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half-life

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It's the middle of the afternoon and Ripley stands in the road, her face turned up to the rain. It's not the cool patter of raindrops on her skin that she enjoys so much as the quiet. There's no one around, the camp seems eerily deserted the way it always does when toxic chemicals fall from the sky, causing the humans to scuttle and hide for all the good it does them.

Humans are a fragile bunch, and Ripley is not one of them. She's a woman with worse things tainting her blood than anything the contaminated skies of earth can throw at her.

"Hey. This isn't really what I'd call blending in."

Ripley turns and looks down at Call who is regarding her sourly from under a piece of plastic sheeting.

"Blending in," Ripley echoes. "Right."

"You could at least try."

Earth natives tend towards the scrawny side, while Ripley is pushing 2 metres tall with preternaturally good health and muscles like steel. Blending in is easier said than done. But they've had this argument before, and Call looks no less pissy about it than the last six or seven times.

The thing is, when Call gets pissy, Ripley's instinctive response is not a particularly placatory one. It's not so much that she likes pissing Call off. She just likes pissing people off. And more often than not, Call is the only people who sticks close enough to benefit from this particular personality quirk of hers.

"And here I thought I was doing such a good job."

"Ripley -"

"What do you want me to do? Pull a few skin sores or a persistent cough out of my ass?"

"You could stop standing out here in the acid fucking rain like a giant weirdo, to start." Call grabs her hand and starts towing her back towards the temporary housing unit they've been calling home for the past couple months.

Call's hand is small and delicate like the rest of her, but her grip is firm and Ripley doesn't resist. She follows behind, getting hit in the face with the water bouncing off the plastic sheet over Call's head with her every step.

Once they get inside, Call sprays her exposed skin with a neutralising agent. The acid rain reacts badly with biopolymers, leaving Call's skin pink and peeling like a sunburn if she's not careful. Call, of course, is always careful. The auton so far has managed to fit in well amongst the humans of Earth. Her secrets, like her strengths, are a lot more easily hidden than Ripley's.

*

In the early hours before dawn Call lies awake and still in the dark, listening to the rain on the roof. Ripley is sleeping curled around her in their narrow, overcrowded bunk, her slow breathing tickling the hair behind Call's ear. She doesn't dare move and risk waking her. It's another hour till they need to get up, she can wait till then.

Technically synthetics - even second gen models - can function without sleep, though the efficiency of their organic components is improved with regular sleep cycles. But it just feels unnatural to go without, and there isn't much to do around here after dark, anyway, especially when half the time the shitty old generators crap out and leave the entire settlement without lights for hours on end. So she may as well sleep like everyone else, and every night Call lies down beside Ripley and closes her eyes and, for a while, she dreams.

The contents of her dreams recently have been painfully transparent.

It doesn't help that she almost always wakes up with Ripley's arms around her, their legs entwined, pressed together almost like lovers.

It's a cruel joke, the way Ripley clings to her like some kind of security blanket in her sleep. And the funniest part is how much Call enjoys it, this guilty pleasure, not stirring or twitching or breathing as the sky outside slowly lightens, delaying as long as she can the moment when Ripley comes awake.

It's not a gradual process, Ripley waking up - no mumbling or sleepy blinking eyes. Between one heartbeat and the next she goes from fast asleep to instantly alert, like her sleeping mind is a predator merely biding its time to strike.

Her eyes open and she sits up, pausing only to run a hand over Call's shoulder lightly before getting up without a word. And Call really doesn't know what to do with herself in those moments other than get up herself and start getting ready for the day, so that's what she does.

The rain has stopped by the time Call steps outside and blinks up at the murky sky, but the air is still damp and thick with acrid fumes. Workers pass by, heading in to report for their shifts. Some wear breather masks, others just hunker down with their collars up around their ears and take shallow breaths.

It's days like this Call knows she and Ripley stand out the most, and not for the first time considers whether they should have kept moving till they reached a larger population centre. That's what Johnner did - the guy took off for bigger and better places about five minutes after realising the work camp didn't have a bar or a brothel.

But there are benefits to their current situation, too, out here on the fringes of what passes for Earth society these days. It's an independent salvaging operation, not real big on regulations or asking questions as long as profits keep coming in. No one had asked the survivors of the Auriga where they came from or what they were doing out in the wastelands when they turned up looking for work.

They're well-armed misfits with an odd variety of skills who tend to be suspicious of everyone and like to keep to themselves. Here on Earth, that means they fit right in. More or less.

All right, Vreiss fits in just fine - hell, he's downright popular these days, since he got the still working at peak efficiency.

Call, meanwhile, does okay. She at least is used to fitting in amongst humans.

Ripley smiles at people like she's about to eat them. It's a real work in progress.

Call looks towards Vreiss' door. She'll wait for him before heading in. His new and improved chair is built like a heavy armoured vehicle, with the firepower to match, but sometimes the treads bog down if its muddy. And it only takes two minutes of rain to turn the place into a mud-wrestlers dream.

So she waits out here in the bad air, coughing every now and then for show.

A few units down the row, a door opens and two people emerge together, one of them another greasemonkey who works on the heavy machinery with Call. He lifts a hand as they trudge past, boots squelching in the wet, muddy clay. "See you in there."

Call smiles back, feeling Ripley step out behind her and close the door. At the end of row the guy turns to give his partner a parting kiss before they head off in different directions.

"Cute couple," Ripley says.

"They're all right."

"You think everyone's all right."

Call frowns. "I do not. I think plenty of people are assholes. I thought you were an asshole when we first met."

Ripley smiles. "I was kind of an asshole. I still am."

"Nah. You're all right." Warmth spreads through her when Ripley laughs, and she looks away quickly, down at her feet, toeing at the mud. What the hell is keeping Vreiss so long? "So I'll see you tonight," she says.

"Call." Ripley's hand is on her face suddenly, tilting her chin up, and she presses a kiss, warm and strange, on Call's lips. "See you tonight."

Call stares after her as Ripley strides off. It takes her the better part of the day to convince herself it was just another bad joke.

*

It's difficult, dirty, dangerous work, salvaging materials from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and some part of Ripley that is never truly at rest finds at least a degree of satisfaction in the strenuous labour. That's why she doesn't mind doing it day after day. She's pretty sure the real danger lies in letting that restless part of her sit idle for too long.

Although it has a habit of showing itself, regardless.

And then, no matter what Call says, she really can be kind of an asshole. It's the predator in her. The monster. The thing in her that can't be appeased or tamed.

When she realises that something is wrong with Call, the predator in Ripley kind of wants to pick her off like a weak herd animal. Or at least say something sarcastic that would no doubt hurt her feelings. But her inner asshole doesn't always get indulged, and Ripley instead sits down next to Call and just asks.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Call says too quickly.

"Right. Seems like nothing." Call has in fact been doing an admirable job of avoiding her while occupying the same 15 square metre space with her all evening. And it's pretty obvious why. "I guess I shouldn't have kissed you."

"What? Oh, no. No. I don't know. It depends on why you did it. I mean, you were joking, right?"

"About what?"

Call jumps up from the low bunk where they're sitting. She's agitated and upset, and would probably be disturbed to know how much Ripley likes knowing it's because of her.

"Then why? Do you... want me? Love me? At all? Because I'm fucked if I know what's going on here." Call throws up her hands.

Ripley laughs. "Well fucked if I know, either. What do you think? Wanna go steady or what?"

"You know what, fuck you."

Call actually looks like she could kill her right now. It's a good look on her.

And Ripley, still seated, her hands between her knees, stops being an asshole. "It wasn't a joke."

"Then what was it?"

She didn't really think about what she was doing this morning. Her experience with that kind of thing is several centuries and another life ago. This is all new ground.

When she gets up and walks over and kisses Call again, she at least seems less surprised, which is good because Ripley doesn't know any other way to do this. She just knows what she wants and is glad, eager, hungry for more, now that she knows that Call wants it, too.

When they pause, Ripley has tingling lips and her hands in Call's hair and a growing urge to tear off all her clothes and smell her all over.

Call sniffs, staring up at her with eyes full and bright.

"Don't cry," Ripley says, laughing a little.

Call swipes at her eyes with her hand. "I'm a synthetic person, I'm not a robot."

"I know. You feel things deeply."

"I thought you didn't."

Ripley laughs. "How the hell did you miss that?" she says, and kisses her again.

*

Ripley comes in covered in dust and grime from a long day driving a compacter, and takes off her boots, then the rest of her clothes, just inside the door. She washes at the basin with their standard issue cleanser and filtered water, and Call, sitting on the bunk trying to scrape grease out from under her nails with the tip of a knife, pauses to watch. If for no other reason than because Ripley is naked.

With the two of them sharing quarters since they arrived, they've long since settled into a downright domestic routine. They come home in the evening, wash up, Ripley eats if she's hungry, the two of them talk about their day.

Tonight Ripley complains about the sound of grinding metal still ringing in her ears while she draws a sponge along bare limbs. She mentions a rat she saw the size of a beagle and jokes about feeding her supervisor to it, while circling slippery hands over her breasts. Call flushes but doesn't look away. It's not like she never stared before, the only difference is she doesn't feel guilty about it anymore.

Same routine, only not quite. Here and there, things have changed in small ways.

For instance, Ripley used to get dressed again once she finished washing.

Now she comes over and Call's knife falls to the floor, forgotten, as Ripley pushes her down onto the bed.

Ripley pins her down without even trying. Just the sheer size of her is enough, she's so big and heavy stretched out on top of her, and if Call needed to breathe she'd probably be near suffocating right now. But instead she's just excited and uses the strength in her synthetic bones to grasp at the body covering hers and pull her closer till all she can feel is Ripley.

After, it's late and the room is dark, and when they try the switch the lights don't come on.

"Again. God damn it," Call grumbles as she pulls on a threadbare sweater. "We could go bug Vreiss."

As well as a steady supply of bootleg booze, Vreiss has long since rigged up his own power network and never has to worry about blackouts. She and Ripley spend more than a few evenings next door just hanging out. He even acquired a deck of cards from god knows where - it's a regular New Vegas over there.

Meanwhile they're sitting here once again in the dark.

She can just make out Ripley across the room as she cocks her head and says, "He has company already."

Call hasn't exactly been paying attention, but now she notices the faint murmurs coming through the wall. It sounds like a woman.

"You think he's seeing someone? He's been cagey about something lately. Maybe it's that woman who runs the supply store - he's always hanging around there. Though he could just be stealing stuff."

"Call. Look."

Ripley's at the window and Call stops gossiping to join her. She gasps at what she sees. It's the moon, almost full, hovering in the sky over the ugly box-shaped units opposite their own. And stars, too - she can see stars. Call has spent her entire life in space, she never thought she'd be impressed by the sight of stars. But they've been on Earth for months now and this is the first clear night sky she's seen.

It seems like such a short time to change her perspective so completely. But Call fell in love in less than a day with a woman she intended to kill. After that, there's little that seems out of reach of her programming.

"Come on," Ripley says, and Call follows her outside. Ripley goes up first, boosting herself easily onto the roof before reaching down a hand to haul Call up after her.

They watch the sky, sitting side by side on the squat panelled roof. Call points out a couple of systems she's been to. Ripley's memories are often only half-formed pictures of things, people, places she never experienced herself. But she stares at the bright moon and says eventually, "I was there once."

"Yeah. Your file said you were born on one of the old Lunar colonies."

She leans back on her hands, listening as Ripley teases out images of her former life as a human girl from wherever it is inside her the alien genes kept them safe, preserved through the centuries.

It's in Call's nature to think well of people, and Ripley more than most. So Ripley talks for a while and it's only when she points out her house that Call realised she's being messed with.

"Ripley."

"Oh yeah, see, it's right there." She stretches out her arm, pointing, as she leans into Call. "And over there, that's the old pool hall where we hung out after class."

Call leans in, too, though it's not the moon she's looking at as she rolls her eyes. "You can't see that shit with the naked eye. Not even your naked eyes are that good."

"You'd be surprised how good I am. Especially naked."

Call groans. "God. Shut up."

Ripley laughs, and puts her arm around Call's shoulders. They sit and watch the sky and another night on Earth passes by.

They're not going to stay here forever. They're just passing through; transients in an impermanent community accustomed to following the work wherever it goes.

They wouldn't stay even if they could, because Earth really is a shithole no matter how you look at it. But the idea of a permanent situation is not a bad one in and of itself. When Ripley holds her like she's something - someone - precious, it feels permanent. It's more than Call expected. More than she ever knew to hope for.