By: Alan Dean Foster

'Those things exist. You can wipe me out, but you can't wipe that out. Back on that planet is an alien ship, and on that ship are thousands of eggs. Thousands. Do you understand? Do you have any idea what that implies? I suggest you go back there with an expedition and find it, using the flight recorder's data and find it fast. Find it and deal with it, preferably with an orbital nuke, before one of your survey teams comes back with a little surprise.'

'Thank you, Officer Ripley,' Van Leuwen began, 'that will be—'

'Because just one of those things,' she went on, stepping on him, 'managed to kill my entire crew within twelve hours of hatching.'

The administrator rose. Ripley wasn't the only one in the room who was out of patience. 'Thank you. That will be all.'

'That's not all!' She stood and glared at him. 'If those things get back here, that will be all. Then you can just kiss it goodbye Jack. Just kiss it goodbye!'

The ECA representative turned calmly to the administrator 'I believe we have enough information on which to base a determination. I think it's time to close this inquest and retire for deliberation.'

Van Leuwen glanced at his fellow board members. He might as well have been looking at mirror images of himself, for al the superficial differences of face and build. They were of one mind.

That was something that could not be openly expressed however. It would not look good in the record. Above all everything had to look good in the record.

'Gentlemen, ladies?' Acquiescent nods. He looked back down at the subject under discussion. Dissection was more like it, she thought sourly. 'Officer Ripley, if you'd excuse us, please?'

'Not likely.' Trembling with frustration, she turned to leave the room. As she did so, her eyes fastened on the picture of Dallas that was staring blankly back down from the videoscreen. Captain Dallas. Friend Dallas. Companion Dallas.

Dead Dallas. She strode out angrily.

There was nothing more to do or say. She'd been found guilty, and now they were going to go through the motions of giving her an honest trial. Formalities. The Company and its friends loved their formalities. Nothing wrong with death and tragedy, as long as you could safely suck all the emotion out of it. Then it would be safe to put in the annual report. So the inquest had to be held, emotion translated into sanitized figures in neat columns. A verdict had to be rendered. But not too loudly, lest the neighbours overhear.

None of which really bothered Ripley. The imminent demise of her career didn't bother her. What she couldn't forgive was the blind stupidity being flaunted by the all-powerful in the room she'd left. So they didn't believe her. Given their type o mind-set and the absence of solid evidence, she could understand that. But to ignore her story totally, to refuse to check it out, that she could never forgive. Because there was a lot more at stake than one lousy life, one unspectacular career as a flight transport officer. And they didn't care. It didn't show as a profit or a loss, so they didn't care.

She booted the wall next to Burke as he bought coffee and doughnuts from the vending machine in the hall. The machine thanked him politely as it accepted his credcard. Like practically everything else on Gateway Station, the machine had no odor. Neither did the black liquid it poured. As for the alleged doughnuts, they might once have flown over a wheat field.

'You had them eating out of your hand, kiddo.' Burke was trying to cheer her up. She was grateful for the attempt, even as it failed. But there was no reason to take her anger out on him. Multiple sugars and artificial creamer gave the ersatz coffee some taste.

'They had their minds made up before I even went in there I've wasted an entire morning. They should've had scripts printed up for everyone to read from, including me. Would've been easier just to recite what they wanted to hear instead of trying to remember the truth.' She glanced at him. 'You know what they think?'

'I can imagine.' He bit into a doughnut.

'They think I'm a headcase.'

'You are a headcase,' he told her cheerfully. 'Have a doughnut. Chocolate or buttermilk?'

She eyed the precooked torus he proffered distastefully 'You can taste the difference?'

'Not really, but the colours are nice.'

She didn't grin, but she didn't sneer at him, either.

Also By Alan Dean Foster

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