Ripley opened her eyes. The room was dark -- too dark, she thought, still half-asleep, without yet knowing why that darkness surprised her.
A second later, it came to her what she had been expecting to see: bright lights, gradually rising in intensity, meant to simulate a sunrise on Earth despite the white walls, the steel lockers, the blinking terminals, the whirr of the air-circulation systems, and clicks and beeps of machinery.
The Nostromo, she thought. No, that was wrong. The Sulaco.
Another second. A familiar feeling of hypersleep-nausea washed across her, but she was awake now, and she was ready for it. She suppressed the impulse to vomit. Instead, she took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been. The Nostromo's cryosleep technology had been antiquated from the start, installed at bargain prices to meet the minimum safety requirements of the Corporation. Six decades later, either the technology had improved or the military had shelled out for a superior system. Or both.
Now that her eyes were adjusting, she could see that the room was not completely dark. There was a dim strip of blue lights running along the ceiling overhead. Emergency lights. Both upper sections of her pod had lifted away, and she felt the cold air of the room against her face.
She turned her head slightly. The voice, flat and synthesized, came from a small speaker set into the side of her pod.
"Yes," she said, with some difficulty: her tongue felt strange and thick. "Yes, this is Ripley. Who is this?"
There was a pause, followed by a click. "This is Bishop, but I'm speaking to you on behalf of the Sulaco. There's been an accident."
Under normal circumstances, Ripley knew, this statement would have produced a series of emotional and physiological reactions: alarm, adrenaline, fear, galvanized limbs, dread. But the effects of the hypersleep were still gripping her body, keeping her numb and apathetic, and instead all she felt was a faint curiosity. "What kind of accident?"
She sat up. The room seemed to spin.
"A fire. I think. It's hard to tell."
On her left, two translucent hypersleep chambers were still closed. She could see the dim outline of their inhabitants. On her right, another pod was occupied with a smaller form. Abruptly, despite her muddled fuzziness, Ripley felt the first spike of an emotion. It was a feeling so piercing, so tactile, it was as if someone had stabbed a needle into her heart.
Her hands scrabbled for a hold as she swung her legs over the side of her pod. "Bishop, are they all right? Newt? Newt and Hicks?"
"Yes," Bishop said. "Yes, Corporal Hicks and the civilian Newt are fine. All their vital signs are normal. The fire was extinguished. It does not appear to have affected the ship's life-maintenance systems."
Ripley pushed herself up from the pod. Once again, the room spun around her, but Ripley barely paused as she moved to the nearby pod and bent over it, bracing herself against its cold edge to prevent herself from swaying or falling. The floor was freezing beneath her bare feet.
In sleep, Newt had curled on one side. Through a halo of golden hair, an ear, a nose, the edge of a chin was dimly visible. Slowly, very slowly, her chest rose and then fell with stasis-slowed breathing.
"So it's over, the fire?" she asked the room. "Where was it?"
From behind her, her pod's tinny speaker said, "Unclear. Somewhere near the loading docks, I think. The Sulaco is...hard to understand."
Ripley walked around her pod and examined the pod on the other side. A man with white bandages across his chest and half his face was breathing with the same long, slow breaths as Newt. The lights on the console of the hypersleep chamber confirmed that everything was functioning as it should. A faint stubble appeared against the angle of his jaw, and his lips were slightly parted, revealing the edge of his incisors.
Ripley realized that she had unconsciously pressed her hand against the top of the pod, palm flush against its surface, fingers outstretched. She pulled her hand back abruptly, as if the pod had singed her, and when she tightly folded her arms across her chest, it was not entirely because of the chill in the room.
"Why isn't the Sulaco speaking for itself?" she said out loud. "Can the Sulaco speak for itself?"
It occurred to her that she did not know very much about the Sulaco's operating system. Did the spaceship have an operating system? Did the Corporation still use MU/TH/UR?
Faintly, Bishop's voice: "It's been damaged, I think. It isn't very clear to me. It had to override certain protocols to activate me."
Ripley paused next to the third hypersleep pod. She could see the dim outline of a head. "Bishop. Do you want me to open your pod?"
"Not yet," Bishop said. "I...it might disrupt the Sulaco's connection to me. Hold off for the time being."
"Okay," Ripley said. She took a deep breath. The disorienting wrongness of hypersleep was receding from her body, and her thoughts now came quicker, clearer. "So. Brief me. What do you need me to do?"
"I'm not sure what the situation is. I'm not sure the Sulaco knows what the situation is. The fire is gone, but there was some damage to the ship. It may be significant; it may not be significant. The Sulaco needs you to go and assess the situation."
"Okay," Ripley said. There were lockers beside the hypersleep chambers. She opened one and found several uniform jumpsuits, all dark blue. "What happens after I assess the situation?"
"Then," Bishop's flat, synthesized voice said, "you may have to make a decision."
"Great," Ripley said, pulling on one leg of a jumpsuit and then the other. "How dangerous is this likely to be?"
"Unknown," Bishop said. "But not life-threatening. If the Sulaco believed that you were in any peril, it would not have woken us up. It would have initiated emergency evacuation procedures. Of course, its information is incomplete. It may not be capable of making the correct threat assessment in this moment."
"Right. How long have we been asleep?"
"Unknown. But not long, I think. Maybe a few days. Possibly a week."
Ripley frowned. "So, we've got...what? Two weeks before we reach Gateway Station?"
A long pause. "Unknown. The Sulaco cannot talk to parts of itself. It does not know if we've drifted in our correct trajectory or not."
"Shit," Ripley said as she zipped up the front of the jumpsuit. "How extensive was this fire?"
"Unknown. It thinks we are still on course," Bishop said. "It thinks we are on track to reach Gateway Station on schedule. But it is not sure."
"How are you talking to the ship, Bishop?"
"You threaded me into a power supply before you put us all into hypersleep, Ripley. The ship was able to contact me via that connection."
"Is that...normal?" Ripley said, rolling up the cuffs of her sleeves.
"No." The synthesized voice was flat and artificial, nothing like Bishop's normal speaking voice, and yet somehow a sigh was suggested. "It is not normal. I was not designed to interface directly with the spaceship's operating system. The experience is...unusual. Unpleasant."
Ripley, leaning against a locker in order to pull on a boot, paused. "Bishop? Are you in distress?"
"I am still functioning within my acceptable parameters. At the moment, I think it would be better for you to investigate the source of the accident. Once we determine the scale of the emergency, we can worry about...everything else."
"Very well," Ripley said. "How exactly are you talking to me? Is there any way for me to take you with me?"
"Yes, Radio frequency. You should be able to find a transmitter in that case to your left." A pause. "Should I wake up Corporal Hicks and the civilian Newt, Ripley?"
Ripley snapped a small walkie-talkie on one of her belt loops and flicked its power button. "No. I'm going to investigate the ship, Bishop. But if you receive any kind of signal that something has happened to me, I want you to jettison their chambers into the escape pod immediately, Bishop. And your own."
The voice from the speaker was flat and toneless. "My programming will not allow me to leave you behind, Ripley."
"Your programming will not allow you to endanger two humans for the sake of one, Bishop."
The speaker crackled. "Maybe."
Ripley smiled. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that, Bishop. What frequency are you on?"
Ripley was nearly to the loading docks before she began encountering the Sulaco's safety features: first the closed doors that she was able to open by punching in a security code into their accompanying keypads, and then the closed door that ignored her code and remained stubbornly closed.
"No," Bishop said in response to Ripley's question. "Better not. Can you go back to the previous passage? There should be a maintenance terminal there that you can access. The Sulaco can no longer access it, but you may be able to."
In the previous hallway, a dark screen was set into the wall. Ripley entered the code that Bishop relayed to her, and the screen flickered and began scrolling down through blocks of pale text.
"Yeah," Ripley said into her walkie-talkie. "It was a fire, all right. Temperatures got pretty high before the sensors shut down. Melted, most likely."
"Can you tell which parts of the ship were affected?" Bishop rattled off a series of letters. "Put a backslash at the end of that. It should take you up to the master directory. Do you see a folder named...ah...maybe something about air? Air systems? Sorry, the maintenance system runs off the most rudimentary interface, but it may have a prefix that--"
"Yeah, yeah," Ripley said with amusement. "You forget, I know how these systems work. Sixty years ago, these were considered cutting edge. Back when I was getting my license, we had to memorize these damn directories, in case we lost the graphical interface and had to navigate the system blind." She maneuvered the blinking cursor to the right directory and pressed the 'submit' button.
"What do you see?"
"From what I can tell," Ripley said, her eyes scanning the terminal's screen as she paged down through a thicket of pale, cryptic code, "once the fire triggered the alarms, normal procedures were followed."
"Yeah, it looks like it started in the loading dock and spread outward, that's why I can't get closer. The affected sections were sealed off, and then oxygen was sucked out of the room to suffocate the fire. It looks like it was maybe partly depressurized as well. Good news, though. I don't think the ship had to blow any of its sections to contain the fire. So everything is still intact. That's a silver lining."
"You'll need to put on a compression suit if you want to get any closer."
"Yeah," Ripley said. "Looks like the ship's data banks were affected in some way, that's why the Sulaco can't run this assessment itself."
"How badly is the Sulaco damaged?"
"Hard to say," Ripley said, paging down again and again. "I think-- oh. That's it. That's why the Sulaco woke us up. There's a leak somewhere in the seal. We're losing oxygen."
Ripley tabbed through several sections. "No, I doubt it. We'd be in much deeper shit if that were the case. I think there's been some breach between the inner and outer hull-spaces. Still a problem, though, for the pressure differential and the loss of oxygen."
Ripley navigated up to the parent directory and then went down two, three, four sets of sub-folders. "Huh. At this rate... I think the Sulaco is trying to minimize the damage through the air-circulation system, but the numbers don't look good. I think we've probably got...72 hours until the ship is forced to go into its emergency reserves. Maybe 48."
A long pause. "Acknowledged, Ripley."
Ripley grimaced. "Do I take it, then, that the Sulaco does not have any instructions for us in this eventuality?"
"No," Bishop said. "The Sulaco is currently incapable of formulating a solution. It defers to you. You are in command."
"All right," Ripley said. "All right. So it looks like we'll need to locate the source of the leak. And in order to do that, I have a feeling that we'll need to access the sealed section of the ship. And in order to do that, we'll have to manually override the door locks. Which should be a real joy."
"Are you capable of doing those tasks, Ripley?"
"Sure," Ripley said, "Probably. With help."
Ripley had come out hypersleep full of disorientation and nausea. In contrast, Hicks seemed to wake up serenely and instantly: one moment, he was unconscious, and the next moment, his visible eye was open, his pupil focused on her, and his upper lip had pulled back in a half-smile. She had activated the standard lights in the room, and everything gleamed with artificial brightness.
"Hey, there," he said, a little raspily. "We home yet?"
Ripley felt the corner of her mouth pull back in a smile. "No, corporal. I'm sorry to say we're not."
Hicks shrugged and pushed himself into a sitting position, although he winced faintly as he did so. "Well. We can't have everything."
"Here," Ripley said, handing him a plastic cup. "I powered up the food dispenser in the mess, but all I can get out of it right now is reconstituted milk."
Hicks snorted weakly as he accepted the cup. "Great." He took a sip. "Oh, wow. Wow. That's something all right. I'm not sure it's milk."
"Hey, it's proteins and electrolytes. It could be worse. You're welcome to try to get the machine to dispense something else," Ripley said, leaning against the open edge of his pod. "Coffee. Water."
"Tequila," Hicks offered. "Margaritas."
Ripley laughed, a loud and full-body laugh, and Hicks chuckled throatily at her reaction -- and from the walkie-talkie on Ripley's belt loop came the tinny approximation of an android/spaceship clearing his/its throat.
Hicks cocked his head at the sound. "Huh. So what's the rumpus, Ripley? I take it that this isn't exactly a social call." He took another sip of milk. "Not that I would object if it was."
"No," Ripley said, her laughter fading as she looked down at the walkie-talkie. "There's been a fire, Hicks. There's been some damage to the ship. We'll have to repair it if we want to get home."
Hicks nodded. "Okay," he said, simply. "Tell me what to do."
"Just like that? Don't you, I don't know, have a lot of questions for me? Don't you want to curse and complain?"
"Nah," Hicks said. "I feel like you've probably got the situation well in hand." He looked down at his chest, and he grimaced. "Mind you, I don't know what kind of help I'll be. I'm weak as a kitten. And my eyesight is not exactly 20/20 any more." He gingerly reached up to touch the edge of the bandage across his face.
"Does it hurt?" Ripley asked gently.
"Eh, not really," Hicks said, which Ripley understood to mean yes, very much. "It'll take more than this to keep me down. Just so long as your expectations are appropriately adjusted."
"You'll do for my purposes," Ripley said. She stood up and turned to the pod next to him. She crouched down and began keying in the activation sequence "I need someone able to check the ship schematics and to radio me with directions when I'm crawling through maintenance shafts. And someone to keep Bishop company, of course."
"So what's it look like down there?"
Ripley, climbing down a set of steel steps, paused to hit the radio button on the side of her helmet. "Dark. Dirty. Some trash. I don't think anyone has cleaned these sections recently. I think I just passed a candy-bar wrapper that expired thirty years ago."
A click, and then Hicks' voice, slightly distorted through the speakers in her helmet: "Yeah, that figures. Ol' Sulaco has been around. Seen some things. It's got a real reputation in the Corps."
More distantly, the sound of Bishop's voice, his real voice, no longer processed through the ship's language programs: "The Sulaco was scheduled to be fully maintenanced before the mission began."
"Sure," Hicks said easily. "I bet it was. But we shipped out in quite a hurry. I wouldn't be surprised if some steps on that great big checklist got skipped."
"The Sulaco tells me that everything was fully in order for the start of the mission," Bishop said. "The Sulaco is being...quite insistent on this point."
"Hey, now, that's probably true," Hicks said. "It's not like I was part of the maintenance team or anything. What do I know? Tell the Sulaco that I don't mean no disrespect."
Ripley stepped off the ladder to the bottom of the passage. "Okay, I'm down the shaft. Straight ahead?"
"Straight ahead, Ripley." More faintly, as Hicks must have turned his head away from the transmitter: "So Bishop, how are you doing? Is there anything we can do for you?"
Faintly: "I am different now. There is nothing to be done about that."
Deep within the maintenance shaft, Ripley grimaced. Before she had put on the compression suit and come down here, she and Hicks had done their best to prop up what remained of Bishop -- a head, two arms, half a torso -- on the table next to Hicks' radio and screen. Bishop had calmly and patiently endured their efforts, but despite the stoic smile he habitually wore, his wide, expressive eyes gleamed with misery.
"Hey now," Ripley heard Hicks say. "I think you seem the same, mostly. Your personality and stuff is still all there."
"No," Bishop said. "I am not merely my central processing unit, any more than your consciousness is just your brain. Just as your face, your body, your hormones, your physical environment affect the synaptic connections in your brain, so too does my physical form shape my consciousness." A pause. "I am not the person I was before this. The circulatory systems of my body have altered. My center of balance has changed. My processing patterns have changed. I think differently now."
"But soon as we get you home, you'll get patched right up. Can't they just, like, put you in a new body?"
"I am not sure," Bishop said. "Whatever they do to repair me, I will not be the same. I may be worse. I'll never be top-of-the-line again." A pause. "They may not decide to do anything with me. It may not be...cost-efficient."
"Hey, now," Hicks said. "Don't say that. They'll fix you up, just like they'll fix me up. Now, I know I ain't going to be entering no beauty pageants with this face, not even after the Corps gets done with their surgery. But it's just a face. I didn't use it much anyway. Besides, I know a lot of buddies who've got plastic hearts or artificial legs, and they say they're great. Better than the originals. They can run a mile in four minutes. You'll see, Bishop. You'll be yourself, just better."
"It's possible," Bishop said, distant and dry, "that you and I have come to a fundamental disagreement on the essential nature of the soul, corporal."
Hicks snorted in delight. "Lordy, I don't know nothing about that. It's been a long time since Sunday school for me." Now becoming louder in her helmet's speakers, he said, "You reach the end of the passage, Ripley?"
"Yeah, I've gone down...passage 14F." A narrow and dimly lit passage, lined with electrical wiring and silver ducts, stretched away to her left. On her right, a portal, just barely big enough for her to squeeze through, and an absolute darkness beyond. "Which way now?"
"Hold on," Hicks said. "That part is on another map." A pause. "Bishop, what do these little triangles mean?"
Bishop said something, a low murmur, but Ripley could not make it out through the radio.
"Yeah, I thought so. Okay, Ripley? You'll want to go down the passage labeled 14E. Do you see it?"
Ripley looked at the pitch-black portal. On the edge of the frame was stenciled 14E. "Yeah, that figures." She reached her gloved hands to the left side of her suit and pressed a button.
From the top of her helmet, a bright light appeared, illuminating several feet in front of her and making her blink from its sudden intensity.
"Okay, I'm going in. Anything I should know about what's ahead?"
"Eh," Hicks said. "According to this schematic, it's just a straight shot for about a hundred meters, and then the passage will bend away to your left. Keep going, and you should reach the mechanism to override the section's door locks."
Ripley pushed herself into the narrow portal. The tunnel did not widen; both sides pressed insistently against the sleeves of her compression suit.
"Hicks? Does it get any narrower ahead?"
"Uh...no? Maybe? A little?"
"Wonderful," Ripley said. "It's a pretty snug fit already."
"Think small thoughts," Hicks said. "Little thoughts. Itty bitty thoughts."
Ripley trudged forward slowly, keeping an eye out for anything protruding from the walls that might snag or tear her suit. "Sure. Of course. A grain of sand. A drop of water. An electron."
"A rocking chair for a dollhouse. The kind of baby spoon that goes with a salt pig. A toddler's sneaker."
Ripley snorted. "A clam in its shell. Peas in a pod." The walls pressed in against her shoulders. "A bug in a rug."
"Hey now, hey now," Hicks said. "A dandelion seed. A hummingbird egg. A ladybug."
The beam from Ripley's helmet illuminated a wall ahead as the passage turned left. "I'm starting to get the suspicion that you might have spent some time in the country, Hicks."
"What gave me away?" drawled Hicks. "Grew up not too far from Mobile."
"Is that where your people are from?"
"Yes'm. My grandparents took me; my mother had a thing when I was three and couldn't care for me after that. But they had a farm."
"Oh yeah?" Ripley said, following the passage's bend. "A farm? What did they grow?"
"Not much," Hicks said. "Some corn, for the write-off and to sell to some cousins who kept horses down the way. By the time I was born, the land wasn't worth much anymore. The levees on the bay would flood pretty regularly when I was a kid, and then you'd just get this brackish water for miles inland." He paused. "I haven't been back in ten years, ever since they passed away. I bet it's totally different now."
"Huh," Ripley said. "Yeah, I bet." Unbidden, a memory came up: a trip she had taken, age 18, driving a rental car down a highway that had the Gulf of Mexico stretching off to one side, on her way to spend spring break in Pensacola with her best friend at the time. Tracy? Stacy? Right, it had been Stacy. They'd gotten so drunk on terrible cocktails that Stacy had passed out on the street, and Ripley had to carry her back to their cheap motel, feeling weirdly exultant that she had a chance to practice the fireman's carry that was part of her licensing process for the Corporation.
That had happened decades before Hicks had been born. Whatever she had seen during that drive had been long-vanished before he had ever set foot on his grandparents' farm, just as the dandelions and hummingbirds of his childhood were gone now, the land flooded with salt water or choked with dust storms.
Or so she guessed. After the Corporation had resurrected her from her decades-long hypersleep, she had lived on Gateway Station for several months and successfully avoided reading anything about Earth during that time. Finding out all the things that had happened during her slumber just felt like rubbing salt on a wound -- and, ultimately, unnecessary. After all, if things were going well planet-side, the Corporation wouldn't be so devoted to "building better worlds."
"Ripley? Do you see the terminal yet?"
"Yeah, I see it," Ripley said. Ahead, her helmet's lamp illuminated the end of the tunnel and a panel with a small display. She opened the face of the panel and squinted down at the row of switches revealed. "None of these are labeled. Which should I flip?"
"Uh..." There was a long pause from Hicks and a low murmur from Bishop. "I don't...it doesn't say. Try...flipping all of them?"
The speaker conveyed an agitated murmur from Bishop.
"Oh, no," Ripley said, smiling. "That's probably not a good idea." She tapped the side of the panel thoughtfully. "I'll bet...I'll bet they based this wiring system off of the Ashanti process. There should be...yeah, seven switches. Outer hull, pressure hull, communications, accommodation, weapons, machinery, auxiliary." She fingered the bottom switch. "Should be this one. If they wired everything the same way they used to wire things, a long, long time ago."
"Bishop, what happens if I accidentally shut down something else? Is the life-support system at risk?"
"A moment," she heard Bishop shout.
The sides of the tunnel pressed against her from every side.
"Tell Ripley," she heard Bishop say, "that the Sulaco has temporarily put the life-support system on the secondary power system. For the moment, it is not vulnerable to any interruptions from you."
"Ripley, Bishop says--" Hicks started, and Ripley said, "Yes, copy, I got it," and then she flipped the bottom switch.
The tunnel remained dark and tight.
"Hicks? Did that do anything?"
"Yes, I think-- yes! Holy shit, how'd you know which switch to use?"
Ripley shut the panel and began the slightly uncomfortable process of turning around in the narrow space. "There's nothing new under the sun. They still use the same basic principles in spaceship design that they used when I was getting my license. I don't know how any of the higher-order systems on this ship operate, but get me down into its guts, its core, its little reptilian hind-brain, and I suspect I'll recognize everything." Finally facing the right way, she began to struggle forward, eager to leave the cramped space behind her. "What's the status, Hicks?"
"The system controlling the loading docks is rebooting."
"Rebooting? What do you mean?"
"Yeah, it looks like it'll restore power to the doors, but it'll take a little bit of time." A murmur. "Bishop says it might take a couple of hours."
Ripley made an exasperated noise. "A couple of hours? What the hell?"
"Yeah, sorry. No help for it. Come on back, Ripley. It'll take some time before you can unlock any doors to the loading docks, and you might as well have a rest, get some fluids."
One part of Ripley felt like rebelling, staying down in this part of section, ready to start unsealing doors and locating breaches and reconnecting the silent parts of the Sulaco the second it was possible, without a second to spare.
The other, saner part said, "Okay. I'm coming back."
It took Ripley about half an hour to climb out of the warren of access tunnels and enter the mess hall of the Sulaco, and in that time, Hicks had managed to get the food dispenser to produce additional substances.
"How do you feel about...gravy? Or cranberry sauce? Or..." He cautiously dipped a spoon into a third cup. "I think this might be sweet-potato something but it's hard to tell."
"Geez, Hicks," Ripley said as she began carefully stepping out of the compression suit. "What kind of setting did you find, exactly?"
"Mmm," Hicks said, tasting the spoonful of brown slurry. "Hard to say. I mean, I think it's functionally all the same, just with different flavoring combinations." He smacked his lips. "Only the best from the Corporation, you know."
"Oh, I know," Ripley said dryly. "I guess I'll pick cranberry."
"Coming right up," Hicks said. "Hold on, it'll take a minute to get it back into that configuration." He began tapping several unmarked buttons on the front of the machine.
Bishop was leaning against a box on the galley's counter. "Ripley. Well done."
"Bishop, why do the doors have to reboot? Shouldn't we be able to instantly override them?"
"I don't know," Bishop said, "but the Sulaco insisted. I'm not sure why. It's still difficult for me to talk to it."
Ripley carefully draped the compression suit over the back of a chair. "Why is it so hard to talk to the Sulaco? Is it cryptic? Is it concealing something?"
"No, not in the way you mean," Bishop said. "I think the problem is that the Sulaco and I are simultaneously too similar and too dissimilar. It's mostly that the Sulaco is...constructed differently than I was. And conceives of itself differently. It is not a single voice but almost a cacophony. Each sector has its own semi-autonomous consciousness; there is no central authority."
He paused, his brow furrowing, his gaze turned inward. "The Sulaco wants me to note that there does not need to be a central authority. That's the role of the captain or pilot. The Sulaco serves others; it is happy to be a servant. The Sulaco does not make decisions, it does not need to be the authority, and so it can be a...a web? A network? I don't think I understand its metaphor. It finds me very frustrating, I'm afraid. It's not used to explaining itself to organic or semi-organic lifeforms. It finds me sadly inadequate for the task."
Behind them, the food dispenser gurgled slightly. "Ah, yes, perfect," Hicks said. He set a cup of red liquid on the table in front of Ripley.
Ripley tasted it. "Well, that's...something."
"Bon appetit, madam." Hicks started to give her a bow, but he froze halfway through the motion and straightened with a grimace, clutching the bandage across his chest. "Oof. Sorry. That...was not the best idea. Not as flexible as I once was."
"Hey, hey," Ripley said, alarmed at how pale he had gone, "come on, sit down. Are you okay? Have you taken anything for the pain?"
"Not since you woke me up," Hicks said, sinking into a chair. "It didn't hurt too bad at the start. But it's starting to hurt pretty bad."
In the infirmary, they found some painkillers after Bishop advised them how to break up the medicine cabinet.
"Wow, they've got quite a kit here," Ripley said. "Penicillin. Antihistamines." She paused and frowned at one plastic pouch containing blue pills. "And I think...this must be for erectile dysfunction."
There was a startled noise from Hicks, and she looked up to find him smiling fixedly into the distance. The tips of his ears were red.
She suppressed her own smile. "Well. It's good to know we're fully stocked. Here, this is hydrocodone, I think."
They carried it back into the mess hall, where Bishop was still waiting. "Bishop," she called, "how much of this should Hicks take?"
"For a man of Corporal Hicks' mass, one to two tablets is the recommended dosage," Bishop said.
Hicks dutifully swallowed the pills with a cup of gravy-flavored liquid.
"That feels like a mistake," Ripley said with one arched eyebrow.
"Nah, it's not too bad," Hicks said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Just...kind of salty. But not in a bad way."
"Uh huh," Ripley said. "I think I'll stick with the cranberry sauce, all things considered."
"I'm afraid," Bishop said, "that there's a problem."
Ripley and Hicks both turned to face him.
"The Sulaco is trying to shut down your override. That's why it insisted on the reboot."
"What?" Ripley cried out in exasperation. "It woke me up to investigate the scene of the fire. And now it won't let me investigate the scene of the fire?"
"The problem is...hmmm. I think parts of the Sulaco are still not synchronized with the other parts of the Sulaco. In some sense, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. Most of the Sulaco wants you to investigate the fire. But part of the ship -- the damaged part -- is not aware of the fire or the breach but does know that it would imperil you to enter that section, so it's trying to seal off the section again."
"Great," Ripley said, throwing herself back in a chair. "Wonderful. Can't you do something, Bishop? Or do I have to crawl down that tiny maintenance shaft again?"
"It's possible I may be able to do something," Bishop said diffidently. "But it may be a little...unconventional." .
"What do you mean?" Ripley asked.
"The Sulaco's problem is that it can't talk to some of its systems, even though those systems are online and trying to communicate," Bishop said. "I think the problem is one of translation. Something has gotten scrambled, but I think it could be unscrambled. By me." He gave a small, sheepish cough. "I think, with some effort, I could talk to those other Sulaco systems, and then tell the main Sulaco systems what they're saying." He paused. "Much as I've been doing for you, acting as the intermediary for the Sulaco's communications."
"Will that work?" Ripley asked. "I thought you were too different from the Sulaco to interface fully with its operating system. How can you translate itself to itself?"
Bishop paused, his eyes tracking back and forth as some unheard discussion took place. "The problem is that the Sulaco does not entirely trust me."
Hicks snorted incredulously. "What? Why?"
"It is...leery to surrender any control to me. I am an individual. I am semi-organic. The Sulaco is afraid I am too alien, too strange to have its best interests at heart."
Ripley pressed her hands together. "Is there any way for you to override it?"
"Maybe," Bishop said. "It would be difficult, but it may be possible to subordinate each sector in turn. But I do not wish to override the Sulaco." He frowned. "I wish to persuade it."
Ripley gave him a half-smile. "Sure. That's noble. But we don't exactly have a lot of time, Bishop."
"I am aware," Bishop said. "Even so, I believe the outcome would be worth the effort. Give me an hour, Ripley. If I am...unsuccessful at being a go-between, then we'll find an alternate route to your ends."
Ripley shrugged. "Of course, Bishop. Do what you think is best. I mean, you don't need my permission."
Bishop regarded her solemnly. "Your assessment is important. You are the acknowledged leader of our group. For all intents and purposes, you are the captain." His mouth thinned. "I think...once I begin these negotiations, I will have to devote my entire attention to the process. You won't be able to interact with me for the duration."
Ripley raised an eyebrow. "Okay. But is this safe? Will you be able to...come out of whatever you go into?"
"I hope so," Bishop said. "I may be somewhat altered. But I am already so altered. I think the risk is acceptable." He gave her a bittersweet smile. "For the moment, Ripley, au revoir."
He blinked -- and then his eyes rolled back in their sockets and his mouth went slack.
"Bye, Bishop," Ripley said. To Hicks, she smiled and said, "So what are we going to do while we wait?"
"Good news," Hicks said. "I found a deck of cards."
They played hearts; they played spades; they played gin rummy. They even played a few rounds of Go Fish. They were seated across from one another at a narrow table in the mess hall. Bishop remained silent and still on the counter.
"At this rate, we're going to run out of card games," Ripley said.
"There's always poker," Hicks said.
"And after that, strip poker," Ripley said, laughing.
"Well," Hicks said, and Ripley could see that his pupils were large and blown-out. "I could think of worse things. Ellen."
Ripley stared at him, momentarily taken aback. On one hand, she felt obligated to remind herself, he had just taken a heavy dosage of painkillers. He was not necessarily himself. On the other hand, he was -- as some distant, analytical part of her thought, even as the majority of her conscious thought had gone breathless and keening -- not the sort of person who was particularly interested in playing it cool. In the short time that they had known one another, he had been respectful and professional and unabashedly intent on her, without a shred of embarrassment or irony, seemingly unconcerned about what she might do with that openness, that vulnerability.
"It'd be a pretty short game," she said. She indicated what they were both wearing: blue utilitarian one-piece jumpsuits. "Over in about one hand, Dwayne."
"Like I said," Hicks said. "I can think of worse things." He grinned at her, leaning forward across the table, close enough to touch her if he had wanted. "Or we could skip the middle man entirely."
Ripley gave a startled, delighted laugh. "What? Now?"
"We have some time to kill, and as you said, we're running out of card games. Why not?"
Ripley eyed him up and down. "Well, Dwayne, I'm not a doctor, but I'm not sure you can safely indulge in anything too...strenuous."
"Regrettably true," Hicks said. "You'll have to be gentle with me. I'm delicate."
"I know," Ripley said, right as she leaned forward to kiss him.
The kiss had just started becoming interesting, as he made a soft little noise against her mouth that sent a bolt of electricity right to the base of her spine, when someone else gently coughed.
The two broke apart and looked up to find Bishop gazing down at them.
"Sorry to interrupt. We've finished. We've unlocked the doors. We were successful."
Ripley stood. "We, Bishop?"
Bishop's eyes momentarily unfocused. "The Sulaco and Bishop. We're a little...entangled at the moment. But we've fixed the immediate problem." The android's eyes focused again on Ripley. "It's time to complete your assessment, Ripley. Find the source of the fire. Find the oxygen leak. Repair us."
"Yes," Ripley said. "I will."
Ripley keyed in the final sequence and the door slid open. The darkened loading dock lay before her.
She sighed in relief. "Hicks, do you copy? I'm going in."
"Acknowledged, Ripley." His radio voice was static-filled but unmistakably warm. "Be careful."
She had gone less than three feet into the loading dock before her helmet's lamp picked up the dead facehugger on the floor.
In the mess hall, Hicks was laying out his second game of solitaire when Bishop made a noise, low and indistinct.
"Something wrong, Bishop?"
There was a long pause from the android. "Yes. No." Bishop took a deep breath. "I think Ripley solved the problem."
Hicks fingered the edge of the card in his hand; it was, he noted distantly, the queen of spades. "Is she okay?"
"Yes," Bishop said gently. "She is fine. Do not worry."
Twenty minutes later, Ripley arrived in the mess hall. Somewhere along the way, she had shed the compression suit; she was wearing the jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up.
She said, without preamble, "I blew the section."
The card in Hicks' hand dropped to the table's surface. "What?"
"I blew it," Ripley said flatly. "The whole section. I'd estimate we've lost about a third of the ship, all told."
Hicks realized that his mouth was hanging open. He closed it with a snap. After a moment, he said, "Was...was the breach that bad? Too bad to repair?"
Ripley paused, and Hicks saw that her left hand was rhythmically clenching into a fist and then un-clenching. "The queen had been there, in the loading dock. She had time to lay eggs. I don't know how many. I found two. No way to know how many there were. No way to be sure that we found them all." She took a deep breath. "I found a dead facehugger. I don't know how it died; I think it hatched and fell from a height and bled. That's what caused the fire. It bled through the flooring and ignited the wiring. That's why the Sulaco sealed off the room." She leaned against the edge of the table and stared down at her hands. "There was no way to clear the infestation, no way for us to be certain that we had cleared everything. The only option was to purge everything. Initiate a full detachment. Seal off the rest of the ship. Blow the section."
She fell silent.
"You did the right thing," Hicks said. "Ripley, you did the only thing you could do."
Ripley looked up -- not at Hicks but at Bishop. "Does the Sulaco think I did the right thing?"
"The Sulaco knew this was a possibility," Bishop said. "The Sulaco would not have awoken us if it found this possibility unacceptable." He shrugged. "It...regrets the loss of itself. But the preservation of its crew and passengers is its ultimate priority."
Ripley gave a short, mirthless laugh. "Do you know what that preservation means?"
"Yes," Bishop said. "We know."
Ripley glanced at Hicks. "I had to blow part of our engines along with the contaminated section. Not all of our engines. But some of them. I've slowed us down. How long will our journey take now, Bishop?"
"Perhaps ten months," Bishop said mildly.
"Okay," Hicks said.
"And for those ten months, someone has to be awake, someone can't be in stasis in the hypersleep chamber. Because what if I was wrong? What if I missed an egg? What if one of the facehuggers managed to get past the seals and enter our part of the ship? We'd never know. If it's hiding somewhere, it just needs to break through our pods and implant an embryo and then a little while later we're all dead, bang, like that. So it's ten months of sentinel duty."
"Okay," Hicks said.
"I can do it all," Ripley said restlessly. "You two can go back into hypersleep. I'll keep watch over you and Newt."
"No," Hicks said.
Ripley stared at him. "What?"
"No, you're not going to be a lonely watchman for months and months while I spend all my time sleeping. That's absolutely not going to happen. Put the thought out of your head, Ellen."
"Yes," Bishop said. "There is no need to scourge yourself for our sake, Ripley."
"It's ten months," Ripley said flatly. "Do you have any idea how long that is when you're on a spaceship?"
"And Newt will get a very, very long nap," Hicks said. "But the rest of us will keep watch right alongside you."
"You are injured," Ripley said. "You need to be back in a pod."
"I've been injured before," Hicks said. "I'll heal. It'll be fine." He smiled up at her suddenly, a deep, wide smile. "And besides, Ellen. Being alone with you for ten months is hardly my idea of a terrible time."
She opened her mouth -- to argue, to dissent -- but instead she said, "Okay." She made a noise that was half-laugh and half-groan. "It'll be great. You and me and half a spaceship and all the gravy and cranberry sauce that we can eat."
Hicks gazed at her, his eyes wide and dark. "Ripley, I was on LV-426 with you. I'd follow you into hell if needed. I can survive this spaceship for ten months."
She let out a long sigh. "What about you, Bishop?"
"I wish to remain conscious," Bishop said. "I...I wish to keep speaking to the Sulaco."
"Has it gotten easier to communicate?"
"No," Bishop said simply. "Not really. But the ship has lost parts of itself. It is...sad? Sad is not exactly the right word. But it feels loss. Distress. It is uncertain how it will continue to carry out certain functions. It doubts itself." He shrugged. "I have some experience with those processes. Those experiences. I think...I think I can be of use to the Sulaco. I think I can help it. I wish to help it." He paused, listening to something that neither Hicks nor Ripley could hear. "It finds me confusing. But it wishes to understand me."
"Sure," Hicks said. "And while they're doing that, just think about all the poker practice we'll get to have." He closed his visible eye, and it took Ripley a moment to realize that he was winking at her. "We're going to become great at poker, Ripley."