By: Alan Dean Foster

All right, yes, save that she was going to have to learn how to sleep all over again.

Sunlight streamed through the stand of poplars. A meadow was visible beyond the trees, green stalks splattered with the brightness of bluebells, daisies, and phlox. A robin pranced near the base of one tree, searching for insects. It did not see the sinewy predator stalking it, eyes intent, muscles taut. The bird turned its back, and the stalker sprang.

Jones slammed into the solido of the robin, neither acquiring prey nor disturbing the image, which continued its blithe quest for imaged insects. Shaking his head violently, the tomcat staggered away from the wall.

Ripley sat on a nearby bench regarding this cat-play. 'Dumb cat. Don't you know a solido by now when you see one? Although maybe she shouldn't be too hard on the cat. Solido design had improved during the last fifty-seven years Everything had been improved during the last fifty-seven years. Except for her and Jones.

Glass doors sealed the atrium off from the rest of Gateway Station. The expensive solido of a North American temperate forest was set off by potted plants and sickly grass underfoot The solido looked more real than the real plants, but at least the latter had an honest smell. She leaned slightly toward one pot. Dirt and moisture and growing things. Of cabbages and kings, she mused dourly. Horsepucky. She wanted off Gateway. Earth was temptingly near, and she longed to put blue sky between herself and the malign emptiness of space.

Two of the glass doors that sealed off the atrium parted to admit Carter Burke. For a moment she found herself regarding him as a man and not just a company cipher. Maybe that was a sign that she was returning to normal. Her appraisal of him was mitigated by the knowledge that when the Nostromo had departed on its ill-fated voyage, he was two decades short of being born. It shouldn't have made any difference. They were approximately the same physical age.

'Sorry.' Always the cheery smile. 'I've been running behind all morning. Finally managed to get away.'

Ripley never had been one for small talk. Now more than ever, life seemed too precious to waste on inconsequential banter. Why couldn't people just say what they had to say instead of dancing for five minutes around the subject'

'Have they located my daughter yet?'

Burke looked uncomfortable. 'Well, I was going to wait unti after the inquest.'

'I've waited fifty-seven years. I'm impatient. So humour me.'

He nodded, set down his carrying case, and popped the lid He fumbled a minute with the contents before producing several sheets of thin plastic.

'Is she . . . ?'

Burke spoke as he read from one of the sheets. 'Amanda Ripley-McClaren. Married name, I guess. Age sixty-six at . . time of death. That was two years ago. There's a whole history here. Nothing spectacular or notable. Details of a pleasant ordinary life. Like the kind most of us lead, I expect. I'm sorry. He passed over the sheets, studied Ripley's face as she scanned the printouts. 'Guess this is my morning for being sorry.'

Ripley studied the holographic image imprinted on one of the sheets. It showed a rotund, slightly pale woman in her midsixties. Could have been anyone's aunt. There was nothing distinctive about the face, nothing that leapt out and shouted with familiarity. It was impossible to reconcile the picture of this older woman with the memory of the little girl she'd left behind.

'Amy,' she whispered.

Burke still held a couple of sheets, read quietly as she continued to stare at the hologram. 'Cancer. Hmmm. They stil haven't licked all varieties of that one. Body was cremated Interred Westlake Repository, Little Chute, Wisconsin. No children.'

Ripley looked past him, toward the forest solido but not at it She was staring at the invisible landscape of the past.

'I promised her I'd be home for her birthday. Her eleventh birthday. I sure missed that one.' She glanced again at the picture. 'Well, she'd already learned to take my promises with a grain of salt. When it came to flight schedules, anyway.'

Burke nodded, trying to be sympathetic. That was difficult for him under ordinary circumstances, much more so this morning. At least he had the sense to keep his mouth shut instead of muttering the usual polite inanities.

'You always think you can make it up to somebody—later you know.' She took a deep breath. 'But now I never can. I never can.' The tears came then, long overdue. Fifty-seven years overdue. She sat there on the bench and sobbed softly to herself, alone now in a different kind of space.

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