he was doing the right thing. Then the grief and anger overwhelmed him again and he decided that whatever came next, it would be out of his hands. It wasn't his responsibility to stick around and get people out of this mess. It wasn't his mess. He'd lost too much already over this and what he had left to lose had been on the line too often. So, he decided that he wanted to leave. Right this instant. He swung the carry-all bag over his shoulder and headed toward the ship. Shortly before he hit the crowd, he saw Ripley standing near the ramp and stopped dead at the sight of her. Marlee and Mary's deaths had hit her hard, but he had not thought that she would leave Hicks. He pushed his way through the waiting survivors and stopped right behind her.

"Hey, El. What the hell are you doing here?" he asked, tapping her shoulder with one finger.

Ripley turned to face him, her expression completely devoid of emotions. "I'm leaving, Will. Just like you," she said and turned her back on him again.

For a long moment he considered what to do. Then he sighed. "What about Dwayne, then? Are you just gonna dump him?" he asked, hoping for a negative answer.

Ripley didn't move for a moment. When she finally answered, she kept her back to him. "Yes," she muttered.

Her answer made him slightly angry. "Man, you can't just run out on him. He needs you," he claimed sourly.

At that she turned back to face him, staring at him with cold, burning eyes. "Who are you to speak? You're running away, too. You're supposed to be his pal, his friend, and you're turning your back on him, too. I can't stay, Will. He'll die if I do. Everybody I ever knew and liked has died because of these aliens. If I stay, they'll get to him and he'll die. I don't want to have his life on my conscience."

Hudson was slightly taken aback by her angry retort and was dumbfounded for a moment. Then the anger rose in him again. "Right. It's all your fault," he sneered. "Come off it, Ellen. These aliens are nobody's fault. They appeared and that's that. They've been around forever and they'll be here long after we're gone. We just got unlucky. We ran into them. They are not your responsibility."

"What do you know?" Ripley growled and turned away again. "You haven't had your life shattered because of them ..." she started, but trailed off. That was a lie and she knew it. He'd just lost his wife and his daughter. That would be more than enough to shatter anybodies life. And her words hit him hard.

He glared at her, tears gleaming in his eyes. "What do I know? I'll tell you what I fucking know, Ellen. I've just lost the two people in my life who meant the most. So don't you tell me anything about losing somebody. You're not the only one who's lost due to these fuckers. Millions of others have been through the same by now. So don't you come here and tell me that I don't know what you're talking about." His voice broke several times as single tears started rolling down his face. His anger was more prominent, but the grief, the fear and the pain were just beneath the surface.

Reaching a hand out to grab his shoulder, Ripley fought back her own tears. "I'm sorry, Will. I was wrong. I'm sorry," she said, trying to make up for what she'd said.

"Oh, fuck you," Hudson snarled, turned and strode away.

Ripley watched him go until he stopped at the other end of the group waiting to leave Gateway, then turned her gaze away. There was no sense in trying to patch things up. She couldn't get close to him, too. With those somber thoughts, she climbed the stairs to the inside of the ship and found a seat while others did the same around her. Soon she would be off Gateway and gone from Hicks' life for good. She would find another life out there, a life of work and nothing else. As long as she didn't get attached to anybody, she would be okay. Nobody would get hurt and nobody would die.

***

GATEWAY
- OPERATIONS

Hicks stood staring up at the monitors without seeing them. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the two rotting corpses of mother and child, wrapped in a death-grip, which had burned itself into his brain. He would not be able to forget it.

For a long time he just stood there, ignoring the buzzing around him of the work going on. He thought about all the things that had gone and all that would still come and felt lucky to be alive. On the other hand he felt twice his age after all he had seen.

"Sir?" The sound of Valenz's voice didn't quite get through to him at first. Then he realized that somebody was standing beside him and turned his head to face her. "Sir, I've -- ahem -- got some bad news," she said, not looking entirely comfortable about the situation.

Hicks couldn't help the cynical smile that slipped over his lips. "Well, that's a switch," he muttered. "What is it?"

Valenz briefly glanced at him, then looked away again. "Ripley and Hudson have left. They were on the last shuttle leaving for Lunar Station," she then said.

Hicks eyed her for a moment, thinking of all the times he had actually expected Ripley to pick up and leave, but never really believed she would. Now she'd done it and somehow he had thought that it wouldn't surprise him, shouldn't surprise him. But he was surprised. Surprised and a little hurt. That Hudson had left was understandable, but Ripley he had counted on. "Right. Well, I guess it's for the best, anyway." His statement was hardly heartfelt, but he thought he would be able to relate to it at a later point.

"Right, sir. So, now what?" Valenz wanted to know, still feeling uncomfortable about the whole thing.

"Now we go on as usual. We'll clear the planet, re-take it so to speak, and kick their ugly alien asses." Having something to do was essential to him now. His work to clear Earth was important. Much more important than a failed relationship or a lost friend -- or so he had to think right now. Besides, it was his fault that they were in this mess now. He had been to blame. He was still to blame. With those sobering thoughts, he went back to work, putting much more energy into it than he had before.

***

The days passed in a blur. The androids worked 24 hours per day and so did Hicks mostly. He slept little and when he did sleep, he was haunted by nightmares. They kept changing and rearranging themselves, leaving him in a daze which made it hard for him to see past the present moment. He dreaded sleep, but found that he was unable to function if he didn't get at least three hours -- haunted or not. He had counted on Ripley to help him through the next couple of months, but she had left and now he had to do it alone. After three weeks, where he had heard neither from Hudson or Ripley, he gave up on them and concentrated on the task at hand. He pushed his people far harder than he would have under any other circumstances, but his relentless work pressure seemed to do the trick. More and more people were found and rescued from the surface, and one after another the alien hives went up in smoke. He didn't care anymore what it took to wipe them out and he gladly gave the order to level a town if it meant killing a few aliens. But not until he was certain that no other living things were hiding in the relative shelter of the buildings. The flow of people started to thin out two months after Ripley had left and Hicks realized that it was because humans became more and more rare on Earth. Then the android soldiers started removing dogs and bigger animals as well, shipping them off to other worlds. Hicks did not want the aliens to have one single little chance of reforming their troops. The more animals they got off the planet, the higher were the chances that the aliens didn't spread again.

Operations had become his main quarters. He smoked like a chimney and drank more coffee than he ever had before, trying to keep awake and reasonably clear-headed. Valenz kept close to him most of the time, trying to get him to lay off a little. But whatever she said to him, it made no difference. He brushed her words off with a shrug or a wave and continued on the track he was running on. Things looked brighter every day. The aliens thinned out at the same rate as the humans did and the expected feeling of success caused the human team to feel elated. Most became a little restless, too. The end of this almost five-year long fight against the aliens was almost over and now everybody wanted to return to normal as quickly as possible. Hicks seemed to be the only one among them who even considered how long it would take and how difficult it would be to re-establish Earth as a livable place. Most cities were wastelands. Most forests had been burned to drive out the aliens. Whole mountains had been blown to smithereens.

Sighing deeply at the thought of that, Hicks leaned back on the chair he was sitting on and stared up at the view platform for a long moment. He no longer felt the need to stand up there and stare at the destruction on the planet below. The android soldiers were effective enough to deal with the problems on Earth on their own and they had Bishop hovering over them as well. He was making sure that everything went smoothly and Hicks was glad to be rid of that responsibility. At that point he no longer considered Bishop to be an android. He was as human as the next guy and he was doing an excellent job on top.

Clenching his cigarette between his teeth, Hicks leaned forward again, thoughtfully scratching his chin. It had been some time since he'd bothered shaving and it would probably cause somebody to reprimand him once he had declared Earth clean -- or at least reasonably safe -- and the high lords of the governing circle on Jupiter turned up to take a look. They would never approach Earth as long as there was still a chance of running into an alien. Hicks eyed the monitor in front of him for a moment, studying the read-outs. Then he leaned back again and put his feet up on the console. "Life's a bitch," he grumbled under his breath, grabbed the coffee cup off the console and emptied the lukewarm fluid. He grimaced at the taste and tossed the plastic cup aside.

"She's a mean mistress in any case," Valenz said, having just turned up beside him. "So, how's everything coming along?"

Hicks glanced up at her with a frown. "It's working. That's all I need to know right now. Bishop estimates that it will take another few months and that will be the end of those fuckers. And it's about time, too. So, what do you want? Isn't this your sleep period?"

Valenz stared past him at the monitor showing a lot of different estimates and information, then looked down at him. "I wanted to tell you that there's this scientist, who just turned up among the survivors." She glanced away for a moment, looking over at the androids and humans working side by side. "She says she's got vital information about the aliens. About how we can make sure they won't turn up again," she added, looking back at Hicks.

That caught his attention. He sat up straight. "What? When did she arrive?" he wanted to know, getting up. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and dropped it on the floor and stepped on it.

Valenz smiled a little. "Half an hour ago. Relax. I know this is important to you," she said, turning to leave. "Follow me. I'll take you to her."

***

The scientist Valenz had talked about turned out to be a woman in her late twenties. She had to be pretty bright to be a scientist at that age and Hicks briefly wondered where he had seen her before. She looked familiar. When he reached a hand out to her, she smiled and took it and at that he recognized her. "Jenna Ward. Jeez. I thought you'd be long gone from Earth," he said, holding her hand a moment longer than he had to.

Ward continued to smile. "Well, I couldn't really let go when it came down to leaving. And when I finally decided that I wanted off, I couldn't because of the aliens. I hid in the lab, which is pretty well protected, and it took them a damned long time to get through to me. I had plenty of food and water. The lab was build for occasions like this. Just never thought it would really come down to it."

Hicks nodded. "Are you willing to stay and help us with the rest or do you want to get away?" he wanted to know. Jenna Ward had a reputation a mile long. A good one. And he wanted her on the team in any way possible. Anything she could contribute to the final eradication of the aliens would be a bonus.

Ward looked past him for a second, then sighed. "Okay. I was actually going to give you a bit of advice and then go on, but since you're asking so directly for my help, I guess I'll better stay. -- For now," she then said. The reluctance was clear in her voice.

Hicks nodded. "Great." Suddenly considering his appearance, his smile turned wry. "I'm sorry about the way I look. I've sort of let myself go a little."

Ward returned his smile openly. "Under these circumstances, who wouldn't?" She took his arm in a confidential manner, leaning close to him. "I know I don't look like a million bugs myself, so don't worry about it."

***

The meeting room hadn't been used in a while and it showed. A thin layer of dust covered the whole room but it was whirled up and into the air ventilation system the moment Hicks opened the door. He led the way inside and sat down on a chair across from Jenna Ward. The young scientist had promised to tell him everything she knew, which was quite substantial in her own opinion. She had worked hard on learning as much as she could about the aliens and she presumed that she knew more than most by now. She had after all studied them up close for just about five years.

Ward slumped on her chair, looking thoughtfully at the cigarette that Hicks shook out of his pack and lit. "You shouldn't smoke, you know. It takes years off your life." When he gave her a look that asked her to butt out, she merely smiled and shrugged. "None of my business. I know." For a moment the expression in her eyes became distant, then she cleared her throat and sat up straight. "Right. The aliens. I've learned a lot about them in the last years and none of it is good. I mean, it's not like I found that they make good pets or something. They are highly intelligent and able to put two and two together. They learn very quickly. Even though their intelligence seems to be limited when it comes to using tools, they are intelligent in a different way than us." She shrugged, smiling sheepishly. "Naturally. We can't expect them to be like us. And they're not. -- To a certain extent, that is. They seem to possess our need to destroy things, but they don't ruin the land they live in. They do not pollute. Everything they find, they use. And, one thing that is very interesting about them is that they -- quite literally -- seem to be able to absorb plastic and other non-degradable things we've made. They eat it."

Hicks frowned at that piece of information. "Eat it? -- That's funny. I've actually never thought about what they eat. -- Actually I don't care. -- Well, go on."

Ward smiled a little. "Yes, Lieutenant. They do eat. -- Well, anyway, there's so much to tell about them. One of the main things, which you have probably also figured out by now, is that they don't like the sunlight. Their blood is highly conductive and it would make them boil within minutes. They would -- quite literally -- explode. I've seen it happen on a number of occasions and it's not a pretty sight. But that's another thing they learned quite quickly. None of that hive will venture outside in the sunlight after it's happened to one of them. They wait until the sun goes down or the sky get's clouded over. There is one thing, though, that has proven to me that they are not that bright. When a cloud covers the sun, they wait for a few moments and then go outside. But they apparently can't figure out that the sun will not be covered for long. They go outside and then they die."

Ward talked for more than an hour. She told him everything she knew about them, everything that could possibly have any influence on the final stage of annihilation, but nothing really seemed to make a difference. Hicks decided somewhere along the way that he would put his money on flushing them out on sunny days. Whatever else Ward could contribute with would be good, but so far she had not told him anything special. With a sigh, he leaned back on his chair, staring at her for a long while.

"So, they're basically indestructible, but have their weak spots, too. I knew that up front. But thanks for the talk. Now all we have to do is blow them all to kingdom come and that will be the end of it." He frowned a little at the way it sounded, but made no further comment on the subject.

"Well, what I've told you are the facts. I haven't treated you to some of the more obscure things yet. Things like who is responsible for releasing these bastards on the population of our planet," she said. Her words caused Hicks to flinch. He hadn't expected that anybody besides Ripley and Hudson and maybe van Leuwen knew about this. Ward gave him a strange look, slightly confused about the way he reacted to that. "Are you interested in hearing it?" she then asked.

Something about the way she said it made him stop short. What did she mean, was he interested in hearing it? A mild curiosity started to overshadow the feelings of guilt. "Sure," he said cautiously, wondering what came next.

Ward gave him another curious glance, then nodded. "Star-Labs. That's where they came from. Somebody had brought back a bunch of them. Small ones. Babies I guess you could call them. They raised them and tried to screw with them, too. But they couldn't get through to the core of their behavioral patterns. That's what they intended to do, you see. Change their behavior. But I think it's too ingrown and I don't give them a chance in hell for survival if you remove their hostility. That's really what keeps them going. They are not stupid, but they sure as hell aren't that smart, either. Their IQ is basically that of a slightly slow witted five-year old. If you can talk about IQ when it comes to an alien life form. They seem to function on a different level of reality than we do." She hesitated, slightly embarrassed by the way he stared at her. "Ahem -- the thing is, one of the scientists working on this classified project did one thing wrong. He either thought them harmless and therefore released one of them or he got careless and got wasted because of that." She paused again, letting that settle in first. Hicks eyed her thoughtfully, keeping his opinions to himself. "So, you see, things happened because somebody got careless. It only took one. Of course that dope released the queen. They'd successfully suspended her in a stasis-tube, preventing her from growing and evolving into something they couldn't handle. It was bound to happen, though. Eventually. And it did. Murphy's law in a nutshell."

Hicks leaned back, the look in his eyes becoming distant. What she had just told him, absolved him from every shred of blame. But the aliens that Miller had released on Earth had to be involved, too. He frowned again, feeling the need to get it cleared up. "The former managing director of Bio's, Mr. Miller, brought some aliens back to Earth on a shuttle. I thought they'd been the cause of the infestation," he eventually said.

Ward looked slightly confused at that. After a moment it was obvious that she realized what he was talking about. "No, no. I was wondering where they came from. We found three aliens, which were not very viable. A man with an alien in his chest was brought in one day. He'd had the alien inside him for God knows how long and I was actually surprised that he was still alive. Many major organs had been damaged because the little bugger had tried to escape from its prison. Eventually, it had died, but the host was still alive. He was in a very bad condition and he died a few hours after we'd removed the embryo. We found the queen and two warriors some time after that. The warriors were barely able to sustain themselves, let alone their queen. She was dead when we found them and the warriors died shortly after. The queen had not even managed to lay more than ten eggs. Most of them had hatched and I don't know what happened to the hosts. They probably died due to the contamination the dead foreign bodies caused in them. I only saw that one guy. No, the aliens that infested Earth were the ones released from Star-Labs. There's no doubt about it."

This piece of information made Hicks feel far better than anything had in a long, long time. It would take a while to completely lose the guilt feelings, but for now he was happy to just be free of the constantly nagging feeling that he was to blame for the deaths of millions of people. The millions had been cut down to about ten, which of course still wasn't justified, but it was far easier to take than to have the entire population of the Earth on his conscience. With a sigh of relief, he leaned back on his chair. "Thanks for that piece of information, Ward. It's been nagging me for a long time," he said, not considering that she had no idea what he was talking about.

Ward gave him a strange look. "Why should it have been nagging you?" she wanted to know.

Tipping the chair back against the wall, Hicks watched her for a moment. Then he sighed. He might as well tell her. There would be too much to hide if he didn't. "For the past five years, I've blamed myself for what happened on Earth. I got a direct order to destroy Miller and I didn't because I was concerned about the other people involved. I realized too late that I couldn't stop him. Knowing that he carried a queen and at least one warrior with him, I saw it as my fault. That's basically the core of it."

Ward's expression had changed from the slightly curious look to a concerned one instead. Concerned not because she now doubted what she had said, but because he had been forced to drag that kind of responsibility around with him for as long as he had. "My God. You've been carrying that around for all that time? That must have been horrible."

Hicks shrugged. "Yeah, it was. But it's over now. Now I can concentrate on the task at hand. I can get this over with without having to be slowed down by a bad conscience." At that, he tipped his chair forward again, got up and held a hand out to Ward. "Thanks, Ward. You've just made my day."

Ward grabbed his hand, getting up as well. "Well, you're very welcome." They headed toward the door together and just before they reached it, Ward grabbed his arm. "How about lunch when all this is over?" she asked.

Hicks grinned. "I can't think that far ahead yet, Ward. But let's talk about it when we get there. Okay?"

Ward nodded with a smile. "Sure. Let's."

***