Besides holding the few ships that were small enough to land on Earth, L.A. Spaceport was landing ground for all shuttles coming from Gateway. A few pilots had taken up residence on the spaceport area and one of them was Pete Chandler. Hicks had known Chandler since high school and he had once saved the other man's life.

Chandler had always known that he could count on that Hicks some day would reclaim that dept. However, he had never expected Hicks to ask him to do something illegal. Hicks had told him where he wanted to go and Chandler had spent a little over a minute just staring at his old friend. "It's sad to see that you've gone over the edge, old buddy," he finally said, trying to make a joke of it.

Hicks leaned back on the chair he was sitting on, his expression telling Chandler that there was nothing funny about it. "Look, Pete. I'm not kidding. I have reasons for wanting to do this. I have to," he tried to explain, knowing that this did not clear anything up for Chandler.

Chandler ruffled his thick mane of hair, frowning. "You want me to take you to a forbidden planet out in the middle of nowhere and you can't even tell me why. Have I got that right?" he asked after a moment.

Hicks nodded solemnly. "I would like to tell you more but the less you know ..." he began and Chandler ended it for him.

" ... the better for me. Yeah, I know. I've heard that one before." Again he ran both hands through his hair, a habit he'd had since high school. When he was flustered or concerned, he always ruffled his hair. "Man, you must be crazy," he eventually said.

Hicks accepted the bottle of beer Chandler handed him from the small fridge he was sitting on and took a sip. "I'm serious like hell, Pete. Remember Hudson?" he asked and Chandler nodded. "He bought it out there and ... well ... call me sentimental, but I feel I have to go out there to say my last goodbyes." Hicks knew that friendship ranked high in Chandler's opinion. He would understand a sentimental notion like that and it wasn't entirely untrue. Chandler nodded, still slightly concerned. "If it helps any, just tell anybody who should ask that I forced you" Hicks added, taking another sip of the beer.

That comment made Chandler smile. "Hey, everybody who knows you also knows that you couldn't threaten a dog if you knew it." He paused, staring ahead of himself for a moment, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, man. I can't do that. And you won't find anybody else who will either."

Hicks nodded in understanding. "Hey, I had to try," he said. Disappointed as he was, he wasn't disappointed enough. He realized at the same moment that he had actually hoped that Chandler would turn him down. That he wouldn't be able to get out there again.

Chandler smiled. "Yeah, you had to. You wouldn't be you if you didn't. But, buddy, you shouldn't even consider it any more. There is nobody in the business that would approach a planet with warning satellites. We spacefarers are a superstitious lot and breaking that rule is bad for business."

Hicks nodded again. "I get the point. Thanks anyway. You still owe me one, though," he said as he got up.

"Yeah, I know. Take care of yourself, man, and don't be a stranger," Chandler countered, getting up as well.

"Sure thing. I'll see you around." With that, Hicks left again, feeling a kind of closure although it hadn't been the kind he had been after. Walking across one of the closed landing fields, he looked up when one of the shuttles from Gateway came in. The deep blue sky was a perfect backdrop for the squeaky-clean shuttle and it gave him a touch of the feeling he had experienced when he had first seen a shuttle land. Way back when he'd been a kid. He stopped to watch it land, then closed his eyes for a moment, shoving feelings he didn't want to feel into the back of his mind. Well, at least Ripley would be happy that he didn't go.



Ripley stood at the edge of the small lake in Bells Park, watching ducks swim toward the small island in the middle. Hicks stood beside her, watching the sky. He felt a little more at ease now. It had been three days since he had talked to Chandler and he had come to terms with the turn-down. He had tried and failed, but at least he had tried. Knowing now that there was no way he could get back out there, he had started thinking about what was going to happen next. What the future would bring. "What are you thinking about?" he asked, turning his attention to Ripley.

She watched the ducks wade ashore on the island in silence. Then she glanced at him. "Nothing, really. I'm glad you're not going," she replied and took his hand.

He looked into her eyes, wondering about them and this relationship they had. "Actually, so am I. But I had to try." He sighed and sat down on the shore, watching the ducks for a moment. "Now that I know I can't get out there, I feel ..." he began, but couldn't finish. He didn't know what he felt.

One of the ducks on the island took off, flapping its way up toward the overcast sky. Ripley followed it with her eyes until it disappeared from sight. "Yeah," she said quietly and sat down beside him. The second duck took off, following its mate. Ripley felt strangely sad to see them go. It would have felt the same way to see Hicks leave. She knew that. She was used to him by now and it would have been difficult to change her lifestyle again. She glanced at him, biting her lip. "So, what happens now?" she asked.

He shrugged at her question. "I don't know. I guess we have to make it up as we go. What do you think?"

She shrugged back, looking away again. The island in the middle of the small lake was devoid of motion. A cool breeze blew over the water and the dark clouds covering the sky promised rain. Somewhere a blackbird was singing loudly, marking its territory. She listened to the warble for a moment, and then took Hicks' arm. "Let's go back. I'm cold," she said and they got up and started walking toward the exit of the park, not looking at each other. Ripley was quiet and Hicks didn't know what to say. He just kept his hands in the pockets of his coat, feeling the warmth of her hand on his arm. Lately he had come damned close to falling in love with her but somehow it never really happened. She was there and that was what mattered. He had to admit to himself that he had never really had a relationship that had been this strange. They lived together, they slept together but they were not in love. It was almost as if their relationship was one of convenience. He put his arm around her shoulder, hugging her, and she smiled a little.

She felt the same way about their relationship but she was not wondering about the strangeness of it. Somehow it seemed right to her. For a long time her life had been out of time and she was starting to get used to it.



After having calmed down again over seeing Burke, Hudson had thrown himself into the work of trying to find a way to bring down one of the warning satellites. He knew that it was almost impossible. There were no weapons in the processor and without the firepower of a missile or a laser-canon, it did not look promising. He had thought long and hard about how he should do it, trying out different things on a small scale. But none of them worked. Well, they worked well enough on a small scale but that was without taking the weather and the distance into consideration. Eventually he had to inform Lylesberg that it would be close to impossible. The older man was of course disappointed, but had shown a lot of understanding. It was the idea that counted, he had told Hudson. Not feeling better after that, he had started working on a connection to the communications' satellite. If he could reactivate it and send a message out, somebody was bound to pick it up. Eventually. The trick was to establish the connection. Spending his time with that, he also realized that Marlee's interest in him seemed to grow for each day. Eventually, he confronted her with it. He wasn't interested in a relationship. Not presently. He tried to explain that to her.

"Look, Marlee. It's not that I don't like you or something. It's just too damn close to those aliens, man. I can't even start thinking about a relationship now. Besides, there is the age-difference." Having said that, he had to smile. It was a first for him to say no to a woman.

Marlee was nineteen and quite aware of what she was doing. She looked slightly confused when he smiled. "You're twenty-seven, Will. I'm nineteen. That's not even ten years. How can that be a problem?" she wanted to know.

For a moment he just looked at her, and then he shook his head, returning to the compound of different print-boards and wires that he was working on. "It just wouldn't work right now, okay?" he said, trying to sound cross. It wasn't easy. He was attracted to her but he had to keep his mind on the communications station he was trying to put together. Marlee made it very difficult for him to collect his thoughts since she was around him most of the time. At times she behaved like a little kid and she displayed that quality at that very moment. She sulked and left the room. For a moment he considered going after her and telling her in more detail why it wouldn't work, but he dropped that thought again. If she wanted to be mad at him, it gave him more time to work on the com-station.

When he eventually finished it, it was in perfect working order. But, there was one thing he had forgotten and that was the most important aspect of them all. There was nothing around to boost the signal enough for it to reach the satellite. There was no satellite dish. So, foaming with anger at his lack of strategy, he started roaming the storage rooms for something that could help him build a dish. Eventually he had to realize that he had no idea how a dish worked.



One of the most powerful control stations was located on Gateway, keeping an eye on the colonies and keeping up the connection to them. They also kept a close look at the planets themselves, monitoring their life-cycles. On two occasions they had been forced to evacuate colonies because the planets they had been placed on had reached the end of their line. To prevent heavy losses of equipment and people, they now monitored every planet within the charted area of space. A new situation was about to arise. One of the planets had reached it's time of death. The woman who was supervising that particular monitor-area, instantly reported to her superior. She knocked on his door.

"Come in,” he called and she stepped into the small, bright office.

"Mr. Townsend. We've got another of those potential bombs. It's gone critical and seems to be in a hurry to get it over with,” she said, handing him the report.

He opened the file on that particular planet on the computer, checked it and sighed. "No alarm there, Ms. Carter. This baby has been blacklisted a while ago. Nobody to rescue there,” he replied, handing the report back to her. "Monitor her until she blows and then ... well, you know the procedure. Keep up the good work,” he added, smiling.

Ms. Carter nodded and returned to her station. She looked at the incoming data and sighed. Someday the same thing would happen to the planet below them and it always made her feel slightly sad to follow the end of a world that had lived for millions of years. She entered the ok-code into the computer and the alarm-blink up in the corner of the chart stopped. Now, all she could do was sit back and watch and keep this world company from a distance until it drew its last breath.



An atmosphere processor was large and somewhat frightening when there was nobody else around. Burke had spent the first week of his exile roaming the corridors and checking out his new home. He still cursed Hudson for causing him to be exiled. He had done what he could to avoid that crazy marine, but could probably count himself lucky that he had kept it up for more than a year. Eventually Hudson would have bumped into him anyway. And, if it had happened when nobody else had been around, Burke would have been dead now. The second week he had started to make plans. He had requested a copy of the map of Acheron that had been made so far. His reason for wanting it had been that he needed to be able to find his way back to the others, should the necessity arise. The twin-brothers had agreed with him and handed over one of the three copies they had. They had even been kind enough to point out where he was and where they were. To his great surprise he had realized that he was now in the processor closest to the former Hadley's Hope. The twin-brothers had told him that he should not approach the area since it was still heavily contaminated, but he had also requested a portable radiation-measurer and, due to his location, they had given him one. That gave him access to the area. He could move within thirty kilometers of the site without being exposed to too much radiation. He had tried, using one of the small cross-country vehicles that were present in every processor. The next time he went out, he would try to reach the area and see what happened. He knew what he wanted to find and he also hoped that he would find it.


In the populated processor, Hudson was, once again, standing on the top of the station, looking out over the planet. No matter how hard he tried, he could not bring himself to call it home. This would never be anything else than a living nightmare. Standing on top of the station as he was, he frowned when a cloud of dust rose from one of the smaller hills in the area. He brought up his binoculars, one of the few things he had still had on him when he had been rescued, and searched the area. The hill was slowly but surely sinking into the ground.

"What the fuck?" he muttered, watching it until the pulsing red lava rose out of the crack. Something was going on and he didn't like it. Turning around, he headed back for the entrance when the first shake hit the station. It was actually more like a vague tremble, almost as if the station was sighing. He ran back down to the second level, out of breath when he arrived.

Lylesberg had been discussing some rearrangement with one of the others and looked slightly surprised when Hudson came running toward him. The second tremor, this a little stronger than the previous, hit the station and this time it was even felt inside. Lylesberg stopped looking surprised and started to look concerned instead. "What's going on?" he asked Hudson.

He waved his hand, having to catch his breath first. "There's an earthquake. I saw a whole hill vanish into the ground,” he eventually explained, looking utterly upset.

Lylesberg's mild concern grew. "This planet is supposed to be stabile. In the twenty years we have been here there has never been ...,” he began but was interrupted when the next quake hit.

They all held their breaths for a while, but there seemed to come no more. Lylesberg was too much of a realist to pass it off as nothing. He looked very concerned. One of the men, a former engineer, pushed through the gathering crowd. "The planet is dying, Lylesberg. God damn it, it's dying. If what Will says is true, we're going to be history in about four or five weeks. That's all it takes for this damned thing to break up. The quakes are going to get steadily worse and the holes they leave won't close up. The temperature will rise and there will be volcanic activity." His explanation of what was going on did nothing to soothe people.

Hudson was staring at him, not wanting to believe what he had just heard. After all he had been through, he would after all die on this stinking planet. "That can't be, man. That's ... ridiculous,” he snapped but Lylesberg grabbed his arm, preventing him from rushing off.

"Listen to the man, William. He's been a planet-scientist before he came out here. He knows about those things,” he said and Hudson froze to the spot.

That was not what he had wanted to hear. Marlee turned up at his side, looking scared. He reminded himself to stay calm and put an arm around her shoulders. Right now, he needed her as much as she needed him. "Shouldn't those bastards on Gateway have known this a long time ago?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady.

Lylesberg made an unhappy face. "Of course they should. But, it has happened before that they have colonized a planet anyway, hoping that it would carry on for a while longer. The only problem now is that they don't know we're here. They won't send a rescue."

The group surrounding them was quiet, listening to the slow pulse of the machinery surrounding them. This station had been able to protect them against the harsh weather of Acheron, against the aliens that had destroyed the colony. But it would not be able to protect them against this.

Lylesberg reached out for Hudson's arm. "How is your work going with that communications station? Any luck?"

Hudson met his eyes for a moment and decided to take a chance. "I think I know a way to shoot one of the satellites down. I can't get in touch with the com satellite, but I think the signal from my station is going to be strong enough to reach somebody out there. All we need now is to get the satellite down and then fish for an answer."

Lylesberg nodded. "Do it. We don't have much time," he said.


Burke stood on a ridge above the large, deep hole where the processor and Hadley's Hope had once been, when the first shake hit. The second and third caused him to fall over and tumble down the ridge until he was lying, scared to death, at the edge of the hole. He ripped his radiation-measurer out, staring at it. The counter had stopped just below the danger line. He should not stay too long but he would be okay. Getting up, he wondered why he had never heard about earthquakes on Acheron before and he had certainly not experienced any while he'd been here. Okay, maybe he had not paid too much attention to a small, offside world like this on Earth, but he would have heard or read about it, when he had picked up the case about Acheron. He vaguely remembered why. There had been no previous recordings of earthquakes on Acheron. That was why he hadn't heard about them. The planet was considered stabile. This -- in his opinion -- meant only one thing.

"Christ Almighty,” he whispered, looking around. "We are all going to die." He turned around, starting to head up the slope he had tumbled down, when something caught his eye. He looked in that direction again and realized what he was looking at. Changing his direction, he walked toward the misshapen oval that was lying on its side. He cautiously approached it, trying to see if it was breached or not. When he realized that it wasn't, he jumped back, quickly moving out of what he thought was its proximity-area. Watching it for a while, he wondered if there was some way to transport it. The egg was dangerous if he didn't manage to seal it in some way. Besides, it was probably highly radioactive. He squatted, pondering the situation and was rewarded with a slimy hiss all of a sudden. He opened his eyes wide, trying to see what was going on with the egg. The dim light of the planet gave him little more than shadows to watch but one thing was certain. The egg had opened.



Almost laboriously a big, chunky freighter pushed its way through space on a distinct route. The vessel was hauling everything worth hauling and the pilot, alone on this trip as on so many others, was having a nice time all on her own. The next stop was Earth, home, and she was looking forward to getting there. It would take her old ship another two months all in all to close the distance. A freighter this big and this old did not have a jump-drive and would fall apart if one were used on it.

"Big old Betsy," the pilot cooed, stroking the dashboard of the ramshackle ship. "We've been to hell and back together, you and I."

Madeline St. George was fifty-seven years old and looked like a hundred. She smoked and drank with the best of them, had so foul a mouth that a hardened marine would blush in her presence and was the kindest soul in the galaxy. Among her many friends, she was simply known as Mad Maddy.

"Yeah, me and old Betsy," she said and put her worn boot-heels up on the dashboard. She had barely put them there before something exploded in space not too far away. A satellite chain around one of those dust balls had just lost a pearl on its string, she reckoned. Leaning forward, she looked out at the debris floating by the outboard cameras and was stunned to see a piece of metal drifting by, which had the Colony-inscription on it. "What the fuck?" she grumbled, pulled her feet back down on the floor and got busy twisting and turning dials. If there was one thing old Betsy was equipped with, it was a functioning receiver. She could pick up anything within several thousand clicks. And she sure did pick up something this time around, too.

Fragments of distorted conversations were heard along with a blaring signal that Maddy didn't recognize. "Fuckheads, you better get your act together down there," she muttered. "Shooting down satellites. What'll be the next?" Rubbing her chin, she eyed the monitors showing her various angles of the planet she had zoomed in on. "Better give'em a call and ask if they're okay down there." She switched on the com and hailed the colony she expected to be down on the planet.



Hudson was twisting dials and knobs on his home-made com-station, wondering if he would ever be able to pick up something on it. The hit on one of the satellites he had scored about half an hour ago had been quite a success. Now it was a matter of raising somebody out there. Providing anybody had noticed the exploding satellite, of course.

He twisted another dial and was shocked into silence when a voice came through loud and clear. "This is Madeleine St. George on the space tug Betsy calling Acheron. Do you read me? I repeat. This is Madeleine St. George calling anybody on Acheron. Please come in."

With fingers shaking from sheer surprise, Hudson grabbed the headphone with the mike and plugged it into the com-station. "This is Private Hudson calling space tug Betsy. I receive you loud and clear," he said.

There was a moment worth of silence and Hudson almost feared that the sender didn't work. "Private Hudson? Have you guys established a military base on a civilian world?" the voice asked.

Hudson could have kiss her if she had been standing in front of him. "Nope. I'm just stuck here and I really wanna go home. There are twenty-something others down here and we need an immediate evac."

It had already become clear to Hudson that the pauses Madeleine St. George made had something to do with the strength of the sender. It wasn't strong enough to avoid delay in the transmission. "Jeez ... Right ... Okay ... Shit, I'm not equipped to handle that many people, but if they don't mind being bundled up a bit for the rest of the trip, I think we could fit you all in. I'm coming down with the lander. Over and out."

Hudson was up and out of the store-room where he had set up shop within seconds. He almost tripped over his own feet out of sheer eagerness to tell the others. "They're coming," he yelled as he burst into the big hall. Everybody stopped moving, staring at him with a mixture of surprise and fear and he realized how it had sounded. "I raised someone on the com-station. She's coming down to pick us up. She'll be here in half an hour," he yelled, then let out a whooping cry of joy.


Burke sat very still, staring at the egg. He didn't know what to do. If he rose and ran, the facehugger inside, providing it was alive, would chase him until it caught him. There was no getting away from it. If he didn't move, there might be a chance that it missed him. He had a theory that the aliens' sight was infra-red and with all those hot steam-wells that had erupted lately it had to be impossible for the creature to make him out among the heat patterns. If that was the way it did it.

Something moved by the egg and he realized that it was on its way out. The long fingers of the facehugger grabbed at the dirt surrounding the egg and it pulled itself out. The long tail uncurled and started moving back and forth in a steady rhythm. Then, so suddenly that Burke could not help moving back a bit, it turned toward him. Before he had time to think what he was doing, he was up and running for the vehicle, stumbling and falling over rocks. He reached the vehicle, tore the door open and threw himself inside. Once in, he slammed the door shut and leaned forward to look outside for the facehugger. It was nowhere in sight.

Panting hard, he started up the engine, putting the vehicle in gear. It started moving and at the same time he heard a scraping sound. He hit the brakes full force, causing himself to be thrown forward and he hit his head against the steering wheel. With a curse, he reached up to touch the sore spot and his fingers came away bloody. The scraping sound repeated itself, now closer. He turned to throw a look in the back of the vehicle and was stunned to see the facehugger only inches from his face, sitting on the back of his seat. Before he could do more than sigh, it was upon him, fighting against his raised hands. The tail curled itself around his throat, choking him, but he kept fighting it off until the darkness of unconsciousness overtook him. His last conscious thought was that now he knew what Ripley had felt like.


The settlers were agitated and shouted all at once. Eventually Lylesberg had to climb onto a crate and yell for silence. Everybody stopped talking at once and another quake was felt during that silence.

Lylesberg looked around at them, his expression serious. "We have done everything possible to try and contact the outside worlds and now we have succeeded. Thanks to William," he said. "What we need to do is take it easy now. Help is on the way and as soon as it gets here, we have to hurry and get off this world. We're going home."

His words made a sigh go through the group of people. Everybody just stood there for a moment, all of them in awe.


In the cross-country vehicle, Burke slowly came too. He pushed himself away from the wheel, blinking, his head aching beyond reason. For a moment, he had no idea where he was. Then he slowly started to remember. Looking out across the landscape stretching before him, he vaguely remembered having driven toward the former site of Hadley's Hope. The crater he could see from the driver-side door had to be it.

What had happened? he wondered, reaching up to rub his brow. With a hiss, he pulled his hand away from the sore spot. Obviously, he had hit his head. Frowning, he tried to recall when it had happened, but found that he was unable. Grinding his teeth, he set the vehicle in gear and turned it away from the site, driving toward the processor that he currently called home. But, halfway there, he suddenly slowed down again. The memory of an earthquake had returned to him and then he remembered that he had realized that the planet was dying. Without further consideration, he turned the vehicle toward the processor where the others resided, telling himself that, if he had to die, he did not want to die alone.


Apone had not caught any of what was going on. He still remained passive and Hudson joined him, sitting down beside him. "You know, Sarg,” he said, picking a shard of some kind off Apone's shoulder, "life is fucking weird. We're going home. This nightmare is finally over, man. All the time I've hoped that at some point I was gonna wake up and find that the oxygen-system in my freezer had fucked up." He glanced at Apone who kept his eyes on something that Hudson couldn't see. "Fat chance, eh?" Hudson asked and smiled. "What a fucking life I'm leading,” he added. He rose again, giving Apone one more glance, and then returned to the top of the station to look for the lander that would bring Madeleine St. George to their rescue.

Here and there, there were bleeding wounds in the landscape now, oozing lava at a slow rate. The temperatures were rising and he could imagine what it would be like when the inferno really started. He was just glad that he wouldn't be around when it happened.