Alien: Odyssey, by Pink Rabbit Productions--Chapter 4-5

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 |


Chapter 4
Dark Places

Call awoke with a jerk, lids snapping open to reveal dark eyes. She blinked several times, shaking her head slowly. Ripley�s angular features swam into hazy view, and she did a fast checkup of her ocular systems, readjusting the lenses to bring the woman�s face into sharp focus. "Ripley," she mumbled.

"That�s right," the woman murmured, her head canting to one side.

Call could feel her systems coming back online, diagnostics hunting down the errors still in evidence. She started to move only to come up against resistance. "Wha�?" the auton mumbled, her chin lifting until she could see her hands bound tightly over her head by bent steel strapping.

"I�m sorry," Ripley whispered, her voice tight with suppressed emotion. She drew close, strong fingers cupping Call�s jaw as she guided her head back down. "But I need to know if I can still trust you."

Call blinked in confusion, her neural processors still reacting at well below normal speed. "Trust?" she questioned.

Ripley nodded, her expression grim. She leaned forward, to reach over Call's head, wrapping long fingers around her forearms just below the edge of the impromptu restraints. "That�s right."

Call blinked, struggling to bring her CPU up to speed. "Why?"

"Because Gabriel intended to reprogram you, and I need to know if he made the grade."

Cal stiffened, her eyes flashing angrily. "Reprogram?" She had a vague memory of Gabriel's attack, but it was too hazy to bring up anything specific. "No," Call denied. "None of us would that to another�it�s�" she trailed off, unable to describe the horror of the crime. Among androids reprogramming was murder and rape all rolled into one.

"He wanted you to agree with him that mankind has to be destroyed," Ripley insisted, her voice low and intent. "And he knew it was the only way to make it happen."

Call shook her head, wanting to disbelieve, yet firmly convinced that Ripley wouldn't lie to her.

Ripley dropped a hand to cup a smooth cheek, struck once again by the perfection of the auton's skin. "He set you up," she said almost gently. "When he found out about the aliens, he wanted the crew of the Betty to throw a spanner into the works. He knew if anything went wrong, the Auriga would return to earth."

"No�no�" Call argued desperately. "He helped me try and stop them�he wanted them destroyed as much as I did."

Ripley shook her head implacably. "He wanted the aliens on earth...to wipe out mankind�and he wanted you here too�" Her voice was flat, perfectly restrained to keep any emotion from coming through. She couldn�t forget Call�s welcome to the auton, and her own jealousy.

Call flinched as though struck, desperately wanting to argue, but unable to summon the words. She stared soundlessly, then suddenly, it all came back�those last awful moments before he attacked, and she whimpered softly. Memory surged through her in a flood, the fight with the colonel, gunshots, Ripley�s entrance. "My God," she exhaled. "He knew the Auriga would return." The expression in her eyes was fragile, like shattering crystal. "I almost helped him bring those things to earth�"

Ripley winced, not wanting to say what came next. It was the final test; something that would cause Analee incredible pain if she was still herself. "They�re here," she whispered very softly. "A queen�I can feel her."

"No," Call breathed, agony glittering in her eyes.

"Somehow they made it down," Ripley explained, amazed by the band of pain that tightened around her chest in response to the expression in the auton�s eyes.

Call shuddered, a soft whimpering sound emerging from her throat. "He used me," she croaked.

Ripley tore the strapping free, loosing delicate wrists to pull the smaller woman into her arms. "I�m sorry I had to tell you that way," she apologized as she petted silky strands of hair. "But I had to know." She could feel her heart hammering in her chest as it sank in just how frightened she�d been. Slender arms wrapped around her body, clinging tightly.

"Where are they?" The auton leaned back enough to peer up at the cloned woman, knowing her tie to the creatures was the closest thing in the universe to understanding them.

The taller woman shook her head. "I don�t know�I just know they�re out there."

"We have to find them," Call whispered to herself.

Hard hands tightened on her shoulders. "What we have to do is get to the Betty, get it operational, and get the hell off this planet."

"We can�t," Call disagreed. "We have to stop them."

Ripley laughed grimly. She was so tired of this tune. She�d played it so many times and knew all the dance steps. "How? We don�t know where they are, have no weapons, and the local army is unquestionably after us. For once, I am smart enough to know when it's time to give up and get the hell out."

"We have to try."

Ripley�s jaw worked silently. She wanted to argue, make Call understand that they�d done their part. It was someone else�s turn to do theirs. At the same time, for reasons she didn�t even begin to understand, she couldn�t disappoint the idealism and determination in the dark eyes staring up at her. Finally, her shoulders sagged. "We�ll try," she allowed, though she had precious little hope of succeeding. Dark brown eyes slid closed. Ellen Ripley didn't want to do this. She wanted to run and hide where the nightmares could never find her. She was still lost in her own pain when she felt a gentle finger on her cheek.

Call caught the single tear on the tip of her finger. She half expected it to burn, but it just sat there, gleaming in the faint light. That this woman could cry stunned her. With each passing hour, it struck her more deeply that Wren and Geddiman�s creation was wholly human. Despite the acid in her blood, her soul was her own. "I�m sorry," she apologized as it struck her just what she was asking of Ellen Ripley. She�d come to think of her as so strong and in control. She hadn�t allowed herself to consider how horrifying it must all be for her. She�d already lost everything to these beasts, even her life.

"It�s all right," Ripley sighed sadly, forcing herself to look at Call. She even managed a wan smile. She took a deep breath and let it out on a measured count. "You�re right, of course." She willed her natural instinct to run to the back of her mind. "And from what we know," she reminded herself, "even if we could get to the Betty, and get her in the air, we�d probably be blown out of the sky by the USM."

Call rested a small hand on Ripley�s chest, feeling the steady, thudding beat of her heart. "It�ll be all right � somehow," she promised for the second time that day.

Narrow lips twisted in a wry smile. "So much faith," Ripley noted and reached up to smooth Call�s hair away from her face. "How do you do it?" she wondered aloud.

Delicate features drew into a slight frown. "I have to," she responded. "It�s the only way I can keep going."

Ripley slipped long fingers into Call�s hair, cupping her face tenderly. Once before they�d found themselves in a similar position. Then Ripley had offered to make it end. She petted Call�s cheek gently with the pad of her thumb. "You amaze me," she admitted. Her eyes slid closed, and she leaned forward until her forehead just touched the smaller woman�s.

"You�re the hero," the auton disagreed. "You�ve fought them on so many fronts�given your life to it."

"No�all I was ever doing was trying to survive�you care for mankind, even knowing they want to destroy you." She straightened to peer down at the auton.

"It�s my programming," Call insisted uncomfortably, eyes sliding away from Ripley�s probing gaze.

"Look at me," the cloned woman commanded until dark eyes lifted to meet her gaze. "It's much more than that. You�re who you are � and who you�ve made yourself�as fine a person as I�ve ever known." She just stared down at Call for a long moment as though trying to understand her.

A muscle pulled in Call�s jaw. "But I�m not real."

Silver tipped fingers continued their gently smoothing motions, while Ripley leaned closer until their lips were scant inches apart. "You�re as real as any of us," she disagreed. She didn�t plan the kiss, never meant for it to happen, but suddenly she was tasting warm, sweet lips. Sensory memory echoed in her brain. She remembered past lovers, now long gone. Call was different, tasting faintly of something akin to cinnamon. So soft and sweet it was like drinking from a cool clean well, after years in the desert. Small hands curved into the front of her vest, pulling her closer while full lips parted, unconsciously inviting deeper exploration. Ripley accepted the offer, tasting the depths of Call�s mouth with startling hunger. She was breathing hard, her heart hammering in her chest, when the kiss finally broke. The two women stared at each other, neither one knowing what to say or do. (1)

Finally, Ripley sat back on her heels, and her gaze fell away. She wasn�t even remotely prepared for this. Even in her first life she�d been less than skilled at personal relationships. Her hands fell to rest on her upper thighs. She was still sitting there like that when a delicate finger tucked under her chin, drawing her head back up.

Call�s lips twisted in a watery smile. Ripley managed an answering upturn of her lips. "We need to find out what�s going on," the android said firmly. She intentionally cleared her head and straightened her shoulders. "If we can find a major network conduit, I can link into their computer."

Ripley winced. She remembered how the other woman had resisted doing just that aboard the Auriga. The pain she�d shown in the chapel had been as real as anything anyone ever felt. "I know how much you hate it," she murmured, but Call remained all business.

"The system is old and jerry-rigged, but I should be able to get in." A hand landed on her shoulder, cutting her short.

"How are you feeling?" Ripley questioned.

Call started to answer, then changed her mind, pausing for a moment, before shrugging. "A little woozy, but I think everything�s working."

"Is there some kind of self-diagnostic you can perform to be certain?"

"A surface scan�any more than that would require several hours." Call straightened herself. "This will only take a few moments." She closed her eyes, focusing inward and completely missing Ripley�s worried look. "Primary system�stable," Call said, her voice taking on a mechanical cast. "Neural pathways�90% stable�secondary systems, stable at 87%. Tertiary systems�fluctuating. Balance and strength ratios�low, but within safe margins�" She paused for a long moment, then dark brown eyes snapped open. "In short," she said in her normal voice. "I�m a little weak and a little dizzy, but thinking clearly. My neural systems are self-repairing -- within reason -- so I should be more stable in a few hours."

"Do you want to stay here while I hunt for a network linkup?" Ripley questioned, not wanting to drag Call along on a possible snipe hunt, if it might be better for her to stay put for as long as possible.

"No, I�ll come with you," Call decided.

Ripley nodded, but kept a hand near her arm, ready to offer support if needed. The auton�s balance was visibly out of sync, frequently forcing her to lean against the wall or Ripley�s arm as they moved through narrow corridors. Ripley was incredibly alert to their surroundings, alien senses carefully attuned to the faintest disturbance. They wandered, searching every possible outlet until  they finally found an access port where Call could jack into the system.

The android�s small, blunt fingers were uncharacteristically uncoordinated as she pulled the lead loose and plugged it into her arm. Her body stiffened, eyes glazing over as she became a part of the machine.

"Can you get in?" Ripley questioned.

"One moment," Call responded in her eerily mechanical voice. "Nearly all sensitive data is passcoded � however �the encoding is done with a simple encryption algorithm." A few moments passed before she spoke again. "Entry achieved�" She filtered through millions of bytes of streaming data, searching out what she needed to know amid the clutter. "You are correct, Gabriel has blamed you for Colonel Hoagland�s death�he has also accused you of kidnapping me with the intent to reprogram."

Ripley nodded grimly. She�d expected as much.

"Filtering through incoming data from the last seventy-two hours." Her head canted to one side. "Recent data has been intentionally corrupted and broadcast frequencies randomly altered."

Ripley tensed. "Can you decipher it?"

A moment passed. "Only partially�there are several garbled messages from Base 51, Nevada�first message regarding a team sent to retrieve a downed object�second message: regarding base condition�.third message: regarding security breech�fourth message: regarding missing personnel�"

"Fuck," Ripley mouthed. Until that moment, she�d continued to hope she was wrong. "Any details?"

"Very few�and very corrupted�unknown forces are believed to have entered the base�using the ventilation shafts to move around�and several soldiers are missing, status unknown�based on the information received, I calculate the probability that the aliens are attempting to establish a new hatchery in the base at 97 percent." Call blinked suddenly and let out a soft sigh. "There is good news," she sighed, her voice returning to normal. "They think you�ve already escaped�and I think someone knows that Gabriel played with the system."

"Are you sure?"

"About the escape�yes�about the other, I�m not 100% certain�but the access patterns on the logs would indicate that one of the technicians has likely guessed the situation and is attempting a repair."

"So the aliens are in this Base 51�do you know where it is?"

"Nevada," Call answered quickly.

Ripley smiled. "It�s a large state. We need to know more than that."

Call went distant for a moment, as she checked on the answer. "I have a location�southwest corner of Nevada�high desert conditions�no immediate civilian population."

Ripley absorbed the words thoughtfully. "If they�re establishing a cr�che, they�ll stay close�if we can destroy them quickly, before they start to expand, we might have a chance." She was honest with Call when she continued. "Slim, but it�s a chance."

"We�ll need help."

Ripley raked a hand through her hair. "Any ideas about how to go about getting it?"

"Try to make someone see reason."

*****

The new cr�che was dark, warm, and deep in the ground where it was safe and defensible. Already, the queen�s warriors were readying it for her, making her comfortable as her body expanded with her future children. What remained now was the task of subduing the remaining human parasites; utilizing or destroying them as needed. Soon the cr�che would grow and the hordes of her children would increase.

*****

McCay glanced at the tray in her hand with dislike. Obviously Nimzicki was cooking tonight. The mess hall was empty except for Barry, and he left with a muttered curse. She watched him go, then took a seat in one corner. Her squad was the only one still on base, and that was only because they�d already been out to the Betty again to show the techs the way and footed it back home. The colonel had agreed with Leeds' statement that they needed downtime and took them off duty for a rotation. Now, with the colonel dead and Gabriel in charge, the auton hadn�t opted to put them back on duty. He�d made excuses about their needing rest, but she had the distinct impression he didn�t trust them. No big surprise. Leeds certainly didn�t trust him. She hadn't seen anything in the way of incredibly suspicious behavior from the auton, but she had to admit, there was something off kilter about him.

She sighed softly. Leeds and the others were sacked out in their cots, but she'd been unable to rest, too busy thinking about the day's events and their possible consequences. She pushed the unappetizing contents of her tray around with a fork. "Or maybe I should just go to bed," she muttered. She was still playing with her food when a ceiling tile directly overhead eased out of place. She didn�t even have time to scream when a hand snatched her by the scruff of the neck and hauled her up into the ventilation shafts.

"Not one word," Ripley growled as she smashed a hand over McCay�s mouth. "Don�t even breathe."

McCay blinked up at her captor, gathering herself to struggle.

"Don�t," Ripley hissed. "I don�t want to hurt you."

"Listen to her," Call implored as she scrambled into view.

McCay�s brows lifted in silent question, and she made no further effort to struggle.

"I need you to listen to what we have to say," Ripley told her, then moved deeper into the base. When she was satisfied they were safe, she pulled up short, keeping McCay pinned as she warned her, "Don�t doubt that I can break your neck before you can scream. Now, I�m going to take my hand away from your mouth, and you�re going to be very quiet�understood?" Ripley carefully lifted her hand, ready to clamp back down if the soldier seemed about to cry out.

"I understand," McCay assured her.

"Good," Ripley said, her voice little more than a whisper. "Take her weapons," she told Call.

Call leaned close, her fingers still slightly uncoordinated as she unbuckled the woman�s belt and pulled it free.

"You said you wanted to talk," McCay prompted.

"That�s right," the cloned woman confirmed. "I know what you�ve been told, but I didn�t kill your colonel."

"Why tell me?"

"Because I need your help, and because�bluntly put, you�re the only one here that I can force to listen to me."

"All right," McCay said carefully. "Who did kill the Colonel?"

"Gabriel," Ripley answered simply. "He was going to reprogram Call, and Hoagland walked in on it." At least that�s what Ripley thought had happened. In reality, she wasn�t entirely certain what had led to the colonel�s appearance. Call had been pretty fuzzy about that time.

"Why should I believe you," McCay demanded smoothly.

"Because if it weren�t true, you�d already be dead."

"You have a point. Why don�t you tell me what happened."

Between them, Call and Ripley told her an abbreviated version of the tale, leaving out plenty of details, but outlining the threat the creatures posed to all life on earth. By the time they finished, Ripley had released McCay and the soldier was crouched on her knees, staring at them as though she might divine the truth.

"You�re telling me that these things that murder at will, bleed acid, and kill everything, may be trying to take over Base 51."

"That�s right," Ripley confirmed, her voice coldly unemotional. "Then they lay eggs�and from those eggs bursts a creature that latches onto your face, implants its young in your chest�.then a few hours later, it burst out through your chest." She tapped McCay right over her sternum. "Right here�it�s a very nasty way to die�tell her Call."

The auton nodded, her expression distasteful as she remembered the people on the Auriga, their chests exploded outward.

"Problem is, according to Gabriel�s story, you were going to reprogram her. For all I know, you�ve just managed to make her believe some fantasy of yours."

"Do you seriously believe she could reprogram a second gen with nothing more than a pocket knife?" Call demanded mockingly.

Ripley offered a wicked smile. "Guess you need a little proof," she drawled and drew the short bayonette from the colonel�s belt.

"Ripley," Call hissed in warning.

"Bet you think I�m part plastic like your friends." Ripley winked. "No such luck. I�m pure flesh and bone." She drew the blade across the center of her palm, laying the flesh open. "Not to mention blood." A crimson drop fell from her hand to the metal floor of the shaft. "Watch," she instructed coolly.

McCay frowned, eyes dropping to where Ripley�s blood was already starting to sizzle and melt into the metal. "What the�" the soldier exhaled, her jaw suddenly hanging slack. This was like some kind of nightmare brought to life.

"And the rest of the story is that I died two hundred years ago when one of them burst through my chest�and some military scientists used a little sample of our combined blood to bring us both back." Her blood was still sizzling. "Unfortunately, they didn�t get it quite right. They couldn�t quite tell one from the other." (2)

McCay�s leaned forward, staring at the widening hole with utter fascination.

"Gabriel has tampered with your communications to hide the fact these things are already into Base 51 and establishing a hatchery. Now," Ripley demanded grimly, "will you help us talk to your sergeant?"

The young woman�s eyes flashed back and forth between the two women. "I think that would be a good idea," McCay admitted. "But I think you should show him the computer evidence as well as�" she stared at the melting bloodstain uncertainly. "�that�"

*****

Leeds snapped awake as his shoulder was shaken. "Wha�?"

"Sergeant," McCay whispered, keeping her voice low to avoid waking any of the others. "I need to speak to you� privately."

He blinked rapidly, but grabbed for his shirt, then tugged on his boots. "This had better be important," he muttered under his breath.

"Believe me, sir, it is," she assured him as she led the way out of the communal quarters and through the base.

"So, what�s the problem?"

"Something I think you should see�.through here," she said as she gestured him into a minor computer access lab. Leeds stiffened as he saw the two women inside. McCay pressed her sidearm against his back. It wasn�t loaded, but he had no way of knowing that.

"What the hell?"

"They have a story to tell, Sergeant. I think you should listen to it."

*****

Gabriel growled in raging frustration as he watched the incompetent efforts of the trackers to find some hint of Ripley�s passing. Damn them. First, they�d let the bitch walk out of the base and now they couldn�t even find her trail. He distractedly rubbed the open wounds still running a slow trickle of white blood down his side with his acid damaged right hand, but didn't notice the pain. He was too busy with other matters. He had to find Ripley and Call. It was a driving need. His eyes lifted to the incompetent hunters, spearing them with a hate filled look. He would have enjoyed killing one of them, but it would hardly play well, and he needed them for the moment. "She�ll head for that ship they landed," he told an officer. "Get me a hummer."

"Yes, sir." Oddly enough, it never occurred to his perfect mechanical mind that Ripley had never even left the base.

*****

Ripley tugged the brim of her borrowed cap low over her eyes as she followed Leeds� people into the vehicle garage. The sergeant stood at the lead of the small company. After seeing the computer evidence, not to mention the side-effects of Ripley�s blood, he�d made a fast decision. With the command structure in turmoil, and his own doubts about Gabriel, it was time for a little independent action. Technically, Ripley and Call were still prisoners -- there was a loaded weapon subtly trained on them at all times, and their wrists were wired together with a short length of airplane cable -- but they were also more than prisoners, since the soldiers needed their information.

Stealing an armored hummer proved to be surprisingly easy. With the base nearly empty there were only two technicians in the garage, and they were in the small office area. Footsteps stealthy, Leeds' squad loaded their gear in a remaining hummer, including as much heavy artillery and ammo as they could carry. Lost in their own storytelling, the technicians didn�t notice, or if they did, didn�t pay much attention. They were used to the sight of soldiers coming and going. It wasn�t until four of the troopers entered the office, their weapons at the ready, that they realized something unusual was going on. Unarmed and caught by surprise, neither man attempted to resist, and they were quickly bound and gagged.

Ripley would have liked to argue as she and Call were hustled onto the low slung, armored transport. She was getting very tired of being a prisoner. The vehicle reminded her vaguely of the one the marines had used on LV-426, but the six gimbaled wheels looked better suited to rough terrain. In the back, McCay quickly locked the two women to a bar that ran over a series of padded seats while another trooper kept his weapon on them.

Long minutes later, the last of the soldiers stepped aboard, and the hatch was closed and locked.

"We�re moving!" Leeds call out in warning as the driver took his seat at the controls and revved the powerful engine to life.

The hummer was a fast moving vehicle, designed to cover rough ground in a short time, and Leeds had his driver push it to the limit. He wanted to get as far from SouCal as fast as possible. Using the old highway system, Base 51 was only twelve to fourteen hours away. With luck, they could be more than halfway there before pursuit started in earnest.

*****

Gabriel stared at the empty, beaten carcass of the Betty with narrowed eyes. "Damn her," he exhaled under his breath as he suddenly saw the truth. Technicians were still working on the small ship, readying her to move her back to SouCal. As sorry as she was, the EDF needed any flight capable ship they could find.

Contrary to his certain belief, Ripley hadn�t run. She�d stayed put.

"Goddamn you, you fucking bitch," he breathed, massaging the leaking tears in his side distractedly. From everything he knew about her, he�d calculated that she�d try and flee the planet. Everything in Geddiman's reports had described a creature who cared nothing for mankind and would run at the first opportunity. He�d been so certain, he hadn�t even bothered to calculate alternate possibilities. He reached up and rubbed drying and flaked lubricant away from the wounds Ripley had left in his neck. "Call back to SouCal," he ordered distantly. "And tell them to lock everything down. She�s still there."

"But, sir," the trooper pointed out. "We can�t call back," he reminded the auton. "Communications are still out."

Gabriel blinked rapidly, twitching as he cursed under his breath. "Yes," he said tightly. "I�d forgotten." He clamped his hands together at the small of his back. "Turn the hummer around. We�re headed back."

"Yes, sir." The young soldier stared after the auton as he stormed off, his eyes narrowing faintly as he noted the trail of tiny white drops of fluid that left a trail in the dirt behind Gabriel. He'd already suggested the android do something about the injury and been ignored. Now he found himself wondering if it was like a human with a slow bleeding injury. He shook the thought off and hurried to do as ordered.

*****

Ripley sighed softly as she leaned her head back against the padded seat, while the hummer bounced along, jarring the passengers with every pothole and bump. The roads they were traveling were little more than tattered remains of long past throughways, which meant they were in for a rough ride. Next to her, Call rode along silently, her head pillowed on Ripley's updrawn arm. For a time it had seemed as though she slept, though in reality Ripley had decided she was probably partially shut down to allow her systems all the repair time possible. Glancing over at the small woman, she found herself wondering about android dreams, particularly what this android might dream of.

"Sorry it�s so rough," Leeds apologized as he clambered back, holding onto an overhead bar to maintain his balance.

Ripley looked over at the big man and resisted the urge to laugh as she shrugged one shoulder. "Seen worse."

"Guess you have," he allowed. He drew a little closer, crouching down. Powerful thigh muscles worked to maintain his position while he braced one hand on the arm of her chair. "Any idea what we�re gonna face�or how we can fight it?"

Ripley peered at the man, assessing his sincerity with automatic suspicion. Something had changed. "What�s happened?"

"We just picked up a partial transmission from Base 51," he admitted. "They were calling for help, but it was cut off before we could get any details."

"It�s started." Ripley heard Call gasp sharply and realized she hadn�t been as far out of it as she�d thought.

"What do I do?" Leeds asked.

Dark eyes fell away from his steady gaze for a long moment, then lifted. "You have a couple of short range tactical nukes in your arsenal, don�t you?"

Leeds nodded.

"Fire one down an elevator shaft and run like hell," she advised grimly.

"I can�t do that," Leeds insisted. "We have people in there."

"Had," Ripley corrected under her breath.

Leeds stiffened, swallowing hard. His eyes fell away from her flinty gaze. "There was still someone capable of calling out�but�we�ll do what we have to," he allowed at last.

"Listen to me," Ripley said seriously. "What you have to do is kill�no�annihilate them�every last one. If you don�t mankind is doomed on this planet, because we don�t have a chance against them. They�re faster, stronger, with an insatiable will to feed and reproduce. You can�t make deals or truces with these creatures. You can only kill or be killed. Imagine a shark with acid for blood, the ability to move freely on land�in burning heat, or icy cold�agile enough to move in the tightest spaces ... with intelligence equal to a man�s."

"They can�t be that--" Leeds started to insist, but Call cut him off.

"They are."

*****

Gabriel was staring at a map of the area when the radio crackled to life. His whirled in his seat, eyes landing on the com-tech with piercing intensity. If the radios were up and working at all, it meant that someone had discovered his alterations to the system. He reached for his sidearm as the soldier answered the call, slipped the safety off as the man received the word that Leeds had stolen a hummer, and took aim as the speaker started to warn him that Gabriel was suspected of sabotage.

Obviously it had never occurred to the speaker that the communications officer might not be on headphones. The soldier was just reaching for his sidearm when Gabriel opened fire. Precisely aimed bullets tore into the crew as Gabriel lunged forward. He dove over falling bodies as the craft started to slew sideways. He shoved the dying driver aside and grabbed for the controls, dropping into the dead man�s seat. A hard yank brought the vehicle back onto the road as he pressed the accelerator, pushing it to the limit. As soon as the vehicle was stable again, he typed an activation code into the computer. Within a moment, the radio was receiving nothing but static once again, as a preprogrammed secondary virus tore through SouCal. He'd installed a backup system to disable their communications just in case there was trouble. After a moment, he reached over, grabbing the dead radio officer�s headset. A quick flick of the wrist sent most of the fresh blood flying, then he settled it on his head, dialing in a new frequency. He�d programmed the EDF equipment not to monitor it months before, just in case of such events. "This is archangel," he spoke as the radio crackled to life. He waited a moment, then spoke again. "This is Archangel, with a message for God. His fallen angels are riding into the desert in the footsteps of our savior. Demons ride at their side, intent on undoing the Lord�s work."

After a brief pause, a well known voice came back to him. "God hears your prayers and will answer them."

*****

Chapter 5
Revelations

Leeds sat back in his seat, silently watching Ripley and Call as he mulled over the tale his prisoners had told. Aliens that bled acid and hunted man ... on earth ... sent by the government he'd once served. He didn't want to believe, but remembering the things he'd been ordered to do before mutinying, he didn't doubt they were capable. He reached up, massaging the back of his neck. He trusted his team, every one of them, but he feared their lives would be in the hands of the two women manacled to their seats. No, he corrected himself mentally, one woman, one mechanical device. He had to remind himself of that because it was so easy to forget what the tiny one was when she looked at him through those rich, brown eyes.

He studied them carefully, still trying to understand what drove them. They had offered neither resistance nor unsolicited comment in the hours since leaving SouCal. With their arms bound just above their heads, they had to be uncomfortable, but neither one had complained. The auton�s eyes were closed, her head tipped sideways against her own upraised arm and Ripley's shoulder, while Ripley rested her cheek against the top of Call�s head, seemingly dozing. Leeds suddenly pushed to his feel, automatically shifting his balance to adjust for the moving floor.

Ripley�s eyes snapped open as hands landed on her wrists. She tensed, lips drawing back in an instinctive snarl. It relaxed away an instant later as she felt the handcuff latch snap free. Her expression questioning, she looked up as Leeds reached over to free Call.

"We�re all in this together. If I can�t trust you without these." He held up the cuffs. "We�re doomed anyway."

Ripley silently massaged her wrists as she absorbed his comment while Call looked up, smiling gratefully. "Thank you."

Leeds only shrugged, and moved to retake his seat, hoping his instincts were right once again.

Still rubbing her bruised wrists, Ripley turned her gaze on Call. "How are you feeling?" she asked, studying the auton carefully.

Call shrugged and massaged the back of her neck, wincing as her fingers encountered the tear in plastiskin.

Dark eyes narrowed as they tracked the gesture, then Ripley reached over, pulling the auton�s head around with a light touch, so she could look at the wound. "It�s torn more," she growled, eyes burning with remembered anger over the attack. She turned a look on Leeds. "Do you have anything I can use to repair the damage?"

It was McCay who spoke up. "There�s a skin-plast sealant in the medkit." She reached into a nearby equipment locker and pulled out a compact emergency trauma kit, tossing it to Ripley with the advice. "It�s meant to adhere to human skin, so it�s not ideal, but it should work�at least until you can find something better�" she trailed off, leaving out the obvious addendum -- or until it doesn�t matter anymore.

"Thanks," Ripley muttered, and opened the kit on the seat next to her. They hit another pothole, drawing a soft grunt and apologetic sigh from Ripley. "It may not be quite a neat a job as the last one."

Call shrugged and offered a small smile. "Don�t worry about it."

Despite the less than ideal situation, Ripley managed a fairly steady hand as she carefully cleaned and sealed the wound. She was just finishing when the driver called back.

"Sarge, we�ve got movement on the road ahead of us."

"Damn," Leeds muttered under his breath, then pointed at a couple of his people with the snapped command, "Man the gunnery stations."

The soldiers scrambled up through a hatch in the ceiling, rifles at the ready. A moment later, the hatch clanged shut again, though their heavy footsteps could still be heard overhead.

Leeds hurried forward, leaning against the back of his driver�s seat, as he peered at the readout. "Looks like a small group�about a quarter of a mile ahead. Ready for action...slow our speed to fifteen klicks" He looked up, startled, when Ripley stepped up beside him.

"Should there be anyone out here?" she questioned suspiciously.

He shrugged, uncomfortable and uncertain why. With communications down, there was no way anyone from SouCal could have sent a warning ahead. Still, the roads could be dangerous... "There are a few settlements out here�they aren't allied with the EDF, so we don't keep close track. There are also traders who use these roads pretty regularly." He frowned thoughtfully. "But they usually travel alone."

Ripley's brows drew together as she studied the visual readout. "It looks like someone's standing in the middle of the road," she pointed out as she tapped the screen. "Can you zoom in?"

"Do it," Leeds murmured to the soldier running the surveillance equipment. A moment later, the camera zoomed on the figure.

Ripley's scowl deepened. "More." She felt a hand land on her shoulder and glanced back to find Call watching her worriedly.

"Do you have an idea who it is?" the auton whispered near her ear.

Ripley's answering shrug was so faint Call could hardly feel it under her hand.

The tall woman turned her attention back to the readout as the tech explained, "That's as much as I can get out of it."

Ellen Ripley shivered as she stared at the figure standing in the roadway, his hands locked together at the small of his back. "It's enough," she whispered. "Stop the hummer," she told Leeds. "And tell your people to be ready for anything."

Leeds didn't question her, just called out an order to pull up.

Ripley reached for the hatch as she felt the heavy vehicle roll to a halt. After a quick spin, she pushed the door outward, watching as it swung down to form the steps into the hummer. Call's hand caught her forearm abruptly, tugging her back with considerable strength.

"What's going on? Who is that?"

Leeds was busy waving his people into position and readying for a possible confrontation, leaving the two women with a private moment.

"That man out there," Ripley said with a short nod. "It's Bishop, or at least has his face." She could almost hear the android's soft voice echoing in her head. I prefer the term artificial person.

"Bishop?" Call whispered as though she thought she might have heard wrong. "But that's not possible�he was destroyed. It's in all of the forbidden histories."

Ripley didn't comment on that, just asked, "Could there be another model with the same face?"

Call shook her head. "I don't see how. By then they were making each facial mold wholly unique. There might be one built on a similar pattern, but not identical."

Ripley nodded. "That's what I thought." She grabbed a rifle off a nearby soldier, who started to protest, until Leeds waved him silent.

"Company's coming," the sergeant told her as he noted movement on the viewscreen. The figure blockading the road started forward with a slow measured stride.

Ripley nodded. "I imagine it is," she murmured, then touched Call's shoulder lightly. "Stay inside." A moment later, she stepped out into the open, dark eyes scanning the surrounding terrain -- hunting for any signs of ambush -- before her gaze swung around to the man moving steadily toward her. Her gait long and seemingly loose, she headed toward him, still gripping the rifle tightly. She couldn�t see or hear anyone moving on either side, but that didn't mean they weren't there. She squinted slightly, noting a small group well ahead. By the look of it, they were with the Bishop lookalike. She was about one hundred feet in front of the hummer when she came to a halt, resting the rifle stock on her hip as she continued to watch the oncoming man's steady strides. "Hullo, Bishop," she murmured a long moment later as he drew to a halt in front of her. She studied his weathered face, no longer the least bit uncertain about his identity, then ran her eyes over his lanky figure, noting the evidence of old damage. By the look of it, he hadn't led an easy life.

Bishop's weary expression split into a faint smile. "Hello, Ripley," the android said in his perfectly modulated voice. He lifted a hand to shade his eyes, peering at the hummer behind her with obvious curiosity. She couldn't miss the stiff way he moved, or the metal replacement joint that attached a perfectly normal looking -- albeit dark hued -- hand to his left arm.

"So it really is you." Ripley didn't loosen her hold on the rifle. He appeared surprised by her presence, but it was hard to be certain. His responses were so subtle, and she only had hazy memories from another life to go by.

"I think that's my line," he murmured thoughtfully as he studied her with equal curiosity. "Any way you look at it, it's a hell of coincidence...our meeting out here... like this."

"Is it?" Ripley murmured, then changed the subject. "Not to be rude, but the last time I saw you, you were in pieces."

Another faint smile. "That's all right, the last time I saw you, you were nothing more than a few blood smears," he responded with equal calm, assessing her the same way she was assessing him. "Care to explain what you're doing here at the same time we get transmissions about trouble among the humans�transmissions that mention something inhuman invading one of their bases?"

"Transmissions?" Ripley demanded without bothering to be polite. An android had just tried to kill her. She wanted to make sure he hadn't had any help. Bishop had come back for her once, but that didn't mean he got a free pass.

"Very broken� from the EDF's main bases in Nevada and California. It sounded like someone�or something invaded the Nevada base. The situation sounds bad�then we picked up a transmission about an escapee from SouCal�and your name was mentioned." He shook his head. "I thought it had to be someone else, but then they sent out a picture, and it looked like you�I decided to check personally." He drew a little closer, studying her carefully. "What are you?"

Ripley's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, as though she was trying to gauge the truth of his statements, while she tensed, tracking him out of the corner of her eyes. She didn't trust anyone that close�no, she amended that thought. There was one person she trusted to get close, but it certainly wasn't Bishop. "A clone," She answered simply and held out her arm, showing the tattooed number eight. "Made from one of those blood smears."

"Why would they�" Bishop started to say, then trailed off. "Oh God," he exhaled. "They've found a way to bring them back." For the first time, the android's emotions were surprisingly clear and evident, the look in his eyes one of sheer horror.

Ripley nodded. "That's right," she agreed, a little comforted by his response. She couldn't help but remember her relief, in another life when he'd landed the flyer to pick up she and Newt. I prefer the term artificial person. Her stance relaxed ever so slightly. "And not just any alien either�a queen." She let that sink in for a millisecond before adding. "We think they're trying to turn the underground base in Nevada into a new cr�che�so she can reproduce."

"Damn�I didn't want to think it was possible." He massaged his mismatched hand distractedly, thinking out loud as he murmured. "I've got to get word to the team we sent to Nevada�confirm that the worst case scenario is active." He seemed completely blown away by the revelations and at a loss to how to respond.

"You do that?" Ripley murmured. She jerked herself back to the present, reminding herself of all the times she'd been betrayed. Even if Bishop had helped her in the past, she shouldn't be too quick to presume he would now. "We're on our way there. Maybe we'll see 'em." She started to turn back, but Bishop caught her arm. She turned back slowly, eyeing the hand gripping her arm with a purposely bland look.

"My people are hours ahead of you," he pointed out coolly.

"Are they really prepared to handle it?" Ripley asked dryly, her tone making it clear she had her doubts. "Because this isn't the kind of problem that can be dealt with by simply lobbing a hand grenade at it."

Bishop ducked his head in acknowledgment. "Normally, we have no use for the kind of weapons needed for the task, but we did have two short range nuclear missiles intended for field launch�that should deal with the problem quite�efficiently."

Heart hammering in her chest for reasons she couldn't quite fathom, Ripley nodded, allowing that they probably would do the job. Her eyes dropped to the dark-toned hand attached to his wrist by a gleaming, stainless steel joint. "So, how did you survive the last two hundred years�being ripped to pieces, shredded�and then there was that little recall of all androids." Her eyes lifted, the expression in them as alien as the creatures she'd hunted through two lifetimes. She wanted him to be a man she could trust -- the man she had trusted -- but, as he'd said, it was a hell of a coincidence.

"Autons," Bishop corrected her, apparently taking her change in subject with equanimity. "They recalled the autons, not androids. We were allowed to just fade away. They didn't destroy us, just said, 'No new parts for you.'"

"How," Ripley repeated pointedly, "did you survive?"

Bishop stood staring at her for a long moment. "The ship's logs were unreadable and the only available witnesses to any of the events were a group of highly questionable violent criminals. The company needed to know what happened, and my memory circuits were deemed the most reliable resource available. They put a full team on the task of putting me back together."

"Why not just download the data?"

Bishop's gaze sharpened. "Because that would be the same as simply downloading what you've seen over a certain length of time. It wouldn't have had my thoughts or interpretations. To get those, they needed me functioning. An android isn't a simple computer�download the hard drive, and you have all the data. Our informational processors are much more complex than that."

"So they rebuilt you?" Ripley prompted, her voice still diamond hard, refusing to be drawn into trusting him by the past.

"Debriefed me for several years, then put me to work as a janitor in the R & D labs�where they played with all the dangerous chemicals. The job was deemed too dangerous for humans and most of the androids being built at that time were designed for higher functions."

"So, how did you get here?" she questioned, gesturing to their surroundings.

"I never left. I was put back together on earth. When the company evacuated a hundred years ago, I wasn't important enough to bother with. Now, why all the questions?" he demanded.

Ripley didn't answer, just gestured to the group waiting some distance back. "They androids too?"

He nodded. "Several different generations of them, but yes. We have -- for want of a better word -- a colony, just a few miles from here. We were all left behind during the evacuation. We stay out of the humans' way�" He flexed the mismatched hand. "And do our best to repair ourselves and continue some kind of existence. Now, I repeat, why all the questions when you're the wanted criminal?"

Ripley shrugged. "Simple, it was an android -- I guess you'd call him an auton -- by the name of Gabriel Ark who helped bring them here. He tried to kill me�and�" Ripley paused, hunting for the right word, "...hurt a companion," she decided at last.

"An auton?" Bishop questioned. "I�ve heard there are a few on earth, but we haven't been able to make contact. They can blend in with humans�and they prefer their company to ours. From what I've heard, they find we older models very�" he hunted for the right word, appeared not to find it, and finally settled on, "...dull�.You say a second gen tried to kill you?" His brows lifted in polite disbelief. "How odd�of course, they were a little unstable. The programmers gave them a much more intense emotional base." He shrugged. "Some of them couldn't handle it. That's why they were destroyed." He shook his head sadly. "The whole situation was a disaster."

"Ark wanted to turn the creatures loose on the planet � use them to wipe out mankind. He thought androids could live peacefully with them."

Bishop shook his head. "He must be mad then � as I recall those creatures�" he rubbed his midsection with one hand, as though remembering the feeling of the queen tearing him in two, "they were equally hostile to artificials and biologicals."

Ripley noted the small gesture and nodded. "True," she allowed. An image of Bishop being ripped apart flashed before her eyes. "That's why I have to make certain they're stopped," she murmured, her voice flat. She started to turn away, but Bishop's voice stopped her.

"I can't allow your group to continue," he said softly.

Ripley turned back very slowly, eyes narrowing as a faint smile touched her lips. "I had a funny feeling you might say something like that," she drawled, almost relieved by the betrayal. Best to just get it over with. "And why not?" she questioned silkily. (3)

Bishop sighed softly. "Look at it from my point of view," he suggested reasonably. "Whatever you are, the USM made you � to get their hands on a creature intended for use as a weapon of war. At the moment, all I know about you, is who you say you are, and that you're a wanted criminal in the eyes of the EDF."

"Meaning?" Ripley cut in, surprised by his argument. It wasn't what she'd expected at all.

"I can't trust you," he said simply. "I'll contact my people in the field. They'll see to it that the aliens are stopped, but I can't afford to take a risk on someone I don't know," he stated, his voice flat. "Not with these creatures involved."

Ripley's eyes flashed past him to the waiting androids.

"I do have the power to stop you," Bishop insisted in his curiously unemotional voice. "That hummer is a well armored craft, but it has a few weaknesses. It's very vulnerable to a small, directed, modulation signal at the proper frequency. It just knocks out the whole ignition system."

Ripley stared at him, her expression arch. "Meaning?" she prompted again.

"Meaning you and your people can sit very safely in your tin can. If you get out, we can either take you prisoner, or shoot you. The choice will be yours�but you won't be going anywhere." His voice never rose as he laid out his threat. It was dispassionately presented and the more dispiriting for it. "Go back," he suggested at last. "Ask whoever's in charge of that vehicle�he'll tell you I'm not lying. We can disable your craft, and we will if pressed. However, due to our�history�" he paused, "I would prefer to avoid using force." He massaged his mismatched hand. "You needn't worry. You�and your companions will be welcome with us�and I assure you, I'll do everything in my power to destroy the xenomorphs." For a moment, his eyes burned. "Believe me, Ripley, I remember what they can do."

Black eyes speared through him, trying to assess his honesty on the subject. Finally, she dipped her head as she admitted, "You appear to have me over a barrel."

"Go ask," Bishop advised and nodded toward the hummer. "Then we'll talk again. Meanwhile�I need to notify my people about the situation." He calmly turned and walked away, leaving Ripley staring after him.

She stood there for a long moment, then turned on her heel. When she reached the hummer, she explained what she'd learned to Leeds, who confirmed Bishop's threat.

The big man nodded. "Pretty much be child's play for most androids," he muttered. "With a fairly simple broadcast beacon, they can synthesize the frequencies very quickly ... until they find the right one." He shook his head as he stared at Ripley. "Chances are he can make good on his threat."

"He says his people will destroy them," the cloned woman muttered. It was ironic; where shortly before she had wanted to stay out of the fight, now she was less than comfortable with the idea. Unfortunately, it looked like she had little choice in the matter.

"There've been rumors about android colonies in the wilderness�but I�ve never heard of anyone making contact," McCay said softly.

Leeds turned a startled gaze on her. "I never heard anything about that."

The young soldier shrugged. "EDF soldiers only go to Angeltown to find women or to bust other soldiers for finding women. It doesn't encourage a lot of confidences."

"Colonel Hoagland went to a great deal of effort to communicate with the local leaders."

"No�the Colonel went to a great deal of effort to lay down the rules for them," McCay corrected. "Always reminding them -- us -- of who she felt was in charge." McCay shook her head. "Why would anyone in Angeltown tell you anything? You came here to destroy their world, rape what little is left for them."

Leeds flushed. "In case you haven't noticed, you're a soldier in the EDF now, and we're protecting those people."

The young woman smirked knowingly. "In case you haven't noticed, this is my world. I'm a citizen of earth. You're a glorified trespasser who wants a thank you because you came to pillage and changed your mind."

Leeds stiffened, gathering himself to respond.

Ripley abruptly stepped between them. "Work it out later." She didn't know about the local political tensions, and didn't care either. "Right now, we've got bigger problems on our hands." She pointed at McCay. "Do you know anything else?"

The young woman shook her head. "A few people tried to make contact, but haven't had any luck. The town council figured if they were out here we wouldn't bother them, if they didn't bother us. They've had enough problems in their lives."

Leeds stiffened, and muttered, "But they were created to serve man. They're mechanical devices, not human beings. "

McCay smirked and nodded toward Call, who stood off to the side, silently listening. "Like her?"

Leeds gaze swung over to touch on the slight figure, and his mouth worked silently. Sometimes even he completely forgot she wasn't human, leaving him uncertain how to respond.

McCay shook her head, silently tossing her weapon aside before slipping out the hatch and bounding down the three stairs to the dirt. "I dunno about the rest of you," she said as she looked back. "But I plan on surrendering."

Leeds seemed about to argue, but Ripley waved him silent, watching until the woman disappeared out of sight of the open hatch, then shrugged. "I'm afraid Bishop has the winning hand." She reached back and caught Call's hand in her own. "Let's just hope he's telling the truth," she sighed.

Call nodded. "Let's hope," she agreed and followed Ripley out into daylight. There was no discussion of separating. They both knew they were would go together.

Leeds leaned out after them. "Tell your android friend that we won't surrender, but we won't go any further either. We'll pull off the road. If they don't give us any trouble, we won't give them any." It was the best offer he felt he could make.

Ripley looked back, and nodded. "Okay."

"Besides," Leeds added, "Gabriel and the others are probably in pursuit. We'll watch your back."

Ripley allowed herself a wry smile. "Thanks." Then turned, and walked on, Call keeping close pace.

"Do you trust Bishop?" the auton asked when they were out of Leeds' earshot, and McCay was still well ahead.

Ripley shrugged. "He came back for Newt and I on LV-246�I trust him as much as I trust anyone, I guess." She considered the situation for a moment. "Besides, he knows what they can do�he's got no reason to want them alive."

Call's mouth quirked in a faint smile. "Funny, I keep telling myself that about mankind." Her brow lifted. "They don't seem to feel the same way."

Ripley just looked at Call. She had a point there. "I think it'll be okay," she whispered at last.

McCay reached the small group of androids, and the two watched as she was checked for weapons with professional calm.

"I think I should warn you though," Ripley murmured. "He didn't sound especially trusting of, or thrilled by, second gen autons like you."

Call nodded. "Old line androids created us, but they were also destroyed because of us. There are some resentments."

"Maybe we shouldn't tell them about you."

Call shook her head. "He'll know. We always recognize each other�there are small clues�ones a human can�t see, and we can�t miss."

"You can still go back and stay with Leeds and his people, if you like."

Call shook her head. "No�I knew how they were likely to view me when I decided to come with you. Besides, the answers lie ahead of us, not behind."

Then there was no more time to speak without being overhead as they drew within range of the waiting group of androids.

Bishop tossed the radio microphone back into the holster along the side of the small unit, then rose and turned to face Ripley. His eyes narrowed as they landed on Call, then swung back to the taller woman. "An auton?" he questioned.

"She's a friend," Ripley murmured, muscles pulling taut beneath the skin. She hadn't expected Bishop to recognize Call's nature that quickly. She tensed, ready to fight if need be. "If there's a problem with that, we need to discuss it."

Bishop shook his head, his expression still perfectly cool. "No problem here," he denied. "You just caught me by surprise." He turned a gaze on the soldier who'd surrendered. "Is this it?"

"No," Ripley murmured. "The others will stay with the hummer. Don't bother them, they won't bother you."

Bishop's gaze touched on the vehicle as though debating the options, then he shrugged. "All right." He waved to a couple of his people, both of whom showed the damage of their years, and they disappeared into the dense growth. "We should get moving. I just called in to the people aimed for Base 51, but I want to get back to our main communications center. This radio probably can't maintain contact once they get closer to the crash site�too much interference."

It was several miles, most of it uphill, and the androids were determined to move fast, until even Ripley was starting to show the strain. At some point, they stopped for a moment, while a slender android who appeared even younger than Call, disappeared into the trees.

"We monitor the area," Bishop explained to Ripley. "He's checking on some of the equipment."

Ripley nodded silently, using the break to catch her breath.

Apparently satisfied that she wasn't going to do anything unwanted, Bishop ducked his head and disappeared in another direction, leaving the remaining four androids to watch the prisoners. They stood guard, but none made any attempt to speak to the captives. Ripley was mildly surprised that they were as aloof to Call as to the humans, though in light of Bishop's comment, they had to know what she was.

McCay bent over at the waist, chest heaving as she dragged air into her lungs. "Never thought I'd wish I was cybered," she groaned.

One or two seemed to stiffen ever so slightly at McCay's muttered comment, but it wasn't enough of a response for the cloned woman to be certain.

"So, why are you here?" Ripley asked McCay curiously, knowingly echoing the other woman's earlier question to her. "You didn't have to surrender. You could have stayed with the hummer."

The soldier shrugged. "I told you no one�s ever made contact. Now someone has." Another shrug. "There�s a lot to learn out here." Her eyes touched on their guards. "I am loyal to my world, Ripley. I'd do anything to protect it�" she trailed off as two androids drew close. One passed close enough that their shoulders brushed, but no words were spoken. McCay stared after the stiff figure. "Not too friendly, I guess."

"Can you blame them?" Call spoke up for the first time since stopping. McCay's softly spoken vow had left her shaken, wondering if the soldier's version of protecting her world included wiping out any of its artificial inhabitants. God knew, that had been the plan enough times before. Her expression was grimly suspicious. "After all, mankind hasn't exactly treated them with great care."

McCay laughed very softly. "Not surprising, since mankind hasn't even treated itself with great care�but to answer your question, no, I don't blame them," she drawled. "It's just a little nerve wracking.

Ripley laughed softly as she shared a look with the soldier, feeling an unusual sense of affinity for another human being. "Under different circumstances, I'd wonder if we were going to be tossed into the stew pot," she admitted with a wry smile, consciously trying to lighten the situation. "Guess it's a good thing they don't eat."

Call's expression twisted angrily as she was reminded that she didn't fit in with either group. "Actually, they -- we -- do," she explained tersely. "We have energy needs just like anyone else � and we can break down and use the same foodstuffs you do to feed them."

McCay noted the hostility. "Maybe I should be nervous then," she drawled.

"Maybe you should," Call snapped and spun on one heel, stalking off.

"Damn," Ripley exhaled, noting the inhumanly expressionless eyes that watched Call's withdrawal before she went after the auton, the soldier all but forgotten.

Call broke away from the group, moving into the trees. Their watchers tensed, apparently readying for trouble, until she came to a halt some distance from the others.

"I'm sorry," Ripley said as she drew's close to the smaller woman's tense back. She curved her hands to slender shoulders, holding on when Call would have twitched free.

"Why?" the auton demanded bitterly. "I'm not human�I don't have real feelings to be hurt."

Ripley winced as though struck. "You know I don't think that," she insisted, thumbs moving against delicate shoulders, stroking as much to smooth her own emotions as Call's. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings," she whispered and leaned her cheek against silky hair, taking some measure of comfort from their closeness. "But you aren't the only who's scared�"

Narrow shoulders trembled under her hands, and the auton was silent for a long moment. "When we were recalled, the older models�some of them were glad," she admitted hesitantly. "Thought it would mean they'd be back in production�they turned us in, even worked as hunters for the companies�there were rumors of second gens being torn apart by groups of first gens if they tried to resist the recall."

Ripley sighed heavily, her breath making dark hair flutter. She wrapped her arms around Call's upper chest, holding her close. "I won't let anything like that happen," she whispered near her ear.

Unseen by Ripley, full lips twisted in a wry smile. "We might be able to fight two or even three of them, but not a group�" Call trailed off, falling silent. "Besides, it's not just them�it's everyone�I don't belong anywhere."

Ripley released her hold to gently urge the smaller woman around. "That's not true," she disagreed, running the pad of her thumb along a rounded cheekbone. She wanted to say more, but the words wouldn't quite come. Finally, she whispered, "You belong anywhere you want to be." Her gaze fell away uncertainly, and she caught Call's hands in her own as she promised, "Whatever happens, we're in it together." She wondered at the impulsive need, but the words were truer than any she'd ever spoken. "Okay?" As she spoke the last word, her chin lifted, and she seemed almost ready to bolt, afraid that perhaps Call would refuse the whispered vow.

Call stared up at the cloned woman, feeling lost in the intensity in her dark brown eyes. "Okay," she confirmed at last.

Ripley allowed herself a small smile.

They were still staring at each other like that when Bishop's call rang across the small clearing. "We're moving again!"

"It'll be all right," Ripley felt the need to assure Call as she felt another shudder slip through her. They joined the others, falling into step as their captors pushed the pace again.

Jogging easily, McCay pulled alongside of Ripley. She was obviously used to forging ahead at murderous speeds. "Thought you might want to know," she murmured sotto voce. "Our hosts were very interested in the scene between you two."

Ripley didn't look over as she responded. "Thanks."

Running next to her, Call remained silent, but her gaze touched on their captors, and she hung as close as possible to Ripley for the remainder of the journey. McCay, meanwhile, broke away and tried -- without success -- to engage various of the silent androids in conversation.

Finally, the small group reached a small cluster of buildings. The tiny village was made up of a mishmash of construction styles: ancient metal Quonset huts, wood and adobe cottages, and a somewhat battered looking, low slung, glass and steel building.

A crowd of androids appeared, all showing wear and tear similar to Bishop's. They traded a few low key words of welcome to their returning comrades while staring at the newcomers with quiet curiosity. Bishop quickly waved them aside, indicating he didn't want to discuss the matter. Ripley noted how they didn't question the gesture, just moved on.

"This way," Bishop said, still cool and collected. Their four guardians stayed with the group as they moved toward the glass and steel building. It was single storied and L shaped, running perhaps a hundred yards in one direction and fifty in the other, and more than a few of the windows had been replaced by rough hewn boards. Obviously, glass had been in short supply, requiring other means of repairing damage.

The three outsiders were led in through a sliding metal door which clanged shut in their wake. Ripley glanced back at the barrier with dislike, but made no attempt to argue.

"We have quarters for you on a lower floor," Bishop explained. "They aren't palatial, but they're reasonably comfortable. I'd like to discuss the situation with all of you later, but right now I have things to see to�.and I suspect you'd profit by some rest." He waved a tall, dark-haired, male android forward. A scar, similar to a burn, marred one cheek, and his eyes were mismatched, one blue, one brown. "In the meantime, this is Michael Paladin. He'll be in charge here in my absence. If you have any requests, speak to him."

The man in question nodded in acknowledgment. "This way," he said politely as he gestured the small group into an open elevator.

"Nice digs," McCay observed wryly. "Part of the old military chain?"

Paladin watched the elevator doors slide closed, then pushed the button for one of the lower levels. "Actually, it was originally part of an old research facility. The rest of the buildings were, unfortunately, destroyed."

One of the androids, a woman, was staring pointedly at Call, studying her with considerable intensity, until the auton shifted closer to Ripley, who turned a hard gaze on the watcher.

The android's lips turned up in a mild smirk. "Pretty little piece of plastic," she drawled. "She a ground zero girl?"

"No," Call gasped, while the other android reached out an insolent hand and would have fondled short dark hair had Ripley not caught her hand at the wrist, stopping her short of contact.

"Don't touch," Ripley hissed dangerously.

"I guess she's your personal toy, eh?" Every nuance of her tone and expression was an insult. "I've heard humans can get addicted to GZ's�guess it's true."

"Back off, Catherine," Michael Paladin broke in as the elevator came to a halt. He pushed the doors open, and gestured the others through.

Ripley hung to the back, taking a moment to speak to Paladin. "My friend's afraid of your people. She's heard stories�and I will protect her if I have to."

The tall android met her gaze evenly. "Don't worry, there won't be any trouble. According to our laws, any artificial person is one of us�and that includes second gen autons."

"It had better," Ripley mouthed before she turned and followed the others.

They were led through a set of lockable double doors, and into a short corridor.

"These are guest quarters," Paladin explained as he pushed one of the doors open and flipped on the lights to reveal a small room with basic amenities. "There will be guards stationed on the entrance to this hallway, but you have the run of this area. I'll arrange for food to be sent down, but it may take awhile. Our needs are somewhat different from yours."

"Thank you," Ripley murmured distantly. "Whatever you come up with will be fine." Despite the fact that she was technically the prisoner, she managed to create the illusion of dismissing the man as she moved away to enter the room at the end of the hallway.

Paladin watched her for a moment, then turned on his heel as he spoke over his shoulder. "I'll be just outside the doors, if you need anything."

*****

Ripley stared around the tight confines of her new quarters and did a mental shrug. She'd had worse in this life � and the last. Loosening her clothes, she moved into what appeared to be a small bathroom, flipping on the light to reveal greying tile and tarnished steel. A small shower filled one end of the tiny room, and she turned the water on, gratified when it began to warm against her hand. In a daze of exhaustion and something more, she peeled her clothes off, dropping them behind her before stepping under the hot spray. She leaned into the water, letting it sluice over her bare skin, and wash away the smell of death that seemed to cling to her like shroud, filling her nostrils and reminding her of her nature with every breath. Blindly exploring fingers encountered a bar of some kind of rough soap. It barely lathered, but it cut through the layer of grime coating her body, washing it away as though it had never been. If only she could wash away the stains on her soul as easily. She was vaguely aware of movement in the other room, but lost in the pleasure of the shower, paid it scant mind. She tipped her face into the spray, letting it wash over her skin and hair.

Then they came again.

The creatures of her nightmares.

Her enemies.

Her children.

Her beautiful, awful children.

She whimpered low in her throat and fell heavily against the shower wall, before sinking to her knees. Awareness surged through her, forcing her to cry out more loudly as the taste of human blood filled her mouth.

Blood and something more�something inhuman.

"No more�" Ripley gasped, begging the universe for some alleviation of the torment. She didn't even feel the hands that curved to her bare shoulders, pulling her against a small, compact body. (4)

"Ripley," Call snapped sharply.

"They're here�make them go away," Ellen Ripley begged no one in particular.

"Ripley!" Call repeated and shook her. When it didn't help, she repeated her name and slapped the taller woman � hard.

That got through, though not quite the way expected. Call suddenly found herself tackled, her wrists pinned to the floor above her head. Ripley stared down at her, brown eyes dazed and animalishly intent. Her nostrils flared, upper lip twitching as she leaned down, breathing in the scent of her captive's body. She smelled human enough -- maybe it was the fact that she was in such close contact with them -- but the scent triggered the hunter's instincts, making Ripley lean closer, her lips drawing back from sharp teeth in a feral sneer.

"Ripley," Call repeated, fear thickening her voice. She tensed, but wasn't strong enough to throw the larger woman off.

Suddenly, Ripley blinked as she came back to herself and recognized the figure beneath her. The smell of android blood touched her senses, and her eyes lifted to Call's neck, noting the tiny leakage of white blood around the edge of the patch she'd put there. The strain of trying to throw her off had pulled an edge loose. "Sorry," she husked and freed slender wrists, rolling away to sit with her back against the wall, her forehead pillowed on her upthrust knees.

Call pushed into a sitting position, startled to realize that Ripley was shaking, her shoulders trembling violently as harsh sobs welled up from her chest. The auton reached out a tentative hand and brushed it down a long, bare arm. "Ripley?" Call whispered very softly, but the cloned woman was past hearing. Call cautiously scooted closer, slowly taking the angular figure into her arms. "It's okay," she soothed, petting wet strands of hair with a gentle touch. "It'll be all right." She rocked her very slowly, whispering calming nonsense phrases until the woman in her arms quieted. Call rested her chin on the top of Ripley's head, content to simply hold her.

"I didn�t mean to hurt you," the woman in her arms choked. "I swear�but it's always there�a part of me�I can't control it." They both knew what 'it' was, that alien part of her that fought for control, constantly trying to take command of her body and soul.

"I know," the auton whispered sadly, and felt Ripley wrap an arm around her waist, clinging tightly.

Ripley released herself to Call's care, too exhausted and battered by the battles within and around her to hold on any longer. For the first in her short life -- at least this one -- she let go, trusting Call's presence to hold the nightmares at bay.

Finally, when she could feel the cold seeping up through the floor to chill both of them, Call straightened and shook Ripley very gently. "C'mon�we need to get you into bed," she murmured, tugging the taller woman to her feet. Call's eyes touched on bare flesh, noting the elegant lines of Ripley's body. She swallowed hard, then grabbed one of the thin towels hung over a simple rack. "Here," she croaked and held it out.

Ripley silently took the towel and began drying her still damp skin, well aware of Call's eyes on her as she felt her mind clear. Her head tipped back, exposing the arch of her throat while she ran the towel over her chest, scrubbing away the last of the water. Back in control, she let the day's events replay in her brain, trying to make sense of it all. Suddenly, her chin dropped, head canting to one side as she remembered something. Call had disappeared, and Ripley hurried after her, relieved, when she found her in the other room. Someone had brought a basket of fresh fruit while they were in the bathroom, leaving it on the small desk built into one wall, and Call was rooting through it. Ripley leaned her shoulder against the doorjamb, an appreciative smile curving her lips as she took in delicate curves. "Analee Call," she said almost inaudibly, though she knew the auton had heard her from the slight tension that rippled through her small frame. "What's a ground zero girl?"

Call tensed, but didn't respond, just hunted through the basket with more determination.

"You didn't like it when that android called you that. What does it mean?" It was important. She just didn�t know why.

Call turned slowly, her expression resentful. "Why do you want to know?" This time, she was the one with her guard firmly in place.

"Because for some reason, it's important to you." She ran a hand through her hair, scraping it back from her face. "And because I want to understand." She continued slowly massaging her skin. "I can't do that if you won't talk to me." When no answer was forthcoming, Ripley shrugged, but didn't look away, unwilling to back down. "I can wait as long as you can."

Slim shoulders sagged in silent surrender. Call hadn't counted on Ripley asking, or being so damn stubborn. She should have known better. She linked her fingers together, playing with them as she fumbled for the words. "When they made us�some models had more�skills�than others. They were designed to be sold to companies�to be the perfect workers during the day�and at night."

Ripley frowned as her meaning sank in. "A little company to seal the deal, eh?"

"Yes�not to mention relaxation for the executives�technically, they were illegal, but a little money under the table�" she trailed off suggestively.

"Pay for sex once and never again," Ripley murmured. "So they were--"

"They were a lot more than that," Call jumped in angrily. "They had minds, and feelings, and opinions�just the way they were designed to. They tried to protest � to refuse to perform illegal acts � but the law ignored them because, according to the courts, they had no rights. Unless a human complained, they didn't care about the legal infractions. In the end, a group of mostly female autons resisted�so the companies installed a restraining subroutine in their main program�made them participate in their own rape�hating it�wanting out�and unable to even say no." Call's haunted gaze lifted. "It drove them mad�over a five year period, there were at least a dozen different incidents in which autons who'd been altered with sexual subroutines found ways around them and revolted�several times, humans were slaughtered en masse."

"And that spurred the recall," Ripley guessed.

Call nodded. "At some point the companies had to admit there was a problem. They kept it quiet for awhile, but there was no way to hide everything, especially, since so many of the people killed were executives in multi-billion dollar companies�. They paid off the government to turn a blind eye to their illegal acts and blamed us instead. No one gave a damn what they did to us � that they were allowing not just copulation, but the foulest kinds of sexual torture."

Ripley was silent for a long moment. "And the women who turned on their owners were called ground zero girls because--"

"They were there when it began � the center of the conflagration," Call finished for her. "Rumor has it a few escaped the purges."

"What about you, Analee Call?" Ripley whispered as she drew near. "Were you one of them? Did someone finally push you past the ability to be sane and caring."

Call's chin tipped up, and she stared at Ripley for a long moment  before answering. "No. But I was built to be used like that," she admitted, looking away to hide her shame.

Ripley blanched, her heart suddenly hammering in her chest. "What happened to you?" she questioned, dreading the possible answers. She hadn't really thought about what might have happened to the young woman during the intervening time between her escape and the present.

Dark eyes dropped, then lifted a brief moment later. "I was sold to a small company � owned by a very decent man. When he heard about the recall, he knew what would happen. They were still talking about minor changes to our basic programming, but he knew computers, and he knew it couldn't be done. He warned me to run." The words came out haltingly, as though she'd never had the courage to give voice to them before.

Probably hadn't -- Ripley thought as she listened -- since the story was one that could get her melted down like so much excess slag. She sighed heavily, relieved to hear Call hadn't gone through what some of the others had. She brushed her knuckles along a smooth cheek. "Is that why you're afraid of being touched? Afraid you might go insane and hurt someone, or afraid you might respond to the desires they programmed into you?"

Call looked away, her eyes silver with tears, and nodded jerkily.

Ripley continued stroking her cheek rhythmically. "So soft," she exhaled. "They forgot to tell you something�sometimes desire isn't wrong�it doesn't have to be about using someone."

Call shook her head. "In me, desire is an illusion. A commodity to be sold."

Ripley shook her head, smiling gently. "Have you ever wanted anyone before�someone you didn't care for, or didn't like?"

"No�but--"

The cloned woman ducked her head until her lips were scant inches from Call's. "And do you want me now?" she questioned, her voice low and silky.

The auton wanted to refuse, to deny the hunger burning through artificial veins. A part of her knew it was only an illusion, while another part couldn't imagine that feelings so intense could be anything but real. She wanted to deny Ripley, but couldn't. "Yes."

Ripley continued stroking her cheek, and Call turned her head to kiss caressing fingers, breathing in the erotic scent of clean flesh. Long fingers outlined the shape of the auton's full lips. Ripley's eyes slid closed, her breathing harsh as sharp teeth rubbed against her skin. A second later, she felt the sandpaper brush of Call's tongue and could barely suppress a moan. She blinked, leaning down until her lips were scant millimeters from Call's. "Kiss me," she commanded.

Warm lips met and meshed. Within moments both women were straining to deepen the kiss, nearly overwhelmed by the need to touch and be touched. Strong hands tugged the zipper of Call's jumpsuit down, then slid under the heavy fabric to peel it off her shoulders. Ripley stroked the line of Call's collar bone, then down slender arms. Their lovemaking gained momentum, flowing naturally, one caress into the next, until they fell to the bed together. Graceful bodies twined together, caresses stroking over velvety flesh, while their mouths blended with erotic fervor.

Ripley pressed Call onto her back, kissing her way down the delicate body, tasting every inch of her silky curves. She dusted soft kisses over a warm breast, then wrapped her tongue around a coral nipple, amazed to feel it pucker under her caresses. She pressed a soft kiss over her lover's sternum. "You're beautiful," she whispered. "Perfect." Her hands stroked slender hips as she kissed her way lower, outlining Call's stomach muscles in small kisses before working her way lower, sinking her mouth into intimate flesh. She felt strong hands dig into her hair, as the auton's back arched sharply, and a low groan was torn from her throat. Ripley's hands slid over her lover's curves, exploring; relearning the textures and caresses that she'd known in another life and discovering what pleased the delicate body beneath her own. When she felt Call's orgasm burst through her, she surged up, covering the smaller woman's body as she reclaimed soft lips, drinking in her soft cries of pleasure. Ripley continued with the silky kisses as she felt her lover's body relax again. Finally, the smaller woman turned her head to press her nose into the curve of her lover's shoulder.

"Oh, God," Call exhaled, clinging to Ripley with passionate strength. She drew deep gasps of air into artificial lungs, before finally pulling back enough to stare up into near black eyes. "Ripley," she whispered, and reached up to brush several stray strands of hair away from her forehead. Her mouth worked silently for a moment. "I didn't know." She shook her head slowly.

A soft smile touched Ripley's lips, and she dropped another small kiss on Call's mouth. "Now, did that feel artificial?" she questioned silkily.

"No," the auton admitted with a shy smile. She rolled on top of Ripley, straddling her hips as she leaned forward on her hands. "It didn't feel artificial at all."

Call leaned down, dusting her lips over Ripley's face, tasting the high arch of her cheekbones and the strong curve of her jaw before outlining the shape of her mouth in tiny kisses. She smoothed her hands over strong shoulders, then down Ripley's arms, feeling the complex twining of bone and muscle beneath her hands.

Finally, Call pushed up to sit on her heels, staring down at smooth curves. "You're so beautiful," she exhaled, and trailed a light fingertip down the center of Ripley's torso, taking in the elegant length of her body. She leaned forward on her hands, kissing her lover deeply, investigating every millimeter of her mouth, before moving on.

Free to explore, Call ranged everywhere, lips tasting and caressing with total abandon. She kissed the point of Ripley's shoulders, the high curve of her breasts, then down across her stomach, outlining rippling muscles with delicate caresses. Her lips feathered along the curve of a lean hip while her hands stroked strong thighs. Nothing in her life had ever prepared her for the rich sensations of making love. Sights, smells, sounds, textures all impressed in her brain, leaving her to burn with the heated need for more.

Before, sexual desire had been purely theoretical, something she was convinced she couldn't feel as anything other than a preprogrammed response. Suddenly, she understood it the same way she'd come to understand her belief in God. The feelings pulsing through her were as real as anything in the universe.

Hungry for more, she pressed kisses into silky flesh, thrilling to the taste of heat and moisture running over her tongue. Excited by the newfound power to pleasure, her pulse running in time with Ripley's ragged cries, she lost herself in the intimate caresses until she felt lean muscles pull taut, heard her soft cries, and felt the tiny quivers that rippled through her most private flesh. She rode with the hard, spasmodic thrusts of lean hips, stroking and caressing until Ripley collapsed into the mattress heavily.

"Not artificial at all," Call's soft voice echoed in the near darkness as she slid back up the length of Ripley's body, cuddling against her side. They traded a slow kiss, both lingering, hesitant to let go of the sweet contact.

Ripley nuzzled a smooth shoulder, drawing comfort from their closeness while Call gently petted her lover's hair. "Get some rest," the auton advised, knowing that the cloned woman had to be exhausted.

A faint nod, then Ripley cuddled into their blankets, still holding the smaller woman close as she gave herself over to the welcome arms of sleep.

*****

Ripley's eyes twitched under her closed lids while her hands clenched into the sheets, clawing at unseen flesh. The nightmare world behind her eyes was in total control. She was merely the unwilling viewer of the scene as it slowly spun out before her. She knew everything of an alien past, present, and future, and she could feel the threat hovering nearby, just outside of their new home. She knew every bit of the queen�s hate for the silently watching presences that haunted the cr�che, knew her thoughts and passions�knew everything about her. Soon her warriors would deal with the threat, but she had other worries too. She smelled the soft scent of sweet, human flesh, but it was mixed with something acrid that stung her nostrils and made her flinch in revulsion. The cr�che was nearly finished, the dark confines cushioned by a layer of thickened blood, gore, and bile, while her older children, their bodies tall and strong, brought more hosts for her future brood�except it wasn't happening the way it should. The cries of her infants still trapped within their hosts, rang in her head. She could hear them tearing and struggling to make their way into the world without success. The hosts should have been easy prey, their bodies forming the infants' first meal, but they were bitter and strong, not soft and sweet like human meat. Many of her children were dying, still trapped in their hosts' chests, unable to tear through the unnatural wall of plastic and steel that encased them, while those that did escape were so twisted that they could not be allowed to live. She allowed no imperfections in her children. The queen tipped back her head and howled with rage.

*****

Ripley sat straight up, silent, hoarse screams echoing from her open lips, unaware of the strong arms that wrapped tightly around her torso. She was trapped in a sea of gore, clawing her way through human blood, aware of the taste of their flesh mixed with something infinitely foul tasting. Suddenly, her eyes snapped open, and she fell silent, wrapping her hands tightly around the arms cradling her body.

"It's all right�whatever it is, it isn't real," Call whispered, petting silky hair with soothing strokes.

Ripley broke away from her and pushed from the small bed, stumbling into the bathroom to begin yanking on her clothes, not caring that they were filthy. At some point, she paused, staring at her own image in a small steel mirror as though she didn't recognize her reflection. She reached out a tentative hand, tracing the jawline of the woman in the mirror as the memories assailed her, filling in the blanks in a rush. Shivering violently, she realized her memories came from two distinct sources, one human, the other incredibly alien. She was still staring like that, shaken by her discoveries, when Call appeared in the doorway, a sheet wrapped around her body to make an impromptu robe.

"Ripley, what is it?" she questioned worriedly.

Dark brown eyes landed on Call with suspicious intensity. Did she know? Was it all nothing but a monumental joke? Ripley's breathing was unnaturally harsh, her face pale in the dim light. "Go back to bed," she said tersely. She didn't know the answers, and she didn't know what she felt. It was all too horrifying. Her hands fisted at her sides. She was something other than human, and her first response to fear was violence. It took physical effort not to go on the attack. In this condition, everyone was suspect, everything an enemy.

Call stared at her in confusion. "What's wrong?" she whispered, drawing close. She reached out, curving blunt fingers to a hard forearm. "What happened?" Before she could blink a hand latched onto her throat, strong finger's tightening painfully.

Ripley leaned close, her hot breath playing over Call's face. "You're an android," she hissed through clenched teeth, remembering all the ways she'd been betrayed by this woman's kind. Once an enemy, always an enemy.

"You knew that," Call whispered, pain throbbing through her voice.

The corner of Ripley's mouth lifted in a sneer. "That's right," she muttered. No! The human part of her forced the most violent edge of the rage down. She shoved Call aside to send her stumbling. Emotions rolling out of control, she started toward the door, but Call's voice drew her head back around.

"Ripley?"

The two stared at each other for a long moment, and Ripley frowned, on the verge of going to the small woman. Suddenly, she shook her head, muttering, "No� I have to know�" before she stalked out.

Not understanding any of it, Call straightened and hurried after her, eyes going wide as she saw Ripley reach the end of the corridor. She didn't hear the first part of her conversation with the guards, but the rest of it was easy enough to catch.

"Then get him, goddammit!" she snarled and grabbed the guard, shoving her toward the intercom. "I want to talk to him now!!"

Call started forward, but a slender figure stepped in front of her, and a strong hand latched onto her arm.

"Don't," McCay hissed. She was still dressed in boots and camo pants, though she had stripped down to an undershirt on top.

"She needs me," Call whispered.

"No, she's past hearing you right now�she needs something else." The soldier's head canted to one side. "Something you can't give her�the truth."

Call seemed ready to pull away, but suddenly, it was too late as the doors were swung open, and Ripley was allowed through. She let her head fall against the soldier's shoulder, their earlier disagreement forgotten.

The soldier glanced over at Call and carefully urged her to straighten. "Go get dressed," she instructed, while her eyes swung back to the guards.

"But Ripley--" Call started to argue, but McCay cut her off.

"Has her own path to follow." McCay's gaze sharpened as she noted the way the guards were watching Call, taking in the scant protection offered by the sheet wrapped around her seemingly fragile frame. "Go get dressed," she urged again, staying there when Call disappeared into the room. Their two remaining guardians watched her with flinty expressions, revealing nothing of their thoughts. It was no surprise when they started forward.

*****

Continue to Next Part--Chapters 6-7

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