Ripley cleared her throat on the vid screen, but the throng in front of her didn’t seem to notice. Her hands clutched tightly at the sheet they held, its shiver betraying her tremble.
Not nearly drunk enough for this, Hicks found he couldn’t look away. The beer he’d grabbed sat, barely sipped, sweating on the table to his left. How watching a press conference a planet away could feel like gearing up to take fire didn’t matter; part of him knew, and you don’t drink on missions.
Ripley tried again, and her “Excuse me” had enough pissed off Ripleyness in to make him crack a smile.
“I can just go,” she said, leaning in toward the microphone. Sarcasm in full force, she added, “I already know what I have to say,” and made to turn away from the podium, her bodyguards moving in to flank her.
A piercing whistle from one of the media drones brought the focus of the rest, and they settled.
“Okay,” she said, voice flat.
After an audible breath, she said “Okay” again more firmly, nodding her head. “I need to tell you about something, and you’re not going to believe me.” She paused and made eye contact with a reporter in the front row, then another, and another. Her gaze moving to take in the whole crowd, she continued, head high, “This time, though, I have proof .”
Ripley nodded to the large crate on her left, and a woman in bodyguard blue (Myrna? Mira? Hicks couldn’t remember her name, just the strength of her qualifications) released the catch. The sides of the crate spilled open, and the reporters made appropriately shocked noises as Bishop’s mutilated torso and head were revealed.
Jostled by one of her own guards, Ripley lost her grip on her notes. The man handed them back to her, his face impassive, his eyes already back to scanning the crowd. It was entirely appropriate given the circumstances, but Hicks felt a jab of sympathetic loneliness.
As Ripley reached for the drop cloth, her sleeve rode up. Hicks stopped breathing as he caught sight of the thin band of leather around her wrist. He didn’t start again until he had his old company clerk on the line.
If she was still wearing that thing, there was no way he wasn’t going to be able to find her with it if she needed him, I-59 discharge be damned.
“Come on,” Ripley cajoled, leaning out of the frame to rummage through something he couldn’t see. Her tee rode up as she stretched, and Hicks was relieved he couldn’t see her ribs. She was still lean, but she’d lost that rail-thin, almost extinguished edge.
When she came back into view, she held a tumbler with a few fingers of amber in it. “They must have offered you something,” she said. Her eyes were bright as she sloshed her glass toward the screen. “PFC?”
Winning looked good on her.
Hicks swallowed thickly, then glared at her as her last words sunk in. Affronted despite himself, he yelped, “They offered me a goddamned commission, Ripley!”
“Yeah?” she asked, eyes dancing. “And what’d you end up with?”
Hicks mumbled inaudibly.
Ripley’s arm reached out toward him and rapped the side of her view screen. “Piece of shit,” she said without heat, not bothering to conceal her smile. Leaning in so close her face filled his screen and speaking far too loudly, she said, “I couldn’t make that out, Hicks. Come again?”
Letting out an explosive cough that did little to conceal his “First Sergeant,” Hicks hid is answering smile behind the neck of his beer.
Ripley whooped, and he added, “With full and commensurate back pay.” It was just money, but damn, did it help.
She lifted her glass at the screen and said, “Congratulations, First Sergeant.” She held his eyes, all trace of merriment gone.
He couldn’t read the look on her face. He tried until that felt weird, and then ducked his head and intoned, “Just another day in the Corps, ma’am.” When he looked back up, she was smiling at him again.
“Just another day in the Weyland-Yutani-free Corps,” she said softly.
He didn’t really intend to breathe out an “Ooh Rah,” but it felt right.
“Go to bed, Hicks,” she admonished as she leaned far into the frame. She added, “They don’t deserve you.” His screen flicked dark before he could get out a reply.
His first couple missions as a 1st Sgt were thinly disguised good will tours, all glad-handing and glasses half full, where the only ordnance expended was in celebratory measures, and he and his men didn’t break a sweat, much less bleed. It took almost a year for it to all go to hell.
At least he’d managed to get most of his guys out before it had.
Himself? Not so much. And there was no way they thought he was still alive.
When Hicks came to, he was in it up to his ears. Literally. The only reason he could still breathe was that whatever was wrapped around his neck canted his chin upwards out of the muck. He couldn’t move his arms or legs enough to even figure out how he was bound. Half-numb from the water, he only felt how deep the slime had crept when he managed to move, and it went from nowhere to everywhere.
It was dark, but vague-shapes dark, not pitch black. None of the shapes were moving, but something was making the muck slosh periodically up into his nose and ears. Whenever he did manage to get a breath that didn’t lance fire up into his skull from inhaling the wet, he tried very, very hard to ignore the smell. He figured out he was in the freighter’s wastewater processor right away, but it took a little longer to place the underlying stink, the one that made his balls crawl up into his abdomen and his heartrate rabbit.
The one he’d smelled before, beneath the atmo processors on LV-426.
For the next few hours, Hicks worked the stupid stress-regression aids he’d been taught harder than he’d ever thought possible just trying not to hyperventilate and choke to death on shit. He also tried desperately not to consider that doing just that might actually be his best option.
Rescue came as a total surprise.
There was a crash and then blinding light and the roar of a flames. He couldn’t tell if he was burning or if his face was just so cold, a balmy breeze would make it feel that way. The acrid smell of burning flesh flooded his nostrils, and Hicks coughed and the vile soup forced its way into his lungs, turning one cough into an endless stream of retching and gasping for air.
His blown out sight was giving way to the dark tunnel of suffocation when, suddenly, his right arm was free. He grappled desperately at his neck until a very familiar voice said, “If you don't cut that out, Marine, this knife is as likely to go through your hand as this damn cocoon.”
His hand dropped as if of its own volition as hers slid in against his neck to pry the fibers up enough to cut. As if the rest of his body dropped, too, he plummeted back into himself, heart steadying, mind clearing, all from just the sound of that voice. It didn’t surprise him at all that Ripley was the one who’d come for him. He didn’t even consider that she might be a just the product of his desperate mind, a dream--her hand on his neck was the most real thing he’d ever felt.
Of course she’d come for him.
He woke sometime later, naked and still shivering from the decon shower, reaching out uselessly to stop the afterimage of his second’s fatal fall and screaming “Martina!” into the still air of the shuttle.
Ripley shifted in close. She pulled the blankets in tight and wrapped her arms and legs around him, sharing her heat and telling him again and again that she had him, he was out, he’d saved most of his company, that she’d blown the bitch to so many, many pieces, then blown the pieces to hell.
She didn’t pay any particular attention to his sobs, and she didn’t let go when his shivering stopped.
The next time Hicks woke, he was still in her arms.
Warm, dry and nestled deep in a pile of cargo blankets, he didn’t know where they were, but what he turned to see was her face, not the shape of the space they lay in.
He watched her eyes move restlessly beneath their lids. Faint starlight painted shadows from her eyelashes down her face. Her mouth was open a little and twitching slightly with her breath. He followed her breath down to where he could see it moving her chest, to where he could watch the rise and fall of her breasts, proof that she was here, alive and whole, and somehow, they’d made it out--she’d gotten him out--again.
She was awake for a while before she spoke; he’d noticed the moment her breathing had changed into wakefulness and she’d gone still. He suspected she was shooting for light when she finally said, “You keep staring like that, Hicks, and I’m going to think you see something you like,” but her voice broke a little on his name. She still didn’t move.
He brought his gaze up, but chickened out before he reached her eyes. Her lips were chapped, but looked soft and pink, and right then, in that moment, Hicks really, really wanted to know what they tasted like.
Bad idea, he reminded himself sternly.
She reached up to run her fingers through his hair, and he held his breath as a smile bloomed across her lips. “Guess what?” she asked.
“What?” he asked back, ducking his answering smile against her shoulder.
She shifted next to him, pressing her strong thigh up into his rapidly hardening flesh. It made him groan and try to burrow deeper into her shoulder, but she was having none of that. She raised her other hand to his hair and tilted him up to meet her eyes.
“We survived,” she said. The calm certainty in her voice left him breathless.
“Yeah?” he asked, soft, wanting nothing more than to hear her say it again, even with her pressed dizzyingly against him.
“Yeah,” she repeated, and if that syllable was a gift, then the grin she followed it with was a promise.
“Oh, yeah,” she said again and rolled on top of him, taking his hand in hers and laying her other against his cheek.
“Well,” he mused, trying not to lose himself completely in her eyes, “It seems like we deserve to celebrate somehow, doesn’t it?”
She ground her hips down into him, and he barely heard her “Did you have something in mind, Marine?” over his own groan, over the roar of all his blood heading south.
With a sputtering chuckle, he said, “I might be able to come up with a plan,” and stretched up to close the last of the distance between them.
She tasted like iron and salt. Like hope.
She tasted like home.
She’d run with him, of course. Half dragged him into her tiny Figueroa class shuttle and bolted from the commercial lanes, barely stopping to strap them both in.
The USS Fidanza had been commissioned for deep space in situ R&D, the kind that’s too dangerous to engage in anywhere else. She was one of a kind, bleeding edge tech all the way, and Hicks was sure she’d cost at least a thousand times more than the last ship Ripley had destroyed.
Still, that wasn’t why Ripley had run. Sensible as it might have been, that wasn’t her style.
No, when they’d finally come up for air, she showed him the blurry images she’d saved. They wouldn’t be enough for anyone else, but Hicks had understood all too well. The Fiddy was a military vessel through and through, 100% Government-run, but the fresh specimens she’d carried were marked with Weyland-Yutani’s seal.
The dreams didn’t stop, not even when he was awake. And his wasn’t the only side of the bed that shook in the night and lay empty and sweat-drenched as often as not.
They took jobs at small outposts, anything they could find. Anything to keep moving, always pushing from one place to the next. They saved every credit they could, knowing they’d need the stash eventually, for something. For some crisis or another.
His beard grew in thick, an itchy camouflage that made him envy her bald head. He refused to admit it, but envy wasn’t the reason she caught him staring so often.
She teased him for a while, obliquely, until one day she called him over when she was already towel-draped and handed him the razor. His hands were steady as he passed the blade over her scalp, soothing its path with his fingers, and noting the goosebumps rising on her arms. He navigated it carefully around her ears and across the tender skin at the back of her neck, and he managed to finish the job before leaning in to kiss there, if only just.
They both slept pretty well that night when sleep finally claimed them, but that was a rare thing. An exception to the rules of their existence.
It was months before it occurred to Hicks to ask. One day he looked up at her in the middle of tying his boots and started laughing at himself--a big, rolling bellyful of laughter forcing its way out of his lips all at once.
Lips twitching, she stopped shoving clothes into their duffle and watched him. When he didn’t stop, she sat down on the bed, folded her arms, crossed her ankles, and settled against the wall to watch the Hicks show.
When he finally slowed down, she raised a brow at him.
“I,” he said simply, “am an idiot,” and flopped down on the bed next to her.
“I see.” She scooted down next to him and threaded her fingers into his hair. “And what brought this realization on?”
He could hear the smile in her voice when she added, “Not that I’m arguing the point.”
Flipping over to stare at the ceiling, he asked what he should have thought to ask even before she’d cut him free in the reclamation tank. “How in the hell did you find me?”
“Ah,” she said, unsurprised. “I was wondering when you’d want to know that.”
“And I’m wondering how...” he hauled himself over and paused to kiss her thoroughly before finishing his thought, “how I even managed to tie my own shoes for all those years before I met you.”
She looked down at his feet pointedly.
Purely for effect, he shifted his leg to let the ship’s gravity pull his left boot to the floor with a dull thud. She laughed. Damn, but did he love hearing her laugh.
He contorted to press his face into her stomach and planted a long, wet raspberry where her shirt rode up. “Spill,” he demanded.
She tugged him up by his hair, still laughing. “You’re not the only one who knows how to use a tracker,” she said and then kissed any reply he might have sputtered right out of his brain.
Sometimes, he wondered if they actually shared a dreamscape.
They ran from the same monsters, both human and xenomorph. When she thrashed and fought against the covers, she was almost as likely to be shouting for his Sgt. Martina as for Drake or Vasquez.
Despite the fact that Ripley never talked about her, Hicks had a clear image of Amy in his mind: twelve-years-old, with her mother’s curls tinged red, a dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and so straightforward she made him blush in the quiet parts of his dreams, before she was torn away in a fury of clacking teeth and burning, acidic slime. He’d failed to save her so many times, he honestly forgot sometimes that he’d never so much as glimpsed her image, that he’d made her up entire.
That night, when he woke gasping, she was watching him from across the room in the low, omnipresent light of the station at night.
She sat on the floor, straight-backed against the wall, smoking, a report from the comms kiosk in the lobby in her hands. Judging by the pile of butts in what was left of last night’s dinner on the table next to her, she’d been smoking--chain smoking--for hours. He wasn’t used to the smell anymore, which was probably why she’d camped out under the vent. Ellen Ripley had smoked for years, so whoever she was this week didn’t. Usually.
She didn’t usually go anywhere near the media kiosks, either. They might be anonymous, but search histories were crawled regularly.
Calm and serious in that way she had that Hicks counted on and feared in equal measure, she announced, “We have to go back,” and took another long drag. Hicks tried to swallow his stomach back down, or at least to keep breathing around it.
The floor was cold against his bare ass; he hadn’t bothered to put on shorts before sliding down the wall next to her. He tugged gently at the report sheet, and she let him take it, turning away to exhale a long gust of smoke away from his face.
His hands shook and Ripley’s smoke curled sourly in his stomach as he flipped to look at the next sheets. It had been quite a while since they’d checked, but he was still listed as MIA. There was no mention of Ripley in conjunction with the loss of the Fidanza. There were no warrants for either of them. It wasn’t a guarantee, but it was as close as they could expect.
Rebecca Jordan, 10, lone survivor of the outpost known as Hadley’s Hope, has been remanded into structured care after being released by her latest foster family for disruptive and incorrigible behaviour.
“She won’t sleep,” said Rebecca’s former foster mother, who asked that we not use her name. “She keeps the other children up all night with her noise, and she’s surly during the day. She has trouble with her schoolwork, and she was tested before placement--her brain is fine. She just isn’t trying.” Clearly distraught, she adds, “Really, we kept her longer than we should. It’s high time for this child to face the consequences for her behaviour. She’s lucky the judge isn’t sending her to an orbital prison.
“Those Company people really know how to run a facility, and their psy-reorienting is top notch,” the foster mother continued. “Why, a lot of those kids go on to be productive citizens once they finish paying off their contracts. It’s sad, of course, about the... well, that they’ll never have families, but... I mean, I certainly can’t afford to pay for her care!”
In two weeks, assuming no one steps forward to contest her commitment, Miss Jordan will be transferred to the Weyland-Yutani Corps Youth Re-engineering facility at Luna 8. Her induction will include extensive evaluation of her physical and mental suitability, routine sterilization and vaccination, and the development of a personalized program to insure her future compliance and productivity. She will be sheltered at the facility until she ages out at 16 and is transferred to the Yutani Service Corps, which she will serve until her fortieth birthday when she will become a free citizen if she passes her evals.
Staff Reporter, New Texas Line Beacon
He plucked the cigarette from her hands. She watched his hands, mesmerized as he snuffed it out carefully.
“You’re going to try for custody.”
“I can’t be anywhere near that, not without...” He shook his head, “Not and keep you clean.”
She nodded again. Her face didn’t move at all.
He stood and offered his hand. She let him pull her up. They piled into their narrow bed and drew the covers up over their heads. He didn’t think there was even the smallest chance either of them would sleep, but the warmth of her skin and the solid darkness they so rarely indulged in had its own kind of magic. He was drifting, loose and languid, when she started petting his face. He leaned into it, encouraging, but still falling asleep.
Nestling into his side, she sighed, “There were too many ghosts in our bed, anyway, you know.”
“Yeah,” he said, and kissed the top of her head. “I know.”
Her hands wrapped around him tightly, heedless of his ribs, but Hicks didn’t care. She shook against him, pressed vital and hot through his thin tee. His side should have been screaming where the raw burns touched her, but the pain was distant, irrelevant.
Face burried in her neck, Hicks inhaled deeply, breathing her in, along with fresh decon fumes and the bittersweet memory they brought. He did it again, breathing in her strength and willing it to feed his courage.
They held onto each other like that for a long time and only broke apart at a the rough banging against the hull.
Hicks raised his head and glared out the small window set in the battered airlock door. The man on the other side scowled in answer and tapped his wrist but didn’t come inside the small craft.
Burrowing back into her warmth, Hicks said, “I think my ride’s getting antsy.”
Ripley snorted. “Your ride can go fuck himself. Hell, for what we’re paying him, your ride can go pay someone else to fuck him.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “He’s not wrong about the schedule, though.” Still, he didn’t move away. He might not have, ever, but she did. She’d always been the stronger of them.
She rubbed at her face, shifting to take all her weight on her own feet. His own balance didn’t come back as easily, and he didn’t think it was because of the abuse he’d taken to sell this scheme.
“I guess it’s time,” she said, opening the pod and making a grand gesture toward it with her whole arm.
He chuckled tiredly and didn’t move away from her.
“Did you need me to make the voices...” she cut herself off, voice breaking, and he watched thoughts of Newt settle across her features. They’d tried everything that day on the Sulaco--silly voices, bribery, shadow puppets--but nothing had worked to convince Newt to be closed into such a small space. In the end, they’d all stayed awake, and the Sulaco had diverted to Antilles Base to make the journey manageable. One of the corpsman onboard had trained in combat psychiatry before deciding the new rules weren’t for him, and he didn’t think Newt would ever be able to tolerate hypersleep, or not without a lot of cautious therapy, at least.
Hicks closed his eyes against the memory. This has to work. He sucked in a breath, and when he opened them again, Ripley was watching him.
“This has to work...” she said, and the question in it made his heart clench.
“It will,” he said with all the confidence he usually borrowed from her.
“It will,” he said again, even more firmly, as he climbed into the pod.
It will work because Ellen Ripley will damn well make it work, he thought.
No, he knew.
She leaned down and kissed him like he was made of glass, like he was sleeping-fucking-beauty. And he let her, because she was Ellen Ripley, and she could do absolutely anything.
They found him, just like he’d known they would.
He hadn’t expected it to take them almost two years, but he was absolutely certain that it hadn’t surprised Ripley.
The very first thing he did after he was released from medical was to sort through his messages. Much to the surprise of his company command, he granted immediate interviews to both the prestigious GNN and the trashy Solar Mirror, squeezing in both before they’d thought to tell him not to.
His GNN interview was tucked away discretely and nearly lost in the swirl, but the Mirror prominently featured the story of the lost hero Marine who’d stayed behind on the doomed Fidanza to insure all the crew made it safely away. He’d toed the line--well, two lines, really--and given them an aww-shucks moment as he admitted he didn’t actually remember what had happened to the Fiddy or his actions in her last hours, “The docs think I must’ve had a pretty good concussion when I went under, Ma’am. I’m just fortunate I healed up so well.” The Fiddy, he’d been told, was lost due to a collision with galactic debris.
The reporter had fawned all over him and the healing scars on his neck. He’d ducked his head and managed not to bite her head off when she’d touched them, distracting her with the story of how his shuttle’s autonav had missed the station and tucked in instead with the cloud of space garbage that circled its outer edge. He made it through the rest of the woman’s inane questions by thinking about how hard Ripley would be laughing when she learned he’d spent the better part of two years as space junk... and trying not to resent that he wouldn’t get to watch her do it.
The brass jumped all over him after that, and his official debrief lasted more than a week. He seriously thought about getting “I can’t recall” tattooed on his forehead. He didn’t have to pretend to be still recovering and pretending to be still shaken wasn’t a hard stretch, either. Pretending to be a bit of a glory hound to excuse the business with the media was harder, but his CO had suggested it and he wasn’t in any position to kick at the path of least resistance.
As far as Hicks could tell, they either bought his story or those in the know intuited the thread of mutually assured destruction that ran beneath it. It was all there in black and white in his record, after all. On day three, one of them let slip that his unit hadn’t been scheduled to be sent to the Fiddy, and, yeah, okay, that made a boatload of sense. Someone had hung for that fuckup, for sure.
After they released him, he made himself settle into rehab. He worked his exercises and talked to their shrink in circles of lies, letting enough of his real pathos bleed in that no one doubted him. He didn’t let himself show any interest in anything outside that routine for two excruciating weeks, until he let some of his guys drag him out so that he could whine at them a bit about all his missed time while he drank a lot less than they thought. They practically carried him back to his quarters.
He made himself wait six hours before launching into a media archive binge of epic proportions. He kept watching and reading long after he found, nestled deep in a copy of the New Texas Line Beacon, that Ellen Ripley, fellow survivor of the “disaster” at Hadley’s Hope, was petitioning for custody of the minor, Rebecca Jordan.
Being a fellow, fellow survivor, he searched out a followup article. After two years of legal battles, Ripley was still only her provisional guardian; she had to petition the court for permission to do things most parents took for granted, and the court could take Rebecca away at any time.
One night, after a particularly nasty nightmare in which he watched, bound helpless, while Carter Burke burned the students in Newt’s school with one of the Marine’s own flamethrowers and then orally copulated with a xenomorph on their ashes (and damn, the teeth! Those were a whole other nightmare on their own!), well, it got him to thinking about Burke.
Obviously, his own subconscious didn’t trust the man. It had good reason, of course--not as good as the alien-fucking version it conjured up, but damn good. The reality of what the bastard had actually done had fueled quite a few less exotic nightmares all on its own.
Why then, his understandably insomniac brain asked, would they trust a single thing the man had ever said? Especially when what he said furthered his own goals, like getting Ripley back to LV-426.
A flurry of research later, he found her, Amanda Tei McClaren, born Amanda “Amy” Ripley in 2112 to Alex and Ellen, died in 2178 at 66 from cancer. That matched, tragic timing with Ripley’s rescue just two years later and all, but Hicks kept digging. He pushed in deeper, past the 3-line obits, and nearly knocked himself out of his chair with a startled whoop! of excitement. It was there in black and white, in the comments to a tribute produced by one of Amanda’s coworkers at Mataini Co.:
He read it over and over, brain spinning. It didn’t qualify as an emergency. It just didn’t, no matter the angle he looked at it.
“...Amanda was stubborn as a mule, which made her great to work with as long as she was your mule. Her husband, Jed, tells me that, thankfully, only one of their three inherited that streak, their daughter Julianne. Julianne chairs the Government Watchdog group WarTech, which you may remember from last year’s Seegson hearings...”
But he couldn’t just let it go, couldn’t not tell her. There was absolutely no way.
In the end, he placed an ad through three anonymizers that led to the message’s delivery tucked up under a pepperoni pizza. It read simply, “Surprise: He lied. Find Julianne Nathans.”
In the months that followed, he had to allow that it might have been a rash thing to do, but he couldn’t regret it.
Not even as he packed his bag to go testify at her trial.
How was he supposed to know she’d (allegedly) go after Burke’s chain of command? It had never even occurred to him, for all the fuming he’d done--but it sure had been satisfying to watch the bastards fall.
Bolting upright with an alacrity even his old Drill Sergeant had never gotten out of him, Hicks croaked, “Ripley?” into the com. “Wha...” His voice broke, and he cleared his throat. “What’s wrong?” How many years had it been since he’d heard her voice?
“You’re in town, right?”
“Yeah,” he said, running one hand through his hair. “I testify tomorrow.” Eyes catching on the time, he amended, “Today.”
“Good,” she said. She sounded winded, almost breathless. “Rebecca called. She needs me, and I can’t get to her.”
“She actually contacted you...”
A crash echos across the line, followed by a hoarsely whispered “Shit!” and the sound of something heavy shifting.
“Where are you?” he demanded. “ I can come...”
“No,” she hissed. “You need to get to Rebecca.”
Close to her--too close--a voice laden with official swagger shouted “COME OUT WHERE WE CAN SEE YOU!”
“I can’t talk now...”
No shit, Hicks thought but didn’t say.
“Just get to her, Hicks. Mercy General, downtown.”
Louder than he intended, he spat, “What the... Mercy General?!?” into the comm, but he was talking to dead air.
“No ma’am, I already told you, I’m not going to be on your list.” He managed to keep his voice even, but something must have given him away because the young volunteer manning the info desk scoffed at him.
“Then I really can’t help you, sir,” she said sharply. “As I’ve already told you, I can’t give you any information on a patient without...”
“..their prior consent,” he said with her. He ran his hand through his hair. “Listen, she called...” he let out a long breath and stopped trying so hard to hold his panic back. “I don’t even know why she’s here, just that she’s in trouble.”
The pink-uniformed volunteer smiled tiredly. “What did you say her name was again? Rebecca...?”
“Jordan.” Hicks winced. “Unless she got married. She was born on Acheron, if that helps, back in... 2071 or 70...” he trailed off. The volunteer’s expression had gone pale as she stared at her screen.
“What?” He demanded in his best grunt-herding voice.
“I...I can’t give you any information unless you’re in the file,” she repeated, as much to herself as to him, eyes not leaving whatever she was reading. To Hicks’ surprise, the she continued, “I don’t suppose you’re her next of kin? You don’t look like an Ellen, but you might be a Dwayne...”
“I am!” he jumped in and then cursed the eagerness in his voice. “Dwayne Hicks,” he added in a more modulated tone. The girl looked skeptical but like she was almost considering letting him get away with it, so he produced his ID. “Really,” he reassured.
She squinted at his picture, and then looked up, exasperated. “Well, why didn’t you just say so?”
“I’m really listed as a next of kin?” Hicks asked.
She patted his hand. “You really are,” she said. Smiling sympathetically, she pursed her lips and added, “I still can’t give you any details, but it looks like you’d better get up there.”
Hicks bolted for the closing elevator on the other side of the lobby.
“She’s on the 371st floor,” she shouted at his back. “Room 43!”
The elevator was packed. Hicks let himself be shuffled into the back left corner next to a bench and tried to brace himself mentally for a long ride. The low hum of the boosters kicked in, and he turned inward and carefully counted his heartbeats, trying to tune out the chattering nurses and get his heartrate down like he was prepping for a drop.
He wasn’t terribly successful. It seemed like the elevator was stopping at every damn floor--shift change, he gathered from the nurses. By the time they hit the 35th, Hicks was eying the access panel in the ceiling, certain he could shimmy up the shaft faster than the car was carrying them.
Three-seventy-one was in the Maternity section. No matter how many times he blinked at it, the onboard map insisted this was true.
The map’s insistence was confirmed the moment the doors finally opened on 371 by a woman’s high wailing and another’s exultation to “Push!”
Hick’s had had almost 300 floors to get used to the idea, but it still wasn’t sinking in. It didn’t just didn’t compute. He looked down at his fingers and counted up carefully... there was no way Rebecca was more than 15 and that... He shuddered and looked for a station.
Shoving his way into a conversation almost physically with a loud, “Excuse me,” Hicks asked, “Room 43?”
The man in pink scrubs glared at him. “And you are?”
“Hicks,” he said brusquely. “I’m looking for Rebecca Jordan.”
The man’s face stayed hard, so Hicks made himself soften and let his concern bleed into his expression. “Look, they told me downstairs that I should hurry.”
Still sour, the man poked at his terminal. A moment later, he grunted and elbowed the woman next to him. She looked at the screen, too, and then looked up at Hicks, her expression much more open than the man’s. “Forty-three is all the way down the NW wing, on the left.” She pointed vaguely off to her left.
“Miss Jordan is okay, but there are...” she picked her next word carefully, “...complications.”
Sympathetically, she offered, “Let me page the Attending for you. The doctor on call is...” but Hicks didn’t hear what the doctor’s name was because he was 10 meters down the hall already, moving at a ground-eating jog.
He slowed as he approached room 43. Unlike most of them, the room’s door was wide open, and he wasn't’ going to pass up the opportunity for a little recon before walking in.
Inside, a woman’s voice said sharply, “Just stop it, Rebecca.” His mother would have called it no-nonsense, but he’d have to go with cold. “You have to calm down. These theatrics aren’t going to help you.”
Make that cold and patronizing.
It continued, “You’re putting the child at risk with this nonsense.” There was no kindness in it at all, and Rebecca hadn’t made a single noise.
Hicks had heard enough.
Gritting his teeth, Hicks forced himself to move through the door casually and not like he was taking the room, but he still compiled the sitrep with a glance: four doors--a closed oned to his 11 o’clock, open closet at 3 (empty but for shoes), probable bathroom at 1, and the one he’d entered through from the bustling hall behind him; the wall to his 12 was sealed high-atmo glass; possible access panel at 12:30 in the slightly lowered ceiling (typical of HVAC support for civilian superstructures); vacant couch in the corner at 2, soothing blue, of course, in that god-awful microclean fabric used by...
Hicks mentally slapped himself. The first thing he’d really noticed--after the lack of armed combatants and disgracefully long before the woman whose bitchiness had drawn him into the room--was Newt. His brain had stuttered on the sight of her on the bed, on her distended belly nearly blocking her face, then skittered off to take in everything else in the room but her.
Bare seconds after wrenching his focus back to her, he was at her side. She was so still...
“And who the hell are you?” demanded the woman in scrubs from the other side of Newt’s bed. She set down the chart she was holding and started around the bed. “You have to be authorized to be in here.” Scorn dripped from the woman’s voice as she added, “This girl’s a minor.”
He closed his eyes briefly before turning toward her. “And I’m her next of kin. Hicks, Dwayne.” He shoved his ident into the woman’s face, halting her advance. “Look it up.”
She snatched the card out of his hands with a “We’ll see about that...” Hicks let her have at it. The woman had already gotten more of his attention than she deserved.
Newt--Rebecca--didn’t react to any of this. Her face was drawn and tight, her eyes fixed in the middle distance. She was so still, Hicks had to glance at the display behind her to reassure himself she was breathing. She was, of course, though the number indicating that flickered to warn “Respiration Low” when his eyes lingered there. The rest of the numbers stayed stable as he scanned them until he hit blood pressure; those numbers were high enough that even he knew they were dangerous before they flicked to “Extremely High” and then “Intervene Immediately.”
“Rebec...” Hicks cleared his throat and tried again. “Rebecca,” he called, leaning in as much as he dared. “It’s me, Dwayne. I’m here.” She didn’t even twitch.
The officious woman--Kaugh, RN, her badge proclaimed her-- had finished verifying his right to be there but apparently had nothing to add. She watched them sourly from the end of the bed. Good, Hicks thought. He’d get to her in a minute.
He inched a little closer. “Rebecca?” His hand hovered uselessly over her head, the movement stillborn. “Honey, you gotta look at me. Ripley wanted to come--and she is, I’m sure she is--” God, he hoped to hell she was! “But she sent me because I could get here faster, and I’m here now, but you’ve got to tell me...”
Newt’s stomach rippled obscenely. Her BP spiked higher, making the number flash. She let out a low whimper but didn’t move.
“Rebecca, it’s just a contrac...” Hicks stopped the woman mid-word with a glare. He watched another ripple cross Newt’s distended belly and his own gut lurched and clenched in sympathy. Fuck. His reality gave a sickening lurch, the room dimming and the noise swelling from the corridor...
He stepped abruptly back from the bed until his spine was against the wall, planted his feet and counted down from twenty under his breath. Nurse Kaugh was glaring disapprovingly at him when he finished.
Low, he asked, “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”
Kaugh huffed, “This child’s having a baby.” She moved her hands to her hips. “And she’s absolutely refusing to listen to...”
“Enough,” Hicks barked softly. “She’s got more than enough to deal with without taking this kind of crap from you.” He turned carefully to watch Rebecca’s face, not trusting himself yet to let his gaze slide below again. Proud of his steady voice, he ordered, “Get the hell out and send in your supervisor.” He didn’t look away from Rebecca to see if she went, but after a moment, he heard a huff then footsteps trailing out of the room.
He only knew when the next contraction hit from her flashing BP. “Hey, kiddo, Rebecca. Focus on me, okay? Hicks. You’re in the hospital--having a fucking baby.” Get it together, Hicks.
“Rebecca, honey,” his voice dipped low, “the only thing trying to get out of you is your kid, I swear.”
He had no idea what to say to her, how to make this clusterfuck better. But he had to try. One hand gripping the bed rail and the other hovering just above her shoulder, he started again, “Rebecca,” he said just as her BP spiked again.
Her hand shot out and grabbed his. “Newt,” she said, and oh thank fucking god, Hicks thought as she tried to break his hand. Her eyes were wild, but she saw him. “Get it out of me,” she begged, “please...”
He stroked her hair and promised it would be over soon--that she was having her baby and it was supposed to happen this way--and he tried desperately to remember he was speaking truth every time he felt the infant struggling break free.
He called up archival reports on the entertainment screen when the supervisor finally came in and let her read about them on her own without a word.
Gently, she said, “I’m so sorry, sir,” when she’d finished.
“ I... I can’t give her anything at this point--our protocols are very clear for late labor in state-sponsored patients,” She paused at Hicks’ growl then seemed to pull herself together. “A sedative would impair her ability to complete the labor, and an extraction is out of the question without a private contract... she’s going to have to tough it out.” The even-voiced bitch smiled weakly at him, adding, “At least you’ve got her BP going down, and that...”
He tuned the woman out. She was as useless as the earlier menace had been, and he was going to need everything he had to get them both through the next few hours.
Ripley entered the room like a whirlwind, sucking the breath right out of Hicks.
“What the hell is going on here?” She demanded of everyone and no one.
The drones shuffled about looking at each other for a few seconds. Newt watched Ripley with eagle eyes.
Finally finding some courage, the supervisor said soothingly, “Just an especially difficult labor, ma’am.” She spread her hands, palms out, like Ripley was a wild animal. “There’s nothing to be done but wait it out.”
“Nothing?” Ripley asked, eyes flat and scanning the room. She nodded at Hicks and took in the board behind them. He watched her stutter over their history still on the entertainment screen. On her second pass over the room, she ended with a warm smile at Newt.
Newt’s lips wobbled back, but just then another contraction ripped through her small frame. This time, finally, she screamed.
Ripley was at her side in an instant.
“Get it out get it out get it out get it out get it out get it out get it out,” Newt chanted, pulling at Hicks and her restraints, desperately trying to claw at her belly.
Blood was staining the white sheets, but it was his own, so Hicks didn’t care. He held tight to Newt’s hand and told Ripley, “She been like this for hours. The panic has her blood pressure dangerously high, and she’s not progressing well, just from 2 to 3 cm in the hours I’ve been here.”
He looked over at the hospital staff and pointed at them with his chin.
She followed his gaze and asked, “And why aren’t we doing anything to help this child through what are clearly extraordinary circumstances?” She hid Newt from view with her body; Hicks didn’t think she even noticed doing it.
“I told you, ma’am...”
“Don’t you fucking ma’am, me!” Ripley snapped, advancing on her target. “Not until you’ve watched obscene creatures burst through the chests of everyone you’ve ever known or loved! Then--maybe--you can talk to us about waiting it out...”
“Ripley,” Hicks called.
The woman backed up a few steps, stopping abruptly when her back hit the wall, but Ripley didn’t stop until they were practically nose-to-nose. “Until then, you can damn well...”
“...get off your calcified asses and figure out what to...”
She finally looked at him, and he watched her start to deflate at the misery she saw in them both.
Oh no, Hicks thought, not yet, his hindbrain scrambling like it did when he was taking fire. She hasn’t fixed things yet...
And he heard himself say calmly, “They know how to help. They won’t do a fetal extraction because of the cost.”
She didn’t miss a single beat, just turned to him and said, “Sergeant, give me your sidearm,” not taking her eyes off the nurse for a second.
He had his holster unbuckled with his free hand before his brain caught up with her words. “Ripley, don’t you think...”
Toneless, she said, “No, I really don’t,” and held her hand out back toward him blindly.
He slid his weapon into it, not about to stop trusting her now.
The nurses whimpered, but didn’t move. Newt’s belly quivered, and her spine arched up off the mattress, but she didn’t make another sound. Ripley brought the gun up to point at the supervisor.
“I’ve been having a pretty bad day, but it’s nothing compared to the day this incredibly brave child is having. Now, I’m pretty sure I’m going to jail either way, so,” she gestured with the gun from the nurse to the comm panel, “you’re going to start prepping whatever you need to do this extraction for her right the fuck now.”
Hicks stared at Ripley while the nurse scurried to comply. The trial hadn’t been going well he knew, but...
She caught his eye and he followed the jerk of her head to the shadows under the door. Craning his head, he peered out the tiny window into the hall. They were flanked by men in indistinguishable suits; trial services had escorted her here.
He came crashing back into the present with a gasp as Newt’s hand convulsed on his. He shook himself; another contraction was ripping through her, and he was making more noise than she was. He glanced quickly at her face, hoping Ripley’s bold actions had mitigated the terror there, but Newt’s eyes were wide and lost again, any change made by Ripley’s arrival lost.
When the contraction eased, Hicks pried his hand away from her bound one. She let out a low whimper at the loss of contact--the first sound she’d made for him since he’d arrived. Heart contracting, he leaned in, hand on her arm, “Sush, I’m right here, Newt. Not going anywhere.”
He turned and perched on the edge of her bed, pressing his ass against her side solidly. “Ripley’s here now; it’s going to be okay.” The medical team moved about the room in a controlled dance now, the familiar rhythms of prepping settling their nerves. Hicks watched them carefully as he pulled his backup weapon from its ankle holster and slid it covertly into his jacket. He took Newt’s hand again as soon as he was done, and she gripped him tight.
Once Newt was finally--mercifully--out, Hicks let go and moved off to let them work. Ripley stood like a stone at the head of the room, eyes missing nothing, gun hand never wavering.
When one of the assistants stepped back from the controlled chaos, unneeded for the moment, Hicks took the man’s arm and tugged him into the far corner. Flashing the butt of his gun to quiet his token objections, Hicks pointed toward the hall door and its phalanx of guards and drawled, “I think you’re going to need to tell me how to get the hell out of here without going through that door.”
Chapter 8: Epilogue
Over the course of his life, Hicks had had more than his share of long, drawn past breaking moments. He knew the ones where you held your breath, afraid if you let it out you’d die horribly, and he knew the ones where you couldn’t stand it, waiting for someone to just say something, even if it broke your heart. He’d endured the ones where you knew to your very core that your best wasn’t going to be enough, that your people were about to die, and he’d been lucky enough to experience a few where pleasure and belonging and sheer joy in another person stretched time out to infinity, when it seemed that that was all there was, or ever would be, or that you could possibly need.
But he’d laughed at Ripley when she’d told him that some of her very longest had been over a damn cat. He’d never known a cat, and that was fine by him, but now he was going to have to apologize because...
Because sitting there, waiting, useless, for Ellen to settle her accounts and fetch thrice-damned Jonsey the fucking cat from Al’s Hypersleep Pet-sitting Clinic where anyone or everyone could possibly--no, would likely--have figured out she might go? That was easily the longest moment of his life so far.
She was trying to kill him, and he was going to have to apologize.
The clinic doors opened and she walked out, a spring in her step and a carrier in her hand. She smiled at him, glowing, and no nasty death rained down on them from above. She kissed his cheek when she slid into the car. As he began to pick a careful trail back to where he’d insisted Newt and the baby stay, safe from the insane errands of cat lovers, she pulled the orange troublemaker out of its box and started cooing at it.
Okay, this was Ripley, so a lot of people wouldn’t call it cooing when she babbled, “Did you have a good nap, you little shit,” at the cat in the low, affectionate tone Hicks had learned to cherish, but he knew.
But then they rounded a bend, and the road opened wide into a cloudless sky ahead of them, and the tail sensors he’d insisted on purchasing remained mercifully silent, and, as she kept chattering at the cat, he found he didn’t mind sharing that tone at all, really. Actually, he’d go to pretty great lengths if it meant she got to use it every single day, and he didn’t care on who.
Okay, he clearly wasn’t a cat person, but he thought he could learn.
He was a Ripley person, though, through and through.