Alien: Odyssey, by Pink Rabbit Productions--Chapter 10--11

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 10
PAYBACKS ARE A BITCH

The two women returned to the elevator shaft, both serious and quiet, as their deaths approached nearer with every step. They climbed down another four floors before hitting bottom where they found themselves in a narrow corridor barely lit by the dying emergency lights.

"They're close," Ripley breathed. She crouched down, touching the thin trails of slime that coated the floor. "So close." She straightened without saying any more and moved through the narrow corridors, forcing Call to jog to keep up.

As they moved, the air seemed to thicken, becoming heavier, saturated with a sickly sweet smell of death and putrefaction.

Call caught a muscled arm, tugging Ripley to a halt. "Fire it anywhere�it doesn�t matter. This is the bottom level."

Dark eyes swung around, but stared somewhere past Call. "It matters," Ripley disagreed and pulled free to continue on her way. Cursing softly, the auton hurried after her. The cloned woman finally found what she was looking for, a broad loading dock door in shreds courtesy of steel tipped claws. Ripley paused, swinging the launcher off her shoulder to snap the tube open and rock the handgrip down, ready to fire. A second later, she slipped through the clawed gash.

Call followed close behind and found herself on a narrow mezzanine walkway overlooking what had once been a machine shop. Remains of equipment were still visible amid the creatures that writhed in the pit below, fawning over the black and silver thing that was their queen. Cocooned soldiers decorated the walls, but none showed any signs of life. More than a few cocoons were empty, streaks of brown and white staining the empty shells where the soldiers had been trapped. The creatures had removed them in an effort to rid the area of the toxins poisoning their queen, but it was already too late.

The queen tipped her head back, her crown throwing jagged shadows on the walls, as she screamed anew.

Ripley stood frozen, mesmerized by the sight. Despite everything, a part of her still responded to their calls, singing at the sense of their nearness. A soft hand on her shoulder brought her back to the present. She glanced back, eyes finding a pale, heart shaped face in the near blackness. "It's time," she whispered and swung the launcher around, watching silently as the auton loaded her deadly missile. When she was done, Ripley hefted the weapon to her shoulder.

And froze.

The queen knew she was there. They could feel each other. Ripley whimpered as the hive mind called out. She could feel their hunger, their need -- and something more -- their hope. If she would just return to the hive, guide them, lead them � they would rule this world. All she had to do was surrender and be the queen's loving consort. They were inside her head, accepting her as mankind never would -- never could -- comforting, absorbing. With the aliens, she would never be alone, never feel pain, never feel anything. Mankind's barbs and her own doubts would cease to tear at her. She could surrender and simply be her servant.

Call felt the tension ripple through Ripley's muscles and knew instantly what was happening. "No," she exhaled very softly, leaning her forehead against Ripley's narrow back. "You're human � don't let�" she trailed off, then tried again. "�don't surrender yourself�"

The queen felt the instant she lost control and roared her fury at the deprivation, screaming for Ripley's head. Warriors flew toward them, but they were nowhere near fast enough.

Ripley swung the launcher back up to her shoulder, barely pausing to sight it before she fired.

A high pitched whine screeched in the missile's wake as it surged from the launch tube, flames flaring out the back, driving it forward.

Ripley's shot was true. The missile drove straight through the queen, drawing another screen, a sound of sheer agony this time. For a moment, her warriors seemed torn over whether to go to their monarch or after the intruders. (1)

"Run!" Ripley gasped, grabbing at the tiny chance as she shoved Call back out through the gashes in the loading dock doors. She stepped through after her lover, yanking the pin to hurl a grenade back onto the mezzanine walkway.

The grenade exploded no more than two or three seconds later, tearing out the mezzanine walkway and collapsing part of the corridor.

Ripley ducked her head, fending off flying debris as she lengthened her stride. The damage to the hall behind them would buy some time, but not nearly enough.

Enraged howls filled the shadows, while long, spindly bodies surged up from the slime toward the gaping wound in the cr�che.

*****

Ripley hit the elevator shaft first, pausing just long enough to clip onto the rope. She grabbed Call as the android caught up with her, clipping her onto the line, then boosting her ahead with the simple order, "Climb!"

Moving hand over hand, Call climbed as fast as she could, pulling herself up the rope, while Ripley pushed from below. There was no way to go much faster, but she doubted it would ever be swift enough.

They'd gone nearly four floors when Ripley felt the rope shift beneath her as something caught hold. She reached for the knife she'd taken from the first weapons stores, then remembered where she'd left the melted remains. "Call�hand me your knife."

It cost precious seconds, but the android passed the weapon down. Ripley caught it as she felt the rope pull completely taut below her. She twisted in the harness, nearly upending herself to slash the rope below her own position. She managed a gratified smile as it brought an answering thud and roars of frustration. That bought them a few more moments to get higher still and she scrambled as fast as she could. Knowing how unstable the entire base was, she wanted to be as far away as possible before dropping her second grenade. "Climb!" she shouted at Call. The creatures regathered themselves and started to make their way up the sides of the shaft, clinging to the open girders. Knowing it was their only chance, Ripley unclipped herself and grabbed for a girder, taking her weight on one hand before swinging up. She was nearly as tall and strong as the beasts chasing them, and she clambered up the steel shaft with more ease than she'd expected. In moments, she was above Call. A hand slapped a smooth, steel door, and she hooked her fingers in the split down the center, shoving with raw strength. The door slid open with a grinding sound. "Come on," Ripley snapped to Call and grabbed her by the scruff with one hand, slinging her up and through the open doorway. (2)

Still attached to the rope, Call tumbled across the floor. She was just regaining her bearings when Ripley came through the elevator doors, her movements eerily smooth. She reached out, unclipping Call's harness with one sharp yank, then pivoted on one foot, drawing and activating the second grenade. It arced neatly from her hand, then tumbled into the open elevator shaft. Ripley dug a hand into the elevator door, shoving it closed while the grenade was still falling. She grabbed Call by the arm, pushing her down the hallway. "MOVE!!"

They'd gone only a few feet when the grenade went off. The concussion blew the doors apart, acid spattering the interior of the shaft. Soft rumbles followed the explosion as the already stressed cement vibrated and threatened to give way.

The explosion had bought more time to escape their pursuers, but it was suddenly less certain whether they'd be flattened by tumbling debris.

Her hand still locked around Call's arm, Ripley hurtled down the hallway just ahead of a collapsing section of ceiling. Smoke and cement dust filled the air with choking grit, but she ignored them, determined to clear the area if it all came tumbling down.

Fate had other ideas.

Ripley suddenly pulled up short, yanking Call to a halt beside her.

An inky black shape detached itself from the shadows.

The creature had been dragging itself toward the elevator shaft, determined to answer the queen's summons even though it was banished from the nest and would be destroyed by its brethren. Despite its rage at those that would destroy it, her call was too strong to ignore. Now, it felt its hated and too perfect brothers' deaths. The answering scream of rage was scratchy and weak, coming from a damaged throat and chest. The alien was twisted and gnarled, its torso misshapen, ribs compressed on one side and body out of proportion with its arms and legs, while one leg was torqued sideways.

Ripley shoved Call behind her as the thing let out another creaky screech and lunged forward a step. She glared at the perfect bullet shaped head poised on a ruined body, concentrating as she had before. It cried out again, but didn't advance on her. Hand clamped on Call's forearm to keep the small woman behind her, Ripley carefully moved to the side, edging around the alien.

It tracked her progress, letting out another scratchy cry without making any move to attack. They were almost past it when another creature, wounded and bleeding yellow acid, shoved its way through the remains of the elevator doors, staggering over the debris littering the floor.

Ripley pushed Call down the hallway with the hissed command, "Run." The auton moved a step or two, but no more, while Ripley waited, expecting a charge. There was one, but it wasn't at all what she expected.

The misshapen alien screeched its hatred and lunged at its brother, dragging its destroyed body along at surprising speed. It hit the other one only a few feet away from the door. Raging, the two creatures tore at each other, stiff, steel toothed tongues punching into one another while long fingered hands ripped and shredded.

The two women stared in awed shock, unable to take their eyes from the hideous scene until Ripley suddenly snapped out of the paralysis. "Go!" she ordered Call, pushing her down the hallway as she jogged backwards, keeping an eye on the fight. She didn�t turn around until Call's hand snatched her arm, yanking her down another corridor. Ripley let out an almost giddy laugh as she spun around and broke into a run.

The sounds of alien combat melted into silence in only a few minutes.

"This way," Call muttered as she struggled to find a new route out of the base. She mapped out possible alternatives based on what they already knew and extrapolating the other routes that were probably blocked as well. "We can use the accesses into the air vents to jump from floor to floor. It's not going to be fast, but it's doable."

"Lead the way," Ripley whispered without acknowledging they had no time for anything except very fast, or that she was the one who'd made escape so much more difficult by needing to personally finish things with the queen.

*****

"Looks like they definitely went in this way," McCay murmured as she stared down the ventilation shaft through layers of torn grating.

"Get the ropes and climbing gear!" Leeds called down to Tyrell, then turned back just as McCay nimbly dropped down to the next level of the grating.

"Wait up," Leeds snapped as he scrambled after her, landing much more heavily. "It'll take a moment for them to hand up the ropes."

McCay nodded and dropped to a crouch, bracing her hands on the edges of the hole torn in the grate as she leaned forward to stare down into the darkness. Her eyes were designed to see in near perfect darkness, with the latest, most high tech solutions used in her kind. She frowned slightly, struggling to pull the image into focus. "There's something moving down there," she whispered.

Leeds peered down past her shoulder. "You can't possibly see--"

"Yes, I can," she disagreed and gripped the edges of the hole, rolling forward as she dropped through the gash. She hung for a moment, then dropped the considerable distance to the next level, landing lightly on the grating above the fan blades.

Leeds considered following her for a moment, then decided against it, concluding he couldn't duplicate her perfect landing, and a slip could send him tumbling into the endless darkness. He saw her crouch, peering into the blackness that closed on the world below like the pits of hell.

"There's definitely something moving down there�I think it's bipedal," she called up, her voice just loud enough to be heard over the few feet that separated them.

"Human?" he questioned as he felt his stomach clench with tension.

"I'm not sure. I can't see well enough."

Leeds found something curiously comforting about that admission. There was something all too intimidating about her apparent physical superiority. It was a relief to know that she was still � human � he thought the word, then called it back. No, not human, a device designed specifically for the task at hand, he reminded himself.

"Sarge," Tyrell interrupted Leeds' thoughts as the equipment was passed to the men on top of the venting tower.

Leeds waved to the man above him, indicating her should continue setting up the gear. "Could it be one of those things Ripley described?" he asked McCay as he stared down into india ink blackness.

"Maybe," she admitted. "All I can really see is movement." She moved gracefully along a narrow beam, trying to get a better look without success. "You have heavy artillery up there?" she finally called up to Leeds.

"M-48 field rifles," he responded as he grabbed for his weapon, setting it within easy reach before reaching for the ropes and harnesses handed down to him. A few economical motions, and he tied one rope in place, then dumped the coils on the grate before tying off a second rope. A moment later, he buckled into a harness, readying for the drop. "What are you going to do?"

"Say hi�see if anyone says anything back." She leaned forward again, hunting for signs of movement, but seeing nothing this time. "HEELLLLLLOOOOO!!!" the auton called down, her voice echoing off the cement walls.

A moment passed.

McCay thought she heard something, but the acoustics of the tower were strange enough that she couldn't be certain until a call rang up.

"HELllloooo!!" It died away quickly as though the caller was exhausted and at the end of his rope. "PLEASE!!" he shouted, regaining his breath for a moment. "You've gotta get me OUTA HERE!"

Leeds finished checking the ropes, then attached himself to one, kicking both over the edge before sliding easily down to McCay's level. He passed her a harness, watching silently as she hooked onto the second line. A spare harness slid down the rope, and he slung it over one shoulder as he called up, "Tyrell, Biggs, be ready to pull us back up fast." A field light was clipped to each shoulder, and he flipped them on, grateful for the powerful beams in the encroaching darkness. They were using friction harnesses that allowed the user to control their drop one handed, while a simple friction cleat controlled the speed of decent. Leeds regripped his field weapon as he met McCay's gaze. "Let's do this."

She nodded. "A weapon would be nice," she muttered. "All things considered."

Leeds nodded and called up, "Tyrell, your sidearm." A moment later the corporal's gunbelt dropped into McCay's hands.

She stared at the weapon, then buckled it on. "Great�a popgun�.if something attacks, at least I have something to throw."

"Now, now," Leeds chided as he watched her step off, and begin the slide into nothingness. "You're the hot to trot intelligence android. You shouldn't need weapons."

"And anyone as thickskulled as you shouldn't need a brain, but your heart still won't beat without one," she muttered under her breath. "And I'm an auton, not android." She was tired, sore, grumpy, and in no mood for his condescending bigotry, so it surprised her when he muttered what might almost have been an apology.

"Sorry, I got it wrong�and with luck, we won't need any weapons."

*****

The queen still lived. Her life was a torment as wave upon wave of agony rippled through her. Her unborn eggs were dying along with the rest of her body. Nothing her warriors could do seemed able to save them�or her. Her cries a mix of rage and love, she gathered the last of her beautiful children to her, concentrating on the strongest. Energy rippled between them, rich, sensual, and thick, like the blood that gave them life. She felt the quickening as her successor realized its destiny. Alien genes shifted and changed, mutating to meet the requirements of their situation. They would leave this place and find a new home, find a new hive, make a new cr�che.

Because now they had a new queen.

Though perhaps not for long. Only six warriors remained whole and healthy at her side. As they felt the quickening take hold, they landed on the former queen, claws rending battered flesh, tearing her to pieces as they fed on her to take her strength and memories for their own.

Black skin was slick with corrosive gore when they heard the screams of their ruined brethren, those they'd hunted because of their imperfections. In the past, it had always been understood that weakness was not allowed among their kind. Those born defective or weak had understood their lot, accepted it as the best thing for the hive, and their flesh had fed the warriors.

But these new children were different. Hate burned in their veins, not just for the prey, but for their own kind. They had a kind of individuality that had never existed in their kind before, a desire to survive not merely for the cause of the species, but for personal reasons as well.

They didn't want to die.

And now, weakened though they were, they outnumbered their more perfect siblings.

Twenty of them stood at the remains of the mezzanine, smooth snouts waving in the air as they scented a new prey. None had tasted sweet human flesh only the diseased and poisoned kind, but they'd fed on the weakest of their discarded siblings and knew the flavor of their own. They swarmed down on the remaining six and their queen, warring among themselves.

In the end, Ripley's human genes had left their mark on a species once too perfect in its wicked beauty.

*****

Ripley reached back and pulled Call out of the floor vent, hauling her onto the latest level with some effort. Even she was beginning to show the strain of the last few days. She bent double for a moment, struggling to regain her breath before straightening, her expression cool once again. "Where do we catch the next ventilation hatch to the next level?" she muttered, her entire concentration on getting up as fast as possible.

Call shook her head. "We don't�this is the level where we got off the stairs."

"I think I love you," Ripley muttered gratefully.

"Careful," Call teased, feeling a certain sense of hope for the first time since Ripley had fired the missile. "Somebody might mistake you for human with comments like that."

"Can't have that," Ripley bantered back. "You're the one they're supposed to think is human."

Call offered a smile as she took the lead. "Well, I am definitely cuter and more charming."

"I can be charming," Ripley said to no one in particular.

"Only in a mildly homicidal sort of way."

*****

"C'mon�hurry," the soldier called up as he watched the lights descend closer and closer. "There's one of those things down here, somewhere�I can hear it." His voice was shaky with panic, his face pale in the sharp key light that shone down on him.

"What's your name, soldier?" Leeds questioned.

"Barzak, sir, Ian Barzak�PFC�serial number two-oh-two-six-four."

There was a soft clatter that might have been nothing more than a stray chunk of cement kicked up by Barzak's boots. He jumped nonetheless, eyes going wide, his breath coming in strained pants as he searched the darkened tunnels for signs of movement. "Hurry," he pleaded. "They're coming�they're always coming."

McCay released the friction on her clip, dropping nearly ten feet in one smooth move. She landed lightly, peering into the darkness past the man's shoulder as she freed herself from the rope.

Leeds took the drop more slowly, knowing he didn't have her balance or vision. "See anything?" he questioned while he was still several feet up.

"No�but it's dark�there's not even enough light for a good IR scan."

Leeds hit the ground and disengaged from the rope. "What happened down there, Private," he demanded as he slung the climbing harness off his shoulder and passed it to the young man, helping him buckle it on.

"All hell broke loose�these�things were everywhere�killing�men were disappearing�" His eyes were wide, the expression nearly insane with stress.

"Did you see two women, one tall, with long dark hair and dark eyes, the other smaller, with short hair�names Ripley and Call�"

Barzak nodded jerkily. "Yeah, they were going down�the tall one�she killed Kenny�and that thing in his chest," he exhaled mournfully. "She said they were going to blow the base ... and kill those things�told me to get out and tell everyone what I'd seen�so it never happened again." The words came out like a poorly memorized litany.

Leeds stared at the man for a long moment, his expression oddly sympathetic. He'd seen enough battlefield stress to know the signs. "Understood," he assured the man. "Let's get you out of here." He clipped Barzak to the line. "Can you climb, or do you need to be pulled out?"

The soldier seemed to gather himself together, straightening his shoulders as he marshaled his few remaining resources. "I can climb, sir."

"Go on," Leeds said with a nod, then gave the rope three quick tugs indicating that the soldier was coming up under his own steam. He boosted the young man up, watching him for a moment before turning to peer down the low tunnel that led horizontally into the base.

McCay was already standing there staring, and she blinked against the influx of light as Leeds' shoulder lamps reflected off the concrete walls.

"Can you see anything?" he questioned.

"No�but there's so much dust in the air." She shook her head. "I don't know how reliable my vision is."

He redoubled his hold on his weapon. "Let's scout it."

McCay slipped behind him. "You're the one with the big gun," she drawled. "And the lights�you can take the lead." She drew the small sidearm, chambering a round smoothly as she muttered, "Damn popgun."

The two moved carefully forward, both alert and cautious.

They'd gone quite some distance without seeing any signs of life when Leeds commented, "That kid we found�he was pretty wacked out � maybe he was just imagining that they were up here." At some level, he was still hoping it was all a mad nightmare � that none of the stories Ripley had told were true � that the fear in her eyes had been nothing more than incipient insanity.

"Maybe," McCay allowed hesitantly, but she didn't sound certain. She remembered the technical reports she'd torn from Michael Paladin's mind. Those had certainly indicated a creature more than capable of fooling them somehow. She'd never believed much in instinct, but she had a very bad feeling. They moved deeper still, climbing over concrete wreckage as they explored farther into the complex.

"You think Ripley and Call got through?"

"Not yet�"

Leeds started to climb over a small mountain of debris.

"If they had, this place would be toast. They were going to set off a nuke," she pointed out.

"Great � I guess that means I should get the rest of the squad � and see if we can finish it."

McCay nodded slowly, uneasy. Suddenly she froze, head tipping back as she realized they weren't alone. Infra-red vision picked up the twisted, spidery form braced in the chasm formed by the fallen rubble. "Oh my God," she exhaled almost inaudibly. Ripley and Call's description hadn�t prepared her for the hideous beauty of the creature.

Sensing her shock, Leeds froze, eyes instinctively following the same path as hers until he saw the perfectly smooth head. It was like the demons of hell described by the fire and brimstone preachers of his youth. For the briefest moment, he couldn't think, couldn't breathe. His heart barely beat.

Then it struck, falling on him, the heavy body knocking him backward to the floor of the tunnel. Leeds grunted as a sawtoothed tongue slammed into his shoulder, tearing the skin and breaking his collarbone in one blow. Luckily, plastic and steel-meshed muscles did their job, and the blow didn't punch a hole through his body as intended. His hands scrambled, shoving and twisting as he hunted for some way to throw the slick fleshed creature off. Its body was irregular, and one clawed hand was little more than a blunt stump, but it was still phenomenally strong.

McCay took aim on the scene and considered taking fire, but held off, remembering the acid described by Ripley and Call. If she hit the creature, it would bleed onto the man beneath it, laying his chest open and likely killing him. She holstered her weapon and leapt forward, hooking the thing with one arm as she kicked off. They tumbled end over end until she lost her grip, and the creature skidded another few feet. McCay scrambled for her feet as the creature did the same. She didn't know if Leeds was still conscious or not and didn't have time to worry about it. His shoulder lights cast sharp beams on the ceiling, the reflections glittering off the creature's rounded head.

It lunged.

McCay responded instinctively, striking out at the twisted body hurtling toward her, throwing it back a step.

This alien wasn't as damaged as some of the others. It could get around more easily, though it was still forbidden from the cr�che, lest it pervert the perfection of its own kind. It had dreamt of escape, of going into the world, where it might find succor and peace � away from the hunt � no longer a target � able to simply feed on soft prey at will. Now it knew that dream would never be, and it wanted only to punish those who blockaded its way. It lunged again.

McCay drew her weapon, firing the small caliber pistol with her right hand as she punched with her left, intending to shove the beast away again. In that instant, she forgot about acid blood.

Just shoving upright from the hard attack, Leeds saw it all. Bullets pierced the creature's narrow chest, pulping it with almost perfect accuracy, as McCay's other hand shot out to push her assailant away�.and melted on contact.

A horrifying scream was torn from the auton as acid coated her left hand. In moments, there was nothing more than a stump on her wrist, and she fell back, howling as the damage continued to advance.

The creature, its chest torn open, started to go after her, but Leeds grabbed her by collar with one hand, dragging her backwards as he fired a three shot burst from his weapon. All three rounds struck, knocking the thing backward. He pulled off another three round burst and was gratified by the way the alien tumbled to the floor. A third three shot burst tore through it, but it barely twitched. He suddenly became aware of McCay's agonized screams, and his eyes fell to her arm. Already the damage was halfway to her elbow and advancing.

"cutitoff!!" she begged in one breath as she fell against the wall.

He stared in open horror.

"CUT IT OFF!!" screamed again, somehow getting herself under control enough to gasp. "It the acid gets in my bloodstream�I'll melt from the inside out."

Leeds tossed his weapon aside, drawing the huge bayonet in his boot as he pressed her into the wall, grabbing her arm above the fast advancing damage. His shoulder felt like hell, but he forgot all about it as he hacked her left arm well above the elbow, cutting raggedly, but well away from the damage. He threw the melting plastic remains of her arm aside as crimson fluid poured from the open wound.

McCay stared at the damage through dazed eyes. "Gotta stop it�melt it�seal it with a flare," she groaned weakly, knowing she was far too badly damaged to control the bleeding on her own.

Leeds grabbed a small spotter flare off his belt, flicking the end to activate the hot phosphor. He shoved the burning end against her ruined arm, welding plastic veins shut. McCay spasmed, letting out a dull scream, then hung limp in his arms. Leeds stared at her for a long moment, briefly wondering if she was dead, before remembering she couldn't die, only deactivate. He didn't even know how to check if she was functional or if the damage had been too severe for her systems to continue to operate, so he simply staggered to his feet, then slung her up over his shoulders. She was heavier than he expected. All the plastic parts, he supposed. He let out a hollow laugh as he remembered her relaxed teasing before he'd known what she was. She'd often joked about not having plastic parts. Leeds shook his head as he grabbed his rifle, pointing it at the creature in case it moved again. It didn't, and he stumbled back to the ropes, clipping himself, and then the woman in his arms, to the same line, before tugging twice, signaling his men to pull them up. They were in no shape for another fight, and he wanted time to think before he decided what to do next.

*****

The emergency lights were completely dead when Ripley and Call reentered the maintenance area for the ventilation system, while Ripley's flashlight cast little more than a dull glow. Still, it was enough to help them find their way. Ripley climbed into the heavy equipment, then reached back, offering Call a hand as she climbed over a large turbine shaft. The small woman slid over, and dropped to the floor on the other side, her boots echoing on plate tin.

They didn�t have a plan for what do to if they reached the ventilation tower. Ripley had left the cabling in place, so they had a way of climbing perhaps a third of the way out. After that, both women were simply hoping to come up with something. They had no way of knowing how close the soldiers were, or that ropes were already strung in place. With their way blocked by rubble on all other sides, they were simply taking the only option available.

Ripley kicked her way through the last of the fan blades as she led the way into the final horizontal tunnel. She could almost smell the fresh air. They were going to make it. She was almost sure of it. The fates had already been kind. More than two hours had already passed since she'd fired the missile, and they were still alive. If Ripley had been asked to bet on that one, she'd have refused the offer as too much of a long shot for her tastes.

The ceiling of the round tunnel was far too low even for Call to run, but they moved as fast as they could, knowing that the time was steadily ticking down.

Ripley abruptly pulled up short, throwing out an arm to stop Call. "Stay back." Nostrils twitching, she moved forward cautiously, crouching down to feel ahead of her. The scent of acid blood hung heavy in the air, so she wasn't surprised when her fingers encountered perversely smooth flesh. A moment later, they found the multitude of wounds that had torn the creature to shreds, allowing corrosive blood to drain onto the concrete.

"What is it?" the auton whispered, her voice sounding thin with nervousness.

"Dead alien," Ripley responded and straightened. "It feels like it's been shot to pieces." Call started to crouch, but Ripley held up a hand to stop her. "Don't. It's bled quite bit. You'll be burned." She outlined the edges of a wound with the tip of a finger. "Unless I'm mistaken somebody blew it away." She did not sound depressed by the news.

"Which means somebody else has been through here," Call whispered.

"Mmmhmm, let's just hope it was someone on our side," Ripley muttered and reached back, catching Call's hand as she made her way around the thing, avoiding the sizzling pools of acid.

Only a few minutes later, Ripley felt the soft slap of a rope against her cheek. It was a smooth climbing line, not stiff cable. She tipped her head back, feeling her heart pound in her chest as she caught sight of the tiny prick of sunlight at the top of the ventilation shaft. She almost threw her arms around Call and hugged her, but they didn't have time. "Somebody's strung a rope�looks like it goes all the way�" She murmured, glancing over at Call. She could just barely make out her profile. "Time to start climbing."

"Think we should call up?" Call questioned uncertainly.

Ripley shook her head, then answered as it occurred to her that the auton couldn't see the gesture. "No�too much chance it's Bishop."

Call shivered in the darkness. It was nothing more than a confirmation of her own opinion, but it still wasn't comforting.

"You first," Ripley urged and pressed the line into a small hand.

The auton was delicately built, but like most of her kind, deceptively strong. She gripped the rope tightly, pulling herself up hand over hand as she began the long climb.

Ripley was just waiting to mount the rope when she heard the distant roar. Her head swung around, heart hammering in her chest. "Shit, no," she rasped. "It can't�" Her words trailed off as another bellow hung on the air. Cursing under her breath, she grabbed the rope and began climbing in earnest, muscles knotting rhythmically with the effort.

"Ripley?" Call whispered.

"I know. I heard it," the cloned woman grunted. "Just climb."

Call hit the hole in the nearest grating and grabbed the slotted metal with one hand, easily pulling herself up and through. By the time she reached back to help, Ripley had levered herself halfway through. Call grabbed her by the waistband and hauled her the rest of the way.

The cloned woman lay on the decking for a moment, goosebumps rising on her skin despite the heat. Another roar rattled through her, and it took a heartbeat to decide whether she actually heard it, or it was just inside her head. Judging by the way Call's hand landed on her shoulder, it was real enough. Rage fluttered through her skull, but she forced it down through sheer force of will. "It's the queen," she gasped and pushed to her hands and knees, not questioning what was chasing them, even though she knew it shouldn't be possible. "She's really not having a good day." Ripley pushed to her feet, aware of Call's hovering frame. "Climb," Ripley snapped impatiently and shoved the rope back into her hands.

Call didn't argue, just pulled herself up the narrow line, very much aware of the moment it pulled taut below her as Ripley climbed on.

There was no real sense of movement. The top of the shaft was too far away, the layers of grating too efficient at cutting off the majority of light, to allow them any sense of drawing near. What did seem to be coming closer, were the enraged howls that shook the walls.

The new queen wanted her freedom � and her revenge.

"Climb," Ripley hissed again and looked over her shoulder. She couldn't see anything, but she could hear and feel the presence of the creature far below. They'd pulled the rope up to coil it loosely on the last layer of grating, so she didn't have an easy route, but Ripley had little doubt that she'd find a way. They always found a way. Sharp tipped fingers would be more than able to dig in and climb the crumbling cement walls.

Moments later, she heard the first scratching sound of talons clawing into reinforced concrete.

*****

"Any luck with the main entrance?" Leeds demanded of the returning team of soldiers.

Biggs shook his head. "No, sir. It's blocked. We dug around for awhile and did a radar sampling. Cal and the others stayed to finish up, but it doesn't look like it's ever going to be passable again."

The sergeant resisted the urge to curse, but not by much.

Biggs nodded toward the hummer. "How's McCay?"

Leeds shrugged a heavy shoulder. "Adams got the worst of the fluid loss stopped, but she hasn't moved." He didn't admit how much the idea bothered him. Auton or no, she had been a part of his company, and he felt a sergeant's automatic sense of responsibility for her health, particularly since she'd been saving his life when she was hurt.

"What should we do?"

Leeds shaded his eyes, noting the sun's position in the sky. Hours had passed with no contact from anyone, leaving him with little hope that anyone in the base was still alive. Ripley and Call had made it this far -- they knew that much because of the discarded flyer --but he no longer had much hope that they'd managed to get to the base's nuclear stores. If they were being pursued by teams from SouCal, they'd be arriving sometime soon. "Get Tyrell, break out the nukes and run a check." He sighed softly. "We're going hunting."

"Sir, yes, sir," Biggs snapped with unusual formality, fully aware of the weight of the decision. If they used nukes underground, the chances of surviving were slim, none, and considerably less than none.

"Go on," Leeds ordered sharply and nodded toward the lead hummer. He watched him go for a brief moment, then hurried back to the second hummer. There was a bitter, faintly acidic smell in the air as he stepped inside the second vehicle, blinking to adjust his eyes to the low light. His gaze touched on the figure sprawled on the field table, noting the mess. "How is she?" he questioned Adams as the tech worked determinedly over McCay's unmoving figure.

The young soldier looked up. "Her CPU's still online, but most of her systems are shut down." He looked frustrated. "I'm just not experienced enough with this level of technology to know what's going on."

Leeds nodded in understanding. "Do your best. I just came to let you know I'm going to take the rest of the squad and go down. It's time to end this."

The tech looked uncertain. "Sir?" He started to rise. "I'll go get ready."

"No � I want you to take the hummer up to the hills and stay online. If we can get out, we'll need someone to pick us up. I also want someone covering my back � in case this Bishop � or his people show up."

The soldier looked like he wanted to argue -- the first rule of any infantryman is to always stay with his buddies -- but he saw the determination in Leeds' expression. "Yes sir," he said at last.

Leeds stepped past the man to stare down at the unmoving auton lying silently on the surgical table, her body drenched in red fluid and looking uncomfortably human. Whatever she was, she'd saved his life. He owed her something. "If I don't get out of the base alive � see to it that she gets the help she needs."

"Yes, sir."

Leeds was just stepping toward the hatch, when the low rumbles began.

*****

"NO!!" Ripley roared in frustration as she felt the world begin to tremble around them.

Perhaps a hundred feet down, the queen tipped her head back and screamed until their voices blended in perverse harmony.

Knowing how little time they had, Call simply dug in, somehow climbing even faster, hauling herself up the rope with desperate strength.

The base had been designed to withstand a nuclear blast directly overhead, but not one deep inside her walls. The reinforced concrete tried to hold fast, but the lower floors began to crumble, spilling inward on themselves and sheering out the support pillars and walls until there was nothing left to happen, but a slow, inward collapse.

Call hit a grating and yanked herself through before reaching back to haul Ripley up.

They were still more than a hundred feet from the surface when the world started collapse around them. The center of base was caving in on itself, but the ventilation shafts ran directly away from it and were over solid ground. Had the cement not been so old and brittle, they might have held.

Unfortunately, they were so old and brittle.

The horizontal tunnel lifted and crumpled in on itself while the shaft warped, massively stressed by the movement of earth around it. For a moment, it creaked, raining dust and debris down on their heads. Suddenly one wall of the rounded walls heaved inward as cement shattered.

Below them, the queen's screams became panicked howls as she lost her grip on the wall, falling down a level.

Ripley scrambled, trying to maintain her balance in the midst of the wracking tremors. "CLIMB!!" she screamed, and grabbed Call's arm, shoving her toward the swaying rope.

The auton shook her head, throwing an arm up to fend off the chunks of cement, tumbling down from the upper levels. "There's no time!" she shouted above the roar of the shattering concrete.

Cursing loudly, Ripley grabbed Call's upper arm in one hand and the rope in the other, intending to drag her up if she had to. She never got the chance. The grating beneath their feet buckled, bending upward at the center. Ripley lost her grip on Call's arm and felt her fall away. Working on pure instinct, she scrambled desperately, but couldn't maintain her footing for more than a heartbeat. The world continued to shudder violently, until even she didn't have a chance. She was thrown off balance, then hurled headfirst into the wall of the shaft. Ellen Ripley was already unconscious when Analee Call wrapped strong arms around her. She never felt the earth-shattering destruction that poured down on their heads.

*****

Darrin Leeds was aware of being thrown around the interior of the cabin as the hummer was tossed about by the hard quakes shaking the earth. At some point, the vehicle rolled, and he grabbed for anything he could find to stabilize himself. One hand gripped the bar that ran above the seats while the other caught the unconscious body that came tumbling toward him. He wrapped an arm around McCay's limp frame, yanking her against his side as the interior of the vehicle did its impression of a spin cycle.

When the world came to a halt long minutes later, nothing moved on the shattered plain�or below it.

*****

Chapter 11
TRAPPED

Seconds.

Minutes.

Hours.

Days.

Months.

If it weren't for the internal chronograph in her brain, Analee Call wouldn't have had any idea how much time had passed since the world stopped shaking. She was amazed to find herself still in existence. During those long minutes, she'd fully expected to wind up as a greasy white smear smashed between chunks of falling debris. She opened her eyes in pitch blackness, uncertain whether she was rightside up, upside down, or sideways. Huge chunks of cement pressed against her body on all sides, but as she felt around, she realized that they'd somehow braced against each other, leaving a small pocket of space. It took only a moment to recognize the soft body pressed against her own in the narrow gap between concrete boulders. "Ripley?" she whispered huskily and shook a hard shoulder.

Perfect silence met her gesture.

"Oh, please, Ripley, no�" Call groaned, slithering into a semi-upright position to bend over the unmoving woman. Her hands were trembling as she traced them over familiar curves. Knowing how much rubble had fallen, she expected to feel her fingers burn at the touch of acid blood, but she was spared the pain. Somehow, Ripley had avoided being cut, or perhaps her unique genetic structure had already healed the damage. She traced Ripley's torso to find her throat in the darkness, pressing her fingertips against the underside of her chin. The cloned woman's pulse beat too fast and unsteady, but it beat. Call let out a heavy sigh of relief and tugged her lover's limp body closer until her head rested in Call's lap. "You're going to be all right," she promised and gently petted silky hair, smoothing it back from her brow. It was a lie. They were undoubtedly going to die, but Call saw no reason to be that honest.

"Liar," the woman in her arms mumbled almost inaudibly.

Call leaned closer, her lips almost touching her lover's. "I didn't think you were awake," she exhaled, her breath playing over cool skin.

Ripley shivered in her arms as she felt the darkness swallowing her up again. "Talk to me," she begged, fingers tangling with Call's as she slipped back into unconsciousness.

"I will," Call promised, holding Ripley tightly as she felt her slip away again. She gently smoothed her hair back and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. The woman in her arms was so limp she might have been dead, driving Call to check her pulse every few moments. The concrete boulders overhead creaked and shifted, making her wonder when they'd come spilling down. Miraculously, they settled but stayed in place, braced against each other. The darkness was cloying, thick, clinging to the body like an oil slick. "When I first read the banned histories, I admired her," she whispered, speaking as much to calm her own shattered nerves as to follow through on her promise. "I was amazed by her courage � I found a picture in one of the books�" She leaned down, lips brushing Ripley's cheek. "So beautiful � so brave � and so badly betrayed..." She sighed softly, remembering the flood of unfamiliar emotions she'd experienced. She stroked the back of a limp hand and felt the faintest fluttering of muscles. Even unconscious, there was something about Ellen Ripley that felt the need to struggle against life. "When I first found out about you, I hated you," she admitted. Her voice sick with the remembered resentment, she whispered, "Hated you for being alive when she was dead � for having her face � for betraying her by bringing those things back into the world when she died to rid the universe of them."

Ripley stirred ever so slightly, perhaps simply reacting to her injuries, or maybe it was something more.

"I tried to pity you � remind myself that you had no choice�." She stroked Ripley's temple lightly, feeling the swollen bruises that marred her skull just beneath the hairline. "And then you looked at me with that maddening grin � challenging me � daring me. How do you do that? Why do you do that?" She shook her head, mentally trying to unravel the strange woman to whom she'd become so emotionally bound. "I wanted to hate you," she admitted, her voice thick with tears. "But you were the only one who didn't treat me any differently � when you knew � what I am � the only one who ever showed any sympathy." She kissed Ripley, tasting warm lips, drinking in her breath, reassuring herself she was alive. "Damn you, don't you leave me," she choked and felt tears spill onto her cheeks. Call reached up, catching one on a fingertip, amazed by the realization that she was crying; not for herself, or humanity as a whole, but for one person who'd come to mean more to her than anything in the universe. The sudden insight was a jarring one. "I love you," she exhaled, amazed to find herself whispering the words that -- only days before -- she would have considered sacrilegious coming from her lips. She laughed, the sound hoarse with irony. She'd finally accepted that she could love, and they were both going to die. She ducked her head, pressing her cheek against Ripley's, content to simply hold her for whatever time remained.

*****

Leeds slowly shifted, intensely aware of every ache and pain in his body. He was battered, bruised, and if there was an inch of flesh without some kind of contusion, he didn't know what it might be. The tiny patch of flesh between his toes � maybe. Something heavy but surprisingly soft lay draped across his chest, and it took a second to remember catching McCay's limp body midway during the free fall spin. After carefully setting her aside, he rolled to his feet, shaking off the daze. The hummer was lying on one side, silent testament to the wild ride. He moved to check on Adams, quickly finding the man's body where it had been caught under the edge of a seat. It took only a glance to be certain he was dead, his neck snapped in an unlucky instant when something caught steel-coated bones just right to misalign them and send the sharp edge of a vertebra careening through his spinal cord. He'd died in moments. Sighing sadly, Leeds closed the man's eyes and straightened, staggering to the twisted hatchway to peer out.

Dust was still settling on the desert plains. What few buildings had remained when they arrived were now so much rubble. The desert valley now funneled downward toward the center, where the base had collapsed in on itself. Leeds ran a hand over short-cropped hair. "Oh shit," he exhaled. When they'd arrived, the earth around the ventilation shaft had been fairly flat and sandy. Now it was jagged, marked by sinkholes and upthrust boulders. There was no sign of his people.

"Tyrell! Biggs! Banks! Connor!!" His voice rang across the destroyed surface of the planet as he found himself praying that someone else had survived.

*****

Call continued to hold Ripley tenderly, feeling her shift and mumble softly. She'd been sliding in and out of consciousness as though her body had finally hit the limit, and she just couldn�t fight anymore. The only comfort lay in the fact that her pulse seemed to be getting stronger. Given time, she'd undoubtedly snap awake again -- Call couldn't help but remember how quickly the knife wound in her palm had healed -- but time was something they didn�t have. She could feel the air thinning, making it harder to breathe. Autons didn't require as much oxygen as humans, but they couldn't go completely without for very long. And the woman in her arms? There were so many things about her that had been affected by the infusion of alien genetic structure, but Call was relatively certain she couldn't survive without some air. Meaning that, sooner or later, the oxygen would be completely depleted, and she'd die. They'd both be gone with no one with the wiser.

Call growled an obscenity under her breath. She didn't want to die like that. Feeling over her head, she carefully squirmed upward�or least what she hoped was up. She was so disoriented that it was hard to be absolutely certain. It took her a moment to outline the heavy boulder directly over their heads. It had undoubtedly saved their lives, angling protectively over them and shoring up the tons of cement that had come tumbling down. Call slithered her fingers up into a narrow crevice along the edge of the huge slab, digging carefully. Dust and pebbles came tumbling down, but the half-expected collapse didn�t happen. Her body twisted at an odd angle, she continued the methodical scraping, tugging at the rough edges of shattered concrete. With every passing second she expected to be flattened, but the makeshift ceiling held, offering much needed protection. Long minutes passed as she widened the tiny gap until she could thrust her arm through. Another small space existed just above their heads. She reached harder, feeling around and pulling down more dust and rubble until there was a space nearly as wide as her shoulders.

"Call?" the soft croak surprised her. Ripley hadn't made a coherent sound since begging her to talk.

"I'm here." The auton pulled her arm free, dropping her hand to Ripley's hair. Grit coated her fingertips as she gently brushed at her temple, but Ripley didn't seem to care. She reached up to curve long fingers around Call's hand.

"Wha' happened?" she asked, her voice scratchy and unfamiliar.

The answering chuckle was low and grim. "The bomb finally went off," the auton whispered.

A brief moment of silence followed, then a short, choking laugh. "That fits my luck all right." Ripley's head shifted on Call's lap. "You were talking to me," she mumbled weakly. "You kept your promise." She sounded surprised by the realization.

"Mmhmm," the auton confirmed the hazy memory without discussing what she'd said. She wasn't yet comfortable with the revelations she'd come to.

Ripley tightened her hold on the hand twined with hers. "Thank you," she exhaled. She shifted slightly and felt the remains of the steel grating bite into her back. "Any idea how far down we are?"

Call automatically shook her head, despite the darkness, as she answered. "None. There was too much chaos when it happened. Do you remember anything?"

Silence followed her query until finally Ripley admitted. "Not much." She lifted a hand to massage the swelling at her temple, wincing audibly as she outlined it with the tips of her fingers. "I think I hit my head."

"Yeah�you've been out of it." Call continued the gentle stroking.

Ripley hunted her memories as she struggled back to consciousness. Suddenly, she stiffened as one particular memory came back with a thump. She tried to push up on an elbow, gasping as her skull contacted the low ceiling before Call could stop her. "The queen," she muttered. Strong hands caught her shoulders, pushing her back down.

"She was below us�nothing could have survived that."

"We survived," Ripley disagreed hoarsely.

Call sighed softly. "Maybe," she allowed. "But if she is alive, there's really not much we can do at the moment."

"She's alive," Ripley whispered simply, cursing the sense of the creature's existence that burned somewhere in her brain. Ignorant bliss would have been far preferable.

"Okay � but there are God only knows how many tons of rubble between us and her � and between us and the surface" The auton's soft voice was comforting while her hands massaged with gently soothing strokes. A little of tension left the cloned woman's shoulders. "Right now, she's not the most dangerous thing we have to worry about."

Ripley sank back down. She was so used to thinking of the aliens as the ultimate threat that it had never occurred to her that something else might take her life. "Any chance we can climb out?" she croaked.

"I don't know � there's a crevice overhead, and what feels like a pocket above us � but trying to get through might just bring it all down on our heads."

"Since we're going to die anyway�" Ripley trailed off suggestively before asking for confirmation. "Aren't we?"

"Yes."

A low sigh. "We have to try." She squeezed the small hand nestled in her own, silently making a promise. They stayed like that for several minutes while Ripley regained her bearings. When she went to move, there was a brief scare as her left leg refused to respond. Caught in the rubble, and numb from the pressure, it took considerable maneuvering to lever the joint free. When Ripley reached down, she felt blood smeared all over her leg, and realized the acid had powdered the concrete just enough to allow her to slither loose. Without that small bit of luck, she'd have been trapped there forever.

In the tight space, she was pressed up against Call, fully aware of every inch of the contact between their bodies. The faint brush of silky hair against her cheek brought a sudden flash of their lovemaking. Even rife with dust and grit, the strands were soft against her skin. She dropped a hand to Call's narrow waist, stroking lightly with the pad of her thumb. "Call," she whispered very softly as she felt tension ripple through the small, compact body. "Analee," she tested her first name, listening to the sweet timbre of it on her lips. "If we don't get out--" (4)

Small fingers landed on her lips, cutting her off. "Don't�we�we will."

"Shhh," Ripley hushed through the delicate barricade. She ducked until their foreheads just touched. "Thank you for keeping your promise," she breathed. "And thank you for everything you said."

Call tensed as she realized what the other woman was saying � what she'd heard. She was still formulating a response when warm lips tasted her mouth, drinking deeply. She savored Ripley's breath, felt the brush of her lips and tongue. There was nothing of the hunter in the kiss, only the lover. When their lips parted, they didn't separate. There was nowhere to go, not even enough space to back off a hand's width, so they remained twined together as Call stammered, "Overhead � the crevice is just overhead. It's almost wide enough to get through � I think there's another pocket above this one."

Ripley reached up, long narrow fingers slipping into the breach. She fumbled around, getting her bearings, then began slowly making it larger. "Just keep climbing," she whispered long moments later as she worked her narrow body into the tight space. Though taller and broader shouldered, she was also leaner than her companion, with an uncanny ability to contort herself into the tightest of spaces. They didn't discuss who would take the lead. The answer was too obvious, so she simply did.

*****

A small fire was the only thing to turn back the encroaching darkness as Darrin Leeds quietly set Tyrell's broken arm. He'd found Tyrell, Biggs, and Connor, but there was no sign of the others and no word from the team that had still been checking the main entrance. He finished lacing on the steel and canvas splint, then silently rose, moving away from the comfort of the fire. His broken shoulder hurt like hell, but so did the rest of his body, so he ignored it as best he was able. There was nothing he could do about it anyway. Sighing softly, he climbed an upthrust chunk of rock to stare at the funnel shaped hole that marked the center point of the damage. In the last dying light of the sun, there was something almost beautiful about the way the earth swirled in on itself. He supposed it was a fitting marker for the two women who had apparently not survived their bid to save the world.

His missing squad members were also undoubtedly dead. He accepted that. He pivoted slowly, taking in the shattered ground all around the ventillation shaft. He still had some hope that they'd magically appear, but not much. Meanwhile, Tyrell had a badly broken wrist, and Connor had taken a serious hit to the head. He kept insisting he was okay, but Leeds had noted the way his balance wavered unsteadily. Of the four of them, he and Biggs were in the best shape. Considering how much he hurt, that was a pathetic statement indeed.

Both hummers were upended and battered. They wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon.

And then there was McCay, who lay limp, exactly where he'd placed her next to the fire, the remaining stump of her arm a silent accusation of his failure to see the creature before it attacked. He hadn't felt this low since the day  he'd realized he'd been sent to earth to play the conqueror not the hero. He sighed softly and moved back to the small fire where Connor was just using a field helmet as a makeshift pot to heat enough field rations for the four of them. It was going to be a cold night and warm food in their bellies would help fend off the chill.

"Sarge," Biggs broke into his thoughts. His eyes still didn't track well, but his voice sounded steadier. "What do we do now?"

Leeds shrugged and dropped to sit cross-legged in the dirt. "In the morning we head back to SouCal," he said simply.

"Think there'll be a drumhead?" Connor questioned.

Leeds shrugged. "We did kinda frag the chain of command," he sighed, remembering all of the reasons that had made so much sense when he'd made his choices and now seemed highly questionable. Then he remembered the thing he'd seen underground � the hellsborne head and body, expressionless, yet full of hate, with its burning blood and fetid breath. No, they'd done the right thing � whatever came of it. "Whatever happens, the decision was mine. You tell the new C.O. that." He'd mutinied against an immoral government and now against an ignorant and corrupted one. For a man determined to follow orders, he was having some piss poor luck on that score.

"Nah," Tyrell spoke up, his voice relaxing as the pain killers kicked in. "We didn't have to follow you�" He scratched an itch above the edge of the splint. "If you're in trouble, we all are."

Leeds allowed himself a small smile, grateful for the support, especially since he wasn't feeling like much of a sergeant � not with most of his squad dead or missing. He noted the heating food and felt his stomach protest its hunger. "After a bite, I'll take the first watch."

*****

It's very easy to start doubting your sanity in total darkness. The eyes are so desperate for input that a person can start to see shadows and ripples of movement where there are none. The human mind desperately wants to process visual data, so much so, that many blind people claim they still 'see' shapes and colors even though no signal can be getting through. Ellen Ripley was beginning to appreciate the reality of that condition as she blindly clawed her way up through dust, dirt, and chunks of broken cement. She rubbed her eyes, hating the gritty, swirling darkness that seemed to climb inside her. It was as though it was determined to finish the task and finally drive her to madness.

She pulled and pushed herself upward, dislodging chunks of debris that stood in her way, finding the cracks and crevices between the slabs of concrete that would allow her enough room to slip through. With every inch gained, she was intently aware of the danger that she'd finally push on the wrong stone or shove at a weak pressure point and bring it all down on their heads. Twice, she and Call had exchanged positions for a time when she deadended, and the auton found another route. They'd traded places again only moments later, when they had to backtrack again. Suddenly, she felt a foot slip and started to fall. A strong hand braced her from below, steadying her. "Thanks," she coughed through the clinging dust.

"Anytime," Call responded.

"You say the sweetest things," the cloned woman groaned and pulled herself up another few inches. She clawed her fingers into a wide slab of cement, scraping away the pulverized mortar blockading her way. Grit and fist-sized chunks of cement hailed down on their heads, but she shook them off as she scrambled up and over the edge of another large slab. The space widened, allowing a few inches of room on any side of her body. "Come on up," she panted.

Moments later, Call scrambled up, her body pressed tightly against Ripley's in the narrow gap. The physical closeness was comforting, temporarily chasing away the visual and aural hallucinations that assailed a body lost in endless, sensory deprivation. "You okay?" she questioned and shuffled onto her side, stretching out next to Ripley, while she rested one hand on her stomach.

"Could be worse," the cloned woman admitted tiredly. Her head throbbed painfully, and she'd lost all sense of time and space. She frowned, trying to make out the rough surface only inches from the tip of her nose. She succeeded only in making her headache even worse.

Call rested her head on Ripley's shoulder -- not so much through planning as a lack of space -- but once she was there, it felt impossibly warm and safe. A hand lifted, petting short, dark hair tenderly.

Ripley could feel the ugliness that chased her through life somewhere in the back of her mind, but with Call pressed against her side, she could almost concentrate past it. The queen was still out there, but as colors swirled past her tightly closed eyes, she couldn't help but wonder if that feeling was just an hallucination, like an amputee with the urge to scratch a missing limb. Minutes passed and finally she realized they had to get moving again before she surrendered all sense of herself and just stayed there forever. "C'mon," she rasped. "Time to go." She twisted and began scrabbling again, pushing dirt and debris as she reached for a purchase.

Call started to do the same, rolling onto her stomach to kick forward. She froze as something pressed into her narrow chest. "Wait," she whispered and caught Ripley's shirt, halting her. She shifted back onto her side, fumbling with the zipper of her jumpsuit. "The crucifix � McCay never got it back � I completely forgot about it." She pulled the delicate piece of jewelry free as she felt Ripley skid back down. When she keyed it open, the lights inside glittered in familiar patterns, the tiny red and green flickers a welcome sight. They cast the faintest of glows, throwing soft lights onto Ripley's high cheekbones.

The real illumination was an incredible comfort even though it was the tiniest of lights. "I think that may be one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen," the cloned woman admitted as she stared down at the device, fascinated by the patterns.

"Mmmhmm," Call mumbled, then ran the pad of her thumb over the lights, stroking them slowly as she felt artificial nerve endings tingle with awareness. She exhaled an almost sensual sigh as the sensation died away, and the device fell dark once again. She touched the cross and it slid closed.

"Ready to move again?" Ripley whispered.

"Ready," Call confirmed, waiting while Ripley scrambled ahead, before following close behind.

*****

Blue eyes snapped open, dazed awareness glittering in their depths. Pain rattled through Angie McCay's badly damaged body, but she ignored it in favor of the signal echoing through her brain and touching off certain autonomic responses, bringing her back around by force. "Alive," she gasped weakly. She managed to pull the dancing fire into vague focus and pick out the broad silhouettes seated around it. She struggled with her vision, widening her scan of the area, instinctively searching the darkness as she spotted flickers of movement. Scanning at multiple ranges finally brought the shadows into some semblance of focus. She swallowed hard, trying to find the strength to make her voice box work and warn the men seated so unsuspectingly around the fire. At least a half dozen men and women were advancing on them, their stiff movements proclaiming them members of Bishop's android clan. "Bishop," she forced herself to whisper, but the word was little more than a breath of air. She gasped air into artificial lungs as more systems came online.

It was Leeds who noticed her movement, tossing aside the last of his dinner as he hurried to her, catching narrow shoulders in hard hands.

"Bishop," she whispered again, this time managing to make the name audible. "Coming in fast � at least six � maybe more." She didn't have a chance to tell him what had wakened her. There wasn't time.

"Biggs, douse that fire," he snapped, gratified by the fact that the soldier tossed his helmet over the flames, killing them almost instantly. "Lock and load," Leeds hissed as he grabbed for his weapon.

"I wouldn't do that," a dry voice rang across the night, the tone curiously dispassionate.

Crouched to make as small a target as possible, Leeds called back. "Why not?"

"Because I don't want you," Bishop responded. "I just want her. Hand the plastic over, and you're free to leave."

Leeds glanced at his men, who all shook their heads.

"We stick with our own," Tyrell muttered, gripping his rifle tightly, despite the broken wrist.

"Sorry, no can do," Leeds called out.

"Don't be stupid," McCay hissed as she struggled without success to push upright.

Leeds shook his head. "Like it or not, lady, you're one of us." He reached down, grabbing her by her undamaged right arm to haul her to her feet. She would have gone down again if not for his hard hold. "Besides, I need those eyes of yours if we're gonna have a chance." He hugged her close, slipping his arm around her waist, and encouraging her to put her arm around his shoulders. "How many and where?"

She leaned heavily against him, resting her head on his shoulder. "I can see six � maybe seven � all armed, but I can't tell what they're carrying � between fifty and one hundred yards out."

"Look, soldier," Bishop called out. "Do you really want to die for her? A thing? A machine? Isn't your life worth more than that?"

"No, sir, I guess it isn't," Leeds responded with ironic courtesy. He glanced over at the others. They were all crouched under the slight cover of an upended hummer. It wouldn't help much if Bishop decided to open fire. "What are they doing?" he questioned McCay a moment later when Bishop still hadn't responded to his taunt.

She shook her head. "I can't tell � they aren't advancing."

The night had fallen eerily silent. Even the settling of shattered earth had quieted as if in response to the dark emotions rattling through humans and androids alike.

Leeds redoubled his hold on his field weapon, ready to fire if needed. He longed to turn on one of the spotted pin lights still attached to his shoulder harness, but knew it would only make them a more ideal target. "Biggs," he hissed. "See if you can break away � and come around on their flank."

The big man nodded silently, staying low as he moved around the edge of the hummer, intending to disappear into the night. He was just stepping away from cover when a laser site pinned tightly on his leg. Biggs barely let out a sound as a shot pinged through the night, the single bullet tearing through his kneecap before his brain had time to register the sound. The soldier spilled to one knee, and Connor grabbed him by the collar, hauling him back under the scant cover of the ruined hummer.

"Biggs?" Leeds snapped.

"Hit the knee � put a hole through," he answered with forced insouciance. "But it didn't shatter the bone." He pushed upright, wincing as plastic coated bones ground against artificial cartilage. The injury was painful, but not enough to stop him from fighting. He reached down, brushing a fingertip over the damage, then tasted the blood caught on his fingers. It was salty with an iron bite, but lacked the bitterness of the artificial blood moving through his implants. "Didn't even draw white," he jeered the attack.

"Didn't have to," Bishop called out in answer to the softly spoken taunt. The soldiers all tensed as they realized their attackers could hear their conversations. "We just want you to stay in place � until you hand over the plastic. Do that and you're free to leave."

"Lying sack of shit," Tyrell grumbled.

"Maybe not," McCay inserted, her voice a tinny shadow of itself. "He doesn't care about you � it's me he wants."

"Perhaps," Leeds allowed. "But that's just one more reason not to let him have you." Instinct told him there were things in her brain that Bishop couldn't be allowed to know.

"Pity you feel that way," Bishop called out.

McCay shook her head, still staring into the night, watching the shadowy movements of their assailants. Suddenly, she recognized a heavy silhouette. "Shit � bazooka," she hissed to Leeds in warning.

He saw the weapon as it was hefted into firing position, the camo painted tube glittering dully under the faint light of a new moon. "BREAK!" the sergeant shouted and leapt away from the cover of the hummer. He heard the sibilant hiss as the bazooka was fired, sending the fist sized missile straight toward the upended vehicle. He hit the ground, McCay still clutched tightly against his body. The shell exploded as it contacted the metal body of the vehicle, sending flames and a hard concussion outward. The surviving soldiers were tumbled over rough ground while unstable earth shuddered beneath them.

*****

Continue to Next Part--Chapter 12--Epilogue

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