by Scribe

Main Characters: Seven, OFCs

WARNING: Some content may be disturbing to sensitive readers.

Author's Note: This was my attempt to put the Alien universe into the timeline of Star Trek. This refers to Alien 1 to 3. Also the names of the security folk are a homage to Mag7 fanfic writers of yesteryear.

Summary: When the Maverick receives a distress signal from an ancient ship called the Sulaco, Chris Larabee finds himself drawn to the history behind the vessel from old Earth and in particular, a Colonial Marine named Hicks who once fought alongside an Ellen Ripley...

Sixth story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows The Magnificent Q.

Prologue: Fire

The fire caused considerable damage.

Automated shipboard systems, designed to operate with the minimum of human interaction, immediately rallied to repair the damage. Although the ship contained nothing like the artificial intelligence powering starships four hundred years in the future, it too had its own kind of electronic minder. Meticulously programmed by engineers who wanted to leave nothing to chance, the computers were equipped to deal with hundreds of possible scenarios, including their own set of procedures of what was to be done when the situation arose.

In this instance, the machinery to combat the problem took a moment longer than anticipated. The cause of the fire was mostly the reason for this delay. The engineers had accounted for every life form known to man at this stage of their tentative exploration into space. Though humankind was spread throughout the stars in the early twenty-first century, its method of exploration was next to worthless prior to the creation of Zefram Cochrane's warp engine. The Eugenics War had come and gone, the post-Atomic Horror was just on the horizon and at this brief juncture of time where no one could be trusted, the faith of humanity seemed to fall into the hands of the Multinationals.

At the very top of this commercial pyramid was the Weyland Yutani Corporation. The business of space exploration became a commercial venture and Weyland Yutani, or the Company as they were most often called, spearheaded the move to begin large-scale mining to satisfy the requirements of an Earth teetering on the brink of all-out destruction. The ship, a product of Weyland Yutani's military contracts, was a sleeper and travel through stars took years, sometimes even decades. Exploration was limited to the search for profit and while alien species were encountered, they were invariably primitive and non-sentient. It was not until after Cochrane had breached the warp barrier, did humans learn the galaxy was not all empty but teeming with all manner of intelligence, some vastly superior to their own.

The ship had been carefully monitoring its human passengers ever since they entered into hypersleep, the state of suspended animation allowing them to return to Earth, oblivious to the long journey. The ship's computer recorded three human life signs, an adult male with regenerative protocols in place to repair an injury sustained at their last known destination, an adult female in relatively good health and a juvenile female approximately eight years old. The ship also recognized one synthetic human in a state of severe damage, stored away for return to Company labs where it would either be retooled or scrapped altogether. When the ship's internal sensors detected movement, the computer banks immediately sought to identify the source of this sudden animation.

It was soon faced with something of a dilemma for the life form scrambling along the hallways, appearing as if it were a hand with too many fingers and an extended tail, was nothing it identified as a lifeform. Even if it could place the strange creature, the ship was not equipped to do anything about it other than note the observation. The stowaway continued along its path, single-minded in its purpose, towards the humans presently asleep in the hypersleep chambers. The ship was powerless to act until the life form's attempt to breach the glass capsules instigated the system safeguards. The break in the glass was immediately attended to by a force field, sealing off the fissure until such time as repairs could be conducted. The creature who did not give up its attempt to penetrate the module was skewered by the surge of energy.

It should have been the end of the matter but it was not.

The creature's acidic blood immediately ate through the bulkhead, causing an electrical fire threatening to consume the entire hypersleep chamber. The ship, still reeling from its disastrous encounter with the intruder, immediately turned its attention to the safety of the humans on board. The sleeper modules and their occupants, both human and synthetic, were quickly transported into an Emergency Evacuation Vehicle. Within ten minutes after the breach, the humans were ejected into space, with the EEV programmed to take them to the nearest world capable of sustaining their type of life. Once its charges were safely away, the ship turned its attention to the fire. While the fire itself was beyond its capability to prevent, the ship took efficient action to contain it and the Code Red was soon terminated with all systems reading nominal in a matter of hours.

As there were no more humans on board to be revived or to manually direct its program and purpose, the computer immediately referred to the guidelines left by Weyland Yutani engineers and proceeded to follow the path the EEV had taken. It soon tracked the small vehicle to a world on the edge of explored space. The computer identified the planet and discovered it was indeed inhabited although it considered the situation critical since the facility was labelled a prison colony. Of course, the machinery had no personal feelings or independent thought, merely programming that considered a penal colony to be a high-risk environment. Automatic navigation systems engaged and a course was laid out for Fiorina "Fury" 361.

The trip in real time without the benefit of warp took approximately one year. By the time the ship arrived at the planet and began transmitting its presence to the EEV, there was nothing left of the installation nor any human to realize had they been on board, was abandoned. The ship could not make such distinctions and thus, reverting to its programming instructions once more, it transmitted its signal to Earth to await further instructions.

The instructions never came.

The ship called Sulaco and the computer intelligence guiding it this far could not know on Earth a social upheaval was taking place. Fascist organizations led by Colonel Green and the like had seized control and was going to war with each other. Synthetics became outlawed and eventually, every iota of engineering text about them was summarily destroyed. Artificial intelligence was suddenly considered illegal and had to be eradicated. The fascist were thorough in this respect and four hundred years later, Dr Noonien Soong, the foremost mind in robotics would create a synthetic, though impressive, would still look primitive compared to the artificial persons of the 21st century. Eventually, the factions quarrelled and the launch of nuclear weapons ensured a dark age for the next twenty years. Only after Zefram Cochrane broke the warp barrier, did the course of human history become a little more optimistic.

Of course, the Sulaco knew none of this. It remained in orbit around Fiorina waiting for someone to find her.

It waited for a very long time.

Chapter One: Fragmented

Buck Wilmington was not a happy man.

He had a good reason for his unhappiness, which was in itself a rarity. As the First Officer of the USS Maverick, he was predisposed to display a brave face at all times. During a crisis, the crew and the civilians needed to look to him or the Captain and be assured when all things were done, they would be safe. These days, the task was left to him alone because all was not right on his ship and no matter what he did, he could not alter that fact. Buck moved through the days, stamping out brush fires left by the Captain and his stormy moods Suddenly, the volume of transfer requests had risen beyond normal frequency. While being posted to the Maverick was not exactly being on board the flagship of the fleet, it was still an assignment on the cutting edge of space exploration and those who were here wanted to be.

Until now.

The Senior Staff knew what the problem was of course, even if there was little they could do about it. For weeks now, they had been forced to watch the disintegration, being powerless to stop it and wishing something could be done, which was of course impossible. Chris Larabee was not the kind of person who accepted help easily. Buck, better than all the others knew this, having experienced rejection so many times before. Those who attempted to approach him on the matter soon learnt better than to try and the malaise coming from his disconnection to those around him, soon rippled throughout the ship and cast a pall on the atmosphere of the Maverick's day to day life.

Buck supposed it was hardest on Mary. She loved him even though Buck was certain it was never openly spoken and if Chris continued behaving the way he did, it might never be either. Buck could see the dilemma she faced, trapped between her duty, bound to observe the articles of conduct between officers while at the same time, trying to reach Chris because she loved him. Unfortunately, Chris's attitude had been to shut her out and though it hurt her deeply, Mary showed no outward signs of it. In the meantime, the Captain when he did emerge from his Ready Room, was sporting the filthiest mood Buck had ever seen from the man.

That damn Q! Buck swore under his breath for the hundredth time as he sat at the counter of the bar in Four Corners, lamenting the state of things on board his ship. He sipped his synthehol quietly and alone and tried not to pay attention to the fact the crew noticed his melancholy as prolifically as they had noticed Chris's dark, brooding mood of late. If only Q had not told him the truth. Buck still was not entirely convinced it was, but Chris had snagged onto the idea like a man possessed and now he was a man obsessed. During their encounter with the alien entity a month before, Q who probably thought he was doing something selfless, had revealed to Chris the accident claiming Sarah and Adam's lives, was no accident. Buck was certain Q was wrong because there had been no evidence to support the claim but Chris would hear none of it.

Buck hoped the facts would speak for themselves once Chris looked into the matter but for every ambiguous iota of data he encountered, Chris's believe something evil had taken place became more and more pronounced. He soon locked himself away in his Ready Room when he was not required on the bridge and since they were mapping for the last month, he was not needed all that much. Yeoman Casey Wells informed Buck his reports were backing up and she had taken to writing some of them just so the Captain's administrative duties to Starfleet Headquarters would not be compromised. Efforts by Josiah Sanchez to talk some sense into him failed. Chris was not listening to anyone and in the end, nothing could be done except to withdraw and let the situation continue on its course, no matter how damaging it was to morale.

"Hey." Buck heard a gentle voice precede a shadow falling over him through the soft glow of the ambient lighting in the premises.

He looked up and saw Inez Recillos standing before him, looking thoughtful and a little concerned. Immediately, reverting to type in front of her, he straightened up on his stool and offered her one of those patented Wilmington smiles, oozing with schoolboy mischief.

"Hello there darling, come to keep me company?"

Inez flashed him a little smile, telling him with a look he was not fooling her. When Inez first met Buck Wilmington, she had him pegged as a womanizing little boy who was just as prone to breaking hearts as well as collecting them. It did not take long for her to realise this was not the case at all. He loved women. He adored each one he met and genuinely strove to make them feel better about themselves. With her, she sensed it was more than just that and when her fianc� died at the end of the Dominion War, Buck had been a close friend who tried to help her through it. She saw him in a different light even though she was not ready to take him to her heart as any more than a friend. In caring about him, she also understood his moods and at present, he was not in a very good one. It took no clairvoyance to know what ailed him since the entire ship was aware of it by now.

"Just for a little while," the bartender remarked as she made herself a synthehol through the replicator and joined him. "You look kind of distracted."

"Really?" Buck feigned ignorance. "I thought I was hiding it well."

"Is he still the same?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded, feeling comfortable about talking to Inez about this since she was not in the command structure of the Maverick. "I don't know what to do Inez. Nobody can reach him. He's so focused on this idea Sarah and Adam were murdered he's forgotten everything else. It's almost like it just happened like he just lost them again."

Inez paused, feeling a sliver of pain when she realised how much it hurt to think about losing people. Images of Raphael would inevitably remind her she was suffering the same form of pain the Captain was presently enduring himself. "Maybe that's exactly what it is for him." Inez offered. "It�s one thing knowing your loved ones were taken from you in a random act of fate, but to know someone out there decided to kill them, that changes things a lot."

"I'm not blind to the possibility Inez," Buck returned, having already thought about this from that point of view. "But he has a life now. There are a thousand people on this ship who rely on him. "I've covered as much as I can. Hell the entire senior staff is doing the same but we can't keep going on like this and frankly, I'm worried he's gonna do something he'll regret. He is the best starship Captain I have ever served with and I'm not saying it because he's my friend either, he just is. I don't want to see everything he's worked for in the last few years be thrown away."

"Buck," Inez met his gaze. "What if he is right? What if they were murdered? If it were your family, wouldn't you move heaven and earth to find out who was responsible?"

Buck knew she was right but he did not think he was wrong either, which was what made this entire situation so untenable. In one instance, he wanted Chris to find out who had killed Sarah and Adam if it was indeed murder and on the other hand, he wanted Chris back the way he had been since coming on board the Maverick.

"I don't know what to do Inez," Buck confessed. "I want to help him but I don't know how."

Inez placed her hand on his shoulder and said with a tender expression on her lovely face. "Sometimes, there is no helping a person. Chris has to do this, he has to do this or else he'll never get past their deaths. Perhaps Q was wrong in telling him if it is the truth but I sense part of the reason he found it so easy to believe is because he suspects on some level the possibility may exist."

"I can't imagine who would have wanted to hurt them," Buck stated, giving the subject more credence after hearing Inez put it that way. "She was a school teacher for God's sake. She taught first graders. How could someone make an enemy doing that?"

"What about Chris?"

"Well he was a Commander back then but I didn't know he had any enemies to warrant murder." He answered taking another sip from his glass. "The only thing going on at the time was he was one of two officers being considered for taking up the second seat on the USS Reliant. It was a plum assignment. The Reliant was one of the first ships to be sent through the Bajoran wormhole, long before we discovered the Dominion was there. After the accident, he pulled himself out of the running and that was that."

Inez nodded in understanding. When the Bajoran wormhole was discovered, she heard Raphael talking about it with the same excitement. The possibility of charting an entirely new region of space, without having to suffer the seventy years it took to make the trip to the distant Gamma Quadrant, was tantalising. She wanted to tell Buck about how excited Raphael was about taking the Venture through the wormhole when he was finally assigned there, and how he personally visited several planets in that distant part of space. However, the opportunity did not come because Buck's com badge began thrilling softly.

Instinctively, the first officer tapped the small piece of gold on his uniform. "Wilmington here. What's up?"

"Commander," Alexandra Styles voice transmitted clearly through the air. "We've come across an unidentified vessel directly in our course trajectory."

"I see," Buck answered. "Have you informed the Captain?"

The pause in her answer indicated she had not.

"Its okay," Buck frowned, understanding completely why she had not. The way Chris was these days, interrupting him was a crime equal to mutiny. "I'll do it on my way to the bridge."

With that, he stood up from his stool and gazed at Inez. "Thanks for the talk, Inez." He said genuinely grateful to have been able to voice his concerns and for a moment, shed the responsibility of being First Officer.

"My pleasure," she smiled, hoping it had helped as much as he claimed. She did not entirely believe him despite the fact he wanted her to think otherwise. Buck started to turn away when Inez thought of something and immediately called out.

"Hey, Buck, who did eventually become the First Officer of the Reliant?"

"I think her name was Gaines," Buck called back as he made his way to the bridge. "Ella Gaines."

+ + + + + + +

When she walked through the door, Chris Larabee sensed immediately his behaviour these last weeks was finally going to haunt him. Mary Travis entered the room with a mercurial expression on her face, barely registering him seated behind his desk. Her blue-grey eyes scanned the table top of its contents and raised them just long enough, to tell him with a look the reason for what was about to happen had a great deal to do with what she was observing there. For a moment, she did not speak. They faced each other not as Captain and Protocol Officer but as man and woman, with the chasm that was miles deep being represented by the plasteel desk between them.

For a few minutes, neither spoke but each could feel the distance between them growing deeper and wider with each passing moment. She was summoning up the nerve to speak her mind, telling herself what she decided was for the best even if he protested and the sad part was; she did not think he would because she would be one less problem he had to cope with now. Chris stared at her and remembered how easily she captured his heart the first time he laid eyes upon her and knew whatever happened from this point on, the blame would rest solely upon his shoulders.

"You ask to see me," Chris spoke first, feeling as if they were strangers again.

"Yes," she nodded, seeming more like the Vulcan wife she had been when she first came on board the Maverick. "I am requesting a leave of absence."

"A leave of absence?" He dropped his eyes onto the data pads before his desk, feeling as if he had been punched in the stomach. "Why?"

"Billy's grandparents have been asking me to take him home to Vulcan for a visit," Mary answered, her voice little more than a whisper. "I have decided to do that."

"How long will you be gone?"

"Indefinitely." Her answer was abrupt and rehearsed, Chris was certain.

"I need a definitive timeframe Lieutenant," he retorted, feeling a little angry she was abandoning him. "I need to know how long you will be gone."

"A month," Mary replied tautly. "After that, I'll either resign or return."

"Resign?" This time he did look at her. "Why are you doing this?"

"I am not doing it, Chris," Mary took a step back, her eyes softening to the point where another word from him could physically hurt her. "You are."

"Because I want to find out who killed my wife and son? Are you so petty you would deny me that?"

As soon as he said it, he knew it was a mistake. Her eyes widened long enough for him to understand what a mortal blow he delivered to her heart. He expected tear and angry words but neither came from her as he saw her hands at her sides, knot into fists as she composed herself. Mary took a deep breath and raised her chin, in that proud defiant way only Mary Travis knew how to do and stared directly at him, keeping her tough mask in place as she began to speak. "I am in love with you. You know that, don't you?"

Deflated because he knew he had just done something terrible," Chris nodded. "I know."

"That's something at least," she whispered under her breath before clearing her throat of her anguished emotions. "When you told me about what Q said. I was angry Chris, I was angry they could be taken away from you like that. I was prepared to support you in whatever you wanted to do, no matter where it led. I even understood the pain might make you keep me at a distance for a bit but not like this. You've shut me out, Chris. You won't accept help and you think everyone who tries to reason with you, doesn't give a damn about the truth. We all do and it kills me you think I am being petty or jealous of a memory because I care what happens to you. I love you Chris Larabee but I will not allow you to hurt me."

"Mary..." Chris started to say but the words would not come out. He had to find the truth about Sarah and Adam and he had to find it alone. Nothing else mattered in this world except for that and God help him if it meant he had to sacrifice Mary then so be it. So he remained silent instead of saying what his heart was demanding he revealed to her while there was still time. Instead, he opened his mouth and replied, "leave of absence granted. You may disembark this ship when we return to Deep Space Five."

Mary nodded slowly, feeling her insides crumble because she had just offered him her heart and he had thrown it back in her face. She had hoped for something, anything to show her he still cared. Mary prayed there was something left of their love for each other that could survive this present situation but as Chris delivered his verdict on their relationship and then resumed the study of his data pads, she knew otherwise.

Swallowing thickly, she turned around and quickly went for the door, causing it to slide open just as Buck Wilmington reached it. The First Officer noted how Mary refused to look at him or Chris as she walked past and suddenly the executive officer had a premonition of the worst.

"What did you do?" Buck hissed as he marched up to Chris's table, forgetting all about their professional relationship.

"She wanted a leave of absence." Chris gazed at his friend and answered without hiding anything from him. Buck would find out soon enough anyway. "I gave it to her."

Buck closed his eyes and forced his rage to settle down. "You let her go."

"She didn't want to stay," Chris said gruffly. "I saw no reason to keep her here."

"No reason!" Buck finally exploded, unable to believe Chris could be so obtuse or cruel for that matter. "She's been bleeding at the heart for the last month trying to reach you, you arrogant bastard! All she wanted to do was to help you, to be there while you tried to find out the truth and you've treated her like she was nothing!"

"Commander," Chris warned, taking exception to the tone Buck was using and not caring they had years of friendship between them. He was Captain of this ship and he made his decision, Buck had no right to interfere. "Keep out of it."

"Keep out of it or what?" Buck roared. His rage made him forget Chris was his captain. "Will you kick me off this ship too? Be my fucking guest!"

Buck swung around and stormed towards the door, pausing long enough to add. "By the way, you're needed on the bridge. That is if you still give a damn."

Chapter Two: Transmissions

Ezra had only to see the storm cloud following Buck Wilmington when the First Officer stepped onto the bridge from the Captain�s Ready Room to know Buck�s meeting with Chris had not been well received. The security chief was well aware of the worsening relations Chris Larabee seemed to be fostering with the rest of his crew these days and had so far managed to stay out of the firing line because he refused to give any opinions on the matter. There was enough gossip murmuring through the ship without Ezra's voice being added to the mix. In the commander's opinion, it was unseemly to discuss the Captain's failings even though everyone seemed to be privy to Chris Larabee's mood these days.

Buck, on the other hand, had valiantly defended his Captain and friend to those who were unafraid of pointing out what the senior staff was attempting to conceal, that the Captain was disinterested in his duties, rarely venturing beyond his quarters or Ready Room unless absolutely necessary. Even Vin Tanner's efforts to coax him to the holodeck was met with refusal although the helmsman was smart enough to leave well alone, unlike everyone else excepting Ezra of course who agreed wholeheartedly with Vin�s assessment. Still, Ezra had to force himself not to feel angry when he saw Mary Travis similarly shunned. Of course, he knew what was at the bottom of it but his offer to assist the Captain in his investigation was refused which was a pity Ezra thought because if anyone could find some discrepancy in the records regarding Sarah and Adam Larabee's death, it would be himself.

Buck strode across the bridge and made a beeline for his seat next to the command chair. He was visibly smouldering and both Ezra and Alex exchanged knowing glances, acknowledging the cause of this mood must have been his unsuccessful attempt to garner the Captain's interest in the new situation the Maverick was presently facing. Buck's dark mood immediately dropped a veil of tension over the room and everyone seemed uneasy by what was progressing between the two senior officers. JD kept glancing at Buck, obviously worried but not knowing what to say to the man, or being unable to decide whether or not it was his place to do so.

Mary's absence spoke volumes.

"This can't go on," Alex whispered under her breath loudly enough for only Ezra to hear.

"I know." Ezra frowned. "The situation is not improving. If anything, it is becoming progressively worse."

Alex who was in third in the chain of command seemed to agree but there was little she could do and in truth was unwilling to at this time. He did not envy her position. Ezra knew as untenable as things may appear on the Maverick at the moment, the science officer and lieutenant commander were loyal to both her Captain and her First Officer but Ezra had to wonder just how long it would take before duty won out over friendship. Ezra was worried just as Alex was, both senior officers were focussed so completely on personal issues at the moment it was to the detriment of the Maverick's functioning. As much as Alex may hope Chris might snap out of this malaise infecting the rest of the ship, there was going to come to a point where she would have to address Buck about seriously solving the problem if that did not eventuate.

"Report," Buck asked tautly after a moment of rumination where he calmed down following his scene with Chris. It appeared his disposition was almost a black as Chris's had been lately.

"We've picked up a signal from an unidentified ship," Alex announced, getting to business immediately because Buck did not look like he had much patience for small talk. Unfortunately, it did not look likely to improve when the Ready Room doors slid open and Chris Larabee stepped onto the floor of the bridge. It was the first time in all day anyone had seen the Captain on the bridge but no one dared to make comment on it.

Buck faced front with his eyes fixed on the viewer before him, suddenly becoming interested in the collection of stars on the screen. He left Alex to do the explanations, forcing himself to get his temper under control as Chris approached the Captain's command chair.

"I thought we detected a ship," Chris asked quietly as he settled into his chair.

"It was my mistake," Alex quickly responded. "I meant to tell Buck we detected a signal from an unidentified ship. It was transmitted by carrier wave signal."

"Carrier wave." Chris turned to her sharply; stirrings of interest in something other than his investigation into Sarah and Adam's deaths churned inside him for the first time in weeks. He was always partial to mysteries and this one had rightly inspired some measure of curiosity that detracted from his other concerns. "You mean radio."

"Not exactly Sir," Alex spoke up, encouraged by Chris's inquiry. He was almost monosyllabic about anything concerning the ship of late and this animated response took her a little by surprise. Alex immediately composed her thoughts to deliver a coherent response. "It's a highly refined carrier wave signal with a focussed data stream. It is still considered radio by our standards but for its type, it's extremely sophisticated."

"I thought carrier wave signals went out in the late 21st century with the advent of subspace," Vin remarked from the conn, glad to see Chris was taking an active interest in what was happening. In fact, this was the most involved he had been with anything related to the Maverick since Q's 'gift' to him.

"It was," Buck responded, uncertain whether or not his outburst had anything to do with Chris's behaviour now but chose not to question it too closely. At present, Buck was happy to take what allowances he could. Very quickly, Buck reminded himself until Chris was back to normal; he still had a responsibility to the Maverick even if he was madder than hell at the moment. Buck was a Starfleet officer who should know by now how to shelve his personal feelings when his ship needed him. "But that's not to say that this signal is Terran in origin. It could be another race using the same form of communication."

JD and Alex exchanged quick glances across the floor of the bridge that Chris caught immediately. "What?"

"It's definitely Terran in origin," Alex responded, remembering what she and JD discussed prior to the arrival of both senior officers. "However, judging by the trajectory of the message, it was being sent to Earth, not from it."

This captured both Buck and Chris's attention even more than the notion of a carrier wave signal floating so far out from civilized space. It was Buck who spoke first. "How can that be? We never came out this far."

"That's not entirely true," Chris quickly interjected. "During the period between the Eugenics War and the rise of the Optimum Movement, Earth was more or less in the purview of the Multinationals."

"Multinationals?" JD asked, knowing the dictionary term but not the actual historical reference, much to his embarrassment.

However if Chris noticed his discomfiture or his lack of knowledge, the Captain did not comment and continued with his explanation. "Commercial organisations that financed large-scale space exploration for profit of course."

"I do recall reading some of this," Ezra remarked from his security station. "In the height of their day, the multinational corporations became so powerful they were almost a law unto themselves. Unfortunately as is the case of any person or organization that amasses too much power, it became susceptible to corruption and is largely responsible for the rise of the Optimum Movement and the Third World War."

The Optimum Movement, not unlike the Third Reich of Hitler's Germany had risen to power on the strength of a population thoroughly sick of genetically engineered supermen seizing power, and large corporations holding the almighty dollar in more reverence than human lives. Led by the infamous Colonel Green, the fascist movement spread across the planet and eventually led to the Third World War that would bring Earth to its knees. Only through the united efforts of independent colonies scattered throughout the solar system and Alpha Centauri had Earth managed to survive this conflict to evolve in the future they now enjoyed.

"So you're saying that these Multinationals sent out ships this far?" Vin asked, still rather dubious about space travel to this remote part of space especially without warp technology. The journey had to take years at least.

"Yes, there were mining colonies scattered throughout a large area of the galaxy during the 21st century," Alex explained. "But when the Multinationals began to collapse, cost-cutting meant dismantling many of these outposts and with a war looming, no one wanted to be stranded in the wilderness when what ships available at the time would be engaged in fighting. Its possible the signal we�ve received may have come from a ship of that era."

"What else do you know about the signal?" Chris asked Alex, finding himself more than a little intrigued by what they had stumbled across.

"Well JD is running it through decryption now," Alex replied automatically. "We'll have the content of the message transcribed and then we can make a determination on whether or not we should pursue it."

"Do we know where it came from?" Buck looked at her, just as encouraged by Chris's interest as she, and hoped there was more to this mysterious signal than met the eye. His rage was bleeding away and despite himself, he felt a little hopeful his words might have had some effect on Chris after all.

"I calculate it at about five light years from here," Alex answered. "However, there are no records of any ship or outpost being in this vicinity."

"That doesn't say much," Chris mused, wrapping his mind completely around the puzzle and finding it oddly liberating. "After World War Three, there was not much in the way of accurate records. If there was an outpost this far out, we would never have known."

"That's true." Alex agreed.

"All right," Chris eased back into his chair and allowing himself to be comforted by its welcome embrace. He felt a twinge of guilt at staying away so long and wondered if perhaps Buck was right, that he was being unreasonable. An argument for another time, Chris decided. For the moment, he wished to concentrate on this. "Set a course for the source of the signal."

"Captain is that wise?" Ezra immediately interjected. "We do not know what the signal was intending to convey. It may be a warning or perhaps even a decoy."

"It's a four-hundred-year-old signal Ezra," Buck spoke up quickly, not wanting to break Chris's momentum now it was driven by something other than his personal hunt for Sarah and Adam's killer. "I seriously doubt we're in any danger."

"Buck's right," Chris said tonelessly. "It's a minimum risk venture. Besides, I assume JD will be deciphering the signal soon enough?"

However, JD was more than prepared for the inquiry this time. "Actually Captain, it's ready." The young man beamed proudly.

"Good," Chris threw him a little smile. "Let's hear it."

"Aye Sir," JD said enthusiastically as his fingers flew over the console before him, instructing the ship's computer to carry out the Captain's order.

As they were waiting for the message to play out, Chris leaned towards Buck and whispered loud enough for the First Officer to hear but no one else. "Buck, I'm sorry for how I've been but you have to understand, I do have to do this myself. I know it�s not much of an excuse for my behaviour but it�s the truth. I have to walk the path alone."

Buck swallowed, trying not to let Chris know how the apology was affecting him. Chris rarely made such gestures regarding his behaviour and even though Chris was not ready to let go of his obsession, he was at least willing to concede he was behaving irrationally. Where they went from there was anyone�s guess but at least it was better than nothing.

"I don�t understand Chris but I won�t press the issue. I just want you to remember we�re here for you." Buck was not about to throw away the conciliatory effort his Captain was making towards him and chose not to bring up the issue of Mary Travis at this time. "All you have to do is ask."

"Thanks," Chris threw him a faded smile. "I'll remember that."

"Here it is, Captain," JD announced, snapping them both to the task at hand rather abruptly as they sat up straight in their seats and were greeted by a loud burst of electricity, followed by a rather docile female voice. Her tone was not unlike the voice of the Maverick's own computer with its erudite and polite speech.

"This is the US Space Command Colonial Marine Corps vessel Sulaco to Central Command at Gateway Station, Earth." The sound echoed through the bridge of the Maverick, capturing the attention of all those present. It was like listening to a voice from the past, which in truth it was, a verbal record from a more barbaric age in their history.

"Reporting present ship status as per Emergency Protocol 225.1 of 21st October 2060. Crew has been ejected from cryogenic chamber due to an electrical fire of undetermined cause. Crew roster consists of Corporal D Hicks, United States Colonial Marine, civilian, Ellen Ripley - Special Consultant to the Acheron mission on planet designated LV427, PDT scanned identified female juvenile - Rebecca Jorden and one synthetic - Bishop Model Hyperdyne Systems. Emergency Protocol 125.22 initiated with the danger to cryogenic chamber detected all capsules were transported to Emergency Evacuation Vessel and ejected into space for travel to nearest planet exhibiting Earth type atmosphere. Auto navigation has tracked EEV homing beacon to planet Fiorina "Fury" 361, Class C Prison Unit 1237154. At present, no confirmation signal has been received from this location regarding status of ejected personnel. Initiating Emergency Protocol 1 - maintain position over planet until further instructions are received."

With that, the message from the past halted abruptly, emitting another burst of static signalling the end of the ancient recording. "That�s all there is Sir," JD volunteered. "It repeats every 5.2 seconds and I imagine it has been doing so ever since the original transmission was sent some four hundred years ago."

"And no one ever answered." Vin sighed, revisited by those memories of his childhood when he and his family were marooned on that distant world far from civilised space, sending messages of help that would never be answered until it was too late. In the case of the Sulaco, it was worse than late, it was never.

"Well according to the date, the message was sent in the year 2060, which was a year before the start of the Third World War," Alex explained automatically, accustomed to providing information on such things. "Since this is a carrier wave signal, by the time it reached Earth, the war would have well and truly begun. It was just a freak set of circumstances."

"Fiorina 361," Chris mused a moment before asking out loud to no one in particular, requiring only an answer. "Do we have any information about it on record?"

Despite his desire to return to his personal quest at the moment, Chris could not deny he was tantalised by the thought of unravelling this riddle from the past. In a space of a century, Earth had seen the rise and fall of genetically perfect humans led by Khan Noonien Singh before succumbing to the might of multinational companies like the Weyland Yutani Corporation before self-destructing completely with the advent of the Third World war. It was hard to imagine that out of this carnage would come a new age, an age of peace and exploration, heralded by the launch of a small ship built in a nuclear silo in Colorado. It was perhaps one of the most turbulent centuries in human history with billions dying with each new crisis. Like the rest of his contemporaries, Chris found the idea of such global disintegration unacceptable but could not help be intrigued by the mechanics of the day that allowed it to happen.

Besides, a vessel of the Colonial Marines intact would be a prize to Federation historians. Chris, in particular, was curious to see the thing since he recalled one of his ancestors from the period had served with the organisation. A great, great, cousin or something, he was not entirely sure which but was certainly amongst his father�s papers in storage, there was probably a family tree somewhere which explained the association more clearly.

"There is nothing very detailed," Ezra answered a moment later after consulting the main computer. "Records dating back to that period are fragmentary with so much lost. Fiorina 361 was a penal colony established for double Y chromosome offenders as well as a mining facility. Almost all the prisoners were serving life sentences but according to this, the mine was purchased by the Weyland Yutani Corporation and the prisoners apparently offered to remain at the facility to continue the work, rather than return to the core worlds for reassignment." Ezra paused a moment as he noted an addendum to the report and brought it up on his console before speaking again. "I have some further information but the data records transcribed from the source document was damaged so this is somewhat vague."

"This whole thing is vague," Vin remarked.

"Go on," Chris glanced in Ezra�s direction for the security officer to continue.

"Well according to this, the mine was closed by the Weyland Yutani Corporation in the year 2060, possibly before the Sulaco arrived there. It goes on to say there was an incident that resolved itself, after which the Company simply felt it was no longer feasible to maintain operations. They closed the facility with all personnel returned to the core worlds. All personnel being one prisoner."

Chris swung around in his command chair and stared at Ezra. "One prisoner? They closed down the facility and had to only transport one prisoner?"

"That is what it says." Ezra was just as perplexed.

"How many were there, to begin with?" Buck asked.

"More than one I�m sure," Alex declared.

"I cannot say," Ezra confessed after a few seconds of unsuccessful wrestling with the computer to produce the information. "There was too much sector damage in the source document to yield that data."

"Curiouser and curiouser," Chris replied thoughtfully. After a moment he rose to his feet and announced. "Take us to Warp 8 Vin. We might as well see where this trail of breadcrumbs leads."

"Aye Sir," Vin said more than happy to oblige because Chris was starting to sound remotely normal in comparison to what he had been these past few weeks and the helmsman was bored to tears with the tedium of star mapping. The possibility of unravelling a little mystery was a morale booster as far as he was concerned and perhaps, it might just distract Chris long enough for the man to forget his troubles. Unlike the rest of the crew, Vin was not inclined to force his help upon Chris Larabee. He was perceptive enough to know those who offered it was more than likely to have their head bitten off. If there was one thing Vin Tanner knew about Chris Larabee, the man was fiercely private, even to the point of obstinacy.

While the main body of the Maverick�s crew was unaware of what was occupying their Captain�s thoughts of late, the senior staff knew otherwise. Vin could not blame Chris for being so determined to learn the truth about his wife and son�s death. If it were Vin, he did not think he would have behaved any differently. Although the rest of the senior staff was determined to help Chris through this difficult period, Vin was firm of the belief any gesture made in this regard would be viewed as nothing but interference. It was not to say Vin had sat by and done nothing in the meantime. He tried to give Chris a break from his quest by urging him to the holodeck and provided an ear to listen whenever the Captain felt deign to talk about the subject, which was not often.

The only thing Vin did find objectionable was his behaviour towards Mary Travis but unfortunately, it was a subject almost as capable of provoking a volatile response as advising Chris his desire to learn the truth about his family was bordering on obsession if it had not passed that point already. However, at present, Vin hoped their present situation with this mysterious message from the past was enough to offer the Captain some respite from his private troubles.

Besides, who could say no to a riddle?

+ + + + + + +

"I take it things did not go well with Chris." Josiah Sanchez asked of Mary Travis when he sighted her in Four Corners at the same time the Maverick was altering course on a heading towards Fiorina "Fury" 361.

"It did not," Mary said stiffly, not wishing to talk to the Counselor about this but finding no way of leaving the table without seeming rude. It was not that she was averse to seeking his advice; it was just there seemed no solution to her current predicament. She had thrown down a gauntlet before Chris thinking he would see reason. Mary had hoped if he saw she was serious enough to leave, he might be prepared to discuss the matter but instead, he had done what she had prayed he would not do. He called her bluff and she had no choice but to go or lose his respect entirely.

"What happened?" The Counselor said taking a seat at her table even though he was not invited. However, she was clearly distressed and Josiah could tell she was barely managing to keep the tears from coming. He could not fathom why she was here and not in the privacy of her quarters were such disappointments were best endured.

"I told him I was leaving," Mary said softly, feeling another lump form in her throat and quickly picked up her glass of synthehol to take a large sip in order to force it away.

Bad idea. Josiah thought automatically even before the words left her lips. Chris was not someone who received such ultimatums well and he could just imagine how the Captain would have responded. Still, Mary had a valid reason for what she had done and Josiah only wished it could have gone better for her. Unfortunately, no one was able to reach Chris in the place he had driven himself. Josiah knew if the Captain continued with this behaviour there would come a point where as ship�s Counselor he would be forced to act. To say Chris had been less than cooperative so far would be an understatement. The idea of his wife and child being murdered had become Chris Larabee�s Holy Grail and Josiah feared he might abandon everything else in his life, including Mary Travis, to pursue it.

"He granted me the leave of absence." She replied bitterly, her eyes welling up with tears but Mary managed to hold it in.

"I�m sorry Mary." Josiah started to say. Counsellor or not, there were no words to ease her pain and he was not going to reach into his bag of professional tricks to make the attempt. She was more than just a crewmate, she was his friend.

"I�ve no one to blame except myself," she sat up in her chair and raised her chin in an effort to be brave about this. "I pushed and he reacted."

"That is true," Josiah conceded that point. "But you ought to remember you were driven to this course of action because of his behaviour as well. You are not alone in being at fault if I�d call it that at all."

"I try telling myself that but I keep thinking of what he must be going through despite the fact that he�s shut me out and I can�t entirely blame him. If I found out Syan was taken from me by murder, I can�t say I would be as reasonable. I would probably do the exact thing he is doing. Unfortunately, its empathy that has come too late."

"Mary," Josiah frowned, not at all believing what was done was as irrevocable as that. Chris did love Mary, there was no doubt in Josiah�s mind about this, but at this time the Captain was in a place where the present had very little impact on him, not until this haze he was currently experiencing relinquished its hold upon him. Only then would he take stock of what he was doing and most likely regret it. "I don�t think Chris will think of you any less if you chose not to go."

"I would think less of me," Mary said firmly. "Call it pride but I can�t go back on my decision to leave, even for a month." She paused a moment and resumed speaking, her voice a little less steady than it had been when she made her defiant statement. "The only problem is, I just can�t bring myself to go to my quarters because I�ll just keep thinking I have to pack."

Josiah felt the same pang of sorrow as she said those words and wondered what it would take for both of them to lower their pride. Whatever it was, he hoped they discovered it before it was too late for either of them.

Chapter Three: Sulaco

Although the source of the transmission was not far away, owing to the limitations of carrier wave communication, it was still a good hour before the Maverick would arrive at the present location of the vessel called Sulaco. Chris retired to his Ready Room once again, more than aware at the disappointment being displayed by his senior bridge officers who had for an instant, though he had forgotten the quest which had fractured their close-knit group. Chris was not blind to what was going on. He was not so arrogant he could not see he was pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in a Captain.

That still did not mean he would stop.

The question of whether or not Sarah and Adam met their demise naturally plagued him constantly since he had learned otherwise. He wanted to believe what the others were telling him; Q was playing tricks with him and even now, enjoying his torment and anguish with glee. However, Chris knew it was not a trick. When the entity imparted the knowledge to him, Q believed it to be an act of kindness, not scorn. Chris too felt it in his bones, the more he read the reports over and over again, someone was responsible for taking his family away from him. The very idea that someone was still out there at large, with no sign of retribution for their horrific act made Chris sick to his stomach and he refused to accept it as something that could be allowed to continue.

No, whatever the cost, he would pay it to learn the truth. If it meant sacrificing everything, then it was a price Chris would gladly pay because the taste of revenge was in his mouth, he craved for it and dreamed about it at night and until he had someone upon whom to focus that fury, he would go on. He would be relentless. Until he resolved this need, he could not continue as he had. His waking moments were spent wondering why? Why would anyone wish to hurt them? The only conclusion he had come to was, it must have had something to do with him because Sarah had never harmed anyone in her life. Chris, on the other hand, was a Starfleet officer and though it was unlikely, he knew it was possible for him to make enemies. When one was on a ship facing perils on a regular basis, the instinct for survival created attrition and who knows, he might have come away from a mission earning someone's enmity.

Perhaps what drove him so, was knowing they had died because of something he did.

The door to his Ready Room trilled softly, snapping him out of his tortured thoughts and reminding him there were still people who were deeply concerned about him, even if he did not want to face them. To face them would be to acknowledge his behaviour and if he started to waver in his single-minded purpose to find out the truth, then it was all over. Chris sighed and took a deep breath, wondering if he wanted to see anyone right now and supposed he could not hide in here forever.

"Come in." He called out reluctantly.

The door slid open and Chris cringed inwardly when he saw Josiah walking into the room. Next to Buck, the Counselor was the only person on board who would not take no for an answer and in truth; Josiah had the authority behind him to force Chris to talk if he felt it was necessary. The mental health of a Captain gave Josiah some rather extraordinary powers over him, as far as Starfleet was concerned. The Counselor�s eyes narrowed as he approached the desk and though it was subtle, Chris could tell he was examining everything in the room closely, including his captain.

"Chris." He said simply and sat down.

He was not happy, Chris thought silently. Whenever Josiah was reduced to single word sentences, it usually meant the Counselor was not impressed and Chris supposed with his behaviour lately, it was probably not unjustified.

"Mary is leaving." Josiah sat upon sitting down in front of his desk.

So that was it. Mary was a subject Chris was unprepared to discuss under any circumstances but admitted begrudgingly that Josiah would not go away even if Chris ordered him too. Still, he did not wish to resort to that if he could help it because he had behaved badly towards Mary and Chris knew how close Josiah and the protocol officer were. It did not surprise Chris, Josiah would be here to champion Mary's cause, for all the good it would do.

"I know." He said coolly, rubbing the day�s growth of stubble on his chin as he eased back into his chair. "She asked for a leave of absence."

"Only because you forced her to it."

"This is none of your business Josiah."

"Your state of mind is my business Chris," Josiah returned promptly. The Counselor had told himself all the way up here he would not push too hard. Unfortunately, upon entering the room and seeing Chris unshaven, with circles under his eyes indicating he had not had much in the way of sleep, his desk covered with data pads containing a litany of information regarding the accident, Josiah knew he was not going to keep that promise. "Captain, your behaviour is affecting ship�s morale. The crew hasn�t seen you in weeks and when they do see you, you�re hardly in a state to be considered amicable. I think this situation is past the point where it can be allowed to continue. We need to talk about it."

"No we don�t," Chris replied, starting to get angry. "The crew is just fine. That�s why I have a senior staff, so they can take care of things. If the crew has difficulties with morale than it is your job to deal with it. Leave the ship to me."

"Chris, let us help you," Josiah responded, almost pleading. "It's killing your friends to see you this way. Don�t you know that? Why do you think Mary is going? It was a desperate act to get your attention, to show you she was willing to risk losing you to reach you." Josiah wished he did not have to plead Mary�s case in this way but he refused to let pride from either of them destroy what they had together. It was too good to be discarded so carelessly.

"I know that." Chris sighed, conceding that point. In truth, he knew he was guilty of a great deal and his friends were reacting in inverse proportion to his behaviour. "But I think its best she go."

Josiah stared at Chris in shock, unable to believe he actually said that. "She is the best thing that�s happened to you in recent years, you know that don�t you?"

"I do," Chris nodded somberly. "But if she stays, she�s going to get hurt and I don�t want to hurt her."

"You�ve already done that Chris," the Counselor retorted. "Don�t you understand? You�ve already hurt her."

"I don�t want her to hate me as well." He whispered softly, finally revealing what he feared the most, even more than losing Mary. He felt like a man driving towards a cliff, seeing the edge coming straight for him and though he had the power to veer away from the disaster and the dying that followed, he was mesmerised by the journey. Chris felt that way with Mary and his quest and knew what was coming even if he did not wish it so. Everyone assumed he had a choice in the matter when in truth he was as much the victim in this as Sarah and Adam. He just did not have the misfortune of dying with them.

"Then pull back," Josiah implored. "Pull back or the very least, let us help you. We�re watching you spiral away from us towards self-destruction and we can�t help you because you won�t accept it."

"I have to do this alone," Chris repeated himself, feeling like a man grasping at straws only to find they were made out of smoke. He had no reason to shut the others out but this had affected him on such a deeply personal level Chris did not think there was anyone on board who could possibly understand or comprehend for that matter, what he was going through.

"Why?" Josiah demanded, refusing to let it go even though it was wiser if he did. "Why can�t you let us help you?"

"Because I have to!" He snapped. "For all those years, I never thought there could be another possibility!" Chris glared at Josiah wondering whether or not the man could ever know what it felt like to be so blind. "I should have known Josiah! I should have suspected something! All this time, I let their murderer go unavenged! I never even suspected there could have been a murderer! What kind of fool lets that happen?"

"You�re human Chris!" Josiah exclaimed with anguished exasperation, unable to fathom how Chris could blame himself for something like this. "You were grieving for a wife and a son! You could not have been expected to notice every detail to suspect there might have been some form of foul play! You have no reason to be guilty!"

"But I am!" Chris returned. "That�s the truth of it! That�s the thing that keeps me awake at night. If I could miss that, what else may I let slip by me in the future? I�m a starship captain for Christ sakes! I can�t be that lapsed!"

"You have never lapsed." The Counsellor responded, finally understanding the real extent of the problem. "You have been commander of this ship for quite some time now and you know yourself and your competence by the fact everyone on this ship is willing to die for you if asked!"

"Until it happens again!" Chris pointed out, not prepared to be deterred so easily. He had to find out the truth himself, he had to sift through the vague clues and the possibilities to find out the truth or he would never be able to be completely sure about himself again.

Unless he could do that, Chris Larabee could never be sure of anything.

Josiah was about to offer Chris�s argument a strong rebuttal when suddenly Buck Wilmington�s voice unknowingly interrupted their heated debate.

"Captain," the first officer's voice spoke through his combadge. "We�re approaching Fury 361. We are coming into visual range of the planet."

Chris tapped his com badge, relieved Buck had provided him with a graceful way of exiting this discussion before things escalated or in this case, deteriorated much further. It was not lost upon him he seemed to be bringing out the worse in everyone lately. "Maintain approach," Chris said abruptly, not looking at Josiah as he spoke. "I'm on my way."

"Aye Sir," Buck response preceded the end of their communication.

Chris glanced at Josiah who was appeared by no means ready to let the matter go but had no choice but to do so in light of the developing situation with the Sulaco.

"We'll talk later," Chris replied, feeling a little guilty at the way things stood between them.

Josiah nodded and stated firmly. "Count on it."

+ + + + + + +

When Chris stepped onto the bridge, the first thing that caught his eyes was the view screen.

Amidst the stars in the black canvas of space was the planet Fiorina 'Fury' 361. As worlds went, it was hardly impressive with a watered down colour of sulphur yellow that appeared duller when it ought to have been vibrant. There was nothing redeeming about it and Chris could not help think it was a most appropriate place to forget about a group of prisoners. Fiorina seemed to radiate its colourless glow into the surrounding space, quashing vibrant indigo blues into lusterless amber. However, as if placed to redeem the planet's less than spectacular first impression on visitors, the Sulaco suddenly sailed into view.

She was a huge ship. Even by the standards of the 24th century, her size was impressive. Devoid of the sleek lines and artistic design of her contemporaries, it was impossible not to look at the Sulaco and think she was built for anything but combat. Thick titanium strength plates covered the hull. The metal gleaming under the light of the nearby sun from which Fiorina drew its life. Appearing like an extended piece of metal with a jagged mouth, there was only darkness emanating from the few portals constructed in the ship's design. This was not a ship built with aesthetics in mind, she was made to last. In her day, she was expected to carry sleepers to the furthest reaches of space, sleepers who were trained to do a job, not like the members of the Maverick, sleepers who when awoke would not be overly concerned about comfort or luxury.

It was fully intact. Four hundred years had done nothing to injure the vessel. In space, degradation was difficult when there was no atmosphere to allow it. The Sulaco may have to be been silent and dark but she appeared just as vital as she had been the last time she left Earth for parts unknown. Large fusion generators kicked in periodically to allow the vessel to maintain its orbit. The computers on board had been left to run in a continuous loop and meant it was still waiting for its instructions to come from High Command at the non-existent Gateway Station on Earth.

"She's a museum piece." Chris heard Chief Engineer Julia Pemberton comment softly. No doubt, she was asked to the bridge in order to give her expert evaluation from this visual sighting of the ship. Whatever the reason, the Sulaco definitely met with her approval for Chris could see her emerald eyes vibrant with awe as she stared at the viewscreen, taking every inch of the ship into her consciousness. "A perfect Colonial Marine Transport Carrier. I've seen pictures of these in the historical records but they don't do her justice." Julia smiled, her eyes gleaming with the anticipation of getting on board, Chris was certain.

"She has survived the centuries rather well," Ezra remarked but he was not as enamoured by the ship. If anything, he had a terrible sense of foreboding as he saw the ghost ship and had a premonition in the labyrinthian walls meandering through its innards, there were dark stories to tell, especially of the crew now long gone. "However, I suggest a full sensor scan and sweep prior to making any attempt at boarding."

"Good idea." Buck agreed readily. The first officer was just as fascinated by the ancient relic but he was not about to risk going on board until they had more information. "Have you pinpointed the source of the transmission?" He asked, looking at JD when he voiced the question.

"Yes," JD answered as his nimble fingers flew across the console screen of his station. "As we suspected, its an automated signal being sent on an infinite loop until given a corresponding transmission that will tell it to stop. Not unlike a distress beacon."

"So in theory," Vin spoke up. "If we find the proper authorization codes, we should be able to get the vessel to transmit the contents of its data banks and find out what the hell she's doing here."

"More or less," Chris nodded. "Unfortunately, I doubt we're going to get that lucky. During the Third World War, a lot of military installations were destroyed. If the records for a specific frequency did exist, it would be long gone by now."

"So no matter how it goes," Julia spoke up with more than a hint of eagerness in her voice. "Someone is going to have to go down there."

"Just hold your horses," Buck gave her a look. "We have no idea what is on that ship. We don't even know why the crew had to be ejected."

"I thought you said it was a fire," Julia replied, disappointed by the counterpoint because she really did want to examine the Sulaco closely. It was the find of a lifetime, not to mention a tremendous opportunity to touch a piece of history.

"We know a fire was started," Alex explained. "We don't know why. Fires just don't start on ships, especially ones with passengers cryogenically frozen at the time. I seriously doubt it was spontaneous combustion."

"I seriously doubt they'd still be around though," Julia retorted, not about to abandon the idea of going on board such a prize.

"And why not?" Buck looked at her. "We've come across floating pieces of crystal that appear to be harmless only to have them turn out to be the receptacle for some form of alien consciousness that almost destroyed the Maverick. Now that," Buck glanced at the screen, "is no doubt a fascinating piece of history but until we find out a little bit more about it, we're going to do this by the book. Right, Captain?" Buck turned to Chris, wishing his support on this point.

"Yes," Chris nodded, his gaze still fixed on the vessel. "But conditionally."

"Conditionally?" Ezra exclaimed before Buck could. However, it was just as well he did. The first officer seemed unimpressed Chris had only partially supported what was in Ezra's opinion, a cautious approach to their problem.

"Conditionally," Chris turned away from the screen and stared at both Buck and Ezra. Once again, the tension levels on the bridge started rising steadily, like steam from boiling water. "First of all, Lieutenant Pemberton is correct. That ship has been there for a long time if anything is waiting for us, it's either dead or really, really bored. However," he added giving Julia a quick glance."That does not mean that we're going to ride in there like a bunch of cowboys either. Ezra, I want a full sensor sweep of that vessel before I even consider letting anyone on board."

"Yes, Sir." Ezra nodded, deciding that was a compromise he could live with.

"Alex, I want you to work with JD and see if you can't find some way to get that ship to transmit its log. I'd rather know what we'd be facing before we board her."

"Board her?" Buck stared at Chris.

"You heard me," Chris said abruptly, retreating to his command chair. He placed himself in it before regarding his bridge crew once more. "In two hours, I expect to have these answers because, in two hours, I intend to be on that ship. One way or another. Is that understood?" He stated, challenging anyone present to say otherwise.

Deciding this was one argument he was not going to win, Buck kept his thoughts to himself and responded. "Yes, Sir."

"Hey Chris," Vin quickly made himself heard, sensing things were quickly coming to a head between the two senior officers and thus felt a change of topic was required. "You up for some company when you go over there?"

Chris let a small smile cross his lips. "You wouldn't be trying to babysit me would you Vin?" The Captain gave the helmsman a look.

"Sure I am," Vin said unprepared to lie about it. "Don't you know I'm after Ezra's job?" The helmsman looked over his shoulder at Ezra with a glint of mischief in his cobalt coloured eyes.

He hoped Ezra understood he was attempting to diffuse the situation between Buck and Chris and would play along with his attempts to make the atmosphere on the bridge a little friendlier. Like the rest of the senior staff, he was not happy at the relationships Chris was demolishing with those close to him. While he had so far been spared that, Vin knew the only reason Chris had not been so difficult with him was because Vin had chosen not to involve himself in what Chris believed to be his personal business. Despite himself, the Vulcan could not help but wonder whether or not he was respecting the Captain's wishes or was he merely being a coward. Whatever the reason, he was through sitting by and watching things get even worse than they already were.

"I am not a babysitter," Ezra remarked with a hint of offence. "I am a security officer. A highly trained expert in tactical and strategic defence."

"Wasn't it you who had to go find that gerbil lost in conduit 32?"

The look Ezra gave Vin spoke volumes.

"Very funny." Ezra recouped enough a moment later to return just as smoothly. "Yes, and I was glad you were able to sleep well once you had him back again."

A small titter of laughter rippled through the bridge and for a brief time, it felt like old times again, when everyone was not so much at odds with each other.

"Captain," Alex spoke up. "I've just done a preliminary sweep of the planet."

"And?" Chris turned around in his chair to give her an expectant look of demand.

"It appears there is some form of ionic dispersion in the upper atmosphere." She replied with a frown on her face as her fingers flew over her console panel and attempted to work the problem. "It's highly disruptive to all energy forms. My scans are bouncing off it and being reflected back as static."

"Is it natural?" Buck asked, not liking the possible difficulties that were rearing its head over such a phenomenon.

"It appears so." Alex nodded.

"Oh hell," Julia swore under her breath. "Does that mean what I think it does?" She stared at Alex for confirmation. Unfortunately, she was an engineer and she knew more about aberrant dispersions fields better than Alex herself and knew what was coming next.

"I'm afraid so." The science officer nodded and turned to Chris. "We're not going to be able to use the transporters or tell if anything is alive down there."

Chapter Four: Ghost Ship

Despite the less than encouraging news about the atmospheric properties of Fiorina �Fury� 361, Chris was still determined to board the Sulaco in two hours. Ezra�s sensor sweep of the ship gave him little reason for pause. The results of the detailed examination seemed to indicate the Sulaco was exactly what she appeared on first sight; a ghost ship. Still, Chris could tell the security chief was not at all happy about permitting his Captain to traverse what Ezra considered an unknown. Fortunately, as far as Chris was concerned, the decision was not Ezra�s to make. It was his.

Even though the Sulaco had remained in its own kind of suspended animation, trapped in orbit around Fiorina, the ship was not as dormant as it appeared. While all shipboard functions were deactivated, a few primary systems were left in operation by the mechanical intelligence keeping the ship intact so far. The autonomous systems were kept alive by way of backup programming, allowing them to draw minimum power from the old style fusion generators powering the ships of the 21st century. According to Julia, the fusion generators with its inexhaustible energy supplies could have kept the Sulaco in place for another four hundred years if they had not happened across the weak signal it was attempting to transmit to Earth.

Unfortunately, Alex and JD were unable to download the contents of the ship�s data banks for fear the data could be lost in transit without the proper authorisation codes. As suspected, the records for such codes had not survived the Third World War. Still, all was not lost. While they could not effect a download from ship to ship, Julia saw no reason why a portable tricorder could not do the same in a direct interface with the Sulaco�s computer system. In the meantime, Julia managed to trigger the life support systems on board the ship and so by the time the Away Team finally transported to the derelict vehicle, there would be sufficient atmosphere to sustain them for the duration of their visit.

Chris could not understand why he felt this need to immerse himself in the mystery of the Sulaco but guessed after careful reflection it probably had to do with the problems he was facing in his personal life at the moment. Perhaps a temporary distraction was what he needed to regain his focus and get a fresh perspective on his ongoing investigation into Sarah and Adam�s death. Lord knows he was not making much progress now because those data pads had brought him quite conclusively to a brick wall he could not get past, despite devoting considerable time and energy to the endeavour.

For the moment anyway, Chris wanted a problem he could solve.

"Sure I can�t talk you out of this?" Buck asked as Chris, Julia, Ezra, Alex and Vin prepared to transport to the Sulaco once all the precautions, at least the ones able to be taken in the meagre amount of time Chris gave them before his intended time of departure. Although everything about the Sulaco indicated there was no danger to the personnel about to board the ghost ship, Buck could not shake this feeling they were walking unprepared into a possibly hazardous situation. It was part of the reason he opted to remain on the Maverick, just in case something did go wrong, he would be able to utilise the resources of the ship to retrieve his crewmates.

"Isn�t it enough you�ve got both Ezra and Alex coming along to nursemaid me?" Chris retorted, impatience oozing from every word.

Buck tensed, aware Chris was being antagonistic but reminded himself Chris was his friend and Captain, even if the man was being an unmitigated pain at the moment. Besides, Buck was certain Chris�s annoyance had much to do with the fact on some level, he knew Buck was right to take precautions prior to boarding an unknown.

"You�re the Captain of this ship," Buck said evenly, struggling to keep his good-natured disposition in check. "I would not be doing my job if I let you go into a questionable situation without taking adequate safety precautions. Alex is the science officer, next to Julia, she�s probably the most qualified person to go on this mission."

"And the fact Alex has some security training has nothing to do with it?" Chris looked at Buck sceptically.

"None whatsoever." Buck lied through his teeth.

Chris gave him a look that spoke volumes regarding his disbelief and stepped onto the transporter pad where the rest of his crew were waiting for him. Buck said nothing as he drew away and Chris knew Buck was seething under the skin. A twinge of guilt ran through him as he saw Buck turning to Rain in order to give them the signal to transport to the Sulaco. He knew inwardly everything Buck demanded of him since he had made the choice to go on board the ship himself was not at all unreasonable. It was the duty of the First Officer to safeguard the Captain�s life, even if that same Captain was behaving contrary to good sense.

Wisely, the others on the transporter pad with him, chose to feign ignorance at the exchange between Chris and Buck, busying themselves with the trivialities necessary to an Away Mission. No one wanted to meet his gaze except Vin and the Vulcan did not look at him reproachfully. This was hardly surprising of course. From the onset of all this, Vin was the only person on board who did not feel it necessary to tell Chris what he ought to be doing and who he was neglecting. Vin did not inundate him with advice and for that Chris was grateful. He wished everyone else would follow Vin�s lead. At the moment, however, the senior staff accompanying him to the Sulaco were busy carrying out last minute preparations for the transport to the old Earth ship.

Ezra was examining the phaser rifle in his grip, ensuring it was primed and ready for use if the situation arose. While Chris considered the rifle to be rather excessive for a simple exploratory mission, Ezra would not be deterred and Chris finally conceded the point, since Ezra�s nose for trouble was most often accurate. Chris may have been eager to see the inside of the Sulaco but he still had the presence of mind to put the safety of his people beforehand and allowed the compromise. He himself was armed with a hand phaser as were all the others with him. Julia and Alex both had tricorders and he could tell the Engineer was eager to go. Alex however, like Ezra seemed tense.

"Are we ready?" Chris asked no one in particular but received a chorus of responses to the affirmative. Receiving the answers he wanted, he raised his eye to Buck who seemed clearly troubled. Once again, Chris was visited by feelings of regret at the relationship between them of late.

"Hey Buck," Chris said in a conciliatory effort he hoped his old friend understood. "I�ll be careful."

Buck�s eyes widened enough to show his surprise at the sudden gesture and for the first time in days, the First Officer managed to crack that familiar smile saying all was forgiven even if not forgotten. "I�ll hold you to that Captain."

"You can count on it." Chris smiled back and for a moment, the last few weeks seemed to disappear. Chris could see the old friend who had stood by and made sure he had not gone to pieces when he had first lost his family, who was riding out the storm with him, this time around as well, no matter how much he may not wish the company. Whatever he might say to Buck to provoke him, Chris could always count on the fact Buck would always be there to watch his back and to ensure he never gave up on anything, even himself. It was a good feeling.

Delaying no more with such introspective thoughts, Chris decided it was time to go and gave the order to transport.


+ + + + + + +

The first thing Chris was aware of when he materialised on the deck of the Sulaco�s main hangar bay was it was cold.

This, of course, was hardly surprising since the ship had been devoid of warmth for the past four hundred years it had awaited discovery. While its life support systems were fully operational, it would take some time before the environment on board became completely comfortable for its human visitors. After all, warming up four centuries of cold was not a task that could be accomplished immediately, especially with the limitations of the technology at hand. The iciness, however, did serve to remind them they arrived at their destination intact, even if the pinch of cold on their skin was far from pleasant.

Internal sensors detecting movement in the area immediately kicked into action, programmed centuries before by engineers who were long dead, to respond to the stimulus provided by human beings. Lights flooded the hangar bay, illuminating every corner of the wide deck. When they had seen the Sulaco from the bridge of the Maverick, they were ready to concede the transport carrier was a large ship even by modern standards. However, nowhere was that scale more apparent than from the interior of the hangar bay that made their shuttle bay look cramp in comparison.

They materialised just before the main hangar doors, a massive construct forged of solid titanium and would give any craft entering without authorisation good reason to regret it. It did not take them long to realise the reason for the doors was the dark grey ship hanging suspended above the deck by large clamps on a mobile conveyor. The end of the journey when the small craft was being transported was another set of doors at the far end of the deck, only these were on the floor and large enough to allow the vessel to pass through if those clamps were released.

"Something happened here," Chris said first, breaking the silence.

"I see it." Ezra nodded in agreement. The security officer was studying the surrounding area almost as deeply as Chris.

Four hundred years ago, something happened inside this hangar. The way objects were being strewn across the floor and this included everything from small tools to large crates, seemed to indicate as much. There ought to have been two dropships but one only occupied the docking clamps. Large gaping holes appeared in the floor where floor plates should have been, exposing maintenance conduits and electrical access tunnels. There was a pattern to the disarray however, it seemed to be reaching or surrounding the airlock doors.

"Someone decompressed the hangar," Chris stated after a moment.

"Why?" Julia mused.

"I don�t know," Chris responded, his voice tensing considerably as he let his gaze sweep across the space to see if there were any more clues to lead them to understand what had taken place here. Suddenly, the need for answers became more urgent and Chris wondered if Buck had not been right after all, that coming here without all the facts was perhaps erring on the side of caution. "Alex, you and Julia go find the bridge. We need that log."

"Yes Sir," Alex nodded and glanced at Julia to follow. Despite the possibility of danger, Julia was still enthusiastic about taking a tour of the ship and Chris hoped her eagerness did not translate into recklessness that might allow her to miss something important. Fortunately, with Alex in her company, Chris could be assured of one of them maintaining an objective view of their situation. They progressed across the steel floor, sidestepping the fallout from the decompression of the landing bay before finally disappearing out a set of smaller doors at the far end of the bay. Chris watched them long enough to see it emptied into a lit corridor. He guessed very soon the computer intelligence running the ship would make the entire vessel hospitable to its human passengers.

Once they were gone, Chris tapped his com badge. "Larabee to Maverick."

"Chris." Buck�s voice filled the room a second later. "What�s your status?"

"We�re here and we�re fine for the moment. However, there have been signs of some sort of trouble on board."

"What kind of trouble?" Buck�s voice became hard with that one question.

"We haven�t determined that yet," Chris asked as he saw Vin and Ezra spreading out to examine their surroundings a little more closely. "But for some reason, the crew found it necessary to decompress the landing bay. Judging by the debris scattered around the place, rather suddenly too."

"Perhaps you should get back here.� Buck responded automatically, with more than a hint of concern in his voice.

"No," Chris shook his head in response but he was more considerate of Buck�s concerns now. "However, maintain a transporter lock on all of us until I say otherwise. If something goes wrong, I want a quick way out. Understood?"

"Yes Sir," Buck replied. "Mind keeping an open channel?"

"Sure," Chris answered, feeling that to be a sensible course of action as well. "I�m not taking any chances until I know what happened here."

"Thank you, Captain," Buck said gratefully, glad Chris was finally seeing some sense.

Chris took note of what Ezra and Vin were doing and saw the Vulcan making a beeline towards the dropship. Somehow, this did not surprise the Captain in the least. The helmsman�s eyes had lit up the moment he cast his gaze on the armoured carrier and Chris could tell the young man was itching to get a closer look at the vintage piece of machinery. Vin had a fascination for all types of flying vessels, the older the better. One of his hobbies was building them as models and Chris supposed a dropship from the 21st century certainly counted as something of a find for a connoisseur.

However, Chris was more interested in what Ezra was doing at this time and crossed the floor to join the security chief who was kneeling down on the floor of the landing deck, focusing on a section of floor with intense scrutiny. If there was one thing Chris knew never to do, no matter how obstinate he may get about his personal demons, he knew never to underestimate Ezra Standish�s skills as an investigator. If he were not so hell-bent on solving this problem of Sarah and Adam on his own, he might have even employed the security chief for that very purpose. Perhaps what made him such an exceptional card player as well as his ability to see through the obvious, finding clues in the subtle and often obscure.

"What have you found Ezra?" Chris asked as he reached the security chief who was running a tricorder over what he had found. From experience, Chris knew Ezra only used the tricorder to confirm his own visual findings. He remembered the man once said too much technology was a hindrance to an investigator, certain things were best deduced by leaps of logic.

"Acid burns," Ezra answered automatically, not looking up at Chris when he answered. His fingers were tracing the sides of the corroded niche in the metal floor. As Chris turned his attention to it, he could see why Ezra was so interested. It was a good three inches in depth and though time had cooled the metal where it had been eaten away, there was no doubt the reaction had been extremely severe.

"Acid did this?" Chris said with a hint of surprise. The section of the floor where the corrosion had taken place was made of solid steel, it had to be because it was the landing bay where the Sulaco�s dropship had to set down. These days, it would require a phaser to burn through like this.

"Unlike the kind of any I have ever seen before. It is easily the most corrosive variety in existence. It is almost like raw plasma." Ezra remarked. "I have scanned the area for any kind of residual traces there may be left and it appears to be some form of molecular acid with a more than likely biological source."

"Are you telling me this acid came from some kind of a life form?" Chris exclaimed, unable to imagine what kind of creature would have acid as a part of its biological secretions. "That�s not possible. No carbon-based life form can produce molecular acid."

"Assuming, of course, we are dealing with a carbon-based life form." Ezra returned promptly.

"Silicon-based?" Chris looked at his security chief, venturing a guess. The universal standard for the basis of all life was usually carbon although, on rare occasions, nature felt the need to throw a curve ball at them by putting forward a creature whose basic matrix was not composed of carbon but some other material. Silicon-based creatures were known to exist by way of the Hortas, discovered in a mining facility by the USS Enterprise under the command of James Kirk. Later on, Jean Luc Picard discovered the same thing, when a life form composed of what appeared to be phosphorous almost took over the Enterprise D.

"Possibly," Ezra remarked taking a long look of the hangar bay and suddenly realising in a flash of insight what transpired here on the basis of the evidence before him. Ezra was still staring at the airlock, a terrible suspicion forming in his mind, becoming solid the more and more he thought about it. When he turned to Chris, his expression became very still before the words left him.

"What concerns me, Captain is why someone found it necessary to blow it out of the airlock."

+ + + + + + +

Such questions did not concern either Julia Pemberton or Alexandra Styles at first because the task they were asked to undertake was simple enough. The technical schematics on the transport carriers employed during the 21st century had survived for Julia to peruse and have a fairly good idea where the bridge of the Sulaco might be, following the Captain's orders to them to find it. The Engineer had moved through the silent corridors like a child in a candy store, admiring the old wiring, the welded steel plates and amusing herself at the finished joints of the walls. Alex herself could not help but be infected by such enthusiasm although inwardly, she was experiencing a growing feeling of unease as she moved through the deserted paths of the ship.

Despite Julia's eagerness, Alex soon felt uncomfortable. The signal they deciphered from the Sulaco spoke of three humans being on board and yet everything Alex came across indicated this entire ship could not have possibly been utilized by so few. That question hung in the air like a meteor about to drop. As they sought out the bridge, they came across communal showers, mess halls made to accommodate more than just three people. Then there were the lockers. She knew she had no business opening them but upon doing so, discovered more than three were being used. When she and Julia were finally done the counting, they discovered fourteen lockers had been occupied, which meant fourteen crew members. Not three.

Alex stared at the red bandanna in her hand, the one she liberated from the locker belonging to a PFC Vasquez and wondered what happened to the woman. Despite the fact the garments inside the locker were terribly asexual, there were pieces of femininity tucked away amongst the military issued items. A bottle of skin cream whose contents were desiccated by now, not to mention the telltale soft, lacy underthings tucked away beneath khaki boxers, almost as if Vasquez was attempting to hide them. Alex did not know why she kept the bandanna when they left the locker room filled with belongings, that would never be claimed. Illogically, Alex was starting to think she owed it to Vasquez to find out what happened here.

Eventually, they arrived on the bridge and it was nothing like what Alex considered the bridge of a ship this size, not when compared to the sleek beauty of the Maverick. It was made for no more than two people and the confines were cramped with machinery pressing at one's side no matter where they turned. Most of the panels were dark and inert with a few blinking lights in one particular section to indicate the ship was functioning. It did not take Julia very long to activate this dormant system and at the detection of a human operator, the bridge suddenly took on a life of its own as panels and screen illuminated throughout its confines. Suddenly, the room was filled with an ambient glow and all systems, though somewhat cool to the touch after spending four centuries in frozen inertia, waited eagerly for human interaction once again.

"It might be an idea for us to go after what we need slowly," Julia advised when she sat before the screen and keyboard. "The computer has not been used in almost four hundred years, I'd like not to overload its operating system and have a burnout. God help us if it's still using that antiquated Windows system."

"That's not funny." Alex shuddered, remembering that nightmarish software program of ages past.

"Who's joking?" Julia retorted. "Now I'd recommend we work our way through the data banks. We should make a gradual progression through the data stream before attempting to access the ship's logs. These old systems usually devoted considerable resources to passwords and security lockouts, so I want to take it easy. Don't forget, this is a museum piece. If it handles the simple commands without any difficulty, then we'll attempt to interface the main data banks with the tricorder."

"Understood," Alex nodded, taking up the seat next to Julia. "Okay, something simple. How about a crew manifest?"

"Crew manifest." Julia mused as her fingers started flying over the keyboard and Alex watched the screen come alive as Julia entered the request for information. Words flew across the digital screen before a short abrupt beep escaped the speakers and signalled they had been granted access. A list of names appeared before them. As Alex had suspected, there had been 14 people on board the Sulaco when she left Earth. Out of those, two were civilians, the others were military personnel.

"You want a display?" Julia looked over her shoulder at the science officer.

"Yeah," Alex replied, not seeing why not. "Let's have a look at them."

The commanding officer was not at all impressive or perhaps it was the way the image of him appeared on the screen making him look that way. In any case, he was a poster boy recruit of what it was meant to be a soldier back then, clean cut and somewhat dull looking. There was little or no intelligence about him and he did not look particularly seasoned. His rank had him placed as a Lieutenant.

"Says here, his name is Lieutenant RC Gorman. Christ, he's just a kid. What's he doing in charge?"

"Who knows," Alex shrugged, more interested in seeing the image of PFC Vasquez more than some fresh-faced kid who probably got more people killed by being put in command too soon than the enemies they were sent to face. "Who's next?"

"Moving along." Julia quipped and brought the cursor down to illuminate the next name on the list.

Alex shuddered as she saw the faces appear before her, wondering whether it was the cold or the knowledge they were all dead. Something happened to them to ensure they never returned to the Sulaco or if they did, not in a condition that would do them any good. The man whose face appeared before them was granite. He was in his forties, Alex estimated, a combat veteran through and through. He had the visage of a mean junkyard dog and she had no doubt he'd give a Klingon a run for his money if faced with one.

"Master Sergeant Apone," Julia announced. "And boy does he look it."

"Give him a bath�let and run for cover," Alex joked. "Damn, I hate to meet what it was that took him out."

Despite herself, her statement was not meant as a joke, Alex really meant it. She looked into the screen at the man's hard eyes and knew he was someone who did not frighten easily, who could bellow his platoon into submission and was probably the glue that held the entire unit together. Such men usually made up for the shortcomings of their inexperienced commanders. Alex had served with such soldiers during the Border Wars and met a few Bajoran freedom fighters with the same kind of eyes. Whatever killed this man, was something they had all better fear.

"I'm going to keep going," Julia announced and highlighted the next name on the list; Senior Corporal D Hicks. She pressed the enter button on the old keyboard and froze when the face appeared on the screen.

"Holy shit." Alex found herself saying without even being aware the words left her mouth.

"Oh my God." Julia's eyes widened once her shock evaporated; though not entirely, it just receded to manageable levels. "It's impossible..."

Alex did not answer her. The science officer was similarly stunned but she had the presence of mind enough to tap the com badge on her uniform.

"Captain." She spoke out, her eyes still fixed on the screen.

"Alex," Chris Larabee's voice returned in response. "What is it? Did you access the ship's logs?"

Alex paused a moment, wondering how she was going to say this and decided the best way to tell him what they just discovered, was to simply show him.

"Captain," Alex took a deep breath. "I think you'd better come see this for yourself."

Chapter Five: Ripley

Buck Wilmington stared at the viewscreen before him and decided one thing quite readily; he did not like this ship called the Sulaco. Everything about the vessel suspended in the canvas of blue told him it was a secret best left unexplained. Letting his eyes run across the dark metal shell of the vessel, Buck found a sense of foreboding building up in his chest regarding the ship, even though for all intensive purposes there was nothing about it that was outwardly threatening. The Sulaco was a troop carrier with very little in the way of armaments that could be considered a danger to the Maverick with its multiple torpedo bays, multiphasic sensors and phaser banks. Still, as he continued to stare at the ship, he could not help but feel a sliver of unease.

Chris and the Away Team were still conducting their preliminary investigations of the Sulaco and so far everything they learnt gave Buck more and more reason to think perhaps they just ought to get a science vessel out here to deal with the ancient relic. Still, the enthusiasm in Chris�s voice even though the Captain was as wary as he was, could not be mistaken. Buck had not heard Chris sounding so animated or interested about anything other than the idea of Sarah and Adam being murdered in weeks. He supposed as a distraction, the Sulaco was about as tantalising as any could be. An old ship from a period centuries in Earth�s past, a mystery surrounding its purpose and the fate of its crew, it was just the thing for Chris at the moment.

His attention shifted momentarily from the view screen to the turbo lift doors, which slid open to allow Mary Travis entry onto the bridge. It was the first time he saw her since they passed each other in the doorway, following her request for a leave of absence from Chris. It was good to see her on the bridge because she was usually such a part of things. Mary�s insight as a negotiator, diplomat and her knowledge of varying cultures made her a valuable asset on the bridge and though her presence was not especially demanded all the time, Buck still liked to see her there.

"Are they still over there?" Mary asked as she made her way towards him and took a seat at her usual place by the Captain�s chair.

"Yes," Buck nodded. "I think they�re going to be there awhile. Chris is pretty intrigued by the whole ship."

Mary nodded slightly as if the mention of Chris suddenly surfaced their personal problems and made the emotions churning inside her all the more difficult to hide.

"You okay?" He asked softly, placing a gentle hand on her arm.

Mary met his gaze and nodded again. "Yes, I am. I think the time apart might do us both some good. We�ve been living on the same ship for the last few months. Perhaps what is needed is a step back to gain some perspective on things."

Buck did not think it would help at all but he did not voice it.

"Mary," he considered what he would say and decided if he was told to mind his own business, at least he said what he needed to. "Don�t give up on him. I know he�s behaving like a prized ass at the moment but don�t give up on him. I know he loves you but sometimes when he gets his mind set on something, he can�t let it go no matter how much he may want to. Trust me, I�ve seen this before and the best thing you can do is to ride it out."

Mary offered Buck a warm smile, wondering if Chris knew how lucky he was to have someone like Buck Wilmington in his corner. Buck was loyal to the last and he knew people, much more than anyone gave him credit. Some men had the market cornered on strategy and intuition but Buck�s fortune seemed to be made in knowing how to look at someone and knowing instantly what they felt and what they needed. It was a wonderful gift and not enough people appreciated it.

"Thank you, Buck," Mary answered, sincere in her gratitude and touched deeply by his plea. "I don�t intend to give up on him, I just think perhaps I need to wait him out somewhere else."

Buck nodded in understanding, wishing it was otherwise but perhaps it was what Chris needed. Maybe he needed to lose her a little while to know just how much she meant to him and Buck guessed Chris needed her quite a great deal. Ever since she came on board, the two had forged a smouldering relationship though not physical, seemed adequate in passion to convey they cared very much for each other even if the loss of the loves in their life still kept them at bay. Buck was trying to think of something to respond to Mary�s statement when suddenly JD spoke up.

"Buck, I�m getting an incoming transmission from Starfleet Command. It's on standard channels." The young communications officer volunteered, indicating it was probably something routine that could be relayed to the First Officer instead of the Captain.

"Transfer it to the Captain�s Ready Room," Buck ordered standing up. "I�ll take it in there."

"Aye Sir." JD nodded and returned to the console before him to carry out the order.

Buck excused himself and headed towards the Captain�s Ready Room. Upon entering its confines, Buck slid into the Captain�s chair and swung around to face the com screen on the wall behind it. The words incoming message was blinking on the dark screen and Buck sat up straight as he prepared to receive it.

"Computer, open channel."

The image of Admiral Donaldson appeared on screen a moment later. Buck knew Donaldson from the few times they encountered each other over the years. While Buck could not say he knew the man terribly well, Donaldson was an amiable fellow, mostly attached to the diplomatic arm of Starfleet. He smiled upon seeing Buck, having dealt more with the First Officer than he did with the Captain of the Maverick, and appeared pleased to be seeing someone he knew.

"Buck," Donaldson said genuinely pleased. "It�s been a long time."

"A year I think," Buck returned his greeting with similar warmth. "How�s Utopia Planitia these days?"

"Still hot and dry," Donaldson responded, more than happy to indulge in a little small talk, which told Buck, whatever reason he had contacted the Maverick, was not terribly urgent. "And the frontier?"

"Quiet for the moment." Buck grinned. "Though that may change at any time. Always seems like something is going on out here that usually finds its way to us."

"I was hoping to speak to your Captain but I gather he is indisposed by the fact you�re taking this call."

"Yes Sir," Buck answered, not about to lie. "We�ve discovered a derelict ship that might have been from Earth. So far we have a chronological date of 400 years. The Captain is investigating it right now."

The discovery piqued Donaldson�s curiosity and it showed across his face. "Really? I would not mind taking a look at her myself unfortunately, I have to tear your ship away from what looks like a very interesting find."

"I guessed as much," Buck remarked and suddenly the casual note in his voice withered away, replaced with a more business-like and official tone. "What can the Maverick do for you, Sir?"

"Its nothing high risk," Donaldson answered quickly, taking on the same tone as Buck, now they were getting to the heart of his purpose for contacting the Maverick. "I need the Maverick at Sector 29, specifically the Vorlis system. We are presently negotiating their entry into the Federation but apparently, one of their outer colonies have sustained an ecological disaster of some kind. They have the personnel and the equipment to take care of the problem but they need a ship with maximum warp capability to get there. As a gesture of goodwill, I�ve offered Federation assistance in this matter, just to let them know we�d pull out all stops to help if the situation called for it. The whole mission will take you four days, five at the most round trip so your derelict will still be waiting for you when you get back."

He was right, it was extremely routine and not uncommon for starships to be used in this way, especially when courting a new entry into the Federation. The goal was to make the new arrival feel Federation membership was worthwhile.

"I�ll inform the Captain," Buck declared. "We�ll see you soon Sir."

"Thank you Buck," Donaldson smiled. "I�ll buy you a drink when you get here."

"I�ll hold you to that." The first officer answered before terminating the channel between them. Buck leaned back into the chair for a moment and let out a deep sigh. While he did not begrudge the mission ahead, he wished it could have come at another time. The Sulaco and its mysteries seemed to be just the thing for Chris�s disposition at present. He hated to think this trip to Vorlis would send the Captain back into his obsession about the accident. Unfortunately, neither of them had any choice. They were both creatures of duty and right now, their duty required them to abandon the Sulaco. Still, Buck did not relish the idea of having to recall the Captain.

He had a feeling, this time Chris was not going to take it well.

+ + + + + + +

"Jesus," Vin Tanner whispered under his breath as he stared at the screen displaying the discovery made by Julia Pemberton and Alexandra Styles when they searched the Sulaco�s data banks for the records about its crew. The face on the screen was, without doubt, the spitting image of Chris Larabee. The hair was different and the face was definitely younger but even those who knew the Captain well, marvelled at the resemblance. "He looks exactly like you."

"Corporal Dwayne Hicks." Ezra read the data next to the image as he stood next to Chris who was staring at the screen with an unreadable expression on his face. "At the time of his arrival on the Sulaco, it would appear he was 25."

Chris could only stare at the face on the screen and feel the same astonishment. He knew he had an ancestor in this period, perhaps not directly connected to the Larabee line but time had a way of twisting the lineages with such complexity, it was hard to say for certain where the genetic branches would end up. A few hours ago, he remembered he had a distant relation who was a Colonial Marine in the 21st century and thought no more of it. However, seeing the man before him, Chris felt as if there was some sort of serendipity at work here making him the one to discover this ship which had once ferried someone from his own distant past.

Hicks wore his face, although the image portrayed him as a man just a little younger than Vin. The eyes, of course, were always the same on the Larabee men but there was something in Hicks�s eyes that told Chris the Corporal had seen much in his short life, perhaps too much. There was some personal information about his life on the screen and it almost served as an epitaph to who Dwayne Hicks had been. Chris wondered what forces shaped his life to put the same look of premature age in his eyes? Did he suffer the same sorrows? Chris hated to think someone so young could have become so used to his mortality.

"I had a distant relative in the Colonial Marines." Chris found his voice at last. "I guess this is him."

"No kidding." Alex remarked, "I can't believe the resemblance." She leaned closer once again as if she was taking another look to confirm what her mind had such trouble accepting.

"So do we have some idea of what happened to these people?" Chris asked, wishing to move off the subject of Hicks for the moment. Chris was still a little shocked by all of it and preferred to move on since this could not be any more than just mere coincidence. It probably had little to do with the reason the Sulaco was stranded above the skies of Fiorina.

"Well I managed to open the log," Julia answered quickly, aware despite this interesting turn of events with his ancestor, Chris would be more interested in learning why the Sulaco was here in the first place. He probably even had questions about what his ancestor�s role in all this might have been. She turned to Alex who had scoured through the log while waiting for the Captain and the others to arrive. "Alex?"

"Yeah," Alex shook the thoughts of Hicks and Chris�s similarities out of her mind and returned to the issue at hand. "According to the logs, the Sulaco was sent to check on a mining colony on planet LV 427, called Acheron. Apparently, they were out of contact for almost three months and as per standard procedure, an investigating team was dispatched to see what happened."

"And they sent a fully armoured military vessel with a platoon of Colonial Marines?" Ezra asked sceptically, finding that somewhat extreme for what could simply be a malfunctioning transmitter on the colony�s part. Even a medical rescue ship made more sense than sending the troops in. "That seems somewhat unusual."

"It is." Chris agreed but wanted to know more and prompted Alex to continue.

"According to the log," Alex explained. "There was a concern of some form of biological threat on LV427. A report from a Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley who was part of the crew of the Sulaco as a consultant a year earlier indicated that there was some hereto, an unknown life form on the planet that might have been a danger to the colonists. Now there is information regarding the organism attached to the log but it's been encrypted and Julia is trying to get through the decryption codes without corrupting the data. Whatever this thing was, it was considered highly classified. Perhaps classified enough for the Weyland Yutani Corporation, who owned the colony at the time, to omit the information from the colonists."

"There was a dangerous organism on the planet and no one even bothered to tell the people living there?" Vin asked, his disgust showing.

"The Weyland Yutani Corporation was infamous for such practices Lieutenant," Ezra remarked. "One would say they had an almost Ferengi approach to commerce."

"So they went to the colony and found it?" Chris asked impatiently, wanting to know the rest.

"That�s as far as the official log goes Sir," Alex responded. "The Sulaco arrived at Acheron and fell into standard orbit around the planet, at which time everyone on board was revived from cryosleep. Since there was continued radio silence from the colony and no way to confirm the situation without a surface landing, standard procedure required them to do just that. Lieutenant Gorman, the officer in charge makes the final log entry in which he states the entire crew preparing to depart from the Sulaco on board one of the dropships."

"And that is all?" Ezra asked, hoping there would be more, particularly about this life form meant to exist on LV427.

"Not quite," Julia replied automatically, giving her lover a little wink as she did so. "I�m reading a lot of information coming through to the Sulaco after their departure not yet processed. I�m assuming these were from the squad while they were on the surface, probably from personnel recorders."

"That would follow," Chris agreed. "I am sure at the time, most of the military were required to wear such devices, mostly to monitor performance in the field and as a record of how they conducted themselves for future reference. Can we access those?"

"Yes we can," Julia answered promptly but she was more focussed in accessing Ellen Ripley�s report deemed classified, released only to the Marines with huge tracts of it being omitted. Julia wanted the entire document because like the Captain, she sensed it had the answers to understanding what ultimately happened to the Sulaco and its crew. "However, none of those recordings have been processed, so we�ll get a lot of information from varying angles, depending on the perspective of the person wearing the camera." She paused a moment as she continued her assault on Ripley�s classified report, determined to penetrate it when finally, a burst of static appeared on the screen before her and Ellen Ripley�s face materialised.

"I think you�ll find this of more interest Captain." Julia glanced at Chris, who had squeezed next to her and was studying the face on the screen with almost as much interest as he had when he first observed that of Corporal Hicks.

It was a face of quiet dignity. She was not the kind of woman who would be considered especially beautiful but there was something about the eyes that reached inside Chris Larabee and touched him on a very personal level. Her dark red hair was cut short and Chris sensed there was a time when she would have worn it over her shoulders, though it would have looked curlier, he suspected. She wore little makeup if any at all and when she looked at him, she did so with the eyes of someone whose soul was just as ravaged as his. He wondered what tragedy made her appear as if the idea of life was so elusive, she walked in perpetual readiness to die.

Then she spoke. It was a sad voice, a voice so hard done by life he could not imagine her using it to laugh or express any of the more joyful emotions. Where she lived was a place he knew all too well, mired by the darkness of so much pain until it was impossible to see past the tragedy that made it happen.

"My name is Ellen Ripley, formerly Warrant Officer Ripley. Burke wants me to make this tape for you Marines to get a fair idea of what you may be dealing with on LV427." She paused a moment, unaware her audience from four hundred years in the future was utterly riveted. "I can�t do this without a cigarette," she muttered and her hand disappeared from the view of the milky screen to produce a stick of white recognised by those present as a cigarette, a vice long forgotten by history. She lit the cigarette in her mouth and took a deep puff. When she exhaled, rings of smoke swirled around her before disappearing completely from sight. She was clearly delaying what she was required to do but then she swallowed, blinked slowly and faced the camera again, a resolve settling over her, no one doubted was iron hard will.

"I don�t know how much you were briefed or what I�m supposed to tell you so I�ll just start from the beginning. I was the second officer of the Commercial Carrier Nostromo. We were on our way home to Earth with a full cargo of ore from the Rim when we were awakened from cryosleep by the ship�s computer. There were seven of us, Dallas, Cain, Ash, Lambert, Parker, Brett and myself. Oh, of course, there was Jones but he was Brett�s cat, so I guess he didn�t really count."

None of the Maverick spoke because there was something in the way Ripley told her tale, even from four hundred years in the past that demanded silence and some measure of respect. Chris could not stop looking at her, wondering what path her life had taken, had it begun with the Nostromo or were there previous sorrows contributing to what she became? Chris pondered this briefly and then put the idea away because he wanted to hear the rest of her story.

"When we woke up, we found we were nowhere home," Ripley resumed her narrative, breathing more smoke from her slowly depleting cigarette. "The ship�s computer woke us up early because it detected a signal of unknown origin and bound by our Company contracts, we were required to investigate." Her eyes drifted away a second as she saw something only she could see, before clearing her throat and started speaking again, her voice growing softer, colder even.

"The source of the signal came from LV427, an uninhabited and previously unsurveyed planet. The content of the signal was odd so while Captain Dallas, First Officer Cain and Lambert went to find the source, which was some 1500 metres from our landing site, I examined the message more closely." Another pause, longer this time and Chris could see her jaw tensing as if the anger was resurfacing and the cigarette continued to burn for a few seconds before she started again.

"I discovered the message was not a distress beacon as we thought but rather a warning. I wanted to go after Captain Dallas and tell him what I found but Ash, our science officer told me it was pointless. By the time I reached the others, they would have already found out what was at the source. Foolishly, I listened to him."

"I can't imagine a science officer deciding to omit that kind of information." Alex frowned. Being a Science Officer herself, she of all people knew how important it was to have accurate information and provide it to those who would require it most.

"We soon found that the source of the signal was coming from a derelict spaceship of unknown origin. It was not a large clunker like we have but rather something with smooth lines and curves. Whoever they were that built it, was still no match for their cargo. Cain, Dallas and Lambert went into that ship and discovered the dead pilot still in his chair. His sternum had erupted from the inside. It looked as if he had been there for a very long time. Dallas assumed because of how old the ship had been there, there was no danger to the ground team so they pressed on and found the cargo hold."

She paused again and Chris sensed Ripley was finally reaching the part of the tale she found hardest to speak of. Had she been alive, he might have been inclined to take her hand but of course that was impossible, she was long gone and those sad eyes with her. "There were eggs, a foot maybe more, translucent with spores inside of them. Cain who went into the hold said he saw thousands of them. We never really knew for sure because it appeared whatever was inside them was still alive and upon detecting the stimulus of life, the egg unsealed. Upon emergence, the spore attached itself to Cain�s face. It managed to burn through the plastic of his visor to reach his skin. By the time Dallas and Lambert got to him, it was too late for Cain. Of course, we didn�t know that yet."

"They got him back to the ship and the decision was made to get it off him." Ripley took a breath and resumed speaking after discarding her cigarette, now burnt all the way back to the filter. "As soon as we tried cutting it, we found out the alien bled molecular acid. A drop of it ate through three levels of the Nostromo before it finally stopped. We found out we couldn�t take it off without killing Cain, so we decided to freeze him and let ICU Quarantine deal with him on Earth. However, before we could do that, the alien came off Cain itself and died. He woke up fine, just a little hungry but nonetheless lucid and physically recovered."

Ripley lit another cigarette and Chris noted her hands were shaking when she did so this time. Her expression seemed fearful and her skin had become pale. "We were in the middle of dinner when Cain started having these convulsions. He started screaming. We thought he might have been choking on something but soon there was blood, a lot of blood. The spore had laid some kind of an embryo inside his throat and the alien once past gestation exited through the sternum."

"Christ..." Vin exclaimed visibly shaken to his Vulcan core. Ezra who was always so practised at hiding his emotions was no less horrified. Alex tried to find precedents for such a life cycle and found the closest thing to be the manner in which spiders laid its eggs on a host animal for the newborn to feed upon emergence. Julia�s hand covered her mouth, agape with horror. Chris could only feel empathy, understanding now the reason for Ripley�s eyes after what she had seen in her lifetime.

"Once the alien emerged, it matured very quickly. In a space of 24 hours, Captain Dallas and the rest of the crew, except for myself, were dead. We were receiving no help from our science officer before that but there was a good reason for it. I learnt that the Company had diverted us to LV427 specifically to get the alien, that we were expendable as long as the alien was brought back to Earth. Our science officer was a goddamn synthetic and he sacrificed the others so he could take the fucking thing back to Earth. Can you believe that?"

No one could although everything Ripley was alleging was known historical fact about the practices of the multinationals leading to the rise of global fascism and the outbreak of the Third World War.

"I set the Nostromo for self-destruct after the others were gone and abandoned ship. Other than myself, no one else got off the Nostromo and I took my chances in the life pod. I hoped I�d be picked up when I approached the core worlds but that didn�t happen." Ripley let out a rueful laugh, devoid of humour. "I woke up can you believe? 57 years after I blew up the Nostromo and the alien. My eleven-year-old daughter had died by the time I got back to Earth." For a moment, the lady went very silent and for a minute the sadness crossing her face was so profound it touched everyone who was watching her silently in the confines of the Sulaco�s small bridge.

Ripley composed herself for a few seconds and then raised her eyes to the camera once more, the same resolve on her face. "When I got back, they didn�t believe me. There was no corroborating evidence there was ever a life form, so they blamed me for the destruction of the Nostromo, a rather expensive piece of hardware as one of those corporate assholes put it. They didn�t believe me even though LV427 was now populated with a colony of at least 80 to 90 families. They didn�t believe me even though I told them Cain saw thousands of eggs there, capable of producing thousands of those things like the one that wiped out my entire crew in a day." The bitter tone in her voice was deserved in Chris�s opinion.

"Now you Marines are expected to clean up the mess," Ripley snorted derisively. "If those colonists have found that ship and exposed those eggs then all of them could be potential hosts. These things are beyond vicious. They move fast and they�re strong. Most of the time, the alien came up and took the others in the Nostromo before we even knew what hit us. Ash said they had no morality, no conscience. He�s right. They have one purpose and that is to breed. When I was leaving the Nostromo, I found what I was pretty damn sure was its nest. It was using Dallas as a host. I hope to God I�m wrong. I hope to God when we go down to that planet, we�ll find that a down transmitter caused the radio silence because the alternative is a hell you can�t even begin to imagine. Jesus, I really want to be wrong."

But she was not. Even though none of the Maverick officers had viewed the rest of the data in the Sulaco�s memory banks, they knew that everything Ellen Ripley predicted had taken place and more. Much, much more.

Chapter Six: Interuptions

There was a general air of silence after Ellen Ripley�s commentary concluded stretching over a period of several minutes. The lady�s story was macabre, not so much in the encounter of a dangerous life form because one could not feel completely overawed by that aspect of it when one had been in Starfleet. Four hundred years of charting the unexplored regions of space taught humans one thing above all else; it was dangerous out here. For every spectacular experience filling the soul of with notions of cosmic beauty, there was also a dark side to it that reminded one most starkly the unknown was not always safe. Sometimes, it could be downright terrifying, as if had been for the crew of the Nostromo. Perhaps what was so unbelievable about all of this was not so much the behaviour of the alien, but rather of the humans who wanted it so badly, they were willing to sacrifice innocents to possess it.

Chris and his senior staff were well aware of the atrocities committed by the Multinationals of the 21st century. History deemed them as foul a villain as the Third Reich and the Inquisition but to hear it first hand, to listen to a tale that was more than pages in a history book made it all seem so much worse. After the report returned to static, it took a few seconds for someone to find voice enough to speak. Predictably, it was Ezra, who never seemed at a loss for words but Chris could see Ripley�s story appalled him. Perhaps because it was Ezra�s job to ensure the safety of everyone under his care, he baulked so much at the utter disregard for life displayed by the Weyland Yutani Corporation.

"I am assuming by the message we intercepted on the Maverick from this vessel, it would appear only three people made it off LV427 alive," Ezra said leaning against the nearby wall, trying to dispel the tension in his jaw because the anger he felt was pointless. The events provoking his outrage were four hundred years in the past. Still, he felt incensed at what happened to that poor woman and those who were caught in the web of deceit with such tragic conclusions.

"It would appear so," Alex responded, remembering accurately the content of the message. "It appears Hicks made it out alive, so did Ripley. I can�t imagine where they would have found a juvenile but its safe to assume she was probably from the colony."

"That�s a pretty big assumption," Julia pointed out. "If that colony was infested, how could a child have survived long enough for a rescue ship to arrive? I mean it took months, literally months for ships to cross interstellar space. That would mean she would have had to avoid those life forms for all that time."

"It's not impossible," Vin immediately countered, having been marooned himself on a world where a child was not meant to survive and managed even though it was difficult and the foster parents with him had not survived to be rescued. "Children are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Push comes to shove, she might have learned how to get around them."

"This is all academic," Chris finally cut in all the discussion. "The fact of the matter is these people are dead and four hundred years ago, there was some kind of failure which necessitated Ripley and the rest of the survivors being ejected in an EEV to the surface of Fury 361. Whatever threat the life form may have posed is no longer on board this ship, most likely its still on LV427."

"I am not so certain of that Captain," Ezra countered, not that easily convinced. "The evidence in the hangar indicates at least one of those creatures made it on board the Sulaco."

"You�re kidding!" Alex exclaimed, her scientific curiosity piqued because she would love to examine a specimen like this, in the post-mortem of course. Ripley�s description was accurate enough for Alex to guess anyone running into one of these creatures was likely to have a very bad day. "How can you tell?"

"Acid burns on the deck," Chris answered promptly. "We found evidence of molecular acid having eaten through the floor plating but it also looks like the survivors decompressed the landing bay to get it off the ship. I don�t imagine they would have climbed into stasis with it running around loose."

"I�d like to get a look at the planet," Alex remarked, looking to Chris because she had a feeling the Captain was more than intrigued by the notion of his ancestor being directly involved in these events.

"I�d like to fly that dropship," Vin said with a little grin.

"You must be joking." Ezra looked at the helmsman with distaste. "That dropship, as you call it, has been sitting inactive for the past 400 years. You do not know if it will fly."

"Oh, I don�t know," Julia mused, considering the subject. "It might need a diagnostic and a few little repairs but there's no reason why it would be inoperative. After all the ship has been devoid of an atmosphere for the duration of its orbit here. There would be very little degradation."

In truth, Julia would love to see if the smaller ship could fly. In fact, she would be willing to do the maintenance just to give Vin the opportunity to take it out.

"You are both mad," Ezra said sweetly.

"Julia," Chris turned to the Chief Engineer. "Do you think you can go through all the transmissions from the personal recorders, sort through them and put them in some coherent order?"

"I don�t see why not," Julia responded and gave Vin a look of apology that she could not attend to the matter of his drop ship just yet.

"Do that after you give the dropship a once-over." The Captain added a moment later, giving Vin a little smile of indulgence.

"Alright!" The Vulcan grinned with boyish excitement, terribly out of place on his Vulcan features. "Come on," he turned to Julia. "I�ll help you."

"Don�t you just love him?" Alex gave the redhead a playful wink. "In the meantime, I�ll take a look at the rest of the data Captain. What are you and Ezra going to do?"

Chris considered the question for a moment. "We�ll take another look around the ship. I don�t think we have any more visitors on board but I�d like to know what caused that electrical fire."

"So would I." Ezra agreed. "Even in this period, the safeguards to protect those in cryosleep were very extensive. I find it odd suddenly, all those safeguards would have been ineffective enough to prevent an electrical fire precipitating the crew being ejected from the ship."

"Good thought," Alex shrugged, thinking he was right. "Happy hunting."

Instead of receiving a response to her salutation, Alex�s greeting was met with the voice of Buck Wilmington speaking through Chris�s com badge.

"Captain," Buck�s voice delivered its message. "We�ve just been ordered to the Vorlis system. Admiral Donaldson would like us to escort a rescue party to one of its outer worlds."

A swell of disappointment rippled throughout the small room as it became apparent with that one sentence, they would have to abandon their study of the Sulaco for the time being. This did not impress Chris at all. He wanted to go to Fury 361 on the dropship Vin was so eager to fly and learn what had happened to Ellen Ripley and Hicks while they had been on the planet. Something took place after their EEV was ejected from the Sulaco, something that ensured no one left the planet alive except for one lone prisoner. It was very important for Chris to know, far more important than playing ferry boat captain to the Vorli.

"I see." Chris frowned, thinking quickly because he did not want to leave what he discovered here.

"Shall I get Rain to transport you back to the ship?" Buck asked in anticipation of their return.

Chris did not answer for a few seconds, letting his gaze move across the faces around him. Only Ezra seemed indifferent to staying behind but this was his usual expression when dealing with any unknown situation. The others, however, did look as if they would rather remain behind, Julia in particular. The Chief Engineer would not be satisfied until she had stuck her finger in every nook and cranny in this old ship.

"Standby on that," Chris said abruptly.

"Captain," Alex looked at him, forgetting herself as his science officer and facing him now as his second officer. "We should beam back to the Maverick." As much as she would like to remain, the truth was, the Sulaco would still be here when they returned from their mission to Vorlis. The ship had waited four centuries to be discovered, it could wait a few days until they returned.

"I will beam back to the Maverick," Chris looked at her sternly. "The rest of you stay here and carry out your orders."

"But Captain�" Alex started to say.

Chris gave her one of his infamous stares and silenced her immediately. "This is not a democracy Commander."

"Of course not."

"Carry out your orders," Chris said crisply and tapped his combadge lightly. "One to transport."

Without saying another word but still wearing that serious expression on his face, Chris stepped back from the others into the small clearing of space. It took another second before the low hum of the transporter beam was heard and he shimmered out of sight back to the Maverick.

+ + + + + + +

"Are you out of your mind?" Buck exclaimed as he stared at Chris from across the desk of the Captain�s Ready Room approximately five minutes after Chris had transported back to the Maverick from the Sulaco. Buck guessed it was going to be difficult to pry the Captain loose from the tasty morsel that was the ancient Earth ship but even he had not imagined just how deep the attachment had become in so short a space of time. In truth, there was nothing untoward about what Chris was asking. Such things were done often. However, Buck just had this uneasy feeling about the Sulaco and the whole business of Fury 361 that the idea of Chris�s suggestion was more than he could stomach.

"I don�t see what�s the problem." Chris eased back into his chair, watching Buck through his crisscrossed fingers. "You yourself said it was a routine mission, five days at the most. I have every confidence you can handle things on your own for that time. The Sulaco is more than capable of sustaining an Away Team for five days, not to mention the fact I will have a runabout there in case we get into any trouble."

"Chris." Buck started to protest, not at all convinced this was wise. He did not like the idea of leaving the Away team stranded on the Sulaco at all. There was just something about the ship that would not let him rest easy no matter how illogical the emotion might be. "I don�t think this is a good idea."

"I think it is." Chris returned promptly, aware Buck had no real reason to deny his desire to remain, not that he could anyway since Chris had complete autonomy on the decision. This discussion was completely at Chris�s sufferance and should he decide to end the argument, there was little Buck Wilmington could do about it. "It�s a rare find. We�re uncovering so much about what happened there and Hicks, Hicks is one of my ancestors, it's almost fate."

"I don�t believe in fate," Buck stared at him. "And neither did you."

"I used to think that," Chris�s gaze dropped away from Buck and shifted instead to the window that gave him a view of the stars outside the ship. "Not any more. Something wants me to find out the truth about that ship out there, something that waited for a long time for me to show up. I�m going to find out what it is. Too many things have been eluding me lately and I won�t stand for it any more. I�m tired of secrets Buck, tired of truths being hidden under supposedly plausible explanations. Those people on LV427 died for nothing because someone felt they were less important than an alien life form that could make a corporation billions. So many dirty little lies hidden, so many lives destroyed because of someone with a secret agenda."

Buck looked at Chris for a long while, having heard the Captain�s words. He did not speak but the words were absorbed into him nonetheless. After what seemed an eternity that made even Chris raise his eyes to him for an answer, Buck finally spoke. "Are we talking about the Sulaco or about Sarah and Adam?"

Chris blinked. "The Sulaco of course." The Captain answered just a little too quickly and Buck knew, without doubt, he was lying. Suddenly, Buck understood all too well what Chris was saying and what he had not. It made perfect sense once he understood.

"It's not your fault you didn�t know there was some kind of conspiracy." Buck offered softly. "No one had reason to think their deaths was any more than an accident. Hell, even I thought it was until Q dropped that bombshell on us."

Chris continued to stare at the surface of the desk, his hands had dropped to the edges, clenching the simulated wood in his fists. "I should have known. I should have known they were in danger. It was my job to protect my family. They died without me even having the slightest clue they were in danger! How could I be so blind? How can I be expected to run this ship if I could miss something as simple as that?"

"You�re human Chris," Buck implored. "You were grieving for a wife and child. You had no reason to think you failed them. Chris, whoever did this to Sarah and Adam were not only good, but they�re also damned good. They�ve covered their tracks so well its almost a work of genius. At the state of mind, you were in at the time, you could not expect to see through that. Hell those of us who were thinking clearly didn�t even see it."

"I should have!" He insisted. "I�m the Captain of a starship. How can I ever be sure about anything if I was wrong about that?"

Buck sighed in exasperation, knowing there were no words to assuage Chris�s wounded confidence. He was right, a starship captain could not have doubts about anything. If he doubted himself, then the problem Chris was facing was a great deal worse than simply having an obsession with his wife and child�s murder. It had to do with his ability to run the Maverick and be responsible for a thousand lives who counted on him to keep them safe in this wilderness.

"Alright Chris," Buck finally conceded. "If you feel you have to do this, I�ll take the ship on to Vorlis but you are not going to be left here alone. I am your first officer and my duty to this ship also means my duty is to you. I won�t give that up for anything? Do you understand?"

Glad to be doing this with Buck�s cooperation, Chris was not about to thumb his nose at any suggestions Buck may have in regard to his personal safety. Besides, he agreed with the first officer. If they were to remain on the Sulaco, far from the protection of the Maverick, then he would like adequate security, not only for himself but for the others who would be staying behind with him. As it was, Chris could already hear the demands Ezra would make once the security chief knew they would not be departing with the Maverick when it made the journey to Vorlis space.

"I�ll agree to that," Chris responded. "Get a security team ready and supplies for the next five days, including phasers. I�ll take one of our runabouts across to the Sulaco." He answered pushing himself out of his chair to get moving.

"Yes Sir," Buck nodded. He was still unhappy about this entire situation but had no choice but to agree. Chris had the power to veto his suggestions anyway and the only way Buck could take it further was an outright question of Chris�s ability to command. It would be entered into the record and he would have to forcibly relieve Chris of duty. As much as Buck worried and feared for his oldest friends, he was just not prepared to go that far.


+ + + + + + +

Things progressed rapidly after Chris made the decision to remain behind on the Sulaco. The runabout Perlman was stocked with all the supplies required for the stay on board the ancient ship and Julia launched herself fully into the task of bringing alive the rest of the Sulaco�s main systems, paying particular attention to the vessel�s living quarters. The living requirements for the Marines were extensively provided for from everything to beds, recreation rooms, amenities and a mess hall. It was more than adequate for Starfleet officers who were accustomed to spending their survival training in much worse.

As anticipated, those staying behind were happy for a chance to study the ancient ship. Ezra however, still voiced his trepidations to Chris but was assuaged a little by the fact Chris agreed to accept a security complement that included some of his best officers, including Lieutenant Katovit. Since Julia was busy readying the Sulaco for their occupation, Alex took over the task of deciphering the voluminous data from the Marines personal recorders when the ill-fated squad set down on the planet known as LV427 or Acheron.

After Julia had powered the landing bay, Vin took the Perlman through the massive doors to set down on the deck of the craft, previously home to only the dropship. He was still eager to take the small craft for a flight but had to wait until Julia inspected the ship and ran a diagnostic on its systems. Captain�s orders, she told him and though Vin felt the impatience gnawing at him, he understood the need for caution. The last thing he wanted to do was be plunging miles into the stratosphere before discovering something was wrong with the ship.

The Maverick remained as long as it could, delivering reports about Fiorina 'Fury' 361, indicating that while the ionised atmosphere made precise sensor readings difficult to obtain, the general consensus indicated the world was uninhabited. While the facility itself remained intact for them to examine when they finally made their landing, there was nothing else of interest on Fury to necessitate a return journey once the Maverick was done with its investigations. Hopefully, five days would be enough to satisfy their curiosity.

"Well that's it, everything's here," Vin said to Chris once all the supplies were stored away and the rest of the crew on board the Sulaco was busily going about their given tasks. Alex was monitoring the data in the Sulaco's data banks, Julia was at this moment having the time of her life while she inspected the dropship, much to Vin's delight, to make it fit for flight. Ezra and his security detail were roaming the large ship, ensuring there were no surprises waiting for them, particularly in the living quarters they would be occupying for the duration.

"Good," Chris nodded slowly, his gaze fixed on the small window allowing him a view of the space outside the Sulaco. Vin did not know whether or not it was the Maverick or Fiorina he was really looking at but guessed it did not really matter, Chris was seeing neither.

"Chris," Vin asked after a moment of waiting for Chris to speak and finding he had yet to respond other than that simple acknowledgement. It was easy to forget this was a personal quest for Chris even though the others were finding the Sulaco a historical curiosity. Vin felt a little guilty about being so eager to fly a ship when his best friend was suffering all kinds of turmoil inside. "Are you sure about this?"

Chris looked up at that. "Yeah." His eyes furrowed with confusion. "Why do ask?"

"I don't know," Vin looked away, always feeling uncomfortable when it came to discussing someone's feelings. It seemed doubly hard with Chris even though they were so close. "Maybe you gave me the impression you were having second thoughts about this."

"No," Chris shook his head. "I have to find some truth for the people on this ship, for the ones who died on LV427. I've got to believe that there's justice somewhere."

"Chris," Vin took a deep breath and hope he didn't get thrown out of an airlock for speaking his mind. "Sometimes things happen because they just do and we have to accept it. Maybe the reason why you're so ready to believe Q could be telling the truth is that even after all this time, you're not ready to accept they're gone. Oh you know it in your head they've passed on but not really in your heart."

Chris swallowed and considered Vin's words, wondering if, on some level, the Vulcan was not right because the truth was, Chris was not ready to let Sarah and Adam go, not just yet.

Chapter Seven: Acheron

Chris did not see Mary before the Maverick left for the Vorlis system even though he knew he probably should have. However, when the moment came and the Maverick was about to depart, Chris found he could not bring himself to see the lovely protocol officer. He knew his actions were bordering on the dangerous and he risked alienating her the more he continued to behave this way. There would come a point he would push her so far he would never get her back but the irony of the situation was, he was at such a state of mind, he hardly had the will to keep it from happening.

Buck was not at all pleased to leave the Fiorina system with a substantial number of the senior staff absent. However, he understood there were subordinates who could carry out the mission in Vorlis just as well as the senior bridge officers and in all honesty, if the Captain were determined to stay then Buck would prefer it if he were surrounded by officers who would not be intimidated by his rank. While Vin, Julia, Alex and Ezra respected the chain of command; they were unafraid to speak their mind if Chris were to embark on what was potentially a hazardous course of action. Besides, between Alex and Ezra, Buck was certain Chris�s personal safety would be assured.

Everyone took a moment to watch the Maverick making its departure. The great ship offered a spectacular view as it sailed across the indigo sky, the dark canvas of space a stark contrast against the light blue tinge of its hull. Chris felt his insides hollow a little at watching his ship leave without him and for the first time questioned his reasoning to stay when by all rights, he should be on the bridge of the Maverick, taking her to face whatever waited in the Vorlis system. However, that momentary lapse was soon overwhelmed by the insatiable desire to unlock the secrets of the Sulaco and more specifically, the woman who had become so important to him in such a short time, Ellen Ripley.

After the Maverick�s departure, everyone returned to their assigned tasks. Vin, eager to take the drop ship out for a spin, was aiding Julia Pemberton as she went through the ship�s systems, ensuring every aspect of the old transport was examined with deep scrutiny before she gave any endorsement for it to be taken out of the Sulaco. As enthusiastic as she was on working on such a vintage piece of machinery, she would not even consider allowing it to become airborne until she was absolutely certain of its passengers� safety. This meant hours of work ahead and Chris wondered if Vin�s patience would last that long. It was probably why he was helping Julia, the Captain decided.

Ezra was presently examining the length and breadth of the ship with the four security officers he had sent for from the Maverick. Although the security chief would have like to have had Lieutenant Katovit with him on this mission, Ezra would not be content with anyone else playing his role on the Maverick in his absence. Still, he took the best officers under his command in lieu of Katovit himself. Lieutenant Atwater and Collins were seasoned officers and though Ensigns Angel and Christie were young, they were sensible enough to think first before acting.

However, despite his determination to check out the ship completely, he had to be realistic. The Sulaco was a mile across with nowhere near the technology that allowed the main computer to monitor the ship�s internal systems as was done on the Maverick by its own computer. Thus, Ezra�s search of the ship had to be done the old fashioned way and that was a lot of ground to cover, with endless conduits, ventilation grills, shafts and narrow openings to search.

Alex in the meantime confined herself to the Sulaco�s bridge, viewing all the data to be garnered from the personal recorders of the Colonial Marines who descended upon the planet LV427 in search of colonists. Judging from what she learned so far, it appeared as if the bulk of the Marines died on the surface of that barren world. She observed all the information before her and put them into some order before attempting to make a deeper analysis of what had gone on.

After what seemed like hours upon hours of study, Alex finally reached a point where she was confident enough to provide the Captain with a working theory regarding what happened on LV427, not to mention a description of the creature encountered that caused so much destruction. There was no doubt in her mind the alien she witnessed through the screen of the station she was working from, was nothing less than the stuff of nightmares. As a science officer, she was accustomed to seeing all kinds of life forms, intelligent and non-intelligent. While some were to be viewed with caution, she had never come across one that scared the hell out of her, until now.

She wondered what it must have been like for the Marines, who never faced such an enemy in their lives, being expected to rescue 150 colonists from these things whose life cycle required a human host to perpetuate. Even now, with all the worlds they charted and visited, the Federation had never encountered anything like this Ripley�s alien, added to the fact the species in all likelihood was not a carbon-based life form but rather silicon. Silicon-based life though rare, did exist and the tricorders could be adjusted to detect it if required. James Kirk who was the first starship captain to encounter a silicon-based organism, being the Horta who was now a member race of the Federation, made similar adjustments to his tricorder in order to find the creature to make that first encounter.

Alex also examined the crew manifests and reviewed the internal surveillance tapes of the Sulaco. She made a quick study of the hull of the remaining dropship, hoping it might explain what happened to its sister ship. After gathering all available data on board the Sulaco, Alex was finally ready to deliver her report to the Captain. The senior staff of the Maverick gathered together in the mess hall at Alex�s summons, while the security officers continued their sweep of the ship. Despite the vastness of the search area, Ezra refused to let his guard down and after what Alex saw on the tapes gathered from the personal recorders, she was rather glad for his vigilance.

"So you've completed your analysis?" Chris asked from his seat around one of the long tables they were occupying. There was a hint of impatience in his voice and Alex guessed he was eager to hear what she uncovered.

"I've reviewed all the tapes and put them into some kind of order. However," she added meeting his gaze. "I'm only speculating in some instances and there are wide gaps to what I know, so keep this all in mind when I make my report."

"We are all ears," Ezra remarked with an encouraging smile.

"Thanks," Alex threw the chief security officer a grin and turned her attention to her audience. Vin winked at her from where he was, reinforcing Ezra's vote of confidence with a more personal display meant for her as more than just the science officer. Clearing her throat, she began to explain what she found and hoped it would satisfy the Captain's curiosity until they could go to Fiorina itself.

"From what I've been able to determine, it appears the Marines left the Sulaco in one of two drop ships on board, bound for LV427 or in this case, Acheron as it was known then. The equipment inventory confirms this. The squad was usually deployed planetside from the dropship by means of an armoured transport, called an APC by its members. It�s a small terrestrial vehicle, fully armoured with titanium shielding and capable of carrying the entire squad over short distances through the most adverse landscape."

"That didn't come back either," Julia responded. She saw no evidence of the transport in question though she suspected it shared its fate with the Marines on the world where they had died.

"No," Alex nodded grimly, perfectly aware why not. "The Marines were deployed to the colony called Hadley's Hope and preceded a careful penetration of the complex in order to make an assessment of the situation. As it turned out, the colony appeared deserted. This was a mining facility possessing what was remarkable technology for its time, an atmosphere processor. The entire colony was built around the nuclear-powered processor, which over a period of decades was supposed to turn an otherwise limited oxygen atmosphere into something a little more hospitable to humans. It was a forerunner to the environmental landscaping we now perform prior to colonization."

"If I recall correctly," Chris remarked. "Those processors were often dangerous because of the nuclear component."

"Yes, they were," she nodded, impressed by Chris's knowledge and supposed the Captain could be a veritable fountain of surprises when he desired to be. "Anyway, not to digress." She returned to the subject at hand because she was certain Chris was more interested in the Marines experiences on Acheron rather than the details of the atmosphere processor.

"The Marines found the colony was deserted and proceeded to make a sweep of the living facility and the colony command centre. It was during this time they discovered the presence of Rebecca Jorden. She was an eight-year-old, hiding in the ventilation shafts and access tunnels under the facility. Apparently, her size made it easy for her to fit into the small spaces and this was how she managed to elude the same fate as the other colonists."

"My God," Julia whispered, feeling a great wave of sympathy for that little girl lost in time and history. "The poor thing."

"Well judging from the images taken from the recorders, the little girl stayed mostly with Ripley. I think they both probably understood the situation better anyone else since they were both only survivors."

There was a moment of silence as those in the room imagined the bond that must have existed between little Rebecca and Ellen Ripley. Two tragic souls finally finding comfort and kinship in the endurance of their private hell. In truth, it made a great deal of sense although if he were here, they were certain Josiah would have a technical term for it.

"Go on." Chris prompted her quietly.

"Rebecca was able to tell them very little and in the girl's state of mind, which was to say understandably traumatised after what she experienced, the Marines chose not to press her too hard for information. There were no bodies in the facility at all but it was clear the colonists uncovered the derelict ship Ripley and the Nostromo stumbled upon." Alex said with a pained sigh and a soft hiss followed the room as everyone grimaced in one way or another, feeling saddened Ripley was right about her fears.

"There were alien spores in the colony laboratory and reports indicating surgical removal was attempted on one of the infected colonists. He died in the attempt. There is also evidence of acid burns in the complex and apparently several sections were barricaded from the inside. The barricades did not hold. However because there were no bodies, the Marines were forced to trace them through personal data transmitters every colonists had surgically implanted. The trace indicated all the colonists were gathered at the atmosphere processor, under the primary heat exchange."

"An unfortunate location." Ezra grimaced. " If I am correct, the weapons of the time utilized projectiles. Had they fired any of them while they were under the primary heat exchange they..."

"They would have ruptured the coolant exchange." Julia finished off for him. "They could have blown themselves sky high. Those atmosphere processors were pretty formidable. We're talking about a blast radius of almost 55 square kilometres."

"Fortunately," Alex spoke an octave higher. "That didn't happen. They realized the potential and went in there with flamethrowers. They found the colonists or what was left of them." Alex paused a moment as she remembers the nightmarish images of bodies suspended against the wall, forced into a terrible tapestry of agony and atrocity beyond imagination, of limbs broken in order to fit the mosaic prepared and that was not even the worst of it.

"The aliens got them," Vin said as a matter of factly. It was not even a question.

"Every last one of them." She nodded. "They were used as hosts. The images I saw revealed an opened egg in front of every colonist. They all had the same wounds, sternum exploding outward."

"Jesus," Chris whispered. What must have Hicks been thinking when faced with all that carnage? He supposed he would never really know, even if he could make an educated guess.

"This is where it gets fuzzy," Alex resumed her narrative after that momentary pause. "It appears one of the colonists were still alive. The Marines found her just in time to see the alien emerge and reacted by incinerating the thing. Unfortunately, it appears these creatures can put themselves in hibernation at will and the sudden commotion woke them all up. There were about 150 colonists, so assuming every one of them were implanted, that number corresponded to how many aliens there were. As far as I can tell, only seven Marines survived the initial encounter. The vital statistics of all the others were terminated then and there. Out of the seven, two life signs readings did not last for more than a few hours. However, these signs were very irregular and I can only assume this was mostly because they were being immobilized the way Cain, the infected member of the Nostromo must have been during embryo implantation."

"What a way to die." Julia gasped again, beyond horror at the nightmare those poor souls must have suffered in their final hours.

"What about the others?" Chris asked. Seven was a lot more than the number of three recorded as having been ejected from the Sulaco much later.

"Well other than the two that were cocooned, the other life signs terminated shortly after belonged to the pilots, Ferro and Spunkmeyer. Spunkmeyer first and then Ferro."

"That is too much of a coincidence." Ezra pointed out. "Both pilots being killed at the same time?"

"Could it have been at midflight?" Vin asked. "I mean that might have explained what happened to the other dropship."

"I think it was. The Sulaco registered a large explosion on the surface about the time Ferro�s life signs were terminated. "I think for one reason or another, she died either piloting the dropship, possibly after it had already taken off. After the disaster in the atmosphere processor, it would make sense the order to evacuate would have been given and I think during the take-off procedure, something caused the dropship to crash, killing both the pilots."

"So they were trapped there," Chris concluded.

"More or less." Alex shrugged because the information after this point was limited. "I�ve confirmed the second dropship, the one that�s on board the Sulaco was launched via remote control from the planet�s surface some hours later. The transmission came from a colony transmitter so I assume what was left of the landing party probably retreated to the colony complex while they tried to bring down the second dropship."

"They must have succeeded," Chris responded. "Three of them made it back here."

"Well the dropship did land on the planet but I went over the hull a short time ago and found residual scorching and radiation levels corresponding with a 40 � 50 megaton nuclear blast. Now the first explosion recorded by the Sulaco was nothing like that so I believe when the first dropship crashed, it damaged the atmosphere processor. As I said, those atmosphere processors were state of the art technology for its time but still limited. A large enough detonation near the core could cause emergency venting."

"So they got away before the blast but only three of them reached the Sulaco." Ezra mused. "Tragic."

"Four actually," Alex said suddenly.

"Four?" Vin exclaimed. "What do you mean four?"

"Remember we kept seeing the reference to a synthetic being on board?" Alex responded with more than a hint of excitement in her voice.

"Yeah," Vin nodded, recalling. "I was going to ask you about it. What�s that about?"

"I think they were referring to an android."

"You mean a pre-Soong model?" Julia sat up and paid close attention, Alex�s enthusiasm infecting her rapidly.

"Yes," Alex grinned. "I mean a pre-Soong model. During the Eugenics War and the Third World War, artificial intelligence was explored on a much larger scale than it is now. The theory of the time was that if robots, as they were called at the time, could be created to mimic humans perfectly, humans would not have to spend months in hibernation during space travel. The engineers of the time made some incredible strides in robotics, far beyond what is achieved now. The earlier models were different internally of course but outwardly; they were near indistinguishable from humans. The very late models were manufactured down to the genetic level. Cut them open and you would have to put their organs under a microscope to know they weren�t real. That�s how exact it was."

"Jesus," Vin exclaimed. "How come we don�t have more of them now?"

"Paranoia." Chris answered, having heard of the androids of the 21st century from his studies. "By the time the Optimum Movement came to being, the Multinationals were toppled and the new regime saw the androids as remnants of that era. They were ordered destroyed, every last one of them. Not only was the models themselves to be eradicated but all the research work and engineering details required to produce them. One hundred years or research in robotics was effectively destroyed. By the time the Third World War had ended, no one could build one even if they wanted to."

"It�s why Noonien Soong had to start from scratch when he chose to build Commander Data of the Enterprise." Julia explained before turning back to Alex. "So you�re saying there was a synthetic on board the Sulaco when the EEV was ejected."

"Yes," Alex nodded. "We have no evidence the EEV made it to Fury 361 intact but if that ship crashed there, then the synthetic might have been on board."

"You think its still on the planet?" Chris realized what captured Alex�s attention so profoundly.

"Why not?" Alex looked at them. "The facility was shut down a short time after the EEV�s arrival there, with the only prisoner surviving whatever took place down there, evacuated. What�s the point of taking the EEV wreckage back to Earth? Chances are the Company would want what took place at Acheron be kept a secret so they would not want any evidence of their complicity to survive. I say they would have left it on Fury and if that the case, what�s left of the synthetic might be down there too."

"That�s a long shot," Julia remarked dubiously.

"I know," Alex nodded. "But if it�s down there, then we have an actual eyewitness to everything that happened, not to mention the only artifact in existence regarding 21st-century robotics."

"Don�t you just love her when she�s all excited." Vin joked and garnered a sarcastic look from Alex.

"So it all comes down to us getting down there," Chris remarked after a brief pause following the completion of Alex�s report.

"More or less." She replied. "We�ve gone as far as we can go on this ship."

"How far away are we from having that dropship prepped for launch?" Chris turned to Julia and Vin.

"A few hours." The engineer answered. "The dropship is in rather good shape for its age. Most of what I have to do now is diagnostic."

"Are we actually going to take that relic down to the surface?" Ezra said distastefully, honestly wishing the idea was not being taken seriously.

"Live a little Ezra," Vin quipped, more than eager to take the ship out for a flight and not about to let Ezra cast any doubts in Chris�s mind regarding the sensibility of it.

"It�s perfectly safe," Julia assured him before giving her lover a devilish look. "Besides, you know I won�t let you get on any ship which I think is unsafe when you could plunge through the atmosphere and burn up into a crispy critter long before you even felt your skin fry." She capped off that colourful description with a smirk just for him.

"Thank you." Ezra frowned sarcastically. "That makes me feel so much better."

"It�s going to make you feel even better to know I�m requesting to stay here." She winked at him. "Captain, I�d like to continue going over the Sulaco. If we intend to tow her back to Deep Space 5 and eventually return her to Earth, I really need to make an in-depth analysis of her systems."

Chris did not know whether he liked to be on the surface without the engineer but then decided there was probably little need for her to accompany them. Besides, in all truth, he would prefer it if someone remained on board the vessel, especially if some misfortune did befall them. With the atmosphere of Fury 361 preventing transporters from being engaged, it was sensible someone stayed behind with the runabout in the instance they required deliverance. Chris doubted there would be anything dangerous at an abandoned prison facility but there was no reason to leave anything to chance.

"Alright," Chris conceded. "Ezra, assign one of your security team to her while she�s on board. No one is staying anywhere alone."

"Are you sure?" Ezra glanced at Julia anxiously, trying not to let personal concerns cloud his professionalism but sometimes it was hard to keep both separate.

"Yes," Julia nodded confidently. "I�ll be fine. Besides, I get to take this place apart at my leisure. How much fun is that?"

+ + + + + + +

This was almost mind-numbingly boring, Lieutenant Atwater thought as he and Ensign Angel walked through the endless corridors running through the length and breadth of the Sulaco. Most of the ship was dedicated to the massive engines that took it from one corner of the galaxy to another. It amazed Atwater, ships travelled this way once, spending years just getting to their destination. He supposed part of his problem was the fact he was spoiled by modern conveniences. How could he possibly imagine a trip of years when warp speed made travel across millions of miles take no more than weeks? Still, it did not alter the fact he was required to inspect this ship from head to toe.

Unlike the Maverick with its well-lit corridors and its desire to make its innards as non-claustrophobic as possible, the Sulaco was the exact opposite. Once they moved away from the main areas of the ship, past the bridge, the steel decked corridors disappeared into one filled with gratings, overhanging bulkheads exposed conduits and dark shadows. Lots of dark shadows. The walls seemed to close in on them as they walked along the dimly lit passageway and Atwater wondered if it was just him or did the air seemed to be stale and thin. He knew it was most likely him because the temperature and the air flow in this part of the ship was the same as it was elsewhere. Not to mention, his younger companion seemed unperturbed by it at all.

Angel, she was called by no other was of Asian extraction. She was no fresh rookie out of the Academy and was edging closer and closer to her first promotion. There was just enough idealism left in her to look upon this assignment with enthusiasm. Give it a couple of years, Atwater thought to himself and the job would erode it well away. They were travelling down a maintenance corridor near the place where the dropship was normally stored when suddenly the path diverged into separate passages. Somehow, he was not up to expending the time of searching each one together when the same job could be done by both of them at the same time since the Chief was pretty adamant about leaving no stone unturned during their inspection of the Sulaco.

"We should split up." He stated.

"Is that a good idea?" Angel asked, unhappy about diverging from the Chief�s orders, even a little. There was something in the way he instructed them to stay together which gave the young woman pause in light of Atwater�s decision to split up. Ezra Standish was no alarmist but when he made it specifically clear for them to stay together; there was usually a good reason for it.

"Look," he grumbled showing her the tricorder. "We�ve gone through half the ship and spotted nothing so far. Whatever happened in this place, we missed it."

"Alright," Angel conceded, aware he could make it an order if he wished. "I�ll take the left and you take the right."

"Good girl," Atwater responded with just enough condescension in his voice to ensure the young woman would be eager to leave him behind. Without saying a further word; Angel took off down the right corridor.

Once she was gone, Atwater made rapid progress down the corridor on his own. The usual readings emerged, indicating nothing but emptiness. As he progressed forward, nearing the hangar bay, the corridor became larger with higher ceilings and he could see the light emanating from the flight deck. He looked down at his tricorder to study the readings of his sweep when suddenly; he saw something that made him freeze in his tracks. At first, he was uncertain of what it was, except it was attached to some large conduits and only a fluke of light allowed him to see it at all.

He took a stealthy step forward and examined the object, which he knew without doubt to be some kind of an egg. A thin film of moisture rested on its leathery surface and though it was dark, the translucence of the texture made it possible for him to see its innards. He could make out very little except a vague shape that seemed to pulse with life at his attention. Fascinated, he glanced at his tricorder, wondering why it had not registered. Perhaps the device was malfunctioning and he shook it just for good measure. However, instead of correcting himself, he was rewarded with a hiss of sound resembling gasses escaping from some pent-up location.

Atwater looked up and saw the egg had unsealed. Thick rivulets of noisome material were oozing out of the open orifice and Atwater stared mesmerized by the pulsing life piercing its long digits through its biological sheath. It occurred to him at that instant this was probably what had the Chief so anxious and started to withdraw. Whether or not the creature about to emerge realized the reason for his retreat, it was not about to take the chance of letting him leave. With almost lighting reflexes, it sprung out of its enclosure and landed squarely on Atwater�s face.

Atwater barely had time to scream and scrambled frantically for his phaser when he felt the creature�s tail began coiling around his throat and its digits pressing harder into his skull. It was only when he felt something wet and slimy sliding towards his mouth, he was reduced to raw panic but by then it was too late.

Far too late.

Chapter Eight: Dropship

Time seemed to edge faster to its destination when one did not wish it to arrive. This was the way Ezra Standish felt the more it drew closer and closer for the dropship launch. Although he still lived with the hope the powers that be, specifically, the Captain would come to his senses and take the runabout, the hope never materialized and as the hour neared to their departure, Ezra resigned himself to the situation. It was not that he did not trust Julia�s ability as an engineer when she claimed the dropship was flight worthy but rather because his internal senses were telling him, there was danger.

Despite the fact that everything Ellen Ripley claimed to have taken place on LV427, occurred almost four hundred years ago and on a planet far away from here, there were still some aspects of this curious tale that felt unfinished. The fact the prison closed shortly after the EEV arrived was too much of a coincidence for Ezra, not to mention the electrical fire that caused the ejection to begin with.

The Sulaco was old and constructed of outdated technology but Ezra did not have to be an engineer to know for its time, it was state of the art. Electrical fires did not start without good reason and as of yet, he had not determined what caused the fire. The cryogenic section where the fire took place was no good to him because much had been jettisoned when the capsules were moved into the EEV. Ezra examined the cryogenic chambers and found nothing out of the ordinary other than the fact a few of the capsules were missing which correlated with what they knew already. What disturbed him, however, was what he found on the floor of the cryogenic chamber floor. It was enough to take him straight to the Captain with his discovery.

"Are you absolutely sure about this?" Chris stared at the security officer sternly; aware Ezra had more than a few objections about going to the surface in the dropship and was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt he was not overreacting just a little.

"I would not bring it to you otherwise," Ezra remarked, hiding his annoyance at Chris even asking him that question. He would not have brought anything to Chris if there were any doubt in his mind about the validity of his information. "There was definite evidence of molecular acid in the cryogenic chamber. I do not know exactly what happened but obviously, an alien presence caused the fire and the EEV to eject."

"Have your security team found any signs of this alien, assuming it exists after 400 years?" Chris asked sceptically. They were in the hangar bay and even as he was having this discussion with Ezra, the others were packing the dropship preparing to leave. While Chris was not about to dismiss Ezra by any means, he felt the security chief might be a little too cautious in this instance.

"No Sir but Ripley�s narration declared the eggs in the hold of the Nostromo could have been there for quite some time. These creatures may be extremely long-lived. It might explain why the prison facility was abandoned."

"Ezra," Chris took a deep breath and tried to hide his impatience with the subject. "If there was a living specimen down there, do you honestly think the Weyland Yutani corporation would have left it there? They were determined to gain possession of the alien and were willing to kill to get it. I seriously doubt there is anything left there to find and even so, we are not going down there with old style projectile weapons, we�re going down there with Starfleet phasers. Whatever is waiting down there, we can handle it."

"I am certain your ancestor and his companions felt the same way," Ezra found himself retorting even though he knew he was pushing too hard. "Let's hope it does not end the same way for us."

"Any other objections Commander?" Chris said coldly, ignoring Ezra�s insubordination because of their friendship.

"No Sir," Ezra responded tautly.

"Good," Chris turned away sharply, not wishing to continue this conversation any more. He knew Ezra was right to be cautious but nothing could be learnt if they stayed up here and unless they made a surface landing of Fiorina, they would never uncover what happened to Ellen Ripley and Chris really needed to know. It was necessary someone knew the truth for justice to be done because of late, there did not seem to be much of it going around.

For such a noble cause, a little risk was worth the price of the paying.

+ + + + + + +

It was almost time to leave and Ezra gathered his security team together in order to select one of them to stay behind with Julia. After what he just discovered in the cryogenic chamber, there was no way he was leaving her on board the Sulaco alone without any protection. Even though the Chief Engineer was more than capable of taking care of herself, she had a less than suspicious nature that could place her at a disadvantage should she be in trouble. Ezra preferred she remained in the company of someone a little more cynical about taking things at faith value and was trained to look into the shadows because Julia clearly preferred the light.

"Ty," Ezra looked in the direction of the Lieutenant who seemed somewhat distracted, not to mention he was sporting a fair bruise on his forehead. "What pray tell happened to you?"

Atwater shifted uncomfortably on his feet and met Ezra�s gaze a few seconds later. "I bumped my head while I was searching through one of the hanger bay corridors. Must have hit it on a large conduit or something. The place is full of them."

Ezra stared at him a long time, feeling something tickle at the back of his mind but unfortunately, his own patience was stretched thin with the Captain�s behaviour and did not give it much credence, taking took Atwater at his word. "Next time, be more careful. We will not be in the vicinity of a surgeon for some time. Do you think you are up to remaining on the ship?"

"Sure Chief," Atwater responded unable to deny the opportunity to remain on board the Sulaco was not unwelcomed. His head was throbbing and his stomach did not feel very good. Though he could still do his job, he would prefer it if he did not have to face the ordeal of landing on Fury 361 on that relic of a dropship, the Captain intended taking down to the surface.

"Good," Ezra nodded. "Chief Engineer Pemberton is staying on board to conduct further analysis of the Sulaco so you are to provide her with an escort. I do not want her going anywhere on board this ship alone, is that understood?"

Something tried to resurface through the fog of Atwater�s memory but it refused to come. Something about not being alone. It slipped out of his grasp the more he tried to remember and in the end, Atwater merely decided if it wanted to stay buried so desperately perhaps it was not worth worrying about anyway. "Yes, Sir. I�ll make sure she�s safe." He said with some measure of pride a second later.

Everyone knew the relationship Ezra Standish shared with Chief Engineer Pemberton and Ezra would only leave someone behind he really trusted to guard her life. To think the Chief thought of him first gave Ty Atwater a good feeling.

"I will hold you to that Mr Atwater," Ezra threw him a confident smile. "The rest of you will accompany the landing party to the surface. The Captain," Ezra paused as he forced his anger towards Chris to someplace a lot less obvious because it did not do for a senior officer to reveal his doubt regarding the Captain to junior crewmembers, before speaking again. "The Captain believes the facility is unoccupied. While there is no evidence to indicate he is wrong, there is no evidence to prove he is right either, so we will proceed with extreme caution."

Atwater barely heard the words his commanding officer was speaking because his mind returned to the same place it had been revisiting ever since he woke in that empty corridor, feeling this hoarseness in his throat and the sore contusion on his head. He remembered entering the darkened confines and seeing something, he was not sure what, before the world suddenly enveloped him in darkness so potent he could not breathe and then there was nothing. Yet instinct told him it was vitally important he remembered before it was too late.

If it was not already.

The engines hummed as much as something requiring high-octane chemical fuel to burn could hum. It was a harsher sound than the warp engines which had a more fluid feel to it while this had edges and definite vocal shape. Vin would be hard pressed to explain what that meant to someone who did not know how to listen. Like every pilot who ever sat behind the controls of their chosen mode of travel, Vin accustomed himself to all the nuances of the dropship�s rumble as the engines finally kicked into life. Like most vehicles, this one did not appreciate a cold start and so the process of taking off had to be gradual. It did not take him long to study the controls and though this craft was no starship, it was nonetheless a complex business to master. Fortunately, being Vulcan meant he was able to process information a great deal faster than humans and nowhere was the trait more useful than in instances such as these.

His fingers moved over the controls swiftly, having memorized where everything was and what it did prior to this moment. His enthusiasm made him an even faster study than usual because Vin did not care so much about going to Fiorina, but rather getting there. He knew it was important for Chris to go to the surface of the planet and therefore encouraged it, aware something needed to take the Captain�s mind from the dark place it was presently inhabiting. Although, he was not entirely certain a prison facility with too many secrets of its own was the best idea. Nevertheless, he conducted the pre-flight preparations while hearing the movement of the others behind him as they set up inside the main passenger bay.

"Hey." Alex suddenly appeared next to him as she entered the small cockpit and slid into the co-pilot�s seat. "How�s she doing?"

"She purrs." He grinned, feeling even more complete now Alex was at his side.

"You do love your toys." She smiled at him as she shifted into her seat as if trying it on for size. "I might stay up here with you when we take off. To tell you the truth it�s getting a little frosty back there." She glanced over her shoulder as if she could see through the closed cockpit door.

"Chris and Ezra?" Vin hazarded a guess.

"Yeah." She nodded with an unhappy frown on her face. "Ezra�s not happy about going down there in this but I don�t think it�s just the dropship," Alex said quickly before Vin felt guilty about insisting they take the dropship to the surface. "I think he�s uneasy about what�s waiting down there for us. You know Ezra, he sees danger in unanswered questions."

"I know Ezra," Vin nodded and started to wonder if perhaps he had been a little bit foolish about taking the dropship to the surface. He would love to take this craft out but not at the expense of the crew, especially if Ezra was right and he almost always was. "Thing is, he usually has a good reason to be." Forcing away the disappointment, Vin turned to Alex. "Maybe I ought to talk to Chris about taking the runabout."

"No," Alex stopped him before he went any further. "I don�t think it will do any good. We�re barely here for him as it is. All he�s been doing since we heard that narrative of Ripley�s is to go through her things and Hicks. Its like he�s searching for something."

"He needs to know he�s doing something right Alex," Vin explained, understanding the Captain a great deal more than anyone because of their close friendship. "He couldn�t save Adam and Sarah. Hell he can�t even prove their deaths were not accidental. You�ve seen the communication logs. He�s been talking to investigators and anyone who will listen at Starfleet Headquarters about the possibility of it being murder. So far, the most he�s got from them is an acknowledgement of something peculiar taking place on board the shuttle before the accident but nothing that could be considered murder. This is something he can prove, something he can show Starfleet, happened. It�s not because he�s obsessed, its because he feels if he can�t do right by Sarah and Adam at least he can do right by those people who died at LV427."

Alex stared at him and realized how different he was from the shy man who first arrived on the Maverick months ago. He shed the insecurity of being different and now embraced the person he was without fear of recriminations from either the Vulcans or the humans he served with. With his new sense of confidence, he had come out of his shell dramatically and though he would always be a quiet personality, he was also the bravest, most sincere, not to mention unswervingly loyal being she ever encountered. It was good to know part of his awakening had to do with their friendship. When they first met, it was she who provided him support through those difficult formative months on board the Maverick. Now it was he who kept the demons away from her and around Vin at least, Alex did not feel the need to be quite so tough.

"When did you get so wise?"

"We Vulcans mature a lot faster." He grinned turning back to the controls. "Of course, I still don�t get Buck�s fascination with seeing a woman in a thong but I figure it will happen soon enough."

"And we all wait in anticipation for that day. So, how long until take off?"

"Another twenty minutes or so and we�re ready to go." He replied, now that the tender moment between them had passed.

"I�ll go tell the Captain," Alex said pushing herself out of the chair, uttering a slight groan of displeasure as she did so because she was starting to get comfortable. "He wants to get underway as soon as possible."

+ + + + + + +

She was right.

Chris did want to leave immediately. No sooner than after Alex informed him the pre-flight preparations were almost completed, Chris was barking orders left right and centre to the landing party to move at double time, so that they could be ready to leave as soon as the Vulcan was done. Ezra restrained himself from showing any more opposition to their plans because it appeared the Captain was not about to change them on his account. The security chief took personal charge of the weapon cache they would be taking to Fury 361 because he was leaving nothing to chance. If indeed the facility was what it was meant to be, abandoned and benign, then he would be the first one to concede to the Captain he overreacted. If however, it was not an over reaction, if there was something down there, then they would at least be prepared to face it. Not only did Ezra fill the drop ship with phaser rifles but he also restocked the drop ship from the Sulaco�s arsenal.

The weapons he found in the armoury, though primitive in comparison to the phaser and phaser rifles he brought from the Maverick, were still very effective. The lack of atmosphere in the ship kept the weapons well preserved with almost no deterioration taking effect on the metal or any of the chemical compounds making them function. Ezra checked each one carefully before putting them inside the dropship as a contingency if anything should go wrong. For the duration of their pre-launch preparations, Ezra and the captain gave each other a wide berth.

"I'll be fine," Julia reassured Ezra as he was about to board the dropship with the others. She could see through the facade of cautious and indifferent warnings he was issuing her, just how uncomfortable he was about having her stay here. However, the persona of Commander Standish would not allow him to show it. Still, Julia knew ever since their encounter with Q where she had been for a few hours dead, Ezra was doubly protective of her. Julia still had difficulty envisioning for a while she had been dead to her friends and chose to deal with the whole episode by thinking of it as little as possible, but she could not expect Ezra to forget how it must have felt.

"I promise," she said taking his hand and holding it to her heart. "I will not go anywhere without Mr Atwater here." She glanced at the somewhat pale Lieutenant who offered Ezra a salute to indicate he was just as determined to follow that order.

"See that you do," Ezra said gruffly, not wanting to fuss but could not shake the feeling there was danger in this whole situation.

"Julia," Chris made himself heard as he ushered the rest of the security team into the craft. "You sure you're going to be okay here?"

"Like I said," Julia sighed. "I'll be fine. You guys get going. See if you can land us that synthetic."

"You bet. We can write our paper together." Alex winked as she walked up the ramp. "Captain, I'm going to take the co-pilot's seat if that's okay with you." She asked as she prepared to disappear into the hull.

"Sure," Chris nodded. "Go ahead."

"Hey," Vin's voice spoke up once more through the combadge, with more than a note of playfulness in it. "Do I have to start honking the horn? Daylight is a wasting."

A small ripple of laughter followed suit and Chris rolled his eyes. "Hang on to your britches there pard, we're coming."

"I might remind you, Lieutenant," Ezra retorted as he started walking towards the ramp, sealing his departure from Julia with a little kiss on the lips as she waved goodbye. "That there is no daylight on board a spaceship."

"Killjoy," Vin muttered back.

"Good luck!" Julia called out as she and Lieutenant Atwater watched the rest of the Maverick's crew disappear up the narrow step ramp into the belly of the dropship. She could see Vin through the cockpit window. The helmsman smiled at her and waved, just as Alex moved past him and placed herself into the seat by him. Despite herself, Julia felt a sense of loss at not accompanying them and knew she was being foolish. She had work to do and so much of it she probably would not even have time to miss her friends and Ezra.

Besides, they would be back before she knew it.

+ + + + + + +

"We're in Vin," Chris informed the helmsman by way of his combadge after pulling the ramp and hatch close, sealing them inside.

"Everyone strapped in?" Vin's voice filled the passenger bay through his communicator. "This will be a bumpy ride so I'm not going anywhere until everyone is secured." As much as he wanted to begin this flight, he was absolutely serious about that statement. He was risking no one's life just to satisfy a personal whim.

Chris, who was last to be seated, immediately fastened the safety belt around his body and noticed everyone else checking their fastenings in one way or another, following Vin's statement. A few seconds passed before it was decided everyone had taken the necessary precautions.

"We're secure," Chris spoke up on all their behalf a moment later.

"As much as anyone could be in this crate." Ezra frowned.

"Where's your sense of adventure Chief?" Lieutenant Sue Collins grinned at her commanding officer. The blond was a veteran security officer whom Ezra rescued from a lesser assignment on one of the colony worlds and was one of the few people who ever played him to a draw. Her quick thinking secured her a place on the Maverick and Ezra liked her because she was never afraid to speak her mind.

Although he had yet to decide whether that was always such a good thing.

"I must have left it in my other uniform." The security officer remarked dourly.

"Prepare for drop sequence," Vin announced once more and everyone fell silent with anticipation as the journey prepared to begin.

Though they could see none of it happening, they could hear and feel what was taking place outside the passenger bay. The huge clamps gripping the dropship firmly began to move with a loud hiss, shaking them in their seats for a moment before they accustomed themselves to the forward momentum of its mechanics and depressing hydraulics. The ship slid along the enormous titanium rails supporting it until it was removed from the berth where it had remained for the better part of four hundred years. The rails carried it swiftly and smoothly to the other side of the deck, towards the drop chute in the centre of the hangar floor.

By now, Julia and Atwater would be continuing their observation of the craft's departure from a pressurized viewing room on the other side of the hangar wall. The dropship soon reached the chute door. Previously, all that could be seen of this huge opening was nothing more than the fine seams on the steel deck. However, as the dropship prepared to leave the Sulaco, the clamps holding the small craft came to a standstill with a sudden jolt and those previously unseen doors slid open loudly. Once they were fully apart, the opening revealed the illumination of Fiorina below them as well as creating something of a whirlwind as the deck began to depressurize.

"Ten." Vin's countdown to their drop began echoing through the insides of the small ship.










Marks away." Vin concluded with calm, even though everything happening after would not be.

The clamps released the dropship, creating a great explosion of sound as the vessel plunged through the floor into the air below. It would fall for several hundred meters before Vin would engage the engines and guide it safely to the planet under its own power.

To Fury 361 and all its secrets.

Chapter Nine: Fury 361

When the dropship entered the atmosphere of Fury 361, it was quickly discovered to be no less redeeming from the surface as it was from space. Penetrating the thick shield of cumulous encasing the world, the skies surrounding them were just as grey and dour as the clouds left behind. The landscape below seemed as colourless and from the air, it was difficult to tell where Fiorina's brackish seas began and where the barren landmasses ended. Both seemed to be painted with the same pallid brush and one could imagine how easy it was for those first surveyors of Fiorina to deem the only appropriate use for it was as a prison facility.

The dropship performed remarkably well for a craft not seen use in almost four hundred years. The ride from the Sulaco was anything but smooth but this was to be expected with the method of departure from its mother ship. Once entering the atmosphere, the dropship managed to give them a tolerable ride which was no easy feat considering the instrument read high winds sweeping through the atmosphere outside. Not to mention the perpetual rain storm that always seemed to be coming down hard on the planet, no matter what corner of it a visitor may choose to take shelter. The climate of Fiorina was a mix of rain, humidity and wind creating a lusty amalgam of sweltering heat that could be imagined by all members of the crew before they even stepped out of the dropship.

The smooth descent evolved into turbulence the closer they reached the surface. Using the coordinates found on the Sulaco which detailed the exact point of landing for the EEV, the dropship had little trouble finding the prison facility on the grim world. The EEV was programmed to choose its landing site based on its proximity to human civilization and though the trip through the atmosphere was fraught with disaster, for the most part, it completed its mission successfully. The dropship struggled against the rushing winds, determined to make them pay for every inch of air as it attempted to land. Fortunately, for one such as Vin who was accustomed to flying more than a million tons of starship whilst wrestling with spacial phenomena, gravimetric disturbances and close encounters with the event horizons of everything from neutrons stars to black holes, this was moderately challenging, nothing more.

As the dropship lowered them into the prison complex, they managed to get a vague view of it. The mining facility was closed but evidence of it still remained in the abandoned foundry and steel works. The prison itself was a small part of the facility and it appeared most of the space was relegated to the commercial activities taking place here. However, a precise view of everything was not possible because the sheets of rain battering the abandoned structures, made visibility poor and the humidity obscured everything beyond the immediate range of their landing site. The landing pad was located well away from the mining centre and was a short distance from the prison itself.

Landing struts extended outwards as the craft slowly descended onto the bitumen paved landing pad, now overrun with cracks from centuries of disuse and neglect. The heavy indentations of the struts dug into the crumbling tar for a few seconds before the weight crushed it as far as it would go and then allowed the ship to steady itself after. The wind was momentarily drowned by the sound of powerful engines roaring and across the complex, its arrival echoed through the empty rooms and silent corridors. Twenty minutes after the ship finally made its landing, the hatch opened and its occupants started to make their exit.

Chris wiped the rain from his face once he stepped out of the dropship into the open air. His eyes immediately began to survey the area and found things no different from when he had viewed it from aloft. It was just as humid and the rain was still as heavy, only now he had a chance to experience it first hand. It was coming down hard but the heat of the place was such the water against his skin felt pleasant rather than cold. The facility looked every much as abandoned and aged as he imagined, he could hear what was probably an unlocked door swinging close back and forth somewhere and the shutters belonging to a window in the nearest structure to them was swaying pendulously in momentum to the wind.

"Captain," Alex called out as she descended behind him. The rain plastered jet-coloured hair to her face and she had to brush errant strands from her eyes as she tried to focus on her tricorder. "There's some kind of airborne parasite in the air." Her face wrinkled with distaste.

"Charming." Ezra Standish followed closely behind, after giving his security officers instructions to survey the immediate area. Angel, Collins and Christie spread out across the tarmac, their phaser rifles before them as they proceeded to ensure the area was secured for their Away Team. "Are they harmful?"

"Not really," Alex continued to study the readings on the tricorder, squinting the rain out of her eyes. "But they apparently feed on keratin, specifically the type found in human hair. We'll have to be vaccinated against it or they'll start feeding on ours."

"Cannot we simply offer them Lieutenant Tanner as a smorgasbord offering? With those long locks of his...." Ezra grinned.

"I'll let you tell him that." Chris gave the security chief a look. "Are they harmful in any other way?" He asked, instinctively wiping his face as if he could feel the microscopic parasites on his skin already.

"No," She shook her head. "They're mostly composed of keratin. I don't detect any requirement for human tissue. I don't think they can process it."

Ensign Ian Christie, a tall young man almost as solidly built as the Canadian forests he called home, emerged from the nearby building and immediately approached the command officers. "Chief, the primary vicinity is clear."

"Thank you," Ezra responded and turned to the Captain. "Shall we Sir?"

To no one surprise, Chris was already on his way there.

+ + + + + + +

A short time later, they set up camp in what appeared to be an office of some type. There was office furniture left behind, ravaged and deteriorated in the humid weather despite being away from the harsh rain and wind outside. Papers covered the floor and personal effects like a coffee mug and some pictures were left behind. The picture was faded beyond sepia and made those who were figured prominently in them seemed rather jaundiced. There was a communications terminal of some sort but the state of it did not give Alex much hope for garnering anything useful from it.

During this time, she took the opportunity to vaccinate everyone from the ravages of the micro-organism threatening to leave them devoid of hair if allowed to rampage unchecked. Fortunately, Nathan had been adept enough to provide every kind of protection he could possibly imagine they might need and Alex was never more grateful to find a remedy that could be injected through means of a hypospray to discourage their keratin feeding assailants. Ezra had asked Alex to vaccinate his security officers first so that they could be sent out for reconnaissance while the Captain decided his next move.

"They left in a hurry," Vin remarked as Alex pressed the hypospray to his skin while he was reading one of the yellowed papers in his hand. "They didn't even bother to clear out the files. I'm reading what looks to be some prisoner's record." Vin's blue eyes moved over the page. "Clemens. A medical technician or something."

"There is no way they could get a doctor out here," Chris responded automatically. "Too far away from a holo-golf course. I guess they had to make do with what they could get."

"Most of these sentences were commuted," Ezra added, going through the same papers himself. "According to the dates, a lot of these men served their time in these fair surroundings but chose to remain after their sentences were done."

"That's weird," Alex commented, moving onto the Security Chief who offered her his arm without taking his eyes off the documentation he was reading.

"Not necessarily," he explained. "These men were double Y chromosome offenders, rapists, serial killers, multi-homicide criminals. Their opportunities on Earth with that attached to their record would have been most inconvenient. They may have chosen to remain here simply because it would be less daunting than attempting to reintegrate into society."

"Ezra's right." Chris agreed with the security chief's assessment. "The penal system in those days was next to barbaric. There was no such thing as rehabilitation, not really. Maybe what they couldn't find on Earth, they found here, where no one could bother them."

"I suppose." She shrugged and vaccinated herself finally. Once she depressed the hypospray's contents into her arm, she turned her attention to the computer terminal that might hold some of the answers to what had happened here after the EEV crashed.

"Do you think you can get that thing working?" Chris asked as he saw her pull the CPU from its niche in the wall.

"Ewww!" She jumped back startled as her efforts sent some rather big, large roaches scurrying about from the place where she dislodged the terminal. "I hate those things."

Vin looked at her in astonishment. "You're kidding." The urge to smile was overwhelming but he held his amusement in check, aware it could land him a knuckle sandwich.

"I don't like bugs," Alex complained. "Especially big ones."

"You are a science officer!" Ezra exclaimed just as stunned. "You were the one who dissected that one-foot slug on Primus 2 with green ooze all over your hands and you are complaining about insects, especially small insects?"

"Sometimes I even hate the ones in uniform." She looked at him sweetly.

"As riveting as this conversation is," Chris cut in impatiently, "can we get back to business?"

"Sorry Sir," Alex apologized and returned to her examination of the CPU. Pulling the metal case off the internal works, she surveyed the state of the components and their levels of degradation. "I'll have to change some of these wires," she remarked, talking more to herself than the others. "There's been a lot of moisture deterioration. I think the chips are fine though, these things were made to last, especially out here. They're also made to accept generic parts, nothing too specific for the sake of expediency I suppose. Nothing worse than being so far from Earth and not have any spare parts."

"So we'll be able to get something off them." Chris was encouraged by this news.

"I think so." Alex fingered the collection of wires and damaged components attached to the faded circuit board. She was certain she could scrounge out the parts needed to repair the device to retrieve the data from the hard disk. However, in the event she was unsuccessful, Alex did not believe all was entirely lost. If necessary, she would rig the hard disk directly to the tricorder and let the sophisticated instrument create the interface necessary to download all the information necessary to answer the Captain's burning questions. The tricorder's strengths were its ability as an adaptive interface and were equal to the task with even the most complex alien hardware, far more formidable than this relic from another age. "If I can't get this thing going, I'll just link a direct interface from the CPU to the tricorder and download the information. I would prefer to try and get it running first though."

"Fine," Chris responded although he was eager to learn what happened to Ripley and her companions after coming to this desolate place. Still, there was a great deal of prison to explore and there was no reason to let the present obstacles prevent him from the beginning that particular tour. "I'm going to take a look around."

"Where you go, so shall I fearless leader," Ezra remarked as he stood up from the desk on which he had been sitting reading the hard-copied remnants of the prison records.

"Ezra," Chris grumbled wishing the security officer were not so damn adamant about these things sometimes. Chris wanted to make his explorations alone but the look in Ezra's eyes told him plainly Ezra was not going to let him wander about alone. "I'll be fine. There isn't anything here to worry about."

"With all due respect Sir," Ezra met his gaze directly and the set of the southerner's jaw was one Chris recognized as bald stubbornness to relent. "I do not believe we have the data to make that kind of determination as of yet."

Vin chose wisely to stay out of the confrontation, deciding the best way to remain friends with both was to remember the chain of command. He ranked below Chris and Ezra and was not about to meddle in what was clearly an issue of protocol. Besides, he did not think Chris ought to be walking around on his own either. While his fears were not based on an alien creature jumping out of the shadows, he was always in favour of someone watching the Captain's back. Since Ezra had volunteered, Vin could stay close to Alex because he was not eager for her to be alone here either.

"Ezra, you sound like my mother." Chris pointed out.

"Well Captain, your behaviour is somewhat chi..."

Fortunately, Ezra was interrupted before he was allowed to finish that particular remark. Lieutenant Collin's voice echoed through from Ezra's com badge. "Commander Standish, come in."

All discussion was cut short as three sets of eyes turned to Ezra as he tapped on his com badge to respond. "Standish here." He said shortly. "What is it, Sue?"

"We found something."

"Well do not leave us in the dark," Ezra returned sharply. "What pray tell have you discovered on your wanderings through this charming facility?" His sarcasm was lost on no one.

"The Emergency Ejection Vehicle Sir," Collins responded promptly. "The EEV."

+ + + + + + +

She did not know how long after they were gone that she finally ventured from the bridge.

The first order of business once she had the place to herself was to run a diagnostic program on all systems on board the Sulaco. Since their arrival on the old Earth ship, Julia had activated the primary systems like life support and climate control to serve their immediate needs. However, now time permitted, she could conduct a more detailed inspection of the Sulaco and see how capable the vessel was to make the journey home to Earth. There was no doubt in her mind the Sulaco would make its final trip home after so many centuries lingering in the wilderness. Historians and engineers alike would be clamouring to see the ship, a remnant of a bygone era. So few of the vessels from the mid 21st century survived the Third World War which was part of the reason Zefram Cochrane was forced to construct his warp ship from an old ICBM.

Julia could not deny she was excited to work on the Sulaco because once the vessel returned to Earth, it would be thrust into the hands of so many others and out of her reach forever. More specialized teams would be assigned to study it and her own responsibilities on the Maverick would ensure Julia would never get the opportunity to study the ship as she did now. This was her one chance of touching a piece of history and though she denied herself the chance to accompany the Captain on his quest to Fiorina, Julia was convinced she made the better choice for herself. Besides, she doubted anything Chris Larabee could find on the abandoned mining facility of Fiorina 361 could compare to the Sulaco itself.

Although Ezra had instructed Ty Atwater to stay close to her, Julia had given the security officer permission to get some rest. Shortly after the dropship had gone to Earth and Julia received a transmission from Vin Tanner informing her they had arrived safely at their destination, she noticed that Atwater did not at all seem well. Julia was fairly confident they were alone on the Sulaco and doubted anything was going to emerge from the shadows. Nevertheless, she promised to carry her phaser on her at all times and sent Atwater to the runabout to lie down. His colour seemed off and though he was trying his best to hide it, she was certain he was feeling a lot worse than he let on.

Her diagnostic of the main systems indicated there were minor failures in some areas caused mostly by the lack of maintenance. Interfacing with the computer self-maintenance routine, she was able to discern what needed doing and discovered a healthy supply of components were available in the Sulaco's stores. Like every military organization throughout history, the Colonial Marines bureaucracy operated in more or less the same way; never pay for one when you can get two. Leaving the bridge, she went to the storeroom and found a wealth of supplies for every possible failure the Sulaco might experience.

Julia collected what she needed and set out on her personal quest to conduct repairs on the systems registering malfunctions. Setting out with her toolkit, she began replacing components in sectors needing it. A fuse here, a blown circuit there, the list was really quite minor. Julia had to commend the engineers of the day who had put the Sulaco together. They had built the craft to weather any kind of storm and despite its age, the Sulaco had the last four centuries in relatively good shape. Time slipped past without her even being aware of it and before she knew it, she had completed all but one item on her repair list.

Entering the narrow passageway near the hanger, she could see the bright glare of the fluorescent lights emanating from the deck as she stood in the dimly lit passenger deck. According to her list, there was a blown power relay somewhere along the lines of electrical conduit that might go some way to explaining why the lights were so dim. The level of luminance was so dark that everything was covered in shadows and in a corridor composed mostly of cast iron, it was just plain dangerous to go bumping into things.

Julia found the malfunctioning power relay and spent the next ten minutes installing new components in place of the old. Her fingers moved swiftly through the tangle of wires and switches as she conducted her repairs and suddenly the narrow passageway was filled from end to end with clarifying white light. Shadows disappeared and the strange lengths that bounced dark as some things bounced light, suddenly gained definition. Under the cold glare of artificial lighting, it seemed nowhere as sinister and Julia felt infinitely proud of her accomplishment.

Until she saw the unsealed egg attached to a bulkhead.

At first, she did not understand what it was. The engineer in her still tried hard to identify the shape as something connected to the ship. It was not until she had drawn close enough to be able to stare down the emptiness of the biological container, did she realize the full magnitude of the situation that had suddenly come out of nowhere and swallowed her whole. Julia felt her heart pounding in her ears as she studied the unsealed egg, covered in greasy resinous material that reminded her of the clear lubricating grease she sometimes used in her work. It trickled down the sides of the egg, hardened to almost the strength of epoxy.

Her palms were sweating when she reached for her com badge and tapped it lightly. "Lieutenant Atwater."

There was no answer.

The fear started to become more palpable. It became something she could feel pressing up against her almost as closely as the corridor around her. She could feel it snake up her spine like icy tendrils and for the first time, she began to develop an acute empathy for Ripley's terrifying ordeal.

"Atwater!" She hissed.

It occurred to her he might not answer because he was unable and suddenly her fear rescinded momentarily for a stronger emotion; fear for his life. She left her tools where she stood and bolted out of the corridor, her hand clutching her phaser tight in her palm as she emerged into the hangar. Her eyes searched the deck and found her destination soon enough. The runabout was sitting inconspicuously in the middle of the hangar, which seemed a great deal larger now the dropship was gone. Julia noticed the doors of the runabout were closed and wondered if Atwater sensing danger had sealed himself inside. Impossible. She told herself. He would never do that without her. Julia quickly arrived at the vessel and activated the hatch. The doors slid open and she entered without thinking twice. In retrospect, she supposed she should have prepared herself.

"Oh Ty," Julia stared at the grisly scene before her and asked mutely. "Why didn't you ask for help?"

The scene before her was nothing less than grisly. There was blood across the panels, on the floor and on the seats. Atwater was lying on his side against the floor, his face a rictus of unbelievable agony. His gold-coloured uniform was blood red and lying near his stomach almost like some vile afterbirth, was what was left of his internal organs from the beneath the sternum. The scent of blood was overpowering and Julia almost wretched in disgust. The runabout was made to keep its occupants safe from a warp field. Sealing oneself inside was as close to a self-contained environment as one could get. She could imagine him coming in here, attempting to find a reason for his failing health. Sometime after sealing himself in here, the alien chose to make its emergence and the agony Atwater must have endured would have kept him from contacting her as well as trapping his screams inside the runabout. Through the sheer panic of her thoughts, Julia wondered if he knew what was growing inside him.

Growing inside him.

The instant the thought emerged inside her mind, she heard it. No more than a foot high at the moment, it was covered in blood and flesh, most of which was Atwater's. Julia could hardly make it out except to note it had no eyes and it moved with surprising speed. It lunged out of nowhere, spiriting straight past her and bearing its serrated teeth in defiance as Julia stumbled out of its way in shock. The creature, having waited for its chance to escape the runabout, did not waste it and scrambled out of the open hatch. Julia fired her phaser at the last minute, impacting a few inches behind it and being rewarded with another angry screech before it disappeared from view.

She raced after it, cursing her poor response at allowing it to leave the runabout. She exited the craft just in time to see the newborn entering an open grill in the floor and disappearing into a maintenance shaft.

"Damn!" Julia swore angrily, unable to keep chiding herself for the next few seconds at her lack of performance. However, when her recriminations with herself ended; Julia realized she had a bigger problem on her hands.

The alien was loose on the ship.

Chapter Ten: Bishop

It was possible it was raining even harder than before when the Away Team gathered in what passed for the mining facilities� refuse dump after Lieutenant Collin�s announced what she found during her reconnaissance sweep. Large heavy droplets consistent with a storm gaining momentum pounded the surface of everything as they emerged out into the open, splattering as they made hard contact. The wind sweeping through the air created waves of water in mid-air and they could see its current by the angled descent of rainfall. Overhead, the clouds appeared thicker until no part of the pale sky could be seen at all and it felt not like morning as it was on Fiorina, but rather late afternoon, almost twilight.

Alex looked up at the sky with a troubled expression on her face, particularly after she took readings of the storm brewing. High energy particles in the atmosphere were creating an unfortunate mix she did not at all like, particularly in regards with what it would do to their communication equipment. Suddenly Alex had a good idea why Fiorina was never considered a world worthy of colonization. Tapping the com badge on her uniform, she made an exploratory attempt to contact the Sulaco.

"Julia, come in." She spoke up and captured the attention of everyone around her.

She was greeted with nothing but a near incoherent cackling sound. "Julia," Alex rose her eyes to meet Ezra�s. "Come in."

Once again, there was only that burst of static crackling away into nothingness. To be certain it was not merely her com badge that was malfunctioning, Ezra made a similar attempt to contact the ship. He too was greeted with the same silence marking the end of Alex�s last attempts.

"Why can�t we contact the ship?" Chris asked when it became clear their communications with the Sulaco was disrupted.

"Its nothing serious," Alex immediately responded wanting to diffuse the situation before it escalated everyone�s concern into panic. "The same atmospheric properties that make transport impossible is a little more pronounced because of the present weather patterns. I would say the storms are part of it. Our communications blackout will last as long as the storms. Once it clears, it should dissipate to normal levels again."

"What if there is an emergency?" Ezra asked immediately, not to be deterred by the simple explanations because even if it was a natural phenomenon, it did not change the fact they were cut off from the Sulaco and the runabout until the storm ended.

"We can always use the radio on the dropship," Vin suggested.

"That would only be effective if Julia is listening in on the radio. She would expect us to contact her via our com badges." The security chief retorted, pressing the issue.

"Look," Chris let out a deep breath, not about to turn back when the EEV was only a short distance away. "Let�s not panic." He gave Ezra a warning look and continued. "The situation is far from dangerous. Communications is out but its only temporary, yes?" He glanced at Alex for confirmation.

"Yes, Sir." She nodded in response. "I estimate we should have communications online once the storm passes."

"We have no idea how long that could be and in the meantime, we might run into danger." Ezra countered quickly.

"If that happens," Chris bristled, not at all liking the adversarial stance Ezra was taking with him. "Then we will abort the mission and return to the Sulaco. However," his voice filled with open menace as he delivered a scathing rendition of the Larabee glare towards the security chief, "for the moment, there is no reason why we cannot continue our investigations. Is there not?"

"No Sir," Ezra muttered unhappily and the tension was so thick between the senior staff for a brief instance no one spoke.

"That EEV is in pretty bad shape," Vin spoke up after the pause, playing mediator as he attempted to soothe the escalating tempers between his captain and the security chief.

The helmsman could tell Ezra was fast reaching a point where he would refuse to back down, protocol or not. Vin knew it and Alex knew it too. When that happened, he would come right up against the brick wall of Chris Larabee�s worst and no one wanted to see that in all its horrific glory. However, one thing had come out of this. Vin secretly came to the decision it was time he and his best friend had the conversation he had been putting off because Chris was also his captain. Even Vin could not ignore the erratic way Chris was behaving. Under normal circumstances, everything Ezra pointed out would be taken with due consideration, not regarded as some obstacle to circumvent for Chris to get his way.

Most of the biological refuse had been taken care of by decomposition and other natural causes, so the remainder of garbage was composed mostly of plastics, metal and other miscellaneous items found to be obsolete when the facility was being dismantled. The EEV suffered the same climatic wear although there was little evidence of rust across the hull because of the nature of the metals it was constructed with. Where there was a largely iron component, oxidization had done its worst with rust almost completely engulfing it. There was a gaping hole in the hull that told the Away Team something of the landing it made on Fiorina. Large dents and torn metal across the titanium hull indicated a severe crash and it was a miracle if any of its passengers survived the landing.

"It's been sitting out in the open for the last four hundred years," Alex responded, braving the rain as she strode into the middle of the junk pile. "In this climate, it�s a miracle it isn�t a rusted out piece of scrap."

"I beg to differ," Ezra grumbled as he strode in after the science officer, ensuring she did not enter the transport alone. Chris and Vin followed closely behind and the Captain felt slightly annoyed once again, his overprotective officers had gone in ahead of him, in their efforts to ensure the area was safe enough for his presence. Collins remained outside in the rain, her eyes keeping a close watch on the surrounding area, while the senior staff made a close inspection of the dilapidated building.

"This was one hell of a crash," Vin observed as they stepped inside the small space and were immediately confronted with the metallic smell of rust in the air. The inside of the craft was mostly dry beyond the gaping hole in its side but the rust penetrated deeply into the structure nonetheless. Evidence of the crash was everywhere, in the wiring draped loosely over their heads, the shattered cryotubes and torn superstructure. A support beam had crashed straight through one of the tubes and the brown discolouration on the broken glass around it could only be one thing; blood.

"Is that what I think it is?" Ezra asked as they stared at the faded residue of dried blood, now seeped well and truly into the glass that not even time could erase. When it was fresh, it must have splattered against the glass with great force and suddenly the support beam that crushed the cryo-tube became the leading suspect in the death that must have resulted from so much blood being spilt.

"Yes," Alex confirmed it with her tricorder and then discovered something else. Her expression turned dark and for a moment she tried to think of how to relay what she saw on the readings she had taken. Prior to leaving the Sulaco, she downloaded all the personnel records into the tricorder, in case they needed to refer to it while they were on Fiorina 361. It was nothing more than a bit of meticulous foolishness and Alex hadn�t really thought she might need it until now.

"What is it?" Chris caught the look in her eyes a fraction faster than Vin and Ezra.

"I�m sorry Captain," she swallowed thickly, trying to word her next sentence carefully. "The DNA residue of the blood in this cryotube matches one of the Colonial Marines."

Chris sucked in his breath. There was no need for her to explain. The only passenger of the EEV who was a Colonial Marine was Hicks. Turning away from her, Chris stared at the cryo-tube as everyone fell silent, trying to imagine what must be running through his mind or his heart. The Captain of the Maverick felt a deep sense of loss and futility for his ancestor, who he had never given more than a second thought before they had encountered the Sulaco.

After everything that he endured on Acheron, Chris found it incredibly unfair Hicks would meet his end in an accident like this. Fighting aliens and escaping a thermonuclear explosion only to be crushed to death when their EEV crashed. Chances were good Hicks probably had no idea what hit him. He would have gone to sleep in his cryotube, expecting to get home unaware he would never wake up again. It was a far more merciful end to his being awake when the end came.

Chris supposed that was something.

"It would have been painless." Alex quickly spoke up, having no evidence to that conclusion but feeling the need to say it nonetheless. "He was probably still in hypersleep when they crashed."

"I know," Chris said quietly. "I had hoped he made it."

It was always going to be an impossible hope in regards to what facts they had about Fiorina and only one prisoner having left here alive. There had been no mention of any other survivors so whatever took place here, it had not only taken Hicks but everyone who managed to reach Fury 361 alive on the EEV, including Ripley.

"I�m sorry Chris," Vin responded while Ezra moved deeper into the vehicle, hoping no one else met their end as violently as Chris�s ancestor.

"Its okay," Chris let out a deep sigh. "I never knew him to be able to mourn him."

"Oh Alex," Ezra suddenly sang out to the science officer. "I think I may have found what you were looking for." The security officer was at the far end of the EEV, standing before what appeared to be the only undamaged console panel in the entire craft. Chris could not see what Ezra was studying so closely from where he was and quickly advanced next to the security officer for a better look like the others were doing at this moment.

"Hell," Vin whispered as they came upon the sight of what looked like the upper half of a human body. The head, neck and one shoulder still remained intact but the rubberized skin making up its face was distorted as if melted by heat, creating an ugly swelling around one eye. The effect was quite gruesome indeed and though they all knew it was the fabled synthetic Alex was so eager to find, they could not help but be a little repulsed by its remains.

"I take it that is one of your synthetics?" Ezra ventured a guess as Alex approached the thing.

She nodded mutely as the remnants of her shock began to slip away and the scientist in her went to examine the find she was speaking of so enthusiastically to Julia earlier on. She was probably the first person in four hundred years to cast her eyes on an android of the 21st century to fully understand its significance. "He's probably the synthetic from the Sulaco." She mused, remembering the passenger manifest that stated his presence on board the ship.

"Looks like he didn't survive the crash any better than Hicks did," Chris responded, staring at this construct who had probably known Corporal Dwayne Hicks in person. Despite its ruined state, one had to marvel at the intricacy of the construction. When it was in its prime, Chris did not doubt this android was capable of blending completely into human society without notice. The Optimum Movement who had called such constructs abominations had certainly believed it and feared the unseen enemy capable of existing in a form so capable of being indistinguishable from humans.

"Wait a minute...."Alex's eyes narrowed as she saw the wires and plugs attached to the ruined android's exposed innards. She followed their progress and saw the attachments were in place in order to resurrect him, even in his damaged state. While the EEV was most likely drained of power by now, the connections were all in place and possibly capable of functioning.

"Someone tried to power him up." She announced as she glanced over her shoulder at the Captain. "Someone may have tried to reactivate him. All the connections have been established. He was wired to the main power grid and then deactivated." She responded, scanning the makeshift connection with her tricorder. The readings indicated while the wires and conduits were aged, they appeared to be operable.

"Four hundred years ago." Vin returned. "It couldn't possibly still work after all this time. Could it?" There was so much this android could tell them. They were all aware of that fact. Every question regarding the Sulaco�s mission could be answered by this remarkable piece of damaged technology.

"Let's find out." Alex grinned; forgetting all about the state of the android and being more focused on reanimating it. Without wasting any time, she began transferring the attachments from the power grid of the EEV to her tricorder. The deutronium core powering the device was more than capable of bringing this piece of 21st-century hardware to life.

"What are you doing?" Chris asked even though it was more or less a foregone conclusion what she was attempting.

"I'm seeing if I can bring him back." Alex returned as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to be doing.

"Alex, is that the wisest course of action at this point?" Ezra asked cautiously.

"You wanted answers, Ezra," Chris quickly cut in to keep him from interrupting the science officer�s work. "This thing is an eyewitness to what happened to the Sulaco and very possibly what might have taken place here. If we're going to get to the bottom of this, we need to access what he knows."

Ezra could not fault that part of the Captain�s reasoning and supposed a story told by an android bound to obey humans was not entirely untrustworthy or unreliable information. Any response he was about to make was cut short by a sudden burst of electricity. The charge scented the air with noxious odours as energy flowed through the aged wires, burning out some, rerouting others. When the fingers attached to the android�s good arm began twitching spasmodically, Ezra knew Alex succeeded in bringing it back to life, in a manner of speaking.

The android continued to twitch as energy flowed through what remained of his senses. He tilted his head back slightly as a gush of white ooze flowed out of his mouth. The action made him cough, almost as if he were alive and the humans stood back as bio-mechanical fluid sprayed lightly from his mouth. The android did not seem to notice them at first as his eyes were closed. It took a few seconds for him to recover himself enough before he opened his eyes and focused on them. One of his eyes was milky white from damage and the rubber around it was swollen, making him look even more grotesque than before as he slowly took stock of everything around him.

"Jesus." Chris found himself whispering.

Despite the majority of its systems being damaged, the android proved capable of having good hearing as he reacted to Chris�s voice by shifted his gaze towards the Captain. Visible surprise flowed through his misshapen features as he cocked his head slightly and stared at Chris. There was recognition in his eyes but also confusion.

"Hicks?" The raspy voice, watered with fluid asked after a momentary pause.

It took Chris a second to realize the android thought him to be his dead ancestor. The android could not be blamed for that of course, having seen the picture of Hicks in the computer records on the Sulaco, Chris too was quite amazed by the likeness between them. Except for their differences in age, Chris Larabee and Dwayne Hicks might have been twins.

"No." Chris shook his head.

"You look like him but..." the android's eyes narrowed as he tried to explain himself. "You�re older."

"My name is Chris Larabee, Hicks was an ancestor," Chris explained, seeing no reason to keep the truth from the android who was hardly in the position to do anything.

"The resemblance is striking." The android observed. His voice was soft, reminding those present a little of Josiah's with its tones of sympathetic tenderness. "I don't recognize the uniform," he said perplexed as he studied all of them. "Military?"

"United Federation of Planets," Chris replied. "You're four hundred years from where you started out."

The android paused for a moment, absorbing this information. Chris would have sworn he saw sadness if he believed it possible for a machine to feel but then he was certain Jean Luc Picard thought his second officer, Commander Data quite capable of emotion too.

"Ripley is dead?"

"Yes." Chris nodded because however she met her end, it was still four centuries in the past.

"So she never made it off Fury?" He asked.

"Did she survive the crash?" Vin asked. "By the looks of it, it was pretty bad."

"She survived." The android answered and regarded him for a moment. "You�re not human."

"No," Vin said with a little smile. "I�m Vulcan."

"A planet that revolves around Eridani," Alex explained. "Vulcans were the first aliens to make contact with Earth."

"There is so much missing." His gaze shifted away. "I must be a relic."

"Actually," Ezra corrected. "You appear to be something of a find. We have not seen the likes of you in almost four hundred years. You are going to be quite the celebrity when you return to Earth."

"It's still there?" The android asked quietly, with a trace of hope in his voice.

"Do you know what happened to Ripley?" Chris interrupted his musings and asked. "You said she made it down here."

"Yes." The android nodded. "She was the only one who lived. The others died in the crash." He paused a moment as he looked at Chris. "Hicks died in his cryotube. A support beam impaled him in the chest. He never regained consciousness."

"I guessed." Chris nodded. "What about the little girl?"

"She drowned in her tube." The android responded, holding back nothing. "The EEV crashed in the sea. Newt�s cryotube filled up with water, by the time the rescue people found her, it was too late. I doubt she woke up either."

The android closed its eyes for a moment and a grimace, Chris was certain was sorrow filled his features. The synthetic thought about little Newt, stranded on Acheron for all that time, avoiding the aliens, to be finally rescued, only to die on the way home in a crash. Sometimes, this thing the humans called fate could be extremely indifferent.

"I�m sorry." Alex found herself saying, feeling the same sadness over the tragedy.

"Ripley never left here alive," Chris spoke up again. "She died here."

"There was an alien with us." The android explained. "It attempted to get to us in stasis when the Sulaco�s security systems kicked in and a protection grid killed it. The acid it uses for blood caused an electrical fire which was why the capsules were moved to the EEV. Unfortunately, it was not alone. There was another spore on the ship with us and it came down all the way. The last time I talked with Ripley, I think she suspected someone here of being infected."

"How did it get on the Sulaco in the first place?" Ezra inquired. "If I was not mistaken, you left the colony on Acheron shortly before a thermonuclear explosion."

"Yes," the android nodded. "The girl was taken by the aliens to the hive. Ripley went in after her and discovered the alien queen, the egg layer. The morphology of these creatures is very similar to bees, with a single female ruling the entire hive. Ripley retrieved Newt and somehow caused enough damage for the queen to escape her egg sac. She managed to cling to the dropship when we returned to the Sulaco. It was she who left me in my current state and Ripley managed to get her off the ship by throwing her into the airlock."

"That explains the acid burns." Chris glanced at Ezra.

"But not how there could be eggs on board." Ezra turned back to the android. "Are you saying in the short amount of time she was on board the Sulaco she managed to lay more of her progeny?"

"Their ability to breed is prolific." The android continued to explain. "They are made to survive at all costs."

"Wonderful," Ezra muttered. "Well, I believe I understand why this place was so quickly abandoned and why only one prisoner left here alive."

"Yeah," Vin nodded grimly. "One of those aliens must have got lose."

"Ripley said there was something very unusual about this alien." The android explained. "She had not quite seen one like it before."

"Unfortunately," Alex sighed. "We�ll never really know."

"Perhaps you ought to access the EEV systems, it was the only sophisticated piece of equipment here," the android suggested. "It was far more efficient than anything else they had in the prison facility. If you�re after facts. That might be the place to start."

"Thank you," Chris said genuinely meaning it. "You got a name?" He asked the android, not wishing to call it nothing especially when it had been so helpful.

"Yeah," the android nodded. "Bishop. They used to call me Bishop."

+ + + + + + +

When Julia found she was unable to contact the Captain and inform him of what was presently occurring on board the Sulaco, she decided very quickly she had only one alternative left to her. She had to go to Fiorina herself. Julia had no idea how long the maturing period of the alien lasted but she was not about to wait long enough to find out. As soon as she made her grisly find, being that of Lieutenant Atwater�s body and after her subsequent efforts to contact the Captain had met with failure, Julia knew if she did not get off this ship, it was very possible the alien might come looking for her. Logic dictated the creature could not evolve in a space of a few hours so she made a few more attempts to reach the Away Team on Fury with little success.

After realising she had no choice but to leave the Sulaco to find them, Julia returned to the runabout and found herself faced with the bloody remains of Lieutenant Atwater. For a second, Julia almost considered abandoning the idea of going to Fiorina so she could avoid being inside the runabout but forced herself to remember if it were she lying there instead of Atwater, she would want to be regarded with a little more consideration herself. Taking a deep breath, she began the process of cleaning up the remains of blood and tissue across the surfaces of the runabout, before replicating some kind of body bag to store Atwater�s body for the duration. Julia stored his body in the back of the runabout, trying not to think about those horrifying moments before his death.

Once she tended to Lieutenant Atwater, Julia returned to the task of ensuring the runabout was unaffected by the alien birth and the security officer�s violent death. There appeared to be no damage even though she was certain the stench of fresh blood was still in the air despite the filtration system. She tried to contact the surface again and was met with little success and wondered if the Away Team was in trouble. Sensors on the runabout indicated there was an atmospheric disturbance taking place on Fiorina, which would account for the communication blackout. Still, after what she had seen, Julia could not help but worry about her friends, in particular, Ezra. She did not want what happened to Atwater befalling him and this hastened her determination to leave the Sulaco.

When it was time to depart Julia placed herself at the helm controls of the runabout and began powering up the required systems for launch. The floor beneath her began humming reassuringly as the engines ignited and light began to illuminate across the previously darkened panels and console screens. Julia placed her hand on the controls and prepared to launch when something dark slithered past the corner of her eye at the bow of the runabout. Through the glass of the cockpit window, she saw something curling upright that was no longer one foot in height and hissing at her in defiance. The creature in front of her was nowhere that small, it was almost man-sized, if not a little more. For a second, she watched in mesmerized horror as it�s lifted its smooth curved head, glistening with slimy fluid as it raised its eyeless gaze towards her and hissed. The teeth bared were razor sharp and ooze glistened off the inch-long fangs, pooling on the glass.

For a moment, neither human or alien reacted as both regarded each other with diametrically opposing views; prey and predator. It was anyone�s guess which was which.

There was an instant of clarity when she knew it was going to attack, despite the barrier of plexiglass between them. In space, with the shields between it and space, there was very little capable of penetrating the screen of glass making up the cockpit window. However, the shields were not up and as the alien hissed and pulled its bony hand up, preparing to strike, Julia realized she could not even shoot it without destroying the cockpit window and make it impossible for her to launch the runabout. It terrified her beyond belief when Julia considered whether or not the alien knew this as well.

Julia fell out of her chair when its fist went straight through the plexiglass. The alien shattered it easily and moved so quickly to push its way through the glass before she had a chance to react. However, her reactions in proportion to her enemy were slow and when she reached for her phaser, the creature had already maneuvered its spindly tail through one of the fragmented holes left in the window when it had broken through. Like a whip, it swooshed through the air and struck her hand above the wrist. Julia let out a terrified scream as she felt bones snap and her hand released the phaser. It skittered out of reach somewhere. She had no time to suffer her pain because she looked around and saw the alien forcing its bulk through the breaking glass of the cockpit window.

Knowing if it entered the confined space with her, she would be good as dead. Julia leapt to her feet and immediately bolted for the runabout's hatch. Slamming her fist against the door panel, she saw the creature�s head turn to her as the door started sliding open. It started to pull out of the narrow passageway with the intention of meeting her at the door. Julia pushed herself through the opening hatch without wasting a moment. She could hear the breaking of glass behind her as the alien pulled itself free. Escaping the runabout, she ran harder and faster than she ever done so in her life, racing towards the heavy door behind which the powerlifters were kept, ignoring the sounds of the alien breaking free of the runabout and coming after her. She could hear the sound of its tough exoskeleton against the steel deck and the screech it made as it came after her in pursuit. Julia's hands activated the control panel of the massive door even before she went through.

She dared to turn around only after she heard the low whine of the hydraulics bringing the door down. Beyond it, the alien screeched angrily, realizing she was about to elude it. Julia's back was pressed against the wall as she watched in terror, the alien's hand clawing at her impotently through the closing gap of the door, trying to reach her. She could hear its furious hissing before the metal door lowered completely and the creature was forced to withdraw or risk losing its entire arm. Its retreat was by no means surrender and Julia heard its furious pounding against the steel door even after it closed. Finally, the pounding stopped but Julia did not allow herself the luxury of thinking the creature had given up.

It had not given up. It was merely seeking another way in.

As Julia started moving again, she realised she was wasting precious seconds by remaining where she was because the alien was no doubt finding an alternate way of reaching her. As she exited the door taking her to rest of the Sulaco, in particular, the armoury, she found herself thinking one thing;

She hated it when Ezra was right.

Chapter Eleven: Hive

It was easy to say upon first sighting it, neither Ensign Angel nor Christie had ever seen anything like it. The structure stood at the edge of the prison facility, unseen from the air because its close proximity to the prison and mining complex made it blend into the dour grey background with ease. Upon sighting it with their own eyes, it did not take them long to come to the conclusion whatever this curious construct might be, it stood on its own, having nothing to do with the prison or those who built it. From a distance, the domed shape was a stark contrast to the block-shaped buildings of sharp angles running against the skyline. For a moment, they were tempted to contact the senior officers to report their find but abandoned the idea when they realized they were uncertain of what exactly they were calling in. A short discussion was made regarding the folly of looking foolish before their superior officers, particularly where a lack of information was concerned.

Finally it was Christie who was the senior of the two ensigns who came up with the idea they ought to at least take a closer look at the structure before reporting to the Chief. When they had first saw the structure it did not seem very far from the edge of the facility. However, upon making the journey itself, the gap seemed to widen and they realized the reason for their misjudgment in distance was due to the size of the construct. From afar, it did not seem terribly large but as they narrowed the space between it and themselves, they were able to appreciate its size very clearly. It was also difficult to discern what the structure was made from because it did not resemble any construction material known to them. It was strangely organic in design and for a time, both Starfleet officers tried to place where they might have seen something like it.

Once they neared the base of it, they realized the dome was constructed not of any kind of building material but rather of anything available at the time. They could see everything from chairs and tables, to kitchen utensils being forced into place and held together with thick epoxy-like resin. There were papers, wood, plastic and every conceivable of object imaginable, frozen into place like a piece of abstract sculpture from a tortured artist�s mind. The dome was just that, a dome with no windows or anything that might allow in light and for some reason that sent a sliver of uneasiness through both the ensigns.

"We should report this," Angel said still staring at the dome through the veil of teeming rain coming down on them. Even though she was soaked to the skin, the humidity in the air did not allow her to feel cool. Instead, she was wet and miserable. For a time, she was willing to explore what they had found but now it appeared they were dealing with something entirely out of their depth. It made her grateful that although long-range communication was non-functional, at least short-range communications was still possible because they could defer to the senior officers with this.

"I think you�re right." Christie agreed. "You contact Lieutenant Collins and I�ll take a closer look at this thing. There has to be a way inside."

"Well don�t go in there if you find it," Angel called out as he drew away from her. "At least, not until you let me know. You�re not doing this alone."

"Yes, mom." Christie threw her a mischievous grin.

"Very funny," Angel grumbled and waved her arm at him, indicating she was washing her hands of him completely before tapping her com badge.

"Lieutenant Collins." She spoke out loud, her voice an octave higher than usual because of the rain.

Lieutenant Collins, who was at the present time, standing guard outside the EEV where the senior officers were presently looking over the find, immediately responded. "Collins here, what�s up Angel?"

"We�ve found something Sir."

"What something exactly have you found?" Collin�s voice tensed up immediately. For the most part, the Lieutenant was a happy go lucky personality and was one of the more casual senior security officers on the ship. She worked closely with Lieutenant Katovit but was known to be more approachable than the Assistant Security Chief. Most of the time, Collins acted as the go-between the security staff and Katovit who would then bring it to the Chief, if it were required. However, those who knew the woman were often surprised by just how seriously she took her job as opposed to playing den mother to the younger officers.

"It appears to be some kind of a structure," Angel explained. "It doesn�t look to be a part of the prison facility and its construction is strange."

"How so?" Collins asked.

"Well, it appears to be constructed out of materials from the facility. I�m talking everyday appliances." The young woman reported as her gaze swept across the area, searching for Ensign Christie. "There aren�t any windows and Christie is investigating the grounds looking for a way in."

"Hold position," Collins ordered tautly. "Contact Christie and tell him not to proceed until you receive further instructions. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Sir." Angel nodded, somewhat relieved she would not have to venture into that structure alone. Something about it made her skin crawl. She did not know why this was but she trusted her instincts enough to know that when she felt like this, it was usually for good reason. "Angel out."

Once the connection between them was terminated, Angel resumed her search of Christie across the landscape and was not at all happy when she did not sight him. Had he found a way in? She started skirting the edge of the large structure until she saw fissure at the base of the dome. It was no more than a crack of space between objects fused in its strange configuration and knew it was large enough to enter. Tapping her com badge once more, this time she tried to raise Christie.

"Christie," Angel spoke loudly. "Where the hell are you?"

Christie did not answer, raising Angel�s apprehension even more. Despite her better judgment, she entered the fissure, leaving the comforting feel of rain and daylight behind her as she stepped into almost complete darkness. She fumbled for her belt and immediately found the small torch that hanging there with the rest of the standard issue equipment required of any Away Team mission. Fumbling for the switch, with nothing less than panic in her heart for the darkness, she did not even register the overpowering smell wafting through the place. It was only after the light had filled the chamber, did she note it was a maze of chambers, one after the other, all built from that peculiar alien resin. The walls seemed to run with thick veins and gave Angel the sense of being trapped in something very much alive.

The smell, however, soon assaulted her and it almost drove her to retch. The smell was familiar to her even though she could not place it at the moment.

"Christie!" She called out again, her voice echoing through the thick, bulbous chambers of odd shapes and dark shadows. "Are you in here?"

There was no answer and Angel had a terrible foreboding something bad had befallen her comrade. It was this fear for his life that forced her to continue instead of holding position. She continued deeper and deeper, breathing in more of that terrible stench which seemed to have soaked into the walls. The interior of the dome felt like a hothouse for flora cultivation and her skin moistened with sweat very quickly. The shapes did not stir as she continued deeper into the chamber, calling out for Christie, telling herself she would fairly roar at him for being so foolish enough to wander through this stygian darkness all by himself when she found him.

+ + + + + + +

Ensign Christie surveyed the base of the structure and found the fissure several minutes before Angel made her entry in search of him. Upon finding the way in, he chose wisely not to enter and continue on his way, trying to learn whether or not there were other entrances. Whilst he was doing this, he discovered his com badge was malfunctioning when he attempted to contact Angel and tell her what he found. Upon examining the small communicator fashioned into the Starfleet insignia, he learnt some moisture had penetrated the casing. It was a simple matter to repair but chose to do it when he was somewhere dryer. Being out of communication with Angel, Christie decided the wisest course of action would be to turn back to rejoin her.

Unfortunately, when he returned to the place where he left her, the young woman was nowhere to be found. Realising that she might have taken her inability to contact him as a sign of danger, Christie wondered if she had gone looking for him and found the entrance into the dome. Uncertain of what she might find in there if he had done the same, Christie was nonetheless unprepared to let her face it alone if she placed herself in danger because of him. Without having to think twice about it, he entered the fissure and found himself enclosed by the same darkness greeting Angel upon entering the dome. He immediately reached for his phaser and his torch at the same time, providing himself with light as well as protection.

Christie did not scare easily. His origins in the Canadian Rockies had seen his upbringing in the midst of some of the most beautiful countries on Earth, as well as the most dangerous. Kodiak bears, wolves and mountain lions roamed freely, endangered species no more thanks to conservation efforts and anyone who could become comfortable with such creatures sharing the same local area with them, did not get frightened of the dark. He was just as confused by the maze of chambers as Angel was before him and Christie told himself not to touch anything while he searched for her.

"Angel!" Christie cried out beyond the range of the torch�s illumination.

It was to his profound relief when a few seconds later, he heard her response. "I�m here!" She returned. She was some distance away and her relief at being discovered was profound in her voice.

"Stay where you are!" He ordered, feeling suddenly protective of the young, willowy woman, who was brave, as she was beautiful. She would probably hit him if she thought for a moment he considered her that way, Christie decided with a bemused smile.

He found her in a chamber that looked nothing like the one they encountered previously. For starters, the floor was covered in bones. The bones did not appear to be human but rather of small animals, like dogs and cats. After closer examination, Christie was certain of this. Their bones were all shattered around the sternum and while some remained on the floor, others were attached to the wall, held in place by the resin. He could see the same wounds on all of them and understood finally what that stench had been. It had been the lingering odour of decomposing flesh. The realization almost made him gag in disgust but he forced the unpleasant sensation away.

"Look at this." Angel pointed to the leather shaped objects standing in correspondence to almost every set of bones found here. The objects were unsealed and whatever they contained had long since departed because the interior of the biological canisters was empty.

"What the hell is this place?" He asked.

"I don�t know," she whispered anxiously. "But I think we ought to get the hell out of here."

Tp With that Christie could not disagree. "I think you�re right."

They turned around slowly and retreated the way they had come, or so they believed. The maze was so thick with so many looming shadows it was hard to tell. Suddenly they entered a new chamber and stopped short immediately.

The floor was covered with the leather objects and they were all sealed.

The chamber itself was enormous and was the largest one they had seen yet. Neither of them could tell where it ended and the floor was covered with the objects they knew unconsciously to be eggs. Slowly, their eyes moved around, watching the pulsing life inside the translucent objects, wet with moisture from the hothouse conditions inside the dome. They could see digits moving through the viscous fluid.

"God," Christie whispered. "We�re in an egg chamber."

"What�s laying the eggs?" Angel asked.

She never got an answer to her question because there was no need. Christie was standing against a formation they both assumed to be the strange walls of the dome, never anticipating that in the shadows, something had been waiting for a long time. He never even had the chance to scream. His head ruptured like a cracked egg, when the massive inner jaws of something very big, smashed through his cranium and pulled apart his skull when it exited through his forehead. Angel staggered backward and screamed, watching everything that was her friend splatter onto her uniform and across the surrounding area.

The creature pulled back its jaws once it finished with Christie and regarded the remaining human. Angel could not tell how large it was because it was hidden by the darkness of the place and the range of the torch was simply not enough to tell her. She saw limbs moving, large, thick limbs and a ring of material over its enormous head that could have been a crown. Upon retracting its inner jaws into past another set of jaws, it hissed at her, foot-long teeth bared as it cocked it eyeless head and stared straight at her.

Something inside her snapped.

Scrambling to her feet with more than a case of mild panic, she started running blindly. As she raced through the dark maze, her torch gripped tightly in her sweating palm, she became aware of other things. Something was slithering to life in the darkness. She could hear wet sounds of things breaking free and slick noises of movement against a slimy wet floor. Those vague, nondescript emanations struck cold fear through her heart and sent her pulse racing as she continued at breakneck speed. She did not realize she was moving so fast that whatever she and Christie awakened had not quite time to shake the sluggishness from their post hibernating systems.

Angel saw the fissure of light ahead and knew she was almost out of the dome but refused to let her guard down for it was in her nature to believe the closer one reached one's goal, the more likely it was to slip away from one�s fingers. Just as the thought crossed her mind, something leapt out in front of her. Although smaller than the nightmarish figure that claimed Christie�s life, this one stood taller than her and was by no means any less lethal. It hissed at her, a mass of tentacles, protrusions and an elongated head, to which rather sharp teeth were attached. The two hands it brandished in her direction were capable of ripping through steel, though at this time, she was unaware of that fact. Angel reacted instinctively, she withdrew her phaser and began firing without hesitation. The beam of energy struck the creature in the chest and flung it backwards, its body exploding as it was propelled away from her. Acid sprayed in all directions, eating into the ground as soon as it splattered across it. Angel did not ruminate on this and continued running, leaping over the remains of the alien before escaping through the fissure.

"Angel!" Collins was already there with the Chief. "I told you not to go in!" Collins barked angrily, noting the blood on the younger woman.

"We can�t stay!" Angel stammered. "They�re coming!"

"What�s coming?" Collins demanded again.

"Take it easy on the young lady," Ezra interjected. "Ensign, report."

"Sir, there�s no time!" Angel declared, averting her eyes frantically between him and the fissure. "They�re in there! They killed Christie!"

"The Ensign is right," Ezra responded, needing to hear nothing more. He knew perfectly well what was inside the dome and had known ever since he saw this structure and guessed its purpose. There would be time enough for explanations later but for now, the ensign�s advice though inspired by fear was sound judgment. "We have to leave here immediately."

"What is it, Sir?" Collins asked, seeing the fear in his eyes.

Ezra glanced at the darkness of the fissure for a second before answering grimly. "History repeating itself."

+ + + + + + +

"I�m going to disconnect you for awhile Bishop," Alex told the android as she prepared to transport him to the Sulaco.

"Oh," Bishop responded quietly, clearly disliking the idea of going to sleep again.

"Its okay," she assured him. "I�m not going to leave you behind. You�re coming back with us to the Sulaco and later onto the Maverick."

"The Maverick?" Bishop asked.

"Yes, it's our ship," Alex responded, aware the android was feeling a little uneasy about being disconnected once more.

"A warship?" He inquired.

"No," she shook her head slowly. "A lot has changed. While we do defend the borders of the planets in the Federation in the instance of an attack, our charter is mostly for the exploration of new life, to extend mutual cooperation between all member races towards peaceful co-existence."

"An admirable goal," Bishop replied. "Very different from my time."

"You�ll have plenty to catch up on," Alex responded. "Now I have to disconnect you but I promise it won�t be for long."

"I believe you," Bishop responded, appearing as if he genuinely believed it. Alex was touched by the faith he had in her and promised herself inwardly whatever happened during this mission, she was not abandoning him here.

"Alex," Vin hurried into the EEV. "We�ve got trouble."

"What sort of trouble?" She asked automatically.

"Ensign Christie is dead." He replied somberly. "He and Ensign Angel found what Ezra thinks is some kind of a nest outside the facility."

"How is that possible?" Alex exclaimed in shock. "There has only been one alien on this planet."

"All the drones have the ability to produce some eggs if they are alone," Bishop informed them dutifully. "It is from this group that a queen is usually created."

"An egg layer," Alex uttered softly.

"Yes." Bishop nodded, seeing that she understood the ramifications.

"But this planet has been abandoned for the last four hundred years." Alex could not wrap her mind around it. Everything they knew implied there would have to be hosts for the aliens to reproduce in large numbers and to their knowledge, Fiorina had been devoid of humans for almost four centuries. "There wouldn�t have been any viable hosts."

"Alex, we can debate this later," Vin said shortly, helping her to gather her tools. "Right now, we�ve got to go."

"Alright," she nodded in understanding before turning back to Bishop. "I�ll see you soon." She offered the android another reassuring smile before disconnecting the attachments that kept him conscious. The android�s remains spasmed at the cessation of power, twitching sharply for a few seconds before he stopped moving altogether.

"Is Ensign Angel alright?" Alex asked as she gathered up Bishop�s remains.

"She�s fine but she�s shaken up," Vin answered as they both walked out of the EEV together. "Alex, there are aliens here and judging from what Angel has told us, there are a lot of them."

Alex looked at him. "What do you mean a lot of them?"

Her question went unanswered for the moment as they joined the Captain, Ezra, Collins and the clearly upset ensign who was doing her level best not to let her fear overcome her. Not an easy task one supposed after what she had just seen.

"We�re moving out," Chris announced as soon as he caught sight of them.

"Alex," Ezra turned to her. "Can you configure the tricorder to detect these creatures? I am detecting no life signs at all."

"It's not set up to deal with possible silicon-based creatures," Alex explained and immediately took the device from the Security Chief. "Exactly what did you see Ensign?"

"I knew we shouldn�t have gone in," Angel responded as they started moving towards the dropship. "But I thought Christie was in there and I didn�t want to leave him alone."

"It's alright Ensign," Chris said soothingly, aware of how guilty she felt just by the sound of her voice. "You didn�t want to abandon a comrade, that�s admirable."

"Thank you, Sir," she smiled at Chris before continuing. "It was dark in there and the construction was bizarre, like being inside something alive. In retrospect, I guess it reminded me of an ant hive. I walked in quite a way when I heard Christie. We met up in this chamber with all these bones in it. Now that I think of it, all the skeletons were intact except for the chest cavity."

"Human bones?" Chris asked, his stomach hollowing at the thought.

"No Sir," she shook her head. "Animal bones, dogs and cats to be specific. Captain, there were a lot of them, I estimate more than fifty at least and that�s not to mention the ones on the wall."

"The wall." Alex mused. "That's the same way the Marines found the colonists on LV427. They were all suspended along the walls of the atmosphere processor for embryo implantation."

"I don�t understand how there could be that many cats and dogs on this planet." Vin declared. "Where did they come from?"

"The Company," Ezra stated firmly.

"The Company?" Chris shot him a look. "How do you figure that?"

"Well consider this if you may," Ezra remarked as they moved through the facility as fast as possible, their footsteps making harsh sounds against the cracked linoleum floors. "What if the alien who had come down here from the Sulaco chose to lay eggs? There were more than enough prisoners to act as hosts for its progeny. Of course, we assume the creature was killed when the company shut down the facility but what happened if those eggs were discovered? The company finally had what it wanted, alien specimens in what could be considered a rather controlled environment. They close the facility and start bringing in dogs and cats, creatures large enough and completely expendable to be used as hosts for the eggs. Naturally, after the first few are spawned, a queen is created if I can compare the life cycle of these organisms to known contemporaries like ants and bees."

"You wouldn�t be wrong." Alex agreed with his theory. "Before I disconnected him, Bishop said as much. All alien drones have the capability to lay some eggs, one of which can be a queen."

"So the queen is produced and with a steady influx of animals to act as incubators for the spores, the Company had its very own colony of aliens," Ezra concluded.

"But why leave them here Sir?" Collins inquired. "After all that? Why just abandon them?"

"That�s easy," Chris responded in complete agreement with Ezra�s hypothesis over what happened here at Fiorina 361. "World War Three. When the Optimum movement took over, a lot of outposts were abandoned, scientific personnel were recalled to Earth. I�m sure whoever was in charge here, did not want to stay in orbit around Fury considering what�s waiting for them on the surface."

"I think I saw her." Angel gulped.

"Saw what?" Collins looked at the junior officer.

"The Queen." She muttered softly. "She was huge Chief. I mean she wasn�t moving or anything but she was enormous. She didn�t even have to move when she killed Christie." Her voice threatened to break but once again, Angel maintained her composure.

"Not unusual," Ezra responded. "The queen is usually larger than the normal drone. The queens in wasp and bee colonies may sting many more times and are often larger, where else in termites and ants, she usually needs caring for and is quite helpless."

"Okay," Alex stated as they reached the tarmac where the dropship was presently waiting for them. "I�ve configured this thing so it will register non-carbon based life forms."

"I hope we don�t need it," Vin remarked. "From all accounts, anyone running into these things is going to have a bad day. I say we leave while we can."

"Good idea." Chris agreed.

However, Alex was not speaking. Her eyes widened as she saw the readings on the tricorder and she raised her eyes to the Captain. "In that case Captain," Alex swallowed visibly. "I think we better get moving."

"Why?" Chris asked, even though the question seemed some redundant. He knew why.

He just did not know how bad.

She met all their gazes as Ezra came next to her and when he saw what she was seeing, his face drained of colour as well and Alex finally answered. "Because I�m reading one big fucking signal coming right for us."

Chapter Twelve: Crash Landing

The dropship seemed untouched when they reached the hatch leading to its innards. However, this was no indication they were safe. According to the tricorders, the aliens were all around them and had a better knowledge of the layout of the prison facility than they did. Fury 361 was a maze of shafts, underground access ways, electrical access tunnels and crawl spaces, all of which the aliens proved from what they learned of the disaster at Acheron, were more than capable of exploiting. In Chris�s opinion, if they made it off the planet, they would be exceedingly lucky. What he saw on the tricorder screen had justified Alex�s startling announcement. The life signs of the aliens were so many it was difficult to take an accurate count of them and judging by the volume, they were at the moment about to converge upon the potential hosts who unwittingly strayed into their realm.

The rain began to pick up momentum again and the wind seemed to increase, creating even more visual confusion as windows shutters slammed and doors flew open, creating noises adding to the chaos of their departure. Ezra, Chris, Collins and Angel were keeping a watchful eye out for the savage creatures, while Vin and Alex went on ahead. Alex refused to leave the Bishop android and Vin needed to get to the dropship first so he could prep the craft for taking off. Ripley had given them scant information about the alien's abilities beyond the fact it was a killer, capable of surviving in a vacuum and did not have any trouble getting through barricades. Chris hoped that did not mean titanium hulls as well.

"How close?" Chris demanded as they saw the dropship through the rain.

"Ten meters." Ezra retorted and noticed Angel�s eyes were wide with panic because she more than anyone had first-hand knowledge of what the things could do after seeing what had happened to poor Ensign Christie.

They were moving across the tarmac, making good time when suddenly, a screech filled the air just as they began to round the dropship to reach the main hatch. The alien scrambled over the top of a nearby building with such speed it was nothing more than a dark blur against the grey sky. In the light of day, it was no less terrifying than it was when it hid in the shadows and were it alone, they might not have felt the panic they did, but it was not alone. There were at least four others behind it and their approach was not frenzied or disorganized but the coordinated attack of pack hunters. The lead alien hissed at them, teeth bared while resin oozed in thick, long rivulet from the two-inch fangs.

"Oh shit," Chris swore under his breath, as he understood the gesture for what it was; attack.

It sprung from the roof of the single storied building like a coiled serpent; fangs bared as the other four behind it split into two and attempt to approach them from the flank. The alien reached the tarmac as if it had flown there and leapt again. The next time it landed, it would be right on top of them. Chris did not plan to let it get that far. He aimed his phaser without even thinking about aiming and pulled the trigger, watching the amber beam of energy tear the creature apart. Whatever it used for skin was extremely tough for usually, a phaser set to kill would disintegrate anything unfortunate enough to get in its path. The alien did not vaporize but rather exploded and considering what their blood was made off, making them extremely hard to kill in close proximity.

Acid began eating into the ground as soon as the creature had ruptured. The potency of its blood could not be denied as they saw bitumen dissolving before their eyes and shuddered at what that could do to skin.

"Behind you!" Ezra shouted at Collins as the two aliens finally made their arrival, now their pack leader was gone. Collin swung around gracefully like a dancer doing a pirouette, her phaser already drawn and fired before the alien could even attempt its customary lunge. Like the others, it met its end in the same spectacular manner and Ezra dispatched the second alien approaching her flank. Even though the rain, the noxious stench of burning asphalt was filling the air, as well as the ragged holes in the ground where the acid ate away the bitumen paving. Angel was firing away with the same intensity, ensuring the remaining two aliens did not reach her or her captain, who was standing side by side with her in the endeavour.

Chris swung around and saw Vin running up the open hatch of the dropship and was about to turn his back on what remained of the aliens when an ugly thought suddenly occurred to him.

"Vin!" Chris shouted. "Not so fast!"

The Captain did not have time to complete his warning because Vin was suddenly thrown back through the open ramp, the dark shape which he was wrestling with was unmistakable, claws, tail and that elongated head filled with razor-sharp teeth. Both tumbled down the ramp and somewhere through the rain, Chris heard Alex cry out in horror as she saw them both go down.

"Vin!" The science officer dropped the android remains she was carrying and immediately went for her phaser in record time but producing the weapon did not give her clear line to fire. Vin and the alien were a tangled mess of limbs, tail and body parts. She could not fire without hitting the Vulcan or worse yet, keep him from being sprayed with acid even if she did hit her intended target.

Vin was beyond hearing anything at the moment.

He could feel the fangs trying to reach him through the aliens frenzied flaying of its limbs. The creature�s tail lashed at him several times as he tried to keep its claws from tearing him to pieces. The alien was incredibly strong and if Vin was not Vulcan, he might not have been able to fight the creature off. He heard Alex screaming in the background and saw her rushing towards him, attempting to dislodge the alien from the top of him when the creature's tail lashed out like a whip and struck her hard across the body. His fear for her allowed his guard to drop and suddenly he felt razor sharp nails sink into his side and pull back with ruthless savagery.

"Shit!" He swore feeling blood running down his flesh, soaking his uniform even more as if the rain had not done it enough. He could feel the alien's breath on him, could see the triumph in its bared fangs and suddenly, Vin got very, very mad.

Unaware of where the rage had come from, satisfied only that it would be put to good use, Vin ignored the pain in his flank and snapped his fist around the alien's thin neck. Using the animal's frenzied movements as a momentum, he rolled on top of it and smashed his fist into what would have been the space between the alien's eyes had it optical senses. The blow disorientated the creature and Vin continued pounding, cautiously reminding himself he could not break skin no matter how much he wanted to make this thing bleed. He only wanted it off balance enough to get away. However, something else was penetrating the wall separating him and this creature, the veneer of civilization that made the alien what it was and himself, a Vulcan.

The familiar warmth of the meld enveloped him before he even knew what he was doing but remembered Vulcans were able to read the thoughts of other creatures simply by making physical contact with them. It was part of the reason why they cultivated such a strict regimen of mental discipline in order to protect themselves from being overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions of others. Vin had only a limited discipline and though he was fighting this creature for his very life, he could nonetheless feel what was going on inside its mind, such as it was. The experience was beyond description and Vin was staggered by what was filtering into his mind.

Brutal, savage need, lacking in all conscience, with no complicated feelings of morality or understanding, just instinct, driving heated instinct that burned with the intensity of a thousand black stars. This creature did not think. It did not ponder its place in the scheme of the cosmos. Its comprehension was occupied with the singular need for which it would do anything, kill anyone, and use anything to accomplish. Nothing else made any difference, not one single thing that could replace that feverish; all-consuming desire that dictated this alien being's entire existence.

The need to breed.

"Vin get away from it!" He heard Chris order and snapped out of the haze his mind slipped into. For an instant, he had almost forgotten where he was. He was gripped with an overwhelming sense of rage and brutal desire he knew was not his own anger but rather the alien's. Even when Chris's voice brought him to reality, the lingering effects resonated through him even when he felt Alex dragging him off the alien. There was a momentary bout of disconnection when he heard the alien screech just before Ezra turned his phaser on it and destroyed it. However, the effects of the meld lingered and for a second, Vin thought he might faint. However, he maintained his equilibrium.

"Vin," Alex came to him and examined the wound on the side of his body. "God, you're hurt!"

"We've got to keep moving!" Chris ordered. "Are you okay?" The Captain asked.

"I'm fine." Vin nodded and meant it. The pain was starting to make itself felt but he knew as well as Chris they could not stop to let it pass, there were too many of the aliens converging upon them. They were directly beneath the dropship now and Vin had regained his composure enough to know he had to get to the cockpit and fire up the engines if any of them were to leave this place alive.

"Vin," Ezra suddenly spoke out. His eyes looking past the dropship and the helmsman to the surrounding area. "How long is it going to take you to lift off?"

"Three minutes," Vin said as he started running up the ramp, into the dropship. This time he was a little more cautious about his entry since it was conceivable they might have stowaways.

At first, they had all thought it was the sound of the rain pounding down around their ears that was creating such a loud hiss but now they were listening closely, they realized it was not raining at all. The aliens came into sight, no longer hindered by the effects of their long hibernation. There were so many across the skyline of buildings surrounding the tarmac that for a moment, they were a sheer wall of black quickly converging upon the dropship. Their teeth were hissing and they moved slowly as if trying to stay out of range of the terrible weapons that claimed some of their brethren.

Chris knew immediately he and his crew were about to be hit by a swarm. "Vin, we don't have that much time."

No sooner than he made that remark, the aliens charged. They swept across the tarmac like a black tide and the only sensible order Chris could give was one he never thought he'd ever have to say.


Alex had already scrambled up the ramp carrying the android Bishop. Chris could not bring himself to order her to leave the synthetic behind. Ezra was telling Collins to get into the ship and to keep an eye out for any stowaways. Ezra's gaze met his once his junior officer had gone, and they both knew immediately in two minutes, these creatures would tear through the hull of the dropship. He and his crew would die before they ever left the ground.

"Captain." Ezra and he exchanged looks for an instant, as they both knew what had to be done.

"I'll do it," Chris said quickly, reaching for his phaser. "If it wasn't for me, none of you would be here."

"I don't understand Sir," Ensign Angel asked as she paused at the ramp, wondering why the two senior officers were not coming on board the dropship.

"Absolutely not Sir," Ezra declared refusing to even entertain the notion of letting his Captain fall on his own sword to save their lives. "I will not let you sacrifice yourself. If anyone undertakes this suicide mission, it should be me."

Angel suddenly understood what they were debating. The Captain couldn't sacrifice himself, she thought instantly. He was Chris Larabee. He was the Captain! If the Captain died, then none of them would get out of here alive. A surge of bravery surfaced inside the young Ensign as she watched the two men prepare for the inevitable and wondered if she could be that brave. When Christie had died, she had just run like a coward! Where had been the honour in that? The Chief had been good to her. He had accepted her, a rookie into his ranks when senior officers would give their eyeteeth for an assignment on board the Maverick. The last few months on the Maverick had been the best in her life and she did not want it to end but she also wanted neither man to sacrifice their life.

The Captain had great things to do and people who counted on him, just like the Chief. She had no family and everything in her life was her job as a security officer. Security officers weren't supposed to live long and this was all her fault, to begin with. She woke those things up. They had been sleeping, unaware of the Starfleet officers in their midst when she broke protocol and gone searching for Christie, even though he had never gone in there in the first place. Christie died because of her. She was not going to let the Captain and Commander Standish die too. Taking a deep breath, she quietly turned her phaser over and set it for overload.

She walked down the ramp, past the two men, towards the swarm only a few dozen meters away now. The creatures that were coming at them like a black tide of death.

"Ensign, what are you doing?" Chris demanded as she saw her walking past them. Through the charge of the aliens, he could hear the low hum of a phaser in overload.

"You need to get into the ship Sir," Angel said coolly and remarkably calm to her surprise. She continued walking until it dawned upon him what she was intending to do.

"No, you don't!" He started for her when Ezra pulled him back.

"CHRIS, NO!" Ezra grabbed him by his arm and kept him from going after that poor child. The aliens having seen their quarry come out to meet them, hastened their pace and were now converging on the young woman like a pack of wolves on a lone sheep.

When she looked over her shoulders, she realized why.

"ENSIGN YOU GET BACK HERE!" Chris shouted impotently, more than prepared to go after her, anguished as he saw her take the place that should have been his. The aliens swept over her until her uniform disappeared in a wave of black gleaming bodies and Chris remembered screaming her name, while Ezra dragged him up the ramp as he tried to search for her. However, there was nothing left of the young Ensign from Texas, whose appointment to Ezra's security staff he approved because he read her Academy files and learned she liked books, the kind of old books his father used to collect, bound in leather and age.

"CAPTAIN, SHE'S GONE!" Ezra's voice cut through his ears as he forced Chris into the dropship, hiding his own sorrow at the loss of one of his youngest and brightest. The pain he felt was just as acute as Chris's, even more so because he worked with the young woman and knew she liked pictures of puppy dogs and was not just another uniform to him. Angel was something to him too and it was his life she tried to save not just the Captain's. It was this fact alone that made Ezra determined not to let her sacrifice be wasted by dying here and now.

Collins pulled the hatch close as soon as Chris and Ezra were through and as she secured the lock, Ezra noted her eyes were wet with tears after she had done that. She wiped it away quickly though as if the situation at present did not allow her to grieve. The interior of the dropship was rumbling as the engines prepared to fire and lift them off the surface of this nightmarish world. A loud explosion was heard outside the ship, followed by the screeching of dying aliens in the fireball induced by Ensign Angel's heroic sacrifice.

Chris broke free from Ezra, having regained his composure and reminding himself his sorrows could wait until he delivered what was left of his crew from the danger he had so irresponsibly place them. Hurrying past the two remaining security officers, Chris made his way to the cockpit. He was almost in the middle of the ship when suddenly something flurried past him overhead. He drew his phaser as the alien landed in front of him on the landing. Chris prepared to fire when suddenly he realized if he did so, the creature's acidic blood would eat through the bulkhead and cause God only knew what damage. The dropship would be in the same predicament that caused the Sulaco to send Ripley and her companions to the EEV! Only there would be no EEV for them to escape. The alien crossed the space between them quickly and Chris turned to run when the dropship lifted off the ground. The sudden movement caused him to lose his footing and the phaser felt out of reach as the alien prepared to leap.

"Captain!" Collins exclaimed as she saw her commander about to be torn to pieces by an alien stowaway and immediately reacted in kind.

"Don't shoot it!" Chris tried to warn her but it was too late. The dropship was already airborne, soaring into the clouds when the beam of amber from her phaser struck the creature in mid-thorax and immediately caused it to rupture with acid spraying in all directions. Chris barely managed to get out of the way as the noxious liquid began to eat through the metal floor and fill the narrow passageway with smoke.

The dropship continued to climb. Chris could see through the small window they were still soaring through the thick, cumulous clouds. He began to hope that perhaps the acid did not eat through any vital systems and perhaps it would be all right...

Then the ship dipped sharply, throwing both him and Collins to the side of the corridor.

"What the hell just happened?" Vin demanded through his com badge. "I just lost the attitude control!"

Ezra struggled up the passageway and the expression on his face as he saw the corridor filled with smoke and the fast appearing hole in the middle of the steel floor, told Chris there was no need for explanation. The dropship rocked once again and they were forced to their knees.

"I'm sorry Sir!" Collins said frantically. "It was going to kill you!"

There was nothing Chris could say to her to lessen the degree of what she had done but he knew she was faced with an impossible choice, one he would have made himself had he been the one with the phaser. If she had not acted, he would be dead now, there was no doubt about it. "You did what was necessary."

"Vin." Chris tapped his com badge. "We had an alien in here."

"I guessed as much." The helmsman responded. "Alex, see if you can stabilize that booster!" He barked to the science officer in the background.

"Can we maintain altitude?" Chris asked although he could tell by the gradual dip of the dropship they were losing their ability to remain airborne.

"I'm sorry Chris," Vin answered after what seemed to be an interminably long pause. "I don't know for sure what killing that thing did to the ship but we don't have the power to break orbit and we're going down."

+ + + + + + +

Julia Pemberton peered out the edge of the armoury door and stared cautiously as the passageway leading back to the hangar. She felt her palms moistened around the bulky weapon she was carrying, hoping she understood its working correctly or else her attempt to reach Fury 361 was going to be a very brief effort indeed. She had not seen the alien since she escaped its clutches in the runabout and dreaded facing the thing again. However, she listened just as closely to Ellen Ripley's briefing as the others and knew the bizarre chemistry of the alien's physiology demanded it propagate and at the moment, she seemed like the only viable candidate.

Of course, Julia had no intention of ending up like poor Lieutenant Atwater and every intention of finding the creature before it came looking for her. Besides, her inability to contact the rest of the Away Team had given rise to some rather disturbing thoughts. They had considered it impossible for there to be an alien on the Sulaco and yet here it was. Was it possible the same could be said about what was awaiting the Away Team on Fury? Julia thought the loss of communications with Ezra and the others was due to Fiorina's strange atmospheric conditions. What if there was a more sinister reason for their silence? She may well be their only hope of escaping the planet and what may be waiting for them down there, alive. Whatever happened, she simply had to fix the runabout and get to Fiorina 361.

A sixth sense told her that if she did not, it would be too late for anyone.

With this thought in mind, the Chief Engineer of the Maverick emerged from the armoury where she found a suitable weapon to replace the phaser she lost in the runabout. Although she found the gun she was carrying too heavy and cumbersome, she could not help thinking that it did a great deal for her morale. The gun she was holding, according to the manifest, was an M-41AAA 10-mm pulse-rifle, over and under with a 30 mm pump action grenade launcher. It was in its day, the state of the art in combat weaponry, that seldom jammed, worked underwater or in a vacuum and had no difficulty putting a sizeable hole in steel plates and she hoped, aliens with a tendency to spill acid when attacked.

The gun was surprisingly light considering how large it was and Julia made certain she had ample ammunition to last her for quite some time. She had every intention of killing the alien if it got in her way but no desire to go hunting for it. If Ellen Ripley's tapes told her one thing, the alien was more than a match for a human and no matter how well armed she was, Julia was not confident enough to seek confrontation with the thing unless she really had to. The weapons she had at the moment would protect her while she repaired the runabout. She was more than willing to leave the alien with the run of the Sulaco while she was retrieving the others from the surface of Fiorina because if this sixth sense of hers was right, they were in need of retrieval.

Emerging from the lengthy corridor, she held the tricorder with one hand while ensuring the pulse rifle was firmly in her grip with the other. Julia configured the tricorder to seek out non-carbon based life forms, having no intention of letting the thing jump out at her unexpectedly as it had done earlier when she tried to take off in the runabout. She attributed the alien with some intelligence for she found its previous attack too fortuitous to be mere coincidence. It waited until she attempted to lift off, before choosing to strike. Whether or not the action was guided by the understanding she was about to elude it, Julia was not about to take any chances. She was getting out of this alive, one way or another.

As much as she admired Ellen Ripley, Julia Pemberton was not going to die like her.

Chapter Thirteen: History Repeating Itself

Chris fought his way to the cockpit as the dropship continued to shudder, its descent apparent by the clouds thinning around them when its nose sagged forward and the ground seemed like a monster opening its maw to swallow them whole. From the freshly melted orifice created by the alien in its death throes, a column of dark smoke was rising up its jagged walls to fill the ship with black smoke. Ezra and Collins were making a valiant attempt to dissipate the noxious fumes but it was fast making the air in the rear end of the dropship, unbearable for the duo. Chris in the meantime found himself pulled forward by the steep incline of the ship's trajectory towards the cockpit where even without his com badge, he could hear Vin barking orders at Alex as they struggled to keep the ship in the air.

"I can't get the landing gears to lower!" Alex cried out when Chris entered the small cockpit that was the nerve centre of the craft. In the window in front of her, Chris could see just how close they were to the ground.

"We'll have to do without it," Vin said sharply, having no patience with groaning about things they could not change. "I'll have to angle the nose just right before we touch down. With any luck, I can find a stretch of land somewhere and slide this thing to a stop."

"Exactly where would that be?" Chris asked as he saw what was awaiting them beyond the cockpit window. The ground was much lower than he thought and the majority of the landscape was the grey, choppy ocean covering much of this planet. The prison was built on one of the few stretches of solid land there was on Fiorina and judging by their rate of descent, there was not going to be time to search for a safer landing place. Given the alternative of not landing at all and landing to deal with the problem of the aliens once more, Chris decided for the moment, he would take the latter. Besides, he had to assume eventually Julia would come looking for them. Their mission was to last no more than a day and if they were out of communication contact for longer than that time, the Chief Engineer would follow procedure and come in search of them.

"The only place we can land," Vin said grimly. "At the prison."

"Damn," Chris whispered under his breath. "Can you put as much distance between us and the prison as possible? We need some time to set things up if those aliens are going to come after us."

Alex shuddered openly at the thought but Vin was more composed about that eventuality and nodded in response. "I'll do what I can pard but I can't make any promises. Right now, I'm just aiming to get us to the ground in one piece."

"Do what you can," Chris replied patting the Vulcan on the shoulder in a gesture of thanks and it was more than just for his piloting skills.

Vin gave his Captain a look, understanding the sentiment behind the gesture. "You bet. Now go strap yourself in Captain, this is going to be a rough landing." He advised, moving past the moment. Chris nodded and retreated out of the room with Vin still watching him a few seconds after he left.

"He's feeling bad," Vin remarked as he faced front again.

"He shouldn't," Alex said automatically as she aided Vin in their rough landing, trying not to pay too much attention at the ground coming up at them. "We all wanted to come here."

"I know," Vin said unhappily. "But he took the drop ship because of me. I wanted to fly her out here."

"Vin," Alex reached for his hand briefly. "Don't start blaming yourself on how we got here. The truth is, I've got as much to do with it as anyone. I wanted to come here just as badly to get my hands on the android. We all had our reasons for being here, you're not alone in feeling the way you do."

Vin stared at Alex for a moment and felt himself melt at the sight of the smile she aimed at him. He watched her for a second as she returned her attention to their difficult landing. Even though the situation was completely inappropriate, Vin could not get enough of looking at her. Just watching the determined way she was handling the controls next to him and being able to scent the subtle perfume she wore was capable of stirring his emotions into a heightened state of awareness. He had no idea he was physically experiencing something until he felt tingles against his skin. For a minute Vin was rather shocked by the sensation and shrugged it away, wondering what that was all about.

Instead, he turned to the screen before him and searched for possible landing sites, trying to keep in mind Chris's request about keeping as far away from the prison facility as possible. Unfortunately, the list was savagely short. Vin's hand moved across the controls at lightning speed. Being Vulcan, he had the benefit of the eidetic memory characteristic of the race and was able to memorize the cockpit controls very quickly. He fed in the coordinates required and hoped the choice he made would be adequate.

"I'm going to try and set her down on the coast." He explained as he directed the steering controls to where it needed to be. "I hope the stretch is long enough."

"It will have to be." She answered hopefully, trying to hide her fear at being anywhere in proximity to those aliens.

"You okay?" He asked, seeing something in her eyes that forced the question from him. When it came to courage, Alex was one of the bravest people he knew. What fear she felt, she hid beneath a veneer of ruthless control and it was rare she let that tough mask slip enough to let the emotion show.

"Yeah," she nodded slightly but her apprehension was clear. "Vin I don't want to die with one of those things inside me. I'd rather kill myself first."

"I understand," Vin replied, agreeing with her on that much. He had no wish to go out of his life knowing his end would see the birth of one of those monstrosities. "Alex, I'll never let it happen to you. I promise."

"Really?" She looked at him, seeing him so far removed from that shy young lieutenant she had to rescue from Charlotte Richmond's acidic tongue. She wondered at what point had their relationship changed so much, she was now seeing him as more than someone she once had to protect. She thought about the nights they spent together, where he held her in his arms and allowed her to sleep without nightmares. With a feeling of reassurance, Alex realised it was good to know he would always be there for her when she stumbled or simply needed holding to chase away the ugly dreams in the dark.

"Yeah, really." He smiled at her and then faced front again, all business as they landing began. Tapping his combadge, he spoke to the other passengers in the dropship. "Everybody, buckle up. We're going to land."

Vin did not have time to learn if they were indeed strapped in because the ground came up at them with terrifying speed and he began to fight the controls against the pull of gravity. Struggling to keep the dropship's nose up, he fought the sharp downturn that would kill them all unless he made the descent gradual. The small craft began to shudder against the two opposing forces and Vin found he was using every ounce of skill and strength to keep them from slamming into the earth. Unlike the design of the runabout whose snub nose front, Vin had to level off the more streamlined dropship to make a successful landing without any landing gears whatsoever.

The sandy stretch of beach upon which he was using as a runway of sorts swept towards them as the buckling and shuddering became more and more violent. Seals began to snap glass shattered on Alex's right, she raised her hands to shield herself from the flying glass but most of it was borne away by the speed of their descent. Vin continued to wrestle with the steer and finally, the horizon sneaked into view even though around them chaos was ensuing as the dropship groaned from its exertion. He had no idea what state the rest of the craft was in and somehow managed to yell out as the sand rushed up to meet them.

"Brace for impact!"

The nose of the dropship met the dirt first; creating a tidal wave of sand and earth as it impacted like a flaming comet. It dug in and then through as the forward momentum propelled it across the sandy shore. Vin could feel objects being crushed under the tremendous weight as the dropship scraped across the ground, creating a loud, screeching sound that sent tingles through him and made him wince in reaction. He could see the prison facility not far from them and the grey, ugly sea on his flank. The dropship did not seem to slow and Vin started to worry if did not stop, it would keep going and end up in the water.

"She's not slowing down!" Alex shouted over the powerful roar of grinding metal.

"I know!" He shouted back but there was very little he could do at this point. A tremendous heaving was heard and Vin saw what was left of the drop ship's wing fall away from the structure of the craft as if it was blown away in the wind. In its place, were ragged and twisted strips of metal and the exposed framework of the wing. For a moment Vin was horrified that the lack of wind resistance would keep them going but instead, the ship's journey across the ground began to slow. The shuddering though violent began to ease off and slowly the horizon of water ahead began to lengthen further away instead of drawing closer and closer. An eternity of time passed with Vin holding his breath before the dropship finally came to a rest with the edge of the shoreline only a few hundred yards away. After what they had been through, it was a narrow miss despite that distance.

"Oh my God!" Alex let out a gasp as she unbuckled herself from her seat. "We made it!"

"Just barely," Vin muttered but nonetheless felt just as relieved as his breath escaped him and he leaned into the chair. "And I think we tore her pretty good making that landing." Vin did not even have to examine the damage to know that they would not be taking off again any time soon. He leaned towards the side window of the cockpit to examine the state of the hull and pulled back a second later, his expression grim. "She's had it, Alex."

"How bad?" She asked, not needing to clarify what he was talking about.

"Pretty bad." He replied. "We've lost a wing and an engine. However, we get off Fury, it�s not going to be on this ship."

+ + + + + + +

Vin's estimation of the damage was not only accurate but in some sense, somewhat more optimistic than what he had seen earlier. They had come down about two miles away from the prison facility but was certain that would not stop the aliens coming after them. Since the species' ability to reproduce hinged on its obtainment of viable hosts, Chris suspected the creatures could not even afford to pass up on five potential hosts if they were available, which meant if the aliens could sense them, they would be coming. After their turbulent landing, the Away Team made a brief inspection of their landing craft to assess how severe the damage to the dropship had been. Unfortunately, the wreckage was extensive and though most of it was intact, there were gaps were an alien penetration would be remarkably easy when the creatures came in force.

"God what a mess," Alex remarked as she saw the wide, gaping holes in the hull. They were all braving the wind and rain as it battered against their skin in abnormally large droplets, more than aware the weather would not stop the aliens closing in on them soon enough.

"How long can we hold out in this Sir?" Collins asked none of the officers in particular; however, everyone appeared to be looking towards the Captain.

"A few hours if we're lucky," Chris muttered.

"If there is one thing about this trip has proven incontrovertibly, it is certainly our good standing with Lady Luck," Ezra said dryly.

Vin flashed him a look of pure venom while Alex merely stiffened, not about to say anything. Chris did not react to the obvious jibe, more than aware he certainly deserved some of Ezra's vitriol. No matter how he might like to think otherwise, the truth was he placed them in this situation. "We need to retrieve the wing."

"What for?" Vin looked at Chris puzzled. "We're never going to get this thing off the ground. She's had it, Chris."

"I know that." Chris returned. "But we're going to need to seal those ruptures in the hull and fortify the ship with barricades. We only need to hold out until our check-in time, which is five hours from now. The minute we don't contact the Sulaco, Julia will be on her way here with the runabout."

"He's right," Alex responded in a show of support for her Captain. "All we need to do is stay alive until then, possibly sooner if this storm passes." She looked up in the sky and was greeted with rain battering her skin.

"I stocked the dropship with a considerable amount of firepower prior to our approach," Ezra remarked. "I found what they called remote sentry units. I had at least five of them loaded in the cargo hold."

"Remote sentry units?" Vin glanced at the security chief.

"Yes," Chris nodded. "They respond to motion, I believe. Good thinking Ezra." Chris offered the Southerner the compliment, knowing it was a meagre peace offering and not one that would appease the man very much in light of how against this entire trip he had been from the beginning.

"If we set them up around the perimeter of the dropship, we can keep them away for some time. I hope." Ezra volunteered, not missing the sentiment directed at him by his Captain and decided, for now, he could afford to be a little magnanimous.

"You hope?" Alex frowned wishing the news was a little brighter.

"You should have seen how many there were Commander," Collins responded. "They were a lot of them coming after us. We may not have enough artillery to keep them all away."

"It's something," Chris said firmly. "And if we are to survive this. We best get to work immediately. Ezra, you, Alex and Collins set up the sentry units. Vin, you're with me. We're going to get this wing, while we still can."

"Sure thing," Vin replied, wanting to give Chris as little trouble as possible, more than aware the Captain had enough guilt of his own as it was.

+ + + + + + +

They set out without saying very much and Vin noted Chris's gaze seemed fixed on the shale-covered surface before him. Vin, on the other hand, found his eyes studying the grey horizon and the equally grey sea and thought how perfect this world was to be the home of an unspeakable species like the alien. He wondered if the creatures even had a name. Probably not, he soon decided. No civilized species could have survived long enough on their indigenous planet to name them.

"Chris, you okay?" Vin asked as they caught sight of the torn wing of the dropship ahead. They were not very far from the ship at all and Vin was grateful they would not have too long a hike before them when they started dragging the large piece of metal back.

"No, I'm not," Chris answered shortly because Vin was the one person in whom he could confide without being offered advice or judgement. Perhaps it was why they struck up such an enduring friendship. Vin knew when to pull back and when to get in one's face. He had never seen the Vulcan impress himself upon Chris yet and secretly the Captain wondered what it would take to inspire that kind of passion in the younger man.

"It's not your fault," Vin responded automatically, remembering Alex had said the same words to him earlier and found the whole thing somewhat ironic to a fashion.

Chris looked up and met his gaze. "Yes, it is Vin. No matter what I might like to tell myself, there is no hiding from the truth. It is my fault, we're in this mess."

"Chris we all wanted to come down here," Vin returned, not about to exonerate himself because he knew how much he had contributed to this situation. "Hell, I wanted to take the stupid dropship up so bad I couldn't think straight. If we hadn't taken her, we would be in orbit by now. The runabout would have taken straight off and we would be on the Sulaco safe."

"You didn't have to convince me very hard to take her Vin." Chris offered the young man a little smile and was grateful for what he was trying to do even though Chris knew better. "I wanted to know what happened to Ripley, a woman I had never met, who for some reason my ancestor was hell-bent on keeping alive. I wanted to know what made her so special and the more I found out about her, the more I realised she was special."

"That's not wrong Chris..." Vin started to say.

"Yes, it is!" Chris insisted. "It is when I am the Captain of a starship and I have a thousand people relying on my judgement to stay alive. Then it becomes very much wrong that I bucked protocol and didn't listen to Ezra when I should have and now that...that...ensign, that child is dead! She died to protect me, her Captain because she thought that I was doing the right thing. That I was making the decisions to keep the crew alive and all the while I was wrapped up in what I wanted, I didn't see anything other than getting my hands on it!"

"Chris you're human." Vin found himself saying, wondering where this fountain of wisdom was coming from inside of him but was not prepared to ignore its benefits now it had arisen. He supposed he was not that reserve lieutenant any more and that somewhere along the line, with Alex and the friends he made, Chris in particular, he had found his place in the world and was content with it. "After what you went through with Sarah and Adam and learning what you did. You are entitled to show some hurt."

"I didn't just show some hurt," Chris shook his head wishing he could let himself be exonerated that easily. "I hurt the people I cared about." Chris could not bring himself to say Mary but Vin was certain it was who he meant. "I could have asked for help but I didn't. I don't know where I've been these last few weeks. I don't even know who I was."

"I'll help you, Chris," Vin said hesitantly, a little uncertain about making his innermost feelings known to his Captain but he sensed if there was any time for such revelations, now was the moment for it. "You're my friend and my Captain. We will get out of here and we'll find the truth about your family, one way or another."

Chris did not say much for a few seconds but when he did, he raised his eyes to the Vulcan and smiled. "Thanks, Vin. I really needed that."

"Any time pard."

"When did you wise up?" Chris chuckled as they reached the strip of wing lying half buried in the shale ground.

"I don't know," Vin shrugged as he leaned over. "But I think it suits me."

+ + + + + + +

Julia had a plan.

Actually, it was not so much of a plan, as it was an improvisation. However, she had no choice but to make the attempt no matter how outrageous it might seem. She knew she did not have the materials to repair the damaged window of the runabout but if she had enough time, she could rewire the shield to extend the protection grid to the exposed area. Usually, if there was a hull breach on the Maverick, bulkhead shields would immediately kick into gear, protecting the damaged area from decompression. Julia could see no reason why the same principle could not be applied to the runabouts' current difficulties.

Julia emerged into the hangar of the Sulaco, her eyes scouring the immediate vicinity even though her tricorder indicated the alien was nowhere in sight. However, she did not lower the pulse rifle in her hand as she crossed the floor of the deck that only a short time ago, she had fled in fear for her life while being pursued by the creature. Her sixth sense or women's intuition, she was not sure which, was certain something was wrong down on Fiorina 361. Her attempts to contact the Away Team had been met with silence and after finding what was left of poor Lieutenant Atwater, Julia was not going to blithely assume there was some reasonable explanation. Reasonable went out the window the moment she saw Atwater's entrails all over the floor of the runabout.

The runabout door was still open when she reached it and cautiously, the Chief Engineer peered inside the cockpit of the small craft when logically she knew the alien was not there. At the moment, she detected it somewhere near the engines of the Sulaco, probably finding itself a nice little nest before coming back for her. She did not know how much time that gave her to accomplish what she needed to but Julia knew she had no choice but to try. Entering the runabout, she searched the floor covered in broken glass for the phaser she had dropped earlier. The smooth handle peered at her from under one of the compartments and Julia quickly retrieved it before sliding it into place on her belt.

Lowering herself to the floor, she crawled underneath the helm station and slid off the panel, which would give her access to its inner workings. Reluctantly, she relinquished the grip of her pulse rifle and set to work; unaware she was all that stood between the Away Team and a fate worse than death.

Chapter Fourteen: Life Boat

They were working against time and they knew it. Retrieving what remained of the dropship�s left wing, the Away Team set to work quickly, fortifying their only protection against the alien hordes undoubtedly coming for them. Ezra, Alex and Collins went to work setting up the remote sentry units Ezra had taken from the arsenal on the Sulaco. Although he would have preferred something more formidable and still had reservations about relying on the 21st-century technology, he knew at the present moment their choices were limited. While they were quickly installing the weapons in place, Ezra was also keeping vigil on the tricorder in expectation of the readings signalling the enemy's coming.

Upon their return, the work detail expanded to include barricading all fissures and openings the aliens might use to make their way into the ship. This included sealing the cockpit, now compromised by the shattered glass of its main window. Using their phasers to do the work, since nothing else on board would weld titanium plates, they worked quickly. All the while mindful about draining phaser energy because they would need it to defend themselves when their assailants finally arrived. The storm did not seem to abate but did not become any worse either, having reached a crescendo in its intensity before choosing to level off. The wet did not make the job of building their barricades any easier but fortunately, most of their equipment was designed to endure in the most adverse climatic conditions.

They worked at a feverish pace until the hours stretched into darkness for the days on Fury 361 were short and with the rain continuing to descend upon them, the blackness surrounding the ship was more than just a little disheartening. From inside their titanium walled fortress, they could hear the pitter-patter of rain against the hull but in truth, they were listening closely for other sounds in the dark. There had not been enough of an alien carcass for Alex to make a thorough examination of the creature because its cellular composition had a tendency to necrotize after death. Alex spent much of the evening studying the damage done to the engines during the acid bath it received from the alien following its demise.

The acid ate through all three decks of the dropship and unfortunately spilled unto the main engines. Their only consolation was the corrosive material had taken time to eat through the metal, giving them the opportunity to land. Otherwise, they would have been a dead weight in the atmosphere.

Following their preparation, Alex took a moment to herself and connected Bishop to a power supply once again. She hoped the android might be able to tell them something further about the alien life form and perhaps interface with some of the data storage units she took from the EEV. In any case, there was nothing left to do but wait for the attack or rescue, whichever arrived first. She hoped for the latter but was more than realistic enough to know the former would make its appearance first.

Sparks of electricity and the spasmodic twitch of his one good hand marked Bishop�s return to life. After a few seconds, the same dazed expression bled into the melted face as Bishop opened a lazy eye and took stock of his surroundings. He did not say anything as the familiar environment impressed itself upon his memory banks and it was not long before he realised where he was.

"We're on the second dropship." He stated, looking at her.

"Yes." Alex nodded. "You know it?"

"I flew it," Bishop said with a little smile, which seemed bizarre on his ruined features. "From LV427."

Alex wondered how she was going to tell him what they were going through and then realised he probably would not have any feelings on the matter anyway. He was an android. However, Bishop preempted the admission.

"Is something the matter?" That smooth but still gravelly voice asked.

Alex released a little laugh. "Yeah, Bishop." She nodded begrudgingly. "Something is wrong. We're trapped here. We killed an alien on board and it ate straight through the ship. We couldn't break the atmosphere and the ship just about tore apart on the landing. There is also some extreme ionization in the atmosphere that keeps us from contacting our ship."

"I'm sorry." He replied and Alex believed he genuinely meant it.

"Thanks," she offered him a little smile. "We have a rescue ship due within the next few hours so if we can hold out that long."

"Just look out for emergency venting." He said dryly.

"What?" She looked at him curiously.

"A little joke." Bishop shrugged the question away. "So why did you revive me?"

"For something to do." Alex replied honestly, "but also because I need you to review the data tapes on the EEV. My tricorder suggests that it may have been used after the crash."

"It was," Bishop explained. "Ripley wanted to know if the alien came down with us. I had to interface with the flight recorder to find out."

"Can you tell me what else she might have used it for?" Alex asked. "I've already got you hardwired to the drive. All you have to do is take a peek."

"I'm not what I used to be," Bishop confessed. "Peeking isn't that easy any more."

"I'm not going to let you become some museum relic Bishop," Alex found herself saying. "You come from one of the most elusive periods of human history. People want to talk to you and I want to see that you're in the state to do it. The best engineer I know is salivating to get her hands on you."

"How appealing," he remarked a hint of amusement in his voice before he sobered and began searching through the darkness of electronic information to find out what she knew.

"Alex," Chris Larabee entered the room. "We're warming some rations up. You should get some food."

"Hello, Captain." Bishop greeted.

"Hey, Bishop." Chris smiled, finding himself similarly fond of the android as his science officer. "I thought you were supposed to be convalescing before we got you back to the ship."

"I just wanted to find out what was in the flight recorder Captain," Alex explained. "Bishop is able to interface with it and give us a step by step account."

"I'm doing what I can," the android responded. "As I said its dark in here."

"Sometimes that's the best way to start," Chris said enigmatically.

"She accessed the medivac." Bishop suddenly spoke.

"Ripley?" Chris found himself asking, feeling a sliver of excitement inside of him, as realizing he was being privy to Ellen Ripley's last few days on Fury.

"Yes." Bishop nodded, his expression turning into a troubled frown quickly. "She is using it on herself."

"Why?" Alex asked puzzled. "Surely the prison facility comes equipped with medical personnel and equipment."

"She's running an internal scan." Bishop continued his running narration. "She's looking for something. She paused at the sternum."

No one needed to ask why.

"Nothing there," Bishop announced to everyone's relief. It's clear. She's moving down mid thorax to the pelvic area..." the android's words drifted away.

"Bishop?" Alex asked but Chris did not need to. Even though Bishop did not say it and though he was a machine incapable of displaying that much emotion or for that matter supposed to feel it, Chris saw the glint in his milky coloured eye and immediately knew.

"Did it get her?" Chris asked quietly.

"Yes." Bishop's voice was full of unspoken sorrow. "It's different." He added a moment later. "They're usually lodged in the sternum. This one is in the uterus."

"Oh, God." Alex gasped, horrified by the notion of something so unholy in that most vulnerable place inside a woman.

"It's embryonic but judging by the way it looks I think this was a queen," Bishop revealed, his eye squinting as if he were trying to get a better look at the thing. "It would make sense if that is the case. The queen would take longer to mature. Ripley was still in one piece days after the crash."

"So all these creatures came from an alien queen that used Ripley as a host?" Alex asked the horror of it was more than she could stomach. There had to be some honour in death but she felt her heart bleed in sympathy for the poor woman.

"I doubt it," Chris said firmly and unaware of how he could be so certain but the truth was he had enough sense about Ellen Ripley to know she had lived how she wished and given the circumstances, she would die in the same way.

"I agree with the Captain. Ripley would have died before letting it live. She was an exceptional human."

Chris did not speak for a few seconds as the final fate of Ellen Ripley seeped into his mind with the tragic knowledge of the truth. He felt a great deal of sorrow for this woman who saw so much, deserve more than anyone for a chance of life only to have it cruelly taken from her in the most unimaginable way possible. He mourned for her and knew perhaps he was mourning for himself a little as well. He had hoped finding out the truth about Ripley might salve some of his own issues about his family's murder but all he had done in this quest was sentenced a good number of people to die, who did not need to.

"I think Hicks cared about her," Bishop volunteered. He hoped his words were in some small way a comfort to the Captain. "They seemed to get along very well. I saw how sad she was when she told me about the others. There was a different kind of hurt when she spoke about Hicks. I think of all the Marines, he was the one who most understood how frightened she was and what act of courage it was for her to accompany them back to LV427. He didn't say it but after the disaster in the atmosphere processor when she got what was left of the squad out of there, he made it his business to see she stayed alive."

Anything Bishop was about to say in response was cut short when suddenly the sound of gunfire ripped through the air. The sound was powerfully loud; resonating against the titanium hull like it was a tuning fork. Chris and Alex exchanged glances, knowing what the activation of the remote sentry units meant.

"Looks like we have company." The Captain said tautly.

Bishop watched the humans leave the room and hoped things turned out a good deal better than it did for the crew of the Sulaco.

+ + + + + + +

"How many?" Chris asked the minute he and Alex stepped into the passenger deck, which also happened to be the inner, most centre of the dropship. Vin, Collins and Ezra were huddled around the computer screen watching the progress of the remote sentry units through the digitized medium. Outside, the roar of erupting gunfire had almost entirely obliterated the sound of rain and screeching aliens as they attempted to breach the deadly barrage.

"Enough," Ezra said coldly as he stepped aside from the screen so that the Captain could see for himself.

What Chris saw in that small screen was more than enough to justify Ezra's present snit with him. The aliens descended upon their target like a swarm of locusts. He could not see where one black, exoskeleton began and where another ended. All he could make out were their talons; the banana-shaped heads and the occasional glint of teeth when the gunfire illuminated the blackness surrounding the craft. He could see them being blown apart while trying to approach the ship, their determination to reach their potential hosts beyond reason or belief. They were absolutely relentless and reminded Chris a little of the Borg but at this moment, he could not imagine which was the worse fate of the two.

"Some of them are going to make it through," Chris warned. "They've got the numbers to see to it."

"I'm on it, Sir." Collins offered. "I'll walk the perimeter of the barricades."

"Susan," Ezra looked over his shoulder. "I require no heroes among my junior staff. If you so much as see a shadow that does not look entirely right, I want you to get back to us immediately. Do we understand each other Lieutenant?"

Collins knew the Chief's tone well enough to understand how serious he was about that order. The Chief took his people's lives very seriously and did not hold with the exception of security officers dying young. It was his devotion to his staff that inspired their loyalty to him.

"Yes, Sir." She nodded and left the room.

Once she was gone, they turned their attention back to the screen once more. The aliens were still coming and the counter reading for the number of rounds left in all the guns began to click down with rapid speed. Although Ezra had brought ammunition for the weapons to last them for several more assaults, the problems were not in the supply but being able to replenish them when there were so many aliens attempting to breach the crossfire. Unearthly screeches tore through the air almost as rapidly as the bullets being fired and Chris had to admit for weapons forged so long ago, they were certainly holding up against the test of time.

"They're still coming," Ezra said grimly.

"They won't stop," Vin spoke with something that sounded a great deal like familiarity. "We're what they need to continue and nothing else defines their existence more than that."

Alex threw an uncertain glance at him. "Since when were you a behavioural expert?"

"I just know it," Vin responded, feeling a little uneasy because he could not explain why he had this sixth sense about the creatures to allow him to make such a statement. However, he had a sense that he was right.

A moment of awkward silence descended the room as no one knew how to respond to Vin's statement. Chris guessed it had something to do with the Vulcan's close contact with the alien, his natural telepathy allowing him to gain some insight into the creature's psyche, such as it was. However, the awkward silence was soon overtaken by something as equally still. Without warning, the guns stopped firing. For a terrible moment, Chris thought their ammunition had finally run out but in truth, the guns had still a long way to go before being completely exhausted. What caused the silence was the sudden withdrawal of the aliens.

"They're going!" Alex exclaimed, never feeling more relieved than at that moment.

"For now." Ezra retorted, not about to get overly optimistic. "They will return later, I am certain of it."

"He's right," Chris agreed. "Let's wait a few minutes and go refill the guns to maximum again. I like to have some insurance before later rolls by."

+ + + + + + +

Collins was walking along the belly of the dropship, poised for trouble when she heard the sound. Although the large rips in the hull were fortified, she knew the aliens were strong. The Bishop android said they were more than capable of tearing through steel as evidenced by the destruction of the barricades erected by the colonists of LV427. She remembered what the Chief said she ought to do in the event she heard anything strange and thought it was sound advice, Collins found that she could not withdraw. It was not lost upon her they were trapped here because she opened fire on one of the creatures when it attempted to attack the Captain. Logically, she knew she had done the right thing but it was hard to discern the right thing when they were in such perilous circumstances because of her actions.

She raised her phaser to fire, prepared to kill anything coming into her sight because she refused to let the alien if it was in here, have the run of the ship and cause another calamity like the one that saw them stranded on this hellish world. Suddenly it occurred to her perhaps using her phaser was not the best course of action. She was also carrying one of the pulse rifles and realised it would cause less damage. Of course, the alien would bleed but it would not create the explosion of acid that crippled the dropship.

The sound of something hard skittering across a metal surface cut short her ruminations and Collins swung around to see the dark shadows moving in the corner. Without wasting any time, she opened fire and caused the alien to leap out of its hiding place with an ear-piercing screech. It leapt towards her and Collins had to roll with it to keep it in her sights. She was about to fire again when she saw it resting on the barricade sealing the hull from the outside. Pull the trigger and the acid would eat away their hopes of staying alive.

For an instant, she had no idea what to do and then realised there was one solution left to her. The alien hissed at her, perhaps sensing her hesitation, if not why. Collins took a deep breath and supposed she might be able to take the creature, at least dislodge it far enough away from the barricade. The belly of the dropship was pressed against the ground. If she shot it while it was there, the acid would eat into the ground harmlessly. Steeling herself, she ran forward, positioning her body as if she were a gridiron player of old, her shoulder ahead of the rest of her. The alien was more than equal to the attack. She slammed into its exoskeleton and was about to pull away when suddenly she realised it was she who had been played for the fool, that the trap was meant for no one but her.

The second alien had been watching in the darkness and the minute she was in between the both of them, it sprang forth and joined its brethren as high-pitched screams of agony tore through the darkness. As Collins felt teeth sink into her body, she did the last thing she could to keep more of these monsters from penetrating the ship. Pulling the trigger several times, she did not know anything but the pain and was glad when she was bathed with acid, she was beyond feeling anything.

+ + + + + + +

The tricorder started beeping.

Julia sat up abruptly and almost cracked her skull on the underside of the panel. She immediately scrambled for her gun, even though she had a phaser in her hand. The tricorder registered the movement of the alien approaching her location fast. Julia grabbed the pulse rifle because for some foolish reason the large, prolific looking weapon felt a lot more reassuring than her phaser. She knew she was being ridiculous, her phaser was far more efficient than anything built in the 21st century. She grabbed her weapon and left the runabout; not about to shoot the alien inside the craft when it was the only means of escaping the Sulaco but also reaching the Away Team.

She emerged into the hangar and saw nothing out of the ordinary. She was breathing hard and Julia knew she was scared. There were all too many shapes in this large cavernous deck and more than ever, felt how alone she was in this enormous ship. She shuddered inwardly and ached for Ezra, praying he was in better circumstances than she. The tricorder could put the alien at a certain distance but it could not tell her from which direction it would come. It was within fifty feet of her, according to the device and Julia found herself standing on the floor in the centre of the deck, making sure anything that tried to come at her would not be doing so with the element of surprise. Her choice of venue to make her stand gave her direct line of sight with everything on the floor so she was going to be able to vaporize the alien before it could even take a running leap to attack.

The tricorder still continued to show its readings of 50 feet and then 40, dwindling down to a scant 30 feet. Julia began to get confused. That distance should place the creature inside the room and yet she could see no sign of it. She began looking down through the gratings, wondering if it was being smart, that it was making its approach from beneath her. She moved away again from the detachable grills on the floor and reconfigured her safety zone to take the grill into account. Glancing at her tricorder again, she expected to see the distance closing in again but it did not.

Thirty feet and the creature chose to hold position.

Did it know the virtue of patience? Julia wondered, becoming anxious as the time lengthened. Did it know how to wait out its prey, holding firm and creating such a strangulating bout of fear the helpless victim was tricked into doing something foolish? Julia did not know but she feared such a ruse was being played upon her now. She swallowed hard, feeling beads of sweat running down her brow and along her back. Her intense stare began to waver and she kept darting her eyes from one place to another, hoping to catch out the alien playing havoc with her nerves and superbly, she might add.

"Come on out you bastard!" She shouted. Her voice flowing through the room until it reached the obstruction of the wall and bounced back upon itself.

Still no response.

Perhaps her tricorder was malfunctioning. Julia slipped her phaser back onto her belt so she could take a closer look at the device when suddenly; her eyes caught something overhead. It came down on her so fast she barely had time to move and landed almost entirely on top of the petite redhead. Julia let out a scream as it recovered much faster than she did to lunge at her. She raised the pulse rifle to fire because she was too frightened to let go of it and attempted to pull the trigger. She almost did before freezing at the realization the flailing arms and the teeth attempting to tear her apart belonged to a creature that was on top of her at this moment. Pull the trigger and she would kill it alright, but she would almost certainly kill herself as well.

Instead, as the alien's secondary jaws snapped forth almost crushing her cranium, Julia forced the gun in its way and it ended crunching down on steel. Hardly a tasty morsel in its opinion because it screeched angrily in protest. Talons dug into her chest and pulled back, taking a good deal of skin with it and immediately tearing a cry from her lips. Julia let out a pained scream as she felt her skin shredded and reacted the only way a terrified woman, filled with anguish could. With complete instinct. Throwing one foot up and arching her back, she flung the alien off her with enough force to send it over her head and crashing onto the floor.

Julia rolled bodily, her pulse rifle still in her hand as she stood upright on her knees as the alien began scrambling forward, its exoskeleton making teeth chattering noise as it skittered across the floor towards her, dispensing with the formalities of using her as a host but preparing to tear her apart. This time Julia was filled with an incredible sense of euphoria as well as clarity produced by the adrenaline surge inspired by her abundance of terror.

Time seemed to slow as she lifted the pulse rifle and took aim.

The alien lunged, its coiled tail propelling it through the air when Julia pulled the trigger. The bullets tore out of the short barrel with such force she fell backwards as multiple rounds propelled by chemical reactions slammed into the alien and halted its progress with deadly efficiency. She heard it utter a final death shriek as its body was torn apart by the dangerous projectiles, pieces flying in all directions as she scrambled away from the spray of acid. Acid began eating into the floor plates as the alien remains splattered onto the deck of the hangar. For a long while, Julia stared at it panting, her hands still clutching the pulse rifle as she kept aiming at the carcass as if in death it might still be able to do harm. The alien did not move and as the acid of its form ate its way through the floor, she saw it sink past the newly created orifice and disappear into the blackness.

Only when it was completely gone, did she finally lower her gun.

Julia was trembling when she stood up shakily to her feet.

"I hope you learned your lesson." She declared when she walked to the hole created by the acid spray eating through more decks than she could count when she peered into it. The corrosive substance did its work well and she could see through what was almost half the ship. "Never mess with an engineer."

God, she just hoped she didn't throw up.

Chapter Fifteen: Confrontation

"That stings," Vin complained as Alex reapplied the dressing on the wounds he received when he was battling with the alien earlier. Although the lacerations were superficial, Alex was determined he not ignore the injury even though it barely registered in his mind. His body was surging with adrenaline and pain seemed very far away, even her presence was impacting on his senses with more acuity than ever. As he felt her fingers on his bare skin, Vin found himself taking a deep breath of her scent and savouring the sensation as it filled him with warmth like he had never known before. Even her innocent touches against him felt tantalising, just the manner in which the pads of her fingers ran across his flesh made him want to...

He wasn't sure what. He only knew he liked it.

"Stop complaining," she said abruptly, cleaning the smears of green blood from around the tears in his flesh. "You may be stronger than a human but you're not indestructible."

"I hadn't guessed," he grumbled as he flinched again at her probing. "It isn't that bad."

"In this environment?" She looked at him. "With huge bugs running around the place spraying acid all over, wanting to make us hosts for more of them, not to mention the tiny parasitic suckers that seemed to thrive in this climate? Leaving it will be inviting trouble." She said firmly and went back to what she was doing.

"As opposed to what?" Vin complained; more interested in how her fingers were moving against him, how her body seemed more fluid and graceful than ever and how every breath made him feel something he never felt before. His blood felt as if it was boiling in his veins and the sensation was surprisingly good, even if he did not understand it.

"Good point," she gave him a wry smile. "Just humour me okay?" She responded and continued tending to him. The Captain and Ezra had gone outside the ship, taking advantage of the momentary pause in hostilities to reload the remote sentry units with ammunition, for when the creatures made their second attempt to infiltrate the ship. It did not appear as if too long would pass before the aliens came after them again and Alex wanted to put the brief time afforded by the lull to good use.

"Alright," Vin grumbled, hating the fuss but enjoying everything else she was doing.

His time to enjoy it was cut short when the unmistakable sound of a pulse rifle shattered the stillness of the quiet in the small room. Their eyes locked for barely an instant before they realised the shots were close, too close to be produced by either the Captain or Ezra outside. Whoever pulled the trigger to their weapon had done it inside the confines of the dropship barricades. Vin jumped to his feet, grabbing his own weapon as Alex tapped on her com badge. The science officer was also on the move, unprepared to let him go anywhere on this ship by himself.

"Captain, did you hear that?" She asked as she followed Vin down the narrow corridor.

"Yes, we did." Chris Larabee responded, his voice was audible in stutters as he talked to while in motion. "Ezra and I are on our way."

Alex disconnected the link between them. Instead, she tapped her com badge hoping Collins, the only one among them who could have discharged a weapon inside the barricade, was still with them. "Collins!"

There was no response.

"Come on Sue!" Alex called out again; hoping desperation alone would produce the result she wanted. The seconds stretched past as she and Vin descended in the lower depths of the dropship without hearing a sound from the Lieutenant. Although Alex had some idea what they would find at the source of the gunfire, inwardly she dared to hope Collins was not gone like Christie and Angel but she also knew she had to be realistic.

"I'm not getting anything from her!" Alex cried out as they reached the belly of the dropship and immediately the noxious fumes of acid seeped from the cargo hold deck, pressed firmly against the shale floor. The fumes were accompanied by the familiar smell of molten steel and Alex knew what they would find before they entered the hold. Vin slipped through the door first, walking into a fog of smoke, which he had to brush aside. It was difficult to see inside the room but Alex's readings on the tricorder indicated there were no creatures presently in the dropship. She wished she had been as diligent when the aliens attempted to pass the remote sentries. She should have known some might penetrate the ship.

Unfortunately, not only did the tricorder register the lack of aliens; it also registered the absence of Collins. It took only a second later for Vin to confirm visually what she learned using the device.

"Alex," he said softly. "Its too late."

"Damnit!" Alex swore emotionally. "I should have been paying attention during the attack."

"Don't start blaming yourself," he replied as he stepped away from the bloody remains of Lieutenant Collins who had died fighting and ensured she took the aliens with her. The carcasses of the dead creatures were already eating their way through the floor and what parts of Collins not doused with acid was covered in blood. Vin doubted there would be enough of her left to bury after the acid was done with its grisly work.

Alex forced herself to look long enough to know that she probably shouldn't have. She turned away in time to see the Captain and Ezra making their entrance to the place. Both men paused upon seeing her expression and thought it was a redundant gesture, Alex shook her head enough for them to know for certain. "Its too late."

Chris closed his eyes, feeling the burden of another death on his conscience, a death that came about needlessly because he decided to ignore good sense and bring them to this world where there was the possibility of danger. His voice died in this throat and he halted where he stood, unable to think for a moment because the overwhelming guilt lashed at him like the gale force winds against a canvas sail in a storm. Chris did not follow as Ezra forced himself to the place in the room where Lieutenant Collins died doing her duty.

"It looks like two of them got in here during the shooting." Vin stepped away from the scene, having seen enough to last him several lifetimes. "I figured Collins walked in here and spotted them. She realised if she used a phaser, she'd most likely spill enough acid blood to leave a serious breach in our defences. Judging from where she had them pinned, I think she somehow lured them to solid ground so if she were to kill them, the acid would seep into the soil, not eat through the hull."

"Why didn't she call for help?" Chris whispered angrily.

"Chances are she didn't have time." Alex offered a guess. "You've seen how fast these things move."

Chris had to agree with that much. The aliens moved at lightning speed. Their ability to adapt themselves to any terrain was without doubt and Collins would have known how dangerous it was to have two such creatures roaming loose inside the dropship. Even for a craft this small and with their tricorders, there were ample places for the aliens to hide and make it extremely hard to neutralize.

"Are there any more of them?" Chris turned to Alex who was carrying the tricorder.

"No," she shook her head. "The ship is clear."

"Alright," Chris nodded somberly. "We best get ready for the next wave." He gestured the others to follow him as he started out of the cargo hold.

Alex and Vin immediately fell into stride side by side while trailing behind their Captain, however, Ezra had not moved a step. The security chief remained hunched over what remained of Lieutenant Collins, staring into the blood and dissolving remnants of an officer and a friend he worked with closely since arriving on the Maverick. She had always a reputation for being trouble and Chris had more than raised a brow when Ezra asked for her transfer to the Maverick. However, Ezra himself was known to be something of an outcast and he never could find himself to take a bad report about any officer at face value.

"Ezra?" Vin called out.

Ezra did not answer and his silence made the others stop.

Ezra was so angry he could not speak. Only when Silas Poplar killed Julia in that holo-deck fantasy world created by Q, had Ezra felt anger equal to this. However, his rage this time was not directed at some faceless killer he had yet to discover but rather at a source closer to home. For the first time since this began, the fury he felt at the irresponsibility of his Captain bubbled to the surface and was not held in check by his usual indifferent facade. Ezra rose to his feet slowly and glared at Chris, venom exuding from him in clear waves of rage.

"I hold you completely responsible for this."

"Ezra, this is not the time." Alex stepped in, seeing the look in his eyes and pretty sure they were going to have a situation unless it was not stopped in its tracks now.

"When is it time?" Ezra whirled at her, too carried away by his anger to stop. He had tried so hard to do his job. Time and time again, he asked the Captain to walk on the side of prudence but the Captain, obsessed with finding answers to a riddle in the past ignored him, despite the fact everything about the situation demanded caution. "When we are all dead? Well, that dear Alexandra is not too far away now is it?" He sneered.

"Ezra that's enough," Vin warned even though he felt Ezra's anger was warranted. However, nothing he said to Chris would make the Captain feel any worse than Chris already did for the deaths of the security team.

"It is not enough!" Ezra glared at Chris. He rarely allowed his rage to have free reigned but now it was unleashed, was determined to have its day. "My people are dead! They did not have to die! If you had just listened to me! If you had just acknowledged one single concern I had, they would still be here! In fact, not only would they be alive, we would be on our way out of here instead of waiting for those hellish creatures to close in on us."

"Ezra!" Alex snapped, this time she was not speaking to the security chief as his friend but rather as his superior officer. "You are riding close to insubordination, now give it a rest!"

"The hell I will," he took a step towards Chris and Vin immediately blocked his path, ensuring he did not reach the Captain.

"Ezra I did what I had to." Chris finally spoke defending himself. "I'm sorry about Angel, Christie and Collins. I'll never be able to forgive myself for what happened to them and you're right, not just about this but about everything."

"And you think that actually makes a difference don't you?" Ezra retorted shaking his head. "You think that an apology makes everything you did permissible? Forgive me Sir but I am afraid that is not good enough. What happens the next time we go on a mission that conflicts with your personal difficulties?"

"Don't push your luck, Ezra," Chris broke past Vin and was now standing toe to toe with the security chief. He was more than aware of his complicity in the deaths of those crewmen but Ezra was crossing a line he would not abide from anyone, even a friend.

"Or what Captain? Are you going to charge me with insubordination?"

"Maybe." Chris was thinking that was the least he was going to do. The most was he was going to wipe that insubordinate smirk off Ezra's face.

"You do that Captain and I will charge you with misconduct resulting in the death of innocent crewmen!" He exploded and lunged at Chris, prepared to strike while Chris did the same. Fortunately, Vin was already grabbing both men apart and flung them to either side of the room. He had more than enough strength to manage the feat quite easily and both security chief and Captain went sprawling in opposite directions.


Vin's own rage was properly provoked by this display from both his friends. While Chris did deserve some of the things said to him, just as Ezra was justified in saying them, there was a line crossed he did not care for from either of them.

"Now we need to work together to get out of this mess alive. What you two decide to do once we get off this hellhole is up to you but for the moment, we're all standing waist deep in the same shit! Those things are coming back for us as soon as they discover there are more of them then there are bullets in the remote sentry units, so we better start thinking of a plan. Captain, we need you to come up with one." He shifted his gaze from Chris to Ezra. "And Ezra, we need you to make it work."

Ezra blinked and looked away, feeling an inordinate amount of shame for letting his anger get the best of him. A short time ago, he was thinking of how he asked for Collins to be assigned to the Maverick because he knew what it was like to be undervalued because of what was said in one's official record. Yet he forgot the reason he was on the Maverick at all was that Chris took the same chance on him. In the light of Vin's harsh but justifiable words, Ezra realised he had behaved abominably and Vin was right, nothing he said to Chris could make the Captain feel any worse already. Besides, Collins, Christie and Angel were apart of Chris's crew, not just his security team.

"Captain," Ezra swallowed hard, feeling flushes of shame stain his cheeks as he kept his eyes fixed on the floor, unable to meet Chris's stare. "I am sorry for what I said. I had no right to speak to you in that fashion and I know you did not mean for any of this to happen.'

The apology meant a great deal to Chris because he knew exactly how pained Ezra was feeling. He was responsible for their deaths because Ezra had pointed out the potential for something to go wrong and was ignored. He was culpable and not about to get on his high horse now he was a little less angry at Ezra's outburst.

"Thank you, Ezra," he said genuinely accepting the apology. "I promise you I'll never take your advice for granted again and we will get out of here. I won't let any more of us die in this place."

"Captain," Alex interrupted the speech as her eyes remained fixed on the tricorder. The expression on her face was deathly and they knew even before she spoke what terrible revelation was going to come from her.

"The aliens. They're attacking."

+ + + + + + +

This time the converging number of aliens did not resemble their earlier attack. Instead of coming blindly at the sentry units and being cut to pieces like before, the aliens were more coordinated, sacrificing some of their numbers to keep the sentries busy while others slipped past their defensive perimeter. The Starfleet officers watched through the console screen at the scenery outside, feeling their blood chill with each screech tearing a shrill path through the air before being obliterated by a more mechanical one as the remote sentries found more targets to shoot. Even though none of the aliens had yet to reach the hull, Chris could tell it was only a matter of time. The problem was, there was little he could think to do to stop them once they decided to take the ship. The small room where they were keeping watch made it almost impossible for them to talk thanks to the deafening noise outside, so all they could do was watch without speaking, trying not to let the scene outside diminish their hope.

Alex could see the writing on the wall just like her Captain. Soon, they would be in a position with very little chance of survival no matter what course they were forced to take. It stood to reason eventually the aliens would make their way to the hull and when that happened, Alex had no doubt the creatures would tear the titanium off the ship's structure if that was what it took to penetrate the barricades. Once the aliens were inside the dropship, this was no longer a suitable place to hide and they would have to leave except there was nowhere to go. The prison may have been a maximum-security installation but it was not made to keep out a lifeform as versatile and determined as this one. Alex did not like their chances out in the open but supposed it was better than nothing.

Suddenly, Alex remembered Bishop and realised she left him conscious. She was not about to leave the android behind, especially powered. She could think of no crueller act than to leave him awake, without the ability to save himself waiting for deliverance that would never come if anything happened to them. For someone who had been in a similar situation a lifetime ago, Alex was not about to let it happen to Bishop if it was in her power to do something about it. Without considering the wisdom of her actions, the science officer broke away from the others as she hurried to the passenger deck, where she left the android.

She was halfway there when suddenly a burst of static ruptured in her ears making her flinch. She looked around and searched for the noise, thinking at first it must have been one of those old-fashioned radios, the 21st century was so fond of using. Straining to listen in order to pinpoint the source, she was once again rewarded with another scratchy burst she discovered was coming from her com badge and trailed by a familiar voice.

"Lieutenant Pemberton to the Away Team! Come in." Julia's voice reached across space and flooded Alex with nothing less than joy.

"Julia!" Alex tapped her com badge and wondered if the Captain and the others could hear it. It took her a split second to realize they could barely hear each other when the sentry units were firing, let alone this uneven voice from space. "Where the hell have you been? Do you have any idea what we've been going through?"

"What you've been going through?" The redhead snorted from the cockpit of the runabout. "Don't even get me started."

"How did you manage to contact us through the storm?" Alex asked, wondering how this minor miracle had come about.

"I'm piggybacking the signal on a tachyon pulse. It's drawing your transmission to it through the interference." The Chief Engineer explained and did not surprise the Science Officer by its ingenuity.

"Julia get down here! The place is crawling with aliens. We've already lost all our security personnel."

"All?" Her voice tightened with sheer terror. "Ezra?"

Alex scolded herself and immediately clarified. "Ezra's fine but we've barricaded ourselves on the dropship. We can't take off and we're about to be overwhelmed by these things. Kick that runabout into maximum burn and get us the hell out of here!"

"I'm already on my way!" Julia declared firmly, panic-stricken for the safety of not only her lover but also her friends. "Just hang on!"

"Alex!" Chris' voice sliced through Julia's communication with her. "Where the hell are you? We've got breaches through the perimeter! They've gotten through the hull! We've got to evacuate immediately!"

Alex swung around and prepared to go back the way she came when something dropped in front of her. All black and slithery, it landed softly on the grating in front of her and straightened itself upright to hiss at her with its massive jaws, tentacles and tail coiling languidly as it prepared to attack. Alex was mesmerized for a brief instance before she pulled her phaser and fired. The alien prepared to lunge but a beam of energy caught it straight in the gut and threw it halfway across the corridor before its body exploded, spraying acid in all directions. Alex backed up, preparing to find another way to the Captain when she heard something behind her.

Something very close.

She whirled around into a set of glistening jaws and something sharp that struck her in the centre of her thigh. There was a moment of clarity when she realised what the creature had done and tried to scream but the darkness overwhelmed her and she knew nothing more.

+ + + + + + +

It was Vin who guessed Alex might have gone back to get the android Bishop. What was left of the Away team left the command centre where they had been monitoring the sentry units' progress at keeping the aliens at bay. Since it was more or less a moot point with the damn things overrunning the dropship, all the Away Team could do was find their missing member and get out while they could. It was anyone's guess what would happen once they were out in the open but at the moment, the confined spaces were giving the aliens too much advantage. As they attempted to reach the passenger compartment, they saw the damage inflicted by an alien's demise and found another route instead.

"Bishop," Vin spoke as he lowered himself from an access hatch on the ceiling leading from the upper deck. "Where's Alex?"

Bishop could not meet the Vulcan's gaze as Chris and Ezra followed him into the room by way of the same hatchway.

"I heard her coming." He said softly. "She was speaking to someone but she never got here."

"Speaking to someone?" Vin mused and exchanged puzzled glances with both Ezra and Chris.

"Someone called Julia," Bishop informed.

"Julia!" Ezra exclaimed. "Did you say, Julia?"

"How did she get through the storm?" Chris asked but decided it did not matter. He tapped his combadge as Vin ran out of the room, trying to retrace Alex's step with Ezra following closely behind.

"Away Team to Lieutenant Pemberton. Come in." Chris tried, hoping the same fluke that allowed Alex to communicate with Julia was still in existence. "This is Captain Larabee, come in Julia."

"I heard her," Bishop said sadly. "And then I heard it."

Chris's heart froze in his chest when he realised what Bishop was trying to say when suddenly, Julia's voice belayed his horror with hope.

"Captain!" She answered, her voice full of relief. "Thank God you're alright. I was talking to Alex and suddenly we were cut off. Standby for pick up, I've got the dropship in sight now."

No sooner than she uttered those words, the ground shuddered with a violent rumble. Bishop rattled on his table and anything still perched on a shelf was jostled out of place onto the floor.

"I was not aware of Fiorina experiencing seismic instability." Bishop's grotesque face wrinkled into a frown.

"It's not seismic instability," Chris responded with a grin. "Those are phaser blasts."

"Just clearing the area," Julia announced. The signal between them was far stronger now they were no longer forced to send the signal through the atmosphere. "You seemed to be surrounded by the things."

Chris was about to answer when Vin and Ezra entered the room. Vin was carrying a phaser in his hands and the expression on his face was beyond sorrow. Chris had never seen Vin's cobalt-coloured eyes take on the shade of dark almost as black as the alien's soul. It was as if someone stuck a knife through his heart and Chris knew of only one thing capable of devastating the helmsman so much.

"Alex?" Chris was almost afraid to ask.

"There was no sign of her," Ezra spoke because Vin could not. Chris could see the Vulcan's hand clenched so tightly around the science officer's phaser the metal was starting to bend. "All we found is her phaser."

"Vin, I'm sorry." Chris tried to say but words were not enough. If it was Mary taken and Vin was responsible for it, as Chris was responsible for Alex, there was nothing that would keep Vin from tearing him apart.

"Nobody?" Bishop suddenly asked.

Both Ezra and Vin looked up. "Nobody," Ezra answered.

"She's still alive." Bishop quickly replied. "They don't kill you. They only do that if you give them no choice but to kill. Chances are she's being cocooned for implantation."

"NO!" Vin shouted horrified. "I promised her I wouldn't let that happen!" Vin shot a look at Chris and defied the Captain to say otherwise because friend or not, he would regret it. "If she's alive I'm going to get her. I won't let her die like that!"

"Steady there Vin," Ezra responded automatically. "We are not letting her die, are we Captain?"

The security officer met his Captain's eyes and told him in that one hard stare he was more than willing to walk into that hive at Vin's side to get Alex back alive.

"'No we're not," Chris said firmly, deciding that much there and then. Tapping his combadge, he addressed Julia once again. "Julia, we're coming top side. Be ready to pick us up. "

With that, he severed the connection and gave both Vin and Ezra one of those infamous Larabee stares and stated firmly. "We're leaving. All of us."

Chapter Sixteen: A Royal Meeting

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The sound of water impacting against the surface somewhere in the distant fog lulled Alexandra Styles back to consciousness. Her head began throbbing almost immediately after awareness filled her and she winced slightly at the dull ache pulsing steadily inside her mind. For a few seconds, she had no idea where she was but the amnesia lasted briefly. The memories began to return quickly when she raised her heavy head and realised there was only darkness around her. Images of glistening teeth and not moving away quite fast enough slammed into her as her eyes widened and instinctively, she glanced at the leg that flared in pain moments before she woke up from the sleep that found her here.

Oh God, I'm inside the hive.

The realization struck cold terror in her heart. Frantically, she let her eyes sweep across her present surroundings, searching for salvation and finding nothing but an addendum to the horror of her situation. She had not been in the hive that saw Ensign Christie torn apart but there was no doubt this was where she was. Alex could see the skeletons described so prolifically by Ensign Angel. The dank musty smell of decomposed bodies still clinging stridently to the air. She tried not to think of what she was inhaling as she began to tremble. Inside the darkened host chamber, the air was also hot and humid. Alex could feel beads of sweat forming under her uniform and breaking free of her hairline to run down her brow. The chamber was still and she heard no movement or saw any of the creatures that brought her here.

She did, however, see the sealed egg in front of her.

Alex froze, wanting to scream but too terrified to bring attention to herself from the creature. They had not killed her, which meant she was meant to be this spore's host. It had been a long time she was this afraid, not since she had been in the hands of the Cardassians. Back then, they had implanted their seed in her too but this was far different. This was obscene. She looked to her hands, trying to see how they managed to pin her to this chamber of horrors and realised she was being held in place by the creature's secreted resin. It was strong enough to keep her off the floor and trapped to the wall with the rest of the poor creatures forced into being hosts for the alien spores. Scanning the wall, she saw the unsealed eggs that brought to so many their doom still on the floor, their twisted progeny just as scattered.

The egg in front of her remained sealed but Alex knew this was a temporary state of affairs. She wanted to scream her head off for help but the scientist in her vetoed the idea almost immediately. Besides, if the Captain were smart, he would take what's left of the Away Team and get the hell out, not waste time trying to mount a rescue attempt which would end them up in exactly the position she now found herself. Thus, however she extricated herself from this present situation, it would have to be on her own. If worse came to worse, she would find a way to kill herself before she became host to one of these monsters.

She was a scientist. She had to believe her mind could get her out of this or her life's work would mean nothing. Think, Alex. Work the problem as someone famous had once said. These things have no sensory organs of any kind and yet they detect their prey easily. Obviously they were not drawn to light for this place felt like a tomb. They had no eyes to see it anyway, no ears to hear it. Telepathic perhaps? It was possible. They had an exceedingly organized hierarchy structure. Spores, drones, she wondered if there were warrior aliens as well. If there was a Queen, there had to be a warrior caste too.

Not important, Alex quickly disregarded that line of reasoning. Right now, she needed to know how the spores seemed to detect when a host was near. It stood to reason the eggs must hatch pretty quickly after coming into contact with a potential host because of the inconsistency of the supply. So they must hatch when they sense the host nearby but how? Scent? Not from inside a sealed egg.

Sound? Could it be sound? Is that why it was so quiet in here? She did not see any auditory organs but that did not mean anything. Who knew ducks had ears? Alex tensed up and took a deep breath but made certain it was a silent inhale. Sound was not just a thing that was heard, it could be felt. It moved through the air in invisible tremors. It was all a matter of frequency. White sound could shatter eardrums. Low-frequency noise beyond human hearing could drive canines insane. If the alien spore sensed her presence by sound then every breath, every flex of muscle no matter how slight could be a beacon to wake it up.

So she had to be extremely quiet and pray it would be enough until she could figure out how to escape.

+ + + + + + +

"Are we ready?" Chris asked his Away Team from inside the confines of the runabout.

"Let's get going," Vin said impatiently as he held the phaser rifle in his hand. The Vulcan was standing at the main hatch, waiting for Julia, who was still at the helm, about to land.

Their rescue from the dropship was fraught with danger but Julia created enough carnage thanks to the phasers, that even if there were aliens left to make their rescue of Alex somewhat difficult, it would be nowhere in the numbers they confronted earlier. When all this was said and done, Chris was going to have to sit down and ponder where the Prime Directive stood in all this. If the atmosphere was not ionized, this entire mission would have gone a great deal smoother with a lot less loss of lives. Even though he learnt the truth about Ripley and Hicks from Bishop, who at the moment was disconnected and lying in a compartment at the back of the runabout, because Vin wouldn't leave it behind, Chris wasn't sure if he gained as much as he thought.

Needless to say, there would be a great deal he would hold himself accountable for later on but for right now, they had to get Alex before any one else paid for his mistakes. It was bad enough to see the look of sorrow on Ezra's face when Julia told him Lieutenant Atwater died, being host to one of those creatures and she bore wounds herself from her encounter with his progeny. Chris was not about to lose his science officer to the same fate that took Ty Atwater. As it was, Vin was already foaming at the mouth and the Vulcan was riding a wave of savagery that would give some of those aliens down there a run for their money. He noted the aggression in Vin's behaviour and wondered was it just Alex's situation that was the cause or was it something more?

"Have you got her Ezra?" Chris asked the security officer who was holding the tricorder in his hand while a phaser rifle was slung over his shoulder.

"Yes," the southerner nodded. "I detect her life signs clearly." He added for Vin's benefit. "She is alive but there is no way to tell if..." he trailed off not knowing how to finish that sentence.

"If they haven't got one of those things inside of her," Vin nodded in understanding. "Well if she's taken we can put her in stasis until the Maverick gets back right?" He looked at Chris.

"Absolutely." Chris nodded. If there was anyone who could be able to extract the parasite from inside Alex, it was Nathan Jackson.

"We may even be able to beam it out of her," Julia added hopefully, able to see how fearful Vin was for Alex.

"Rest assured Vin," Ezra said firmly. "One way or another, she will not die on this God forsaken place."

"Alright," Chris let out a breath as he turned to Julia. "Julia, you know what to do."

"Yes Sir," the Chief Engineer nodded though she did not like the idea much. "Once you're on the ground, I am to circle the hive until I receive your signal to land."

"Right." He nodded. "Under no circumstances will you be on the ground before that Lieutenant. Are we clear?"

Julia swallowed, glancing instinctively at Ezra when Chris made that statement only to see him nod his agreement with his Captain. "I do not want you in any more danger than you have already been Julia." He solidified his solidarity with the Captain by that statement.

"Yes, Sir." She whispered unhappily.

"Good," Chris turned towards the hatch. "Take us down."

+ + + + + + +

It had started to rain again but this time it was a light teeming fall, which felt prickly against the skin. The runabout soared into the air and Chris was consoled by the fact it would not be far away when they needed it. They sighted the same fissure on the surface of the large hive structure found by Ensign Angel in the last hour of her life. There was no light radiating from that jagged smear of black leading into hell. There were no aliens in sight now. Most likely they were scattered, searching for the prey they knew were here if not gone. Vin started walking first, his phaser rifle slung around his shoulder and held in a firm grip in readiness to fire. The expression on his face was something Chris had never seen. The Captain had no doubt that any alien attempting to stop Vin from reaching Alex would have reason to regret it.

"Vin, wait up," Chris ordered the Vulcan who immediately came to a stop and glanced impatiently over his shoulder for his Captain and the security chief to catch up.

"Captain," Ezra spoke up as he studied his tricorder, a slight frown appearing on his face. "I cannot get an accurate fix on the aliens. I think there may be some interference coming from the structure. I can pinpoint their general location but nothing exact."

"What about Alex?" Vin turned around and faced Ezra at that alarming news.

"Her life signs are easy to pinpoint Mr Tanner," Ezra responded automatically. "Fortunately, one carbon-based life form amongst a complement of silicon types makes for a standout."

"That's something at least," Chris muttered under his breath before speaking in a clearer voice. "Are we clear to go?" He looked at Ezra, as they were about to penetrate the interior of the hive.

"As we will ever be." Ezra shrugged. "There does not appear to be aliens in the immediate vicinity."

"You don't sound very sure," Chris noted.

"I am not." He returned the stare Chris was giving him with just as much intensity.

Predictably, Vin entered without waiting for them while they were still talking. The phaser rifles came equipped with a torch perched on the barrel and the moment they entered the darkness, the small bulb illuminated inside its glass casing and lit the way for them. Chris and Ezra followed right behind him and were immediately faced with the bizarre construction of the alien hive. Gigantic veins ran across the high ceilings and the interior of the hive seemed to be a collection of dark chambers, shadowy and indistinct. It was the perfect environment for the aliens to lie in wait. Chris wondered if the creatures' homeworld resembled this and was glad he never had the misfortune to land in such a stygian place.

There were tiny wisps of rain drifting past the light beams and the humid temperature soon attacked them mercilessly. Vin would not stand for it and immediately divested himself of his Starfleet issue blazer and turtleneck.

"Ezra, how far away is she?" Chris asked as they moved through the black chambers.

"About a hundred feet," Ezra responded his voice soft and hushed.

"Almost at the centre," Vin remarked.

"Makes sense," Chris replied. "She would be placed very close to the egg chamber, which is where the queen would. If the entomology principles of a hive society were in force here at least in the conventional sense, the queen would be isolated. She would be protected by the others but at a safe distance."

"So we will have to pass their defensive perimeter to reach her." Ezra nodded in understanding.

"I think so."

"Everybody quiet!" Ezra hissed loudly. "I'm getting alien signals approaching."

"How far?" Chris demanded.

"I cannot determine that accurately." The security chief replied, "But I think we ought to proceed with extreme caution."

There was no need to seek out the approaching aliens for they emerged soon enough. Chris saw the black shape spring out of nowhere, the angle of its trajectory heading straight for Ezra. As it leapt over himself and Vin, Chris aimed his phaser to fire while Ezra staggered out of the way when suddenly Vin shot out his arm and wrapped a fist around what appeared to be the creature's leg.

The Vulcan pulled back with so much force the alien swung back the way it came, slamming onto the hard ground while screeching its outrage. Giving it little time to recover from its abrupt landing, Vin brought the butt of his rifle down on the banana-shaped head and fairly shattered the mouthful of sharp teeth that made up the alien's fangs. The creature hissed again and Vin let go of his rifle, allowing it to swing under his arm as both hands grabbed the elongated head and twisted hard. The following snap was loud enough for even Chris and Ezra to wince as the Vulcan twisted the head all the way around. The alien felt down limp without offering further protest.

Vin stood up and looked over his shoulder before stating icily. "Let's go."

But they were not going anywhere yet. Probably because they were just as astonished by the brutal demise of their own, two more aliens made their appearance and Chris ducked as one lunged and rolled across the grimy floor as he fired. The only thing he heard was a screech of pain and the brief illumination of the phaser as the creature was blown apart, spraying acid in all directions. A bit of landed on his shoulder and Chris uttered a small gasp of pain as he felt the noxious substance eating through his skin. Without wasting any time, Chris ripped the entire sleeve away, abruptly cutting off the flow of acid making its way through the fabric to flesh. He still had some burns though but not enough to slow him down, just enough to give him something to think about.

Ezra in the meantime just completed vaporizing the second creature when he noted Vin had gone ahead.

"VIN!" Ezra shouted as he hurried to the Captain and helped him up. "Wait for us, Lieutenant!" Vin did not respond and Ezra shook his head in annoyance as he turned to Chris. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah," Chris nodded wincing. "It hurts but I'll live." Chris raised himself to his feet and examined the burnt flesh on his shoulder. It did hurt but adrenaline was dousing the pain for now. His attention was mostly focussed on Vin who had disappeared. "Vin, hold your horses! NOW!"

"Well hurry up!" Vin snapped back from the next chamber.

Chris shook his head in disbelief at the helmsman's impeccable timing to suddenly become temperamental. "Is it me or is he behaving just a little bit..."

"Deranged?" Ezra completed, thinking the same thing himself. "What he did to that alien made me feel pity for the creature. It's not just worrying for Alex either. He has been this way for quite some time now."

"I know." Chris nodded remembering how he tore them both apart during their spat. A little more strength and they could be in the same condition as that alien lying on the floor with its head 180�degrees from where it ought to be. "We'll deal with this later," Chris sighed knowing at this moment, they had not the time for such debate. "If there is a later."

+ + + + + + +

They encountered more aliens the further into the hive they pushed. Ezra's tricorder readings indicated there were a large number of them in the hive and at this moment they were converging upon the rescue team. Fortunately, they were almost twenty feet away from Alex's coordinates and her life signs were still strong. Vin was pushing forward with the same savage pace and the more Chris saw him react to the aliens, the more the Captain became nervous. The latest kill, again with his bare hands, had Vin shoving one of those elongated heads into a protrusion of jagged metal, the remains of a steel chair leg the aliens had used to construct their hive. Vin had impaled the creature through the base of its skull, forcing steel to exit through the top of its head, just beyond the jaw. According to Vin, it was where its central cortex was located. Chris did not argue with the results since the alien did not survive the procedure.

They entered the large chamber with the skeletons and saw the remains of humans and domestic animals the company used in its breeding program. It was a macabre picture of death and Chris could not imagine what kind of evil that allowed one human being to do this to another.

Sometimes he didn't know which species was worse. You didn't see them fucking each other over a goddamn percentage.

"These poor souls," Ezra whispered as he imagined the terror in those skeletal faces.

Chris was passing by a corpse clinging to the wall when suddenly; a hand reached out and grabbed him. Chris almost turned around and fired but when he looked, all he saw was a human face. A live human face.

"Angel." He gasped and felt a little of himself die then and there when he saw her eyes fix on him.

"Captain." She whispered. Her face was covered in moisture and held in place with ooze. She was pinned to the wall with the resin the creatures used to construct their hive and keep their prey immobilized for implantation.

"Oh, sweet Jesus," Ezra muttered somewhere in the dark and Chris knew it was not because she was alive but because he saw the unsealed egg and the dead spore at her feet. With an alien inside of her, the tricorder was unable to pick her life sign as human.

"Captain, I can feel it moving." She blinked and hot tears ran down her cheeks. "It's scratching against my insides. I think it's going to come soon."

"We'll get you out of here Ensign," Chris said quickly examining her trappings to do just that.

"Captain," she met his gaze with a great deal more realism than he himself, possessed. "You can't get this out of me in time." She said softly, trying not to cry. "I don't want to die like this. Please don't let me see it coming. I couldn't stand it."

Chris understood and she was right. If she could feel the infant alien starting to claw its way out of her sternum then they were out of time. Even if he pulled her free, they had to make it out of here again and it would be too late. With anguish, he realised his ensign was far braver and smarter than he was.

"Angel do not talk that way," Ezra replied, refusing to let things end like this. "We will extricate you from this..."

"Ezra," Chris spoke with a voice not quite his own. "You and Vin go get Alex."

"What?" Ezra gasped. "Why?"

"DO AS I SAY!" Chris roared with a vehemence that would have sent the aliens running for cover if they understood the words.

Vin met Chris's gaze and a wave of sympathy filled not only for the young ensign but his Captain. "Come on Ezra," Vin tugged at the security officer's arm. "We have to go."

"No." Ezra shook his head. "Not like this."

"Please Chief," Angel made her final plea. "I don't want to see it come out of me." She was begging and Ezra felt his heart breaking into a thousand pieces and never hated a species more than this miserable race they happened upon on Fury 361.

Ezra couldn't say any more because Vin was pulling him away. Chris did not watch as his security chief and helmsman faded into the darkness. All he could do was stare into the face of this child whose life was turned in an obscenity because of his obsession. He had never felt so ashamed in his life and he took a step to the young woman and placed his hand on her warm cheek, wet with tears. She had started to cry and each sob tore at his soul like knives.

"I'm scared Captain," she wept. "I'm so scared."

"Its okay Ensign, I'm going to be right here." Chris leaned forward, raising her chin in his hand and lowering his lips to hers in a gentle kiss. It was the most lingering kiss he had given any woman, not at all passionate but filled with tender, gentle affection. He closed his eyes and felt her tears against his skin, even as the barrel of the phaser rifle was moving stealthily through the darkness towards her brow. She did not notice it, lost in the kiss. Lost in the one beautiful moment she would have before she died. Chris felt her respond, felt her lips take his hungrily and felt his own tears come just as he pulled the trigger.

She went limp in his arms with the discharge of the weapon and her head slumped against him as the life drained out of it. When Chris stepped back, there were more tears running down his face. Of all the things he had done to bring them to this place, until this moment he never realised how wrong he was until he stared at this child who had begged him to take her life.

"I'm so sorry Ensign. God help me, I am so sorry."

+ + + + + + +

Alex heard a sharp voice and knew through some miracle, they were actually coming for her. She heard gunfire and voices in the distance, all the while praying they would reach her before the noise they caused gave the alien spore before her reason to awake. Through all the shooting and voices, the spore remained sealed which gave further evidence the spore's sensory perception had limits. However, now it was time to make a decision. Her friends were close and they had to know where she was. They had to know even if she had to help them. Even if she had to risk giving the spore stimulus to awake.

"VIN!" Alex screamed on top of her lungs and hoped it was enough.

"Alex!" His voice returned almost immediately. "Alex, we're coming!"

The egg needed no more incentive than that. It started to unseal with a loud hiss of warm gases escaping the mouth, like an obscene parody of a flower bud opening.

"Come faster!" She shouted, unashamed at the pure unadulterated terror in her voice. Alex saw the appearance of one spindly digit making an exploratory examination of the outside world, through the noisome fluid of its receptacle.

She watched as another digit peered out, dragging clear, sticky fluid in thick suspending rivulets. Soon the entire creature was pushing towards the edge of the egg. Alex had not actually seen the spore before but it reminded her of a hand with way too many fingers. She did recognise the tail, however, the long coiling tail whose only purpose was to send it propelling through the air towards some helpless victims. She saw its muscles flex and knew it was preparing to jump.

Alex screamed just as Vin fired and killed the thing before it had a chance to reach her.

As he did so, an alien leapt into view and Ezra dispatched it with as much impunity. Another emerged and Vin displayed the skill that made him the best shot on the Maverick when he swung around and killed it before it could even reach them.

"Alex!" Vin hurried to her, letting go of his rifle as he reached her. A surge of happiness at seeing her well made him push his lips against her in a hard, demanding kiss before he had a chance to know what he was doing. Alex did not know if her sudden deliverance was more surprising or the fact that Vin had actually kissed her.

"Are you alright?" He asked, his eyes full of concern.

"One second more and I wouldn't have been." She laughed with relief even though they were nowhere out of trouble.

"I do not wish to interrupt your reunion Lieutenant Tanner but do you think you could possibly remove our lovely science officer from her present incarceration so we can get the FUCK out of here?"

"What he said but without the swearing and a hell of a lot more gratitude." She looked around and saw the Captain was not with them. "Where's the Captain?" She was almost fearful of the answer.

"Right here," Chris responded emerging from out of the darkness. "You okay Alex?"

"Yes, Sir," Alex replied and noted something in his eyes that made her decide to keep her answer short. It wasn't just him, it was also in Vin and Ezra's eyes, and Alex wondered what happened. She'd ask Vin about it later, for now, she was just grateful at being freed.

Vin ripped the resinous material that kept her bound and Alex dropped into his arms from her suspended position against the wall. She took a moment to embrace him, never being so happy to be alive. However, she soon noted Ezra was keeping watch on the tricorder reading. The frown on his face did not bode well.

"Captain," Ezra said softly. "They're coming."

"How many?" Chris returned tautly as they started to backtrack.

There was a pause before the security officer answered. "All of them."

Chris thought quickly.

There was only one way for them to get out of here alive. It was time for a royal meeting.

+ + + + + + +

It was not hard to find the chamber where all the alien eggs originated. As soon as they approached it, the advance stopped in its tracks. The aliens were hovering at a perimeter, uncertain of what to do, Chris wagered. He was correct in assuming the drones would not risk attacking while the mother of their entire society was endangered. Knowing she existed was nothing like laying eyes upon her in reality. In her report, Angel spoke of the queen being larger and far more formidable than the drones they so far encountered, but seeing her for themselves made that description pale in comparison. The room they entered was full of eggs, produced by a biological conveyor belt running across the length of the room.

As Chris, Vin, Alex and Ezra entered the maw of hell, no one dared to speak. The horror of their situation robbed every one of words. The eggs sack ran like a giant conduit around them, beginning at an egg and ending with the queen alien perched on top of it. She was aware she had visitors and raised her massive head, flared with black frills that looked very much like a crown. Her outer lips, it was the closest definition Chris could come up with, pulled back and revealed an enormous mouth full of teeth the size of his forearms. Clear ooze dribbled off those massive uneven teeth as fangs were bared in their direction.

"Oh shit," Alex whispered. "Captain, tell me again how this is a good idea?"

Chris did not know what he was doing for an instant as he stepped forward and stared at the thing, ahead of those with him. He was just beyond her reach but close enough for the alien queen to know she was being observed by the leader of this small band of humans or by her reckoning, incubators.

"So you're the Queen?" he asked, his voice devoid of humour.

She hissed a loud stomach-turning sound.

They regarded each other for a long moment, bringing puzzlement to those who observed the silent exchange.

"I'm going to kill you," Chris said simply but the menace in his voice made those who heard it, shudder. "I'm going to wipe you and your whole fucking nest out of existence. If I have to turn this planet into radioactive mush, I will do that because you're going to pay for Ripley, for Hicks," his voice wavered a little. "For Angel. You're gonna pay a thousand fucking times for Angel."

An egg unsealed next to him and Chris stared at the queen, aware she had just thrown down the gauntlet. Fine, he had come in here with a plan.

"Now Julia." He ordered.

No sooner than the words left his mouth and explosion rocked the structure. The queen screeched loudly, her arms flaying as the high ceiling above them suddenly shattered, torn apart by a phaser blast. Chris chose that moment to withdraw, ordering his people to the far corner of the room as the runabout slammed through the top of egg chamber, raining debris down over the queen's precious eggs, following the signal of their com badges. She roared once again with fury, struggling to break free and Chris had no intention of sticking around for that. Once inside the hatchery, the runabout lowered to the ground. Julia picked her landing spot carefully as the Away Team watched in anticipation as she set down on a pile of debris, safe from squashing the acid-filled eggs. The landing was unstable but Chris knew as well as Julia, the runabout would be capable of blasting off any surface.

"Get to the ship!" Chris shouted though it was a redundant gesture. Everyone was already bolting across the hatchery towards the small ship, which was as close to heaven as any vehicle could be. Alex was the first to reach the hatch, which Julia opened for them. The destruction of the hive had overridden the aliens fear for their queen and they were closing in. As Alex clambered through the open door, Julia fired at an approaching alien in the shadows. Following close behind was Ezra and Vin. Chris was the last.

Chris had one more thing to do before he vacated the area. He set his hand phaser for overload and dropped it in front of the queen's perch before he ran like hell for the runabout as his crew valiantly provided him with cover. Chris had to practically jump into the open mouth of the runabout's open hatch.

"Get us out of here!" He shouted at Vin who had taken the helm.

The runabout was already lifting off the ground as Julia closed the hatch and when the craft rose into the air, Chris could see the aliens closing in on the ship. No doubt some would try to reach it. He didn't care. They could hang on for all they were worth, but they were not going to survive the trip out of the atmosphere because he'd burn the bastards off first.

The runabout exploded off the ground as Vin took off at maximum speed, sending hot waves of plasma from the engines as it shot into the air like a comet. The fallout incinerated the eggs and aliens beneath it, ending their threat in a screech of all-consuming heat. Vin directed the runabout through the fissure Julia created to reach them, widening as the hive began to collapse. The small Starfleet craft reached open air when another explosion was heard; this time a little more localized in its concentration and had all the characteristics of a detonating phaser set on overload.

Inwardly, Chris whispered to himself. Die bitch, die.

"Vin," Chris struggled to his feet after they were free of the hive and went to his pilot. "Circle around."

"Circle around?" Vin stared at him in surprise.

"Do it," Chris ordered. "Ezra how many torpedoes have we got on this thing?"


"Vin, I want you to take a pass at that hive," Chris said with a tone that would not tolerate any argument, even from his best friend. "And then I want you to fire all torpedoes at that damn thing."

"All?" Ezra exclaimed. "One would be sufficient."

"ALL." Chris glared at him. "I want the entire site levelled."

Strangely enough, it was a comforting thought for everybody and Chris received no further protest.

Epilogue: Aftershocks

The Maverick was no more than two days away from the Sulaco when the distress signal Julia Pemberton sent prior to leaving the ship to retrieve the Away Team on Fiorina reached them. Buck Wilmington sent his apologies to Admiral Donaldson, citing an emergency and that they would be a little late in reaching their destination at the Vorlis system. Fortunately, the USS Saratoga was in the vicinity and was able to assume the duties that the Maverick was forced to abandon in order to carry out their rescue mission. Buck immediately reversed course, proceeding to the prison facilities at Warp 9, cutting down a trip that would have taken days into a matter of hours. The distress signal did not explain much in the way of the emergency but considering what they knew about the life forms encountered by Ellen Ripley, Buck wasted no time in returning to the lady�s last known location.

The runabout had already returned to the Sulaco when the Maverick arrived and Chris wasted no time having his crew beamed off the ancient ship and back to more familiar surroundings. After what they had been through, he would not force them to remain on the Sulaco for longer than necessary. This entire situation was his fault and he knew it. It would be a long time before he would ever overcome the price of forgetting he was Captain. All he would have to do was to remember that girl who had asked to be killed and suddenly, the obsession driving him these past few weeks did not seem as important as his crew or his duty to them.

Utilising the Maverick�s sensors, they were able to make another sweep of the Sulaco, calibrating them to detect any further evidence of non-carbon based life forms to ensure there were no more of the aliens that were almost the death of them all on Fury 361. The sensors gave the Sulaco a clean bill of health and the Maverick signalled Deep Space Five to dispatch a tug to tow the vessel back to Earth. Every member of the Away Team had seen just about as much of the Sulaco as they wanted to, for a long time. To ensure no one else stumbled inadvertently into the alien nest if any of the creatures survived the torpedo barrage, Chris ordered the deployment of a cautionary beacon, warning any ships who happened by to avoid landing on the surface.

Chris remained on the Sulaco long enough after the Maverick's arrival to gather the belongings of Corporal Hicks for himself. He was after all, family and Chris did not feel right about leaving the man�s last possessions on the ship that brought him to his death. He did the same for Ripley, mostly because he could not bear to forget her. Ripley and Ensign Angel both taught him valuable lessons.

Ripley taught him to value the friends in his life for she lost everyone she had through no fault of her own and he who was a great deal luckier, should never take his own for granted as he had been doing since learning about Q�s gift to him. What Angel taught him was an even more painful lesson and one he would carry for a long time. She and all the others, Lieutenant Ty Atwater, Lieutenant Susan Collins and Ensign John Christie were dead because he forgot a Captain had a responsibility to his crew first, everything else came second.

After what finally seemed like an eternity, Chris and the Away Team were transported back to the Maverick. All of them were a mess of injuries that needed tending. Julia and Vin had severe lacerations that simple field dressing was not adequate to treat and they were immediately ordered to Sick Bay by Nathan Jackson before they even stepped off the transporter pad. Alex and Ezra were unscathed but both were exhausted and immediately retired to their quarters for some rest. Although he was suffering third-degree burns to the shoulder, he resisted Nathan�s demand to get medical help for the time being. In truth, Chris had no patience with a doctor�s poking and prodding when there was one thing he had to do he had put off too long.

When he knocked on her door, he did not know what to say to her.

His behaviour the past few weeks had been next to offensive and he knew she was completely justified in wishing to leave the Maverick permanently. Before all this happened, he was more than happy to let her go, ignorantly believing she was less important than the quest he had to complete. Now as he waited for her to open the door, Chris knew if Sarah were standing here, she would have been utterly furious at how he behaved to Mary. He did not know what he had to say to her but the pain inside of him was so intense, he knew only her forgiveness would make some of it go away.

The doors slid open and Mary�s shock at his appearance showed. He was still covered in grime, soot left over from smoke and gooey alien. His Starfleet blazer and turtle neck were discarded after he was forced to tear the sleeves off when sprayed with acid and his skin was covered with a plethora of bruises and acid burns across his skin, the most prominent being his wounded shoulder. However, none of this mattered to him because seeing her before him, smelling the faint smell of her perfume and seeing the worry in her dove-like eyes was enough to make him feel terribly grateful to be alive.

"Oh my God, Chris! What happened to you?"

"Can I come in Mary?" He asked meekly.

Mary nodded and stepped aside. She had been on her way to the bridge herself to find out what happened to require the Maverick straying off mission to come rescue them for Fury 361. She expected whatever the emergency was, she would most likely find Chris at SickBay. Looking at him now, she wondered why he was not there already.

"Chris you�re hurt." She ran her finger gently on the tender flesh seared with acid.

"Its okay," Chris swallowed and met her eyes. "I'll see Nathan later. I've got something to tell you. Something important."

She could see it in his eyes, something terrible happened down there. Something so unspeakable he could barely keep it contained behind that icy coloured stare. Her heart pounded in fear as well as compassion. Everything that happened between them of late was brushed to the back of her mind because he needed her and he was not a man who would ask. Their relationship in tatters could be dealt with later but for now she wrapped her arms around him and held him close to her. There was a slight moment of hesitation before she felt his own arms around her waist and his head lowered into the crook where her shoulder met her neck.

"I'm sorry," he whispered as the bottled up sorrow inside of him finally found release. The tears came freely as he wept softly in her embrace and felt her arms encircle him even tighter as she cooed in the background that things would be all right.

"I love you." He had never said it before and Mary paused for a moment, reeling from the surprise and the elation at his finally admitting what was unspoken for so long.

Chris did not fear telling her how he felt. He would say anything to keep her from going away because it was in his power to keep her in his life. Ellen Ripley never had the chance. The people in her life were stolen her from through no fault of her own. Chris would not make the mistake of standing by and letting those in his life slip away because he was too thick headed or stubborn to say what was necessary for them to stay. He would not lose Mary for anything. Chris composed himself a short moment later and pulled away from her.

"I love you Mary. I've loved you from the minute I met you. I don't know what to say to you to explain how I've been these past few weeks but I want to make it right between us. I don't want you to leave the Maverick. You belong here, I need you."

"Oh Chris," Mary responded with tears in her eyes. She couldn't think of anything else to say for the moment was filled with too many emotions to articulate anything clearly.

Chris caught a wet drop in his fingertip and met her gaze. "I don't want you to leave Mary. You're the best thing that's happened to me since Sarah and Adam died, I don't want to lose you. I was a complete fool for acting the way I did, not knowing what it is I had that I was dumb enough to think I could do without it. I can't do without you or Billy. You're part of my life."

"I guess we are." She said with a little smile and studied him for a moment. She was elated by his admission but she was also aware he had been through something traumatic for him to finally speak so deeply from the heart. "Chris, what happened down there?"

Chris did not speak as he considered whether or not he should tell her what transpired between himself and Lieutenant Michelle Angel. When he finally decided what he would say, Chris looked up at Mary and took her hand in his. "I learnt my choices can hurt people and I have to start thinking of them and letting go of my obsessions. I can't promise you I won't always be a little irrational about finding the truth about Sarah and Adam but I do promise you I won't shut you or any of my friends out."

"Chris," she gently caressed his face and smiled. "We'll be there for you and with you, no matter what happens."

"I know that," Chris answered and knowing that was of some comfort to him. "I should have always known that."

"We all grow a little Chris," she offered him a bittersweet smile. "Even starship captains."

"Especially star ship captains." He agreed but secretly this was one lesson he could have done without.

+ + + + + + +

"You feeling alright Vin?" Nathan Jackson asked as he regarded the Vulcan sitting impatiently on the treatment while one of his nurses put the finishing touches on the wound Nathan had just tended to. The doctor was staring at the readings on his medical scanner and had to confess he did not need the sophisticated piece of diagnostic equipment to see there was something wrong with the helmsman.

Vin was fidgeting on table as if the inactivity was making him anxious. Although he showed no signs of illness, Nathan's scans indicated his metabolic rate was moving much more rapidly than was customary for a Vulcan. Not to mention the fact the young man was paying particularly close attention to his nurse. Vin seemed to be leaning in towards her, as if his senses were basking in the sensations. The Vulcan equivalent of endorphins was surging through Vin at this moment and Nathan wondered what on Earth happened down on Fury 361. His age had him placed too early for Vulcan maturity, that was almost two years down the track.

"Yeah," Vin tore his attention away from Lieutenant Saunders and her attention to his injuries. He could smell her in his nostrils, not just her scent but something beneath the skin that reached into him on a primal level. She smelt female. That was the closest definition he could come to what it was. He wondered if Alex smelled the same way and suddenly wished to find her.

"I'm okay, why?" He met Nathan's studious eyes.

"You seem a little out of sorts." Nathan pointed up. "Your metabolism is up. Anything else happened to you down there you want to talk about?"

Vin decided that perhaps he ought to tell Nathan he was becoming very aware of sensations and the opposite sex but felt slightly embarrassed about doing so in front of Lieutenant Saunders. The Maverick may have been a galaxy class starship but news travelled quickly, faster whenever the morsel was particularly salacious. Vin had no intention of letting anyone know his private business. Unfortunately, Nathan was no fool and if he thought Vin was lying, he would keep the helmsman in Sick Bay until kingdom come to get an answer, so Vin decided he better come up with some conciliatory gesture.

"There is one thing," he said after a moment. "It's not much really but maybe it has some bearing. When we down there, I got into a tangle with one of the aliens. We were in very close contact and I picked up things, telepathically."

"What sort of things?" Nathan said, his brow frowning into a knot and made Vin immediately regret telling him at all.

Too late now Tanner, he told himself. Might as well finish the story. Vin braced himself and continued speaking.

"Emotions I guess. Instincts. I got pretty much into its head. They're not intelligent like we are. They live do one thing and one thing alone, breed. Nothing else matters."

"How much inside did you get?" Nathan asked again, not showing Vin just how worried he was about the Vulcan. Nathan knew of no way to confirm his suspicions because Vulcans did not discuss a matter like this without extremely good reason and as a Vulcan would put it, right now he did not have the appropriate facts to confirm his theory.

"Not much," Vin shrugged and Nathan knew instantly he was lying. "Just enough to know we were in a lot of trouble."

Nathan did not answer but he was thinking the same thing. They were in a lot of trouble and though it had yet to manifest, Nathan knew it would not last for long. The problem was, he had no idea how to treat the problem if he was right about what he believed, which at the moment he was not entirely certain enough to vocalize. However, Nathan was convinced the melding with the alien had done more than simply given Vin insight into the alien's psyche. If he was right, then they had better batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to come.

Either way it was going to be a bumpy ride.

+ + + + + + +

The android Bishop materialized on the floor of Holo-deck 2 some days later and was rather to surprised to find himself in the middle of what appeared to be a Scottish glen. In the distance, he could see the splendor of the highland mountains and his mind registered the beauty of the landscape in rolling glades of lustrous green grass. He did not know what surprised him more, the fact he had awakened from another bout of darkened sleep to find he was somehow transported to Earth or when he looked down at himself, he was very much intact. He appeared exactly as he had when he came off the production line some four hundred years ago. There was no sign of the massive damage perpetrated on his body by the alien queen, so laboriously ejected from the air lock of the Sulaco by Ellen Ripley.

Bishop marvelled at the beauty around him and took a deep breath when suddenly, he saw a familiar face standing in front of him with a not so familiar face but an equally lovely one as that.

"Alex." He greeted with a faint smile. "Where am I?"

Alexandra Styles grinned, genuinely pleased to see Bishop was rather taken by his restored form and the surroundings she produced for him. Ever since she recovered from the ordeal at Fiorina, Julia and Alex had been working hard to give Bishop some form of mobility. The two women were realistic they would be unable to restore Bishop's body to what it was in a space of a few days. That kind of construction would take months and a lot of the information would come from Bishop himself. However, Alex hated the idea of leaving Bishop in limbo for that amount of time. Thus she and Julia devised instead to download his core memory into the holographic projection system and in essence, give him back his body in this environment of light and magnetic containment.

"You are on board the Maverick," Alex answered quickly.

"This is a starship?" Bishop looked at her incredulously. His gaze swept around the idyllic scene before he remarked again. "It doesn't look it."

"Oh, I like him." Julia beamed.

"Hello." Bishop greeted her politely.

"Bishop," Alex spoke up. "This is Chief Engineer Julia Pemberton. She's the one who helped me configure your core memory into a holographic matrix."

"This is a hologram?" The android exclaimed with the surprise though one would hardly be pressed to know for certain with Bishop's understated voice.

"Yes but not unlike anything you might understand of the concept." Julia explained. "You're at the moment a hard light hologram. In this place, you are essentially a whole person. We're going to need your help to construct your original body so we can download your matrix. I have contacted the Daystrom Institute. There are robotic experts who are very eager to meet you."

"I see." Bishop nodded absorbing everything with usual quiet. "How long do I remain on line?" He asked, hating the fact he might be turned on and off at will.

"You can remain online as you put it, for as long as you like," Alex smiled. "We've given you autonomous control of your program, not to mention access to the ship's computer. You will be able to interface with the main computer and update your memory banks."

"I like this place," Bishop looked up at the picturesque world around him.

"You can program as many scenery or places as you like. If it's on the main computer, you can go there. I know it can't compare to seeing the real thing but it will keep you busy while we figure out how to get that body of yours restored to what it was." Julia could see why Alex had grown so fond of the android.

"I don't know what to say," Bishop replied, genuinely touched by the effort these humans had gone to for him.

"Don't say anything," Alex answered. "Just enjoy it. This is your new home, Bishop."

Bishop looked around the glen and lowered himself onto the lush grass. He slipped his fingers through the artificially generated blades and caressed the pile gently. He was pleasantly surprised at how real the cool texture of leaves felt under his palm. He had never been to Earth. He was activated when he was first shipped out on the Sulaco and had never seen the world where he was designed and created. For the first time, he understood why humans were always drawn to home even out in the middle of deep space.

"Not bad," he whispered to himself as the artificial sun peeked past the thick clouds and shone on his face. "Not bad for an android."

+ + + + + + +

Chris stared out the window of his Ready Room at the jeweled orb that was the Vorlis home world. Although a day later than expected, the Maverick made good time once it picked up its wayward Captain and resumed the journey to complete its mission. Chris had spent much of the time making himself accessible to his crew once again. For the first time in weeks, he walked the length of his ship, dropped in for inspections and generally let those who had noted his absence know he was back from the dark corner he had been hiding himself of late. He forgot how good it felt to acquaint himself with the Maverick. He communed with the vessel the way he had not done since he first came on board and assumed command.

He also had a number of apologies to make, other than just making amends to Mary for his behaviour the past weeks. He had neglected Billy as well and delighted the boy when Chris took him fishing, just the two of them for half the day. It was the most time Chris was able to allot to the boy alone and Billy was thrilled by the attention. It reinforced Chris's realization that though he had lost Sarah and Adam, his new family were just as important and needed him as well. Chris also called into seeing Josiah who was more than happy to share a bottle of Saurian brandy to make Chris's apologizing pass a little smoother, proving once and for all, the man was one hell of a psychiatrist.

Buck as always was easy to please and seeing his Captain and oldest friend back on track was all the thanks he needed although Chris felt compelled to make the gesture nonetheless. During his obsession, it was Buck who held the Maverick and the senior staff together. It was not an easy thing to do while having to wrestle with knocking some sense into his obtuse captain. Buck took the effort as he always did, with a shrug and smile. Sometimes, Chris wondered how he would have ever managed anything if Buck was not there to pick him up or tell him what he needed to hear, even though he did not wish it.

He turned away from the window after a moment and returned to his desk, paying attention to the data pads of backed up work he either ignored or left Casey to deal with during the last month. Chris picked up his cup of brisk hot coffee and took a deep sip, determined to get on top of this daunting heap of paperwork by the end of the day. He had neglected his duties as Captain for far too long. It was time for him to show why he deserved to be master of this vessel,

Lord knew he had not done much lately to warrant his deserving this command.

The other pile of data pads, the one that sat on the far end of the desk, tried desperately to catch his attention but Chris ignored them. His obsession with finding out the truth about his family's murder to the point of ignoring everything else, was over. He would pursue it when he was done with the day's work. Justice had waited so many years for him to realise the truth, he did not think a few more hours would matter. However, just because he put his quest into perspective did not mean if he were to find out who was responsible for their deaths, there would be no stone in any corner of the galaxy under which they could hide from him. He would hunt them down and kill them, that much he remained adamant about.

Suddenly, the soft chime of someone at his door sounded its tune in the air. Chris looked up from the staff evaluations Buck prepared for him and sang out in a firm voice. "Come in."

The doors slid open noiselessly and Ezra Standish stepped into the room. The Captain had not seen much of the Chief Security officer since their arrival at Vorlis. Ezra was busy with the Vorlis delegates who were touring the Maverick in order to make a thorough assessment of the defensive, as well as social impact, of obtaining Federation membership. As always, the commander dealt with the politicians himself, claiming a special knack was needed to attend the security arrangements of such a breed as if the occupation was a genetic trait as defined as a race.

"Ezra," Chris leaned back into his chair and set his cup down on this desk. "What can I do for you? The Vorli delegation not giving us any trouble?"

"Well," Ezra remarked pausing in front of the Captain's desk. "At the moment, they are more fascinated with our holographic android than they are of anything else."

"Really?" Chris asked with surprised, aware Julia and Alex made the restoration of Bishop their pet project. "How so?"

"Well, Mr Bishop has been studying the hologram database quite extensively and has introduced our visitors to Scotland, New Zealand and Alaska in one afternoon. At the moment, I have a dozen officials who want to know if a Kodiak bear really exists or it is some holographic fantasy." Ezra remarked with clear amusement in his voice. "Our android is quite the ambassador of Earth."

"I like that," Chris smiled despite himself. "The Daystrom people want his entire matrix sent to Earth."

"Julia and Alex will not be happy." Ezra pointed out and Chris tended to agree.

"I told the Daystrom Institute they can see him when we put into Earth or come here themselves but Bishop is accustomed to Julia and Alex, he might find it difficult to adjust to new faces."

"How did they take that?" The security chief asked certain the engineers at the prestigious Daystrom Institute for Robotics would be scoffing at the idea of giving thought to an android's mental health, despite their experiences with Commander Data of the Enterprise.

"Surprisingly well actually," Chris responded. "The guy I spoke to, Commander Maddox, conceded there was no reason Bishop can't remain with us for a while."

Ezra knew he was delaying the real reason for his arrival here and after a moment of silent, he noted the Captain had made the same observation himself. Ezra cleared his throat and glanced at the pile of data disks being intentionally ignored at the corner of the Captain's desk and hoped he did not get sentence to the brig indefinitely for what he was about to ask. However, he had gained a great deal of leverage over Chris regarding the Captain's judgement on Fiorina and felt he might not be met as indifferently as he feared.

"You're not working on finding your answer?" Ezra gestured to the data pads with a slight glimpse. Chris did not need him to elaborate to know what he was talking about.

"I have duties to this ship first," Chris said firmly, his voice tensing despite himself. "I'll deal with that later."

Ezra nodded. "Would you mind if I peruse your data?"

Chris stared at Ezra.

"Why?" The Captain asked with a hint of suspicion.

"Forgive me Captain," Ezra began the speech he had carefully rehearsed only to realise it was best he made this entreaty from the heart. "Chris," he said with a loud exhale. "Of the two of us, I am more qualified than you are to discover if there is a conspiracy regarding your family's demise. I deal with deception every day in security. You selected me to be your Chief Security Officer because you knew I could detect trouble better than anyone in the fleet. While I do not choose to overstate my capabilities, I know if there is something to find in those data pads regarding the unfortunate situation with your wife and child, I can locate it. Also, I think you are too close to the issue. I have by experience learnt that when you are too close to a thing, you may not see the whole picture as it were."

Chris felt his anger bubble up, feeling as if Ezra intruded upon something that was his private domain but then he remembered Ellen Ripley and how she was forced to do everything alone, probably even die alone and that gave him pause to consider Ezra's words. There had been no way for Ripley to get help but there was for him, and Ezra was that good. If there was something in those data pad that could lead him to the truth, Chris knew Ezra would find it. The security chief was absolutely relentless in that respect. Understanding he was at a threshold, Chris took a deep breath and decided to fight his instincts and accept the help Ripley never had.

"Alright." Chris found himself saying. "Take your best shot." He glanced at the data pads and gestured at Ezra to take them from his sight before he changed his mind.

"Thank you, Chris," Ezra replied, gathering the small collection. "I know how hard that decision was and I will not stop until I have an answer for you."

"Thank you, Ezra," Chris answered, genuinely touched by the offer and wondered if Ezra was so smart, had he also guessed what Chris had, on Fiorina? The realization that had made him order Vin to torpedo the hive with not one but five photon torpedoes? He doubted it.

"You know something Ezra," Chris sighed turning away from the security chief as he stared at the window again. "When I was standing face to face with that alien queen, she looked at me like she already won. Like she and her kind always would. It was like it didn't matter I was going to kill her, because death doesn't have the same kind of meaning for them that it does for us. No matter how many times I killed her, it wouldn't matter because we are fodder for her children. That in the end, we will die so that they can live."

"I shudder at the prospect, I can only reiterate my gratitude the lady and her deadly progeny are no more," Ezra responded, despising the entire race for what it had done to his crewmen.

"No, she isn't." Chris shook his head and averted his gaze enough to look Ezra straight in the eye. "She isn't gone and this is far from over. The aliens down there on Fiorina are gone, that's all that is certain."

"I do not see how there could be any more," Ezra remarked wondering where Chris was going with this. "The nuclear explosion on LV427 would have destroyed the derelict as well."

"Ezra," Chris looked at him with almost pity in his eyes. Pity because he did not understand the full implications of what Chris was trying to tell him. "The derelict ship carrying the original alien eggs crashed on LV427. It didn't come from there. Somewhere out there," he gestured towards the window, revealing the stars, "somewhere out there is an entire planet of these things and someday, we're going to land on it and she'll find us all over again."

And the stars, which always looked so pure and beautiful to Commander Ezra Standish suddenly became as black as the alien's empty soul.


Next story: Pon Farr

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