Alien: Odyssey, by Pink Rabbit Productions--Prologue-Chapter 1

Disclaimers: Well, we're talking sex (and it's all between the ladies, so if that sort of thing offends, you should head out now), prodigious obscenities in places, and considerable amounts of violence. On the positive side it should be noted that there's no sexual violence to speak of, no kinky leather scenes (though some might not consider that a plus), and hopefully nothing that will depress you. Btw, Ripley, Call, Johner and Vriess, and especially the alien don't belong to me, but what the hell, I felt like borrowing them for awhile.

Note: This story has quite a few illustrations (some of which can be glimpsed in the title blocks), and those can be accessed from within the story, or from a separate page. It's done it this way to speed up downloading, and allow our readers a choice to view, or not.

Feedback: Always welcome at pinkrabbit@altfic.com

To view the Illustrations, click the numbers in parentheses, throughout the story, or
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| Prologue-Ch.1 | Ch. 2-3 | Ch. 4-5 | Ch. 6-7 | Ch. 8-9 | Ch. 10-11 | Ch. 12-Epilogue |

Prologue
Onset

The first incursion into earth airspace was small, little more than a blip on the radar screens, but it was moving fast as it fell from the sky. Deep within a monitoring station in the Nevada desert all hands were suddenly scrambling. Base 51 was the most sensitive station of the old line network, serving as the early warning system for most of North, South, and Central America.

"Heads up!" the warrant officer's voice rang across the control deck. "We've got incoming! It looks like the USM is finally making their move! Davis, get all patrols on that pod's landing zone. I don't want anyone escaping that containment zone."

The men and women manning the station were moving even before the orders came down. Though many were clothed in civilian garb -- often with no more than a few remnants of their old uniforms -- they were all career soldiers trained to the demands of combat. Thirty years before, the first wave of them had been chosen by the USM for their loyalty, intelligence, and their natural resistance to cancer as well as a host of diseases. Under the cover of saving the world that had given man birth, they'd been cybernetically enhanced, loaded up with every kind of vaccine known to man, and sent to earth. It hadn't taken long -- no more than a few water riots -- before soldiers started to realize they were there to steal, not save. Earth still had more than a few precious natural resources, and the USM wanted them, the locals interests be damned. The first defections had come within weeks of landing, and within a year the USM was forced to send more troops to try and bring the first wave back under control. Then more troops still, the year after that. It became a long running game -- attack, realization, defection -- played out over the decades until the USM had finally simply cut the tiny world off, declaring it a forbidden zone. Then they sat back and tried to come up with a way to retake the polluted surface of man’s homeworld that didn't involve sending more troops who would merely change sides once they learned the truth.

The soldiers didn’t know what was coming down. They only knew that after five years of relative calm the game was starting all over again.

Seconds later, a young man in jeans and a sweatshirt shouted out, "Sir! You've got to see this!"

A brief second after that, the first pod was forgotten as they got a look at what followed it.

"SEND WARNING CODES TO ALL ZONES!!!" the warrant officer shouted as he stared at the outline of hell bearing down on the earth.

Above ground and far overhead, white hot light spread outward from a center point. The few people who inhabited the desert below didn't know it, but it was the Auriga hitting the atmosphere and tearing to shreds as the huge reactors that powered her engines exploded. The ship had never been meant to land. It had been built in space and was intended to live out its life free of the pull of planetary gravity. It didn't have the shielding to deal with the normal heat of reentry, and it was coming in at the wrong angle, maximizing the applied friction and torquing the ship's massive frame. A moment passed as the world became brighter, like a slow motion nuclear explosion.

Deep underground, Base 51 was sheer havoc as men and women fought to make sense of the chaos on their screens. The Auriga shattered into pieces, putting out an electromagnetic pulse that made any kind of reliable reading highly unlikely and spilled millions of tons of burning metal down on the world. Hell had returned to earth and in its wake the tiny pod that had preceded it like a twisted rendition of the annunciation was completely forgotten. A team had been dispatched. If they survived the fiery hell falling from the sky, they would see to it. No one else had time to give it another thought.

That was a mistake.

*****

The USM base orbiting overhead controlled the planet's automatic defense systems via a series of satellite mounted cannons designed more to keep ships in, than out. No one came to Earth anymore. They only tried to leave. So far, the USM had managed to keep the civil war on Earth very quiet. There were a few rumors but not much more than that. Since the planet was largely regarded as a wasteland no one was in a hurry to pay a visit. After all, nuclear and chemical contamination, plagues of all varieties, and poisonous air and water don’t make for a welcoming environment. All the USM had to do was keep the situation quiet until they could get it under control. They'd been telling themselves that for nearly thirty years.

When the word came down about the trouble on the Auriga, there'd been a certain sense of relief among the generals in charge. Wren's experiment had cost a few lives, but there had been no one on the ship who wasn't considered expendable. Once they had the creatures fully under their control, the insurrection on Earth would be over. The aliens wouldn't be beset by the cancers, lung ailments, or diseases that weakened any normal man or woman on the surface. They were strong enough to fight the enhanced humans and win. And they wouldn't feel any guilt or pity when it came to the natives.

They were the perfect solution.

So it wasn't a good moment, when the Auriga didn't slow to docking speed, just barreled on through until it destroyed itself by crashing into Earth's atmosphere. They still had a few ground troops in the plague-ruined southern tip of Africa, but they were so addicted to the painkillers required to make their massive cybernetic additions bearable that they were of scant use. There was little, if anything the USM could do, except hope that other aspects of the experiment came out as planned.

*****

Chapter 1
Arrival

The Betty surged ungracefully through Terran airspace. No one either above or below much noticed the small ship. They were all too busy with their own problems, and it was just a tiny blip.

Half torn apart by her reentry into earth's atmosphere, she wasn't likely to be long for the skies.

Call stared out the rear window, amazed by the beauty of the world below. After listening to all of the rumors, she'd expected to find little more than a dying world full of brown, destroyed land. Instead, the ocean was a deep, teal blue, the coastline jagged and dotted with patches of green. Here and there, there were signs of small towns. "That's the California coast," she whispered.

Ripley frowned slightly, trying to make out vaguely remembered shapes and land masses without much success. Earth geography had never been her strong suit. She was more comfortable with star maps.

"The rumors all said there was nothing left, but it's beautiful…I can see forests."

"Any idea what the situation is?" Ripley questioned.

Call shrugged. "There wasn't much information, but what there was, was even more classified than the aliens."

"Why isn't that a comforting thought?" Ripley murmured dryly.

"Earth was nearly abandoned due to disease and radiation about a hundred years ago. Then about thirty years ago, the military moved back in. Since then, the entire planet’s been locked down. They claim it’s to protect civilians while they’re cleaning things up, but according to what I found, it’s because their own troops have revolted."

"Wonderful," Ripley exhaled. "I think you’re telling me we’re walking into a civil war."

Call shook her head. "I don’t think it’s active. From what I could tell, things have settled down in the last few years…and the remaining civilians are fixing things up."

"Let’s hope you’re right. I don’t really want to--"

The ship suddenly heaved to one side, nearly throwing both women off their feet. Ripley caught Call around the waist with one arm and held onto a cargo strap with the other to keep them both from flying across the cabin. "Hold on!" she shouted while Call scrambled to get a grip on one of the straps. "Vriess doesn't know a thing about flying this thing!" she shouted. "Christ! He needs to set the trim." She grabbed another strap, making sure Call was safe before releasing her. "I'm going to see if I can do something before we slam straight into the ground."

Call didn't argue, just held on as Ripley used the cargo straps to make her way into the corridor that led to the cockpit. Long moments later, she felt the ship right itself faintly, then smooth out a little. She swung over to stare out the window. The ground seemed to coming up awfully quickly.

*****

Darrin Leeds liked to think he was a righteous man. He'd been raised Baptist and still remembered the moment when he'd been thrust underwater and felt his sins washed away as the spirit of the Lord entered him. He was married and still faithful, though she was somewhere in space -- undoubtedly informed of his death by a government who considered him a traitor -- and getting on with her life. Sometimes he thought about betraying that vow, but as long as he knew he was alive and didn't know if she was, he felt committed to the relationship. He tried not to lecture the others but sometimes couldn't help it. He knew his beliefs annoyed his buddies sometimes, but not too much, since no matter how bad a scene was, they knew they could rely on Leeds. He had his faults, but a lack of courage wasn't one of them.

Standing on a mountaintop some twenty miles from a gorgeous stretch of Southern California beachfront, he was the only member of his team who wasn't wishing he could turn due west and recon the waves. He could feel something getting ready to happen. He'd always had a sense of when all hell was about to break, and it hadn't failed him this time.

When the sky started to grow brighter, he spun in place, grabbing for the binoculars on his equipment belt. For the briefest second, he thought the Second Coming was upon them before he picked out the fast collapsing shape of a huge cruiser at the center of the explosion. "Down!" he shouted to his team, but remained standing, unable to look away as the explosion spread outward. It was sheer chance that he spotted the small dot skimming through the fires. Instinctively knowing it was important, he tracked it, watched as it grew larger, forming into the distinct shape of a small ship. He could almost see the writing on the side as it plummeted straight toward them, finally skimming overhead as it careened toward the next valley over, then disappeared from view.

"Communications are dead!" one of his men shouted above the winds that had suddenly picked up.

Leeds nodded, not caring. He already knew what their assignment was. They had a ship to find.

*****

The muscles in Ripley's arms pulled taut as she fought with the battered ship's barely functioning stick. "We're going down…hard…brace for impact!" she shouted in warning as she struggled to get any glide possible out of the small ship. In the best of circumstances it wasn’t well designed for atmospheric flight and wasn't what anyone would call graceful. The engines sputtered, barely working, while Ripley's hands danced over the controls, coaxing every last bit of life out of small craft. She let out an unsteady breath, focusing on the task at hand as they dropped through the clouds. Not very many minutes later, she let out a soft grunt as she felt the first brush of trees against the bottom of the Betty. It turned to a low growl as the friction increased. She could hear Johner cursing mightily while Vriess was muttering in a dozen different languages, but she paid them scant mind. Her entire focus was on getting the ship down in something akin to one piece. It was shaking and rattling, every nut and bolt threatening to come apart at any second, but she managed to keep it on the closest thing to a glide trim possible. They dropped again, then skidded, sending trees, dirt, and clumps of new growth flying until the ship finally came to grinding halt.

Hands still clutching the stick, Ripley blinked and tipped her chin up. A hint of a smile touched her lips as she slowly rolled her shoulders.

"Shit, that smarts," Johner muttered.

Smirking, Ripley shrugged a muscular shoulder. "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one," she pointed out dryly, then rose gracefully from her chair.

Call came stumbling in at that moment, and the two women shared a momentary look.

"You okay?" Ripley questioned as she hurried forward, resting her hands on Call's shoulders before looking past her. For a brief moment, her expression was shadowed with pain.

"I'm fine," Call whispered, her gaze following the taller woman's.

"Shit," Johner broke in, his rough voice an oddly welcome distraction. "What the fuck happened back there? We heard all sorts of screaming and shit."

Ripley's hands remained on Call's shoulders, her thumbs moving very faintly in a stroking pattern, as though she drew some comfort from the contact. She didn't go into any detail as she explained, "Distephano's dead." At Johner and Vriess's startled looks, she added, "One of the … aliens…got aboard." She didn't tell them any more, didn't want to think about the creature that had cost the young man his life, or her tie to it.

"Fuck!" Johner exploded and started to grab for his gun.

"It's dead," Call said to forestall his opening fire in a panic.

"I killed it," Ripley finished for her, her voice emotionless.

Johner stared at her, noting her lack of weapons, his expression somewhere between shocked, afraid, and excited. "Damn, woman…you are one wicked bitch."

"Aren't I though?" Ripley muttered mockingly and worked a hand through her hair. Her eyes slid away from Johner, accidentally making contact with Call. She noted the worried look in dark eyes, and a sad smile touched her lips. It was meant to reassure. Judging by Call's expression, it didn't make the grade.

"Are you both all right?" Vriess questioned, though it was clear who his question was really for.

Call nodded and brushed a hand up Ripley's bare arm, completely missing Vriess' answering flinch. "We're okay."

There was a long, uncomfortable moment of silence before Ripley broke in. "We need to do something about the bodies, then see if we can get this hunk of junk working again. I have a funny feeling staying around here may not be such a good idea."

"Yeah, I guess we should bury Purvis, and Distephano," Johner allowed. "But as far as I'm concerned, the animals are welcome to chow down on Wren."

Ripley heartily agreed, but Call shook her head. "Too much chance it would make them sick," she murmured seriously. Earth was a delicately balanced planet. God only knew what the alien toxins from the creature that had punched its way through Wren's head, might do.

The others stared at her as though uncertain whether she was serious or joking.

Finally, Ripley's mouth turned up in a wry smile. "She has a point. Poisoning the local wildlife does seem a bit cruel."

Grumbling softly, Johner moved to an equipment locker and grabbed a couple of folding shovels. "C'mon Ripley," he muttered. "I assume you can swing a shovel."

"Yeah." She caught the one he tossed to her, then glanced at Call. "You two might see if you can get a catalog of needed repairs going. I have a funny feeling we should try and get out of here asap," she suggested as she followed the big man out.

"You really okay?" Vriess asked when the two were gone.

Call glanced back toward the cargo bay. She could hear Ripley and Johner handling the bodies. She didn't want to think about how Distephano or Purvis had died. Neither man had deserved their ends. "Fine," she answered distantly. She heard Johner curse and the thud of a body. She hurt for Ripley, instinctively knowing how she must feel handling the bodies of the men killed by the monster she'd given birth to. Finally, she turned back to face Vriess, her manner all business. "Let's see if we can figure out what needs to be done to get this barge flying again."

Vriess' eyes were shadowed, but he nodded in agreement.

*****

At Base 51, General Martin Triese peered up at the ceiling with dislike. He was a big man, weathered, and heavily sinewed with a combination of human muscle and plastic and steel cabling. The commander of the entire North American continent, he'd been in the middle of a briefing with his junior officers when the world shook around them, throwing plaster dust and grit down on their heads, and buckling some less reinforced areas of the underground base. The floor was still shuddering faintly beneath his feet, but the worst of it seemed to be over. The explosion had occurred somewhere northeast of their position, but they'd been close enough to the epicenter to feel its power. It had shaken the entire base like a child with a rattle, sending men and equipment flying and threatening to drop the upper levels down on their heads. Power and communications were out. The main entrance to the surface was blocked by debris and shattered cement. The complex had been built to withstand a nuclear explosion, but it was old, and it had been pushed it to the limit. He glanced down and saw a soldier headed his way, his face pale in the light of the powerful flashlight he carried. It took a moment for Triese to realize his skin was covered in a Kabuki layer of plaster dust. "Mitchell, what's the word?"

"None of the exits are passable, sir, and central communications is still down."

"Shit."

"The good news is the air vents seem to be clear. We're still getting plenty of oxygen."

Triese nodded. "Get a crew on this mess. We need to try and clear a route out of here…then find Gabriel, and give him any help he needs to get the communications going again. We need to find out what the hell happened." He ran a hand over his short-cropped hair, massaging the back of his head as he stared at the mess. Every instinct was screaming. Something big and bad was coming down on them. He was sure of it. He just wished he knew what the hell it was.

"Sir," a young man interrupted his superior's musings. " Gabriel left almost five hours ago. He was headed for SouCal. He was going to oversee their yearly system's overhaul."

"Damn," Triese muttered. "Thanks for letting me know. Inform me if you make contact." He watched the boy walk away with hooded eyes. Everything under creation was coming down on their heads, and now their best computer tech was missing. He cursed again. And who the fuck knew what that kind of burst would do? It had knocked out their communications. He wondered if it might do the same thing to even a second gen robot.

*****

"Welcome to Southern California. Your Gateway to the Stars," read the antique sign that hung above a bank of computers at the Southern California Earth Defense Military Base--SouCal. Pictures of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean flanked the faded words. Reminders of a distant history. Normally the computers glowed with life as they monitored events overhead, tracked the progress of the desalinization plants, and maintained communications with a network of EDM bases worldwide. Now they sat black and lifeless.

"Shit, piss, fuck, goddamn," Colonel Elizabeth Hoagland muttered as her flashlight played over the silent machines. Her men had dragged her out of a sound sleep so she was only half dressed, her clothes hanging open, boots untied, hair loose. "What the fuck happened?" she demanded, struggling to make her brain work on all thrusters. Generally, she was better in a crisis, but they'd been getting ready for one of Gabriel's inspections, and she'd only had a few hours sleep in the last few days.

"Something came in hard," a tech informed her. "The center of explosion was about halfway between Base 51 and Ely, Nevada."

"Shit. Any word from Triese or his people?"

The tech shook his head.

Hoagland worked a hand through her hair. "Barney," she called to one of the men. "I want you to take your best people and start working on getting our power back up. Danielle, disconnect all external backup data and get ready to reboot the system. I don't want any risk of losing any of the information we already have. Marshall, send a runner to Angeltown and tell the local government we're on it, and we'll let them know what's happening. I do not want a panic!" She flexed her hand to keep the nervous twitch out of her fingers. She was a second wave augment. That meant leaner lines and a sleeker look that was much harder to spot in a crowd of norms than the first wavers, like Triese. It also meant that if she let herself get too stressed and too much adrenaline flooded her system, artificial muscles would start to expand, giving her exponential strength….and one holy hell of a lot of pain. She glanced across her people, noting some of them were having the same problem keeping themselves under control. They needed something to break the tension. "And somebody please get me a fucking cup of coffee!" She heard the soft chuckles and felt the tension break. After all, the troopers reasoned, the world couldn't really be coming to an end if the colonel wanted her coffee.

*****

It was Call who quietly said the words over the three graves. Her praise was intended for only two of them, leaving her to hope that God was discerning enough to know that Wren didn't deserve a bit of it, even if he was resting next to two good souls. She finished the softly spoken comments just as the sun set on the horizon.

Ripley stared down at the three mounds, barely listening to Call's soft voice. She was tired beyond belief, her body strained to the limit. Her eyes slid over their small group. Johner was wavering on his feet, while Vriess looked like he'd been dead for a week, and no one had bothered to tell him. Even Call looked out of it. Ripley found herself wondering if the android slept. Did she dream? She shook her head, chasing off the silent musing. They all needed to rest, to lie down before they fell down. She experienced a certain resentment at being the strongest of the group. She just wanted to close her eyes and sleep -- Maybe now the dreams wouldn't come -- but the others were closer to their limits. "The rest of you get some rest. I'll take the first watch."

Vriess seemed as though he might argue, but Ripley held up a hand, forestalling any discussion. "We can't afford to use the ship's lights to keep working. Too much chance of powering down the main batteries. Besides, we're all too tired to do the work reliably. Get some sleep while you can."

Johner slung Vriess up without argument. Neither man was capable of being macho at that point, and Johner certainly didn't have a chivalrous bone in his body.

Call touched Ripley's arm lightly. "Get some sleep. I can handle the watch."

Ripley shook her head. "I'm fine, and you need some down-time."

Call started to argue, but the taller woman's expression was determined.

"Besides," Ripley added with grim humor. "I can use the reading time. I've got two hundred years of history to catch up on, remember."

Call didn't bother to argue any further, just stumbled back into the ship. Ripley stared after her for a long moment, then turned to peer out at the valley below. Home. She was on earth again. She inhaled the scent of the air, surprised to find it smelled just like she remembered. She stayed there a long time before ambling back inside the Betty.

*****

Call's eyes flicked open as she returned to consciousness with a suddenness attainable only by a synthetic creature. She sat up sharply in the small confines of her quarters. Her side was aching painfully, reminding her that, unlike the human members of the crew, she couldn't simply heal with time. She cursed softly, wishing she'd brought along some of the materials needed to repair the damage. Afraid someone might question why she had the specialized supplies, she'd left them behind, assuming she'd either come out of the Auriga uninjured, or she wouldn't come out at all. She rose stiffly, straightening her clothes as best she could to hide the gaping hole in her chest, then hurried out.

A light glowed softly in the cockpit, throwing a rangy figure into sharp relief. Call paused for a moment, studying Ripley's features. She wasn't a beautiful woman in the typical sense, but there was something amazingly compelling about her. Suddenly, dark eyes lifted, spearing Call with a laser gaze.

"I thought I told you to get some rest," Ripley said dryly.

Call straightened herself. "I came to relieve you. We'll need you at your best tomorrow."

A dark eyebrow lifted, but the cloned woman didn't speak.

"Without his wheelchair, Vriess' ability to work on the ship will be badly hampered, and Johner…well, he's the next best thing to useless when it comes to anything technical. You know the technology on this ship."

Ripley nodded silently, eyeing Call through narrowed eyes. Finally, she flicked the computer off and rose gracefully. Sinewy muscles pulled taut as she stretched to loosen the kinks that had set in while she sat and read.

Knowing she'd need the extra foot room, Call told her. "Take the first cabin on the left in the crew's quarters." It had been Elgyn's, and the bed was longer than most.

Ripley nodded, noting Call's small wince as she sank into the copilot's chair. "Your side giving you a lot of problems?" she questioned.

Call shrugged. "It's not that bad."

A frown drew a faint line between slim brows. "I'll see what we can do about it tomorrow," Ripley muttered. "There must be something on this barge that we can use to repair the damage."

Call just waved her off as she hooked one leg over the arm of the chair, and settled in to check the minimal readouts still powered up on the ship's main computer. In another fifteen or twenty minutes, she'd walk the ship and run a visual check outside, but for the moment, she wanted to run a basic systems diagnostic. She was aware of dark eyes watching her for a long moment and had the oddest sensation that Ripley was about to say something, until finally the soft sound of boots on the floor grate hailed her exit. Dark eyes lifted, focusing momentarily on the doorway where the tall woman had stood, before returning to the task at hand.

*****

The escape pod from the Auriga landed in the middle of the Nevada desert. Despite launching hours ahead of the huge ship, the pod hit atmosphere only minutes ahead of her, following much the same trajectory downward, to land some 80 miles southwest of the Auriga's central impact point. Close enough that the shielding, designed to protect the tiny craft during reentry, barely kept the men inside from cooking alive.

It might have been kinder if it hadn't.

They had no way of knowing they were carrying death with them. No way of knowing that the unconscious civilian Perez had ordered removed to the pod was host to a creature whose sole purpose in life was their destruction. The man appeared to be young and healthy. The soldiers knew the military was conducting experiments, but none of the young grunts had much idea about the true nature of Wren's work. Their civilian passenger never regained consciousness to tell them about those awful moments of strangulation when the creature hit his face, wrapping a strong tail around his throat as its young was implanted in his body. No one ever guessed what kind of hell was hiding in his chest cavity.

It escaped only minutes before they hit earth's atmosphere, clawing its way through his chest, sending blood and bone spraying outward. With no weapons, and in the middle of freefall, the soldiers could do nothing. When they landed, they tried to escape, but they were in the middle of a desert with no supplies. They were doomed. In the hours that followed, the creature grew, and fed.

The first incursion had been small, but infinitely dangerous.

Because this creature knew its purpose. It was a predator, a hunter.

And it was a queen.

******

She was a hot desert plane, her belly full of warm meat, her body strong, and growing stronger. Now, she only had to create her warriors, and she had the hosts to do that. They were already contained, their bodies ready to serve. Her saw-toothed tongue flicked in satisfaction as she watched the eggs start to pulse with life before the cocooned men.

"Wake up," the voice broke through Ellen Ripley's nightmare, yanking her upright and back to the present. She stared up at the delicate face peering down at her, taking in smooth curves and worried eyes as she gasped for air. Small hands held her shoulders. She wrapped her fingers around slender arms, clinging as though they were a lifeline.

"You were having a nightmare," Call told her worriedly.

Ripley nodded, her chest still heaving as though there wasn't enough air in the room. Her eyes flicked around the shadowed chamber. Nothing. There was nothing there. The aliens were dead. She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, willing the tension suffusing her body to leave as well. She worked a shaking hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face. "I'm all right," she mumbled unsteadily.

"Are you sure," a gentle voice questioned.

Ripley nodded, pushing upright and swinging her legs off the bunk. Light shined dimly through the tiny, dust impregnated port. It was morning already. Considering her dreams, it didn't bother her that she didn't have to try to go back to sleep. Thick depression settled on her shoulders. She'd thought maybe the nightmares were over. No such luck. Call's hand drew near her arm -- close, but not quite touching -- making Ripley intensely aware of the heat of the auton's body as she stood ready to steady her should she stumble. A wry smile twisted Ellen Ripley's mouth. She couldn't remember the last time someone had given a damn either way. No, she could remember. An image of a young marine appeared in her mind's eye. Hicks. He'd given a damn. Her stomach clenched tightly. And Newt. The little girl had cared. And they were both dead for it. Dead, and long since forgotten. She straightened herself, forcing the knowledge to the back of her mind. She couldn't think about all the things she'd lost, or she'd go mad.

Sensing the wall that came up between them, Call's voice became professionally cool as she informed Ripley, "We blew out the number two engine on landing. Vriess is working on a way to use parts from a loader engine in storage to repair it. He'll need your help."

Ripley nodded dully, still struggling against her dream images.

"I can probably repair the acid damage to the window and the cooling system."

Another dull nod.

A long pause followed. "Ripley, are you sure you're all right?"

Dark eyes lifted, giving Call a glimpse of soul deep sorrow. "Just realizing that a part of it will never end," she sighed. "That a part of me will always be a part of them."

Call shook her head in disagreement and drew breath to argue, but Ripley laid a finger over her lips.

"I am what I am." A sad smile twisted her mouth, and she stroked the back of her hand along Call's cheek. "I'd better go help Vriess," she murmured without elaborating on her first statement. A second later, she was gone, slipping out like a tall, angular shadow.

Call stared after her for a long moment, then finally straightened and hurried out.

*****

"Well?" Leeds called up to the man perched high in a tall tree.

Powerful binoculars scanned the surrounding forest carefully. "Looks like it's about another five miles to the ship. I think I can see someone moving around," the trooper called before beginning the climb down.

"We still haven't heard from SouCal, sir," Corporal Tyrell, his second in command, pointed out. "Are you sure we should--"

"I'm sure," Leeds cut him off. "Taylor, Tyrell, you have point. The rest of you hang back unless signaled. I want to do this quick and quiet; no shooting if possible. We want information, not dead bodies. Understood?"

"Sir, yes, sir," came the perfect reply.

Leeds nodded and waved the detachment forward.

*****

Ripley moved easily through the confines of the Betty, her senses alert, dark eyes instinctively hunting any shadowed corners. She'd been increasingly on edge since that morning. The dreams had left their mark, making her wonder what was going on. She could feel hell burning behind her eyes, and her best efforts to ignore it were only minimally successful. Hours spent working with Vriess to adapt the parts from the loader engine had allowed her to concentrate past it, but the moment she stopped the sensation was with her again.

Despite her efforts, they still hadn't gotten the loader parts to work with the ship's engine, and even if they did, she was far from certain they could get the Betty off the ground. The ship was a mess, every part stressed by their hard entry, and worse landing. Vriess was doing his best, but Ripley had her doubts. The Betty didn't carry much in the way of spare parts, and she wasn't at all confident that the engineer knew what to do with what they did have. He was nice enough, but she'd yet to see any sign of great technical prowess. She resisted the urge to laugh. Had she been brought back from the dead, survived an attack of killer aliens, and made it through the wholly incompetent flying skills of Vriess, only to die of hunger on the planet that had given birth to her the first time? She was still mulling over the ironies when Call's soft voice reached her ears.

"No, leave me alone," she insisted, sounding upset.

Ripley tensed, muscles pulling taut beneath the skin. She'd left the woman -- she couldn't think of her as an android -- working on the damaged cooling system while she went to check on Vriess. She heard a low voice that she instantly identified as Johner's.

"C'mon Call, I thought all you wanted was to be human. A good fuck couldn't hurt."

Call sounded stressed, her tone bordering on panic. "Let go."

"You know you want it, Analee…"

Ripley's teeth gritted at the big man's use of Call's first name, but she didn't stop to consider why, just lengthened her strides until she was at the door to the engine compartment.

"No, I--" the tiny, almost boyish woman insisted as she tried to twist her wrist free of Johner's meaty fist.

"Problem here?" Ripley interrupted smoothly, her pose deceptively relaxed.

Johner turned a glare in her direction, his grip tightening on Call's wrist as he growled. "Not so's you'd notice."

Ripley's answering smile was as acidic as the blood running through her veins, though her voice was surprisingly gentle when she spoke to Call. "Is that what you think?" Dark eyes met near black orbs. "Should I keep moving?" Ripley was so still she might not have been breathing.

"No," the woman spoke, her voice rough with stress. Once again she tried to twist free without success.

"Let her go," Ripley commanded, her voice little more than a velvet purr.

Johner's eyes swung back and forth between the two women, then suddenly some small light of knowledge entered them as an idea took hold. "She why you aren't interested?" he sneered at Call. He leaned close, his mouth just brushing her hair, though his eyes never left Ripley's suddenly tense figure. "You like to munch a little rug?" A wicked smile twisted his mouth while his eyes ran assessingly over Ripley. "Should have realized it…what with the butch look."

Ripley remained perfectly still, her voice silky soft. "I said let her go."

"What say we share," the big man offered. "I've always wanted a threeso--" He didn't get a chance to finish the sentence as Ripley's hand shot out, gripping his throat. She hauled him off his feet with a one- handed grip. The tool kit in her left hand slammed into his midsection, driving the air from his lungs and leaving him weak in her grasp.

"Your inability to learn is impressive," Ripley said dryly. "Am I actually going to have to rip out your tongue to make you behave yourself?"

Struggling for air, Johner didn't attempt to answer, just tried without success to pry her fingers from his throat.

"Because I will, if I have to," Ripley explained patiently.

Suddenly, Johner found himself airborne, though not for long. His impromtu flight ended when he cracked headfirst into the bulkhead and tumbled to the floor.

His nose and mouth bleeding from the impact, he pushed to one knee and peered over his shoulder, glaring at Ripley with a mixture of lust and dislike that did nothing to improve her mood. "So that's the way it is," he sneered an obvious insult.

"That's right," the tall woman murmured, her tone placid though her eyes burned with the fires of hell. She reached down, grabbing Johner by the scruff of the neck, to haul him upright. She yanked the big man close with little more effort than he might have handled a child. Her lips grazed his temple in a perversely sensual gesture as she whispered so softly that only he could hear, "Touch her again and die. It's just that simple." Then she shoved him back, and he skidded down the smooth surface of the wall, staring up at her through slitted eyes.

Ripley cocked her head to one side, staring at him with inhuman intensity, making him believe she really would kill him if he pushed her. He was a fool and a braggart, but not suicidal.

"Get out," she ordered very softly.

Johner scrambled for his feet and all but fled. When he was gone, the faintest of smiles twisted Ripley's mouth. Even in her first life, she'd had no patience for fools or men who made sport of attacking women. Now, she had even less. Her eyes fell on the small figure watching her, her arms wrapped tightly around her midsection. Particularly when it came to this woman. Her voice was almost tender as she questioned, "Are you all right?"

Call nodded, but didn't loosen her hold. "I'm fine," she lied.

A finely molded eyebrow lifted on the taller woman's forehead. "You don't look fine."

Call's expression was uncomfortable, almost frightened, "I'm fine," she repeated, and consciously straightened herself, unfolding her arms from their self-protective position.

Ripley frowned ever so slightly, the expression little more than a ghostly shift in the set of her features. She held up the toolkit she'd brought with her. "I found a kit with some plastiskin and resin packs in a parts locker…Vriess doesn't need my help at the moment, so I thought it would be a good time to see what we can do about that hole in your side."

Full lips twisted faintly. "It's fine," Call whispered.

Ripley shook her head impatiently. "Will you quit saying that?" she snapped and snatched out a hand, tugging the woman's dark vest aside to reveal the still-open wound and dried, white, artificial blood that stained her clothes. The smaller woman seemed ready to jump back a step, but Ripley's hold on her clothing kept her in place. "What are you afraid of?" Ripley asked suddenly.

"I'm not--"

"Don't lie," she cut Call off. She intentionally drew nearer, crowding the smaller woman, noting the way she tensed with curious detachment.

Dark eyes fell away from Ripley's steady gaze. "What you said to him," Call whispered. Her jaw set mutinously, and she shook her head. "I won't do it."

Ripley's eyebrow raised another notch, and she lifted her hand to hook a finger under the edge of the smaller woman's chin. "That's right," she exhaled as if just remembering something. "DiStephano did mention something about your model not taking orders well." She stared down into near black eyes, her expression suddenly predatory. She was intensely aware of the feel of soft skin against her own. For a brief second, her expression glowed hungrily. "Do you really think you could stop me?" she whispered, then abruptly pulled her hand back, her expression shuttered. For the briefest second, she'd felt that alien part of her trying to take control and reined it in with brutal self-restraint. She schooled her expression into a look of cool disinterest. "That was for Johner's sake. He's more likely to leave you alone if he thinks…" she trailed off, not knowing how to phrase it.

Call's mouth twisted with dislike. "If he thinks I belong to you," she exhaled, hating the very idea. It reminded her that she'd been created to be owned, that she was a thing not a person. Sometimes she could almost forget, and she hated being forced to look at that ugly reality.

Ripley nodded. "That's right," she said simply. She reached out, one finger brushing Call's vest again. "And that injury really should be treated," she added.

"Don't you mean repaired?" the woman repeated bitterly, reminding Ripley that she wasn't human, no matter how she preferred to think about her.

No more human than I am, the taller woman thought grimly, but her voice was gentle as she murmured, "No, I mean treated." She had vague memories of another such being, his voice soft and slightly worried sounding -- I prefer the term artificial person. Not waiting for any further argument, she caught Call's hand, tugging her along and ignoring any attempts at protest. "Which room is yours?" she demanded as she tugged her into the short corridor that opened onto the personal quarters.

"That one," Call answered automatically as she pointed at a narrow door at the end of the corridor.

Ripley didn't pause, just pushed the tiny woman inside, following close behind. Dark eyes touched on every wall of the small room. There was barely enough room for her to stand upright, forcing the two women to stand close in order to close and lock the door. "Nice," she exhaled dryly, her breath ruffling Call's hair.

"It's a rathole," the smaller woman disagreed.

Ripley shrugged one shoulder, noting that the place was clean. There was a small crucifix on one wall and an art print showing God's hand reaching out to man. The fact that an auton believed in God amazed her, but she was even more fascinated by the way Call had tried to make it something other than a sterile closet. "A nice rathole," she murmured. "Have a seat," she added, wrapping a long arm around Call's side to point at the small bunk that ran along the wall. As she stood there, she was intimately aware of the press of their bodies. Inhumanly receptive senses picked up the soft scent of her body, and she instinctively compared it with the smell of the humans she'd known. Compared to the bitter odor of sweat and fear, the auton smelled sweet and fresh. She was surprised that there wasn't even the faintest hint of anything artificial to the odor. She wanted to reach out and touch, was overwhelmed with the need to feel soft skin. Her muscles tensed as she forced down an instinctive need to hunt, to chase down what she wanted. She knew it was nothing more than that hive mind trying to control her actions. She could feel it buried somewhere in the reptilian part of the human mind. For a brief second it screamed for release, struggled and fought like a maniac. She closed her eyes tightly, controlling her breathing. Time ceased to exist, and when she opened her eyes again, Call was seated on the edge of the narrow bunk, peering up at her with an odd expression.

"Are you all right?" the woman questioned worriedly.

Ripley nodded. "Fine," she exhaled and sank to one knee, unzipping the soft-sided toolkit as she settled it on the bunk near a rounded hip. Her eyes lifted, touching on the tear in the young woman's dark jumpsuit and the damaged artificial flesh beneath. "You'll have to unzip your clothes, so I can get to it," she murmured, purposely keeping her voice perfectly neutral.

Call tensed, staring down at Ripley for a long moment before she reached up to slowly tug the front zipper down.

Ripley's eyes tracked its descent like wolf hunting a fleeing rabbit.

When the tab reached her waist, Call uncertainly peeled the garment off her shoulders, leaving her upper torso bare except for the thin tank top that ended just below the delicate curve of her breasts.

Ripley stared at the hole in her side, briefly remembering the sight of Ashe staggering, his open neck geysering white blood. She consciously replaced the memory with another one. I prefer to be called an artificial person. She reached out tentatively, concentrating on the memories of technical skills as she studied the damage. Call flinched and let out a nearly inaudible sound. Black eyes snapped up to touch on her face. "Does that hurt?"

"I'll be fine," Call whispered her steady refrain.

"That's not what I asked," Ripley inserted. The androids she'd known of hadn't felt pain as far as she knew. Even being decapitated hadn't seemed to hurt in the sense that she thought of the word, but she was dealing with a new level of technology. "Did they create you so you can feel pain?" she asked when Call didn't seem inclined to answer the question the way she'd first framed it.

"Yes," Call gasped when Ripley prodded the damaged flesh again. "I can ignore it…cut it off, but it hurts."

"I'll be as gentle as I can," Ripley assured her, wondering why she cared so much that the woman know that. Her touch was light. She'd always had good hands for technical work. Call's autorepair system had cut the damaged area off, but there were artificial veins and arteries that needed to be reattached. The former engineer worked carefully, repairing the damage rather than simply covering it up. She was aware of Call watching her closely, but ignored the sensation at the back of her neck. Finally, she finished sealing the plastiflesh into place, smoothing it carefully until the edges were nearly invisible. Anyone who didn't know what they were looking for would never see it, or if they did, they'd think it was simply an oddly shaped scar. "How does that feel?" she questioned as she sat back on her heels.

Call stretched slowly, and reached back to pull the top of her jumpsuit back on. "Better," she murmured.

"Why didn't you want me to help you?"

Call stiffened in response to the question, her eyes falling away.

Ripley simply sat watching her, unwilling to forget the question or back off.

"Don't," the young woman whispered helplessly.

A hand landed lightly on her thigh, the fingers long and strong, curving to fit the shape of her leg. "Why?"

A muscle pulsed in Call's jaw as she struggled against the question. Finally, realizing Ripley was not going to back down, she answered simply. "I didn't want you to see." She didn't have to explain further. They both understood what she was referring to.

"Why not?"

Dark eyes lifted, and Ripley was unsurprised by the sheen of tears she saw. "How can you stand to look at me?"

Ripley frowned. "All I see is a beautiful young woman."

"It's just an illusion…a fake…I'm not real." (1)

Ripley rose suddenly, her expression closing down again. "Not real?" she repeated. How was it Wren had referred to her to Geddiman? She summoned up the words spoken as though she were nothing more than a thing. Not even an animal, just a tool. It's emotionally autistic. By their standards, she hadn't been any more real than Call considered herself. She was still musing silently when Call continued.

"You're at least partially human. Alive…I didn't want you to see what I am…nothing but plastic."

Ripley's response was purposely crude. "Is that why you didn't take Johner up on his offer for a quick fuck? You didn't want him to see--"

"No!" Call snapped, her expression hurt. She folded her arms around her midsection in what Ripley had come to recognize as her self-protective posture. "I don't care about him."

"I see." Ripley reached out a hand, trailing it over silky soft hair.

Call flinched away from the gentle gesture.

"Why don't you like to be touched? Did someone like Johner take what wasn’t his?"

Call shook her head in denial, but didn't speak.

"Have you ever been touched…ever made love?" Ripley didn't know what demon made her ask the question. She knew she should have left, gone away and left the young woman alone, but for some reason she didn't care to look at too closely, she couldn't.

"How could I?" the young woman demanded, her voice rough.

Narrow brows lifted. "I assume I don't need to explain the mechanics," she said dryly.

Pale skin flushed in response. Obviously, the designers had done their job well. "No," Call said resentfully.

The frown deepened, drawing a line between her brows. "I thought you were indetectable from a human."

"We are."

"Then are you saying the geniuses who designed you created a pain capacity, but left out the pleasure component?"

"No…I can feel pleasure."

"Then why?"

Call looked up again, her expression angry and frustrated. "Because it would be a mockery. It's supposed to be an act of love…tenderness…caring …but I'm nothing more than programmed responses."

Dark eyes narrowed faintly, and Ripley leaned down, bracing her hands on the bunk on either side of narrow hips. Her nostrils flared slightly as the scent of android blood touched her senses. She leaned closer, breathing in the soft odor of inhuman flesh. Call was stiff with tension, fear sluicing off her like nervous sweat. A wicked smile curved Ripley's mouth as her eyes tipped up. "But that's all any of us are…programmed responses…" She shook her head in a dismissive gesture. "There's not much difference whether the programmer is a computer, hormones…" Her smile turned utterly wicked. "Or some kind of alien physiology." Breathing in Call's scent, she trailed along her cheek and along her jaw, not touching, but so close she could feel the warmth of the small woman's skin. Ripley's breathing was slow and soft, her chest barely rising. Her mouth brushed the silky hair close to Call's ear, but didn't touch flesh. "It's all just a matter of chemical interactions," she breathed, her voice low, her gestures sensual. "Hormonal triggers…" She moved lower, her movements perfectly smooth, controlled, and erotic. "Molecules all stirred together in the right combinations." Call had slid the zipper up when she pulled her clothes back on. Now, Ripley reached out, long fingers catching the tab and tugging it down again.

"Emotions are more than that," Call whispered, her voice tight with stress.

"Are you so sure?" Ripley questioned, her breath disturbing short, dark hair. She trailed a fingertip down the center of Call's chest, incredibly aware of the feel of her skin

Call swallowed hard, trapped by those infinitely deep eyes.

"Has it occurred to you?" Ripley murmured and lifted her hand to gently stroke Call's cheek. "That maybe you're more human than the rest of us? That maybe the androids that designed you, did God one better?"

Dark brown eyes widened in disbelief. "No."

"Think about it," Ripley breathed, and leaned forward her lips a mere fraction of an inch from Call's. Both women's eyes remained open, staring at each other as though seeing something for the very first time.

Call was saved from the need to respond by a muffled shout from outside the ship.

"WE HAVE COMPANY!"

*****

Continue to Next Part--Chapters 3-4

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