Chapter 11

"I heard there were some problems today concerning our marine," Darwin asks in a casual voice, without looking at me. "Alexander told me he had a panic attack?"

"Well, yes." I wonder how her mind still has the capacity to concern itself with this topic while she's in the middle of removing the alien's chitinous dome that protects its brain. She's so skilled with the instruments, she doesn't even have to concentrate on what she's doing. It's a sight to behold.

"That stupid girl from Hikahi's staff put him on a VR processor. You know, those which are powered by the individual's imagination. Apparently, his subconscious took control somewhere during the session, and he got lost in a nightmare vision that seemed perfectly real to him. He even continued to fight us long after we had ripped the visor from his eyes. He was totally gone."

"Hmm…" Darwin purses her lips and lays the laser-saw down onto the tray. The cut around the alien's head is complete, and she slips out of the protective gloves and turns to the console to direct another instrument to remove the head plate. "What's his status now?"

"We had to sedate him. But it's already starting to wear off. I've been in his room to give him some more, since he was continuing to have severe nightmares, and he was coherent. I'm positive that the shock wasn't too severe. Last thing I heard, he was sleeping again."

"Good." She's done situating the pliers at four different points of the alien's head, and presses a button. The plate comes away with a wet sound. Small geysers of acid shoot up into the air from the huge wound, but the base Darwin developed within just 24 hours after knowing the ingredients of the molecular acid rains down from the Sprinklers in the room and neutralize it before it can cause any damage. The xenomorph shrieks and hisses, but it's obvious that its strength is beginning to fail it. If we continue to abuse it like this, it will die in the near future. Darwin won't mind. She already told us during our morning meeting that the data the probes collected on their journeys through its body will provide us with everything we dreamt of.

We're going to get all the information we need to go ahead with the project from just one specimen, and even if we didn't, by tomorrow evening we are going to have four new ones, so the loss won't be too great. That's a price she's happily willing to pay. The other two specimen we had went to Kurtz, who's getting started on his Behavioural' approach. I doubt that these things will take any conditioning, but maybe I will stand to be surprised. In any case, it's breathtaking to witness how fast everything is happening now. Just this morning I transferred everything I had to Rogue, and not even a day later I'm boasting of information. But I need to be careful now. I can't have Darwin stumble over me during the downloading again. As if she could read my thoughts, she's staring at me.

"Want to come with me and have a first-hand look?" A brief nod towards the alien.

"You don't wanna do it from here?"

"It can't do anything. The acid's neutralized, the bleeding has stopped… there's no reason why we shouldn't do it directly. I still prefer it to this." She rolls back with her chair and gets up. I shrug.

"Okay."

"Oh, just one more thing before we proceed…" she turns around in the door, facing me with those piercing eyes. "I don't want Keisha to be able to mess up our marine again. See to it that her security status will be revoked. I don't want her to have access to the Zoo' anymore."

"Who is going to continue the rehabilitation sessions with him?" I ask. "Because he still needs them. And Alexander even suggested after that scene today, that some psychological counselling might also be called for. We should think about who-"

"You will." She doesn't smile, she doesn't wink at me – she's dead serious. But she can't be!

"Oh, please," I snort, trying to let her hear how ridiculous I find her suggestion. "Me? His shrink? Darwin, you can't be-"

"Yes, I am serious. We remove that Keisha-person, which will leave him without anyone to confide in. He'll need someone to replace her – and you will be available. Perfect!"

I toss my hand up in desperation and follow her down the corridor, since she left me standing.

"Come on, I'm not a psychiatrist! I don't even understand normal humans!"

"Talk to Alexander," is her valuable advice. "And download the files. You've got the capacity to learn everything a psychiatrist needs to know in a matter of five minutes or less. Where's the problem?"

Where's the problem? Hello?'

"The problem is that I'm not even human! I don't get many things you people consider perfectly normal. How should I be able to cure him of his trauma?" The door starts to close, and I hop into the room holding the strapped alien behind her.

"You don't have to cure' him," she tells me, distracted, since she's already standing at the table, peering down at the alien's open brain. "You just have to win his trust. And you will start tomorrow. End of discussion." I bite my tongue, burning with frustration. "So come and help me here, will you?"

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Down at the Zoo, inhabitant no. 230 continues to toss and turn around on his bed, unable to wake from the nightmares that make him soak the sheets with sweat. The real nightmares. Memories that are going to haunt him for the rest of his life, however short it's going to be. Just when he's relived one awful event and hopes to float to the surface of the dream, medication kicks in and pulls him under again, serving him nightmare after nightmare. The long night continues…

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"No, Newt. No way!" Hicks hates having to resort to this hard tone, but this is too important. He demonstrates his determination by eye-contact despite her angry, accusing and stubborn stare. "You're not going alone. Get it out of your head!"

"I know where everything is. You don't." Her bullheadedness is astounding, given that he's just dealing with a six year old girl. "I did it before. Almost every day." She clutches the stained plaid to her body, her fingers working in the fabric in barely controlled anger. Hicks exhales. Man, he doesn't want to do this. He doesn't want to fight with the girl. She's been through so much already. Hell, he's been through more than he ever thought he could take! They're both in strung-out shape, their prospects looking grim, so why should they – on top of all the rotten things that are going on around them – fight with each other? He makes an effort at returning to a calmer, more sensible tone.

"Newt –" She is trying to cut him off, but he won't have that now and holds up his hand, lets her see the intensity in his eyes – and she stops. He sits back. "Listen. I told you what happened. Don't you think it was hard for me? Don't you think I wish there had been some other way? It was the last thing I wanted to do, Rebecca. And I almost couldn't." He changes his position, leans a little more towards her, his face a display of all the sorrow and horror they have endured together. He lets it out, lets it show in an attempt to reach her after two days of the hateful glares she's given him. Another heavy breath. "But it was a promise I gave to Ripley right on the first day when we stranded here." He thinks he sees something in her eyes, like... a little flickering? Is she doubtful?

"A promise?" She barely whispers the words, but they still sound uncertain. She liked him before, yes. She even trusted him. So why is it that he –

"Yes. I promised Ripley that – if it came to the worst – I would kill her rather than let the aliens get her, or let something horrible happen to her. She wanted it, Newt. You were already in the tunnel when she asked me to keep my promise." He shakes his head slightly, no longer seeing Newt but Ripley's blood-streaked face in front of his inner eyes, biting his lip when the pain of the memory hits him again. He has been trying to come to grips with his action for every minute of the past two days, but to no avail. Rationally, he knows he's done the right thing. But still... He returns his attention back to the child, and to his endless relief, he finds a reaction to his words on her face. Her features have finally softened, and while this makes room for the sorrow and despair she's feeling, it's definitely better than the hateful expression he's been getting from her before.

"But why didn't you save her?" Her voice sounds very small and thin, as if she were about to cry again. It sends a sharp pang of guilt down his conscience. He remembers he told her all of this before. Repeatedly. But she didn't listen to him. His words didn't reach her then as they do now. He can see their effect and is relieved.

"I tried to, Newt. Believe me, if there had been a way of reversing our positions, I would have done it. But I couldn't get her out. And I couldn't lift the debris off her – it was too heavy. But I tried, Newt. I did everything I could to save her." Telling it to himself aloud feels good. It sounds more real than just thinking the words. "And then the fire was upon us and. there was just no more time. I had to do something. I could have stayed with her, and we would both be dead now. You would have been alone again. I didn't want that. And Ripley didn't want that either. She begged me to look out for you." He sees her lower lip quiver, and his voice becomes even softer. "And she begged me to..." the word feels almost to big to handle – "-to kill her before the fire reached us. God, I didn't wanna do it, Newt, I didn't. But it was better for her that way … You understand that, right? I know you do. " Now she is crying, wordlessly nodding her head. He opens his arms, offering comfort, and finally, after an eternal 48 hours, the child flings herself against his chest, little arms are being clutched around him, and her tear-streaked face lands on his shoulder, the little body wrecked by spasms. " Sssshhh... it's okay. Just let it out. Let it all come out..."

He doesn't know for how long he's holding her, stroking her hair and murmuring reassuring words he doesn't believe in himself, whispering about how things will get better and they'll get away from this place, and finding to his surprise that some his words even have a soothing effect on himself. It feels good to be there, to be able to comfort the child and – in reverse – himself, too. This is better than sitting around here in the semi-darkness of the hideout, doing nothing but brooding and replaying the violent deaths of his comrades in his mind again and again and again. He has a task to fulfil. He has to be strong enough for the both of them. And – with a little luck – they will get out of here. Somehow. The sarcastic smile that seems to belong to this hopelessly optimistic thought is blocked by Newt's voice as she turns her head at his shoulder just the slightest bit to ask: "Will they come and help us?"

Her way of asking Is there any hope left? Is there a reason for us to stay alive?' His first reflex is to flat-out lie and tell her of course everything would turn for the better. The easiest way. But not the honest way. Surely the Corps will send someone to find out what had happened to it's outfit... right? The Weyland Yutani force couldn't have been the rescue team? There has to be a real one on the way. But... are they going to come down to the surface? Or will the data they'll get from Sulaco's computers give them sufficient answer and prevent them from exploring this hellhole in the middle of stellar nowhere? He dare not say. And so he's meeting her questioning glance with one of absolute honesty which – he hopes – won't be too much for the child to handle.

"I'm counting on it, Newt. But... I don't know whether they will come down here. It would be best if we made our way to one of those atmosphere processors and activate the emergency signal. That way they'll know that someone's still alive, and they will come looking. If we stay here..." he shakes his head "... it won't help us." Yeah, sure, man, no sweat. Just walk around through alien-infested territory for the next 30 miles to the next processor, because the closest one is their hive. Great idea, Hicks!' Against Hudson's voice in his head he adds: "I'm going to find a way for us to get there, but first we'll have to find some food... and water." His way of silently reminding her that she's got a task to fulfil as much as he does. She knows the way, as she constantly keeps reminding him. Hicks still doesn't like the thought of her actually accompanying him on this trip, of putting her into lethal danger, but he realizes that he doesn't really have a choice: Four eyes will detect danger faster than two, and also four hands are able to carry more than if he went alone. However little she can carry, it will at least be a day's ration for each of them... which could very well mean the difference between life and death. He detects another question in her eyes. "Yeah?"

"Water? But there's water everywhere."

He nods. There's barely been a way of missing it, the way it has been dripping into their temporary shelter for the last two days. The whole structure of the station has been shredded to pieces and become a playground for the various elements.

"Yeah, but it might not be okay for drinking, Newt. It could be contaminated.' He sees her uncomprehending look and curses silently. Man, you're talking to a child, not a terraformer! Watch your language!' "Sorry. What I meant is that there could be... stuff in there that could make us sick." Like radiation... which will kill us either way sooner or later, whether we drink it or not.' But maybe, just maybe, the explosion spared the vital parts of the station... like the reactor. Maybe there's no fallout whatsoever, and they are missing the easiest opportunity of getting water. Do you still believe in Santa Claus, Hicks?' Hudson's voice again, bitterly sarcastic. Get real, soldier. You know what the chances are. Let's play it as safe as possible. Plan. You're responsible for the girl, so act responsible!' He doesn't think his explanation was sufficient and halfway waits for another question like Like what?', but to his surprise, Newt gives him a little nod. Whether she understands or just doesn't want to proceed with questioning him he doesn't know, but he's thankful for it. There are more urgent things on his mind than giving a brief summary to a six-year old about nuclear waste and it's effect on human beings. And – to be honest – he's got a feeling Newt's already beginning to trust him again. The way she's looking at him as she lets go of him now, seemingly having regained her composure and concentrating on the task at hand – a task he, an adult has laid on her – tells him that things have taken a turn for the better. "So, what do you say, Newt?"

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Half an hour later, 200 meters away from their hideout and relative safety, there's no further delaying it.

"Okay, this is what we'll do: We sneak up silently to the storage door over there. You go in and pack whatever you can reach as fast as possible. I'll watch for them outside. When you're ready, you show yourself briefly at the door, but you don't call me. I take the bag, and we both disappear in this duct again." Hicks' eyes wander from the opening waiting for them, approximately 20 yards ahead, to his young partner in crime, lying right beside him in this narrow tunnel. Sees the excitement on the girl's face and sighs inwardly. It's definitely not fear he's seeing ... it's more as if she's actually looking forward to her dangerous mission. Right, she has been doing this kind of thing almost on a daily basis while his platoon was still sound asleep in their cryo-chambers. She's a pro, and she knows it. She's also a survivor. In the course of seven or eight weeks she did not only outlast the 147 of Acheron's colonists, but a platoon of Colonial Marines and a civilian. After her chances to leave this dreadful place had been looking good for a short while, they are back in the pits now... but it's not hopeless... right? He'll do everything in his power to ensure they'll make it through this nightmare. A cynical voice in the back of his head opens its mouth to vent protest, but he strangles the life out of it. He doesn't intend to die on fuckin' LV-426! He is going to live through this, and be it only some day to have a chance to get this asshole Burke into his hands again! To see the company rep' s face when he finally has to face the consequences of his evil doings! It's a purpose... right? Even if its fulfilment appears unrealistic at best.

But his thoughts are straying from their current task. Right now he can't afford this. There will be enough time for him to further evaluate their chances when they are back in their crammed little niche that they are calling a home' these days. He feels that little tale-tell-tale tingle on the back of his neck and shifts his gaze to the child, finding that she's still watching him, eagerly waiting for his commands.

"Okay, Newt..." Damn, he doesn't want do this... He inhales deeply, filling his lungs with oxygen. 'Ready?'

"Aye-firmative." Newt's tone leaves little place for interpretation – she's actually looking forward to showing her adult guardian what she's capable of. Looks as if she prefers danger to permanent boredom. Let's hope you're right, girl,' Hicks thinks grimly and places his fingers against he already loosened grille, one last time straining his ears and listening for the slightest hint of danger in the semi-darkness before them. Everything seems so quiet, deserted... but if the past weeks taught him one thing, it's how suddenly and out of nowhere these monsters can appear. Over him. Under him. Behind him. If he lets his guard down for just a moment, they'll pay for it. The grating's almost out when he remembers something. Something important. He needs to hear it from her.

"Newt?"

"What?" Damned if she doesn't sound impatient, almost annoyed over this new delay.

"If you see or hear any of them, or have just the slightest feeling that one of those things is near – you leave. As fast as possible. You get back to safety, okay? You don't stop for anything, and you don't wait for me. You're faster in these ducts, and if anything goes wrong, I'll cover your back and follow you. But you don't wait. Are we clear about this?" Hicks knows he's sounding rough. Whatever. This is too important. She's got to understand this. Has to understand he means it exactly as he says. It's enough to think of that he's responsible for the deaths of Vasquez and Hudson - he doesn't want to be guilty of her death, too. He couldn't bear it! It's bad enough he had to take her with him, but her knowledge of this labyrinth is essential for their survival, and they will have to starve if this desperate venture fails. There is no alternative. While he can't get around doing this without her, there are at least some ways of limiting the risks. She nods, but it's not enough for Hicks. He needs to hear it from her.. "I mean it, Newt. You leave."

"Yes, Sir!" It's an angry, bullheaded hiss which almost makes him smile despite the tension inside of him. Almost.

"Good. So..." His fingers touch the steel bars, and he feels the gentle humming of the last working generators of Hadley's Hope through the material. He closes his eyes. Opens them, concern replaced by a determined look. This is the moment to let go of all his doubts and concerns, to be ready just for this moment. "Let's do it."

He pulls, and the little noise with which the grille comes loose explodes in his ears, treacherously loud. Another explosion of sound when he puts it down. Wait... wait... wait. He becomes all ears again, listening, trying to sense into the thick blackness, to feel what lies behind it, but the loudest thing in his surrounding seems to be his own heartbeat, thundering in his head like crazy. A flood of adrenaline rushes through his body. Game time... He slides out of the opening, fast and soundless. Comes to a stand in the flickering twilight. Leaden silence greets him, interrupted only by short bursts of crackling and humming of the defective neon light over his head. Under it lies the heavy humming of the emergency power generators deep down within the station's intestines.

Two quick glances – left, right. Hicks finds himself holding his breath, forces himself to take in air. The flickering light grants him a view of about 20 meters down the corridor before blackness claims it again, but his instincts tell him they are still alone. He can usually rely on his inner voices. Maybe they'll be lucky. Maybe this will go smoothly and they won't even meet one of these ugly bastards. Taking another step, Hicks listens for what he feels is an eternity before he turns around and gestures Newt to follow him, but thinks better of it in an instant and tells her with another movement to stop and wait, when he sees the corridor he's in ending in a big room, some kind of cantina with a long bar and a mirror wall behind it. Nothing moves, but he wants to be on the safest side possible.

One step towards the room, another one, the 38 weighing heavy in his hands in front of his body at the end of his outstretched arms. A thorough look. Strangely enough the mirror wall is intact with the exception of a ragged hole where a few shards have fallen out. A bullet hole, by the looks of it. The only one though... at least the only one that hit the mirrors – the rest of the room looks as if it's seen the worst bar brawl in this part of the galaxy: Tables and chairs are lying on the ground in a mess, some missing their legs or broken despite the fact they're made of metal. Shards from broken glasses and bottles sparkle in the flickering cold neon light. The lid of a hatch hangs from the ceiling, only held by a few cables, torn from the ventilation shaft behind it by raw power, a dark smear discolouring the ground beneath it. Hick's stomach clenches into a tight knot. It's all too obvious what happened here, the sight leaves no place for interpretations. Panic, destruction and death hit this place, and he doesn't need to see any corpses to understand the dynamics of what turned the cantina into a slaughterhouse.

His eyes wander over the scenery for one last time, taking in what he thinks might be important, before he finally turns around to focus on the room to his right, the storage room. He feels Newt's impatient look, but ignores it as for the time being as he steps up to look through the break-proof glass. Some kind of observation room, a smaller version of Operations above, as it's crammed to the ceiling with technology. And damn, it appears to be still working! A friendly green light at the door tells him that this part of the station still has power, and as he takes another step towards the door, its wings part with the pneumatic hiss he has come to know as normal. A hurried sweep confirms to him that the room is as empty as it first appeared. No ugly bugs hiding in there; and in this knowledge he swallows his excitement over the discovery to motion Newt into the corridor. Time to get moving! He'll be able to examine his discovery while the girl collects their treasure. No need to let her wait any longer – the place appears to be dead and deserted enough. Seconds later she's at his side, eager to fulfil her mission. Together they enter the storage room - and stare in awe at the treasure on the cabinets and racks. Everything they need, and more than they can carry. Hicks feels a huge load dropping off his back. If they do this whole thing smartly, they at least won't have to starve. Here is enough food to give them time enough to consider their options carefully. He won't have to make any snap decisions.

Satisfied, he gives the girl a little approving nod, and – while she starts filling their plastic bag, he pulls over a heavy canister from the side and places it in the doorway, blocking the beam of infrared light before he helps her for a minute by taking cans and bottles from the upper racks she can't reach and putting them into the bag, until he is certain that there is enough heavy stuff in there, and he leaves it to her to rummage through the rest of the cabinets in search for other things while he steps out into the corridor again, carefully looking around. No change here. Straining as much as he can, he can't make anything out except for the noises Newt is making behind him and the defect neon lamp over his head. Good. Let's see what we got here.'

He touches the switch, and again the doors opens for him, a ghostly blue-white light from the monitors greeting him. Another quick glance back. Everything's still quiet. However, he needs something to block this door, too. He's got to be able to hear whatever's happening in the corridor. Carefully examining the room from where he's standing, he finally spots a metal basket close by and places it in the middle of the infrared signal, causing the door to stay open, even though he can hear the protesting whine of the hydraulic. A barely audible electrical humming envelops him as he steps up to take his quick survey through this unexpected wonderland. How can it be this room still has power? His glance glides over the dozens of monitors in an attempt to take in as much as possible in the few moments he's granted himself for this task. Finds messed-up offices, equipment storage facilities, maintenance rooms, labs... most of them more or less in a state of destruction ranging from disarray to complete disaster, either caused by fire, the aliens or the elements, where the ceiling has been ripped off by the explosions. Another camera shows the remains of Hadley's Hope from - what it looks like – the landing field.

"God..." Nausea. He sucks in air, cursing under his breath, not believing his eyes. Even if it's just a small, black and white monitor he's looking at, with grainy transmission made worse by the continuous rain – it's bad. Worse than bad. Only now, looking at the deep crater of what appears to have been the landing field and the southern part of the colony, does he begin to grasp the full scope of the catastrophe they witnessed. And survived, miraculously. His mind still fights the images his eyes are feeding it, the still raging fires and wreckage, strewn over what appears to be half of the planet. Must have been a missile! They dropped a missile on us to shut us up!' And then he sees it, and his sense of reality leaves him: A titanic, ragged silhouette sticking out from the crater like a gigantic splinter, rising up towards the stormy sky like a monument to their failure at least eighty meters high. Smoke rises from below, thick black clouds blocking his view every few seconds, but he knows what this is. What this means. All of a sudden he feels the desire to sit down, hunch into a corner and... cry. All his hope... shattered, because what the monitor shows him with mechanical cruelty are ... the remains of the Sulaco.

Somehow he has dreaded this, the thought has clearly passed through his mind before more than once, but he's never dared to seriously pursue it. But now that he sees it with his own very eyes... the wreckage covering the ground for as far as the camera range can handle... another big piece lying closer to the atmosphere processor, wild, uncontrolled fires ranging in it's interior... the forest of antennae telling him he's looking at the ship's bow. Dizziness overcomes him, turns the world upside down and lets him grasp for the console for stability, his mind reeling with the consequences of his discovery. No Sulaco means – no help from the outside. No one will come looking for them, even if they did send a ship this way. Just one look via satellite onto the wreckage of the ship and station will tell them more than enough. They'll never expect survivors down here. And with the possible radiation in the atmosphere, they won't risk more than necessary by coming down.

They'll have to make it to the other atmosphere processor somehow! Provided there is even an intact vehicle left after the catastrophe which they could use. Pack food for at least one months and go out there… into the radiation… The radiation... yeah. This is weird in fact. How come they are still alive? Sulaco has been nuclear-driven, so why haven't they blown up in a bright white mushroom cloud? And – even more important, more incomprehensible to him – what caused the titanic warship to fall out of the sky like that? Could it have been the doing of Burke's friends? Did they tamper with the ship's self-destruct system? But any such attempt would have been reported to Gateway by the onboard computer in an instant and unveil what happened down here. This couldn't have been in the Company's interest. But what does he care? Why's he even thinking about it? The answer to all of these questions is irrelevant: They. Are. Fucked. It's a hard fact to swallow.

Hicks keeps starring at the two-dimensional image, his mind stubbornly refusing acceptance of the full scope of the catastrophe that's hit them. There will be no help. No. Help. Not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow, not in seventeen days. They'll have to do this all by themselves. Man, it would certainly be easier to end it all right now. To take the 38 and put a bullet through their heads right now. A clean death, quick and painless. Not what will await them once the aliens get a hold of them...So what – his head snaps up, guilt flooding his conscience in a rush. For a moment, he completely forgot his whereabouts and the cause of their being here, had been sucked into the enormity of his discovery. Anything different? Didn't he hear something?... Does it matter?

His heartbeat performs a catapult start. Holding his breath, he tries to pierce the heavy silence with his senses. Gentle humming... the instruments around him. The still whining drive of the door. Rustling from the storage room, where Newt is still busy collecting their treasure. Hicks narrows is eyes, focusing on the twilight behind the security glass. Nothing. Zip. Some more endless, breathless seconds pass, and when everything stays quiet, he once again switches his attention toward the monitors, some of which appear to be broken. Or rather the outside cameras which are supposed to be feeding their images into them. The monitors themselves seem okay. Another black and white image makes his heart race even more: there's a heavy, all-terrain vehicle with man-high wheels, especially engineered for the conditions on this wild planet – and it looks intact!

Could this already be the solution to their problems? But still… even if they took as much with them as they could possibly carry and load it onto the truck... how long would they last in these harsh conditions? In the icy cold, the ever-blowing storm... and the never-ending rain... plus there is this nasty voice in the back of his mind again telling him that – even if a miracle has somehow spared them from the thermonuclear explosion which should have rightfully ended their lives – there has to be radiation in the atmosphere. Logic dictates this. Even if Sulaco did not vanish in a brilliant white flash, the explosion ripped it to pieces, which again shredded Hadley's Hope beyond recognition. No way the reactor can still be intact. Even being the optimist he's infamous for... he's got to acknowledge this fact. There's definitely got to be some kind of fallout, probably even enough to poison the atmosphere to a point where it would be suicide to drink any of the falling rain. So, once their precious few supplies will be gone - and he doesn't think of making that way between the storage and the garage more than once- there are limits to his madness –they are going to die of thirst rather than of hunger. ctually, who knows whether anyone will come looking for them, really. All they will have once they're out there is ...hope. A hunch that someone will come. Pretty lame, come to think of it. No, more than that: crazy!

Hicks moves closer, and his eyes become narrow slits in an attempt to read the small mark in the top right corner of the picture, which could give him a clue as to where to find the truck. He'll definitely have to check on that. Alone. Chewing on his lower lip, Hicks continues to contemplate their messed-up situation. Just why is it that he refuses to give up just yet, because – because – he jerks, his head snapping up. Something has moved, he's sure this time! Something's changed, but he can't put his finger on it while he's staring through the window into the corridor, checking the ceiling, the entrance to the bar, the mirror wall... Nothing except – a shadow. Darker and deeper than it's surroundings. Moving slowly, gracefully around in the darkness, where the flickering neon light can't reach it. Hicks freezes. Ice water in his veins, his heartbeat like a drum roll for what is about to happen next. Has to happen next. He tries to move, but finds he can't. Can't do anything but stand there, mesmerized, and stare at the dark, deadly silhouette, which is taking its time examining a black hole in the wall where the grate is missing. Curiously, as if thinking that there's got to be something foul here... Behind us! It's behind us!'

It seems to take him forever to turn his head, to transfer his will to his nerves and get his body to react against the weakness he's suddenly feeling. Slowly, carefully, certain the alien will see him as soon as he moves, seeing every tiny detail as if someone put a magnifying glass in front of his eyes – every single little lamp of the instruments... the bolts on the floor, holding the grates in place... the nervously flickering light from the corridor... and its metallic reflection on the grotesque nightmare out there eyeing their escape route. The dull vibration of the emergency generators together with the low whining of the door's motor are the only noises in an otherwise perfect, now almost expectant silence.

The alien's silhouette becomes one with the wall in the twilight, dissolves between the pipes and metal structure, becomes virtually invisible until it moves again, slowly bowing its head to inspect something on the floor, Hicks' curses silently. The grate... he put it there after he left the duct. A wave of fear washes over him. Swallowing, he watches helplessly. Feels as if he could hear the beast's thoughts over something like a telepathic connection. Something wrong here? This part belongs into the duct? Someone must have removed it? You're right. You're damned right, bastard!'

Now it tilts its big head, as if listening into the darkness. Listening for any unusual noises. Noises that don't fit the situation. That sound like they belong to... something living... Does it hear his thunderous heartbeat? The rushing blood pumping through his body? Does it smell his fear from where it's standing, 15 meters away? Does it even see him and just pretends not to, playing with him like a cat with a bird, wandering by pretending not to have noticed its prey, not to be interested, only to strike at it when the bird feels safe again? Or does it even sense' him through some utterly alien senses he can't even begin to comprehend, although he gives it his best at becoming one with the twilight? The whining of the door... does it understand that this is not a normal' noise, that there has to be someone to cause it? A living, breathing thing? Prey? Brief flashes race through his brain, his whole entire being screaming, begging him to run. He fights the reflex, fights it with all his might. Don't move. Don't even blink!'

The creature continues to stand there like a silent, giant praying mantis, only waiting to strike; a bizarre, yet somehow beautiful statue in the blue-white light. Seconds pass and stretch to infinity, as if someone captured the both of them and put them into a dimension where time is frozen, irrelevant, and they the only things that matter – an impression which is shattered to a thousand pieces by a dull thud from the storage room, followed by the rustling of the plastic bag. Newt! She doesn't know about the lethal danger lurking outside!

The alien's head snaps up. A step towards the open door, a second. It freezes. Eight meters to the storage room. Just one long pounce away. Hicks bites his lip again, fighting the urge to warn the girl, somehow still irrationally hoping that the threat will move away. Knowing he's stupid to do so. More noises from the plastic bag. Stop it! Stop it!' As intense as the thought is, he isn't telepathic, and the knowledge that someone else is watching out for her seems to have dulled Newt's own instincts. She totally trusts him, depends upon him with her life, and he stands there and watches the alien approach step by step without doing anything, watches as it steps up between them. Seven meters. Six. It's moving slowly, with great caution. Has it been in the tunnel where the RSS sentries ripped the others to pieces? Has it been a witness, or has the massacre among its race been engraved into something like a collective memory, telling it now that this could be another trap, to be careful. Damn, he's got to do something, has to -five meters!

Hicks' brings up the 38 in a flash, pure reflex.

"Newt! Run!" Shots pierce the silence, and the double recoil from the 38 races through his arms. With clinical exactness he sees the first round enter the alien's skull, spraying acid. Sees the sparks when the second round ricochets off the gaping metal jaws as it whirls around to close the distance between them with just one incredible pounce! With a kick , the waste basket he's been using to block the signal flows into the corridor and the door slams shut – and almost flies out of the slide under the impact of the full-on attack. Tortured metal screams and buckles. A huge arm shoots through a narrow opening, slashing at Hicks's face, missing him by an inch so he can feel the rush of air on his skin while he's stumbling backwards. Crashing against another instrument board and almost comes off his feet, just looking up long enough to see the alien shatter the indestructible security glass with another blow that sends shards flying through the room like ice rain. He turns on his heels, performs a catapult start towards the door at the back of the room, his outstretched hand hitting the switch before his empty and now useless gun clatters to the floor behind him. An incredible reaction which would have gotten him first-rate reviews in every test he's ever participated in – but an eternity compared to the nightmare which bursts into the room right behind him, coming at him with the force of a freight train. He crashes against the slowly opening door at full tilt, squeezes through and stumbles forward, carried by momentum.

Run! Run!'

His body's on automatic now, acting on instinct, no time for thinking. He whirls around, detects another door and goes for it, a concussion behind him almost throwing him off his feet as the alien throws itself against the closed door – obviously intending to go straight through the wall. The next barrier between him and the beast! He's got a chance, dammit! One look for orientation. This is the backside of the surveillance room. Only two corners and approximately 50 meters separate him from the security of the ventilation shaft! No way the alien can follow him once he reaches it! A wave of adrenaline pushes him forward, gives him wings and the second wind. 30 meters now and still nothing behind him! I'm making it!'

His outstretched hand finds the corner, helps him rounding it without losing any of his speed. Only 20 meters and one corner left to security! Euphoria. Almost there, dammit!' A thundering crash as the door behind him explodes into the corridor, hitting the wall with deadly velocity. What - ' A quick glance back, instinctively. Inevitable. He has to slow down to turn around and see the dark silhouette jumping out of the opening in pursuit. Another step back, starting to turn again – into nothing.

A brief, sharp tug at his leg, the noise of tearing fabric, and he falls forward, flailing around for something to grasp, finding it for a moment before momentum carries him further and he loses his grip on the dissolved edge of the grating. A moment of flying – and the impact, brutal, painful on his back, knocking all wind out of him. His consciousness flows out of the window, catapults him into another dimension where air is a thick, viscous liquid, impossible to breathe. Impossible to move in. Holding him down. Time stretches, each second an eternity, it's eerie soundtrack the crazy pounding of his heart and his desperate gasping, and his sub-consciousness throws up the image of a capital salmon he caught once, years back on Earth. The glistening fish with the wild eyes on the riverbank, jerkily opening and closing it's mouth for air, dying...

A tear in the fog surrounding his brain – and the image disappears as fast as it come. Reality's close again, so close Hicks feels the vibrations of the generators through the grating under his hands. Then the concussion of heavy steps over him. 'It's coming! Get up, dammit! A crescendo of wailing sirens in his head, warning him, forcing him to get up, but the impulse dies on the way to his muscles. He's a bug someone has turned on its back, unable to get on its feet again, unable to move and at the mercy of the thing that's almost upon him now – with the exception that the alien knows no such thing as mercy! On your feet, soldier! Move your ass!'

Propping his hands on the floor, pushing himself up with all his might, he manages to lift his back a few inches off the ground – only to fall back gasping when a silver jolt of pain races down his spine. The twilight on the upper level is broken by a reflection, and he stiffens, too horrified to do anything but stare at the nightmare that stands there, motionless, eyeing him with almost human curiosity. Like a scientist watching the death throes of an impaled insect. A gloomy voice in his head, whispering. That's it. You're dead. You're dead, and the girl will be alone again. Bad move, corporal. Very bad move... You can't fight it anymore, so it won't kill you... Looks like you're going to meet with Apone and Dietrich again after all...!'

Something sharp under his fingertips, an irregularity in the otherwise perfect symmetry of the steel grating he's lying on. It takes a moment until his discovery sinks in, makes its way through his stunned consciousness, demanding immediate attention. Supreme effort makes him turn his head from the abomination that's starring down at him from the upper level, and his heart misses a beat: a hole. A big hole! Big enough for him! Something wet lands on his cheek. He barely feels it through his sudden excitement.

You want me, bastard? Then come and get me!'

He pushes himself over, disappears through the acid hole without even bothering to look what lies beneath. Who cares? This is his only chance, and the shrill, angry scream of the beast that following him as he falls, tells him that the alien knows this as well! Just the tiniest ray of hope - and then he lands with a big splash, and ice-cold water engulfed him. Stuns him immediately, and for a moment he cannot define the world consists of gurgling bubbles and black churning, roaring water. Then his self-preservation instinct kicks into high gear again and brings him back to the surface paddling like a dog, gasping and coughing. A hasty breath, a half-finished thought – Where's the water com–, and then the pressure wave of the alien diving after him. Reflex causes him to thrust himself aside, into the wild current, expecting to feel a three-fingered claw closing around his ankle any second. The immediate danger rips him out of his stupor, and with the cold water dulling the pain in his back and leg and the new rush of adrenaline flooding his exhausted body, he feels like taking on the challenge. He's not about to give up easily, but determined to fight for his life with everything he's got left, not thinking about how pointless his struggle will ultimately turn out to be, not caring where the wild underground river carries him, consigning himself to the current. Everything's better than falling prey to this nightmare!

Still, his choice proves to be a tough one: It's almost impossible to keep his head out of the water while he's being swept away by the black whirls and rapids, straight down through the station's intestines at a crazy speed, with a ferocious undertow tugging at him, pulling him down again and again. An enormous roaring ahead – he's falling, landing with another splash several meters below and is pulled under and whirled around until he is no longer sure which way is up or down. With burning lungs he fights his way out of the current with vigorous movements, until his head finally breaks the surface and the sweet taste of air pushes back the panic that's been flapping its dark wings in the not-so-far back of his consciousness. Gasping and coughing he checks on his surroundings, treading water. Where is he? Where's the alien? It's proves almost impossible to find a point of orientation in the thick darkness around him. Water's running into his eyes, and he blinks it away, mechanically, looking back to the small waterfall which spit him out just moments ago. Where is all the water coming from, anyway? He doesn't remember reading anything about an underground river or pool or whatever in the files about Hadley's Hope, and surely this isn't some kind of canalisation, ither. There are far more advanced methods to get rid of waste of all kinds these days. So, what the heck –

Hicks cranes his neck back to check the ceiling, only to find the omnipresent steel grating he expected. Breaking the already scarce light that reaches him down here thousandfold, it seems to be intact. Sighing he turns his attention into a different direction. How the fuck's he supposed to get out? And where is the monster? Gone already? He doesn't think so, doesn't dare to hope. He's going to believe it as soon as he's reached a place where it will be impossible for the bastard to follow him, but right now Hicks doesn't feel like having reached such a position, as he absent-mindedly strikes back his wet hair, carefully watching out for any signs of a movement. With the twilight around him and all the debris blocking the drain-pipe, it would be unsettlingly easy for the predator to sneak up on him. Far too easy in fact. It could be anywhere!

Hicks comes to a decision. There's no way out of here for him. Best to follow the current further and hope for a better opportunity. He moves into the middle of the black river again and feels he strong pull at once, giving in to it without a fight, although he notices how he's being swept away further and further from their hideout. From Newt. Impossible to tell which direction the river's taking. Not in this darkness. With a jolt, he realizes the absolute blackness around him. It appears to be almost solid, no light now at all. Nothing. A sudden fit of claustrophobia. What if the water presses him into a flood-pipe? The current's incredibly strong now, and he knows very well that some of these ducts – especially the ones leading to the outside – are secured with steel bars at their ends to prevent any indigenous life whatsoever from entering the system uncontrolled. He won't be able to fight his way out against the current - he'll drown! His stomach sinks, and panic makes a dramatic reappearance, causing him to stretch out his arms and grab for something, anything that will prevent him from being sucked into a deadly trap - but before he's even stretched them halfway, his hands touch smooth, cool metal at both sides,- no, all sides! -, and he knows his nightmare has already come true, as he can feel the floor he's being dragged over at a frantic speed, colliding with the walls to either side, and the water's raising over his head all the way to the ceiling.

Now it's sheer panic, a full-blown claustrophobic fit that assaults him with his mind telling him he's drown in here like a big, fat rat! That there's no way out, that the only thing that'll await him - should he even make it to the end of the pipe - will be the dreaded steel bars, and he'll die within eyesight of his rescue. Can the shit and get out!' Forcing himself to move, he banishes the thought, instead directing his immediate attention on his survival only. He needs to find a way out, and soon! The thunder in his ears, multiplied by the metal walls, drowns out all other senses – of time, orientation, everything, until the burning in his lungs is telling him that time's about to run out. Desperately, he moves with the current, attempting to speed up even though the narrow pipe he's in doesn't allow for any wide movements, clawing, crawling along to get out of this deathtrap.

But the pipe just. Doesn't. End. It stretches on and on, even though the water rages through it with a force that can only be hinting towards another outlet, but it's not yet visible! The cacophony in his head increasingly turns into the relentless hammering of his heart, and the urge to breath becomes everything. His vision deteriorates into exploding fireballs, and he feels the blackness lurking behind it, just waiting to devour him, the fire in his chest unbearable now, the reflex to open his mouth and draw the precious breath his body's longing for almost there – and then he's being spit out into the darkness. Is falling, falling... and lands headfirst in a glistening, black reservoir.

Air! Finally! Exhausted and shivering Hicks moves out of the still strong-going current, gagging, sucking in air, drinking it rather than breathing it, and after what feels like an eternity to him, his feet touch the ground again in the chest-deep water. Gasping and coughing, he finally feels his strength return enough to concentrate on something else than his immediate survival, his eyes gliding over the black sea up to the pipe he just slid down. Is it wide enough for the alien, too? Will it surface here right next to him in a second? Can it swim? Or did it blindly follow its instincts by diving after him, not thinking about the consequences when it saw its precious prey disappear on it?

Some anxious moments pass with him doing nothing but waiting, ready to act on the first sight of the beast. Nothing happens. Finally, he feels secure enough to take his eyes from the small waterfall and inspect his surroundings. Where is he? What's this place? Looking up through layers and layers of grated steel floor, he sees the cold starlight pouring through a big hole where the station's ceiling has been ripped away by a large chunk of debris. Seemingly it has been a part of the Sulaco that sliced through Hadley's outer hull and some of the underlying floors like a knife, inviting in the steady rain which had already accumulated to this big, black sea he landed in. Blinking away raindrops from his eyes, he takes a step towards the ragged hole in the middle of the ceiling – only to lose his balance when his right leg gives in under his weight!

'What the- His hand wanders down to find the ripped fabric of his pants – in the middle of a warm cloud! His stomach turns into a cold knot. Carefully, Hicks touches his calf, muscles tensing in anticipation of the pain. His fingers find a long tear in the middle of the back of his leg... another one, running parallel to the first... and a third one! He swallows hard. How the fuck did he manage to injure himself like this without remembering? ... Oh... yeah... the brief tug right before he fell. Looks as if he sliced it open on a piece of damaged grating, and then first the impact on the lower level as well as the icy water stunned him enough to block the immediate pain. He still doesn't feel anything, in fact. Is this a good thing? Or something he should rather worry about? It feels as if it's more than just a scratch, but – he shoves the thought away. There's nothing he can do about it anyway. The injury certainly disables him to a certain degree, but it doesn't seem to be life-threatening, and thus can be ignored at the moment. Right now, his No. 1 priority has to be to get out of this place before the alien or one of its brethren detect him.

Shifting his weight to the good leg, Hicks gives his surroundings a more thorough look. There has to be a way out, and it's on him to find it before the nightmare, which has pursued him thus far, catches up with him. Everything appears to be quiet so far. Deceptively quiet. He knows by now how persistent these bastards are. Dangerous to rely on the assumption alone that he left it behind by taking this shortcut through the flooded drain. Everything inside of him screams alarm, begs him to hurry up. What about the ceiling? A possible way out? Can he climb up there, even with his ruined leg? Right now the water supports his weight and absorbs his handicap to a certain degree, but Hicks knows this is going to change on solid ground. Nevertheless... his gaze focus on the damaged ceiling. The panels of the lowest level hang down, torn to shreds and almost reaching the surface of the artificial lake, but Hicks has to let go of his idea of climbing it. In addition to the rest of the level he's able to see being a mess with more deathtraps than anything else – he's positive that the piece of wreckage won't support his weight.

Sighing, he turns around to give the walls a closer inspection, absent-mindedly hugging himself, his teeth clattering. Fuck, he's freezing! What's that up ahead? His eyes turn into narrow slits as he tries to penetrate the twilight. Some irregularities on the wall, which could be – under the best circumstances – entrances to the ventilation system. Still, to reach them he'd have to deal with the churning current again. Hicks hesitates. The terrain is precipitous and dangerous, and the water roars through the canal with a force that makes him doubt he' be able to deal with it again . There's no use in denying it any longer: His fall and the cold are beginning to have their effect on him, and he feels his strength diminish with every passing minute. Further contemplation is something he simply can't afford. Yeah, there's definitely a good chance for him of drowning in an attempt to reach the shaft openings – but what are his choices? Is there an alternative?

He stands there, clueless, for a few seconds longer – and jerks when he hears the splash of a massive thing behind him. There are rings in the water telling him where it has landed -... and then he detects the v-shaped line, its point moving towards him with great speed!

Hicks' muscles react before he's even begun to think about escaping – pushing him into the roaring rapids again. The decision's just been taken out of his hands! Now all that counts is speed! Two, three quick crawl movements make him shoot through the water while he's struggling to keep his head up. The opening! He's got to reach the opening! Now – he thrusts himself sideward and grabs one of the metal buttresses, fighting against the torrent that threatens to sweep him away and sees the object of his efforts at close range – and it's not an opening! The shadow of a hanging ceiling panel has betrayed him! A motion at the edge of his perception makes him turn his head, just in time to see a big black body dive back into the spray it has risen from briefly – not even ten meters away!

Back into the current, with the crazy pounding of his heartbeat almost bursting his chest. What now? Suddenly he collides with something solid, the impact knocking the wind out of him and whirling him around in the rapids. He's losing control of the situation, feels it slipping out of his hands. Up, which way is up? Paddling like a dog, his hands blindly grasping for some kind of hold without finding any, he gets smacked against another obstacle and pulled deeper by the undertow, and the roaring of the water drown out his senses, becoming everything. 'I'm drowning. The thought is crystal-clear, the voice in his head calm and objective. No panic this time. I survived the past three weeks despite the aliens, despite Weyland Yutani's efforts to shut us up for good, and despite the catastrophe, and now I'm buying it in this fucking pipe.'

Newt's image in front of his inner eye. Newt... she'll be alone again from now on – His head brakes through the surface! A hasty breath, water and air rushing down his lungs, making him gag and cough as he's being whirled around like a toy, a prisoner of the flood that's shooting down the canal at a crazy speed. And directly in front of him – is an opening in the wall! A real opening, not a shadow this time! Realization hits him: This is it, his very last chance! He'll be dead if he misses the opening. A sudden rush of adrenaline floods his veins, makes him ready for the effort. A quick look back. The now shallow water doesn't hide the dark nightmare any longer, and the reflection of the lights from above show the bared teeth of the beast, which are about to rip him apart in a matter of seconds now!

Hicks turned back, sees the black mouth of the shaft shoot towards him – and gets a grip on its edge, holds on! Now his other hand, solidifying his position. He pulls himself up – and gets yanked away by the impact of the alien crashing against him.

'No!'

His hand shoots forward in a reflex – and finds something. A piece of cable! He wraps it around his wrist, grabs it with the other hand and holds on against the numbing force of the flood, which is already consuming all the strength he's got left – but it's enough. He won't be able to hold on for much longer. He's got to get out of the water! Through the churning froth he rather senses than actually sees the opening, less than three meters away. So close... A quick check.. Where is - the alien's right behind him, barely a body length away. Like him it found some kind of support by embedding its claws in the ground, and now it's hanging there – arms, legs and the tentacles on its back all pointing into different directions – like a big octopus, just waiting for its prey to fall into its arms. With clinical accuracy Hicks sees the entry wound in the curve of its head. He dealt the bastard a fucking head-shot, and it's still alive! Why doesn't it just die? What is it waiting for? He looks down, mesmerized, and the xenomorph stares back, both too exhausted for any action whatsoever. Stalemate. Comfortable. Safe. But it can't stay like this. The cold is getting to him, sucking his remaining strength away like a vampire. The cable starts to slide through his closed fists. His arm muscles burn, vibrating with effort. Another look. Three meters. Real close. Three meters against the rushing cold water. Possible? It has to be !

'Come on, soldier! he orders himself, trying to rip himself out of his stupor. 'Do it!' 'Collapse later if you must, but do this, first! Pull yourself up!'

Straining for all he's worth, he loosens one hand. Grabs the cable ten inches higher. Drags himself up. The other hand. Repeat. His muscles burn like hell, threaten to quit on him. He forces himself to continue, methodically, jaws clenched, eyes squeezed shut. Ten inches more. Violent
shivers wrecked his body. He's cold... so cold! And tired... right hand. Pull up. Left hand.

'Move it!'

'Breath... just... just need to catch my breath...

'Move. It.!

He cranes back his neck. The opening appears to be barely closer. For a second, his head is getting too heavy, and it sinks into the shallow water he's dragging himself through.

...can't... make it...'

'Get out of the current.'

He rolls to his left side without loosing his grip on the cable, closer to the wall.

'Now move it! Move your sorry ass!'

A deep breath. Right. Pulling himself up. Left... left! Again his subconscious, treating him o another one of those unwelcome associations that assaulted his concentration. Again the salmon, but instead of lying on the river bank, gasping for air, it jumps up a waterfall. 'What am I? A fucking fish? And the bastard's the grizzly, just waiting for me to fail?' One more look, and this time the shaft opening's directly in front of him. One meter left.

'I can do this, dammit!

A groan escapes him as he strains his muscles for a final chin-up. His fingers touch the edge, find a grip. Closer. Real close now! His gaze goes up, and the supreme feeling of making it to safety dies abruptly.

It's too narrow! I won't fit! It's too small!

For a moment he's just hanging there, staring at the narrow hole in the wall. Looks back. The alien stirs. Its prey won't escape a second time. Its powerful movements leave no room for interpretation: It's out to get him, and it wont fail again. Only a matter of seconds before it reaches him.

"No!" He doesn't know where the strength comes from that makes him grab the edge of the opening in a last attempt and helps him finding support for his feet; doesn't know how he's even managing to fit his shoulders into the shaft, but one moment later he finds himself lying on the vibrating floor, and the raging water is nothing but a dull echo in his ears. 'Almost there! Come on, soldier! Move it! Move your ass!

Somewhere he finds some footing and some last reserves of his strength, enough to push him up and drag himself further into the security of the tunnel, as the screeching sound of tormented metal tells him he's no longer alone! Reflex makes him draw up his legs, just as the alien's arm shoots into his sanctuary. Inch-long claws rake over the floor, denting it. Only the left leg answers his instinct though, and as he takes the injured right one to pull it up with his hands, he feels the claws grazing his calf in another attempt to catch him!

"Die, dammit!"

The omnipresent rushing of the water is suddenly muffled. The tunnel is too narrow for him to turn around, but looking back Hicks witnesses horrified as the alien starts to force its big head into the conduit like a projectile, filling it. Shock numbs his body, paralyses him. This is impossible! It can't make itself this small! But the chrome-glistening teeth come closer and closer, inch by inch, promising him a bloody, violent death!

No... no!'

He drags himself further in, deeper into the shaft, into what he thought to be a secure place – and his head bumps against – steel bars! His own heartbeat a cacophony in his ears, he comes to a halt and stares at the obstacle. Massive, solid bars. No way of removing them. This is a dead end! A sinking feeling takes over, turns his body to ice. Suddenly it's impossible to catch his breath. He's fucked. This time for real. There won't be a miracle escape for him this time.

"No..." Another look back, frantic. Blackness fills the shaft now that the alien's body's completely blocking the opening, but he doesn't have to see it to know it's there. The screeching of biomechanical claws is all he needs to know how close it is. And the biting stench of the alien's blood, the hissing from the floor, as droplets of acid eat away the metal.

"Go away..." The words, hardly a whisper, are almost more than he can manage. Endless horror presses his chest together, makes it impossible for him to breathe. Somehow resisting the impulse to just give up and let it catch him, he pulls his legs up to his body, huddles against the bars and makes himself as small as possible. Sticks one arm through the bars and grabs his wrist with the other hand. Determined to hold on until it's over, one way or the other. It will have to rip him in two to get him off. Something glides over his boot... followed by a muffled thud and a far away splash. A shrill shriek – and then only the thundering torrent from the outside, back to full volume. Hicks stares back, unable to comprehend what he's just witnessed. Has it finally died on him? Did the powerful body just need this long to receive the signal from its nerves that it's actually dead? Did its strength fail it at last? Or has it been the wild underground river helping him by throwing one of the larger pieces of debris against the monster? Does it matter? No. His head sinks onto the vibrating floor, and he dimly feels the roughness of a welt pressing against his cheek, too exhausted to care. Is it important? It's gone. He's made it yet again. He... His mind begins to drift, and reality sails away in a downward spiral towards a black hole, taking him along.

-----------------------

It is almost morning when I return from my night's work with Darwin to the control room to have a last check on Dwayne Hicks before I grant myself a few hours of downtime. The meds I gave him should keep him under for the entire night, but I better make sure. The VR session seemed to have stirred things up big time for the corporal, and even though I'm anything but an expert on human behavior, I have to agree with Alexander's standpoint: The man belongs in therapy before we can accomplish anything with him.

When I enter the room, I see that little prick Yoshi Tanaka and my man hanging around in the dim night light, checking on the monitors. Not that I'm surprised. I half expected to find him here, even though his shift ended hours ago. Alexander's a responsible doctor. I'm not sure, but I even think he might have gotten his act together again and quit the drugs. At least his eyes aren't that red anymore. Smiling, I walk toward him.

"Alexander! You here?"

"Yes, yes…" He puts his coffee down and invites me to have a seat next to him. Tanaka gives me a nasty glare from the side, but I couldn't care less. "Kurtz and Darwin told me to have an extra eye on him for tonight." His finger touches the image of the sleeping soldier, who appears to be quiet for now. A short glance up at his readouts show me he's in fact in deep sleep. No dreams for him there.

"Looks good, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes, for now… His REM-phases, of course, are a totally different matter." Alexander sighs. "I'm afraid there lies some work for us. The man's obviously deeply shaken. For Darwin to use him for her project, we would have to make him much more stable first. I mean, the part of the psycho has already been cast, right? We don't need two of them!" He chuckles and tips his finger on the image of the fitfully sleeping giant on the next monitor. "Our psycho, of courses, sleeps safe and sound as a baby."

"Raven, yeah…" I shrug. "I still don't know whether it's such a good idea to give him those alien genes. He already is a monster. Do we really want to know what kind of a monster he can become if we enhance him?" My glance goes back to the sleeping soldier. "You know, Alexander, I could really use your help with this one." I nod at the monitor.

"Huh? How? Why?"

"Darwin wants me to get close with him. To become his confidante. I agree that he's likely to clam up and not tell us anything once we started working on him, and she wants me to get it out of him. His secrets, his feelings – everything he'll shut up about." I shake my head. "But I don't know how to do it. I've been acting sympathetic towards him ever since she told me about her plan. I even brought him the medication tonight to help him sleep… but he doesn't buy it. He doesn't care. I mean, he's totally right, but – I don't see how I should get on his good side."

To my surprise and mild anger, my friend chuckles at that.

"Isis, Isis… you're such a smart person and can download everything I needed to learn for six years in a matter of six minutes, and still you need my help on something as simple as that?"

"Well… yes," I confess, deciding against the building rage in me to play along. Sometimes, Alexander needs to be pampered to share his secrets with me. To be assured he's still the 'man'. And haven't I always been great at extracting information off him without him noticing? He leans back in his chair, his blue eyes fixed on the monitors image, and runs a hand through his thick, black hair.

"You know what always works, Ice?"

"Obviously not."

"Get him in an ugly situation, and then side with him against your boss. He'll love you for it."

"Huh?" I crease my brow.

"It's easy enough! Once Darwin's started working on him, she'll be his enemy no.1. You could score by trying to cut him some slack from the ordeal she's going to put him through! You know, by telling her to wait and give him some more time to recover. He'll be most thankful for that." He places his hands in his lap as he ventures off into another one of his famous monologues. "I don't know what exactly she's going to do to him, but your chances of becoming his friend will heighten with the amount of pain that's involved in the process."

"Why?"

"People in intense pain tend to become all subconscious. They don't 'think' anymore. They only 'feel'. 'Sense'. If you play this clever, you can use the situation to your advantage. And you are clever, Ice. You'll be able to seize the opportunity. I'm sure. You still need to do it subtly though, elegantly, or he'll notice. Make sure he hears you object to Darwin, but don't turn it into a comedy. Don't overdo it. There's a fine line you must be careful not to cross, because once he notices you want to manipulate him, that will be it. He'll withdraw from you permanently. Do it right – and you'll find yourself a new friend."

I sigh.

"It still sounds complicated."

"We humans are complicated," Alexander smiles. "But that's also what's making us so darn interesting. Everybody's different. Everybody ticks differently. You need different approaches on different persons to come to the same results. It's fascinating stuff, Isis! You should enjoy it, not gripe about it."

"Yeah, whatever…" He's looking at me, probably even winking, but I choose to ignore him in favor of the soldier. Still musing my Russian's words. Could he be right? Could it be that easy? Is all I need to succeed some plumb manipulation? While I'm still staring at Dwayne Hicks' image, I see his brainwaves change above the monitor, documenting his passage from deep sleep to REM sleep. It is almost morning, but it seems as if one last serving of dreaming's still waiting for him tonight…

--------------------------

Blackness. Not the dark, bottomless void he's been drifting through for - he doesn't know how long, but a thick, heavy swamp, quicksand that drags him down in an ever-winding, endless spiral. Surrounding him, pressing against him until he can hardly breathe anymore, cold and clammy. Sucking the life out of him, draining him of every last reserve of strength he needs to pointlessly battle against its pull. Finally spitting him out as a shivering, miserable bundle.

Drip... drip... drip... For a while, he's just laying there, motionless, unable to move. Not sure whether this is reality or still the dream. He opens his eyes... to more blackness, a solid black wall impossible to penetrate. Disorientation washes over him like a tidal wave. Is this for real? Or just another black hole his exhausted mind's been thrown into by his disobeying body to keep him under until he's recovered enough to act? It feels solid enough. From the welt his cheek is being pressed against to the leaden tiredness that lies on his body like a net, tying him to the ground. The droplets of water exploding on his left cheek in a monotonous rhythm. Something also presses against the pit of his right elbow, effectively cutting off the bloodstream from his lower arm ,which feels numb and like the hand of someone else to the touch of his left hand, which is still closed around the numb, cold wrist in a deadlock, a grip so tight he can virtually feel his fingernails digging into his own flesh.

Carefully, incredibly careful he releases his hold, ready to tighten it again should he begin to slide. But he doesn't, and so he lets go completely. His arm feels odd, like the limb of a corpse, as he slowly releases his grip around the invisible bars by changing his position just the slightest bit. Even this tiny move makes his back explode with pain. At once, he feels the wall to his right, hindering his movement, and he weakly lifts his head to look at the obstacle - only to bump it on the ceiling with a hollow noise, while his left hand is still prodded against the left wall. A sudden fit of claustrophobia. He's caged - locked into a metal coffin with no way out!

His head flies up against the ceiling again, panic flooding his conscience. A metal band tightens around his chest, forcing all air out of his lungs; making it impossible to breathe, and what breath he's got left sounds hollow in his ears, magnified by his tight surroundings until the ragged crescendo is the all he hears. He's got to get out of here, has to - a more violent move in an attempt to roll himself on the back - and a white-hot bolt of pain explodes around his right shoulder blade and drowns out all other sensations, leaving him gasping for air.

'God - no...' he sinks back, breathless, horrified to find himself incapable of doing anything at all about his messed-up situation, slowly realizing that this narrow pipe will indeed become his grave - as he hears it. The noise of the rushing water, suddenly muffled, then silenced. The anguished screaming of steel under claws harder than the hardest material man could built. The ground under his body trembles under the impact of something heavy, closing in on him with merciless determination. He can't see it, but he can feel it... sense it... even smell the stinging acid from the head wound, mixed with the faint trace of rain water dripping from its massive body, coming closer, and closer yet.

'No... no...' There's nothing left to do for him but wait for the inevitable. Nowhere left to go or hide. Just waiting and listening to the predator's approach, feeling the force of its movements, it's unflinching attention directed at him... and only him. Horror slackens his body, paralyzes him. He prays it will be over quick. Prays it won't take him alive. In the leaden darkness, another sound replaces the muffled water rushing by and his own ragged breathing...a moist, wet sound he knows all too well... louder now, louder. Turning into a hiss –

- and he screams, an anguished long scream of endless horror, no words, just sheer, unimaginable, all-consuming horror. Something touches his arm, and he trashes around in a vain attempt to shake it off, to avoid the unavoidable. Throws his aching body to the other side even though he knows there's no space, just the wall.

"Noo...!" His eyes snap open – but while it's still dark and his drowsiness profound, he can tell at least one thing yet – he's not lying in the tunnel anymore! There's no wall holding him captive. He's – he's… Hicks freezes, his chest rising and falling with each deep breath, out of air, and turns his head. Wants to say "Light" – but his tongue refuses to work. Something's pulling him down again, making him feel heavy like lead. The dream's not over yet, he knows. He's had it before. The ghosts from his nightmare are still there, very much alive, lurking in the back of his mind and ready to hit him again with full force as soon as he dares to close his eyes. He knows. He doesn't want to fall asleep again tonight, but he can't escape the pull towards the black hole. It's impossible keeping his eyes open. 'No…no..'. Fear returns, seeps into his restless mind like thick syrup. Primal fear, like the one he felt lying in the narrow dark tunnel for days, too weak to leave it, his body a hurting mess, his mind racing with the endless possibilities of buying it in this darkest of places.

Fear they would find him. Fear for Newt. Fear he would not be able to get out of the duct until it was too late, of dying of thirst... or bleeding to death. His mind jumps immediately to the precise recollection of the warm stickiness on his fingers as he carefully examined his leg in the darkness without being able to see the damage done… and with the memory of the pain and despair, the last barrier between reality and dream falls…

From the way his back is throbbing and how he isn't able to use his right arm much, he suspects he's at least broken his shoulder blade, but as painful as the injury is, it can be ignored for the moment. It's not life-threatening. His leg however... remembering the warm cloud he's been standing in while he was still in the water, he expects it to be bad... but how bad? Is it still bleeding? The weakness and the cold... are they already the tell-tale signs of critical blood-loss?

'Dammit, you're soaked and this ain't exactly a tropical island. You're probably still in shock, too, so being cold, even to the point where your teeth are clattering, is perfectly normal. Don't get all hysterical!'

It sounds pretty good; almost good enough to convince himself – but then his fingers find the gaping lines in the middle of his calf, and he hisses as the pain performs a quantum leap in reaction to his touch. His vision deteriorates into bright white supernovas and finally his head's falling to the floor with a thud as the last reserve of his strength deserts him. A weak groan echoes hollowly in his ears. Eyes squeezed shut against the pain, he probes further. He needs to know how deep the gashes are. Needs to know whether he will have to do something to staunch the bleeding – 'Good one, Corporal. How!' or... or...

Time drags, the minutes and hours of pain lingering on for what's feeling like an eternity to Hicks. He can't move. His hip and shoulder hurt from lying on the hard ground for... hours? Days? He doesn't know. He has long since given up on checking the green-glowing numbers on his chronometer. They lost every meaning to him, are nothing more than abstract runes... or an eye test, since they're the only thing he can still see and confirm he has not turned blind all of a sudden. The initial shock has long vanished and left him behind in its wake as a miserable, hurting mess, unable to do anything about his situation at all. Convinced he's going to die here, in complete blackness, every noise in the tunnel behind the bars a possible threat, an alien on its way to finding him and finishing him off.

The only way of determining how much time has passed since he's landed himself in this mess is his thirst. It's bad. So bad that thinking about something else is virtually impossible. Occasionally he turns a little more onto his back, despite the intense pain from his shoulder, to catch the tiny droplets of water which are otherwise landing uselessly on his cheek. But it's not enough to quench his thirst, not even enough to let the raw feeling in his throat vanish or soothe his chafed lips. But this still isn't the worst thing about his situation. The worst thing is... he's alone. Alone without any hope someone's going to find him. There is only one person left on this planet who'd be able find him in this enormous maze of ducts anyway ... a scared little girl. A child. She'll probably go back to her old hiding place now, certain to never see him again. Certain he's dead. Hicks can't blame her. She has seen all the others die, so what reason should there be for her to believe he's still alive? And where should she begin looking for him if she did?

He's alone. The experience is frightening beyond everything he's known so far. Claustrophobia has never been a problem for him, but here... not being able to see a damn thing, just feeling how narrow the tunnel is, it probably would even cause nightmares to a synthetic.

He's finally run out of luck. He's had a lot of it over the length of his career...enough to turn him into something like a freak among his comrades – an optimistic soldier. Who's ever heard of something as paradox as that? As things were, he has actually been surprised himself it held that long. There had been a few incidents he should not have been able to come out off in one piece, and as optimistic as he might have seemed to others, Hicks had realized long ago he had been living on borrowed time. Most of the guys he'd been to boot camp with were already dead. It's common knowledge that only a low quota of marines actually make it to the 'golden end'... 35 percent or so... but the gratification at the end of their active duty is so ridiculously high, it keeps on luring the young boys into service nevertheless. If you were one of the lucky few survivors, you'd be set up for life. No more worries to the end of your days... He's come pretty close to the golden exit before his luck has finally turned, he thinks bitterly. Of course this is an awful way of buying it, but it has been coming for him for a long time...

His mind threatens to wander off again, in spite of the water dripping down from the ceiling right onto his cheek. He doesn't even notice anymore. Fever, pain and exhaustion are eating him up slowly but surely. The ground under his head vibrates. He doesn't pay attention. Drip... drip... drip... as steady as a metronome, a hollow, dull noise, echoing in the darkness. The only noise except for the muffled rush of the flood behind him. Hypnotizing...

Hicks lets himself sink deeper, listens to the sound of the falling water until it fills out his entire consciousness. A rustle, somewhere in the blackness beyond the bars that are holding him captive. He doesn't bother turning his head. If they finally found him, good. Maybe it's preferable to the end that would await him here. Maybe it'll be faster...

Another noise, closer. Something's definitely there. Hicks knows he should be worried, but just can't find the strength in himself to care. He starts to drift off again, eyes closed.

'Just... just let me sleep...'

The metal floor's vibrating under the impact of something moving forward towards him, and the rustle of clothes can be heard. Then the sound of naked hands being placed on the ground, accelerating.

"Hicks? Hicks!"

'Newt? - It's a dream... a dream. She's not here. Nobody's here...'

He doesn't bother to react. Is too weak to, anyway. This is just another one of these freakin' fever-dreams, cruelly leading him into believing there is a way out of this mess for him, only to have reality hit him over the head again as soon as he wakes to find himself still alone. A shivering, hurting mess, half frozen one minute, burning up the next. His bad leg throbs, and whenever he tries for even the tiniest movement, another silver jolt races down his spine to explode between his shoulder blades. No way out for him. No way of leaving the tunnel. Not through the duct, and not by going back the way he came. Given his condition, Hicks knows he'd drown in the flood.

"Hicks, please! Please, it's me! Say something, please?"

The words come mixed with thin sobs of relief and worry. He knows this voice. The girl. Newt. Newt, who will be alone from now on, because he let down his guard for one critical moment. A fatal error on this planet. Damn, he should have known, right? How could he have been such an idiot? No wonder his bad conscience is now plaguing him with those visions of Newt. He's going to have to listen to her accusations until he'll finally sink down to the bottom of the darkest pit of his consciousness where no dream and no hallucination is ever going to reach him, shortly before it all will be over.

Something touches his head, strokes his wet hair. Careful, as not to cause him pain. A small hand he senses through the fog around his mind. A... small... hand... ! 'Can't be... can't be her...'

"Hicks, please..." More sobs, heartbroken. Frightened beyond everything he's ever heard. A choked whisper. "Don't leave me alone again..." Brightness explodes into his face and finally rips him out of his numbness. For a hallucination, this is pretty realistic... He cranes his neck back just the slightest bit, and the tiny movement sucks out the last of his remaining strength... opens his eyes to the fireball directly in front of him...

"HicksHicksHicks! Oh Hicks...!" Then nothing but excited sobs of relief and the feeling of her fingers on his throbbing head, soothing. Reassuring him that everything will be okay again. It is Newt! It really, really is her and not another one of those tormenting dreams! She's found him! Somehow, in this maze of black ducts, blind luck lead her his way! He feels something like a joyful jolt racing through him. He isn't alone anymore... no matter what's going to happen, he won't die alone in the dark. There is something very comforting in that thought. Incredibly, he feels his sprung lips form the ghost of a smile.

"Newt..." The half-whispered word scratches like sandpaper in his dry throat, makes him wince and cough. It doesn't sound good, and Hicks can feel an ominous rattling in his hurting lungs. Bad news... but damn, he's so happy to see her! "Hey..."

Somehow - he doesn't know how - he manages to lift his good arm and stick it through the bars of his prison, feeling her tiny hand clasping his fingers... and almost starts to cry. Yes, yes, she's real. The sheer enormity of his discovery is lost on him in his deranged state - what an incredibly selfless act it has been for the child to overcome her fear, to leave the relative safety of her hideout and go looking for him - but her simple presence here beside him - just looking up into her small, dirty, tear-streaked face - is enough to make him come apart.

"Oh Hicks, I'm so happy! I didn't know where to look, so I just... I just thought, maybe you fell into this hole, and... and...I don't know, I looked everywhere!" She is out of breath. "I'm so glad I found you! Everything will be okay now, yes? Everything will be okay now!" Her fingers press his hand in affirmation of her words.

"Turn... turn the light, please?" After the hours – or days – of solid blackness, the light's searing his eye nerves. She obliges, having noticed how he has been squinting at her, his eyes watering. Another weak smile on his dirty face. God, it's great to see her – even if that means she's been out in the open in constant danger to find him. He wants to tell her, but finds it impossible to think up the words. Something's dragging him down again.

"What can I do?" her worried young voice echoes in his ears. She is realizing the state he's in and understands that the possibility of losing her adult protector is still very real. Yes, what can she possibly do for him? It's great to be no longer alone, but aside from company, what is it he needs from her the most? She looks so eager to supply it. And yet, the thought of her crawling through this labyrinth in search for anything he might send her to get causes him headaches. Damn, if it weren't for his thirst, he could probably... He pauses. Thirst. Maybe, maybe she could...

"Newt?" He strains to tilt his head and look up into her dirty, tear-streaked face... only to find it hovering in the dark, impossibly at least three meters away... and disappearing further. "Newt!" he croaks. She opens her mouth to answer him, but the words are muffled beyond recognition, as if there were a barrier of wadding between them, her face becoming a small point at the end of a long, dark tunnel, through which he's being sucked away into the opposite direction. Falling... falling... then everything turns black.

The next time he opens his eyes, the darkness has been replaced by a warm, flickering glow. It takes Hicks a least a minute to recognize he can actually see his surroundings. The reflection of a flame – 'It's a candle. She found a candle...' on the tarnished metal. The crude welded seams he's lying on, the darn steel bars which pose such a great problem to him. His gaze turns to the candle stump. A lighter and another – unlit – candle are lying right next to it. No sign of Newt. An unconscious, thankful smile wanders over his face for a second. This is so much better than darkness... the feeling of being buried alive has been chased off by the light. And there – his heart skips a beat. The transparent plastic bottle in front of him... it can't be real, can it?

In slow-motion – which is all he's still capable of – he extends his good arm and touches its cool surface. Closes his fingers around it. It is real! Oh God...! The kid's gold! A huge wave of thankfulness threatens to flood away his composure again while his fingers are fighting with the lid. Some curious weight threatens to pin him down, and he looks at his arm. The realization of what he's seeing takes endless moments. A blanket. He's covered in a blanket.

"Newt…' If he makes it through this, it will be thanks to her. She is his only chance of survival, no matter how crazy it sounds. They depend on each other in every way. He needs her to get out of this mess – while she won't be able to get off Acheron without his help. She needs him to drive with her to next – hopefully not alien-infested – atmosphere processor and activate the automatic distress signal.

'Yeah, right,' the cynical voice in the back of his mind sneers. 'As if! Look at you! You're a wreck. Do you really think you're able to go anywhere?' Pushing these uncomfortable thoughts back for a moment, Hicks raises the bottle to his lips and sucks greedily the lukewarm water. It tastes of plastic and chlorine, but right now it's to him as if he never tasted anything better. 'Stop it – not everything at once!' It takes all of his willpower to put the bottle down after just three hasty swallows. If he drinks more, he'll be in danger of losing it all again, as his heaving stomach reminds him. And – what if Newt doesn't return? What if they get her while she's away to - ! As fast as the image popped up from his mind, he tries to shove it back – but it's too late. Yes, what if he waits for her to return – and she won't? Maybe she's already glued to the wall over at the processing station? He doesn't know for how long he's been out. Hours? A day even? Everything could have happened in the meantime!

The black thoughts spin around in his head in an endless circle, dampening his mood to the point of despair again… and then – out of the blue - an icy shudder hits him, making his teeth clatter. Things are about to get worse, he realizes… much worse…

--------------------

... the dream deteriorates to an order of indistinct notions, rags of memories, torn, twisted and out of context. Nightmares, fever-induced hallucinations with metallic, bony aberrations grinning at him, blood and tissue seeping from their glistening jaws. Dreams that place him among his squad, only to relive the incidents in C-level again, dreams that force him to watch while the aliens tear into his friends like living chainsaws. There's the memory of pain, the hot throbbing in his leg and shoulder, his blood shifting between hot lead and ice water within seconds. The recollection of abysmal despair. Of noises, something moving in the tunnel, sometimes far away and indistinct, then again close by and threatening. The sound of his own rustling, labored breathing, together with the fear of suffocating. The blanket's soaked with his cold sweat and doesn't give off any warmth anymore to the point where he can't stop shivering. 'Going downhill', he thinks. '…not making it…'

Sometimes, the girl is there by his side, only separated from him by the cursed steel bars, her arm around his neck. Talking to him. Comforting him. Crying. Pleading. She can see how bad he is. She knows chances are she'll be alone again very soon. And she tries to prevent it, fights against looming fate with everything her six years let her think of. She brings him food and water, but he's too weak to eat by now. He can only drink, but most of the water splashes over his face and to the floor because he's got only one hand left to use, and it's shivering violently. The point comes where his thoughts flow apart like quicksilver. Shiny, hot and fleeting , they race away from his grasp. Behind them, there's only darkness. A heavy, oppressing blackness that's pulling him closer and closer. At first he's terrified and fights against it, but the closer he gets, the more inviting it seems. It promises him the end of this torture, the end of all useless fighting. Once he's there, there will only be silence. Oh yes, it sounds too good to be true…

"-hear me?" His cheek burns, and there's the distant sensation of someone shaking him. "Hicks, wake up! Please, wake up!" Somehow, he doesn't know how, he manages to lift his eyelids even though they seem to weigh tons. Newt again. Or her image. Whatever."I got something for you, look!" She sticks her hands through the bars and puts down a plastic bag of unknown contents. What? More food? He's not hungry. "This will help you to get better! I found it in the hospital." She sounds enthusiastic and urgent at once.

Hospital… hospital? 'Come on, man, get a grip!'

"I took everything I found. There must be something in there that can make you better!"

Maybe… could she be right? Hicks stirs almost imperceptibly, aiming at sticking his hand into the bag and see what she found…but alone the mere thought – the first clear one since he doesn't know when – exhausts him more than he can tell, and he sinks back.

"Can… can you read… read them to me?" Yes, she's only six years old. Most children her age couldn't. But he doesn't think, can't be bothered with this now. So it's neither to his surprise nor to his relief, when she answers a short, clear "Yes" and takes back the bag to read him the labels with some difficulty. Morphine. Aspirin. Paracetamol. Some stuff he doesn't know. And finally, something he recognizes as an antibiotic. "That. Give me… please?"

She hands him the ampoule, and he looks at the amber liquid in deep absorption, his concentration threatening to leave him. Takes it – and almost lets it fall. Another heat-wave races through his body, forcing what little water he drank out of his body. Dizziness overwhelms him, and he has to close his eyes.

"Got a… a syringe?" He hears her rummaging through the bag. Something's being pressed into his hand, and he feels the cylindrical form he's been hoping for. "And a needle?"

"Yes," she replies, sounding proud. And why shouldn't she be? She thought of everything. She's the only chance he has! "I already gave it to you."

Okay… summoning up whatever's left of his concentration, he opens his eyes again. Just one minute longer, and he'll be able to doze off and sleep as much as he wants to, but right now he's got to pull through this. He starts concentrating on the words for requesting that she opens the sealed packages for him, but before he can utter them, she's already thought of it herself – and even places the needle onto the syringe to give both to him.

"Good…that's good, Newt… but I still…" the words slip away from his grasp, "- I need you to do one more thing." Catching his breath, he makes a new, desperate attempt at concentrating. "Jab the needle through the lid." He waits until she complies, her young, dirt-smeared face a mask of absorption with her serious task. She wants to save him so hard…"Good. Now turn the ampoule upside down – right." Christ, he's burning up… "Now draw it into … into the syringe. Slowly. See that there are no bubbles in it." A coughing fit interrupts him, make his lungs ache. It takes an eternity to let off, and his sight's too blurry by now to see what she's done. He'll have to trust her. His life is in her hands. "Newt?"

"I can't make the bubbles go away," she complains, despairing. She knows how important the task is he assigned her for, and wants to make him proud of her.

"Knock against it with… your fingertips. Gently…. Then.. then push them out."

"-kay…" The energy to follow her efforts has left him completely now, and when she finally puts the syringe back into his good hand, he hardly notices. Now for the hard part…the one part he can't switch to her.

"Good…that's good…" He's got to do it left-handed. Shaking violently, he jabs the syringe into the muscle of his thigh. 'Come on, you've done this times before. This one shot could save your life! Pull yourself together!'A little blood wells up inside the cylinder, and he pushes the contents into his system and lies back, completely spent. This is it. They did all they could do. Now all that's left to do is wait. The rest is up to his body… Just before unconsciousness claims him again, Hicks feels a tiny hand clasp his in affirmation and hears a whispered: "Please… don't die."

Another whirl of unfinished, indistinct sensations and memories. The fight against the infection in the tunnel, going on for a time span he can't define. The every-day effort of giving himself the shot. No improvement at first. His mind deteriorating, caught up between fever-dreams and hallucinations. Heat, intense heat, the sensation of burning up from the inside. And pain… muscle tremors, his leg, his back… his entire beaten body, so bad that he wants it to end. The stench of his own, cold sweat and the wound. 'You're going to lose that leg…'

Somehow, he makes it through the darkest hours… to wake up in the flickering glow of a candle stump, feeling weak, disoriented… but cool. And surprisingly clear. The fever's hold on him has finally broken, and as he cranes his neck back just the slightest bit, he sees the girl's silhouette close beside him, sleeping… and NO STEEL BARS! The realization hits him with a wave of excitement. Not trusting his eyes, he stretches his hand out to feel… they're gone! They're indeed gone! How can this be?

"Newt?" His throat feels like sandpaper, and he grimaces. Two shallow swigs from the bottle in front of him soothe it enough to try it again. "Newt? Wake up!"

"Huh? Wha-" Her sleepy, blue eyes widen when she sees him staring at her. A first tentative, unsure ghost of a smile crosses her face – and broadens when she realizes he must be feeling better. "Hicks? You're awake!" Without warning, she leans forward to hug him, and with some surprise Hicks feels the moisture on her face. She's crying! "I was so afraid!"

He hugs her back with his good arm and waits until she has calmed down again to point at the non-existent bars.

"What happened?"

She beams at him.

"You were sleeping, and I went to look around some more. You know, my mom always read me and Timmy this pirate-story, and there's a part where the pirates are in prison and want to escape. And you know what they did? They used a rasp to saw through the bars, and when the soldiers came the next morning to get them, they were gone." Hicks can't help but grin in utter amazement. The girl's so incredible! "So I looked in some rooms, and found this." She holds up a tool Hicks recognizes as a steel saw. "It took me three days to do it, but look! We can go now!"

He shakes his head in disbelief and gently ruffles her hair with his good hand.

"You're one smart girl, Newt. Anybody ever told you before?" It's dark, but is that a blush he sees on her cheeks as she casts her eyes down?

"My brother always called me smarty-pants…"

His grin broadens.

"Just my luck you were here to help me, smarty-pants!" Hicks lies back to listen into his body. Is he really ready to leave the security of the tunnel? How far will he be able to go before strength will desert him? But he wants out of this metal coffin! "Okay…." a deep breath. "Wanna try to leave, then?"

"Yes! Oh, yes!"

"All right… I don't think I'll be able to go too far right now, but… I wanna go , too." He hesitates before he dares to voice his next question. "The aliens… are there many of them left? Did you-"

"-meet any?" she finishes for him. "I heard one yesterday. But that was the only time."

"Good…" Doesn't sound too bad. Maybe Ripley was right after all. Maybe there were only a few of them left… and maybe, the catastrophe decimated them even further. The chances of making it to the garage without meeting at least one of them might not be too bad. Briefly wondering whether his personal adversary might be also among the aliens' losses, Hicks comes to a decision. "You know the way to the garage?" Back in Operations, they discussed this particular plan plenty of times, so she doesn't ask why. She knows what he intends to do – and nods. "Are there any… you know, like those little niches you were hiding in just before we found you?"

"They're all over," she quips, eager to supply information to him.

"Okay… " another deep, deep breath. Bracing for the effort lying ahead of him. "Then let's go, what d'you say?"

"Aye-firmative!"

The way through the tunnels is an unending composition of pure torture. He's got to crawl, flat on his stomach, only able to use one good arm and one good leg to push and pull himself along. After just two times of reaching up and dragging himself over the floor, his broken shoulder explodes into agony and forces him to take half of the morphine shot Newt's carrying along in her bag. As much as he'd like to take all, it would put him out. With the pain subsiding to a tolerable level, Hicks quickly discovers the next problem: his strength won't last for more than ten meters at a time, less, the further they proceed. They're awfully slow, human snails – in constant fear of the alien birds to come and pick them. Newt's a great help, urging him along, but even so Hicks feels her underlying impatience with him. It's dangerous out here. Twice they hear ominous noises in the shafts above their heads, the sound and vibrations of something heavy, big moving along swiftly. He can feel the girl's nervousness multiply by the minute. Why doesn't he hurry up? He tries, he gives everything… and collapses again, gasping. The floor vibrates under him, and the next moment, he's looking into the girl's anxious face again.

"We can't stay here, we need to go on! Come on! It's not so far anymore to the end."

He wants to ask what she means by 'not so far', but skips it. What for? She's likely to miscalculate – after all, how accurate can a child's sense of dimension be? - and it really doesn't matter. He's got to make it through this blasted tunnel, no matter if it goes on for just ten more meters - or ten kilometers. Collecting reserves he didn't know he had, he drags himself along, further through the darkness. And further. Until some time – his chronometers says 08:56, but he can't tell for the life of him whether it's a.m. or p.m. – they reach the main walkway… what's left of it, and twilight replaces blackness.

Paradoxically, he's suddenly hesitant to trade the relative safety of the duct for the width of the corridor. But they've got to go, and so he slips out of it awkwardly, yelling at one point, when he looses his grip on the edge and lands on his bad leg and then, with a thud, on the floor, seeing nothing but stars. 'Up, up! This ain't a public beach here!' But this is the first opportunity for him to actually see his leg, and he can't resist. Just one glimpse, just – he freezes, hearing Newt's urgent voice – "Get up! Get up!" – from a distance, as he stares mesmerized at the ripped fabric of his pants, plastered to his leg with blood. Lots of blood. The gaping, raw flesh he sees through the tears is enough to change his mind again. Yes, he'll have to deal with that… but not now. Pushing the image of his shredded leg as far from him as possible, he prods his back against the wall… and pushes himself up with the last of his remaining willpower. Sways as weakness and the morphine clash in his body. What now? He knows he won't be able to stand for long, and certainly not on just one leg.

"Hicks, we need to go!" A tiny hand grasps his. He gives himself a mental kick to proceed, balancing precariously on one foot and using Newt to place part of his weight on her, kind of a human crutch. She doesn't complain, but he knows he's too heavy for her. There's just no freakin' alternative! Somewhere along the way, his injured leg turns to rubber, and not even limping is possible anymore, even though the morphine's still keeping the pain subdued. They make it into an empty storage room where he all but collapses. Using the last trick his clouded mind can come up with, he asks the girl to go looking for some kind of duct tape and something to make an improvised cast of, before he blacks out. Coming to half an hour later, he detects she's back with some narrow metal tubes and the tape, and gets busy preparing his leg, first disinfecting the wounds best he can with what he finds in her bag, and then placing the tubes around it, strapping it to his ankle, calf and knee with the duct tape, pulling it as tight as he's just able to bear. A cocktail consisting of the other half of the morphine and some added adrenaline to power his stuttering engine goes into his veins, and then it's time to proceed.

Somehow, again with many, many breaks, they make it down to the garage, amazingly undisturbed, and the sight of the various all-terrain vehicles there – most of them intact, as it appears – provides an unexpected ray of light through the dark clouds. Even better, when Newt leads him to her parent's truck, they find it open, and an assortment of food – artificial juice and soft drinks, some candy, some canned stuff and preserved and sealed bread – within. Enough to let him decide that they won't need to go looking for it anywhere else, except in the other vehicles, where they find an additional variety of bottles, cans and snacks. Nothing healthy, but probably enough to get them through at least the next two or three weeks. The key, to his unfathomable relief, still sticks in the ignition. Hell, it's energy cell is even half-full, which should be more than enough to get them to the next processor.

They're good to go… provided the stormwall's entrance they took when they entered the premises with the APC is still open. But then Hicks remembers the image the monitor showed him… of the shredded landing field… the smoking remains of the Sulaco… their chances of the stormwall having been ripped to pieces by the explosion seem good. Now all he's got left to figure out is how to work the pedals of the truck with his bad leg. He'll be okay for as long as the morphine lasts, but then… 'Better get going…' He turns the key, and the powerful engine roars to life.

"Newt?" He nods toward the seat next to him, and sees her sitting down and fastening the security belt from the corners of his eyes. The expression on her face is not to be missed, and he can't help react to it himself, actually feeling a little scent of exhilaration come through his substantial exhaustion. "Hey…we've made it. In five minutes, we're out of here." A small, but honest smile, which she returns.

"I knew we would. You promised, right?"

"Right." Their eye-contact holds for another long moment. Wordless communication. Thankfulness. New-found optimism. Whatever happens, things are bound to get better from now on. Another small nod, before Hicks turns his attention back to the sight in front of the windscreen, shifts into gear and gets them out.

And on Phooka-station, the alarm clock in compound 2273, usually referred to as 'The Zoo' by the staff, goes off and wakes its inhabitants to a glorious new day…

- END OF PART 1 -

(To be continued in CHRYSALIS: REBIRTH…)