By: Alan Dean Foster

Orchids bloomed mightily, and beetles scurried among leaves and fallen branches like ambulatory jewels. An agouti appeared, saw her, and bolted back into the undergrowth From the stately hardwood off to the left, a howler monkey dangled, crooning softly to its infant.

The sensory overload was too much. She closed her eyes against the chattering profusion of life.

Later (another hour? another day?) a crack appeared in the middle of the big tree's buttressing roots. The split widened to obliterate the torso of a gamboling marmoset. A woman emerged from the gap and closed it behind her, sealing the temporary bloodless wound in tree and animal. She touched a hidden wall switch, and the rain forest went away.

It was very good for a solido, but now that it had been shut off, Ripley could see the complex medical equipment the rain forest imagery had camouflaged. To her immediate left was the medved that had responded so considerately to her request for first water and then cold tea. The machine hung motionless and ready from the wall, aware of everything that was happening inside her body, ready to adjust medication provide food and drink, or summon human help should the need arise.

The newcomer smiled at the patient and used a remote control attached to her breast pocket to raise the backrest of Ripley's bed. The patch on her shirt, which identified her as a senior medical technician, was bright with colour against the background of white uniform. Ripley eyed her warily, unable to tell if the woman's smile was genuine or routine. Her voice was pleasant and maternal without being cloying.

'Sedation's wearing off. I don't think you need any more Can you understand me?' Ripley nodded. The medtech considered her patient's appearance and reached a decision 'Let's try something new. Why don't I open the window?'

'I give up. Why don't you?'

The smile weakened at the corners, was promptly recharged Professional and practiced, then; not heartfelt. And why should it be? The medtech didn't know Ripley, and Ripley didn't know her. So what. The woman pointed her remote toward the wall across from the foot of the bed.

'Watch your eyes.'

Now there's a choice non sequitur for you, Ripley thought Nevertheless, she squinted against the implied glare.

A motor hummed softly, and the motorized wall plate slid into the ceiling. Harsh light filled the room. Though filtered and softened, it was still a shock to Ripley's tired system.

Outside the port lay a vast sweep of nothingness. Beyond the nothingness was everything. A few of Gateway Station's modular habitats formed a loop off to the left, the plastic cells strung together like children's blocks. A couple of communications antennae peeped into the view from below. Dominating the scene was the bright curve of the Earth. Africa was a brown, white-streaked smear swimming in an ocean blue, the Mediterranean a sapphire tiara crowning the Sahara.

Ripley had seen it all before, in school and then in person. She was not particularly thrilled by the view so much as she was just glad it was still there. Events of recent memory suggested it might not be, that nightmare was reality and this soft, inviting globe only mocking illusion. It was comforting, familiar, reassuring, like a worn-down teddy bear. The scene was completed by the bleak orb of the moon drifting in the background like a vagrant exclamation point: planetary system as security blanket.

'And how are we today?' She grew aware that the medtech was talking to her instead of at her.

'Terrible.' Someone or two had told her once upon a time that she had a lovely and unique voice. Eventually she should get it back. For the moment no part of her body was functioning at optimum efficiency. She wondered if it ever would again because she was very different from the person she'd been before. That Ripley had set out on a routine cargo run in a now vanished spacecraft. A different Ripley had returned, and lay in the hospital bed regarding her nurse.

'Just terrible?' You had to admire the medtech, she mused. A woman not easily discouraged. 'That's better than yesterday, at least. I'd call "terrible" a quantum jump up from atrocious.'

Ripley squeezed her eyelids shut, opened them slowly. The Earth was still there. Time, which heretofore she hadn't given a hoot about, suddenly acquired new importance.

'How long have I been on Gateway Station?'

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