By: Alan Dean Foster

Finally Burke patted her reassuringly on her shoulder uncomfortable at the display and trying hard not to show it 'The hearing convenes at oh-nine-thirty. You don't want to be late. It wouldn't make a good first impression.'

She nodded, rose. 'Jones. Jonesey, c'mere.' Meowing, the cat sauntered over and allowed her to pick him up. She wiped self-consciously at her eyes. 'I've got to change. Won't take long. She rubbed her nose against the cat's back, a smal outrage it suffered in silence.

'Want me to walk you back to your room?'

'Sure, why not?'

He turned and started for the proper corridor. The doors parted to permit them egress from the atrium. 'You know, that cat's something of a special privilege. They don't allow pets on Gateway.'

'Jones isn't a pet.' She scratched the torn behind the ears 'He's a survivor.'

As Ripley promised, she was ready in plenty of time. Burke elected to wait outside her private room, studying his own reports, until she emerged. The transformation was impressive. Gone was the pale, waxy skin; gone the bitterness of expression and the uncertain stride. Determination? he wondered as they headed for the central corridor. Or just clever makeup?

Neither of them said anything until they neared the sub-leve where the hearing room was located. 'What are you going to tell them?' he finally asked her.

'What's to tell that hasn't already been told? You read my deposition. It's complete and accurate. No embellishments. It didn't need any embellishments.'

'Look, I believe you, but there are going to be some heavyweights in there, and every one of them is going to try to pick holes in your story. You got feds, you got Interstellar Commerce Commission, you got Colonial Administration insurance company guys—'

'I get the picture.'

'Just tell them what happened. The important thing is to stay cool and unemotional.'

Sure, she thought. All of her friends and shipmates and relatives were dead, and she'd lost fifty-seven years of reality to an unrestoring sleep. Cool and unemotional. Sure.

Despite her determination, by midday she was anything but cool and collected. Repetition of the same questions, the same idiotic disputations of the facts as she'd reported them, the same exhaustive examination of minor points that left the major ones untouched—all combined to render her frustrated and angry.

As she spoke to the sombre inquisitors the large videoscreen behind her was printing out mug shots and dossiers. She was glad it was behind her, because the faces were those of the Nostromo's crew. There was Parker, grinning like a goon. And Brett, placid and bored as the camera did its duty. Kane was there, too, and Lambert. Ash the traitor, his soulless face enriched with programmed false piety. Dallas . . .

Dallas. Better the picture behind her, like the memories.

'Do you have earwax or what?' she finally snapped. 'We've been here three hours. How many different ways do you want me to tell the same story? You think it'll sound better in Swahili, get me a translator and we'll do it in Swahili. I'd try Japanese, but I'm out of practice. Also out of patience. How long does it take you to make up your collective mind?'

Van Leuwen steepled his fingers and frowned. His expression was as gray as his suit. It was approximated by the looks on the faces of his fellow board members. There were eight of them on the official board of inquiry, and not a friendly one in the lot. Executives. Administrators. Adjusters How could she convince them? They weren't human beings They were expressions of bureaucratic disapproval. Phantoms She was used to dealing with reality. The intricacies of politicorporate maneuvering were beyond her.

'This isn't as simple as you seem to believe,' he told her quietly. 'Look at it from our perspective. You freely admit to detonating the engines of, and thereby destroying, an M-Class interstellar freighter. A rather expensive piece of hardware.'

The insurance investigator was possibly the unhappiest member of the board. 'Forty-two million in adjusted dollars That's minus payload, of course. Engine detonation wouldn't leave anything salvageable, even if we could locate the remains after fifty-seven years.'

Van Leuwen nodded absently before continuing. 'It's not as if we think you're lying. The lifeboat shuttle's flight recorder corroborates some elements of your account. The least controversial ones. That the Nostromo set down on LV-426, an unsurveyed and previously unvisited planet, at the time and date specified. That repairs were made. That it resumed its course after a brief layover and was subsequently set for self-destruct and that this, in fact, occurred. That the order for engine overload was provided by you. For reasons unknown.'

Also By Alan Dean Foster

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