Ripley crouches in the reedy grass that grows around the ruins, her hands pressed into the soil. A sharp metallic scent catches on the wind. Meat.
She slides forward, the grass rattling around her with a hard empty sound, like bones. She keeps her head down and follows the scent. If she concentrates hard enough she knows she'll hear its heart beating, its blood pumping through its veins -- all those signs of life. She doesn't bother. The scent is enough.
She stalks inch by inch through the grass.
Then she stops.
It's close. She can hear it, rustling in the dirt. It's heartbeat is inescapable now, a thud thud thud banging around inside her head. She nudges the grass aside with slow practiced movements.
A rabbit. Small, malnourished, poking at a patch of edible green leaves.
Ripley lifts the scavenged gun and pokes it through the grass. She holds her breath. The rabbit doesn't notice her, it's so consumed by that patch of leaves.
She almost doesn't want to kill it.
But she also doesn't want to starve.
The grass reverberates with the gun blast, invisible lines shimmering through the hot still air. The rabbit collapses, blood pooling over the leaf patch. Ripley slides the gun back into the waistband of her pants, stands up. The air's so thick out here. Thick enough to choke on.
Ripley picks the rabbit up at the neck and makes her way back to the campsite in the center of the fallen city.
Annalee returns while the rabbit is roasting over the fire. Her scavenge bag hangs half-full from her shoulder, clanking as she moves.
"I found some more bullets," she says.
"Good." Ripley returns her attention to the cut in her leg. She's been watching it the last few days, ever since a pile of rubble collapsed on her while she was out hunting. She'd been able to climb out without incident but a piece of metal had sliced open her calf and she came hobbling back to camp, spilling blood over the empty dirt. It hasn't gotten infected, and doesn't seem like it will. A relief.
"Is that a rabbit?" Annalee sets the scavenge bag in its usual place next to the tent and then sits down beside Ripley, close enough that their shoulders brush against each other.
"Can I have some?"
Ripley finishes rewrapping her wound and looks at the rabbit, its stringy meat charring in the smoke. It's so fucking small.
Annalee's watching her with those big dark eyes. She doesn't need the meat but she wants it, wants to feel like she's human.
"A little," Ripley says, because she can't say no. "It was half-starved, though, so there won't be much."
Annalee smiles. "Thank you." She leans forward, the firelight flickering across her face, and falls silent. The sky's turning that syrupy golden color that means twilight's close. It'll be dark soon, and cold. Neither of them will mind.
"It's getting harder to find food," Ripley says. "We may need to think about moving on."
"But we've got everything set up here." Annalee gestures at their camp, the twisted bits of metal they stuck into the ground and covered with scraps of flimsy plastic. The pallets of grass and filthy fabric lying side by side on the ground. Annalee's collection of scavenged electronic parts.
"We've got the whole world," Ripley says. "We can find something better."
Annalee shrugs. Ripley leans forward and checks the rabbit. Fat sizzles against the burning grass and sends up a spiral of pale smoke. It's done, more or less. She pulls the rabbit away from the fire and when she turns around Annalee's waiting with a big serving platter that had probably once been silver but is now the same blackened color as the rabbit.
"I found this today," she says, grinning. Ripley returns her smile; she can't help herself. Only Annalee could see all this destruction and manage to find it charming.
Ripley drops the rabbit on the platter and they sit once more beside the fire. Annalee balances the tray on her knees and Ripley pulls the meat apart with her fingers, divvying up a few bites for Annalee. Her mouth waters at the smell and she doesn't even care that the tips of her fingers are hurting from touching the burned meat too soon. She pulls off a big chunk and shoves it into her mouth and her hunger flares up like rage. She devours the rest of the rabbit, sucking the bones dry.
Annalee eats her own small portions daintily, like she wants to savor the taste.
When they're done, they walk several paces away from the camp so Ripley can throw the rabbit remains out into the wild. The stars are coming out, veins of milky light against black velvet.
"Which direction would we go?" Annalee asks. "If we were too leave?"
"I don't know. I'd need to think about it." They're standing on top of a pile of rubble that looks out over a broken maze of residential streets. "Maybe walk around the perimeter, see what I can smell."
Annalee nods. "Are you going to look for people?"
Ripley doesn't answer. Annalee wants to be around humans, some bit of code that's meant to keep her sociable, but Ripley isn't sure she'll be able to stand it.
"I don't know if I'll find anyone," Ripley finally answers. "But I'll look."
That night, as they're getting ready for bed, Annalee strips off her shirt and Ripley sees that the bandage over her gunshot hole has come loose again.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she asks.
Annalee tosses her shirt aside and looks down, covering the wound with her outstretched hand. It's not enough, and beams of light still stream through her fingers.
"You know you need to keep that sealed," she says. "Lay down."
"I was embarrassed," Annalee says. "I hate when you fuss over it. It reminds me --"
"Will you lay down?"
Annalee sighs but does as Ripley asks, stretching out on her pallet and staring up at the ceiling. Her eyes glimmer. Ripley pretends not to notice. Watching Annalee cry makes her chest hurt.
"I don't want you losing any more blood," Ripley says, peeling the old bandage away.
"It's not blood."
"It's blood. You lose enough and everything keeping you going is gonna get shot to hell."
Annalee doesn't answer. Ripley rummages around in their medical supply box for some rags and sealing glue -- it's probably not the best idea to mix synthetic supplies with the ones for half human/half alien clones, but they do it anyway -- and then sets about fixing the bandage. The hole hasn't gotten any bigger, and there isn't too much bleeding, just a few white drips tracing paths down to Annalee's navel. Ripley's glad she caught it when she did.
"There," Ripley says. "All done." She sits back on her heels but Annalee doesn't move, just keeps staring up at the ceiling.
"I don't see how you can be so calm about it," Annalee says. "It's disgusting. I'm disgusting."
Ripley frowns. She throws the leftover bandages back into the medical box and then stretches down alongside Annalee. She lays one hand on Annalee's stomach and caresses Annalee's forehead with the other. Annalee doesn't move. "It's true."
"You know it pisses me off when you say that."
Annalee blinks and a tear rolls down her cheek and her eyes are red just liked they'd be if she were human. Ripley kisses the tear's trail; it tastes vaguely chemical. Annalee tilts her head, burying her face in Ripley's shoulder.
"I'm disgusting," she whispers, her breath warm against Ripley's skin.
Ripley strokes Annalee's hair. It doesn't really piss her off when Annalee says that, it just makes her insides knot up and her heart feel like there's a crack running through it. But Ripley doesn't have a word for that feeling. She thinks the earlier version of her may have, the version that was completely human, but it's lost now.
"There's nothing about you that's disgusting," Ripley says, and then she kisses Annalee on the forehead, and then she kisses Annalee on the mouth, and then she kisses Annalee everywhere.
When Ripley wakes up the next morning she smells humans.
She sits up straight, all her senses on alert. Annalee's curled around her, resting in a hibernation mode that's designed to mimic human sleep. Ripley shakes her shoulder.
"Ripley?" Annalee stares up at her, completely awake, no slurred speech or bleary eyes. "What's wrong?"
"Someone's here." Ripley pulls on a t-shirt and pants and grabs her gun before stumbling out into the open. They slept in, the sun blazing higher in the bleached sky than Ripley expects. Heat shimmers off the wreckage. Ripley grips her gun and sniffs. The humans are close, and off to the west, in the old park.
"It's people, isn't it?" Annalee sticks her head out. "You said someone --"
"Yeah, but they might be dangerous."
Annalee steps out of the tent, holding one hand up to shield her eyes. "But they might not be."
Ripley looks at her and Annalee looks back and gives a sly, knowing smile.
"You see too much good in the world," Ripley says. "Grab one of the guns. I'm going to check it out and I don't want to leave you here alone."
"You think I can't take care of myself?" Annalee teases.
Ripley scowls. "Two's better than one."
Annalee disappears back into the tent and Ripley wonders if she really believes that, if two is better one. With Annalee, maybe. Not with anyone else.
Annalee re-emerges with the other rifle.
"Follow me," Ripley says.
They leave camp. Ripley focuses her attention on the scent. It's strong, concentrated: there's more than one. She feels something clamoring inside her, an old instinct left over from that other DNA, the DNA that never experienced a crack down the center of its heart or a flutter of pleasure in the space below its stomach.
Humans always activate it, that DNA. Anything big enough to be a host always activates it.
Ripley pushes the clamor aside as she and Annalee pick their way through the ruins. The humans smell like salt and heat and water. It doesn't take long before Ripley feels the drumming of the heartbeats, wild and out-of-synch. Five, she thinks. Maybe six.
"I can hear them," Annalee whispers. She has her own tracking skills, mechanical rather than organic. "Voices."
"Yeah." Ripley and Annalee press close to each other. They're almost to the ruins of the old park. Nothing grows there anymore but the space is open, a good place to set up camp. It makes sense the humans would be there, blood pulsing and mouths talking.
Something snaps off to the side.
Ripley jerks around, pointing her gun in the direction of the noise. Annalee does the same.
A man steps out of the wreckage.
"Who the fuck are you?" Ripley demands.
The man starts, looks up, sees them. His eyes go wide. He lifts his hands.
"I'm not armed," he said. "I swear it."
Annalee drops her gun.
"Annalee," Ripley hisses. "Don't be stupid."
"He's telling the truth."
Ripley rolls her eyes. The humans are coming closer, footsteps and raised heartbeats and the smell of fear. She doesn't want to drop her gun away from the man but she doesn't want to be caught unaware, either.
Humans appear on the rubble. Three women, one man. One of the women is armed.
"What's going on here?" she asks, and she focuses in on Ripley. Her gun focuses in on Ripley.
The man darts to join the rest of the humans.
The DNA is rioting. It's been too long since she's seen a human being -- what was it the last time she asked Annalee, who can keep track of these things? Three months? Four months? And she hasn't asked recently.
Ripley's mouth begins to water.
Annalee steps forward, pressing on the barrel of Ripley's gun so it points to the ground. "My name's Annalee," she says, "and we're survivors too, just like you."
Ripley jerks her gun back up. The woman laughs. "Is she going to shoot me?"
"No," Annalee says, "She's just cautious."
Ripley can't speak. Her hands are trembling. She moves her finger off the trigger because she doesn't want to kill these people, even if the DNA does.
"So am I," the woman says. "But I'll also tell you we mean no harm. We're just passing through."
The air buzzes with heat. Annalee leans in and whispers into Ripley's ear: "Put the gun down. Please."
Her voice is enough to jar the DNA loose. Ripley lowers the gun.
So does the woman.
"Where are you going?" Ripley asks.
"You said you were just passing through. Where are you going?"
Annalee puts her hand on Ripley's arm, and it's a reassurance against the shuddering rage, that touch, that gentle sweet beautiful touch.
The woman laughs. "You mean you don't know?"
Annalee and Ripley exchange glances.
"We're going to the sea," the woman says. "Where the ships come."
"The ships?" Annalee asks.
The humans make dull murmuring noises at each other. The sound sets Ripley's teeth on edge.
"Yeah," the woman says. "The refugee ships. To take us off this shithole planet and away to someplace better."
The woman with the gun is named Marie. Ripley doesn't bother to learn any of the other humans' names, although Annalee does. Her programming.
The sea is a seven-day walk to the north. It's difficult at first, being in proximity to humans again. The first day Ripley hangs back, downwind of the others, and tries to quell that thrashing inside of her. She kicks at the ground in frustration, digs her fingernails in the palm of her hand. Annalee takes the gun without saying anything; they both know it's better if Ripley doesn't have it. Not right now.
That first night, the group sets up camp in a field still within view of the ruins. Annalee and Ripley brought a few supplies with them from the city -- the guns, of course, and some of Annalee's medical supplies (which Ripley keeps tucked away, hidden, in her travel bag, because Annalee doesn't want the others to know), but most importantly a big enough scrap of ragged fabric that they can make a tent. The others sleep out in the open air, but Annalee and Ripley set themselves up several meters away and crawl into that dark little cave, the right size for just the two of them.
Ripley winds her body around Annalee's, breathing in her clean electric scent. No blood, no sinew, no tissue or bones. Just wires and soft plastic skin. Nothing to rattle the monster.
"How do you feel?" Annalee asks, speaking against the tangle of Ripley's hair.
"Shitty. I want to kill all of them."
Annalee kisses her on the forehead. "Please don't. My programming wouldn't like it."
"I'm not." Ripley digs the heel of her hands into her eyes. Spots of light appear against the darkness. "It's just been too long. I'll get it under control eventually."
"I know you will." Annalee nestles in closer to Ripley, and they lay there for a moment in silence. Then:
"Thank you," Annalee whispers. Ripley feels the words more than hears them, a soft vibration against her temple.
"For coming with us."
Ripley closes her eyes. The DNA has quieted down and this is the first peace she's felt since the humans wandered into the ruins. She knew the minute Marie lowered her gun and explained about the ships that Annalee would go. She's too used to the sterile world of outer space.
Ripley doesn't know what she's used to.
"You think I'd just let you run off on your own?" Ripley asks. "You'd never change your damn bandage and you'd bleed out before you got anywhere interesting."
Annalee props up on her elbow and dusts the loose hairs from Ripley's face. She smiles, and it's like the entire tent lights up, like they programmed some kind of glow into her expression. When Ripley sees that it's hard to believe the DNA even exists.
"Thank you," Annalee says again, voice brimming with sincerity.
And then Annalee kisses her and for a time, that tent is Ripley's whole world.
The days pass by slowly and uneventfully. The landscape transforms: the ruins fall away, replaced by an ocean of brown grass and glittering swirls of pale dirt. Ripley continues to walk downwind of the humans, although it's more out of habit than necessity. Sometimes, when they stop for lunch, she exchanges terse conversations with Marie.
A part of her, a distant part, remembers what it's like having friends.
On the sixth day, the wind changes. It's at once sweeter and more terrifying: it brings with it the scent of the sea, briny and bright like fish scales, but it also brings the scent of humans. The refugee camp. Marie had told her about it, about the period of waiting before a new ship arrives. "If there are a lot of people, we won't have to wait long," she'd said, picking at her pile of steamed tubers. "If there aren't many, well --" She shrugged.
This scent on the wind, it smells like a lot of people. The DNA stirs.
That night, Annalee and Ripley go for a walk after the others have fallen asleep. They don't tire the way the humans do, and although they keep this fact a secret, Ripley doesn't want to stay in the tent tonight, tossing and turning while she dreams of the hunt.
The wind picks up as night falls, stirring the grass and the silvery moonlight. Annalee holds Ripley's hand, calming her.
"We're almost to the beach," Annalee says. "I'm excited."
"I know you are."
"It'll be good to go someplace new, someplace that isn't dead."
"It's not completely dead here."
"Close enough." Annalee rests her head on Ripley's shoulders. "There's this whole universe out there, you know. We can go anywhere we want."
"No, we can't. The ship takes us to the refugee planet."
Annalee scoffs. "I can get us anywhere we want to go. Trust me."
"Fine," Ripley says, amused. "I'll trust you." But she still isn't sure. About entering that beach full of humans, about leaving Earth. She wonders if the xenomorphs are still out there, somewhere. They don't kill easily. She knows that, she knows that better than anyone.
What confuses her, what makes her want to stay here on Earth, is not knowing whether or not she wants to find them. She knows she shouldn't, she knows the thought of them should fill her with terror, but still she looks up at the sky and sees all those millions of trails of stars and part of her wants to see them again, and it terrifies her.
"We should go back," Annalee says softly. "If any of them wake up, they're going to wonder why we've got enough energy to go for midnight walks."
Ripley knows she's right, but she doesn't want to leave this place. The wind smells of soil, not ocean and human, and the starlight is bright enough to see by.
"Come on." Annalee tugs on her hand, smiling, and then Ripley catches the scent.
Without thinking she pulls Annalee close to her, drawing her arm across Annalee's chest.
"What are you --" Annalee starts, but Ripley shushes her.
"Someone's out there."
"Who?" Annalee pitches her voice lower. Then she turns her head, scanning the darkness, her eyes casting a faint glow.
A branch snaps.
"Oh," Annalee says.
"Oh?" Ripley jostles her. "Oh? What is it? I know it's not one of the others --"
"You can come out," Annalee says, projecting her voice into a copse of trees. "We won't hurt you."
"It's just a little girl."
Ripley's heart stops beating. Only for a second or two. But it stops, and she feels a horrible, cavernous emptiness. It's not exactly pain, and it's not exactly numbness, but something new and terrible that is like both at once.
"Come on, that's it." Annalee's voice coos like an owl. "What's your name?"
The little girl steps into the starlight. She's younger than the others had been, the ones Ripley can only remember as sense memories, as lingering ghosts. But her eyes are big and scared and imploring, and Ripley has known eyes like that in this lifetime.
She grabs Annalee's hand and squeezes.
The little girl edges forward. Ripley shivers at the sight of her -- she hasn't allowed herself to think of children in a long time. Not since they arrived on Earth, not since she and Annalee began their life together.
"That's it," Annalee says. "It's all right." She crouches down and holds out her hand. The little girl moves forward. Ripley can smell her blood and muscle but for some reason it doesn't stir the DNA.
The little girl's hand slips into Annalee's.
"I'm Annalee. This is Ellen." When Annalee smiles the girl returns it, shyly, hiding behind a lock of her hair. "What's your name?"
The girl doesn't answer right away. Ripley hangs back, some unrecognized emotion quivering inside her. It's a bit like fear. She recognizes fear. But this isn't fear for her life.
"Emmanuelle." The girl whispers it, soft enough that a human wouldn't have heard. But Ripley does. So does Annalee.
"Emmanuelle. That's a pretty name."
"Thank you." Another whisper. Emmanuelle looks away from Annalee and up to Ripley. Ripley jolts. She has the sudden urge to hide.
"Are your parents with you, Emmanuelle?" Annalee's voice is soothing and calm and gentle and kind. So human it can only be synthetic.
Ripley's heart twists.
"You're all alone?" Annalee asks.
Emmanuelle nods. She keeps looking back and forth between Ripley and Annalee. Every time her gaze lands on Ripley, Ripley feels like's being targeted, like she's being hunted, like she needs to slink off into the narrow dank corridor of some starship, where she will no longer be vulnerable.
"How long have you been alone?" Annalee asks.
The girl hesitates. She looks at Ripley and Ripley looks away, heart pounding.
"It's all right," Annalee says. "She won't care."
Ripley wonders what it is she won't care about. But then she hears Emmanuelle's answer.
"Three months, two weeks, five days, seven hours."
Three months? She survived out here in the waste for three months? Alone? Ripley looks back to the girl but she's gazing at Annalee, her expression brighter, almost happier.
And why did she answer like a computer when she clearly smells like a human?
"Do you want to stay alone?" Annalee asks. "Did you like that better?"
Emmanuelle thinks for a moment and then shakes her head.
"Well then." Annalee stands up, her hand still linked with Emmanuelle's. She turns to Ripley and Ripley knows Annalee couldn't leave the girl out here even if she wanted to, not with all that programming in place. And she loves her for it, because she knows that earlier version of herself would have done the same thing.
"If she doesn't want to be alone," Ripley says.
The beach is like the surface of the sun. Spangles of light flash off the water, and the sand has been scorched into green glass that throws the sunlight into Ripley's eyes. There are no humans here, but Ripley can smell them, further down the beach, their scent mingling with the scent of seaweed and dead fish.
The group makes their way along the beach's edge. It's hard to walk on the glass, but at least a cool breeze blows in off the sea, drying the line of sweat that drips down the back of Ripley's neck. Annalee walks a few paces ahead, Emmanuelle skipping alongside her. There had been no raised eyebrows that morning when the humans woke up and saw a little girl sitting beside Annalee at the campfire. The only acknowledgment of Emmanuelle's presence had been Maria, who sidled up to Ripley and whispered, "It's good we're so close to the sea. The last one we found didn't make it."
Her words felt like a knife. Ripley didn't respond, only watched Annalee laugh with Emmanuelle as they packed up the tent.
A hot wind surges down the beach, parallel to the water. Ripley is struck with a wave of humanity. The DNA roars to life, shrieking and hissing inside of her, and she stops, clenching her hands into fists. Annalee glances over her shoulder and frowns. Then she stops, too, and kneels down and whispers something in Emmanuelle's ear. Emmanuelle nods solemnly.
Annalee runs back to join Ripley.
"It's because we're getting close, isn't it?" she says in a low voice.
Ripley nods. She stares ahead, at Emmanuelle, who kicks at the smooth glassy pebbles, peering at them through the web of her hair.
"We can wait." Annalee takes hold of Ripley's hand. "Until everything calms down."
"I don't want to wait." Ripley takes a deep breath. The wind has shifted, blowing in from the sea again. "I feel better. I'll be fine." She looks at Emmanuelle as she speaks, and there's that feeling again, that fear that isn't fear.
Annalee nods and kisses her on the cheek. Then she leads her to where Emmanuelle stands waiting for them.
"I'm going to walk with Ellen for awhile," she says. "Is that all right?"
"Be careful. Don't fall."
"I won't." Emmanuelle turns and picks her way through the glass. She moves more gracefully than any of the other humans do.
Annalee and Ripley follow behind her.
"Fuck, it's hot," Ripley says, because she wants to hear Annalee's voice.
"You can always go swimming."
"It's poison, you know that."
"The sickness hasn't affected you since we got here. The city wasn't exactly clean."
"Yeah, but I wasn't basting myself in fallout in the city."
Annalee laughs. Emmanuelle turns around and gives them a brief smile. It's like seeing a flower in the ruins.
"Is she sick?" Ripley asks. The question comes out strangled even though she doesn't mean it too. She hopes the answer is no; she realizes it's probably yes.
Annalee gives Ripley a strange look. "No. She isn't human."
Ripley blinks. "What? She smells human."
"She started off human, but she has synthetic parts now."
Ripley looks at Annalee. The only sound is the rush of the ocean waves against the glass. No, that's not true -- distantly, very distantly, she can hear human voices.
Annalee nods. "It was common on some of the colonies, as a way of healing childhood illness, but it was actually banned on Earth, before -- all this." She gestures at the green glass and the waves of heat. "That's how she was able to survive so long alone. I sensed it in her when we found her. She recognized what I was, too. That's why she came out of hiding."
Emmanuelle is skipping again, zigzagging across the glass. Her dark hair bounces against her back, and she's humming, a soft tuneless noise that still sounds like music.
Only part human. No wonder the DNA doesn't care.
"Part human and part synthetic," Annalee says, bumping her shoulder against Ripley's. "She's a little bit of both of us."
Something stirs inside Ripley. It isn't from the DNA, but it is a sort of desperation.
"I'm not human," she says, and the words are like ash in her mouth.
Fifteen minutes later, they arrive at the refugee camp, and it is as bad as Ripley expected. Humans sprawl across the beach, stretching up to the waterline in one direction and then up to the start of the sand dunes in the other. She stops at the edge of the camp, hand gripping Annalee's so tightly she's afraid of hurting her. But Annalee only cups Ripley's face with her free hand and says, "What do you need me to do?"
Emmanuelle is hanging back too, Ripley notices, creeping down into the sand dunes and slowly making her way to Annalee.
"I can't deal with this." Ripley pulls away. The scent of humans is everywhere, steely and hot. Making things worse is a lingering, persistent overlay of decay. The DNA loves it. Ripley can feel instinct rising inside her, rage violence blood death. When Emmanuelle appears at Annalee's side, looking up at Ripley with concern, Ripley wants to scream.
"Go find the others," she hisses.
"Ripley -- " Annalee says, but Ripley shakes her head.
"I'll find you later. I just need -- I need to be alone." She doesn't give Annalee a chance to respond. The dunes. She can hide in the dunes, find a place where the stench of humanity isn't as strong. She controlled this before she came to Earth, she controlled it so well she helped humans. She killed the baby for them. The baby. She can not allow herself to think of it as hers.
She races through the dunes, ignoring the heat and the slick tumble of the glass. Blood rushes in her ears. It sounds like the ocean.
The DNA wants her to turn around, wants her to creep through the camp, killing her way to suitable hosts. But the DNA is only DNA. She tells herself that as she runs. The DNA is only DNA. It can't control her.
Eventually she finds a place where the wind smells empty. She collapses between the dunes and lies flat on her back and stares up at the blazing sky. Deep breaths. The DNA settles back into hiding. For now.
She can't possibly go onboard a refugee ship, a place with no escape. No escape for her, and no escape for the humans. She can't. She can't.
Ripley closes her eyes. Sweat drips down her temple, soaking into her hair. It pools in the small of her back. When she first woke up she used to lie in her bed in the room where they kept her and look backwards through her life. She knew she was brand new, that she had emerged fully formed from the laboratory's vats, but she also knew that her life was longer than that, longer than her own existence.
And eventually she remembered things from that previous life.
The xenomorphs had been first, hard insect bodies and long dagger teeth and hot burning blood. And it had been strange, to see them separately from the DNA, to see them not as a dark thread of instinct running beneath the surface of her consciousness but as monsters stalking the mazes of human starships.
This is what I am, she thought.
But after the xenomorphs came the daughters. These she couldn't see as clearly, but she felt them, two hard knots that wouldn't go away. They were the opposite of the xenomorphs. She remembered holding them in her arms, she remembered the smell of their shampoo -- one lilac and sweet, one chemical and military. But she could not remember their faces.
And that realization caused a pain she could never understand.
She opens her eyes and they burn from the sun. She sits up. The wind blows her hair away from her face and she can hear the chatter of the camp. The DNA roils around in the bit of her stomach, discontent, churning. She pushes it aside. That's what she used to do, isn't it? Back onboard the Auriga? Just push it aside.
Annalee. Her voice wavers on the wind. Ripley doesn't answer, but Annalee finds her anyway, because she had been programmed to seek her out before they ever even met.
"What are you doing here?" Ripley asks.
"I was worried about you." Annalee sits down beside her. The dunes rise up around them, cutting them off from the world. It's nice.
"What about Emmanuelle?"
Annalee smiles. "You're worried about her?"
"It's probably not good to leave her alone in the camp."
"I didn't. She's with Maria."
"I thought you'd approve."
They sit for a moment, and then Annalee reaches over and covers Ripley's hand. Her palm is cool and dry. Ripley is aware of how sweaty she is, her clothes and hair damp. But Annalee never seems to mind.
"They're saying the ships should be here any day," Annalee says.
Ripley thinks back to what Maria told her, about how the more people in the camp the sooner the ships would arrive. It's not enough time.
"I don't think I'm going to go." She says it slowly, to give Annalee time to adjust.
Annalee's face is synthetic-blank. "Of course you're going."
Ripley shakes her head. "I can't. Not with all those people. Not with Em--" she stops herself.
"Emmanuelle? You don't want to go because of Emmanuelle?" Annalee peers at her. "Does she even trigger it?"
Ripley bites down on her lower lip. She doesn't want to answer, doesn't want to have this conversation. She shakes her head.
"I didn't think she would."
"It's not that," Ripley says. "Not with her. It's --" Her eyes sting. No. She can't say it. This is all too painful.
Annalee threads her arm around Ripley's shoulders.
"You can tell me," she whispers. "You can tell me anything."
"You wouldn't understand."
"Really." Annalee drops her arm. "So that's why you won't tell me. You think I won't understand."
"You know what you don't understand? What it's like to have to spend my whole life hiding what I am, just because if people found out I'd become a slave. You don't know what it's like to hate your own body so much even though it's stronger and faster and better than a human's because you're programmed to think humans are better. You don't understand any of that, and yet I tell you anyway, because I trust you." She pauses. "Because I love you."
Ripley closes her eyes. "This is different."
"No, it's not."
Ripley feels that crack in her heart again. Annalee's eyes burn, and she's staring at Ripley with a fierceness that Ripley can't turn away from.
"You want us to go on the refugee ships," Ripley says, "and we'll take care of Emmanuelle like she's our daughter, and we'll find some planet and resettle, and --" Ripley takes a deep breath. "But I can't do that again."
A long silence.
"The last time I saved a little girl, she died. It was -- it was the old version of me, but I can still remember it, sort of. And then there was --" She can't say it out loud, the child she watched sucked into space. But Annalee knows, and when Ripley begins to cry, she pulls her into an embrace and holds her close. It's the first time Ripley has cried since it happened.
"I know I shouldn't care," she says, because she's afraid Annalee will think she's deranged and monstrous -- afraid Annalee will think she's disgusting.
But Annalee only shushes her and kisses her temple.
"Of course you should care," she says. "How could you not?"
The day after they arrive at the beach, Ripley creeps out of the dunes, cautious, watchful, anxious. The DNA roils around but she's starting to get used to it, this balance between its desires and her own. The scent of humans no longer makes her jaw ache and her mouth water.
Annalee is set up on the edge of the camp. Ripley spots the tent through the glare of sunlight, and then she spots Annalee and Emmanuelle. They both wave at her. Ripley cringes a little. Then Annalee takes Emmanuelle's hand and they walk together over the glass toward Ripley.
"Hello," Emmanuelle says shyly.
"Hello." Ripley shifts her weight, shoves her hands in her pockets. The camp presses down on her. All those humans.
"We've been waiting for you to come back," Annalee says. "Emmanuelle, show Ellen what you made."
Emmanuelle nods and runs back into the tent. Ripley and Annalee look at each other. The wind tosses Annalee's bangs across her forehead and Ripley can't resist the urge to reach over and straighten them out.
"How do you feel?" Annalee asks.
"Better." Ripley hesitates. "It's quieter."
Annalee nods. "Good." A pause. "And the other thing -- about leaving --"
Ripley blinks, afraid she'll start crying. "I don't know," she says.
"I'm back!" Emmanuelle erupts out of the tent, cradling something to her chest. It's a doll made of seashells, bound together with bits of twine.
"It's beautiful," Ripley says.
"Annalee says they won't let me take it on the ship." Emmanuelle looks at the doll and Ripley's stomach twists, because she still hasn't decided if she's leaving or not.
I'm poison, she thinks. Just like that doll. You stay close to me long enough, little girl, and you'll die.
"It's harmful to the people here." Annalee says, ruffling Emmanuelle's hair.
"Not me, though."
"Right. Not any of us. But you have to keep that a secret."
Emmanuelle nods. Ripley, with a sudden burst of strength, kneels down beside her.
"Can I take a look at it?" she asks, and these motions feel so familiar -- the indulgent gush in her voice, the generous smile. Emmanuelle nods and hands her the doll and Ripley admires it for a moment, shaking it so the limbs dance and jangle.
She's done this before. It's easy. But it hurts, too, hurts the way it did when she watched the baby die.
"You're quite the craftswoman," Ripley says, handing the doll back. Emmanuelle beams.
When Ripley stands up back up, Annalee is smiling at her.
A week passes. They don't often leave their spot on the outskirts of the refugee camp, but Ripley is still on edge from the proximity to humans. It's not a pleasant week. There isn't much clean food to go around, and Ripley's stomach rumbles constantly. One night she actually sneaks out into the ocean and catches a fish and eats it raw there in the water, the flesh snapping clean and bright in her mouth. It doesn't taste poisonous. Maybe Annalee is right. Maybe the fallout isn't poisonous to her.
Emmanuelle can go long stretches without food, although she doesn't like to, and at night she'll toss and turn and complain about her stomach hurting. Annalee splits her own food rations in half and divides them up between Ripley and Emmanuelle, and that helps, some.
And then the ship arrives.
When it happens, Ripley is lying down in the tent, one arm flung over Annalee's chest, trying to keep cool. Emmanuelle is outside, playing with her doll -- Ripley watches her by smell, just like a xenomorph. But she can't stand the thought of being outside.
A shadow passes over the tent.
A cry erupts out of the camp.
Ripley and Annalee sit up at the same time. They look at each other. Then Ripley rushes out of the tent and scoops up Emmanuelle without thinking, an instinct not from the DNA but from her previous self. Emmanuelle squirms in her arms.
"It's here," Annalee says.
Ripley and Emmanuelle both look up. The sky is blocked by the underside of an enormous ship. The wind rushes over them, hot and dry, and Ripley can feel the elation rising up out of the humans. She doesn't feel elation, only a low-level sort of dread. This last week hasn't been pleasant, but she'd gotten used to it. Gotten used to Emmanuelle here, in the context of the glass beach.
The ship drifts over the camp and lands a couple of kilometers away. The ground shudders when it makes impact. The camp is already shimmering with movement, everyone packing up their belongings and collecting into their tribes. Ripley puts Emmanuelle down and presses close to Annalee. Emmanuelle hugs onto Ripley's leg.
"How the hell is this going to work?" Ripley says.
"I guess we'll just walk onboard."
We. Ripley thinks about the wasteland where she's been living the past few months. She thinks about the laboratory where she was born. She realizes those are the only two places she knows.
"You can't stay here," Annalee whispers into her ear. She grabs Ripley's hand. "This world is dead."
The refugee camp is shifting, a wave of humanity curling toward the rescue ship.
"She needs you to protect her," Annalee whispers. Her grip tightens like a challenge. "I need you."
And in that moment, Ripley sees the rest of her life, scrounging through the waste like an animal, hunting and killing and eating. No, not like an animal -- like a xenomorph. That's what she'll become without Annalee, without Emmanuelle. Without, as much as she hates to admit it, the presence of humans. She would lose herself.
"Let's go," Ripley says.