By: Alan Dean Foster

'Just a couple of days.' Still smiling.

'Feels longer.'

The medtech turned her face away, and Ripley wondered whether she found the terse observation boring or disturbing 'Do you feel up to a visitor?'

'Do I have a choice?'

'Of course you have a choice. You're the patient. After the doctors you know best. You want to be left alone, you get left alone.'

Ripley shrugged, mildly surprised to discover that her shoulder muscles were up to the gesture. 'I've been alone long enough. Whattheheck. Who is it?'

The medtech walked to the door. 'There are two of them actually.' Ripley could see that she was smiling again.

A man entered, carrying something. Ripley didn't know him but she knew his fat, orange, bored-looking burden.

'Jones!' She sat up straight, not needing the bed support now. The man gratefully relinquished possession of the big tomcat. Ripley cuddled it to her. 'Come here, Jonesey, you ugly old moose, you sweet ball of fluff, you!'

The cat patiently endured this embarrassing display, so typical of humans, with all the dignity his kind was heir too. In so doing, Jones displayed the usual tolerance felines have for human beings. Any extraterrestrial observer privy to the byplay would not have doubted for an instant which of the two creatures on the bed was the superior intelligence.

The man who'd brought the good orange news with him pulled a chair close to the bed and patiently waited for Ripley to take notice of him. He was in his thirties, good-looking without being flashy, and dressed in a nondescript business suit. His smile was no more or less real than the medtech's even though it had been practiced longer. Ripley eventually acknowledged his presence with a nod but continued to reserve her conversation for the cat. It occurred to her visitor that if he was going to be taken for anything more than a delivery man, it was up to him to make the first move.

'Nice room,' he said without really meaning it. He looked like a country boy, but he didn't talk like one, Ripley thought as he edged the chair a little closer to her. 'I'm Burke. Carter Burke I work for the Company, but other than that, I'm an okay guy Glad to see you're feeling better.' The last at least sounded as though he meant it.

'Who says I'm feeling better?' She stroked Jones, who purred contentedly and continued to shed cat hair all over the sterile bed.

'Your doctors and machines. I'm told the weakness and disorientation should pass soon, though you don't look particularly disoriented to me. Side effects of the unusually long hypersleep, or something like that. Biology wasn't my favourite subject. I was better at figures. For example, yours seems to have come through in pretty good shape.' He nodded toward the bed covers.

'I hope I look better than I feel, because I feel like the inside of an Egyptian mummy. You said "unusually long hypersleep" How long was I out there?' She gestured toward the watching medtech. 'They won't tell me anything.'

Burke's tone was soothing, paternal. 'Well, maybe you shouldn't worry about that just yet.'

Ripley's hand shot from beneath the covers to grab his arm The speed of her reaction and the strength of her grip clearly surprised him. 'No. I'm conscious, and I don't need any more coddling. How long?'

He glanced over at the medtech. She shrugged and turned away to attend to the needs of some incomprehensible tangle of lights and tubes. When he looked back at the woman lying in the bed, he found he was unable to shift his eyes away from hers.

'All right. It's not my job to tell you, but my instincts say you're strong enough to handle it. Fifty-seven years.'

The number hit her like a hammer. Fifty-seven too many hammers. Hit her harder than waking up, harder than her first sight of the home world. She seemed to deflate, to lose strength and colour simultaneously as she sank back into the mattress Suddenly the artificial gravity of the station seemed thrice Earth-normal, pressing her down and back. The air-filled pad on which she rested was ballooning around her, threatening to stifle and smother. The medtech glanced at her warning lights but all of them stayed silent.

Fifty-seven years. In the more than half century she'd been dreaming in deepsleep, friends left behind had grown old and died, family had matured and faded, the world she'd left behind had metamorphosed into who knew what. Governments had risen and fallen; inventions had hit the market and been outmoded and discarded. No one had ever survived more than sixty-five years in hypersleep. Longer than that and the body begins to fail beyond the ability of the capsules to sustain life She'd barely survived; she'd pushed the limits of the physiologically possible, only to find that she'd outlived life.

Also By Alan Dean Foster

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