Alien: Odyssey, by Pink Rabbit Productions--Chapter 8--9

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

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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 8
Into the Darkness

Ripley stared up at the cement and brick structure protecting the exterior of the ventilation shaft. Parts of it were threatening to turn to rubble, but it had held up better than the main structures, "It looked smaller from up there," she murmured disgustedly. She carried a small backpack of equipment -- a flashlight, a few tools, a heavy knife, and a length of cable -- that she'd retrieved from the toolbox in the flyer. She linked her fingers together and offered Call a boost up. When the smaller woman was on top of the small structure, Ripley jumped up, catching the top edge of the retaining wall and pulled herself up. The roof was made of heavy steel grating, and as Ripley peered down through it, she could see more layers of the grating. She leaned over, pressing her ear against the cool steel "I can't hear any fans," she whispered. "The turbines aren't running."

Call crouched down beside her. "That makes sense. When the Auriga hit, it must have caused one hell of an earthquake�done a lot of damage underground�."

Ripley nodded slowly, then pulled back her hand, punching the grate. The steel bent inward, but didn't give, and she struck again and again, weakening it with every blow. Finally, she stabbed steel tipped nails through the thinnest part, tearing the welded steel apart with surprising ease. Muscles working with effort, she peeled it back until she had a hole wide enough for a human body to pass through. Only five feet down, another layer of grating covered the shaft, and she dropped down to land lightly. A flashlight shined through the lapped steel strap revealed the barely moving blades of a huge turbine, just the width of the shaft, another ten feet down. (1)

Call landed next to her, and Ripley handed her the flashlight as she proceeded to tear through the grate with cold efficiency. When the hole was large enough, she dropped through, hanging by her fingertips for a brief moment before dropping to land lightly on the support frame for the huge fan. A hard yank pulled a fan blade loose, then she used it to jam the turbine in place. A moment later, she clipped the lightweight cable to a cross brace, then dropped the end over the edge. "Stay here until I call for you," she whispered, then slid down into blackness. The thin cable was perhaps two hundred feet long, and she found herself wondering what to do if it ran out before her feet hit something solid. She wasn't certain she could get enough purchase to pull herself back up the length of spindly wire.

By the time her feet hit another layer of steel grating, the entrance overhead was little more than a pinprick of light. The makeshift floor beneath her feet was uneven, torqued out of proper position, while the surrounding walls looked to be crumbling in. Still, it didn't appear ready to give way. "Come on down," she called up, then watched silently as Call slid down the cable, her slight figure drawing nearer. Ripley caught her around the waist, steadying her as she dropped the last couple of feet.

"It should turn and go horizontally at some point," Call told her as she released her grip on the cable.

Powerful muscles bunched as Ripley gave the cable a hard yank. The support it was attached to gave under the pressure, and the wire came spilling down. Ripley coiled it quickly, then got ready to start over again.

They made their way lower, drifting into the darkness until the only reality was whatever they could see under the immediate gloss of the flashlight beam. Finally, Ripley dropped from the last grating to land on crumbly cement. The shaft turned sharply, angling downward just a few degrees off horizontal, and narrowed, forcing her to hunch over to keep from bumping her head. Call dropped down beside her, glancing back the way they'd come. "At least we know this isn't the way they came in," she murmured.

Uncertain whether or not that should be considered good news, Ripley shrugged but didn't argue. She simply dropped to a crouch, listening. Call started to speak, but Ripley hushed her, focusing inward as she hunted for a sense of the creatures moving through the base. She pushed stray hair back from her face. "They're here � deep � angry."

Call dropped to one knee beside her, running a soothing hand up and down Ripley's back. "Do they know we're here?"

A slow shake of the head was her only answer. "I don't know," Ripley admitted at last. "But I don't think so � tearing those androids apart didn't help." Her chin came up, face pale under the harsh, directional light of the flashlight beam. "I think the soldiers in the base must have fought back � but that's not � what's wrong�" she muttered haltingly, then trailed off into thoughtful silence. Suddenly she rose, her movements fluid. "Let's go," she said distantly.

Debris slowed them in several spots, the damage more significant as they drew nearer to the main part of the base. More barricades blocked their way, but Ripley tore those out with dismaying ease. Finally, they came up against the intake for an air purification plant. The fans were moving very slowly and lights glowed dimly through them.

"They must have been on emergency power," Call murmured.

"Looks like the batteries are running down." Ripley tore the protective grating off, then used a heavy wrench from her pack to jam the slowly spinning fan in place. A hefty yank tore a blade free. Together, they climbed through the purification system, tearing out anything that got in the way until they finally came out into a large maintenance room. The emergency lights they'd seen from the other side of the intake vent glowed dully on the walls, but there was no sign of life. Ripley ran her flashlight over the room, hunting for anything that could be used as a weapon, but there was nothing.

"We should be in the upper levels," Call explained. "According to the plans McCay uploaded, there should be light arms storage near here."

Her thoughts elsewhere, Ripley offered only the faintest of nods. She tried to envision what she'd seen through the queen's eyes, but the memories were so fleeting, the thoughts so alien, that it was hard to decipher their meaning, even for her. "Lead the way," she whispered at last.

They stepped into an eerily quiet hallway. A few emergency lights still glowed in the distance, but didn't add much in the way of useful illumination.

"That way," Call whispered and gestured ahead, leading the way on light feet.

Ripley's stride was more confident. She carefully studied their surroundings, noting that someone had made an attempt to clean up the worst of rubble where the roof or walls had partially caved in. "They had time to start getting things back in shape before it went bad."

"The weapons locker should be just a little further," Call said, keeping her voice as low as possible. Even then, it seemed painfully loud to her ears.

A few minutes later, they pulled up short as Ripley's light played over the scene before them. "I'd say we've found it," she observed as her light revealed a plate steel door, twisted and torn partially off its hinges, while the floor was pockmarked with acid edged holes. A man's body, bloody and torn, lay sprawled in the doorway, weapon still clutched in his lifeless hand. Ripley knelt, prying the gun free of his death grip. She lifted the rifle and sniffed once. "It's been fired." A quick check revealed an empty magazine. "I was afraid of this," she sighed as she set it aside and rose, stepping carefully over the body and into the small room. Her light revealed the formfitting storage lockers that normally housed the soldiers' standard artillery hanging open and empty. Bodies were strewn about in haphazard fashion, their wounds gaping and brutal. They hadn't died easily.

"Is there any ammunition?" Call whispered and started checking, only to come up empty.

Ripley shook her head. "They must have run out of ammo�the fighting got personal, and they didn't have a prayer." She knelt beside the body of a young trooper, reaching out silently to turn him over. Sightless eyes stared upward. He'd been eviscerated, his body laid open. She stared at the wounds with grim fascination, remembering the scars she'd seen on Leeds' body. Underneath the bloodstains, this man had all that and more.

"He was cybered," Call exhaled as she noted the sheered wall of artificial muscle visible in the wound. Red blood and white fluid mingled together to form a milky, pink pool under the body. Ripley silently reached out, touching a finger to the mix, before bringing it to her lips. "Ripley," Call whispered, her tone disapproving and sickened at the same time.

The cloned woman waved her silent. "That's it," she whispered as the familiar taste flowed over her tongue. "The soldiers here must all be like this one�the taste is � bitter �." She rose suddenly, shining her light over the bodies. Finally, she found what she was looking for, a woman, dead, her chest bulged outward but unbroken. She drew the knife from her packpack.

"Ripley, what are you�" Call trailed off, looking ill as Ripley used the sharp blade to slice the woman's chest open. The cut revealed plastic sinew overlaying real muscles, tendons, and ligaments. She cracked the sternum back, ignoring Call's gasp. Suddenly, something slithered free of the dead woman's chest cavity, the tear drop shaped body making a tiny shrieking sound as it fell to the floor. The baby alien was visibly weak, barely able to let out a scream of hatred as it glared up at the two intruders. White fluid from the dead woman's artificial implants flowed over the black and silver body, and the creature screamed again, but this time the furious sound trailed off into a strange, gagging wheeze. "They can't escape�" she realized. "The plastic's too strong�and even if they do break through, it's toxic." She speared the tiny creature with her knife, spitting it with ease, then held the blade there as it sizzled in acid blood. She rose, ignoring the thing as it died while Call stared at it in silent horror, wondering how something so small and seemingly fragile could so quickly become so deadly.

The dying creature already forgotten, Ripley refocused her attention as she rose gracefully. "Let's see if there's anything left here that we can use," she decided out loud. She found a couple of knives to replace the one destroyed by the infant alien's blood, strapping one to her thigh while she handed the other to Call.

The auton stared blankly at the weapon for a brief moment as though trying to decide what to do with it. Finally, she strapped it to her right thigh.

"That seems to be it," Ripley murmured unhappily, then turned to face Call. Her question cut straight to the heart of the matter. "Where are the nukes kept?"

"Toward the bottom�thirty floors or so, I think...the plans aren't very clear." She hesitated for a moment, then spoke slowly. "Ripley, this base�it's an old military shelter�if a nuclear explosion goes off far enough down, the reinforced concrete should contain the worst of it. Particularly, if it's a small warheads. They're meant for battlefield use and aren't really that powerful. Someone above ground could probably survive."

Ripley nodded, her expression distant. "Any civilians in the area have a chance."

"So do you," Call said softly.

Her words drew a sharp look from Ripley. "Meaning?"

"If it comes down to it�you escape. I'll set off the explosion."

Ripley stared at her silently, no trace of emotion visible in her dark eyes. "No," she refused simply.

"There's no reason for both of us--"

"No," Ripley repeated, her voice inflexible. She had to see to their end personally. That was far more important to her than mere survival.

"But you can have a life here," Call argued.

The cloned woman's tone turned almost accusing. "So could you."

Call stared up at the woman in front of her, hunting for a way to explain what she was feeling. The words came haltingly at first. "For the first time in my�existence�I care for something in a way that has nothing to do with programming�." She stared up at Ripley, taking in the high arch of her cheekbones, the elegant planes of her face. She reached up a tentative hand, touching very gently. She desperately wanted to make her understand how much those emotions meant to her. How much Ripley meant to her. "I don't want you to die."

Ripley stared at her for a long moment, her expression unreadable, then wrapped her arms around Call's slight frame. "Been there, done that� it wasn't that bad." She slid her hands up, cupping her lover's heart shaped face in long fingers. "It's the loneliness that's terrible." She swallowed hard, and her eyes fell away for a brief second. Emotions were still so alien to her that she hadn't a clue to how to express them. "I don't want to be without you�." She caught one of Call's hands in her own. "Whatever happens, I won't leave you behind."

Call leaned her forehead against Ripley's chest, aware of the warmth of her skin and the steady beat of her heart. "Dammit," she whispered almost inaudibly. "Why couldn't I be�" she fell silent as she realized she'd spoken aloud, but not before Ripley heard the softly uttered words.

A hand curved to Call's chin, drawing her head up. "Couldn't be what?" the taller woman questioned. "Human?" She shook her head. "Then you wouldn't be you." She ruffled short hair very gently. "And I wouldn't want that."

In the distance, sounds echoed through the darkened base. Something was moving, though it wasn't close. At least not yet.

"We should go," Ripley sighed, reminded of their mission. "We've got a long climb ahead."

Call straightened herself as she pulled back a step. "There's a stairwell near here. If it hasn't collapsed, it should take us most of the way to the bottom."

Though nothing moved, the underground corridors weren't silent. Occasional sounds could be heard and more than once Call thought she heard the echo of an inhuman roar. She spared a glance for Ripley who seemed not to notice the myriad of creaks and groans. Or perhaps she heard them and simply knew they were the structure and not the aliens. Her sense of the creatures wasn't perfect, but it was impressive.

They found the stairwell easily, the door partially blocked by debris. Ripley pushed it aside to pull the door wide, peering down into darkness. The staircase was made of large sections of steel bolted to the wall. It rattled gently when she stepped onto the landing.

Call lifted her flashlight, shining it on the opposite wall. "Uh, Ripley," she exhaled as she saw the way the bolts that fastened that section in place had been nearly sheered off in the earthquake.

"I see it," Ripley exhaled. Her footsteps light, she made her way a little lower, gauging the likelihood that it would hold her weight. "I think it's okay," she decided. "Even if the wall bolts give, it's attached to the section beneath it, and it looks solid." She looked up.

Something roared in the distance, the sound distinct this time.

"Come on," Ripley whispered, and Call silently followed.

They'd gone down several floors when the distinct thud of a footstep echoed somewhere overhead.

Both women froze, their heads snapping back to stare upward. Call glanced at Ripley who shook her head, indicating that she didn't know who or what it was. More footsteps followed as something started down the stairs.

Suddenly, Ripley was moving, taking the steps two at a time, dragging Call along behind her. Despite their speed, they were both surprisingly quiet, but the thing must have heard because the heavy footsteps gained momentum. On the next floor, Ripley lunged through the landing door and into a dark corridor. She shoved the door shut, hunting for a way to block it closed without success.

Something roared in the stairwell, bringing both of their heads up.

"Oh shit," Ripley exhaled and extinguished the flashlight, relying on the comparatively dim and distant emergency lights..

"Is it�" Call questioned.

"Oh yeah � come on." She broke into a hard run, forcing Call to work to keep up.

They could hear the creature. It had their scent now.

Suddenly, the corridor branched off in two directions. Ripley looked at Call, who gestured right with the simple comment, "Another weapons locker," then left. "There should be another stairwell that way."

Ripley stood poised on the balls of her feet. She glanced back. Their pursuer had gone curiously silent. "Shit," she breathed. She looked back and forth between the two options. "Lady or the tiger." Something roared -- in the direction of the weapons locker -- and her head swung toward the second stairwell. She debated momentarily, then spun, pushing Call into the left branch of the corridor. She didn't have to see the thing to know it was getting closer. It was time to make a stand. She pushed the smaller woman into the cover of a doorjamb while she stood braced where she could see and hear anything moving at the juncture.

CHAPTER 9
BITTER HARVEST

Pressed into the cover of the doorjamb, Call knew to be quiet and perfectly still, but she shifted just enough to draw the knife strapped to her thigh. Ripley didn't bother with hers. It wouldn't do any good anyway.

Moments passed -- though they seemed more like an eternity -- before the alien moved into view. Its black form was a mere silhouette in the faint light, but that was enough to know there was something very wrong with the creature. Where most of the aliens were sleek and graceful, this one moved slowly, half dragging its left leg along. Spindly fingers reached out, flickering through the air, while its head tipped back, hunting for some sign of its prey. As it moved, light glittered off its head, playing over the smooth rounded snout, then sinking into the shadows. It turned slowly, and even Ripley had to force down a gasp as she saw it more completely. The left side of the alien's head was misshapen, crushed inward along the top of the skull, while its mouth pulled back from silver teeth in a permanent sneer. The neck muscles on one side were mishapen and stood out at an odd angle, while its arm was bent in against the body, the joint withered and malformed. As they watched, it tipped its head back, roaring its hatred into the darkness. Like a living thing, the sound bounced off every wall, surrounding the two women, before it died away into an echoey wail.

It sensed them, Ripley realized, as it bellowed again then stood listening to the sounds as they bounced back. The bullet shaped head swung their way. It knew they were close. They wouldn't be able to hide from those perfect hunter's senses for very long. Pressing Call back with one hand, Ripley stepped forward, the knife gripped tightly. She said nothing, simply stared at the creature, gauging its response.

It turned slowly. Though it had no eyes, there was a sense of a baleful gaze raking over her. She read as both ally and prey, something its mind had little capability of understanding. The aliens saw the universe in the simplest of terms. Hunters and prey. They were hunters, all else of any importance was prey. It seemed to consider this problem as it slowly advanced on her, heavy muscles rippling with the effort required to drag its ruined body along. It was hungry, and sweet human meat would feed the gnawing pain of starvation, but it could not forget those moments when it first struggled to tear its way into the open air. Fragile, delicate, enraged, it ripped free, screaming as it was presented not with its first meal, but with bitter, burning liquid that filled its stomach and lungs, surrounding it in a sea of sickness. The remembered agony had left it with a profound hatred of those smells and tastes. It could feel them, scent the delicate bite of toxins somewhere close.

Call pressed herself more tightly into the corner, wondering if Ripley had lost her mind. The thing coming toward them would kill her, tear her apart like those men and women so many floors above � as well as countless others long since lost to the annals of history. (2)

Ripley's dark gaze was hooded as she watched the creature come closer. She could feel Call's terror, but ignored it. There was no room for fear when dealing with these beasts.

The thing swung its head back and forth, roaring again, disconcerted by her lack of response.

Ripley remained perfectly still, watching it, wanting to understand. As she stared, she could almost see into its mind, trace its history back to its gestation, feel its rage as the warmth of its host became a prison. She could taste the sweetness of red, human blood as it was poisoned by the bitter toxin of sickly, white fluid. This creature was a part of her. She had some part of its race memory, so it must have some part of hers.

It stared at her as if sensing that connection. Suddenly, it screamed and fell back a step as it was assailed by the memory of something growing in its chest, the pain of being invaded by a parasite. It raged again, backing up another step.

Ripley allowed herself the smallest of smiles as she sensed the creature's fear. She lifted a hand slowly, movements perfectly controlled, and hypnotic. The alien sensed the movement, and its head swung back and forth, tracking her, hunting for the other presence it could sense. Her hand was up, fingers spread, the joints so long coupled they were reminiscent of the xenomorphs'. The creature before her let out a dull roar, but the tone was lower this time, the rage less evident. Its head followed her slow movements, tracking her like a snake charmed by a fakir's recorder. Ripley focused on the creature with incredible concentration, pressuring it back through sheer force of will. The thing bellowed resentfully, but didn't advance.

Whatever it was, it lacked the pure driven evil of its predecessors. It was capable of feeling fear.

Call watched the scene with wide-eyed disbelief, certain Ripley was one breath from the end of her life.

Suddenly a roar tore through the air, the sound painfully close and hideous in its intensity. It rattled the doors and drew an answering scream from the creature in front of Ripley.

In an instant, Ripley realized she'd made a mistake as the xenomorph howled with rage and lunged. It was slower and weaker than its brethren, but it was still a power to be reckoned with.

"LOOK OUT!!" Call shouted, but Ripley was already reacting to the threat. She danced backwards, body blocking Call into the corner when she would have lunged forward. Her foot slid in the creature's thick saliva, and Ripley momentarily pinwheeled her arms, not quite hitting one knee before she regained her balance.

It was just long enough for the creature to find itself almost nose to nose with Call over Ripley's shoulder. It smelled the artificial blood coursing through her veins, touching off a fresh wave of fury. Intent on tearing her to shreds, it lunged.

"NO!" Ripley bellowed and came up between the two just as a saw-toothed tongue spiked toward Call. Somehow, inhuman reflexes intercepted the attack. Her fingers wrapped around the thing's tongue, twisting it aside before it could carve a hole in her torso. Screaming like a banshee heralding death, Ripley fisted her free hand, and punched it into the creature's head with every last ounce of her strength. She felt the smooth gloss of rubbery flesh under her knuckles, then it gave way. Bone and gristle buckled under the force of her strength, and her fist sank into pulpy brain matter. The thing roared, pulling back as it threw its head back and forth in rage and pain.

The distant bellowing grew louder and closer. They didn't have much time.

Acid geysered from the alien's ruined skull, and Ripley used her body to protect Call from the flying drops of burning blood, then leapt forward, striking out wildly. She forced it backwards, then tripped it up and punched the ruined side of the rounded head, tearing into it with raw strength. A shriek rose from her chest, splitting the darkness as she beat the thing down. Acid blood flowed freely, melting into the cement and steel under her feet. The sleeves of her jacket had melted to the elbow, leaving leather and fabric hanging in smoky tatters, while her skin showed through the holes where droplets of acid had spattered.

Choking and gagging, the monster fell to its knees, sinking into the floor as its blood ate into the cement.

"Ripley, come on!" Call broke in. The floor was obviously weakening, and she could hear the distant roars drawing nearer. They had to run, and she wasn't sure the cloned woman was aware of her surroundings anymore. She grabbed the center back of Ripley's jacket, picking one of the few spots that wasn't riddled with pinhole sized droplets of acid, and hauled her away from the dying creature.

Snarling, Ripley spun on the small woman, one hand instinctively lifting to strike.

"No!" Call snapped and fell back a step, hands lifting in a protective posture.

Ellen Ripley froze, chest heaving as she struggled for air. It was like there was no oxygen left in the entire universe. She was living and breathing hatred itself. Then, suddenly, something about Call broke through the hypnotic frenzy. Still gasping, she let her hands fall to her sides. "I-I'm sorry." The words came haltingly, and her eyes slid away from a dark velvet gaze.

"It's all right," Call whispered, lifting a tentative as though she was going to touch the taller woman. Her fingers never made contact. "But we have to go now."

Ripley nodded, peeling off her jacket to wipe away the worst of the acid still sticking to her skin. The buttery leather was sizzling gently when she tossed it aside. She spared a glance for the thing lying dead in an ever-deepening hole. "I don't think we should plan on being under there anytime soon. The concrete isn't melting as fast as steel would, but it's seen better days." She straightened her shoulders, getting her emotions back under control. "Let's go."

They found the second stairway in short order and were two floors down when they heard the roars again, this time their tone mournful. Ripley's head tipped, staring upward as though she might understand.

"Ripley?" Call exhaled almost inaudibly.

The cloned woman's head canted to one side as she continued to stare upward. "They're forbidden from the cr�che�.hunted by the others." (3)

Call frowned. "I don't understand."

"Because they aren't right � they were � damaged � when they were born." She paused for a long moment. "The effort of tearing through the cybernetics�and then instead of flesh, they tasted poison." There was something akin to pity in her voice as she whispered, "They don't belong anywhere." Ripley turned a hooded gaze on Call. "My children allow no imperfections," she sighed.

"They aren't your children," Call insisted, her denial drawing a sad smile from the woman in front of her.

"They're a part of me," Ripley disagreed mildly. "As much as I hate it, I feel something for them." Her eyes slid closed as she remembered the moment when the creature on the Betty cried out in her mind, screaming for her to save it as its body disintegrated into space. She had cried then, pitying the tormented child as much as she pitied herself. Neither of them had had any choice in their creation. "Don't worry," she whispered a moment later as she sensed Call's worried gaze. "It won't stop me from killing them." She straightened herself and began moving again, her feet light on the stairs. She'd gone a few steps when she realized Call wasn't beside her. She turned on her heel, peering back up at the auton. Call was watching her closely. "It's all right," she assured her.

Call drew nearer. "Are you sure?" she questioned, reaching out. This time she did make contact with the warm skin of Ripley's cheek. "I know this is hard for you."

Ripley nodded. "But necessary." She managed a weak smile. "It has to be done."

Call nodded and didn't speak again, allowing Ripley some measure of space as they continued deeper into the bowels of the base.

The sounds from above, died away at some point, leaving them in silence and darkness. There were no bodies, but occasionally they saw pools of dried blood or spent shell casings, mute testimony to the brutal combat that had recently raged through the underground complex. They had gone just over seven floors down, when the staircase became impassable. The steel was buckled and melted through so badly that it had separated from the section below, which had collapsed downward.

Ripley shined her light into the shaft, spotting the sheered metal spikes from the destroyed staircase. "We won't be going any farther this way," she murmured disgustedly.

"We can backtrack�there are a couple of other staircases down. If those don't pan out, there's an elevator shaft that could take us all the way to the bottom�it just might be more of a challenge."

Ripley's mouth twisted in a wry grin. "God knows, can't have enough of those."

Even Call managed a watery smile at that comment. "Let's go," she sighed tiredly and started back the way they'd come.

*****

She was hungry�desperately, achingly famished, hunger her constant companion. On a world full of food, she was starving. She screamed, roaring in rage, while her children -- those that hadn't been damaged by the poisonous prey -- moved around her, serving her needs as best they could. She howled again, her voice echoing off cold, hard walls. She'd sent her children abroad to destroy the watchers and hunt for fresh killing fields, but they'd found only hot sand and more poison. Nearly all of the humans in this place had been toxic, leaving the queen and her children with little more than a few bites of fresh meat to share between them. They could not go on like this.

She howled again.

Calling her children to her.

They could not stay here.

It was time to move on.

*****

Ripley cursed softly as she kicked another door open, shredding the lock with pure force.

Call glanced at the damage, then back at Ripley. "Were you this�" she paused thoughtfully, before deciding on a word, "...unsubtle�in your previous life?" she questioned dryly.

Ripley shrugged. "If I could have done that, I probably would have been." She stepped inside the arms compartment, running her flashlight over the boxes and lockers of materiel. The second staircase was as impassable as the first, and they couldn't even get through the corridors to access a third one listed on the plans in Call's head. That left the elevator shaft, and to do that, they needed ropes or something else that would allow them to climb. Though they hadn't see or heard any sign of the aliens for quite some time, Ripley was alert to their surroundings, well aware that the creatures had a habit of showing up when least expected. Get complacent and they had you.

"Here," Call broke into her thoughts, and Ripley spun toward the sound of her voice just in time to catch a t-shirt tossed her way. She peered at soft green fabric for a brief second, then at Call.

"The acid," the auton nodded toward her, and Ripley looked down, noting the myriad of pinprick holes decorating her shirt, turning it into little more than lace. "You're hanging out�and I'm afraid to touch you in case there's any left on the fabric or your skin."

"Good idea," Ripley admitted and peeled the shirt off, tossing it aside before using the t-shirt to rub down her skin. In moments, it was smoking gently. "Throw me another one, would you?" she muttered as she tossed it on top of the other one. She caught the undershirt tossed her way and yanked it on over her head. "Better?" she queried.

Call shrugged. "Now I'm not afraid of burning my fingertips off, if I accidentally touch you."

Ripley's mouth quirked in a wry smile, but she resisted the urge to make several remarks. Call didn't always have the best sense of humor when it came to some jokes. The auton was a serious sort. Of course, Ripley wasn't certain she'd have found her current sense of humor terribly funny in her previous life so she couldn�t really blame Call.

"Bingo," the auton's voice broke into Ripley's silent musings, and she glanced over, noting the small woman standing in front of an open locker. Ropes, tackle, and rescue gear were hung neatly inside.

Ripley moved to study the gear. "That should do what we need," she agreed, her momentary humor draining away like snow on a hot stove. The ropes made getting down a virtual certainty, but climbing back out would be slow at best.

As if reading her thoughts, Call whispered. "We're not going to get out of here, are we?"

"Probably not," Ripley admitted. "But you knew that coming in."

Call nodded slowly, then turned to face Ripley, staring up at her with hungry eyes and reached up to caress her cheek. "Yeah, I guess I did."

Long, slender fingers closed around Call's hand, and Ripley brushed her cheek against her lover's palm. "Leave," she whispered intently. "This isn't your fight. It's mine." She reached out with her other hand to brush her thumb lightly over the curve of Call's cheek. "You can get out � go have a life. Don't die here like this."

Call mimicked Ripley's gesture, turning her head into the caressing hand. "No � we're in this together. I won't leave you," she whispered, repeating her lover's earlier vow.

"Goddamn you for sheer idiocy," Ripley exhaled and hugged the smaller woman, holding her tightly. She didn't want to think of Call being torn to shreds, her body giving way to sharp claws. Hot tears burned behind her tightly closed eyes. When she finally separated from Call, her dark eyes were still glossed with emotion. "You really are too good for the human race," she husked.

"No," Call disagreed. "I just can't leave you."

The two women stared at each for a brief moment, then Ripley straightened herself with conscious effort and reached past Call to grab for the gear they needed. "We should be moving." She slung a coiled rope over her shoulder. It was lightweight, the coils of rope almost delicate, but a tag on the end rated it to six hundred pounds. Certainly, more than enough to handle both of them at once. Call turned toward the cabinet, grabbing harnesses and a canvas backpack. She quickly stuffed the gear inside. They took a few minutes to search the rest of the lockers, but couldn't find anything else of any use.

Finally, the two women started back toward the elevator shaft, their footsteps only a little slower than they might have been. They were nearly there when Ripley suddenly stuck out her hand, halting Call as she pulled up short. They stood perfectly silent while Ripley listened, her senses tuned to the faintest sound. Something ... no someone ... was moving in the corridor ahead of them.

She gestured for Call to stay put and carefully set the ropes down before slipping away into the darkness. Call tracked her until she disappeared into the shadows. She started forward a brief moment later.

*****

Her howls echoed through the complex and her children heard her call. Hunters slipped through the darkness, their prey forgotten in the wake of their queen mother's needs.

*****

Though she couldn't hear or see the creatures that had become the bane of two lifetimes, Ripley could feel them moving, sense the calls drawing them together. Even knowing there was someone ahead in the hallway, the awareness distracted her. As a result, she didn't track her prey until his voice cut through her brief daze.

"Get your hands up, lady," the trooper growled, barely managing to keep a grip on his weapon without losing his hold on his wounded buddy.

"Easy," Ripley murmured, holding her hands up in plain view. "If you shoot, you'll just bring them down on us."

"Yeah," he panted nervously, eyes darting left and right. He had an arm around another soldier whose arm was across his shoulder, though he barely appeared conscious. "Then again, I don't know you. For all I know, you brought those things here. Maybe if I shoot you, they'll go away." His mind was stressed to the limit. After hours of hellish darkness as the prey and not the hunter, listening to his friends and comrades die, he was painfully close to the breaking point.

"That won't help." Ripley shook her head. "I'm here to kill them." Her voice dropped, becoming low and sad. "I'm the only one who can."

"Why should I believe you?" he demanded.

"Because you know it's true," the woman whispered, her voice oddly gentle. She tried to edge closer, hoping to steal his weapon, but it wavered unsteadily, making her afraid the unbalanced soldier might unintentionally fire. She was still considering her options when she heard the impossibly soft pad of footsteps, their pace matching Call's hesitant stride. Ripley bounced lightly on the balls of her feet, ready to move fast. She was a blur the instant she heard the distracting clatter and saw the soldier's eyes dart toward the shadows. She forced the weapon up, stripping it from his fingers before he could fire. The two soldiers went skidding in response to a hearty shove.

A groan was torn from the nearly unconscious man while his comrade rolled into a braced position, ready to protect him.

"Easy," Ripley soothed, holding out one hand in a calming gesture.

The soldier's eyes darted around the darkness, panic plainly visible in his expression.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Ripley assured him.

The unconscious soldier moaned again, twisting as if in agony. Dark eyes fell on him, an odd kind of sympathy showing in their rich depths.

"Ripley?" Call's voice came from the shadows.

"It's all right." She turned her attention back to the two men, nodding toward the downed one. "They got to him, didn't they?"

The soldier's teeth ground with the effort to control himself. "Goddamned things," he hissed. "They � they � I don't know what the fuck they are � they � they get inside�"

"I know," Ripley whispered and moved forward, kneeling beside the prone figure. She reached out, barely touching him before she pulled her hand back. "But you can't help him."

As if in response to her soft words, the unconscious soldier spasmed, gagging and jerking as his chest bulged outward for a moment. His eyes snapped open, pain and terror showing in their depths.

Ripley handed the gun back. Call was there to take it from her. She caught the spasming man, forcing him onto his back as she noted the dried blood on his lips. "How long has this been going on?" she questioned, muscles straining to keep him under control.

"Off and on for an hour or two�I don't really know�you can help him, can't you?"

Ripley shook her head as the spasms grew worse. The creature had been trying to tear through the soldier's chest for an hour or two, probably beating at the man's sternum until it exhausted itself, then trying again when it was rested. By now, both the soldier, and the creature inside him were so broken and destroyed it was a wonder either of them was still alive.

He convulsed, gagging and spitting up more blood, this time tinged with white. The creature was making its way into the plastic muscles that interlaced with his real ones. His eyes snapped open, agonized knowledge glittering within the pale orbs. "Please," he gasped, instinctively sensing that she understood. "End it."

"I'm sorry," Ripley whispered.

"Make it stop," he pleaded, his voice trailing off into a choked scream.

"I will," Ripley promised. "I swear � I will." The blade was in her hand in a moment. It was an act of pity. Even she couldn't imagine what it would be like to have one of them inside without even the promise of a quick death. Lean muscles rippled as she struck, driving the blade deep into the man's breast, puncturing his heart and the creature nestling within his chest in one smooth move. Acid, blood, and white fluid swelled up around the blade, melting it in instant. It didn't matter. It had already done its work.

"Thank�." The soldier's voice faded away as he died, not quite instantly, but close enough.

I'm sorry," Ripley exhaled and pushed back to sit on her heels.

"No," the other soldier whispered. "You weren't supposed to--"

Ripley caught him by the lapels, yanking him forward until they were nose to nose. "It was the kindest thing to do," she hissed dangerously, hating what she'd just done with every fiber of her being and eager to let go of the fury burning in her stomach.

The soldier sagged, unable to react for a long moment. "He was in so much pain."

"It could have only gotten worse�there was nothing you could do," she said flatly.

He shook in her hold, staring up at her with open awe. "Who are you?"

Ripley straightened, bearing his weight as she pulled him to his feet. "It doesn't matter. I'm here to destroy them." She glanced back as Call crouched down to study the damage to the dead man, then turned her attention back to the soldier. "According to our information there are short range tactical nuclear warheads in the base�is that true?" Her tone brooked no argument, and he gave none.

He nodded. "When it got really bad, the general said to use them, but no one could get there�we were on walkie talkie when the last team tried�"

"What happened?"

"Screaming�so much screaming�they didn't make it�."

Ripley spared a glance for Call. "So we just have to get to them."

"You have to have the security codes too," the soldier gasped.

Another glance earned a shrug. "I have a set�but I can't guarantee they're current," Call admitted.

"Do you know the codes?" Ripley questioned the soldier.

He nodded jerkily. "The general gave us all copies of the numbers � in case he didn't make it � we � we were going to try and � make it�" he nodded toward his dead comrade. "I � I pulled him out of one their � nests�"

"Tell me the numbers," Ripley coaxed.

He stared up at her uncertainly.

She barely resisted the urge to shake him. "We'll make sure they're destroyed, but we need those codes � then, I want you to climb out of here � save yourself � you've done your part."

He nodded, looking relieved. The human heart and mind can stand only so much, and he was well past the limit. His voice trembled as he told her what she needed to know.

"Thank you," Ripley whispered, and Call moved to hand him his weapon.

The soldier shook his head. "Don't bother. I ran outa ammunition awhile back�mostly just shooting at shadows�"

"We came in through the southwest ventilation shaft, but I don't know if you can get out that way," Ripley told him.

"Don't worry," he assured her. "I'll find a way."

"You do that," she whispered, leaning close enough that her hot breath played over his face. "Tell them what you saw � make sure no one ever brings them back again � promise me you'll do that."

"I � I promise," he swore earnestly.

Ripley gave him a gentle nudge in the direction of the staircase out. "Go on. The stairwell will take you most of the way."

The soldier nodded, then bent down to close his friend's eyes and grab the computer chip, dog tags, hanging on a chain around his neck. "I'll tell them," he assured her again, then disappeared into the darkness.

"Do you think he'll get out?" Call whispered.

Ripley shrugged. "I hope so. Someone should get out of this alive."

"Try not to think so positively," Call murmured, then checked the magazine on the rifle, making absolutely certain it really was empty. It was, and she discarded it, careful not to let it clatter as she set it aside. She caught up with Ripley as the tall woman was slinging the coiled rope over one shoulder. Ripley handed her the backpack, and Call hooked it over a shoulder.

"Let's go," Ripley said simply, and led the way into the darkness, Call trailing close behind.

When they reached the elevator shaft, Ripley stuck her head inside, listening to the sounds emanating from the depths of the facility, like demon's cries from the deepest pits of hell. "They're moving," she whispered worriedly. She glanced back at Call. "Can't you hear it�hear them�calling from different parts of base�coming together�.she's calling them to her."

Call leaned out, listening carefully, but she couldn't hear what Ripley did. She just heard the sounds of the base settling, and echoing around them. She shook her head. "I don't know."

Ripley worked long fingers through her hair, pushing it away from her face. "I do," she told Call, her voice flat with suppressed emotions. She looked back at the small woman. "You can still back out�get out of here, and go tell the world � make sure this never happens again."

Call shook her head. "They wouldn't believe me anyway."

"No � they never do," Ripley exhaled, remembering her own efforts to make someone listen. She began tying one end of the rope to an exposed girder. When it was solid, she flung it down into the shaft. "I'll go first." She buckled a climbing harness around her waist, settling it on her hips, before tying off to the rope. "Here we go," she told Call before swinging into the shaft. She'd gone down a few yards when she felt the rope shift as the auton clipped herself on and swung out into the open tunnel. Ripley was amazed by the sense of relief that washed through her. Though she didn't want anything to happen to Call, she was grateful that for once, she wouldn't have to face the end alone.

*****

Darrin Leeds stared down at the valley below through heavy binoculars, watching for any sign of movement. He spotted the discarded flyer near a ventilation shaft and zoomed in on that point, noting the torn grating on the roof of the small building. "They must have gone in there," he told Tyrell.

The corporal nodded. "We finished checking the androids. Looks like something really shredded them. We also found the casing from two small nuclear missiles�HT-20's, single warhead�they're trashed too, but it looks like they had some kind of backup plan. They never got a chance to use it though. I'd say they never even saw these things coming."

Leeds nodded. "Make sure everyone is locked, loaded, and ready for bear. We'll be leaving in a few minutes." He turned on his heel and hurried back to the now silent hummer, eschewing the stairs as he leapt inside. He paused in the open hatch while his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness, then focused on the scene in the center of the vehicle. A field surgical table had been rocked into position from its normal place against one wall, and McCay lay stretched out on top, her eyes closed, body limp. Adams, the communication's tech stood next to the table, silently staring down at her. He looked up on Leed's entry, then ducked his head and hurried out when Leeds jerked his head sharply toward the hatch.

McCay blinked suddenly and pushed up on one elbow. The tech had cut away her shirt and undershirt, but she was wearing a camo shirt donated by one of the men. The buttons down the front hung open, showing glimpses of the flesh between her breasts as she moved. Stained by chemical blood, her flesh was too pink while the skin-plast patch was too pale for normal skin.

Leeds noted the soft curves and disparate colors before his eyes snapped up to meet her gaze. "It's time," he murmured.

She nodded and sat up, swinging her legs over the edge of the table.

"Did Adams fix your damages?"

"Mmmm, somewhat�" She lifted a hand and rubbed her chest distractedly. "Got the worst of the tears sealed, and shunted off most of the leakage." She began fastening the shirt buttons, her fingers clumsy. "Downed a couple of pints of artificial blood, so hopefully that will help my system power back up and get my electrolytes back in balance�probably be able to think a little clearer then�."

His eyes ran over her. "I wouldn't think blood meant for humans would help you," he murmured distantly.

She shrugged. "It wouldn't if you put it into the veins, but we're designed to break down and use basic sugars and proteins as power sources."

"Like the androids in that village you described?"

Her eyes narrowed ever so faintly. "Just like that," she agreed. "Though that isn't exactly the proscribed method."

"But it is one way for your kind to exist?" Leeds questioned with a trace of bitterness.

"Yes," McCay admitted tersely, "it is."

A muscle pulsed in his jaw. "You must know I can't trust you," he rasped, getting to the point. "You lied about what you are�I don't even know if you're telling the truth about Ripley and Call�hell, I don't know they're telling the truth."

"No, you don't," she agreed. "I guess you'll have to take it on faith." Her eyes ran over his blocky frame. "I thought you were supposed to be big on faith, Sergeant."

He shook his head slowly, that word setting his teeth on edge when it came from her lips. "How can I�when you're a thing�whose every word and deed can be programmed by anyone with the right tools?"

She finished buttoning her shirt, hiding the jerry-rigged patch on her chest. She offered a dark smile. "And you can't be?" she challenged. "Anyone who tells you what you want to hear can control you as effectively as a master programmer can me�think about that." She stepped around him, headed for the door.

"I won't let you have a weapon," Leeds bit out. "And if I have any reason to believe you've lied again, I'll put the bullets through you myself."

She didn't look back, just stood stiffly. "I'd be disappointed if you said anything else, Sergeant."

*****

"This way," Call's voice echoed eerily as she pointed down a broad corridor. They were a few floors from the very bottom of the complex. After leaving the ropes and climbing gear in the elevator shaft, they'd begun hunting for heavy materiel storage. Flashlight beams touched the walls, slowing here and there, when it looked like they might have found what they were looking for.

Finally Ripley's beam fell on a heavy set of steel doors that had been torn off the hinges and nearly shredded. The floor was slimy with saliva. "I'd say we've found it," she murmured, stepping carefully to keep from skidding.

Call shined her light on the numbers above the remains of the doors. "Yeah�" she exhaled as she crosschecked them against the information in her databank.

Pushing debris aside or climbing over it, Ripley entered the storage area first. It was quiet. Nothing moved within reach of her flashlight beam. Weapons lockers lined the walls, and every one of them had been torn open, shredded by clawlike hands, while the weapons were strewn around the room in pieces.

Ripley stared at the mess with a jaundiced eye. "They've definitely been here," she sighed.

Call stepped past her, glancing inside the lockers to note the damage. "There were still a lot of weapons left in here before they attacked." She turned a frown in Ripley's direction. "Why didn't the soldiers use them?"

Ripley crouched down, running a finger along the edge of a shattered rifle covered in mucus-like slime. "Because they never made it this far." She looked up, studying the damage. "This wasn't a fight. There are no blast points on the walls, no blood, no acid holes." She straightened and dug through first one locker, and then another, hurling broken parts aside as she hunted for anything they could use. "They've smashed all of the guns," she decided at last, then yanked open an ammo locker. A few grenades, intended for use in a rifle launcher, were still intact, and she grabbed two of them, hooking them on her belt. "These can be hand activated. It's not much, but it�s something." She straightened and continued on, disappearing into the shadows, slipping in and out of Call's vision as she moved deeper into the storage area.

"What happened?" Call hurried after her.

"The soldiers were killed or � captured � before they got this far..." The cloned woman's footsteps were perfectly silent, but Call could still see the pinpoint beam of her flashlight. "They realized they'd been invaded too late � didn't understand what they were dealing with. They came in through the air vents and headed straight down � her children were waiting for their prey."

"But the weapon's lockers � this place has been trashed � why would they�" Call's voice trailed off as she realized what Ripley was saying. "Oh my God," she exhaled.

"That's right," Ripley inserted. "They knew what they were doing � destroying their prey's ability to fight back."

"Oh shit."

Call could hear the smile in Ripley's voice as she whispered, "You can say that again � that cute little race memory that means I'm still Ellen Ripley � means they�re born knowing everything they've ever known � and everything I've ever known. They've learned about weapons � that they need to destroy them."

"What about the nuclear stores?"

"Good question." Ripley's flashlight beam touched on a black, steel wall. "Looks like our answer's just ahead." She found the inset, sliding door with her torch. Deep claw marks pitted the stainless steel, and the metal was bowed from the sheer rage something had unleashed upon it, but it had held. Ripley shined her light on the number pad set into the wall next to the doors. Somehow, it had escaped the chaos. "Think it still has enough power to open?"

Call nodded. "Security on nuclear storage has a six month backup system�.it's older than God, but it was designed to be failsafe." She glanced at the furrows torn in the smooth metal. "I'm more worried about whether or not the doors will slide with all that damage."

"Don't worry, they don't have to move much."

Call shrugged, then quickly entered the codes into the number pad, fingers dancing over the surface. Suddenly Ripley heard bolts sliding behind the walls. The sound echoed, seeming incredibly loud to sensitive ears, and the cloned woman glanced around nervously, half expecting a black, domed head to appear from the shadows. Gears ground, the sound bringing Ripley's head back around as the doors split at an angle and slowly creaked apart. They moved little more than a foot before the twisted surface of the doors forced them to a halt. The way the doors angled and fitted together, it made for a tight fit, but Ripley slipped through with a millimeter to spare. Call scrambled after her a moment later.

The nuclear storage area was small, compared to the outer areas. The difference lay in the four-foot thick, block walls that surrounded the deadly missiles, but couldn't possibly contain their power. Their only real task was to comfort the human guardians. Four small missiles were strapped down to shock absorbing gimbals in the center of the room. Designed to be fired from a shoulder mounted launcher on the battlefield, each weapon carried only a single, low yield warhead. More than enough to send the base tumbling in on itself. Four matching launchers hung from harnesses on one wall.

Call moved to the end unit, unstrapping the missile with knowing skill.

Ripley watched over her shoulder. "Is it contact activated?" she questioned, uncertain of the technology.

"No," Call responded, her full concentration on the weapon. "Timer." She flipped open a small panel along the cylinder and reached inside the narrow tube to make an adjustment.

"How much time?"

Call was silent for a long moment as she studied the data that came up on a small led screen. "Base time is fifteen minutes. They're meant for use on an open battlefield, so they didn�t allow much time to escape � didn�t think it would be needed � or didn't care."

Ripley sighed sadly. "That's that then," she exhaled, folding her arms across her chest as she leaned back against the wall.

"Not necessarily," Call agreed distantly. "If I can build a decaying loop into the timer system, I should be able to make it reset the time continuously until the loop self destructs�.it would buy us more time."

"How much?"

"If I can get it right, probably a couple of hours � it's not an exact science. These were never designed for this kind of alteration." She continued to work, reprogramming the delicate timing system with considerable skill. Finally, she snapped the hatch closed. "That's the best I can do � I think it'll work, but we won�t know until�" she trailed off suggestively.

"Until we use it," Ripley finished for her.

The distant roars of the creatures grew more agitated, drawing her head around.

"They're moving," Ripley breathed. "We've got to hurry." She grabbed a launcher off the wall, slinging the carrying strap over her shoulder. "Do we have two hours from now, or two hours from when it's fired?" Ripley questioned, assuming that the timer alterations had worked. If they hadn�t, it wouldn't matter either way.

"From the time you fire it."

"Okay..." She turned a liquid gaze on Call. "You can still go back." She brushed a few stray strands of hair off Call's forehead. "I couldn�t think any less of you."

The auton shook her head.

Ripley brushed the pad of her thumb over Call's lower lip, outlining the delicate cupid's bow. She swallowed hard, mouth working silently for a moment. Finally, she pressed a soft kiss to her lover's forehead. "In this life, you are the only pleasure I've had � the only decency I've seen � the only thing I wouldn�t be grateful to forget." She ducked her head, tasting soft lips. "Thank you � without you � I would have existed, not lived."

Call reached up to touch Ripley's cheek, fingers brushing against smooth skin. "This is the first time I've ever believed my emotions were real," she admitted raggedly, "rather than some trick of the programmer's art."

"No trick," Ripley whispered, then separated from her.

Both women knew they couldn�t spare any more time.

"Whatever happens," Ripley promised. "We'll be together."

Call nodded, then lifted the missile, holding it carefully, more worried about damaging the timer circuits than the setting it off. Thankfully, the nuclear genie was a relatively stable one.

"Let's go," Ripley said softly and took the lead.

*****

Continue to Next Part--Chapters 10-11

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