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Her head was made of stone. The eyelids stuck to her eyes and her lungs were burning. Her mind was a blank, but she knew she shouldn't be experiencing this. There shouldn't be anything after death. Her heart began to race and her ears filled with a raucous noise. It sounded like someone screaming, in a voice that seemed out of practice.

A sting in her arm made her head clear. She realized the sound was a scream. The person screaming was herself. Her vocal cords were producing that - grating noise. That wasn't how she used to sound. For some reason she was sure of that, even if she couldn't remember anything else. She stopped screaming. Now it was easier to breathe. She tasted the slightly stale air in deep gulps. Her lungs filled up and her panic eased off.

After a while, she felt her eyelids move. She decided to risk opening her eyes, though she had no idea what she'd see. Nothing. Just a light, but she was unable to discern anything else. No, that wasn't quite true. Some sort of shadows fell across her field of vision and vanished again.

One of those shadows solidified into a shape that looked vaguely familiar. A human being. A man. Or an android. Android? The word appeared out of her subconscious and seemed familiar too. Now the man or android bent over her and seemed to be studying her. Whoever it was, was wearing some sort of protective gear. She couldn't make out the features inside the slightly bulging transparent substance which covered the face.

A gloved hand touched her face. Not sure who this was or what intentions he had, she tried to twist away. Her head did move after all, if not much. Now the person held an object of some kind and was aiming it at her. She instintinctively closed her eyes. Lying immobile like this, she couldn't do anything to defend herself from a possible attack.

Nothing seemed to happen and she opened her eyes again. The shadows were still moving about in the background. She tried to move her head and thought she could detect other figures, lying on their backs, close to her. One which seemed bigger than she was, and two smaller ones. A memory stirred at the back of her mind. A child. A girl. The android. The android? One in particular. A name came to her. Bishop.

Now the person who had been examining her returned and this time he had removed his protective gear. It was a man, though he seemed strange to her. His skin was pale and the color of his eyes seemed drained as well. The uniform he was wearing seemed strange too and there was something about his hair which struck her as unusual too, but she couldn't say in what way.

"How are you feeling?"

The way he pronounced the words were slightly unfamiliar too, as if he spoke with an accent she wasn't familiar with.

She opened her mouth to reply, but found that her voice wouldn't quite obey her. Coughing to clear her throat, she tried again.

"I -"

"Your vital signs are good. Surprisingly good, considering - What's your name?"

"I -"

She tried to recall but the answer to that simple question eluded her. The panic which had touched her and retreated returned in force. Where the knowledge of who she was should have been there was just a void. Nothing. She also couldn't remember where she was or where she had been before waking up to find a man standing over her.

"I don't know."

The man didn't seem too perturbed by her response.

"Amnesia is a common side effect of your - condition. Nothing to worry about. Does the name Ellen Ripley seem familiar to you?"

She considered. Was the name familiar? She wasn't sure. It didn't sound too impossible, but she wasn't sure if she remembered it or not.

"Is that my name?"

"You tell me. We have records that suggest you might be Ellen Ripley, but - for obvious reasons we can't be sure."

Obvious to him maybe. She had a feeling he was constantly leaving out important information, not necessarily because he had something to hide, but simply because he took it for granted that she'd know too.

"Where am I?"

"In orbit around Pegasus IV."

She looked blank. The planet's name should have been familiar to her, but right now, it wasn't. She didn't know how she knew and at the moment, she couldn't focus on that.

Perhaps sensing her reaction, the man made an effort to clarify.

"We found your ship drifting, dead in space and we scanned it for life signs. You and the two others showed up on our scans so we launched a rescue mission. The child and the man are doing well too. Their life signs are strong."

"What about Bishop?"

The man's expression changed.

"Bishop?"

"The android."

"Our techs will take a look at it later. Do you recall anything else?"

She tried to focus again. It wasn't pleasant to probe the emptiness inside her mind. She kept shying away from it. It was just too terrifying to realize that she didn't know anything.

"A little girl. A young man."

"Yes, but do you know their names?"

She shook her head. To avoid the effort of remembering, she moved her head so she could see more of the others. Maybe looking at them would refresh her memory.

The girl seemed to be about six years old or maybe a little older.

Bishop was broken. His limbs were missing. It looked as if he was sleeping.

Beyond him she could barely discern the young man. He was - something stirred inside her and she thought she could recall something about him. Attraction. Reluctantly feeling drawn to him. A physical attraction, but something more. The look in his eyes, the smile. Why couldn't she remember his name?

"Did you ask them?"

"Repeat?"

"Did you ask them for their names?"

"Yes. The child gives her name as Newt. Our records show nothing about such a name. However - what about this name - Rebecca Jorden?"

She was quite sure she didn't recall that name, but Newt did seem familiar. Yes, Newt. That was the girl's name. Except, she had a strong feeling Newt wasn't a real name. Nickname. Yes. Then maybe Rebecca Jorden was the child's real name.

"Newt. She's called Newt. What about the man?"

"Like you, he's suffering from amnesia and - some delusions. We had to sedate him. He exhibited signs of irrational fear."

She thought that not remembering who you were could easily make you afraid, but she would hardly call that irrational.

"Who are you?"

"I'm nurse Corigg. Dr Rett will examine you now."

A woman who seemed older now bent over her. She asked several questions, as she aimed another object at her eyes and forehead. None of the questions helped her remember.

The woman seemed to be done with her examination.

"Nurse Corigg."

The same man returned and this time he aimed a long, narrow object at the inside of her wrist. It stung slightly, but she couldn't see any blood, so the skin didn't appear to be broken.

"We're extracting a DNA sample. To aid in identification."

"Do you have this Ellen Ripley's DNA on record?"

"We can request them, or send our sample for matching."

"When can I get up?"

"Not for a while. Maybe next week. Our initial tests indicate you've been in hypersleep for - a very long time. Longer than anyone else, on record."

Hypersleep? Again, a memory stirred. She was familiar with hypersleep.

"Find out who I am. I need to know why I ended up like this and -"

"We will. Now, you and the others will be transferred to our ship. Your ship will be anchored in orbit."

"Where are you taking us?"

"To a medical facility."

A familiar voice echoed in the room and she turned her eyes towards the little girl. Newt.

"Ripley. Where are they taking us?"

Dr Rett glanced from the child to the female and back again. She nodded slightly, as if to herself.

"To a medical facility. Do you - remember me?"

"Of course. You're Ripley. What's wrong?"

"I - feel a little strange. How did we end up here? Do you remember?"

The little girl's eyes widened, then the eyelids covered them again. It might have been because she was exhausted after coming out of the prolonged hypersleep nurse Corigg had referred to, but Ripley had a feeling there was some other reason. Eventually, Newt moved her head slightly and faced her again.

"The monsters. Don't you remember? They - took me and then you came to get me back. You told me to go to sleep."

Monsters. A feeling of terror gripped her and she closed her eyes. Could she be absolutely sure they weren't still in the ship? The doctor and the nurse and the rest of their team would need to be warned.

"You need to - scan the ship for organic matter. Eggs. Do it."

She yelled so hard every member of the team stopped in their tracks and stared at her. They seemed so unaware. There was no time to lose. If even one of those eggs hatched -

"There is no other organic matter. Our equipment scanned your ship thoroughly before we docked. There's nothing to fear, Ripley."

"Do you know about the - aliens? The exo-lifeforms?"

"We have records of many exo-lifeforms. The ones you must be referring to - have been neutralized a long time ago. Try not to agitate yourself. At this stage it could have a detrimental effect on your system."

"Are you sure? They're all gone?"

"Yes. There's nothing to fear."

She allowed herself to relax slightly. Not much. She'd believed herself safe before and it had turned out to be wrong, but the doctor had sounded so sure of herself. In any case, she wasn't in any position to move or do anything about the aliens. She would have to take their word for it.

Ripley became aware that Newt was looking at her. She forced herself to reassure the child.

"You see. We're safe. Let's rest a little, ok?"

"Ok, Ripley."

Ripley glanced towards the young man. She still couldn't remember his name.

"Newt?"

"Yes?"

"Do you remember his name?"

"Bishop?"

"No, the man over there."

"I think he said his name was Hicks."

Hicks. Yes. A soldier of some kind. A marine? His name brought back other memories and again, Ripley found herself frozen in terror. This time, the memories were mixed with sorrow. She'd seen them dead. Hicks and Newt. Her own body had been torn apart by one of the aliens. Unable to check the reaction, she glanced down on herself. Her body seemed to be intact.

"Nurse Corigg?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure I'm not injured? Have you scanned my abdomen for signs of - the alien?"

"There is nothing abnormal about your readings. Your tissue shows signs of unnatural stress, due to the prolonged hypersleep and minor cuts and bruises. With rest and continued treatment, you'll make a full recovery."

The man sounded sure of himself. Unless this too, was some kind of dream, like the nightmare from earlier, then maybe everything would be ok. She couldn't allow herself to believe it yet, but she was reassured. Would it finally be over? Were they safe at last?

As she turned those questions over in her mind, she drifted off to sleep. When she opened her eyes again, she was lying in a bed, in a room which though in many ways unfamiliar, couldn't be anything but a medical facility.

She was alone. There was no sign of Newt, Hicks or Bishop. Not that she imagined the android would have been taken to a medical facility. She was hoping they wouldn't decide to scrap him. Her own meager knowledge of the android's systems had led her to believe it would be possible to repair him. His memory chips were intact and so was the face, which was the only part of him that would be individual.

She was feeling more herself again. How long had she been out this time? Not as long as the hypersleep had lasted, at least she could be reasonably sure of that. That led her to wonder how long she'd been in stasis. Unusually long, that nurse with the odd name had said. Longer than anyone in their records. What did that mean? She seemed to recall that she'd been told that before, once. Before -

Would anyone tell her anything useful at last? She was alone in the room and at first glance, there was no way she could contact a member of the staff.

Experimentally, she called out.

"Hello. Can someone please come here and talk to me?"

Eerily, the door opened almost at once and a young woman stepped inside.

"Yes?"

"I'd like some information."

"Of course. Doctor Miyal will tell you anything you wish to know. I will let her know you asked for her."

"Thank you."

She expected to be kept waiting for a long time, but the doctor arrived within half an hour, looking calm but alert.

"Ellen Ripley. What can I do for you?"

"I'd like some information. About - well, what you've found out about me and - the others on the ship with me."

"We have confirmed your identity. You are Ellen Ripley."

"How long have I been in stasis?"

"217 years."

She blinked. No. That wasn't possible. The last time, they'd said she'd been asleep for - fifty-seven years? - but this -

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. According to our records, it was more or less exactly 217 years since communication with your expedition was lost."

"217 years?"

"I can see that it seems daunting, but let me assure you that you will be restored to normal within a few weeks."

"Right. I'll take your word for it. So, when can I get out of bed?"

"In a few days' time, you'll be undergoing physiotherapy to restore the use of your limbs."

"I was told there is no trace of the exo-lifeforms we were sent to eradicate."

"That's true."

"You've scanned our ship for them and there's nothing?"

"The exo-lifeform you're referring to are no longer in existance. A decision was made to eradicate them."

"All of them? How?"

"I'm not familiar with the details myself. It was before my time and besides, I'm a doctor, not an exo-biologist. Apparently, their planet was destroyed 70 or 80 years ago. If you're interested, you can look it up yourself. It's all on record."

"Ok. Thanks. Where is Corporal Hicks?"

"Dwayne Hicks was removed from our facility about 22 hours ago."

She felt a touch of concern. What had happened to him?

"Why?"

"Two marine officers came to pick him up. They had the necessary documentation. This is a civilian facility. We don't have the authority to refuse them."

"Was he recovering?"

"Yes. He was in even better condition than you are."

Younger too, of course. Not that it mattered. Considering how long they'd both been in stasis, they were still closer in age than anyone else on the planet, except possibly Newt.

"And the child?"

"Rebecca Jorden is almost completely recovered. A child of that age regenerates more quickly than adults. She's already walking, with some help."

It was a relief to know that Newt was going to be fine. Recalling her nightmare, Ripley felt compelled to ask more. She had to be sure.

"Did you scan her body for those aliens?"

"Yes. She's undergone every possible examination and scan. There's nothing of alien origin."

"Thank you."

"If that's all, I'll leave you. In a few minutes, you will be given some solid food. If there's anything else you need, just say it. Your room is monitored."

She lay back and considered the information she'd received. It was all reassuring. By now, she was beginning to believe this was reality, not the terror of her nightmare. She still didn't have any idea if the Company still existed and what her position would be, whether or not she was still an employee. It occurred to her that she'd forgotten to ask about Bishop. She promised herself she'd do that the first opportunity she had.

***

Sixteen days later, she was released. She was given quarters and anything else she might need. All that generosity bothered her a bit. Why were they giving her so much? She still hadn't found out anything about the Company, but most of her time so far had been spent in physiotherapy. It wasn't until now that she'd had the strength and the time to devote to research.

An official had come with her and explained the technology in her quarters. She was ashamed to admit that she understood practically nothing about it. Even so, she found that it was extremely easy to operate. Most of it seemed to respond to vocal commands.

Unable to contain her curiosity any longer, she sat down and began her research.

Two hours later, her back was sore and she realized she was hungry too. What she'd found out was interesting, and in some ways reassuring. The Company had been dismantled. After the scandal connected with the exo-lifeforms, it had gone out of business and the main shareholders and others deemed responsible had been prosecuted and severely punished.

Something about all this reminded Ripley of one of the paragraphs in their contract. If the Company went bankrupt and was unable to pay their employees, payment would be taken from the remaining assets, should there be any. Remaining assets - That would be the ship and - Bishop.

Maybe her employment contract had ceased to exist too, in which case her idea was useless. She had no idea what kind of laws this colony had, or even how it was connected to Earth. But if there wasn't anything in their legislation that expressly forbade the reassignment of assets to a former employee of a long defunct company - she might be able to assert her claim.

She could at least try. In the time she'd spent at the medical facility, she'd come to realize how completely alone she was. Being more than three hundred years old, she was without any living relatives, at least as far as she knew. She certainly didn't know anyone from her youth back on Earth, who would still be alive. All she had was Bishop, Newt and Hicks. Hanging on to what little was left of her past, suddenly seemed important.

In a way, she was a freak, a scientific oddity. She should have been dead a long time ago. Yet here she was, feeling about the same as always, at least physically. Unless she was going to kill herself, she had to find something to do with the rest of her natural life.

She was about to speak the command which would get her a plate full of whatever food she requested, when a buzz announced that someone was trying to contact her.

"Yes? Ripley."

"Social services here. We have here a minor by the name of Rebecca Jorden. Our research has turned up no living relatives and our records show you and the child arrived on the same ship."

"That's right."

"Are you willing to become the child's legal guardian?"

Ripley didn't even need to think about that.

"Yes. I am."

"Excellent. The child will be transferred to your quarters this afternoon."

"Thank you."

From the moment she'd met Newt, she'd felt connected to her. Maybe it was because she reminded her of herself at that age or maybe it was simply because the child was all alone. A bit like herself. No connections to anyone. A free agent, working on an inter-system cargo ship, because it paid better than most other work she could get.

She was wondering if she might get larger quarters or if there was some command which would turn the rather spare suite of rooms into something more child-friendly. In the end, she decided her quarters were big enough and she'd ask Newt what she wanted, before she started rearranging the furniture.

Automatically, she requested a meal and sat down to eat it. She could hardly remember the last time she'd eaten. That morning? Last night?

As she put the spoon in her mouth, another buzz sounded. She was hoping it would be Hicks, but the voice echoing in her room wasn't familiar.

"Ellen Ripley?"

"Yes."

"This is Stasis Unit 837 on Station F-42. Our records show you left a feline with our predecessors in -"

The voice recited a date, which Ripley didn't get. A feline. Jones. She'd almost forgotten about him. How was it possible that he was still alive? On the other hand, how had she ended up here? Still alive after almost three hundred years.

"Are you still claiming guardianship over the feline?"

"Yes. What do we do now?"

"I will put it on the next ship, naturally. You should have it - three weeks from now. We're only in the next system."

She'd completely forgotten her knowledge of the star charts.

"Have a licenced medical tech revive the feline."

"Yes. Thank you."

"Thank you."

Jones. At least there was still someone left from her own time. Of course she wanted him back. He was all she had that could be termed a family. Jones and Newt. Again, she was reminded of Hicks' absence. Why had the Marine Corps taken him away? What had they done to him?

She was wondering if she, as a mere civilian, would be allowed to contact the Marine Corps headquarters on this planet or on Earth, wherever the decisions were made. In the meantime, she'd find out if she would be allowed to keep Bishop. She wouldn't exactly term him a family member, but in her position she'd hold on to anyone even remotely connected to her. Even if he was an android, Bishop was a friend. He hadn't malfunctioned, like the other android, the first time they'd encountered the aliens.

After disposing of the remains of her meal, Ripley returned to her studies. She decided to contact the authorities right away, and find out if the ship and Bishop could be considered legal payment for her work. When she thought it over, she came to the conclusion that it was only fair. They owed her. Doing their dirty work, while being kept in the dark about the true nature of their mission, she'd ended up here - in an unknown future, alone, without family, friends or even contemporaries with whom she could have discussions on topics familiar to them all.

She searched for and found a likely contact and tried to open communications with her. There was no reply. Whenever she thought she'd been connected, she ended up being rerouted to another node. In the end, she decided to try another contact instead. Working her way down her list, she was beginning to give up for the day, when finally she heard a voice coming through.

"Yes?"

"My name is Ellen Ripley. I was wondering if you could help me."

"Concerning what?"

"I'm - I was recently revived after spending a few centuries in stasis and - it appears the company I was working for is no longer in business. According to our employment contract, if the company ever went out of business, and it owed an employee payment, the employee could be compensated from the remainder of the company's assets."

Ripley was aware that she was more or less reciting from the contract, but she wanted to be clear on what she was asking. The man, who didn't appear to be particularly high in the hierarchy of officials, seemed puzzled. He sounded polite, but impatient.

"I see. I'm not sure what it is you want from me."

"Would my claim be in violation of any of your codes or regulations?"

"I would have to study the legislation for that, but - excuse me - did you have any particular assets in mind?"

"Yes. That's why I was inquiring. The ship I arrived on was company property and there was an android - which was damaged during - our last assignment -"

"I see. Well, I doubt if anyone else is interested in the ship or the android, so - even if your company's contract should be void here, you will most likely be able to take possession of the items you mentioned."

Ripley thought she could see the man smiling condescendingly. An antiquated ship and an android which would have gone out of production centuries before - who would want them? Nothing but space flotsam - rather like herself.

"Thank you. The android was damaged. I was told the rescue ship's techs would be repairing him."

"Really? In that case you should direct your inquiries to the crew of that ship."

She could barely control her temper. That little runt was trying to get rid of her.

"And how do I find the crew or at least their techs?"

There was a pause, which led her to believe the guy might be terminating the communication, but after a moment, his voice was back, sounding even more impatient.

"You will find a directory of contacts in your own comm panel, but I happen to have heard of the captain of that ship. It made quite a sensation. Finding you alive after all that time. Her name is Wykker."

"Thank you."

She searched for the name Wykker in the directory and found it. To her relief, the woman sounded a bit more approachable.

"My name is Ellen Ripley."

"Of course. Our castaway."

"Yes. First I wanted to thank you for rescuing us."

"Just glad to be of help. It was rather different from our usual jobs."

"Yes. I see what you mean."

Ripley could imagine that captain Wykker and her crew would be remembered for being the ones who found those freaks who had been in stasis for over two centuries.

"I was wondering if your techs were able to repair the android - Bishop."

"Oh, the android. Yes. My tech Andrews was fascinated. According to him, it's functioning within normal parameters now. He was able to regenerate new limbs for him."

"That's - fantastic. Thank you."

"Don't thank me. Thank Andrews. He'll want to tell you all about it, if I know him correctly. I'll put you in touch with him, if you like."

"I'd appreciate that."

Captain Wykker gave her the contact information for Andrews and Ripley was just about to go and see him, when the official from social services arrived.

Newt looked different. When Ripley had first encountered the child, she'd been terrified and sad, not to mention dirty and disheveled. She'd just lost her family and she'd spent weeks crawling through ventilation shafts, hiding from the aliens, never knowing when they'd find her and do to her what they'd done to the rest of the colonists. Now, her hair was clean and her face too. She stood quietly one step behind the young man from social services, waiting while he was talking to Ripley. He had a lot to say about her responsiblities as legal guardian of a child.

Eventually, the talk dried up and the official left. Ripley was so pleased to see Newt again, alive, that she put her arm around the child and held her for a while. To her surprise, the formerly so undemonstrative child hugged her back.

Newt looked up and studied Ripley's face, a serious look on her face.

"Are the aliens really gone?"

"Yes. I've been doing some research and it seems they're all gone. Their planet has been destroyed and there wasn't anything left of them on our ship either."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

Ripley had come to the conclusion that it really was true. The nightmare was over. She might have ended up in a time she didn't know anything about, but at least she - and Newt - were safe. Presumably, they could find out all they needed to know about the time and the planet they were on.

Newt once again surprised her by smiling.

"Where is Hicks? And Bishop?"

"I don't know where Hicks is, but I was about to contact a tech who's repaired Bishop. Would you like to come along?"

"Yes."

"Ok. I'll just find out if he's available. If not, we'll begin to settle you in."

"We can do that later."

Newt didn't seem too eager to check out her new room. Ripley wasn't really familiar with children. The last time she'd spent any time with a child, other than Newt, on that colony, she'd been a child herself.

Maybe Newt simply wanted to hang on to her. Losing her own family must have made her especially wary of losing someone she cared about.

Ripley promised herself that she wouldn't let Newt out of her sight until they both felt a little more secure. She'd originally intended to give Newt a room of her own. Maybe she'd reconsider and put two beds in the same room.

Andrews was available and sounded eager to meet her, so Ripley explained that she'd be bringing another visitor with her. That didn't seem to bother Andrews. She terminated the communication and smiled at Newt.

"Well, you heard him. Shall we?"

Newt nodded solemnly and held out her hand. Touched, Ripley took it and held on to it while they made their way towards the elevator.

Andrews, it seemed, more or less lived aboard his ship, so they were going to the space port. From a professional point of view, if the centuries that had come and gone while she'd been in stasis, hadn't made that a joke, Ripley was interested to see the ship and the port.

The ship was in orbit, so they'd be riding in a gravity elevator. In Ripley's time, they had been in the early stages of development, but now, she imagined, it would be more or less perfected.

To her disappoinment, the gravity elevator looked much like any other elevator. The walls were opaque and they hardly felt the drop in gravity as they ascended.

Finding Bishop restored to his normal appearance made up for the disappointment. He nodded politely at Ripley. She almost felt disappointed again, that he didn't smile or give any indication he was pleased to see her. After all, he was all alone too, now. Remembering that Bishop, being an android, couldn't be expected to have any kind of emotions, Ripley almost smiled herself. Same old Bishop.

Andrews went on at length about his difficulties in finding the right type of component, a discourse, which, unfortunately, was more or less lost on Ripley. She thanked him again and after another extensive lecture on the fascinating aspects of synthetic organic regeneration, they were finally able to return to the surface.

Ripley decided to explain to Bishop that she'd acquired him and the ship. Even if he had no emotions, he might be curious about what would happen to him.

"Bishop - the Company has gone out of business."

"I see. Did it have anything to do with the exo-lifeforms?"

"You could say that. According to our employment contract, I have a right to compensation for my work."

"Of course. You are referring to myself and the ship?"

"Yes."

"While I was being repaired, I was told that my series is no longer in production. In fact, there are no longer any androids of my type in existence."

"I can imagine. No one here would be interested in you or the ship."

"I hope I can be of service to you. And Newt."

"Yes. Newt is living with me now."

"I see. May I ask where Corporal Hicks is? I understand he survived as well?"

"I don't know where he is, but yes, as far as I know, he survived."

It struck Ripley that her quarters would be rather crowded, when - if - Hicks returned. She and Newt and now Bishop would be quite enough. On the other hand, it was no use worrying about something she didn't know anything about. If Hicks returned, as she was hoping, they could always get larger quarters. She had no idea what she could do to pay her way, but if all else failed, she could learn new skills. Even if her own training was obsolete, it might at least help her in her study of modern technology.

***

Newt immediately took to Jones. Jones wasn't quite as thrilled to befriend a little human girl, but he did his best. To Ripley's astonishment, Bishop too, appeared to get along fine with the cat. Again, Jones was a bit suspicious, but eventually, cat and android, just like cat and child learned to get along.

All Ripley's efforts to find out where Hicks was and why he'd been taken away, were unsuccessful. Usually, she wasn't even able to find someone who would talk to her. When she did make contact with someone, the replies were evasive.

In the end, she had to admit defeat and instead, she began to look into her options. Just as she'd expected, her professional skills were obsolete.

A young man from the university contacted her and asked if she'd let him interview her for his paper. His field of study was the effects of longterm cryosleep on the human psyche. Recalling her nightmare, Ripley put him off for the time being. She wasn't too keen on reliving all the details of that dream.

One thing was certain - she wouldn't let anyone near Newt. The child was going to have a chance to enjoy a normal childhood or at least as normal as it would ever be after her traumatic experiences.

Part of a normal childhood was going to school. Ripley immediately enrolled Newt in one of the primary schools in her district. Rather than let Newt go on her own, like most of the other children, she asked Bishop to walk her to school and wait outside to bring her back. This time, Ripley wasn't taking any chances. She wouldn't lose Newt again.

As Newt was beginning to settle in, Ripley considered going back to school herself. There were opportunites for an adult to learn new professional skills and she found a wide selection of potential fields she could choose from. To be perfectly honest, she didn't look forward to becoming a student again. The memories of her own school days weren't exactly pleasant.

In the meantime, she made sure Newt got enough sleep, the proper nutrition, toys and books and anything else a child might wish for. She paid for those necesseties with the allowance the authorities provided for a minor child. Her own needs were modest. A few changes of clothes, that was really all she needed.

One night, after she'd put Newt to sleep, the cat curled up on her tummy, Ripley left Bishop in the outer room and retreated into her own bedroom. In the end, she'd decided to give Newt a room of her own after all. She had another comm panel in her own room and she intended to go over the available courses again. Sooner or later she'd have to make a decision.

Her studies made her sleepy and stretched out as she was on the bed, she was far too comfortable to stay alert for long. After the computer had determined that her pattern of movement indicated she was asleep, the lights dimmed.

The first couple of weeks, she'd been reluctant to go to sleep. Fears of another nightmare, brought on by her prolonged hypersleep, kept her awake for far longer than nurse Corigg or dr Miyal would have recommended. Those fears weren't realized. Her sleep was uninterrupted for the most part, unless you counted the times when Jones startled her awake, by landing on her midriff, winding her.

She was on the ship again. Sitting on her bunk, in her quarters. Someone walked in. Whoever it was had the light on his back, and it wasn't until he bent over her, that she saw it was Hicks. The circumstances might not allow them much - personal life - but she had to admit the young marine was - attractive. His hand brushed hers, then moved up to her face.

"Ripley."

"Yes?"

She was smiling. For some reason, she had a feeling he'd been gone. Except that couldn't be right. He was here, bending over her, touching her, smiling at her, saying her name.

"Ripley?"

There was a feeling of disorientation. Her eyelids fluttered open and again, an outline stood against the light. A man.

"Bishop?"

"No, it's me. Hicks. Remember?"

Ripley took another look, then scrambled backwards, so she could sit with her back against the wall behind the bed. It was him. He looked almost the same as the first time she'd seen him up close. The day he'd put the tracking device around her wrist. Except this time, he wasn't wearing all that equipment.

"Hicks? Where have you been?"

An odd expression moved across his face. Immediately, alarm bells went off in her mind.

"What's wrong? Are you in trouble?"

He looked tired, she now noticed.

"Not really. It's just that - I don't know if you remember - we were sent to - bring one back alive. To use as a weapon."

"Were you involved too? I thought that was the Company?"

"No, we were under orders to look for useful weapons. I'm sure your company did too. It - wasn't strictly by the book. I - when I heard we'd been under for over two hundred years, I thought - you know - that was it. End of story, as far as I was concerned."

"They still had use for you?"

"They wanted to make sure I - didn't tell my story to anyone else."

"Now what? Are you free to go?"

"I don't know. They had no use for my - combat skills. Apparently, everything's different today. It's funny. I'm twenty-five. When I signed up, it was for five years. At the end of that time, I signed up for another five. Only two of those years had passed when I was sent on that assignment. Now I'm retired, but they still want to keep tabs on me. Of course, I'm not really twenty-five. I'm - what it is it - two hundred and forty-two."

"You don't look it."

She was hoping he wouldn't think to ask how old she was, As it happened, he merely smiled, as if accepting the compliment, but didn't say anything.

"So what do they expect you to do now?"

"That's it. I have no idea. Nothing, I guess."

"Will they pay you for doing nothing?"

"I think so."

"Oh. Welcome back."

She was smiling too. After his long absence, she'd been worried she'd never see him again. Whatever happened, at least they were together. Obsolete flotsam.

"Did you know that Newt's here?"

"Bishop told me. He's the one who let me in."

"Oh. Right."

"I just wanted to see you again. Sorry I woke you up. I'll just go and sleep on the floor out there, with Bishop. He promised he wouldn't disturb me. Apparently, his system shuts down when you don't need him and it performs some kind of self-diagnostic."

"So that's what he does?"

"I didn't know either until now."

She studied him through her eyelashes. Again, she was struck by how tired he looked. She was wondering how he'd been treated. They'd kept him for so long. That had to mean they wanted to extract every piece of information he had to give. She shivered slightly, at the thought of what they might do to her, a civilian, if they felt she had additional information.

A look of concern flew across Hick's face.

"You must be tired. I'll let you go back to sleep."

"No. There's no bed out there. You can't sleep on the floor. This one's wide enough for both of us. Or if you prefer, I could go and sleep with Newt and Jones."

"No, I wouldn't dream of chasing you out of your own bed. If - it's ok with you, I'll share."

That was exactly what she'd been hoping to hear him say.

"Right."

He stepped out of his overalls and sat down on the side of the bed, almost exactly like in her dream moments ago. Those centuries of stasis hadn't made his muscles atrophy at all. He still looked very fit and well built. She pulled back to give him room.

He ran his fingers through his hair, ruffling it, then stretched out on his side, facing her. Again, he smiled, looking boyish and self-conscious at the same time.

"Who's Jones?"

"Oh, didn't I tell you? He's my son."

"Your son?"

Ripley could barely hide her own smile at the way his voice rose when he heard that unexpected piece of information.

"Adopted. Like Newt. Actually, he was a member of our original crew. The first time we - encountered the aliens."

His eyes darkened at the mention of the monsters, that had wiped out the rest of the crew and the other marines.

Ripley wanted to reach out and touch his face, to restore the smile and make his eyes light up again. Instead, she got on with her explanation.

"His official title was ship's cat."

Her words had the desired effect. His face was transformed when he smiled.

"Oh. A cat. We had a dog when I was a kid. I'm sure I like cats too."

"Jones will keep his distance until he's made up his mind about you."

"Ok. Fair enough."

"Hicks - what did they do to you?"

He didn't pretend not to know what she was referring to.

"Nothing really. They just kept asking and asking, until they were satisfied I'd told them everything."

"You look tired."

"Part of their technique. So I wouldn't keep anything back, even by accident."

"Sleep deprivation? You're one of them. How can they treat you like that?"

Before she'd even finished the sentence, she knew how naive she sounded. She'd been one of the Company's own, and they'd been willing to let her die. They had let all her crewmates and all the other marines die.

Hicks shrugged.

"It's no use trying to figure out their reasoning. That's one thing you learn early on. Just shut up and obey orders."

"I see. Like being employed by the Company."

She yawned, making Hicks mimic her. It was time they were asleep. In the morning, she'd have to send Newt and Bishop off to school.

***

Ripley's plans for going back to university came to a sudden end, when she found her application being rejected. Puzzled, she asked why she wasn't accepted, but her question was greeted with evasion. Thinking it an isolated occurence, she tried again, with another course, but the same thing happened again.

She then tried applying for an unqualified job in a warehouse, but again, the employer reacted with unease. Finally, it dawned on her that for some reason she'd been blacklisted. In fact, she was surprised Newt was even allowed in school. She wasn't kept wondering for long.

One afternoon, Newt returned, an odd look on her face.

"What's wrong, honey?"

"I don't know. They don't want me there anymore. Did I do something wrong?"

Her wide-eyed despair got to Ripley and she kneeled in front of her adopted daughter and pulled her into her arms.

"No, sweetie. Of course not. You know what? I could teach you some things, and - yes - Bishop could teach you too."

"And Hicks?"

Hicks had been studying the situation and now he approached too. Ripley was surprised and touched when he too, kneeled in front of Newt and gently gripped her chin and tilted her face up for his inspection.

"Of course. What would you like to learn? Unarmed combat?"

Ripley backed off to let Hicks get on with whatever he had in mind.

With an exaggerated gesture, Hicks swept Newt off her feet, but caught her before she hit the floor. The child whooped excitedly.

"Yes. Can you teach me to do that?"

"Sure. No problem."

He glanced up at Ripley who was still standing by, watching the scene, a half-smile on her face.

"What about you, Ripley? Would you like me to teach you - unarmed combat?"

Ripley frowned, taken off guard. She had to be imagining things, but she could have sworn he was flirting with her.

"We'll see. I guess I'll have time on my hands now."

"Of course, someone who can take on a nest of aliens single-handedly and defeat them, probably doesn't need my help. You could teach me a thing or two - about combat."

"Like I said, we'll see. Come on, Newt. Let's get you something to eat."

She knew she sounded gruff, but she wasn't going to stand here flirting with a kid young enough to be her son. At least not while her two adopted kids were watching her intently. She had to tell herself sternly that Jones and Newt were trying to make her feed them, not questioning her feelings for Hicks.

In the evening, her mind returned to the original problem. They were being kept isolated. Surely she wasn't imagining that? Even after all this time, she was still caught up in the alien conspiracy. What they knew, was apparently still considered dangerous enough to keep them away from other people. Would they be deemed enough of a threat to be neutralised? The Company wasn't still around, so this had to be the Marine Corps' doing. Or was it - somewhere higher up? The government on Earth?

Either way, she didn't like to be sitting around waiting for whatever decision they'd come to. After coming this far, she wasn't going to stand by while Newt or Hicks were killed, by - whoever it was. She and Hicks needed to talk.

Opening the door a crack, she glanced into the outer room. Hicks was working out. He'd put up some equipment and when he didn't have anything else to do, he worked on keeping himself in shape.

Bishop was sitting in a corner, no doubt going through a cycle of self-diagnostic.

Ripley's eyes kept returning to Hick's rippling muscles. He was only wearing a pair of shorts and the muscles on his back -

This wasn't any good. She needed to talk to him. More harshly than she'd intended, she called out his name.

"Hicks."

He let himself down from the bar he'd been hanging from and faced her, an inquiring look on his face.

"Anything wrong?"

"There's something I'd like to discuss with you."

Annoyed with herself for her immature reaction, Ripley turned and sat down on her bed.

Hicks joined her, a towel draped across his shoulders. He was wiping his face with another one.

"What's wrong?"

She hesitated. Only now did it occur to her that he was a Marine. Part of the organization which might or might not pose a threat to them. Was it wise to confide in him? Maybe she ought to take Newt and Jones and Bishop and go, leaving him with his people?

The thought of that struck her as strangely unappealing. They'd known each other for how long? In real time, not while in stasis. A couple of weeks? Maybe a bit more. That wasn't a lot. Even so, she felt a connection with him that seemed unrelated to the short time they'd been together. Besides, to the Marine Corps - or the government - he'd be as much of a threat as they were.

Her silence didn't escape his notice. Smiling reassuringly, he placed his hand on hers.

"Hey. What's the matter? You can tell me, you know."

She sighed. It had been a long time since she'd been able to relax, settle in, put down roots. Apparently, it would still be a long time until she could do that, if ever. She must be getting old. When she'd taken on the job at the cargo ship, what she'd wanted had been to keep moving. Settling down had seemed to equal stagnation. Now all she wanted was to find a place to call home. To have a family and friends.

"Hicks - you must have noticed that we're being isolated. Cut off from everyone else."

His smile faded.

"So you've noticed it too? I might as well tell you I was forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement."

"About the aliens?"

He nodded.

"I don't like it. We got into this situation by accident. No one told us anything about what to expect. We were almost killed. Everyone else died. We might have ended up drifting around in space indefinitely, but we were found and revived. And still it's not over. We're still stuck inside this alien conspiracy. I can't go through all this again. I've had enough."

"Me too. So, what did you have in mind?"

"I - want to go. This place obviously isn't safe. I don't know where to, but I want to get out of here."

Again, he nodded.

"What about the ship? You said they gave you the ship as payment for your work?"

"Yes. Besides, who'd want it? It's an obsolete piece of junk. Just like me. Space flotsam."

"I guess that makes two of us. Or three, if you count Bishop."

"Are you with me?"

He looked up and something about the way he studied her, made Ripley feel there was more to his reaction than just showing his agreement with her suggestion. When he spoke again, his voice had changed.

"Yes. I'm with you. Whatever you want to do. Wherever you want to go. There wasn't any time before, but - I was going to -"

He broke off, an self-conscious look on his face.

"Yes?"

"Remember the time I put that tracking device on you?"

"Yes."

"Remember how I told you it didn't mean we were engaged?"

She couldn't help smiling, despite the seriousness of their situation. That incident was engraved in her memory. It was one of the few scenes she could recall from that assignment which didn't fill her with dread.

"Yes."

"I lied."

"Oh, did you? You know what?"

"What?"

"If I had something to put on your arm or somewhere else, I'd do it. Because - I - feel the same way."

The self-conscious look vanished, replaced by one of contentment. He leaned closer and their lips met. Ripley could feel herself begin to relax. Despite everything, at least she had Hicks. And Newt and Jones and Bishop. They were a team. A family. And like Hicks had reminded her earlier, she had kicked those aliens' butts. Big time. She could do it again, even if the enemy was more like herself.

***

In the end, it was an easy matter to sneak off. She owned the ship. No one thought the old museum piece was navigable anyway. They probably thought they were just there on a sentimental visit. To relive their glorious or not so glorious past.

Andrews, the tech, had a thing about authority. When he picked up on the fact that the authorities were restricting their freedom of movement, he enthusiastically began to help them restock the ship. He helped them fine-tune the engine and managed to dig up some ancient fuel. In less than ten days, he had the ship up and running like in the old days.

When it was time to go, he stood in the docking bay, staring wistfully at them, as they were making the final adjustments.

"Are you sure you'll be able to manage with such a small crew?"

"We have to. I did it before. You just lay in a course and the computer keeps it automatically. Don't tell me modern ships don't do that?"

"Sure they do. What if something unexpected happens?"

Ripley and Hicks exchanged uneasy glances. It was just as well that Newt and Jones were in their cabin. That was the weak point of the whole thing. If they were attacked. If some unusual space conditions developed. That was when the lack of crew members would be a problem. But they had no choice. Sooner or later, someone - the government or someone else - would feel the need to act.

"We have Bishop. He can handle most situations."

Bishop looked up when he heard his name mentioned. He nodded solemnly at Ripley, as if trying to reassure her he would do his part. Naturally, he would. It was part of his basic programming - to assist the human members of the crew in whatever they needed him for.

Andrews didn't seem convinced.

"Hey, guys, I could tag along. That cargo run was getting old. There's nothing to keep me here."

Ripley felt a touch of suspicion. What if Andrews was a spy? If the authorities had planted him here to keep an eye on them? No. She knew his type. Itching to find a new challenge. Kind of like she'd been a couple of centuries ago.

"What about your family?"

"I don't have one. My old man was lost in the troubles back in -82."

Ripley glanced at Hicks. Another crew member, especially a skilled tech, would be useful. He nodded his agreement.

"Ok. Why not? If you're sure. We won't be coming back."

"I know. Hang on. I can grab my stuff and be back here in half an hour."

He turned on his heel and ran back the way he'd come. Ripley turned on the sensors. If he returned, bringing a team of Marines, she'd have advance warning.

"Bishop. Start up the engine. Be ready to take off when I say so."

"Aye."

Andrews had overestimated the time needed to go to his quarters and back. Suddenly, he was standing in the hatch, looking young and eager.

"Welcome aboard."

They had picked a time of night when the spaceport was least active. It might have been better to choose a more busy hour, but Ripley had come to the conclusion that the fewer who knew about their departure the better. Besides, there would be less risk of pursuit if no other ships were going out. It would be easier to spot a pursuer.

It seemed no one had anticipated their escape. After studying the starcharts, Ripley and Bishop had agreed on a route that would take them away from the more densely populated areas of the sector. Where they were going, mainly charting expeditions, mining operations and a few colonists went.

They would spend weeks, if not months traveling through more or less empty space, rather than having to face more time in cold sleep. Ripley recalled that one of the doctors had warned her of going into stasis again. Her body would need to readjust fully to being active again, before she could risk the long sleep again.

At least this time, she wasn't alone.

Two weeks out from Pegasus IV, they ran into a magnetic storm. At first it didn't seem like much of a problem. Their instruments barely detected it. It was little more than a minor disturbance. As they got closer, the readings became more alarming and the storm intensified.

Ripley felt uneasy. She was about to tell Bishop to turn the ship around, when the hull shook as if it had hit a large object of some kind. Her legs gave out under her and she went sprawling. The shaking got worse and though she tried frantically to find something to hold on to, she began to whirl around the room. Hicks was braced against one of the ladders, but as the ship danced around in the eddies, he lost his touch and was tossed around. The hull creaked ominously.

Only Bishop seemed to have no trouble maintaining his hold on the control panel.

Ripley called out to him to move the ship out of reach of the storm.

He turned to face her, while his hands kept moving, quickly, operating the controls. Despite his efforts, the shaking got worse. The last thing Ripley saw before she lost consciousness, was Bishop's fingers flying across the keys.

Something was eating into her back. She was lying at an awkward angle, making her spine hurt. Looking around the room, she found that Hicks was lying flat on his face on the floor, seemingly immobile. Her limbs ached, but she forced herself up and made her way to him. Anxiously, she placed a hand against his cheek. It felt warm to the touch. Her fingers moved across his body, making sure he wasn't seriously injured. She didn't encounter any obvious cause for alarm.

He groaned and rolled over. Their eyes met and the frown left his face.

"Hey."

"Are you ok?"

"I think so. Are you?"

"Yes. More or less. My back hurts. I think I'm feeling my age."

"No, you don't. You're still young. Ouch. Do you know what happened?"

"I - yes. There was a magnetic storm. I hit my head and -"

"Right."

"If you're ok, I'd better go and check on Newt and Jones."

"Where's Bishop?"

"I don't know."

At least there wasn't any of his white blood anywhere she could see. Hicks got up, clumsily and she had to hold on to him so he wouldn't fall over again.

"Are you sure you're ok?"

"Just bruised. Nothing to worry about."

"Ok."

"Wait. I want to come too."

He didn't say why, but Ripley thought she could guess. In the time he'd spent with Newt he'd become fond of her. Why not? They were all they had. If she was Newt's mother, there was no reason not to consider him the girl's father.

Holding on to each other, they limped out into the corridor. At the end of it, they glimpsed Bishop coming in their direction.

"Bishop? Is Newt ok?"

"Yes. The child isn't injured."

"What about Jones?"

"The cat is fine too."

"Andrews?"

"Light injuries only."

Ripley let out the breath she'd been holding in. She felt light-headed with relief and almost slipped to the floor, before she checked herself. The little girl had begun to mean more to her than her own life.

"Is the ship damaged?"

"There are no hull breaches. Most of the instruments are functioning within normal parameters."

"Most?"

"Some data has been lost. At present, it is impossible to say how far we've come. I will attempt to recover it. The engine is intact. We should be able to proceed if that is your intention."

"No. Let's get the ship fully functional first. Is Andrews in good enough shape to help?"

"I believe so."

"Good. Let's get to work. After I've seen to Newt and Jones, I'll give you a hand."

Hicks put out a hand to steady himself against the wall, then faced her.

"What can I do?"

"Stay with Newt and Jones. She might be scared. Make sure she doesn't worry."

Hicks opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. Ripley was right. She had experience running a ship. He hadn't. Besides, he wanted to make sure Newt was ok. The cat too.

"Ok."

Before joining the android and the tech in the engine room, Ripley dug up some rations and brought them along to Newt's cabin. She gave Hicks his share, and after seeing for herself that her kids were fine, she made her way to the engine room.

While Andrews ate, she took a look at the control panel. She wasn't an engineer, but in her years aboard the cargo ship, she'd picked up a thing or two. It was understood that everyone would be expected to pitch in whenever necessary. Bishop seemed to have been right, but then androids usually were.

It took Bishop and Andrews twelve days to repair the ship, and Ripley shuddered to think how long it might have taken them if it had been more badly damaged.

Once more under way, they began to search for a suitable place to land. Sooner or later they would need to find a planet and at the very least take on new supplies. Deep down, Ripley knew she was hoping to find a place to stay. A home.

To her surprise, Andrews had a suggestion.

"In one of the systems around here, there's a colony I've heard of. It's nothing spectacular, but I think it would be a good place to stop, at least for a while. If you like it, we could probably stick around."

"What kind of colony?"

Andrews smiled crookedly.

"It's - a place for people like us. Rolling stones. People who don't like too many laws and officials."

Andrews' description didn't reassure Ripley.

"Are they criminals?"

"No. It's just people who like to mind their own business. I think you'll like it."

She wasn't convinced, but she decided to let Andrews tell her more before she made up her mind.

"It used to be a mining operation, then the ore ran out. So they brought in a terraforming team and I think they wanted to use it for research. I don't know why they abandoned it. Maybe because they finished exploring this sector and they moved on. This was never one of the more important research facilities anyway."

"Ok. What is the main source of income?"

"There's still some mining, for domestic use. Farming. Small industries. I think they recycle old components too, for export."

"How come you know so much about it?"

"I've read about it and - a friend of mine set out here about three years ago."

"Did you intend to lead us here all along?"

Andrews had never given her reason to be suspicious, but it wasn't just her life on the line anymore. She had a family now.

"No. I didn't know we'd be coming this way at all. But now that we did - I'd like to check it out and see if she's still here."

She? Oh. That might explain it. There had been a look on Andrews' face that hinted at a type of interest Ripley could understand. Fair enough. They'd take a look. If they liked it, who knew? It didn't sound like such a bad place.

"Ok. I guess we'll give it a chance. What's it called anyway?"

"Ywenna. It's a moon."

"Oh."

In the month it took to get to Ywenna, Ripley did her best to find out all there was to know about it. Andrews had brought several information discs, and she studied them thoroughly. She had to admit he was right. It did seem like a good place to settle in. Best of all - it wasn't on any of the major trade routes. If they were lucky, no one would ever find them here.

Maybe she'd found her home, at last.

FIN