By: Alan Dean Foster

'Look, I told you—'

Van Leuwen interrupted, having heard it before. 'It did not however, contain any entries concerning the hostile alien life-form you allegedly picked up during your short stay on the planet's surface.'

'We didn't "pick it up",' she shot back. 'Like I told you, it—'

She broke off, staring at the hollow faces gazing stonily back at her. She was wasting her breath. This wasn't a real board of inquiry. This was a formal wake, a post-interment party. The object here wasn't to ascertain the truth in hopes of vindication it was to smooth out the rough spots and make the landscape all nice and neat again. And there wasn't a thing she could do about it, she saw now. Her fate had been decided before she'd set foot in the room. The inquiry was a show, the questions a sham. To satisfy the record.

'Then somebody's gotten to it and doctored the recorder. A competent tech could do that in an hour. Who had access to it?'

The representative of the Extrasolar Colonization Administration was a woman on the ungenerous side of fifty Previously she'd looked bored. Now she just sat in her chair and shook her head slowly.

'Would you just listen to yourself for one minute? Do you really expect us to believe some of the things you've been telling us? Too much hypersleep can do all kinds of funny things to the mind.'

Ripley glared at her, furious at being so helpless. 'You want to hear some funny things?'

Van Leuwen stepped in verbally. 'The analytical team that went over your shuttle centimetre by centimetre found no physical evidence of the creature you describe or anything like it. No damage to the interior of the craft. No etching of metal surfaces that might have been caused by an unknown corrosive substance.'

Ripley had kept control all morning, answering the most inane queries with patience and understanding. The time for being reasonable was at an end, and so was her store of patience.

'That's because I blew it out the airlock!' She subsided a little as this declaration was greeted by the silence of the tomb. 'Like I said.'

The insurance man leaned forward and peered along the desk at the EGA representative. 'Are there any species like this "hostile organism" native to LV-426?'

'No.' The woman exuded confidence. 'It's a rock. No indigenous life bigger than a simple virus. Certainly nothing complex. Not even a flatworm. Never was, never will be.'

Ripley ground her teeth as she struggled to stay calm. 'I told you, it wasn't indigenous.' She tried to meet their eyes, but they were having none of it, so she concentrated on Van Leuwen and the ECA rep. 'There was a signal coming from the surface The Nostromo's scanner picked it up and woke us from hypersleep, as per standard regulations. When we traced it, we found an alien spacecraft like nothing you or anyone else has ever seen. That was on the recorder too.

'The ship was a derelict. Crashed, abandoned . . . we never did find out. We homed in on its beacon. We found the ship's pilot, also like nothing previously encountered. He was dead in his chair with a hole in his chest the size of a welder's tank.'

Maybe the story bothered the ECA rep. Or maybe she was just tired of hearing it for the umpteenth time. Whatever, she felt it was her place to respond.

'To be perfectly frank, we've surveyed over three hundred worlds, and no one's ever reported the existence of a creature which, using your words'—and she bent to read from her copy of Ripley's formal statement—"gestates in a living human host" and has "concentrated molecular acid for blood".'

Ripley glanced toward Burke, who sat silent and tight-lipped at the far end of the table. He was not a member of the board of inquiry, so he had kept silent throughout the questioning. Not that he could do anything to help her. Everything depended on how her official version of the Nostromo's demise was received Without the corroborating evidence from the shuttle's flight recorder the board had nothing to go on but her word, and it had been made clear from the start how little weight they'd decided to allot to that. She wondered anew who had doctored the recorder and why. Or maybe it simply had malfunctioned on its own. At this point it didn't much matter. She was tired of playing the game.

'Look, I can see where this is going.' She half smiled, an expression devoid of amusement. This was hardball time, and she was going to finish it out even though she had no chance of winning. 'The whole business with the android—why we followed the beacon in the first place—it all adds up, though I can't prove it.' She looked down the length of the table, and now she did grin. 'Somebody's covering their Ash, and it's been decided that I'm going to take the muck for it. Okay, fine. But there's one thing you can't change, one fact you can't doctor away.

Also By Alan Dean Foster

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