EARTH
- SOMEWHERE IN L.A.

Hicks had fallen asleep on the sofa and dreamt the usual dream. Constant nightmares had put their mark on him and he felt as if he was starting to lose his mind. He woke up after half an hour, feeling anything but rested, sweating and gasping for breath. Running both hands through his lengthening hair, he sat up, blinking drops of sweat out of his eyes. When he looked up, Ripley was standing in the door. Obviously, she had just come in. She still had her coat on.

"Bad dreams?" she asked, pulling her coat off.

He nodded, taking a cigarette out of the pack on the coffee table and lit it. He looked at it for a moment, and then crushed it out again. "They don't even taste good anymore," he grumbled, getting up.

Ripley stepped back into the hall and put her coat on a hanger. "Yeah, I've thought about quitting them. I feel worse when I smoke," she replied, coming back in.

Hicks had poured himself a drink and gulped it down before pouring another one. A warm feeling started to spread through him as the whiskey did its thing.

Ripley watched him for a moment while he emptied the second glass and poured the third. "That stuff doesn't help either" she added and dropped down on a chair.

Hicks turned to her, the bottle in one hand and the glass in the other. "I know that" he replied and sat down on the sofa again. "I only need a little downtime and, obviously, the only time I can sleep without nightmares is when I'm drunk. Do you mind?" he asked, waving the bottle in her direction.

She shrugged. "It's your liver," she muttered, picking up a magazine.

Hicks decided to ignore her last comment. Lately they had been picking on each other enough and he didn't need an argument. Besides, she was right. It didn't help and it didn't do him any good. For a moment he stared at the bottle but then put it aside, leaving the glass half full. "Let's go out tonight," he suggested after a while.

Ripley looked up, meeting his eyes. "Out?" she asked, sounding as if the word meant nothing to her.

Hicks nodded. "Yeah. Let's eat out and have some fun. We need to loosen up a little. Both of us." The idea grew on him the more he thought about it.

Ripley kept looking at him, thinking about his suggestion. It didn't sound bad at all. Finally, she nodded. "Sure. Why not," she replied. Anything would be better than having to sit around and do nothing else than think about what had happened.

***

A night out of the apartment was a better idea than either of them had imagined. After having a very fulfilling dinner, they went to a bar Hicks knew and spent a lot of time just talking to other people and generally having fun. At 1 a.m., they walked back to the apartment, enjoying the spring-like weather. Ripley took his arm, leaning against him as they walked. Eventually, he slipped his arm around her shoulders. When they arrived at the apartment half an hour later, both knew that things were about to happen that they so far had not given too much thought. They had both been wrapped up in the nightmare they had experienced and had not given too much thought to the possibility that more could evolve from their friendship.

Once inside the apartment though, their passion seemed to cool. Standing in the hall, they looked at each other for a long moment. Eventually Hicks pulled his coat off and helped her with hers. Then they went into the living room and sat down on the sofa side by side. Hicks took her hand and started to trace the lines of her fingers, not saying anything.

She watched him for a while until the silence became too oppressive. "It's been a long time for me. Even when I don't count the fifty-seven years I spent in deepsleep, it's been a long time."

He nodded, not looking up. "I know," he muttered.

Ripley reached out to touch his hair for a second, wondering if things could ever become the same again if they slept with each other. "Are you attracted to me?" she asked and he nodded once.

Looking up, he smiled a little. "Yeah, I'm attracted to you. From the first damned moment I saw you," he said, folding both his hands around hers.

She gave his face a scrutinizing look, searching for lines that would show the scars. But, the technique used by the doctors these days left no signs. The plastic surgeon had done a very fine job and she had been surprised at how fast the wounds had healed up. Hicks had told her about the Bacta, a fluid that was used for healing wounds. Every doctor used it, because it sometimes more than five-folded the speed of recovery. In his case it had cut the healing-time from several months to merely two weeks. She reached out to touch his face, trying to get a fix on what she was actually feeling for him. Sex was not a necessity for her. She could live happily without it. It was being close to another human being which made her ache with longing. It had been a long time, she realized; too long.

He took her hand and kissed her palm, not taking his eyes of her. Then things just happened and when it was over, she felt the need to cry. Somehow, nothing in her life could be the same after the aliens had invaded it. Not even sex. He had his arms around her, her head resting on his chest. Without saying a word, he let her cry. He just held her and stroked her hair, knowing that her tears were for what she had lost, not what had just happened. He expected their relationship to change after this, but he doubted that it would be for the worse.

***

ACHERON

Lylesberg looked around the small conference-room where they held all their meetings, noting the hateful glances that most of the men sent Burke. Everybody knew what he had done. After spending several hours trying to explain his way out of it, he finally admitted that Hudson was right. He had sent the order, but he gave them the same explanation he had given Ripley a year before. He had done it because he had not known whether the ship really existed or not. The explanation however, had sounded very lame, even to himself, so he had not tried to explain anything further. After he had stopped trying to justify himself, Lylesberg had called for a vote. They had to decide what do with him. The one thing that Hudson was after was out of the question, though. Lylesberg had tried to explain it to the former marine, but Hudson had been deaf to the explanation. He wanted Burke dead more than he wanted off Acheron. Lylesberg had felt inclined to ship Burke off to another processor, but in his opinion the man was incapable of taking care of himself.

Lylesberg cleared his throat, looking around the room. "We have to find out what to do about this. I had not reckoned on bumping into trouble so soon, but now that it is here, we have to deal with it. In a civilized manner. That means killing him is not an option. Nor is it an option to just exile him. We are few enough as it is and it is possible that we will spend the rest of our lives here. Our children's children will probably see Acheron as home. With the aliens and all." His speech caused no comment from the crowd, although everybody was there. Every man, woman and child had squeezed into the room, all wanting to know how their unofficially elected leader would deal with a serious situation like this.

Marlee was standing near the back of the room, watching the whole business with a calm expression on her pretty face. Twirling a strand of her straw-blond hair between her fingers, she had so far kept her opinions to herself. But she felt it was time to speak up, so she raised her hand. Lylesberg nodded to her. "He's been walking freely around the processor for the past year. According to what I know, he's done nothing wrong in that time. Besides, what could he do? I say we leave things as they were," she suggested. Lylesberg nodded, accepting her idea.

Hudson got up from the crate he had been sitting on, looking slightly alarmed. "We can't leave things as they were, man," he exclaimed. "This bastard is dangerous. He was willing to sacrifice us all to get one of those monsters back to Earth. Who says he won't do it again, once the contamination of the explosion site has blown over? Think about it."

Lylesberg nodded again, taking everything into consideration. Burke knew that he had more trouble than he could handle. Hudson was dangerous to him because he had a lot to say about what went on in the processor. People saw him as authority because he was a marine.

Hudson dropped down on the crate again, sending Burke a look that could kill. Burke looked away, trying to catch Marlee's eyes. The girl had stood up for him and he wrongly took that for interest. Marlee, however, was staring at Hudson.

Lylesberg looked around the room, waiting to see if anybody had something to add. That was not the case. "Well," he eventually said. "It seems that we have a problem beyond our capacity here. We do not have a jail and, even if we had, that would probably not be the right solution. What do you suggest we do about this, Mr. Burke?"

Burke jerked, staring at Lylesberg with disbelief. Obviously the old man expected him to decide for himself what should happen to him. Not knowing what to say, he looked away again, keeping his mouth shut. That crazy corporal had almost killed him a year ago, when he had tried to tell them what a nutcase Ripley was. He was not going to make the same mistake twice.

"You have nothing to say for yourself?" Lylesberg asked and he shook his head.

Hudson cleared his throat, attracting attention. "If we can't kill him, I say we exile him. If he stays here, he's likely to get into trouble sooner or later," he said, a hidden threat in his words. Others agreed with that, mumbling their consent.

With a sigh, Lylesberg glanced at Hudson. "Well, then I think it would be best for both yourself and us if you took up residence in one of the other processors. Out of harm's way, by all means," he then said to Burke.

Hudson looked satisfied, but not completely. The whole thing bothered him a whole lot. He wanted Burke dead. He wanted to make sure he never did again what he had tried a year before. Keeping his eyes on the floor, he got up and walked toward the entrance.

Lylesberg looked after him until he reached the door. "Where are you going, Will?" he wanted to know.

Hudson stopped, looking back over his shoulder. "I don't wanna know where he goes. I might do something stupid," he replied and left. Following his example, most of the gathered left the room too.

Lylesberg nodded solemnly, turning to the two men and Marlee who remained. He smiled weakly to the young woman. "I think you should leave too, Marlee," he said. She started to object, thought better of it and left the room too. Lylesberg waved the two men closer. "I think it should be up to you two to decide where you want to place him. I have no wish to know either. Just in case. Make sure that you supply him so that he can get through on his own." With those words, he glanced briefly at Burke and left the room too.

Jack and Harlan, twin-brothers and very responsible men, looked at Burke for a moment, and then motioned for him to come with them. He followed them without a word. There was nothing he could say and they would probably not listen anyway.

Marlee stood beside the tractor, which would transport Burke to his unknown destination. He smiled when he saw her, thinking that she would maybe even decide to come with him. Nobody was more surprised than him when she spat him in the face.

"That's for killing my parents, you bastard. I hope you rot out there," she snapped and ran back inside.

Harlan pushed him toward the tractor, knowing how the guy had to be feeling. He didn't much care, though.

***

EARTH
- SOMEWHERE IN L.A.

The first rays of the morning sun woke Ripley up. Since that night where they had been out, they had slept in the same bed. But other than that, nothing much had changed between them. It was as if it had been a minor change that had just asked to happen. Now that it had, they could get on with their lives, feeling a little less strained and fearful. In fact, it had made a great deal of difference to Ripley. She no longer felt so out of place. It was as if she had finally found a place to settle down. Everything was working out and she had even started to make a few plans for the future.

But for Hicks the change had not really meant that much. He was still bothered by nightmares that kept him up, pacing the living room some nights. This was the first night in a long time that he had slept without waking up bathed in sweat. Ripley decided to let him sleep and slipped out of the bedroom and into the kitchen to start the coffee-dispenser. It took about two minutes, before Hicks was there too.

He looked dazed, almost unable to keep his eyes open. "Morning," he muttered, sitting down at the small kitchen table, resting his elbows on the table top and his chin on his hands.

Ripley sat down across from him and eyed him thoughtfully. "Morning yourself. Why don't you go back to bed? You look like you need it," she suggested.

For a moment, he just sat there, fighting to keep his eyes open, then he turned to look at her. "I can't sleep any more. There's something I have to talk to you about. Something that has been on my mind."

The way he said it made Ripley frown. His tone of voice promised nothing good. She rose to get the coffee pot and poured them both a cup. He took his, wrapping both hands around it and stared into the hot liquid.

For a moment, he just inhaled the steam rising from the cup, and then he looked at her again. "I have to go out there again."

The words should have come as no surprise to her, but she almost dropped her cup. "What are you talking about?" she asked, setting it down before she did drop it. Her hands were trembling and she felt beads of perspiration breaking out on her forehead.

He looked back into the cup for a second, and then took a sip. "I've given it a lot of thought and I can't settle down until I've beaten this thing. I can't do that here."

Ripley ran a hand over her face, trying to make some sense out of what he was saying. Then she dropped her hand, staring hard at him. "You can't go out there, Dwayne. The planet is blacklisted. Nobody will set down on it again. What do you want there anyway? There is nothing out there. You said so yourself." She was trying to reason with him, but she understood him too. She had felt the same way, but for her it had been impossible and even crazy to even think about something like that. When Burke had given her the chance, she had taken it, hadn't she? If for nothing else than to convince herself that she was not crazy. That it had not been her imagination. Oh yes, she understood him all right and she hated the idea.

"I know. But, I need to make sure. I must know. Don't you see? It's haunting me and I'm afraid I'll never get any peace if I don't do it," he explained, putting the cup down. He reached over the table and took one of her hands. "I ...,” he began but she cut him off.

"I know how you feel. Believe me I do. But, Dwayne, think about it again. Just think about it real hard. Think about what might happen. Please?"

Her tone of voice was pleading and the expression on her face made him almost change his mind. Almost. His fingers closed hard on her hand while he watched her, his expression very serious. "I've been thinking about this for over a year, Ellen. It's just something I have to do and I think I know how to do it. If I didn't, if there was no way I could get out there, I wouldn't even mention this now. But I think I do know how. And I have to try," he said, the tone of his voice deadly serious.

She realized that this was why he had been able to sleep through the night without the nightmares. He had made up his mind and he was at peace with that decision. All she had to do was feel the same. And she knew she would never be able to do that.

In a low tone of voice, he suddenly added "I have to put them all to rest." He let go of her hands, leaning back in his chair, looking past her.

She frowned, wondering what he actually meant by that. "Who?" she then asked quietly. "The team?"

He nodded slowly, looking at her again. "Yeah. Most of us have been friends for a very long time." An intensity she had not noticed before suddenly showed in his eyes and his next words were as intense as his expression. "I dream about them every night, Ellen. I see them getting killed every night. I can't take it anymore. I have to finish it." He got up, the weariness gone completely. "I'll make some calls today. If I'm lucky, I can be on my way by the end of this week." He turned and left the kitchen.

Ripley watched him go, feeling very vulnerable and very much afraid. She heard him making the calls and waited for him to return to the kitchen, all the while not moving. When he returned fifteen minutes later, he looked slightly conscience-stricken but nothing in his behavior suggested that he had changed his mind. He sat down again and picked up his cup.

For a while, they sat there in silence, and then Ripley heaved a deep breath. "I understand you, Dwayne," she said, not knowing why she said it. It could not possibly keep him from doing what he wanted to do. That much she knew about him. "Believe me, I do. But I also think you're crazy. What do you hope to find out there?" She knew that he could not answer that question. He didn't know. She hadn't known why she had said yes to Burke's offer. She still didn't know. There were so many plausible explanations for her consent, but none of them really hit the mark.

He looked at her for a moment, eying her thoughtfully. Then he shrugged. "I don't know. I wish I did. I wish I could give you just one reason for doing this. One that sounded right. But I can't. It's just something I have to do. I guess you of all people understand that."

She nodded slowly, wishing she could get upset about it. Maybe that would make him stay. He reached across the table and took her hand again, holding it in both of his. She looked up to meet his eyes, wondering what it was that actually bound them together. It wasn't love. That much she knew. She liked him a lot. Enough to risk her life for him. But she didn't love him. And she didn't think that he loved her. They just stayed together because it seemed right. Because they had something in common that nobody else could share with them.

"I have to go. I need to assure myself that it really did happen" he said, frowned at his own words and then slowly shook his head. "No, that's not it. I know it did. But, I just gotta go."

She nodded eventually, letting go of his hands and leaning back. "I know. You have to go," she agreed. She had managed to put most of it behind her because she had gone out a second time. Maybe he would be as lucky as she had been. "Maybe you'll even survive," she added, not looking at him.

For a while he said nothing, and then he got up to pour himself another cup of coffee. He turned his back to the counter, leaning against it. "I have no intention of getting killed, Ellen. I don't even know what I want out there. It's not certain I’ll even go down. Maybe seeing that planet will be enough." He looked at her long enough to see her shake her head.

"No. You'll go down. You have to. Once you're out there you can't help it. Trust me. I know what I'm talking about." With that she got up and left the kitchen, not looking at him. She was afraid for him, maybe even terrified that he wanted to go. But she would not try to stop him.

He glanced at his watch and then returned to the bed room to get dressed. He had called an old friend who owed him a favor. The guy was the owner of a private supply-ship and he was almost certain he could convince him to help him out this one time. With Ripley's words still ringing in his ears, he left the apartment half an hour later.

Ripley was standing on the balcony, looking out over the city, trying not to be scared. But, keeping the fear at bay was not easy. She kept thinking about what might happen and it slowly dawned on her that she would go crazy if she had to wait for his return. That left her with two options. She could try and forget him and just move away or she could go with him. Either of the two options were more or less scary.

***