THREE MONTHS LATER

For over a month, the androids had not been able to find any more survivors. Who or whatever was left on Earth, was either hiding very well or beyond hope of saving, so Hicks decided that enough was enough. With Jenna Ward's help, the scientists under his command had developed a toxin which would affect the aliens and probably any other life form within reach. The good thing about it, though, was that it was biodegradable and therefore would vanish quite quickly. It would take about six months and Earth would once again be habitable. Two hundred missiles containing the toxin had been prepared and two hundred more were being prepared, ready to cover Earth with a destructive blanket of poisonous gas. The gas had been tested several times and the aliens subjected to it had withered and died within minutes. So Hicks had high hopes for it, when he gave the command to send the missiles on their way, heading for all the major known hives all around the Earth. As the aliens never left their hives for longer periods of time, most of the survivors were probably hiding close to where the hive had been. The next two hundred missiles would also cover areas that were out of reach of the hives. Each hive had a radius of two hundred kilometers over which the aliens had been known to travel and the contents of the missiles would cover that range easily.

Hicks watched as two hundred points raced out in different directions and hit their targets all over the world. The cameras positioned at different points all over the planet showed the rising mist, as the gas drifted out over the country side everywhere and eventually formed a blanket which obscured the ground below. Aliens started to scamper out of their hiding places to escape the danger only to find that there was no place to run. They ran anyway, for as far as they could get before the toxin killed them. While the others in Operations went wild, cheering and whooping at the sight of the dying aliens, Hicks just stared at the images with a grim expression. As much as he wanted to join the others in their joy, he could not shake the thought of the thousands that had died before they got this far. Millions, even. How many had laid down their lives so the aliens could multiply? How many, he wondered. And how many would die now, during this final onslaught?.

A hand fell on his shoulder and he turned his head to look at Bishop standing there. "It's almost over," he said, watching the display.

"Yeah. And it's about damned time, too," Hicks replied. He turned away from the displays and leaned against the console, popping a cigarette between his lips and lighting it. "We're not going to re-colonize Earth. We'll leave that to the high Lords on Jupiter," he added thoughtfully, then pushed away from the console. "I'm going to sleep now. For as long as I can. So don't wake me or bother me with details. I just need some rest." With those words, he walked toward the door, took one final glance over his shoulder and then left.

Walking down the corridor away from Operations, he wondered if it was over. And if it was, what would he do with the rest of his life? He had been so hung up for so long, it would take him a long time to wind down, to start living a life again. Shaking his head with a bitter smile, he knew that life would never be the same again. Whether Ripley would return or not remained to be seen, but he hoped she would. Eventually. Or maybe he would go looking for her. Whichever came first, he thought. But for now he needed to catch up on six years of lost sleep. More or less. And he felt tired. Very tired.

When he reached his quarters, barely touched the last six months, he stopped short inside the door, looking around. It would be nice to get a decent place to stay again. Some of the ceiling sheets were gone and tubing and wires were hanging lose up there. Most of Gateway needed a major overhaul by now. "Well, I don't care right now," he told himself in a low tone of voice and headed straight for the bed. He pulled off his boots and his belt and dropped down on the bed. Folding his hands behind his head, he stared up at the tubes and wires he could see through the opening above the head of the bed. "I just don't care right now," he repeated in a sleepy tone of voice and finally nodded off. A good rest was really all he needed, he thought and then everything went blank.

***

HICKS' QUARTERS
- SOME TIME LATER

Dreams came later after Hicks had fallen into a deep, senseless sleep. Dreams of sounds and winds. Dreams that made no sense. He didn't toss and he didn't moan, for even though the dreams were disturbing, they were not nightmares. The shadowy figures moving around him in this dream didn't scare him. There was nothing alien about them. But he didn't know them either. All he knew was that they meant him no harm. The dreams ebbed away as he returned to deep sleep and reappeared when he again entered the REM-phase. There was pain connected with these figures and it slowly dawned on him in the dream that these were the souls of the people who had died on Earth. Anybody who had been affected by the aliens. He knew this was a dream, that it was nothing more. It went on forever and when he woke an hour later, he felt neither refreshed nor rested. He blinked up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes again, wanting to return to sleep.

Shortly after, he found himself on the way into dreams again when something made him snap awake again. He forced his heavy eyelids open and briefly glanced at the door. But there was nothing there. Sluggishly forcing himself to stay awake for a moment longer, he listened for the knock he thought had woken him, then passed it off as nothing and went back to sleep.

The tubes and wires rattled above him again and a free-hanging cord knocked against a big aluminum tube, repeating the knock that had woken him at first. This time it didn't though. He groaned in his sleep, yawned deeply and turned his head to the right. Again something brought the cord above him in swing and it knocked more strongly against the tube. That did wake him up again and this time he stared straight up, seeing the swinging cord. He smiled weakly and was about to shut his eyes again, when something made him look more closely at the cord. It was discolored, yet it looked as if it was supposed to look that way. It dangled from somewhere above the tube, but he could see no frayed end, which would indicate its right to just hang there. Then the cord suddenly disappeared into the darkness above. Shocked and unwilling to see the consequences of this impossible event, he slowly sat up, supporting himself with his hands behind him. Something was moving up there in the shadows above the cord. Then, for a second, all movement stopped. Before he could do more than just utter an astonished sigh, a facehugger launched itself at him, hitting his arms which he had brought protectively up in front of his face. He let out a scream as he slammed back against the mattress, fighting the parasite with one hand while he was trying to contain its tail with the other. During all this, he managed to wonder how a creature this small could be so powerful. It fought with the strength of a bear, scratching his arms, its tail almost impossible to hold.

He knew his gun was lying in its holster on the night stand and he knew that this would be his only salvation. If he could somehow restrain the parasite while grabbing his gun, he would be much better off. But the tail would find its target the second he released it and releasing the body was completely out of the question. The fingers of his left hand were digging into the slimy, slippery flesh of the parasite's underside, his palm covering the ovipository tube's exit point. He could feel the tube's insistent pressure against his skin and the burning sensation as a diluted acid slowly ate its way through his skin. Any second now he would be forced to release the parasite to prevent it from damaging his hand for good. But then again, if he did release it, he wouldn't have to worry about a damaged hand any more. So he held on for dear life, feeling sweat forming on his brow while he fought the detestable creature with all his might. The acid eventually broke the skin and started tearing into the flesh of his palm, causing him to let out a moan of pain. The tail slipped another inch out of his grip and he knew that he was losing the battle. Taking a chance was the only thing he could do. A chance that could kill him or disfigure him. If he got to his gun in time, he could shoot the bugger, probably blowing off his hand and causing the thing to spray acid over his face. But it would certainly be preferable to dying from an exploded chest.

While sweat seared his eyes, making it hard for him to see properly, and the pain from his hand made him want nothing more than to let go, he counted down until he thought he would have a chance. He released the tail the second it moved backward and slammed his hand onto the night stand right where he thought his gun would be, but instead of grabbing it, he knocked it off the night stand. Before he could consider another move, the tail slammed forward again and he caught it an inch from his throat. His palm was sweaty and the bony tail slid through it as if it wasn't even there. He could feel it moving around his neck and no matter how he tore at it, it just didn't stop. It came up on the other side of his neck and as it closed in a steel embrace around his throat, cutting off his air supply, he gagged. But he kept up the fight, holding onto the body of the facehugger with an iron will. Trying to draw breath brought him nothing. The parasite would not let go until he passed out. The pain in his hand along with the suffocation he was undergoing slowly weakened his strength until his left arm finally collapsed. The parasite made a snappy move to the right, got free of his hand and slammed home. With his right hand he clawed weakly at the parasite's back as his movements slowed to a near halt. Then his fingers convulsed in a final spasm and his right hand fell down and hit the edge of the bed. One final shudder ran through his body and then he was still. For a moment longer the parasite kept its harsh grip on his throat, then it relaxed as well.

***

Coming to was like riding on the waves of dreams as Hicks emerged from the depth of sleep with an almost languid ease. The space around him slowly drifted into view while his senses oozed into existence like maple syrup on a cold winter morning, breaking down barriers that had kept him in stasis for however long he had been asleep. Blinking almost sluggishly, he tried to remember why he felt the need to wake up, tried to understand his own, sleep-riddled mind. But all he could comprehend at first were wires and tubes hanging from the ceiling above him and the feel of the bed beneath him. He hadn't slept for more than a few hours at a time the past many years and he figured it had worn him thin. So thin that he couldn't pull himself together when he had finally slept enough.

He blinked again, trying to assess his present condition while he felt his body waking up. The first thing he became aware of was that his upper right arm hurt. He had probably fallen asleep with it dangling over the edge and the sharp rim of the bunk had been cutting into it, making the muscle sore. He flexed his hand to stimulate circulation and that brought him back to the world with a vengeance when that movement sent a scream of pain through him. Jerking upright, he raised his hand in an attempt to understand why it would hurt. The sight that met him was definitely not one of the nicer he had seen recently. Most of the skin on his palm was gone, leaving behind a fleshy, bleeding mess. That was, it had been bleeding, but scabs covered most of it by now except for the bleeding lines where the scabs had broken when he had flexed his hand.

With his mind still heavy with sleep, he stared at the damage, trying to comprehend how something like this could have happened without him being able to remember it. He glanced down at the floor and saw a puddle of blood there, almost dry. His fingers were crusted with it, too. Looking down himself, he saw spats of blood on his t-shirt and when he reached up to touch his face, he felt something sticky there. Pulling his left hand back, his fingertips came away covered in what he had no other word for than slime. The neurons in his brain started firing, creating parallels between what he saw and what he had experienced over the past many years. Before he had a chance to create a conscious thought, he was off the bed and came to a skittering stop in front of the mirror over the sink, staring at his face with dawning realization and no small amount of horror.

Again he touched his face with his left hand, drawing traces in the thin layer of mucus covering it. His stomach revolted against the feel of it and the thoughts this raised in him and he bent over the sink and threw up. The violent upheaval of his stomach brought up more of that slime and a little blood, too. He was infected. There was no doubt about it. He had seen the signs too many times. And his right hand was proof of that too.

"Shit," he groaned, finding that his throat was beyond sore. Of course it would be, he thought, and glanced around in search of the parasite. He found it lying in a corner, curled up on itself, quite dead. Turning in one smooth motion, he grabbed a towel and dried off his face at the same time as he reached for the intercom button on the wall. Pressing it, he briefly hesitated, uncertain of what to say. It was automatically turned to the medical wing unless other channels were selected prior to pushing the talk button. "Hicks here," he rasped. "I need help."

"What seems to be the problem, lieutenant?" the crisp voice of one of the ER nurses sounded instantly.

"Prep the OR for parasite removal. And have someone meet me halfway. I'm coming in," he replied, finding it hard to talk. His throat felt like he had swallowed a wad of sandpaper with the business side out.

His request was followed by a patch of silence where he found himself hovering in the realm of impossibilities, the feeling that this had to be a dream very prominent in his mind. "Do you copy?" he then asked when there was no reply forthcoming.

"What are you trying to say, Sir?" the nurse asked, uncertainty in the tone of her voice.

He hadn't said the words out loud yet. Mainly because if he did, he would have to accept the horror this would be. Almost nervously licking his lips, he realized he was leaning heavily against the wall in front of the intercom. "I'm infected, alright?" he finally said. "Get a move on. I don't know how much time I have before it pops." With that, he switched the intercom off and walked over to the door on shaky legs.

***

Hicks was met en route by an entourage of nurses, who ushered him along to Medical, where he was met by one of the two doctors in charge of removing alien infections.

"How long ago did you get infected?" the doctor wanted to know and started walking as soon as Hicks had reached him.

"Don't know. I woke up about ten minutes ago. The parasite was dead. I injured my hand. Must have been during the struggle against it," Hicks replied, holding his right hand up. "The blood's dried. Must be at least two-three hours since it got me."

The doctor stared at his hand for a moment, and then urged him to speed his pace. "More than that," he said, putting a hand on the back of his shoulder. "Let's get a move on, people. We don't have much time here," he added, turning his attention to the nurses and the second doctor following them.

If Hicks had felt bad before, he felt even worse now. But he knew there was only one way to go if he didn't want to die of a combusting chest. And that wasn't his preferred way to go out. The thing that really got to him while he was being ushered toward the operating theater was this sense of unreality that he couldn't shake, and it made him wonder if that was why so many millions of people had died without seeking help. Had they, like he himself, realized what had happened, but had refused to believe it? Was this a byproduct of the infection? Did the parasites somehow induce this into their victims?.

All those thoughts and more raced through his mind and kept tumbling over each other, even while he felt the anesthetic begin to kick in and right up until the second where the world disappeared and he slipped into a deep, coma-like sleep.

***

Darkness hung like a choking blanket around him, making it difficult for him to maintain any kind of orientation. He knew basically where he was. The colony! On Acheron! All alone!.

A feeling of dread rose in him, which he had to subdue with all of his might. If he did not, he would go crazy. Ripley was gone. An alien had risen out of the murky water and grabbed her while she was still screaming Newt's name, while he was still trying to stop her from chasing after the girl through the underground ducts. But the alien had been faster. The creature had been stronger and now he was alone. The emergency lights had died seconds later and the only option he had was to get away from the hole in the floor.

Now he was standing with his back against the wall, his pulse rifle cradled against his armored chest, his heart thumping away like a race horse. He was hyper-ventilating and it made him dizzy. But the most prominent thing on his mind were the aliens. They were somewhere close by. He could hear them, could almost smell them, and he knew it was only a matter of time before they found him, before he would end up like all the others.

With shaking fingers he fumbled at his belt, managed to pull out a grenade only to drop it in the complete darkness. He cursed silently, his voice shaking as much as his fingers. For the umpteenth time he thumped the mike on his headset, trying to make it work. But it didn't. It was dead. He was truly alone on this planet of horrors.

The thought increased the feeling of dread and the shaking of his hands seemed to vibrate out through his body. His skin crawled and he could feel his stomach muscles shiver lightly with the tension. His breathing had become shallow and even quicker than before while sweat rolled down his body, down his face, stinging his eyes. For a second he closed his eyes and tried to think just one rational thought. How had the girl survived? The air ducts! But he wouldn't fit there and she had been so much smaller.

His breathing loud in his ears, he shushed himself, trying to calm down enough to break the paralysis of pure fear, which had kept him in one place for an unknown period of time. His muscles were painfully strained and in his mind he was hearing things that weren't there.

Then it hit him like a blow. Bishop was bringing down the dropship. He had to get out of the colony complex. He had to get to the dropship and get out of this hell hole. Nodding to himself, he finally regained his motor functions. Still holding the pulse rifle close to his chest with one hand, he reached the other out to find the opposite wall. Then he searched along it, thinking he remembered that there should be a side corridor straight ahead of him which led to an elevator. As the word ‘elevator' formed in his mind, so did the realization that it would do him no good. There was no power to work it. He needed to find a staircase.

Panicky, he moved along the wall, searching for a door, an opening, anything would do. All he had to do was get out of the complex. His fingers brushed over bumps in the wall and he bruised his finger tips, but he kept on going, desperately wanting this nightmare to end. There had to be a way out.

All while he was searching along the wall in complete darkness, he kept hearing the sound of escaping gas all around him. But he paid it no attention since he couldn't smell anything and it didn't hamper his breathing.

He suddenly realized that he had a lighter somewhere. Stopping dead, he searched his pockets, found the lighter and already felt a little better when he didn't drop that on account of his shaking hands. Ignorant to the thought that fire and gas usually didn't make a very good mix, he brought the lighter up, flipped the lid back and spun the wheel. A small flame erupted, giving a limited glow. And that glow disclosed the source of the sounds of escaping gas.

All around him they stood. They had followed his progress, keeping their distance without attacking. He stood frozen, the hand holding the lighter shaking so badly that the flame flickered wildly, threatening to extinguish. The only thing he moved were his eyes and they flicked to and fro, trying to see how many of them there were. Six at least. And all of them were waiting, obviously watching him. His breathing started to take on a high-pitched, hysterical sound as he finally managed to do something again. Still holding the lighter high, he fumbled for another grenade in his belt, managed to pull it out and flip the cap off it before it slipped out of his sweat-slick fingers. The sound it made when it hit the floor was far too loud and Hicks winced, pulling his shoulders up. With the distinct feeling that one of them was closer than the others, he slowly turned his head only to face one of the horrors so closely that he could smell its breath.

The lighter dropped out of his hand when the alien reached for him, wrapped its hands around his head and parted its outer jaws. He started screaming then, couldn't stop himself. There was nothing left of the tough marine he had once been.

He squeezed his eyes shut against the impending attack and suddenly realized that something was utterly wrong about this whole scene. He couldn't be on Acheron. Ripley had gotten them all out, the girl included.

The manifestation of that thought brought about a change in the situation. Nothing happened and after a moment, he slowly pried his eyes open again and blinked, his heart pounding so hard he thought it might work its way through his rib cage.

Gasping for breath, he looked around the semi-dark room he was in. A hospital room. A room on Gateway Station. When he realized that he had just had a dream, he chuckled joylessly and ran a hand over his face in a frustrated gesture. "Jesus," he whispered, then again looked around the room. "Just a dream. It was just a dream," he attempted to sooth himself.

He let out a cry of unpleasant surprise when the door hissed open, but then closed his eyes with a sigh of relief and covered his face with both hands, flinching only slightly when that hurt his right hand.

A nurse came in, a concerned expression on her face. "Bad dreams?" she asked kindly, smiling.

Hicks nodded, and then eyed her thoughtfully. He couldn't remember having seen her before.

"Don't worry, Sir. You're alright," she insisted. "You made it through the surgery just fine." She readjusted the covers, which had slipped off him, and continued to smile at him.

He cleared his throat, tried to remember what had happened, and then raised his now bandaged right hand. "I'm alright?" he rasped and winced at the sore feeling in his throat.

"You're fine," she replied and reached up to switch off the silent alarm, which had brought her to his bedside in the first place.

***

Master Sergeant Boulder was a very unhappy man in every sense of the word. "Goddamn it all to hell in a fucking hand basket!" Kicking a chair, which skittered across the polished plex-steel floor of the mess hall, he refrained from going to extremes only because his whole team was watching.

"Cursing about it won't make a hell of a difference, Sir," Valenz put in helpfully and received a warning glance in return from her superior.

"Secure that shit, Valenz. I don't wanna hear it," he snapped angrily. "How the fuck could this happen, huh? How the fuck did one of those fucking bugs get onto this fucking station, huh? Can someone please enlighten me? Because I don't have a fucking clue and it makes me very uneasy, knowing that there could be more of those creepy-crawlers moseying around in our fucking air duct system without us knowing about it."

There wasn't one of his human counterparts who didn't feel exactly the same way, but that didn't change the facts a whole lot, something which Bishop was quite aware of. "Sir, if I may?" he said, stepping forward.

"Please. Be my guest. Tell us what we can do to prevent ourselves from becoming the next item on their menu card," Boulder said, stepping back.

"I would like your permission to dispatch the synthetic troops throughout Gateway to find and eliminate any possible ... bugs," he suggested, hesitating before implementing a word which he didn't really think fit on this race. "They are, after all, equipped to deal with the threat. And we might be able to establish where this one facehugger came from."

Boulder nodded in agreement. "Be my guest, Bishop. Find them and root them out. Make damned sure your boys cover every inch of this blasted contraption or it may turn out to be our tomb."

"Yes, Sir," Bishop replied and left the mess hall to round up the synthetics and do the sweep. He would make damned sure he carried out Boulder's order to the point. Although he and the other synthetics had nothing to fear from the aliens, he didn't much care for the idea of finding his friends and team mates dead some morning.

"Uh, Sir?" Valenz asked, raising a hand and attracting her superior's attention. "What about the rest of us, Sir? What do we do?"

"Sit tight and stick together wherever you go. Nobody goes anywhere alone as long as there may still be a threat out there. You got that?" Boulder replied, shaking a finger at the team.

Everybody nodded. There would be no discussing that order. Everybody knew what they were up against. Everybody knew what awaited them if they disregarded the order and ran into one of those things. They had a clear picture of that from what had just happened to Hicks.

***

Hicks woke up with a start once again, his chest hurting, his eyes half blinded by the sweat rolling down his face. With the back of his left hand, he wiped one eye clean, then the other, then blinked heavily a few times and finally glanced around the room.

It was dark, which meant that Gateway was in its night cycle. But something had ripped him out of his nightmare infested sleep and it hadn't been the natural inclination to wake up from a nightmare.

The sound repeated itself, making him jerk his head toward the door. Muffled screams, he could hear people screaming. "Oh God," he whispered. Despite his weakened condition, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and slipped off it, precariously finding his balance on the soft floor of his sick room. He had to get out, had to get away from the closing menace.

On shaky legs and slightly hunched over, he made his way over to the door and pressed the releaser. The door hissed open and the screaming got louder. It echoed through the corridor like a ghost message from years ago could sometimes turn up on the old radio channels.

Groaning, he made his way out of the room, trying to see anything in the dimly lit corridor. Why hadn't the intruder alert started? Why wasn't he hearing sirens and sounds of shots? All he was hearing were those horrible screams, mixed with the screeching of the aliens. There were aliens on Gateway? That couldn't be. He stopped and leaned heavily against the wall, wishing to God he could make sense of it all. His mind was muddled, heavy from the sedatives he was given to be able to sleep. They always had side-effects, those drugs. He hated side-effects. He wanted his mind clear, free of the fluff he couldn't seem to shake.

Frustrated, he ran both hands over his face, then suddenly realized his right hand wasn't bandaged. He held it up, staring at it for a second, then started to chuckle. It was a dream. A nightmare taking over from the former one. He had awoken from one nightmare into the next.

That realization didn't change the pace much though. He was still stuck in the corridor, still hearing those screams, which seemed to be coming closer. He didn't want to go there, didn't want to see a new team being ripped to shreds, even if it was only a dream.

Deciding that he would be better off back in bed, he returned to his room, closed the door behind him and slipped back under the covers. Reaching above him, he pulled the headphones down and put them on, then switched to an oldies station and turned the sound up so he couldn't hear the screams any more. With the subtle and soothing voice of Peter Gabriel in his ears, he drifted off to sleep within a dream. Unaware of this at the time, he had found the only way to break out of a drug-induced nightmare.

***

SOMEWHERE IN SPACE

The station was old and in dire need of repair and that gave William Hudson more than enough work, work he dearly needed. It had been a harsh time for him ever since he had left Gateway, but he didn't care, didn't think about it. All he could do was keep busy so he didn't have to think. Because thinking brought back memories he didn't want, didn't need. Memories of Marlee and little Mary. His wife and his daughter. Well, technically, Marlee hadn't been his wife. They hadn't been married. But they had lived together. And she had been the mother of his child. His dead child.

Angrily, he slammed a wrench down on the turbine he was trying to fix, forcing his mind away from those thoughts. He couldn't allow himself to think of it. Not now, not ever again, because he just knew he would lose his mind completely if he did.

Pressing his brow against the hot metal of the turbine, he cursed silently. "What the fuck am I gonna do?" he whispered.

"Might be an idea to get back to work before Hastings catches you," a voice said from somewhere behind him.

"Mind your own business, Jones," Hudson snapped. "This station's coming apart around our ears and all you're concerned about is how Hastings is going to respond."

Jones shrugged indifferently. He was taller than Hudson, broad shouldered, and his skin was so dark, it was almost black. "Suit yourself, Hudson. But if he catches you slacking off, he'll bust your chops."

"Fuck you," Hudson growled and continued to aggressively fix the ailing machine. In his opinion it shouldn't be fixed, it should be replaced.

Moments later, the door to the turbine chamber opened on squeaking hydraulics and Hastings came in. He was shorter than Hudson, tubby, and always had a big, greasy cigar clenched between his less than white teeth. A receding hairline showed much of his pinkish scalp and he was always sweaty, no matter how warm or cold it was. "Hudson," he called. "Where the fuck are ya?"

Hudson rolled his eyes, wondering what that disgusting little man wanted now. "Over here," he called back, waving the wrench and giving the man a dirty look.

"Gotta call waitin' in my office, soldier boy. Better get up there quick. I'm expectin' a call an' I don't want you blockin' it for some old girlfriend's sake," Hastings snarled.

Making a face, Hudson dropped the wrench on the floor and strode over to Hastings, drying his oily hands on a rag hanging from his belt. "Who's calling?" he wanted to know.

Hastings' eyes narrowed. "What do I look like? You're mother? How the fuck should I know? Some broad you dumped on your way here for all I know. Go on. Git," he snapped, waving at the door.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Hudson grumbled and hurried out the door. "You're all heart, Hastings, you know that?" he called back over one shoulder.

"Fuck you, soldier boy," Hastings called back and turned his attention to Jones.

***