By: Alan Dean Foster

The "deliberations" didn't take long. No reason why they should, she thought as she reentered the room and resumed her seat. Burke took his place on the far side of the chamber He started to wink at her, thought better of it, and aborted the gesture. She recognized the eye twitch for what it almost became and was glad he hadn't followed through.

Van Leuwen cleared his throat. He didn't find it necessary to look to his fellow board members for support.

'It is the finding of this board of inquiry that Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, NOC-14672, has acted with questionable judgment and is therefore declared unfit to hold an ICC license as a commercial flight officer.'

If any of them expected some sort of reaction from the condemned, they were disappointed. She sat there and stared silently back at them, tight-lipped and defiant. More likely they were relieved. Emotional outbursts would have to be recorded Van Leuwen continued, unaware that Ripley had reattired him in black cape and hood.

'Said license is hereby suspended indefinitely, pending review at a future date to be specified later.' He cleared his throat, then his conscience. 'In view of the unusual length of time spent by the defendant in hypersleep and the concomitant indeterminable effects on the human nervous system, no criminal charges will be filed at this time.'

At this time, Ripley thought humourlessly. That was corporatese for 'Keep your mouth shut and stay away from the media and you'll still get to collect your pension.'

'You are released on your own recognizance for a six-month period of psychometric probation, to include monthly review by an approved ICC psychiatric tech and treatment and or medication as may be prescribed.'

It was short, neat, and not at all sweet, and she took it all without a word, until Van Leuwen had finished and departed Burke saw the look in her eye and tried to restrain her.

'Lay off,' he whispered to her. She threw off his hand and continued up the corridor. 'It's over.'

'Right,' she called back to him as she lengthened her stride 'So what else can they do to me?'

She caught up with Van Leuwen as he stood waiting for the elevator. 'Why won't you check out LV-426?'

He glanced back at her. 'Ms. Ripley, it wouldn't matter. The decision of the board is final.'

'The heck with the board's decision. We're not talking about me now. We're talking about the next poor souls to find that ship. Just tell me why you won't check it out.'

'Because I don't have to,' he told her brusquely. 'The people who live there checked it out years ago, and they've never reported any "hostile organism" or alien ship. Do you think I'm a complete fool? Did you think the board wouldn't seek some sort of verification, if only to protect ourselves from future inquiries? And by the way, they call it Acheron now.'

Fifty-seven years. Long time. People could accomplish a lot in fifty-seven years. Build, move around, establish new colonies. Ripley struggled with the import of the administrator's words.

'What are you talking about? What people?'

Van Leuwen joined the other passengers in the elevator car Ripley put an arm between the doors to keep them from closing. The doors' sensors obediently waited for her to remove it.

'Terraformers,' Van Leuwen explained. 'Planetary engineers. Much has happened in that field while you slept, Ripley We've made significant advances, great strides. The cosmos is not a hospitable place, but we're changing that. It's what we call a shake-'n'-bake colony. They set up atmosphere processors to make the air breathable. We can do that now, efficiently and economically, as long as we have some kind of resident atmosphere to work with. Hydrogen, argon—methane is best Acheron is swimming in methane, with a portion of oxygen and sufficient nitrogen for beginning bonding. It's nothing now. The air's barely breathable. But given time, patience, and hard work, there'll be another habitable world out there ready to comfort and succor humanity. At a price, of course. Ours is not a philanthropic institution, though we like to think of what we do as furthering mankind's progress.

'It's a big job. Decades worth. They've already been there more than twenty years. Peacefully.'

'Why didn't you tell me?'

'Because it was felt that the information might have biased your testimony. Personally I don't think it would have made a bit of difference. You obviously believe what you believe. But some of my colleagues were of a differing opinion. I doubt it would have changed our decision.'

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