ALIENS: CHRYSALIS

Book 2: Rebirth

All is dark and quiet in the mighty artificial moon circling a nameless red planet in a still unexplored sector of the universe. It is night time, and only few of its inhabitants are up, doing whatever they signed up for: watch the sparse traffic, ensuring the station is running smoothly as it's been doing for over two and half years now, the entire time-span of its existence. Within the hundreds of quarters inside, the majority of it's population is sleeping, unaware of a presence in their midst that is probing, scanning, collecting data upon data about them and storing it away for the moment that it knows will come. Not now, not anytime soon, but it will come. It's always the same. The collective mind is full of these incidents, spanning hundreds and even thousands of years. In the darkness of level 13, the mind is patiently waiting for its time to come.

It is growing and its bodies multiply almost on a daily basis. And it's a strong mind, too, a unique mind that is keeping all the fulfillers of its commands in order, ties their strong bodies together and evolves them into something bigger, each of them eager to please the hive-mind. None of its orders are ever denied. If it sends them to their death, so be it. Death has no meaning for the single being. The hive-mind, bundled and transmitted from their supreme ruler, is the only thing that matters. It is infinitely more important than the single extension, the single drone that serves it. It must survive at all costs, for her thoughts are life, and whatever it decides to ensure its survival is accepted and carried out by its servants without questioning. There are not too many of them to serve it in this location, yet, but their number is increasing, and with them the strength of the stream. Every now and then, they lose a presence, but on the whole they are getting stronger, and stronger still. But they are not strong enough yet to survive in this hostile world. The hive-mind knows that these are not its natural surroundings. They are being kept at a very confined space, a space almost too limited for their needs. There is nothing here to hunt, and whenever the queen sends her servants against the soft-shelled things which take them away, she finds that they can't hurt them. A shield of energy protects them that she doesn't have the power to penetrate, yet. But she's learning. She can adapt to new situations. And she will find a way for her hive to endure, as always.

They grow. They breed. They're patient. They can wait.

***

"It's using the ventilation system to get around. That's why the trackers can't pick it up."

"That's just great. And what now? We can't crawl through every little duct and- sshhh... Hear that?"

"Yes..."

"It's coming for us! Oh my God, run!"

The slender woman turns and flees down the dark corridor, the man – probably the captain of the old freighter – close behind her. The ominous noise of claws raking over metal approaches from behind and passes next to Hicks' right shoulder, so close, he can even feel the rush of air its origin creates. He doesn't bother to look up, not even when a wet ripping sound, followed by a muffled cry, indicates that the slow captain bought it at the intersection. These horror-movies are all the same. Predictable down to the last word of dialogue. Not that the dialogue usually matters in those movies. Sometimes it's so dumb, it's hardly bearable. No people Hicks knows in the transstellar transportation business would talk like that. In fact, they barely talk at all – they're lying in their cryo-chambers most of the time and sleep the deep sleep for months or even years. Funny they're still making movies like this one. Must be a B-movie. What good is the use of 3-D illuso-technology in a movie, if you're getting laughing fits because the story's sucking so bad? His old squad would have had a field day taking this excellent piece of crap apart, especially Hudson. Christ... he can almost here old Will's sardonic alterations of the dialogue, making them all crack up with laughter, and the sting is sudden and sharp. It's been two full months since he woke up in this place, and he's been carrying around the pain of the loss even before they 'rescued' him, but so far it has not diminished. Sure, on good days he can walk around and banish the memories for a few hours or so, but the dull, throbbing feeling of loneliness will eventually return to haunt him... if not during the daytime, then in his sleep.

Briefly marveling at the question of who among the inmates voted for this splendid example of human failure on their weekly movie-night, he sticks the cigarette he dug out of his pocket into the little hole in the wall that is just there for this single purpose – a lighter. Like everything else a device that's been thought-through: Since it's not transportable, the prisoners – he's come around to calling himself that – can't do anything stupid with it, like setting their rooms on fire. Oh sure, you could still set it on fire with your ciggy ... for one, maybe two seconds – before they'd dumb a bathtub's worth of water on you from the ceiling to put it out. But nobody would act this stupid – they know their smoking privilege would be forfeit as soon as some idiot misused it. And nobody would ever want for that to happen. Strange enough that W.Y. even cares to supply their lowly lab-rats with anything as luxurious as cigarettes, but then again, a happy lab-rat is prone to causing less problems, right? It's nothing but simple, easy conditioning – be a good dog, and you get nicotine, acceptable food and entertainment. Be a bad dog, and the food's tasteless and looks like last month's left-overs, they lock you into your cell, switch off the entertainment center and bore you out of your skull for a day or two. And the others will be angry with you, too, because thanks to you there will be no movie on the illuso-channel this week. Just one screw-up is enough to make everybody suffer. And maybe, maybe they'll be a bit slower than usual, too, up there behind the all-seeing cameras to activate the guy's pacifier only after he's split your lip with a roundhouse punch as a 'thank you'.

Hicks sighs soundlessly and takes a deep draw on his cigarette. Oh yeah, he knows the system all right. After almost nine weeks in this facility, he's figured out just about everything as to things work around here. What one would have to do to cause trouble. How to avoid it. And how to make the most of what he got dealt here. This place is dangerous. Not uncomfortable, oh no. There's a lot of fancy stuff around here to make one forget one's status and one's situation. Lots of nice gadgets to create fun and entertainment as long as one behaves, more luxury than he even had back home ... lots of stuff to lull anybody into a false feeling of normality. Everything's fine and dandy for days, sometimes even weeks, you get along with the other inmates, too... and then you show up at breakfast one morning to find they took another one of your group last night. Another person who will never be heard from again. Bad enough to think about what might have happened to the poor sap, but the real devastating blow is the underlying fact that their number has once again dropped, and that slowly, but surely, that same destiny is sneaking up on you, too.

At first, Hicks thought he'd get accustomed to the procedure, but as time goes by and more people disappear, he finds the eerie feeling of fear crawling up his spine gets worse with each incident. Sooner or later, it will be his turn, and there's no telling when. In fact, he could already be the next one to get tragically lost. And why not? While he's still a far cry from the condition he was in before the Acheron-trip, he's already on the road to recovery, wandered down it far enough even for himself to not be horrified by seeing his face in the mirror each morning anymore. His leg has healed enough for him to use it again. Sure, he's still limping, but he's making good progress. And what about Raven? It must be between the two of them who's next, since they are the only ones left of the batch he was dropped into eight and a half weeks ago.

This morning, von Sontheim was gone. The discovery unhinged him badly. It had been a real blow to the gut. He hadn't been ready for it. He had allowed himself to be lured into that feeling of false security since it had been a while since the last one of the group disappeared. Had been too preoccupied, too busy with his plans, too busy plotting their escape. Von Sontheim, who had become a good friend of his in the past weeks, a keen, observing man of high intelligence, should have played a pivotal role in his elaborate little scam. He had given Hicks a reason to hope, to not despair...had added to his plan and refined it ... and now he is gone, and Hicks feels the remains of his optimism deflating like a balloon, with the bright, colorful fabric crumbling and falling from the sky in a disarrayed heap. So, what now? What the hell is he supposed to do now? With Keisha not acting as he asked her to and Axel gone, all that's left to him in order to avoid the destiny W.Y. has in store for him seems to be to smoke himself to death this very night... which right now looks like a pleasant way for him to go, but rather unrealistic to achieve.

Forming a little 'O' with his lips, he lets out a sophisticated ring of smoke and watches it trail off to the ceiling, where it collides with the illuso-created creature which is still hunting the heroine. And notices a massive presence next to him. Raven. He doesn't have to look to know he's there, sliding into a seat behind him. The others reactions – turned heads and anxious murmuring, nervous vibes all over the room – are enough to betray the very real beast in their midst.

"Did I miss something?" The big man doesn't care to tone down his voice. He doesn't care whether he's disturbing anyone. And nobody dares to turn his head. They're all frightened of him after that incident when he took apart their leader on their first day here. Sent him down to the floor like a stone with just one violent blow with his brow to the man's mouth, making him cough teeth before they zapped him again to separate the two combatants. Raven – he's got a skull of iron. Hicks fingers briefly and unknowingly trace the seven stitches over his left brow. He almost smiles. Yup, Raven's responsible for this one, too… only that he asked for it. Probably a first for the giant to have someone step up to him and ask whether he could have his head smashed in, but he needed to talk to Keisha. Had to see her, and this was the only way he could think of to accomplish it. He's got to give his partner-in-crime credit though – he knew exactly what he was doing. 'Just a minor cut, please, nothing serious. I cannot afford a headache, I need to be able to think. But enough to let them keep me there for the night. Can you do that?' Oh yes, Raven delivered exactly what he asked for… and got zapped for it, of course. It looks awful, that punishment. Painful! Enough to scare off all potential trouble-makers… just not him. After they charged him with a couple of hundred volts straight through the spine, making him writhe on the floor and bite his lip and tongue, Raven just got up, wiped his mouth and showed a bloodied grin to the cameras. Pain, obviously, can't touch him. They can throw him to the floor again and again, but they can't teach him respect or bring him to fear them.

But those stitches… seems to Hicks he got them in vain. He believed to have penetrated that barrier of fear surrounding Keisha. He would have placed any bet she would agree to help him...to help herself. But it's been five days now since he spilled his plan to her, and yet nothing happened. He should have known and should have kept his hopes low – after all, Keisha's just a 17 year old girl, not a marine. Of course she's got a right to be scared. If the plan fails, she's just as likely to get her head chopped off over this as Raven and he. And, let's face it, Hicks admits to himself, there's plenty of room for failure. No matter how hard they were trying to think of something simple – since complicated things are just bound to go wrong – the only thing they managed to come up with depends on coincidence, luck, and only little skill. If they don't have fortune on their side, then there's nothing they can do to compensate for it. It's not a plan Hicks is happy or even satisfied with. But while they don't have another option, she does. Even if it means spending her entire life in a place she hates, doing things she can't justify to herself - she won't get wasted for the sake of humanity… because this is what Axel and he figured out to be their purpose. It's her choice to make, and with each passing day, it becomes more apparent to him that she did. Now what?

He exhales another cloud of smoke and turns his head just the tiniest bit, acknowledging he's heard Raven's rhetorical question.

"Not really. Nice FX, dumb characters, predictable like a calendar." Even though the movie is nearing its climax with the sound of gunshots and yelling, he keeps his voice low, doesn't want to be caught openly fraternizing with the killer by the observers behind the cameras. Yes, Raven is the only one left here who speaks his language and thus the logical choice for conversation, but he is, well, a mass murderer, too. Axel told him the story. Raven is not someone Hicks would have chosen for company, let alone as a friend, if he wouldn't have deemed it absolutely necessary. Early on, von Sontheim and he figured they would need the big man for their plan, would need the effect of that human animal running around uncontrolled by the pacifier on whoever would try and stand between them and escape. And, very likely, they would have to depend on his raw power, too. No way they would be able to make it out of here without getting into some kind of confrontation. So, they let him in on their scheme. Careful, as not to draw too much attention to themselves. So far, they've been lucky. Nobody seems to suspect anything. But then, nothing is going to happen as long as the most pivotal figure in their plan doesn't decide to join the game.

"Oh well…" Raven leans back and bites into an apple, right when the creature before them takes a bite out of the heroine's sidekick's brain. He smirks and ignores the few angry glares the others dare to give him. "Girlie got scared, huh? You were wrong."

"We'll see." Hicks doesn't really want to admit it, at least not out loud. Deep inside, he knows the big man is right.

"C'mon, it's been five days now." Raven shakes his bald head. "I'm not going to stay up all night again . She won't do it." He pauses for a second, taking another bite, before he adds with a shrug: "Who knows, maybe they'll even come for us tonight. And maybe tomorrow she'll do it and there'll be nobody left to climb up to her… except maybe these other bozos here. Wouldn't that be a riot?" He lets out a dry laugh and catches a glimpse of someone glaring at him from two rows in front of him before the man hastily turns his head and pretends to follow the movie. "What, shithead? Got a problem?"

"You asking to get torched tonight, too?" Hicks asks flatly, his eyes glued to the bloody scene in front of him. "Maybe tonight's the night, and you'll have to stay behind because you can't move."

"Ah, well, don't tell me you still believe in that," is the reply. "We're done for. And if that's how I'm supposed to go out, then the least I want is a little more fun along the way."

Suddenly, Hicks feels he's had enough for the day. Letting out the last smoke through his nose, he throws the stump of his cigarette into the waste chute and gets up.

"Where are you going? The slaughter ain't over yet. The fun stuff's still to come!" Raven apparently finds the massacre of the astronauts stimulating.

"Yeah… I already had enough fun for today, thanks."

He leaves the illuso-deck and hunkers down the stairs to the empty main hall. Someone apparently decided to go back to basics, since there's neither the beach nor the Japanese tea-garden scenery to garnish the cold hard truth of what this place really is. Nothing but naked steel and plastic, and curious camera-eyes watching his every step. The light's down to energy-saving mode like every evening, and in about half an hour, after the general lock-down, it'll be switched off entirely. Deep in thought, Hicks limps down the hall and passes the empty tables and seats. The deserted, sterile place is enough to give him the shivers. It's almost as if he can see the ghosts of the people he used to sit together with during each breakfast, each lunch and each dinner, until – one by one they disappeared. That's Axel's chair over there. Was… Axel's chair. He swallows, turns his eyes away, the sound of his own hollow-sounding footsteps accentuating the sudden fit of loneliness he's feeling. A psychopath and a bunch of people he can't understand, that's all he's left with.

Hicks walks faster and leaves the mess behind. A short way down the corridor, and then the confined space of his cell, paradoxically evoking a strange feeling of coming home in him. Home… the bitter taste of despair sneaks up against the fortress-like walls of his self-control. Home… he'll never see home again… his friends… family… they're all nothing more to him now than blurry shadows from another life. And a young girl is his only chance to find a way out, a way to survive… but she is too afraid of actually walking down that road.

It takes a mighty effort to clear his head, to just throw himself onto the couch and activate the entertainment center for another round of W.Y.'s sophisticated ego-shooters. Maybe it's not really smart to put in the ear-plugs and kill his sight by putting on the visor, but Raven's right: It's over. Nothing will happen, not tonight, not tomorrow night. He doesn't want to think of it any more, and the game will keep him occupied, maybe even enough to break the circle of pitch black thoughts he's captured in. Kill a few monsters. Kill many. Kill them by the hundreds… and imagine it's them…

***

"I really thought I'd found it this time, I really did!" Darwin – completely out of character – paces like a tiger in her office, and the traces of heart-felt frustration –as much as I can tell them – are clearly visible on her young face. I know enough to keep my mouth shut and let her vent her anger at nobody specific, while my mind replays the past hours, my eyes glued on the scene I can see through the window. They're finally done cleaning up the mess, and the black body bag is ready to be brought down to the furnace. There will be no trace left of Weyland Yutani's biggest enemy after the next half an hour… nothing but a few blood samples and cell cultures which Darwin will examine later tonight to figure out what went wrong this time. My inner eye still sees the body convulse on the table, and I hear the anguished grunts as clearly as if it happened right at this moment. I could even share my accurate, detailed, high-definition memories with any person I'd choose by simply downloading it onto a computer. I briefly wonder why there are no synthetics in the entertainment industry – they could make their movies out of thin air without ever hiring a single person! All they'd have to do is dream up a story and a few people and record it. It sounds so hair-raisingly easy, it's a wonder to me at this moment that there are, in fact, none of my artificial brothers and sisters who will ever be famous for their imagination. The explanation, however, is so obvious, it doesn't stay hidden from me for more than a mere few moments: I'm a prototype. I'm probably the only android – A.I. – in the whole wide galaxy to possess the capability to dream, to fantasize. People don't want us for our imagination – they created the androids to do their dirty work. Hard work nobody in their right mind would agree to do. Cleaning. Moving around heavy stuff. Doing lengthy repair work in space, because nobody wants to be stuck in an uncomfortable suit in the middle of nowhere for more than just a couple of hours. They developed us solely to have someone they could dump all their unpopular orders on without having to fear receiving a single word of resistance ever. They made us smart and gave us speech so that they wouldn't have to extract the data they needed from the files themselves. Just ask the walking computer, he'll know! They programmed us with all kinds of fancy stuff to make life easier and comfortable for them, but they never see us as actual persons. Why give us something as frivolous and potentially dangerous as the capacity to think for ourselves? The capacity to dream, to desire, to wish for something? Naw… too expensive. And it would greatly increase the danger of one of us actually saying 'No' to one of their demands one of these days. Unthinkable, right? I feel a trace of sorrow for my artificial brothers and sisters.

"You're not listening, Isis!"

I wake from my musings to find my human alter ego staring at me.

"But I am!" I protest. "You suggested we should sedate them next time before the treatment. Sedate them, or momentarily paralyze them to prevent them from breaking their spines during the spasms. I agree." She narrows her eyes.

"You didn't listen… I saw it on your face! You were probably thinking of doing Alexander while I was asking your advise! You recorded it somehow and just replayed it. "

"I –" I'm dumbfounded at her reply. Did I hear that right? If I were human, I'd probably blush now, but being who I am I decide just to ignore her assumption. Is it that obvious Alexander and I are 'an item' again, as they say? "I don't know how I'm doing it," I finally admit to calm her down. Where's her usual cool self tonight? Could von Sontheim's violent death be the source of her distress? It's been ugly, yes. And yet even more disturbing, it's not what she predicted! Maybe it's more the feeling of having failed than the gory sight of Lab 1 after the treatment that's so disturbing to her. Failure's not an option for Phooka's very own genius! "But it's all the same since even though I was thinking about something else, I heard everything you said. And yes, I agree." The icy expression in her blue eyes melts a little as she turns again and shakes her head to herself.

"It's that fifth amino acid, I'm sure. It's a bitch! I thought I had it figured by now. It should have worked." She sighs, her eyes briefly following my gaze. They're taking the body away. A long, uncomfortable moment of silence follows, before she mumbles to herself: "I didn't want for this to happen, dammit…" I raise my eyebrows at what I believe to be an uncharacteristic show of compassion, evoking an instant reaction from her. "He was valuable. He was intelligent. I'm sure he would have been able to cope with the changes, no matter what they were." Another heavy sigh. "It will be hard to find another, equally suited test person like him. We've only got our three most valuable objects left now … and I cannot dare to risk their lives as long as we haven't figured this out.. Those new ones, they're no good for the project. They're very… plain… people." She means 'dumb'. "Those three have got to make it, or Kurtz will chop off my head with delight. I don't want to give the bastard that kind of satisfaction." She's back to staring at me. Probably to show me how important the matter is to her.

"So what now? You want me to stay here and help you solve the problem?" I shrug. "You know it's not a problem for me… but, if I may say so, you look very tired… as far as I remember, you've been up for the past 48 hours straight… at least!" This gets a thin, humorless smile from her.

"What's this, Isis? Your software turning you into mother-hen?"

"What?"

"Nevermind." The ghost-smile is gone as fast as it appeared. "I can do it, don't worry. I need to find the reason fast. I want to find it. It's about time we started making progress." She stops and stares at me once again, only – differently this time. And now I'm feeling it, too, something like a very distant, low growl. It rises up from the floor, vibrations that climb up our bodies through the soles of our boots, suddenly ending with a twin-clap of thunder we can't hear, only feel. Something bad has just happened. "What the hell was that?" She cranes her neck, reflexively checking out the fluorescent lights over our heads, but there isn't as much as a flicker. She turns towards the VidCom, but before she reaches it, Kurtz's urgent-looking face is already on the monitor.

"Darwin, Isis? What's your status? Is everything all right?"

"Positive," Darwin states matter-of-factly, while I'm still checking on the readouts and various lights and gauges. She appears to be right. "What-"

"How is Lab 1? Are the stasis-shields still working? What about the hives?"

"I told you – everything's working as it should. Now, what happened? We felt some-"

"I don't know yet. We've got a total blackout in the west-wing. The entire wing is without power. Lights, doors, elevators, cameras, communication, everything…"

"What about the infirmary?" I ask, knowing that they normally have their own power generator for exactly this kind of emergency, but since we don't know the scope of the problem as well as its origin - "Can you already tell where the problem occurred? Was there an explosion?"

"I don't know anything yet, except that we're on red alert." He sounds extremely anxious and annoyed. "You know what a power-loss in west Wing means, don't you?"

"You mean the 'Zoo'." Darwin still sounds cool, but we all know how bad the situation could get. She checks her chronometer. "It's 1.00 a.m. They're probably all asleep… if the explosion didn't wake them up... or roast them."

"We can't tell. The cameras don't work, and the VidPhones won't work, either. Neither do the lights or the micros. Until we know more about the situation, you stay in Lab 1. Isis, I want you to meet me in my office in five minutes. And bring all synthetics you can summon! We may have a major crisis at hand here. Hurry up!" His face disappears, leaving us to stare at each other. Only slowly do we realize that there are others looking at us, too. Lab 1 personnel like Skin, alarm on their inquisitive faces. I give Darwin a brief nod.

"I must go. I'll fill you in as soon as I have the time." We could have a man-eating maniac running around in the west Wing this very second. Plus a blood-thirsty lynch-mob eager to give back all they've received from us so far. The main switch for the pacifiers is out as well, if I understood Kurtz correctly. This leaves us with only the individual pacifiers… but you'd have to come as close as 10 meters to the subjects to switch them off… I understand my boss's distress and make haste...

***

His enemy faints to the left, drops to the floor and shoots, but Hicks has anticipated his move and is already ducking, hearing the high whine of the pellet pass directly over his head. One... two... 'Behind me!' He turns and sees one of the enormous airborne fighters come his way, knows he must leave at once! He's doesn't have the power to crack this one just yet, not before he's found the – everything goes black. And quiet. What now? Is he hit? End of game? He should have one life left, given the score he remembered from about two minutes back. Did they strike him unconscious? He waits impatiently for a couple of seconds longer, then gently shakes the visor. Nothing. No sight, no sound. Did the game crash? Was he too good?

Smiling to himself acidly, Hicks takes out the ear-plugs and lifts the visor from his eyes – and pauses. The same, solid blackness envelops him, solid enough to drown in. No starry twinkling night sky from the illuso-generator, no soft red glow from the entertainment center. Reflexively, he waves his hand right in front of his face without seeing it and hears the creaking of the gloves he's wearing, far too loudly. It's pitch black. A moment of utter confusion and the feeling of displacement, of sitting inside a bubble outside the real world. It's shattered by a one-two combination of his heart jumping into his throat and his mind screaming: 'This is it! Move!'

He's on his feet and rips the gloves off his hands before he even knows what he intends to do. 'The plan, think of the plan!' It's easier said than done with his brain still in that numb state of shock, still denying that this is in fact the one chance he's been waiting for, the chance he didn't think would come anymore, as he stumbles towards the door with outstretched hands and almost falls over the edge of the couch. 'Come on, man, get a grip!'

Forcing himself to take three deep breaths, he hunts for the tiny fissure where the two parts of the door meet, struggling to work his fingers into it as invaluable seconds pass. Faster, faster! He finds a little hold, pulls. The door is no longer locked, but it's heavy, and his efforts open it just a couple more millimeters. Doubling his efforts, he can't help but wonder what Raven's doing. What if he's really sleeping, like he said? He could climb up the shaft to where Keisha's waiting alone – but what then? He's not going to make it without more help. It can't be that easy to escape from here! He can't do it alone, even if running over to Raven's cell and pushing his door open manually, too, will lose them serious time, and Kee told him about the fierce security in those elevator shafts. If they're still inside when the power returns, they'll be cut into neat slices by the protective laser net. Grunting and panting, he somehow manages to pry the door open, just in time to see the red emergency lighting come on. What does it mean? Is it just a separate circuit doing that, or is it already the first sign of the power being restored? Does this mean the cameras work, too? Can they see him? Performing a sharp turn to the left, he runs down the corridor and comes to a halt in front a still closed cell-door.

"Raven! Wake up!" Hicks bangs his fist against the door, even though he knows them to be sound-proof. All right, same procedure. Scanning the red twilight for the crack, he jumps back when the door suddenly opens all by itself.

"Shit, you were right after all!" The big man's predatory grin is incredulous. "Let's go!"

They make for the elevator shaft. Another door to open. Dammit, this is costing them too much time...! Under his breath, Hicks still finds a moment to utter: "I was afraid you'd be asleep."

"Even if – " The door glides back with a carrying echo, and a draught of metallic-smelling air passes them by as they stick their heads into the blackness of the shaft. "I'm like a cat. I'm always half awake, even when I'm sleeping. Something happens, I know it at once." Raven's hands test the walls, search for the rungs that should be there somewhere. A little nod toward the corridor. "We're getting company."

Hicks hears it, too. They're not the only ones anymore testing the dangerous waters of their unexpected nightly freedom. There are noises behind them, voices. His fingers brush over something, and a moment later they close around a narrow metal rung. The maintenance ladder. He exhales. It's feels very narrow, hardly wide enough to allow more than one foot on it at a time.

"Got it." He grabs it with both hands and searches for a foothold, finds it and swings his body into the shaft, briefly craning his neck to check where he's going. Nothing but solid blackness. There's not even the red light in here. A quick peek down shows the same. No telling how deep this goes. If he falls, he'll probably be beyond all worries. "It's on the right side. A good arm length in. Watch it, it's narrow!" He pulls himself up. How many minutes have passed since the power failure? Five? Ten? It feels like an eternity to him since he left his cell. Adrenaline roars through his body and pushes him along, gives him an energy he didn't know he possessed.

More shouts behind them in that strange language he can't tell. Something that sounds like a question, directed at them.

"They're coming after us," Raven reports from directly below him. "You want me to do something?"

'Like what, step on their fingers?'

"Let them come. We're all in the same boat… and more people could mean more distraction for the guards." Yeah, right. The hope for 'more distraction' would be over as soon as the power was restored. Everybody whose implant wasn't deactivated at that time would fall like a pin on a bowling alley. He hurries up the ladder, checking once again for a sign from above, a sign that Keisha is waiting for them up there. She's the pivotal figure here, nothing will work if she fails. Is that the light of a torch cutting through the darkness, a mere pinpoint from his position about 150 meters further down, or just a trick of his eyes, caused by the unusual effort? 'Cause this is getting to him, even if he did his best in the past weeks to build his weak body up again in the gym and during the rehab sessions with his personal caretaker. The strain on his weak leg is enormous, and he can already feel it turning to jelly underneath him, can hear Raven breathing and grunting below him, so close it's obvious he could go much faster if he were first.

Squeezing every ounce of willpower into his burning muscles while at the same time trying not to misplace his feet or hands and fall down the shaft, he climbs on. Desperately blocking the thought of the laser net activating any second now and transforming them all into even-sized steaks. How much time has passed? Ten minutes? How long do they have left?

"Kee?" His voice sounds raspy, out of breath, but the shaft carries sound well. Carries some unintelligible reply down to him. She's there! God, this is really working! Somewhere below him, a scream cuts through the darkness, bloodcurdling, sending a shiver down his spine when it ends abruptly two or three seconds later with a distant, dull thud. Excited, shocked, overlapping shouts. Someone crying, calling a name. 'Don't think about it…' The shaft stretches, seems endless, a tall black tower of death, an accident waiting to happen. How high up are they? 'Enough to leave nothing but a dark smear on the ground if you don't concentrate, idiot!' his mental drill-instructor, which he had believed long-gone, kicks in. "We're coming!" Yes, it is a torch. They're getting closer. And his leg is getting more unstable with each rung, even though he's favoring it as much as he can. He can almost feel Raven's impatience, even if the big man's not saying anything yet.

"Hurry up!" Close enough now to understand her. And to pick up the frightened tone of her voice. "Where are you?" The beam finds them. Maybe twenty meters left. And now that he can see the ladder clearly -

"Keep the light like this!" A deep hum sets in, the low, powerful sound of the emergency generators kicking in.

"Move it, man!" Raven growls below him, and he flies up the rungs, towards the anxious young face that's waiting there for them. Feels her hands grasp his arm as he squeezes himself through the opening and helps him to get out of the way to make room for the others.

"Keisha? Thank you. I didn't think-"

"Stay still." Keisha, trying to sound practical and calm and coming off nothing but terrified beyond belief. "I'm going to deactivate the implant It's gonna hurt."

"Just do it."

"Bite on something." He takes a fistful of his shirt and stuffs it into his mouth, just as Raven climbs into the narrow room. For a moment, he can feel the girl freeze behind him, then there's a sharp pain in his neck and the feeling of liquid warmth running down his back. "I need more light!"

"Gimme the torch." Raven's huge hand shoots out in her direction, just when there's more movement at the opening behind him. Keisha sounds momentarily distracted.

"Who's that? That's not von Sontheim!"

"Nope. He's not coming. They took him last night. Those are the newbies. They saw us leave. Guess they don't wanna get wasted either."

"How many more are there?" Hicks clearly hears the anxiety in her voice, the trembling. There's no time for sabotaging all their implants! Once Raven and he are done, they'll have to leg it – and it's safe to assume that the others won't be thrilled over being left to their destiny…

"Don't know," his companion growls, taking a hasty glance over his shoulders. "We didn't stop to count 'em. Hurry up, dammit!"

"The implant's on his spine! I have to be careful, okay? I can't just rip it out!" Suddenly, the sickening sensation of something scraping over the raw bone. Hicks' jaws clench around the fabric. 'Geez – '"Done." How long did it take? How much longer have they got left?

Taking a step forward, away from the girl, Hicks sees yet another person clamber into their temporary refuge.

"Here, press this on the wound for a moment." She squeezes a patch of gauze into his hand, along with the torch, then turns to Raven. Frightened of actually having to touch him. To be this close to him. "Can you-" She doesn't have to finish. The killer's already bending his knees and lowers himself to her size for her to get to work.

"Move it, girl!"

Hicks exchanges a worried, urgent glance with her over Raven's broad back, then turns his attention back to the new arrivals. There are three of them now, and yet more movement in the shaft. Jesus… this is bound to get ugly…

The seconds tick away at the speed of light, all the more since he doesn't have a chronometer to check. It's just his feeling, his mind screaming that they're losing too much time!

"Did you bring any weapons?"

"Not much." She doesn't look at him, is totally absorbed with her task. "Just two scalpels and a few injections. I told you, I don't have access to anything else."

Hell… taking on Weyland Yutani's elite guards with nothing more than a scalpel? Hicks feels his stomach sink.

"What kind of injections?"

"It's a cell poison. It will kill a person within a few seconds."

Okay… they'll need a hostage, then.

"Where's Hikahi?"

"Hicks, I need to concentrate! This is difficult! I've never done this before, okay?" He sighs, but shuts up and taxes the others with another glance. They are staring at Keisha and how she's digging into Raven's bloodied neck with the scalpel, apparently uncertain whether they really want the treatment. Do they know what the thing on their spine is? Did somebody care to instruct them? All they've seen of it's potential so far was the incident of Raven getting punished when he took on their leader.. .but do they know what caused the spasms? Maybe they do, because one of them steps up to her now, just when she's ready and the object of the small operation straightens again. Some unintelligible words, but their meaning is clear as the man points at the back of his neck. She looks at Hicks. "Dwayne-"

"We don't have the time, Kee . You know that."

"But we can't just leave them here!"

"We need to go – now!" He already makes for the door, but not before he sees the dangerous glint in the leader's eyes. An angry outburst from behind. He turns back, sees Raven take a step forward.

"But-"

"We need to get off this station right now! It may already be too late! Not one of us will get off Phooka, if we're too slow! It'll be over for all of us, okay? But if we make it, we come back and shut this place down!"

"Oh God..." She looks apologetically at the men in front of her and shakes her head, her twisted emotions clearly showing on her face. "I can't do it. I'm so sorry..." It's tearing her apart on the inside. Angry hands shoot out towards her, seize her hand with the scalpel.

"Hey!" Raven intervenes by shoving the man back against the others. There are four of them now, and all are screaming at them, frenzied, angry. "Fuck off! Leave her alone!" He gives Keisha a push towards the door and the anxiously waiting Hicks, while at the same time twisting the scalpel out of her hand. Throws it in front of the others feet. "Here. Help yourself. We're off." A hasty glance over his shoulder. "Let's go!"

They squeeze through the not fully opened door into the red twilight of the corridor. Miraculously, the generator's still out – but the soft, deep humming sound at the edge of their perception is a definite warning sign. They won't go unnoticed for much longer; the power's about to be restored, and with it dozens of surveillance cameras on their way will come to life. If they don't have a hostage by then, all the guards will have to do to catch them is block the doors. They need a hostage, and they need one now! They won't buy that they took Keisha against her will! Nor would they buy their intention to kill her – at least not Hicks'!

"Where's Hikahi, Keisha?"

"At his quarters, probably. Sleeping. Why?" They run down the corridor. Before Hicks can even begin to answer her, she understands. "Oh no! You want to kill him? He saved your life! You -" She stops dead in her tracks, brings them all to a halt. Hicks seizes her shoulders, intensity written all over his face as he attempts to make her aware of the facts.

"I don't wanna kill him, but we won't get far with nothing but a scalpel and a few injections to threaten them."

"Hey!" Raven interrupts him with a brief nod back. "They're following us."

"Yeah, well, let them. Nothing we can do about it. Kee-"

"No! I said I'd help you, and here we are, but you never said anything about taking hostages or even killing people! I don't want to kill anybody – or be responsible for it!"

Hicks exchanges a worried glance with Raven. As if things were not complicated enough... What now? Postpone the issue? Not possible.

"Let's take her then," the huge man suggests in a dry, no-nonsense tone, leaving no doubt he's actually meaning what he says. Keisha's already huge eyes widen even further.

"No. No, you can't-"

Hicks feels anger and frustration over their messed-up situation flare up.

"Shut up, Raven!" He turns to Keisha. "You know we don't stand a change if they find us defenseless like this. They won't even need the pacifiers to recapture us. Or maybe they won't even take the smallest chance and kill us on the spot. Once they see us-"

"I know a way where they can't!" she offers eagerly. "Or almost can't. It's a sublevel to this, mostly a maintenance way. I checked it, and there are hardly any cameras there. And it's possible to avoid the ones I saw."

"And it leads to the hangar?"

She nods, albeit somewhat reluctantly. "Yes."

"Yes, but?"

"It's a longer way. Quite a bit longer." She sees the negative response in Hicks' eyes and eagerly adds: "But you won't be seen! There aren't many places on Phooka where you can have this advantage!"

"Then it's not an advantage at all. Come on, move!" Further down the corridor. Still no one to be seen. It's kind of surreal, as if they were moving through another dimension where only they existed. "Once the cameras are online again and we don't show up on them, they know where we must be. Let's go straight to the hangar and try our luck. – Which way?" They've reached an intersection.

"Left. And then-"

The sound of steps! Rustling of clothes and armor! Voices! Someone's coming down the corridor they need to take!

"Sssshhh!!"

'Fuck!'

A hasty step back, the finger in alarm on his lips, eyeing his companions. The other hands digs for the scalpel in his pocket. They understand at once, press their backs against the wall and hold their breath. A questioning glance by Raven.

'What now?' He indicates he wants to go first, but before he can do anything, there's the sound of much closer, lighter steps they didn't hear over the ruckus further back, and a figure rounds the corner – and stops, frozen to the spot. Hicks' reaction is pure reflex – he has seized her in a brutal grip, the scalpel at her throat, before she can even open her mouth for a shout. A thin, red streams starts to trickle into her collar as the blade breaks the skin.

"Don't." His voice is threat enough to shut her up as he pulls her even closer, her blonde braid wrapped around his wrist. She doesn't fight, doesn't move except for the heavy beating of her heart. He can feel it's accelerated speed pulsing against his arm which is wrapped around her neck. She is afraid... very afraid. A breathless moment passes, a moment that has him turning his back to his companions, so he can't see Keisha pale.

"Oh no – that's-"

"Stop it right there!"

"Let her go!"

"Throw it away! Now!"

Pandemonium breaks loose, a crescendo of four different voices, all yelling at him at once. Game time. Do or die.

"You shoot, and she dies! Stay right there!" Pure energy surges through his body, a tidal wave of adrenaline. If he even as much as blinks in the wrong moment, they're history! "Put 'em down! Right now! Down!" Without a warning, power is back and the light comes on, blinding him – but the others, too. Somewhere behind him he hears Raven sneer: "Smile, you're on candid camera!" No time to check. So what? This was bound to happen sooner or later. "Put 'em down, I say! I mean it!"

"Do what he says!" the half-choked voice of the woman he's holding. He wanted her to shut up, but now her words are doing the trick as his sight now stumbles back into focus. "Do it!"

"Miss-"

"Put them down, dammit!" They bend down, faces uncertain, and follow her order, much to Hicks' surprise. Could be that luck has finally agreed to play into his hands this time? Did he capture somebody important?

"Now step back! - Raven?"

The killer is already on his way to pick up one of the sleek, deadly-looking rifles, when a voices comes booming in over the station's communication system and the VidCom flickers to life, just as the emergency pressure doors slam shut all around them, effectively locking them into a tiny space together with the four guards. "You three! Give it up! You don't stand a chance! Don't make it worse than it has to be!"

"My words exactly! Leave us alone, and she'll live!" Hicks doesn't look at the monitor, but his tone is leaving no doubt he means every word. "You will prepare a ship for us and hold a pilot ready. You let us leave without any problems, and we'll drop her off someplace, unharmed. If you-"

The reply is icy.

"You got a fucking cheek, soldier, I give you that! I should have known you'd side with this psycho – after all, you're both killers, right? Hell, you've probably even killed more people than Raven himself! You must be crazy if you think we'd let you go!"

"Maybe I am crazy... " A short exchange with Raven to keep an eye on the guards, a curt nod... and finally a short glance over to the monitor, from where an almost bald, middle-aged man glares at him with the eyes of a hawk. "All the more reason to open these doors and let us pass!"

"Put down the weapons and surrender!"

"If the doors are still locked in one minute, we'll start shooting your guards." From the corners of his eyes, he sees Keisha flinch. The scene's already ugly - hopefully it won't get even uglier.

"Maybe we should already grease one of 'em to drive that point home," Raven suggests calmly. Of course, this confrontation is what he needs to get off.

"What chance do you think you got?" The voice quivers with barely suppressed rage. "Do you really think we'll let you leave? There are over one hundred guards on this station, all equipped with the newest technology – tazers, stun guns, gas... end it now, and all we will do is bring you back down. Nothing else. Hurt one of my men, and the others might get angry... I don't know what they'll do with you to get even..."

"That's bullshit." Hicks remains calm, even manages to force a false grin onto his face. "We're 'too important'. You didn't buy Raven from the death cell, and Carter Burke didn't burn a lot of energy to get me just to simply shoot us now." He pauses, then adds: "The minute's almost over. – Raven?"

"I'm ready. I think I'll take out the one with the pimples first. Someone needs to rid the universe of this ugly face!" The young man he's talking about pales.

"Dwayne, no…" Keisha's voice, desperate. She probably never dreamt how ugly the whole thing would get.

"Any last words, pizza-face?" The rifle aims for the guard's mid-section.

"Kurtz?" 'Do something, dammit!' Hicks thinks, desperately. He doesn't want to sink to this level, but if the station manager doesn't comply… He can't afford being humane right now.. 'Save your man!'

"Wait! You cannot-"

"We can and we will!" Thank God his voice doesn't betray his own insecurity. "The guy is history if those doors don't open right now!" A deep breath. The man on the monitor opens his mouth for another protest, but Hicks cuts him off. "I'm going to count to ten now – I hit ten, he's dead and we'll continue with the next guard. One..."

"You cannot do this!"

"Dwayne, don't…!"

"Two… three…" The guard stars at him pleadingly, and Hicks recognizes how young he is. Probably just started in the service. Oh man… "Four… five…" He notices how Raven's tightening his grip around the weapon, smiling and stares at Kurtz as if he could telepathically force him to bend to his will. 'DO something!' "Six… seven…"

"Wait! Don't!" A deep humming sound rises from all around them, and suddenly, the doors retract into the walls. Hicks feels like a huge burden's been lifted off him, and just barely manages to keep a blank expression. "Okay… this round goes to you." Kurtz virtually spears him with his glare. "But this is only the beginning… you don't stand a chance, remember my words." He only gets a thin, humorless smile as a response.

"Smart man. Now, if you're really smart, you will have that ship and pilot ready for us ten minutes from now. And save your tricks. - Which way, Kee?"

"Left…" she whispers faintly, exchanging a half-relieved, yet still worried glance with the deadly-pale guard. Christ, what did she do…! The guy is just barely older than her! If he had died, she would have been responsible! The thought is unbearable! Only dimly does she become aware of Hicks addressing her again.

"Kee?"

"Yes?… Yes?"

"When we proceed , stay close to Raven, okay? We should stay close together from now on."

"Uh-huh…" She's still not fully there, but… Raven? Stay close to this maniac? He can't be serious! The giant winks at her, playfully, making her cringe. She doesn't want to, maybe there's a better way to do this. But Hicks, meanwhile, has other problems that occupy his attention. Like – his hostage.

"I knew you'd do this, Keisha," she manages to utter before he tightens the grip around her neck once again and makes his point by applying more pressure to the scalpel, making the young woman hiss with pain. The trickle of red increases. "I knew you'd betray us one day."

"Thought I'd told you to shut up!" His eyes glued on the opposing guards, he desperately searches for a way out of this mess. What are they supposed to do with the guards now? They can't take them with them!

"What now, shoot 'em?" Raven looks disappointed, but still hopeful.. "Save us further trouble?"

"The only way to save you further trouble will be to give up right now and surrender, you hear me? You can't seriously think you'll get through with this!" Kurtz booms in over the speakers. Hicks nods towards the Vidcom.

"Kill him, first. I'm tired of this shit."

"Pleasure." Raven fumbles with the rifle, and accidentally let's loose a plasma-burst into the ceiling, frying the lights and sending down shards onto the ducking guards. "Whoops! Whoa – sorry, guys!" The following laugh indicates he's everything but. Another burst, this time controlled. It melts the Vidcom, effectively silencing Kurtzes' enraged tirade.

Hicks swallows, inwardly taking a deep breath. He'd worry about his companion's show of trigger-happiness if he'd have the time, but right now, there are more pressing things. A brief nod towards the guards.

"You – step back. Slowly." They follow his command after a silent exchange with the woman, accidentally activating the automatic door into the room behind them. "Into the room. Move it! All the way back to the wall." The door slides shut, and for the moment, he's satisfied. A first, however small, victory. More than he would have believed possible, anyway. "Raven? Make sure they'll stay in there. Seal the door. Hurry up."

The killer makes a face.

"Why so complicated? Why don't we just fry 'em?"

"We ain't got time for a discussion now," Hicks growls. Oh yeah, Raven's definitely a handful. Hard to control. "Just do it! – Let's go. Keisha, which way?" He shoves his hostage further down the corridor into the direction the girl's pointing at.

"We shouldn't use the elevators, even if we have to climb all the way up to the top. There's a staircase about 200 meters down this way, let's go there." She steps in front of him, her eyes wide with excitement. "Dwayne, you know who this is?"

"From the way those guards were behaving, I'd say somebody pretty damn important. – Raven?" The sound of the plasma rifles explodes behind them. "What's he doing, Kee? Is he sealing the door?" He doesn't like the thought that it would be the easiest thing in the world for the giant to ignore his order. What if he stepped up far enough for the door to open again? What if he really killed those guards? 'So what?' a cold voice sneers in the back of his head. 'You ain't gonna win this war by turning into a sissy now! They want you to play hard, so do it!'

"I can't see it. – Would you have really shot those guards, Dwayne?"

"Not now, Keisha. I promised to take you with us, but until it's over, I can't have you questioning each of my decisions, okay? Save it for later, and I will be happy to answer you. But not now." A deep breath. "So, you know who this is?"

"Yes." She sounds uncertain and excited at the same time. "It's Darwin! She's probably the most important person on Phooka. You really hit the jackpot here." 'But please, don't kill her! Don't kill anybody!'

'Darwin, huh?'

"Why? What does she represent?"

The teenager seems incredulous. He doesn't know?

"She's Phooka's brain! If anything, she's even more important than Kurtz! She's the person this station's been built for! The head scientist! They say she's a genius! They'll never risk her life! We may actually have a chance now!" She feels disgusted by the sudden excitement she's feeling. There's the sound of heavy steps coming up fast behind them. Raven's finished with his business, whatever it was. Better not to think about it.

"Thanks for the introduction, Keisha," his hostage manages to croak against the pressure of Hicks' arm pressing against her windpipe. "Do you know what-"

"Save it!" Hicks turns the scalpel just the tiniest bit, making her groan. A quick glance down the corridor shows they're still alone… but, no doubt, they're already setting up a bitch of a trap someplace else for them this very second Or, more likely, a series of traps. Still, he can't help but feel excited. Phooka's brain, huh? The biggest joker in the entire game? He's got Kurtz by the balls then, doesn't he? And…'head scientist'? He can't help it, he's got to know. "Darwin, huh? So you are the one they're kidnapping us all for? What are you using us for? Medical experiments? Or are you testing a new nerve gas or some other shit on us? What? And what did you do to Axel?"

"Axel?" Her question makes him furious. Oh yeah, they're just guinea pigs to you, right? You don't even know their names!'

"Axel von Sontheim. He disappeared last night. What did you put him through?"

"Oh... " She seems to ponder her reply, having picked up his anger and knowing she's walking the tightrope here. "You wouldn't begin to understand." Her tone is, quite bizarre given the situation, still calm. "And I think you should really worry more about what Kurtz will be throwing at you, once we've made it to the flight deck."

"Why would you care?!" he fumes, awfully close to snapping her neck for putting on this stuck-up attitude, but realizing at the same time that he'd seal their destiny if he did.

"I want to live. And I can't trust neither Kurtz nor his men to do the right thing once the situation escalates… and most certainly, I can't trust you!"

"Oh, I guarantee you can trust me to-"

"Don't listen to her!" comes Keisha's advice from the right, cutting him off. "She'll only mess with your head. She'll try to make you do something stupid!"

"He's already doing something stupid, girl," Darwin states, while Hicks shoves her over to the staircase his guide is pointing out. "I just want to diminish the damage as far as possible."

"You do, huh?" A brief nod towards the twilight of the stairs. "Raven? Check out the stairs." The killer passes him, rifle ready, probably even hoping to find someone he can grease. Long seconds pass, where they hear nothing but his cautious footsteps climbing up to the next level. "So, Darwin, since you're so considerate regarding our well-being, why don't you enlighten me: What do you think Kurtz will do now? Set up a trap on the flight deck for us?"

"Of course."

"Stairs are clear."

Raven's raspy voice, calling for them in a low tone. Hicks motions for Keisha to go first, before he follows after one last glance down the corridor. They're still alone down here.

"What kind of trap?"

"I don't know for sure…" She steps up the first stair, the scalpel still at her throat. "But if I were you, I'd count on a massive ambush – it's likely he'll send all the guards he can summon to the hangar. That's over one hundred heavily armed, trigger-happy, stupid men. If you mess up, all that will be left of us will be vapor being sucked into the air conditioning system."

"Very… imaginative." He's glad he doesn't have to look into Keisha's eyes right now. Did she know what she was signing up for when she agreed to help them? No. Obviously not. Obviously, it's already more than she was bargaining for. "And just how important, do you think, are you to Kurtz? Are you sure he won't risk your death?"

"If I die through his fault, his career will be over. I'm sure he knows that." She falls silent, as if she were pondering her own answer. Hicks grants her the time, trying to sort out which of the million questions that pop up in his head are the most urgent ones.

"Okay… tell me about the flight-deck. What does it look like? How many ways in and out? How many ships are there usually? Tell me whatever you know."

"I will tell you what I know, if you ease up with that scalpel. If you cut off my head or gag me, you won't get anything." Another long moment of tension. Hicks considers his options. They're alone right now. Out of Kurtzes' reach… Really? He could be just waiting for him to let down his guard. There are cameras in here, too. He sees them. He comes to a conclusion and eases the pressure on his hostages neck just the slightest bit.

"You know I can't do that. The moment I take it down, your boss will pull some stunt we all would probably end up regretting very much. You most of all."

Strangely enough, she almost sounds as if she were smiling.

"You don't want to kill me, I can feel it. You don't want to kill anyone. But you might have to to get your way. You know this, don't you?"

For a moment, Hicks is too surprised to answer. God beware – can she read minds? At this place, it would hardly be a wonder if they developed some drug or some way to boost people's potential PSI-powers. Or is his reluctance this obvious? He swallows and feels Keisha's glance on himself as she climbs up the steps in front of them. Yeah, of course she's also very much interested in his answer.

"We'll see."

"Yeah, you don't want anyone to look at your cards, but Kurtz is just as shrewd as me when it comes to reading people. He'll call your bluff. You either go all the way or you lose. You can't threaten him endlessly and expect to get off this station this way. There's no way of coming out of this with your halo intact."

"Why are you telling me all this?"

"I told you – I want to live. I don't want to die up there because neither you nor the guards were ready for what's to come. Since I can't do anything about the guards… I'll have to take my chances with you."

"Hm..." Can he trust her? Her explanation sounds reasonable enough. But then, Keisha said something about her being the local genius, right? If she were really that smart, it would certainly be a piece of cake for her to tell him some crap and lure him into a trap of her own. Decisions... His head feels like it's about to implode with all the contradicting considerations running through it. But – he already has a more trustworthy source of information, doesn't he? "Kee? How far up is the fight deck? How many levels?"

"Nine. It's the station's top."

"And what's on those levels? I assume they all have access to the stairs, right? Can they come for us from there?"

"Of course." Now that he's giving her something to do, the teenager seems to calm down at least a little. "They're mostly storage, though. You know, since they're under the flight deck... it means short transportation ways."

"Right. What about the guards? Where will they come from? Do you think they're ready to intercept us yet?"

"Count on it," Darwin answers before Keisha can. "There may not be many emergencies on this station where we need them, but they're well-trained and fast. They're not going to sit on their asses and wait until it's too late."

"Okay. – Raven?"

"Yup?" By the sound of it, his accomplice is already one level ahead of them.

"Fry the opening mechanisms of all doors you're passing. It might grant us a little more time."

"But then we won't be able to leave the stairs if they set up a trap on the flight deck," Keisha throws in, worried.

"There is no other way for us to go, Kee. We either make it, or we don't. The longer we stay on the station, the less likely we're going to come out of this." Silence, only broken by their hollow-sounding footsteps and the low whine of a surveillance camera greeting them on the next part of the stairs, moving with them. An atmosphere of gloom hangs over their heads, realization hitting them. Until now, Hicks had simply been too busy keeping everything and everyone in check to ponder the further meaning of his doings, but now, in that short break destiny's granting them, the implications of his doings become clearer with each step that he takes... towards the flight deck. Which is where this game will be decided... one way or the other... "Kee?"

"Yes?"

She sounds even younger than she is all of a sudden. Like a child. 'She is still a child,' he reminds himself, feeling guilty. 'What are you putting her through?' "

"I don't know if this is the right time, but I don't know if I'll ever get another chance to thank you. Your help is more than I could ever have hoped to find. I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am."

"Yeah?" She smiles unhappily. "I don't know if I would do it again. I'm so scared."

"I know, Kee. I know. Me too. But we'll find a way out. I can't guarantee it, but I'll do whatever I can to get us through this. That's a promise." Another promise to another girl. 'You remember what you promised Newt, soldier? You know how that ended?' He can't make the ugly thought disappear, even when he sees her brave, thankful nod. She knows the odds too well to count on him to keep it.

The rest of the way, they move in silence, the tension rising to an almost unbearable level. What will await them up there? Will it all end in blood and tears? Will they succeed? What? They are about to find out.

Stepping up another level, Hicks sees Raven standing in front of a slowly opening door. So this is where the stairs end. What will be waiting for them on the other side? An army to overcome? A smooth, deadly trap he couldn't even have begun to anticipate? Taking a deep breath, he steps out.

***

It is as he feared. As Darwin predicted. His opponent is anything but stupid and is doing everything in his power to confuse him. To his right; he hears Raven's disbelieving voice.

"Fuck me – what is this shit?"

"Oh no - " Keisha. Less graphic, but equally shocked.

His first, insane and – even to himself – totally unexpected reaction to the image in front of his eyes is laughter. A brief, cynical burst that stands in sharp contrast to the seriousness of their situation. Man, whoever thought up this saying about someone not being able to see the forest for the trees, he's been here! For what his eyes show him – a vast hall, stretching for at least half a mile under a daring construction of mainly glass with a light metal skeleton for stability in between, featuring a lush scenery with a flowing river, a roaring waterfall, hedges and trees for as far as the eye can see – it can't be here! His mind stubbornly refuses to take anything his eye nerves send back at face value. This all – it's nothing but camouflage, but with the most sophisticated illuso-technology his experienced gamer's eyes have ever seen. There is no difference to reality – everything looks real, there, and only common sense dismisses it as false. Well... the moment of surprise passes, and Hicks feels his lucid self come back online... along with an even stronger feeling of determination. If Kurtz thinks he can take advantage of him by playing hide and seek, ducking behind false trees and rocks, he's mistaken.

"Kurtz!" As much as he's trying to see through things, to detect the hiding men, he can't. "I don't know what you think you can win by pulling this shit! You will deactivate the illuso right now! How stupid do you think I am?"

"He doesn't deem you as stupid," a voice he's already heard somewhere, but can't place, answers. "And neither is he. He is not here, of course. He won't let you take him for a hostage, too." A figure steps out from behind one of the nearest trees. A dark-haired man, probably in his 30's, looking calm and content in spite of the situation. He's tall, but not overly muscular. Neither is he armed. He doesn't appear to be part of the troops, but before Hicks can place him or open his mouth to ask, he's interrupted by Raven's voice.

"Sheeit, Alex, what are you doing here?"

"You know him?" Hicks asks without letting the enemy out of his sight, while at the same time keeping an ear open for what's going on behind them, even though he told Keisha to watch out. The big man snorts with disgust.

"Hell yeah! He's a shrink! He'll probably try and screw our heads on backwards with his psycho-babble. Make us all confused and feel guilty, right, Alex? You feel so smart! You think you know so much. But you know one thing? There's no energy shield protecting you this time!"

"You think I'm afraid, Raven? You think I came here alone? You think you're the only one with a rifle here?" The man takes a step forward.

"That's close enough!" Hicks intervenes, trying to have his eyes everywhere at once. "Stay there! And shut down the fuckin' movie now! We won't move before that." His opponent lifts his hands, palms turned upwards in a gesture of pretended innocence.

"I'm afraid that's not up to me."

"Okay..." 'Trying to gain some time, huh?' "Kurtz?" So far, he hasn't seen any cameras or monitors, but they're there. He knows. "I know you're there! You're going to regret your plump tricks, if you don't shut this shit down right now! I mean it!" A very brief nod over to Raven, but the order he intends to utter is made redundant by the discovery that the killer's rifle is already pointing towards their opponent.

"Someone's coming up the stairs!" Keisha, from somewhere behind him, sounding terrified.

"You think I'm joking?" A quick cut makes his hostage cry out, and still he's keeping the scalpel at her throat. More blood runs down her delicate neck. The collar of her shirt is already soaked.

"Kurtz, you fuckin' idiot!" she yells, and although she had appeared so calm and controlled on the stairs, she's sounding truly frightened now. Frightened and hurting. "Do what he says, or do you want him to kill me? They will not be happy with you!"

"Kee? Come closer."

"But then the door will close and I won't be able to-"

"I know, I know. - Raven?"

"What?" The killer sounds impatient, and there's a dangerous glint in his eyes Hicks doesn't like at all. He wants to shoot the one target they have right now. He wants to finally spill some blood. But it's not how he intends to play the game. "Fry the mechanism. Can't have 'em coming up behind us." No reaction. "Move it!" An angry glare grazes him. Raven doesn't like taking orders. And he's getting more difficult to handle by the minute, endangering their escape. He can't let that happen. They've come so far, now all that's left to do is taking a walk down that hall and into the ship! They have to succeed now!

Finally, the big man steps over and does as he was told, granting them at least a little more security. Now, as for what's in front of them...

"I don't believe your boss understands, yet," Hicks whispers into Darwin's ear, his tone calm but an unmistakable threat. The scalpel sinks deeper into the skin under her chin, making her whimper.

"Kurtz! Help me! Please!" It is a cry of despair that sends a chill down Hicks' back. He's never slit anybody's throat. And he doesn't want to! What did she say back on the stairs? There's no way for him to come out of this with his halo intact? She was right. She knew this would happen. This – all of a sudden, the landscape's gone. The rocks, the waterfall, the trees... It's deadly calm now. No artificial breeze, no roaring water, no non-existent birds chirping. All that's left of the magical show is a huge, empty hall – and more soldiers in front of them than Hicks can count in a rush, every single rifle pointing towards them. Towards him. Covering him with small red spots of light where the shot would hit. Waiting for one tiny screw-up to take him out. Two rows forming a corridor. He can't have his eyes everywhere once he moves, right? There's bound to be chance for them. His stomach turns to ice.

"Oh God..." Keisha, terrified.

So, this is it, finally. Game time.

"Fine." It's Kurtz's voice booming in over the communication system, god-like. "Have it your way. Are you happy now? Do you still think you can pass all these men without making a single mistake?" A heavy silence hangs over their heads before he continues. The silence before the storm? Hicks feels frozen. "You're making one big mistake here, Corporal – you're overestimating your importance. You are so sure we won't fire. But you know what? There will be others like you. And there are others like Raven, too. We may not have them here, yet, but we can get them. We don't need to keep you alive at all costs. The moment one of my men has a clear shot, he'll take it. Be assured he will."

It takes a long second for Hicks to find his voice, but when he finally answers, it is still sounding firm and determined.

"All right... let them shoot, then. But I might twitch..." He takes a step forward, pushing Darwin deeper into the room. The rifles follow his movement. "You could kill me - but you would kill her, too. With all the medical achievements you've made here, I still doubt you'd be fast enough to save her if I severed her jugular... it won't even take half a minute for her to bleed out."

Silence.

"So go, if you are so sure."

"Where is the ship?" There is none visible behind the vast panoramic window with a view of the docks on the left side. Several doors lead to the gangways into the dock area, but the signs above them say it clearly: No entry. This is for arrivals, only. Behind them, there will be the DeCon-Units everybody has to pass when he leaves the ship. Where is the terminal for the departures?

"All the way down the hall, the last corridor on the right," Kurtz answers him. Of course, he's taking full advantage of the location. The longer the way, the likelier the mistake. Predictable, but it doesn't help them. "It's a small executive's shuttle. The only ship that's available right now, in fact. You are lucky."

"Yeah, right..." A few more deep breaths. Hicks swallows. Then makes an effort to refocus.

"Kee, come on, stay close. Raven? Cover our backs, okay? We need to stay close together, people. " He exhales, feels the presence of the others around him. "Ready?"

"Can I shoot if I don't like how somebody's looking at us?"

"You only shoot if you have too. Every single shot could trigger a chain-reaction. They made a tactical mistake lining up like this – they can't shoot without having to worry they'll hit one of their own. It could be our advantage... but we have to stay cool, okay? Can you do this?"

"Hey, I was born cool," Raven sneers. "Don't worry about me."

"Good..." Another deep breath. "Let's go then." He pushes his hostage forward, sees the red dots on his body follow him. If they'd choose to take him out now, there wouldn't be much left of him to fall to the ground. He'd take at least eight shots. 'But they don't. They're afraid!'

They reach the first men in the rows. Step into the cordon. The silence is thick and oppressive. All that can be heard are their slow, cautious footsteps as they advance, and the rustling of clothes and eventual creaking of armor when the guards follow their movement. And, of course, his own thunderous heartbeat, so loud in his ears, he hardly notices anything else. But he senses. Senses the additional red spotlights on his back, where the men behind them are aiming at as long as Raven's not obstructing their view. He's sure the back of his head is but a single red blur. If they wanted to, they could spill his brains all over his hostage right now. 'But they don't! They're afraid!'

"Raven?"

"I got us covered, man. Don't worry."

"Keisha?" It's that shrink again, still in front of them, in the middle of the cordon, stepping backwards as slowly as they proceed. "You like what you've done here? I don't think so."

Hicks glares at him.

"Just save it, man! She ain't listening!"

"Oh yes, you are, Keisha. I know you are. You are scared, right? You know you made a mistake, and you don't know how to get out of this. You freed two murderers, and only now do you see how ugly it is what they do. I can see it in your face."

"You ain't tricking her! She knows very well what's going on!" But he hears the girl's crying by his side. She's coming apart. There must be some truth to what that silver-tongued devil's saying.

"They're only using you, Keisha. You see that now, right? They-"

"Don't listen to him, Kee!" One third of the way lies behind them.

"- they just needed you to shut down the generator for them. They're not interested in you. You see what your Marine friend's doing to Darwin? He's about to slit her throat! He already cut her up very badly! He was also ready to shoot those guards down on level 10, do you remember? One of them was barely older than you are! You really want to free him?"

"Stop it!" Her voice is breaking. But Saitchev has found her vulnerable spot and only pries his fingers into the cracks even more, doubling his efforts.

"And what about Raven, Keisha? I don't have to tell you about him. You know what he did... how many people he killed. And once you follow them into the ship, and you're alone with them... can't you guess what is going to happen? Are you really so naive? Is this really the company you choose?"

"They're better than you are!" she cries, stubbornly, but not convinced. "You kidnap innocent people and do horrible things to them! They won't hurt me! You're lying!"

Saitchev looks surprised, then wrinkles his brow as if he never heard of a more absurd thing in his life.

"So that's what they told you to make you help them, huh? I wish I'd known. I could have helped to clear up things for you. Kee –"

"Don't call me that!"

50% of the way behind them. Almost there...

"Kee, you are one very confused, young girl. You made a mistake, but we know how it happened. Don't think we can't understand you. You were lonely and miserable, and – I have to admit – we all somewhat neglected you. Nobody cared for your concerns. We made that mistake. But we'll make up for it. You probably think there's no way back for you, but there is!"

"Leave her alone, dammit!" Hicks yells at him in anger, but the man doesn't even look at him.

"Just help us here, Keisha. Help us, and everything will be forgiven. – Take away his scalpel!"

Hicks' heart misses a beat.

"Keisha, no! He's lying!"

From behind comes Raven's voice: "You want me to grease him?"

"Dwayne?" She coming to a halt, tears streaming down here face. Forcing them to stop, too. "I don't know what to do anymore!"

The commotion outside would be unintelligible for a human, but I understand every word of it. Alexander's good. He's really good. He completely unarmed, and yet – from the sound of it – he has created the first real big problem for the escapees. The high art of psychology – he is definitely a master of it. In his place, I wouldn't even have known how to begin. I stare at Samuel and Lance, my two artificial brothers, on the other side of the ship's entrance. I hope Kurtz is right about the illuso shielding us from their view when they come in. To the eye of an unsuspecting human being, we are just a part of the wall. We're not there. And I agree that this can probably fool Raven, who comes from a world that's still in the stone ages technology-wise, compared to others. He won't know about the achievements of technology, especially on the illuso-sector. The marine, on the other hand, has already displayed his abilities as a serious gamer. He has an eye for artificial things. The entertainment center in his cell is proof of that. In the weeks he's been here, his reaction time and skill in virtual reality-scenarios has improved to a point that demands respect even from me. He knows a holographic scene from a real one when he sees it. Will he see us in here? What will he do then? Kill Darwin? And if I succeed – how am I supposed to ever be able to get on his good side? Kurtz said Darwin's little manipulation plan wouldn't count anymore in this situation, and I agree. The project's not important right now. She is. We have to make sure she gets out of this alive. All other concerns are minor. 'Damn, Darwin', I curse silently. 'Why did you have to rush over to the west wing as soon as I was gone? Against Kurtz' order? What were you looking for?' The voices from outside draw closer, and even though I'm camouflaged, I step back. Only a few minutes left now, if Alexander doesn't succeed. As brilliant as he is, I don't think so. It'll be up to us synthetics to save the day... as always.