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Coping Mechanisms

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1.

He’s in and out for days after they’re recovered, floating on some seriously good drugs. On one of the 'ins', he overhears a group of doctors with their heads bent together saying something about plastiskin grafts and acid burns being a bitch, but he never surfaces long enough to completely suss out what’s going on.

If he dreams, he doesn’t remember it.

When he finally wakes up for real, he isn't in any kind of medical facility he's ever seen after six years in the USCM. It’s no normal VA setup, that’s for sure. It doesn’t even smell like a hospital.

It takes him a moment to realize everything looks slightly off-kilter because he can only see out of his right eye, and the slight pressure on the left side of his head is a bandage. His torso is wrapped too, and his left arm immobilized in a freakshow contraption of steel pins and wire.

He turns his head to take in his surroundings. The med gear is blended into a furnished suite that’s bigger than most people’s full living quarters. His is the only bed. There’s an arrangement of cut flowers on the clothes chest that’s so ugly it must have cost a ton -- weird tropical bird-looking blossoms in sprays of orange and yellow poking out of a shiny black vase. That’s another mystery, since he’s never had family, and most of his friends are now dead.

They’re all dead. He closes his eyes against a sudden, pounding headache. He thinks he remembers seeing other bodies being unloaded from the Sulaco: Ripley, Bishop, and the girl, Newt. But he doesn’t really know if any of them made it off of that godforsaken rock alive.

He could have been dreaming. It’s so hard to tell. Those fucking things. Maybe he’s just lost it.

He opens his eyes again at the sound of a door opening, and a nurse whisks in with a tray of what smells like real food. Not a regular hospital, for sure. Definitely not military.

“Where am I?” he asks, voice rusty.

The nurse is young and well-groomed, like an enti-vid starlet. “You're in Weyland-Yutani’s private executive clinic, Mr. Hicks,” she says with an overlarge smile. “The company is providing for your care.”

‘Mister,’ she'd called him, not ‘Corporal.’

"Have I been discharged?" He tries to sit up, but is stopped by the immobilizing cast. He curses at the stab of pain and she sets down the tray and rushes over, pushing him back onto the bed. “What happened to the others?”

"Ssh, please don’t disturb the grafts, you're in a very delicate stage of the healing process. I only know details about your medical procedures, Mr. Hicks. I'm sorry."

She looks wide-eyed and terrified, and he wonders what she’s been threatened with if he acts up.

He blows out a breath. She’s not responsible for his being here. She’s just a grunt, like him. Like he used to be, anyway.

“I’m still a little groggy.” He tries for a natural-looking smile and glances at the tray she’d set on the table beside his bed. “Is that a real steak?”

 

2.

The next time Hicks wakes up, there’s a two-star general sitting by his bedside. The general looks up from reading a file folder open in his lap and sees Hicks watching. His face is unfamiliar, and his smile so stiff, Hicks wonders if he hasn’t had a little plastiskin work, himself.

“Sargeant Hicks, I was hoping you’d come around while I was still here.” The general stands, closing the folder over his index finger to mark the page he’d been reading. His gray hair is cropped short and a strangely uniform color.

Hicks is busy studying him, so it takes a moment to register. Sargeant?

The general smiles again, another fake looking tic that doesn’t reach his eyes.

“The Corps is very proud of you, son. After reviewing the reports from your mission’s special advisor, Ms. Ripley, and data recordings from Executive Officer Bishop, it’s been decided that a field promotion was in order for the leadership you displayed in action on LV-426.”

“They’re all right?” he asks, rising up on his elbows, which is as far as he can go without pulling and pain.

The general doesn’t seem bothered that he hasn’t acknowledged the promotion.

“The Bishop unit is undergoing critical repairs, but his data seems intact. Ms. Ripley and Ms. Jordan are unharmed.”

Hicks wants to laugh. Unharmed?

“Thank you, sir,” he says, instead.

 

3.

That night, they dial down the pain meds enough that he dreams.

He has no body, no form, he just is: tumbling through an endless void.

He wakes up soaked in sweat. The nurse comes in, the pretty, frightened one.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers, shaking her head, eyes big and imploring. “There’s nothing I can do.”

He’s beginning to think she’s an excellent actress.

 

4.

He doesn’t see Ripley until he’s healed enough to be allowed up for PT. He thinks it’s been around a week. He’s assigned to take exercise walks around the clinic’s manicured grounds three times a day, following a tedious circuit of paths lined with cloned shrubbery and hydrograss in a numbing shade of green that’s probably supposed to be soothing. But the outings are better than nothing, and she’s waiting for him when he steps out of the elevator into the lobby in the evening of his second day out of bed.

He smiles self-consciously. They’d taken the big, dumb mummy bandage off his head, but he still has to wear a patch over his light-sensitive left eye, and he knows the edges of the plastiskin haven’t completely blended in yet. His left arm is immobilized by his side from shoulder to wrist.

“Hey, Ellen,” he manages. The name feels odd, it’s softer than he thinks of her.

“Dwayne.” Her mouth twists up into a smirk and he wonders if she’s thinking the same thing.

Ripley looks good: rested, clean. With no blood and sweat and tension tightening the lines on her face, she looks younger. Maybe, yeah, more like an Ellen. He glances away, embarrassed at how fiercely glad he is to see her.

“We should walk,” she says, inclining her head slowly toward the door. Her eyes cut back to the security guard at the desk. They’re watching. Listening. He nods, and she comes around to take his right arm, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow as though he’s her proper military escort.

“Congratulations, Sargeant," she murmurs as the doors slide open for them, and he feels stupid, hoping she’s not laughing at him.

They walk on in silence for a few moments, her hand still firmly on his arm.

"Do you know what’s up with that?" he asks in a low voice once they’ve cleared the bend and are out of range of the first camera he knows about. “I wasn't even sure I was still in the Corps."

“You deserve it,” Ripley says seriously, dropping his arm to dig a pack of cigarettes out of her jacket pocket. She pauses before lighting up. “If you hadn’t stepped up, none of us would be alive. You’re a good leader."

He doesn’t know what to say. “All I did was listen to you,” he protests, finally.

She blows out a stream of smoke and smiles. “Which only demonstrates your intelligence.”

He rolls his eyes, but can’t pretend he isn’t pleased. If pressed, he’d say he joined the Marines because he didn’t know what the hell else to do with himself. But nobody usually asked.

“What about the fancy digs?” he asks. “I can't get a straight answer out of these people.”

"You should see the apartments they've given me to live in while we ‘sort out the future’. The company is very generously showing us their gratitude.” She smiles bitterly and takes another puff. “I think the bean counters have finally come around. LV-426 cost them billions. They ran one of their damned spreadsheets and decided to cut their losses to concentrate on more profitable options.”

Hicks shakes his head. It figures. He catches Ripley’s hand in mid-arc. It’s shaking, more with anger, he realizes, than fear. He brings her cigarette to his own mouth for a drag, and she lets him. They’re connected now. For fucked up reasons, but whatever. It’s not going to change.

"Where's Newt?" he asks. She’s part of this too.

"They're checking to see if she has any surviving relatives.” Ripley flicks away ashes, her expression unreadable. “A lot of times those homesteading terrafarmers were cut off from everybody else. I've put in a petition for custody of her if no suitable family can be located."

Hicks nods. "I'd like to see her, if possible."

"I'll try to arrange it." Ripley’s smile this time is fast and genuine. She drops her cigarette and grinds it out with her boot. It leaves a satisfying smudge of ash on the unblemished concrete. She takes his arm again and they resume their walk.

 

5.

Xenomorph really doesn’t cut it as a name, he thinks. It’s sterile, clinical. And they’re not that. Oozing with sticky slime, spraying acid when cut, pulsating and strange.

Those fucking things is the best he can manage.

Bugs, his buddies had called them, before they knew. But that didn’t really cut it, either.

Those fucking things wiped them all out.

 

6.

His left eye is never going to be one hundred percent again, the cornea partly eaten away by acid. Straight on, it’s not so bad, but his peripheral vision is shot. They offer him a cushy administrative gig if he stays on, but he takes the honorable discharge instead. Six years is enough.

He lets Ripley handle the money because she’s smart, and he trusts her to squeeze the bastards until it hurts. They find an old farmhouse in rural Kentucky because Newt's curious about horses, and it isn’t like they have anyplace better to go.

Figuring it's a good distraction, they buy Newt a pony, a bay filly with a white blaze on her chest; Newt names her Casey, after her old doll. It’s a start. He’ll teach her to ride when she’s ready.

One late summer evening, they stand on the porch, watching the sunset. Newt’s inside, setting the table for supper. The wind carries the rustle of leaves dancing in the trees overhead. Hicks worries at a splinter in his thumb he got closing the old barn door.

“You think they’ll come back?” he asks, looking up.

Ripley stares off into the spreading orange distance for a long moment before replying.

“It doesn’t seem very likely a species capable of that kind of interstellar travel only had the one ship,” she says, shading her eyes with her hand.

“No, I don’t suppose it does.”

She moves closer and slides an arm around his waist. They don't talk about it again.

 

7.

He and Ripley take turns keeping watch every night.

All of them still dream, sometimes.

 

-The End-