"Keep talking," he told her. And so she did, describing what she saw as she fell. The details mattered little, he just wanted to hear her speak, anything to know that she was free.
What had happened back there, when the alien had thrown him aside? She had stood there, mesmerized, not even a reflex of fear. There was more to that interference he had detected, it appeared to have affected Elizabeth in other ways.
Her voice came through the communicator, garbled, but he managed to piece the words back. "Oh my God, there's an Engineer in one of those - there's the tubes going inside her!"
She sounded almost too frightened to think. He couldn't blame her, when her thoughts didn't seem safe here.
"Don't mind that, Elizabeth, I'm sure she's enjoying herself. What else do you see?"
"There's more of them, David. I've seen another like the one we met, he seems asleep inside the walls. There's all kinds of them, they all have this machinery going in and out-"
Asleep, dreaming, partying with the others maybe, who could tell. He'd process that later. "How far are you from the gate?"
"I'm closing. I'm too fast!"
"Make sure you're not followed, then try to slow down a little. I'm waiting here for you."
Of course she was being followed, but they weren't making it obvious as to how. They had tried to close the gate- tried, but the servomechanisms were now a corroded gelatin floating in what used to be a mold embryo. He'd thwarted that plan, so now they'd change tactics. The only thing that he could be reasonably sure of is that they wanted Elizabeth alive, which, thankfully, constrained their options.
As for himself, he had seen better days. Heat evac unit as good as gone. All that cooling fluid he had just lost would be hard to replace, and without it he couldn't exert himself too long. Not that he ever had been much use in a fight with one of these beings so far. He took off his helmet and keffiyeh; at least the wounds in the neck and abdomen would allow some air cooling, even though the air itself was not as cold as he would have liked.
"David, how do I slow down?!"
"I can see you now. You're keeping an aerodynamic profile- good girl. But you need to make the air catch you. Put your arms and hands out, bend your legs. The air will catch you. Trust me. Good. Now straighten again for landing."
She hit the floor a bit harder than he anticipated, and bounced off it, groaning and grabbing her rib-cage.
He could hear her shallow breaths through the communication link. He could see her helmet was gone. "Are you all right?", he asked.
"No." Still grabbing her side, she made a series of lunges to reach him. He caught her in his arms as she got close, getting pushed back by her momentum. He removed the remains of her torn helmet, which he replaced with his own. "It's better you have this. Come on, let's leave."
She nodded. He noticed her necklace was gone.
"We'll walk together," he said. "We'll get back in no time."
He considered mentioning the reason why it was that they had to walk together- it would take new cooling fluid for him to have anything resembling her stamina- but then thought better of it. She'd need him for moral support, just as much as he needed her for her strength, once more. And that meant, putting a smiling face on everything. The lights inside the ship were extinguished- nothing to worry, he said, they had their own. They just had to trace their steps back.
Back through the corridor of empty yet obscene bed chambers- that's what the incomplete machinery was. Back through the spire, now a dark bottomless pit. Back, to the airlock that stood between them and the hangar. The airlock which was closed.
David took a peek in his duffel bag at the collection of mold eggs. It would take a while to corrode through that mass of metal. He could hear the clickety-clack of footfalls in the distance. Worse, he could feel that interference building up again. Worst of all, Elizabeth became limp in his arms.
He jumped, as strong as his android muscles allowed, just in time to dodge an Engineer in full body armor. There were four of them that landed in the area where he and Elizabeth had been, and near them he saw that same alien from before. A scar appeared beneath its eye which seemed simultaneously healed and fresh, but apart from that, its face was as impassive as usual.
Compressors in his body activated. They were there to simulate breath but were now working overtime to provide some much needed heat evacuation. He had to jump again, to dodge another Engineer's attack. He'd have to trick all five, somehow, and he was getting heated up already. The fibers in his neck fluttered in the compressors' breeze, shimmering in the light of his head-light.
And the alien saw them. Its face had not been pretty at the best of times, but it deformed even more with a horrible snarl. It screamed, and Elizabeth in unison with it. The interference reached a peak and every Engineer seemed stunned, apart from that thing who had impaled him, and who was now lunging at him to finish the job.
If this were basketball, his shot should have been worth ten points. The mold egg flew perfectly inside the alien's gaping mouth, its explosive growth triggered by the alien's moisture. The thing coughed violently, futilely trying to remove the foreign body that sent acidic incandescent filaments through its flesh. It bumped into David, pinning him and Elizabeth against the wall. Acidic juices and dissolved flesh trickled between its collarbones. It struggled to make its twitching neck tendons twist its head towards David, then Elizabeth.
Its gaze lingered on her. The snarl relaxed. Despite the violent reaction going on inside it, its face was calm. Not inexpressive as before, but instead- serene?
Through boiling fluids it whispered, words so mangled so as to be barely comprehensible. "Time to die."
It let them go as its arm fell lifeless to the side. The sinews in its neck convulsed, its head bent at an unnatural angle downwards as the spine could no longer support it against the pull of frenzied muscles. The interference pulsed stronger still for a moment, before disappearing altogether. The thing, lifeless, begun a slow fall, corrosive juices leaking from its head.
Elizabeth gasped as if for air, but she had recovered from her paralysis. "David, I know how to open the airlock. Keep the others distracted." She took one mold egg from the bag. They jumped in different ways, Elizabeth to one side, while David kicked the alien's corpse, hoping that some disrespect of the dead would prove sufficiently irksome to make him the prime target. He yelled at the Engineers, still recovering from their mental stun, taunting them into attacking him, threatening them with anything he might be having in his duffel bag.
It seemed to work.
He used his cunning and the corpse of their comrade to avoid their attack, but it was clear he couldn't manage it for long. He briefly glimpsed Elizabeth melting something inside the airlock's mechanism, and quickly pressing a sequence of glyphs.
"David, brace yourself!"
She pressed the last glyph as the Engineers were all airborne.
And then the airlock opened, all the way to the vacuum of the hangar. A furious gust of wind rushed as the pressures equalized, blowing the Engineers towards the hangar bay with great velocity and bumping them against every wall. David barely managed to hold on to his perch, while Elizabeth had clung to some tubing near the airlock.
Pressures equal, the wind stopped.
"I suppose we should go before they come to," David said. She must have nodded, it was difficult to see her face from where he was. Together they hurried to their ship, her legs and arms powering them along, him breathing heavily to relieve internal heating. Four figures of Engineers, scattered to various places in the hangar, staggered back to their feet.
But having reached inside the ship, Elizabeth and David would be safe from them. She helped him reach the ship's controls.
"We must leave, David!"
"Not if they won't let us. But they will if they know what's good for them." The engine woke up under his command. An ominous pulse resounded through the hangar.
He made the holographic surround-display appear. The hangar exit was still closed. He produced another, stronger pulse from the engine. Tiny holographic figures of four Engineers were scampering away.
"Last warning, or I'll turn this place to elementary particles."
They wouldn't hear his voice, but they could see the air itself in the hangar glowing with traces of plasma as the ship broke free of whatever was holding it. The hangar opened, and David didn't wait for another invitation. He sent the ship powering outwards, ever faster to increase its distance from the Engineers' space station. He waited as little as possible before he punched the button for faster than light travel. The holographic display went dark, as a bubble of warped space surrounded the ship. They were out of the universe for now.
"Well Elizabeth, I think we managed our escape routine. How did you know that sequence would do what it did?"
"There are no secrets in paradise," she said. But still, she looked and sounded forlorn, vacant, as she took off her helmet. Her mouth tightened in a pained grimace as she brought her arms down.
"I'll grant you that this here is not paradise, but maybe you can share what's on your mind with me?" he asked.
She sat herself down on the cold metal floor, grabbing the side of her chest. He placed himself near, his arms ready to unfasten her suit's straps. She flinched under his touch and pushed him away.
"It's all right," he said. "I just need to see that you're not wounded."
He reached out to her again. She shivered. He proceeded to undo the buckles and straps that kept her suit tightened, mechanically, efficiently revealing her skin beneath. Her pale blue skin, now criss-crossed with large bruises, swollen, purple. He brought his fingers to touch her, and she winced. There'd be a fissured rib in there, thank whatever providence existed it didn't break completely.
"What happened back there, Elizabeth?"
And, through tears and sobs, she told him how she'd been a helpless rag-doll in the alien's arms, flung against every wall to earn her bruises. But that meant nothing. That it meant nothing was the horror.
She told him of the sights she had seen, the visions from the alien's mind as expressible by her own. She told him of its towering indifference. She told him of what it had intended to do to her. He listened patiently, wiping her cheeks clean- he knew she still hated the sight of those black tears-, and draped her with the makeshift toga made from the cloth in the sickbay.
"I see. Well then, I say we turn back. We can kill quite a few of them with what we have on board," he said.
"I won't do any such thing, and neither will you if I can help it." She sat, her body almost imperceptibly trembling, covered by the cloth she clasped with her hands; but her voice revealed only determination.
"Why not? After all that, you'd still turn the other cheek?"
Her hand reflexively reached for a cross that wasn't there. "I will not kill if I don't have to."
"They are right, you know. What do you think would happen if Weyland, if anyone, had found them sleeping?"
"I will not be the one to prove them right."
"And what do you think they'll do now, when they know that sleeping, or whatever they were doing there, isn't safe? You really kicked a hornet's nest, Elizabeth."
"It doesn't have to be that way. They can dream inside their world if they want to."
He shrugged and rolled his eyes, turning his head away in a gesture of dismissal. He'd have to reason with her later.
"I didn't tell you how I knew the sequence of glyphs to open the air-lock."
He turned back to face her.
"Maybe as it died it could control its thoughts no longer, but I know now, what I found, what Charlie found, in those ancient messages, was not an invitation. It was a warning."
He raised an eyebrow. "Go on."
"Some of them were warning us. They knew they were growing tired - tired of being."
"... and would have to be replaced," he said. "Like those myths you've told me about, of the new gods fighting the old."
"They could have been about the future."
"Then we are the gods now. So Weyland was right, after all," he said.
She lowered her gaze. "There's only one God."
He smiled. He couldn't help it, as he caressed her cheek. "If it's your God, Elizabeth, He'd better be real. Or become so. But you know how this will end. You know how the stories you told me end. If your Engineers have a deathwish-"
"They do not want to die. They just want to be saved."
"Saved?! They already live forever."
"I wouldn't want to live forever."
"Keep doing what you're doing, and you won't. And you're dragging me with you."
"No," she said. "I'll fight you if you want to hurt them, but I can't order you not to. You don't need me now, anyway."
It was true. His wound was something he could repair on his own, and her quest, now completed, even provided answers useful to him. Weyland hadn't known of any grander scheme, indeed if such a scheme even existed, but he could be forgiven. David surmised, that forgiven Weyland he had done, for he wished that his creator were alive, there with them to see and hear what Elizabeth had been through. To feel the crushing weight of the eternity he sought. To know the pain of the unloved creation. And David believed that he, Weyland, would have died fulfilled. And David believed that he, Weyland, would have deserved that.
Weyland had said, there is no soul in a machine. And David had believed him. But now, David understood, a soul can die inside a living body. Living just so as not to die, without care or hope or wonder, where is the soul in that collection of flesh? Is that what you wanted, Father, when you brought the stars close and made men in your image?
Then maybe it was not so far-fetched for a soul to be born in a machine. What is this thing anyway? David suspected nobody would ever really know. But even lacking a hard definition, one could see what a soul does. It is the architect of purpose. And he realized he had one all along. Maybe it was transparent, simple and ordered, crystalline; maybe it was not an outgrowth from a tumultuous sea of old fears and desires. But he had a soul, and it didn't matter who believed him. Good bye Father, fare thee well. I am free.
Yes. Technically he needed her no longer.
"Well. I believe none of us is in any condition to fight the other. May I suggest a truce?"
Her eyes shifted to the caked white blood on his suit, near a gaping hole in his abdomen. "Oh, David, I didn't mean to be - how's -"
"Not feeling pain has its advantages. It appears our ... host took somewhat unkindly to me as well," he said. "It was particularly angry with me the second time we met. I wonder why that was."
"I felt it curse me as it lunged at you, for bringing an abomination to their world. They don't trust intelligent machines."
"We saw as much, there's no computer to run the ship. Odd thing not to trust."
"They can control instincts," she said. "That's how they planned to control all life, but machines don't have instincts. It can make them unpredictable if they get a mind of their own." The tiniest hint of a grin formed in the corner of her mouth. "They had that figured out right."
He put her arm across her back, gently squeezing her shoulders.
"Sorry. I know we've had our - differences, but do you not trust me now?"
"And am I not a machine?"
The speed and nature of her answer left him dumb-struck. He waited for some qualifier, a 'but' or 'maybe'. Nothing came. Nothing spoiled the simplicity of 'no'. It took him some time to gather a response.
"I ... do think I love you, Elizabeth Shaw."
"Well. Uhm. I think we should trace the steps the Engineers intended to take, make sure the warning you mentioned got to everybody." He stands up, reaching towards the ships controls. "And we should start at LV-223, I'm certain I can teach our molds to answer to remote control. We need all the ships we can find, and there is no reason to leave the Engineers more weapons."
"We'll do what you said." Her face seemed to beam with some strange hue as she rises to join him. Were his fibers acting up again?
He summoned the star map, with her at his side, and set the course back for LV-223. The hologram filled the ship as he took her hand in his. There was darkness ahead, darkness behind, and everywhere. But he chose not to think of it, if only for a moment. He chose to think of the light.
An image of a galaxy of possibility lay all around them, teeming with life and mystery. The stars called to them. Children with spaceships. Angels in paradise.
aaaand cut, that's a wrap. A little dumb action, someone pulling a Roy Batty moment, then some meditation on Life, the Universe, and Everything to close things up.
Oh, quick shameless self-promotion: if you are eager for more of BLANDfic, how about heading to the Crossover section, Prometheus/Aliens, and check out the first chapter of "Driving Ms. Shaw"?
Some reasons why:
1. As of this writing, it's the best (and only, but whatever) openly Bishop/Shaw fic on this site. A lot of the Shavid fics (including PS) actually read as if it's Bishop, not David, on board with Elizabeth, so why not give the fandom what it obviously wants.
2. "She has returned to an Earth she cannot recognize, with a message the world would not like to hear. Who can she tell, when the only ones listening are the ones she'd rather not share anything with?"
3. It is NOT connected to PS in any way. Among other things, I'll try to not repeat the mistakes I've made with PS. For example, DMS is not the story of two people on a boat doing nothing until the last act when Giger ensues.
Hope to see you there.
So anyway, yeah, this has been 'Paradise Sought'. Not as good as I had hoped; lack of focus and suspense means I probably tested your patience a bit. Still, not that bad for a first effort at exceeding 2000 words, and not too bad for the first story I've put where more than 5 people read it. Some of you said the character interaction turned out ok, and I daresay the prose is serviceable, when I don't get too self-indulgent.
Your opinions are as always welcome, so don't be afraid to express them. I plan on leaving the text as-is for a month or so, and then returning to it for some edits. I believe there's a good story in here if some fluff is cut out and some parts extended.
And obviously I intend to write a sequel ... if/when I figure what it will be like. I know that it will NOT be like Elizabeth and David gathering a rag-tag bunch of misfits (check out our Na'vigator! and the security officer is a Predator! and our negotiator is an ET-clone!) fighting the big bad Engineers, coz that is stupid.
Finally, some chapter specific notes.
I mostly avoided call-backs to Alien(s), but obviously the airlock scene is a shout out to that. And there should be no way to open both ends of an airlock simultaneously; there'd be triply redundant safeties against that. At least Elizabeth has to hack the door with my plot-bunny.
The 'it was a warning' thing is something I decided on late in the process of writing and it's, frankly, a betrayal of my original intent. Which was, pure existential bleakness; there would be no wavering in the Engineers' resolve. There would be nothing for humanity to latch on for a purpose, not as far as the Engineers are concerned. Purposes need to be found on one's own. Elizabeth forgives them anyway, because of what she stands for.
I decided to soften that blow and throw a bone with the 'warning' bit. It does open some narrative possibility, it links with various creation myths (Sumerian, Greek, Norse) that feature generational struggles of divinities, it is reminiscent of various rituals of passing down authority through sometimes violent replacement of the previous holder, as presented in the book "The Golden Bough", and it leaves open some questions as to who actually sent what to the humans, whether they're still around, whether the others were aware of this, why the warning didn't come with tech attached etc.
I've got mixed feelings about that decision. What do you think?