Ripley awoke, sweating and panting, from a very different kind of nightmare.
She stared blearily about the white sterility of her cabin, every shape smearing into the next in an indecipherable roar of blinding light. For long minutes she shivered beneath the thin, damp sheets, as she tried to force her sight to better focus. Spots flickered before her eyes in the shapes of faces: dozens of strangers peering at her, backlit, muddied by panes of thick glass. It wasn’t her ribs cracking outward that she feared then, but piercings and dissections, her voice swallowed up by the unrelenting static.
Gradually, she calmed. She took a breath, took a drink from the bedside glass, took her time. And when she was ready, she slicked her hair back and changed into a fresh, company-provided shirt and pants. No more sleep tonight, if it could have been called that in the first place.
The USCSS Svalbard was not the largest ship Ripley had ever been on, but it came pretty damn close. It was a research vessel, stocked to the brim with scientists and equipment of every variety, even smaller ships. It had been a remarkable stroke of luck, being picked up by such a vessel so deep in space. Ripley ought to have been grateful. But like most things the ship was owned by The Company, and that meant another round of vigorous testing, and questioning, and blame. Three weeks since they had been intercepted, and only as of the last forty-eight hours had she received permission to wander the ship unchaperoned.
Ripley’s clearance didn’t allow her too much freedom, of course. She was limited in her impromptu tour to the cafeteria, the crew clinic, a few of the recreation stations, and tonight, the observation deck. This it was in name only—there was nothing to see on the other side of the immense picture window. Just black. Just an immeasurable expanse of looming, empty black. Even the stars didn’t quite register to Ripley as she sank into one of the deck chairs. Always her eye was drawn to the space in between the lights as if obsessed. Maybe she thought that if she stared long enough, she would see it. It . Hurtling through space. Dead, or maybe not. But infinite.
Ripley flinched and glanced over, and there her apprehension quickly faded. She was looking at a very tired, very familiar half smile, which she returned. “Hey.”
Corporal Hicks looked about as well as she felt: he was reclining in one of the nearby deck chairs, shoulders sagged, a heavy circle under his right eye. He turned toward her just enough that she could see the mess of scar tissue surrounding his now blind left eye, and the burn marks skating down the side of his face and neck, mostly healed but still gruesome enough Ripley could almost hear them sizzling. But she had seen worse. She moved to sit on the foot stool in front of him.
“So, they finally let you out of the medical wing,” Ripley said, her relief half-strangled to keep it from overwhelming her.
“Not quite a free man yet,” Hicks replied. He watched her closely, and though each word out of his mouth was honest, they were brittle, like a shell over whatever it was he really wanted to say. “Can’t put me into hypersleep until they finish all the work I need done.” He brushed a hand over his face. “Might even get a new eye.”
Ripley winced sympathetically. “I’m sorry.”
“Naw, don’t be.” Hicks smirked as he resettled in his chair. “I wasn’t much of a looker before this anyway.”
“You did all right,” Ripley replied.
She smirked back, and he appreciated it. “You, too,” he said. And they sat for a while, quiet but not awkward, suspended in silent awe that they hard survived.
“What about the kid?” Hicks asked eventually. “Newt?”
“Oh, she’s….” Ripley took a moment to rally herself. “She’s fine. At least, that’s what they tell me—they won’t let me see her.” She couldn’t help a scowl. “Probably worried I’ll influence her story about what happened. As there’s anything worth lying about now.”
“Significant investment,” Hicks quoted, and as much as the words made her skin crawl, it did coax a smile back out of her, however grim. “It must be the same bullshit they put you through the last time, huh?”
“And then some.” Ripley glanced away and felt her eyes being drawn to the picture window again, that endless expanse taunting her. “Fucking déjà vu,” she muttered. “I keep thinking another Burke is going to knock on my door, and tell me there’s another one of those things out there, and won’t you please say ‘I told you so’ one more time.”
“That why you’re out here?” Hicks asked, faintly teasing. “Preemptive escape?”
“Something like that,” Ripley admitted, and she raised an eyebrow. “Is that why you’re out here?”
“Something like that,” Hicks replied, and he leaned forward a little. “Don’t really like it out here either, though. Why don’t you come back to my cabin for a drink?”
Ripley found herself surprised by the offer, though realized a moment later that she shouldn’t have been. The two of them, lone survivors. She couldn’t say she wasn’t tempted, just for the sake of it—the raw, instinctual sake of an opportunity she hadn’t had in a long time. He hadn’t delivered that invitation as smoothly as he’d intended, probably, but the thought that maybe he was rusty, too, only made it easier.
“Yeah,” she said. “Okay.”
They went back to Hicks’ cabin, which was as dull and sterile as Ripley’s. “Don’t worry,” Hicks said as he moved to a small cabinet for glasses. “If anyone knocks on this door looking for either of us, I’ll make them regret it.”
Ripley leaned her back against the table as she took a quick look around the room. The bedsheets were a rumpled, sweaty mess, just like she had left hers. “Oh, I’ll be right there with you,” she agreed. “Believe me.”
Hicks filled the glass with water from the sink and handed it to her. She stared at it a moment, then at him, and the corner of her lip turned up. “My place for a drink?”
Hicks shrugged, and despite the scars, and the blistered, unseeing eye, and the sleeplessness and stress...she had to admit, that little smile of his was charming. “It’s all I got,” he said.
Ripley let out an incredulous huff, and she took a sip to humor him. As soon as the water touched her parched tongue, however, the coolness of it thudded throughout her dehydrated body, and she found herself gulping the entire glassfull down. “It’s good,” she said, gasping. She held her glass out. “Fill’er up.”
Hicks happily obliged. “Yes, ma’am.”
Both of them had another drink, and then Ripley could see him struggling for something new to say. Maybe he would have attempted clever again, maybe something more sincere, but she could already see where it would lead. They would talk, and maybe they could find something they had in common that didn’t wait at the end of a barrel. Maybe they could commiserate over fallen comrades and unknown futures. Or maybe there would be that knock on the door, followed by new disasters and nightmares, or even just a sternly worded curfew. Maybe they had all the time in the world—or maybe they had none. But the galaxy’s longest hypersleep had wasted too much already, and a wounded space marine would never have enough, and she kissed him before it was too late.
Hicks almost dropped his glass, but he had a soldier’s dexterity, and he caught himself before it slipped too far from his fingers. After a momentary awkwardness of each of them finding a place to stow their drinks, they came together again, properly, wrapping each other up. They were both strong, and they were both a starmap of bruises, and it hurt . It was a perfect hurt Ripley wanted to knead her palm into.
Hicks was a little rusty. His hands were rough, and as he worked her out of her plain sweats he slowed sometimes, as if trying to gentle himself for her sake. For the moment, Ripley wasn’t interested in his sympathy, and she tried to keep their momentum high by drawing longer, more insistent kisses from his mouth. They made their way to the already tousled bed, the rest of their clothing shed along the way. As they stretched out on the mattress together, their mouths struggling to find a balance between hunger and tenderness, Ripley welcomed his body over hers. He was warm and heavy and it was blissful.
But then Hicks shifted, putting too much of that weight against his healing left side. His grimace broke their kiss with a rush a stuttering air. Rather than embarrass him with concern, Ripley instead took advantage; she used Hicks’ lapse to push against his shoulder, rolling him onto his back. They almost tumbled off the mattress, but that only gave them the excuse to laugh a little. Without any further reservations their lips rejoined, their hands grew bolder in their explorations. They let the euphoria of their survival fuel that tiny spark of passion kindled in the most wretched of circumstances. She made love to him steadily, determinedly, each moan and murmur an anthem. His fingers bore new bruises into her hips and she didn’t lower her gaze from his scars for a moment.
And after, after a piss and another drink each, they slouched in the bed together, sharing a cigarette.
“Spend the night,” said Hicks. “What’s left of it.”
“I don’t know if you want that,” said Ripley, taking the cigarette from him. “I won’t sleep.”
“Neither will I,” said Hicks. “So we might as well not sleep together.”
Ripley smiled wryly. She breathed the drug in and let it out slow. “Yeah,” she said. “Okay.”